Sunday, 12 August 2018

Thinking about the bread of life

Adress given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 12th August 2018, the 11th after Trinity

One of life’s greatest pleasures is to share a meal with loved ones and friends, isn’t it?
It is for me, and it is for you too I’m sure – good food, good drink and good company. And it must have been so for Jesus as well, since so often in the Gospels we find Jesus sharing meals with others. He shared meals not just with his disciples and friends, but also with tax collectors and sinners, and with Pharisees and scribes – with all kinds of people.

When Jesus himself broke bread as the host at a meal, he had a special way of doing so – first he took the food, then he gave thanks or blessed it, and finally he broke it and shared it out. It was so distinctive that only when the disciples on the road to Emmaus saw it did they recognise Jesus, after his death and resurrection. Today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 6:35, 41-51) comes just after Jesus shares a meal with others on a grand scale – the feeding of the 5000 – a truly gigantic outdoor picnic. There too in his special way, he took, blessed and shared the five barley loaves and two fish to feed the crowd.

We can recognise this same sequence of actions – taking, blessing and sharing - in the Last Supper as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And that of course is the model for the Eucharist which we with all other Christians continue to celebrate in his memory. The Last Supper can be seen as an acted parable – and so, I think, can all the other meals Jesus shared in his Eucharistic way of taking, blessing and sharing.

But what does the acted parable of Eucharist mean? In today’s reading John opens out for us the spiritual significance of Eucharist for Jesus himself, in Jesus’s own words. The last verse sums up what Jesus meant:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
Today I want to share with you what these words say to me.

First, what does Jesus mean when he says, I am the living bread that came down from heaven’?
Jesus says ‘I am’ many things on different occasions, among them ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the door’, ‘I am the way’, and ‘I am the true vine’. He is of course talking in metaphors, about his relationship with those he is talking to, but also his relationship with God, who he calls his loving Father.

Jesus has just been responding to hecklers in the crowd who want him to display earthly power, as they believe Moses did by sending bread from heaven – manna - to feed the people in the wilderness. So naturally the metaphor Jesus uses on this occasion is about bread.

As Jesus tells the hecklers, it is God, not Moses, who sent the manna, just as it is God who sends the food we all need to nourish our bodies. But Jesus wants his listeners to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. God also provides what we need to nourish our spirits – by analogy with the bread which feeds our bodies, this too is bread from heaven.

And Jesus knows that his loving-father God is calling him, by his every action and his every word, to offer this spiritual nourishment to all people. So he describes himself as the living bread which comes down from heaven.

The hecklers in the crowd know quite well who Jesus is - the son of Joseph the carpenter from nearby Nazareth. They choose not to understand his metaphor – and they ridicule the idea that Jesus came down from heaven. 

Second, what does Jesus mean when he says, Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever’?
I suppose people since the dawn of humanity have dreaded death and had fantasies of living for ever. But we all know, as Jesus did, that our physical bodies are doomed to die and to decay.

Yet for Jesus this is not what truly matters. What does matter is our relationship with God. It is those who believe that God enfolds and protects them like a loving father that are released from dread of their own mortality. So he says, Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. Eternal life is surely another metaphor for a loving relationship with God.

And more than that, Jesus knows his own importance. Working in and through him, God reveals his own nature as loving Father to those who listen. Those who feed on Jesus’s words and actions, as on bread from heaven, have eternal life.

‘This is eternal life’, says Jesus, in John’s Gospel after the Last Supper, ‘that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Third, what does Jesus mean when he says, The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’?
Jesus equates bread from heaven with his own body, his own very flesh. He does so again at the Last Supper, when he says Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you, words we still hear every time the priest consecrates the Eucharistic bread.

What a shocking thing to say, with that suggestion of cannibalism! It certainly upset the hecklers in the crowd. And it upset many of Jesus’s disciples too, who, we are told, turned back and no longer went about with him.

And it still causes problems for some of Jesus’s disciples today. On the one hand we have those who accept the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby in some miraculous way the essence of the Eucharistic bread is actually transformed into the essence of Jesus’s flesh. On the other, we have those who are disturbed, put off, by the idea that the Eucharist involves eating human flesh.

I think that some people interpret these words of Jesus too literally, as the hecklers in the crowd did. For here surely Jesus is extending the metaphor of bread from heaven, and to understand it we need to look behind the literal words. Christians have wrestled to understand Jesus’s metaphor of his flesh as bread. They have come up with many different ideas – and perhaps this is part of the strength of the metaphor, that it can be understood in so many ways.

For myself, I suspect the point is simply this - that Jesus is expressing in the strongest, most shocking  way the depth of his commitment to God’s saving work for us. He is ready to give up his life, his human existence, his very flesh, for our salvation.  That is precisely what he did for us on the cross.

These words of Jesus are difficult, and you’ve sat patiently through my reflections on them
But why don’t you take a little time to ponder Jesus’s words for yourself? They may speak to you in quite a different way to how they speak to me. And that is alright. Metaphors often bear many different meanings at the same time. God will surely grant you the ones that are right for you.

Listen again to what Jesus says:
‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Gracious Father,
your blessed Son came down from heaven
to be the true bread that gives life to the world.
Grant that Christ, the Bread of Life,
may live in us and we in him,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen

Sunday, 22 July 2018

The Household of God


In today’s 2nd reading (Ephesians: 2:11-22), Paul addresses the Ephesian Christians as ‘you Gentiles by birth, called the “uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”’.
Called that is, by Jews – like Paul himself – who were brought up to despise and dislike Gentiles, whom they saw as immoral and unclean.

What sort of people were the Ephesians Paul was writing to? In his time Ephesus was the Greek-speaking capital of the Roman province of Asia, with a population second in the Empire only to Rome itself, perhaps as many as half-a-million. It was as vibrant and cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith as any modern European city. And it was rich, as I saw from the amazing archaeological remains when I visited 30 years ago – including an amphitheatre big enough for 20,000 spectators, and a massive public library!

Paul stayed in Ephesus for 2 years on his 2nd missionary journey, according to Acts. His first dozen or so converts had been baptised by John the Baptist – they were surely Jews like himself. Paul re-baptised them in the name of Jesus and they received the Holy Spirit. At first Paul preached the gospel in the Synagogue, but he encountered opposition there, so he withdrew elsewhere with his growing flock of Christians, both Jews and Gentile Greeks. By the time he left 2 years later, he had converted enough followers of the Greek goddess Artemis to threaten the business of local silversmiths who specialised in making shrines to her, provoking them to a nasty riot.

Clearly, by the time Paul wrote his letter the Ephesian Christians were overwhelmingly Greek speaking gentiles.

Paul believes in the continuity of the new faith in Christ that he preached with the old faith of the Jews.
He reminds the Ephesians that before they became Christians they were cut off from the true God that the Jews knew. They were ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’.

But he is intensely conscious also of the staggering change that Christ brings. Christ has ‘create(d) in himself one new humanity in place of (Jews and Gentiles), thus making peace, reconcil(ing) both groups to God in one body through the cross’. All Christians, whatever their background or tradition, are made one people in Christ, ‘for through him (all of us) have access in one Spirit to the Father’.

Paul’s insight is just as important for us here today as it was for the Ephesians then. Our town, our country, is increasingly cosmopolitan like Ephesus. Our neighbours come from many countries, speak many languages and hold many faiths. The old divisions of Catholic and Protestant are increasingly irrelevant. All our churches must work together, we must break down the barriers between us, we must move from being exclusive to being inclusive, if we are ever to make a reality of Paul’s vision of one new humanity in Christ.

Only then will we be able to hear Paul’s words clearly, ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’.


The Church, ‘the household of God’, is like a building, says Paul.
This lovely, suggestive metaphor is an alternative to the more familiar metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, which Paul also uses later on in his letter (Ephesians 4:11-16).

It is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone’, says Paul. ‘In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God’.

Without the right foundations a building is unstable – as unfortunate people living in new housing estates discovered, when foundations made from unsuitable pyrites rock swelled and cracked. The right foundation for the church is the teaching of the apostles – those Jesus sent out, of which Paul understood himself to be one – and the prophets – no doubt Christian as well as Hebrew prophets. As the Church we must be grounded solidly in scripture before we can build anything worthwhile using tradition or reason.

In Paul’s day builders made sure the walls of a building were true by carefully aligning them with a cornerstone – Jesus serves that function for the church. Jesus joins all of us together into a structure worthy of God, in which we can find God present.

Can we recognise today’s Church in Paul’s description?
Or do we see instead a building site with a higgledy-piggledy jumble of jerry-built shacks and lean-to extensions, a place where the architect’s plans have been ignored? Maybe we need to take lessons in construction!

Even if we can’t feel proud of the Church we see about us today, we should not be fearful for its future. We should listen, to what the prophet Nathan says to King David in today’s 1st reading (2 Samuel 7:1-14). Nathan advises David that the time is not yet right to build the Lord God a great Temple to live in. God is content to live in the portable tabernacle inside a tent which the children of Israel have carried with them since the Exodus. But, says Nathan, your offspring shall build such a Temple. David’s son Solomon was to build the first Temple in Jerusalem, we are told, but that of course was destined to be destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again.

Perhaps it does not matter so much that the Church does not yet live up to Paul’s vision of the holy temple, because it is what it always has been - a work in progress, one that is being built generation by generation - by us, by our children, by our children’s children, and by generations yet to come.

What does matter, though, is that we are all members of God’s household, whoever we are, wherever we come from, and however we worship. We are the Church, in all our glorious variety, founded on the apostles and the prophets, with Jesus Christ as our corner stone.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

How to train apostles

An address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th July 2018, the Sixth after Trinity


What begrudgery the people of Nazareth showed toward Jesus in the first part of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (6:1-13)!
The people of his home town took offence at him when he taught in the synagogue there, saying, ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ So, they could not receive his saving message, ‘and he was amazed at their unbelief’. Begrudgery hurts not just the one begrudged, but the one begrudging.

But that is not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the second part of the Gospel reading, about how Jesus sent the Twelve out by themselves, two by two. The same story is told in slightly different words by both Matthew and Luke.

The Twelve have been chosen and called specially by Jesus. They have given up everything to follow him. They have watched as he carried out his travelling ministry. Now Jesus decides the time is right to send them off by themselves, on a training exercise to prepare them for their future role as apostles – the Greek word apostle literally means ‘one who is sent out’.

The story conjures up the memory of the training exercises I took part in as a member of the School Corps – they were called manoeuvres. We went off in a bus, in battledress with boots and spats, with a packed lunch, a map and a compass. We were dropped off in pairs at different grid-references with instructions to march across country to rendezvous at another grid-reference some miles away where we would find our tea. I’m much too bolshy to make a good soldier. But I did learn one useful lesson – a map is completely useless if you do not know where you are!

Jesus gives the Twelve precise instructions as he sends them off.
Their task is to practice what they have seen Jesus do, to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near, to call people to repent, and to heal the sick. And to bolster their confidence he gives them ‘authority over the unclean spirits’, which were then believed to cause illness.

They are to travel light - to take with them just the minimum they need, a staff, sandals and a single tunic – no food, no bag to carry stuff, no money, no spare clothes. They must rely entirely on the hospitality of the people and the villages that they meet. That means of course that they will have to look outward, to constantly engage with others around them.

And they are to avoid any confrontation. If people in a place do not welcome them and offer traditional hospitality they must simply leave, ‘shak(ing) off the dust that is on (their) feet as a testimony against them’. This is what pious Jews did when they returned after visiting an unclean gentile village so as not to pollute Jewish soil. I wonder if Jesus did the same as he left his home town of Nazareth, amazed at the unbelief he found there.

Mark tells us that they did as Jesus asked them. ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.’ And when they came back, they ‘told (Jesus) all that they had done and taught’ – in other words Jesus de-briefed them. No doubt the Twelve learned important lessons from the whole exercise. And no doubt Jesus too would have understood their individual strengths and weaknesses much better.

We shouldn’t forget that one of the Twelve was Judas Iscariot, who would later betray Jesus. I wonder which of the others went out with him. And I wonder how Judas scored on the training exercise.

Jesus calls a specially chosen few of his disciples to be Apostles.
Apostles are those that are called to give up everything else to follow Jesus, and to travel light as they continue Jesus’s ministry in the world. They’re not perfect – they share our common human faults and weaknesses, as the Twelve did. The difference between them and us is the gift of their call. The rest of us Christians have other gifts and are called to different forms of discipleship. And as St Paul had the insight to see, our gifts as well as theirs are necessary to build up the body of Christ, which is the Church.

St Paul was called to be an apostle on the road to Damascus, when suddenly he saw a great light and heard the voice of Jesus. Perhaps it is this experience that he recalls in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, when he writes about being ‘caught up to the third heaven’. He refrains from talking about this – it was after all a private vision he received.

Instead he tells us about 'a thorn ... given (him) in the flesh'. We do not know what this was, but it must have been painful and debilitating. Paul believes this thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, was to remind him of his weakness. When he asked the Lord to take it away, the Lord told him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’.

‘I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ’, says Paul, ‘for whenever I am weak, then I am strong’. I think this must be the common experience of all apostles: that when they are weak they are strong. They are given the grace by God to understand that they can achieve nothing through their own strength, but only through God working in and through them. And surely this is a lesson the Twelve learned, when Jesus sent them out two by two without supplies.

At their ordination, the presiding Bishop exhorts every priest ordained in the Church of Ireland in these formal words:
‘We trust that … you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself wholly to his service … that you will devote to him your best powers of mind and spirit’.
All ordained clergy in the Church of Ireland make this commitment to give up other lives they might have led, to follow Jesus and devote their lives to his service. Our Rector made that commitment. It has brought him and Rosemary to minister to us, far away from their family, their new grandchild, and their friends in Northern Ireland.

The ministry of priests is an apostolic ministry which we need to receive. We do not always give our clergy the recognition they deserve. We should give thanks for them and for their commitment both to the ministry of Jesus Christ and to us, often at great personal cost to themselves.

Let me finish with a Collect of the Word:
O Lord our God,
you are always more ready
to bestow your gifts upon us than we are to seek them;
and more willing to give than we desire or deserve:
in our very need,
grant us the first and best of all your gifts,
the Spirit who makes us your children. Amen

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Sin against the HolySpirit



Jesus is being mobbed like a rock star in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 3:20-35)
He has been travelling around Galilee proclaiming the Good News and healing those who came to him, followed by crowds thronging to see this celebrity. Now he has returned home to the fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Even there the crowds still press in on him, so that he and his disciples don’t have time even to eat, we are told.

But not all in the crowds support Jesus. In the reading we hear of two groups of people who want him to cease his ministry – first his family, and second a party of scribes from Jerusalem. Mark interweaves the stories of how Jesus responds to these two groups – a favourite device of his, sometimes described as a ‘Markian sandwich’.

The bread in the sandwich concerns his family. Back in Nazareth they were hearing news of what he was up to. He had given up the security of his family, and the carpenters business, for the life of a wandering preacher. They had heard how he was being mobbed, and no doubt feared that the authorities would seek to put him out of the way. He must have ‘gone out of his mind’, they thought – we must go to fetch him home and end this madness. So they set off to Capernaum, around 50km, say a 2 day’s journey on foot. We will hear what happens when they get there later.

The filling of the sandwich concerns the scribes from Jerusalem, members of the religious and civic establishment, which is threatened by Jesus’s popularity

The scribes are determined to undermine Jesus.
They cannot deny he has been healing the sick, since so many people have seen it. In those days it was believed that illness was caused by evil spirits – by demons. So they start to spread rumours about the source of Jesus’s healing power: ‘He has Beelzebul’ – the chief demon – ‘and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’.

Jesus understands very well what the scribes are about. He confronts them directly to their faces, dismissing their argument as a logical impossibility. ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’, he asks. ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand … If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come’.

Look at it this way, he says, ‘No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man’. Jesus turns the tables on the scribes by pointing out, ‘I am stronger than Satan because I have cast out Satan’.

Jesus has refuted the scribes’ claim that he is possessed by ‘an unclean spirit’, not the Holy Spirit from God. Now he turns their words back on them. For the scribes to say that a spirit that comes from God is not good but evil is a blasphemy, an insult to God. It is the scribes whose spirits are unclean, not Jesus.  ‘Truly I tell you’, he says, ‘people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’.

Over the centuries many Christians have been confused by this unforgiveable blasphemy, ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit’. I understand it in this way. Our God-given conscience enables us to distinguish good from evil. People who cannot tell good from evil are conscience-blind. They are unable to recognise what is evil in themselves, so they cannot repent it. And without repentance they cannot be forgiven.

Sometimes Christians worry, fearing that they may be guilty of the sin against the Holy Spirit and so can never be forgiven. But they worry unnecessarily, I believe - their very worry proves they are able to repent, so they aren’t guilty and can be forgiven.

So what happens when Jesus’s family reach Capernaum?
When his mother Mary and his brothers and sisters arrive, Jesus is inside the house teaching his disciples. His family sends a message for him to come out to them. He must have had a fair idea why they had come – perhaps they had previously sent messages from Nazareth asking him to come home.

Jesus asks rhetorically, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And then looking about at his disciples, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’.

I wonder how his family felt when they heard what he had said. Did they feel hurt, spurned in favour of his disreputable band of disciples? The truth is that however much they loved him, and he loved them, his family had no right to try to make him forsake his mission.

We are not told what the family did then, but presumably they returned home to Nazareth, feeling chastened. Perhaps Mary remembered Jesus’s words recorded by Luke (2:49) when she and Joseph lost him as a child of 12 in Jerusalem, and found him after 3 days in the Temple: ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?’. But we do know that his mother Mary and his brother James did not cut themselves off from Jesus, but were faithful to him to the end, and perhaps the others too.

Mark’s sandwich story is about discernment, I think. I take two things from it.
First, Jesus has given us a tool to help us discern whether someone we encounter is motivated by a spirit of evil, as the scribes from Jerusalem were, so that we may confront and overcome the evil, as Jesus did, without violence. Any person whose conscience is so lacking that they cannot distinguish between good and evil must be motivated by a spirit of evil. They will not be able to repent the evil they do, and so they cannot be forgiven - their sin can only be eternal. Unless God intervenes, that is, because all things are possible with God - as St Paul, the persecutor of the Church, discovered on the road to Damascus.

Second, each one of us has the freedom in Christ to follow what we discern to be God’s call to us, our vocation, even if others including family and friends oppose it and say we are mad to do so. If I am certain of my call, I should be prepared to reject the intervention even of those whom I love and who love me. Equally, I should be very cautious of pressing others, even family members or a friends, not to follow what they believe is their vocation, as it may invite their rejection of me. This is not only good psychology, but acknowledges their right to hear and act on God’s call to them.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Almighty and eternal God,
your Son Jesus triumphed over the prince of demons
and freed us from bondage to sin.
Help us to stand firm against every assault of Satan,
and enable us always to do Your will;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Kosmos World

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 13th May 2018, the 7th of Easter, the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost.

I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and for you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
I apologise for my bad singing! But I’m sure you all recognise the song – it’s perhaps best known sung by Louis Armstrong. And it’s true isn’t it - we all know what a truly wonderful world God has made for us to live in - a veritable Garden of Eden, if only we would learn to look after it and use it rightly.

St John uses the Greek word ‘kosmos’, meaning ‘world’, no less than 13 times in today’s reading from his Gospel (John 17:6-19). But this is not the beautiful material world which God made and saw was very good, as the 1st chapter of Genesis puts it. I shall call what John has in mind the kosmos-world, to distinguish it from God’s world. The kosmos-world is a place of spiritual death, filled with souls cut off from God: a place where greedy people trample on each other to grab more for themselves; a place where violent people kill and torture other people; a place where cynical people despise what is good and true and beautiful. And we all know the reality of that kosmos-world too, don’t we!

For John the very opposite of the kosmos-world is eternal life, as he tells us in the preceding verses, This is eternal life, (to) know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. And it is echoed in today’s reading from 1 John 5:9-13, ‘This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son’.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples.
It is the night of the last supper, after he has washed the disciples’ feet. It is immediately before he goes out with them to the garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron valley, where he will be arrested by soldiers and police led by Judas Iscariot. Jesus is praying for his disciples, but he is also teaching them, for he prays out loud in their hearing. His words are dense with meaning - perhaps because he knows this is his last opportunity to speak to them before he is arrested, tried and executed.

It would take a very long sermon to tease out all the nuances of his prayer. So I shall pick out just three points about the relationship between Jesus’s disciples and John’s kosmos-world.
1.       Jesus’s disciples are in the kosmos-world, but they do not belong to it. God has given the disciples to Jesus, in the sense that God has made them able to respond to the word of God which Jesus has given them. They have been brought to know and believe the truth that Jesus is sent from God. That is what sets them apart from the kosmos-world, even while they remain in it.
2.       The kosmos-world has already shown it hates Jesus’s disciples because they do not belong to it. Those mired in evil, in cynicism, violence and greed, cannot co-exist with those who live by God’s values. So Jesus calls on his Father to protect his disciples from evil, when he is no longer there to do so in the flesh.
3.       Jesus does not ask God to take his disciples out of the kosmos-world. Just as God sent Jesus into the kosmos-world, so Jesus sends his disciples into it. God sent Jesus to redeem the kosmos-world from within. Jesus sends his disciples to continue his redeeming work in the kosmos-world.

The kosmos-world is a metaphor for the evil we encounter all around us, day by day.
It’s hard to see evil for what it is in the abstract. It comes in so many disguises. I think it helps to focus on concrete examples. There are so many to choose from - but let’s focus today on the hatred people harbour in their hearts for others they see as different from themselves, or as opponents.

Personal hatred wounds the soul of both the hater and the hated. These days it is often expressed anonymously on social media, as those of us who use it know only too well. Children are particularly vulnerable to online bullying, whether it is aimed at their body form or their sexuality or some other perceived weakness. Vulnerable adults can also be severely affected. It blights lives and in extreme cases leads to suicide.

We may think that we cannot be guilty of such hateful behaviour - but what about old fashioned gossip? How many of us can say that we have not been party to passing on rumours that damage other people?

Hatred of one group for another on the grounds of race or religion is even more damaging than personal hatred. Such group hatreds are evil. They have been with us since the dawn of the human species, a kind of original sin, to which we are all potentially vulnerable. They fracture communities. And in the extreme they have led perfectly ordinary people, not so very different to you or me, to attempt to exterminate whole populations seen as dangerous enemies.

The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews between 1941 and 1945, alongside innumerable Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. My father as an army chaplain was taken to see one of the extermination camps after its liberation, and he made sure that as a teenager I saw the horrific movies taken at the time so that I would recognise evil when I saw it.

We do well to remember this Holocaust every year in January. But that has not been enough to stop other genocides in my lifetime, such as those in Ruanda and in Bosnia.

Understandably, surviving Jews sought to establish a safe homeland for themselves. But tragically 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes when the state of Israel was founded in 1948, an event they remember as the Nakba or catastrophe, the root of much of the violence in the middle east today. One group hatred begets another, in a vicious circle of evil.

Lest we think that we cannot be caught up in such events, let us reflect on the cycle of violence in the North of our island. The Good Friday Agreement was meant to break the cycle, and we have had peace there for many years. But the hatreds still fester. And let us also reflect on the continuing prejudice in our communities against Travellers.

So to sum up:
The wonderful world God has placed us in is good. We should rejoice in it and give thanks for it. But as Jesus’s disciples, we must always be on guard against the evil that spoils it.

As disciples we live amidst evil, but we do not belong to it, because God has given us to Jesus.

Jesus confronted evil and refused to collude with it at the cost of his death on the cross, from which God raised him up.

Our task as disciples is to continue Jesus’s redeeming mission. God has set us apart to confront and defeat evil wherever it is found, and that includes evil hatreds, what ever that may cost us personally.

We can and should take comfort that Jesus intercedes for us, asking God to protect us from something much worse than suffering – that is, from being drawn into evil ourselves.


Thursday, 29 March 2018

Jesus was crucified, died and was buried

A meditation in Killodiernan on Tuesday in Holy Week, 27 March 2018


In our evening services this Holy Week we are reflecting on some phrases from the Apostles’ Creed. Yesterday evening in Templederry, Rev Rod led us to reflect on the words – Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. This evening I am asking you to meditate on the words: Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. Tomorrow evening in St Mary’s Nenagh the words will be Jesus descended to the dead.

Jesus was crucified.
·         We can’t avoid Jesus’s suffering, even if we feel we can’t bear it. We must face squarely the excruciating physical pain of the Cross. Excruciating – the word literally means ‘from a cross’.
·         What did crucifixion involve?
o    The nails would have been hammered through Jesus’s wrists, not the palms of his hands as imagined in medieval pictures, because only bones can support the weight of a body.
o    The arms would be spread quite wide, because if the angle were narrow Jesus would have died too quickly from suspension asphyxiation. Even so he would have felt he could hardly breathe. And to get relief by hauling his body upward on the nails would be very painful.
o    Death could come either from asphyxiation, or by shock and dehydration. Liquid loss from the scourging and exposure in bright Judean sun would lead quickly to dehydration.
o    Jesus would have become very thirsty. As dehydration worsened, his heart would begin to race and his breathing would become fast. He would experience headache and nausea. At about 15% fluid loss he would begin to suffer muscle spasms and vision loss. Death would follow later.
o    It could take days to die on a cross. If the executioners wanted to speed the process up, they would smash the victim’s legs to cause traumatic shock and hasten death. Jesus didn’t have to suffer this because his death came mercifully fast, but the two criminals beside him did.
·         Conjure up in your mind’s eye Jesus’s broken body hanging in excruciating pain. Excruciating pain which Jesus accepts obediently, as his loving Father’s will. Excruciating pain which Jesus accepts willingly, to show us the way to enter God’s kingdom.
·         In a few moments of silence let us think about the love Jesus showed by accepting crucifixion.

Jesus died.
·         John tells us that at the moment of his death Jesus uttered a great cry: “It is finished!” It is a shout of triumph. He didn’t whisper it, like someone forced to admit defeat. He didn’t mouth it in relief that his agony is over. He threw back his head and he shouted it. “I have done it!” he is saying, “I have faced the very worst, and I have won!”
·         By his victory won upon the cross, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, our friend and brother, shows us all the way to vanquish sin and death with the weapons of love. It is only left to us to follow.
·         The note of triumph in Jesus’s last word from the cross is a foretaste of his resurrection. But we are running ahead of ourselves. Before we meet him again on Easter Morning, we must follow him to the tomb.
·         Let us be silent again as we think about what Jesus achieved for us by his death on the cross.

Jesus was buried.
·         In Jewish law, in Deuteronomy (21:22), it is written: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day.” The Temple authorities have no option but to arrange with Pilate for the bodies of Jesus and the two criminals to be taken down.


·         But where to bury him? The little party of disciples from Galilee would not have the resources to do so decently. Two people step forward to help. Joseph of Arimathea is rich and powerful, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a secret disciple of Jesus: he provides the tomb - his own, we are told. Nicodemus is also a secret disciple; he had visited Jesus at night, because he was afraid to do so publicly: he provides the ointments and spices needed to embalm the body. Together they make sure that Jesus is buried with decent reverence.
·         It’s amazing, isn’t it? These two people, who were afraid to support Jesus publicly while he was alive, can do so as soon as he is dead. All the cowardice, the hesitation, the prudent concealment are gone. Jesus has not been dead an hour, when his words reported by John (12:32) begin to come true: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus is already showing his risen power to be the magnet of souls.
·         In silence, let us meditate on how Jesus calls his disciples to himself, not just 2,000 years ago, but throughout the ages right down to our own time, where we as Christians are his living body, the Church.

As we meditate on this, let us pray together the Anima Christi, a C14th prayer translated from Latin:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, refresh me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesu, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee
From the malicious enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come to Thee
That with thy saints I may praise Thee 
For ever and ever. Amen.


Monday, 5 March 2018

Cleansing the Temple

I was privileged to be asked to lead Morning Prayer in Borrosokane on Sunday 4th March 2018, the 3rd of Lent, but the service was cancelled due to the snow emergency following the collision of Storm Emma with the Beast from the East. This is the address I would have given there.


What an uproar Jesus caused in the Temple that day John describes in today’s NT reading (John 2:13-22)!
‘Making a whip of cords, (Jesus) drove all of them out of the Temple’. All the ‘people selling cattle, sheep, and doves’, together with their animals. ‘And the moneychangers’ too - Jesus overturned their tables and poured their coins out on the floor.

This incident – often known as the Cleansing of the Temple – is also described in slightly different words by the other 3 Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke.

It took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost court of the Temple, just before Passover. Gentiles were forbidden to go beyond this court on pain of death - only Jews were allowed in the inner courts. Passover was the busiest time of the year in Jerusalem, when many thousands of pilgrims would be in Jerusalem. The animals are there for pilgrims to buy to make the ritual animal sacrifices required by Jewish law at that time. The moneychangers are there to change ordinary Roman money into the special Jewish money, which pilgrims had to use for Temple purposes, because Roman money was considered unclean.

Let’s enter into the scene in our imaginations. People are running in every direction, animals are panicking. Hear the traders yelling, cattle bellowing, sheep bleating, doves cooing. The tables go thump as they hit the floor, and coins chink as they roll underfoot. Smell the pervasive scent of the animals. And at the centre of it all strides Jesus, wielding a whip, incandescent with righteous anger, quite awe inspiring. It’s not how we usually think of Jesus, is it?

Jesus acts very deliberately. It is a kind of acted parable – but what does Jesus mean by it? Let’s look at it a bit more closely. And as we do so we should remember that Jesus could well have more than one reason for doing what he does, just as we often do.

John disagrees with Matthew, Mark and Luke about when Jesus cleansed the Temple.
John places it right at the start of Jesus’s ministry. But Matthew, Mark and Luke put it right at the end, just after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. How do we resolve this discrepancy?

Some have suggested that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice – once at the start of his ministry and again at the end. But I don't buy that - I can’t believe that having done it once Jesus could ever have got within an ass’s roar of the Temple again.

It seems to fit much better at the end of Jesus’s ministry, after his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. It is likely one of the reasons the Temple authorities were so keen to do away with him. If I had to choose between John’s timing and that of the other three, I would go for the three.

But that doesn’t mean John is altogether wrong. He is simply writing from a different point of view to the others. He is writing not an historical account of Jesus’s life, but a Gospel designed to demonstrate the significance of Jesus. He combines together events which could well have happened at different times in a different order, but which mark Jesus as the expected Messiah. The words his disciples remember, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’, are a quotation from Psalm 69, which Jews would have recognised as a reference to the Messiah. To show Jesus as Messiah is what matters to John, not chronological accuracy.

As John surely believed, Jesus demonstrates by his acted parable that he is the Messiah, both to those who were there, and to those who read John’s words - including us in John's far future.

Perhaps Jesus also intended to show up the corruption of the Temple system.
The Temple had grown immensely rich on the Temple tax, which every Jew over 19 had to pay to support Temple sacrifices and Temple ritual – one half-shekel a year, around 2 day’s pay.

The Temple’s insistence on taking only Jewish money gave the moneychangers a profitable business. The moneychangers grew wealthy by charging a high commission. And no doubt the Temple expected something in return - a licence fee we might call it, charitably.

The animal dealers too were coining it. Pilgrims didn’t have to buy their animals for sacrifice inside the Temple, but they felt obliged to, even though they cost more than animals outside. The Temple authorities appointed inspectors to check that animals offered for sacrifice were perfect and unblemished, as the Law required. In addition to charging a fee, the inspectors were believed to take backhanders from Temple dealers - anyway, they always seemed inclined to find fault with animals not bought in the Temple.

The fact is that ordinary pious Jewish pilgrims were being fleeced by the Temple system. It was a public scandal. This would surely have enraged Jesus. Just as it would if our own Church were to make unreasonable financial demands on us.

But there is a deeper reason why Jesus acted as he did, I think.
To understand it we need to reconstruct what Jesus actually says.

Each of the Gospel writers recalls Jesus’s words slightly differently. John has him saying, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place’. But Mark has him say this, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers’. Matthew and Luke have something similar but miss out ‘all the nations’.

I think Mark’s words are closest to what Jesus actually said. Jesus knew his Hebrew scripture – our OT – very well. The first part, about the house of prayer, is a direct quotation from Isaiah (56:7), in which God declares he will welcome gentiles who come to him. The second, about the den of robbers, is from Jeremiah (7:11), in which God declares he will destroy the Temple if the people of Judah do not mend their ways. Mark’s words and the texts they reference make perfect sense on Jesus’s lips in the context of the Cleansing of the Temple.

This is what I think Jesus meant by his acted parable and his words:
God welcomes all people, gentiles as well as Jews, to the Temple, his house of prayer. But the clamour of trading and money-changing in the only part of the Temple they may enter makes it unsuitable for the gentiles’ prayer and worship. People who abuse the Temple by depriving gentiles of a place to pray and worship must amend their ways, or the whole Temple system will be destroyed.

And I also think that through it Jesus conveys a clear warning to his Church today, to you and to me:
Unless our Church is inclusive, unless our Church welcomes all people and makes a space for them in which they can worship and pray, our Church will go the way of the Temple in Jerusalem – it will be brought to destruction.