Sunday, 26 February 2023

The Elephant in the Room

Genesis 2:7-9,3:1-7, The Creation, and the sin of our first parents

Romans 5:12-19,  However great  the number of sins committed, grace was even greater

Matthew 4:1-11 The temptation in the wilderness





The first time I heard the phrase ’elephant in the room’ I couldn’t think what the speaker was talking about.


An actual elephant? In the room?


Of course, I then twigged that there was no physical elephant in the room, but this was a metaphor for something that everyone was thinking about but that no one wanted, or dared, to talk about.


There is an elephant in the Church.


This elephant thrives on not being identified or called out; thrives on being downplayed and not taken seriously.


This elephant loves hiding away in the shadows, in fact this elephant loves the dark recesses of the world and of the human heart.


The elephant in the Church is Satan, the devil.


The devil is a topic that practically no one in the Church wants, or dares, to talk about… and that’s just how he likes it.


Yet the reality of evil is a major theme of the Scriptures, and the Devil is well and truly named, not just as evil in general, but the embodiment or personification of it.


There may be an elephant in the room, an elephant in the Church, but there is no elephant in the Bible, quite the contrary, as we see in today’s readings, Satan is exposed for who he is.


Satan, in the form of the serpent in Genesis and then, in person, before Jesus in the Gospel, figures front and centre in our readings, which is just where he hates to be: for when exposed to the light and challenged by the truth, his power begins to melt away.


So why is the devil, Satan, so often unspoken in the Church and by reasonable Christians?


Perhaps we are all too aware of the way in which wicked and manipulative people have used the devil as a proxy for their own cruel and abusive behaviour: mistaking the sinner for the sin, or attributing motives and personality, particularly mental health, to satanic causes.


Perhaps we just find talk of the devil all just a bit too weird or a bit too medieval, from a time when, if something bad happened, they just said it was the work of the devil, because in those days they didn’t know about modern medicine or therapy.


Perhaps the talk of evil in the world, personified in the devil, is just too painful or too close to home for us.


How do we talk about the devil mindful of some of the brutality of the last century and, frankly, the last year?


When we can name Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Assad, Putin, or Fred and Rose West, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein, do we need to talk about the devil?


Perhaps the language of the devil, the name Satan, is redundant when we hear those names.


Yet the Gospel talks about the devil, about Satan, because giving a personal name heightens the impact of the reality of evil and wickedness.


When we talk about evil only in general or abstract terms, the danger is we diminish it and it becomes like the elephant in the room whose name and presence is never mentioned.


So, the question cannot be ‘shall we stop talking about the devil?’, but, rather, ‘how do we talk about the devil and remain faithful to the Gospel witness?’


In the Gospels Satan, whose name means ‘adversary’ or ‘the one who is against us’, is the one who actively distracts us from God and what is good for us.


He tries to distract Jesus from God by working through a hierarchy of human needs.


Satan starts to tempt Jesus by addressing Jesus’ need to eat: ‘turn the stones of the wilderness into bread, go on, you know you can, you know you want to’. Jesus refuses, for he is the bread of life.


Satan tries a spiritual angle and sows doubt: ‘if you trust in God then he’ll catch you even if you leap from the top of the Temple’. Jesus refuses, for God is not to be tested like that.


Satan tries the seduction of power: ‘you can have all this, if you just worship me: it’s an easy, a hassle-free way to wish fulfilment’. Jesus refuses and is clear eyed about where worship and adoration is due, and that is always to God.


The same seductive whispers are around us, as they were for Eve, who, let’s face it could be you or could be me, ‘Go on’, the serpent whispers to Eve, ‘just eat that fruit, it’s hardly bad is it?’.


Eve, of course, didn’t refuse Satan, and nor did Adam and they hid themselves from God.


Jesus Christ, the New Adam, comes to restore our relationship with the Father, and Mary, the New Eve, says ‘yes’ to God’s call: be it unto me according to thy word’.


