Sunday, 1 May 2022

Giving thanks for Saul/Paul

 

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 1st May 2022, the 3rd Sunday of Easter

Imagine for a moment that you are Saul, who we heard about in the 1st Reading (Acts 9:1-20).

You are approaching Damascus, one of the great cities of the Roman Empire. You are on important business. You carry letters from the High Priest himself, which give you the authority to round up the subversives who follow what they call the Way, both men and women, followers of that notorious criminal Jesus of Nazareth who was justly executed for inciting rebellion against lawful authority.

Suddenly, a light flashes around you. You collapse in a heap on the ground. You hear a voice saying ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Where is this voice coming from? ‘Who are you?’ you say. ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’ the reply comes. ‘But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.’ Then you realise that you can see absolutely nothing, even with open eyes.

What a terrifying realisation – you have been struck blind, completely blind. Your travelling companions lead you by the hand into the city, and there you stay in a room for three days, sightless, neither eating nor drinking. Your mind races, returning again and again to the agonising question, ‘Why me? I am a good Jew, a Pharisee, punctilious in keeping the Law. Surely I don’t deserve this fate?’

Then at last a man called Ananias comes into your room. He is a Jew like you, living in Damascus, but he is also one of those subversive followers of the Way, against whom you have been breathing threats and murder. He simply touches you with his hands and says softly, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’. And suddenly you can see again – it is as if something like a blindfold fell off your eyes.

What a surge of relief you feel! And as your strength returns you find that everything – the whole course of your life – is changed.

This is the bones of the story told us by Luke, the author of Acts. But let’s look a little closer at this man called Saul in Hebrew or Paul in Greek. He is worth studying because he - more than any other of the first generation of Christians - has profoundly shaped our Christian faith through his missionary activities and writings.

Saul was a cosmopolitan Jew of the diaspora.

He was born in Tarsus, a major Mediterranean trading port in what is now South East Turkey, to a devout family - in his own words (Phil 3:5) he was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee’. The family must have been quite well to do for him to inherit Roman citizenship.

He could read and write fluently in Greek, the common language of the Eastern Empire, as well as Aramaic and Hebrew no doubt, and he was sent to Jerusalem to complete his education in the famous rabbinical school of Gamaliel. He said of himself that though he was not an impressive speaker he wrote words of wisdom.

He had learned the trade of tent making, by which he proudly supported himself during his later missionary journeys. But he may have been trained for ownership or management. He knew how to use a secretary and dictate letters, and he displayed the managerial skills to plan, monitor and control missionary teams in the growing network of churches he founded.

It is clear from his letters that Paul was a disputatious personality. He was quite prepared to challenge the authority of Peter and James, the leaders of the growing Christian community in Jerusalem, when he thought they were wrong, for instance when he insisted that his gentile converts should not have to adopt the whole of the Jewish law. And he must have been a prickly individual, always certain that he was right, who was known to fall out with his co-workers.

Saul was also a zealot – he would throw himself body and soul into whatever project he believed to be right. This led him to prominence in a pogrom against Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem, after he watched the stoning to death of Stephen, the first martyr. And hunting those who fled the pogrom brought him to travel on the road to Damascus.

Saul’s religious experience on the road to Damascus changed his life utterly.

Religious experience is a strange thing. God seems to choose to reveal important things suddenly to some people. Not just to Jews like Saul, or to Christians – many claim the experience of being ‘born again’ even today - but to individuals of other faiths – for instance the Buddha Gautama’s awakening under a Bo tree. But most of us discover religious truth and faith in a much gentler, gradual way, as I have, absorbed as if by osmosis in a process which takes a lifetime.

What exactly Saul experienced is uncertain. Acts says that he saw a bright light and heard a voice. Was it an epileptic fit or a kind of migraine perhaps? In his own letters he says only that ‘God revealed his Son to me’, and claimed he had seen the Risen Lord, which is why this reading is set for the Easter season. He used it to justify his claim to be the equal of the original apostles. And he believed he had been called not just to serve Christ but to accomplish a special task – to convert the gentiles. This is what he dedicated the rest of his life to.

And the Christ who chose to appear to Saul chose well. Saul was the right man in the right place at the right time. His personality and his skills made him outstandingly successful at the task of converting the gentiles. The book of Acts tells the dramatic story of his missionary trips throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. At some point he ceased to use the name Saul, so that in the latter part of Acts and in his letters only his Greek name Paul is used.

Paul founded vibrant congregations, and nurtured them by writing letters to encourage and sometimes chastise them. He developed a Christology and a theology of salvation which continues to inspire and perplex us. And he bravely endured many hardships and punishments over some 30 years of work, culminating in two years of house arrest in Rome. There, according to tradition, he was beheaded as a martyr in the reign of Emperor Nero – he who allegedly fiddled while Rome burned.

In 70 AD, just a few years after Paul’s death, the Jews of Judea rebelled against Rome.

Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed – just as Jesus had predicted, according to St Matthew, though he may have been writing in hindsight. All the inhabitants of Jerusalem were dispersed as refugees. The fate of the Jewish Christians is uncertain, but most probably they merged into the Greek speaking gentile churches created by Paul. Without Paul’s churches the small, vulnerable Christian minority might well have been wiped out – and we would not be here today.

So let us give thanks to God for Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, for his mission to the gentiles which has led us to Christ, and for the inspiring and challenging words he has left us.

I will finish in prayer in the words of the collect for the Conversion of St Paul:

Almighty God, who caused the light of the gospel

to shine throughout the world

through the preaching of your servant St Paul:

Grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversion

may follow him in bearing witness to your truth;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Changed, all changed

Here we are, one week after our Easter celebrations of Christ’s resurrection.

We are still in the season of Easter, and our mood is one of joy, as we meditate on the appearances of the resurrected Christ to his disciples, and prepare to celebrate his ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

It took Jesus’s disciples 7 full weeks to process the meaning of Jesus’s passion, death and resurrection.

At first they cowered in fear behind locked doors, not sure what to make of it at all. That is the context of today’s 3rd reading from John’s Gospel (20:19-31). But at Pentecost, 50 days later, they experienced the full power of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire and a rushing, mighty wind. They went out into the streets to proclaim the good news of Christ to the crowds, and with increasing boldness they persisted in doing so, despite the authorities attempts to stop them. This is the context of todays 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5:27-32).

Let us reflect on the two readings to better appreciate the change the Spirit worked in the disciples.

John tells us that Jesus appeared to the disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection.

Jesus appears suddenly, through doors that the disciples had locked for fear of those who had demanded his crucifixion. Notice how Jesus is changed by his resurrection. His best friends do not immediately recognise him: Mary Magdalen at first mistook him for a gardener, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus only recognised him when he blessed and broke bread in his inimitable way. Now he shows he can come and go even through locked doors.

Jesus shows his wounds to the disciples, and reassures them, saying, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. Then he breathes on them, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. This, I feel sure, is Jesus planting the seed of the change that comes over the disciples. From now on the seed of the Spirit grows in them, deepening their faith and their confidence, until it bursts out into the light of day at Pentecost, so that they can proclaim the good news in public.

Thomas, however, is missing, and when the other disciples tell him of their experience, he refuses to believe them. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands’, he says, ‘and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’. Thomas is one of those sceptical people who does not believe anything unless he can test and prove it. I admire him for that. He does not fall for ‘fake news’ - we need people like him to keep us grounded in the truth.

A week later, Jesus appears again, and this time Thomas is there. Jesus speaks directly to him, saying, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe’. Thomas answers, ‘My Lord and my God!’, to which Jesus replies, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’.

We have not seen Jesus as Thomas did, but we are blessed to believe as Thomas did. Rather unfairly, he has been called ‘Doubting Thomas’, in our western church tradition. But I prefer the way the eastern church calls him ‘Believing Thomas’.

In the 1st reading, the apostles have been arrested and brought before the Council of leaders.

This is the 3rd time that the temple authorities have arrested them. On the day of Pentecost they had gone out into the street boldly proclaiming the resurrection. The Church was born that day, and 3,000 people who welcomed their message were baptised. As time passed, ‘day by day the Lord added to their number’, we are told. But at first the authorities took no action.

Then one day, Peter and John met a cripple begging at the gate of the Temple, and healed him in the name of Jesus Christ. A crowd gathered, and Peter addressed them. The authorities could no longer ignore the apostles. They arrested them, and brought them before the Council for the 1st time. Peter and John refused to back down, and Peter repeated his message. The Council realised they couldn’t move against them because they were so popular with the people, so they ordered Peter and John not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, and released them.

