Sunday, 10 June 2018

Sin against the HolySpirit

Jesus is being mobbed like a rock star in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 3:20-35)
He has been travelling around Galilee proclaiming the Good News and healing those who came to him, followed by crowds thronging to see this celebrity. Now he has returned home to the fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Even there the crowds still press in on him, so that he and his disciples don’t have time even to eat, we are told.

But not all in the crowds support Jesus. In the reading we hear of two groups of people who want him to cease his ministry – first his family, and second a party of scribes from Jerusalem. Mark interweaves the stories of how Jesus responds to these two groups – a favourite device of his, sometimes described as a ‘Markian sandwich’.

The bread in the sandwich concerns his family. Back in Nazareth they were hearing news of what he was up to. He had given up the security of his family, and the carpenters business, for the life of a wandering preacher. They had heard how he was being mobbed, and no doubt feared that the authorities would seek to put him out of the way. He must have ‘gone out of his mind’, they thought – we must go to fetch him home and end this madness. So they set off to Capernaum, around 50km, say a 2 day’s journey on foot. We will hear what happens when they get there later.

The filling of the sandwich concerns the scribes from Jerusalem, members of the religious and civic establishment, which is threatened by Jesus’s popularity

The scribes are determined to undermine Jesus.
They cannot deny he has been healing the sick, since so many people have seen it. In those days it was believed that illness was caused by evil spirits – by demons. So they start to spread rumours about the source of Jesus’s healing power: ‘He has Beelzebul’ – the chief demon – ‘and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’.

Jesus understands very well what the scribes are about. He confronts them directly to their faces, dismissing their argument as a logical impossibility. ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’, he asks. ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand … If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come’.

Look at it this way, he says, ‘No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man’. Jesus turns the tables on the scribes by pointing out, ‘I am stronger than Satan because I have cast out Satan’.

Jesus has refuted the scribes’ claim that he is possessed by ‘an unclean spirit’, not the Holy Spirit from God. Now he turns their words back on them. For the scribes to say that a spirit that comes from God is not good but evil is a blasphemy, an insult to God. It is the scribes whose spirits are unclean, not Jesus.  ‘Truly I tell you’, he says, ‘people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’.

Over the centuries many Christians have been confused by this unforgiveable blasphemy, ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit’. I understand it in this way. Our God-given conscience enables us to distinguish good from evil. People who cannot tell good from evil are conscience-blind. They are unable to recognise what is evil in themselves, so they cannot repent it. And without repentance they cannot be forgiven.

Sometimes Christians worry, fearing that they may be guilty of the sin against the Holy Spirit and so can never be forgiven. But they worry unnecessarily, I believe - their very worry proves they are able to repent, so they aren’t guilty and can be forgiven.

So what happens when Jesus’s family reach Capernaum?
When his mother Mary and his brothers and sisters arrive, Jesus is inside the house teaching his disciples. His family sends a message for him to come out to them. He must have had a fair idea why they had come – perhaps they had previously sent messages from Nazareth asking him to come home.

Jesus asks rhetorically, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And then looking about at his disciples, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’.

I wonder how his family felt when they heard what he had said. Did they feel hurt, spurned in favour of his disreputable band of disciples? The truth is that however much they loved him, and he loved them, his family had no right to try to make him forsake his mission.

We are not told what the family did then, but presumably they returned home to Nazareth, feeling chastened. Perhaps Mary remembered Jesus’s words recorded by Luke (2:49) when she and Joseph lost him as a child of 12 in Jerusalem, and found him after 3 days in the Temple: ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?’. But we do know that his mother Mary and his brother James did not cut themselves off from Jesus, but were faithful to him to the end, and perhaps the others too.

Mark’s sandwich story is about discernment, I think. I take two things from it.
First, Jesus has given us a tool to help us discern whether someone we encounter is motivated by a spirit of evil, as the scribes from Jerusalem were, so that we may confront and overcome the evil, as Jesus did, without violence. Any person whose conscience is so lacking that they cannot distinguish between good and evil must be motivated by a spirit of evil. They will not be able to repent the evil they do, and so they cannot be forgiven - their sin can only be eternal. Unless God intervenes, that is, because all things are possible with God - as St Paul, the persecutor of the Church, discovered on the road to Damascus.

