22th Sunday of the Year: Deuteronomy 4; James 1; Mark 7.

It is usual (I have just heard my parish sermon) to interpret the message of this Sunday’s readings as a plea to make sure we Catholics do not identify true or pure religion with merely external observances but make sure it is something of the heart – a love of God and neighbour. This message is enhanced if we set it against the universalist, inclusive perspective provided by the experience of interfaith dialogue and our understanding of the notion of “dialogue”. God is working wherever religion strains to see that behind its traditions and customs there stands a call to transcendence and largeness of heart.

Deuteronomy clearly describes the reasons for the apparent arbitrary choice of the people of Israel as special partners in the Divine-human dialogue. It is so that they will be a sign to all nations (everyone) that God is near to all who see that law and custom can open the heart to the divine. Hence they will say “What nation is there that has its gods so near as the Lord our God.” Observe the law – not just because it is a matter of obedience but a way to show to all peoples the wisdom and understanding which true religion brings. God’s chosen people are chosen not for their own sake but as a vehicle to illustrate God’s wish to include all in the dialogue of loving kindness. Too often we inherit unconsciously the idea of choice as an exclusory device – Israel / Church / Christians chosen – all other nations / Churches / religions excluded. Whatever might have been the mind set which developed – it is our experience today that the Holy Spirit of God chooses so that all may be chosen – choice is a path to inclusion not exclusion. All humanity lies at the end of the Deuteronomy road and God wishes to be near to all peoples.

James punches home the same message in the light of the dawning brilliance of the early community’s experience of Christ who has revealed the perfection of the Father. So he says “he made us his children by the message of the truth.” Why? “So that we should be a sort of first-fruits of ALL that he had created.” No clearer justification could there by for regarding the Church as defined by its mission. Fruits are first which herald second, third and forth fruits. This is usually interpreted as the need for the Church to convert others to its first-fruit basket. But it also might mean that the Church must witness to the truth and holiness to be found elsewhere – since God wants there to be a myriad baskets of fruit all over the place.
James goes on to describe the need for “pure, unspoilt religion”- it is not in rubric or custom or law – but in coming to the help of orphans and widows. This true religion is to be found in all religions – it is the common invitation in them all to transcend law, rubric, custom which Jesus issued to the fellow religionists of his own day.

Mark sets the scene for Jesus to utter the universal truth, applicable to all religions: “Listen to me all of you and understand (Is Mark wanting to stress the uncompromising nature of Jesus’ words?) Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean.” He then lists the many ways in which all humanity can share in evil. As there is a inclusivity in human flowering and fulfilment, so we all share a solidarity in our own sinfulness.

It is eventually enervating and a distortion if we routinely and by habit read the Scriptures through our closet Christian Church spectacles. We lose the broad and rich brilliance of the meaning if we too quickly domesticate its messages. More dangerously we confine the work of God to our own particular club and lose the uplifting inspiration which comes from the realisation that the Holy Spirit of God is at work wherever there are people who seek truth and holiness – to find pure religion, pure humanity. This is the backdrop against which we need to set our experience of the Christian community. God works everywhere and his grace is not confined to the humble followers of His Son. It is the task of those few whose God has come near to in Christ to confirm and ratify the inclusive dialogue which God has with the whole of humanity. This vision, not the false oppositional one sometimes espoused by Churchmen (and it is men mainly) is the one to inspire us. The way forward is not an “either / or” but a “both / and”. God wants everyone as partners in the dialogue of love. Christ prompts Christians who have been “chosen” (through no merit of theirs) to witness to and ratify, affirm and celebrate the work of the Spirit of His Father wherever it is found – in all peoples, cultures, religions, nations. That is the reason they have been “chosen”. Wherever Christianity or the Church looses a grasp on this reality, it becomes dysfunctional. So if we have a Church tainted by abuse of power, clericalism, child abuse, its cover up, sexism, denial of the equality of women, apparently at ease with wealth, caught up in travail about the language or shapes of its liturgical worship or customary traditions, marked by pietism and an inward-looking self regard – then this is a denial of its true mission – to be a sign and an encouragement to all that God is dying (has died and conquered death) to talk to us – to have all of us as partners in an affirmation of all that is good, holy and true.

