Wednesday, 20 September 2023

Forgive us, as we forgive

Exodus 14.19-31 ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?

Romans 14.1-12 Alive or dead, we belong to the Lord

Matthew 18.21-35 To be forgiven, you must forgive


‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?’




The whole concept of forgiveness raises questions.


In the gospel Peter is asking for more details about what it might involve when he says ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?’


He accepts the premise that we should forgive, but is unclear about how that works.


Peter hasn’t yet grasped that forgiveness in the life of the Church is a reflection of the boundless capacity of God’s forgiveness: forgiveness that bubbles up from God’s love and is a reflection of his mercy, tempered by justice.


Yet in a godless arena such as much of contemporary culture, especially in the online environment, forgiveness appears to be a ludicrous or naïve and is not rooted in any notion of divine forgiveness. Just look at X, formerly known as Twitter, to see that.


To recast Peter’s question, it is more likely to be, ‘What do you mean I should forgive people who wrong me?’


The prevailing dogma of secular minds is that no one has the right to intrude on me, and if they do then I have no obligation to forgive them: in fact, I have the right and expectation that I will withhold any sense of forgiveness or healing of the situation.


Why should I forgive someone who has hurt me physically, upset me emotionally or damaged me psychologically?


When we frail mortals consider forgiveness, we tend to think of it as a transaction.


The transactional approach to forgiveness is to think it is about winning and losing: if I forgive you, you have won, the classic ‘Zero-Sum game’.


But forgiveness is not about winners and losers, but about finding the abundance of the life promised by Jesus Christ and the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8.21).


Of course, the word ‘give’ is at the heart of the word for-giveness: a gift is something that is not traded; a gift is not something to be measured and the gift of forgiveness is free but not cheap.


If nothing else, in forgiving we let go of, give over grievance, grudge and grumpiness by releasing ourselves, as much as anyone, from an injury.


No longer is my life held captive by what another has done to me.


It is humane, brave and imaginative to forgive.


So, Peter’s question actually is rather more enlightened than how we deal with forgiveness today, when forgiveness is thought to involve a loss of face, or loss of self-worth or identity and to be withheld.


But fundamentally this relates to the conviction that we ourselves, through the boundless, redemptive love of Christ, are forgiven.


When we are forgiven we are released from the inhibitions of people who carry the burden of guilt.


This is not just a therapeutic point but one of salvation of our souls and union with the divine life of God: unforgiven we cannot see the face of Christ; forgiven we reflect the face of Christ to the world.


Also, as last week’s gospel showed, what we do on earth has an impact in heaven: ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ (Matthew 18.35)


So the challenge of the gospel reading today is about the seeking of forgiveness and how we forgive.


A good starting point is to consider the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.


Whether we asking the forgiveness of trespasses (whatever exactly they are), or sins, (which, I think, we all know what they are), or debts, which is the far better translation of the original Greek of the Lord’s Prayer, the petition to our loving heavenly Father is forgive us as we forgive others.


When we desire forgiveness, we believe absolution of our sins and offences are forthcoming.


We first turn in humility - like the wayward, prodigal son - back to the loving heart of the Father: ‘Father’ that son said ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’ Luke 15.21).


The father in the parable - an illustration of God our forgiving, heavenly Father - stretched open his arms of forgiveness and acceptance: you are worthy to be my child.


The value of a personal turn to the mercy and forgiveness of God is invaluable and the bedrock of serious, determined discipleship.


The Sacrament of Penance, Confession, is the channel of grace that enables us to confront our sin and need for forgiveness, and enables us to be free to forgive others.


Sometimes I allude to it too obliquely, today I want to say it directly: confession, personal confession, that is serious about being forgiven is one of the great healing treasures Christ entrusted to the Church through the apostle Peter who was taught by Christ the nature of forgiveness.


It is scary and demanding and specific, but grace bubbles up and flows as we are restored to a right relationship with God from which flows the possibility of right relationship with our neighbour.


The world thinks forgiveness is incomprehensible, bonkers.


