GSC 27 January 2019
One of those no doubt apocryphal stories about the Royal Family is that one day someone asked one of the Queen’s household, “Does Her Majesty prefer High Church or Low Church?” To which the answer is said to have been, “Neither, Sir, but she does prefer SHORT church.” And there’s a lot to be said for short church, I must say. Whether, we’re short church or long church, high church or low church, our readings teach us in particular two things about our shared identity as members of the Church, which we can’t get away from.
First, we are to have a love of the Bible. In that first reading from Nehemiah, his priest co-worker Ezra stood on a wooden dais visibly that all might hear the word of God to be read. There was particular significance in this in that Ezra was part of a generation able to return to Jerusalem after they’d been kicked out by the Babylonians some two hundred years before Ezra’s life. Ezra is returning the Law, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible to the Temple. The place must have been oozing with excitement, just like there was here on 12 September 2010 when the first Sunday Mass was celebrated following reopening. The people in front of Ezra on that day bless God and prostrate themselves they are so overwhelmed at the immensity of God.
We are to give dignity to the Bible too. I think producing it on the Mass sheets on Sundays and Tuesdays for Mass shows we take the Bible seriously. We show respect particularly with the Gospels, the books that record the events of the life of Jesus, to whom the Scriptures must lead us. When the Gospel is read, a priest reads it, we stand up, incense is put on the thurible, we make the sign of the Cross on our minds, our lips and our hearts that we understand, perceive and love the Lord Jesus proclaimed to us. And I would encourage us all to be on time for Mass so that we can read the Bible readings through before Mass and certainly arrive in time to hear the Bible passages being read. Someone at St Mary’s once said to me they were leaving to go to a Pentecostal Church because they wanted more Bible. I pointed out we read a lot of the Bible at Mass but perhaps should also have pointed out that we do it at the start of Mass which that person was never on time for! I would also encourage to you the Study Group at St Mary’s on Tuesday evenings and the weekday Masses in both churches as further opportunities to chew over with others the bits of the Bible. It’s also of course possible to take copies of the sermon home, available on the table by the door.
St Luke, the author of the Gospel we heard, knew the importance of the Scriptures. We heard the beginning of his Gospel when he writes he wants to compose “accounts of the events that have taken place among us, exactly as these were handed down to us by those who from the outset were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” Theophilus, the person to whom St Luke wrote, did not discover his faith in God through the written word, but Luke’s Gospel was intended to strengthen him in that faith.
And one of Luke’s great gifts in his Gospel is certain stories that are so important in our Scriptures: it’s Luke who gives us beautifully crafted accounts of events like the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel telling Mary she was conceiving the Messiah (Luke 1:26-38), or like the appearance of the Risen Jesus to the two disciples on the Way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It is St Luke who records the Parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. They’re wonderful ways of communicating the truths of the Gospel: the Good Samaritan to answer the question “who is my neighbour?” and the Prodigal Son to counter the grumbling from certain people that Jesus had welcomed sinners into His presence. I fear we don’t use these stories enough in our own conversations about our Christian faith enough, and I include myself in that. When we get ourselves in a muddle in thinking about how much we should do for others, we need only have before us the image of the Shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep behind so as to find the one lost sheep and there we have the answer of a reckless love for others that we are to have (Luke 15:3-7).
And that second reading teaches us something else about the church, besides the importance of the Scriptures. We are also to be a community of love. In that second reading, Paul is saying how we are to be one body with Christ as our head, with different roles and responsibilities, but all with a part to play and all to have a concern with how the body is operating. There will be an array of gifts, Paul concludes, and that is true here at the Good Shepherd. It is for us to work out how we can support the life of our bit of the Body, the Church of God. Priests are ordained to celebrate the sacraments, to preach and to be pastors to God’s people. We are all to share though in a ministry of teaching and proclamation to those with whom we have to do day by day. We are also to share in the ministry of making sure the sacraments are celebrated in a dignified manner. If you sing, sing out. If you know the words to Mass, speak up. If you’re near the door, smile at people as they come in and welcome them. If you have loads of dosh, give it the church. If you can arrive early, arrive early. If you can read in public, sign up to help with the readers list. Someone to help wash the bits of cloth we use to wipe the chalice would be great. I could go on.
But if we were to read the next couple of verses of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we would find a very important lesson for us in the church to learn. After listing all about languages and apostles and miracles, the Blessed Apostle concludes: “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” And what follows next, my friends? That stunning description of what love is: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” For, yes, first and foremost our Christian communities are to radiate the love God has for the world. “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them,” St John says in that most powerful of assertions (I John 4:16). Love doesn’t function in the realm of the mind, simply cuddly feelings. Love is to come to the surface of our lives so we may constantly give off this sense that we love God and that our community here at the Good Shepherd is about that sacrificial love of Christ.
So, my friends, let us be renewed in our identity as members of the Church this week. The Church will be a place where the Scriptures are respected and where we listen to them, that we may find Jesus, on whose Body and Blood we feast and whose love we share with a world in desperate need of hearing that message and who are to see His wounds on us. Amen.