“Yes, I am a king”. Jesus’ answer to Pilate is clear and unambiguous. Pilate, though not a king, is the representative of a powerful empire, the Roman Empire; an empire dominant for many centuries; an empire that is definitely “of this world”. However, Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world”. It is in the world but not of it. Pilate’s position depends on military might. That is why Jesus was handed over to him. However, Jesus’ followers are “those who are on the side of truth”. Jesus’ vocation was to be a “witness to the truth”.
Because Jesus is a witness to the truth, he is also the way that leads to truth for us. In fact, he embodies truth. In contemplating Jesus, we assimilate the truth. In listening to the word of God in the Gospels, in pondering it, in reflecting on what we find there - perhaps imagining the gospel scene, we come closer to the truth.
The truth that Jesus lived out in his life is both simple and radical. “He loved us and washed away our sins by his blood”. He even forgave “those who pierced him” and crucified him on a cross. “Father, forgive them …” He invites us to give our lives for his Father’s glory; for God’s greater glory. He invites us to work for others; for the common good. This is a simple message but hardly an easy one.
Jesus demands a radical following; a going back to the roots of our faith. Unfortunately radicalisation has acquired a new and pernicious meaning in English recently: an extremism that leads to hatred. Christian radicalisation is totally different. Saint John says: “to hate your brother or sister is to be a murderer” (1 John 3: 15). Rather, Christian radicalism invites us to a “real and active” love for our brothers and sisters. The Feast of Christ the King invites us to follow Christ our leader, the Good Shepherd, the Good Samaritan; to assimilate the Truth that will lead us to Life.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, with his disciples who have left everything to follow him. Persecution is likely. A rich man comes before Jesus with great enthusiasm: he runs, he kneels. Jesus looks at him with love. Yet he is the only person in the Gospels who refuses Jesus’ call. What went wrong?
Was there a touch of the Pharisee in him? Is he saying: “what will guarantee me eternal life?” This attitude is not good enough! Jesus loved him and looks for love in return. Jesus looks for a personal commitment. Nothing less than letting go of his “great wealth” would suffice.
Are we invited to do the same? Jesus’ context needs some reflection. For 30 years Jesus seems to have led a fairly normal life. But then this hectic, on-the-road life; nowhere to lay his head; every minute focused on preaching the good news; doing as much as he could before the showdown in Jerusalem. The rich man would have known about this itinerant life-style. Perhaps he had no family obligations but in the end his “great wealth” held him back.
What are we invited to do? First of all we must look at the context God has given us. Students must study. Married people must care for one another and for their families. God doesn’t expect me to go off next week to preach the good news in, say Leeds, and the week after in London. My work is here! We are invited in our present context to ask how we put our “great wealth” at the service of God and others. As we do so, I think today we are more aware that our “great wealth” includes all the gifts we have; especially the knowledge and skills we possess or, as students, are in the process of acquiring.
Listening prayerfully to the word of God is fundamental. God’s word is “alive and active”. Let God’s word into your thoughts and emotions and it will help you. Praying for wisdom is essential. “I prayed and understanding was given me; I entreated and Wisdom came to me”. You too with prayer can be as wise as Solomon. Prayer gives you space and time and help to find God’s will.
I would encourage you to take all the steps you can to deepen you relationship with Christ. I would encourage you to get involved with all the helps provided by the chaplaincy. In some way they will all help to open your mind to the word of God.
“You hypocrites”! This is how Jesus addresses the Scribes and Pharisees. This is Jesus’ response to their criticism of his disciples not keeping Jewish customs; customs which were highly scrupulous and had little spiritual or religious value. In fact these customs were dangerous. They did not honour God. They led to lip-service. Words and actions which did not come from the heart.
“Hypocrite” is originally a Greek word, meaning actor. In classical Greek actors wore masks. If an actor had three parts in the same play, he didn’t have to change his clothes for each different parts but he had to change his mask. A hypocrite was an actor who wore different masks. So you can see how the word hypocrite came to mean the attitudes we put on; especially false attitudes; professing beliefs, feelings or virtues we don’t possess.
The Scribes and Pharisees had collected an endless number of pious practices, which earned them the reputation of holiness. In their actions and in their hearts, many of them neither honoured God nor loved their neighbour. Hence Jesus calls them hypocrites; in the harsh words of Saint Matthew “whited sepulchres“, “blind guides”. You never got through to them; only to the mask they wore.
To some extent in our democratic culture hypocrites are denounced. Some succumb to the persistent probing of the Guardian newspaper; others fall foul of the Daily Mail’s irrepressible ire. But what about us? Could Jesus rightly say to us, “You hypocrites?” My suggestion is that we hold a crucifix in our hands, sit before the Blessed Sacrament or alone in our private room; begging Jesus to reveal any element of self-deception in our lives; begging him to show me clearly if in any way I am living a lie; asking for rigorous honesty. We want an eye-to-eye relationship with Jesus that will melt our hardness of heart, our duplicity, so that Jesus can “nurture in us what is good.”
Complaining is commonplace. Life’s annoyances and problems see to that. Complaining gets things done. The Israelites complained about Moses’ wilderness menu. God provided quails and bread from heaven. Yet complaining, especially constant complaining, is quietly destructive of relationships, of community, of public life.
Jesus had to endure the complaints of the Scribes and Pharisees about the message he preached and his way of life. Sometimes he is very tough with them, calling them hypocrites and whited sepulchres. In today’s gospel he is disappointed that their interest in him focuses on his satisfying their human needs (the bread they received at the feeding of the 5000). Why couldn’t they see that this sign, this miracle, pointed to God’s power, his Father’s power working through him?
We must be watchful and not allow complaining (“God never answers my prayers”), self-depreciation (“I’m not good enough”), spiritual desolation (“I’m cut off from God”) and many such negative assertions to twist and distort our spiritual lives. In Gethsemane Jesus prayed that the chalice of suffering might be taken away. Yet when he realised it was God’s will, he accepted it. He doesn’t complain as he carries his cross to Calvary, but prays for the safety of the “women of Jerusalem”. He doesn’t complain on the cross but lovingly encourages the “good thief”; he even prays for his persecutors. “Father, forgive them…
Gratitude, thanksgiving, not complaints characterise the Christian. If you come to the Eucharist, thanksgiving for God’s gifts (for thanksgiving is what Eucharist means) is what we are about in this church. If you search for the meaning of life, for the bread of life, hear Jesus’ words: “I am the bread of life”. Jesus totally satisfies hunger, quenches thirst. If you come close to Jesus, your life will not be aimless. You will become involved in a spiritual revolution, finding a new self, your best self, caught up in the most certain way to goodness, holiness and truth.
“To be sent” is a defining characteristic of Christianity. The angel Gabriel "was sent” by God to Mary to initiate the work of our redemption.
John the Baptist “was sent” to prepare the way for Jesus. Reflecting on his own mission and on the mission he is now giving to his disciples, Jesus says: “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you”. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are told: “Go, make disciples of all nations”. After Pentecost the apostles are sent by the Spirit to preach: and especially to pagan, non-Jewish nations.
This “being sent”, this defining orientation of Christianity, comes from God’s very nature. Thomas Aquinas thinks of God as an “outpouring of God’s very self”, an outpouring of love; God cannot but pour himself out. Human beings are the result of this self-outpouring of God. Likewise, we must manifest God’s love to others. It is part of our Christian DNA to be sent to others. Made in the image and likeness of God, we cannot but announce to others God’s wonderful works.
When I was a novice, some 55 years ago, we had practice sermons. At the end of my very first sermon the priest in charge commented: “Well, Brother Tomlinson, you’ve got a lovely voice but nothing to say”. You may want to tell me afterwards that little progress has been made but it made me realise that being a Jesuit, being a priest, this “being sent” was a serious business. I’d better get down to prayer and study.
Today’s thinking is that not only priests and religious are “sent” to proclaim the Good News. Every Christian “is sent”. “But who am I?" you might say. Let us start with the most humble. I am no prophet, says Amos. I am only a shepherd. I look after sycamore trees. But God called me and sent me. It isn’t so much what you do. It doesn’t matter whether you are prime minister or a bus driver. It is who you are, namely a baptised Christian, that is important. Anything you do as a baptised Christian has the potential to proclaim the “Good News”.
Jesus’ fellow citizens are astonished at his teaching, his wisdom, his miracles, such as last Sunday’s calming of the storm. Jesus, on the other hand, is amazed at their lack of faith. Many of you, I know, are amazed, perhaps saddened, at this country’s newly-founded militant atheism. Many of our contemporaries, on the other hand, would be astonished at the group gathered here: young and old, some local, others from distant lands. “Yes, we are gathered here because we value our faith?”
Rejection must have hit Jesus hard. Himself a prophet, he remembered the fate of Israel’s prophets. They suffered. Ezekiel was sent to Israelites, described by God as rebels, defiant and obstinate. His thankless task was to denounce them; to be God’s spokesman. What perhaps hit Jesus hardest was rejection in his own country, among his own relations, even in his own house. They trashed his wisdom, his teaching, his mighty works with malicious gossip. He is only the village carpenter. This localised rejection expanded until Calvary: “He came unto his own and his own received him not”.
Rejection, unjust, unexpected, illogical, aggressive can hit us hard. It will be most difficult when closest to home. Our initial reaction should be to defend ourselves. Jesus did. He preached the truth, he spoke the truth in love; he dialogued with the Pharisees. But there may come a time when it is all too much; when nothing can be done in the immediate future. Jesus carried on tirelessly, healing and preaching, but he couldn’t avoid Calvary.
Saint Paul experienced rejection, along with “a thorn in the flesh”, insults, hardships, persecutions. None of these does he want but faith leads him to link them with Christ and Christ’s suffering on Calvary. “When I am weak, then I am strong”. Rejection, weaknesses, lived out in union with Christ in faith, can make us strong in Christ and become seeds of faith, bringing new life and fresh hope to us and our world.
Jesus “could work no miracles” in Nazareth, his home town, because of their lack of faith. Previously, in faith filled Capernaum, miracles and mighty works abounded.
When we enter a Catholic church, we sense something special. Our genuflections may be half-hearted but signify something of importance. Even if the tabernacle is not before us, we know there will be a Blessed Sacrament chapel somewhere.
By what logic does the Almighty and Eternal God come to us with such consistent availability. A few words from Saint Thomas Aquinas are helpful “God, wishing to enable us to share in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that, by becoming a human being, he might make men and women gods”. God’s overflowing love, like irrepressible tears, cannot be held back. Against such generosity our own efforts look shabby and inadequate. Yet the torrent of love keeps flowing. This should encourage us. “Holy communion is not a reward for good boys and girls but food for the needy”. Who among us is not needy?
“To make men and women gods; divine!” One of the Fathers of the Church taught that, when we receive the body and blood of Christ, we slowly become what we receive. What we receive is divine food; the body and blood of the Lord. We are constantly told: “certain foods harm us; other foods make us healthy”. We must add: “divine food divinises us; receiving the body and blood of the Lord conforms our life to that of Christ”. This is what the phrase from Hebrews is talking about. ”The blood of Christ,” which we receive from the chalice, “can purify our inner self from dead actions”.
The history of salvation, from Abraham and Moses to today, via the Old Testament, the life death and resurrection of Christ and 2000 years of Christianity, is the story of God trying to get closer and closer to human beings; to become more intimate with men and women. Could God get closer than in the Eucharist?
El Greco depicts the resurrection, the ascension and glorification of Christ all in one. The thin, stretched body of Christ rises like a rocket heavenwards. The guards shrink in terror. Christ’s body stretches heavenwards, straining towards its spiritual future, not rejecting what is human but seeking its spiritual completion. Christ becomes what we will become.
For John, likewise, ascension and glorification at the Father’s right hand are integral to the resurrection mystery. In John Jesus seems to reign from the cross. Also, the moment Judas leaves the Last Supper, John comments “now is the Son of Man glorified”. From this moment onwards victory is assured, if not fully savoured on our part.
Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, today’s first reading, paints a picture for us. Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus was “lifted up” by God to heaven and a cloud, symbolising the presence of God, took him from their sight. Luke has spaced out the mysteries of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and glorification. We watch and understand.
Is there a contradiction between these different presentations? Not really. One view is more theological; going to the essence of what ascension means. The other is more catechetical; trying to explain spiritual realities in ways we can grasp. Thus the ascension becomes another of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to strengthen the faith of the disciples.
The letter to the Hebrews offers a third way to understand the Ascension. Hebrews compares Jesus’ Ascension into heaven with the Jewish high priest’s entry once-a-year into the Holy of Holies. Just as the high priest took the blood of calves and sheep and entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the Ark of the Covenant with the blood, so Jesus through his sacrificial death has entered heaven and taken his seat at God’s right hand.
Three points to ponder
(1) My human body defines me and is God’s gift. Christ, human like us, has ascended to heaven bodily. He has placed “our human nature, which he had united to himself” at the Father’s right hand. Christ’s ascension assures that our human bodies will one day follow and reach their full and glorious heavenly potential.
(2) Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost. Jesus, no longer among us in human form, missions the Holy Spirit to be with his Church and with each of us individually. Next Sunday’s feast will be enhanced in our community when the bishop receives 17 students into full communion with the Church.
(3) With the help of the Holy Spirit our mission is to tell the world about the Good News of Jesus Christ!
A week before the Second World War ended in Europe, my uncle Frank was killed, trying to rescue a friend from a burning tank. His friend survived. My uncle died. I was only 4 at the time. When, in later years, my mother talked about her brother, she did so with great sadness but also with much pride. Frank had truly given his life for his friend. A military honour recognised this.
Jesus’ basic commandment (his manifesto message/ his non-negotiable red line) is that “we love one another”. The supreme example of “loving one another” is to lay down one’s life for a friend. This is what Jesus did for us. “Are we ready to do the same; for our brothers and sisters?”
Where did Jesus get the strength to do this? Well, he was God, wasn’t he”. He was, indeed but it is instructive to notice how John’s Gospel puts it. Jesus’ strength came from two sources: (1) that he kept his Father’s commandments and (2) that he remained in his Father’s love.
Keeping his Father’s commandments involved doing the Father’s will. This meant taking on our human nature; preaching the Good News and accepting the consequences: namely death on a cross. But doing God’s will meant he remained in his Father’s love. That is, he never loses the intimate and profound relationship he enjoys with his Father.
As Jesus enjoyed such an intimate relationship with his Father, so he invites each one of us to enjoy an intimate and profound relationship with him. For us this will mean loving one another and doing God’s will, his Father’s will.
Talk of God’s will often seems too big a call to young people. What if one gets it wrong so early in life? Don’t worry. It is more a question of attitude/ desire than performance. As a car’s sat-nav redirects itself, when we take a wrong turning, Jesus can take care of direction changes. After all, Jesus makes a point of reminding us that we, like his disciples, are not servants but his friends.
Recently a prominent politician visited a Bolton primary school. He invited six-year old Lucy to read for him. Lucy wouldn’t read. To encourage her, he read the first line and invited her to read the second. She still refused. She was, it seemed, dumbfounded at the presence of this Westminster dignitary.
Today, as the risen victorious Jesus stands among them, his disciples are dumbfounded; agitated – their hearts a mixture of doubt and joy. They had heard the women’s story about the empty tomb; the report of what had happened on the road to Emmaus. A joy such as they had never experienced was growing in their hearts. Yet doubt persisted!
I am the one you have always known, says Jesus. “It is I, indeed”. “Look, my pierced hands and feet! Go on, touch them”. Having appealed to their senses, he appeals to their understanding. Was it not the message of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms, indeed of his own teaching, that “the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise again”? Above all, they should notice what was happening in their hearts. Just as the hearts of the two escapees to Emmaus “had burned within them”, so the joy welling up in the disciples’ hearts was the effect of Jesus’ divinity, comforting and strengthening them. “It’s OK”, says the risen Jesus. “I am here. All will be well.” Jesus offers joy and peace, elsewhere unavailable! “It is OK. I am here”
Yet there is more. You are witnesses to my life, death and resurrection, says Jesus to his disciples; to the saving events that are taking place among you; to my teaching. Truly they were faithful witnesses. Many of Jesus’ first disciples were martyrs. They gave their lives for their faith in Jesus. The word martyr, of course, simply means witness. And so we are left with the question. “Do we wish to live our lives in such a way that we give witness to our faith in Jesus?” I think the answer is “Yes”.
Ian Tomlinson SJ