But the apostles would not stop their teaching, and we are told that ‘yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord’. Finally, the High Priest ordered their arrest for a 2nd time. They were thrown in prison. But when the Council assembled, they discovered that the prisoners had miraculously escaped from the prison, and were back in the Temple teaching again.

So, the apostles are arrested for a 3rd time, and brought before the Council, as we heard in today’s reading. Peter and the apostles bravely confess their faith in Jesus. ‘We must obey God’, they say, ‘rather than any human authority’.

This enraged the Council, many of whom wanted to kill them. But thanks to the intervention of a respected Pharisee called Gamaliel, they were persuaded to have the apostles flogged and released, after ordering them - once again - not to speak in the name of Jesus. But, of course, the apostles continued to do so: ‘every day in the Temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah’.

The change in the apostles between these two readings is truly striking, isn’t it?

In the reading from John’s Gospel they are terrified, hiding behind locked doors. In the reading from Acts they are fearless, confronting the Jewish authorities and disobeying their order not to speak in the name of Jesus. So what caused them to change? It is surely the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, working within them over many weeks, liberated them from the fear that caused them to cower behind locked doors. It emboldened them to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, despite the danger and opposition they encountered. And it enabled them to bring more and more people into the growing church.

Today, in our increasingly secular society, many harbour doubts. If we confess our faith in Jesus Christ, we may suffer mockery or unpopularity. But let us listen to Christ's voice say, ‘Peace be with you’. Let us trust that the Holy Spirit he breathes on us will grow within us. And let us prepare to go out with him to continue his loving Father’s work. Then our doubts and fears will fall away, and we can declare as the apostles did, ‘We must obey God, rather than any human authority’.

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

 

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Jesus contemplates his own death

A reflection for morning worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday in Holy Week, 12th April 2022

The reading we have just heard (John 12:20-36) gives us an insight into Jesus’s thinking as he approaches the culmination of his life’s work. He is speaking to Andrew and Philip in front of a crowd

‘Very truly, I tell you’, says Jesus, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit’. Jesus is contemplating his own death. He knows only too well that the path he is set on, the path that his loving Father is calling him to, can only end with a shameful, painful execution. But he also knows that to turn away from that path, to love his life more than he loves doing God’s will, would make his life pointless. It is only by doing God’s will that his life can bear fruit eternally.

Jesus does not want to die – he is a man in the full strength and vigour of his early 30s, he loves life, he loves his friends, and he loves his ministry to those who need healing and forgiveness. ‘Now my soul is troubled.’, he says, ‘And what should I say - “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name’.

John tells us that Jesus received an answer to his prayer. ‘Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again”’. The crowd who heard it thought it was thunder, or the voice of an angel.

Now, Jesus’s mind is made up. He answers the crowd, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’.

The crowd do not understand Jesus’s words and question him. He replies, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light’.

We know what happens next. On Maundy Thursday, Jesus celebrates his Last Supper with his friends. Afterwards, he is betrayed by Judas, arrested and subjected to a show trial. On Good Friday he is lifted onto a cross, dies in agony, and is hurriedly buried. On Easter Sunday he rises in triumph from the dead, and is seen by his disciples. Forty days later he ascends to God and is seen no more. But on the day of Pentecost his disciples receive the gift of the Holy Spirit he promised them, and the Church is born.

As Jesus foretold, his body like a grain of wheat dies and rises and bears much fruit. As Christ’s Church we are that fruit. Although we no longer see him, the Holy Spirit remains with us, a light in the darkness. While we have that light, may we believe in the light, so that we may become children of light.


Sunday, 10 April 2022

Remove this cup from me

Agony in the Garden by Andrea Mantegna, 1458-60

Reflection on Christ's prayer in the Garden, given at St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Palm Sunday, 10th April 2022

That was a long reading (Luke 22:14-23:56), wasn’t it! But I am certain it is good for us to hear the whole story of Christ’s Passion from beginning to end at least once a year, to better appreciate the enormity of those events.

You will be glad to know that I’m not going to preach an equally long sermon too! Instead, I ask you to reflect with me for just a moment on Jesus’s prayer before his arrest: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done’

Jesus is distressed and agitated. In his anguish, he is certain that what he is doing is the will of God, his loving Father. He knows what is likely to happen next – his execution as a dangerous agitator, perhaps even the agonising death of crucifixion. And he does not want to die – he is a man in the full strength and vigour of his early 30s, he loves life, he loves his friends, and he loves his ministry to those who need healing and forgiveness. So he prays to his loving Father for himself, that his death may be averted – ‘remove this cup from me’.

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

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

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

The purpose of Christian prayer is not to badger God into doing what we wish for, but to align our wishes with God’s will.

 

Sunday, 13 March 2022

On the road to Jerusalem

photo by Alain Rouiller, under Creative Commons licence

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan church on Sunday 13 March 2022, the 2nd of Lent

Jesus always likes to use vivid, familiar images to catch the attention of his audience.

In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 13:31-35), he uses images of animals - the fox, and the mother hen brooding her chicks.

Jesus has set his feet on the road to Jerusalem, to the Temple at the heart of Jewish religious life, where he knows that he must confront his opponents. He is not rushing, but wending his way slowly through the towns and villages on the way, where he continues to teach his followers, and to heal those who come to him.

Let us travel in our imaginations with him, standing close to him, where we can hear him speak.

Jesus is in the territory of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, a client state of the Roman Empire.

His family has form. Herod Antipas is the son of King Herod the Great, who had ordered the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem after Jesus’s birth there. And Herod Antipas ordered the beheading of Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist, at the behest of his wife Herodias. He is a violent and dangerous petty ruler.

Some Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him ‘Get away from here’, they say, ‘for Herod wants to kill you’. The Pharisees in the Gospels are often portrayed as bitter enemies of Jesus, as many were. Perhaps these Pharisees have been sent by Herod to threaten Jesus, or maybe they just want to get Jesus off their own patch. But I prefer to think that they came to warn Jesus because they admired and respected him. We know that some Pharisees did: Nicodemus, for instance, who came to Jesus by night to discuss his teaching, and who helped to bury him after the Crucifixion.

Jesus replies to them with the first vivid image. ‘Go and tell that fox for me’, he begins. People then saw foxes as both sly and destructive, as those who keep chickens still do today. But they also saw them as dirty, impure, because they scavenged in rubbish tips for dead, rotting meat. To call Herod a fox in public is a great insult – perhaps a bit like a Russian in Red Square today loudly describing Putin as a vulture. Imagine your shock, and the shock running through the crowd, when you hear Jesus’s words!

With his eyes wide open to the danger Herod represents, Jesus refuses to run away from his ministry. ‘Listen’, he says, ‘I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’ Then, says Jesus, ‘I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.’ He will reach Jerusalem in time for Passover, when the city will be crowded with people, both up from the country, and from across the Roman Empire.

By the time Jesus’s words are reported back to Herod, it will be too late for Herod to send his men to arrest and kill him. Jesus will have left Herod’s domains, walking the road to Jerusalem with his disciples, in obedience to his loving Father’s will. There he will confront the religious and political leaders, with his prophetic message. We are following him on that road this Lent. It leads to his crucifixion on Good Friday, and resurrection on Easter morning.

Jesus knows what he must expect when he reaches Jerusalem. He laments: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!’

Jerusalem is the seat of Jewish political and religious power, and a headquarters of Roman imperial rule in Judea. Those who speak truth to power never receive a welcome, but that is what Jesus is going to do when he gets there.

In the OT story, time and again the children of Israel go astray from God’s ways and reject the prophets, sent by God to bring them back to the right path. Jesus knows himself to be sent by God in that same tradition. He has already suffered rejection on a previous visit to Jerusalem. But still Jesus yearns for the people to come to his call, where he can nurture them, and teach them the ways of God’s kingdom.

‘How often’, he exclaims, ‘have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’

Jesus employs a second lovely image – that of a mother hen brooding and protecting her chicks. Can’t you just see these little balls of fluff, so tiny, so fragile, so vulnerable to predators?

Surely this must be how God sees us - like curious little chicks, scattering this way and that, wandering in the farmyard and even out the gate, wandering far from our mother hen, far from Jesus, far from God’s love, easy prey for foxes.