St Paul reflects on Jesus’ obedience, as he tells us that humble obedience, active listening to God in Christ, is the route to righteousness.


There are moments at home, at work, at play, in life where we have to decide and resolve to follow the path of Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life, facing down the seductive whispers and small temptations that, unaddressed, draw us further from God.


Lent is a time of grace to work particularly hard on that; in saying yes to God and turning from evil.


When Satan is no longer an elephant in the room, in our lives, in our Church, then as children of the light we find that the powers of darkness are driven away and we are free to have a clear-sighted vision of the source of life and light and truth who frees us to love, and our hearts and minds turn to the Living God: to whom be all majesty, might, dominion and power, now and through the ages of ages. Amen.


Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Exult, O dust and ashes

Joel 2.12-18 Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn

2 Corinthians 5.20-6.2 Be reconciled to God

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18 Your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you



Have mercy on me O God, and cleanse me from my sin






If you were looking to clean up a mess, or restore something dirty to pristine condition, my guess is that you wouldn’t automatically turn to a pot of ash to do the job.


You’re more likely to get some water out and scrub things down.


So it is an odd thing, perhaps, that the season of Lent begins with ash, not water, if Lent is, as it is intended to be, a season when we cry ‘ cleanse me, O Lord, from my sin and wash away my iniquity’ (Psalm 51).


We’ll come back to water shortly.


We start with ash because ash tells us where we are.


Ash tells us about mortality, where we came from and to where we will go: ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.


Ash speaks of the grubbiness into which our lives can descend; created wonderfully in God’s own image, a radiant vision that becomes obscured.


Ash is a sign of penitence and remorse; a sign of honesty about the fractured relationship between oneself and God and oneself and one’s neighbour and, indeed, the ‘fightings and fears’ within us and outside us (cf “Just as I am” New English Hymnal 294)


And that’s why Ash is the cleaning material that the Church gives us today as we begin the season of Lent.


Ash speaks of the reality that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. (Romans 3.23)


Ash asks us to be real about sin; sin which is that condition of separation from God that originates in both casual neglect and from our own wills: sins of omission and commission in the traditional terminology.


Lent begins with the outward sign of ash; but is not about externals, but about the interior life, a time when we pray: ‘create and make in us new and contrite hearts’.




Lent does not leave us in the ash, for after the ash comes the water.


That’s in the spirit of the Gospel when Jesus tells us, in effect, not to wallow in dust and ashes.


As the hymn puts it:


Exult, O dust and ashes!

the Lord shall be thy part;

his only, his for ever

thou shalt be and thou art’

Urbs Sion aurea “Jerusalem the Golden”, New English Hymnal 381)


Lent is a time of exultation from the dust and ashes, a season of grace, a time of reconciliation and healing. (cf Ecce tempus idoneum – “Now is the healing time decreed”, Latin Office Hymn, New English Hymnal 59)


Lent is an extended time of preparation and reflection on the promises of our baptism: God’s promise to us; and ours in return to him.


That is why making one’s Confession in Lent is so beautiful, another grace-filled opportunity to reclaim our baptism, ‘when we in humble fear record | The wrong that we have done the Lord: | who, always merciful and good, | has borne so long our wayward mood’ (Ecce tempus idoneum)




Our journey towards Easter begins in dust and ashes, and we turn our hearts, minds and bodies to the living waters of life and liberation.


It is not the water per se that washes us clean, that is an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace of the Sacrament of Baptism: it is that grace and mercy that washes and cleanses, refreshes and rehydrates; just as the water that held us in our mother’s womb broke and we were born into the world, so in the foaming waters of baptism we are born into new life in Christ.


So may the clean-up begin here, tonight: first in ashes and then, in forty days and forty nights time, in the renewing water of Easter.

Sunday, 12 February 2023

Anxiety and hope

 Matthew 6.25-34

Isaiah 49:8-16a

1 Corinthians 4:1-5




We live in an age of anxiety.