Second, each one of us has the freedom in Christ to follow what we discern to be God’s call to us, our vocation, even if others including family and friends oppose it and say we are mad to do so. If I am certain of my call, I should be prepared to reject the intervention even of those whom I love and who love me. Equally, I should be very cautious of pressing others, even family members or a friends, not to follow what they believe is their vocation, as it may invite their rejection of me. This is not only good psychology, but acknowledges their right to hear and act on God’s call to them.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Almighty and eternal God,
your Son Jesus triumphed over the prince of demons
and freed us from bondage to sin.
Help us to stand firm against every assault of Satan,
and enable us always to do Your will;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Kosmos World

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 13th May 2018, the 7th of Easter, the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost.

I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and for you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
I apologise for my bad singing! But I’m sure you all recognise the song – it’s perhaps best known sung by Louis Armstrong. And it’s true isn’t it - we all know what a truly wonderful world God has made for us to live in - a veritable Garden of Eden, if only we would learn to look after it and use it rightly.

St John uses the Greek word ‘kosmos’, meaning ‘world’, no less than 13 times in today’s reading from his Gospel (John 17:6-19). But this is not the beautiful material world which God made and saw was very good, as the 1st chapter of Genesis puts it. I shall call what John has in mind the kosmos-world, to distinguish it from God’s world. The kosmos-world is a place of spiritual death, filled with souls cut off from God: a place where greedy people trample on each other to grab more for themselves; a place where violent people kill and torture other people; a place where cynical people despise what is good and true and beautiful. And we all know the reality of that kosmos-world too, don’t we!

For John the very opposite of the kosmos-world is eternal life, as he tells us in the preceding verses, This is eternal life, (to) know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. And it is echoed in today’s reading from 1 John 5:9-13, ‘This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son’.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples.
It is the night of the last supper, after he has washed the disciples’ feet. It is immediately before he goes out with them to the garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron valley, where he will be arrested by soldiers and police led by Judas Iscariot. Jesus is praying for his disciples, but he is also teaching them, for he prays out loud in their hearing. His words are dense with meaning - perhaps because he knows this is his last opportunity to speak to them before he is arrested, tried and executed.

It would take a very long sermon to tease out all the nuances of his prayer. So I shall pick out just three points about the relationship between Jesus’s disciples and John’s kosmos-world.
1.       Jesus’s disciples are in the kosmos-world, but they do not belong to it. God has given the disciples to Jesus, in the sense that God has made them able to respond to the word of God which Jesus has given them. They have been brought to know and believe the truth that Jesus is sent from God. That is what sets them apart from the kosmos-world, even while they remain in it.
2.       The kosmos-world has already shown it hates Jesus’s disciples because they do not belong to it. Those mired in evil, in cynicism, violence and greed, cannot co-exist with those who live by God’s values. So Jesus calls on his Father to protect his disciples from evil, when he is no longer there to do so in the flesh.
3.       Jesus does not ask God to take his disciples out of the kosmos-world. Just as God sent Jesus into the kosmos-world, so Jesus sends his disciples into it. God sent Jesus to redeem the kosmos-world from within. Jesus sends his disciples to continue his redeeming work in the kosmos-world.

The kosmos-world is a metaphor for the evil we encounter all around us, day by day.
It’s hard to see evil for what it is in the abstract. It comes in so many disguises. I think it helps to focus on concrete examples. There are so many to choose from - but let’s focus today on the hatred people harbour in their hearts for others they see as different from themselves, or as opponents.

Personal hatred wounds the soul of both the hater and the hated. These days it is often expressed anonymously on social media, as those of us who use it know only too well. Children are particularly vulnerable to online bullying, whether it is aimed at their body form or their sexuality or some other perceived weakness. Vulnerable adults can also be severely affected. It blights lives and in extreme cases leads to suicide.

We may think that we cannot be guilty of such hateful behaviour - but what about old fashioned gossip? How many of us can say that we have not been party to passing on rumours that damage other people?

Hatred of one group for another on the grounds of race or religion is even more damaging than personal hatred. Such group hatreds are evil. They have been with us since the dawn of the human species, a kind of original sin, to which we are all potentially vulnerable. They fracture communities. And in the extreme they have led perfectly ordinary people, not so very different to you or me, to attempt to exterminate whole populations seen as dangerous enemies.

