Pure Gold

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B.

Gold dissolves in aqua regia!

One of my favourite childhood reads was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. In one of the novels, some children are camping in the Lake District and they think they’ve discovered gold! One of the children, Richard, is a bit of a scientist and remembers reading that “gold dissolves in aqua regia” – a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid. So they mix up some of this powerful acid, drop in the shiny metal they’ve discovered, and it dissolves! Gold! … Or is it?

All that glitters is not gold… and not everything that dissolves in aqua regia is gold either. A mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid is so powerful that it can dissolve almost anything! It turns out that what the children have actually discovered is a copper ore, and copper is a useful metal too! If the metal they had found hadn’t dissolved in aqua regia, that would have proved it wasn’t gold. But just showing it did dissolve wasn’t proof that it was.

The name aqua regia means “royal water”, because it is a liquid capable of dissolving even precious, kingly, metals. Today we will make us of another kind of royal water, the water of baptism, in which Remmi-Rae will be adopted as a daughter of the most High God and become a princess in His royal family. Now don’t worry, this royal water is not a strong acid and no-one is going to be dissolved. But this water is even more powerful than the strongest acid, because in adults it has the power to wash away sin, and in children who have not committed wilful sin, it washes away their heritage of belonging to the sinful human race, which we call ‘original sin’ or the ‘sin of our origins’.

In today’s First Reading, we are reminded of the very first time that baptism was offered to a family who was not Jewish. St Peter had a dream in which it was made clear that the gift of Baptism was not only for the children of Israel, but for the whole world. The house of Cornelius is one of five examples of “whole households” being baptised in the Bible, which is one of the reasons we baptise not only believers but children as well. But a child can only be baptised when the parents and godparents make a promise to teach and show the child how to live the Catholic faith!

What I want to say next is especially for Remmi-Rae’s parents and godparents, but also for all of you who are parents or have taken on the responsibility of becoming a godparent or sponsor to a member of the church. Do you understand your duty to teach and show the Catholic faith?

Today’s Second Reading and Gospel speak loudly: love one another! The Greek word for Christian love is agape, which means pouring out our lives in service of one another. If we do not love one another, we are not followers of Jesus. But beware! These words can lead us straight into the aqua regis trap. If we do love one another, does that prove we are Christians? No!

Are there not good Buddhists who love one another in the world?

Are there not good Muslims, who practice the Islamic value of ummah, looking out for one another?

Are there not good atheists, humanitarians, who love one another and even the most needy in our world?

Parents, godparents, you must teach your children to love one another. You must teach them always to offer forgiveness. But there is more work to do. The question is this. Just as Richard needed a chemical test that would pick out gold alone, so you must answer this: what does your family do that you wouldn’t do if you weren’t Catholic?

Do you pray together the words Jesus asked us to pray, Our Father? Later in this Mass, we will pray these words on behalf of Remmi-Rae, who is too young to make them her own.

Do you respect the teachings of the Pope in Rome, who is the centre of unity for the Church on earth? Will you teach your children and godchildren that when the Bible alone is not clear on the complicated issues we face in today’s world, the Holy Spirit guides the Pope in giving the best answers for our time?

Do you remind your children and godchildren that they are invited guests at the royal banquet of the Eucharist which is set out for them each weekend?

Do you teach your children, by word and example. to receive spiritual strength through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Holy Communion, and when the time is right, Holy Matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick? Jesus longs to connect with each one of them through prayer, and will call each child to a unique friendship with Him. Jesus has chosen each baptised child to bear fruit: the fruit of good works, the fruit of offering prayers, and the fruit of inviting many people to be baptised! And if this seems like an awesome responsibility, it is – but God’s awesome Spirit lives within each of you who are baptised and confirmed to enable you to carry it out!

Remmi-Rae has been born into a family named King. In fifth-century France, there was a Bishop Rémy who converted and baptized King Clovis.  Today, in twenty-first century Wales, this Remmi-Rae will be baptised into God’s royal family. It would be a tragedy to remember to teach her to love others and forget to teach her she is a sister of Jesus! Parents, godparents, treat her like royalty and ensure she lives in the Palace of the King, which is her local Catholic Church! So now, parents and godparents, it is time to baptise this King in royal water! Let us stand and pray.

First Communion, then the Holy Spirit!

Homily at St Philip Evans for the English-language Masses, with First Communions, on Pentecost Sunday, Year A.

Today is a great celebratFirst Communion children on Wikimedia Commonsion!

For most of the Catholic world, it is the celebration of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit first filled the followers of Jesus.

For us here today, it is the celebration of First Holy Communion for some of our children.

So while most of the Catholic world is meditating on the Holy Spirit, we are focussing on the Body of Jesus. But the two have more in common than you might think!

I’d like to ask the children here today to help me look back on how we prepared for today.

What was the very first Sacrament which each of you received?

You were baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. St Paul reminded us in our second reading that “we were all baptised in one Spirit”. The same Holy Spirit came to live in me and in you when we were baptised. We are connected!

Back in February this year, you received your second Sacrament. What was that?

When you came to me, or another priest, for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest stretched out his hand and prayed the words which forgive your sins. Priests have the power to do this because Jesus said to his first apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit! Those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven!” So it is God’s Holy Spirit, working through me and through all priests, who forgives sins.

In a few moments, I am going to celebrate the Eucharistic Prayer which asks God to change the bread and wine on the altar into… what? The Body and Blood of Christ. If you follow carefully you will notice that twice, I will stretch out my hands to ask God to send down the Holy Spirit. The first time will be over the bread and wine, but the second time my hands will be raised – because I am asking the Holy Spirit to come anew into all of us here in the congregation. The Holy Spirit is like the air we breathe – we have to keep topping-up to keep going!

Children, today marks the start of a new chapter in your life. You will now be members of the church who receive communion. Jesus wants you to be part of his own body, connected to him by receiving his body and blood. But what would happen to a part of your own body if it had no blood supply? To grow spiritually, you must keep receiving Holy Communion.

Today you will be able to say to Jesus, “You are the bread of life, who feeds me.” But this is not the end of your journey. When you are older, you will be able to say to Jesus, “You are the Lord who leads me.”

When I made my first communion, I was a little bit older than you. But it was only three years after that, when I knew in my heart that I had to let Jesus be the person in charge of all of my life. The day I could truly say “Jesus is Lord” was the day in 1993 when I was on a youth camp and I said: “Jesus, show me what you want me to do with the rest of my life and I will do it – even if it is the ‘priest thing’!”

Following Jesus isn’t always easy. As you grow older, he will ask you to do difficult things: to love your enemies, to serve others, to wait until the
right time to do grown-up things. There is another Sacrament to help you to do these things – Confirmation. Through Confirmation God gives you the Holy Spirit in a new way, to bless and serve others. But that is for later. What is important right now is that you receive what you need to help you grow spiritually, and that is your weekly Communion.

When you were baptised, your parents and godparents promised to teach you about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to do good and to avoid evil. They were given a candle to keep safe, as a sign that they must hand on to you the light of Jesus. The apostles had no godparents – but God himself provide them with tongues of fire. I can’t promise tonmgues of fire today, but ow that you are old enough to speak for yourselves, I invite you to join me on the altar with your candles, to make your own commitment to Jesus.

Called to be Trustworthy

Homily at St John Lloyd, for Ash Wednesday 2013

When was the last time you were let down by a person you trusted?

When we’ve been let down, it hurts.

When trust is breached, we notice.

For Ash Wednesday, in this Year of Faith, let us ask ourselves a challenging question: are we trustworthy people?  Do we keep faith with others? Can others have faith in us?

We are ambassadors for Christ; God’s goodness lives in us. Part of God’s goodness is that we can always place our trust in Him; therefore, as people called to make God’s love present in this world, we also should be trustworthy. We are not to draw attention to the fact that we are praying, fasting, or giving alms – but as Christians we most certainly should be seen to be trustworthy people, making God’s love present in human society.

So let us ask ourselves: What kind of promises have I made to others? How well have I kept them? Have I betrayed confidences? Have I failed to do what I said I would?

Sometimes, of course, we find that we are no longer able to keep a promise we have made. This week we are still taking in the remarkable news that Pope Benedict XVI believes he can no longer fulfil the duties which the successor of Peter must deal with in the 21st century – and His Holiness has decided that the honourable thing in this circumstance is to step aside because he can no longer faithfully carry out all that is required of him.

Pope Benedict, of course, is not stepping aside from the committment he has made to serve as a priest and bishop. He remains a passionate servant of the church, and feels he can serve the church best by stepping aside from its most demanding role. The way we serve may change, but our committment to serve is for a lifetime.

As members of Christ’s Church, there are three special life-long promises that many of us here, today, may have made.

If you are married, you will have made a solemn vow to your spouse, to God, and to the whole Christian community, that you will love your husband or wife – that you will put their needs and well-being ahead of your own, in all circumstances. This requires a renewed decision each day to love your partner, and to communicate with them. Sometimes this benefits from a more focussed time together – whether that’s a Valentine’s supper, monthly sofa time for a family-needs discussion, or going on a retreat designed at helping couples deepen their communication with each other. So, if you are married, have you faithfully kept your commitment to love your spouse?

