The sea, for the people of biblical Palestine, was a terrifying prospect, for without any compasses or reliable navigation aids, to be hopelessly lost at sea was an ever present danger. The sea resounded in their minds as a symbol of man’s powerlessness in the face of overwhelming forces. Even today we should rightly fear its awesome power and know that it describes both our limits and our need of hope when all else has failed.
In today’s gospel from Matthew we hear the story of the loaves and he fishes, and in the sermon we confront a much debated question head on. Did Jesus really feed five thousand men (plus women and children) from just five loaves and two fish? Ironically the least satisfactory answers to that question are either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
This week we look at Paul’s letter to the Roman 8.26-39. The reason for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, was not to create a new clique of the chosen, to the abandonment of all others; it wasn’t to offer a blood sacrifice to an ancient God of anger and vengeance in order to spare us eternal torment; it certainly wasn’t to exclude the very people Jesus had come to teach and emancipate from older, more dogmatic, harsher expressions of faith, but to witness to a new openness and a new way of relating to the divine and the holy.
Over the centuries Christian communities have taken a wide variety of stances when faced with unbelief and rejection, but many have been tempted to adopt a divisive and judgmental approach. At face value, today’s gospel parable has been interpreted by some individuals and churches as condoning such an approach. However, they have paid insufficient attention to the countervailing patience and forbearance demanded in the parable of the wheat and the tares, and indeed the inherent warning. We are simply not wise enough, we are told, we have neither the depth nor the length of vision, to tell between what deserves to be saved or discarded.
A seed is one of the miracles of life – within that kernel is contained all the genetic information, all the instructions, all the raw material for abundant life, for fields of corn, acres of wheat, orchards of apple trees, a wine harvest, the food to provide for an entire planet – all there in microcosm; essential, teeming with all the possibilities of life. Jesus compares the fate of seeds, filled with life, but dependent on where they fall in order to bear fruit, to the fate of his message in the hearts of those who hear it, the people of his time and by inference all of us today. What kind of home are we for the seeds that he sows? His message of faith, hope and love – just how well do they fare with us?
The message of John the Baptist was stern; acknowledge your sinfulness, repent, or face the punishment to come. John himself was reclusive, self denying, almost self punishing. Jesus was a very different kind of man, and told a very different story. He loved his friends, he enjoyed a glass of wine, the company of others, and he felt no need to distance himself from those deemed disreputable by the overly pious. But they both found their teachings accepted by some, yet rejected by many. John was seemingly too severe, Jesus apparently too sociable – one might ask, was the problem to do with the teachers, or those who did not wish to be taught?
The sermon today looks at St Peter and St Paul, two dedicated, resourceful and committed men, but very different. Paul was a like a graduate of one of the elite Universities of his day, educated in the city of Tarsus. He had been tutored by the famous leader of the Hillel School of Rabbis called Gamaliel. Peter, by contrast, was someone whose formal education had ceased probably at what we’d call the primary school stage. He was a fisherman, married with a family, but unlike Paul, who had started out as a persecutor of Christians, he had known and actually worked alongside Jesus during his earthly ministry. Whilst Paul was a man of letters, eloquent, persuasive, perhaps more so on paper, Peter relied more on his personality – his letters in the New Testament betray his discomfort with long treatise. And the tensions between them and the different priorities and approaches they espoused, are still being played out in Christianity today.
In today’s gospel Matthew speaks of what some scholars call – ‘the cost of discipleship’, and others name – ‘the conditions of discipleship’. And harsh, indeed unnatural, impossible, conditions they can seem to be; but Matthew in reporting, perhaps partially shaping the words of Jesus, is making a particular point – about the priorities and the boundaries within which love is all too often acted upon. The condition of discipleship of which Matthew speaks, is therefore not to love our loved ones less, in fact paradoxically, it is to love them even more deeply, but only through first acknowledging some hard truths about our compromises and limitations.
In contrast to the cruelty of the Roman Empire, today we do not condemn Jesus, or attack him, or seek his death – why would we need to it has already been done for us? Today we are much more subtle, after all we have had two thousand years to learn how to deal with him. Reverently, devotedly, lovingly and with great care we take his teachings and mould them into a shape and size that we prefer. We contain and constrain him within the bounds of ‘common sense’, ‘living in the real world’, ‘taken in moderation’ and all the other rationalisations that we can think of to keep him safe and compatible with how we prefer to live our lives. But we know in our hearts, that this is not how we are meant to be.
This Sunday at St Columba’s Ennis we celebrate Trinity Sunday. The sermon examines a concept of Celtic spirituality, the idea of the ‘thin place’, where the distance, the wall, the gap between here and everywhere, between now and eternity, between us and God is ‘thin’. Where we can almost feel the veil pushed aside. Those places, those times, those people where God, holiness, wonder and love can feel so very close. All to often fleeting moments in most of our lives, even fractions of a second, where for that instant time is halted, the here and now is transcended, made ‘other’.
The Pentecost service at St Columba’s Church, Ennis, County Clare, Ireland. During the Coronavirus Covid 19 lockdown we continue with online services for members and friends of the Church of Ireland, but also for anyone who would like to join us from any church tradition and none – we are delighted that you are spending this time with us. We are a progressive church, keen to extend a welcome to all people, whoever and wherever they may be, to make them feel at home and valued. Today’s sermon looks at the experience of the disciples at Pentecost, the dramatic, even frenzied behaviour, and considers how Luke may have written the story to express a process of realisation and revelation that for some may be sudden, but for others is a more gradual process, less sudden and explosive, but equally life-changing and profound. A literal reading of Bible texts can sometimes serve to strip away the layers of meaning potentially available to us in this modern age, whereas looking at the text as metaphor and allegory can yield insight and richness beneath the surface.
Sometimes in the Gospel of John, the beauty of the language, and the soaring philosophical discourses, can obscure the Jesus who was a child, grew among a family, had friends and knowingly risked and ultimately sacrificed his life, despite the real terror that he felt, the pain he endured, and the human uncertainties he must have known; all so that his life would remain faithful to the God he believed in and the principles that he espoused. Jesus did not stand apart from the world at a lordly distance or with stoical objectivity and abstraction – he knew all that we know and feel and fear – that is why he can draw close to us, and us to him.
The sermon examines what the word belief might truly mean; how the meaning of the word has changed across Christian history and how theologians of the past, such as Anselm, would have viewed faith differently – not as a set of ‘facts’ to either ‘believe’ in or to dispute. Their sense of ‘belief’ or ‘credo’ would have referred more to commitment, engagement. Belief for them was less of an assertion of the mind, and more a movement of the heart. Seen in this light, we might be better equipped to understand how the Holy Spirit might be active in and through us.
Jesus wants us to love God and one another, without rationing or holding back or any of the barriers, and walls and obstacles that we put up between ourselves and others in our defensiveness and mistrust and fear of one another. He didn’t say love one kind of Christian more than any other, he most certainly did not say love Jews a little less, that would truly be a bizarre sentiment for a Jewish rabbi to advance. He didn’t say hate Muslims or Buddhists or atheists, or people who love in different ways to us, or live in different ways, or hold different opinions, or come from different lands and speak with foreign accents. He said love them, love them all, abundantly, wastefully, unreservedly.
St Columba’s Church Ennis, continues with this online service for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The sermon relates to the Gospel reading John 10.1-10 and what it means to have life ‘abundantly’.
A Service of the Word with Gospel of the day – Luke 24.13-35. This sermon deals with Confirmation Bias. There are none so blind as those who will not see.