The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews between 1941 and 1945, alongside innumerable Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. My father as an army chaplain was taken to see one of the extermination camps after its liberation, and he made sure that as a teenager I saw the horrific movies taken at the time so that I would recognise evil when I saw it.

We do well to remember this Holocaust every year in January. But that has not been enough to stop other genocides in my lifetime, such as those in Ruanda and in Bosnia.

Understandably, surviving Jews sought to establish a safe homeland for themselves. But tragically 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes when the state of Israel was founded in 1948, an event they remember as the Nakba or catastrophe, the root of much of the violence in the middle east today. One group hatred begets another, in a vicious circle of evil.

Lest we think that we cannot be caught up in such events, let us reflect on the cycle of violence in the North of our island. The Good Friday Agreement was meant to break the cycle, and we have had peace there for many years. But the hatreds still fester. And let us also reflect on the continuing prejudice in our communities against Travellers.

So to sum up:
The wonderful world God has placed us in is good. We should rejoice in it and give thanks for it. But as Jesus’s disciples, we must always be on guard against the evil that spoils it.

As disciples we live amidst evil, but we do not belong to it, because God has given us to Jesus.

Jesus confronted evil and refused to collude with it at the cost of his death on the cross, from which God raised him up.

Our task as disciples is to continue Jesus’s redeeming mission. God has set us apart to confront and defeat evil wherever it is found, and that includes evil hatreds, what ever that may cost us personally.

We can and should take comfort that Jesus intercedes for us, asking God to protect us from something much worse than suffering – that is, from being drawn into evil ourselves.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Jesus was crucified, died and was buried

A meditation in Killodiernan on Tuesday in Holy Week, 27 March 2018

In our evening services this Holy Week we are reflecting on some phrases from the Apostles’ Creed. Yesterday evening in Templederry, Rev Rod led us to reflect on the words – Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. This evening I am asking you to meditate on the words: Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. Tomorrow evening in St Mary’s Nenagh the words will be Jesus descended to the dead.

Jesus was crucified.
·         We can’t avoid Jesus’s suffering, even if we feel we can’t bear it. We must face squarely the excruciating physical pain of the Cross. Excruciating – the word literally means ‘from a cross’.
·         What did crucifixion involve?
o    The nails would have been hammered through Jesus’s wrists, not the palms of his hands as imagined in medieval pictures, because only bones can support the weight of a body.
o    The arms would be spread quite wide, because if the angle were narrow Jesus would have died too quickly from suspension asphyxiation. Even so he would have felt he could hardly breathe. And to get relief by hauling his body upward on the nails would be very painful.
o    Death could come either from asphyxiation, or by shock and dehydration. Liquid loss from the scourging and exposure in bright Judean sun would lead quickly to dehydration.
o    Jesus would have become very thirsty. As dehydration worsened, his heart would begin to race and his breathing would become fast. He would experience headache and nausea. At about 15% fluid loss he would begin to suffer muscle spasms and vision loss. Death would follow later.
o    It could take days to die on a cross. If the executioners wanted to speed the process up, they would smash the victim’s legs to cause traumatic shock and hasten death. Jesus didn’t have to suffer this because his death came mercifully fast, but the two criminals beside him did.
·         Conjure up in your mind’s eye Jesus’s broken body hanging in excruciating pain. Excruciating pain which Jesus accepts obediently, as his loving Father’s will. Excruciating pain which Jesus accepts willingly, to show us the way to enter God’s kingdom.
·         In a few moments of silence let us think about the love Jesus showed by accepting crucifixion.

Jesus died.
·         John tells us that at the moment of his death Jesus uttered a great cry: “It is finished!” It is a shout of triumph. He didn’t whisper it, like someone forced to admit defeat. He didn’t mouth it in relief that his agony is over. He threw back his head and he shouted it. “I have done it!” he is saying, “I have faced the very worst, and I have won!”
·         By his victory won upon the cross, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, our friend and brother, shows us all the way to vanquish sin and death with the weapons of love. It is only left to us to follow.
·         The note of triumph in Jesus’s last word from the cross is a foretaste of his resurrection. But we are running ahead of ourselves. Before we meet him again on Easter Morning, we must follow him to the tomb.
·         Let us be silent again as we think about what Jesus achieved for us by his death on the cross.

Jesus was buried.
·         In Jewish law, in Deuteronomy (21:22), it is written: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day.” The Temple authorities have no option but to arrange with Pilate for the bodies of Jesus and the two criminals to be taken down.

·         But where to bury him? The little party of disciples from Galilee would not have the resources to do so decently. Two people step forward to help. Joseph of Arimathea is rich and powerful, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a secret disciple of Jesus: he provides the tomb - his own, we are told. Nicodemus is also a secret disciple; he had visited Jesus at night, because he was afraid to do so publicly: he provides the ointments and spices needed to embalm the body. Together they make sure that Jesus is buried with decent reverence.
·         It’s amazing, isn’t it? These two people, who were afraid to support Jesus publicly while he was alive, can do so as soon as he is dead. All the cowardice, the hesitation, the prudent concealment are gone. Jesus has not been dead an hour, when his words reported by John (12:32) begin to come true: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus is already showing his risen power to be the magnet of souls.
·         In silence, let us meditate on how Jesus calls his disciples to himself, not just 2,000 years ago, but throughout the ages right down to our own time, where we as Christians are his living body, the Church.

As we meditate on this, let us pray together the Anima Christi, a C14th prayer translated from Latin:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, refresh me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesu, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee
From the malicious enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come to Thee
That with thy saints I may praise Thee 
For ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Cleansing the Temple

I was privileged to be asked to lead Morning Prayer in Borrosokane on Sunday 4th March 2018, the 3rd of Lent, but the service was cancelled due to the snow emergency following the collision of Storm Emma with the Beast from the East. This is the address I would have given there.

What an uproar Jesus caused in the Temple that day John describes in today’s NT reading (John 2:13-22)!
‘Making a whip of cords, (Jesus) drove all of them out of the Temple’. All the ‘people selling cattle, sheep, and doves’, together with their animals. ‘And the moneychangers’ too - Jesus overturned their tables and poured their coins out on the floor.

This incident – often known as the Cleansing of the Temple – is also described in slightly different words by the other 3 Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke.

It took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost court of the Temple, just before Passover. Gentiles were forbidden to go beyond this court on pain of death - only Jews were allowed in the inner courts. Passover was the busiest time of the year in Jerusalem, when many thousands of pilgrims would be in Jerusalem. The animals are there for pilgrims to buy to make the ritual animal sacrifices required by Jewish law at that time. The moneychangers are there to change ordinary Roman money into the special Jewish money, which pilgrims had to use for Temple purposes, because Roman money was considered unclean.

Let’s enter into the scene in our imaginations. People are running in every direction, animals are panicking. Hear the traders yelling, cattle bellowing, sheep bleating, doves cooing. The tables go thump as they hit the floor, and coins chink as they roll underfoot. Smell the pervasive scent of the animals. And at the centre of it all strides Jesus, wielding a whip, incandescent with righteous anger, quite awe inspiring. It’s not how we usually think of Jesus, is it?

Jesus acts very deliberately. It is a kind of acted parable – but what does Jesus mean by it? Let’s look at it a bit more closely. And as we do so we should remember that Jesus could well have more than one reason for doing what he does, just as we often do.

John disagrees with Matthew, Mark and Luke about when Jesus cleansed the Temple.
John places it right at the start of Jesus’s ministry. But Matthew, Mark and Luke put it right at the end, just after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. How do we resolve this discrepancy?

Some have suggested that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice – once at the start of his ministry and again at the end. But I don't buy that - I can’t believe that having done it once Jesus could ever have got within an ass’s roar of the Temple again.

It seems to fit much better at the end of Jesus’s ministry, after his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. It is likely one of the reasons the Temple authorities were so keen to do away with him. If I had to choose between John’s timing and that of the other three, I would go for the three.

But that doesn’t mean John is altogether wrong. He is simply writing from a different point of view to the others. He is writing not an historical account of Jesus’s life, but a Gospel designed to demonstrate the significance of Jesus. He combines together events which could well have happened at different times in a different order, but which mark Jesus as the expected Messiah. The words his disciples remember, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’, are a quotation from Psalm 69, which Jews would have recognised as a reference to the Messiah. To show Jesus as Messiah is what matters to John, not chronological accuracy.

As John surely believed, Jesus demonstrates by his acted parable that he is the Messiah, both to those who were there, and to those who read John’s words - including us in John's far future.

Perhaps Jesus also intended to show up the corruption of the Temple system.
The Temple had grown immensely rich on the Temple tax, which every Jew over 19 had to pay to support Temple sacrifices and Temple ritual – one half-shekel a year, around 2 day’s pay.

The Temple’s insistence on taking only Jewish money gave the moneychangers a profitable business. The moneychangers grew wealthy by charging a high commission. And no doubt the Temple expected something in return - a licence fee we might call it, charitably.

The animal dealers too were coining it. Pilgrims didn’t have to buy their animals for sacrifice inside the Temple, but they felt obliged to, even though they cost more than animals outside. The Temple authorities appointed inspectors to check that animals offered for sacrifice were perfect and unblemished, as the Law required. In addition to charging a fee, the inspectors were believed to take backhanders from Temple dealers - anyway, they always seemed inclined to find fault with animals not bought in the Temple.

The fact is that ordinary pious Jewish pilgrims were being fleeced by the Temple system. It was a public scandal. This would surely have enraged Jesus. Just as it would if our own Church were to make unreasonable financial demands on us.

But there is a deeper reason why Jesus acted as he did, I think.
To understand it we need to reconstruct what Jesus actually says.

Each of the Gospel writers recalls Jesus’s words slightly differently. John has him saying, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place’. But Mark has him say this, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers’. Matthew and Luke have something similar but miss out ‘all the nations’.

I think Mark’s words are closest to what Jesus actually said. Jesus knew his Hebrew scripture – our OT – very well. The first part, about the house of prayer, is a direct quotation from Isaiah (56:7), in which God declares he will welcome gentiles who come to him. The second, about the den of robbers, is from Jeremiah (7:11), in which God declares he will destroy the Temple if the people of Judah do not mend their ways. Mark’s words and the texts they reference make perfect sense on Jesus’s lips in the context of the Cleansing of the Temple.

This is what I think Jesus meant by his acted parable and his words:
God welcomes all people, gentiles as well as Jews, to the Temple, his house of prayer. But the clamour of trading and money-changing in the only part of the Temple they may enter makes it unsuitable for the gentiles’ prayer and worship. People who abuse the Temple by depriving gentiles of a place to pray and worship must amend their ways, or the whole Temple system will be destroyed.

And I also think that through it Jesus conveys a clear warning to his Church today, to you and to me:
Unless our Church is inclusive, unless our Church welcomes all people and makes a space for them in which they can worship and pray, our Church will go the way of the Temple in Jerusalem – it will be brought to destruction.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Mountain top experiences

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Transfiguration Sunday, 11th February 2018, the Sunday before Lent, Year B

Mountain tops are special places, places where we feel awed by the immensity of God’s creation.
When the weather is good, the distant views reveal how puny we really are. When the clouds close in, we experience isolation from all that is familiar. And when the wind blows rain or hail or snow in our face, we understand our own frailty and vulnerability.

Like most of us, I suppose, I love walking and climbing in mountains – though I’m not so limber as I once was. I have vivid memories of many climbs. I remember climbing Keeper Hill as a child with my parents, how each time I thought I had reached the top another ridge revealed itself, until at the final summit half of Ireland was laid out in front of me. I remember climbing a peak called Le Dent du Chat near Annecy in France as a teenager, where close to the top, Mont Blanc and the snow peaks of the alps began to rise above the opposite ridge. And I remember climbing Lugnaquilla by myself in my 40s - on a whim, unsuitably prepared – after a few minutes on the summit the cloud closed in and it grew cold, very cold – I was lucky to fall in with a soldier with a compass walking from the Glen of Imaal to Glenmalure who showed me the right way down.

In today’s Gospel (Mark 9:2-9), Mark tells the story of Peter, James and John’s very special mountain top experience.
High on the mountain, Peter, James and John see Jesus ‘transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white’ – his appearance is changed: the Greek word translated as ‘transfigured’ is from the same root as ‘metamorphosis’. Alongside him they see two figures talking to him, whom they recognise as Elijah and Moses, the two preeminent figures of Judaism, representing the Law and the Prophets.

Peter, always the impulsive one, says, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Peter does not want this emotional moment to end – such a human response!

Then the cloud closes in around them.  They are terrified. And they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’ When the cloud clears they look around, and can see only Jesus, who orders them not to tell anyone what they have experienced, ‘until the Son of Man (has) risen from the dead’.

Their experience, which we call the Transfiguration, reveals Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God. It must have been very important to them, because they remembered it and after the Resurrection passed on their story, so that it could be told to us not just by Mark, but also by Matthew and Luke.

There is a possible scientific explanation for what Peter, James and John saw.
High on a mountain, with cloud around, is precisely where we may encounter an optical effect called a ‘glory’. In this effect sunlight is scattered back from water droplets in a mist, as a glowing halo - the technical term for it is Mie scattering.

The most famous example is the ‘Brocken Spectre’, so named because of sightings on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. This appears when a low sun is behind a climber who is looking downwards into mist from a ridge or peak. The spectre is the shadow of the observer projected onto the mist, and it is surrounded by the glowing halo of a glory. Here is a photo of one, and if you’re interested you can follow the web link to find out more.

The Brocken Spectre – if you are interested in more of the physics 

You might be lucky enough to see a glory yourselves, as I have. I saw it when I looked down from a plane at the shadow it cast on a cloud. The shadow was surrounded with a halo of light – this was the glory.

I imagine Peter and James and John close together on the mountain, with Jesus praying a little bit away, as the clouds swirl around them. Where Jesus has been standing, they each suddenly see a glowing figure – it’s their own shadow cast on a cloud, wrapped in a glory - and two other shadows beside it, those of their companions, whom they take to be Moses and Elijah.

This explanation from physics helps me to believe that the Transfiguration really did take place and was not invented by the Gospel writers to serve their own artistic or theological needs. I believe that God is present in and works through the laws of the universe he created. The disciples accurately reported what they saw, even if they could not understand the physics.

Their experience of hearing a voice from heaven also rings very true to me. When someone suddenly realises something of vital importance, something which changes everything, he or she often talks of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. Many people have reported such deeply emotional religious experiences, not only in our own Christian tradition, but also in other faith traditions.

If this scientific explanation is correct, it should not change one whit our awe and wonder at God’s power and glory.
What matters, surely is what the Transfiguration reveals to Peter, James and John - and to us too - about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.

They saw Jesus transfigured, as ‘the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’, in St Paul’s words from today’s 2nd reading (2 Corinthians 4:3-6). The voice they heard told them to listen to him, and this surely is what they did. From then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, preparing them for their role as apostles after his death.

I believe the Transfiguration was the moment on their long road when they realised their complete commitment to Jesus and his teaching. Starting from their call in Galilee, this road led them ultimately to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the Resurrection, to the Ascension, and on to Pentecost, where they started to blossom as Christ’s Church.

And as Christians it should inspire each of us to make our own commitment to follow Jesus as his disciples. ‘For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.

Let us finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word Transfiguration Sunday.
Holy God,
you have revealed the glory of your love in Jesus Christ,
and have given us a share in your Spirit.
May we who listen to Christ follow faithfully,
and, in the dark places where you send us,
reveal the light of your gospel.
We ask this in his name. Amen

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Who does God call you to be?

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 14th January 2018, the 2nd after Epiphany.

Today’s readings are mostly about people hearing God’s call and how they respond to it.
I believe that God calls each and every one of us to be the person he means us to be. But how can we be sure that a voice we hear is truly God’s voice? And how can we be sure what he is calling us to be and to do? The technical, theological word for this is ‘discernment’, and discernment is difficult. Most of the time, in our busyness, wrapped up in our own thoughts and desires, we may not even hear God’s voice. If we do, it is often so much easier to ignore it. And sometimes what he asks of us seems so difficult that, like Jonah, we try to run away from it.

Today I’m going to reflect a little on the readings, because I think they can help us get to grips with the problem of discernment.

In the OT reading (1Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20) Samuel hears God calling to him.
You may remember that Samuel’s parents Hannah and Elkanah had dedicated him to God as a child, and left him in the guardianship of Eli, the priest at the pilgrimage shrine of Shiloh.

The boy Samuel is confused when he hears God’s call. Three times he hears a voice calling his name. He thinks it is Eli calling for him, but it is not. At last Eli realises the voice Samuel is hearing must be from God. He prompts Samuel to respond, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ – only then can Samuel open himself to God and understand his vocation. He will grow up to be a great prophet and a leader of Israel.

Notice Eli’s role in the story, helping Samuel to understand what is going on. When we are trying to discern what God is saying to us, we often need someone else to encourage, support and guide us, to enable our discernment.

I have experienced this personally. I began to ask myself whether I should offer myself to lead worship, at a time when otherwise there would be no one to lead services. I had watched a diocesan reader I admired and trusted do so. But it was not until a priest recognised that God was calling me, and encouraged and guided me, that I could begin to understand my call to diocesan reader ministry. Fostering discernment is an important role in ministry.

Turning to the psalm, Psalm 139 marvels at how completely God knows and understands us.
In beautiful poetry the psalmist tells us that God comprehends us completely, we cannot escape him, even if we wish we could. This is because God has made us: ‘I thank you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made’, says the psalmist.

Indeed, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We have been made as souls with conscience and intelligence, capable of love, able to tell good from evil, truth from lies, beauty from ugliness. And it is these innate capacities, given us by God,  which enable us to hear God’s call and discern what it is he wants of us.

In the Gospel reading (John 1:43-51) Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael to follow him.
Notice that Jesus calls Philip directly, but it is Philip who then invites his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, just as previously Andrew had gone to fetch Simon Peter. This is the way that many disciples of Jesus were made at the very beginning, by one disciple passing on Jesus’s call to follow him to another. And it is the way that disciples have been made ever since.

Notice also how Nathanael initially resists the call from Jesus, passed on by Philip.  ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’, he asks cynically. I suppose the rivalry between Bethsaida and Nazareth must have been a bit like that between Tipperary and Galway in the hurling! It is only when Nathanael accepts his friend Philip’s invitation to ‘come and see’, and spends time in conversation with Jesus, that he gives in, finally confessing, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God’.

How like the way that many of us try to evade God’s call when it comes! But God does not give up on us – he knows us from the inside out, and he will not let go of us easily if he wants us for a purpose.

Philip goes on to be a great apostle, the first apostle to the gentiles, even before St Paul took on the role. Acts tells us that he was the first to bring Samaritans into the Church, and he goes on to baptise the Ethiopian court official who is a eunuch. But what of Nathanael? We hear nothing else about him in the Bible - though perhaps he is the same as Nathanael of Cana to whom Jesus appeared at the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection. We do know that Nathanael responded to Jesus’s call. As Jesus promised, he must have seen ‘heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’. But God calls only a very few to great tasks, and Nathanael may not have been one of them.

I said at the start, I believe God calls every one of us to be the person he means us to be.
There may be some here who are called to great work, as priests, perhaps even bishops – maybe even prophets or apostles, God help us. But almost all of us are called to much more modest tasks in ordinary places. Yet these too are tasks which God needs us for in order to build his Kingdom of peace and justice.

They may be official jobs in the church, jobs like being a church warden, or serving on select vestry. Or they may be specific ministries in the parish - there are so many, aren’t there? - reading, singing, church cleaning, washing linen, helping with flowers or refreshments after services – even volunteering for the Christmas tree festival! We do not give enough recognition to those who take on these jobs, I think – but I am sure God does. God calls different people at different times to different ministries to build up Christ’s body, the Church, so that the church can continue his ministry in the world.

But just as important, they may not be 'churchy' jobs, but tasks of service to others in the secular world. Tasks like being a carer, teaching children, healing the sick as a nurse or a doctor. Tasks that build and protect community, or conserve the beautiful planet we have been given. Tasks that feed the bodies and nourish the spirits of our neighbours. God needs people who will carry out all these tasks, and so many others, to build his Kingdom. Those called to them are just as blessed as those called to church ministries.

I suggest to you that each one of us should ask ourselves these questions: How has God called me? and How have I responded? I suggest we should do so regularly, because who it is God wants us to be, and what he wants us to do, is ever changing through the course of our lives. I suggest the beginning of a new year is a good time to do so.

And as we ask these questions we should pray, pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to discern what God wants of us. Because it is precisely when we respond to God’s call as he wants us to, that we, like Nathanael, will see ‘heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ and experience the joy of his Kingdom.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Eternal God,
whose Son, Jesus Christ, is now exalted as lord of all,
and pours out his gifts upon the Church:
grant it that unity which only your Spirit can give,
keep us in the bond of peace,
and bring all creation to worship before your throne;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Shepherds glorifying God

Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 31st December 2017, the 1st Sunday of Christmas, year B.

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing which has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”.
So say the shepherds who were keeping watch over the flock in fields close to the town, as St Luke tells us in the Gospel reading (Luke2:15-21).

Luke’s is the only Gospel to tell us about the shepherds who visited Mary and Joseph and their new-born son Jesus. His beautiful story, so familiar to us, still resonates today. So let’s try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the shepherds that night 2000 years ago.

Some of you I’m sure know much more than I do about sheep. Perhaps you’ve kept and tended them. But I doubt if any of you would call yourselves shepherds. Shepherds are few and far between in Ireland these days - but they would have been very familiar to Luke’s readers. The rugged Judean uplands were a pastoral country. Flocks of sheep represented wealth. A shepherd was paid to stay out night and day in all weathers to guard the sheep against wild animals and robbers. It was a hard, dangerous job, but very responsible. Jesus likens himself to the Good Shepherd, who would lay down his life for the sheep.

Luke’s shepherds are ordinary people, much like you and me. They are not self-important rulers or highly educated opinion formers, as Herod and the Wise Men were, in Matthew’s alternative Christmas story. Luke chooses to tell us about how ordinary people responded to the miracle of Christmas, not the great and mighty. And we have much to learn from them.

The shepherds had just experienced a miraculous vision, a vision of angels.
‘The glory of the Lord shone around them’ – I imagine shimmering light, like the Northern lights. An angel announces, ‘To you is born this day in the city of David’ – that is Bethlehem – ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’  They are given a sign; they ‘will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger’. Then the angel is joined by ‘a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours”’

Wow! What an experience! What an exhilarating joy the shepherds must have felt!

Have you ever heard the heavenly host? I have, I think, and you may have too. I can remember my joy and exhilaration after the births of my children. I can remember literally dancing down the wet deserted streets of Guildford at 4am in mid December, on the way back home from the hospital. It was as if the whole universe was laughing and crying and singing with me. And I shared my joy with everyone I met over the following days. Angel voices, indeed – a memory to treasure!

Surely it is an experience of this same kind that Isaiah speaks of in today’s OT reading (Isaiah 61:10-62:3), when he says:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
   my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
   he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
   and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Most if not all of us, ordinary people, experience once in a while that sudden rush of exhilarating joy, as both Isaiah and the shepherds did. It is not just poets and the mad who experience visions of angels. We should not be afraid of them, I think. Rather we should see it as God granting us a glimpse, just a fleeting glimpse, of his loving power and majesty. We should treasure such experiences when we return to the world of normality, and ponder them in our hearts, as Mary did.

The shepherds ‘went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger’.
These shepherds are straight-forward, practical people. They don’t stand around debating and philosophising about what their extraordinary experience means. They go with haste to look with their own eyes. And what they find confirms their experience – it is just as the angel had told them. This little child is special, very special - a Saviour, a Messiah, the Lord. And they can’t stop talking about it! Just as I couldn’t stop telling everyone about the birth of my children.

The real miracle of Christmas is that through his grace our loving Father God makes the first move towards us, to you and me, to all people. He reveals himself to us as Mary and Joseph’s beautiful, helpless baby, their first-born son. This baby grows up to be our Lord Jesus Christ – in St John’s mystic vision, the Word of God, the true light that enlightens everyone – through whose life and teaching, and death and resurrection, we are shown the way to God. This is surely what St Paul is telling us in today’s Epistle reading (Galatians 4:4-7) – ‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”’

But God’s grace is of no use to us unless we respond to it. We should learn from the shepherds how to respond to the miracle of Christmas. They went with haste to find Jesus, and we must too. Like them, we will not be disappointed.

‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’
The shepherds don’t hang about. Once they have seen the child Jesus lying in the manger – the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord – and told their story, they just go back to work, to tend their flocks.

But something has changed - they are changed. They go back ‘glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.’

And this surely is what we must do too. We are not meant to remain for ever in our visions, no matter how exhilarating they may be. We must come back to earth. Our job is to bring our experience of the love of God back into the everyday world. Let us pray that we too may go about the world as changed people, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.

So we really do have a great deal to learn from Luke’s shepherds:
·         We should treasure the glimpses we are granted of the love and majesty of our loving Father God.
·         We should go with haste to find God’s grace in the Christmas miracle of the birth of Jesus.
·         And we should return as changed people to bring God’s loving Spirit out into the world.

Let me finish in prayer with a collect
Saving God,
whose Son Jesus was presented in the temple
and was acclaimed the glory of Israel
and the light to the nations:
grant that in him we may be presented to you
and in the world may reflect his glory;
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen