Consider Thomas!

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on Divine Mercy Sunday.

Consider Thomas, a man of great faith and dedication to the Lord!

In today’s Gospel, we famously meet St Thomas, the apostle who doubted. Thomas only stands out three times in the whole Bible, and we’ve just heard that he was not in the room when the other apostles first met the Risen Jesus. So not unreasonably, Thomas says:

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

Yet I have declared Thomas a man of great faith! Why do I dare to say this? The first time we see something of his character, it’s a few weeks earlier. Jesus is lying low on the far side of the River Jordan, because he knows the Pharisees are plotting to have him executed. Then news comes that his close friend, Lazarus, is seriously ill and close to death. The apostles become divided. Some say, “Lord, he’s your friend, you must go to him.” Others say, “No, Lord, it’s too dangerous – you can’t go.” Thomas says: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas alone has the courage to stand up for loyalty and friendship, even to the point of risking death. So you can understand his doubt, his confusion, his despair, when he learns that Jesus appeared to the other apostles at a time when he alone, Thomas, wasn’t there! “Is this the the thanks I get for my loyalty? Our Master, who now seems to have the power to walk through locked doors and appear wherever and whenever he chooses, chooses to meet with all of them and not with me? Is THIS the thanks I get?”

Thomas is a man who wants to know things clearly. At the Last Supper, Jesus speaks about his coming death, and uses words which I’m sure we’ve all heard at many funerals: There are many rooms in His Father’s House, and he’s going to prepare a place for us. Jesus say to the apostles: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas replies: “How can we know the way?”

Jesus IS the way. Thomas is looking for a plan. What Jesus is offering is a person. He turns to Thomas and says “I am the way.”

Jesus is the way, and Jesus makes a way for us. At communion time, we’re going to hear a modern worship song called Waymaker. Our security is when we follow Jesus. But sometimes the Lord leads us through darkness. The song’s lyrics declare:

Even when I don’t see it, You’re workin’
Even when I don’t feel it, You’re workin’

Thomas wasn’t feeling it. Thomas wasn’t seeing it. His anguish was what any one of us might cry out in a dark time – “Lord, unless I can touch you, I can’t believe you’re really there.”

Thomas got his wish.

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’

John 20:26-27

I wonder how Thomas felt in that moment. He was carrying a mixture of fear and love, doubt and hope. He had doubted whether Jesus remembered and cared for him personally. He had doubted the testimony of his friends, that Christ was risen. But now, undeniably, Jesus had not only remembered him, but had noticed his doubt and his pain. Thomas’ reward for his loyalty was to be written into history as the one man to stand for all of us who know that same painful mixture of doubt and hope. All of us will have moments of crying out, “Lord, are you there?” in the dark times of our lives. It is not the Lord’s will to answer immediately. But neither is it the Lord’s will to fail to answer at all. The Lord shows himself to Thomas on the ‘eighth day’, the time of perfection, a week after hope is given. “I am the way” says Jesus. “I am the one who will show himself to you after a time of testing. Doubt no longer but believe.”

On this Sunday we also remember that Jesus appeared to St Faustina Kowalska in the 20th century, to show his Divine Mercy. “Paint an image of my with two rays streaming from my breast: the water of baptism and the blood of communion. On the Sunday after Easter, honour this image, saying, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’”

You won’t find promises of a trouble-free life in the Bible. You will find promises that God will walk with us through the darkness. When we say, “Jesus, I trust in you,” what we mean is: “Jesus, I will follow your commands even when times are hard; I know you walk with me through the darkness.” Thomas and the other apostles knew the darkness of facing the Death of Jesus, yet they were sent as messengers of hope to the whole world!

This is the victory over the world – our faith! Do you want to win a victory over the world? Put your trust in Jesus. Keep praying to him. Keep confessing your sins and receiving Holy Communion, or at least making an Act of Spiritual Communion. Look for the signs that he loves you. They won’t always be the signs that you wish for, but they are there.

Thomas finally recognised who Jesus was. “My Lord and My God!” When we recognise this, we can dare to declare:

You are here, working in this place
I worship You.

You are here, turning lives around
I worship You.

You are here, healing every heart
I worship You.

Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you!

Easter Unveiled

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on Easter Sunday.

Today is the present when the future begins. Look at the signs of hope!

We have an empty tomb and a folded linen cloth – but wait! In today’s Gospel, of Jesus himself there is no sign.

Next Sunday, we’ll read how Jesus appeared to the group of apostles and showed himself to doubting Thomas. But for Easter Sunday, we’re left in doubt and confusion – just like the disciples on the first Easter morning. And perhaps that’s more appropriate for us. Unlike the apostles, we haven’t seen the risen Jesus. Like them, we experience a mixture of faith and doubt.

We doubt because we have intellectual questions about God – if he loves us, why is the world in such a mess?

We doubt because we have mixed feelings about God – does he really love me personally when my life is such a mess?

We doubt because we’ve heard the rumours, but we can’t see the Lord of life with our own eyes.

Yet we’re here on Easter Sunday morning because deep down, we believe. And we see the signs today of the hope we hold for tomorrow.

Scripture says there was another cloth, the one which had covered the face of Christ, rolled up and put to one side. How much we look forward to the day when we can take the cloths covering our faces, roll them up, and put them away for good! That detail might also remind us that Moses had to cover his face to hide the reflected glory of God – but now Jesus has shown us God’s glory, not only by rising from the dead but by the way he died, embracing all of faults and sins. It’s only when we understand the spiritual consequences of this that we see the cross truly is the place where a hero gave his life to save the human race. In another letter, St Paul wrote that we too would have unveiled faces to reflect the glory of Christ – in today’s letter, we are reminded that in the future we will share in Christ’s resurrection. For this we wait in expectant hope!

Faith and doubt go together. It’s because we’re surrounded by doubt, that each Easter, we’re invited to renew our baptismal promises. This isn’t meant to be a mere ritual we perform because it’s Easter Sunday. In this computer age it’s all too easy to click “Yes” to the terms and conditions, without thinking through what we’re doing. But what we do today needs thought. It’s meant to be a personal and deliberate choice to live our lives God’s way – your promise to me, to one another, and to God.

Promises matter. American Football Coach Bill McCartney, founder of a Christian men’s network called the Promise Keepers, once told a story about how he prepared his team for a crucial match. Each player was asked to reflect on what they were going to do. Then each player had to come, personally, and tell the coach what he intended to do on game day. At the big match, the team played better than anyone expected.* Each player kept his promise.

In a few moments, you’ll be asked to make three promises.

“I renounce Satan.” This is more than repenting of sin. To “renounce” is to say: I want nothing to do with this! I am not only sorry that I gave in to sin when I was tempted; I don’t want that sin to have any lasting hold on me. I will do everything in my power never to fall into sin again!

Don’t believe the lie that you are unforgiveable or that God doesn’t care about you. Our Father in heaven simply wants us to be set free. Will I be a victim or walk in freedom? Will I let the Enemy bully me into not being the best version of myself? Just declaring that we renounce Satan helps us overcome that fear.

Coach McCartney would ask what you’re going to do this year, to break any ongoing temptation and kick Satan out of your life!

“I believe in God.” To believe is more than a mental exercise of holding an idea in your head. To “believe” is literally “to put your faith in”. Like the Apostles, because we receive Holy Communion, we can declare: “We have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead.” With the Apostles, we share in the Great Commission: he ordered us to proclaim that God has appointed Jesus to judge everyone, alive or dead. All who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven.

How often will we put our trust in Christ’s command to eat his flesh as the Bread of Life, or make an act of Spiritual Communion on days then this is not physically possible?

How often will we tell other people that Jesus will forgive anyone who turns to him, but will also pass sentence on anyone who dies without asking forgiveness?

Coach McCartney would ask what you’re going to do this year, because you put your trust in Jesus, the Saviour of the world!

“I believe in the Catholic Church.” To put your faith in the Church needs a personal commitment to making the community where you worship the very best that it can be, taking part and using your gifts fully.

One more question, though not one the liturgy asks us today. “Do you believe in yourself?” The crowd is watching you. Your coach believes in you, and wants to give you confidence you can play to win. Our Christian life is a team effort. If you are on the Lord’s team, you are already on the winning side. Alone you can do nothing, but together we are unstoppable.

Perhaps you already know what you will do to live out your baptismal promises in the next 12 months. If so, I encourage you to write something in the chat!  … Today is the present where the future begins. We are not alone – Christ is risen from the dead, Alleluia!

To make you feel my love

I’d go hungry; I’d go black and blue

Image of Jesus with red and white rays flowing from his breast and the inscription “Jesus, I Trust in You”

And I’d go crawling down the avenue

No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do

To make you feel my love

Bob Dylan wrote these words, and Adele made them famous a few years ago. There are times we need to know that we are loved. And we may find we are blessed with people in our lives who want to communicate to us that yes, we are truly loved, even when we’re not in a mood to receive it.

Sometimes I catch myself wishing that my closest friends would do something to show they care. If only that person would send me a birthday card, or pick up the phone…! But perhaps I’m looking for the wrong thing. Instead of wishing for things I want, what happens if I look for signs they care, expressed their own way? Then, perhaps, I might start noticing that someone is actually sharing their deepest thoughts with me, or looks happy when I’m around. And it’s the same with God. Not only can we miss the signs that other people love us – we can miss the signs that God loves us, too.

We live in a world where stuff happens. In the last 48 hours, there have been stabbings and shooting in London; a British snowboarder suffocated when he fell head-first into a snowdrift in France; and this afternoon, a lorry drove into a crowd of people in Germany. The Bible itself says there will always be wars and famines and earthquakes in the world. If we expect God to stop these things happening as a sign of His love, we’re going to be disappointed.

The world at large hasn’t changed much in two thousand years. Bad stuff always had happened, and always will happen until Jesus comes again to bring the world, as we know it, to its end. What does change, is sometimes a whole heap of trouble comes into our own life all at once. Even Queen Elizabeth II famously had a bad year – an annus horribilis – in the year Diana, Princess of Wales, died, and Windsor Castle caught fire. And no-one, except the Pope, gets prayed for more often than Queen Elizabeth – even the British National Anthem is a prayer for her!

All of us can have a bad day, a bad month or even a bad year. Perhaps we have a run of accidents; or perhaps there are several deaths or terminal illness suddenly in our extended family. At times like that, the whole world seems to be against us. So remember, on days then the world is all wrong, this is the victory over the world – our faith!

Faith is a noun, which hides a verb! To have faith is more than to believe something in your head. You can look at a rickety rope bridge, and believe it will hold your weight. But you only put your trust in it when you move your feet! So what does it mean to put our trust in God? In fact, can God be trusted?

Instead of wishing that God would fix the world on my terms, perhaps I should look for what God’s actually done to make me know his love. “These [things] are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” wrote St John at the end of his Gospel.

Jesus appeared to St Thomas, as a sign to every future Christian who would doubt. Look! Touch! Believe! But blessed are those who will hear these words, and not see, but yet believe!

Jesus appeared to St Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 15th Century to show his Sacred Heart. Do you doubt that I love you? Here is my heart, burning with love for you!

Jesus appeared to St Faustina Kowalska in the 20th century, to show his Divine Mercy. “Paint an image of my with two rays streaming from my breast: the pale ray says I want to you become part of my body, through baptism. The red ray says I want my life to flow through you when you drink my blood. On the Sunday after Easter, honour this image, saying, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.'”

You won’t find promises of a trouble-free life in the Bible. You will find promises that God will walk with us through the darkness. When we say, “Jesus, I trust in you,” what we mean is: “Jesus, I will follow your commands even when times are hard; I know you walk with me through the darkness.” Thomas and the other apostles knew the darkness of facing the Death of Jesus, yet they were sent as messengers of hope to the whole world!

God shares with us the work of making the world a better place. In the first reading, we hear about a perfect community! Nobody was in want, because everyone gave from their wealth. But those people were in want, before that happened. And after the wealthy members had sold their property, what happened then? We have to keep working to make the world a better place! We also need to keep working to make our parish better, so each new tax year, we need to remember we have an opportunity to use Gift Aid – Toni will say something about that at the end of Mass.

Do you want to win a victory over the world? Put your trust in Jesus. Keep praying to him. Keep confessing your sins and receiving Holy Communion. Look for the signs that he loves you. They won’t always be the signs that you wish for, but they are there.

Bob Dylan, born Jewish, became a born-again Christian in 1978, and his faith inspired many of his songs. I don’t think he’d mind too much if I gave his lyrics a little tweak to speak about Jesus:

He went hungry; he was whipped for you;

And went carrying his cross, for sure,

No, there’s nothing that he wouldn’t do

To make you know his love.

Your Word is a Lamp Unto My Feet

Homily at the Celebrate Catholic Family Conference in Cardiff, 2 May 2015 – using the readings for St Athanasius, I Jn 5:1-5 & Mt 10:22-25

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”

John Henry Newman was in trouble. As a young Anglican minister, he travelled to see the great churches of Italy, but just before his return voyage he became ill and was bedbound for three weeks. Desperate to return to England, as soon as he was well enough he managed to start his journey home on a cargo ship bound for Marseilles – only for the wind to drop and for him to be stuck on board this ship for a whole week, going nowhere fast. During this enforced pause at sea, Newman’s mind turned to poetry. Knowing that God’s plans were not our plans, he channelled his frustration into writing the lyrics which became the hymn, Lead Kindly Light.

Another holy man who knew that God’s plans seldom run in straight lines was the saint we celebrate today, Athanasius – a man born in Egypt just before Christianity became legal. Athanasius was deeply convinced of who Jesus was: Jesus was God in human form, and Son of the Father. But in these days when Christian ideas could be openly debated for the first time, there were many opposing voices who said Jesus was not quite equal in stature to God-the-Father. These debates even became the stuff of politics. Successive emperors took different positions. But Athanasius never wavered – which meant that sometimes he found himself at odds with the Emperor, and other leading bishops.
This was a perilous situation for him, since he had become the Bishop of Alexandria. Five times, Bishop Athanasius was exiled. The first exile was to Rome! Later, he fled to a desert monastery! And some say that his final exile included four months in his father’s tomb. Yet five times Athanasius returned from exile, truly earning his nickname, “Athanasius Contra Mundum ” – “Athanasius versus the world!”

We human beings like to know where we are going – we usually make decisions by looking at the likely consequences. But God asks us for faith. We are to trust that God knows where we are going, and will lead us one step at a time.

There’s an Indiana Jones movie where Indy has to be guided by ancient riddles, that he can only survive by being penitent, walking in God’s footsteps and taking a leap of faith. He can’t see all the dangers ahead, but kneels down where he is told to be penitent – and deadly arrows sail harmlessly over his head. When he is told he must walk in God’s footsteps, picking out the Name of God from random letters on the floor helps him find a safe path. And at the end, it’s only by jumping into a seemingly bottomless chasm that he finds the hidden bridge to the end of his quest.
For each of us, there are times in our journey through life that we will only succeed by following God’s instructions. And these we find in God’s Word, which is a lamp unto our feet. Now God’s Word is first and foremost a person – Jesus, our Master, our Teacher.
Who can overcome the world? Only the man who believes that Jesus is Son of God-the-Father.

Do you believe that Jesus is God in human form? This is a gift, a gift of faith, which only God can give. To have this kind of faith is to be ‘begotten by God’. The world around us is happy to recognise Jesus as a wise teacher  – the world has seen many of those – but Jesus is much more than this. If Jesus is God walking among us, then his words have a weight and a security which no other teacher can match. Are you secure in knowing that Jesus is God? If not, my challenge to you this morning is to put the question back to God. Only God can teach your heart this truth. Ask our Heavenly Father to show you who Jesus really is!

And yet, even if we know this, we waver. For half a century Christianity wavered between saying that Jesus was God, or the heresy that Jesus was merely quite similar to God-the-Father, a near-perfect reflection if you like. For this, Athanasius suffered exile five times. In a more practical way, we waver about putting our trust in Christ’s teaching rather than our own understanding of the big picture.

God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet. In the Bible, we have God’s word in human language. Some things in the Bible guide all of us with equal weight. Other things, God shines a spotlight on for certain people at certain times. Athanasius wrote the life-story of St Antony, whom he met in the desert. One day at church, Antony heard the Gospel in which Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Antony realised that message was meant for him in a very literal way, so he sold his home and went to live in the desert, becoming the first monk.

And let’s face it, following Jesus’ teaching is not easy. We are not all going to be summoned to be monks in the desert, but it’s hard enough keeping the teachings which apply to all of us. In his own day, Jesus told his disciples to be ready to be persecuted, and if that happened, just to move on to the next town.

In our day, if we follow Jesus’s teachings, we will be called at best, old-fashioned, and at worst, bigoted.

Some of you have chosen to follow the Church’s teaching to the full in the way you conduct your married life. This is not easy, and no-one gives you affirmation for this. So I say here and now, in the name of the Church: Thank you for your faithfulness.

Some of you have chosen to have large families in our world where there’s an increasing vibe that more than two children is ‘more than your fair share’. For this, you have endured put-downs from your neighbours and colleagues, but I say to you, in the name of the Church: thank you for receiving the gift of life, made in God’s image, and for the daily sacrifices you make in raising your children.

Some of you have worked through difficulties in your married life and stuck together, for the sake of your faith, when the world around you might have said ‘why bother’. In the name of the Church – thank you for your faithfulness to your vows to God and to one another. And remember that the Church is here to walk with you through the dark times, and there are retreats and courses which help couples to renew and deepen their married life together.

Each one of us is called to follow Jesus, and the Gospel gives us the marvellous message that ‘we are called to be like him’! But that does not mean we will be clones. Rather, God has equipped each one of us with a unique mix of gifts and skills. What does God want you, personally, to do? A big clue is to look at the gifts he has already given you. And don’t be shy! We can fall into the trap of a false modesty. We know that as Christians we shouldn’t show off, or seek to impress others for the sake of it. But Jesus also taught us not to hide our light under a jar. There is nothing wrong with going to your parish priest, or a project leader in your church, and saying – ‘actually, I am good at accounting’ or ‘I used to run a playgroup’ – your parish will thrive when each member places their gifts at the service of the community. If the leaders do not know what gifts are present, how can they do that? Don’t be afraid of being prominent for doing something you are good at – true Christian humility is to accept that this will happen when you serve as you should, but to offer your gifts anyway.

Pope Francis says each of us is called to be a missionary disciple, placing one foot in front of the other, following Jesus in the place where we are called to be. For Newman, that meant resigning as a vicar, becoming a Catholic priest and placing his scholarship in the service of the Catholic Church. For Athanasius, that meant sticking to his teaching that Jesus was God, even when that meant exile. And for you – well, God has a plan for you too, each of you individually, for no two of you are called to do the same works.

God’s plan is not like a SatNav. On  a SatNav you can press a button and see the whole route planned out before you. But God’s word does not show us the route – only the final destination, which is Heaven, and the next turning on the narrow and winding path from here to there. God’s Word is a light to our  feet, not a sun illuminating the whole world. There are times when this is frustrating – just ask Newman, becalmed, or Athanasius in exile. But we are disciples, learners, and just as we cannot do our GCSE, A-level and degree all in one go, so the Lord teaches us the path of life one step at a time.

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”