Go and be welcomed

Below is the text of my first homily given at All Saints ANeW at the Saturday vigil service for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.

St Alphonsus Rodriguez S.J. blessing St Peter Claver S.J.

THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST – YEAR A

Matthew 10:40-42

Good evening, how are you all?

I’m certainly blessed to be with you in the presence of God, to hear Jesus speaking to us.

In fact, if you look in a red-letter bible, you’ll see that almost the whole of chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel is red. It’s almost all Jesus speaking.

This evening, we heard only three short verses, but these three, short, verses are densely packed.

They come right at the very end of the chapter in which Jesus calls and commissions the 12 apostles. These are the final words he gives to the chosen disciples in preparation for the mission he will give them.

These 12 men were given the apostolic task of extending the Kingdom: which is still the task of the apostolic ministry, which has continued to this day.

Jesus said in the previous chapter that the harvest is great, but the workers are few.

He has said that some towns will accept them and others will not: that some won’t like the message that they bring, and those who reject Jesus will surely reject his disciples.

Jesus told them to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves,

and he promised that He is with them, even as he sends them out; and that God the Father knows each of them intimately.

Now in the Old Testament, God sent the prophets; in the New Testament, Jesus sends the disciples.

The prophets carried God’s message to the Nation of Israel. The disciples carry the message to the nations.

Jesus brought the revelation of God’s plan of salvation to the Earth; the disciples are now being prepared to carry it to the ends of the earth.

Jesus says:

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

There is a story in the memoirs of St Alphonsus Rodriguez. Now I love this story.

When Alphonsus was 26, he married his love Maria, and they had three children. Five years after they were married, his wife and two of his children had died and in his grief he turned to the Lord and dedicated himself to prayer.

After his third child died, when he was 39, he decided to enter a religious order and so he joined the Jesuits. He wasn’t well-educated, he was never ordained as a priest, he never wrote a theological treatise, and never served as a missionary.

Instead, he was given a humble position as the porter; a position he held for 46 years until he died.

Alphonsus says that each time the bell rang, he looked at the door and imagined that it was Jesus standing on the other side. He said that each time he went to open the door, he went with the words ‘I’m coming, Lord’.

We often want to be the ones doing the welcoming, but being the ones who are welcoming means being the ones who are staying at home. Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to stay at home waiting for people to come along. He asked them to go out. He sent them on mission.

It would be natural and right and good for us to read these three verses and hear Jesus to asking us to be welcoming.

It would be true to the spirit of the Gospel and to our lives as Christians, and yes, we should welcome others as if we were welcoming God, but I don’t believe that is Jesus’ intention here.

If we listen a little more deeply as Jesus speaks to the disciples, I think that what we’ll hear is Jesus’ instructions to the disciples about how they can recognise true and reverent welcome, that honours God.

I’ll read the passage again, and when you listen this time, keep in mind that the ones who do the welcoming are those yet to receive the Gospel, and the ones who are being welcomed are those bringing the Gospel.

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

To hear what Jesus is saying here, it’s helpful if we can shift our focus away from seeing ourselves as ones welcoming, to seeing ourselves as the ones carrying the Gospel out and being welcomed, and we’ll see what difference that would make to the way we love God and love others.

What if we, as the church, as those called by Jesus Christ and commissioned by him to be his hands and feet in the world, what if we truly saw ourselves as the disciples?

Are we missionaries, or are we the ones receiving missionaries?

Our church supports a number of missionaries, and I don’t know about you, but I know that I often see missionaries as those who are able to drop everything and go serve somewhere else. I mean, I have a family and obligations. How can I be a missionary, but is this what a missionary is? Can we not also be missionaries in our daily lives?

How are we as a church family living out our calling to be a community of mission?

How are you living out your daily calling as a missionary?

God has given each of us a task, a specific way that God, being gracious, has invited us to exercise His ministry in service of the community. We Christians imbue the activities and institutions of society with moral values. If you have received the Gospel, Jesus is asking you to share it.

In going out, seeking to be welcomed and to share the Gospel, it is important that we also live in a way that is worthy of welcome. To be welcomed as a righteous person, we must indeed be righteous.

Without God’s grace and mercy, we find that it is very difficult to live in a way that shows others that God is Holy, Good and worthy of honour, and so we pray that God would send his Spirit to sanctify our lives.

Many people upon hearing the saving message of Jesus think it’s all too difficult, they question whether they are worthy and they are tempted to give up before they have begun. Sin skews our vision in this way so that we’re made blind to its effects, which are death. We can feel so caught in sin that we cannot be saved. Even if they are willing to receive the Gospel with faith, they may feel that they have nothing to give in return.

Jesus has given us the tools here to comfort and encourage those who are poor and poor in spirit. Jesus clearly says that being able to give nothing in return does not mean that you cannot receive the Gospel. Our Christian hope transcends unbelief, shame, and unworthiness.

At the time Jesus lived, those who were poor may not have even had fuel to spare to light a light and boil water, but Jesus says that “even a cup of cold water” is enough to receive his disciples, and so receive Him.

God sees you in your suffering, in your pain, and in your poverty of spirit, and he sends his disciples and thereby, his Son, to walk with you. We do not need to wait to be with Jesus: His Spirit is with us.

God bears with us, even when the work seems difficult, or even impossible.

He shows up again and again to walk with us, and I’m sure if we had a chat later on, you could tell me times where God has come alongside you. I would love to hear those stories if you’re willing to share.

But what of welcoming as we usually think of it? Well it might be helpful if we reframe the purpose of welcoming, in terms of inviting.

When we welcome people into our church services and activities, we are not welcoming them with our own authority. The gift of the Gospel and Church, as the body of Christ, is not ours to give on our own terms, but instead, we are called to lay ourselves aside, offer the Gospel in the love which which we received it and pray that they would welcome Jesus, who sends us.

So in welcoming others to church, we invite them to come with us and be welcomed by the God who embraces all of his children.

This passage is both an assurance of blessing and a call to action.

We are called to BE disciples: To be doers of the Word and not hearers only.

God humbly came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, taking on our human nature, and Jesus now asks that we would humble ourselves in imitation of Him, going outside of ourselves, and offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, allowing others to welcome us and the Gospel that we bring.

Yes, we will be despised and rejected by some, and welcomed by others, but we should not be afraid. God is in control, and we should set our eyes on Him with a love that greater than the love we have for anything else.

We have not been asked to do this work alone, but we are commanded to do it, and Jesus has shown us in these verses what true welcome looks like from those who have hearts open to him.

We are all missionaries in our God-given ways, called to serve God and one another in the capacities He has given us.

But to do so, we need to go out and be welcomed.

So as we finish this chapter of the Gospel, and as we come up this evening to receive communion with faith, we are assured of Jesus’ love for each one of us, of his welcoming presence with us, and we can have confidence to take the Gospel out into the world.

May each of you know his love today and forever.

Amen.

The Visitation

Below is the text of my second homily, given for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.

The Visitation – Jerónimo Ezquerra (1660 – 1733)

THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT – YEAR C

Hebrews 10:5-10 & Luke 1:26-38

Christmas is not yet here, and so on this fourth Sunday in Advent, we still have time to prepare our hearts as we wait to recognise the coming of our Lord in the birth of Jesus Christ, son of Mary, and son of the Most High.

Let’s reflect on the gift that we are about to receive and how we might prepare to receive Him.

Giving a gift is an act of love. In giving a gift, weseparate something from our self for the good of another. We make a loving sacrifice. When we are presented with a gift, we are presented with an invitation: an invitation to respond with thanksgiving. We are invited to enter more fully into the promise of a relationship that a gift offers, and this requires that we orient ourselves towards the other, not only in our attitude, but in our action.

Now, try to remember the best gift you’ve ever received. It might have been for your birthday, or Christmas, whatever the occasion, remember that gift. Think about what it felt like as you unwrapped it. Did you carefully peelaway the wrapping, or did you tear it open in excitement? What happened inside you when you saw it for the first time? What did you feel? Were your surprised? Did you laugh? Did you cry? Did you stare at it in wonder?

A carefully chosen gift matches the precise character and needs of the person receiving it. A well-chosen gift makes us feel loved, makes us feel seen for who we are.

The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews has Jesus referencing the burnt offerings and sin offerings that were required according to the Law of Moses, he then adds “See, God, I have come to do your will.”

It is written that Jesus abolishes the first in order to establish the second, and yet Jesus said he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it, and so he does. The coming of Jesus Christ and His victorious work on the cross is the great Yes to all the promises made to Israel.

He is the gift from God that perfectly meets the character and needs of the people of Israel.

For us Christians not to understand the temple, the prophets, the covenant and the Law is not to understand the person of Jesus Christ. All these things bring God and humankind together. They exist to align the will of God’s people with the will of God. At the heart of Christianity, we have the perfection of this alignment in one man, the perfect union of human and Divine, the perfection that Israel had so longed, waited, and hoped for.

And so we also wait, and we prepare.

For the first half of Advent, the readings have focussed our hearts and minds on the second coming of Christ, but in these last two weeks, our focus shifts to his first coming, and on this final Sunday, now so close to Christmas, the Gospel readings hone in on the pregnant mother of our Lord.

We pick up the story just after the Angel Gabriel has announced to Mary that she will bear a son. Mary has responded with her great Yes to God’s promise.

In saying Yes, she has offered herself as the new ark of the covenant, the ark that will hold and keep safe the Word of God until he enters the world at Christmas. She offers her motherly lap as the throne on which the infant Christ will sit. But what does she do then? What should we do once we trust in God’s promises? Mary gives us the model to follow.

The reading starts: ‘Mary set out and went with haste”. Her faithful response to God is followed by action. She sets out. Her faith is not idle. She has been given a promise by God, and in that promise, she finds purpose, which she runs to share in communion with another.

When she entered the house of Zechariah, she greeted Elizabeth. This greeting is an echo of the greeting Mary received from theAngel Gabriel. Mary comes to Elizabeth bearing good news of the gift of Salvation. Mary comes bearing a gift from God.

Upon receiving Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, the Essence of God that is given by the Father, received by the Son, and poured out on the disciples at Pentecost in the self-giving love of the Trinity.

Elizabeth says to Mary “Blessed is she who believed”. But how is she blessed? Blessed here means a joy which is serene and untouchable. It is disconnected from the distractions and trappings of the world, the constant temptation to look away from God.

It is a blessedness which is grounded in faith and in the promises of God, and so cannot be touched, and yet it is a blessedness that would come to pierce the Blessed Mother’s heart as she watched her son die on the cross.

Upon receiving Mary’s greeting, her child leapt in her womb. John the Baptist recognises Christ and rejoices. Even in the womb, John recognised his Lord – such was his purpose.

We know that John will soon call us to repentance and baptism in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. John calls us to repent in order that we too might recognise Christ. So how can we hope to recognise our Lord if we are not facing Him? The first step in preparing to receive the gift of Salvation made present at Christmas, is to confess our sins and turn to Christ.

Is it possible for anyone to know you better than you know yourself? It is a difficult thing to believe, and we easily slip back into thinking that we know what is best for ourselves, and that we must prove ourselves worthy. When we live this way, are we living in the Grace of God? TheGrace of God is not that he has graciously provided some means for us to earn our way into Heaven: that is pride. No, the gates of the Kingdom are already open to all, and yet we all suffer from the blindness of pride. We all think we know ourselves, our desires and our needs better than anyone else, including God. If we think we have nothing to confess, we may well be mistaken. All are called to repentance.

In these last days of Advent, can I encourage you to examine your conscience? Would it help you to prayerfully review your thoughts, words, and deeds at the end of the day? If we can build up a habit of confessing our sins to one another, continually turning to Christ, we might better prepare ourselves to respond to the invitation of God’s love this Christmas.

Left on our own, our natural tendency is to drift along the wide road, away from God. The good news that Mary shares with Elizabeth is that we have not been left alone. We have been called to enter the narrow gate. We will each be given an invitation this Christmas. Will we respond with our lives?

God, in his infinite love, graces us with his eternal presence in a way that precisely meets each of us in our particular character and needs. Christianity is truly catholic, truly universal, the perfect gift given by God to all the people of the world. God knows the desires of your heart, but more than that he sees and shares in your need, and in your suffering, and he offers you Himself.

My heart turns to those who will join us for Christmas, those who have not been here in a while, and those who we might not see again for some time. I ask you to pray about how you might embrace them. I pray that something might stir in them during our Christmas celebrations, that they might hear the call and the beauty of the life of the church, its seasons, and its loving people. I pray that we too might even today as we share communion together, know that we are receiving the perfect gift, the gift that Mary bears for us: God Himself.

The Lord be with you.

Learning the Virtues – Romano Guardini

An excellent book. Guardini expounds the intricacies of each virtue firstly as commonly understood, then in their subtlety as illuminated by grace, and finally the manner in which they emmanate from the character of God.
Full of wisdom leading towards personal responsibility and Godly depth of character, ‘Learning the Virtues’ awakens a longing for one’s own potential; not as a possession of the individual, but as a gift from God, which we each must cultivate.