15th Per Annum 2019
There are a whole host of things that we know exist but whose presence we cannot see. For example this building has the foundations holding us up. We cannot see them but we know they must be there for otherwise we would be covered in brick dust and wood following the collapse of the building. Think too of a children’s entertainer playing with a puppet. All we see is the puppet making jokes, falling over, but we know the hand is there.
This relationship between what we can see and what we can’t see is I want to think about this evening. Human society can be so bland that all we ever think about is what we can see, what is immediately visible to us, and we end up with a very two-dimensional view of life. Brothers and sisters, our faith will expand our horizons and make us realise how glorious is this creation that God has made for us.
In our first reading, Moses is trying to make the people realise the proximity, the closeness of the Law to them: “The Word is very near to you.” God’s presence that he is pointing to is a general presence, one in which we can say - and it’s perfectly true to say, - “God is everywhere.” But the truth of God’s presence does not spring from the fact that He is everywhere but rather that He is somewhere. “Our God is in heaven,” the people exclaim with joy (Psalm 115). When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the presence of God, His very self, being born as a particular person, Christ Jesus our Lord. In our own lives today, we know God is everywhere but we also know Him to be in particular places, in those whom we serve, in the life of the Church and supremely under the forms of Bread and Wine that will become for us the Lord’s Body and Blood.
Moses wanted people to follow the Law so that they could be united to the Lord our God in their heart and in their soul. In other words, the visible following of the commandments was to show an internal disposition and acceptance of faith in God. And so Jesus teaches us, “You will know them by their fruits… every good tree bears good fruit but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-17). So we’d do well every day throughout our lives to ask ourselves what fruit do we bear? The fruit is something good that God wants us to do. Sometimes it will be fruit that we are duty-bound to produce because of our work or school work or it the fruit will be responsibilities to our families or our brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes the fruit will be produced each and everyday, other types of fruit will be one-offs. There are spiritual fruits like coming to Mass or saying a prayer or being humble or honest. There are fruits of charity like caring for someone or saying something kind. But these visible fruits show us to be united to the one true Vine, Jesus the Saviour.
We heard the amazing parable of the Good Samaritan this evening and through this story Jesus is trying to get us to think about the fruits we bear. The Levite and the Priest were presumably worried that by touching the man who was left half dead they would be ritually impure by the standards of their own day. In many ways they were doing what a religious person was expected to do. But it wasn’t good enough, for it shows they were too concerned with their own agenda, their own lives, their own happiness, their own holiness and not concerned with bearing fruit.
I put the word “virtues” into a Google search engine and came up with a programme on Channel 4 that I’d not heard of. We are to produce virtues within, these gifts that God gives to those united to Him, in whom the Spirit works and labours and brings marvels. These virtues are dispositions to doing the right thing and might be worth us praying over during this Mass: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and love. But these virtues are aligned to the realm of our heart, which brings me on to the second thing I want us to think about.
There is also however a different category of people we need to be wary of and concerned we do not become like, namely the sort of person who seems to be bearing lots of fruit, whose life is kindness and goodness, sorted in many respects, successful in the eyes of the world. But what is in that person’s heart? Is there a lively faith in Jesus Christ? What are the intentions of that person? For sometimes people who do kind things do so through selfishness or fear or because they want to be praised by others. These sorts of people are condemned by Jesus using a wonderfully descriptive phrase: “Woe to you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” It’s a powerful image and we are to be sure we cannot be condemned of such sin.
On Thursday we celebrated the Feast of St Benedict, who did so much to encourage people to live by a rule of life based on poverty and humility, rather than the pursuit of comfort and fame. His morals and deep Christian Faith led him even to be unpopular among many of his fellow monks who were so disdainful of his attempts to get them to be closer to Christ that they even tried several times to poison him: once in the wine he would drink and once in the bread he would eat. As he said a little prayer over the poisoned wine before he drank it, the glass shattered. Similarly, just as he was about to eat the poisoned bread, a raven came and took it away from him to save the imperilled saint. What looked good and wholesome on the outside was deathly on the inside. May St Benedict pray for us to discern what is truly good and who is truly holy.
So, what’s inside us? Why do we do what we do and not do what we don’t do? Do we help folk when we know others will notice or because we know that that person will give us a Christmas present if we do? Do we only worship God when we need an insurance policy against life’s problems or do we come to Mass even when we’re not really in the mood?
Be warned, my friends, it can be quite difficult to know our intentions, our secret thoughts. One of the disarming things about God is that He knows us so well and I often wonder if at some level, people leave the Church because the encounter with God can be too much for them: the realisation that God knows all the secrets of our hearts is disarming because we spend so much time as human beings creating an image for ourselves, an image of being able to cope or being emotionally secure of not really caring or of caring a lot. But God knows what’s really there and He’ll know us better than we know ourselves. Remember the words of Psalm 139, “O Lord you have searched me and known me … You discern my thoughts from far away.” As Christians, we are to learn to surrender ourselves to God and His will and His all-perceiving knowledge.
“No one has ever seen God,” writes St John, but we perceive Him through His works: the Heavens declare Him to be sovereign and the Spirit’s transforming power recognises God’s continuing activity in the world, thus bread and wine can be transformed in a few moments so as to be the Lord’s Bod and Blood, nourishing God’s people. We too must allow the same Spirit to adopt us as God’s children and to be powerful testimony that God is here because we will live our lives accordingly. We need to have both sincerity in what we do and in our worship, but we also are to ensure that it’s more than good intentions or happy thoughts. So, be sure to produce fruit and be sure that fruit is grounded in a faith-filled heart. Amen.