gospel

Pope Francis reminds me of the Church Fathers

Pope Francis’ homilies remind me of the Church Fathers, such as St Basil, St Gregory the Great, and St John Chrysostom. Firstly, I think they all keep the good news as Jesus gave it to us, in its gratuitousness and its total demands. In today’s homily, the Pope called God a “loving and demanding Father”, and I think that captures a great deal. With all of the theological controversies of the past two millenia, sometimes it seems like orthodoxy is a balancing act (a Liberal Democrats sort of religion), when actually it’s more of a wild dance of extremities. And secondly, they are all happy to take creative liberties with interpreting Scripture. The stories in the scriptures are not taken as dead objects, but as part of a conversation with God, and so they continuously open up in new and unexpected ways. They allow God Himself to elaborate. A small example is last week, Francis said the lamps of the ten virgins is faith, and the oil is charity.

I especially recommend reading the Pope’s homily for today, which is what prompted me to think this. It’s powerful stuff.

If only more would preach this way.

God bless you

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We’re forgiven before we ask

‘Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.’ [Luke 15:11-24]

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Did you notice, that the father actually ignores his son completely? He doesn’t hear a word he’s saying. He doesn’t even let him finish, but starts talking to his slaves.

 

The father forgives his son, when the son hasn’t even dared to ask forgiveness. And it couldn’t be any other way. We couldn’t ask forgiveness, if we were not already forgiven. We have no right to ask forgiveness, nothing to appeal to. Except that the Father loves us, and rushes out to embrace and forgive us. His grace always comes first.

 

An excellent prayer of repentance: Say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And then feel the Father put his arms around you and kiss you, tears of joy running down His face.

 

God bless you

Caesar vs. God

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Separation of Church and state, right? Easy. God wants us to be good citizens, and good Christians. Everyone knows this, right?

Everyone is wrong

This isn’t about the entirely modern idea of the separation of Church and state, or the need to be good citizens. It’s about false gods.

“Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”

The image is of Tiberius Caesar, and the inscription reads, “Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs”, i.e. “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”. Now that Jesus has drawn attention to the claim that Caesar is the son of a god, is He really going to be immediately encouraging secularism and citizenship?

Or, is He saying to give back what is false to the false god? Let Caesar have his riches, not because he deserves them, but because they are no good any way. St Augustine said we must give Caesar money, that bears his image, and give God ourselves, because we bear His image. The Christian doesn’t live by wealth or power, but by love and lowliness.

I have been told that in Jesus’ day, the question of tax was extremely controversial: If Jesus accepted paying tax, the people would stone him, but if He opposed it, the state would kill Him. Jesus managed to not only avoid being killed, but also to accuse the emperor as a false god, in such a way that no religious leader could rat Him out to the authorities without being forced to agree with Him.

When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

God bless you!

P.S. here’s some more background, if you’re interested

Freedom from the gods

The gods really existed. This is just a historical fact. We have historically reliable accounts of Caesars and Pharaohs. Christians don’t dispute this. If tomorrow, scientists discovered that it’s Thor or Zeus that’s responsible for thunder and lightning, this would not alter the Christian worldview. What marks Christianity apart, is not the existence of the gods, but how we should treat the gods. The Christian, believe it or not, is one liberated from worshipping of these tyrants.

The gods are simply beings with great power. Whether they have some kind of spiritual body, can transform, control the elements, or simply boss people about, and whether they are humans, spirits, animals or a combination, the only real requirement is possessing great power. Pharaoh was a god. Caesar was a god. But the gods still die.

The mark of pagan religion, was that in fear of the gods, the people had to offer sacrifice; essentially, a celestial protection racket. And the gods could be as selfish, egotistical, and petty as anyone. The gods are just like you or me, except that they have power, and I (in comparison) do not.

But the Christian God, YHWH, I am that I am, is not one of them. He is our Creator, the source of our entire existence. In no way does He stand against us, as there is nothing He lacks, and all we are and ever shall be is in fact His gift. He who gave us existence- gave us freedom- does not stand against our existence in any way.

This is the LORD, who liberated Israel from Pharaoh. He is the one, who hears the cry of the oppressed and answers. It is the one who gives us being, who sustains us in being, who truly wishes us to flourish in real freedom. He is the one who takes slaves and forms a nation of them.

This is the God who was born of the Virgin Mary. He brought good news to the poor, proclaimed liberty to captives, brought sight to the blind, and set the downtrodden free. By him, the lame walked, the deaf heard, the lepers were cleansed and the dead were raised. By him, divine life was brought to human death; the ultimate freedom to our most absolute bondage.

The Christian is free from all powers and dominions, because when they killed Jesus, he rose again. By the cross, he “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Col 2:15). Every threat is nullified, because the Christian will rise again, and every unjust punishment she receives, will only bring her greater glory in the resurrection.

The Christian knows that God is with him, that God is on his side, that He is lowly and humble, and that He is victorious. The Christian is free, because God Himself is our freedom.

For this reason Christians to this very day, refuse to bow down to any gods and powers, no matter how they are threatened or enticed. As St. Justin said, “You can kill us but you cannot do us any real harm.”

God bless you

Does God love everyone equally?

God doesn’t love us equally. It’s better than that. God loves us all incomparably. Not more, not less, and not equally.

God’s love is always infinite. But we can’t say that infinity equals infinity. God’s love for you is incomprehensible, even in terms of His love for me.

Does a larger circle have more lines of symmetry? Are there more square numbers than prime numbers? Are there more possible shapes than possible songs? What is zero divided by zero? What is infinity divided by infinity? There comes a point (but it’s really more a lack of a point) where things are beyond comparison, even to each other, and even to themselves. I believe God’s love is one of these things.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:18-19

God bless you

My rejection of and return to church

I remember as a child, once asking why the Bible, especially the gospels, were so good, and church was so boring and lame. And I remember that my mother’s response wasn’t that I was wrong about church, but just that she didn’t know. I noticed how little the gospels were referred to, and how little the sermons sounded like something Jesus would say. I noticed that, church just seemed to a place to feel good together, with ideas to make you feel good, but not to really change your way of life.

But in the gospels, I saw a Jesus all about changing lives, and living in the Kingdom of God, and being perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. I saw a Jesus who was demanding, and changed lives. Jesus was not a life coach preaching about positive thinking.

Of course, churches vary greatly. I visited a lot, and a lot were quite motivating, and even inspiring. But I didn’t feel it lasted. It seemed to me, a more or less empty entertainment, remembering how good Jesus is, and sometimes suggesting he might want to do something in you. What kind of thing wasn’t ever clear.

It seemed to me, Christianity had been made a private matter, relevant mainly to our feelings. It seemed we were told to love God, and always be feely-goody people. And tell others to do so also.

At one point, I thought Christianity was perhaps best seen as a God-given pyramid scheme, where we believe, and must then get others to believe, even though we were only really believing in believing itself. And by this scheme, we get to heaven. It seemed like the gospel we were meant to spread, was that there was a gospel to be spread.

It’s fair to say, I was very confused. But, I applied good protestant logic, and concluded that the churches had corrupted teachings, and I would be better off on my own with a bible. Which, for a good few years, I did.6660ed346e8634249b75452e7b760dc7f78763d983205a92686184eb05cf9244

[I think it’s good logic from a protestant perspective, because if the Church Jesus himself founded with the apostles could be corrupted (and to maintain protestant beliefs this would have to have happened extremely early on), then it seems inevitable that the churches founded by reformers should also be corrupted even sooner. In view of this fact, I believe the fact that protestant churches are as unified as they are, is a testament to God’s care for them]

So, I became an lone sheep, as soon as my parents stopped making me go to church. But I continued to read the Bible and other Christian books, and I think I grew a lot in those years. My understanding of the scriptures became a lot less muddled and confused. I had decided to ignore Paul at first, because I found him confusing, and I found that suspicious. But I returned to him later, and found he made perfect sense when taken in the light of the gospels I had seen.

I was especially delighted that my new church of one appreciated Jesus’ attitude toward the poor. It wasn’t skipping over Jesus words on selling all you owned and giving it to the poor in order to be perfect and follow Jesus. From early on, I had thought Jesus was talking to me when he said that. I wasn’t obeying it (I was still a child and had no idea how to), but I did look upon it as important. I also noted how Jesus spoke strongly of works when talking about salvation (“as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me”). This tendency, combined with more or less independent political thought, brought me to believe in “Christian anarchism”. [I won’t go into my beliefs in this period of time any further here, but if you like, the last year of this period is somewhat captured in the archives of the first year of this blog]

But then Christian anarchism pointed me towards Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker movement, which is brilliant, which pointed me to Catholic social teaching, which is brilliant, though I wondered about a few points, which then pointed me to Catholic theology, which is brilliant, though it took a lot of wrestling for me to understand and agree, and I just disagreed a lot at first.

It gradually dawned on me, that a Christian is not alone, and should not be alone. And however disappointing I found church, Jesus had put in a lot of effort to found his Church, so I had to go. So, I tried a couple churches on the few Sundays when I was up on time, and was disappointed. Eventually, I tried mass at my little local, Catholic Church.

It was a shocking experience. So much sudden standing, and kneeling, and everyone responding together. I tried my best to go with the flow. I was terrified: heart racing, sweating so much I hate to think how I smelt. I loved that the gospel was read. That really pleased me. In the second half of the mass, what I now know is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I strongly sensed the reverence of those around me, and learned what the word sacred really means. At the sign of peace, I was stupendously happy to be saying, “peace be with you” and shaking hands with those around me, especially the priest when he came down (I suspect they thought me very strange). I didn’t go up for communion, because I didn’t know if I was allowed, and I was unsure on transubstantiation, and whether it could make it a sin for me to take it, if I was wrong about it either way. I remember noticing, that I had a wonderful feeling throughout, after the fear passed, that I had only ever had while reading the Bible. It almost felt like I was in the Bible.

This experience really should have been enough to convince me to begin becoming Catholic. But I decided to wait, and research on my own to make up my mind. I waited far too long. It was at least six months before I asked about becoming a Catholic, and in that time I rarely came to mass or other church (sleep pattern mainly).

I find it funny to think, how the reformation is viewed as rejecting a lifeless institution with a corrupted gospel, to make a better, more biblical church, but I was led to reject what I viewed as weak institutions with a corrupted gospel, in favour of a better, more biblical Church (the one seen in the Bible), and ended up at Catholicism. Ironic.

God bless you

Mary, Jesus’ mummy

I’m certain that, at one time, Jesus called Mary, Mummy (or some Aramaic equivalent). I think that’s awesome. When Jesus was small, she was always there for him, always with him. She was the one who looked after him, fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, clothed him when he was naked, and looked after him when he was sick.

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It shows the way that God absolutely embraced humanity, that His Son would be given a human mother, to bear him in her womb, and to love and look after throughout his life. He became absolutely dependent upon Mary, one of us, who even truly participated in giving him life as a man. I think when we talk about the incarnation, the place that comes to mind is a manger in Bethlehem, but the place where it really occurred, was inside the young virgin’s womb.

Humanity as a whole, and Mary in particular, were made part of the mystery of God’s incarnation as a man. Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully God and fully man, and Mary is truly the Mother of God. Mary gave birth to him in whom was life, and the life was the light of men (Jn 1:4). The Virgin Mary gave birth to her own creator, the Lord Jesus.

All of the history of salvation, surely pivoted on the Virgin of Nazareth, the mother of our Redeemer. Where would we be without her? Without her, we could not have her son. For years, her life was his life, she was his security, and where she went he went too. In her, lived the saviour and hope of all humanity.

God desired to share His life with us so fully, that He not only took on flesh and became one of us, but He let us weak humans share in His life, and even in His work of salvation. This is the fundamental fact of Mary, the Mother of God, and the Church, the spouse and body of Christ, who both live to bring Jesus to the world for its salvation, and to draw the world to him.

God bless you!

The Gospel of Repentance

From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
[Matthew 4:17]

I think when we first hear this, it doesn’t sound very nice. At least, I have a vague memory of thinking this was one of the scary verses. When I used to hear, “kingdom of heaven”, I would think of the end: God burning the world, while the righteous watched on, and heard the cries of the damned for help. And so with this in mind, I thought Jesus was trying to scare people straight, ready for a judgment that wouldn’t come for millennia. I don’t know who’s to blame (apart from myself) for this awful misunderstanding.

I could hardly have been more wrong. This verse is full of hope. This is good news.

The kingdom of heaven is not judgment, and it is not wrath. Where God truly rules, there is no sin, and therefore no judgment, and no wrath. The kingdom of heaven is the rule of love, because God is love. The kingdom of heaven was well and truly at hand, because Jesus Christ, the Word became flesh, was at hand. Heaven and earth came to union, in that flesh where God became man. And he was offering us to have a part in that kingdom. To be truly free: ruled by love, and united with God Himself.

And what was the condition he attached to us joining this Kingdom above all kingdoms? “Repent”. I believe he means by this, that we turn away from the lives that are death, and accept and live by God’s rule of love, with sorrow for ever living by anything else. In this we have our salvation, our life, and our freedom. The kingdom of God is within you (Lk 17:21), and we cannot have it while we reject it, either by our words, deeds, or beliefs. Nor could the rule of God’s love be imposed on anyone who rejects it, because love doesn’t work that way. But if we turn from our deeds of death with sorrow, and live by the one who is life, who gave his life that we might share in it in every way, then we are alive in the kingdom of heaven.

It is true that repentance includes sorrow. To repent, we must have sorrow for our past ways, and therefore be turning from them. But it also includes the far greater hope for the life we turn to. We do not turn out of fear, but its opposite, which is hope. So, in repentance, we have sorrow, and hope for life beyond this sorrow.

Upon the cross, we find our hope, which was won for us through sorrow. Christ shared in our sorrows to the end, and used them to give us hope. All the sorrows we have created by our disobedience, Christ suffered, and, by his obedience, used for our salvation. By suffering the sorrows we made, he shared in our life, but in purity without sin, that we may share in his life, and be pure also. He died our death, that we may live his life.

So, when we repent, we look to the cross. And seeing the holiest deed in all history, we are not condemned, but are loved, because that is what holiness is. There we find life being given to us, and there we find the life we must imitate. There we see Jesus Christ, we see the kingdom of heaven, and we see life itself.

God bless you, thoroughly and completely and absolutely.