14 July 2019

Sunday of All Saints of Rus'-Ukraine at the Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 14 July 2019

For today’s Feast of All Saints of Rus’-Ukraine St Paul exalts the eternal purpose of God (Romans 1.12-18) to identify those whom He will call, those he will make righteous as he conforms them to the image of His Son, and thus those He will fill with glory as all things work together for good by the power of His love. Who shall separate us from this our destiny, asks St Paul?

These few verses are luminous in the spirituality of what we Christians mean by sanctification, God’s holiness coming on us to make us His saints. We look to the officially canonised saints, and especially the Mother of God, as the evidence that human beings can become saints. This is not because they have become super-humans, but because we see in them that it is possible for mortals to be what the Lord had intended at the time of Creation, before we turn to the ways of deliberate imperfection and our preferred habit of falling short of the glory of God, something that we know as sin. We counteract this, as we pray for forgiveness and the restoration of our lost state, with a million, “Lord have mercy”s in our lifetime. Yet the popular expression in response to human self-indulgence or fallibility is, “You are only human”. But there is nothing “only” about being human. For it was his plan from the outset to clothe himself with the humanity He first given to us, and to take it for himself, so that, God becoming human by means of the indissoluble union that we worship in Christ the Son of God born of Mary, humanity may participate in the very life of God.

“Who shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus?” demands St Paul. It does not in the end make a difference to the divine plan to take our flesh - and be united with us so that we could be united to Him - that we disobey his fatherly law and erred from His love. As we know from the parable of the Prodigal Son, it intensified His resolve never to part Himself from us, however much we exerted our wills to part ourselves from Him. As in Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven, we know that it is the nature of God to pursue those who have fled Him. Thus a famously consoling English hymn sings, “O Love that will not let me go, I give Thee back the life I owe.” And in Psalm 138 it is the same:
O Lord, You have searched me out and known me … You hem me in behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me. Where shall I then from Your Spirit, or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Your hand lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.”
This was always the plan, and the fact of our sin does not change the intention of God to unite us to Him, since what is added is our forgiveness, our redemption, our forgiveness and our restoration to place us back on our original track of reconciliation.

It cost the Lord not less than everything, of course; and we recognise the superabundance of his core self-giving, which is the very nature of the Persons of the Trinity, not only in miracles and blessings but in His blood shed and His life poured out upon the Cross. God’s justification for doing this is not only to free us from the power of guilt and sin, but because he was always going to do this - to live like us that we might live like him, letting nothing ever ultimately stand in His way. Thus the Cross is the road to the empty Tomb. Thus the thorough rout into the depths of Death and back is the road to ascending humanity into the glory that God always intended for it. Thus the resurrection into which we were baptised makes the Cross - contrary to worldly appearance - glorious and life-giving. Thus the kingdom of heaven long ago became the nature that abhorred such a vacuum left by the removal of the bars and gates that kept us pent up in death.

When I went to a Methodist service one day, I remember the expectant moment after the first hymn has gathered all together in dedication to the Lord, and the minister addressed the people with the dramatic words of the Apostles from the Letter to the Hebrews: (12.22-23):

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly to the congregation of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, You have come to the Judge of all, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect.”
Who does he mean? He means us! Think of it: here in our Divine Liturgy, as we move around the altar and come in and out before the presence of the Lord, we are surrounded by the saints at worship in perpetual love; and we see that people no different from ourselves have been made righteous, not through any merit of their own but by the sheer outpouring of goodness that is infinite to overcome our failings and our preference for something else. There is nothing “only” about being human, destined to be filled to overflowing with this grace. And then, as St Paul says to us, “Those He destined to be changed to conform to the image of Christ from the beginning” - that’s you and me – “He next called. Then after He had made them righteous” – not by our merits but from His own reasons to make us no different from His Son – “He made them perfectly the same. He glorified them.”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist spiritual tradition, was inspired by the Eastern fathers of the Church. So in his preaching and the classic Wesleyan hymns he stresses not so much the problem of our sin but the magnificence of Christ’s sinlessness, and his full forgiveness by the power of the Cross to free us from ourselves and the evil that we do. To Wesley, since we are forgiven and free, what holds us back from becoming united with God in Christ even now? And if we can truly find this unity with the Lord, no wonder we can say with St Paul that we have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to the joyful assembly of the congregation of those enrolled in heaven. So Wesley follows St Paul to the great conclusion: If Christ by His power as God makes has impressed His own image into us and we are the very coinage of His Love, His buy-out conquerors in His competition with death and sin, what is there next but for Him to perfect what He has begun and make us perfectly holy, even starting here and now. So He works into us His holiness as He works out of us all that is amiss, making us His saints glorious as He is glorious. Saying none of this is to boast. As St Paul reminds us, “God forbid that I should boast save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by Whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” (Galatians 6.14) For to hope for glory and holiness in the midst of this life is to tell the truth of our sins and our need for God’s redemption and restoration.