If you have accepted the challenge of becoming a godparent to a baby being baptised or sponsored a Catholic being confirmed, you have made a promise to that person,  to God, and to the whole Christian community, that you will help them to grow up as a member of God’s family. When did you last make contact with that person? Are you teaching them how to pray? If others in their life are critical of the Catholic faith, how have you encouraged them to stay faithful?

If you are an adult Catholic, you will have renewed each year at Easter, the committment made at your baptism that you will be a member of Christ’s Church – a promise made to God, and to the whole Christian community. So, I now ask you – and I include myself in the challenge – can our friends trust us to be Catholic? Can they trust us to be Christ to them in their time of need? Can they trust us to be people who pray for their needs? And on this day of fasting and abstinence, let us not forget that we are wielding spiritual weapons which can be used for the good of others. Who are we offering our fasting for today? A friend in trouble? A family member whose faith is weak? Our own need to growth in holiness?

It is God who invites us to wholehearted repentance. God knows how weak we are. We know that Christ came to forgive sinners: even from the Cross, he forgave those who were crucifying him, and invited the Good Thief to join him in heaven. The Good News – the Gospel – is that God is always willing to offer us another chance; today even the Old Testament readings speak loudly of God’s mercy.

The tough news is that on our part, we must be willing to change our ways in order to become more trustworthy. It may be that we have to keep promises we know we have been neglecting; we may also have to admit that we have limited capacity and withdraw promises which we know we cannot keep. This is hard – but honest!

To repent is not only to be sorry, but to choose to change. This is the challenge which we will each hear as we receive the ashes with the words: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Christ and Our Common Priesthood

Homily at St John Lloyd for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Who is Jesus? And who are we?

Over the next four weeks, I’d like to invite you to take a fresh look at who Jesus is. It’s very appropriate in this Year of Faith to seek to get to know Jesus better. And the better we know Jesus, the better we know ourselves – because Jesus teaches us what it is to be truly human. When we’ve made a mistake, we might excuse ourselves by saying, “well, I’m only human” – but that would be the incorrect answer! When we get something wrong, we are being less than human, because we’re made in God’s image, and God is perfection.

On the front of this pulpit are four images – four plaques representing different aspects of Our Lord Jesus Christ: as a man, as a King, as a sacrifice, and as the one who is connected to heaven. Each of these images also teaches us something about what it is to be human. Today, I’d like to focus on Christ who is the bridge between heaven and earth – Christ the Great High Priest.

Plaques on the Pulpit at St John Lloyd Church, Cardiff.

From the beginning of recorded history, human communities have identified certain members as priests and priestesses, men or women understood to be in touch with the spiritual world. We have a deep-seated human instinct that we need to make some kind of connection with our Creator, and we naturally seek help from someone who might help to make that connection. In part, those priests and priestesses were responding to a genuine sense of God’s presence; but in part, they also brought their own limited understanding of God and their own human weaknesses to the role.

In the fullness of time, God began to speak to human beings, to teach them the kind of priesthood that would truly worship God. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, there are few priests – significant figures like Cain and Abel, and Abraham, offer their own sacrifices to God. Abraham does, however, recognise one priest – the mysterious figure of King Melchizedek, whose name you will hear alongside Abel’s in the Eucharistic Prayer which I’ll use today.

When Moses led God’s chosen people out of Egypt, he received instructions from God for a new kind of priesthood, the Jewish priesthood. The family of Aaron would become the new high priests of Israel; one of the twelve tribes of Israelites, the tribe of Levi, was not to have a share of land to cultivate, but instead would become priests offering prayers for the people. They were to keep and eat a portion of the meat and crops offered in sacrifice to God, as their wages. For a thousand years and more, barring invasions, priests offered sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. Once a year, on the day of atonement, the High Priest would first sacrifice a bull as an offering for his own sins, and then sacrifice a goat as an offering for the sins of the whole people. And each Christmas, when we read the Nativity story, we remember how Mary and Joseph had to offer two pigeons for the priest to sacrifice, as a thanksgiving for the safe birth of Jesus.

When the first Christians tried to make sense of who Jesus was, they realised that although he wasn’t from the tribe of Levi, or a descendent of Aaron, he’d become the perfect priest of the Jewish religion. The priests who served in the temple had to make sacrifices for their own sins, and eventually grew old and were replaced by the next generation of priests. But Jesus, the sinless one, was worthy to pray for the whole world; and now that he had risen from the dead, his priesthood could never end.

If Jesus was the true high priest, what about those Christian leaders who took bread and wine and celebrated the Eucharist in memory of Jesus? The early Christians called their leaders “presbyters”, which is Greek for “elders” and the word from which we get Presbytery (Priest’s House). But later, after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and Jewish priests no longer offered sacrifices, Christians became more comfortable calling their leaders “priests”. Every Catholic Priest stands in the place of Jesus, connecting the community to God through the power to make Christ present in the form of bread and wine, and to declare forgiveness for sins. But there are two kinds of priesthood, and today I will speak not of the priesthood which a few men receive through ordination, but of the other kind of priesthood, which the Church calls “the common priesthood of all believers”.

When Jesus died on the Cross, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that the curtain covering the holiest part of the Jewish Temple was torn in half. In a part of the Letter to the Hebrews which we don’t hear in our Sunday readings, God’s Word explains this: we now have a direct connection to God which wasn’t available to us before Jesus died. ALL of God’s people, baptised and connected to Jesus, now have the right to come into God’s presence and pray. That’s worth remembering!

We can pray to God in the familiar words “Our Father”, but let’s not take God for granted. If we become blasé and pray the Our Father casually, we’re forgetting what an awesome privilege it is to be able to address the God of the Universe at all. It’s as if Queen Elizabeth or President Obama gave you their mobile phone number and said: “Any time, you can call me!” – that’s the privilege we’ve got as children of God. It also means that if another religious believer – a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Sikh – wanted to join in our prayers, we can’t simply say “go ahead”. Only those who have been baptised have the right to address God as “Father”. We are bold to do so!

So when we come to the Lord’s Prayer at this Mass, listen carefully to the priest’s words of invitation. Our Missal first says “At the Saviour’s Command” – that’s a good reason for being bold – and then “formed by divine teaching” – because God has taught us that we have become his children. Then the launchpad words are “we dare to say…” – yes, it’s a bold thing indeed to call God, “Father”, but that’s our privilege as a royal priesthood, as baptised members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

One of the ancient Christian writers once said: “Fish swim. Birds fly. People pray.” Praying is the one thing we can do, which no other creature on God’s earth can – it’s our unique privilege. Because Christ is now seated at the right hand of God in heaven, we can reach up to heaven by our prayers at any time. And when Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, he is asking us not only to commit ourselves to service of our neighbour – within whom God dwells, hidden – but also to approach God directly through our personal prayer and acts of worship. To spend time deliberately and directly addressing God and listening for God’s Word expresses love for God in the most direct way we possibly can.

So take a good look at yourself. You have a status in God’s eyes which is not shared by three-quarters of the billions of inhabitants of planet Earth – you are baptised, with the right to stand before God in prayer and call Him Father. You have the right to thank God for all that is good in the world, to plead for those in distress, and beseech God to have mercy on all sinners. You are a priestly people, a holy nation, a people set apart for God. So I leave you with a question: how are you going to live out your priesthood during the week to come?

Bonus material for those reading the homily online:

The Great Commandment: Matthew 22:35b-40

… Jesus said, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself…

The Great Commission: Matthew 28:16-20

Jesus said, ‘Go, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. ‘

The Response of the Disciples: Acts 2:37b-47

These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. The faithful … went as a body to the Temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.

APPLICATION

Flowing from the readings above, there are certain things which every Christian Community must do in order to be the kind of community which God is calling it to be.

LOVE OF NEIGHBOUR requires us to invest some of our time, our talents and our money in serving others. Our “neighbour” encompasses both our local community, and the poorer nations of a global economy in which the UK, despite the current recession, is still relatively rich.

LOVE OF GOD is expressed not only through service of our neighbour – within whom God dwells, hidden – but also through our personal prayer and acts of worship. To spend time deliberately and directly addressing God and listening for God’s Word expresses love for God in the most direct way possible.

There are two traps we can easily fall into.

PIOUSNESS is the trap of paying so much attention to the fine details of how and when to pray that we neglect our neighbour’s needs, or treat members of our community who don’t share our piety, with disdain. Scripture warns us that if we have no love for our neighbour, there is something inadequate about our love for God. (The whole of the First Letter of St John is a meditation on this theme, and see also James 3:18.)

HUMANITARIANISM is an exclusive concern with the well-being of our neighbour. The world is full of humanitarians, and we applaud the work they do. Some are motivated by religious beliefs, others by a simple care for their fellow human beings. But for us as followers of Jesus Christ, the trap is to say that if we have exercised humanitarian care, we have done everything which God asks of us. No! Jesus gave us two great commandments which are inseparable yet distinct. For us as believers, Humanitarianism may be motivated by love of God but is, by its nature, an expression of love of Neighbour. We must remember that we are also called to the First Commandment, which is to remember, love, worship and obey God for God’s own sake.