Of the three virtues that Paul names as over and above all, faith and hope and love, it is love that he names as the greatest. In many ways faith is not only a gift but also as an act of will. We can now see what the disciples later came to perceive, that mutual love is the hallmark of the Christian community, and without it the community cannot claim to be Christian at all. However, this love must extend beyond the demands of mutual dependence and reciprocal service, one hand washing another. It must extend beyond the group that merely cares for its own members and reach out to those beyond its boundaries and notions of what is fitting, included, or acceptable or worthy. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members’. But if we believe this do we truly live out the logic of that statement?
‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’
The feast of Dedication was a very particular festival of the Jewish year, and a very profound statement about allegiance and faithfulness, contrasted with disloyalty and betrayal. You can imagine that now under Roman rule the Feast of Dedication took on new meaning and relevance, with this time Roman pagan invaders, and those who resisted as best they could, set against some in the Jewish elite who sought to curry favour with their conquerers. In certain ways our modern world, with its accelerating inequalities and divisions resembles the Roman world of Jesus, into which he delivered his Gospel of hope and of choice. As a church and as individual Christians, those choices come starkly to us again as once they did before, though perhaps in new and updated ways.
Today’s gospel is a rather curious reading.
You might get the feeling that underneath the words on the surface there is a sub-agenda. And you would be right. On the face of it, the rather convoluted words appear to say one thing, but something else is actually taking place. Because John is drawing together some loose threads in this final narrative, this epilogue of his gospel. The main action concerns the relationship between Jesus and Peter – something needs to be put right, something needs healing; but in the background there is also ‘the beloved disciple’. The relationships are clearly complex, at times anxious, perhaps needy, certainly all too human. What can we learn from the episode itself, and the lives that the disciples then go on to lead?
On one level one could interpret today’s Gospel as being about doubt. After all the expression ‘Doubting Thomas’ has become a well-known saying – this episode in his life is in danger of defining and confining him to a stereotype – an object of scorn or at least disapproval.
But is this really an accurate impression or is it merely a cardboard cut-out, one-dimensional portrayal of the real man. What do we really know about him, and the entirety of his life? And if there is more, much more to the story, then what can we learn, about him, and about ourselves?
We now live through a time when Christianity seems under threat as never before, at least in the West, but through violent attack or suppression but through indifference, scepticism and the sense that the insights of philosophy, of psychology and the natural sciences have made many of its claims and historic taboos no longer relevant and no longer believable. How are Christians today to respond? By doubling-down, by defending the past errors? Or by learning from the insights and instincts of some of the earliest ages of the Christian faith, but re-examined and re-expressed for our modern age.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and is hailed by all, so Luke tells us, with cries of praise, even adoration. And yet a few days later that same crowd, we are told, were baying for his blood, this man of peace, calling for his execution, in place of a man convicted of cruelty and violence. How are we to account for this turnaround, how are to square this circle that starts with adulation and ends with condemnation? Are there merely questions to be asked about a single week, two thousand years in the past, or does that week shine a light on the present, and are there questions we need to ask today?
Jesus is dining with his friends, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, now restored to life. It is a loving and intimate occasion; people who have a deep connection and understanding. The Passover approaches, people are making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There is expectancy in the air, excitement, but also the stress of being in strange places, having to rely on strange people; for some there is even a vague and growing sense of foreboding. Certainly Mary, perhaps more intuitive than the others, seems to sense it, even at an unconscious level. She kneels before Jesus and anoints his feet, note not his head but his feet, with, we are, told the costly ointment of pure nard. In fact so costly that its value equated to a year’s average salary. She also dries him with her hair. Are we meant to take the story literally, or is there a deeper meaning that John is trying to communicate in a theatrical way?
We are half-way through Lent. And this Sunday we leave the strictures aside for a day, to take stock and re-group as it were, for the final three week push to Easter. Keeping ‘Mother’s Day’ is in itself a good thing to do, to say thanks for all that Mums do, but celebrating ‘Mothering Sunday’ is of a quite different order; it has deeper roots and even greater meaning.
And particularly at this time, in this year, in this month, the emotions, the opinions and the actions of mothers may have an enduring influence, not only on our own lives, but on the course of history. We might yet learn what mothers can achieve, when the cruelty of man meets the overlooked, underestimated, but relentless power of mothers.
In the time of Jesus there was a widespread belief that suffering and misfortune were a sign of God’s displeasure and punishment, indeed many religions and cultures have clung to some form of ‘karmic determinism’ where we are deemed to be rewarded or punished according to our worth and our actions. Let us be frank we can even fall prey to the same superstitious beliefs today, despite the fact that our past century has witnessed terrible injustices, on a vast scale, where the victims suffered systematic and impersonal violence, wholly unconnected with their individual character, values or behaviour. This is partially what Luke is trying to communicate, by reporting these words of Jesus, but he is also, of course, looking back at Jesus’ teaching, after the destruction of Jerusalem, an event that happened nearly forty years after Jesus’ arrest and execution. Our hindsight is of a vastly increased length, and seen through cataclysmic events of our own time. How are we to understand suffering, is it punishment, are the victims really to blame?
Violence in and against places of worship around the world has been steadily rising in the last two decades. Tragically the conclusion one must draw is that the holiest places known to man are also some of the most dangerous places on earth. The very sites that are symbols of peace and faith and devotion, self-sacrifice and prayer, are also drenched in blood and violence and hatred.
There is a whole world of difference between a faith firmly, devoutly yet humbly held…… and a faith that brooks no opposition, a faith that sees no other way than its own, that mocks and denigrates and holds up as inferior and evil those who do not exactly share each and every minute article of faith. Fitting then, at Lent, that we should reflect on the sin and weakness that leads to such desecration.
In Jewish mythology the Exodus from Egypt catapulted into freedom a people who had been oppressed and enslaved. According to the legend, it was into the desert that Moses had led a group of slaves. Oppressed and bewildered, terrified and doubting, but by the end of the story of their journey through the wilderness, they were a nation, the people of Israel. The people of God. In the time of Jesus brutality and dictatorship was once again oppressing the people.
The choice before Jesus was to submit or answer violence with violence – he chose neither, and defined a new and ultimately victorious and enduring path. In the suffering of the Ukrainian people, their courage and endurance, we see some of that ancient history being replayed – the oppressor seeking to strip a population of their identity but only achieving the opposite – the rise, the affirming, the founding of a people – a nation.
Today we hear that Jesus takes three disciples – Peter, John and James – on a mountain to pray. There, we are told, Peter sees Jesus transfigured: His face changes, and his clothes become startlingly white. In his bewilderment, Peter proposes that three tents be made, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. It is an odd thing to propose – but he is trying to interpret what is happening and who Jesus is, according to established customs – to fit the strange and the new into the traditional and the familiar, perhaps even to constrain and control what is happening. How often are we tempted to do the same thing – to resist the unexpected, to contain the extraordinary, to damp down the fire of the Spirit?
In the west of Ireland, we have our fair share of storms. Storms, quite literally, ‘go with the territory’. But they do remind us of the tremendous, untamed, unpredictable power that dwells close by, the fragility of the homes and lives that we all too often take for granted, and yet are dwarfed and overshadowed by the force of the elements. In today’s gospel story, Jesus and his disciples venture out into the sea of Galilee and a dangerous, terrifying storm suddenly arrives. To the ancient Hebrew people, the great waters acted as a metaphor for evil forces active in the world and especially for the tribulations of the just. In their mindset the sea was mysterious, elemental, which God alone could order and control. So much for the fears and superstitions of the ancients – but how can the story speak to us today?
The Kingdom of God is not something that we will one day simply be given, after we have waited long enough, suffered long enough, been patient long enough. The Kingdom of God is not to be imposed on us, as recalcitrant children, who despite it all are to be taken on a picnic. Unless we assume the duties, the sacrifices and the responsibilities of its construction. However, underlying much of traditional Christian theology is an assumption sometimes spoken, sometimes implicit, that we are incapable of doing so. The story of the Fall as an historic event, that we have lost something that we once possessed, that we need to recover a previous blessed state, is not only false, but it is bad anthropology and bad theology.
By the Sea of Galilee, Jesus goes up to two brothers, going about the comparatively lucrative business of fishing and tells them that he has chosen them as disciples. Conscripted, commandeered, requisitioned. James and John, the same thing, ‘Drop all that, your father and the rest of the family can keep the business going, get your coat, we’re off.’
If Jesus called you to serve him, if he came to you right now and said “whatever you are doing, stop that, follow me’ what would your answer be?
Simeon is described as a righteous and devout man, steeped in the law of Moses, obedient to it, an example of enduring faithfulness. A symbol, in his very person, of the old covenant, lived out, honoured, being brought to fruition. And yet he senses that there is something more to come, that the story is not finished. In that he is quite correct, for actually the story never ends, revelation is never final or full or complete, the mystery of faith is that its fullness always lies just beyond our understanding, always out of reach, yet beckoning us on.
And this is what Simeon, in the maturity of his years and spiritual depth, knows to be true. Whilst the temptations of old age are to settle in our ways, to repeat old patterns, to withdraw into the past, Simeon, and Anna, look forward. They are free. Free to think as their hearts and their consciences guide them, free to think beyond the limitations of the set ways, the general consensus, the way things are done. So too might we strive for that same freedom, that same vision.
By the time he wrote his gospel, Luke knew that the people of Israel had largely not only rejected Jesus, but also the proclamation of the gospel. The problem this caused for the early church runs throughout the New Testament, but perhaps nowhere with more urgency than in Luke’s writings, indeed unlike the other gospel writers who use this story later in their narratives, he puts this episode right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. But what happens when the rejected, the outcast become those of power and influence, the ‘in-crowd’? What happened to Christianity when we moved from a proscribed sect, under sentence of death in the Roman Empire to its official and only religion within the space of just a few decades? ’Success’ presents its own challenges and problems – power is a very heavy burden to wield and bear. How did the Church live up to the challenge in the past, and can we do better in the future?
The sacraments are gifts of God to meet us all in our moments of greatest need, vulnerability and dependence on him. They are available to anyone who asks for them, anyone who needs these means of God’s grace – to feel God’s presence and blessing in their lives, at some of the most joyous and heartbreaking moments they will experience. …..except that is for some people. Support for same-sex marriage within our churches has gone from a minority opinion a few years ago to become now a mainstream point of view. It seems to be on its way to becoming the majority view. And yet this means of God’s grace is still being denied to so many. What kind of witness is that to our modern world – what kind of love and compassion can that claim to be?
Even by the standards of the time, John the Baptist was bizarre. Dressed in rags, scavenging for food including wild honey when he could find it and eating insects including locusts. No wonder the people were questioning. But the truth can come to us in unprepossessing forms and can tell us things we may not wish to hear. John’s message was unsettling to a population that previously had been assured that they were chosen, singled out, privileged and assured of God’s favour. So why was this unattractive message in an unglamorous package taken so seriously? In this service we shall look to square that circle.
The three Kings, or Wise Men – the Magi – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, men who are no doubt respected, even feared in their own lands, draw near to a mere baby, nervously and as humble subjects. Their worldly power dwarfed and overwhelmed by the simple majesty of a child, whose power lies not in riches, or armies, or even worldly learning, but in humility, gentleness and selflessness. We accompany them on this task for we are pilgrims too, on our own holy journey.
Considering the central importance of Jesus in the New Testament and the prominence given to his Mother Mary in later Christian devotion, it is curious that the Bible tells us so little of his family origins and about the members of his family. So much of the Bible is concerned with just the last three years of his life and of his public ministry. And yet his experience of family life must have been crucial in forming his personality, the standards that he demanded of himself, and others, and the courage and determination that he displayed in the face of terrifying cruelty .
In many ways society progresses, we enjoy a higher living standard, at least in material terms, than ever before. We are healthier, live longer, we are becoming more aware of our environment, albeit slowly. But progress has come at a heavy price. The downside of consumerism and the pace of life is that all too easily we have become isolated in the shrinking bubbles of our own homes, shared experience, shared culture and values beginning to fade away in the 24 hour media on demand, internet shopping and Facebook driven. We should celebrate and always remember that this is the purpose of the Church – true community – to be in communion with each other and in so doing to be in communion with God.
One of the great themes of Advent is the journey from darkness into light. Like liberation from bondage and return from exile, light in the darkness is an ancient image of human yearning – especially powerful at times when for much of their days people lived in darkness, were subject to it, limited by it, fearful of it. And so at Advent we explore themes of hope and trust, of fulfilment and expectation.
Today we reflect on a man called John, in the Hebrew, Yohanan. It is tempting to see John as an historic figure, wild and eccentric certainly, hugely influential of course – but essentially sometime whose time came and then departed. But John’s work did not cease with the coming of Jesus, nor did it die with him. He still calls for repentance and a radical change of life, that it is not good enough to trust to your belonging to a community, your acts of worship, if at the heart of you – nothing has really changed.
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” As a recurrent theme, the wilderness expresses hardship and testing in unyielding and often dangerous surroundings; and it is also a place where transformation can take place, where the old can be discarded and the new can be taken on and practiced. And now it is we who are called upon to be the pilgrim people who journey together through the wilderness in search of our destination, in search of our true home.
Advent is a time of year when we are called upon to have a greater sense of urgency, to attend to our spiritual lives now rather than later. For we are not called to passivity, we are not meant to be idle recipients of the Kingdom; the Kingdom is not some outward imposition.
The start of a new church year offers a second chance to rediscover freshness and renewal, a time to be alert and prepared. We are to be alive to the opportunities that will and are presenting themselves everyday to make our contribution to the building of the Kingdom.
The festival of Christ the King is one of those times in Church life, I believe, when one needs to distinguish between the event itself, and that which it does, or could and should, properly celebrate. It is not a particularly old or traditional feast day. In fact, it is a relatively recent addition to the western liturgical calendar, and it is worth looking into the original story behind the inception of the day, to understand what it might mean for us in our day. What kind of king might Jesus be for us – and what kind of kingdom?
Today we make an act of commemoration but not celebration; we hold in our prayers those who have died and suffered in two world wars, in countless regional conflicts since, and in peace-keeping duties across the world. We mourn their loss and their suffering; the failure of politics and diplomacy that led to their sacrifice on the altar of human pride, obstinacy and indifference, and we also confess the darkness in our own hearts that all too often gives way to anger and seeks retribution. We pray that humanity may, before it is too late, consign war to the sins of history, and instead walk the ways of conciliation and peace.
Jesus approaches some young fishermen, in the middle of their work, at a critical point in their work and calls them to drop what they are doing. Forget everything else, drop everything now, don’t look back, don’t prevaricate, don’t set pre-conditions, but follow me now. One might well ask is that the message of today’s gospel, is this really what I am being asked to do? To forget job, home, family, commitments, all other duties for my faith? Or is there another way to read today’s gospel, just as urgent, just as demanding, but within the context of our own lives and the commitments that we already have to honour?
This Sunday we are combining two important commemorations, ‘All Saints’ and ‘All Souls’. At All Saints we remember certain people and legends that the church through long years of tradition and prayer holds up to all of us as examples of faith and courage – human ideals to inspire us all. At All Soul’s we remember not people who are particularly famous, nor are they generally examples to many, but those who are so inextricably linked with us that they may well have been amongst the most important influences in our lives.
Harvest, at least for the older generation can still evoke some of those long-past, nostalgic memories of long summers, fields ripening in the sun, a time of school assemblies singing hymns, playing conkers in the playground, a time when we felt more at peace with nature, and perhaps as a result, more at peace with ourselves. But now, and only recently, we have frightened ourselves. In our thoughtlessness and arrogance we are swiftly destroying our very home. We once thought ourselves to be master of nature, but now we seem to lack the ability to even master ourselves. What can be done, and who is to do it?
