Sunday, 8 October 2017

Wicked tenants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Who do you say that I am?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Walking on water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Finding the Kingdom of Heaven

Address given in At Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 30th July 2017, the 7th after Trinity, year A

Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:31-33, 44-52) is about the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a central part of Jesus’s teaching for Matthew. At the very start of his ministry Jesus proclaimed, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 4:17). And when Jesus sent out the Twelve he instructed them, ‘As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Matt 10:7). In Mark and Luke ‘the Kingdom of God’ is used to mean the same thing.

So, just what is this Kingdom of Heaven? As a skilful teacher, Jesus uses parables based on everyday experience to teach those who follow him. I think he wants his disciples to work out the truth for themselves, not just learn it parrot fashion without properly understanding it. He gives us clues in parables about the kingdom of heaven, which we are meant to think about deeply, and share what we find between us.

So let me reflect a bit on what I find in these parables.
The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast tell us how the Kingdom of Heaven grows.
·         God does not bring the Kingdom of Heaven into existence suddenly, fully formed, in a kind of spiritual ‘big bang’. Rather it grows organically, bit by bit, just as the tiny mustard seed grows almost imperceptibly into a tree, or a tiny quantity of yeast works to leaven a loaf.
·         Sometimes it may seem as if nothing is happening at all. Then suddenly we notice a new shoot bursting, or the dough expanding. And when we come back later we see whole new branches, or the dough rising above its container.
·         If we search for the Kingdom of Heaven we will find it really has come near. It grows all around us.

The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great value tell us what it feels like to find the Kingdom of Heaven.
·         It is like a farmer finding treasure in a field, or a merchant the most perfect pearl. When they find it they joyfully trade everything else they value to obtain it.
·         We are so used to calculating what a thing is worth that it is hard to imagine something that is beyond price. Yet there are some things that are worth infinitely more than money or possessions. The Kingdom of Heaven is literally priceless. To live as part of it, by its values, as it grows, will bring us more real joy than anything else possibly could.

The parable of the net tells us what happens if we don’t live by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.
·         We live in a world full of people of every kind, good and bad, just as the sea holds fish that are good to eat and not so good. But it is not for us to decide which is which. Just as in the parable of the tares we heard last Sunday, it is for God and his angels at the end of the age to separate the evil from the righteous.
·         God’s generosity is stupendous, isn’t it? In God’s creation we have been given enough and more than enough for all to flourish, both the good and the bad. If you eliminate the fish that are not good to eat you damage the whole eco-system, and those that are good to eat will also suffer. If we exclude those we don’t like from our community, from our church, we impoverish it and ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely certain whether God’s angels will find me evil or righteous – or most likely a bit of both.
·         Our task is to seek out the Kingdom of Heaven, to help it grow, and to live by its values. But part of these values is to be inclusive and leave judgement to God.

So far, so good. But these parables don’t by themselves answer one crucial question, I think.
It is this: How are we to recognise the Kingdom of Heaven when we find it?

I think the Lord’s Prayer fills the gap. Jesus teaches us to pray to our heavenly Father, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’.

We can recognise the Kingdom of Heaven because God’s will is done there. And Jesus shows us how to discern God’s will. To find the Kingdom of Heaven is to align our will with God’s will.
·         When any one of us does God’s will, in no matter how small a way – when we do what is right, or don’t do what is wrong - the Kingdom of Heaven grows accordingly. It is a bit like Pinocchio’s nose in reverse – in the children’s story, remember, his nose grew longer every time he told a lie.
·         When we experience the life and growth of the Kingdom of Heaven we feel a joy which encourages us to change our way of life for the better. That is what it means to repent.
·         We live more as part of the Kingdom of Heaven, we do more of God’s will, and we become better people. Our example may inspire others to do so too, and the Kingdom of Heaven grows some more.
·         Finally, at the end of the age, God’s angels will have less work to do to separate the evil from the righteous, there will be less weeping and less gnashing of teeth.

That is how God saves us through Jesus.

Let me finish in prayer:
O God, the fount of wisdom,
you have revealed to us in Christ
the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price:
grant us your Spirit’s gift of discernment,
that, in the midst of the things of this world,
we may learn to value the priceless worth of your kingdom,
and be ready to renounce all else
for the sake of the precious gift you offer.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The parable of the tares

Address given at St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick on Sunday 23 July 2017, the 6th after Trinity

Have you heard the old joke about the hell-fire preacher?
Reaching the climax of his sermon about the day of judgement, in ringing tones he declares the fate of those who fail to meet the standards of God’s Kingdom: ‘They will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’. At which point an old woman puts up her hand and says, “But Rector, I have no teeth”; to which the hell-fire preacher replies, “Madam, teeth will be provided”.

Joking aside, it is always worth pondering the parables Jesus uses to teach his followers. The parable of the weeds of the field in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:24-30, 36-43) is no exception. So let’s look at it a little more closely.

The images Jesus uses in his parable would have been very vivid and familiar to a Galilean audience.
Weeds were one of the curses against which a farmer had to labour before the discovery of weed-killers. In this parable the weed is no doubt bearded darnel, a kind of rye-grass. In its early stages darnel is indistinguishable from wheat. Only when they both produce seed-heads can they be told apart. But by then their roots are so intertwined that the darnel can’t be weeded out without damaging the roots of the wheat. Weeding would only reduce the yield.

The wheat and darnel can’t be safely separated while they are growing, but in the end they must be, because the grain of the darnel is slightly poisonous. In quantity it causes dizziness and sickness. So the master in the parable gets the reapers to separate them at harvest time. The darnel will be bundled up and burned, while the wheat will be threshed and gathered into the barn.

The idea of an enemy deliberately sowing weeds in someone else’s field would also have struck a chord. It was a crime forbidden in Roman law, which prescribed a punishment for it, so we can be sure it happened.

Jesus tells the crowd that the parable is about the kingdom of heaven, and Matthew records him later explaining it to his disciples, to help them – and us – understand what he meant by it. It is one of several parables recorded by Matthew in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to different things – others are a mustard seed and yeast. Jesus is teaching by analogy, and I feel sure we should not take it too literally, but rather look for the underlying messages.

It is the devil, says Jesus, who sows the weeds, the children of the evil one, in the field which is the world.
We all know instinctively, don’t we, what is right and what is wrong. We have been created as souls with consciences - in the image of God, to use the imagery of the Book of Genesis. But we all also experience insistent little voices within us which tempt us to do what our God-given conscience tells us is not right. Theologians call it original sin, and Jesus personifies it as the work of the devil. But in our culture it may be easier to think of it as the bad part of ourselves, that part of own psyche which allows and encourages us to damage ourselves and others.

Let me illustrate it with some examples. Advertising campaigns play on our innate greed by whispering, ‘Because you’re worth it’. They tell women that they will look younger and more beautiful if they buy this or that cosmetic product containing plastic microbeads, which are not biodegradable and pollute waterways and oceans. They tell men that they will be more powerful and live more exciting lives if they buy a new car which will pollute the air in cities and damage health. It is the thin end of a very fat wedge. Further down that wedge we find unscrupulous interests that seek to persuade us that we and our communities cannot afford to take the steps needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

However, Jesus warns us against pulling the weeds in case we uproot the wheat.
He is teaching us not to be too quick in our judgements of others. We are all too liable to classify and label people as good or bad without knowing all the facts. And people can change. We can be redeemed from sin by the grace of God, and equally we can disfigure a good life by a sudden collapse into sin. As Jesus says elsewhere, ‘Let he that is without sin cast the first stone’.

We are not entitled to make a final judgement about the righteousness of any other person – only God has that right. It is God alone who can discern the good and the bad. It is God alone who sees all of an individual and all of a person’s life.

Of course we can’t help forming opinions of others, using our reason which is also God-given. And it is surely right that we should let such opinions guide our actions when appropriate. But we must never forget we may be mistaken. And we would do well to remember the Quaker maxim – ‘There is something of God in every person’ – and try to find it.

But of one thing Jesus assures us – we will be judged eventually.
‘Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

When Jesus talks about the ‘end of the age’, I don’t think we should take it literally as the end of time. Rather I think we should see it as a time which will come to us all – as certain as our own death – in which we see ourselves as God sees us, in one piece from our conception to our death, how we have touched those we have met, all the good in us, and all the bad too.

At this time we will see clearly: we will burn in the torment of shame for the sins we have caused and the evil we have done in our lives. We will weep and gnash our teeth. But for the good we have done, we ‘will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father’.

I shall finish in prayer
Saving God,
in Jesus Christ you opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure and constant wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Children & Yokes

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 9th July 2017, the 4th after Trinity, year A

I wonder why Jesus so often uses children to illustrate his teaching?
Perhaps it’s because he knows that the best way to make your point stick is to relate it to everyday experience. And what’s more part of our everyday experience than the doings and sayings of children?

Perhaps it’s because the open-minded, trustful innocence of a child has something special to teach us.

Or perhaps it is just because Jesus loves children.

Whatever the reason, the responses of children are an obvious link between the two short passages we’ve just heard from St Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30) – I suppose that’s why the good compilers of the Lectionary put them together.

Let us look at them more closely, to see what they tell us.

In the 1st passage, Jesus evokes the image of children in the street who can’t agree what game to play.
We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn, says Jesus. You might hear something very similar on a street today:
‘Let’s play weddings’ say one lot of kids;
‘Let’s not’, say another lot, ‘Let’s play funerals’;
‘No, we don’t want to play funerals say the first lot, ‘We want to play weddings!’

Jesus applies this image of squabbling children to the people of his generation. One lot won’t listen to what John the Baptist says because he is too puritan; ‘He has a demon’ they say. Another lot won’t listen to the Son of Man – Jesus - because he is too lax; ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! You can really feel Jesus’s exasperation, can’t you?

But what is going on here? To understand it we need to look at the context of Jesus’s words.

Matthew has just told us that John the Baptist had sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’ In other words, are you the Messiah? And Jesus has answered, in a coded but unmistakable way, that he is: he says, ‘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.’  These were the signs by which Jews believed they would recognise the Messiah, based on Isaiah’s prophesy.

The Jews believed that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to herald his coming. Jesus then addresses the crowd, saying that John is more than just a prophet; John ‘is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!

Matthew has told us that Jesus saw John as the new Elijah heralding himself as the Messiah. Their styles may be different, but John and Jesus’s teaching go together like a hand in a glove. There is no need to take one side and rubbish the other. This is why Jesus is so exasperated with the squabbling factions.

Jesus finishes by saying ‘Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’ Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures is seen as emanating from God – we have just used the Song of Wisdom as a canticle. Jesus’s exasperation is tempered by his certainty that such squabbling will not derail God’s plan, which will ultimately be successful.

I think there’s a great deal we can learn from Jesus’s words in our generation.
Take our Anglican Communion. We have all heard reports of the bitter divisions in it. We have a self-styled Orthodox party struggling for power in the Communion with a so-called Liberal party. Both parties vie for the support of everyone else, while threatening to leave or to expel the others. On the surface the issue is whether homosexual behaviour is sinful, but underlying this are very different opinions on how literally or not to interpret scripture. It’s all rather confusing and disturbing, isn’t it!

But isn’t the whole hubbub rather like Jesus’s squabbling children? I don’t think we should allow their arguments to disturb our own faith. We should continue prayerfully to follow Jesus in the way he calls us, recognising that he may call others differently. They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. I for one intend to maintain Christian fellowship with all who look to Jesus, whatever disagreements I may have with them. Like Jesus, we can be certain that this squabbling cannot derail God’s plan. Perhaps the arguments will ultimately strengthen our churches, no matter how painful we may find the dissension now. Let us trust, like Jesus, that God’s Wisdom will be vindicated!

Turning to the 2nd passage, Jesus starts by publicly thanking his loving-father God.
‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth’, he says, ‘because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’ The child theme again!

Jesus is surely speaking from experience: the experience that the wise and intelligent, the rabbis, the intellectuals, reject him, while plain ordinary folk accept him. I don’t think Jesus is condemning those who are clever – rather he is condemning those who are puffed up with intellectual pride. We must have the open-minded, trustful innocence of a child to believe that Jesus is who he claims to be.

Jesus continues, making the claim that is the heart and centre centre of our Christian faith, ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’  What Jesus is saying is this: ‘If you want to know what God is like, look at me!’ As Christians we believe that in Jesus we see what God is like. But surely we can only see it if we are as open-minded and trustful as children. Children really do have much to teach us!

Jesus then says the ‘comfortable words’ that we used to hear every Sunday in the old traditional language Communion service: they are comfortable in the sense that they give us comfort. ‘Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ And he continues, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

We Irish use the word yoke these days for something whose name we’ve forgotten. Unless we work with draught animals we probably know very little about real yokes – those wooden bars that go over the shoulders of men or animals to allow them to carry or pull heavy loads safely. But Jesus’s audience would have been very familiar with yokes, and Jesus himself was quite likely an expert in them. He may have made yokes as a youth in his father Joseph’s carpenter’s shop. They would have been bespoke – the carpenter would no doubt take measurements of the man or animal, trim the wood, and fit it carefully, making fine adjustments until it fitted just right. Perhaps the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth had a sign over the door saying something like My yokes fit well!’

What Jesus is saying to his audience, echoing down to us over the millennia to us, is this. ‘My way, the life I show you, is not a burden to cause you pain; your task is made to measure to fit you’. Whatever God sends us is made to fit our needs and our abilities perfectly. It is not that life’s burdens are easy to carry, but God lays them on us in love, they are meant to be carried in love following Jesus’s example, and love makes even the heaviest burden light.

So, let me finish with the lovely prayer of St Richard of Chichester;
Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ,
For all the benefits you have given me,
For all the pains and insults you have borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother,
May I know you more clearly,
Love you more dearly,
Follow you more nearly,

Day by day. Amen.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Trinity


Jews and Muslims, our fellow monotheist ‘peoples of the book’, vehemently reject the idea of God as Trinity – they allege that Christians do not really believe in one God, but in three Gods. Even some Christians find it puzzling. How can one God possibly be divided into three persons? Surely 1 + 1 + 1 = 3?

Over the centuries Christian apologists have answered this question in different ways. We all know, I’m sure, how St Patrick illustrated the Trinity - with the trefoil-leaf of a shamrock – three leaflets within the one leaf. John Wesley said: ‘Tell me how it is that in this room there are three candles and but one light, and I will explain to you the mode of divine existence’. And it is true in mathematics that if you add three infinities the result is still infinity. But I personally don’t find such arguments helpful. The Catechism of the RC Church says that ‘God’s inmost being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone’. But to call it a mystery seems like a fudge to me.

So today let me reflect on how we as Christians might seek to understand the Trinity.

We must start, I think, with how the early Christian community came to understand God.
First, the community had its roots in the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. There they learned that God created all that was and is and is to come, as reflected in today’s reading from Genesis (1:1-2:4a). God had also created them in his own image. More than that, God had an intimate relationship with them, as a parent, as a father or a mother. Hence the OT stories where their God hears the cries of the people, brings them out of bondage, and in a lovely metaphor, cares for them as a hen cares for her chicks. The first Christians did not see God as remote, but as a loving and gracious God, like a parent, like a Father – and also a God for all, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. They followed Jesus’s lead by praying to their Father in heaven.

Second, the early Christian community also understood God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From the apostles and first disciples they heard the story of Jesus - how in Jesus God lived and acted in new and profound ways among people. Through them they encountered the risen Christ, and heard him promise, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. They learned that God was made manifest in Jesus, that God was not just out there somewhere, but had also lived as one of them, as their brother, through his Son, Jesus, who had ascended to his Father and would come again. The stories were written down in the Gospels to show that God was not only their Creator, but also Jesus Christ their Saviour and Redeemer.

Third, the Christian community came to understand God as the Holy Spirit. As promised by Jesus, the gift of the Spirit came at Pentecost. It came to the whole community in the upper room, not just to a select few. And it made them fearless. Responding to Jesus’s call, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’, they proclaimed their faith to all who would listen, baptising and gathering around them people from every nation in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. And the same Spirit came to the gathered groups of new Christians, just as it had to the apostles and first disciples. The Acts of the Apostles reads like an adventure story as the Spirit spreads like a wildfire through the Roman Empire. And the Epistles reveal for us how the Spirit formed the self-understanding of the gathered groups that we can now call churches.

It is clear that very early on Christians came to believe that the one God they worshipped was manifest in three different ways, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 28:16-20) shows this when Matthew records Jesus’s command to baptise ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.

By the 4th century the Church had captured the imperial Roman state.
Dogmatic theologians were arguing bitterly over what the Trinity really meant, amid power struggles in the church.

These disputes were eventually settled at a Council of Bishops, convened in Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius in 381AD, which settled the doctrine of the Trinity in the words of a creed, which we now know as the Nicene Creed and still use in the Holy Communion service.

Most Christians, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and our own Anglican Communion maintain that this is still the best way to think about God.

It is not hard to understand the historical reasons why Christians came to believe in God as Trinity.
But I do not think that our belief that God is best understood as the Trinity should rest only on the words of scripture and the partisan arguments of Church Councils more than 1600 years ago. I believe that divine revelation did not cease when the last full stop was written in the last book of scripture – God’s creation all around us is a continuing revelation, and in the world around me I see signs of our Trinitarian God everywhere.

I see the Loving Father in the beauty of the universe he created. He has precisely tuned it to support the miraculous, evolving web of life on our planet. He has made it to be a place where you and I and all creatures can flourish and be fed - if we would only tend and care for it, and for our neighbours, as we ought.

I see the Saving Son in the widespread altruism that exists in the natural world. And I see him in communities, communities of people but also of other organisms. I see him in the worker bee’s dedication to raising a sister’s brood. I see him in the three-cornered dance of insects, fruit trees and seed dispersing animals. I see him in the cycles of death and resurrection that drive evolution. And I see him in our human capacity to love, to love each other and our neighbours as ourselves – even if we often fail to do so.

I see the Holy Spirit in the continual innovation of living creatures and ecosystems. I see him at work exploring new expressions of what is possible in the arts and the sciences. And I see him in the way that human beings, in all our variety with our different gifts, come together to build communities with meaning and purpose – including the Church, the ‘body of Christ’ as St Paul called it, among many other kinds of community.

We should not, I think, see the doctrine of the Trinity as very difficult or a great mystery. Rather we should see it as something very natural. It is very simple really – but also very profound.

Let us finish in prayer:
God of heaven and earth,
before the foundation of the universe
and the beginning of time
you are the triune God:
Author of creation,
eternal Word of salvation,
life-giving Spirit of wisdom.
Guide us to all truth by your Spirit,
that we may proclaim all that Christ has revealed
and rejoice in the glory he shares with us.
Glory and praise to you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

now and for ever. Amen

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