Sunday, 10 December 2017

Make straight the way

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 10th December 2017, the 2nd of Advent.

Let’s listen again to the prophet Isaiah’s beautiful, poetic words in the 1st reading (Isaiah 40:1-11):
A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Now, we know a lot about making highways around here – just think of the recent remaking of the streets of Nenagh, and the building of the M7 motorway. Isaiah’s words could almost be an anthem for the National Roads Authority! Great cuttings have been blasted through the hills. Giant machines have moved the spoil to make embankments. Bridges have been built over rivers. All to make the road as gentle and smooth as possible.

Road building would not have been so vast in Isaiah’s time, but it would still have been a gigantic community enterprise to make the roads to allow farmers to transport their produce on pack-mules to market in Jerusalem, and to allow pilgrims to travel to the temple on Mount Zion. The roads knit together the Jewish people in the cities of Judah to their holy mountain of Zion, not just in a material way, but also in metaphor as a worshiping community. I feel sure that for Isaiah the way of the Lord was not a road for God to travel to his people on, but a road for his people to travel to God on.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

In our 3rd reading (Mark 1:1-8), in the very first words of his Gospel, St Mark recycles this road building metaphor.
John the Baptist is a wild man, wandering about the Judean desert, clothed in camel’s hair, with only a leather bag at his waist, who ate locusts and wild honey, we are told – the very image of an Old Testament prophet! Mark quotes Isaiah to identify him as: The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ For Luke he is the fulfilment of the hope expressed by Isaiah.

John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. And he is very successful to judge by the crowds he gathers. But John is also the self-effacing herald of the coming of another. Claiming no special position for himself, he says: ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.’ He means Jesus of course. And John continues I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

Why have the compilers of the Lectionary chosen this reading for today? John’s message of repentance and forgiveness for sin might seem at first sight out of place in this Advent season. In Advent we look forward to Christmas and the great gift that God has given us. God comes to us. He comes in the form of a little child. His parents Mary and Joseph name him Jesus. We rejoice with them at the miracle of his birth. With angels and shepherds and kings we adore him. And we believe he grows up to lead us to God through his loving self-sacrifice. So why spoil all the joy with dismal repentance for sin? I think the answer lies in the metaphor of road building.

Yes, God makes the first move. Yes, God comes to us in the person of Jesus. But he does not force himself on us. He does not compel us to accept his love. He made us with free will, and we are free to refuse him. But we cannot share in his kingdom unless we make a move in response. That essential move is like building a road to travel on towards God. Each one of us must ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ and ‘make his paths straight’. And to do so we must each accept John’s baptism for ourselves. We must admit our own sins, we must seek God’s forgiveness, and we must undergo a change of heart to follow God’s way in future. For that is what repentance means.

In the 2nd reading (2Peter: 3:8-15) the author of 2 Peter writes to disciples who are going through a tough time.
Some are becoming weary of the work. Some have begun to doubt whether the great road to the kingdom will be finished in their lifetimes. Some are questioning the apostles’ teaching.

Time is not the same for God as it is to us, he tells them: for God ‘one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day’; and God ‘is patient … not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’.
So, he urges them to be patient. While you are ‘waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God’ – in other words, building the highway to God – ‘strive to be … without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation’.

So, to sum up:
By the readings they have chosen for us, I think the compilers of the Lectionary have tried to correct any tendency we may have to be over sentimental in our anticipation of Christmas.

Yes of course we should look forward with joy to Christmas. Let us wonder at the miracle of Mary’s tiny helpless baby. Let us enjoy the stories of the shepherds and the three kings. And let us sing our hearts out with the angels in the beautiful carols we all love so much.

But let us also reflect on this. The love God shows us at Christmas is no use to us - no use at all - unless we choose to act in response, unless we choose to build a good smooth road on which we may travel to God. John the Baptist has shown us the way, by proclaiming his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which Jesus also proclaims. All we need do is to commit ourselves to that baptism, to build the road - and to be patient.

Let me finish with a Gospel collect:
Merciful God,
you sent your messengers the prophets
to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy
the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Monday, 6 November 2017

Welcoming Church Conference

I was privileged to lead prayers at the start of the Welcoming Church Conference organised by the diocesan Council for Mission of the united dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe on Saturday 4th November in Adare. The conference was well attended and we were blessed to hear the experience of Rev Alastair Graham (Mullingar), Ven Wayne Carney (Birr) and Canon Liz Beasley (Adare).

The Lord be with you – and also with you

As we begin this conference on ‘How to be welcoming church’, in a few moments of calmness, we listen to the words of Jesus Christ in scripture, we pray that his Father will be with us in our discussions, and that his Spirit will inspire us, and we dedicate ourselves to the service of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A reading from Luke 14: 1, 7-11
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
This is the word of the Lord – thanks be to God

That was the lectionary reading set for today, and it’s particularly apt for this conference, I think – it is about hospitality and about humility. We must never forget that when we welcome others to church it is not our church – it is God’s church. We must humbly recognise that we are not the host, we are merely servants who open the door to God’s banquet. God is our host, as he is the host of all who enter in.

Let us pray
The Collect prayer for the 20th Sunday after Trinity
Almighty God,
whose Holy Spirit equips your Church with a rich variety of gifts:
Grant us so to use them that, living the gospel of Christ and eager to do your will,
we may share with the whole creation in the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

We pray for the speakers and facilitators of this conference, that their words may sound a bell with us.
And we pray that, called by that bell, we may respond by building a vibrant and welcoming church.

God our Father,
as we meet in the name of your Son Jesus Christ
make us to know your presence with us,
and in all our thinking and speaking
keep us in harmony with your will.
Give us a vision of your kingdom,
insight into your purposes,
and understanding of the needs of your work.
We place ourselves at your disposal.
We are fellow workers,
eager and ready to carry out your wishes.
Use us, O Lord, as you will, and for your glory. Amen

Let us join together in the prayer Jesus himself taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven …

To God, who by the power at work within us, is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, to him be the glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, to all generations for ever and ever. Amen

Let us get down to work.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Blessing a house

A little while ago I was asked by a friend and cousin to bless a holiday home she had just bought, at a small party among friends. What a privilege! Here is the form we used. The sprinkling was done with a sprig of rosemary, which I hope may root and be planted by the kitchen door as a remembrance of the day.

A word about blessing
We are about to bless this house. But what does that mean? When we bless something or someone we are praying that God, who we believe is like a loving parent to us, will empower that thing or person to be what it is intended to be.

So today we are going to bless this house to be what it is intended to be, a home from home filled with harmony, happiness, warmth and welcome. And our prayer is not just going to be in words but in actions, because we are going to sprinkle water – which we will also bless - as an unspoken prayer of blessing.

Blessing of water
Loving Father, bless this water by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that as we sprinkle it
so you will pour out blessings on this house,
and protect it and those within it from any harm or evil,
in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Blessing of house
Ask if the owners/tenants wish to name the house.

Lord, be present in this house, (house name),
and fill it with laughter, love, peace and pleasure.
May it be a place of harmony, happiness, warmth and welcome,
bringing enduring contentment and lasting memories.
Watch over all who stay here,
protecting, nurturing, guiding and providing,
so that it may be not just a house
but a home and a home from home –
a place of joy touched by your presence
and sanctified by your grace,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sprinkling of water
Sprinkle doorstep. God bless this doorway and all who enter it.

Ask owners/tenants to go round sprinkling, sitting room, kitchen, back door, stairs, bedrooms etc.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Wicked tenants

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th October 2017, the 17th after Trinity

Jesus really, really upset the chief priests and elders when they challenged his authority to teach in the Temple.
After he told them the parable of the wicked tenants - that is the name given to the reading from Matthew's Gospel which we have just heard (Matthew 21:33-46) - ‘They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, (who) regarded him as a prophet’, we are told.

Why were they so upset, I wonder? To understand, we must delve a bit.

The prophet Isaiah uses a vineyard as a metaphor for the Israelites as God’s people. God ‘dug (his vineyard) and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines’. God ‘built a watchtower … and a wine vat in it’. And God ‘expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes’. So, says Isaiah, God ‘will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns’.

It is a thundering prophecy designed to call the Israelite leaders in Isaiah’s time to repent for exploiting the Israelite people.

In his parable Jesus begins by quoting the opening lines of Isaiah’s prophecy almost word for word.
The chief priests and elders would surely have understood that the landowner who plants the vineyard stands for God. Jesus goes on to describe how the wicked tenants mistreat and beat and kill the vineyard owner’s slaves when they are sent to collect the harvest. And finally, when the owner sends his own son and heir, they kill him too, in the hope of inheriting the vineyard.

The author of Matthew’s Gospel, writing a generation later, believes that Jesus is the Son of God. He intends us to identify the son with Jesus. But notice that although Jesus often refers to God as his Father in heaven, he himself never publicly claims to be the Son of God. He leaves that identification for his disciples to make, and he swears them to secrecy.

The chief priests and elders, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s time, would never have suspected Jesus was claiming to be the Son of God. They felt utterly secure in being good people, quite unlike those Isaiah prophesied against. Long after the days of Isaiah, Jerusalem was laid waste and the Israelites had been carried off as captives to Babylon. But the Jewish leaders traced their ancestry back to the faithful remnant of Israel that returned from exile to Jerusalem. They were confident that they yielded good grapes, not wild grapes.

Jesus asks them, ‘When the owner returns, what will he do to those tenants?’, and they reply, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time’. Just as, they believed, God had returned Jerusalem to their ancestors.

Nothing Jesus has said so far would have upset them unduly.

Jesus then goes on to quote from Psalm 118: 22-23.
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’. And he addresses the chief priests and elders directly – we can imagine him looking them in the eyes: ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls’.

Jesus would have been speaking in Aramaic, or perhaps Hebrew. Notice that in both the word for son - ‘ben’- sounds like the word for stone – ‘eben’. With this pun Jesus identifies the Son of God with the Cornerstone, which will break and crush anyone on whom it falls.

Jesus is unmistakably telling the chief priests and the elders - to their faces - that their behaviour is unacceptable to God and that their place as leaders will be given to others – just as Isaiah had to their predecessors. And Jesus has tricked them into pronouncing their own sentence! No wonder they want to arrest him and shut him up…

Christians have often interpreted this parable as a story about Christianity supplanting Judaism.
In this story, the vineyard’s owner is God. The tenants are the Jewish people. The vineyard owner’s slaves are the prophets sent by God and so often rejected and killed. The Son who came last is none other than Jesus himself, whom the Jews kill. So God will – rightly - reject the Jews and choose another people, presumably Christians, the followers of Jesus. The Jews will be broken and crushed by Christ, the Cornerstone. It is a vivid story of the ultimate doom of the Jews - but it is a false and very dangerous story.

It is false because Jesus - a Jew himself - focusses his criticism on the Jewish leaders in the Jerusalem of his own time, not on the Jewish people. In fact, the people’s belief that Jesus was a prophet prevented the leaders from arresting him there and then. The Jewish leaders will indeed be broken and crushed, and the Temple destroyed, a generation later, not by Christians, but by the might of pagan Rome, when they rise up in revolt. The Jewish people will survive as a diaspora, as they have to our own day. As the Acts of the Apostles tells us, though the earliest church was a Jewish church, it soon received gentiles into membership through the insights of St Peter and St Paul – both themselves Jews - in today’s Epistle reading we hear Paul boasting of his Jewish heritage. It is this mixed Jewish and gentile church that Matthew was writing for.

I said that this story is dangerous. It is dangerous because over nearly 2 thousand years it has been used to justify Christian persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Shoah, the Nazi genocide of European Jews. By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus of false prophets. And the fruits of those who tell this story is the murder of millions of men and women each made in the image of God, just like you and me – this story is an evil blasphemy.

It is better, surely, to reflect on what Jesus’s parable tells us about the nature of God.
It tells us of God’s generosity. The owner provided the tenants with all they could wish for in a productive vineyard. In the same way, God by his grace has given us this wonderful living planet to tend and care for, and to feed us.

It tells us about God’s trust in us as human beings. The owner of the vineyard did not supervise his tenants like a slave driver. He went away and left them with their task. In the same way God entrusts us with his work, and he gives us the freedom to do it however we think best.

It tells us of God’s patience and mercy. The owner did not respond with sudden vengeance when his first messengers are attacked, he sent others. He gave the tenants every chance to respond, even sending his son and heir. In the same way God bears with all our sinning and will forgive us, if we will only repent. We Christians are assured of this by Jesus, God’s only Son, the corner stone once rejected by the builders.

It tells us of God’s judgement. When the tenants carried out their deliberate policy of rebellion and disobedience, God eventually took the vineyard away and gave it to others. In the same way if we who are sinners continue to refuse God’s forgiveness and fail to repent, we become useless to God. In the end God’s stern judgement on us will be to give the job he made for us to someone else. And we will die of shame. Perish the thought!

Let me finish in prayer with a Gospel Collect:
Almighty God,
your Son Jesus was the stone rejected by the builders,
and, by your doing, he has been made the chief cornerstone:
grant that, by the power of his Spirit working in us,
we may become living stones
built up into your dwelling place,
a temple holy and acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Exodus

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 10th September 2017, the 13th after Trinity.

70 years ago in 1947 British India was partitioned to form the new countries of India & Pakistan.
Murderous rioting left some 2 million people dead and prompted the greatest population transfer in human history, as the religiously mixed provinces of Punjab and Bengal were divided. Some 14 million Muslims fled to Pakistan, and 14 million Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, breaking up communities that had lived and worked peacefully beside each other for centuries.

You may have seen images, as I have, of the horrific violence that followed partition, and heard the stories of survivors, their children and grandchildren, shown recently on British TV. Of course, this is not the only example of ethnic cleansing within the living memory of many of us. They are examples of how men and women just like you and me can be infected with the virus of hatred for those who are different to us, which pushes them to do evil things – surely a manifestation of original sin.

These thoughts are prompted by today’s 1st reading from Exodus 12:1-14.
To understand it we need to put the reading in context, since as so often the good compilers of the lectionary have set only a small part of a much bigger story.

The Israelites had lived in Egypt for 430 years since the time of Joseph, and their numbers had grown to 600,000, we are told - though that may be exaggerated. Once welcomed in the time of Joseph, the Egyptians had come to resent them for being different. To reduce their numbers, Pharaoh – the Egyptian King - had decreed that their male babies should be killed – as nearly happened to Moses. Now a new Pharaoh is using them as slaves, forced labour on his great building projects.

Immediately before today’s reading, we hear how the Israelites prayed for God to relieve their suffering, and God ordained Moses and Aaron to lead them out of their slavery to a promised land ‘filled with milk and honey’. Pharaoh would not listen to Moses’ pleas to let the Israelites go. So God sent 9 successive plagues on Egypt, but still in the hardness of his heart Pharaoh would not let them go. Now God is preparing a 10th and final plague – the death of the first-born – after which Pharaoh will let them go.

In today’s reading we heard how God instructs Moses and Aaron to prepare the people to leave. Each family is to kill a lamb. They are to paint their doors with its blood, then roast and eat it hurriedly with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, all dressed and ready to go. During the night God will destroy the first-born of every human being and animal, except where the doors have been marked with blood. This is to be named the Passover, because God passed over the Israelites, and they are to celebrate the Passover as a festival for ever after.

After today’s reading we hear that God was as good as his word. He killed every first-born, but spared the Israelites. Pharaoh finally permitted the Israelites to leave, and they went carrying gold and silver and clothes given them by their Egyptian neighbours. Pharaoh changed his mind and sent an army after them, but his army was drowned in the Red Sea. The Israelites escaped into the wilderness of Sinai, where they wandered for 40 years, before finally entering the promised land of Canaan.

The story of the Passover and Exodus from Egypt is the great foundation myth of the Israelite people.
It was probably written down some 700 years after the Passover, based on memories passed down orally from generation to generation from the 15th-13th Century BC, as part of religious ceremonies.

As a result the Israelites came to see themselves as a people specially chosen and loved by the one all-powerful God, a God of justice who would protect them, so long as they kept to their side of the covenant he made with them through Moses.

But perhaps there was a darker side to the Passover too. Was it accompanied by intercommunal violence, like the partition of India? Could the reason for marking the doorways with blood be so that Israelite gangs bent on murder would not attack Israelite homes? Did the departing Israelites pillage their neighbours houses to steal the gold and silver and clothes they took away with them? It is impossible to know – there is just too little evidence – but it does not seem unlikely to me.

Whatever the truth of this, the Passover and Exodus played a critical role in forging the national identity of the Israelites as a distinct people, as they faced the hardships of the wilderness, and fought to establish themselves as farmers in the fertile lands of Canaan. There they were to suffer repeated defeats, occupation and deportation. But they always returned, thanks to their strong sense of identity forged at the time of the Exodus, and their faith in their covenant with God. In my own lifetime, Jews have returned again to build the strong state of Israel – though at the expense of Palestinians turned out from their ancestral homes.

Jesus was able to build on this Jewish sense of identity to proclaim his good news. He used the symbolism of the Passover lamb – quite deliberately, I think – when he went up to Jerusalem for the Passover. There his passion and death shows Christians how to confront evil with self-sacrifice, becoming our Paschal Lamb, who died to save us from the slavery of sin. And the early church was able to broaden the terms of the covenant to include gentiles as well as Jews - largely through the insights of St Paul and St Peter - so that we gentile Christians now claim that covenant with God for ourselves.

Today we face a different sort of slavery to the ancient Israelites – a slavery of excess.
Men and women are driven by economic forces to ever greater consumption. We are enslaved by a false God of endless economic growth to maximise return on investment, without thought for others or the future. As a society, we do not care for the poor in our own country as we should. We do too little to ease the plight of refugees from conflict and natural disasters. We continue to pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases which threaten environmental catastrophe. We ignore issues of global justice and ethnic tensions springing from competition for scarce resources. How do we as Christians respond to these moral challenges?

We know we must change our ways, as we travel into the future on a pilgrimage of faith and hope. We cannot see our promised land, nor can we be certain how to get there, so we are filled with fear about giving up our comfortable lifestyles to sojourn in the wilderness. In our imagination we suffer hunger and thirst, with wild animals lurking in the bushes and unfriendly neighbours ready to attack. And we protest that the costs of the journey are to be borne by us, while the benefits will not be felt in our time.

Yet we can learn from the history of the children of Israel - how they changed after the Passover and the Exodus from a bickering group of refugees into a nation and flourished in their promised land. As we can too, in ours.

We need to sense the urgency of God’s call to us to get ready for a new life. We hear it in Jesus’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near’. We must trust in our covenant with the one almighty God, who chooses us and loves us. We will get our focus right if we follow Jesus’s commandments to love God and to love our neighbours.


But we have to move quickly – ‘the night is far gone, the day is near’, as Paul tells the Romans in today’s Epistle reading (Romans 13:8-14).

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Who do you say that I am?

Address given at St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick on Sunday 27th August 2017, the 11th after Trinity

Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20) is about the answers to two questions.
First, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’, referring to himself, and they reply, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’.
Notice that all of these are figures from the past. Even John the Baptist, who was Jesus’s contemporary and cousin. Herod, the ruler of Galilee, had ordered John’s execution, and we are told he believed Jesus must be John returned from the dead, when he heard reports of Jesus’s ministry.

Second, Jesus asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’, and it is Peter who replies on behalf of them all, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’.
Jews at the time believed that God would send his Messiah, meaning ‘anointed one’, to be a king on the throne of Israel who would restore the fortunes of the Jewish people.
Notice this is not the first time Jesus has been named as the Son of God – if you remember 2 Sundays ago, the disciples in the boat ‘worshipped (Jesus), saying, “Truly you are the Son of God”’, after he came to help them in the storm.

The same story is told by Mark and Luke, as well as Matthew - but only Matthew records Jesus’s reply to Peter. Let’s look at the story from 4 different perspectives: that of Jesus, of Peter, of Matthew, and finally of ourselves today, 2,000 years on in Ireland.

Why, I wonder, did Jesus ask these two questions when he did?
The disciples have been following Jesus for quite a while, watching his ministry, learning the ways of the kingdom of heaven from him. Jesus’s fame has been spreading, crowds are pressing around him, wondering if Jesus might herald the arrival of the Messiah. The Jewish authorities are suspicious, starting to question his ministry, and preparing to oppose him. Jesus surely knows that the time is coming soon when he must go to Jerusalem to confront them, and quite likely be killed by them.

But are the disciples ready for this? Are they up to the task of continuing his ministry, of building the kingdom of heaven? I think Jesus decides to test them. First he asks an easy question – by their answers he knows they understand the context of his work. Then he asks the hard one – and it is Peter who speaks for all of them. Jesus sees that Peter has leadership qualities, despite all his weaknesses. And he praises Peter, marking him out as the rock on which the church – the ‘people of God’ – will be built, with a pun on his nickname Peter, which means a rock in Greek.

The disciples must have passed Jesus’s test, because from then on he intensifies his teaching. He begins to prepare them for his final trip to Jerusalem, his crucifixion, and resurrection – as we will hear in next Sunday’s Gospel reading.