There can be no more effective bloc to true religion (love of God and neighbour) than false religion. No secularism or ideology or nation can so effectively hamper the work of the Spirit of God as a religion reduced to anything less than purity of heart. Paradoxically that is why some are persuaded by those who love them, to keep up their active membership of the Church and why they agree to do so with enthusiasm. Despite all the ills which beset the church – we can equal them in my own stumbling following of Christ! We need the solidarity of the sinners next to us. We have nowhere else to go Lord – in the knowledge that God is mercy and forgiveness.

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21th Sunday of the Year: Joshua 24; Ephesians 5; John 6.

In Joshua, at first glance, it looks as though the traditional refrain we have inherited from our Church belonging is being repeated. The Lord God of the Israelites is set up in opposition to the gods of the Amorites. There is the true god and there are false gods. The people must serve the True God and reject false Gods. But Joshua simply asks them to be true to their experience of freedom. He calls for loyalty to the Lord who brought them out of Egypt: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua does not pass any comment on the gods of the Amorites, though the inference is that they will not help the Israelites. The people declare their loyalty to the God who has brought them out of slavery. It would be anachronistic to apply insights about our belief and the theology of interreligious relations to the days of Joshua. There was a need to defend the experience of the people of Israel in their developing dialogue with the God who Saves, who is in dialogue with humanity, from any diversion towards the gods who looked after the Amorites or anyone else. Joshua does not denigrate these “gods”. He simply points out the fact that his people have experienced the intervention of the Lord their God as saviour in their story of survival. They are called to witness to this sort of God – one who is on the side of humanity in seeking freedom and life. Thus we who follow after do believe in such a God – one who is on the side of humanity and the nature of whose dialogue is exemplified in his dealings with the people of Israel. At that time of belief in plural clan deities (moving from that to henotheism to monotheism) shared in as it was by his people ‘s ancestors (“the gods your ancestors served beyond the River”) Joshua’s words mark one step along the way to an understanding of God by the people of Israel and an understanding of their place in the divine-human dialogue. The Amorites, we can say, were not excluded from being God’s people. Like all peoples, whatever there was of truth and holiness in their lives and beliefs, was part of that truth and holiness which God was shielding and nurturing in the people of Israel for the purpose of illustrating the intensity of the divine desire which “motivated” the dialogue of love and which was to culminate in Christ. God was seeking too to dialogue with the Amorites – how far they responded we do not know. We will know when we can have a chat with them in the Kingdom of God!

In Ephesians, Paul has moments of pure unsurpassed beauty. God and man in dialogue can be best described in terms of the love between a man and a woman in marriage. We can castigate Paul no end for not having 21st century sensibilities about equality of the sexes. Castigate away but do not lose sight of his main message or vision. Hoping to convey something of the intense passionate love that God has shown to the Church in sacrificing himself in Christ for her to make her holy, he paints the picture of an intimate bathroom scene. “He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. “ Alright, he transcends but still uses the erotic (washing ‘with a form of words’ – referencing baptism) to express the wonder of the dialogue of love which he can best compare to the total relationship between man and woman in marriage. He then retires humbly with head bowed: “This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church.” Here then is the terminus of dialogue. The Church is the body of those who are as close to God in Christ as a man and woman are in marriage! In Christ dialogue reaches its climax and ever since that climax has invited all to share in it, whilst at the same time acknowledging that the dialogue is going on all round us, not connected to us, wherever there is holiness and truth among humanity – there is God in Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit. We cannot confine the dialogue to the Church, even if Paul sees there the epitome of the dialogue which God conducts with every human being. Hence the notion that the Church is to be defined in terms of mission or sending forth. It must declare its belief that it embodies the peak of that dialogue which is not confined to its members but which it exemplifies in its fullness. This is the archetypal “both / and” situation. Belief in, on the one hand, that the Church and its members are caught up in the fullness of dialogue (through no fault or virtue of its members) and, on the other hand, the universal nature of that dialogue. The Holy Spirit of God is at work wherever human beings strive to live out holiness, goodness and truth. Then Church exists as if to say “Yes – that is right. Dear brothers and sisters in our humble view this of your belief and actions is holy and good – seek to go further and further on your God-driven journey” Instead it too often says: “No – we alone are right and you are wrong.” Joshua did not say that. Paul does not say that. Jesus above all did not say that. We sin against the Holy Spirit if we say that.

