Sunday, February 25, 2018

The judgment of God

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Jesus says nothing.

Here is a woman pouring her heart and soul out to Jesus, and He says nothing.

She explains her predicament. She tells Him of the devil that is torturing her daughter, tearing her life apart, causing agony to the whole family as they watch her writhe in pain and cannot help her one single bit.

And He says nothing.

In fact He tells her that He is sent to the sheep of the house of Israel. He calls them children, but He calls her a dog.

And this is the God we worship.

Are you feeling uncomfortable, yet?


This does seem to cause a problem for Christians in this day and age but the problem is an old one. What happens when God is silent or doesn't seem to care. What happens when He appears to be rude and offensive?

Some say that this woman changes Our Lord's mind by showing Him that He is being narrow-minded and actually rather racist. They say that, because Our Lord is human, He is as much a product of His culture as we are. They say that He has no knowledge of His future work and that He has to learn His vocation just as we do. They say that Our Lord is shown to be wrong by this Canaanite woman.

Can you hear what's wrong with this?


It is true that Our Lord is indeed human. It is true that he possesses in His human nature all that we know to be part of our condition. We can only do so much, think so much, know so much and love so much. We are finite, feeble and frail. We are born, we suffer and we die.

Yet, we also know that Jesus is God, and that He does not just possess human nature, but God nature too. And we know that these two natures cannot be separated from each other. In His humanity, Our Lord can only do so much: He will feel emotional and physical pain; He will laugh and cry; He will fall over and even have moments of clumsiness; He will be tempted; yet He will not sin! Sin is not part of human nature. The tendency to sin and the ability to be tempted, is.

If Jesus can know whether a woman whom He has not met before is living with a man who is not her husband, then He can know that He is called for the the whole of humanity - not just Israel.

If we think He is being racist or narrow-minded, then we have accused Our Lord of sin whether or not He is a product of His culture.

If He is a product of His time, then how can His words of hope speak to people now? How can His life, death and resurrection two thousand years ago bear the same message to us and those to come?


If Our Lord's attitude to this Canaanite Woman troubles us, then what crime do we think He has committed?

He calls this woman a dog!

Except He doesn't - at least not directly. He uses an analogy which compares Gentiles to dogs, and not to wild dogs, but rather to well-beloved pet dogs.

So He's comparing her to being something lesser. He's being offensive.

Maybe. Maybe not. Where does Jesus actually demonstrate that He does not love this woman, inside and out and more than we can know? Can we judge God so quickly?

Look what happens as a result of what He says.

This poor woman finds she can respond to His words with confidence. Our Lord has given her precisely the right cue for her to speak her mind. He has said precisely the right words which allow her to articulate her faith in Him. She has already recognised Him as God - why else does she actually worship Him when she sees Him? In speaking her faith out loud to us all, she has received so much from Him and given us all much, too!


If we are troubled by the actions of Our Lord here, then maybe we are too ready to be offended to see what's really going on. This woman could have taken offence and stormed off. She didn't. She listened respectfully, responded cleverly and gently, and received more than she desired. History will remember this woman as a woman of great faith. It's a shame we don't know her name. God does and rejoices.

Too often, people are ready to judge God by their own rules and their own morals. We forget that He knows the rules so well, that He can challenge our thinking in what He says and draw us deeper into knowing Him. We therefore have to trust Him that whatever He says and does is for our benefit even if it troubles us, taxes our mind, or even downright offends us.

Our Lord will offend us because He is not a product of our age and culture, but rather goes beyond every age and culture. We should always look to trust Him, rather than to judge Him.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Goodbye to the contradiction

I know that I have been rather quiet lately. Family duties and the death of my mobile phone have made blogging a little more difficult, but this is probably for the best.

I have several projects in mind that I have brought to the Throne of Grace in my prayers so that they may be begun, continued and ended in God. I am at present tweaking the draft of a book that I have written for my Diocese. This will need a nihil obstat but, given its length and the commitments of my superiors, this will have to take some time. That is fine.

Much upon my mind is the spiritual battle that Christianity has with the prevailing culture. There is something demonic within Postmodernism that is breaking down even the ability for human beings to communicate with each other. Marx's Critical Theory is responsible for everyone to be categorised as oppressed or oppressor, victim or victor, proletariat or bourgeoisie - rather curious for a society that wants to be non-binary.

Of course, Kierkegaard would always want us to consider the both/and rather than either/or. So would Hegel for that matter. On their terms, they suggest that we should always be looking for the synthesis of two extremes rather than keeping the extremes apart.