James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, ask Jesus if they might sit at his right and left hand when he comes into his Kingdom. Perhaps they think that Jesus will be crowned King, as rightful heir to David, when they arrive in Jerusalem. But Jesus tells the brothers that they just don’t understand what they are asking. For the challenge he issues; to drink the cup and to be baptised as he is baptised is also a challenge to share in his suffering. That invitation and that challenge is also offered to us, as disciples in our day. The question is: are we prepared to sacrifice for our faith?
A young man runs up and kneels down before Jesus asking him what he must do to be virtuous.
So, Jesus recites to him a number of the great commandments.
“That’s fine” says the young man, “I do all that”.
But with his next question Jesus cuts to the chase, by saying essentially:
‘That’s all well and good’, but how deep does the desire for a righteous life go, how profound is your commitment?
And he puts the young man, and by implication us, to a particularly exposing and shocking test.
Today’s gospel reading is fraught with difficulty and complexity. Ethical, theological, and pastoral considerations are bound up with the way we should read and interpret scripture, and how we should understand the teachings of Jesus, the internal motivations that drove him, the context of the time in which he spoke, and how those principles can and should be applied to us today, either in full or in part. So how should we deal with divorce?
Times change, empires rise and fall, entire cultures are born only to die again, new technologies emerge and are replaced, history flows like an everlasting river; and human nature remains substantially the same. From the time of Moses to the time of Jesus and his disciples an epoch of time had elapsed, another 2000 years lie between us and the disciples and …as the French saying goes: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change – the more they remain the same. Just how much have we progressed, how much have we learned, have we truly listened to the voice of Jesus?
In our Gospel reading today Jesus speaks of welcoming the child, and not just the child in years, but the young at heart. For elsewhere in the Gospel he also says that we should come to him as if we too were children. In our more modern and supposedly advanced times, we have gained a certain security perhaps, technology has taken away from of the drudgery and danger, medical advances have extended our lives, our surroundings are comfortable, predictable, tamed. There is a well-known saying “Take what you want, says God, as long as you accept there is a price and you must pay for it”.
If that is so, what have we paid, and just what have we bought with it?
Sometimes there are sentences and phrases in the Bible that are so familiar, that we pass over them rather too rapidly, supposing we know what they mean. And on one level that’s understandable. The text would be unreadable if we stopped at every and, if or but trying to uncover a multiplicity of interpretations – we would never get to the end. But having read a passage it is often well to go back over the ground, to see whether we might dig beneath the surface. And in today’s Gospel we have just such a challenge.
We bring to our reading of the Bible the preconceptions, the perceptions, perhaps even the prejudices of our own time. And sometimes we forget, or don’t like to be reminded, that the people in the stories of scripture, including Jesus, were also deeply influenced by the values and understandings of their own age. Jesus was a man, born into a time, a culture, a context very different from our own. A man capable of being occasionally mistaken, of sharing the cultural preconceptions, sometimes even the misunderstandings of his time. When we hear his voice calling to us today, we need to remember both the man who was, as well as the figure of reverence and devotion he has become.
Is there a tendency, within the church, to revert to the Pharisee, to retreat into rules and constraints and the sanctuary of the few? As each generation passes religions can tend – perhaps they can’t resist – to add some extra rules of their own. What may have started as a kernel of truth, some central and pure experience of God, builds and builds, adding layer upon layer of man-made disciplines and regulations, until something beautiful and unconditional, becomes smothered and obscured with decrees and laws and conditions. Do we recognise this in ourselves? And if so, what can we do about it?
According to a study published a while ago in the journal, ‘Science’, we don’t seem to know ourselves very well. It turns out that common stereotypes that we hold about other countries and our own do not actually reflect the real personalities of people in these countries. And if we portray even to each other an inaccurate and dishonest image of our culture, are we any more honest in the way that we represent ourselves? Do we even know ourselves?
We continue the readings from John’s gospel, that draw a comparison between the material bread that sustains only for a while, and Jesus, the living spiritual bread, who points the way to transformation and new life. And today we ponder not only the reactions of the people of his time, but also of our own. Is the gospel of hope met with enthusiasm and passion, or indifference and scepticism and the retort – whatever?
The choice, as always, is ours to make.
Throughout his ministry starting at the feast at the wedding in Cana, later in the breaking and sharing of the loaves and fishes with the multitude, culminating in the Passover meal before his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus is clearly compelled to share with others the most basic, the most essential and nurturing things of life. But in the act of sharing, he always seeks to teach that in the humblest and simplest of things, can be found some of the most profound and life-changing spiritual realities.
In today’s gospel Jesus appears to be pleased that the people have come to look for him, but is seemingly disappointed about the reason why. They were grateful for the bread he implies, grateful for the food, but they didn’t understand it value, its true meaning. Even if they have some sense of the bread having been miraculous, they are still looking at it in a rather literal, physical, superficial way. But Jesus is trying to point them, and us, to a different understanding, and a different set of priorities.
Last week the appointed readings for the day had chopped out the middle section of chapter, in order to make us concentrate on the action and the emotions that wrapped around the story. This week the content has been restored to us, but not from the gospel of Mark – instead we have the same miracles expressed and interpreted by John. In the wilderness, Moses asked the question of God “How am I to feed all these people?” and in Exodus the answer came in the form of Manna – the divine gift of sustaining spiritual food. Now, in the midst of the crowd gathered around him Jesus asks the same question.
There is something odd about today’s gospel reading. Something is missing. In fact, 18 whole verses are missing from the very core of this passage. 18 verses that cover the momentous events of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water towards his disciples in the boat, rowing against a heavy wind. For this Sunday, the church lectionary compilers have taken all of this out. Begging the question, what have they left in and why?
All too often we can get completely caught up in the daily struggles of getting and keeping and using, of seeking to invent and define ourselves and imposing ourselves on the world and people around us; we can be so locked into meeting the most basic needs and wants that we can forget to ever address the actual purpose of our lives. The sad reality of modern life, as Thomas Merton the monk and mystic once observed, is that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find that when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. So where should we place the ladder, and to what should we seek to climb?
Perception is all, we are told nowadays and we seem all too often to believe it. But reality, ultimate reality is quite different. Something that truly is, remains the same whether it is perceived and believed or not. Sometimes we need to admit to the limit of our power and our imaginations – sometimes we need to be shocked into acknowledging what is actually staring us in the face.
Somehow we can soak up the impression that doubts are a sign of a weak faith, of lack of seriousness, lacking in commitment, perhaps even sinful, faithless and morally wrong. But the problem with this approach is that it sees faith as static, rather than as a journey, as a possession already acquired, rather than a pilgrimage with lessons to be learned, old and stale habits to be discarded and new insights to be absorbed.
To the Hebrew people the sea was often a symbol of the primeval forces of chaos, the habitation of monsters, fearful, uncontrollable, untamed. The sea could all too easily be seen as akin to the place of evil, disorder and terrible power, ideas deeply rooted in myth and legend dating back to earlier Canaanite times, before Moses, beyond all memory – ancient fears. The great waters served as a metaphor for evil forces active in the world and especially for the tribulations of just people. So what is Mark trying to teach us in this story of the storm at sea, why are experienced fishermen seemingly so frightened, why is Jesus so unfazed?
The Mustard Seed Jesus tells two stories, two parables that focus on seeds as a way of speaking about the Kingdom of God. Seeds are amazing. Just think of it, contained within that tiny rather hard fragment is all that is needed to produce entire plants and...
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is one of the shorter parables of Jesus. And yet from that seed grows a bush that can reach over nine feet tall; all that complexity and diversity from just the tiniest of beginnings. This is the analogy that Jesus draws between the smallest of our actions that, done with love, can have enormous ramifications. That the smallest of things, the smallest building bricks may construct the Kingdom of God. But to what extent are we making a difference?
A former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Secretary-General of the World Trade Organization, Mike Moore, once wrote in his autobiography, “It is wrong to be right too soon.” He was referring to a human tendency to be resistant to new ideas, especially ideas that might lead to change. Whilst it does help everyday coping, it can also seriously get in the way of long-term learning and growth. Opinions can just sit there, day after day, year after year, never overwritten, never challenged, never updated.