In the Gospel John has Peter and Christ in demanding dialogue. “Lord, who shall we go to. You have the message of eternal life.” For his early Church readers and audience a choice has been presented which asks everything of them. They have been given the story of Christ’s life, words, death and resurrection. They have the knowledge but choosing to follow Christ for them is not easy. John presents the full implication and importance of the choice to be made. It comes to those people and those who come after who are brought to the point of accepting Christ as the final dialoguer who offers them eternal life. Some are never brought to that point of choice. Some walk away from it. This is the great mystery. God alone knows the outcome for individuals. But we do know that we must not make any simple-minded equivalencies between people who follow Christ and those who do not with those who might come to eternal life and those who may not. God alone knows.

20th Sunday of the Year: Proverbs 9; Ephesians 5; John 6.

In Proverbs we have the astounding image of the Wisdom of God as the Lord of a feast not only issuing an invitation to everyone, especially the foolish and the ignorant, to leave folly and find perception in sharing a divine banquet of meat and wine, but someone who has built a house for that reason! Here is Scripture witnessing to a constant, centuries reiterated belief that God wills, wants deliriously the “wisdoming” of his creation – humankind. The best image the author can think up is that of a Lord (of Wisdom), who invites everyone to a banquet, but who has built a house precisely for that purpose. So much has been invested in the offer. The noblest house has been built (seven pillars). The highest part of the city is used to issue the invitation so all can hear. God’s house is meant to be the real “restaurant at the end of the universe”. But the food and drink will sustain man in the wisdom and truth of real perception. Not the normal fare.

Then the awful realisation of the cost, not hinted at all those centuries before, that the offer of Wisdom will entail. God could only “serve himself up” as the true bread and wine of wisdom at the banquet in the “house” of flesh he had built. That alone perhaps could persuade humanity, in foolishness and ignorance, to come and eat. The only response Paul asks of the early community of Christians at Ephesus is that of a deep-felt thanksgiving for the gift given, the meal set out, the banquet prepared and announced from the highest part of the city. This sets the parameters for the kind of life they are to lead. This is the origin and foundation for Christian ethics. Without an appreciation of that foundation, Christian values will seem somewhat vacuous and vague. With an appreciation of their basis in thanksgiving they make glorious sense. Christians give thanks because they have been gifted with life and the wisdom to know how it came. That is the foundation for their wish, mirroring God’s, to invite all humanity to that banquet in the house of the seven pillars of wisdom.
I am reminded of the famous poem by George Herbert, the great Anglican priest and servant of the people. It has the lines “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back.” It is a perfect reflection of the meaning of the eucharist or the sacred meal to which all humanity is invited. It ends:
“You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat “

John’s account of the teaching of Jesus concerning the true nature of himself as the bread from heaven here culminates in the simple, unadorned conclusion: “But anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.” Everyone (it undramatically understates) if they eat this bread, will live for ever. In the whole history of the world, no-one has seriously made such a claim. How can anyone take it for granted as a belief? If we take it seriously and then go on to inhabit the world of belief which surrounds it, we should do so with fear and trembling but also with the dawning of a great joy. This is the essence, so often hardly adverted to by those not of this belief, of the Christian way. The purpose of dialogue between God and man is not the revelation of some set of laws, rules for living or for human contentment. It is the realisation and living out of a new, unimaginable relationship of loving kindness between us and God. We are called to intimacy with God. In this we will find our true nature. We will find our destiny and true fulfilment, our healing and laughter, our delight in truth, beauty and love, the essence of everything here we seek to love and treasure. It is also the Christian belief that this new life begins here and now and takes us through death.

19th Sunday of the Year: 1 Kings; Ephesians 4; John 6.

Elijah sounds like many a contemporary of ours: “Lord, I have had enough.”! The age-old divine-human dialogue ensues marked by the usual insistence of God that humanity get up, eat, journey on and find God. God might be excused for saying: “I have had enough.” But no – it is the insight of the author that the dialogue with God is as a result of God’s never giving up on humanity, despite humanity’s wayward ways. But it is also the message delivered by the example of Elijah – who does respond and then “walks for forty days and nights” (emblematic of the fullest of journeys). He reaches Horeb.

