Sunday, 14 May 2017

Let not our hearts be troubled. Let us believe in God and also in Jesus.

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 14th May 2017, the Fifth after Easter. In St Mary's it was a joyful day of baptism for Jack Robert, son of  Robert Nevin and his wife Sharon née Gloster, accompanied by a host of relatives and friends.

I wonder how Thomas and Philip felt when Jesus responded to them the way he did in today’s Gospel reading (John 14:1-14).
Did they say to themselves, ‘Duh – I should have known that’? Were they embarrassed? Did they blush like school children who have asked their teacher a silly question? Or were they happy that their words had prompted Jesus, their friend and teacher, to speak plainly about difficult ideas?

The reading comes at the start of what is often called the ‘Farewell Discourse’. This makes up the whole of chapters 14 – 17 of St John’s Gospel, describing in more detail than anywhere else in the Bible how the 3 Persons of the Trinity relate to each other and to those who believe.  

Jesus has just eaten his Last Supper with his disciples. He has washed their feet as if he were a servant, as an acted parable to show them that they, like him, are called to a ministry of service. He knows that the end game is upon him - the forces of evil are pressing in all around. Soon he will be arrested, subjected to a show-trial, condemned and brutally executed. He does not have much time, but he is determined to take this last chance to prepare his disciples for what will unfold. His words are dense with meaning.

In this short extract Jesus teaches the disciples about the relationships between Jesus himself and the God Jesus calls his Father, and between them both and his disciples – not just those first disciples present at the Last Supper, but through them us as well.

Jesus begins, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me’.
Then he goes on to say that there are many dwelling places in his Father’s house – this is heaven, of course, where God is. He tells the disciples that he is going there to prepare a place for each and every one of them. And he promises that he will return to bring them there to be with him and with God.

Theologians have puzzled over what Jesus meant by the many dwelling places in God’s house, but perhaps it is as simple as this: that heaven is as wide as the heart of God and there is room for everyone there who believes in Jesus, no matter how unworthy they might feel they are. It is a lovely comforting thought, isn’t it?

Jesus says, ‘You know the way to the place I am going’, prompting Thomas to respond, ‘We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ I like Thomas. Thomas is always questioning – the awkward student who asks the questions others are ashamed to ask. He doesn’t accept anything without owning it for himself – just as he will doubt the resurrection until he sees the wound in Jesus’s side.

So Jesus explains to him and the other disciples, in words that echo down the centuries to us, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’. The way to find God, says Jesus, is by following him. Those who know him will know God. And because they see and know Jesus, because they see and know the truth and the life in him, they have seen and known God.

These words must have been very shocking for the disciples, because it was an article of faith for Jews that it was impossible to see God. When God showed his glory to Moses he said, ‘You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live’.

At this point Philip blurts out ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’.
And Jesus gently chides him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works’.

The truth that the disciples have to grasp is this: because Jesus is in God and God is in Jesus, if you have seen Jesus you have seen God. To see Jesus is to see what God is like – and to know what God is like is to know what Jesus is like. Those first disciples were privileged to see Jesus in the flesh and know what he was like. But we too can see and know Jesus, through scripture, through church tradition and through our God-given reason – and we can experience his presence in our hearts. All it takes is to believe in him. When we do so, we see and know God too.

Jesus calls his disciples to continue his ministry of service, as he says:
‘The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father.

Disciples who believe in Jesus will not just minister as he has done, but will do greater things, says Jesus. How can this be? How can they possibly do greater things than God’s own Son Jesus? Well, look at it this way. In his earthly life Jesus’s ministry was limited to the towns and countryside of Palestine. But his first disciples built a mass movement of followers who believed in Jesus. They and their followers brought Jesus’s ministry to the whole world. We call that mass movement the Church. In all its wonderful diversity the Church continues Jesus’s ministry today, and as Jesus’s disciples we are a part of it.

We are made part of the Church by baptism. Today is a day of baptism, a joyful occasion, a day for celebration. For many it is a day of family celebration as Sharon and Robbie bring their son Jack Robert to be baptised in the presence of so many of their relatives and friends, who share their joy in him. But it is more than just a family celebration, because we are all here to welcome Jack as a new member of the Church, a fellow disciple of Jesus. His baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God which will last for the rest of his life. As we renew our baptism vows in a few minutes, let us reflect on our own journey, and let us be determined to support Jack’s parents and Godparents as they guide him on his journey.

And Jesus promises to answer his disciples’ prayers: I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son’. But we must understand well - Jesus only promises to answer prayers asked in his name. We cannot honestly pray in the name of Jesus for personal revenge, for personal ambition, or for anything unworthy or un-Christian – such prayers will not be granted. But our prayers prayed in Jesus’s name will be answered - as God knows is best for us, not necessarily as we desire - and that reveals God’s glory to us all.

So to finish, let us echo the words of Jesus
Let not our hearts be troubled. Let us believe in God and also in Jesus.
As we finish in prayer:
Everliving God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life:
give us grace to love one another,
to follow in the way of his commandments
and to share his risen life;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Take this cup from me

Reflection given at Morning Prayer in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Palm Sunday 9th April 2017, year A - after hearing the long form of the Passion Gospel.

That was a long reading (Matthew 26:14- 27:66)! But it is surely good for us to hear the whole story of Christ’s Passion from beginning to end at least once a year, to better appreciate the enormity of those events. What a contrast between the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with crowd shouting Hosanna and the crowd in Pilate’s palace baying for his crucifixion!

You’ll be glad to know that I’m not going to preach a long sermon too! Instead I ask you to reflect with me for a moment on Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane:
‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’

Jesus is distressed and agitated. He is certain that what he is doing is the will of God, his loving Father. He knows what is likely to happen next – his execution as a dangerous agitator, perhaps even the agonising death of crucifixion.

And he does not want to die – he is a man in the full strength and vigour of his early 30s, he loves life, he loves his friends, and he loves his ministry to those who need healing and forgiveness. So he prays to his loving Father for himself, that his death may be averted - ‘let this cup pass from me’.

But that is only half his prayer. Even more important for Jesus than his own distress at the prospect of death is that his loving Father’s will should be done. So he finishes his prayer with ‘yet not what I want, but what you want’.

This prayer of Jesus should be a model for our own prayers for our selves. When I desperately wish for something, it is right and proper for me to pray to God for it. If I cannot ask God for it, who can I ask? But I must never forget how much more important it is for God’s will to be done, than for my wish to be granted. So I should always finish a prayer for myself with Jesus’s words, ‘yet not what I want, but what you want’.


In the end, like Jesus, we must trust that our loving Father knows what is best for us.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

A Samaritan woman at the well

Address given at St Michael's, Limerick City on Sunday 19 March 2017, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, year A

I must begin by giving credit to Canon Patrick Comerford, the new Priest-in-Charge in Rathkeale & Kilnaughtin – in this address I have drawn heavily on a reflection of his.

Today’s Gospel reading (John 4:5-42) about the Samaritan woman at the well is a charming story, isn’t it?
To begin to understand it we need to know something about the Samaritans and their relationship to Jews like Jesus and his disciples in the NT period.

The Samaritans are strangers to the Jews. Although these two peoples share the same land, the Samaritans are outsiders, seen as ritually unclean by pious Jews. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Jews see the Samaritans as having a different religion. But Jesus tries to break down those barriers.

For example, the Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the disciples are doing something surprising.
They have gone into the city of Sychar to buy food. But this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards.

While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. And their conversation becomes a model for how we should respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.

The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture. For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman has five husbands.

A Jewish man like Jesus would normally have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink from her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt slighted by his behaviour and walked away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another. Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus.

All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.

When the Disciples arrive back they are filled with questions.
But they are so shocked to see Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman that they remain silent. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger.

But their failure and their prejudices are shown in another way: the woman gives water as she and Christ talk, but they fail to return with bread for Christ to eat and they fail to join in the conversation about faith and about life.

They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman recognises Christ as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say and came to believe that Jesus is truly the Saviour of the world.



Jesus was thirsty, he asked the Samaritan woman for water, and she gave it to him.
But in return she received much more from Jesus: he gave her the ‘living water’ which became in her ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’. She believed in Jesus, and because of her many Samaritans believed in him. His thirst led to her and their conversion.

‘I am thirsty’, is the fifth of the seven last words of Christ from the Cross on Good Friday, and in response he is given wine with bitter hyssop (John 19:28-30). Many people have compared the thirst of Christ on the Cross with his request to the Samaritan woman, ‘Give me a drink’, and the promise that follows, ‘Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty’.

In expressing his thirst out loud in that cry from the cross, Christ shows his humanity and his humility. In expressing such a basic need, he shows his solidarity with all those people, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need, and who in humility are forced to ask for a cup of water.

St John tells us Christ said ‘I am thirsty’, ‘in order to fulfil the Scripture’. The dying Christ echoes the words of Psalm 22: ‘My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death’ (Psalm 22: 15). And again, later in the Psalms, we hear the words: ‘and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’ (Psalm 69: 21).

In his thirst on the Cross, I think the dying Christ seeks something much more than water or vinegar. He is thirsting for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life and passion, death, resurrection and ascension. His thirst is for our salvation.

So to finish:
Let us give thanks for the openness and trust of the Samaritan woman.

And let us pray that Christ will give us, as he gave her, ‘living water’ which will become in us ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.

O God, living and true,
look upon your people,
whose dry and stony hearts are parched with thirst.
Unseal the living water of your Spirit;
let it become within us an ever-flowing spring,
gushing up to eternal life.
Thus may we worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Christ, our deliverance and hope,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

God for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Jesus & Nicodemus

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 12th March 2017, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, year A

Today I want to reflect on Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus as recorded by John in the Gospel reading (John 3:1-17)
Jesus uses that conversation to teach Nicodemus – and through him ourselves – some great truths, which are crucial for the later development of our Christian faith and Trinitarian theology.

Nicodemus finds it hard to understand what Jesus is saying – and we may too – because Jesus is speaking in the language of metaphor. It is as if Jesus is speaking in riddles! ‘Being born from above’; ‘entering the kingdom of God’; ‘the Son of Man’; ‘serpents being lifted up’; ‘having eternal life’: What in heaven’s name is Jesus talking about? Let me try my best to tease out what his words mean to me.

We should start with the kingdom of God, I think – what did Jesus understand by it?
The key I think is in the prayer he taught us: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.’ I feel sure we enter the kingdom of God when we do God’s will here on earth, as it is done in heaven. But that ain’t easy – we have to resist our human impulses to do what we want, not what God wants. We can’t do so unless something changes us to be immune to human wilfulness. That change is like being ‘born anew’.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’.  Now the Greek phrase translated as ‘born from above’ can just as well be translated as ‘born anew’ – and that is the sense in which Nicodemus correctly understands it. He understands the need for it, but he does not understand how to achieve it. ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?’ he asks. ‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

So Jesus explains, ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’. We need to be washed clean of our sinful natures – that is what baptism symbolises. But we cannot by ourselves surrender our will to God’s will. For that we need God to take the initiative through the power of his Spirit. Only then can we entrust ourselves to God completely, without reservation.

In Greek the same word ‘pneuma’ is used for both wind and spirit. Jesus says, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ He is telling Nicodemus that he doesn’t need to understand how the Spirit works, he just needs to know that it does work.

There’s nothing very difficult about any of this from Jesus’ point of view, I think. This is just how human beings are made psychologically – it is a plain observable fact, an earthly thing - not a deep truth, a heavenly thing. But Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. ‘How can these things be?’ he says in exasperation. And Jesus chides him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? … If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?’

But I think Jesus likes Nicodemus, and is enjoying their conversation.
Because Jesus does indeed go on to tell Nicodemus – and through him us too - about deep heavenly truths, theological truths.

‘No one has ascended into heaven’, says Jesus, except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’.
‘The Son of Man’ is a typically Jewish way of saying ‘a representative man’. Jesus is saying that for a representative man to go up to God, he must have come down from God in the first place. And he clearly understands himself to be the Son of Man, the representative man, who has come from God.



‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness’, says Jesus, ‘so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’
Moses lifting up the serpent refers to a strange story in the Book of Numbers (21:8-9). On their journey through the wilderness, the people of Israel complained about their hardships since they left Egypt. God sent a plague of deadly serpents to punish them. When the people repented and cried for mercy, God instructed Moses to raise an image of a serpent on a pole in the centre of the camp, which healed those with snakebite when they looked at it.
Jesus is saying that he, the representative man, is destined to be lifted up – on the cross and to God in heaven - to bring eternal life to those who believe in him, just as the image of the serpent healed those who came to it.
But what does Jesus mean by ‘eternal life’? We must distinguish it from ‘everlasting life’, I’m sure, which might just as well be hell as heaven. Duration doesn’t matter - eternal life is surely to participate in God’s life, full of the joy and peace and love that can only be found in God’s presence.

‘For God so loved the world’, says Jesus, ‘that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
In these comfortable words, Jesus reveals to Nicodemus – and to us – that Jesus the Son of Man, the representative human being, is also the only Son of God. The breadth and depth of God’s love for the world – for you and for me and for all creation - is shown by the gift of his only Son.
‘Indeed’, Jesus continues, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’.
Our loving God seeks to save us through the gift of his Son, not condemn us. He makes it possible for us to reconcile ourselves with God by aligning our will with God’s will, in imitation of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
These words of Jesus surely do express a deep heavenly truth!

John does not tell us what Nicodemus makes of all this.
You might expect Nicodemus to have taken umbrage when Jesus chided him. But he didn’t. John goes on to tell us (John 7:50-53) that Nicodemus defended Jesus in the Jewish Council when there was a move to arrest him. And after the crucifixion Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus, contributing the expensive embalming spices (John 19:39-40). Nicodemus may even have become a disciple of Jesus, and he is considered a saint in both the Orthodox and RC churches.

So to finish
Let us give thanks for the insights – the heavenly truths - that Nicodemus prompted Jesus to reveal about the relationships between God, his Son, his Spirit and human beings like you and me. They are at the heart of our Trinitarian faith.

And let us pray that the Holy Spirit may instil in us trust in God’s promises made through Jesus:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

Sunday, 8 January 2017

God comes close to us - as close as our own skin

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th January 2017, the 1st after Epiphany, celebrated as the Baptism of Christ.

Today the Church asks us to remember the Baptism of Christ.
So I take this opportunity to reflect on what Jesus’s baptism means, both to those at the time, and to you and me 2000 years later.

But first I invite you to picture again, in your minds eye, the moments after John baptised Jesus, as described by Matthew in his gospel (3:13-17).

Here is Jesus, a man in the prime of his life, about 30 years old. He is glistening wet from receiving John’s baptism of repentance, as he walks up out of the river Jordan. Then, suddenly, the heavens burst open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove to alight on him. And the voice of God declares from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

What a strikingly vivid and dramatic scene – it’s easy to imagine being there, isn’t it?

Matthew describes an epiphany, in which God reveals himself to be the Father of Jesus and sends Jesus his Spirit.
The same epiphany, bringing together Jesus at his baptism, the dove and a voice from heaven, is also described by Mark, Luke and John. It must have been part of the common tradition of the earliest Christians on which Matthew and the other evangelists drew when writing their gospels.

For Christians by the 4th Century these baptism passages came to be seen as supporting and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that the one God consists of three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. They are the only passages in the NT where we encounter all three persons together at the same time, in the same place.

Matthew would have known the book of Isaiah well, like all educated Jews of his time. He would have seen the parallels with today’s OT reading (Isaiah 42:1-9), in which God declares, ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. But there is this crucial difference between Isaiah and Matthew: for Isaiah, God identifies his chosen one as just a servant; whereas for Matthew, God identifies Jesus as his beloved Son.

What did John the Baptist make of Jesus’s baptism?
John recognised Jesus when he came to ask for baptism, not surprisingly since they were cousins close in age. John says to Jesus, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ What’s going on here?

John proclaimed ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). He called people to repent, and baptised them as a sign that God forgave their sins. John knew that he needed baptism, repentance and forgiveness himself. But I think he must have believed that Jesus was such a good and holy man that he had no need of them.

John would also have recalled Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant in today’s reading, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’ Perhaps John recognised the Jesus he knew in Isaiah’s description - softly spoken, filled with compassion for the damaged and the weak, yet determined and passionate for justice.
Despite John’s reluctance to baptise him, Jesus insisted, and John consented. And we know John then experienced the epiphany described by Matthew, since John’s Gospel records him saying: “I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ Only then does John realise the full truth, that his cousin Jesus is the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, not just a remarkably holy man.

I wonder what his baptism meant for Jesus himself.
Jesus very deliberately chose to ask John for baptism, and insisted on it – it must have been of great significance to him.

Matthew gives us a clue when he records Jesus saying to John, ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. For Jews, righteousness meant obeying God’s law and doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believed God wished him to be baptised by John. But for what purpose?

Perhaps God wanted Jesus to seek John’s baptism at the very start of his ministry in order to demonstrate that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son, not just a good man like Isaiah’s servant. This was certainly the effect on John. But perhaps Jesus himself needed to be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Is it possible this is also the very moment when Jesus finally understood that he was Christ the Messiah, the Son of God?

Whatever the truth of this, Jesus clearly associated himself quite deliberately with John’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2) - he went on to proclaim it in his own ministry (Matt 4:17). And I like to think that Jesus chose to be baptised by John because he wanted to show his solidarity with sinful people like you and me, who desperately need to repent and be forgiven, even if he had no such need himself.

So to finish, what does Jesus’s baptism mean to you and me, 2000 years on?
Well, no doubt there are many answers. But this one strikes me.

The epiphany at the baptism of Jesus marks a great new insight into the nature of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As God says through Isaiah, ‘See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare’.

Before it Jewish religious thinkers could only conceive of the relationship between God and a human being as that between a remote master and a terrified servant. After it Christians could begin to see the relationship as one in which God is incarnate in a human being like you or me.

Everything is changed and made new. God ceases to be a remote figure and we are no longer afraid. God comes near to us, as close to us as our own skin. We feel his presence to be like our loving Father, to be like Jesus, his Son, our friend and brother, to be like the Spirit which inspires all that is good and true in us.


Let us thank God for Jesus’s baptism, most particularly for the insight it gives us into God’s intimate and loving nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Baptism of Cooper Robbie Richardson

Words spoken at the baptism of Cooper Robbie Richardson on 30th December 2016, following the marriage of his parents Katie Hamilton and Blake Richardson.

Today is a joyful occasion, a day for celebration!
It is first a family celebration - a day of joy for you, Blake and Katie, and for your families and friends. You have just been declared man and wife - now you bring your son Cooper to be baptised in the presence of so many who share your joy in him. We all celebrate your new family with you.

For Cooper’s Godparents, it is a day when you promise to encourage Cooper in his life and in his faith. It is a day to celebrate the start of a very special relationship you will have with him as he grows up. My daughter, when she was small, could not understand the word Godmother. When her Godmother came to stay, as she often did, she would sit on the end of my daughter’s bed and they would have long talks together, special talks which my daughter loved. So instead of calling her ‘my Godmother’, my daughter called her ‘my bedsitter’.
May you as Godparents be equally special ‘bed-sitters’ for Cooper!

But today is about more than just a family celebration.
The reading we have just heard tells us how Jesus commissioned the eleven to make disciples of all nations, and to mark it by baptism. They in turn passed on the commission to others, handing on the gift of faith to new generations. And so we, as that part of Christ’s church gathered here today, pass on this gift to a new generation, to Cooper.

We are about to welcome Cooper as a new member of Christ’s Church.  Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God, which will last for the rest of his life. We celebrate that today. In a moment we will profess our baptismal faith, and as we do so let us reflect on our own journey, and let us be determined to support Cooper’s parents and Godparents as they guide him on his journey.

Cooper will be baptised “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
Matthew tells us that Jesus himself used these words. Those of us who are Anglicans share this baptismal formula invoking the Trinity with other Christians, including Roman Catholic, Orthodox and most Reformed traditions. It is a symbol of unity within the diversity of our traditions that we baptise in the same words.

We shouldn’t see the Trinity as a static thing, I think. Rather, God reveals himself in the Trinity in a dynamic cycle of loving relationships. The Father and the Son loving each other; the Son and the Spirit loving each other; and the Spirit and the Father loving each other.

May Cooper grow up to recognise God’s dynamic cycle of love reflected in his own relationships!

According to Matthew, the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples are these: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus was speaking to the apostles, but he still speaks these words to his disciples today.

What an amazing thing it is, that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, our Lord and Saviour, our friend and brother, travels with us on our journey. Even when we are tired or anxious, lonely or frightened, doubting or lost, Jesus is there with us, to encourage and support us, to love us.


The loving Christ journeys with Cooper, and with every one of us. Let us give thanks for it, and let us celebrate it!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Expectations

Address given in Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 11th December 2016, the 3rd of Advent.

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) we have heard a question and an answer.
John the Baptist sent some followers to ask Jesus this question: ‘Are you the one who is to come’ – meaning the promised Messiah – ‘or are we to await another?’

And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

This exchange raises three questions for me, which I want to explore with you:
1.      Why did John ask his question?
2.      What did Jesus mean by his answer?
3.      And what does this mean to us as Jesus’s disciples 2000 years on?

As a starting point let’s put ourselves in John the Baptist’s shoes – let’s imagine what it was like to be him.
John is under house arrest in the great fortress of Machaerus, on a barren hilltop looking out over the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley to the Judean hills and Jerusalem in the distance. King Herod Antipas has imprisoned him for publicly denouncing Herod’s illegal marriage to his brother’s wife.

It must have been hard for John to be so confined in prison – he was an outdoors kind of man, used to living in the open air of the desert, sleeping under the stars. I imagine a wiry, weather-beaten, driven man pacing up and down in his quarters. He is frustrated and longs to return to his old ministry, to continue preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and hell fire for those who do not listen, like a prophet of old.

John is convinced that God has called him to announce the imminent arrival of the promised Messiah, who will usher in the Kingdom of God, in which God’s people will flourish in justice and peace. And John believes his cousin Jesus is that Messiah. Remember, when Jesus came to him for baptism John saw the dove descend on him with his own eyes, and heard with his own ears the voice from heaven say, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’.

John’s disciples, when they come to visit him in his prison, tell him that Jesus is gathering his own disciples and travelling around preaching to crowds, just like John. But, they tell him, there is no sign of Jesus behaving as a Messiah should behave. Their expectation - and John’s - is that the Messiah will act like a king and lead an army of the people to overthrow the unrighteous and bring in God’s Kingdom of justice.

So why did John send his disciples to ask Jesus his question? We shall never know for sure. Some people suggest John wanted his disciples to see Jesus for themselves, so that they too would come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Others suggest that John had begun to question his own belief that Jesus is the Messiah and is looking for reassurance. But most likely, I think, is this - John is impatient to see the Kingdom of God. He expects to see it, and by his question he seeks to encourage Jesus to fulfil his own expectations of the Messiah – essentially saying ‘Come on Jesus, time to start acting like a Messiah!’

Now let’s look at Jesus’s answer
From earliest times the children of Israel looked forward to a time when God would come to put right all injustice. Despite their trials and tribulations, they did their best to follow God’s law and they were sure that God had chosen them and loved them specially. So they fully expected that God, the God of righteousness, would act to restore their fortunes as God’s chosen people. And they came to believe that God would do so by raising up a Messiah, an anointed one, who would usher in God’s kingdom of justice.

But how would they know when the Messiah was arriving? And what would God’s Kingdom be like? Prophets tried to imagine it - the OT is filled with their attempts to put it into words, in catalogues of amazing things that would occur when God sent his Messiah to establish his kingdom. We have heard 2 of them today, in Psalm 146 and in the 1st reading from Isaiah (35:1-10). Here are some of Isaiah’s words again:
‘Here is your God. He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’

Every religious Jew of Jesus’s time would be able to quote some of these wonders and signs. So Jesus answers John’s question by quoting from Isaiah - not just from the passage we heard, but others too:
‘The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’
‘Look and see’, he is saying, ‘I am doing what the prophet says the promised Messiah will do’. John and his disciples would have understood very clearly that Jesus is claiming that he is indeed the Messiah, ‘the one to come’.

And Jesus prays a blessing on those who are not offended by his claim. Jesus does not live up to the popular idea of the Messiah leading an army to overthrow the unrighteous and impose the Kingdom of God on the world, because that is not what Jesus has come to do. He is an entirely different kind of Messiah. And there were many who took offence at him.

So, what does this mean to us as Jesus’s disciples, 2000 years on?
John and his disciples could see with their own eyes the first signs of God’s Kingdom breaking out around them, in Jesus’s ministry. They could also see how few had yet experienced it. But they lived in expectation and hope that God’s Kingdom would spread to the whole world.

From apostolic times, through the insight of St Paul, the Church has seen itself as the body of Christ on earth. The Church has continued Jesus’s ministry to spread God’s Kingdom, following his great commission to the Twelve, ‘Proclaim the Good News: the kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’. The Church has never ceased to look forward in expectation and hope to growth of God’s Kingdom, and its final completion, to be marked by the return of Christ in glory. And for all its many faults, over the centuries the Church has by God’s grace done so much good work to build the Kingdom – healing the sick, freeing the slaves, relieving the poor, educating the young, acting as a yeast in society to make things better – as well as proclaiming the good news. But we all see how much more there is still to do.

The fact is God’s Kingdom is not like an earthly kingdom. It cannot be brought into being in an instant by winning a battle or voting in an election. It is a continuing process, a growing organism. Jesus is the kind of Messiah who forms God’s Kingdom through the action of many willing, loving, human beings – his disciples - by showing them what it looks like, and what they must do to make it grow. And this will take time. We cannot know when the Kingdom will be complete, but we can hope that it is soon and pray ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’

So it is right that in this Advent season Christians should not just look back at the baby in the crib, but also look forward in expectation and hope to the continuing growth and final completion of God’s Kingdom. Let us resolve to do our bit to further it, and pray for God’s help doing so:
O Saviour of the world,
lifted up on the cross to draw people of all races and nations to yourself:
bless the witness of your Church in this and every place,
and help us to finish the work you have given us to do in the world for which you died.

We ask it in your name, our living and victorious Lord. Amen