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Pentecost

Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, and we rejoice at that great outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the first followers of Jesus. An event which is often referred to as the church’s birthday.

But for reasons which will soon become obvious, I’m going to begin by taking you back to the Feast of the Ascension; a Feast which we celebrated just over a week ago.

Now, I don’t know how you picture the Ascension. Perhaps you take it as a literal rising up from the grave followed by a kind of “take off” up to heaven. In which case you’ll understand just how scared a particular gentleman was, in a story which my brother in law, Alan, loves to repeat.

Alan used to live quite close to a church yard in Bristol which adjoined a fairly busy main road and whose surface was a few feet above the pavement. A bit like the church yard which belongs to the Anglican parish church in Sidmouth.

As dusk was approaching on a particular autumn afternoon, a grave digger who’d almost completed his task, climbed up out of the freshly dug grave and spoke to a passer- by on the other side of the wall. “Excuse me, mate,” he said “Do you know what the time is?”

Well, I don’t think the passer by stopped to give the grave digger an answer!

Maybe he had a very literal understanding of resurrection and ascension, but, you see, perhaps one of the most important things about the Ascension is not whether it’s literally true, but rather that it teaches us something new about heaven. It teaches us that because Jesus took it there, our human nature is always in the presence of God

And now, as a result of Pentecost, as a result of the coming of the Holy Spirit in this new way, God’s life is also made permanently present through human life. So you see, Ascension and Pentecost actually go together. They link the human with the divine; in both directions, so to speak.

This means that being religious, or knowing Jesus, can have nothing to do with escaping from being human. You may think you know Jesus because you come to church, have warm feelings and act in a very pious way. But if you also live your life by behaving badly to other people, then I’m afraid your behaviour shows you to be sadly mistaken, because you’re actually living a lie.

It was the departure of Jesus that made possible the coming of the Holy Spirit; and what the Holy Spirit makes present is done on an entirely human level.  The Holy Spirit, the Spirit that was in Christ, constantly makes Jesus present to each of us and continues Christ’s work through us.

Think about this for a moment; we’re agents of the Holy Spirit. He channels the words and actions of Jesus, through us; but they originate in Jesus.

So the real work of Christian witness is the task of the Holy Spirit. In a very real sense when a Christian person is moved to Christian action, this is the Holy Spirit at work. Christ walks into hospitals, homes and prisons today, wearing your skin and talking with your voice.  Everything that Christ did for his disciples the Holy Spirit will do for us.

Just as Christ taught, corrected and encouraged his disciples, so the Holy Spirit teaches, strengthens and corrects us.

We know the Holy Spirit, we know Jesus, as a result of the way in which he changes our lives. The Holy Spirit becomes joined to us in a very real way, so that through us Christ continues his work.

Now, much of what we hear about the Holy Spirit has to do with dramatic things. Signs and wonders. Tongues of fire and ecstatic experiences, and I don’t want to suggest that these aren’t important.

You may or you may not be blessed in this way. This may be one way in which the Holy Spirit shows Himself in your life. But please don’t worry if this isn’t your experience, because it’s more important to be able to recognise the Holy Spirit who brings Christ, by the effects that take place in your life.

Do you remember Jesus said something very similar about the Holy Spirit in a conversation which he had with Nicodemus?  He made the point that we learned things about the wind by looking at the results of a storm. He was also making the point that  we should recognise the activity of the Spirit by the results of his work.

And the way in which the Spirit works is by using all of those ordinary things which are available to us. Our powers of reasoning, for example, which include the ability which we’ve been given to listen and to learn.

He’ll  also use  other Christian men and women by giving them gifts of teaching and preaching and advice. Some people are used by the Spirit as channels through which He’ll draw us closer to Him through music or art or loving concern. But again and again his communications with us are through other human beings.

I’ve laboured this point because it’s very common for us to want to think that religious experiences are all about getting away from the ordinary things of every -day life, and soaring into the heavenly realms to be close to the Lord and away from all the dreary common stuff.

The tragedy is that this is actually a mistake, because it’s quite easy to be religious without necessarily being a Christian.

But think for a  moment. God’s most amazing revelation of Himself was through the humanity of Jesus. Wouldn’t it therefore be quite likely that He’d use the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, within the ordinary bits of His creation. Bits like me and you?

And so, don’t worry if you don’t speak in tongues , or if when people ask you whether you’ve  been born again, you feel that you don’t really understand them.

The thing to worry about is when any warm feelings you might have about knowing Jesus become a substitute for his work. Work which will always bring you closer to the common and messy things of everyday life; the sick, the suffering, the poor and those on the margins. Worry when the most important thing about your Christian life is the way in which you worship rather than the way in which you treat other people.

God will keep His promises made through Jesus about the presence and the work of The Holy Spirit. My prayer is that our eyes and our ears may be opened to His presence and work all around us and through us; for that is where he is and what he does.

He can even work through the retelling of a silly story about a grave digger!

Amen.

John 17: 1-11

This gospel reading gives us an account of the beginning of the great prayer of Jesus for his followers. A prayer which is full of love and thanksgiving, a prayer from the heart of Jesus to the heart of his Father, and one which, if we’re honest, leaves us feeling that our own prayers are pretty poor efforts.

Now, perhaps for much of the time you’ll find prayer hard work. You’ll be tempted to give up, or to say what you feel you should, as quickly as you can, without letting on to all of your more holy friends that you have difficulties which you can’t imagine they would ever share!

Some of them will tell you it’s childish to ask God for things because God knows what we need, and will always do the best for us. Proper grown up prayer, they will say, should be confined to thanksgiving and praise.

And this, I think, is one of those beliefs which can make honest prayer so very difficult.

We must never forget that the prayer which Jesus gave us is full of requests to God. Requests for food, for forgiveness and for protection .And what’s more, he told us to pester God, just like we might pester a neighbour for something we badly need, even when the neighbour’s gone to bed.

So, uncomplicated prayer is good for us, not because our prayer somehow changes God’s mind but because through it, God helps us to understand that we’re his children and he’s our loving Father.

Of course, we have to pray for the right things, but those people who tell you the right things are all those spiritual ones like becoming more generous and high minded, aren’t necessarily correct.  If we’re going to be honest with God we should pray for what we want and not just for what we think we ought to want.

So, when you pray, think about what you need or want, and then ask for that. It doesn’t matter very much if you just want help to pay the gas bill, or need a new car. Pray for that. You could let world peace rest for a bit, because you may not be ready just yet, to want that passionately.

When we pray, we need to come before God as honestly as we can, because pretending to him is just wasting our time.

God accepts us as we are, and when we come to him honestly he’s delighted to listen to us.

In true prayer God meets us where we are, and will gently move us on. If we acknowledge our most childish desires to God in prayer, then God will help us to grow up a bit by very patiently showing us that in fact we have deeper and more mature desires. And it’s only by taking the risk in prayer that this can be revealed to us.

It’s pointless in pretending that we have deep spiritual desires when we don’t. We need to grow up into those. After all, if a child is treated like an adult, he or she will never grow up. Prayer is the way in which our Father in heaven leads us, each one by a different path, to be with him.

All prayer is answered if it’s real and not just make-believe. Either God gives us exactly what we ask for, and this is very common, or else God will know that we’re now ready to receive more than we asked for. It’s quite likely  that we won’t recognise this at the time of asking, and it may well be that it’s only as we look back that we realise just how God was getting us to understand that our deeper desire was for more than we asked.

The way to grow is to recognise that we haven’t grown, and God doesn’t mind that at all. Because like everything else, prayer starts from God and not from us. It’s God who decides that we shall pray, and it’s God who answers our prayers. God is within us, keeping us in being and making us ourselves. Everything we have is God’s free gift to us, and because we so often forget this, from time to time he reminds us . He wants us to see his gifts for what they are, and so he gives them to us in answer to our prayers.  Answers, and miracles then, aren’t just special acts of God’s love, they’re tokens of his permanent love made particularly visible to us.

It’s when we lay our true desires before God that we can begin to see them more clearly. Quite often we may find that they aren’t the things which we really want after all, and as we pray, God leads us to realise that what we really want is God himself. But that’s the end, I think, not the beginning,

For Jesus, the cross was his prayer to bring about that which he’d failed to do. To bring it about through his loving acceptance of failure. And the Father’s answer to that prayer was the resurrection. Christ’s resurrection and ours.

And so it doesn’t matter whether or not we can produce fine words for God. It doesn’t matter that we fail. What matters most is that we’re honest. All our prayers, our simple requests; our struggles to find words for feelings which we fear to bring to God, are joined to this great prayer of Jesus, and so really become a sharing in the prayer of the cross.

And that’s why the Eucharist is the greatest of our prayers, because it’s the sign, the sacrament of the cross. The way by which we’re joined to the prayer and the sacrifice of Jesus, and through it taken right into the loving heart of God.

Amen.

John 14: 15-21

Jesus said; “If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father to send you another Counsellor to be with you forever.”

