Thursday, January 25, 2018

4th Sunday of Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:21-28) The conversion of an extremist

Today I would like to tell you the extraordinary story of a religious extremist who was converted to Christianity. He was Jewish, an expert in everything to do with Judaism and he had made it his goal to wipe out any Christians he could get his hands on. Then, out of the blue, Jesus appeared to him and he converted overnight. But because he had been such a persecutor of Christians, many people were still afraid of him and doubted if this could have really happened. His name was Paul of Tarsus.

We talk about him all the time, but I think we often forget just what an amazing conversion he had. Overnight he went from trying to imprison and kill Christians, to preaching about Jesus and about all that he had done. Jesus appeared to him many other times as well, teaching him the same things that he had taught the other Apostles. It says that after he came to believe in Jesus, he went away for three years and only then did he go to check with the other Apostles if what Jesus had taught him, was the same as what Jesus had taught them and it was.

To me, one of the funniest lines in the Bible is just after Paul has seen Jesus for the first time, Jesus then appears to another man called Ananias and tells him to go and pray with Paul. But Ananias is well aware of who Paul is—a religious extremist, intent on killing Christians—and he says to Jesus, ‘But Lord, do you realize who this guy is?!’ as if the Lord isn’t aware of who he is. What is also amazing about St. Paul’s conversion, is simply that God would use someone who was so zealous to wipe out Christianity, to be one of its boldest preachers. Jesus also chose Peter as the first pope, even though Peter had publicly sworn three times that he didn’t know who Jesus was.

What does this tell us? It tells us that God is quite happy to use ordinary people and even very sinful people. Moses, who led the people of Israel to freedom, had murdered a man when he was young and then fled the country when he realized they knew he was the murderer. They are not the kind of people we would pick to preach the Gospel, but they are the kind of people that God is happy to pick. That also tells us that our sinfulness is not an obstacle to God working through us, even in extraordinary ways. I think often we have the impression that we have to be quite holy before God would work through us, but that is not what the Scriptures show us; in fact the opposite. All God needs from us is an open heart.


After Paul was converted, many people were converted through his preaching and he worked many extraordinary miracles and Jesus appeared to him several other times as well. Now you would think that he is now living a holy life and no longer struggling with his own weaknesses, but what he says about his own struggles is quite surprising. He seems to have struggled with some weakness in particular, although he doesn’t say what it was, but this is what he writes about it:
Even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. In order to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness." So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. (2 Cor 12:7-9).

God is not put off by our weaknesses and in fact they serve a purpose. As long as we are struggling we are aware of how much we need God’s help and so, frustrating as they are, the Lord allows us to have them, so that He can go on working through us. This should help us never to become discouraged. The Lord is not bothered by the fact that we struggle and in fact our struggles are the very things that can help us to grow and stay close to God.

There is one other thing that St. Paul says in his writings which I think is amazing. When he talks about what he learnt about the mass, he begins with the words, ‘This is what I received from the Lord, and in turn pass on to you: that on the night he was betrayed…’ (1 Cor 11:23). He is saying that what we do here in the mass does not come from human beings. He didn't learn about this from the other Apostles, but directly from Jesus. It comes from God. Jesus revealed this to Paul in another vision. This teaching does not come from human beings, but from God and that is why we keep doing it, because the Lord told us to.

'This is what I received from the Lord, and in turn pass on to you...'

Friday, January 19, 2018

3rd Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:14-20) The Kingdom of God is at hand

I remember reading somewhere that when Mother Teresa began her mission in Calcutta, it was only after the 12th attempt to get permission that her previous Order allowed her to go.  She had great perseverance, you could say, but it was also that the call of God was strong and she was listening. I also remember hearing that a bishop who knew her before she began this work, said ‘I wouldn’t have put her in charge of the sacristy.’ He didn’t think she was capable of much. And yet look at what God did through her, not because she was a woman of remarkable ability, rather because she had a great openness to God and that is all God needs. She called herself ‘God’s pencil.’

It is easy for us to get the idea that we have to be particularly talented or special people if God is to be able to use us, but that is not true. In fact, if you read about the lives of many of the holy men and women throughout the ages, most of them are not people that you would probably pick to do anything extraordinary. God does not need great ability, just our openness and willingness. That also means that our age, or our physical ability is no hindrance to God. Moses was called to lead the people of Israel to freedom when he was in his eighties and he had murdered a man when he himself was young and then had to flee the country so that he wouldn’t be killed himself. 

A modern day Christian evangelist called Merlin Carothers, who has written many books, felt that God was calling him to go back into ministry again when he was in his seventies, and so he did.

It would be a mistake to feel that there is not much more that we can do because we are getting too old or because our health doesn’t seem to allow us to do much anymore, or even because we are not particularly talented. It is not so much about what God may call us to do, it is above all to be in relationship with the Lord. God only needs us to be open to his call. If we are open then God will do everything else.

The readings today are about responding to God’s call to us. In the Gospel Jesus calls the first four apostles, Peter, Andrew, James and John. In this case it says that they followed him willingly, giving up their work. Jesus must have made quite an impression on them. Perhaps it was the personal contact with Jesus which gave them the courage to follow him. Either way they did.

If we are also called to be disciples, what does that mean in practice? It means that we develop a personal relationship with Jesus. A personal relationship means a real, living, relationship, just like we would have with any other human being. So it means we begin to learn more about Jesus, we speak to him every day, we spend time in prayer listening to him and speaking to him, every day. We find out what he is teaching us through the Scriptures and we try to live that. The surprising thing is what happens when we begin to do this. First of all we may not even be aware that a personal relationship is really possible, but it is. Many people here have that kind of relationship with the Lord, but many more probably don’t and this is what we are being invited to. Why is that so important, because that is when our faith really begins to come alive. Then our coming to mass regularly begins to make more sense. It is no longer just something we have to do because we are Catholic. We come to the mass because we want to worship God and encounter the Lord Jesus in a particular way. The more people respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, to have a real living relationship with him, the more alive the whole parish becomes. Then we realise it is all about serving him and trying to live out his call to us. That is when our faith begins to transform us and this is what we are called to.

Most of us are not called to follow God in the way that Moses, or Mother Teresa, or the Apostles were.  But God calls all of us to enter into a relationship with him. It may not be a dramatic call, but it is very real. The most important thing is that we respond and no one can force us to do this. Even if we have been brought up as Catholics and taught about God and the mass, at some stage we still have to make that choice to believe in God and to accept this relationship with him. The more we live that relationship the more God begins to shine through us and that is how we tell other people about God, not by the words we speak, but primarily by the way we live our relationship with God.

It is only in God that we will find true and lasting happiness and that’s why He calls us to follow the path that leads to him. It is not an easy path, but it is the most worthwhile path and all of us without exception can respond to that invitation, but we have to consciously make a decision to do that. 

The time has come,’ Jesus said, ‘and the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ 

Friday, January 12, 2018

2nd Sunday of Year B (Gospel: John 1:35-42) Listen

Has God ever spoken to you? Do you wonder why God doesn’t speak to you more? Has God ever spoken to me? Yes; many times, but not in audible words. Often through the Scriptures, sometimes in prayer when something just comes to my mind, or I become aware of something and often through other people, through something they will say, even though they will be unaware of it.

God is speaking to us all the time. A lot of the time we are not aware of it because we are not listening and there is so much noise. Everywhere we go there is noise, music playing, tv or radio on, texts on our phones. It is very hard to find silence and we need silence if we are to listen.

If God spoke to you, what would He want to say to you? If we really believe God created us and that we are being drawn closer and closer to him, then God must have plenty to say to us, but probably not in the way we would expect. Presuming that you love your children, or nieces/nephews, you want to teach them, guide them and encourage them. You want to help them make sense of their lives and point them in the direction where they will hopefully be most fulfilled. Even if you don’t have your own children, there are always people we come across that we want to help in some way, through encouragement, or a bit of wisdom that we have learnt from experience. I am sure that that is also how God speaks to us. Since He created us, He wants to teach us, show us the path that will lead to our greatest fulfillment. He wants to help us make sense of things. Do you ever wonder what exactly Jesus was saying to the people he taught when he walked the earth? I’m sure it is the same as what he teaches us now.

‘But I am so busy!’ There is always time when we are alone and we can turn off the radio or tv and the phone! Think of all the time you spend driving places. Turn off the radio. Get off the phone and listen! Talk to God from your heart and just be with him.

St. Benedict of Norcia lived around the year 500 and he wrote a rule for his monks, which is just known as The Rule of St. Benedict, and it is still used by monks today, 1500 years later. It is basically a guideline of how they are to live from day to day. The very first word of the rule is the word ‘listen’. The second word is ‘carefully’. Listen carefully to my teaching.

We also talk about being ‘obedient’ to God. The word ‘obedient’ comes from two Latin words ob audire, which means ‘to listen intently.’ God is saying to us: ‘Listen carefully, because I have something to say to you.’

Last November at one of the papal audiences, Pope Francis said this:
When we go to mass, maybe we arrive five minutes early and we start to chat with those in front of us. But it is not a moment to chat. It is a moment of silence, to prepare ourselves for dialogue with God. It is a time for the heart to collect itself, in order to prepare for the encounter with Jesus. Silence is so important. Remember what I said last week: we do not go to a show; we go to meet the Lord and silence prepares us and accompanies us [for this].
(Nov 15, 2017, St. Peter’s Basilica)

Did you know that people come here up to an hour before the mass begins, in order to pray? They understand that it is an encounter with Jesus and they are preparing for it.

All of us are different. All of us pray differently and that’s normal. But all of us need silence in some shape or form to be alone with God; to listen to God, sot that the one who created us can speak to us.

One of the most beautiful ways that God speaks to us is through the Scriptures. The Bible is a collection of letters and stories that God has written to us. Everything in the Bible addresses everything in our world today. Everything! Do you have a bible? If not, why not? Don’t you want to know what God is saying to you, because God is speaking to you. Take out your bible, or buy one and read one chapter of one book on a regular basis. It takes about 5 minutes.

God has a lot to say to us, but we must listen.

‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) All peoples of all religions will recognise Jesus as God


The feast of the Epiphany is an interesting one. In the Eastern Catholic Churches (the ones with all the icons), it is the main feast of Christmas, sometimes called the Feast of the Three Kings. They give their gifts on today’s feast, just as the kings gave the gifts to the child Jesus. Here we celebrate it as the feast of Christ being recognised by the world. The three wise men, or astrologers, were led to this place where Christ was. They are supposed to have come from different countries. They represent all the peoples of the world since they were not Jewish. It is a way of saying that Jesus’ coming is for all peoples of all religions and race. All people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The three gifts they bring are symbolic. Gold is the symbol of a king. Jesus is a king, King of kings and the master of the whole universe. The use of frankincense is a sign of recognising a divinity or God. Jesus is Son of God, the second person of the God-head. And myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering He will go through to win eternal life for the human race. The symbolism of the three pagan kings is that all peoples of all religions and nations will recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord and that we only have eternal life through him. 

It might seem a bit arrogant of us to say that all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. That seems to imply that we are right and that everyone else is wrong, but that is not the case. People of different religions have very different understandings of God and God speaks to all people through the different religions. Even for those who never come to know Jesus in this lifetime, they still have eternal life won for them by the death and resurrection of Christ and eternal life is still offered to them through him, just as it is to us. When they die they will see this at once. They will know immediately who Jesus is and what He has done for us.

Although we lost the possibility of eternal life with God through what we call Original Sin, God regained the possibility of eternal life for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can accept or reject this gift individually and we do this through our faith. All people are offered this possibility regardless of whether they come to know of God in this life or not, but it is not as if there is a kind of neutral ground for those who do not believe. We accept life with God when we die which will be our total fulfilment, or we lose it forever and that is the choice we must make.  

This is also where our conscience is so important, because even if we never hear of God during our life, God speaks to us through our conscience, giving us a basic understanding of what is right and wrong. Our faith and the teachings of Jesus through the Church give us a better understanding of what is right or wrong. All of the decisions that we make throughout our life are bringing us closer to, or driving us farther away from God.

We Christians are the people who recognise that Jesus is the Son of God and has done all these things for us. We consider ourselves blessed that God has made himself known to us in this way, but it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance of going to heaven than anyone else. That depends completely on how we live our life. When we die we will realise that all this is really true. And when other people of different religions die, they will also recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord. What is important for them is to live their faith as well as they can just as it is for us. If they do this, God will also draw them closer to him and bring them to holiness, just as He will with us if we remain open. 

Meanwhile we pray that all peoples will begin to recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord even in this life, because this is the truth which God has revealed to us Either way we try to respect people who believe differently to us, and remember that they are also children of God.

Every knee shall bow
in heaven, on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)