We are not so very different from the pious Jews of Jerusalem in Jesus’s time, I think.

It seems so in our nature to wander wilfully. We often ignore God’s call to love him as he loves us, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, which makes us easy prey for many evils. The evil of selfishness that hurts other people. The evil of greed that wounds the beautiful, bountiful world we have been placed in. The evil of hatred that causes war and oppression. Evil is real. We see it in the war in the Ukraine. We can see it all around us.

Many today are just as oblivious to the dangers as the pious Jews of Jesus’s day were. To them, Jesus says, ‘I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”’. When Jesus finally enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, Luke (19:38) tells us that a multitude of his disciples greeted him in these very words. But not the pious Jews of Jerusalem.

By his life and teaching, death and resurrection, Jesus has shown his disciples – those who have seen him – that’s you and me - how to resist and defeat evil. He tells us that he will be with us always, and he sends his Holy Spirit to guide us, to be like a mother hen to us, gathering us under the shelter of her wings.

But Jesus does not give up on those who have yet to see him. He also tells us that we are to go out and make disciples of all nations, to gather all people under those protective wings. 


Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Praying the Lord's Prayer


 Reflection at Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 8th March 2020

You may find today’s reading both familiar and strangely different – it is the NRSV translation from the Greek of St Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, set for today in the common lectionary. It is deceptively simple, while at the same time encapsulating all that we ought to ask of God. I’m going to share with you some reflections upon it.

First, Jesus’s introduction makes me a bit uncomfortable because I fear I all too often ‘heap up empty phrases’ in intercessions that are too long and wordy. But I take comfort that God, our Father in heaven, ‘knows what I need before I ask him’.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray what we call the Lord’s prayer, as we continue to do whenever we come together as a Christian congregation. But there is nothing explicitly Christian about it. The Lord’s prayer can be said in good conscience by anyone who believes in a loving, almighty God, including Muslims and Jews - both Jesus and his disciples were of course Jews. Notice that Jesus calls us to pray together to ‘our Father’, not individually to ‘my Father’ – it is a prayer to be said together, not a private prayer.

When we pray ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’, we express our reverence for the nature and character of God, who is holy, who is good and who loves all his creatures, just as an ideal father of a household loves all the members of his household. That includes you and me, but others too - not just Christians, but people of other faiths and none – and not just human beings, but all the wonderful diversity of living creatures we share our planet with, because God sees all his creation to be good.

We pray ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. I believe that God’s kingdom is a state of peace and justice where we and all his creatures flourish. This is not the damaged world that we see around us, beset with war, dangerous climate change, and collapsing biodiversity – that is the antithesis of God’s kingdom. But I believe we can glimpse his kingdom, even enter into a small part of it, at any time and place where we do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. Our prayer is an invitation to look to the future in hope.

Jesus invites us to pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Notice he does not invite us to pray for more than our daily needs, and nor should we. If I greedily take all I desire, hoarding it for the future, others will likely get less than they need. We are to share what we have so that all have enough. It is ok for us to ask God for what we devoutly wish for ourselves and for others – if we can’t ask God, who can we ask? But we ought always add, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done’, as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. The purpose of prayer is to align our wishes with God’s wishes, not to badger him into doing what we want.

‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’. The Lord’s prayer in the BCP speaks of sins or trespasses, rather than debts. But they amount to the same thing – a failure to pay what is due, a failure of duty to God or our neighbour, a failure to do what is God’s will. Every one of us has failed many times in our duty to God or to our neighbour. I ask God to forgive my failures, but the sting in the tail is that God will forgive my failures only in proportion to my forgiving the failures of others. We must forgive to be forgiven.

Finally, we pray ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one’. Our time of trial may take many forms. Someone else, even someone I love, may seek to persuade me to do what I know is wrong, what is against God’s will. Or a character flaw in myself may give evil an opening it is hard to resist. Or cruel events may make me doubt the goodness and love of God. So we ask God to spare us such trials and temptations. But when we must face them, we ask God to help us resist them, as Jesus did when Satan tempted him in the desert, as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel reading.

Evil is real. We see it all around us in the violence humankind does to this beautiful planet. We see it in the way people exploit other people for their own ends. And we see it in the death and destruction of war. We see it in the suffering not only of the people of Ukraine, but also of misled Russian soldiers, and those whose lives are upended by sanctions, which will include many here in Ireland.

Now more than ever, we need to pray to our Father in heaven to rescue us from the evil one.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

Am I blessed, or am I cursed?

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan Church on Sunday 13th January 2020, the 3rd before Lent.

There’s a lot about blessing and cursing in today’s readings, isn’t there? And that prompts me to ask myself, ‘Am I blessed or am I cursed?’

In the OT reading, Jeremiah (17:5-10), contrasts blessings for those who trust in God, with curses for those who trust in mere mortals, whose hearts turn away from God. Those who trust in God will flourish. ‘They shall be like a tree planted by water… in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit’. But those whose hearts turn away from God will struggle. ‘They shall be like a shrub in the desert… they shall live in parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land’.

In the appointed psalm, Psalm 1, we see the same contrast, between the righteous who shall be ‘like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither’, and the wicked who shall perish.

In the NT reading (Luke 6:17-26), Luke tells us how Jesus came down from the Judaean hills to a level place where a great crowd came to hear him and to be healed by him. Then Jesus begins to teach his disciples in what is traditionally called the ‘Sermon on the Plain’. It is a clear parallel to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew’s Gospel which is traditionally called the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. They may well be recalling one and the same event, although the details remembered by Luke and Matthew differ.

In Luke’s account, Jesus begins the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ by proclaiming four blessings, or beatitudes, and by warning of four corresponding woes. In Matthew, Jesus begins the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ by proclaiming 8 beatitudes. He leaves the corresponding woes unsaid, but perhaps implicit.

Notice that Jesus does not proclaim any curses. It is not in his nature. Woes are not curses - they are warnings. It is we who bring curses on ourselves if we ignore his warnings.

Let us look more closely at Luke’s blessings and woes.

Jesus points to those who are blessed, those who are included in the Kingdom of God. But he also warns others of the consequences of their choices in life. The paired blessings and warnings are:

·         to the poor - and to the rich;

·         to the hungry - and to the ‘full’;

·         to those who weep - and to those who laugh;

·         to those who are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed - and to those held in esteem.

Most of us here in Ireland are rich, we have more than enough to eat, we have happy lives, at least by comparison with the poor of this world. Does that mean that we cannot be included in the Kingdom of God? Surely not. But it matters what we do with our good fortune.

Jesus does not teach us that there can be no blessings for the rich. But he warns those of us who are fortunate that it matters how we respond to the needs of others who aren’t. Woe to us if we do not listen to him!

If I do not use my riches to help those in need and poverty, I bring a curse on myself. If I am so full of myself, and of my own importance, that I trample on those I see as unimportant, I bring a curse on myself. If I am so consumed by my own pleasure that I ignore those who are suffering and in distress, I bring a curse on myself. The curse that I bring on myself is loss of the blessings to be found in God’s Kingdom of justice and peace.

Jesus knew very well that the OT prophets called for social justice.

In his hometown, Nazareth, Luke tells us that Jesus in the synagogue read from the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus knew too that the powers-that-be hate, exclude, revile and defame prophets who speak out, for he experienced that himself. So he warns his disciples that this is what they must expect if they are to follow him.

We have all heard the Beatitudes so many times that we may no longer notice just how shocking and stark Jesus’s teaching is. It completely upends the conventional thinking of the worldly wise. It challenges the world view of those who hate, exclude, revile and defame others - others who are poor or weak, of the wrong gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. In our own time, anyone who stands up in public to proclaim ‘Woe to the rich’, and acts upon it, can expect to be accused of being a communist agitator. Conservative forces of society and state will turn upon them, to hate, exclude, revile and defame them. But if we are true to Jesus, these are the forces that we must be ready to withstand.

It is ultimately up to each one of us individually to answer the question, ‘Am I blessed, or am I cursed’.

But in our human frailty, we will not find the right answer by ourselves, the answer which admits us to God’s kingdom. We need God’s help, and it is right that we should pray for it.

So let me conclude in prayer with this Collect of the Word:

Righteous God,
you challenge the powers that rule this world
and you show favour to the oppressed:
instil in us a true sense of justice,
that we may discern the signs of your kingdom
and strive for right to prevail;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen