Sunday, 9 June 2019

The living church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Good Shepherd and the sheep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Celebrating St Thomas on Low Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Children can bring heartbreak as well as joy to mothers

Address given at Borrisokane Church on Sunday 31st March 2019, the 4th of Lent, celebrated as Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday is not just a secular celebration of motherhood but one of the best loved festivals of the Church year.
But what does it mean for you and me?
  • Is it a time to show our mothers how grateful we are for all they have done for us?
  • Is it a time to remember them with love, if they are no longer with us?
  • Is it a time for soppy cards and flowers and gifts?
  • For the cynical, is it just another excuse to make money by selling us over-priced, themed merchandise?
  • Or is it a lovely excuse for families to get together and celebrate their shared stories?
  • Or, if you are particularly pious, might it be a time to give thanks for ‘mother church’ which nurtures us in our Christian faith?
It is, I suppose, all these things … and a lot more too. It is a day when as Christians we are invited to reflect on many different aspects of motherhood. Today’s readings focus our minds on one, darker aspect: children can bring heartbreak as well as joy to mothers.

Let’s look at the story of Hannah and her baby boy Samuel (1 Samuel 1:20-28).
If you feel the reading was a bit odd, it may be because it is only the middle part of a longer story.

In the first part, which we didn’t hear, we learn that Hannah is the wife of Elkanah, a man with two wives. Every year Elkanah takes his whole household to the shrine at Shiloh to sacrifice to the Lord. His second wife, Peninnah, provokes and mocks Hannah because Peninnah has children, but Hannah doesn’t. Elkanah loves Hannah, we are told, but perhaps he had taken a second wife because Hannah could not give him children. How hard it is for people who long for children but can’t have them! Hannah is desperate. She longs for a child - she prays for a child in the shrine at Shiloh - and she offers God a deal in exchange for a child. The bargain is along these lines: “God, if you give me a son, then I will give him back to serve you for the rest of his life.” Eli the priest notices her unhappiness as she prays silently. She is so distressed that he thinks she is drunk and chides her, but Hannah with great dignity explains she isn’t drunk, but has a lot of troubles to pray about.

In the passage we heard today, God has answered Hannah's prayer. She conceives, gives birth to a son and calls him Samuel. When Samuel is old enough, perhaps barely more than a toddler, she takes him with her on the annual trip to Shiloh, and leaves him there with Eli. ‘For this child I prayed,’ she tells Eli; ‘and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’

In the last part of the story, after the passage we heard read, we are told that every year Hannah makes a little robe for Samuel and brings it to him in Shiloh, when she goes there with her husband Elkanah for the sacrifice. Every year Eli blesses them for her gift to the Lord. And over the years the Lord blesses Hannah with three more sons and two daughters.

What sort of a mother is Hannah?
Your initial reaction might be to think she isn’t a very good one. How could a good mother abandon her baby at the gates of a religious institution, as Hannah did Samuel at the House of the Lord at Shiloh?

It would surely be a mistake to judge Hannah by the standards of our own time - we must apply the standards of her own society, not ours. Nor should we forget that until quite recently many women in Ireland chose, or felt obliged, to give their children over to the care of religious institutions. Many privileged women still send their children away to Prep schools as boarders, when not much older than Samuel was when Hannah left him with Eli. And we all expect the State to take children into care when their mothers cannot care for them as they need and deserve.

Hannah must have felt her heart breaking as she left Samuel behind to be fostered by Eli. But by doing so she ensured that he had a fine education and a good home. She was able to visit him, to give him presents, and Eli looked after him well. Fostering has been an honourable tradition in many societies – it was in Gaelic Ireland – and it still is for people in Nigeria for instance, which regularly causes misunderstandings with our immigration authorities.

Living in the shrine at Shiloh, Samuel learned to know and serve God. He grew up to be a great prophet - and eventually the leader of his people. It was Samuel who anointed Saul to be the first King of Israel, and David to be their greatest King ... and when Samuel died as an old man, the whole nation of Israel gathered to mourn him.

By leaving Samuel with Eli, Hannah allowed him to grow up to be what God called him to be - a prophet, and a leader. Her sacrifice was good for Samuel, and turned out well for all. Perhaps she wasn’t such a bad mother after all!

There is a lesson here, not just for mothers, I think, but for all parents: to know when to let our children go. Our real job as parents, surely, is to do all that we can to enable our children to become all that they can be - what God intends them to be. That means we must be prepared to let them go. Even though that breaks our hearts.

What heartbreak it must have been for Jesus’s mother Mary at the foot of his cross, as John 19:25-27 tells us in his Gospel.
Public execution is an ugly thing, but the prolonged torture of crucifixion must have been particularly gut-wrenching to watch. Yet Mary his mother found the strength to stay close by Jesus in his agony. How torn she must have been, too: repelled by his ghastly death, yet drawn to be near her beloved son in his last hours. We see an image of the eternal love at the heart of motherhood in Mary at the Cross.

Mary the mother of Jesus was supported in her vigil by four others: her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, as well as someone described as the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’. It is an ancient tradition of the Church that the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ was John, one of the sons of Zebedee and Mary’s sister Salome, the author of St John’s Gospel. If so, this John too, like John the Baptist, would be Jesus’s cousin.

I find it very moving that on the brink of his death, Jesus should think to commit Mary to the care of his cousin John, and John to the care of Mary, to look after each other, and to comfort each other in their loss. A truly practical example of the love of God at work in evil times.

So today as we celebrate Mothering Sunday:
As children - let us show our love and gratitude to our mothers. As mothers - let us allow our families to make a fuss of us. And as families - let us enjoy all the memories.

But let us not forget those heartbroken over children. Those who long for children but cannot have them. Parents that are separated from their children. And parents who have lost their children through death or in other ways.

And let us give thanks for those foster parents, adoptive parents and carers who by their love show God’s love to children that are not their own.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Seeking the real St Patrick

Address given at Ballingarry on Sunday 17th March 2019, St Patrick's Day

Today we remember St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, whose feast day this is.
In the secular world, this is a day for us to celebrate all that is right and true and beautiful in our communities and in the homeland we share, whatever else may divide us. Many of us I’m sure, wear a shamrock with pride, take part in or attend St Patrick’s Day parades, and raise a glass to toast our nation. It’s allowed, you know, even if you’ve pledged to abstain during Lent, as the Prayer Book marks only weekdays in Lent as days of discipline and self-denial! Some no doubt will over-indulge and get up to all sorts of ‘shamroguery’, but we shouldn’t be afraid to join in decent, patriotic celebration.

But as Christians I suggest we should go further. We should seek to find the real St Patrick behind all the picturesque and fanciful legends that have grown up about him over the last 1500 years. And we should reflect on what St Patrick’s life and mission has to say to us in Ireland today.

Much of what I was told about St Patrick as a child is not true – it is much later legend.
Patrick did not teach about the Trinity using the trefoil leaf of a shamrock, charming though the story is. The story first appears in writing in 1726, though it may be somewhat older, much later than Patrick’s time.

Patrick did not banish all the snakes from Ireland. That story is first mentioned by Gerald of Wales in the 13th Century, although he didn’t believe it himself. The truth is that Ireland was separated from Britain by rising sea levels after the last ice age, which prevented snakes from reaching Ireland from Britain.

Patrick was not the first to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. The narrow seas between Britain and Ireland were a trading highway in Roman times. Archeology shows that many Irish settled on the west coasts of Britain, and no doubt British Christians settled here. Irish chroniclers tell us that Pope Celestine consecrated a Gaul named Palladius to be the first bishop for Irish Christians in 431, a little before St Patrick. And there are traditions that there are other Irish saints who preceded Patrick, including St Kieran of Seir Keiran, Co Offaly, St Declan of Ardmore, Co Waterford and St Ailbe of Emly, Co Tipperary.

Most of what we know about the real St Patrick comes from his own writings.
The main source is his Confessio, or Confession, in which Patrick gives a short account of his life and mission.

Patrick tells us, ‘My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae.’ We do not know exactly where Bannavem Taburniae was, but it may have been in Cumbria, Strathclyde in southwest Scotland, or Wales. So Patrick came from a Christian family of Romano-British clergy. As such his native language would have been primitive Welsh, and no doubt he would have been educated in Latin.

Patrick tells us he was taken prisoner by an Irish raiding party, along with thousands of others, and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he was put to work as a shepherd. There his love and awe of God grew and grew, until after 6 years captivity a voice in a dream urged him to run away and escape back to Britain, which he did.

After his return to Britain, Patrick felt called to ordination. There is a tradition that he studied in Europe, principally at Auxerre in modern France, where he was ordained by St Germanus.

In another vision, Patrick heard the voices of the Irish among whom he had lived calling to him, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ Acting on this vision he returned to Ireland as a missionary.

Patrick was aware of the work of other Christian missionaries in the south and east – he was not alone. But his focus seems to have been in the north and west, where the Christian faith had not yet arrived.

Patrick gives little detail of his work, but tells us that he baptised thousands of people, ordained priests to lead the new Christian communities, converted wealthy women, some of whom became nuns, and converted the sons of kings. No doubt those he encountered were attracted by his distinctive spirituality, expressed in St Patrick’s Breastplate, the famous hymn attributed to him, some verses of which we shall sing in a moment.

But his mission was not always easy, for he tells us he met opposition. He was, beaten, robbed, put in chains and held captive. But Patrick rejoices that ‘the sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ.’

Patrick was a modest man. He finishes his Confessio with these words, addressed to us, to you and me: ‘I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.’

What can we as Christians today take from the life and mission of the real St Patrick?
St Patrick was passionately dedicated to sharing with the pagan Irish his Christian faith, which he saw as a blessing and gift from God. He echoes the words of Tobit (13:1b-7) in today’s 1st reading: ‘Bless the Lord of righteousness, and exalt the King of the ages. In the land of my exile I acknowledge him, and show his power and majesty to a nation of sinners.’ I suggest we should be more like St Patrick, eager to share our faith in the public square in our own times, when so many seem to find it difficult to do so.

St Patrick knew all about economic and social oppression from an early age. He challenged these evils and faced persecution for it. To quote from St Paul’s words in today’s epistle (2 Corinthians 4:1-12), he was ‘afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed’. When we in our times encounter such oppression, we should confront it as St Patrick did, and persevere against those who seek to perpetuate it, even if it costs us.

In today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John: 4:31-38), Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together … I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’ St Patrick reaped a harvest sown by others, as he was not the only nor the first Christian missionary to come to Ireland. In later times the Irish Church found unity around his bishopric of Armagh. In the same way, Christians of different traditions in Ireland today should seek unity in our diversity. We should rejoice in the truly important things that we have in common, rather than cling to the little things that separate us. Only then can we gather in the fruit for eternal life that Jesus desires us to reap.

I shall finish in prayer.
Hear us, most merciful God,
for that part of the Church
which through your servant Patrick you planted in our land;
that it may hold fast the faith entrusted to the saints
and in the end bear much fruit to eternal life:
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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