Who do you think you are?

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.A tree with six logos as fruit - think-bubble, hand, heart, pound sign, envelope, cross

Who do you think you are?

There’s a television programme by that name, which helps celebrities trace their family trees. This can be a risky business! Olympic rower Matthew Pinsent discovered that he was a descendent of King Edward the First! But consumer rights campaigner Esther Rantzen discovered that her great grandfather became a fugitive, accused of serious fraud!

The good news is that our family tree doesn’t define who we are. In the words of Jesus we hear today, we are told that we are “salt for the earth and light for the world”. If we read further in the New Testament, we find other passages which speak about who we are in Christ.

This is Good News! Jesus wants to give us our identity, our security, and our authority.

Did you stop for a moment as you entered this church to bless yourself with Holy Water? If you did, you reminded yourself that you were baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. By baptism, you were made a member of the Body of Christ and adopted as a son in God’s family – yes ladies, that includes you too! You are the body of Christ and individually members of it (I Cor 12:27): your baptism gives you your identity in Christ.

As members of Christ’s body, we are invited to receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Just before we come forward for communion, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We ask for our “daily bread”. But what are we asking for? One meaning is “give us what we need for life today”. Jesus told us not to be anxious about the basics of life because our Heavenly Father knows all our needs (Mt 6:24-34). But the word we translate as “daily” has two meanings in Greek, and St Jerome – who made the first great translation of the Bible into Latin – couldn’t decide which one was meant. In his version of St Matthew’s Gospel he chose the other possible translation – give us today our supernatural bread, the bread which has come down from heaven. We believe that every time we receive Holy Communion, our venial sins are forgiven and we are re-connected to Heaven, receiving the Bread of Life which we must eat to inherit eternal life (Jn 6:36-69). Receiving Holy Communion gives you your security in Christ.

To be a full member of the Catholic Church, you must receive three sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. Here in the West, we usually wait until the age of about 13 for confirmation. But in Kerala, where it is called the “sacrament of anointing”, it is given to babies when they are baptised. In both East and West, the minister declares that this is a “seal” of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient word a seal was used in the way we use an identity card or passport today. But it’s not our own identity card – it’s God’s! And when we are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, God promises us power to be his representative in the church and in the world. It was that power St Paul was writing about in his letter today. Being anointed with Chrism gives you your authority in Christ.

So who do you think you are?

Jesus thinks you are the salt of the earth. You have the power to make the world around you a better place, just as salt can cure meat and grit treacherous paths.

Jesus thinks you are the light of the world. That’s high praise, coming from Him! In St John’s Gospel (8:12) He called Himself the Light of the World, and said that if we followed him, we would make it to Heaven. Wow! That’s a challenge! Jesus says you must be the kind of person that if other people imitate your behaviour, they will go to heaven!

What kind of actions is God looking for? The First Reading instructs us to support the hungry and the poor; we do this through our taxes and through giving to charity, in the form of money or the foodbank and clothesbank we have here. We’ll have an opportunity to help some very special people at the end of today’s Mass, when we take a collection to help handicapped children visit Lourdes this Easter.The Bible suggests that for people who don’t know about Jesus, such good works will be enough to get them to heaven (Rom 2:12-16).

Now, it’s also true that Jesus warned us not to show off our good deeds in front of other people – in fact that’s in the very next chapter of the same Gospel (Mt 6:1). He’s concerned that we don’t get proud about our good deeds. But as long as our motivation isn’t to show off, we’re not to hide our Christian actions either – because otherwise we can’t inspire other people to follow us to heaven.

Is it enough to only do good works to help the poor? NO! You are forgetting your identity in Christ.

We are God’s family. We know the family secret, that to have life to the full, we must receive the Bread of Heaven. The example that God wants us to set for others is the example of being people who come every week to receive our supernatural bread! By doing this, we can help people who follow our example find their security in Christ. Remember, Jesus Himself said that if we do not eat of his flesh we will not have life within us! (Jn 6:53)

So who do you think you are?

If you think you’re a good person who doesn’t know Jesus, being kind to needy people will probably get you into heaven.

But if you’re a Catholic and know you’re a member of God’s family, God expects more of you! You are the salt of the earth! You have your identity, your security and your authority from being a brother or sister of Christ our King! But if you lose your saltiness, look out – even God’s identity card won’t get you through the gates of heaven if you claim to be like Jesus but turn out to be a fraud!

 

A Gift Beyond Common Sense

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:Host
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

In these words we hear St Thomas Aquinas meditating on the mystery which lies at the heart of our Catholic Faith: the holy Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Our Lord Jesus took bread and wine, and declared “This is my body, this is my blood. Do this in memory of me.” Today, in John’s Gospel, he insists that he himself is the Bread of Life. Over the next three Sundays, we will hear Our Lord become more and more insistent that he really means what he says.

“Did you fail to hear properly what Jesus taught?” asks our Second Reading. “Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution.”

These words of Jesus force each one of us into a battle between faith and common sense.

Common sense looks at a communion wafer and sees nothing but a disc of baked flour. Certainly we can bless, break and share the wafer and tell the story of what Jesus did so many years ago. No miracle is needed for us to simply speak and remember.

Faith hears the words of Jesus. This is the same Jesus who fed 5000 people with a few loaves, calmed a storm, walked on water, raised Lazarus from the dead and himself appeared risen on the third day after being nailed to a Cross. This is the Jesus who took the bread and said “This is my body.” The power of God at work in Jesus is quite capable of making these words come true.

What do we know for certain?

The wafer does not change its shape, smell, texture or taste when it is consecrated by a priest. If we were to send a portion off to the local food science labs, they would tell us that it is nothing but baked wheat.

Jesus said “This is my body.” For this reason, when any Catholic minister gives communion, the words spoken are: “The body of Christ.”

Who are we to say that it is not his body? From the earliest days of the church, we have held on to this truth: “It looks the same but what it really is has changed.” So what our Church has taught since the beginning is that the consecrated elements are no longer bread and wine, but the body and blood of Christ. What we eat is NOT bread, but Jesus. What we drink is NOT wine, but Jesus.

Surely that goes against common sense?

Perhaps… but common sense does not always lead us to the truth.

Common sense says that freely-moving objects slow down. But Isaac Newton saw beyond common sense, realising that in empty space things go at a constant speed, and came up with his famous Laws of Motion, on which classical physics is founded.

Common sense says that something goes faster if you throw it forward from a moving vehicle. But Albert Einstein saw beyond common sense, realising that light moves at a fixed speed, and came up with his famous Theory of Relativity, on which modern physics is founded.

Common sense says that something that looks and tastes like bread must be bread. But we are called to see beyond common sense, realising that Jesus has declared this to be His own body, and trusting His word over the evidence of our senses. This indeed needs a “spiritual revolution” in our minds. If you can bring yourself to reject common sense, you too will be as stupid as Newton or Einstein.

Because we believe that what was bread has become Jesus, we show great honour to the Blessed Sacrament, by bowing our knee on entering and leaving this place of worship, and by keeping a living flame burning at all times.

Because we believe that what was bread has become Jesus, we have the great privilege of being able to pay a visit to Our Lord in any chapel where the Body of Christ is kept. Of course we can pray anywhere at all, and God hears us; but if we choose to go specially to a place where the Body of Christ is kept, we give God greater honour, and at the same time we make an act of faith that Jesus is truly present. We express this faith in a more public way by placing the Body of Jesus on the altar exposed for worship, or by holding a procession with the Blessed Sacrament in a public place.

In today’s Gospel, the crowds went to look for Jesus. What about you? Perhaps in these summer months, you may have a little more free time than is usual? Why not choose to visit a church or chapel where you can honour the Body of Jesus with a short visit? Is it not the most natural thing in the world to visit someone we love? If we don’t sense Our Lord’s love coming to us in return, that makes our act of love even greater, as if we were visiting a resting friend in hospital or gazing lovingly at our own child sleeping. Like the Israelites of old, we are exiles; when we reach heaven we will see Jesus perfectly. For now, approaching the Blessed Sacrament is the closest we can come.

Even if you find it difficult to overcome your common sense, make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament anyway – and accompany it with the prayer of the disciples, “Lord, I believe – help my unbelief!” Pray for God to grant you a spiritual revolution in your mind, and surrender your need to understand how it works. I don’t understand how it works. I simply know that the Lord of the Universe once said “This is my Body” and it was so, just as the Lord said, “Let there be light,” and all that is came into being.

The work that God expects us to do, is to believe in His messenger, the Christ. Each week in the parish we pray “Lord, use me as you will.” If we have doubts about the Eucharist, it is His will that we work on those doubts so we can believe in Jesus.

It was by faith, not by common sense, that I became a Catholic. “Do this,” said Jesus. The many Protestant Churches did it but said it wasn’t really his Body and Blood. Jesus said it was. “Take and eat it.” So I became a Catholic. Now, as a priest, I “do this” so that you can do that.

