Sunday, 9 February 2020

Salt & Light

 ‘You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world’.
So says Jesus to his disciples in the first part of today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (5:13-20). It comes after the Beatitudes at the start of the long discourse we call the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. He is surely also speaking to us as his followers today. We too are the salt of the earth and the light of the world! At least we are when we do our best to be what God wants us to be, and when we fail, we are offered forgiveness.

Salt gives savour to our food, and preserves it from going bad. If it loses its taste, if it becomes contaminated, it is useless and must be thrown out. Just like salt, says Jesus, if we are to be good for anything in God’s creation, we must be the good people God has created us to be.

Without light we can’t see what we are doing, nor where we are going, and a lamp which is hidden away is useless. Jesus tells us we must ‘let (our) light shine before others, so that they may see (our) good works and give glory to (our) Father in heaven’.

But what must we do, how must we behave, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world?

In the second part of the reading, Jesus abruptly changes the subject to talk about Hebrew scripture.
He says, ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfil (the law and the prophets)’, fixing himself firmly within the ancient traditions of the Jewish people into which he was born. The ‘law and the prophets’ are the major part of the Hebrew scriptures, which we call the Old Testament.

‘Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished’, he says. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees’ – who for all their faults did their best to be righteous, to obey every last letter of the law – ‘you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’.

Does this mean that Jesus teaches us as his disciples that to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must follow precisely every last letter of the Jewish law? Must we follow not just the Ten Commandments but also the smallest rules about purity, such as not eating shellfish or mixing fibres in our clothes? If this were true, we should seriously consider converting to Judaism!

To see what Jesus really means, we need to read the rest of Matthew Chapter 5.
Sometimes I get frustrated that the good compilers of the lectionary miss out the context of what is set to be read. In this case the passage about the law and the prophets does not follow on from the passage about salt and light, but should be read as an introduction to the verses that follow it.

In these following verses Jesus talks about his interpretation of the law, giving several examples that do not abolish or replace but extend the conventional interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees. You can read what he has to say in Matthew Chapter 5 when you get home, but here are a couple of examples:
·         ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”.’ – that’s one of the 10 commandments – ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement’. Jesus extends the commandment against murder to falling out with another person. ‘If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you … be reconciled to your brother or sister’.
·         ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”.’ - another of the 10 commandments - ‘But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’. And we should understand that the same applies to a woman looking with lust at a man.

Notice what Jesus is doing here – he is going beyond the precise wording of the commandments to reveal the spirit of God’s law.

He also teaches us that there are circumstances when it is right to break one commandment in order to keep a more important one. Elsewhere (Matthew 32:37-39) Jesus summarises the law and the prophets, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’. Jesus heals the sick on the Sabbath because it is more important to love your neighbour than to observe the prohibition of work on the Sabbath.

Jesus’s approach to God’s law is nuanced – he is more concerned with what is right and just than in following rules like a robot.

The prophet Isaiah’s approach was the same, as Jesus would have known very well. In today’s 1st reading (Isaiah 58:1-9a), the prophet chastises the leaders of Israel for mindlessly following the laws about fasting while oppressing the people. God wants a different kind of fasting, he says:
‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?’

Following Jesus’s example, our task is surely to look beyond the words written in the Bible to discern the spirit of God’s law and to be guided by that.
This is a harder task than following the letter of God’s word, as we read it in the Bible, which heaven knows the scribes and Pharisees found difficult enough. It will require humility, open minds, and real engagement both with scripture and with other Christians, some of whom see things differently and cling to ancient tradition much as the scribes and Pharisees did.

But this is what we must do, this is how we must behave, if we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, as Jesus tells us we are.

The Holy Spirit will help us. St Paul in today’s 2nd reading (1 Corinthians 2:1-12) says to the Corinthians, ‘we have received … the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God’. In this way, growing in maturity as Christians, we will be able to ‘speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory’.

And in St John’s Gospel Jesus himself promises that ‘The Spirit of truth will guide (us) into all truth’ (John 16:13).

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
Faithful God,
You have appointed us, your witnesses,
to be a light that shines in the world:
let us not hide the bright hope you have given us,
but tell everyone of your love,
revealed in Jesus Christ the Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Sunday, 19 January 2020

The Lamb of God

Address given at St Flannan's Cathedral, Killaloe on Sunday 19 January 2020, the 2nd after Epiphany

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’
Beginning with these words, in today’s reading from St John’s Gospel (1:29-42), John the Baptist publicly testifies to the great truth about Jesus, which had come to him as he baptised Jesus the day before – that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

And pointing to Jesus, the Baptist says to two of his own disciples the next day, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ One of them is Andrew, who after spending a day with Jesus goes to find his brother Simon Peter, to tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’.

Jesus as the Lamb of God is such a familiar image, isn’t it? We’ve all seen those icons of Christ as a lamb holding a cross. And we still sometimes use the Agnus Dei during communion, which I remember from my childhood in the ancient chant, ‘O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us’.

The image is so familiar that we often don’t realise how strange it is – the Son of God represented as a vulnerable lamb. Wouldn’t a noble beast like a lion be more appropriate for the Son of God? CS Lewis in his Narnia books chose Aslan, a fearsome lion, to represent the Christ-like character in his stories, rather than a lamb. Jesus chose to describe himself as the Good Shepherd, not as a lamb. So why does the evangelist have John the Baptist describe Jesus as the Lamb of God?

The image of the lamb had layers of symbolic meaning for Jews at the time of Christ.
It would remind them of the old story of the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12). The Israelites are told to sprinkle the blood of a lamb on the doors of their houses, as a sign to the Lord to pass over the house without killing the firstborn within. The firstborn of the Egyptians die and the firstborn of the Israelites live. The Passover Lamb protects and saves the Israelites and they escape from Egypt.

It would remind them of the daily sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem of ‘two male lambs a year old without blemish’, one in the morning and one in the evening, as an offering to God (Numbers 28:3-4), an offering intended to turn God’s wrath away from the sins of the community.

So the lamb would have represented reconciliation with God, and forgiveness of sins – atonement in the language of theology. The English word originally meant ‘at-one-ment’, being in harmony with someone.

And the lamb would also have represented uncomplaining gentleness. Jeremiah writes, ‘But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter’. And Isaiah writes of God’s suffering servant, ‘Like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter … he did not open his mouth’.

Today we are horrified by the cruelty and injustice of sacrificing living animals to God. It also horrified the prophet Isaiah (1:11-17), who told the people of Judah that God did not want their animal sacrifices, but rather wanted them to ‘cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’. But his words were ignored, perhaps because of vested interests - the privileged status and livelihood of priests would have depended on sacrifices continuing, and sacrifices were no doubt cheaper and easier for the well-to-do than Isaiah’s alternative. Jewish practice of animal sacrifice did not cease until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD.

Jesus taught his disciples that God would pardon their sins if they truly repented. In perfect obedience to God’s will, he submitted to a cruel death upon the cross although an innocent man. Perhaps it’s not so very surprising that his disciples, the first Christians, should identify Jesus with the sacrificial lamb, as John does, and as Paul did too.

As the years passed, Christians came to see the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the final and complete atoning sacrifice, taking their sin away, reconciling them to God, and making further ritual sacrifice of animals unnecessary.

The imagery of Christ as the sacrificial lamb lived on after animal sacrifice ceased.
Christians have always meditated upon it. And many have pondered how Christ’s death on the cross reconciles us with God – how atonement works. Theologians have come up with innumerable theories.

There’s ‘ransom’ atonement. In this theory Adam and Eve are held to have sold humanity to Satan at the time of the Fall; Justice requires that Satan be paid a ransom to free us from his clutches; God pays the ransom on our behalf through Christ’s death; Justice is satisfied and we are freed from Satan’s grip of sin and death. I can’t accept the dualism of this theory. I believe in one God, and I do not believe in any kind of anti-God like Satan.

There’s also ‘substitution’ atonement. In this theory the debt humans owe for their sin is not to Satan but to God himself; human kind deserve God’s punishment for sin; God’s Justice means that God cannot simply forgive the sin without exacting punishment; but God takes the punishment on himself by sending his Son to die on the cross in our place as a substitute; and this cancels out human sin, allowing us to receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God. This theory repels me, because it makes God appear to collude in the unjust punishment of Jesus, rather than being the loving, forgiving and merciful Father that Jesus revealed to us.

And then there’s ‘moral influence’ atonement. In this theory Jesus’s self-sacrifice on the cross shows us how to deal with the consequences of sin, and also demonstrates God’s love for us; we respond with repentance, and receive God’s forgiveness; we are reconciled to God and transformed by the Holy Spirit. I find this a much more satisfactory explanation of atonement.

But all these musings of theologians are like smoke compared to the real experience of atonement.
Human attempts to define the purposes of God must always be inadequate, and we should not let differences of opinion about atonement divide us one from another.

John the Baptist is pointing to the reality of atonement when he says of Jesus, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. Overhearing him, Andrew approaches Jesus, who says to him, ‘Come and see’. And after spending time with Jesus, Andrew goes to find his brother Simon Peter, and tells him‘We have found the Messiah’.

The reality of atonement is, I suggest, personal experience of Christ’s call and our response. As the Lamb of God, Jesus calls sinful people like me and you to ‘Come and see’. When we respond, when we truly repent, our sins are forgiven. We are reconciled with God. And we pass on this good news to others.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

The Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ, Joachim Patinir, Kunst Historiches Museum, Vienna

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 12th January 2020, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, the Baptism of Christ.

Today the Church asks us to remember the Baptism of Christ.
Picture again, in your minds eye, the moments after John baptised Jesus, as described by Matthew in his gospel (3:13-17).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John would also have recalled Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant in today’s reading, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’ Perhaps John recognised the Jesus he knew in Isaiah’s description - softly spoken, filled with compassion for the damaged and the weak, yet determined and passionate for justice.

Despite John’s reluctance to baptise him, Jesus insisted, and John consented. And we know John then experienced the epiphany described by Matthew, since John’s Gospel records him saying: “I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God. 

Only then does John realise the full truth, that his cousin Jesus is the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, not just a remarkably holy man.

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

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

Perhaps God wanted Jesus to seek John’s baptism at the very start of his ministry in order to demonstrate publicly that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son, not just a good man like Isaiah’s servant. This was certainly the effect on John.

But Jesus himself surely also needed to be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Is it possible this is also the very moment when Jesus finally understood that he was Christ the Messiah, the Son of God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
Almighty God,
who anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit
and revealed him as your beloved Son:
inspire us, your children,
who are born of water and the Spirit,
to surrender our lives to your service,
that we may rejoice to be called your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday, 5 January 2020

The Wise Men's quest

The Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna (c1431-1506)
J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Address given at St Kieran's Church, Cloughjordan on Sunday 5th January 2020, the 2nd Sunday of Christmas, celebrated as the Epiphany/

At Epiphany, in our Western Church tradition, we remember the Wise Men from the East.
As Matthew tells us in the reading we’ve just heard (Matthew 2:1-12), they followed a star which led them to find the baby Jesus, to pay homage to him, and to present symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The story of the Wise Men is so familiar to us, ever since we first heard it as children. Over the centuries it has grown with the telling, as the best stories always do. Story-tellers and artists have embellished it from their imaginations. Matthew’s unspecified number of Wise Men became three kings, riding on camels and bearing expensive gifts for the Christ-child. And the kings acquired names unknown to Matthew along the way - Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior.

Matthew’s Wise Men were foreigners bringing gifts. People remembered OT texts referring to foreign kings who bring gifts. We have heard some today. Psalm 72 says: ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts’. Today’s reading from Isaiah (60:1-6) says: ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They – the kings that is - shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord’.  At first people must have thought Matthew’s Wise Men were rather like these OT kings. Later, people came to the conclusion they were just the same. The number of the gifts the Wise Men brought no doubt explains why there are three of them. I’ve no idea where the names came from, though.

Leaving aside these embellishments, it’s not easy to see Matthew’s simple tale as plain history. The idea of a star which moves and then stands still seems absurd to us today. So is it any more than just a pretty story for children? Let’s examine it a little more closely to find out.

Matthew’s Wise Men are on a quest.
A quest is a kind of story in which heroes follow a long, hard and dangerous journey to find an object of great value before returning home. Such stories have been told since time immemorial. An ancient example is Homer’s Odyssey; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a modern one.

The object of great value the Wise Men are looking for is a rather special human child: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’ they ask in Jerusalem, ‘For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage’. We are not told why they associated this star with a king of the Jews, but no doubt as learned astrologers they were led to do so by their sacred scriptures

The learned chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem similarly draw on the prophecy of Micah in their Hebrew scripture to answer the Wise Men’s question. They suggested the Wise Men look in Bethlehem for ‘a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’. But they are strangely indifferent to their quest – they don’t even bother to send someone with the Wise Men to report back what if anything they find.

King Herod, however, ominously asks the Wise Men to let him know when they have found the child, ‘so that I may also go and pay him homage’.

The light of the star is what leads the Wise Men on their quest.
This light leads them to the Christ-child with Mary his mother. There, at the culmination of their quest, they are overwhelmed with joy. They kneel in homage and present their gifts, signifying that the royal king they seek is in fact this baby. Now that’s amazing, isn’t it? They have travelled so far, suffered such hardships, to find what? A tiny, vulnerable, human child, just like so many they could have found without stirring from home!

One great truth buried in Matthew’s mystical story is this, I believe - the Wise Men’s quest is our quest too. If we have the tenacity they had to follow the light of their star, like them we will find that baby, who is, as St John puts it, ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’.

Light represents all that is good and true and beautiful, all that is worthy of God. This, surely, is what light means to Isaiah, when he addresses God’s people the Israelites, saying, ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’. Isaiah’s words are addressed to us just as much as to the Israelites - we too are God’s people. Our light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us. We too should be overwhelmed by joy, like the Wise Men!

After finding what they seek, the Wise Men return home – the proper end of any quest.
No doubt they were changed by all that had happened to them, perhaps unsettled by it. They would surely be better able to appreciate what was good in their homelands, but less tolerant of the bad.

But notice this dark note: Matthew tells us that ‘having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road’.

They had good reason - Herod had form. He had already executed a wife and several sons he suspected of disloyalty. Now Matthew goes on to tell us he orders the massacre of every child under 2 years old in Bethlehem, because he fears that the child found by the Wise Men might usurp his throne. Jesus only escapes their fate because Joseph was also warned in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

The characters in Matthew’s story illustrate three ways in which people respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.
·       Herod reacts with hatred and murderous hostility – just as some people do today.
·       The reaction of the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem is one of indifference. They are so engrossed in their own affairs that they completely ignore the good news. How like so many people today.
·       But the Wise Men respond with adoring worship, seeking to lay at the feet of the Christ-child the finest gifts they can bring.

The story of the Wise Men is surely much more than just a pretty tale for children
It is an adult fable which shows us how to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.

To ‘follow your star’ has entered our very language as a description of single-minded determination to be the very best you can be.

Let us pray that through God’s grace that we may follow the same star that led the Wise Men to the Christ-child, to be the very best that we can be - for him!

O Radiant Morning Star,
you are both guidance and mystery.
Visit our rest with disturbing dreams
and our journeys with strange companions.
Grace us with the hospitality
to open our hearts and homes
to visitors filled with unfamiliar wisdom
bearing profound and unusual gifts. Amen

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Saving a broken world

Address given on Sunday 29th December 2019 at St Mary's Nenagh, the 1st Sunday of Christmas.

What a horrid story St Matthew tells us in the Gospel reading set for today (Matthew 2:13-23)!
The reading is out of order. It comes after the wise men from the East, the Magi, have departed – they are getting closer, but they will not arrive until Epiphany on January 6th.

The background to the reading is this. The wise men, as we all know, had been following a star to pay homage to a child, born to be king of the Jews. When they reached Jerusalem, King Herod directed them to search for the child in Bethlehem, where the chief priests said the Messiah would be born. Herod slyly asked them to bring word back to him, so that he too could pay homage - but Herod was afraid of a rival king to his dynasty and he had other, murderous ideas. The wise men went on to Bethlehem, where they were overwhelmed by joy to find Jesus with Mary his mother and Joseph. They knelt down, paid homage and presented their gifts. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod.

Joseph too is a dreamer, and also a man of action, determined to protect his family. After the wise men leave, Joseph dreams that King Herod will seek to kill the newborn Jesus, so he takes Mary and Jesus and they flee to Egypt as refugees. He is right to be afraid. Herod is infuriated that the wise men had tricked him by not returning - he doesn’t know which child the wise men came to worship, which child to murder. So he orders the massacre of every child two years old and under in and around Bethlehem – every one. Safe in Egypt when Herod dies, Joseph dreams again that it is safe to return, and he does so with Mary and Jesus. But in yet another dream he realises that Herod’s son Archelaus, who is now king of Judea, may harm them, so he settles the family at Nazareth in Galilee.

It is a nasty tale of brutal force and the massacre of innocent children. Why should we be asked to think about it amidst the joy of Christmas? Where is God in this?

The answer is that Christmas is not just about the joyful birth of a child, however special.
There is more to Christmas than the baby Jesus, with his soft skin smelling of milk, nursed by his young mother Mary, with Joseph close at hand. More than the choirs of angels prompting rough shepherds to come to the crib where Jesus lay and to glorify God. More than the Magi, the wise men from the East, led by a star to give homage to Jesus and present symbolic presents.

Christmas is about God incarnate - God made flesh in human form as Jesus Christ, the Son of God. St John calls him the true light, the ‘Word’: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’. But he is born of Mary into a world in which great beauty is mixed with hideous ugliness. God’s purpose in the incarnation is to save this world, and us with it.

The massacre of the innocents reminds us that Jesus Christ was born into our world, a world that is horribly broken. A world where deadly force is used to kill the innocent. A world where families are forced to flee as refugees, where they must rely on the kindness of strangers. A world where the greed of the rich and powerful impoverishes the poor and ravishes creation. A world in which Christ is crucified.

Jesus Christ comes into this broken world to save it and us. By his life and ministry, death and resurrection, he shows us how to confront and overcome evil. He teaches us to listen to his good news. He assures us that if we repent, if we change our bad behaviour, God will forgive us. He shows us signs that the kingdom of God has come near. 

In the kingdom of God the broken world will be put back together to reflect the glory of the love of God. It is not fully with us yet, but it is near - we can see signs of it if we look with the eyes of faith, just as the shepherds and the wise men did.

Our task as Christians is to follow Jesus and work to make God’s kingdom, Jesus’s kingdom, a reality. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will be with us to help us and guide us. Like Joseph we must dream dreams to understand what must be done. And like Joseph we must act on those dreams.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Almighty God,
you have shed upon us the light of your incarnate Word:
may this light, kindled in our hearts, shine forth in our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Celebrating All Saints

Address given at All Saints Stradbally (Castleconnell) on All Saints Sunday 3 November 2019

We are celebrating All Saints today - but who are these Saints we celebrate?
The common answer, I suppose, is that Saints are dead Christians who were most particularly holy and close to God, either because they lived such exemplary Christian lives, or because they died as martyrs for their faith in Jesus Christ.

But how can we be sure that any particular individual is a Saint?

No one would doubt, I suppose, that Jesus’s earthly family and close friends, and the Apostles and Evangelists we meet in the NT, were very close to God and worthy to be called Saints.
Later on, in the first Christian centuries, local churches and dioceses quite informally came to recognise other Saints, such as outstanding bishops, teachers, martyrs and missionaries within their own area - this includes our many early Celtic Saints.

The process of recognising Saints was gradually formalised over the years, until eventually in the pre-Reformation Western Church it was accepted that only the Pope in Rome could declare someone to be a Saint, after exhaustive enquiries and checks. By now there are thousands of them. I have a RC ‘Book of Saints’ at home which has alphabetical entries for almost 5,000 named Saints and groups of Saints, starting with St Aaron – a C6th Breton Abbot, and ending with St Zoticus – a C4th priest in Constantinople.

Today in the calendar of the CofI we also celebrate St Malachy, a C12th archbishop of Armagh, who was made a Saint in 1190 by Pope Clement III.

It is particularly important for RCs to have certainty about who is a Saint, because they believe in the intercession of Saints – that dead Saints can effectively intercede on our behalf with God, if we ask them to in prayer. Only God truly knows whether someone is a Saint, the theory goes, so no one is declared a Saint until God has demonstrated this by performing miracles in answer to prayers addressed to that person.

Most reformed Christians reject this practice of asking Saints to intercede – Article 22 of the 39 Articles describes the invocation of Saints as ‘a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’. Nevertheless, Anglicans like us continue to honour Saints, at least those recognised before the Reformation. But we do so as examples of holiness and faith, in order to strengthen and encourage our own holiness and faith, and we do not ask them to intercede for us.

The Church of England has not declared any new Saints since the Reformation – with the odd exception of Charles I, who was honoured for political reasons as St Charles King & Martyr from the Restoration until 1859. But the Church of England Calendar does list many later Christians as worthy of commemoration, without explicitly calling them Saints. Not all of them are Anglican – they include for instance: George Fox the Quaker, Oscar Romero the martyred Bishop of San Salvador, and Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

We in the Church of Ireland are more parsimonious, but the BCP Calendar includes commemorations for two post-Reformation Bishops - Jeremy Taylor, bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, and Charles Inglis born in Raphoe, a bishop in North America.

All of these are examples for us of holiness and faith – I suppose we might call them ‘heroes of the Church’ – and we are at liberty, I think, to consider them Saints too if we wish.

So far so good – but St Paul in todays reading from Ephesians 1:11-23 gives us a completely different view on who the saints are.
‘I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints’, says Paul. ‘I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … may give you a spirit of wisdom … so that you may know what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints … for us who believe’.

It is clear from the context of this and other similar passages, that for St Paul the saints are all those who are ‘in Christ’, both those alive who believe and follow Jesus as his disciples, and those who have died. For the first Christians, the saints were not just exceptionally holy people, but also ordinary Christians like you and me!

We are all saints (with a small ‘s’) in this sense: we are sanctified, that is made holy, by being made part of the body of Christ in his Church at our baptism – the English word ‘saint’ comes from the Latin ‘sanctus’, meaning holy. Even though we know we are all sinners if we are honest with ourselves. We are not particularly holy, we often feel far from God – and, please God, we won’t be asked to die as martyrs. But we do try to live good Christian lives, and when we fail we seek forgiveness and try again. That is what makes us saints.

Those that we recognise as Saints (with a big ‘S’) and heroes of the Church are different from us in degree but not in kind – they too knew they were sinners. Even as marvellous examples of holiness and faith worth celebrating, they were human and fallible just like us. Remember, even the great St Peter was rebuked by Jesus with the words, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that we should celebrate ourselves – how horribly narcisistic that would be – but surely at All Saints tide we should remember the saints (with a small ‘s’) from whom we have received our own faith, whether they are parents, teachers, friends, or others we have met on the way.

Since we are all saints, surely there are implications for how we should live our lives.
And I think Jesus spells them out for us very clearly in today’s 3rd reading from Luke’s Gospel (6:20-31).

First, as saints we must never forget that we are blessed by God, whatever burdens we may carry. Jesus tells us:
‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man … for surely your reward is great in heaven.’

Second, as saints Jesus tells us that we must obey what is often called the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’:
‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.’

How difficult these things are for ordinary, self-centred human beings! But they are commands from the very lips of Jesus, the Son of God. Unless we do our best, however poor, to follow them, we cannot claim to be part of the body of Christ, and we are not worthy to be called saints, even with a small ‘s’. No wonder we need the example of the Saints with a capital ‘S’ to show us that it is possible!

So to finish, as we celebrate the lives of all the Saints, let us pray:
God our Father, by our baptism you made us your holy people
and called us to share in the joy of your saints. 
May your Holy Spirit encourage and strengthen us
to live for others as Jesus taught us.
We make this prayer to you in His name.  Amen

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Foreigners and exiles

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan churches on Sunday 13th October, the 17th after Trinity.

‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.’
These words from Shakespeare’s As You Like It came to my mind when I first read today’s NT reading (Luke 17:11-19).

Luke tells us that Jesus healed ten lepers, and only one came back to show his gratitude. ‘Were not ten made clean?’, says Jesus, ‘But the other nine, where are they?’

I fear I’m more like the nine ungrateful than the tenth grateful one – and I dare say you are too. How many of us do not owe an immense debt to someone else? Perhaps to a friend, a teacher, a doctor, who has done something for us that we could not possibly repay. Or to our parents - a week’s neglect on their part would have killed us when we were new born. Yet how often do we forget to express our gratitude, how often do we not even bother to say thank you?

And we are often ungrateful to God as well. He has blessed us with so much. He has given us a wonderful world so perfectly made to meet our needs for food, clothing, shelter and beauty. He has given us the capacity to form deep loving relationships as parents and children, as friends and lovers. And God has even given us his only Son to show us the way to his kingdom, the way of self-sacrifice which leads through the cross.

When times are bad we may pray to God with desparate intensity, but when times are good we are inclined to forget to be grateful. At Holy Communion we recite automatically the words ‘Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us’, but how many of us ever offer even a silent grace before meals, I wonder?

Jesus saw that the one who came back was a Samaritan. ‘Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’, he says.

As an ethnic group the Samaritans were heretics - they did not behave, or believe, or worship as the Jews did – they were ritually unclean. They were disliked and despised by their Jewish neighbours – somewhat as some Irish people dislike and despise immigrants or travellers today.

But Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson by drawing their attention to this particular outsider, who was the only one to turn back, the only one to praise God for his healing and the only one to thank Jesus. And Jesus publicly blessed him, saying, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well’.

Jesus is never dismissive of people who are different in race, culture or faith, and as Christians we should not be either. We are enriched by the diverse people who are our neighbours, and Jesus commands us to love them as ourselves.

Jeremiah (29:1, 4-7) gives the exiles in Babylon some good advice in today’s OT reading.
Get on with your lives - build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, marry and have children. But also, seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself, and pray for it, because in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Others at the time were stirring up the Jewish people to rebel against the Babylonians. But history shows that Jeremiah was wise. It seems the Jews did as he advised, they prospered in Babylon and retained their identity, so that some 70 years later, after Babylon in turn had been overthrown by the Persians, their descendents were able to return to Jerusalem and restore the Temple.

It is good advice for migrants everywhere. It is good advice for the New Irish who have made our country their home. And it is good advice for the many Irish emigrants overseas. If we love them, let us pray that they may build good lives in their new communities and work for them to flourish, because if their new communities flourish, so will they.

But what of those of us who remain at home?
The news media are consumed with Brexit at the moment - for good reason - but it is the carefully phrased reports from scientists which should be of most concern to us. It is clear that human actions are seriously damaging the web of life on this beautiful planet God has placed us on.

The linked emergencies of climate change and biodiversity loss will force lifestyle changes on us all very soon. We do not yet see clearly what those changes will be, nor how we must adapt to new conditions. But we can be sure the future cannot be one of ever-growing material prosperity as we have been conditioned to expect. We have grown up in a world where endless economic growth and increasingly wasteful consumption seems natural. As the limits to growth become more and more apparent, we will start to feel like exiles in our own country. We will have to find ways to live good and happy lives with less.

Jeremiah’s advice is good for us as well:
  • Get on with your lives, he says. We must not look back at what we feel we are losing, but instead look forward.
  • Build houses and live in them, Jeremiah says. It is shameful that as a society we allow so many to be homeless, and it is shameful that policies of austerity ruin the lives of the poor, the sick and the vulnerable, even as the rich grow richer and the crisis intensifies. We need to build a better, more equal and resilient society. Together as communities we need to build our capacity to cherish all our neighbours, and to love them as we love ourselves.
  • Plant gardens and eat what they produce, Jeremiah says. We are blessed with bountiful renewable resources: our land and seas to feed us, energy from wind, ocean and geothermal heat, skilled people and vibrant culture. Let us use them productively – they are the gardens that will feed us.
  • Marry and have children, Jeremiah says. Ordinary human life will continue – let us use our capacity for deep loving relationships as parents, children, friends and lovers, to support and care for one another.
  • But also, says Jeremiah, seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself, and pray for it, because in its welfare you will find your welfare. Let us strive to protect our God-given planet and build a just and sustainable society for the future, because only in such a society can we all flourish.
And let us behave like the grateful Samaritan and remember to turn back, praising God, and giving thanks for all he has given us.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
O God,
you have made heaven and earth and all that is good:
help us to delight in simple things
and to rejoice always in the richness of your bounty;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.