“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”
This means that salvation is not and cannot be a reward for good works.
Catholic teaching is that faith or justification or salvation is a free gift from God.
Catholic teaching also requires good works for salvation.
This does not mean that by good works I can merit or gain or win eternal salvation.
Faith is a free gift from God. By faith in God I realise and believe in the many gifts which God my Creator has freely given me. I am free to accept or reject these free gifts. Believing in and accepting these free gifts will inevitably bring about a response from me. This response can only be gratitude. Gratitude naturally gives rise to respect and liking. This will naturally lead me to seek to please the giver of the gifts. This seeking to please the giver of the gifts leads to what we call good works. Therefore in this sense only do we understand the phrase ‘faith and good works are necessary for salvation.’
It is a natural progression. They are part of one and the same thing.
This understanding is widely overlooked, but it is a huge and all important difference.
Consider the following carefully;
1) I believe in God and in the free gifts of God. I understand and accept these free gifts. Out of gratitude to God for his goodness and generosity I strive to please God in every way I can.
2) I believe in God and the gifts of God. I want these gifts very badly. I believe that I have to obey God if I want to gain these gifts. My motivation is self interest. I am in constant fear that I will offend God and thus lose these gifts.
The first is the ‘Good News of great joy for all the people’ brought to us by Jesus of Nazareth. The second is the Old Testament belief and understanding of God.
The key here is a sense of gratitude. Gratitude to my God for His many free gifts.
To feel gratitude to someone I must have an understanding of what that person has done for me. I must regularly remind myself of, and think about, what that person has done for me. I must fan this flame of gratitude in my heart until it becomes the principle motivation in my life. This constant recalling of and increasing understanding of God’s free gifts to me must be the principle ingredient of all my prayer. Surely this was why Jesus ‘went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.’
All the above is just common sense. Something we are all aware of in our everyday relationships with people. Do you want your marriage partner and your children to like you and enjoy your company or do you want them to fear and obey you? Do you want your friends to accompany you on your holiday because they enjoy your company or because they are hoping that you will pay for them? Do you want to receive Christmas gifts because of the gratitude the givers feel towards you or because they are expecting much greater gifts in return? You be the judge.
Our weekly Mass is all about gratitude for gifts received.
It recounts to us, it reminds us – we God’s family here in Corsham – of God’s many gifts to us and expresses our gratitude, in an official and symbolic way. It is the act, the official act, not of individuals, but of a whole congregation together.
This is expressed together as a congregation when, led by the presider (the Priest), we all respond with one voice at the beginning of the canon of the Mass; The Lord be with you. And with your spirit. Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just.
In all things relating to God and religion it is not what I do that matters. It is why I do it.
Today I continue with what I said last weekend.
Jesus of Nazareth was sent by the Father to bring us ‘Good News.’
The Good news is that I am a child of God. God is intimately involved in my everyday life. God is totally dedicated to my physical and spiritual welfare. As a child of God I will inherit the Kingdom of my Father. This involves resurrection from death and sharing in the Eternal life of my God.
This is good news.
But that is not all. All the above is a free gift. It is not necessary to win or merit or gain it. It is a gift given to, or offered to, every human being by the Creator, with no strings attached.
Like every gift ( big or small ) it can be accepted or rejected by the intended receiver.
This is the teaching of Christianity. This is the Good News brought to us, from the Father, by Jesus of Nazareth. It is crystal clear. It is transparent. it is straightforward. it is unambiguous.
Today we speak about acceptance or rejection of the Good News. We speak of my response to this Good News. Whether I accept or reject the Good news, the consequences for me are basically unknown and unknowable in any detail.
At this stage we find that what is crystal clear and transparent becomes muddied and opaque. This is the result of human imagination and casuistry. Human beings, be they the authors of Scripture or theologians, try to second guess God. A typical example is the idea of Heaven and Hell. We human beings demand reward for what we consider as doing good and punishment for what we consider as doing bad. We transfer or attribute our own attitudes and biases to God. This is called anthropomorphism. Another example is the attributing to God, in the Bible, of the characteristics and outlook of medieval monarchs and rulers. Hence eternal life with God if you obey Him and the fires of hell if you disobey him. This is all very understandable concerning us human beings but must not be attributed to Our God.
If you want to cling on to the idea of heaven and hell as places of reward or punishment then at least try to understand it as accepting or deliberately rejecting a precious gift.
God is totally free. Because we are made in the image and likeness of God we too share in this freedom. This demands that we have choice. We can accept or reject.
Recently there is a lot of talk about robots especially human like robots or androids. Imagine a marriage partner who is an android. There would be total obedience, total compliance, total dependability. There would be no rows, no inconsistencies, no surprises, no resistance, no compassion, no concern, no love.
God does not want androids. God wants the hurly burly of human relationships. The joy and sorrow of love and rejection. The heat and cold of human interaction.
If I exercise God’s gift of free will to accept God’s gifts then I am using the gift which God gave me. If I exercise the gift of free will to reject God’s gift then I am also using the gift which God gave me. So why should God punish me for using his gift of free will?
I hope I have given you some idea of the futility of trying to second guess God. Once we leave the crystal clear waters of the ‘Good News’ we just stir up mud and have no idea where we place our feet.
So I recommend that rather that wondering about and questioning the ins and outs of the Good News ( Which will only leave you as wise about it as you are now) we concentrate on our response to the Good News. This is the heart of the matter. This is what religion is about.
This again is very simple and crystal clear. It is what my normal, everyday, natural response to any gift is – gratitude. Gratitude gives birth to respect, appreciation and affection which can grow into love. And who knows what delights love will lead to.
Jesus of Nazareth did not come to start a new religion.
He did not come to bring us new doctrine.
He came to bring us ‘Good News.’
What is ‘good news.’
( Imagine you are in a dead end job. You and your family are struggling to make ends meet. You constantly fear eviction from your house because of arrears in rent. Then you get an official letter from an attorney in America informing you that a far out relative, of whom you have never heard, has died leaving three million dollars. After a long search you are found to be the nearest living relative. After costs you are due two million dollars and sixty five cents.)
This will certainly qualify as good news. This well certainly change your life. It will involve a change in attitude.
(Imagine you are diagnosed with cancer. Tests suggest it is very aggressive with a very poor prognosis. You are operated on with little hope of success. Post operatively you are informed that it is nothing as aggressive as feared and was successfully removed in its entirety and there is no reason why you should not live to a ripe old age.)
This will certainly qualify as good news. This will change your life. This will involve a change in attitude.
What ‘Good News’ did Jesus of Nazareth bring me?
For me the Good News is that we are all God’s children. We are all brothers and sisters. My Creator is intimately involved in every aspect of my life. My God is totally committed to my physical and spiritual wellbeing.
This situation is not and cannot be merited, achieved, gained, or earned in any way, no matter what I do. It is pure gift. Given freely with no strings attached. The only input I have is to accept the free gift or reject it.
I think that this is great news.
This Good News has the added perk of involving resurrection from death and sharing Eternal Life with God.
To be authentic the motivation for all religion must be gratitude.
Unfortunately religion is often presented as the way to merit or gain or win Eternal Life.
This is false religion and is insulting to God.
All theology and Scripture must be interpreted in the light of the above facts. If theology, doctrine, or scripture does not seem to fit in with the above then these discrepancies must be reappraised and reinterpreted.
Basically prayer must be contemplation of, thinking about, these gifts from God so that our hearts might overflow with gratitude.
Irrespective of what my life is like, the very fact that I live, have being, exist, am conscious of myself and of things around me is, in itself a fantastic gift.
‘Look, the Lamb of God!’
‘They followed Jesus.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Where are you staying?’
‘Come and you will see.’
‘They spent that day with him.’
When John the Baptist spoke of the one who was to come and then pointed him out, John’s many followers were naturally curious.
Today we see how two of them became followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
This pattern was probably followed by many others.
They do not seem to have been persuaded by theological arguments, quotations from scripture or miraculous works. They were curious, they saw how he lived and heard what he said and were convinced.
We have the very same when John the Baptist (now in prison) had doubts about Jesus from reports he heard. Jesus told the people John sent to question him, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see.’
This seems to be the pattern that Jesus followed; People heard about him from others. They were curious. They came to him, they saw and heard and became his followers.
What Pope Francis is trying to do – what our own Bishop is trying to do with the new three year programme, ‘A people of Hope’ and ‘A future full of Hope,’ is to persuade us to come to Jesus of Nazareth so that we can see and hear.
As you well know Jesus of Nazareth is no longer visibly present.
Jesus of Nazareth is present today in his followers. In groups of people who are dedicated to living in accordance with the example and the word of Jesus of Nazareth.
‘Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age’ he told his followers.
So if people want to see and hear Jesus of Nazareth they have to do so be looking at us and listening to us. That is by looking at and listening to those groups of people who claim to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth. That includes us – the people of St. Patrick’s parish.
So to put it in a nutshell, what Pope Francis is trying to do and our Bishop is trying to do, is to persuade our church ( St. Patrick’s, here in Corsham) to be a place where people can come to hear Jesus of Nazareth and to see how Jesus of Nazareth lives.
Unfortunately for you and I this cannot be achieved by simply reforming our church’s hierarchy. It must involve a personal conversion for you and I.
We can have a brilliant Vatican leadership and administration, a brilliant Diocesan leadership and administration but if I and you do not reflect the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in our church and in our lives, it is to no avail. We must make it possible for people to come to our parish and there see and hear Jesus of Nazareth.
How just one of us acts, what just one of us says, the attitude of just one of us is what attracts a person to Jesus of Nazareth or puts them off. So each one of us is directly responsible as to whether people can see and hear Jesus of Nazareth in our Church in our parish, or not. This is called evangelisation.
If you like you can take the story of the coming of the Magi as symbolic rather than historical.
For the Jews the Magi would be strange people – pagans who knew nothing of the God of Israel or the Scriptures. Seekers of truth and wisdom through astronomy, astrology, mathematics and other, to the Jews of that time, mysterious sciences.
For the authors of the New Testament they symbolised the coming of peoples from all nations to belief in, and worship of, Jesus of Nazareth; the Messiah.
These authors would have been very conscious of the prophesies concerning the Messiah as found in Psalm 71 and in Isaiah 60 which speaks of dignitaries or kings coming from afar bringing gifts to the Messiah.
It is disputed as to whether some strangers actually came from afar following some astronomical event (which were widely associated with the birth of a king or emperor) or that the authors of Matthew simply put it in as a suitable fulfilment of Old Testament Prophesy.
Either way doesn’t really matter as the aim is not historical fact but theological instruction.
For me there are two lessons in today’s Gospel reading which stand out.
Firstly it is of great importance to be a seeker of truth. My natural attitude should be, to quote Einstein “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.” The Magi travelled a long distance seeking the truth, not fearing what the truth might reveal but ready to accept the truth and change if necessary. Science is the seeking of truth. I have heard many times ‘I do not believe in a God, I am into science.’ Such a one understands neither science nor theology. A great thing about science is that it will debunk false theology. Good theology will always dovetail with good science.
If there is an apparent contradiction then either science or theology must reappraise their conclusions.
The second lesson from today’s Gospel reading is that truth will not always be welcomed.
King Herod and the political establishment of the day did not want truth. (their response to truth was to kill it).
The religious establishment did not want truth – they already knew it all ( they didn’t even bother to send someone to Bethlehem to look into the matter.)
Primarily Christianity is a seeking of truth – truth about God and about man.
Even in today’s allegedly ‘enlightened’ world, anyone who openly professes their religious belief and especially tries to live by it, will encounter ridicule and even persecution of one sort or another. It can often go under the label of ‘peer pressure’ and can be found even in our own schools and homes. Being a Christian requires one to be morally and mentally strong.
As regards the gifts which the Magi brought, one mum remarked ‘typical men. It never occurred to them to bring nappies.’
All creation is a revelation of what God is like, through the work of God’s hands.
The Bible is a revelation of what God is like through the writings of various people who were inspired to write down what their understanding of God was.
The Incarnation – the birth of Jesus of Nazareth at Christmas – is a revelation to us, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, of what God is like.
At Christmas we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Because of the coming of Jesus of Nazareth we no longer have to wonder about God – what he is like or how He would act in certain circumstances.
Now we can learn all about God from looking at and listening to Jesus of Nazareth.
From what I can see, when there is dispute about what God wants or doesn’t want, about what is right or wrong, it boils down to human reluctance to accept the truth. It boils down to self interest, greed, avarice. It boils down to a refusal to forgive, to tolerate differences, to share, to help those in need.
In prison, John the Baptist had the same problem. He was having doubts as to who Jesus of Nazareth really was so he sent some of his friends to ask Jesus himself.
The reply they got was : “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
John the Baptist, and all of Israel, were looking forward to a Redeemer who would be like King David. One who would scatter and destroy all the enemies of Israel and set up a powerful and independent nation.
But Jesus of Nazareth was speaking and practising, mercy and forgiveness, healing of the sick and the grieving, unity and sharing, love and compassion and not vengeance, nor destruction of perceived enemies, not war and scattering, not suspicion and marginalisation.
John the Baptist and all of Israel found this hard to take. They had been brought up on their nationalism, on their superiority as a people, on their exclusivity. Vengeance for past wrongs and revenge on their enemies was a holy grail. That is why many would take offence at what Jesus of Nazareth did and said. ( Would not many of us today, take offence also, in today’s context.)
Jesus of Nazareth would have none of this.
We are told: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
Christmas is about healing, co-operation, unified action, tolerance of differing attitudes, cultures and beliefs. So, don’t just think about having a ‘merry’ Christmas . Think about having a tolerant, forgiving, unifying Christmas.
The most important sentence for me in todays Gospel reading is the very last one.
Mary said yes.
‘Then the angel departed from her.’
God is a smooth operator. He sent Gabriel to this young girl, barely out of her teens. He came with fine words of praise and great promises for the future. When Mary broached a small problem – she wasn’t married – it was answered with high sounding words of reassurance. No mention of her becoming a pregnant unmarried woman (the penalty for this was death by stoning) or that her boyfriend would want to break of their relationship as a result. No mention that she would have to solve this problem on her own with apparently no Angelic help. And this was only the beginning of her troubles; No mention of the early death of her husband and that she would have to cope on her own. No mention of the arrest and execution of her son as a common criminal.
This resonates with me. I became a priest on a flood tide of optimism about the importance of the calling, the great work awaiting to be done and the dignity and sanctity of priesthood in the sight of God and man. I didn’t pause to consider any drawbacks.
I said yes.
‘Then the angel departed from me.’
That is how God works.
God created me and Mary and you with certain and differing abilities. He coaxes us into saying yes. Then he disappears and lets us get on with it using the abilities God has given us.
The gift of free will demands that things be so. It demands the freedom to love or not love, the freedom to choose good or evil, the freedom to build up or to knock down.
I am sure that Mary woke up in the morning from time to time wondering how on earth she got herself into such a position.
I have awoken in the morning from time to time and wondered what on earth I am doing in this job.
Without doubt, you also have woken up in the morning, from time to time and wondered how on earth you ended up as you are.
But of course the Angel does not depart.
God does not depart.
It is only looking back over the years that one can appreciate that God did not depart.
It is not only the abilities and strengths which God gave me that have helped me, but also many things I regarded as my weaknesses can now be seen as protections from danger and harm.
‘Behold I am with you always. Yes, to the end of time.’
It is through struggle, hard work and failure, that I grow, mature and increase in wisdom and understanding.
Christmas is our guarantee of God’s constant presence, guidance and help. Immanuel.
Success in life has nothing to do with one’s salary, one’s possessions, one’s health, one’s standing in life.
Success in life is about conscious living in the presence of one’s God. Immanuel.
“There is one among you whom you do not recognise.”
Is this not my big problem as a Christian? My refusal or inability to recognise Jesus of Nazareth.
Is this not my God’s biggest headache?
God has been revealing Himself; has been present among us, since the beginning of time, through the works of His hands – through creation.
God has been revealing himself; has been present among us, through his Word, in Scripture, for two to three thousand years.
God has revealed himself to us by being born, living and dying, just like us, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
God has told me that He lives in me and I live in Him, on many occasions.
God has told me that he is the vine and I am the branch.
God has told me that “I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
God has told me that whatever I do for , or to, anyone of my fellow human beings, I do to God Himself
You could go on and on in this vein.
And yet my biggest problem as a Christian is recognising my God who is always in my presence, who lives in me, in whom I live and move and have my being.
But I keep putting my God at a distance, on a pedestal, up in the clouds. The present language used in the Mass and in other liturgical cerebrations does not help. Here we address our God in subservient, servile, and even grovelling language. We address our God using imperial and royal modes of address.
The God we treat in this way is the God who told us that when we address him we should begin ‘Abba” meaning ‘daddy.’
The God who told us ‘the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.’
The God who ‘when he had washed their feet …… said to them. Do you realise what I have done for you? You call me teacher and master, and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.’
So why do we treat our God as the majestic emperor living far off in unattainable light. That is exactly what God told us not to do, yet our liturgical language is full of it.
No wonder I keep my God at a distance. All my God wants is to hug me to his/her breast.
The Christmas lesson is ‘Immanuel’ meaning ‘God with us.’
That is why today is called ‘Gaudete Sunday.’ Gaudete means let us rejoice.
We rejoice today – and every day- because our God is always with us.
“Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.”
John the Baptist was called by God to prepare the people of Israel for Jesus of Nazareth.
Firstly John preached repentance.
There are different kinds of repentance
True repentance has nothing to do with fear; fear of God, fear of Hell, fear of punishment, fear of embarrassment, fear of discovery.
True repentance is a deep regret for hurt, pain and injury which I have directly caused to others or am in some way implicated in.
For example, I can be directly abusive to others or I can vote for someone I know is abusive to others. I can steal myself or I can buy something I know or strongly suspect has been stolen. I can dent someone parked car and drive away unnoticed or I can leave a note with my phone number.
The test is truth. Am I truly repentant for hurts or injury I have caused directly or indirectly or am I repentant because of some perceived repercussions for myself.
For years and years I went to confession seeking forgiveness, but my motivation was not true repentance but selfish self preservation from future perceived punishment. What is now known as ‘covering one’s ass.’
That is why I question how the sacrament of Reconciliation has been presented to us and is still presented to us. It fosters self interest, self preservation. It is not authentic. it is focused on oneself and the protecting of oneself from future unpleasant repercussions and retribution. There are exceptions of course and some people do demonstrate true and deep repentance for hurts given and help withheld.
But I believe that by and large Confession, as still practised today, is counterproductive, unauthentic and largely self deception. I would recommend that each one of us looks back over the many times we have gone to confession over the years and judge honestly for oneself.
My aim is not to cause you to worry about the past and whether you have been forgiven or not. Forget about the past. Trust in one’s God and look to an authentic future where you walk hand in hand with your God.
My God does not want me to wallow in regret, guilt or have scruples about the past. These are detriment to my relationship with my God and stultify my spiritual life.
My God wants me to plant the flowers of justice, love, compassion and giving in the garden of my life and not waste my time continually trying to uproot weeds.
Today, the First Sunday of Advent – the beginning of the Church’s new year.
For those sensitive to the liturgy it is year B for Sundays and year 2 for weekdays.
Advent is a time of preparation.
A time of preparation for the Lord’s second coming and for the anniversary of the Lord’s first coming on Christmas day.
Last Sunday we examined the idea of the Last Day and Judgement – the Lord’s Second
We examined the idea that each one of us is his/her own judge. That our judgement is what each of us do or don’t do; what each one of us is or is not.
We have no idea about what Eternal Life will be like. It will not just be life that goes on and on. It will be a sharing in the life of our God and our Creator.
One thing we can be sure of is that sharing in the life of God involves the following, and I quote; ‘We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in them.’
So, how can I share in the life of God if I hold enmity or hatred, or anger or jealousy towards another person – towards one of God’s beloved children? How can I meet my neighbour in Eternal life if I am still seeking revenge on him/her?
How this is to be ironed out (if it can be ironed out)? ; your guess is as good as mine.
One thing for sure; I cannot live in union with God in eternal life if there are people around who I refuse to meet or talk to.
This is what Jesus of Nazareth is talking about when he told us;
‘if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.’
The above are graphic stories or examples of what I need to do now.
Some time ago I visited a person who was dying. He knew he was dying. He was content to die. He felt at peace with his God. I brought up the name of a person with whom I knew he was at enmity, hoping that, at least in his own mind, there was some reconciliation. He immediately flared up in anger towards that person. The next day he died, I hear peacefully! Seeing as our God has given us free will and respects our free will, I often wonder what God can do in cases like that, which are many.
Back to Advent. The time for preparation, not Just for Christmas, but also for our entry into Eternal Life.
Why not think of this Advent as being ‘on my way to court with my opponent.’ This is my opportunity to settle with my opponent – to seek reconciliation, to offer reconciliation, to seek healing for hurts given and received, to try and realise that, as in my own life, many ways I react and act are the result of my upbringing, environment and genes. So too for other people. Realising and accepting that we are all wounded in one way or another, be it physically, psychologically or spiritually, can help me to be tolerant, forgiving and understanding.
‘You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.’
Advent is a good time to try and walk with my God.