Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught

Forgiven, Thomas Blackshear II (1955– ), Museum of Biblical Art, Dallas

Fr Neil’s homily on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 15 May 2022

A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another even as I have loved you.¹

In the biblical readings that we are following at Morning and Evening Prayer in the Daily Office, the people of Israel are at the end of their Exodus wanderings and are ready to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. We hear Moses’ last words to the people before he dies². Moses constantly reminds them that God had chosen them and given them the Law so that they might know the glory of God and his divine will. It is their following of the Law that will make them a light to the nations and lead other to seek and find God. Finally he reminds them that the Law is given that they might have life in all its fullness. To follow the Law is the way of a blessed life; to reject it is the path of self-destruction.

In our gospel reading (John 13:31–35 cent), Christ is with his disciples as they celebrate the Passover together. Christ already knows that ‘his hour has come’ as Judas slips away to betray him. Chapters 13 to 17 give us Christ’s extended teaching to his disciples and acts rather like his last will and testament. As the new Moses, Christ seeks to prepare the disciples for what was to come and what was expected of them as the new Israel.

Here he gives them a new commandment to love one another in the same manner that he has loved them. He will demonstrate the extent of the nature of this love in the events which we celebrated in Holy Week. However, what is new about this commandment to love? It’s not as if Christ hasn’t spoken of love before. He summarised the law and the prophets when asked which was the greatest commandment by saying, “The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and body and second is likewise, love your neighbour and yourself.”

This summary of the law wasn’t new and we are left asking how well has the love of God and neighbour panned out for humanity? The love of God is so often diminished to following a set of rules, and rules applied without any notion of love become a means to terrorise and control — much like lockdown. Then the love of neighbour pivots on loving others as we love ourselves. Yet so often the traumas of past and present lead us to moments of self-destruction and self-loathing. That is not the greatest gift we can offer to our neighbour!

The landscape of love needs to be manifested in the flesh and demonstrated for our instruction. To see the manner in which Christ has loved us leaves us in no doubt as to what divine true love looks like. He who was with God and was God emptied himself of all his glory, and became as a slave out of love for a fallen and broken world. Out of love he reached out and touched the outcast, the leper, tax collector and prostitute. There will have been, and will be, moments when we were the outcast to whom Christ calls and reaches out to heal and restore if we but let him. He is the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the one that is lost.

This Love, even though he is God, gets upon his knees and washes his disciples’ feet — one of whom was Judas. Christ knows he will betray him and yet he still washes his feet. Can we accept such love and allow him to wash us, even though there will have been times when we have betrayed or been betrayed ourselves?

In love, Christ enters the cruelty of human suffering at the hands of his captors and the abandonment of our alienation. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Can we allow Love to reach through our deep moments of suffering and make some sense of our pain?

In the midst of pain and abandonment, Christ gives Mary as Mother of the Church and us as her children. I know who got the best deal out of that situation! Can love open our arms to Mother Mary’s powerful intercessions?

Christ’s love drives him to traverse death itself, humanity’s ultimate abyss. He conquers so that even death is turned into the service of the beloved and reveals that his love is stronger than even the grave. Only love can enable us to receive and live in the hope of the certain promises of God that there will be a new heaven and earth, where chaos, pain, tears and sadness are no more.

It is the divine Union of Father, Son and Holy Spirit that bears Christ carrying our very humanity into the heart of the Godhead. The place of humanity’s restoration and glorification will not just be a renewed Eden, but an elevation beyond that into the very heart of the Godhead itself — for the sake of love.

This is the commandment that Christ leaves us. This is the unstoppable force that has the capacity to transform any individual, community, society, the entire world and all of creation itself. Without such love the world will burn.

A new Commandment I give unto you, that you love one another even as I have loved you.¹

¹ John 13:34
² Deuteronomy 33

The editorial title is quoted from a hymn by Edmund Spenser (1552–1599).

Listen to the Shepherd’s voice

Neo-Coptic icon of the Good Shepherd, egg tempera on gesso; via Dr Stéphane René

Fr Neil’s homily on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 8 May 2022

The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice¹

Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The Gospel is taken from John 10 where the Lord speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd.

The crowds wanted to know plainly if he was the Messiah or not. There was an urgency for the people who had anticipated the fulfilment of the prophets’ message for a number of years. This message was that God would send a liberating messiah who would defeat the enemy who oppressed God’s people.

One might forgive the people’s limited vision that identified as their enemy the pagan Romans who were both cruel and unbelievably ruthless. Christ would indeed defeat their enemy but humanity’s real enemy wasn’t the Romans. One has simply to ask where the Romans are now, if not merely consigned to the history books? The Romans were just a symptom of the real problem.

Christ came as Messiah to defeat humanity’s real enemies: the Devil, sin, death and hell. Christ reveals that victory would be achieved as the Good Shepherd and not as a guerrilla freedom fighter. As Good Shepherd, Christ leads his people from fallow ground, through the valley of the shadow of death, to verdant green pastures. Like a Good Shepherd he will lay down his life to protect his flock from the enemy who wishes to scatter, enslave, despoil and destroy.

As Good Shepherd he will call to his flock so that they hear his voice and follow to the safety of pastures new in the eternal kingdom of God. Listening to the voice and call of God is crucial to finding our freedom from slavery to sin and death so that we might take our place in heavenly glory. It is the voice of God that helps us to identify and respond to the particular vocation and path he has laid out before us, or even find our way back if we have got lost along the way.

We live in a world that is so often dominated by overwhelming noise. This worldly noise competes for our attention, promising all sorts of wonderful fulfilments of our heart’s desires.

Over the last nine years we have heard repeatedly about the need to create a culture of dialogue particularly in relationship with the wider world. Certainly the voice of God is heard when we are able to stop, listen and pay attention in stillness so that we might begin the process of open dialogue as a prerequisite for evangelisation.

Yet here we need to strike a note of caution. How well did it go when Eve had open dialogue with the Devil? Open dialogue can only ever be fruitful if it is with people of good will, those genuinely seeking the truth. Even the Devil can appear as an angel of light so as to deceive the faithful. The greatest trick of the Devil is to twist our thinking into believing that that which is good is really evil and that which is evil is really good. For example, the Church’s teaching that marriage as exclusive to a male and female and is a life long covenant is said to be “homophobic, unrealistic, cruel and compassionless”. The Church’s teaching against abortion, in defence of the unborn child, is spoken of as “being rooted in a patriarchal oppression of woman’s rights and bodily autonomy”. The Church’s denial of euthanasia is said to “condemn the dying to a loss of dignity” and “a long, slow, cruel death” that “dictates against the individual’s choice to end their life early”.

How are we to distinguish the movement of the Spirit of God, that which is good and holy, from the profane and demonic? Where can we hear the call of Christ the Good Shepherd above the din of all this noise?

It is folly to think we can engage healthily with the wider society of which we are a part, if we haven’t first learnt how to openly dialogue as individuals with the holy things of God. When was the last time we picked up a Bible and practised a systematic prayerful reading of Scripture? Have we looked into the actual teaching of the Church on any particular subject, or have we only listened second-hand to what someone else has told us the Church teaches? The Catechism is a great place to start. What of the lives of the saints? What made them saints? What was it about them that reflected the Divine in the manner in which they lived their lives? This dialogue with the Church bears its greatest fruit when we enter into it with a prayerful mindset.

Of course in prayer it’s right that we bring to God those things that are on our minds. Yet prayer is more than lists of things we want. Listening in stillness allows space for God, by the prompting of the Spirit, to speak to us in the particular situation of our lives and lead us into the fulfilling of our vocation. This listening in prayer is to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice as he calls us to follow him from death into eternal life.

This Sunday is also referred to as Vocation Sunday, with a particular emphasis on the call to the priesthood, diaconate and monastic life. Is our vocation crisis due to the fact that God isn’t calling men and women to these particular ministries? Or is it that as communities of faith we have forgotten how to listen in prayer to the Good Shepherd’s voice? I am convinced that a community of faith that is able to prayerfully delve into the Church’s rich treasures of scripture, tradition and the lives of the saints will manifest within their community those who hear the call of the Christ to not only navigate this present crisis but raise up men and women to these particular offices of service.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.²

¹ John 10:27
² John 10:27–28

Lovest thou Me?

Christ's charge to Peter, Raphael (1483–1520), 1515; HM Royal Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum

Fr Neil’s homily on the Third Sunday of Easter, 1 May 2022

Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”¹

The number three plays a big part in our gospel today. It is the third time that Christ had revealed himself after his resurrection. Three times Christ asks Peter whether he loves him, and three times Peter has to make his confession of devotion. Many have speculated that the threefold confession was required of Peter after he thrice denied knowing Christ on the evening of Maundy Thursday.

The number three is symbolic of completion. It is the number of the persons in the Trinity as God is complete in himself. Peter’s threefold denial of Christ² was a complete rejection of his discipleship — it required nothing short of a threefold act of restoration.

The Church in her wisdom has understood that there are two phases of conversion to Christ. The first is fundamental and dramatically entails the movement from the world that is marked by sin, death and alienation from God, the fallen world. This initial conversion is via the sacrament of baptism. Those who are baptised enter into the Kingdom of God via the waters of death and resurrection in Christ.

The second phase of conversion is the ongoing movement of the disciple towards God and is marked by the tears of repentance. Perhaps like Peter the apostle, as Christians our life of discipleship is shaped by joy, failure, death and resurrection. We quickly learn that our baptism was just the beginning of the journey of transformation into the likeness of Christ and not the end of it. There are moments in our walk with Christ when we just get it wrong and like Peter need a restoration of our relationship with Christ. Can I introduce you to the confessional? It is there that we can restore what we have lost through our own wilfulness or weakness — or both.

Peter’s denial on Maundy Thursday saw him stepping away from the path of discipleship. His going fishing recounted in today’s gospel is to resort to the life he had before Christ’s call to follow him. Peter was lost, and there was nothing he could do to put right the mistake he had make. If there had been no resurrection appearance here, Peter would have been trapped by his failure for the rest of his life. Yet the appearing of the Risen Christ signals the possibility of reconciliation and renewal for Peter. St Augustine of Hippo states: “Christ rose again in the flesh, and Peter rose in the spirit because, when Christ died in his passion, Peter died by his denial. Christ the Lord was raised from the dead, and out of his love he raised Peter.”³

The imagery in this gospel cannot be ignored. Peter is fishing when Christ appears on the shore. They had fished all night and caught nothing until Christ tells them to let the nets down one more time. They net a huge catch — similar to the time Christ first calls Peter and his companions to discipleship. It allows John to cry out in recognition, “It is the Lord.”

Peter’s encounter with Christ takes place by a charcoal fire; the only other place a charcoal fire is mentioned in scripture is when Peter is warming himself by the fire and denies knowing Christ three times.² At this fire, on the beach, Peter must declare his love for Christ in order to be restored. Only having done so is Peter called once again to follow Christ. Yet Christ makes it very clear what the end will be for Peter who will himself have to stretch out his hands to a crucified martyr’s death in Rome.

However, we have to note that words were not enough to restore Peter. Words of love are proved by the actions and Peter was commanded by Christ after each of his declarations of love to fulfil his mission and look after the sheep of God — the people of his Church. He was to become the rock again upon which Christ would build his Church.

We are not all apostles. But we are followers of Christ, and our words of declared love for Christ must be demonstrated by tears of conversion and the love of our neighbour, or else it is merely empty rhetoric. Of course the twofold manner of revealed love for God is not only in the way we care, support and aid those of our community and society but also how we worship God. This is hinted at in the the book of Revelation, were we glimpse an image of heavenly worship. This worship is marked by the declaration of God’s saving work: honour, might and power where the elders, the apostles, fall down in utter worship.

What direction is our worship aimed in? Where does it direct our gaze — to us, or to the heavenly glory of God?

¹ John 21:17
² Mark 14:66–72
³ Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 229n.1.4

With robes washed white

Christ appears to his disciples; Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna; 6th century; Photo Nick Thompson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fr Neil’s homily on the Sunday after Easter, 24 April 2022

The Sunday after Easter has been given many different names: Second Sunday of Easter, Low Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, Quasimodo Sunday, Bright Sunday and Dominica in Albis or White Sunday.

Those who were baptised had the tradition of removing their clothes before their baptism and as they emerged from the baptismal waters being clothed in white garments. The candidates were expected to wear their white garments through the whole of the Easter Octave. This Sunday became known as Dominica in Albis or White Sunday as it marked the last day those baptised at Easter wore the white garments.

In our Gospel account¹, we see the disciples hidden together in a locked room through fear. We remember the image of Adam and Eve, who after the Fall hid from God through fear and the shame of their nakedness. In an attempt to cover their shame they sowed fig leaves together.²

Part of God’s response is to provide Adam and Eve with a better means of covering their nakedness. God’s use of animal skins to cloth them marked the beginning of the cultic practice of humanity offering the lives of other animals as a means of covering — however imperfectly — humanity’s sin and shame in the loss of innocence after the Fall.

Christ’s first words to the disciples in his resurrection appearance are “Peace be with you.”³ There is something more going on here that a polite means of engagement. Yes of course the disciples would be at a loss as to understand what was happening when Christ came and stood among them. Thomas’s doubt is not unreasonable in response to what must have seemed an act of collective madness on the part of the other disciples. Christ addresses Thomas’s doubts directly in the most tangible way: “Put your fingers here” and “Put out your hand and place it in my side.” Faith and hope are not “fool’s gold” but are prerequisites to encounter the divine love found in the Risen Christ.

The words “Peace be with you” are words that are meant to reassure and to address the disciples’ fear. I am reminded of Julian of Norwich’s famous phrase “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”⁴

Christ directly addresses their fear. They need no longer hide in an attempt to cover their fear, shame and alienation from God, a result of the Fall. They are to be reclothed with a dignity that belongs only to those who are the children of God, and as children of God they are to stand in a freedom, joy and peace that the world cannot give — or take away. This clothing will not however be the skins of other animals, but as Christ himself says in Luke 24:49 “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

This reclothing with a renewed dignity has been directly bought about because of the sacrifice of Christ and his glorious resurrection. We are to be clothed in Christ by our participation in his death and rising again. In the sacrament of baptism we state: “you have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity.”

It is not insignificant that the bishop at the Chrism mass breathes on to the holy oil of Chrism. Directly after baptism the candidate is anointed with that oil and these words: “He [God] now anoints you with the chrism of salvation.” In the Gospel Christ breathes on the disciples with the words “receive the Holy Spirit.” As God knelt in the dust of his creation and breathed life into Adam, so Christ breathes the breath of new life into his disciples as they prepare to be clothed from on high.

The freedom that this peace and the clothing from on high gives will enable the disciples to come out from the shadows and proclaim the gospel with courage. They are given authority to bind and loose, forgive or retain sins, that others might find their way to Christ and be reclothed and made fit for eternal life in the new kingdom of God’s glory. The gift we are to embody and proclaim is that in Christ we no longer have to hide because of our fear and shame as we are reclothed in the freedom and joy of the liberty of the children of God.

¹ John 20:19–31
² Genesis 3:7
³ John 20:26
Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love

Alleluia!

Christ, High Priest of the New Covenant

The Last Supper (detail), Willem Jacob Herreyns (1743–1827), c. 1795; Church of Saint Clement, Watermael-Boitsfort, Belgium

Fr Neil’s homily on Maundy Thursday, 14 April 2022

For as often as you eat this bread and drink this chalice, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.¹

Images depicting the Last Supper often portray an intimate scene: John resting against Our Lord with all the disciples gathered around him at table.

The hospitality of this shared meal is often lost on us who live in a culture of abundance. At the time of Christ, there was great honour in being an invited guest. The host honours the guests by inviting them to share in his most vital of resources: food.

Yet there is another layer to this meal as all are to participate in the shared story of God that defines the identity of a Jew in the Passover feast. Therefore this shared supper has a formal liturgical function that makes real the means of the covenant relationship of Israel with the God of their ancestors.

It is at this greatest feast of the people of God that Christ transforms and appropriates to himself the very central elements. He redefines them and states: ‘This is my body; this is my blood.’² Indeed Passover and all the cultic activity of the Temple are made complete in Christ. Everything else before was leading to this point, “today it is being fulfilled in your hearing.”³

Here Christ is establishing the New Covenant, leading to the new Israel in an exodus to the heavenly homeland. This is something that the earthly temple could only hint at.

In this upper room the dawn of the first light of the new heaven and earth are glimpsed. Christ reveals himself to be the real Paschal Lamb whose blood, to be shed on the Cross of Calvary, will protect those who hide underneath it from the power of sin and death.

Rather than bearing the law of God’s presence in the Ark in the temple sanctuary, the new Israel will carry his presence in the power of the Holy Spirit within their hearts and souls.

The true manna from Heaven that will strengthen God’s pilgrim people will be Christ; body and blood, soul and divinity, made manifest in the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass.

At this Last Supper the disciples are inaugurated as Apostles and it is upon these apostles, and their successors, that God has made the foundation of his heavenly kingdom.

The Last Supper constantly reminds us that the ordained ministry isn’t an old-fashioned medieval development but the very means by which God in Christ has chosen to administer his saving graces. It is a ministry marked by sacrifice and service to the Gospel and God’s people. It contains authority to teach, serve and administer the sacraments but not the grasping of power. It requires humility to the teachings of the Church and a heart of loving obedience to the Father.

There is much speculation about the lack of vocations in our western civilisation and I am sure there are a number of contributing factors. Yet the loss of belief that the ordained minster stands in Persona Christi, as the person of Christ, in the sacraments is not insignificant. With that loss of belief, the loss of the true sense of the holiness of God being in our midst at the eucharistic celebration are major contributing factors to the decline. Without ordained ministers there are no sacraments; and without the sacraments there is no Church and no means of salvation.

Tonight is the celebration of the dawn of our salvation that will lead us into the promise of the Easter joy. We gather together to hear and participate in the story of our salvation and with renewed vision, encounter Christ the living God who will embrace death to open the gates of heaven.

¹ 1 Corinthians 11:26
² Luke 22:19–20
³ Luke 4:21