But why is Jesus so secretive, why does he order them to tell no one that he is the Messiah? Because, I think, a public claim to be the Messiah would be very dangerous both for them and for Jesus - it would be like raising the banner of revolution. Jesus does not see himself as an earthly king, and besides, it is not yet time – he still has a lot to teach the disciples before they are fully ready for their task.

Peter is loyal and bold, but also impetuous and foolhardy - as we saw two Sunday’s ago, when he tried to walk on water, lost his nerve, and began to sink.
Peter could also be obtuse and wrong-headed – next Sunday we will hear Jesus publicly chide him, saying, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’, when Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from his path of sacrifice. But at this moment Peter for all his faults surely feels encouraged by Jesus’s praise. And Jesus’s assessment of him is correct, of course - it is Peter who will take the lead in publicly proclaiming Jesus as Messiah on the day of Pentecost.
I wonder if Peter was puzzled when Jesus said, ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’? Jesus is telling Peter he is like the steward of a rich man’s household, who is given the keys of the house and authority over the other servants when the master travels away. A bit like Carson the butler in Downton Abbey, I suppose.

Over the ages Popes have claimed that by these words Jesus has given them authority over other bishops, because they are Peter’s successors as Bishop of Rome. But I find this entirely unconvincing – surely Jesus confers the position of steward on Peter in a personal capacity.

And indeed, Peter does go on to act as steward of the infant church at the Council of Jerusalem, when he sides with Paul to persuade the church to accept gentiles into full membership - but that is to jump ahead. Jesus’s plan for salvation works through human history, and Peter will not understand the implications of his words for many years to come.

Matthew the Evangelist who wrote the Gospel is unlikely to be the tax-collector Matthew whom Jesus called to be an Apostle.
Scholars believe that his Gospel was written after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD for a Jewish Christian audience. He is writing at least 40 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection, and the events of Pentecost; and 20 or more years after the Council of Jerusalem.

Matthew is keen to reinforce the Jewish roots of Christian faith, while welcoming the growing numbers of gentile Christians. This, I think, is why he, more than the other Gospel writers, emphasises Peter’s role in the story. It is Peter’s belief that Jesus is the Messiah that is the rock on which the church has been built, and it is Peter’s role as steward of the kingdom of heaven that has brought the gentiles into it.

Matthew writes from a Jewish perspective in the light of his own time, a time when the split between Jews and Christians is crystallising and becoming sharp. His audience would surely have understood that Jesus asks his questions not just of the first disciples, but of them as well. And it is the answers they give that will determine how the kingdom of heaven grows.

Fourthly, what is the significance of Jesus’s questions for us today in Ireland, 2,000 years on?
The tide of history has ebbed and flowed since Matthew’s day. The small church of Jewish and gentile Christians grew to take over the mighty Roman Empire. The historic trinitarian creeds were forged in attempts to answer Jesus’s question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’. Over centuries empires have come and gone, churches have split and the parts prospered - or not, and belief has waxed and waned. In our own day, we see Christian belief contracting in some parts of the world, including our own, but growing in others. But this has happened many times before.

Throughout this history Jesus has continued to ask each generation, ‘Who do you say that I am?’, and it remains the case that the answers we give will determine how the kingdom of heaven will grow. We share with Peter an identity as flawed disciples who are forgiven and empowered by Jesus to face whatever lies on the path ahead. May our answer be like his, and may we serve like him as stewards to build the future of the church, and with it the kingdom of heaven.

Let me finish in prayer:
O God, the fount of all wisdom,
in the humble witness of the apostle Peter
you have shown the foundation of our faith:
give us the light of your Spirit,
that, recognising in Jesus of Nazareth
the Son of the living God,
we may be living stones
for the building up of your holy Church;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Walking on water

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 13th August 2017, the 9th after Trinity, Year A

It is terrifying to be out on the water at night in a small boat in a gale. I know, because I have been.
I was a teenager, and it was a wild night. My mother and I had to row less than a hundred yards to the island on Lough Derg where we were staying. It was blowing a gale, with a big sea running, and waves breaking. With one oar each, side by side, we pulled against the wind, inching forward, sometimes being thrown sideways as the wind caught the side of the boat, shipping water all the while. We made several attempts and were thrown back, but eventually we made it to calmer waters, and arrived safely on the other shore. By that time I was shaking like a leaf, terrified. My mother probably was too, though she never let me see it of course. It taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: respect for the water – it’s not our native element, and we underestimate the power of wind and wave at our peril.

Today’s reading from St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) brings this memory back to me. The same event is recorded in both Mark’s and John’s Gospels. I feel I can identify with the disciples, even though I suppose I wasn’t in real danger, as they must have been. The Sea of Galilee is renowned for the fierce and dangerous storms that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and abate just as quickly. I see it in my minds eye as rather like our Lough Derg – it’s about 40% bigger in area and wider, but not so long. And sailors know how quickly a squall can blow up on Lough Derg.

The disciples had got into trouble in one of Galilee’s notorious storms.
Immediately after feeding the 5000, Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat, while he told the crowds to go home, and went off up the mountain to pray by himself.

The disciples had set out in the evening light, unaware of the coming storm. Mark tells us that Jesus saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind. I imagine the night was bright and moonlit for Jesus to be able to see the little boat.

Early in the morning, Matthew tells us, Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. The Greek words translated as ‘early in the morning’ literally mean ‘in the 4th watch of the night’. In those days, with no clocks, time during the night was counted in 4 watches of 3 hours each. So sometime between 3 and 6 am, Jesus, walking on the high ground after praying all night, saw the little boat struggling through waves and spray, and came down to help.

But what is this about Jesus walking on the sea?
Should we imagine Jesus far from land, in the middle of the lake, walking on the water, stepping over the waves? This is how most Christians have imagined the scene, I suppose, and many artists have depicted it. But we should be aware of a translation difficulty here. The Greek words translated as ‘on the lake’ could equally mean ‘towards the lake’, or ‘at the lake’, that is by the lake shore.

The truth is that there are two perfectly possible interpretations of this passage. The first describes Jesus miraculously walking on the water in the middle of the lake. In the second, the disciples’ boat is driven by the wind to the shore, Jesus comes down from the mountain to help when he sees them struggling in the dim light of dawn, and Jesus walks through the surf towards the boat. Both interpretations are equally valid. Some will prefer one and some the other.

When the disciples saw Jesus they were terrified, believing him to be a ghost, until Jesus spoke to them, saying, Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

Whichever way we interpret the Greek, the significance to the disciples is perfectly clear: In the hour of their need, Jesus came to them, to help and reassure them.


Only Matthew adds the detail about Peter trying to walk on the water too.
It’s a charming vignette, isn’t it - and so in character for Peter, from the other things we know of him. He was brave and impetuous, but he often found it hard to live up to his good intentions. Remember, it was Peter who swore undying loyalty to Jesus only to deny 3 times that he knew him the very next day.

When Jesus said Come, Peter bravely got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But his courage failed him and he started to sink. ‘Lord, save me!’ he shouted, and Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Whether Jesus was miraculously walking on water, or whether he came through the surf on the shore to help the disciples in the boat, Peter surely learned this: It is not always easy to follow Jesus, but Jesus is always there to catch you when you stumble and sink.

Finally, what can we learn from this story, 2000 years on?
Well, surely the same things that Peter and the disciples learned! They were privileged to know Jesus in the flesh and to sail the Sea of Galilee with him. But we are privileged too to know the spiritual reality of the living Christ.

In life the wind is often against us. Life for every one of us sometimes feels like a fearful struggle, with ourselves, with our circumstances, with temptations, with sorrow, with the consequences of decisions made, by us or by others. Many today struggle with fear for the future of a world that seems to be spinning out of control towards disaster, fear of an impoverishing Brexit, fear of life destroying climate change, fear of nuclear war between the USA and North Korea. But none of us need struggle with our fears alone. In the hour of our need, Jesus will come to us as he did to the disciples long ago, to help and reassure us. Just listen for his voice saying, Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid!

If we seek to follow Jesus, we will find like Peter that it is not always easy. It will test our faith at times. Our faith will not always be enough and we will have doubts. But when we feel ourselves going under, if we cry out Lord save me, Jesus will be there for us, just as he was for Peter, reaching out his hand to catch us. Jesus is always there to save us when we are sinking. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

Let us finish in prayer:
Mighty God and ruler of all creation,
even when all hope seems lost.
Help us to face all trials with serenity
as we walk with Christ through the stormy seas of life
and come at the last to your eternal peace.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen