Sunday, April 07, 2013


Sermon preached at the Church of S. John the Baptist, Eltham
at Parish Mass on April 7th, 2013

‘Grace to you and peace from Him who is and was and who is to come’ (Rev. 1:4b)

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

So wrote Shakespeare in his play, The Merchant of Venice.  Today an increasing number of churches around the world are observing as the Feast of Divine Mercy.  It’s a devotion which began in Poland and is based on revelations to a young nun in the 1930’s, Sr. (now Saint) Faustina Kowalska.  The message she received was not new but was, and is, a reminder that God is merciful and forgiving and that we, too, must show mercy and forgiveness.  It is also a reminder of the importance for all of us to consider owning up to and seeking forgiveness for our sins.  It is a feast which has been attached to this Second Sunday of Easter because our gospel reading tells of how Jesus’ first message to the disciples concerned the grace of forgiveness:  “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them.”  But in the Divine Mercy devotion, the message takes on a powerful new focus, calling people to a deeper understanding that God’s love is unlimited and available to everyone — especially to the greatest sinners.

Now this message needs to be heard loudly and clearly at a time when so many – in church and state – are being shown to have failed in their calling.  There can be few, if any, who are not aware of the way in which priests and bishops, elected members of Parliament, the police and newspapermen and women have become corrupted.   The Church, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, continues to have to face the fact that some of its priests, religious and bishops have abused their position of trust; failed to acknowledge their guilt and not been held accountable.  Without wanting to add fuel to the flames, it needs to be said that forgiveness of sins does not mean that one is absolved of the consequence of wrong-doing.  Far from it. 

When I was a teenager I made my First Confession.  Coming to a priest and off-loading all my sins to another human being (under the ‘seal’ of confidentiality of the confessional) was a remarkable experience.  It was an ‘unloading’, a shedding of the burden of my sins of thought, word – and deed.  I knew there must be a penance and that I was not absolved from the consequences of any misbehaviour. Quite the contrary.  Penitence meant that I own my sin, promise not to sin again (by the grace of God), accept my guilt and be ready to make amends in whatever way was appropriate.  Confessing one’s sins is not about having it all swept under the carpet.  It’s about being honest, to another and, as importantly, to myself. 

Over the past fifty years I have continued to value and recognize my need to make a regular confession of my sins.  Often they are ‘small’, of apparently little consequence.  But I believe it my duty as a Christian to make my confession even though I realize the teaching of the Church of England is that ‘all may, none must and some should’.   On this Divine Mercy Sunday I am reminded of the words spoken by the priest after hearing a confession and being assured that the person intends to undertake his or her penance:

"Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church
to absolve all who truly repent and believe in him,
of his great mercy forgive you your offences;
and by his authority committed to me,
I absolve you from all your sins”

Now, apart from the matter of Sacramental Confession, there is something of fundamental importance in this gift to the church.  Jesus recognises the immense difficulty there sometimes is in offering – and accepting – forgiveness.  To withhold forgiveness, or not to offer a chance of reconciliation, creates terrible blockages for individuals and communities.  It leaves the one who cannot offer forgiveness burdened by the event.  There cannot be true peace without forgiveness.  And to offer – or to seek – forgiveness requires God’s gift of grace.

So let us look at the story about ‘doubting Thomas’. 

Thomas was one the disciple who wasn’t around when Jesus first appeared to the others.  He’d heard the story – about the women who had first brought the message that Jesus had risen from the dead.  And he’s heard the story of Jesus’ appearing to the other disciples with His message of peace.  But that wasn’t enough.  He wanted a first-hand experience; that’s understandable.  It wasn’t enough just to hear the story when all the other disciples had said they had seen Jesus.  How he entered through those doors, locked out of fear, and brought them a sense of deep peace.  ‘It’s OK, there’s nothing to be frightened of.’ 

But Thomas still had doubts because he hasn’t had the same experience.  And Jesus is gracious enough to grant Thomas what he needs – proof.  Jesus needed to leave a group of people who had the conviction to carry on his mission.  From then on, it would require faith: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Christian faith invites us to believe in the resurrection of Jesus; that there is something more about life that God wants to offer us.  Now.  Those who come for Baptism affirm this faith.  We affirm it every time we receive the Eucharist: ‘Whoever eats my body … will have everlasting life and I will raise them up on the last day.’  

But it’s not just about life after death.  It’s an invitation to grasp life now: I am deeply excited by the thought that God wants to give us all a taste – now – of the life to come.  Isn’t it wonderful and joyful to believe that we can taste that life?  That it’s not just a question of rolling out of bed each morning to face yet another day, but that this day, now, there is the gift of life held out to us.  Doesn’t that excite you?

At the end of our gospel reading St. John tells us that he wrote of these things ‘so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (20:31)   For St. John, seeing and believing are inseparable. 

If you see that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, you will believe. 

There’s a story told of a priest in Africa who was translating St. John’s Gospel into the local dialect.  There were many problems in finding the right words translate some of the English words, one such being to ‘believe’.  There was no exact word in the dialect.  So he asked one of the locals for help and, after hearing the priest explain what the word meant, the man said – “To believe means to listen with the heart.”

Each of us has had, in whatever way, an encounter with Jesus, whether we recognise that or not.  Whether we have ‘seen’ him or not.  The question for each of us is, how has my heart responded to Jesus?  Not just emotionally, but in the depths of my being.  Many saw Jesus in the flesh, and made no response.  Thomas saw with the eye of his heart, and it led him to exclaim, “My Lord, and my God!”   Some of us recognise where we have gone wrong in life, but it makes little impression on us – we do not recognise, in the depths of our heart our need for forgiveness and repentance. 

The concept of mercy is fundamental to Christianity, Judaism and Islam – in fact, to what it means to be human. 
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

At the heart of Divine Mercy is the simple fact that Jesus wants us to realise His mercy is greater than our sins.  If we call upon Him with trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us to others, all will come to share His joy.  Someone has made it their ABC:

A:  Ask for God’s Mercy.  God longs that we constantly open our hearts in prayer, repent of our sins and ask Him to pour His mercy out upon us and upon the whole world.  Lord, have mercy.

B:  Be merciful. God wants us to receive His mercy and let it flow through us to others.  He wants us to extend love and forgiveness to others just as He does to us.

C:  Completely trust in Jesus.  God wants us to know that the graces of His mercy are dependent upon our trust.  The more we trust in Jesus, the more we will receive.

On this Divine Mercy Sunday, may we realise our own need of the mercy of God as we seek to own up to the truth of ourselves, and may we believe, in the depths of our heart, that in touching that mercy we find life in his name. 


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