The Ephesians are likewise exhorted to imitate what they know – if they have been loved by God as illustrated by Christ’s journey to the mountain of God – then they know how to live. They forgive as they have been forgiven. In this way they join in the universal journey of humanity to God.

John repeats the theme of last Sunday. Beyond but also in earthly food is the food from heaven, the living bread, which is the life of the world. The global claim once again issuing from the 1st century that God is not content with a dialogue from a distance but is so intent on intimacy with humanity that not only does he take on our flesh but then gives that flesh to us as if it is the only real food with the insistent claim that this food which is God himself will bring us to life eternal. To eat this food is offered to all. So the whole of creation which originally had the life of God is re-created and can once more take up its destiny.

18th Sunday of the Year: Exodus 16; Ephesians 4; John 6.

In Exodus, the writer intends to teach his readers that God lifts humanity from a one-dimensional view of so-called “material things”- then as now! to a realisation that the material contains the spirit of the divine. We must reconcile this insight with the awful fact that then as now, many people did not have material food and were starving. But it was then also true that the people were literally starving and the “manna” was real food. Humanity is to learn about the origin of its hunger and the way of sustenance – God’s will to feed humanity. The underlying message remains the same: fed or not fed, God is defined as that which brings humanity to its true full-fill-ment. This does not solve the reality of material starvation today and the mystery of suffering – but it does insist that humanity will not be satisfied with sustenance viewed as only material. There is no such thing as the “purely material”!

The Ephesians are reminded that aimless living must be replaced with the realisation that humanity exists and reaches its true Self only by taking part in the dialogue with God. Realising that is akin to a “spiritual revolution”, putting on a “new self”.

In John’s Gospel the message is emphasised by his account of the dialogue between Jesus and the people: the desire of humanity to live can only be fulfilled by realising that food is more than simply “material”. Mankind can only be satisfied by “eating”, feeding on, entering into dialogue with what really gives life to the world summed up by Jesus as “bread from heaven”, identified as Himself. Jesus has become that which alone can satisfy humanity’s hunger for total fulfilment. “I am the bread of life.” The material bears the divine.
It is the experience of human-beings that we are not satisfied, fulfilled by confining material to a one-dimensional definition. God alone can satisfy our deepest cravings for happiness – but uses matter to convey this depth. The nearest image to that which can sustain us is material food and the act of eating. It brings us life in every, not just the material, sense. So if God is to subvert our belief in the ultimate value of food as simply material and lead us into the solution to our deepest cravings and longings, the best, the only available imagery is food and eating but now in relation to God. “Real” food visits us as material food. The bread of God alone gives life to the world. Astoundingly, Jesus declares “I am the bread of life.” Coming to the table where Jesus is the food and drink alone ends hunger and thirst. Dialogue ends in the silence of eating and drinking. We eat and drink and fall into the silence of the love of God – satisfied truly and eternally. The cosmic Christ inhabits all so-called “matter” – the Divine is “really present” in everything.

Just note as usual the universal nature of the invitation by God to the divine banquet and the working through to its conclusion of dialogue. No person is excluded. The Church must be exceedingly careful that in restricting its invitation to its sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, that it mirrors the universal character of this invitation and excludes no-one who accepts without overwhelming evidence that they have excluded themselves in some way. The Church is ill-served by the experiences of those who, through no fault of their own, feel that the church has unjustly and without justification, excluded them from the sacraments. Too often the suspicion is that by reasons of wanting to cling to a power, God-given but abused by man, the Church has watered down the inclusive invitation from God and in His name excluded increasing numbers of those it judges deficient in some way. The presumption must be that God’s call includes precisely those who have sinned.

17th Sunday of the Year: 2 Kings; Ephesians 4; John 6.

In the second book of Kings we find the irresistible and unable to be denied power of the desire of God to “feed” (or dialogue for ever with) all humanity. Through the particular circumstances of a man from Baal-shalishah, Elisha and his servant and the story of the prophet’s selflessness in giving bread meant for him to the people, we are led to revisit the overwhelming generosity of God who wishes to “feed” (dialogue daily with) every person ever created. Present day leaders and prophets only have credence if they turn every attempt to honour them into gifts from God to the people. “The Lord says this, ‘They will eat and have some left over.’” God’s desire to sit down and talk with humanity is over-flowing. Eventually it came to God becoming man to do exactly that. We must sit down and do the same.

Paul takes up the same theme in a great visionary poem in which everyone is called to have a role. What is its heart? That we are invited to live out the truth that there is one Body, one Spirit, one hope we are called into, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all, through all and within all. To repeat our theme. God desires to love the whole of humanity into unity, peace and fulfilment. That is why we must be charitable, selfless, gentle, patient – completely. Paul implores us to lead such a life. Why? So the God-human dialogue may be reflected and brought down to earth for all humanity.

In John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, we have the final illustration of the great theme going back to the time of the Kings. God brings healing and fulfils all humanity’s hunger – in the teeth of all the odds working against this. Behind whatever miracle happened, behind the text of the account, there is but one question to ask: What is this meant to signify? “The people seeing this sign that he had given…” Their instinct is correct even if misplaced. Jesus is King beyond politics by virtue of His embodiment of the Word and Spirit of God which come as a free banquet and the only valid table “banter” (dialogue) to the whole of humanity. God so wishes to feed us that there will always be enough for all and there will always be food left over. God is defined as generosity personified.

16th Sunday of the Year: Jeremiah 23; Ephesians 2; Mark 6.

It is easy to find the theme for the readings today: God is in an agony of hope and love for all peoples. He desires their salvation, peace and love, irrespective of any and all human divisions and oppositions.

Jeremiah speaks powerfully of a God who mourns over false leaders and shepherds. “The remnant of my flock I myself will gather from all the countries.” He looks forward to a day when a true King will save Judah – to be called “The Lord-our-integrity”. It is a reminder to those too caught up (often quite legitimately) in Churchy affairs, that our ultimate loyalty can only be to God and His Anointed – and hence our neighbour. If the Church institution points us to, equips us for that love affair – all well and good. If it distracts us from that – not so good. Far more people would be attracted to our Church if they were not put off by its failings – power misused, its wealth and privilege, too exclusivist an approach to those who have fallen foul of the rules and regulations surrounding inter-communion, divorce, regulation of birth and Church attitudes to women which they regard as patronising and deeply flawed. “Doom for the shepherds who allow the flock of my pasture to be destroyed.” Such folk insofar as they stand for honesty, integrity, humanity, equality, justice and an instinct about the inclusive love of God are inspired by the Holy Spirit to reject the Church as they see it and a reminder to those of us who remain in it in a “solidarity of the soiled” that we must work ceaselessly to renew our Church so that it reflects the love of Christ and His Father.

As today’s psalm reminds us “The Lord is my shepherd” – not sadly always those who claim to stand in loco Domini.

In Ephesians Paul’s canvas is universal, whilst he addresses the immediate concerns of a township in present day Turkey in his day and the divisions between his Jewish people and the new Christian community. Christ creates “one single New Man”. Christ’s dialogue with his Father has as its aim and outcome the total reconciliation of all humanity “near and far” with God: “to unite them (both) in a single Body” and reconcile them with God. So Paul moves from the particular (Jewish – Christian) to the universal in a moving broadening of his vision. Later he came to bring the good news of peace, peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near at hand. Through him, both of us have in the one Spirit our way to come to the Father. Any attitude, organisation, movement which acts to limit the universal nature of the dialogue between God and mankind is thereby declared wrong. God speaks to all. The Church’s only legitimacy derives from doing the same.

The Gospel of Mark reflects a real human tension in the life of Christ and his followers. Jesus feels for his apostles. They have no time even to eat. Why? He and they are caught up in the universal dialogue between God and humanity and humanity cannot have enough of it. The attempt to take a break fails. Why? Jesus takes pity on the crowd which has tracked him and his followers down. “They were like sheep without a shepherd and he set himself to teach them at some length.” Christ (now as then) has no option but to reflect the desire of His Father to enter into the dialogue of love with all humanity. This desire must surely be ours also. We also need to take a break – in the sure knowledge that we will not find one!