Sunday, 25 August 2019

Call & Response

Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 25th August 2019, the 10th after Trinity, year C

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy’.
So says Jeremiah, when he hears the Lord God JHWH calling him to be a prophet.

I feel empathy with Jeremiah. I suspect he was one of those shy introverts who find it difficult to speak in public, to be the centre of attention among a crowd of people he doesn’t know, even perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum.

I wouldn’t want to compare myself to a great prophet, but I too am an introvert. When I was younger, up to my twenties - perhaps the same age as Jeremiah - I also found public speaking difficult. The mere thought would bring me close to a panic attack – tightness of breath and a racing heart. At first I avoided such occasions, but as time passed I became more confident. I found I was able to teach small groups, and then to speak at large conferences. Much later, when a call went out for readers in the diocese, I realised that I was well able to lead worship, and this was a ministry I could offer to my church. You could say that I felt the Holy Spirit was calling me to it. Now, commissioned as a diocesan reader for many years, I am comfortable leading worship and preaching. But I still get anxious when I think I may have left my sermon notes behind!

This Sunday’s readings are all about God calling people, and how people respond to that call. Let’s look at them in turn.

In today’s 1st reading (Jeremiah 1:4-10), Jeremiah hears God’s voice calling to him.
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ God has known him since before his conception and calls him to bring God’s message not just to his own people, but to the whole world.

But Jeremiah protests that he is young and inexperienced, and God rebukes him. God promises to be with him and to strengthen him. ‘You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you’.

Then God commissions Jeremiah through the symbolic action of touching his mouth, sending him out to the nations and the kingdoms of the world, ‘to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’. In other words, to do away with corruption and ungodliness, and to promote ethical conduct and godliness.

And that is precisely what Jeremiah does. He overcomes his fears thanks to God’s reassurance, and responds to God’s call. He becomes the prophet God wants him to be, starkly warning the people of Judah what will happen if they do not follow God’s ways. From his name we get our English word ‘jeremiad’, meaning a sustained invective against the state of society and morals.

Today’s 2nd reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 12:18-29 reminds us that as Christians we are called to be part of God’s Kingdom through Jesus.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, it’s anonymous author contrasts how the children of Israel received the Ten Commandments and their Covenant with God through Moses at Mount Sinai, with how Christians receive the new covenant with God through Jesus Christ at ‘Mount Zion, … the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’.

The response of the children of Israel to the Ten Commandments and the Covenant was one of terror. They saw God as distant and they were terrified that if they transgressed the commandments in the smallest degree a wrathful God would punish them. So, they felt the place where Moses received the coomandments, Mount Sinai, must not be approached, it was taboo: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death’.

But our response as Christians to the new covenant, mediated by Jesus, must be different. God has come close to us through Jesus. We must not refuse to listen when he speaks to us. Jesus brings us to a new home, Mount Zion, the city of the living God. There we are welcomed among ‘the spirits of the righteous made perfect’. Our response must be to give thanks: ‘Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe’.

In today’s 3rd reading Luke 13:10-17 tells us the story of how Jesus called a crippled woman over and healed her, and how different people responded to it.
He tells us that when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath, he spotted a woman who ‘was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”. When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.’

It would be futile to try to explain how Jesus cured the woman in this miraculous way, but the effect is clear. Not only her body is healed, but her standing in the community. She must have been on the margins of the comunity, since people then thought that illness such as hers was caused by an evil spirit. But without being asked, in his compassion, Jesus not only heals her, but affirms her as a full member of the community - ‘a daughter of Abraham’. She responds by speaking out and praising God for what Jesus has done for her – something that women were not supposed to do in the synagogue.

The response of the leader of the synagogue was quite different. He was indignant. He knew the Jewish Law prohibited any work on the sabbath, and he kept telling the congregation, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day’. Jesus responds sharply. ‘You hypocrites!’, he says. You untie animals to water them on the sabbath, so why shouldn’t this woman be untied from her bondage on the sabbath? His opponents are shamed, and the congregation rejoices.

What is the point of these three stories? I suggest it is this.
God calls human beings in different ways to be the people he wants each of us to be. Each one of us is different, and he calls each of us to different things.
·         Jeremiah hears the Lord God call him to be a prophet. This is the Jewish God that Jesus refers to as Father. With God’s encouragement Jeremiah overcomes his fears and becomes the prophet he is called to be.
·         As Christians we hear the Holy Spirit speak through the letter to the Hebrews. It calls us to listen to Jesus, who is God’s Word. And it calls us to respond by giving thanks that we are included in God’s Kingdom, the city of the living God.
·         The crippled woman in the synagogue on the sabbath hears Jesus Christ the Son of God calling her to be healed and to be affirmed as a full member of the congregation. And she responds by simply praising God.

Can you hear God calling to you? I believe that God is calling all of us, all the time. We may not always hear it, but when we do we must listen to his voice prayerfully, no matter how still and small it is. And if we are sure the voice really does come from God, then we must respond positively. We owe it to God, and we owe it to our deepest selves.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
O God, the judge of all,
through the saving blood of your Son
you have brought us to the heavenly Jerusalem
and given us a kingdom which cannot be shaken:
fill us with reverence and awe in your presence,
that in thanksgiving we and all your Church
may offer you acceptable worship;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives to intercede for us,
now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Holy simplicity

Address given in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan churches on Sunday 11 August 2019, the 8th after Trinity Year C

Are you a hoarder? I know I am – as Marty will confirm if you ask her!
I am surrounded by ‘stuff’ – the attic is full of it, so is the garage. Some has sentimental value, such as things I’ve inherited which I remember from childhood. Some I don’t need right now, but a nagging voice tells me they might just be useful sometime. And then there is some old stuff which I tell myself I might be able to sell, if I ever find myself down on my uppers – little enough, for in truth most of it is just junk.

And it doesn’t stop there either. There is something inside me which covets more stuff than I have already, and the security that money and wealth brings. There is that urge to accuumulate in most if not all of us, I think.

It is this covetous human nature that advertisers constantly play on. Their siren voices tempt us to buy that new car, the latest smartphone, cosmetics to make us young again, exotic foreign holidays. If we cannot have it all we feel cheated.

The capitalist market economy we live in has created great wealth for many.
Most of us in rich societies like Ireland have enjoyed a high and growing standard of living for many years. We have all come to expect that we will have more than our parents did. But this kind of economy depends on growing production driven by growing consumption, bringing ever-growing waste and pollution, which the finite resources of our beautiful planet cannot sustain.

As you may have seen in the news, July 29th this year was declared to be ‘Earth Overshoot Day’, the day after New Year’s Day when humans have consumed more resources than Earth can regenerate in a full year. Put another way, this year humanity is using the sustainable resources of 1.7 Earths – only 50 years ago we were more or less in balance, using about 1 Earth.

As a species we are faced with a perfect storm. Growth continues, even as greenhouse gases change our climate, causing heatwaves, droughts, floods, and rising sea levels which threaten coastal cities. Other pollutants such as microplastics and industrialised, unsustainable agriculture reduce the biodiversity on which all life on earth depends. When growth inevitably falters - as it must - those with the least will suffer the most - but it will affect us all.

So we fear for the future. We worry that our jobs and pensions are precarious, we suspect that the lives of our children and grandchildren will be harder than our own, we are anxious about the damage being done to the natural world about us, and we dread the prospect of runaway climate change.

Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 12: 32-40) has a lot to say to us in present circumstances.
Jesus understands that people are often selfish and greedy because they are anxious and afraid for the future. So he tells the disciples – and through them, us – that we should put aside such anxiety. God knows what we need, and God will give us all we need when we work for his kingdom – in other words, when we try to be the people God wants us to be, loving God and his wonderful creation, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock’, he says, ‘for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.

God has given us all that we have so that we may be generous with it, not hoard it. What we give away, to those who need it more than we do, is ‘an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys’. But it is not just about giving away what we have. It is also about using what we have to stand up for the weak and the marginalised against the forces that oppress them, as Isaiah saw in his vision in today’s 1st reading (Isaiah 1:1,10-20). God calls us to ‘seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’. If we want to be good Christians we must focus on these kinds of spiritual wealth, rather than accumulating material wealth, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’.

And we must be alert at all times for opportunities to respond generously, as and when God prompts us to do so. As Jesus puts it, ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit’. We should not put off calls on our generosity, waiting perhaps for a better time or a more pressing need to come along. We are mortal – we do not know when God will knock on the door to call us out of this life. ‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’, says Jesus. And it would be shameful, when he does come knocking - as we know he will - to admit that we wasted the opportunities he gave us to act like the good people he created us to be.

Jesus calls his disciples to live lives of holy simplicity and generosity.
In the passage from Luke immediately preceding the one we heard (Luke 12:22-31), Jesus talks of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.
‘Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither store-house nor barn, and yet God feeds them … Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Soloman in his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field … how much more will he clothe you.’

As Christians we need to live like the birds and the lilies. That doesn’t mean that we should not work and plan for the future. Unlike the birds and lilies we must sow and reap, build store-houses and barns, toil and spin, and we must do so as a community, because that is what it means to be human. That is how we have evolved to make our living, how God has made us to be - just as the birds and the lilies have evolved to make their different livings. But we must also recover a sense of what it is to have enough. We must resist the temptation always to seek more than we need, more than God has already given us. And we must cultivate a generous spirit.

As I see it, our globalised world is like an over-wound clockwork toy, in which the spring that drives it is ready to snap. Our example of holy simplicity can show others how together we can release the tension, how we can return to a way of living which will enable everyone to continue to flourish in the wonderful world God has given us, alongside the birds and the lilies.

Holy simplicity is liberating, and our world needs liberating now as much as it has ever done. Let us live simply, so that others can simply live!

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Who is my neighbour?

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 14th July 2019, the 4th after Trinity.

Jesus’s story about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is so familiar that it is easy to miss his main point.
It is more about recognising who our neighbour is, than about loving them as ourselves, important though that is. And his words would have shocked those who heard them first.

The story was prompted by a lawyer, we’re told – a learned professional man.
He asks Jesus ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ – in other words, how must I behave to be worthy of God’s favour. Jesus bounces the question back at him, saying ‘What does God’s law say?’ When the lawyer answers, ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’, Jesus agrees with him, saying ‘Do this and you will live.’ After all, as both Matthew (22:37-39) and Mark (12:31) tell us, Jesus had said as much himself when asked what the greatest commandment was.

Jews then understood very well their obligation to protect and care for their neighbours in need - as they still do. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, is a quotation from the book Leviticus (19:18) – it is a command from God.

But then the lawyer chances his arm again, asking Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ It is in reply to this that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

Let's remind ourselves of the story.
A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite travelling on the same road pass by on the other side, ignoring his plight. 

Incidentally, a Levite was a layman privileged to help the priests in the Temple – a bit like a Diocesan Reader, I suppose!

Now it may shock us, the thought that men of God like the priest and the Levite should ignore a person in such obvious need. But it would not have shocked those who heard Jesus. According to Jewish Law, contact with blood, or worse a corpse, made a person ritually impure. If the priest or the Levite had touched the man left for dead, they would have become ritually impure, and so unable to discharge their religious duties. Those who heard Jesus would have understood that it was better by far for the priest and the Levite to pass by on the other side, leaving the man to be cared for by someone else – a neighbour. They would expect nothing less.

But then an outsider comes along, a Samaritan of all people, who stops and helps the traveller, treats his wounds, takes him to a safe place, and even pays for him to be cared for. When Jesus asks which of the three was a good neighbour, the lawyer cannot bring himself to call the good neighbour a Samaritan, replying, ‘The one who helped’. Jesus tells the lawyer, ‘Go and do likewise.’

To accept help from a Samaritan as a neighbour – that is what would have shocked a pious Jew at that time.

So just who were these Samaritans?
The Samaritans worshipped the Hebrew God, YHWH, but they believed that YHWH had chosen Mount Gerizim near Nablus, not Jerusalem, as the site of his holy temple. That was where they worshipped and where Samaritan priests made the traditional sacrifices. They used variant texts of the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures, but they rejected the rest. The Samaritans believed they followed the true religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile, preserved by those who remained in the Land of Israel. Whereas the Jews who returned from exile had brought back a changed and perverted religion.

When Jesus was alive up to a million Samaritans lived alongside but apart from the Jews in their own villages in what we now call Palestine and Israel. But history has not been kind to them. They suffered centuries of persecution and forced conversion, first by Byzantine Christians and then by Arab and Turkish muslims. Yet a small Samaritan community of almost 1,000 still remains today near Nablus in the West Bank, faithfully maintaining their own distinctive faith.