Anxiety manifests itself on many levels: personal, national, global, existential, ecclesiastical.


You might look at your life and be anxious about your personal circumstances or your meaning and destiny.


You might look at our country and be anxious about the NHS, the economy, industrial action, the future of our children.


You might look at the world and be anxious about the threat of escalating war, the challenges of global migration, injustice, poverty and humanitarian crises.


You might look at the threat of climate catastrophe and be anxious about the possibility of the end of human existence.


You might look at the Church and be anxious about her life and future as winds and storms buffet her teaching.


On all levels anxiety can be debilitating, tiring and ultimately lacking in hope and grace.


So it is very refreshing to have a gospel reading today that addresses the question of anxiety head on.


Jesus’ remedy to anxiety is not to diminish the things we naturally worry about, but to challenge the source of our anxiety.


‘Can any of you, by worrying, add a single hour to your span of life?’


No. In fact quite the opposite. We can worry ourselves to death; but what God wills for us is life.


So Jesus says, contemplate the way in which our heavenly Father gives life to, and sustains, the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, whose beauty is unsurpassed.


That’s the first step to transform our anxiety into hope: contemplate beauty; contemplate wonder.


The second, perhaps harder, step is to consider how transitory life is.


It’s about being realistic about our mortality: one day I will die.


Facing the fact of our mortality is an antidote to underlying human anxiety.


It is to say ‘I will take hold of my anxieties and not let them take hold of me’.


This is the grace of the resurrection of Christ: life lived in all its abundance - non-anxious life - savours what is beautiful and is realistic about the reality of death.


Ultimately, to the Christian, natural death is not the end, is not annihilation, as the secular narrative, devoid of hope, has it; for to God’s faithful people ‘life is changed not taken away’, as the Funeral Mass says.


Anxiety feeds on lack of faith, lack of hope and lack of love, and remember the first letter of John tells us that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4.18).


Anxiety, fear, worry are features of our human nature; so, Jesus tells us, contemplate and savour what is good and beautiful and true.


So in this life, Jesus tells us, what we should strive after is not false security to soothe our anxiety but is to strive first for the kingdom of God.


It is in that context we hear ‘Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”’ (Matthew 6.31)


As he says, ‘Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’ In other words, non-anxious life does not resort to so-called ‘comfort eating’ or ‘retail therapy’.


When we worry about our bodies and what we are to eat let us hear Jesus say, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6.35). Let us live by the words of scripture, ‘we shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4.4),


When we worry about our bodies and what we are to wear let us hear St Paul say ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 13.14), as if he were a garment, and recall that before his crucifixion when he was stripped naked Christ’s own clothing was divided, yet, as we sing in the hymn, he is ‘robed in flesh, our great High Priest’.


In our age of anxiety the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the source of faith and hope and love that casts out fear, that frees us to live life in all its abundance, feeding on Christ and hearing, with Mary, ‘do not be afraid’ and answering with Mary, ‘let it be unto me according to thy word’.


Be clothed in Christ; come and feast at his banquet.




Monday, 6 February 2023

Shine as a light

Isaiah 58.1-9a Then will your light shine like the dawn

1 Corinthians 2.1-12 The only knowledge I claimed was of the crucified Christ

Matthew 5.13-20 Your light must shine in the sight of men




‘Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’


Those words are spoken at the close of the liturgy of Holy Baptism.


The newly baptised person, the neophyte, is presented with a candle lit from the Paschal Candle of Easter.


It is a joyful moment.


The face of the neophyte is illuminated by the candle flame; their face alight with the light of Jesus Christ, risen and triumphant over the realms of darkness.


It signifies the true enlightenment that sharing in the resurrection life of Christ and becoming part of his Body, the Church, brings.


Sadly, the word ‘enlightenment’ is now more often associated with the philosophical move, begun in the eighteenth century, in which individual autonomy is thought to be the peak of human achievement.


That ‘Enlightenment’ was to be in contrast to the dark, old, oppressive ways of religion.


The other way the word ‘enlightenment’ is used is in a Buddhist sense of detachment from the world.


Both approaches could not be further from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


Jesus says, ‘you are the light of the world’ (Matthew 5.X)


So the notion of Christian ‘enlightenment’ is about being not self-absorbed in your mind, but God absorbed in your heart; it is about entering into the realities of the world not fleeing from them: ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’.


But what does it mean to say ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’?


It’s a question a bit like ‘what does my life look like if I “go in peace to love and serve the Lord”’?


My face can shine with the love of God on Sunday morning; but what about Monday morning?


The prophet Isaiah in our first reading gave us some pointers.


He says that your light shall break forth like the dawn and God will say ‘Here I am’, when you actively loose the bonds of injustice, when you lift burdens from other people, when you bring the hungry to hospitality, when you clothe the naked.


In Christian terms those are the corporal ‘acts of mercy.’


That’s the Monday morning task, and through the week, serving Christ in that way.


That is shining as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father; that is your faith translating into action.


Try a ‘shine as a light in the world’ audit.


Start by asking yourself:


‘am I ever the source of an injustice in something I have done or said?’


Then challenge that injustice and amend your ways.


‘Do I create burdens for other people – my family, my friends, my colleagues – let alone relieve them of those burdens?’


Then actively seek to free people not burden them with your anxieties, hang ups or fragility.


‘Do I actively seek, in appropriate ways, to alleviate the suffering of the poor?’


If not, make a donation to a relief charity at home or abroad, donate to a foodbank, roll up your sleeves and engage with a charity supporting the lonely and vulnerable, consider buying a Big Issue.


In that way, when done consciously and actively, in the name of Christ, then you are fulfilling the commission of baptism – shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.


And there will be places, perhaps unknown to you even, where your light shines – don’t underestimate that!


Remember Jesus says in today’s gospel ‘You are the light of the world’ and elsewhere ‘I am the light of the world’.


It’s not either/or it’s both/and.


That is the root of true worship and discipleship, when our lives are such as Christ’s, then we are honouring the Father.


All worship is about offering ourselves with Christ in his sacrificial love to the Father.


The trouble is so often at a baptism as the service is over the candle is blown out, put in a nice presentation box and then...?


Well, I wonder what happens to that light?


Is this a metaphor for the way in which baptism has come to be treated?


The light is given and then blown out and put in a box.


That’s a parody of the enlightenment of Christ; almost worse than not receiving the light in the first place, when we receive the light and hide it away.


As the Lord says, the point of the light is for it to be placed on a lampstand not under the bushel basket or in the presentation box.


The light given to you in baptism is not just to make you feel warm, for you to tuck away inside yourself – that is utterly the cut-off self of the 18th century ‘Enlightenment’, that is so pervasive today. No. The light of baptism – Christ himself - is for you to shine out to give light to the world.


‘Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.’


When Christians turn the lights out they are failing in passing on the great and wonderful gift of faith in Jesus Christ.


Or do we not really believe it is such a gift?


Martyrs have died to give others this gift.


Christian Baptism is so much more than a nice ceremony, with nice photos and one heck of a party?


It is the moment of the kindling of the Christ-light; the bestowing of the power of Easter; the elimination of the darkness of sin by the illumination of salvation.


Rejoice in that light! Shine it out!


Monday, 30 January 2023

Attitude of Beatitude

Zephaniah 2.3; 3.12-13 In your midst I will leave a humble and lowly people

1 Corinthians 1.26-31 God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, to shame the wise.

Matthew 5.1-12a How happy are the poor in spirit


‘Then Jesus began to speak and taught them’




In the gospel today we hear the opening of Jesus’ famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ when, echoing Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, Jesus goes up a mountain and reveals himself to the disciples as the Source of divine teaching.


Moses received; Jesus Christ reveals.


It’s worth saying that the Sermon on the Mount is not a sermon in the sense of what I am doing now.


The Sermon on the Mount is divine teaching from the mouth of God, it is the renewing and fulfilling of God’s Law that was received by Moses, for those who are ready, like the disciples, to go up the mountain with Jesus and receive his teaching and to share mystically in his life.


Despite its thorough identification with Jesus Christ the Sermon on the Mount has inspired many non-Christians, Gandhi notably among them, to reflect on ethics and, for example, how world peace might be achieved.


The Sermon on the Mount is full of good ethics that are universally human, and we will hear more of that over the next two Sundays.


But back to today, because there is much more the Sermon on the Mount includes that is about faith in Jesus Christ, not just ethical teaching.


The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, the collection of sayings that this morning were sung so beautifully as part of our gospel proclamation.


The word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin ‘beatus’ which means ‘blessed’ or ‘blissful’.


So each beatitude begins, ‘blessed are…’ Different people are declared ‘blessed’ through what they endure.


These blessings point to and wrap us up in what is known as the ‘beatific vision’ the vision of the blessing and holiness of God.


The Law received by Moses was to make the people holy, and the New Covenant taught by, and embodied in, Jesus Christ fulfils that call to holiness.


This goes way beyond some broad ethical principles that can be swallowed by secular culture. Ours is a culture that either makes Jesus Christ more ‘palatable’ by reducing him simply to being a charismatic teacher and compelling guru: that is not the gospel’s proclamation of who Jesus Christ is.


Remember how St Matthew begins his gospel when speaking of Jesus who will come to save us from our sins: ‘his name shall be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’. (Matthew 1.22,23)


So, Jesus Christ is wise, yes; because he is Wisdom itself.


He is a teacher, yes; because he is Divine Teaching itself.


He blesses, yes; because he is the Source of Blessing itself.


He forgives, yes; because he is forgiveness itself.


He heals, yes; because he is the Source of all Healing


The Beatitudes take us into what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to share in his life, death and resurrection and what it means to be part of His Body, the Church.


Where do we find all that?


We’ve seen the parallel with Moses who ascends the mountain to receive the Law, whereas Jesus goes up the mountain to renew and fulfil the Law.


Jesus also goes up a mountain when he was transfigured and his divine glory shines out unmistakably: on that occasion he takes Peter and James and John with him and they are mystically joined by Elijah and Moses – many levels of connection there.


Jesus also goes up a smaller rise, the hill of Calvary, outside Jerusalem when he dies on the Cross for us and for our salvation, flanked not by the representatives of the Law and Prophets, Moses and Elijah, but by two criminals.


The reference to the ascent up the mountain sets a chain of connections throughout the gospel of St Matthew.


It is in that frame of mind, or perhaps better put, that frame of spirit, that we hear the Beatitudes afresh.


The Beatitudes are not a set of recommendations for the Christian believer, rather they are a description of the people Jesus has come to bless and to draw into his Body, the Church, for their salvation and the transformation of the world through the coming Kingdom.


Strip that out and all you have is a worthy, and somewhat unworldly, collection of trite sayings.


When you understand that this is divine teaching then it changes everything.


St Paul puts it so much better than me:


Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.2)


Only through a mind and spirit and outlook renewed in Christ do we begin to see the blessing that comes, when:


the poor in spirit receive the kingdom of heaven;

when the meek inherit the earth;

when the grieving receive comfort;

when those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice are satisfied;

when the merciful receive mercy;

when the pure in heart see God;

when the peacemakers are named children of God;

when even the persecuted in the cause of right receive the kingdom of heaven.


That is indeed blessing, beatitude, plentiful and generous, from the loving divine heart of Jesus to those living the Kingdom of God.


The word ‘beatitude’ sounds like ‘attitude’.


So what is your ‘attitude of beatitude’: ‘what does your life look like when lived in blessing?’ What can the world look like when lived in blessing?’




Tuesday, 17 January 2023


Isaiah 49.3,5-6 I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth

1 Corinthians  1.1-3 May God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ send you grace and peace

John 1.29-34 ‘Look: there is the Lamb of God’


Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. (John 1.29)




Come and see; see then go.


The Christian life is the response to the invitation to ‘come and see’ and the commission to ‘go and tell’.


This dynamic lies at the heart of today’s gospel reading.


We come to see Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God; we go and tell of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.


John the Baptist announces his presence.


Jesus issues the invitation, ‘come and see’.


Andrew, the disciple, goes and tells, and extends first to his brother, Peter, the invitation to come and see.


John the Baptist says it: ‘Look. See. Behold. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. (John 1.29)


What an amazing, rich, pregnant phrase.


To John’s first hearers, as to us, there is a lot going on there.


First, there is the shock that God can be seen; it’s scandalous, a stumbling block to some of Jesus’ hearers.


In the Old Testament, and to Jewish people of the first century, God cannot be seen; or at least no one lives to tell the tale.


But the desire to see God is still there, and articulated in Psalm 27, ‘My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek’. (Psalm 27.8).


This desire is satisfied in Jesus Christ, who is ‘the likeness [εκν (eikōn)] of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15) who says of himself, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14.9)


The second shocking thing to his contemporaries is John’s use of the term ‘Lamb of God’ for a person.


The lamb in the Old Testament is the sacrificial animal slaughtered in the temple.


The blood of lambs is marked on the doorposts of the Israelites on the night of the Passover.


The prophet Isaiah speaks of the suffering servant who is led ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’, a text that Christians have identified with Jesus Christ from the very beginning (cf Isaiah 53, esp. v7).


So, two points for us now.


First, that we see the image of the God we cannot see made visible in the face of Jesus Christ.


Second, Jesus comes to us as the one who takes away our sins, not through the sacrificing of the lambs but through his own, life-giving, death.


This mystery lies at the heart of the Eucharist; the bloodless sacrifice.


We ‘come and see’ the Lamb of God; and – meeting the Lamb of God - we ‘go and tell’.


The words at the very heart of the Eucharist touch on this, ‘O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us’.


Those words are sung when we have heard Jesus’ own words -  ‘this is my body; this is my blood’ - and we are invited into the life-giving mystery of his sacrifice for the salvation of the world.


And then the invitation to come, and taste, and see.


Holding the consecrated host, the Bread of Life, the priest declares: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb’.


What an invitation.


An invitation to share in the inner life of God the source of life.


So we respond, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed’ (cf Matthew 8.8; Luke 7.6).


‘Behold the Lamb of God’: it is so much more, even than seeing or looking.


‘Behold’ is such a rich word.


If you were looking at your phone, not that anyone would be now – I hope! – or watching TV you would not be beholding.


Beholding is not just gazing at something; it also means taking hold of what you see, literally and figuratively.


We see Jesus, the Lamb of God, in his broken body; we receive Jesus, the Lamb of God, in our hands; we hold and behold him.


‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory’ (John 1.14)


The Word, Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, lies in our hands and we see his glory. We cradle him. We cherish him. We behold him.


Seeing Jesus Christ improves our beholding of the creation: the people, the creatures, the landscapes and oceans that God creates.


We come to see the world as a gift to us, itself to be cherished.


Good beholding means we pay attention.


The evangelical call to see, to look, to behold is so relevant today.


But we say ‘come and see’ in a world full of visual distractions.


Heads are buried in phones and tablets; people fail to look up and see.


When we behold, then we come nearer and see deeper.


As Jesus says to Nicodemus he says to you and me, ‘You will see greater things than these’ (John 1.50b)


Can you say with John the Baptist: ‘Yes, I have seen and I am the witness that he is the Chosen One of God’ (John 1.34)?


Will you go, like Andrew, and tell of what you have beheld in Jesus Christ?


‘And we have seen his glory…’ there is the invitation; there is the commission.