When I first became a Catholic, I was not familiar with the hymn written by St Thomas Aquinas. But in retrospect, I am happy to make it my own:

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

 

Further reading:

A fuller list of Early Christian Teachings

From a book on St Thomas Aquinas

Wikipedia on Transubstantiation (the church’s technical term for “What it is changes, even though it appears to stay the same.”)

 

Jesus is Alive – and He loves you!

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

“I am the bread … that comes down from heaven … [you] may eat it and not die. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”

By the time St John’s Gospel had been committed to writing, some 40 or 50 years had passed since the dying and rising of Christ. St John and his community would have been well aware that many who had followed Jesus were now dead. Those who had attended the Eucharist and shared in the bread of life had, in fact, died – as martyrs, or from disease, or of natural causes in old age. No-one would have even suggested that Holy Communion could prevent the physical death of the human body. Instead, the “living forever” which was promised would have been understood as living in the same way as the Risen Jesus. It would be a different kind of living, with God in heaven – until the promised day arrives when God will give transformed bodies to all those who have died. Jesus promised in the words we’ve just read that He will “raise [us] up at the last day”.

Enjoying the fullness of this spiritual life, which never ends, needs us to do something. We must choose to stay connected to Jesus. And that’s not as easy as it sounds, because seemingly petty things can get in the way. “Your fathers ate the manna in the desert, and they are dead,” said Jesus. Why was it that the generation of Jewish people who were led by Moses in person could not receive eternal life from God? In the story of Moses we are told that the people grumbled about the difficult journey which God has asked them to make. Their punishment for failing to trust in God was that an entire generation would live and die in the wilderness before their children could enter the promised land. The Jewish ancestors who ate the manna were not spiritually dead because manna was inferior to what Jesus could offer – they were spiritually dead because they failed to put their trust in God.

Keeping that trust firm is not easy. If you are at a stage in your life or faith where you feel discouraged, where your faith in God doesn’t seem to provide much support any more, then take heart. Faith is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are times during the race when God will seem far away. These are the times when we must make a sheer act of will to continue to put our trust in God.

The first temptation is to say “I’m not worth it. God doesn’t care.” Resist! You can’t go far in the New Testament without seeing that Jesus chooses to love and to care for all people. The Good News is that Jesus’ love extends to everyone who is willing to receive it. NO MATTER HOW INADEQUATE YOU FEEL, God really does love you.

We can, however, distance ourselves from God by our own behaviour. “Everybody who believes has eternal life” says Jesus – but believing here is not just an intellectual act. We might translate it better as “everybody who puts their trust in Christ”, and that trust must be expressed through the choices we make. The Israelites who failed to keep their agreement with God were condemned to wander 40 years in the desert. If we claim to be Catholics but do not follow the instructions left to us by our Master, we are not keeping our end of God’s bargain, either. And what God requires of us is that we must always forgive others – we may, when appropriate, offer a word of correction, but we must not penalise anyone for their failings. We mustn’t maintain grudges against others, or behave harshly or rudely towards any other person, or allow ourselves to express any sort of spitefulness.

The next temptation is to say “I’ve blown it. I’ve held a grudge. I’ve been rude. I’ve acted spitefully.” If so – repent! The only way to true healing is through acknowledging your failings. Don’t be afraid to go to Jesus. He already knows your shortcomings. He died on a Cross so that these faults, these very faults which trouble you so, can be forgiven. He is standing with his arms open, yearning for you – “Come! I long to forgive you. Come to me. Ask me. ASK ME!” There are only two things which can prevent Jesus forgiving us: the first is our unwillingness to ask, and the second is our refusal to extend forgiveness to others.

Whatever guilt we carry for our own wrong choices, let us run quickly to the feet of Jesus and exchange our burden of guilt for the free gift of forgiveness. When we receive Holy Communion today, let us also be mindful of how we have received the message of Jesus into our lives.

The offer of the Bread of Life is not costless. It costs our pride – we must admit that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. We must also give up our diffidence that we are unworthy of a share in God’s life. Of course we’re unworthy – and we acknowledge this at every Mass, in the words we speak just before we receive Holy Communion. But this isn’t about what we deserve. This is about real love, God’s deep desire that we accept the gift which Christ came to offer – his Body, given for the life of the world.

Friends, the Word of God places before you again the choice which all Christians must make: Death, or Life. You can choose to hold on to grudges and spiteful instincts. That way lies spiritual death. Or you can give up your old sins, your spitefulness, your grudges, and choose Life – a life worth living on earth, a life centred on giving and receiving love and forgiveness, a life which, though your body may die, will carry you from glory to glory and into the Heart of God. Choose Life – for anyone who eats this Word, this Life, this Bread, will live for ever.