This seems reasonable: God Himself breaks down the naive thesis-antithesis duality by being Three yet One, by indivisibly Human and Divine, by being both immanent and transcendent, by being both temporal and eternal. Yet there is one thesis-antithesis that He cannot break down - Good and Evil which we might also express as Sin and Righteousness. Yes, this is something even God cannot do - not because He is impotent, but rather because Good and Righteousness are defined in terms of His being and His divine nature, whereas Evil and Sin are defined by standing outside His divine nature.

You could ask whether God is impotent against the laws of logic. Is God Himself bound by the law of non-contradiction, that something cannot be both A  and not-A simultaneously. The writer known as Dionysius the Areopagite might expect us to leave aside all talk of Reason when it comes to discussing God. Yet, we know that within God is the very root of Reason itself - the divine Logos! God is - this is what He tells us Himself in calling Himself Yahweh or Jehovah. God is and thus He cannot not be. There is an exclusion of being both. Our modern physics may tell us that it is possible for the cat to be both alive and dead but in order to be either alive or dead, the cat still has to be.

The language of Quantum Theory is troubling to our world of common sense, but it is worth reminding ourselves that it is framed only in the language of mathematics. We know what it is to make an observation but while we might describe that observation using a self-adjoint operator on a Hilbert Space, that's not what we actually do do. We observe. Our observation does change the reality around us precisely because we are here to observe and that we do make that observation.

Of course, mathematics is infallible in what it tells us but, often, it doesn't really tell us anything that we didn't already know. Numbers exist as non-physical objects, but they do nothing. Mathematics is irrelevant without the conscious mind to manipulate it. Consciousness provides mathematics with a home in which to thrive and thus, just as God cannot be comprehended by His creation, neither can Mathematics truly comprehend the conscious mind. A science that claims it can explain consciousness is quite simply wrong.

Absolute truth exists, otherwise "there is no absolute truth" becomes absolute. Yet we can only make that observation because of the  Logos Himself. Reason is an expression of God's mind. He gives us this gift so that we might have some language in which we can communicate and debate and study and discover and glorify Him.

Although I believe that we should be careful in talking about dichotomies, I firmly believe that true dichotomies exist because God exists. Many dichotomies will be false such as the dichotomy that God is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing and yet Evil exists. It takes reasoning and prayer to understand the truth behind such a dichotomy.

There is another dichotomy that is indeed truly binary, male and female. Postmodernism will deny this. Quite why it will deny this is up for debate, by my suspicion is that Postmodernism is an expression of inherent narcissism within our modern humanity. However, God made male and He made female. That is enough.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Watch out! Here comes virtue!

Sermon for the first Sunday in Lent

A plane crashes.

You watch the result on the television and see the terrible aftermath. Your heart goes out to the dead and their families and friends. You are genuinely saddened. So what do you do?

Write a Facebook status? A blog post? Video yourself offering thoughts and prayers? 

Why? Why do you need to do anything? No friend or family member of yours was on the plane. No-one associated with the crash is going to know who you are or how valuable your sentiments are. They are going to be concerned with rebuilding their lives. Why should your public display of grief matter?


It's a good point. We hear Our Lord say quite categorically to His followers, " when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward." He says that we should not do things for the sake of appearances. The only reward you get is everyone's approval which will very quickly grow cold like a forgotten cup of tea.

Yet, hang on. A plane has crashed. People are hurting. Surely they need to know that you're standing with them? That's a different thing. You're standing in solidarity with them, just as the saints in Heaven, even Our Lady stand in solidarity with us, just as even Our God Himself deliberately chooses human flesh so that He can stand in solidarity with us against the tragedies of our humanity. Surely, that's okay? You're letting people know so that they can find some comfort even in the most remote glimmer that somehow, somewhere, someone kind is thinking of them.

But they won't see it, will they?

Are you sure that you aren't doing something in order to be seen doing something, even if you know full well that the gesture is utterly futile?

We have to be able to see the difference between virtue signalling - expressing our morals with the intent to be socially acceptable - and true virtue. The Devil tempts us to perform acts of virtue signalling just as he tempted Our Lord. The actions of turning stones to bread to feed the hungry and throwing oneself from the top of the temple to demonstrate God's power fall are actions of virtue signalling because they are done for motives that are not pure, rather they are done for personal glory and approval from the people who would see these deeds happen.

We need to be able to tell the difference because actions of virtue signalling can be very subtle as posting something heart-warming on Facebook might demonstrate, especially when you see those "likes" build up.


This requires very, very careful examination of our own motives in our lives, and Lent helps us to do just that. It is best to ask your priest for help so that you don't go wrong, but self-examination is something that every Christian should do. The key thing is that true virtue cannot be separated from God, because all virtue comes to us by grace.

St Paul writes words of encouragement for us.
We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also, that ye receive not the grace of God in vain... giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed; but in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God.
God gives us His grace. Remember that grace is God's presence working with us and in giving us grace, He gives us Himself. We can receive God's grace in vain, as St Paul suggests, by working without God's input. However, if we are to do anything at all for good, we need the grace of God. We are made right with God through our faith and by cooperating with God. This doesn't come from good works alone, nor through faith alone, but by uniting the two in our walk with God. With God, it's not what we do, it's that we do.


We may be accused of virtue signalling even when we are not. That's irrelevant. St Paul says that, through God's grace, we can approve ourselves as the ministers of God. What does this mean? It means that, however the world looks at us, no matter how our actions are judged, or what consequences they may have, what we do for the love of God will bear God's fruit with God's grace. If we do something for God, then we are God's minister, and through working with God we can be sure that we have done something to demonstrate our love for our neighbours.

Our virtue is not for signalling: it is for doing. Can you be sure that your virtues are signals of God's presence with you?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

For the love of a narcissus

Sermon for Quinquagesima

As spring approaches, we begin already to see the flowers starting to come up. In particular, in March you will see the daffodil and the narcissus start to come out in the flower beds. The narcissus, you may already know, has a particularly sad story behind it according to the Greek Myths.

In this particular myth, we see a handsome young man who deals very cruelly with the women who fall for him. Once such is a nymph called Echo whose love for him is so strong that, even when Narcissus rejects her, does not stop loving him. She mourns and pines away until only her voice is left, doomed only to repeat the last few words in the sentences she hears. As a punishment, Narcissus is doomed to fall in love with his reflection. In this way, Narcissus suffers precisely what he inflicts on others: he cannot receive his own love and eventually he, like poor Echo, wastes away until all that is left is the flower that bears his name.

This is all very well, but is this Christian?


As Christians, we are to be in the world but not of it. We may observe the story told about Narcissus and ask ourselves, “is this true? Is God telling us something through this story?” Indeed He is, and He uses St Paul to explain it to us in one of his most famous pieces of writing to us.
He tells us quite clearly: we can be expert communicators, we can be the wisest scholars, we can be the most generous person there is yet, if we do not have love, then we have already become nothing. Like both Narcissus and Echo, if our love is not really the Love that God is, we have already wasted away. What has gone wrong?


Looking carefully at what St Paul says, the work that we do to become expert communicators, wise, and generous people is not true love because any love that we are showing is being directed inwardly towards ourselves. We can give up everything we have for the sole purpose of gaining respect and affection of others. Some people do indeed do that. They are prepared to make sacrifices so that they can manipulate others through some form of respect and admiration. If our motivation is not from true love, then everything that we do, and everything that we are actually becomes nothing. It will all pass away when we die, and we shall die indeed because God is not there.

Much of the problems in society come about because people think they know what love is. They will demand the right to love whomsoever they want and express that love however they want. Yet, if we look very closely at their language of rights and love, we see that they are motivated only by a ghost of what love is. Many people behave like Narcissus and spurn true love in favour of a love that bigs up their own achievements or even their own beliefs about who they say they are. They reduce themselves to just being a communicator, a wise man, or a “nice guy”, or something else and expect us to love only that aspect of them. It’s like writing your name on a piece of paper and telling people to love that paper rather the real you, the you that really is, not a nothing that really isn’t.

What is this love, then?


It’s very simple. God creates us. God wants to create us. God has no need to create us. He does so out of no desire for Himself, but rather that we should be. This is His love and it is directed out from Himself to us, not back in on Himself.

Our love for others needs to be directed out from ourselves. This is why St Paul says, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.”

People who suffer for the good of others and are kind direct their love out from themselves. People who envy, or puff themselves up, or behave in an unseemly fashion, or get irritated, these are concerned only with something about themselves.


The trouble is, we now face the Joey Tribbiani question. Is there anything that we human beings do that isn’t actually selfish in some way? Possibly. Possibly not. However, one thing is clear: we cannot be anything unless we have love and draw that love from God Himself. Lent is about an examination of our relationship with God and working on turning to Him as our Creator. As long as we are looking to Him and to Him alone, whatever we do doesn’t matter for it will always be done with Love.

Come May, the narcissus will be gone, wasted away into itself. Will we?

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Your credentials, please!

Sermon for Septuagesima

You hear a woman calling in the street, "repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" Of course, you feel uncomfortable by this brazen display of being religious, but one of the questions that might go through your mind is, "who is she to say that?"

What might make us trust her message? What will give us confidence that she is qualified to go around and preach this discomfort?

What if she is a doctor of divinity from Oxbridge?
What if she is a Dominican nun?
What if she is well known for having visions from God?
What if she is an Anglican Catholic?


Everyone who makes some authoritative statement in today's society has to present their credentials so that people can be satisfied that they have the required authority and suitability for issuing that statement. We would expect someone who says, "the UK Economy will grow, this year" to have had much experience of working in the global financial industry. Likewise, we would expect someone who says, "Chocolate Orange causes ingrown toenails" to have a medical degree and substantial time in medical research before we accept that.

St Paul has to go through this procedure too. His previous message to the Church in Corinth has caused many in that Church to question his credentials. "Who is he to say that to us?" they say as St Paul takes them to task on their obsession with spiritual gifts. The trouble is that the Corinthians will not hear his message - they will not hear the word of God - until it is shown to be acceptable to their earthly way of thinking. They have ears, but they will not hear it with those ears until they cry out to Our Lord Jesus for those earth-filled ears to be unblocked.

You hear that woman's voice again! "Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!" Is this woman speaking God's will?


You might call into question her credentials. Perhaps she got her doctorate in Divinity by bribery or studied some obscure topic such as "breakfasts of the apostles." Perhaps she has just been expelled from the Dominican Order for preaching too loudly. Perhaps her visions of God are due to a lithium imbalance in the brain. Perhaps she is one of those people who claim to be Anglican Catholic but is just using the name to validate her own sect.

If we don't want to hear the message, it's very easy to discredit the messenger.

And that's the problem. Sometimes, we focus too much on the messengers than the messages that they bring.

St Paul know this well. He regards his own credentials as being magnificently irrelevant. All that he has done, all that he has experienced, all that might give him some qualification, all that might earn him respect, all can be called into question by others because they cannot experience St Paul's life for themselves. There is no worth in his actions that will convince everyone that he is telling the truth.

This is why he is asking us to listen to his message, and evaluate that.

There she goes again, "repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!"


Suddenly, the women herself becomes irrelevant, though she is infinitely precious in the eyes of God. It is her words that we hear.

If we are good and if we are honest, we will recognise those words as being of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

Do we, too, ask Our Lord to present His credentials before we will listen to Him?

If we're Christian, there will be one thing that will convince us that this is His message and that His message is true, and that is His Cross. It is that Cross that has the most impact, the most earth-shattering, curtain-rending, heaven-rending impact which must convince the Christian of the truth of the message. This impact we call Glory.

This is how we know whether a message is true - does it bear the glory of Christ's Cross? Does it present the great truth of God made man, born, crucified, risen and ascended? If it does and holds the truth of the Gospel, the message that the Church has always possessed, then it is true and the person of the messenger is irrelevant. For this is the word of God and, in the good and honest heart, it will grow and bear fruit.

You don't need a degree in fruit-bearing for that to happen.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

He can lead us into temptation but a pencil must be lead

Recently, Pope Francis has (again) courted controversy this time with his views on the Lord's Prayer. He takes issue with "lead us not into temptation" because he says, "A father does not do that, a father helps you to get up immediately." He prefers to say, "do not let us fall into temptation".

The trouble is that the Greek text which is the earliest record of what the Lord says does say quite clearly "lead us not into temptation". The Greek word is eisenegkēs - "may you bring into..." - a very clear expression of us being led by God. However, what does this actually mean? Is God responsible for putting us into positions where we can be tempted away from Him.

There is an apparent contradiction here:

1) God wills us nothing but Good.
2) God might lead us into temptation.

We must appreciate the hurt and scandal that our Patriarch is trying to address here. There seems to be an inconsistency in God's behaviour towards us. However, we need to try and unpack what Our Lord says when He tells us to pray "lead us not into temptation."

The Greek word peirasmos can mean an experiment, trial or a test. When the Lord is taken into the desert specifically to be tempted (peirasthÄ“nai) of the Devil in St Matthew iv.1, who does the leading? Answer: the Holy Spirit.  God leads His Son into temptation! In verse 7, we hear "Thou shalt not put the Lord to the test" and the verb "putting to the test" (ekpeiraseis) is again related to peirasmos.

It seems that when the Lord tells us to pray "lead us not into temptation" He means it. What of Pope Francis' objections?

It is clear that we need to understand peirasmos. What is temptation?

When we are tempted, we are faced with a choice: there is one choice which is immediately preferable but has serious consequences; there is another which appears hard but ultimately will bring about some good. The chocolate biscuit tastes nice, but not having diabetes is nicer. It seems, then, that temptation is a battle of wills.

Consider the Agony in the Garden. A choice presents itself to Our Lord Himself who seems never to be free from temptation in the way we are only He does not sin. This Agony comes from a very simple question, "Do I have to be crucified?" His Father's will has led Him to this occasion in which the temptation arises. The Lord's human will is tempted, but He aligns it to the Father's will which causes this agony. Our Lord articulates this desire that the cup should pass from Him and, in doing so, He presents His human will to God and thus gives it the respect of its God-given dignity. However, He seeks only the will of His Father.

Our Lord knows what it is to be led into temptation, and He doesn't wish it upon us. He does not want us to suffer, but knows that we must because of the very nature of what it is to love. Love opens itself up to be wounded: there must be agony. God does not want suffering, but suffering is necessary for some greater good that we cannot understand but rather must accept as we learn to trust God.

It is clear that, by telling us to pray not to be led into temptation, Our Lord is saying that we should not want to be put into this position of having to choose between God and not-God. What we should want is for there to be no choice for us to make, that things should be clear-cut if not easy. This means being utterly aligned to the Father's will even as He is.

It also seems that Our Lord is tempted so that we shouldn't have to be.

Thus, we need to voice to God that we do not seek out to be tempted - we do not want the martyr's death - but rather prefer the stable, quiet life in God. We can see this if we try making the opposite prayer: "lead us into temptation!" While this might appear the prayer of a champion of the Faith to test his resolve, we notice that it would be a prayer for Pelagianism: we seek to earn our way into heaven by overcoming temptation off our own merit.

Thus, perhaps we should see "lead us not into temptation" as a prayer for grace to live out God's will knowing our own weakness and fallibility. We have to fear temptation knowing that, with the best will in the world, we will probably fall so very far short by choosing the path of sin. In praying not to be led into temptation, we are praying to rely on God's grace in the face of temptation and receive our salvation at His hands.

If he is indeed questioning what is in plain scripture, Pope Francis may be inadvertently opening up major Catholic Teaching to question. If the Lord's Prayer doesn't say what it says, then why shouldn't other words of Our Lord say something different? Are the Jehovah's Witnesses actually right when they believe that Our Lord says, "this represents my body" instead of "this is my body"? If this is what he is saying, does our venerable patriarch not make it possible for Protestant innovations to become normalised?

Perhaps he isn't saying this after all. I know that I am fallible but, then again, so is he!

Friday, February 02, 2018

The Holy Family presents....

At the beginning of many of of our television programmes and films, our ears are usually sandblasted with a loud jingle and a title card saying "Cosmos Actors present..." To be honest, once our ears have stopped ringing, those first seconds of any film aren't the bit we remember, nor should they be. We don't discuss the title cards around the water cooler the next day. "Did you see Warmer Bothers' latest introduction to the film last night?"

It seems that the big showy music and logo-building aren't really anything save a declaration of who produced the show. We forget it almost immediately when the film gets going.

Yet, in the temple, an ordinary couple make a presentation to God through an aged, tired priest. No jingle, no logo, no title card, just a presentation of a baby to God as has always been done according to Jewish Law. The sacrifice is a bare minimum according to the poverty of this couple. The woman is here to give thanks for her childbearing and for His tender care through a time of very delicate health. Very few might think anything of it.

And yet in this action, the last action of Christmastide, the child presented to God is God Himself. Like holding a mirror up to a mirror, the presentation becomes reflected back, not just on The Holy Family but for us all. God presents His only begotten Son to the world.

There is no great miracle here, just simple recognition by two elderly people who have waited their entire lives to see this, It is the title card for the end of their earthly lives and the beginning of the journey into Eternity. They don't need the miracles, they just need God.

The world demands flash-bang soundbites and logos before it will respect anything, and this respect will be shortlived when the next flash-bang happens. The Christian life is about the constant presentation of ourselves to God as we are and as He knows us to be. To Him, this is more a cause of rejoicing than any empty noise of vanity could hope to engender in the Divine Countenance. We approach God simply, cognisant of our Sin, yet being bold to stand and present ourselves as we are trusting in absolutely nothing that we have done, but in His manifold and great mercies.