In Jesus’s time, Jews despised and disliked Samaritans. They were heretics who did not follow Jewish law, they were unclean, untrustworthy, quite outside the pale. And the Samaritans no doubt heartily returned those sentiments. Both groups had as little to do with each other as they could – neither saw the other as their neighbour.

Jesus makes the shocking point that every person is a neighbour to be loved, even despised Samaritans.
Many people in our society today find it just as hard as the Jews in Jesus’s day to accept some people as neighbours.

Take Travellers for instance. It is not so many years ago that one of the Nenagh RC priests bravely insisted that a sign saying ‘No Travellers’ should be taken down in the cinema. Anti-traveller prejudice among settled people still makes life very difficult for Irish Travellers, despite their recent recognition as a distinct ethnic group.

Or consider asylum seekers. Surely it cannot be right to keep people in direct provision centres for years on end on a dole of €19 per week, denying them the right to work and contribute to society, even to cook their own food for their families. There are fears for the safety and welfare of children in these centres, and once children reach the age of 18 they are denied funding to take up college places, and left in complete limbo.

And then there are muslims. Muslim’s in Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, are suffering increasing harassment and attacks on the streets. How often do we hear derogatory comments about Islam, how often do we hear someone remark that ‘they are all terrorists’, which is quite untrue.

We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus unless we accept that all these and many more others different from us are our neighbours. We have an obligation to be good neighbours to them, to protect and care for them when they need it. And when we hear others express crude prejudice about them, we should confront it and not collude with it.

The Samaritan crossed the boundaries of prejudice to help his neighbour – may we ‘Go and do likewise’.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

The works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 30th June 2019, the 2nd after Trinity.

‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ So says St Paul in today’s reading from his epistle to the Galatians 5:1,13-25.
But am I truly free? Are you truly free? I’m pretty sure I have never really been free to do exactly what I want.

I remember an evening at this time of year playing with my brother, when I must have been around 6 and Tom 2 years younger. My mother called us into the house to go to bed – but I didn’t want to. I was enjoying myself, and it was still light. I ran away across the fields with Tom in tow, and she hitched up her skirts and chased after us. Tom suffered a nasty wound when he snagged himself on a barbed wire fence as we went through a gap. When she caught up with us, she slapped me roundly on the leg for being such a naughty boy and causing my brother to be hurt - the only time I ever remember her doing so. And she was right – I needed to learn the lesson that there would be consequences if I did exactly what I wanted, regardless of others.

And even now, as an old man, I am still not totally free. If I break the criminal law of the land - if I drive dangerously - and I’m caught, I will be tried and punished for it.

Today I want to explore what Paul’s talk of freedom and slavery is all about.

It was Paul’s theological conviction that Christ by God’s grace sets us free from the Jewish Law to follow a more important law, the law of love, which is to love God and to love our neighbour as ourself.
The Jewish Law is called the ‘halakah’ in Hebrew, meaning ‘the way to behave’. Jesus famously summarised it as ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:35-40) – though he was not the first to do so.

Since the time of Moses, the Jewish Law had become a vast compendium of commands and prohibitions, drawn from the Torah, the first 5 books of our OT. It went far beyond the 10 commandments – it prescribed how to apply 613 ‘mitzvot’ or commandments to different circumstances. Pious Jews of the time, especially the Pharisees of whom Paul was one, did their very best to follow every jot and tittle, since they believed this is what God required of them.

Much of this was good - it encouraged people to good, ethical behaviour. But attempts to follow it slavishly resulted in behaviour which was perversely damaging – contrary to the law of love. Remember how Jewish religious leaders attacked Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, when work was prohibited. This attitude led Jesus to declare ‘The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:28). Jesus respected the spirit of the Jewish Law, and he said he came to fulfil it, but he tempered it with the law of love.

Paul reminds the Galatians that even if Christ calls them to freedom, they must not think that they are free to do absolutely anything. They are still bound by Christ’s law of love. ‘Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence’, he says, ‘but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.’

Paul continues, ‘If … you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another’. Here he is restating that ancient ethical maxim, the Golden Rule, “Do as you would be done by”. This is not a specifically Christian idea, but one found in almost all religions and secular philosophies, in ancient times as much as today. It is after all the basis for peaceable coexistence and human flourishing in any society.

But Paul goes further than this: ‘Live by the Spirit’, he says, ‘do not gratify the desires of the flesh’.
For Paul it is the Spirit, sent by God at Jesus’s request, which enables us as Christians to live up to the law of love. He understands the tensions in our human nature between our baser instincts – this is what he means by ‘the flesh’ – and our better natures which strive for all that is right and good and true.

The works of the flesh are the consequences of giving in to our baser instincts. Paul gives us a long list, including not only sexual unfaithfulness, but also hatred and jealousy, anger and envy - all of them behaviours which damage relationships with other people. They are behaviours contrary to the law of love. They cut people off from God’s kingdom.

I fear we see such behaviours all too often from fundamentalist religious leaders, and populist political leaders – and their bad examples spread like an epidemic among their followers. We must resist infection by them.

Paul contrasts these behaviours with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace – patience, kindness, generosity – faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the qualities that the Spirit calls us to display as Christians who follow Christ’s law of love.

Each one of us is like the soldier in the trenches in Woodbine Willie’s 1st World War poem.
I'm a man, and man's a mixture,
Right up from 'is very birth,
There's part of 'im comes from 'eaven,
And part of 'im comes from earth.
There's summat as draws 'im upwards,
And summat as drags 'im duhn,
And the consekence is that 'e wobbles
Twixt muck and a golden crown.

We wobble. We wobble because all too often our baser instincts overcome our best intentions. But God offers us forgiveness if we respond to Christ, repent and try to do better.

And by God’s grace we have received the Spirit which Christ asked the Father to send us. If we live by that Spirit, if we allow ourselves to be guided by that Spirit, we will not be slaves to our baser instincts, we will not be down in the muck. We will be free, free to live by Christ’s law of love, free to enjoy the fruits of the Spirit, and free to inherit a golden crown in the kingdom of God.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
O God, the light of the minds that know you,
the life of the souls that love you,
the strength of the thoughts that see you:
help us to know you that we may truly love you,
and so to love you that we may fully serve you,
whose service is perfect freedom,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday, 9 June 2019

The living church

Address given in St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan churches on Sunday 9th June 2019, the Feast of Pentecost

We’re moving into Summer and Spring is already behind us!
We all love the sense of unfolding new life at this time of year. And it is right for us to rejoice in the changing of the seasons. It is the creative power of the Spirit of God at work: as today’s Psalm 104 puts it, When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.

This Sunday is Pentecost – what we used to call Whitsunday. For Christians it ranks alongside Christmas and Easter as one of the great festivals. It celebrates the day when the Holy Spirit filled Jesus’s followers, empowering them to begin the great task of making disciples of all nations. The first Pentecost was the spring-time of the Church, the day when the first green sprouts burst into the light of day, the day the Church was born.

The Lectionary readings are of course all about the Spirit. Let’s have a closer look at them.

In today’s Gospel (John 14:8-17,25-27), Jesus tells his disciples that he will ask the Father to send them the Holy Spirit.
For what we know as the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity, John uses a Greek word translated as ‘advocate’. On the night he was betrayed Jesus tells the disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth... You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you… The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’.

These are very important words. Jesus tells his first disciples that through loving him they will know the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, which will stay with them and be in them. And he tells them that the Spirit of truth will teach them, as well as remind them of Jesus’s teaching.

Surely the same applies to his disciples in every age, including ours. Jesus teaches us our faith must be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – it must be a living faith, open to development.

In the 2nd reading (Romans 8:14-17), St Paul tells the Roman church that this Holy Spirit is a spirit of adoption.
‘When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.’

When we pray, when we seek God’s forgiveness, it is the Holy Spirit - the Advocate whom Jesus asked his Father to send to those who love him - the Spirit of truth which abides within us - who reminds us that we are children of God - and so joint inheritors with Christ of all that is good and true and beautiful in God. What a simply stunning thought that is.

In today’s 1st reading (Acts 2:1-21), Luke describes the events of that very first Pentecost.
7 weeks after Christ’s resurrection, 10 days after his ascension, something happened among his followers. Something that caught the attention of the crowd – citizens of Jerusalem and visitors from all over the Roman Empire, alike. Something that caused the crowd to stop and look and listen. What was it that happened?

The disciples suddenly experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, in them and in their lives, as Jesus had promised them. The OT uses wind and fire as symbols of the presence of God. So it wasAct natural for them to describe their extraordinary experience in terms of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire. And they were changed, changed utterly by it.

They began to speak in tongues – this is what first attracts the attention of the crowd – some people even thought they were drunk! Did they really speak in all manner of foreign languages? Or is Luke using this as a device to signify the Gospel message is universal, for every person, from every nation? Or was it just the disciples’ obvious enthusiasm and joy, bubbling forth, that impressed the crowd?

Then Peter comes forward. Peter the simple fisherman from Galilee, who just seven weeks before had been afraid to admit he knew Jesus. Peter as spokesman for the others starts to speak confidently to the crowd, quoting from the prophet Joel; and Peter goes on to declare his faith in the risen Christ, with such eloquence that we are told he convinced 3000 people that day to believe and be baptised. What a change in the man! And Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we could explain what happened with, say, the science of psychology. But I think it’s enough to use the same words Luke did – ‘All of them - the disciples - were filled with the Holy Spirit’, and they were changed by it. And this sense of receiving and being changed by the Holy Spirit has marked out and empowered Christians in every generation ever since.

Notice that the disciples were all together in one place when they received the Spirit.
It was a gift to the whole community who followed Jesus. I think that if Christians of different traditions were more often gathered together in one place, we would receive more of the Spirit.

I can be a Christian without going to Church, people sometimes say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional. But nobody can be a Christian alone – for as Christians we are those to whom God has given his Spirit, and the Spirit is a community Spirit. We are not given it for our individual salvation; we are given it to empower us to be the Church, the community of believers, so that we may pass on the good news to others, not necessarily by words but in our lives.

I believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired people since time immemorial. Long before Jesus’s patient sowing of the seed with the disciples, the Spirit was no doubt planting seeds in the minds of the ancient prophets of Israel as they, like us, struggled to understand their relationship with God. And who can say that the Spirit has not also inspired what is good in other religions?

But we are Christians - let us rejoice in Christ’s Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, a living organism, sprouting from the seed Jesus sowed, and constantly growing in new ways.

So to conclude:
As we rejoice in the glorious growth in nature around us, let us also rejoice in the gift of the Holy Spirit which abides in us, and reminds us we are children of God by adoption, and let us also rejoice in the Church as a living, developing organism, inspired and guided by that Holy Spirit.

And let us pray that in this part of Christ’s Church, in the churches of our parish union, in the Church of Ireland, God’s Holy Spirit will guide us to be a living church, changing and developing as God wants us to:
God the Holy Spirit,
come in power and bring new life to the Church;
renew us in love and service,
and enable us to be faithful
to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
(BCP p149)

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Good Shepherd and the sheep

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on 12th May 2019, the 4th Sunday of Easter, year 3, Good Friday Sunday.

‘My sheep hear my voice’, says Jesus, ‘I know them and they follow me’.
Now, I don’t have much experience with sheep, but one day as a child I helped my Grandfather move a flock to fresh grazing. It wasn’t easy – the sheep took every opportunity to get away through gaps and over ditches as we drove them down the public road. We got them all there in the end, but I’ve never forgotten how wilful sheep can be.

One Sunday, years ago, I was preaching about the Good Shepherd, and I remembered this experience. I expressed my surprise that in Jesus’s time shepherds could expect their sheep to follow them – surely shepherds then must have had a different relationship with their sheep than they do today, I said. After the service a wise and experienced farmer came up to me and said, ‘My sheep follow me’. I asked him how he did it, and he replied, ‘I walk in front of them with a bucket of sheep nuts – they’re intelligent animals, they recognise me, and they know very well what the bucket means’. I learned a good lesson about leadership that day.

On a previous occasion Jesus had said, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.’
Those who heard him couldn’t agree whether he was the long expected Messiah, or not. Some thought he must be mad to talk about laying down his life, but others pointed to his miraculous deeds, such as causing the blind to see, which was just the kind of thing they expected of the Messiah.

Jesus returns to this shepherd theme in today’s reading from John’s Gospel 10:22-30. He is walking in the temple, sheltering in the portico of Solomon from the winter weather, during the festival of the Dedication. This festival commemorates the re-dedication of the temple 200 years before, after the great Jewish leader John Hyrcanus had defeated the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who had desecrated it. In Hebrew the festival is called Hanukkah, and Jews still celebrate it around Christmas time – this is why some people, particularly in America, prefer to say ‘Happy Holidays’ rather than ‘Happy Christmas’.

A crowd gathers around Jesus, asking him to put an end to the debate about his identity, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus knows that many in the crowd are looking for a Messiah who is a great military leader, like John Hyrcanus, one who will liberate them from Roman oppression and re-establish the kingdom of Judah, one who will make Judea great again – but this is not the kind of Messiah that Jesus knows himself to be. He surely also knows that others in the crowd hate him, and hope he will incriminate himself as a subversive, so they can get rid of him.

So Jesus does not answer directly. Instead he says, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ Jesus is pointing them to God, who he calls his Father. God works through me, says Jesus, I know those who believe in me, they listen to me and follow me. But you do not.

He continues, ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.’ Jesus is saying that he gives those who follow him the eternal life which is to know God, and he will keep them safe, because God has given them to him.

‘The Father and I are one’, he finishes. This last phrase infuriates the crowd. Jesus is claiming identity with God, which pious Jews see as blasphemy. In the verses following today’s reading the crowd get ready to stone him, but Jesus makes his escape and travels away from Judea, across the Jordan. His time has not yet come.

As Christians we believe Jesus when he says, ‘The Father and I are one’.
We believe that God the Father, God the Son, who is our Saviour Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit are three persons but one God.

We should take great comfort from Jesus’s words. We are his sheep, and as our shepherd he gives us eternal life and will keep us safe – nothing and nobody can take us away from him, so long as we believe in him. As the 23rd Psalm appointed for today puts it:
‘Though I walk in the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’

The truth is we are not alone. Jesus lives and Jesus is with us. And not just with you and me, here today, but with everyone who has ever believed, and will ever believe in him, from those first apostles and disciples like Peter and Tabitha we heard about in the 1st reading (Acts 9:36-43), down through the centuries to us, and forward in time to Christians yet unborn. United with them, and led by Jesus our Good Shepherd, we make up the eternal church, militant here on earth and triumphant in heaven.

We should listen to the physicists and cosmologists, I think, and look beyond the four dimensions of space and time in which we live our little lives. Because God is not constrained by space and time.

Whenever and wherever we live, we are all included in St John’s great vision of the eternal kingdom expressed in the poetry of today’s reading from his Revelation (7:9-17). We all belong to that
‘great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white’.

In the fullness of time, seen from a place outside space and time, in a higher dimension,
we stand with them ‘before the throne of God,
   and worship him day and night within his temple,
   and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter us.
We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
   the sun will not strike us,
   nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be our shepherd,
   and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
   and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.’

Jesus is not just our Good Shepherd, but also the Lamb who laid down his life to bring us to eternal life.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
Gracious God,
you sent Jesus, the good shepherd,
to gather us together:
may we not wander from his flock,
but follow wherever he leads us
listening for his voice and staying near him,
until we are safely in your fold,
to live with you for ever;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Celebrating St Thomas on Low Sunday

An address given at Cloughjordan Church on Sunday 28th April 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, commonly called Low Sunday.

In the CofI we celebrate the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle on the 3rd July.
But the Orthodox churches remember him today, the first Sunday after Easter. They call it St Thomas Sunday, because the traditional gospel reading, which we share with them, tells the familiar story of how Thomas came to be called “Doubting Thomas”.

Now, Thomas is one of my heroes, one of my favourite saints. I admire what I see of his character from the Gospels. And I enjoy the romance of his legendary missionary journey to India. I feel it’s unfair to call him by the nick-name “Doubting Thomas” - I much prefer the way Orthodox Christians call him “Believing Thomas”. So I want to take this opportunity to celebrate him a bit.

What do we know about Thomas from the Gospels?
It’s only in John’s Gospel that we learn anything at all about him. Elsewhere in the NT he is only a name on lists of Apostles, Thomas the Twin. Eastern Church tradition calls him Judas Thomas, so perhaps he was nicknamed The Twin to distinguish him from another Judas. We’re not told anything about his background, and we know nothing about his twin.

The first time we hear Thomas speak is when Lazarus has just died. Jesus decides to go to Lazarus’s funeral - but it’s in Judea, where the people had earlier tried to stone him. The disciples resist his decision, but Jesus is determined. John gives Thomas the last word: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Thomas may have been pessimistic, but he was also brave, and loyal.

Next, at the Last Supper, Jesus tells the Twelve that he is going away to prepare a place for them, but that he will return to bring them with him. Jesus says: ‘You know the way to the place where I am going’. Practical, logical Thomas struggles to understand what his teacher is really saying. Why does Jesus always insist on speaking in riddles? He says ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ We can just hear the exasperation in his voice, can’t we! But Thomas does clarify matters, for himself, but no doubt also for the others, who were perhaps too proud to admit that they too did not understand. Jesus replies with words which echo down the ages to us: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’

But it’s in today’s 2nd reading (John 29:19-31) that we really see how Thomas’s mind works:
·         He isn’t there when Jesus first appears to the other disciples. They tell him a ridiculous story. Jesus, the man they saw crucified, dead, and buried, has come to them through locked doors, they have talked with him, and he has shown them his wounds. Thomas declares: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
·         A week later, Jesus appears again, and this time Thomas is there. Jesus asks Thomas to touch his wounds, saying: ‘Do not doubt but believe’. John doesn’t tell us whether Thomas really does touch the wounds, but he does report Thomas confessing a new found faith: ‘My Lord and my God!’
·         And Jesus uses the incident to speak, through those who hear the exchange, to you and to me, and to generations unborn: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Clearly Thomas is one of those independent people who like to make up their own mind.
He doesn’t take anything on trust, particularly if it doesn’t square with his own experience. But when he has satisfied himself that something is true, his faith is great. He is sure to act on it.

Thomas must surely have been one of those Apostles arrested by the Temple police with Peter in today’s 1st reading from Acts 5:27-32. They boldly testify to their faith in Jesus before the High Priest and the Council. Let’s hear their words again:
‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’

That’s all we know of Thomas from the NT, but we have other sources of information about him, which confirm that Thomas acted on his faith - if we can believe them.
There is an ancient tradition, which is supported by early documentary evidence, that Thomas went to India to preach the Gospel, and died there.

And there is a living Christian tradition in India that claims Thomas founded their churches. Even today, on the Malabar Coast in Kerala, South India, there are millions of people who call themselves St Thomas Christians, who trace their faith back to the Apostle Thomas. They very firmly hold the tradition that Thomas preached the Gospel, baptised, and founded churches there for 20 years, until he was martyred in AD72. They point to a small hill called St Thomas’s Mount, near Madras, as the site of his martyrdom.

Many scholars doubt this, suggesting the St Thomas churches were founded several hundred years later, perhaps by a later Thomas. But the St Thomas Christians maintained links with the Eastern churches throughout the Middle Ages. When the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar Coast in 1498, he found an estimated 2 million Christians using the Eastern Syrian rite, with 1500 churches under their own Metropolitan bishop.

Today the St Thomas Christians are split, divided over several denominations, but they are still there, 6 million strong and 20% of the population of Kerala. Some are in communion with Rome, and some with various Eastern-rite churches. One group, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, is in communion with the two Anglican churches in India, and with us.

So did St Thomas really go to India? As I read the evidence, there’s nothing to prove that he couldn’t have, and quite a lot to suggest that he might have, but not enough to prove that he did! I don’t see any strong reason to disbelieve the ancient traditions of the Eastern churches. And I don’t see why we should offend our fellow Christians in India by refusing to acknowledge the testimony of their living tradition.

I admire Thomas, because in the picture John paints of him I see a loyal friend, a strong character, practical, clear thinking, and independent minded.
Some of us are blessed with a simple faith, believing what we are told, and acting on it. Others – like Thomas – do not come to faith so easily. I identify with him, because I don’t either. We feel a need to assess the evidence for ourselves, to use our God-given powers of reason to tease out a thing before we believe it. It’s the mindset of modern science - but Thomas’s story shows there have always been people like that. And a faith formed by questioning, as Thomas’s was, can be just as strong as a simple faith.

And I want to believe that Thomas took Jesus’s Great Commission to heart and travelled to India to preach the Gospel. It seems to be in keeping with his character. Once he had made up his mind, it is just what I would expect of him. So whatever doubts scholars might introduce, I shall continue to think of him as Thomas the Apostle to India.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Living God,
For whom no door is locked:
Draw us beyond our doubts,
Till we see your Christ
And touch his wounds where they bleed in others.
This we ask through Christ our Saviour,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen