Sunday, 10 February 2019

Fishers of men

Address given at Borrisokane church on Sunday 10th February 2019, the 4th before Lent.

I like to imagine Gospel stories happening in places I know, to better appreciate them.
In this morning’s Gospel, Luke (5:1-11) describes how Jesus called Simon, James and John to be his disciples beside the lake of Gennesaret – another name for the Sea of Galilee. But in my imagination, the scene is the banks of Lough Derg - the lake of Gennesaret is just a bit larger than Lough Derg, and wider, but not so long.

So, in my mind’s eye I see Jesus, pressed in, commandeering Simon’s lake boat from which to speak to the crowd on the beach at Dromineer a couple of boat lengths out. Jesus must realise that Simon and his partners James and John in the second boat have had a bad night’s fishing. He does them a good turn in exchange for their help. When he has done speaking, Jesus tells Simon to take the boat out to the deep channel over by the Clare shore where they will find fish. And they do – so many that they fill both boats up to the gunwales until they almost sink.

Everyone is amazed at the size of the catch. Simon falls to his knees in front of Jesus saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ – for the first time Simon acknowledges Jesus’s power. Jesus says to him, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people’. And Simon, together with his partners James and John, the sons of Zebedee, make their life-changing decision to leave their old lives as fishermen and follow Jesus in his travelling ministry as his disciples.

This is a key moment for Christians and for the Church
On the face of it there is nothing special about these three men. Simon - nicknamed Peter, meaning the Rock - James and John are plain fishermen, just ordinary working people. But along with others Jesus also called, they become apostles, sent out by Jesus to preach the good news he taught them. They were the first leaders of the Jesus movement we call the Church.

Jesus trained them to be apostles as they followed him in his travelling ministry. They were flawed as we all are – they often failed to understand Jesus’s message, they fled in terror when he was arrested, Simon Peter would deny knowing him three times, and only John would witness his crucifixion. But after the resurrection they all encountered the risen Christ, and at the first Pentecost they all received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

From the upper room where they had been hiding, they burst out onto the streets of Jerusalem. They preached the good news that Jesus had taught them, and they attracted a growing band of disciples – the first Church in Jerusalem. The Book of Acts tells the story of how that Church spread like wildfire across the Roman empire - 300 years later under Constantine it would take the empire over.

The explosive growth of the early Church marks the success of Jesus’s project to bring good news to all people – but it all began that day on the shore of the lake of Gennesaret.

The situation we are faced with today in Ireland seems rather different, doesn’t it?
More and more people, particularly younger folk, feel less and less connection with the Church, no matter what tradition they come from. The numbers who attend, listen to the good news, and lend financial support, seem to fall year by year and decade by decade.

Clergy and Bishops thrash about looking for new ways to fill the old pews again. Meanwhile ordinary parishioners like you and me are fearful that ours may be the last generation of our families to sit in them. We are all too aware of neighbouring churches which have shut, causing many in their congregations to lose the habit of regular worship and lose any but a cultural connection with the Church, for weddings and funerals.

I suggest that today’s Gospel story has a lesson for us.
Simon Peter and James and John had spent a fruitless night, fishing where there were no fish. It was only when they did as Jesus advised and went out into deeper water, that they would haul in nets filled to breaking point.

Christian leaders, fishing for people as successors to the apostles, surely need to do the same. They must go where Christ’s Spirit directs, away from the shallow waters of our sterile theological divisions and tribal identities, into the deep waters where real people are found. People suffering from illness, poverty and injustice. People frightened by an uncertain future and change they do not understand. People searching for meaning and peace in a world of excess. People who yearn to hear good news.

We faithful parishioners in the pews must be filled with hope. We must support them in launching out to fish in deeper water. Then we shall start to see change, leading to a renewed Church that brings the good news of Christ to a new age.

Why should we believe that change is possible? Why should we be filled with hope?
Firstly, because the Church decay we are experiencing is not inevitable. It is largely confined to Western Europe and increasingly North America. Churches in Africa, in China and other countries are vibrant, dynamic and growing rapidly, filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy. We need to learn from them.

And secondly, because every time the Church has suffered a crisis, as it has done many times over the centuries, the crisis has brought renewal of the Church for a new age.
·         A new, monastic Church flowered in the 5th Century amid the chaos of the imperial church of the disintegrating Roman Empire, bringing Christian faith here to Ireland and across pagan northern Europe.
·         The rich and corrupt church of the 13th Century in turn spawned orders of friars like St Francis, focussed on preaching and service to the poor.
·         Abuses in the 16th Century Church fuelled the Reformation, and with it came renewal, not just of protestant churches, but of the Roman Catholic church too.
·         And in the 19th Century the Spirit drove a new wave of Christians of all traditions to mission. Some went as missionaries overseas.  Others joined orders dedicated to education, health care and the relief of poverty in the new industrial towns and cities – the lovely ‘Call the Midwife’ series on BBC1 captures how that spirit lived on into the lifetime of many of us.

It is right that we should be filled with hope, because history teaches us that Church renewal follows crisis, as the Holy Spirit prepares it for changing times.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
Most holy God,
in whose presence angels serve in awe,
and whose glory fills all heaven and earth:
cleanse our unclean lips
and transform us by your grace
so that your word spoken through us
may bring many to your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. Amen

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Baptism & Confirmation

An address given at St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 13th January 2019, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, the Baptism of our Lord.

On this 1st Sunday after Epiphany we celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
St Luke in today’s Gospel reading (Luke: 3:15-17, 21-22) tells us what happened when John baptised Jesus: ‘When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the same event is described in slightly different words in the other three Gospels.

In this striking scene God reveals to us that this man Jesus is his Son, the Beloved. It is also the only scene in the Gospels where we find all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit - together at the same time. It is in fact an epiphany of the Trinity, so it is especially important for all of us Trinitarian Christians.

Luke tells us that John’s baptism was ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
John baptised with water those who came to him to signify their repentance – that is, their personal commitment to live in future by God’s standards. When they make that commitment, God forgives their previous failures to live up to his standards – their sins – which are symbolically washed away in the water.

Since the earliest times, Christians have been puzzled that Jesus came to be baptised by John. After all, the argument goes, Jesus as the Son of God must be without sin, with nothing to repent, so a baptism for forgiveness of sins seems inappropriate. Matthew tells us that the Baptist himself was reluctant to baptise Jesus, but Jesus insisted, saying ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’.

For Jews, righteousness meant doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believed God willed him to be baptised by John. But why? Perhaps so that Jesus would be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Or perhaps so that John could testify to his Trinitarian vision. But I like to think that God willed Jesus to be baptised in a stunning act of solidarity with sinful people – with you and with me – so that Jesus stands alongside us as we bare our souls in repentance, as our sins are washed away, and as we receive God’s forgiveness.

What about the Christian sacrament of baptism with water as we know it today?
None of the Gospels tell us that Jesus himself baptised anyone, but his disciples certainly did. They did so with his approval while he was alive, as John’s Gospel tells us. John also records Jesus teaching that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’. And the disciples continued to baptise after his death, following his Great Commission, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel in these words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  3000 are said to be have been baptised on the day of Pentecost alone!

Those who came to Christian baptism in the earliest days would have made the same personal commitment to change in expectation of God’s forgiveness as those who John baptised. This baptism, like John’s, must surely have been ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
But as time passed, baptism with water more and more came to be seen as a ceremony of initiation into the community of believers, the Church. Baptism was essential, because Jesus had said no one could enter the kingdom of God without being born of water.

In times when many children died in childhood, Christian parents naturally wanted to make sure their children would join them in the kingdom of God, so they began to baptise infants too. Parents and friends sponsored the infant Christian, making personal commitments on their behalf. The original idea of a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ began to fade into the background, perhaps because it is hard to see what sins an infant needs to repent.

So baptism evolved to become the sacrament of Christian initiation we know today, and the parents and friends became what we call sponsors and godparents.

But surely there is something missing in this baptism as Christian initiation.
In today’s Gospel John the Baptist says ‘I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.’ That’s Jesus, of course. ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’. What has become of Jesus’s baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire?

The apostles were baptised with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, just as Jesus had promised them before his ascension. They also experienced tongues of fire – and fire was certainly kindled in their hearts. They went out fired-up to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, which as the Book of Acts tells us spread like wild fire.

The embryonic Church spread despite – perhaps because of – persecution. As it grew the apostles found it necessary to appoint assistants, called deacons. When persecution came the new Christians scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, leaving the apostles in Jerusalem. One of the deacons called Philip fled to the city of Samaria, where he in his turn preached the good news. Large numbers of people responded and he baptised them.

This is the background to today’s 2nd reading from Acts (8:14-17).
‘When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them’. There, we are told, they discovered that the new Samaritan Christians had not received the Holy Spirit, even though they had been baptised by Philip. Peter and John prayed for them, ‘laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit’ - in other words they received Jesus’s baptism of the Holy Spirit.

The apostles were faced with the problem of maintaining the unity of the church as it spread away from Jerusalem. Their solution seems to have been to insist that they alone could administer Jesus’s baptism of the Holy Spirit by laying on of hands.

As the church grew and the original apostles began to grow old and die, they consecrated others they trusted to carry on their work including administering the baptism of the Holy Spirit. These others in turn consecrated their successors to do the same, and so on to our own day.

These are what we now call bishops. The line of succession is called apostolic succession. And confirmation is Jesus’s baptism with the Holy Spirit, administered by a bishop in apostolic succession laying on his hands.

So to conclude, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus:
First, let us give thanks for the insight we receive into the nature of God as Trinity from the epiphany of Father, Son and Holy Spirit at Jesus’s baptism by John.

Second, let us give thanks for the sacrament of baptism with water, which builds on John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, to mark our incorporation into Christ’s body the Church, whether as infants or adults.

And third, let us give thanks for the sacrament of confirmation, through which we are born again as we receive Jesus’s baptism of the Holy Spirit to inspire us, to put fire in our hearts to work for his kingdom.

Let me finish in prayer:
Spirit of energy and change,
in whose power Jesus was anointed
to be the hope of the nations:
be poured out also upon us
without reserve or distinction,
that we may have confidence and strength
to implant your justice on the earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen