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.
Trinity Sunday, is a time to reflect upon the nature, the character, and the challenge of the Trinity. Something unique to the Christian faith, often misunderstood, even by Christians, as we seek to grasp that which is beyond reach, to comprehend that which is above all a mystery – using words and images to try to understand, but knowing that if we take them too literally, they will obscure all understanding.
Luke’s main point in Acts is not the special effects or even the drama of the gift of tongues, but spiritual transformation. Far from being someone who they could only experience as a memory, Jesus, the spirit of Jesus, came alive to them, in that moment, vividly, overwhelmingly. For the heart of Pentecost for us is not some rather strange past events, it is not just an odd story about something that once happened long ago. What is significant, of prime importance for us, is that Pentecost takes place within our own hearts – that change that comes upon us.
Today, In John’s Gospel, we encounter a Jesus rather different from the Jesus depicted in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew or Luke. Here is John writing around AD 100, almost seventy years after Jesus died, informed by who Jesus had been, but now also deeply influenced by what he had become for the members of the church at the end of the first century. What are we to make of this Jesus, and the Jesus of the previous Gospels, and the Jesus we might encounter today. To pick up on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, does the act of observation change that which is being observed?
Today we reflect upon the nature of love, that the narrative, the essential story of the Bible is that of humanity wrestling with our darker side, which sometimes prevails, for a while, but that we are always called back to a pilgrimage towards forgiveness, compassion and love. The gift of God is love and the commandment of God is love – they are one and the same.
Today we reflect upon the tension between the care and attention that we rightly need to expend on ourselves and our church community, the internal spiritual work that is required, the tending and pruning of the vine as it were – contrasted with the work that we should do beyond the boundaries of the church, outside the vineyard, where there is suffering and enormous need. To what extent should the church look within, but also look around us – at the cares and sufferings of the world. And also to reflect both on what we have to teach the world, and what the world has to teach us.
Today we reflect upon what is means to be a shepherd, in the sense of caring for and defending those entrusted to one’s care. Not that we are seen as mindless sheep, but as fellow travellers and pilgrims along a path that is long and difficult, strewn with obstacles; a journey that will change us, if we are prepared to be changed.
Today we reflect upon resurrection, its meaning and significance in the time of Jesus and in our own time. We look at the different between old thoughts and new thinking, and we consider what new life might look like today, for the way we live and our sense of self.
Despite the epithet ‘doubting Thomas’, he was in reality prolific and heroic, a towering man of faith. He went on to be the only apostle to preach the faith far beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. He reminds us that sometimes it is the struggle with faith, it is in the moments of anguish and questioning when our faith, paradoxically is often at it strongest. We can see our own doubts, great or small, not as objects of shame, to be hidden and suppressed behind the mask, but as spurs to our spiritual growth and rebirth.
We gather as a Diocese to celebrate the new life and new hope of Easter. Our church buildings must remain closed but we still have each other, we can come together like this, we can pray for each other, talk to each other and hold each other in our thoughts and our hearts, we can continue to be the church together and to hope for better days to come – as surely they will.
After all the message of Easter is renewed life and new hope.
The Passion is almost over but not yet, Jesus is almost risen, but not yet. The Easter fire is lit outside the church as evening falls, a flame to light the Paschal Candle – a tradition credited to St Patrick. We start this service with the church unlit, illuminated only by the light of the Paschal Candle coming into our midst, slowly revealing its presence among us, symbolising the realisation, only gradually dawning upon the disciples, that Christ is the light of the world.
God does not insist on payment of a debt. Whereas we may equate crime with punishment, and our hearts scream out for vengeance, the heart of God offers forgiveness, acceptance and healing. God is surely above the anger, retribution and violence of the world that we have fashioned for ourselves. Rather he attacks the very source of wrong doing, in the corruption of the human heart and begins the healing there.
The Office of Tenebrae took place in ancient times during the Great Triduum, the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday which brings Holy Week to an end. At the climax of the Office is the recitation of part of the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. The recitation is accompanied by the gradual extinguishing of the 15 Tenebrae candles which represents the overwhelming sense of darkness, defeat and desolation felt by the disciples in the aftermath of the crucifixion.
We celebrate Palm Sunday – a story of triumph, but a triumph that foreshadows terrible suffering to come. As we live through these difficult days, we might take time to reflect on how the Holy Week journey now speaks to us in new and different ways: of joy and sadness, of hope and despair, laughter and tears, life and death, so often intermingled, the one interwoven with the other, inseparable and indivisible. So it is with life, so too with our journey of faith over the next few days.
Today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday, although that it is not as exciting or as racy as it sounds. But it is a time to think very carefully about the kind of God that we say we believe in, and what that says about us, our own priorities and prejudices. Supposedly we worship what we esteem, what we value, what we hold to be the highest, the most holy and the finest – or do we? Passion Sunday is a good time to ask that question.
Today as we keep Mothering Sunday, we are challenged to reflect upon not only the bond between a mother and a child but the extent to which the self-sacrifice, the pain and the devotion that mothers must go through in order to bring a new life into the world, gives them some greater insight into the respect, compassion and reverence with which we should all seek to treat one another. A mother knows what new life costs, they might also teach us something about the value and the sanctity of life.