4th Sunday before Lent: Isaiah 6, 1-8 & Luke 5, 1-11
I wonder whether you have ever had the experience of feeling totally out of your depth or ill equipped to do a job you have been asked to do? I also wonder whether you might have ever had those awful feelings of being inadequate and not good enough? My third wondering is this: have you ever inwardly groaned and asked ‘why me?’ I suppose the last question is the easiest to answer with a straightforward ‘why not you, or even me.’
When I began feeling the not so gentle pull, or was it a push, towards ordination I asked of myself, and God, all three questions. God, in his wisdom, didn’t even bother responding. Instead what He did was let the feelings of being pushed and pulled grow. At times the feelings were so acute and painful that like Peter I wanted to say – in fact I didn’t want to say, I said, ‘Go away from me, Lord.’ The bizarre thing was that God didn’t go away: he stayed, remained and kept pushing and pulling. Out of my experience of discerning my calling I learnt that God is a persistent old something or other. I also learnt that God is persistent for a reason: He wants all of us, you and me, to join in with his plans, his mission, his purpose. In fact this is the very definition of mission: joining in with God’s plans and God’s plan is conversion. God wants all of us, the members of his one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to help in the process of ‘catching people.’ God wants, in the words of our benefice collect, for his church to grow both in number and in holiness. He wants our metaphorical nets to be full to overflowing, and we, you and me, our His fishermen.
But here is the good news. Mission and evangelism isn’t the preserve of just one person. The onus isn’t solely on you or me. It’s a joint effort. Listen again to the words of the gospel: ‘So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to help them.’ God doesn’t want us to sit in splendid isolation aimlessly dropping our lines into the water. He wants us, his people, to work together as colleagues, partners and, yes, friends.
The amazing thing about God, about Jesus, is that he identifies and commissions ordinary people, people like you and me, to be His partners in mission. He asks all of us to help ‘catch people.’ He asks us to be humanity's safety net. He asks us to catch people through sharing our stories, our gospel testimonies, and by acts of loving kindness. He asks all of us who are members of his ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ to be his friends, colleagues and partners. Divine partnership and Godly friendship are the very essence of what it means to be catholic and apostolic.
When we say yes to God’s invitation to be God’s partners in mission I can promise you that something truly amazing happens. It happened to the prophet Isaiah who came before God and said: ‘Woe is me. I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts,’ it happened to Peter, and it happened to me. What happens is that the questions I asked at the beginning of this homily recede and dissipate. They cease to be the real questions. They recede and dissipate because what happens is this: God reaches out and touches us. He touches our hearts, enlarges our minds and anoints our lips: this is truly what happens. And, when this happens, we start to become individuals in community who partner with God in ‘catching people.’
To catch people is our noblest calling, to partner with God is our greatest privilege, to be touched and anointed by God is the very source of our liberation. Like Isaiah and like Peter, all we need to do is to say ‘yes.’
Let us together, in partnership, be God’s people catchers in this place,
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Candlemas. Luke 2, 22-40
I suspect that most of us here have seen, or perhaps, even been to an Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical. I have often wondered why they didn’t produce a musical based on the first few chapters of Luke’s gospel. The plot line is brilliant and list of characters diverse and, it seems, that every significant encounter includes some form of anthem or hymn. Luke’s gospel has given to the church the great canticles which we either sing or say at morning and evening prayer: the Magnificat, the Benedictus and, of course, the Nunc Dimitus. Sometimes, I think, we lose the significance and meaning in these canticles amidst the beauty of both their words and the choral music to which they are set. So, it’s good to be able to offer a homily based on the words of one of these canticles; the Nunc Dimitus.
Let’s pause briefly and consider the scene into which Simeon, spontaneously led by the Holy Spirit, offers his song of praise. A young couple, Mary and Joseph, have brought their baby boy to the Temple for the ritual of cleansing; Mary’s cleansing. Mary, not Jesus, is supposed to be the centre of attention. Purification is supposed to be the theme. In the Temple Mary and Joseph, the young couple, encounter Simeon and Anna, who are both old and, at least in Anna’s case, single. It’s all very All-Age. The Temple, like the church, is supposed to be a place that welcomes, affirms and ritually includes all. A place where young and old coalesce, mix and mingle. So far, so good, but then something incredibly strange happens.
Simeon, ‘led by the Holy Spirit,’ deflects the attention away from Mary, who has come for purification, and towards Jesus and in this one moment we are provided with an insight – a gloriously divine insight – into the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is an attention shifter! The Holy Spirit’s work is to make Jesus the absolute centre of attention and to declare that Jesus is the route to salvation. Yes, our rituals – processing the gospel, swinging the thurible, censing the altar, singing hymns, listening to anthems and so forth are important but only to the extent to which they point away from us and towards Jesus. Our rituals, liturgies and worship have no meaning, or currency, in their own right; they are given meaning through the work of the Holy Spirit (if you are at all interested this was the subject of my dissertation) whose role is to direct us towards the Christ, the Messiah, or in Simeon’s terms the ‘light for revelation.’ Simeon, through this story, this narrative, tells us something remarkable. Simeon is the first to say the route to salvation is through Jesus Christ, through faith, and not through the strict observance of religiously prescribed protocol. But Simeon says, or sings, something even more shocking: he dares to proclaim, again led by the Holy Spirit, that salvation isn’t the exclusive preserve of one group of people, or race, its the gift of grace made available to all; Gentile and Jew alike. And, for this we should all be truly pleased. In fact like Simeon and Anna our response should be joy, praise and thanksgiving.
Today’s Gospel reading invites us to ask many questions of ourselves. It asks us to consider the extent to which we are a truly All-Age church, welcoming young and old alike; it asks us to consider the extent to which our worship and rituals are soaked through with the Holy Spirit; it asks us to reflect on the breadth of our hospitality and inclusivity; it asks to be honest in asking whether we might sometimes prefer the safety of protocol to the vitality of change. It asks us to consider the extent to which we are light bearers, always pointing away from ourselves towards Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. We need to answer these questions so that we, like Simeon, may when the time comes ‘depart in peace,’ whilst in the meantime praising God with the infectious and life giving joy of Anna.
Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice really should have produced a musical based on the early chapter of Luke!
Epiphany 4: 1 Corinthians 12, 12-31 & Luke 4, 14-21
I don’t know why but I have a gut feeling that many, perhaps most, of us might be just a little suspicious of, even cynical, about political manifestos. In today’s readings we are presented with two manifestos. Jesus chooses to launch the Galilean Ministry by quoting from the prophet Isaiah but also by going one stage further, claiming that he is the living fulfilment of the Isaiah prophecy. Paul then provides a kind of manifesto for the church; the church, of course, being the chosen vehicle for the fulfilment of the Jesus manifesto. The point is this: if Jesus is the fulfilment of the Isaiah prophecy, the church, as His body on earth, is responsible for its sustainability. The central concerns of the Isaiah prophecy are liberation, healing and equality. Jesus’ concern is that everyone should brought into relationship with God, and know themselves to be loved by God, and in his ministry he goes on to model, or enact this. The Jesus we are called on to know and love as Saviour, and Redeemer, seeks to liberate all, irrespective of temporal identity markers.
If you read on a few chapters in Luke’s gospel you will find Jesus calling his first disciples or the Apostles (who were a pretty mixed bag), then calling Levi, a despised tax collector, before healing the Roman centurion’s servant and then raising from the dead the widow of Nain’s son before he encounters what Luke describes as ‘some women,’ including Mary Magdalene. All of these are characters who are in search of ‘Good News;’’ all of these characters are in some way ‘poor,’ and ‘oppressed.’ All of these characters need to be liberated from that which oppresses them. They all need to be raised up to newness of life. And, this is what Jesus does in the most lavish and indiscriminate way.
Paul in his Manifesto to the Church starts with the notion of equality. For Paul, equality isn’t some form of abstract philosophical theory, but instead a sacramental reality: ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all are members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ,’ followed crucially by, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all BAPTISED into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.’
For Paul we are all, despite our God-given differences, equal in the sight of God through the sacramental reality of baptism. The Eucharist, in which everyone gets the same amount of bread and wine and no one gets seconds (except me), also affirms the sacramental reality that are all are equal in the sight of God. And, this matters. It matters because when we accept that we are all equal in the eyes of God we become truly free to welcome, affirm, and help liberate others on equal terms. We become the sort of people who are comfortable in our own skins, knowing ourselves to be loved into all eternity by God, whilst accepting that the creator God has crafted a beautifully diverse humanity.
Our mandate as baptised Christians is to affirm and release the skills of all, for the good of all. Our job is to model the beauty of individuality in community. Jesus welcomed all and affirmed all. He brought fishermen, tax collectors, widows, Roman Centurions, women such Mary Magdalene, the cultural elite such as Nicodemus and, countless others into relationship with himself and with each other. Both Jesus and St. Paul insisted that a true religious, or Christian, community should be characterised by the love and concern its members show for each other, with each individual standing in solidarity with the beloved other: ‘if anyone member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.’ Mother Theresa’s reflection on this was simply this: ‘If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.’
The credibility of the ‘good news’ as presented through the Jesus manifesto is contingent on us – the baptised – living out our sacramental reality, as individuals in community, standing alongside one another, bound together through love. This is the ‘more excellent’ way that both Jesus and Paul place at their heart of their manifestos and when we live this way as baptised Christians we render the gospel truly credible,
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