In our Eastern Church we rely on those who have gone before us on this very same road. We know that they followed their Lord, passing through adversity and disrepute, scorn and unbelievability. Yet we see the saints as glorified, just as St Paul told the Romans. Their images on the icons show them not in earthly portraits but in their glorified state. These all knew their sin, yet hoped in the holiness that was to come. And at the forefront of them all, the Mother of God, most pure, immaculate and sinless, was made righteous throughout her existence by the pre-ordained purpose of the Lord to come to her above all others, for the taking of our flesh from her so that in the same instant we might be one with Him. So we touch her icon, as she touched the foot of the Cross. So we touch the icons of St Olga, St Vladimir, the monks of the Caves of Kyiv, St Josaphat, Blessed Klement Sheptytsky the Martyr, and so many others, because their hold on life here was the same as Christ’s, and because the prayers of them all are heaven’s hold on us.

At the end of our Divine Liturgy after Communion we shall give glory to Christ for being our sanctification. So we understand that what is true of the saints in the icons must become true of us - and it has already begun. We are to be the new icons, the new reliability of prayer for those who are to come after us. We are the spirits of righteous people made perfect. We are the congregation to which new people in Christ will come in joyful assembly, and say, “We have come to Mount Zion, to the City of Living God.” There is nothing “only” about being human. All is for His glory, and all His glory is for us to be holy, to be his saints defined by the very quality of the “nothing” that ever can separate us from the love of God in Christ, the Love that will not let us go.

Christ among us: Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday of the Year, Roman Catholic Church of the Most Precious Blood, The Borough of Southwark, 21st July 2019

The great mystery, hidden for ages, but now delivered to us is: Christ among us, so that we, His creation, can be brought to completion and made perfect.

In St Luke’s Gospel today (Luke 10.38-42), we vividly see Christ among us, and the effect on Mary and Martha. Their altercation is renowned. You can sense Mary losing track of time, spellbound by Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of heaven – the mustard seed, the sower, the Good Samaritan, the e Prodigal Son – while Martha is no less absorbed in the pressured preparation of the feast. Both are intent upon Him, but in different ways. Many see this Gospel passage as a contrast between a practical Christian discipleship and a contemplative, spiritual one. After all, does not Our Lord say that Martha, the listening one, has chosen the better part than her active sister?

But there is a spiritual side to the practical activity. Even in hardship, our activity can proceed on a different plane when graces opens it up to our spiritual dimension. Otherwise something is missing; we are not being “holistic”. Thus Mary sits unmoved in the presence of the mystery, but she is being prepared for her form of service. The Lord says to her sister, “It shall not be taken away from her”; and to Martha it is indeed a mystery. But as St Paul explains, it is the “mystery hidden for generations … and now revealed to His saints” (Colossians 1.24-48) - “Christ among you”, Emmanuel (Matthew 1.23). Thus Martha understands, that her active preparation and serving come to the same point: to find purpose and meaning when she comes to a stop in His presence. As St Paul puts it, “This is the wisdom in which we thoroughly train everyone … to make them all perfect in Christ.” (Colossians 1.28)

The call to come and be trained for moving into the practice of being disciples, because of the impression made on us by Christ in Person, may not be something we feel, or even remember. But it is what is familiar to us in every encounter we have with God in worship. We say that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. The spiritual within has outward form – and our outward life is formed by the spiritual reality of Christ’s grace among and within us, to “train everyone … and make them all perfect” in Him. We understand this as our sacramental life, where sacraments are not objects, or events that happen to us. Instead they form the shape and dimension of our existence. It is not that we were baptised and confirmed in the past, but that we are perpetually the baptised and the confirmed: existing in the new life of Christ, not some old one. We are not so much breathing in the Holy Spirit, as if He were “top-ups” from outside, but, like Christ on His Cross, breathing Him out from where He dwells within us (II Timothy 1.14); and, like Christ raised in His Tomb, breathing Him as He gives our mortality the over-riding quality of Resurrection (Romans 8.11). Furthermore, it is not that we just come week by week for the infusion of strengthening grace from His Body and Blood. It is far more than that. We become the Communion we receive. St Paul says, “His Body, you are. Each one of you is part of it.” (I Corinthians 12.27) And he goes on to say, “It is not I who live but Christ Who lives within me.” (Galatians 2.20).

In other words, we are not just people who come to Church, or listen to Christ’s words. We do not merely attend upon Him here, or seek His blessings, or follow Him in our hearts and our conduct. As Christ our God became human, so we are humans who are become divine. We live the life of His Body. We think the thinking of His mind (Philippians 2.5). It is not an earthly life we live now, but that of the Son with His Father. The old life is gone. St Paul tells us how it is: “You have been raised… Set your minds on things above, not on the earth. Now your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.1-4)

“Hidden with Christ in God” is what St Gregory of Nazianzus called the rotation around one another of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is where we, who are made in the image of God, find that Christ is among us. He is not just among us here; He has also transferred us to be among us where He lives (cf. John 14.3 & I Peter 2.9) in the divine life of the Trinity. He is training us to be joined in as part of it, and He is bringing us to our completion, in living God’s life as He has lived ours.

This is what Abraham was confronted with at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18.1-10). He saw the three, but beheld one. We are often told that the Trinity is difficult to understand, that it is a mystery. Of course it is, if we are approaching it as a theory to grasp, or an idea to try and envisage. But it is none other than how life is in Christ. For in His Church, God has come near to us, surrounded us and entered into us, that we might come near to Him and enter into Him. What Abraham saw beneath the oak, is what was at play at the Lord’s incarnation. The Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary as He once covered the firmament in the moment of creation; the Angel was sent with the Word of the Father; and the Word took flesh in the womb of the Mother of God. And at the Lord’s baptism, once again: three Persons, one God. The voice of the Father was heard; the Holy Spirit descended over the Lord like a dove; and Christ was unveiled as God the Son of God the Father. When He was transfigured, the Father’s voice was heard; and the Holy Spirit shines the glory of the Lord through Christ’s form, to reveal that Christ must suffer to fulfil the Law and the Prophets before His resurrection and ascension.

At the Lord’s Crucifixion, we heard the thunder just as the witnesses heard at His Baptism, assuming it was the voice of the Father. Christ breathed out with the Spirit; and, in the moment of His death, tore the veil of the Temple that He might mystically enter the Holy of Holies from the Cross and complete the atonement for our sins, then to emerge not only with forgiveness and healing salvation, but resurrection and eternal life. Three Persons, One God. Once again, at the Ascension and Pentecost, the Holy Spirit covers the mountain top. This time the glory of the Lord takes the form of the cloud, which we remember from the Passover of the Hebrews out of slavery to the Promised Land, as the Son ascends to the Father. Then the Son sends into His own People, His Body in the world, the Spirit from the Father, to ensure His abiding presence, the “Christ among us”. “Baptise in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” He has told us. For thus, “I am with you always, to the end of time.” (Matthew 28.19-20)

How can we know this? When the Lord disappeared from view at His Ascension, where was He to be found? In us, who have been incorporated into Him by consuming the Eucharist. At every Mass, we see all these mysteries of “Christ among us” played out again and again. Christ offers Himself to the Father in sacrifice; His words are spoken; and in the priest’s hands the Holy Spirit covers the Lord’s gift of Himself and He makes Himself known to us in the breaking of Bread. We receive Him; and in the same moment in heaven He receives us. We are joined up into the rotation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit around one another, where Christ is among us, training us to perfection.

This is why we may not sin. This is why self-righteousness, or special pleading, or self-justification, self-advancement, or shortcomings or excuses, or deferring our attention upon God until later, have no place. They may all have a reason here; but there they make no sense. Our confession of sin is not an apology to a judge. Instead, it is a perpetual turning of the heart and mind towards God, away from all else and into His life and the joining in of us all with the Persons in Trinity.

It is also why we must waste no opportunity for coming into the presence of “Christ among us” while we are also here in the world. Mary came to rest in silence as she listened to Jesus and absorbed His words about the Kingdom. She does not avoid work and service; she is prepared. She goes on to anoint the Lord’s feet and wipe them with her hair, preparing Him in turn for death and burial (John 12.8). Martha, too, prepares a house, but also herself, to receive Jesus. She works and waits on Him. Seemingly she receives nothing, until she in turn comes to be still before Him and recollects the mystery that stands among them. It happens in a different order, but it is the same rotation of the Persons of the Trinity. It is the same surrounding of one another that we are being joined into, for the day of our ultimate completion, “hidden with Christ in God”.

Every time we come to Church, then, it is no occasion for us to be talking to each other socially. It is a rare moment in this world for us to be in Absolute Quiet, to be in the presence of “Christ among us”, with all our attention turned on Him and nothing else - just as all His attention is turned on is. In numerous French churches, where just as with us there is much talking before the service, while some people try to make their devotions, there is a notice which reads, “Si vous parlez ici, oรน priez-vous?” – “If you talk here, where do you pray?” If Christians do not pray, or practise now being in the presence of God for eternity, why should anyone believe us, or follow the path we are on? What is the point; how is it different?

But the difference that has been made to us is that we desire, with all we love, to be at the heart of the mystery, Christ among us. So we fall to silence in His presence, to absorb all His speaking to our hearts and our consciences. We anoint his feet with the tears of returning to our long-lost Friend. And we enable Him to train us, to perfect us, to put into effect our service as His disciples all our days, unready as we are, until we are brought to our completion, joined in for ever with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

08 July 2019

The Rule of Peace: Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Corpus Christ, Maiden Lane

Peace feels like a gentle word. Peace in English and Friede in German, can mean stillness, the banishment of disturbance, the relief at the end of hostility. Yet we talk of winning the war but losing the peace; and so we have an inkling that peace can be uneasy and unsatisfactory, lacking resolution and perpetuating the injustice that caused the strife in the first place. We are still living with the consequences of short-sighted fixes from the First World War onwards. The massacred Armenians of Turkey and the Mediterranean were never given their homeland. The Christian Assyrians, inheritors of a 2,500 year-old civilisation, are still at the oppressive mercy of Islamic Kurds, Arabs and Persians alike. The Greeks and Turks dispossessed of their ancient foothold in each other’s lands seem perpetually irreconcilable. The price of peace in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa has been modern boundaries to states that do not unite people but force some into dispossession and migration, or oppression and persecution under the yoke of others. Without naming them, all are the results of poor peace-deals that have led to unending conflict.  So forgive me if I place a question mark against our instinctive definition of peace.

If, however, you turn to Latin you will see that the idea of peace is not necessarily so gentle, but comes with force and impact. Indeed, impact comes from the Latin word pax. You can tell that this word is hard-hitting – pax in Latin, pace in Italian, paz in Spanish, paix in French, and our own English words derived from Latin – pact, impact, compact,  impinge, punch, pacify. They all come from the idea of fastening things tight together, and thus making a binding agreement you could never wriggle out of. At the time Our Lord Jesus was born, St Luke tells us that the Emperor was Augustus and he had brought the whole world to peace. This “Pax Romana” was a peace imposed by authority and force of arms, after decades of exhausting and ruinous civil war for control of Rome and the riches of its expanding empire. St Luke evidently thinks such a condition in the world was a herald for the coming of the Prince of Peace. To St Luke it was a force for good, but a force none the less. When he records the song of the angels that at Christ’s birth there is not only glory to God in the highest but peace on earth, he means no mere gentle sentiment or merely the absence of war, or even its abolition. He means a new driving force, to be constantly at work in the world leaving nothing unchanged.

Each of today’s readings refers to peace in exactly this way. Let us see if we may understand their meaning by using a different word for peace that still comes from the Latin word pax.

  • The prophet Isaiah (66.10-14) says, “Rejoice Jerusalem. For thus says the Lord, Now towards her I send flowing with impact like a river, and like a stream in spate, the glory of the nations.
  • The Lord says to his 72 disciples, “Whatever house you go into, let your first words be ‘Impact upon this house’. And if a man lives there who has already experienced this impact, your own impact will go and rest on him; if not it will come back to you. Cure those who are sick and say, the Kingdom is upon you.” (Luke 10.1-12, 17-20) He goes on to discuss with the disciples the impact that the very mention of His name had had on the devils who had fled from them.
  • Lastly, St Paul tells the church at Galatia, a group much like our own this evening looking to Christ for the answers to life, that peace comes to all who follow the rule that the true cause of transformation in the world is the Cross (Galatians 6.14-18). For once we have been struck by the Cross and the Lord Who was crucified on it, we are now a new creature. We new creatures have marks all over us: not of what or who we were, but the same as those on Christ. Peace to St Paul is therefore the most massive impact on our souls and bodies. It changes how we think. It changes our vision of the world. It alters the way we speak. It turns the way we behave inside out. Peace is not the disappearance of difficulty; it is the beginning of an impact taking its lifelong effect. Its mark we can never erase. It is the mark of the Cross on our forehead at baptism. It is the wound that became a scar that everyone ought to be able to recognise as soon as they catch sight of us.

But there is more. In the Hebrew, Aramaic and Semitic world in which Christ and the apostles lived, “peace” is a normal, everyday greeting. We know it as Shalom in Hebrew, Salaam in Arabic, and Sliem in Maltese. It can mean tranquillity and wellbeing, wholeness and completion, concord and harmony, just as peace does in English. But it can also mean something pacified, something atoned for, something submitted to and accepted. There is a clue in the word Islam, which speaks of achieving peace only when you have submitted to the one God. For the followers of Jesus Christ, who is that One God, he reconciles everything in harmony, resolving all things that were at odds, abolishing our evil that is hostile to God’s good, bringing wholeness to the world of people, and achieving completion to His work of creation by one means alone: He makes peace by His Blood shed on the Cross (Colossians 1.20-22). The greatest peace of all, then, is that river in full spate of which Isaiah spoke. It is the impact of the Blood of Christ which no other force can withstand. It is the arrival of the new creation which is the Kingdom of God, coming with all its force and impact, whenever the Christian utters the name of Christ and announces the effect of the Cross.

“Peace, be still,” cries Christ above the storm and it is still. How often do we call out with His Name as a curse of casual indignation or the bare-teeth howl of attack. It is not always easy to be a man of peace, or a woman of peace, even with that Name on your lips.

But in our quieter and most clear-sighted moments, the Name of Jesus Christ is not only the tranquillity and wholeness for which we long. It is the lifelong and sustained effect which transforms us, and the whole world of people among whom we belong, into the Kingdom. We believe in Christ because of His impact on our every thought, word and act - whether they have originated from His Kingdom, or whether they are what needs immediate correction so that we are set back on the course that is true. We believe in Christ, not just because it is our culture, or a personal belief. We believe in Christ because this is how the entire created universe has been constructed. It is there we can see that Christ is its universal King ruling everything, especially everything hostile that disobeys Him. It is there we can see how everything fits together to make His Kingdom, which we pray will come on earth as it is in heaven.

When we pray for someone who has died, we say, “May they rest in peace.” But this peace is no escape from the world or a departure from its struggles. It is to witness by Christ’s light the impact of His Kingdom taking its effect in every soul one by one, as they are won for Christ in this world and the next. Thus in a few moments’ time we will worship the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world to grant us peace. “Peace,” says the Lord, “not as the world gives,” but the peace that is to see the Father in Christ, and to know the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send, so that we may always dwell in Christ. Do not be afraid of this, he says, because these words are part of the last conversation Jesus has, before He is betrayed and condemned to shed His Blood for us on the Cross. It is no wonder, then, that the Lord told us that if we would be His disciples we must take up our cross daily too. “Peace to all who follow this rule.”