Peter understands that the task of the Church is to forgive, and learnt that the Church’s forgiveness must mirror the boundless forgiveness of God.


We need to understand that when we seek the forgiveness of God we are forgiven in Christ and, from that place of reconciliation, we are to be people who in turn forgive without measure.


So let us open our hearts to the God of forgiveness, life and love to whom be all glory and praise through the ages of ages. Amen.

Tuesday, 15 August 2023

Fruits of the Resurrection: Our Lady's Assumption

A sermon for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, preached at The Ascension, Lavender Hill, SW11

Apocalypse 11.19, 12.1-6,10 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman adorned with the sun.

1 Corinthians 15.20-26 Christ will be brought to life as the first-fruits and then those who belong to him.

Luke 1.39-56 The Almighty has done great things for me.



Come, let us adore the King of kings:

today his Virgin Mother was taken up to heaven.[1]

(Antiphon to the Invitatory Psalm for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Divine Office Morning Prayer [Lauds])




‘I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’


The closing phrase of the Nicene Creed is the moment, in that great assertion of Christian belief, when we look forward.


The Nicene Creed, to be recited shortly, tells us who God is - the Blessed and Undivided Trinity - and speaks of what God has done from the Creation to Redemption in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ; the Creed also tells of what God is doing in the Church through the operation of the Holy Spirit.


Having looked back and looking around us we can confidently look forward, forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.


To look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come is to say something very powerful too: it’s saying that the Resurrection of Christ has an impact on our lives.


The Resurrection is not just something wonderful for Jesus that has precious little to do with you or me.


Rather, as one writer says, ‘The truth is that because of the bodily Resurrection of Christ, all of the material world has been raised to a new level of being, including our own souls and bodies.’[2]


The Resurrection of Christ smashes open the gates of death and hell and, as we declare in the Te Deum, ‘When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death: thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.’ (Tu, devícto mortis acúleo, aperuísti credéntibus regna cælórum).


The kingdom of heaven is open to believers to walk into because Christ is raised from the dead.


‘Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’ says the Lord, ‘and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11.25b, 26a)


Mary is the true and exemplary believer: she ‘lives and believes’ in him then surely as he promises shall ‘shall never die’.


From her fiat - her words ‘let it be to me according to thy word - to her standing patiently at the foot of the cross to receive the dead body of her Son, Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord, her spirit exults in God her saviour. (Luke 1.46,47)


She bore him in her womb, she suckled him at her breast, she searched for him in the temple; she pointed others constantly to him: Mary did great things in service of her Son, and we can be sure in the words of her Magnificat that, the Lord has indeed done great things for her (cf. Luke 1.49).


The Bodily Assumption of Mary shows us that the Resurrection of Christ is a mystery to be entered into not a phenomenon to be gazed at.


This mystery we believe first to be entered by Mary herself.


As Eve walked with Adam out through the gates of the Garden of Eden after their disobedience (Genesis 3.24) so Christ, the New Adam, harrowed hell to lead the man and the woman, all humanity, out of the gates of captivity and into life.


This he did through his Incarnation, ‘his saving Passion, his wondrous Resurrection and Ascension’[3]


Mary, the New Eve, plays her indispensable part through her fiat, her ‘yes’ to God spoken to the archangel.


That is Mary’s way as the true and exemplary believer.


Mary’s Assumption into heaven is not from her own power but from precisely the opposite; it is from her openness to God’s purpose to ‘unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’ (Ephesians 1.10b).


To believe in the Assumption of Mary is first to believe in the power of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; to believe in the Assumption of Mary is to see the human face of she who is raised, as Christ promised.


Recall too that we see a foretaste of resurrection in the Raising of Lazarus (John 11.1-44).


But Lazarus, whose body was decaying in the tomb, would die again, as do you and I, as our spirits await the Resurrection at the Last Day to be joined to our glorious transformed body in heaven (cf 1 Corinthians 15.53).


Unlike Lazarus, who was raised before Christ’s Resurrection, Mary’s body, we believe, did not suffer decay for she was taken, body and soul, into heaven, for her Assumption comes after the Resurrection of Christ.


In this way she, not Lazarus, is the first of the children of God to experience what Christ promises to all, described by St Paul in our second reading:


Just as all men die in Adam, so all men will be brought to life in Christ; but all of them in their proper order: Christ as the first-fruits and then, after the coming of Christ, those who belong to him. (1 Corinthians 15.22,23)


‘Christ has been raised from the dead’ (1 Corinthians 15.20) and he shares that new life with us his children, starting with his Mother, Mary, the Mother of Believers: she belongs to him.


And because you and I have been baptized into Christ’s death and Resurrection, the power of his Resurrection is unleashed in us.


Because you and I have been baptized into Christ’s death and Resurrection we are now part of his Mystical Body, the Church, in which Mary, his Mother and ours, is ‘adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with twelve stars on her head for a crown’ (Apocalypse 12.1).


The Lord did not allow her body to be subject to the decay that our bodies will undergo after our death, but she was instead assumed body and soul into heaven, through the gates opened by her Son in his mighty resurrection, and glorified her body as Mother of the Church.


So, we can say ‘I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’ looking forward to what Mary already enjoys in body and soul.


May Our Blessed Lady strengthen our faith and inspire and call us to join her and her Son, with all the saints, in the kingdom of the Father.


Come, let us adore the King of kings:

today his Virgin Mother was taken up to heaven.

[1] From The Divine Office, Morning Prayer [Lauds], Antiphon to the Invitatory Psalm for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

[3] From the Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer III.

Monday, 7 August 2023

Transfiguration: identity fulfillment

Daniel 7.9,10,13,14

Psalm 97

2 Peter 1.16-19

Luke 9.28-36




I wonder if you have seen either of the blockbuster films of the summer?


Yes, I am talking about Barbie and Oppenheimer!


I have to confess that I haven’t seen either film, and to be honest, whilst I am interested in them I am unlikely to.


So why refer to them today when we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord? After all this is a sermon not a film review.


The Transfiguration of Lord is the liturgical celebration of the event recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and, as we heard today, of Luke as well as a first-hand witness statement from St Peter, which made for our second reading today.


That event, known as the Transfiguration, is a wonderful and mystical theophany, a word meaning God-showing; so how could it possibly relate to the showing of two Hollywood films?


Well there is something of a strange connection between the two films and today’s celebration of the Transfiguration of the Lord, and at the same time that connection helps us see some distinct contrasts.


These connections and contrasts hinge on change and light.


The Transfiguration of the Lord focuses on the change of his appearance:  ‘And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.’ (Luke 9.29).


The Barbie concept, I’m told, is that Barbie is essentially a doll who can be anything she wants to be and can change appearance and identity: the film amplifies that message by making the doll, Barbie, into a real woman. That’s about change but not about Transfiguration.


So what of light?


In the Transfiguration of the Lord there is a dazzling light: this is the uncreated light of God who said in the beginning, ‘let there be light’. (Genesis 1.3)


Today is the anniversary of the first detonation of Oppenheimer’s uranium bomb. It was the 6th August 1945 when the bomb - with about thirteen kilotons of force - was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, home to over 280,000 men, women and children.


An atomic explosion is first marked by light, before the mushroom cloud. Thirteen kilotons of force is very abstract, but when we learn that the light of the bomb is comparable to the light of the sun, it brings it home.


The light of the atomic bomb is destructive, devastating and deadly.


Oppenheimer came to regret his involvement but his work, and the work of the Manhattan Project, was only ever going to end in the darkest light imaginable.


What a contrast to the light of God. Yes, God said in the beginning, ‘let there be light.’ But read on… ‘And God saw that the light was good’.


St John tells us, ‘In Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (John 1.4,5)


This is the light ‘which gives light to everyone.’ (John 1.9).


This is the light and the glory revealed on the Holy Mountain of the Transfiguration.


The light of Christ shines in the darkness, but does not bring darkness, like Oppenheimer’s ‘deadly toy’.


The darkness does not and cannot ultimately overcome the light of Jesus Christ.


As the psalm puts it so beautifully, ‘with thee, O Lord, is the well of life, and in thy light, do we see light’. (Psalm 36.9)


It seems almost trivial now to return to Barbie, but there is something important going on here too.


It is in how we conceive of what it means to be human.


Barbie can be who she wants to be.


Bear in mind that Barbie is a doll and not a person, but the film and the messaging around it gives a particular understanding of what it means to be human, an anthropology that is not what we find in the gospels or what is revealed in the Transfiguration of the Lord.


Barbie does give a laudable message to women and girls that they should not be inhibited or restrained by what they imagine to be obstacles to living a fulfilled life, imposed by society or some men.


But there is another message underlying the Barbie view of being human that is more unsettling.


It suggests that the human body is like a blank slate, or moulded plastic, onto which we write our own story, ideals and aspirations, as if we are androgynous dolls who change who we are by changing our outward appearance.


This chimes with the tendency more and more to see human identity split between body and spirit.


This is known as dualism – the idea that there are two distinct or warring parts of being human: body against spirit.


This idea has been around for a long time, and something that Christianity resisted and resists.


That’s because the Christian vision of the human person is a holistic, holy, one, where body and soul are one, both in this life and in the resurrection: that’s why it matters that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, his spirit wasn’t ‘released’ from his body.


For the early Christians the struggle was against Manichaeism.


This is a form of dualism that says that there is a struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.


For Manichees salvation is being lifted out of this murky world and for them it was abhorrent to think that God would love the world at all, and all the more that he might take on human flesh and die, in order to do so.


We see this in a new form today when we hear people say ‘I am in the wrong body’ or when they despise the biology of their body and seek to change it.


This is a hugely contentious issue of our times: I say this not to condemn, but to pity.


Not to be at home in one’s body, or to despise one’s own body - to go as far as physically changing it because of not being comfortable with who we are - must be a hard thing to bear.


Christians believe that God chose to make a home in the human body, in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and who through the Holy Spirt dwells with us now: God is at home in us, as he was at first at home in the womb of Mary.


We believe that the body, as God gives it, is a gift and to be cherished and honoured as a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.19).


So what then of the Transfiguration?


What does the Transfiguration say of who Jesus Christ is and who we are called to be?


The Transfiguration of the Lord shows a human body at its most alive.


The Transfiguration is a not an identity change but an identity fulfilment.


Jesus Christ is truly God; he is Son of God. Jesus Christ is truly human; he is Son of Mary.


Out of the human body shines divine light.


Your body, my body, the male body, the female body, is most itself when shining with Divine Light.


We see in the Transfiguration of the Lord that the human body is at its most fulfilled when subsumed with Divine Light, a light that illuminates who we are and does not destroy us.


At the Eucharist we come to be transfigured, transformed, as we stretch out our hands to receive into our bodies the very Body of Christ.


In so doing we are drawn to the Holy Mountain shining out to the glory of God the Father, the one who says of Jesus Christ, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him’.









Sunday, 30 July 2023

Seeking wisdom from the treasury

1 Kings 3.5-12 I give you a wise and discerning mind.

Romans 8.26-39 Nothing can separate us from the love of God

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 The master brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.


‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’




‘Have you understood all this?’


Jesus asked his disciples that question at the conclusion of a whole series of parables; parables we have been hearing over the past few weeks as our Gospel reading: the parable of the sower, the wheat and the weeds, and today the mustard seed and the leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price and the net.


‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered ‘yes’.


I’m tempted to say, ‘really? Have you really understood all this?’


The disciples said ‘yes’, they did understand, and in response Jesus is not incredulous, but says slightly mysterious and intriguing words:


Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. (Matthew 13.52)


So, the parables have been training the disciples, and by extension us, for the kingdom of heaven.


The disciples have been trained into being scribes, those learned in sacred law and holy wisdom.


And what a teacher they, and we, have. Not a homespun guru or moral exemplar, but Divine Wisdom Incarnate; Divine Wisdom in person: Jesus Christ.


Thus trained, the scribe can bring out of the treasury new insight and ancient wisdom.


It’s like an apprenticeship. The apprentice learns from the one who has mastery of the subject by listening to the master and trying out the craft in clear, incremental steps.


The apprentice is doomed the moment he or she decides they know best.


Imagine the novice violinist who decides that she can play the violin and need not bother with the teacher.


She might watch a two-minute YouTube video, but that’s about all the advice we want now; the result is an abrasive, scratching sound, not a melody.


And we recognise it as just bad.


That’s different from the novice who is carefully working on the disciplines of violin playing, building up skills, strength and stamina base, to ensure good quality sound; practising so that, in time, the beauty of the music can be heard.


It’s the same with the visual arts, with crafts, with dance, with calligraphy, with engineering and, indeed, with the Christian life.


But that’s hard in today’s culture.


We live in a culture that cherishes novelty and despises what is ancient; it’s a culture that says ‘I don’t need the disciplines, Christian or otherwise; I don’t need the teaching or the inherited wisdom of the past; that gets in my way, that makes me less free, oh and, by the way, I want everything now’.


The spiritual life, intimacy with God, does not and cannot work like that.


The parables train us, school us, and shape us into the ways of the kingdom of heaven.


It’s no accident, I am sure, that the parables draw on images of patient and deep growth: seeds growing, bread proving and yeast rising, persistent searching and its corollary, joyful finding.


Parables root us fruitfully in God’s life.


They are ancient wisdom and are endlessly generative and continue to form our minds and hearts and action in the way of the kingdom of heaven.


The paradox is that ancient wisdom reveals fresh insight; ancient wisdom enables us to live today wisely.


To go back to our violinist, but translate that to the spiritual life, when we refuse the schooling of the spiritual mastery of the teaching of Christ we are rejecting a life well lived, and our life – spiritual and physical – is scratchy, unmelodious, unattractive and just plain bad.


So let us turn to our Old and New Testament readings for today and see what we draw out of the treasury, both old and new.


In our first reading from the treasury we hear about the famous King Solomon.


His name is a byword for wisdom, riches and splendour.


When God asked him what gift he wanted at the outset of his reign as new King of Israel, Solomon chose not to ask for a long life or riches or retribution on his enemies – as many young, new rulers would - but rather a wise and discerning mind, the ability to discern what is right, discerning between good and evil.


That is an example to us: it echoes through what is known as the ‘wisdom literature’ of the scriptures, the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon.


Those books tell us of the value of wisdom and pose the question, ‘where is wisdom to be found?’ (cf Job 28.1; 28.12; 28.20) .


In the face of all the choices we are asked to make today the gift of a wise and discerning mind is as vital as ever.


That’s true for earthly leaders like King Solomon - Prime Ministers and Presidents - and it’s true for spiritual leaders - bishops and priests and lay leaders - in the Church too.


Every day in life, the message from Solomon’s blessing is: seek not your own priorities and preferences, but the wisdom that comes from God, the Most High.


This week, what will a ‘wise and discerning mind’ look like in your life?


In our second reading we learn similarly how the life of prayer is not about lining up our own wish list but about opening ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit of God deep within us.


St Paul puts it like this:


26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.


At its heart prayer is the art of aligning ourselves to the will and purpose of God; something we only gain in true and deep silence, in dedicated time, paying attention to his Holy Spirit who shapes us and enlightens us.


So when you read scripture don’t impose your own terms on it, allow God’s terms to be imprinted on you.


And if you don’t regularly, pick up the Bible today, go back to the Bible today, for there is your treasury where you will find pearls of immeasurable value for your life.


You could do worse than to re-read today’s parables!


Read ahead to what next Sunday’s readings will be; start pondering them, extracting new insight from their ancient and enduring wisdom.


In our discipleship as Christians we need to rise above the chatter of the world, or rather, sink deep below to find the treasury, open it up, find the pearl of great price, the pearl of wisdom.


Lord, grant us wise and discerning minds,

may your Holy Spirit search our hearts

so that we may draw out of your treasury

wisdom ever old and ever new

to lead us to gracious, faithful and generous lives

as we learn and grow day by day.