It seems then, that in order to receive this Counsellor sent by God, we must love and obey Jesus. So, what can this mean for us today?  

 St John teaches us that obedience is the only test for love.  It was by obedience that Jesus showed his love of God; and it’s by our obedience that we show our love of Jesus . Many people will tell you that love is all about feelings, but according to the Gospel which we’ve just heard, we’re wrong to try to measure our love of Jesus by the strength of any feelings that we might or might not have.  St John never spoke of love as a feeling or an emotion.  For him, love was always shown by obedience.

It’s not easy to know that you love Jesus.  And this is where that difficult word, translated as “Counsellor” comes in. The word is a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit.  And it’s when we begin to try to talk about the Holy Spirit that we meet all kinds of misunderstandings and difficulties.

Many Christians feel that they’re a failure in their faith and that there’s something wrong with them.  They listen to others who tell them that they feel the presence of Jesus in their hearts, or maybe place great emphasis on speaking in tongues . And, because they know that their faith isn’t lived on an emotional high they think that somehow they’ve missed the point.

Perhaps they struggle with prayer, and wish that the gift of easy talk to God  had been given to them. And so they  tell themselves that because this hasn’t been their experience, then they must be a kind of second-class Christian. But this is a sad and painful mistake.

Because what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel, is that he recognises the difficulties of following him, and he won’t leave us to struggle with them alone.

He promises to send the Holy Spirit, to help us live the Christian life; and when  he goes on to say that the world cannot recognise the Spirit , he’s pointing out that we can only see what we’re fitted to see. 

An astronomer will see far more in the sky than an ordinary man.  Someone who knows about art will see far more in a picture than someone who’s ignorant about these things.

What we see or get from any experience depends a great deal on what we bring to it.  A person who’s removed God from their life will never listen for him, and yet it’s when we wait in prayerful expectation that God’s Holy Spirit comes to us.

This obedient, trusting, waiting love leads to the presence of God. It’s only to the man or woman who’s looking for him, that God reveals himself.  It’s only to the man or woman who, in spite of failure, is reaching up, that God reaches down.  Knowing God is dependent on love; and love is dependent on obedience.

When we’re obedient and open to God in this way then we’ll begin to be aware of the Holy Spirit working within us just as Jesus promised.

Perhaps we need to stop comparing ourselves and our experiences to others and start thinking more seriously about some of the things which Jesus taught. For instance, he said that just as we recognise the presence of atmospheric wind by its effects, so will we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit by His effects.

Do you know a Christian person who’s patient, or kind, or gentle or faithful?  Do you know a Christian person who’s loving or joyful or who seems to be at peace? If you do then you know  a Christian in whom the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work.

Some of these men and women might well be reluctant to say that they’re the living fulfillment of the promises which Jesus made, but it’s when we begin to see with the eye of faith that we also begin to understand that they are.

As we follow Jesus in loving obedience, and as we open and prepare ourselves for him so will we become aware of the truth of his promises about the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps one of the most significant times on our journey will be the realisation that we meet him most commonly within the ordinary happenings of everyday life.  He’s there in every loving encounter that we experience.  He’s there at that moment when a piece of Scripture suddenly takes on a deeper meaning for us.  He’s there when the words of a preacher seem to be directed at us personally.  He’s there when at the very moment of temptation a saying of Jesus flashes unbidden into our minds.

 And so, the next time we begin to doubt some of the basic teachings of our faith; the next time we begin to entertain a strong suspicion that all this talk about the Holy Spirit is outside of our experience, then we need to remember these things; because the promises which Jesus made are for all of us.

The peace which he offers us is such that no experience of life can ever take it from us. And no sorrow, no danger no suffering can ever make it less. This is the peace which he wants to give us.

All we need to do is to accept it. Amen.

John 14: 1-12

“Jesus said “ No one comes to the Father except through me.”

What a breath-taking claim. There are about five thousand million people alive today and countless millions have lived in the past. Most of them have thought about God in one way or another, and now amongst all these teeming millions it’s being claimed that no one comes to God except through this individual Palestinian carpenter. What can this amazing statement mean?

Well, a road between two places ends or begins at either place. Which place is the beginning and which is the end depends on the way you choose to look at the map. And so I think we come to the Father in Jesus Christ not because he’s revealed to us the way by which we may go, but because Jesus is the way in which the Father comes to us. And when the Father comes to us in the human life of Jesus, it isn’t to show us how to be successful at coming to him. It isn’t to give us a few tips so that we can use this knowledge to let ourselves in to God’s presence.  Because after all, Jesus came to us as a complete failure.

The Word was made flesh not to make us better informed or to teach us new secrets which will unlock heaven for us. The secret of Christianity is that it has no secret. It just asks us to accept and submit to the way and the truth and the life which is God’s. And when we ask what that might be, Christianity does not take us to some special teaching or a code of laws. It takes us to a defeated human being hanging from a cross.

The gospel teaches that human beings don’t need to strive to come to God the Father, because God the Father is taking the whole human race to himself.

There’s no wisdom, or secret or special instruction by which we come to the Father. The good news is that the Father comes to us.  Christians don’t have faith in themselves; in their success or their understanding. Their faith is in the power of God, which appears as weakness. And by accepting this weakness, by living in the dark place by faith, they share in Christ’s victory.

In Jesus we don’t understand God, but we can watch God understanding himself. God’s understanding of God is that he throws himself away in love. He keeps nothing back for himself. God is love that accepts us without any conditions at all. A love that will let us be ourselves, even if we want to be his murderers.

God’s understanding of God is not that he has a special message with a special way of living to which he wants us to conform. God doesn’t appear to us as someone who wants to found a new and better religion with rules and regulations laid upon us for all time. He simply wants us to be fully human, like Jesus. To be fully human even if it kills us.

God says “I accept you as human beings, what a pity you have such difficulty in doing this yourselves, because you know ,you don’t need to pretend to be super-human. I accept you as you are.”

This was the message of Jesus. And we can be filled with it. To be in Christ, is to be filled with joy. To be filled with the Holy Spirit in such a way that the joy is sometimes too great for us to understand.

The Word made flesh was Christ crucified. But that is God’s way, and the way and the truth and the life for us is to be prepared to go into the dark with Christ. When we go into the dark with Christ, when we die with him then we live with him. And that life will one day soon show itself for what it truly is , and we shall live forever with the Father, through Christ in the joy which is the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

John 10: 1-10

Do you remember when you were quite small and at primary school, older people would often say to you:

“Never forget, your school days are the happiest of your life.”?

That used to puzzle me, especially when things weren’t going too well. I can see now how I was really being told that as I grew older I would have a lot more to worry about; but of course it wasn’t put quite like that.

It was also common to be asked “What do you want to be when you leave school?” and that wasn’t so bad. I can’t really speak for little girls, but I expect lots of them would say “a nurse” or “a teacher.”  However, I can speak for little boys, and I know most of them at one time or another would answer by saying that they wanted to be a train driver. The interesting thing is that, when I was small, it would have been very rare for a child to have been attracted to a particular job because of its salary, or because of the fame which was attached to it.

How things have changed!

You can’t turn the television on today without stumbling over a so-called “reality show”.

The X –factor; Britain’s Got Talent; The Voice; and I’m sure you could think of others.

Now, many of the contestants do have talent, but the vast majority of them don’t. They just want to be famous; they want “celebrity status”; and indeed it’s not uncommon today for a child to answer the question “What do you want to be when you leave school?” by actually telling you that they want to be a celebrity. They’re not much concerned about the type of work, but they’re very keen indeed on the money, the life style and the happiness which they think celebrities enjoy.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus said: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” But what does He mean? Many people in our modern world would say that a full life is one which has all of the things which money can buy. That’s why the cult of the celebrity is so popular. Fame, and the money which it brings, are seen as the way to a full and satisfying life. But Jesus certainly didn’t mean that.

Perhaps most of us have sometimes wondered what it might be like to win The Lottery. I know I have, but when I day dream like this it’s good for me to be reminded of one of my most treasured possessions. No amount of Lottery money could buy it. Let me tell you what it is.

It’s a little hand-made envelope and I found it on the table when I sat down for tea one evening in May, 40 years ago. The front of the envelope had the word “Daddy” written on it in a child’s hand. It was from my eldest son, James, who was six at the time. I opened the envelope and inside there was a little note; it just said; “I love you.”

I don’t need to explain to you how the love of a child for his daddy is so amazingly precious. Celebrity status fades away in comparison. That little boy is in his mid-forties now, now but he still tells both me and his mother that he loves us. His younger brother does the same, and I thank God that my family has been blessed with so much love.

You see, love is the most precious thing there is, and when we’re blessed with human love it makes it easier to understand a little bit more about the love which God has shown us through Jesus.

We’ve just heard Jesus say “I am the Good Shepherd,” and this is one of seven sayings which he uses to tell us who He is in relation to us; indeed, who God is in relation to us.

You may remember Jesus also said;

“I am the bread of life; I am light of the world; I am the Way the truth and the Life; I am the Gate for the sheep; I am the True Vine; and I am the resurrection and the Life. “

These are all invitations into a lifelong relationship with Jesus, and they’re all statements of love.

A little while back I went to see “Les Miserables” at the cinema, and perhaps you’ll remember the closing scene when Valjean is dying. Let me remind you of a verse from the last song. It goes like this:

“Take my hand and lead me to salvation,

Take my love, for love is everlasting,

And remember the truth that once was spoken:

To love another person is to see the face of God “

You may believe then, that when, with love, we look into the face of Jesus we see nothing less than the face of God. The God who in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for his sheep.

This is a measure of God’s love for us.

I know that I would, without question, give my life for my children and grand-children; however, I would have to think long and hard if I was asked to do the same thing for someone else. But God did just this in Christ Jesus for all of us. He loves us that much; and it’s when the Holy Spirit moves us into a deeper understanding of this that we begin to appreciate what St John meant when he wrote;

“God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son so that all who believed in him should not perish but might have everlasting life.”

A life whose final glory awaits us when we move through death into a greater awareness of it’s fullness in God’s presence.  A life whose fullness has nothing to do with status or material wealth, but one which is overflowing with love.

A love which George Matheson described so well in his famous hymn, when he wrote:

O Love that will not let me go

I rest my weary soul in thee

I give thee back the life I owe

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be.

A love-filled life which Jesus spoke of in the promise which we’ve been thinking about just now. The promise which he made when he said: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full”

Homily for Tom Corrigan

By Fr. Anthony

I first met Tom just over three years ago when I came to work in Axminster. He was, with Ruth, a faithful and committed Christian and I often wish that I’d known him in his younger days, because I know that he was full of stories and could tell them as only the Irish can.

It was a joy to minister to him and over the last three years, to take him the Sacrament both at home in Chard, and later, in hospital here in Taunton. Ruth will remember that visit quite clearly because we got lost en- route somewhere in the backwoods between Yarcombe and Churchstanton. But we made it and it was a pleasure to see how Tom was progressing.

I think the things which I will remember most clearly about Tom apart from  his smiling eyes were his great gentleness, and the way in which he was always pleased to see me.  He was as far as I knew him, a kind, patient, man; and although we haven’t used that piece of scripture today, do you remember that in his letter to the Christians at Corinth , St Paul wrote about love? He told us that love was patient, gentle and kind and so, you see, when we see a Christian person showing us patience, gentleness and kindness then we can recognise the presence of love in that person’s life. We can take heart then, because we know that Tom was filled with Christian love . St Paul also taught us that love never fails. Love lasts for ever. Love never dies because to be filled with love means to be filled with God.

Today is sad, because we can’t do any of those loving things which we need so much. We can’t get close to each other, we can’t hug each other, we can’t even shake hands, and the only “goodbye” that I can say to you today will be the one which I will say from this podium in a few minutes time. But these days will pass, and soon we will be able to do all of those things in church which I know Tom would have wanted. We will have a Requiem Mass and dare I say it, we’ll also have a party.

I think Tom knows this. Jesus said in the Gospel passage which we heard just now that he was going to prepare a place for his friends. A place where the love which is ours on earth can continue to grow. A place where Tom is waiting for Ruth and where their love will continue for ever, in the presence of the love of God our Father. It is to this God that we confidently commend Tom today. May he rest in peace, because he was truly a friend of Jesus. Amen

Emmaus Road, Luke 24

The couple on the road in the story which we’ve just heard were probably husband and wife, Cleopas and Mary; and they were followers of Jesus. Perhaps they were so distressed at the death of Jesus that they’d decided just to go home, because it was all over.

And then a stranger approached them. They must have thought this stranger might be a spy, and like the rest of Jesus’s followers they were probably in fear for their lives. But maybe they were beyond caring by now, and they just took the opportunity to pour their troubles out.

Perhaps they didn’t recognise Jesus at first, because they didn’t understand the story of how God was going to mend the world and its people through the death and suffering of himself in the person of his Son. And perhaps St. Luke is telling us in this story, that we can only recognise Jesus when we’ve learned to see him within the true story of just how God has mended the world.

That’s why we need to ask him, through our prayers, to explain the scriptures to us. That’s why we need to listen to his voice in scripture, maybe in the quiet of our own minds, or through the words or writings of someone else. And then, our hearts like the hearts of these two travellers, will burn within us as we approach the place where we too, will meet him face to face.

Cleopas and Mary must have shared meals with Jesus before he was killed, and his actions at supper were probably typical of the way in which he’d always broken bread with his friends.

And now, in the first meal of the new creation, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them.

It was as he did this, in his customary way, that their eyes were opened and they recognised him.

At the same time, they recognised that death had been defeated. God’s new creation, brimming with life and joy had burst in upon the world.

Jesus had gone through death and out the other side into a new world. His body was still physical but was somehow transformed.  It is a mystery which we shan’t understand until we share the same risen life; but a mystery, which by faith, we can live in now.

And like Cleopas and Mary, we too are invited to know Jesus in the breaking of bread. We too, are invited to meet him in this simple meal which quickly became the central action of his followers. Like them, we will discover him living with and in us, through this sharing of bread.

And we must never attempt to separate the meal from the scripture. Today’s gospel reading teaches us this. Sacrament and word are joined tightly together and Jesus is only truly known when it is so. This was the experience of our two travellers, and this has been the experience of the followers of Jesus down through the ages.

When we take scripture away, the sacrament becomes a piece of magic. When we take the sacrament away, scripture becomes an intellectual exercise with very little to do with real life. So, the word is made clear through the sacrament; and the sacrament is the fulfilment of the word. In order for there to be any sense we have to hold them together.

Jesus has lead God’s new people out of slavery and is inviting them to travel with him on the new journey to the Promised Land. The road to Emmaus is just the beginning. Hearing the voice of Jesus in scripture and knowing him in the breaking of bread is the way.

We’ve been welcomed to God’s new world, and it’s as we live within the story, that God feeds us with his very self as food for the journey home. Bread which has to be broken before it can be shared. Amen.

The appearance to Thomas

John 20: 19-31.

There’s something very lovable about Thomas.  Faith was never an easy thing for him, and he was a man who had to be sure.  In the passage we’ve just heard, he’s acted just as we would expect.  This is the same pessimistic disciple who, at the death of Lazarus, suggested that Jesus’s followers might just as well go and die with him when our Lord decided to go to Bethany.  This is the same disciple who complained at the Last Supper, that Jesus hadn’t made things anything like clear enough.  And this is the man who just happened to be the one who was somewhere else on the first Easter day.  He saw the others excited, and unable to contain their joy, and Thomas certainly wasn’t going to be taken in by all of that.

But Thomas is the first person in John’s gospel to look at Jesus and call him “God”.  A muddled disciple, determined not to be taken in and refusing to believe anything until he’s got solid evidence, is confronted by a smiling Jesus who’s just walked in, straight through a locked door.

Thomas was baffled of course, just as we are.  The whole point of the story is that the meeting is with the same Jesus who still carries the signs of death in his body.  His hands have got nail marks in them, and he has a large gaping wound in his side.

The story makes it very clear that this is no ghost; neither is it someone else pretending to be Jesus.  This is the body that the grave clothes couldn’t contain any longer.  It’s a real body, but it’s also different.  Jesus comes and goes as though he belongs both in our world and in a different world; one which intersects with ours at various points but doesn’t use the same geography.  The resurrection was the giving back of the life and the death of Jesus at the same time.  Jesus rose as the crucified one; that is to say, he died as a human being, and he was given back to us also as a crucified human being.  This is important because there is a tendency for us to read the gospel texts and imagine that Jesus may well have been human up until his death, but from the resurrection onwards, he reverted to being God, and eventually, like a helium balloon, couldn’t be held to the earth any longer and floated back to heaven where he belonged.

Well, this is not the case.  When Jesus died, it was a fully human being who died completely, and when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was a human being who was given back to us.  The risen and crucified Jesus was no less human after his resurrection than before it.  Transformed, changed, the first-born of God’s new creation, yes; but a transformation which contained his full humanity.  This says something very deep about the presence of God on earth.  It says that the divine life is permanently present as human.  It means that being religious or knowing Jesus can have nothing to do with escaping from being human and avoiding flesh and blood.

Thomas, saw and believed; and the words of Jesus must be taken as encouragement to those who come later.  People like us, who are blessed when, without having seen the risen Lord for ourselves, nevertheless believe in him. The resurrection isn’t an alien power breaking into God’s world.  It’s what happens when the creator himself comes to heal and restore his world and bring it to its appointed goal.  The deepest meaning of the resurrection concerns this new creation.  When Jesus emerged transformed from the tomb on Easter morning he emerged into the first day of God’s new week.  He was a sign that the whole of creation would shake off its corruption and decay.  He was a promise of a world to come in which death would be abolished; in which the living God would wipe away all tears, because, our personal hope for resurrection must be set within the larger hope for the renewal of all creation.  If we take away the bodily resurrection we are left with a private spirituality which leads to a disembodied life after death, and its denial of the goodness of creation.

It’s important for us to grasp this, and any sense that Jesus started a movement which is somehow opposed to, or can leave behind the world which God made in the first place, is excluded by John’s gospel from start to finish.

John isn’t saying that the early disciples were confronted with Jesus and tried to find a category for him.  The point he’s making is that they were looking for the Messiah, the son of God, and here at the end of his story he tells us that things have come full circle.  God’s Word of the first chapter of his book is proclaimed as this Messiah, and is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we beheld his glory”

This is what Thomas saw and believed.  And we too can experience the same thing.

For, you see, there were two ways in which Jesus was present to the first disciples. There was his actual physical presence; they could touch him and he could eat fish.  But along with that, and as a part of it, there was a forgiving presence that called them out of themselves towards another whom they sometimes found difficult to recognise, and who gradually transformed their lives.  We know that after a time the appearances stopped, but they still received this transforming experience of a forgiving presence. Jesus had to go because he was a particular human being and it was his going that made possible the coming of the Holy Spirit. And so the two ways of experiencing Jesus which initially came together for the apostles do not come together for us.  But the Holy Spirit which Jesus breathed into the disciples on that first evening constantly makes present to us also, the crucified and risen Lord, and this presence always reproduces those changes of relationships which began as a result of his resurrection. It is the bursting into our lives of those important elements of the resurrection, the freely given forgiveness that is made constantly available to us by the Holy Spirit, which enables us also to become witnesses to the resurrection in our own lives too, as we are enabled to recast the ways in which we relate to God and to each other.

As we come to believe in Jesus those marvelous words of St John become true in our own experience: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. “

And we are enabled to say with Thomas: “My Lord and my God”,

Amen.

Easter Sunday

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I met a lot of people who were very unlikely to get better. And sometimes their relatives would ask me to say some prayers at the bedside.  In most cases this wasn’t because they had a strong faith, but was more likely to be a result of not knowing where to turn in their grief.

I guess that most people wouldn’t give a second thought about asking God for anything when things are going along quite nicely; but when the chips are down; well that’s a different matter.

I don’t have a problem with this and I fully understand the hope that as a last resort, God will intervene where medicine may fail. I think it’s sad, but I do understand it.

Now, a while ago I was called to a High Dependency Unit because staff had been asked by some relatives that a priest attend their loved one who was very close to death. The gentleman in question was an elderly man who’d suffered a big heart attack. He’d also told his relatives and his nurses that he wanted the church’s ministry, at the end of his life.

I checked the position out with the nursing staff before I met the family, and it was clear to me that the dying man’s wish would have been for me to say commendatory prayers for him.

The relatives had a very sketchy understanding as to what this involved and so I explained the nature of the prayers of commendation. They were aghast. That wasn’t what they wanted at all. There was to be no mention of the dreaded word “death.” Their relative was in a coma, but that didn’t matter. They didn’t want to hear that word, and what’s more, they didn’t want to be present when prayers were said.  I think they wanted magic, and perhaps I was the man with the wand.

I tried to explain that their grand-dad wasn’t afraid of death. I tried to explain that sometimes, real healing can come through death, but my words fell onto closed ears.

Now, this kind of situation is difficult for me to face, because I know that love is stronger than death; and I want other people to know this as well. This is the Christian message. It’s not all about singing hymns, and sprinkling holy water, it’s about love.

I want men and women to be set free from the fear of death, and to know that the God who created the Universe, and everything in it, including you and me, is a God of love who would never bring any of his creatures into being just to snuff their lives out after however many years.

I want men and women to know that Jesus is alive today and that he’s to be met through the lives of ordinary people, who like him will also pass right through death. Yes, some of them may appear to be holy do-gooders but I rather expect that most of them will be ordinary men and women; people who laugh and cry and eat and drink and yes, tell jokes as well; people who sometimes let the side down, but through whom we can also see Jesus at work. Beggars, if you like, showing other beggars where to get bread.

The resurrection of Jesus is a mystery of course; but it can explain many things. And one of them is that God’s love is stronger than death. Death has been shown up to be an imposter, and we know this because Jesus appeared to his friends who loved him.

Now, perhaps you feel that your faith would be a lot stronger if you too, could have a personal experience of the risen Christ. Well, if that is the case, then remember you’re much more likely to meet Christ when you’re in the company of other Christians.

It’s when we’re at our lowest; when we really don’t feel much like going to church at all, that we most need to be there. It’s when we’re in the company of others, doing what Jesus told us to do at the Last Supper, that we’re most likely to meet him. It’s when we recognise our broken-ness and our dependence on God and each other; it’s when we see in the broken bread and the poured out wine, the sign of God bleeding and dying for us in Jesus, that his presence is likely to be sensed and indeed felt.  It is a presence which transcends the Jesus of history and yet makes him present to us in the Christ of faith.

The resurrection appearances stopped some six weeks after Easter; they had to stop in order that Jesus could be made present to everybody. But Jesus isn’t just a figure from history who we can read about in the Bible.  He’s alive in a way which transcends flesh and blood, and he wants to relate to all who will respond to him. And you may believe this, first of all, because of the witness of the gospels. No other explanation can do justice to the facts.

And once you accept this, once you decide to take God at his word, despite all of your honest doubts; then you’ll meet Jesus, and words will never do justice to your experience. Your life will begin to be turned upside down, as you begin to see more clearly than ever before how the God of love is made present to us. How he reveals himself to us through a suffering servant who’ll take many forms to make his presence real. A presence which will always say to you: “Even though you die, you will live”. I went back to the High Dependency Unit later that day. The relatives had gone. I blessed Roy, and commended him to God.  He knows that now; may he rest in peace. Amen.

Good Friday

Mary appears a lot, both in St Luke’s gospel, and in the gospel of Mathew, but in St John’s gospel she’s only mentioned twice.  The first time is at the wedding in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine, and the second one is where she stands at the foot of the cross, watching her son die in agony.  At Cana, Mary felt sure that Jesus could save the day, and we can imagine how proud she must have felt as she approached her son, confident that he’d be able to help out.

But Jesus seems to have brushed his mother off. Do you remember how he told her it wasn’t his business that the wine had run out? It wasn’t his time, he said. The words he used were “My hour has not yet come.”

You see, Jesus knew he had to show his love for God by being absolutely obedient to him. And to love like this means being fully open to pain.

We all know from our own experience that pain and love always go together. When we love someone, then we’re bound to get hurt. One way or another, the pain of separation always comes. We know how much we love someone through the aching pain which we feel when they leave us, sometimes through circumstance and always eventually through death.  And Jesus was obedient to God’s command to be fully human through his love, even unto death.

And this loving obedience earned, for Jesus, the grace to conquer death and rise from the tomb; a grace which overflows from Jesus to us, so that we, too, can join him in his resurrection.

Now all of this is made possible for us, not because Jesus was the Son of God, but because he was also the son of Mary, a son, born of a woman, just like us. Unless Jesus had been fully human, as well as divine, then he wouldn’t have been able to have made us acceptable to God. It’s because Jesus shares our human nature, that he can save us. We become one with Christ through baptism, and feed that union through the Eucharist, and so we’re with him right there on the Cross. As we share his life, so we share his obedience, his death and his resurrection. This is why he came into the world. The suffering redemptive love of God is shown clearly on the Cross, It’s traditional to think that when Jesus, with his dying breath said “Behold your son” to Mary, his mother , he was telling her that the beloved disciple was now to be her son. Well, I’ve no doubt that John did look after Mary, but I think it also makes sense of the gospel to reflect on the possibility that those words were said to Mary, by Jesus, about himself.

At Cana, Jesus’s hour hadn’t come. He told his mother this. But on the Cross his hour had arrived. This is why he’d come into the world; to suffer and to die for men and women everywhere.

Now he can tell Mary that his hour has come. He looks at her, and invites her to see this truth with the words” Behold your son”. This is how he was to bring people to God. By giving his life away in love for them in loving obedience to the God who told him to do this, and who was fully present in him. It wasn’t by changing water into wine; it was by his death, not by his miracles.  And we can see that Mary had nothing to do with his miracles because they were acts of divine power. However, she had a great deal of involvement with his death, because his human life came from her flesh.

Today, as we stand with Mary at the foot of the Cross we can remember those words of acclamation which we sometimes say at Mass;

“Save us Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.”

But we also need to remember some more words written by John, the disciple who was especially close to Jesus; the disciple who wrote;

“The Word was made flesh, he lived among us and we saw his glory”

And this glory which shines from the Cross through his humanity was taken from the flesh of a woman.

The Lord has touched our human experience and leads it now through the darkness to light; from death to life; to a life of which there is no end, and where the hopes of human beings are finally and completely fulfilled. To a happiness given to those who have sought above everything else that God’s will be done.

For these people, God’s work in Christ is completed and brought to perfection. May it please God that we be found amongst them.