Wednesday 26 December 2007

Angel voices at Christmas

'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men & women'!
  • This is the great song of the heavenly host, which Luke tells us the shepherds heard, when the angel announced the birth of the Messiah. It is a song of joy and exaltation, echoing the song of Isaiah’s sentinels. It is a song which we echo in so many of our Christmas carols.
  • Have you heard the heavenly host sing? I certainly have, in not so different circumstances, and you may have too. I can remember my joy and exhilaration after the births of my own children. I can remember literally dancing down the wet deserted streets of Guildford at 4am, on the way back home from the hospital. It was as if the whole universe was laughing and crying and singing with me. And everyone I met over the following days shared my joy. Angel voices – a memory to treasure!

What exhilarating joy the shepherds must have felt at the birth of this very special baby!

  • They went with haste’, we are told, ‘and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger’.
  • Not just the shepherds, but Mary and Joseph especially will have felt joy and wonder: when they looked adoringly at their beautiful, helpless baby, their first-born son; when they felt the smoothness of his skin, the strong grip of his tiny perfectly formed fingers; when they caught the scent of his new-born baby hair, and heard his insistent baby cry.
  • And although we’re not told of them, I feel sure that there were others there to share the joy, perhaps staff and visitors at the Inn in which there was no room, perhaps a local midwife there to help Mary with her birth.
  • But not one of them could have realised just how special this baby was to be, whatever inkling the angel Gabriel may have given Mary and the shepherds.
  • This baby grows up to be our Lord Jesus Christ - in 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.

Of course, every birth and every baby is special.

  • Every baby ever born is made in God’s image, including you and me.
  • And we can all call ourselves sons and daughters of God, because that very special baby, Jesus, as a grown man, teaches us to pray to ‘our Father in heaven’.
  • In celebrating Christmas – in sharing the joy of Jesus’s birth - we also celebrate the miracle that every child is born with a soul which reaches naturally toward God.

There was no place for Mary and Joseph in the Inn, so Jesus was laid in a manger, so Luke tells us.

  • Mary and Joseph were far from home for the birth. And soon they were to become refugees, fleeing to Egypt to avoid Herod’s persecution, far from their families and friends.
  • Far too many millions of God’s children are also born far from home, as refugees. We must ask God to show us what we can do to help them. But not tonight, I think, not tonight.

Tonight we are here to share with the shepherds, and with Mary and Joseph, in joy and exaltation at the birth of Jesus, to join our hearts and voices with the heavenly host in singing:

'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men & women!'

Sunday 9 December 2007


1. If there’s a common theme to the readings set in the Lectionary for today, the 2nd Sunday of Advent, it is prophecy:

  • Isaiah announces (Isaiah 11:1-10) that a shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse’, on which the spirit of the Lord shall rest’. Christians traditionally take this as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus.
  • St Paul in his epistle to the Romans (Romans 15:4-13) quotes no fewer than 4 Old Testament prophecies, to support his case that Christ came to save gentiles as well as Jews.
  • Matthew (Matthey 3:1-12) declares that John the Baptist fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy as the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’’.

What I shall try to do today is to tease out what lies behind these three prophetic readings, and to explore what relevance they have for us today.

2. But first, what do we mean by a prophecy?

For me prophecy is more than just prediction, like a weather forecast or a racing tip. It is a much wider theory about the way things are, and the consequences this has for the future. And then there is the key question of whether any particular prophecy is true or false – has it been, or will it be fulfilled.

I don’t know about you, but I feel a little queasy about the notion of biblical prophecy. It makes me uncomfortable, because it doesn’t seem to fit with the rational, scientific world view I was educated in. I am also afraid that irrational belief in prophecy may cause people to do bad things – to sin, in other words. As I believe, for instance, that so-called Christian Zionists sin, when they use Bible texts to justify dispossessing Arab Palestinians. Yet I can’t doubt that prophecy can have, and has had, immense power. Prophecy can change history!

Prophecy doesn’t stop with the Bible, of course:

  • Karl Marx prophesied 150 years ago that the conflicting interests of capitalists and workers would lead inevitably to revolution, ushering in a new communist era of equality, peace and plenty. Marx certainly inspired millions of people, not always to the good – think for instance of the suffering caused by Stalin’s collectivisation, by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and by Pol Pot’s evacuation of Cambodian cities. All equally good candidates for sins, I think. The collapse of Communist states in the last 25 years suggests that Marx’s prophecy was false – but it may still be ‘too early to tell’, as Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution!
  • And Jim Lovelock is actually prophesying today, when he says that human lack of respect for Gaia – Earth’s evolving ecosystems - threatens the extinction of species including our own, unless we mend our ways. I am inclined to believe Jim Lovelock, myself. But we must take great care that our actions in response to his prophecies, and other prophecies, work for good and not for evil.

3. So let’s turn to Isaiah’s prophecy.

Scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was written in two periods separated by about 200 years. The Jesse prophecy comes from the first, dated to around 700 BC. The Northern Kingdom of Israel has just fallen to the Assyrian conquerors, and the population have been carried off into captivity – they are the lost 10 tribes of Israel. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, with its capital Jerusalem, is under threat.

Isaiah recognises the threat from imperial Assyria. He believes that the social and political collapse of Israel was caused by its failure to live up to the spirit of the law given in Sinai, and he can see the same things happening in Judah. If God’s chosen people break their covenant with God, the only result can be destruction, he reasons. So Isaiah prophesies that Judah too will be overthrown, along with Jerusalem and its Kings descended from David.

But Isaiah also believes that God would not desert his chosen people entirely. Once those breaking the covenant have been purged by the Assyrians, a remnant of faithful people will remain. In our passage today, Isaiah prophecies that a descendent of Jesse will be their righteous and faithful leader. He describes poetically, and beautifully, what society will be like under such a leader’s rule:

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.’

Jesse was the father of the great King David, whose descendents the prophet Nathan had said would succeed him in perpetuity. I suppose Isaiah, following Nathan, must have believed that only someone from this royal family could lead the remnant, even after the downfall of Judah’s Davidic kings. And no doubt Isaiah expected the downfall to happen very soon. But if so, Isaiah was wrong. The Davidic dynasty continued for another 100 years. When destruction came, it was the Babylonians, not the Assyrians that laid waste to Jerusalem and carted the leaders off to exile.

4. But prophecy can change history, even when it seems to be wrong!

Isaiah’s words were not forgotten. They were remembered by the exiles, who were inspired to hold firm in their faith, to keep their identity as a people, and to return home when conditions allowed.

Over the centuries that followed, Isaiah’s words were studied by religious thinkers and elaborated by prophets. By Roman times, religious Jews felt quite certain that God would send a Messiah – an anointed one - of the stock of Jesse, who would lead Israel back to the glory days of David, and rule over the gentiles. The prophets said it - it must be so!

John the Baptist believed it. Matthew reported he told his followers ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to carry his sandals’. Matthew believed that John himself fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be preceded by a messenger.

Jesus surely pondered the prophetic words too. I believe he came to the conclusion that they were indeed to be fulfilled in him. But God gave Jesus the insight that as the Messiah he did not come in physical power and glory like a King, but as a suffering servant, leading his people by example – all people, both Jew and Gentile - to his loving-father God.

Mathew’s Gospel in particular, more than the other Gospels, locates Jesus firmly in the tradition of Jewish Messiah prophecy. He announces at the very start that Jesus is the Messiah, and traces Jesus’s ancestry back to David and Jesse to show that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled. In his Gospel, Matthew helped the primitive Church remodel the Jewish Messiah tradition into our Christian Messiah tradition. Our tradition is encapsulated in the Apostles Creed: Jesus, the Son of God, our Lord and Saviour, was incarnate, crucified and rose again, ascended into heaven, and will come again in judgement. It’s worth saying that again: it is our tradition that Christ will come again!

5. Paul perhaps did more than anyone else to develop this Christian tradition.

As a Jew, he was steeped in the Jewish Messiah tradition, but he saw clearly that Jesus was a Messiah for all, Gentiles as well as Jews. In today’s Epistle, Paul quotes four passages from scripture to demonstrate to his readers in Rome that this isn’t just his own idea, but is inherent in the ancient tradition. It seems that there was a split between Jewish and Gentile factions in the Roman Church. Paul argues that just as Christ is an inclusive saviour, so his church must be an inclusive church.

  • Most Bibles will give you a footnote, showing where Paul’s quotations from the OT come from. But if you go to those verses in our translation you will see that they look rather different to Paul’s words. Why is this? The reason is that Paul himself used a Greek translation of the OT known as the Septuagint, not the original Hebrew. This sometimes differs quite a lot from our modern translations from the Hebrew. It must take a lot of faith to believe in the inerrancy of scripture!

6. So what relevance does all this prophecy have for us, on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, 2007?

While I can’t myself believe in the predictive power of ancient scripture, I can understand some of the blessings the Jews have received from their Messianic tradition of prophecy.

  • Firstly, the tradition has held their community together. Without it, there would be no Jewish people. Even today, more than 2,700 years after Isaiah, Jews still await the promised Messiah.
  • Secondly, it has kept their eyes fixed on the future, on an ideal future, marked by equity and justice and peace, where in Isaiah’s words the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’.

I think that we, as Christians, receive much the same blessings from our own Christian Messianic tradition, growing out of the same root as the Jewish one.

  • By looking back to the ancient scriptures and prophecies, both in the New and the Old Testaments, we bind ourselves together as the Church with Christians in every place and age.
  • By looking forward to Christ’s return, we are led to try to make this world more like the ideal Kingdom that God means it to be. Christ will hold each one of us answerable for our stewardship.

So in this Advent season:

  • Let us celebrate the prophecies and stories of Christ’s 1st coming as the helpless baby, Jesus.
  • And let us also reflect on what we can do to make this world good enough for Christ’s 2nd coming.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Mission Sunday

1. Today is Mission Sunday. Which prompts the question, what is Mission Sunday, and what does it mean to us?

At one level, the answer is quite straightforward: it’s the Sunday which Bishop Michael designates each year for all parishes in the Diocese to collect money to support a programme of very worthwhile overseas projects, which are selected by the Diocesan Board of Mission.

Parish clergy are usually asked to exchange with other parishes on Mission Sunday, but this year Diocesan Readers like me, and Auxiliary Clergy, have been sent out to the different parishes as special preachers. This allows Dean Stephen to stay put and celebrate communion in his own parish, and gives you a different voice in the pulpit. For myself, I have to say what a pleasure and a privilege it is to be asked to come and speak to you, and worship with you, here today, though perhaps you may think you’ve drawn the short straw, since I am a very new Diocesan Reader, still wet behind the ears! I guess my main job today, but not I think my whole job, is to encourage you to give really generously to the nominated projects!

At a deeper level, I think Mission Sunday is an opportunity for us all, as Christians, to reflect on what Christian mission means, and to ask ourselves what part Christ wants each of us to play in it.

So in this address I want to do two things:
· 1st, to outline the excellent, worthwhile projects that the diocese is supporting this year
· and 2nd, to tease out what Jesus tells us about our Christian mission.

2. First, lets look at the mission projects chosen for 2007

This year the Board of Mission has chosen 11 projects to support, and set the diocese as a whole a target of raising €8,000 for them. Last year parishes contributed more than €9,700 to around 9 projects, of which nearly €400 came from this Killaloe Union, so I think this years target is a bit low – we should try to do even better than last year!

Most of the projects aim to help the poor, the sick and the suffering in countries of the 3rd world, the ‘poor south’. I would go on far too long if I spoke in detail about all of them, so I’m going to focus on just 3, and simply list the rest:

  1. There is the AIDS project run by Maryknoll Missions in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which is also supported by Christian Aid. They run an orphanage for children whose parents have died from AIDS. And they also run hospices, not just for adults, but for children dying of AIDS. It’s shocking isn’t it; one consequence of the AIDS epidemic is that hospices are needed for dying children, many of whom have been infected in their mother’s womb! Think of that when you decide how much to put in the plate today!
  2. There is the Bethlehem Arab Rehabilitation Centre, run by our fellow Anglicans in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The Holy Land, Israel and Palestine, was the cradle of our Christian faith, as well as Judaism and Islam. Today it is also the focus of much of the evil in the world. Our fellow-Christians there are suffering, as well as those of other faiths – Christ is being cruelly crucified there all over again – but still they work to bring healing in Jesus’s name to people of all faiths. They need our financial help now. Surely we must respond, as St Paul did when he organised a collection by the gentile churches for the first church in Jerusalem when it was suffering from famine.
  3. There is the Uganda Mission Fund, organised by Religious Sisters Mona and Eileen Maher from Roscrea. These wonderful women went to Uganda more than 35 years ago to teach in mission schools. Their ecumenical project has already raised several thousand Euro over the last 4 years to provide at least primary education for orphans and vulnerable children. They report what a joy it is to see how happy children are to be given a chance to go to school. There is no such thing as a free education – in Uganda €25 pa is needed for a child in primary school, and €100 in secondary. Our support will make the difference for many children between having a bright future and remaining in poverty and ignorance.

The rest of the projects are:

  • St Luke’s Hospital, Milo in Tanzania, which is desperately under-staffed, and needs help to train local health workers
  • Leprosy research in Nepal, where the disease is still a major public health problem
  • Sponsoring education for street children in Guatemala through the Toybox Charity
  • The Big Bend project in Swaziland to support AIDS orphans where no less than 50% of the population is infected with the HIV virus.
  • The Church in the Sudan aid programme in Darfur
  • Rev Noel Scott’s humanitarian projects in the Church of the Ascension, Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

Just two of the projects are concerned with evangelism, with spreading the Christian message directly overseas, though that is still what many people think of when they hear the word mission. These are:

  • The SPCK, which for instance provides a set of basic theological books to ordinands in 3rd world countries, quite possibly the only theological books they will ever have;
  • and the Bible Society, which last year provided much needed help to Churches stricken by the Tsunami in Sri Lanka.

3. All of these projects are eminently worthwhile – but how do they relate to our Christian mission?

I think we need to ponder Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading, before we answer this question. According to Matthew, they are the last words he spoke to his disciples, after his resurrection, at the very end of the Gospel. Let’s listen to them again: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

These words, and similar passages in the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John, are often called the ‘Great Commission’. Some scholars argue that the passage in Mark is a late addition to the text, and that Matthew’s original words were to baptise in the name of Jesus, not in the Trinitarian formula of Father Son and Holy Spirit. I don't thnk it matters a whit whether they are right or wrong. It is clear that Jesus claims God’s authority to tell his disciples – that’s you and me, isn’t it? - to go out into the world to spread his teaching. In other words, they – and you and me - have a mission to evangelise.

Why then are most of the projects we are asked to support today to do with charitable work overseas rather than direct evangelism? Should we perhaps focus just on evangelism? The answer, I am certain is no, and it flows from those words ‘to obey everything that I have commanded’. Jesus also teaches us that the second great commandment, alongside loving God, is to love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus makes it clear that every person is our neighbour. And Jesus makes it clear that we have a particular duty of charity to our neighbours in want and distress; he says that what we give or refuse to them, we give or refuse to him. In other words, we also have a clear Christian mission to give charitably to those in want and distress.

I am sure that we will all give generously to the Mission Sunday collection today. This will both help to relieve suffering in the poor South and help to spread Jesus’s message there. And I dare say our practical help will make just as many disciples as sermons would. We will then have done our duty by Christian mission, won’t we? No, not at all - that would be much too easy!

It is in our own communities, here in Ireland and in this parish, among the people that we live and work and play with, that we are best able to live up to Jesus’s Great Commission to make disciples. Each one of us needs to look into our own heart and use the talents God has given us to discover in what way Jesus is calling us, here and now, to be his disciple, to help him build his kingdom. We must try to be - and do - the best we can, and not be ashamed to let people know that it is Christ who inspires us. To take Jesus as a model and to live with integrity is the surest way to make disciples. It probably won’t bring worldly success or popularity. It won’t be easy, and you may find the prospect uncomfortable - but don’t be daunted! Jesus promises us spiritual help: what could give us more strength than to hear him say: ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the very end’?

4. So, to conclude:

  • Yes, please be truly generous with your money in the Mission Sunday collection plate. However rich or poor you feel, we are all rich compared with the people who will be helped by it. If you usually put a coin in, look for a bigger one; if you planned to put in a note, pull something bigger out of your wallet!
  • But as Christians, let us also reflect that Jesus gives his disciples a mission, not just to help neighbours in want and distress around the world, but to spread his message of love. So let us pray that Jesus will show each one of us what part he wants us to play in his mission, and let us also pray that he will give each one of us the strength to discharge our mission faithfully.

Sunday 30 September 2007

Harvest Festival

1. Introduction

  • I love the harvest season. Though I’m not a farmer, I can feel their excitement, waiting for the right moment, and the mad rush when that moment comes; the combines working late into the night, the tractors drawing full trailers racing home to the barn. Beware the tractors though: I once had a car written off by one on harvest duty, which didn’t stop as fast as I did, when I met it on a narrow road!
  • My own harvest is as a gardener, and it gives me great joy to pick my own produce: I was busy with other things this year and rather neglected the garden, so the vegetables weren’t great, but the plums, pears and apples are good, thank God, and so are my wife Marty’s flowers.
  • I love Harvest Festivals as well, as I’m sure you do too: the colours and smells of the fruit and vegetables and flowers, the familiar harvest hymns, the cheerful people, especially the farmers whose years’ work has been crowned with success. A very few mock the Feast of St Pumpkin, and say it is a pagan not a Christian festival, but it is surely right for Christians to give thanks for all the good things God has given us.
  • After all, as our 1st reading from Deuteronomy (Deu 26:1-11) shows, there are good biblical grounds for doing so. ‘You shall set the first of the fruit of the ground down before the Lord your God … Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.’ And John tells us that Jesus himself went privately to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of booths, which is the Jewish Harvest Festival. What’s good enough for Jesus is good enough for me!
  • Deuteronomy talks about a harvest of the fruits of the earth. But in our 2nd reading from John’s Gospel (John 6:23-35), Jesus asks us to look beyond an earthly harvest, ‘food that perishes’, to a different, heavenly harvest, ‘food that endures for eternal life’.
  • So what I want to do in this address is to tease out the relationship between the earthly harvest and the heavenly harvest.

2. Let us look first at the earthly harvest:

It’s so beautifully displayed in this Church, isn’t it? The decorators have every right to be proud of their skilful arrangements, and those who have grown the produce have every right to be proud that the best of it should be displayed here in God’s house.

Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our harvest:

  • We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, hay for cattle. Our farmers were getting very worried with the wet summer this year, but in the end it has been a good harvest I’m told. The dry weather in August and September came just in time after the wet summer. I see from the Farmers Journal that cereal yields were good, if a bit down, and prices are very high. The hay and straw is saved, so the animals will be all right too.
  • But there is so much more for us to enjoy: there’s milk and honey, butter and cheese, fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, peas and beans, cabbage and lettuce, and gardens full of flowers!
  • Many of us work with animals, and there are also this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks. But we should also think of the fruit of our own bodies - that is our children and grandchildren born this year - thank God for them too!
  • What a wealth there is in our harvest to give thanks for!

Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and strength, and also for our intellects, our cleverness, for we couldn’t produce this wealth with out them.

  • As every farmer and gardener knows, this bountiful harvest does not just appear from heaven as if by magic, it also takes intelligent planning and hard graft.
  • In creating us, in his image we are told, God has created beings which are in a sense co-creators with him of the natural world. We use our God-given cleverness to bend the natural world to better meet our own needs, by domesticating and improving the breeds of different plants and animals, and by developing useful technologies. It is that work of co-creation which takes hard graft and intelligent planning.
  • But we must never forget that we are not masters of the universe: God is. God’s laws don’t change: Nature is as God made it; and what we sow, we shall reap.
  • I think we ought to pray more that we may use our cleverness wisely, to build up this wonderful world, not destroy it. Otherwise, our fields may become scrub, our gardens revert to wilderness, our houses ivy-clad ruins and our towns deserted. It has happened before, it may well happen again: for civilisations grow, flourish and decay. But if it does, God will still be there.

For all our cleverness, this earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Without God’s continuing fatherly goodness our material needs would not be met.

3. So what about the heavenly harvest?

In the passage from John’s Gospel that we’ve just heard, Jesus tells the crowd: ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ He then makes the great claim: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me shall never be thirsty’. What is Jesus talking about?

  • The teaching is difficult; at least I find it so, but then so did many of Jesus’s disciples, according to John. I find it helpful myself to interpret Jesus’s words in the context of a heavenly harvest, by analogy with the earthly harvest. Perhaps you will too.
  • Just as God has made us clever, to be his co-workers in the material world, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls. God has given us the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate; and to prefer good to evil, as he does. We call that capacity conscience. I don’t doubt that both our cleverness and our conscience have evolved, since that seems to be how God makes his creatures.
  • God surely intends us to use our consciences to make the right choices, to do good not evil. Our right choices are the seed from which grows a heavenly harvest of good. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us. The good we do is eternal; it nourishes our souls for eternal life. But we are not masters of our own souls, any more than we are masters of the universe: our souls are as God made them, with free will, vulnerable to temptation.
  • So it’s hard to be good. We have to work at it, just as we do for the earthly harvest. It is hard work resisting temptation, putting what is right above our own desires. All too often we fail. And when we fail, the evil we do poisons our soul, and the evil too is eternal.

What a mess it is! How can we possibly be as good as God wants us to be? As good as God has made us want to be?

This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me:

  • Jesus promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest: if we have faith in him, if we come to him, if we believe in him. He will nourish our souls. He will help us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he will suck out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words, he will redeem us. It is in this sense that he is the bread of life, that endures for eternal life.
  • And furthermore, God guarantees this, by setting his seal on the Son of Man. It is as if the bread of life comes stamped by God with an eat-by date of eternity!

4. So to sum up:

  • Let us thank God for this bountiful earthly harvest. God makes it possible, and we work hard for it, so we should celebrate it and enjoy it.
  • But let us work just as hard for the heavenly harvest of goodness, to nourish our souls.
  • And let us thank God for Jesus, who gives us the help we need to reap this heavenly harvest. If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things.

Sunday 9 September 2007

Being a Disciple - Year C, Trinity 14

1. Introduction

  • Do you know what the difference is between supporting a cause and being committed to it? Well the next time you sit down to a nice cooked breakfast you might think of this: the hen that laid the egg you’re about to eat was certainly supporting your high-cholesterol breakfast, but the pig from which the rashers came was truly committed to it!
  • Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is of course about commitment – about commitment as a disciple of Jesus. To be a disciple is to be a pupil, one who learns from a teacher. That’s precisely what the Greek word used by Luke and translated as disciple, means. Jesus is telling the crowds travelling with him what it means to be his disciple.
  • But at first hearing, what he says, as recorded by Luke (Luke 14:25-33), is really quite shocking, isn’t it? Surely Jesus can’t have insisted that to be his disciple you must hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? It sounds as if he wants his disciples to be cold-hearted fanatics!
  • What I want to do in this address is to tease out for myself what Jesus really did mean in this passage, and what it might mean to us today. And I hope my thoughts may also be useful to you.

2. Would the crowds travelling with Jesus have been just as shocked by his teaching as we are?

  • At one level, I think they might have been even more shocked. For a Jew to hate mother or father would be more than shocking – it would be a blasphemy against God himself, a violation of the 5th Commandment given to Moses. If you remember, this reads: ‘Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee’.
  • And again, although the idea of carrying the cross is a very familiar metaphor to us, two Christian millennia later, it would have been quite repulsive to a Jew at that time. Stoning was the Jewish punishment – crucifixion was a barbaric practice recently introduced by the hated Roman occupiers. To say that disciples must carry the cross would have been like saying today that they must travel in the cattle-trucks to the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz.
  • But at another level, I think they would not have found Jesus’s words as strange as we do, at all. There’s a long tradition in the Middle-East, in Semitic languages, of using over-the-top rhetoric to make a point, which continues to this day – think of Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric about ‘the mother of all battles’ for instance. Here as in many other places in the Gospels, I think that those who heard Jesus’s words would have understood very clearly that they weren’t to be taken completely literally, but that they were used to make his point as vividly as possible.

3. So what is the point that Jesus was making? Actually, I think there are two.

First, Jesus was warning his followers that to be his disciple, to follow his road to the Kingdom of God, may cost them everything that they hold dear. Everything; absolutely everything.

  • Matthew puts different words into his mouth, in what seems to be another report of the same teaching, when he has Jesus say: ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he that doeth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me’. The point is not to hate your family – that is just a rhetorical device – the point is that to be a true disciple of Jesus you must love him, you must love God, more than family, more than anything!
  • And he was also warning his followers that before they commit themselves to being his disciple, they must ask themselves if they can see it through. Just as they would with any other project. They will be taken for fools if they make a commitment that they can’t live up to. Just as if they were building a tower – the reference is probably to a watchtower which people built in their fields so they could protect their crops. Or just as a wise king would – or a wise president for that matter - before leading his people to war. You cannot make a true commitment without having calculated whether or not you can live up to it.

But secondly, I think Jesus was also seeking to inspire his followers to make that commitment to become true disciples.

  • Think for a moment about Churchill’s great speech to the British parliament and people when he became Prime Minister early in WW2: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’. That speech was calculated to rally the British nation behind a determination to fight on for victory. He went on: ‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival’. Churchill used shocking language in his rhetoric, to draw on the human quality of altruism, in order to rally his people behind him. And he succeeded in this aim. Altruism is characteristic of our humanity. No doubt it evolved with our species – that is how we have been made, it seems - but I prefer to see it as given to us by God, when he made us in his image.
  • Was Jesus drawing on that same quality of altruism when he chose to use his shocking language? I think so. And Jesus offered his disciples a vision even finer than Churchill’s victory, a vision of the kingdom of God, which they could help bring to pass.
  • I can’t believe that Jesus expected every single person in the crowds that day to feel able to make that great commitment. Perhaps there’s a role for camp-followers, for fellow-travellers, for supporters, as well as for committed disciples in the service of God. And Jesus must surely have known that even some who did commit themselves would not be able to carry it through – even that great disciple Peter denied his teacher three times! But if enough of them had not signed up to go the distance as his disciples, Jesus’s great saving project would have failed. It didn’t fail; the disciples did experience Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost; and we are here as Christ’s church 2000 years later, to give witness to the success of his project.

4. We Christians are the crowds travelling with Jesus today. What should we take from the words he spoke 2000 years ago?

Well, just the same things, I believe, that Jesus wanted those who listened to him then to take: warning and inspiration.

  • Jesus warns us that we must not set out to follow him lightly – he teaches us that his disciples must be prepared to give up everything they hold dear, if that is what is asked of them. And he warns us to consider carefully whether we can pay that price before we commit ourselves to being his disciples.
  • But if we listen to him, Jesus also inspires us to make that great commitment, as the first disciples did, and as so many others have done over the centuries.

St Ignatius Loyola understood this, I think, when he wrote his beautiful prayer, which I shall finish with:

Teach me, Good Lord, to serve Thee as Thou deservest:
To give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Thy will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Sunday 26 August 2007

Year C, Trinity 12 - Sabbath-keeping

1. Introduction

  • In April last year Marty and I were staying with a charabanc-load of friends on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Italy at Stresa, looking out to the Borromean islands. It’s renowned as one of the most beautiful spots on earth. And it is rather fine. While I feel our own Lough Derg is just as beautiful, I rather wish our climate was as good! The lakeshore drive is lined with rather grand Belle Époque hotels – Ernest Hemingway set part of his novel A Farewell to Arms in one of them. We were in a much more modest place, but we made a point of visiting the posh ones to admire the decor. One of them had been completely taken over by a large group of orthodox Jews, who were celebrating the end of the Passover holidays, women and girls dressed just like women and girls here, but men all wearing black hats with a curl of hair showing, and boys a skull-cap. The place was full of people of all ages, children playing games and grown-ups sitting in the shade and chatting in small groups: everyone just chilling, in modern slang, enjoying spending time with family and friends - a very happy sight. But nothing electric was working: no automatic doors, no lifts, no espresso coffee machines even – absolutely nothing! It was only when I asked if there had been a power-cut that I discovered why: it was Saturday, the Sabbath, and for their Jewish denomination it would break the Sabbath law to use any electric devices.
  • Now the readings set for today, from Isaiah (Isaiah 58:9b-14) and from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 13:10-17), both deal with what we should or shouldn’t do on the Sabbath. That reminded me of this surprising but happy scene in Italy. So I decided to try and tease out what the Sabbath has meant to Jews and Christians over the ages, and what it might mean for us today.

2. Firstly what does the Sabbath mean to Jews?

  • The Hebrew word Shabbat, from which our word comes, literally means ‘ceasing’, implicitly ‘ceasing from work’. Observing the Sabbath has been important to Jews since at least the Exodus. It’s enshrined in the Fourth Commandment brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses: ‘Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or your alien resident in your towns.’ It is seen as a commemoration of God resting on the seventh day of creation in the old familiar Genesis story.
  • The Sabbath lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. It’s a day of joyful celebration as well as prayer. Many Jews attend synagogue on the Sabbath, to worship and listen to teachers expound the Torah, our Old Testament, as Jesus did we are told. But the emphasis is on the home: candles are lit; all share in festive meals, with wine which is blessed; the Sabbath is to be honoured, for instance by taking a bath on the day before, and by beautifying the home with flowers; and it is to be enjoyed with eating, singing, spending time with the family – and with lovemaking between husbands and wives.
  • But the Jewish Sabbath is also encrusted with prohibitions. Over the millennia rabbinical scholars have elaborated the simple idea of ceasing from work one day in seven into a complex scheme of prohibited actions, based on 39 categories of forbidden activities. As well as such obvious work activities as sowing, ploughing, spinning and weaving, these include lighting and extinguishing a fire. This is why the orthodox Jews I met in Italy would not use electricity on the Sabbath: they believed that small sparks from switches were equivalent to lighting a fire, which would be a violation of the Sabbath law. Jews from other denominations get over the problem in different ways I understand - for instance by using pre-set timers, to turn appliances on and off without human intervention!
  • To violate the Sabbath has always been a very serious matter for Jews. The ancient punishment for it was the most severe in the Jewish law – stoning to death, though that ceased with the dissolution of the Jewish courts at the fall of the Temple. But there have always been extenuating circumstances, from the earliest times: a Jew was not just allowed but required to break a Sabbath law, if it was necessary to save a life. The problem the leader of the synagogue had with Jesus healing the crippled woman was not that he healed her on the Sabbath, but that her condition was not life threatening, and could have been left to the next day. And as Jesus pointed out, you were also permitted to water your animals on the Sabbath.

3. What did Jesus himself think about the Sabbath?

  • This incident in Luke's Gospel wasn’t the only time Jesus got into trouble with the religious authorities over the Sabbath. Elsewhere we are told that when his disciples were criticised for not keeping the Sabbath properly Jesus declared that ‘the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath’, and he clearly taught that it is right to do good and to save life on the Sabbath.
  • On this occasion Jesus was clearly infuriated by the leader of the synagogue. I think what infuriated him was that he saw so clearly that to keep so inflexibly to the letter of the Sabbath law had completely destroyed the spirit of it. What really matters is whether an action does good or harm, not whether it fits into some abstract scheme of dos and don’ts.
  • But I feel quite sure that Jesus valued the positive side of Sabbath-keeping: the opportunity for all to rest from labour, to enjoy time with family and friends, as well as to pray and worship God.

4. As Christianity evolved as a religion away from Judaism, Christian views of the Sabbath also evolved.

  • The earliest Christians - the apostles, Paul and the disciples - were Jews, and kept the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday. But as the years passed, and the increasingly gentile Church split from the Synagogue, the Christian emphasis shifted to Sunday, in part in celebration of the Resurrection, but perhaps also to distance a gentile church from Judaism. So Christian Sabbath observance on Saturday gradually ceased, to be replaced by celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday.
  • In the year 321, the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine decreed that Sunday should be the day of rest throughout his Empire, in these words: On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. Note his pragmatic approach to the agricultural economy - I can’t help but think that Jesus would have agreed!
  • Most Christians since then have observed Sunday as the Lord’s day, a holy day marked by worship and prayers, a holiday from work, a time for rest and recreation; like the Jewish Sabbath, but without so many prohibitions.
  • At the Reformation, Puritans sought to introduce more rigour to the observance of Sunday as a Christian Sabbath, and this still persists in many Protestant circles. Perhaps in doing so, they lost something of the joyful celebration which marked the Jewish Sabbath, for all its prohibitions. I certainly remember the dourness of an Ulster Sunday only a few years ago, when it was quite impossible for a tourist to get a bite of lunch on a Sunday.
  • Since the Reformation some of our fellow Christians who interpret the Bible literally have gone back to celebrating Saturday, the seventh day, as their Lord’s Day – the most notable are the Seventh Day Adventists, who number about 15 million worldwide. I ask myself: does it really matter which day we choose for our Sabbath?

5. So finally, what might the Sabbath mean to us today?

  • I would invite you to think of Sunday, our Sabbath, our day of rest, as a great gift. A great gift that we have been given by our loving-father God, through the traditions of those who have gone before us, right back to the time of Moses. I think we should cherish it. God entitles us in this way not just to cease from working to rest, one day in seven, but to take time to enjoy our families, our friends, and if we are so moved, to be still, to worship Him and give thanks for the wonderful world we are part of. I think this wise gift is intended to help us to be properly human – humans made in God’s image - not just economic factors in production.
  • Our society is changing very rapidly. Just a very few years ago, no one worked on Sunday unless they had animals to see to, or they sold perishable items, or they provided public services, or there was some other pressing need. Now more and more shops are opening, and factories and offices are increasingly working Sunday shifts. I’ve worked and shopped on Sundays myself, but I think this is a shame. Why is it happening? Is it that we are becoming distracted from our faith by insecurity and fear in the materialist Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, as RC Archbishop Sean Brady suggested earlier this week? Whatever the reason, we can choose it to be otherwise. We are entitled – God entitles us – to say ‘No’ to the dehumanising forces that would deny us one day in seven of stillness, to rest, enjoy our families and friends, and worship as we wish. Those forces can only prevail if we allow them to. The choice is ours.
  • But at the same time, we should I think be careful not to interpret the letter of the law so inflexibly that we destroy its spirit, in the matter of keeping Sunday as in so much else, so that we may not hear Jesus say ‘You hypocrites!’ to us, as he did to the leaders of the synagogue.

Sunday 22 July 2007

Year C, Trinity 7, St Mary Magdalene - Seek, Find, Tell!

1. Introduction

  • Today we are celebrating St Mary Magdalene, because her feast day falls tomorrow, July 23rd.
  • In the Gospel stories, Mary plays a central role in Jesus’s ministry; she was there when he was crucified and buried; and as we heard in today’s reading from John’s Gospel, she was the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection. Over the 2 millennia since then, she has also attracted an extraordinary number of imaginative stories and legends. Mostly frankly unbelievable hokum!
  • So what I want to do today is to review what we are told of her in the NT, to look at some of the traditions and stories, and then to ponder what we might learn from her today.

2. Mary Magdalene is mentioned in all four Gospels. What do they say about her?

  • Her name tells us that she came from Magdala, now called Migdal, then a small fishing village on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee, a little over 15 miles as the crow flies from Nazareth. Galilee is a very small place, much like Tipperary!
  • Luke tells us that she was one of several women who supported Jesus during his ministry in Galilee, either with money or in kind, after being healed of evil spirits and infirmities. In fact we are told she had been cured of 7 demons. Now in those days all kinds of psychiatric illness were blamed on evil spirits. I think she must have been in great distress when she encountered Jesus, to need so many demons to be exorcised! We’re not given any description of her illness, but I wonder whether she experienced psychotic hallucinations or something like that.
  • Mary was one of the women who accompanied Jesus on his last trip to Jerusalem. All 4 Gospels tell us she was one of those who watched and waited as Jesus was crucified, and we are told that she was close by when he was put in the tomb prepared for Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb was sealed with a stone on Good Friday evening.
  • In the early morning of Easter Sunday she was one of those who went to the sepulchre with sweet spices to anoint Jesus’s body, and saw that the stone had been rolled back.
  1. It was she who ran back to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. She returned to the tomb, and weeping saw the vision of angels, and said ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’. Very poignant!
  2. Turning around, she was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. She didn’t recognise him at once, though she knew him so well. She thought he was the gardener, even when he spoke to her. It was only when he called her by name, ‘Mary!’, that she knew who he was, and responded ‘Rabbouni’, meaning teacher in Hebrew.
  3. And then she went to tell the disciples what she had experienced: ‘I have seen the Lord’.

That’s all we hear of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, though no doubt she was one of the women who joined the Apostles in the upper room after Jesus’s ascension, as we are told in Acts.

3. Let’s turn to some of the traditions and stories that have grown up about her over the years.

  • Quite early on, leaders of the Western Church identified Mary Magdalene as the same person as John’s Mary of Bethany, and Luke’s woman who was a sinner. St Hippolytus of Rome did so in the C3rd, and Pope Gregory preached a sermon about it in 591. Luke’s sinner anointed Jesus and dried his feet with her hair; John says Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, did the same. It’s quite reasonable to assume they are the same person. But surely Mary Magdalene has to be someone else? She came from Magdala in Galilee, not Bethany in Judea, after all.
  • The Eastern Churches are quite sure Mary Magdalen is different to the other two. In their tradition Mary Magdalene retired to Ephesus with Mary the mother of Jesus and died there. This is supported by Gregory bishop of Tours in France in the C6th.
  • But in Provence a quite different tradition arose in the late middle ages. Mary Magdalene is supposed to have travelled with her brother Lazarus across the Mediterranean in a frail boat without rudder or mast and landed at a place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles. After converting the whole of Provence, she retired to a cave near Marseille called La-Sainte-Baume and lived a life of penance for 30 years. On her death, angels carried her to her burial place in the oratory of St Maxime at Aix. The monks of Vézelay in Burgundy competed for years with the monks of St Maxime as to who had her real relics. They embellished the stories as they relieved pious pilgrims of their money.
  • No doubt because she was identified with Luke’s sinner, Mary Magdalene came to be seen as a prostitute who repented of her sins. She became the much loved Penitent Magdalene. There are many beautiful depictions of her, traditionally with long red hair immodestly worn down over her shoulders, weeping at the crucifixion. Other women saints, not such scarlet sinners, have dark hair kept under a scarf. This image has persisted right up to the present day, for instance in Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ and Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. She was made the patron of colleges in Oxford and Cambridge; both pronounced ‘Maudlin’, as in weepy penitent. And her name was used for institutions for “fallen women”, including the notorious Magdalen Laundries here in Ireland. We should reflect on that: to our shame the last one didn’t close until 1996.
  • And then we have the Da Vinci Code. Many of you will have read the novel, one of a number of books in the last 25 years that claim Mary Magdalene was really Jesus’s wife. Church leaders from the early fathers to the present Vatican are supposed to have conspired to suppress and hide the truth. The authors have recovered it, of course, by fanciful interpretations of early Gnostic writings, the Grail legends, and such like. No doubt the authors felt that they would sell more books by feeding religious controversy. But not a scrap of decent evidence! What complete tosh - and I think dangerous tosh: I fear that gullible people believe it, and are being relieved of their silver once again by the unscrupulous.

4. To do the real woman justice, I think we have to chisel away the later legendary incrustations on Mary Magdalene’s story, and get back to the simplicities of what we read in the gospels.

  • We should remember and celebrate her, because as well as being a close friend of Jesus and supporting his ministry, she walked with him on the road to Calvary. She watched as he was cruelly murdered on the cross, she was there when he was laid out in the tomb, and she was the first person to experience his resurrection.
  • She was also the first person to carry the message of the resurrection, when she rushed to tell the news to the disciples. The word apostle comes from the Greek ἀπόστολος which means ‘one sent forth’, used of a messenger or envoy. So Mary Magdalene is often, and quite properly, called the Apostle to the Apostles. She is a really important figure in the development of our faith.
  • Let us put ourselves for a moment in Mary’s shoes that first Easter morning.
  1. She was a seeker after God’s Kingdom. Jesus was her teacher. She believed he was showing her the way to the Kingdom. But he had been arrested, subjected to a show trial, and cruelly crucified. It must have seemed that all she hoped and prayed for had been dashed. Yet she loved him, and she couldn’t let him go without the proper rituals of mourning, the decencies of death. When she found the tomb apparently desecrated and the body gone, she must have felt she was living a nightmare. But she didn’t give up; she kept on seeking. She asked the person she thought was the gardener where the body had been taken to.
  2. Then Jesus called her by name. Jesus found her; only then did she find him. Perhaps she didn’t recognise Jesus at first because she was blinded by her tears. Or perhaps she encountered the risen Christ in a vision, a kind of hallucination. Whichever it was, it changed everything.
  3. She heard Jesus say ‘go to my brothers and say to them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’. I feel sure she felt she had no option; she just had to do as he asked. So she went to the disciples to tell them ‘I have seen the Lord’.
  • I think one thing we can all learn from Mary Magdalene can be summed up in three words: Seek, Find, Tell. If we seek God, we shall find him – after he has found us - and we will be compelled to tell others about it.
  • The good compilers of the lectionary recognised this theme of seeking and finding in Mary’s story, which is why they set for her feast day the beautiful readings from the Song of Solomon and Psalm 42 which we heard earlier.

Let us pray that in these times, when Christ’s body the church is being crucified yet again by scandals and by schism, we can try to model ourselves on Mary; not to give up, but to keep on seeking, seeking Jesus, who will in the darkest moments find us, call us by name, and send us out to tell the world about it.

Sunday 17 June 2007

Year C, Trinity 2, Simon the Pharisee and the Woman Who Was a Sinner (Luke 7:36-50)

1. In this morning’s address I’m going to focus on the story we have just heard from Luke’s Gospel, about how Jesus responded to Simon the Pharisee and the woman who was a sinner.

· It really is a very vivid little story, isn’t it? It’s told with such skill that one can almost see and hear what goes on. It could almost be part of a film script, I think.

· Simon was a Pharisee, which means he was one of the separated ones, separated out by himself for a life of purity, self-consciously trying to live according to the law set down in the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament. He would be literate and highly educated in the Jewish law and the scriptures. He would be used to making moral judgements, and used to people following his lead on what was right and wrong. And he no doubt saw himself as a good man, in a right relationship with his God.

· We are told the woman was a sinner, and everyone knew she was. We aren’t told how she sinned, but she has traditionally been seen as a whore, a prostitute. Whatever the truth, we can see clearly that she was ‘no better than she ought to be’, because of her abandoned behaviour with Jesus. It was the custom then for respectable Jewish women of a marriageable age to put their hair up in public and only let their crowning glory down in private with their husbands. So for her to use her hair in public to wipe her tears from Jesus’s feet would have been an act of great immodesty.

· First I want to tease out some aspects of the story, and then I want to look at the lessons we can learn from it about love and forgiveness.

2. So let us picture the scene:

· I imagine Simon’s house would have been a typical well-to-do middle-eastern house of the time – not so different to many traditional houses there still. It would be built round a courtyard, perhaps with a bit of a garden, a fountain if he was really well off, and a trained vine to give shade. In warm weather meals would be taken outside, in the courtyard, in the shade of the vine.

· A guest would usually be given water on arrival to wash the feet, at the very least. In those days roads were dusty and shoes just an open sandal, so cool water would be poured over the feet to clean and comfort them. A specially honoured guest would be welcomed with a kiss of peace too, and a drop of perfumed oil, in much the same way as I remember being offered eau-de-cologne when I got onto a long distance bus in Turkey a few years ago. But Simon does none of these things for Jesus.

  • Was this a deliberate discourtesy? Not necessarily. Not all Pharisees were enemies of Jesus, but it does suggest that Simon was not a particular admirer and sympathiser.
  • Was he perhaps intending to catch Jesus out, so that he could condemn him? This also seems unlikely, because Simon courteously calls Jesus Rabbi or teacher when Jesus addresses him.
  • Maybe Simon was simply patronising Jesus. This startling young Galilean was something of a celebrity already, and perhaps Simon enjoyed collecting celebrities. This could explain the combination of a certain respect with the omission of the usual civilities.

· People lived much more public lives then than we do. It would be quite normal when a Rabbi, a teacher, was invited to eat at such a house, for others not invited to come into the courtyard to listen to the conversation, to pick up the pearls of his wisdom on the sidelines. This would explain the woman’s presence – as a notorious sinner she would definitely not have been invited by Simon.

· Table manners were also quite different to ours. Diners would not sit but recline around a tray or low table, on low couches or cushions, resting on the left elbow to leave the right arm free to eat, with their feet stretched out behind. This explains how the woman was standing behind him at his feet. It would be quite wrong to imagine her crouched at his feet under the table!

· So when Jesus reclines, in my minds eye I see this woman, who was no better than she ought to be, so overtaken by love for him that she bursts into tears. The tears flow over his feet, and she uses her loose hair to dry them. Then she kisses the feet, and anoints them with the very concentrated perfume which like other Jewish women of the time, she carried in a small phial around her neck, called an alabaster.

3. Jesus uses this remarkable scene to challenge Simon in a parable about love and forgiveness. Who loves most? The person who has been forgiven most or the person who has less to be forgiven for? Simon gets the answer right, and Jesus relates it to the woman.
‘Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’

· Is this a criticism of Simon? Probably, though we are not told of the extent of Simon’s own sins! But I feel it certainly is a criticism of Simon’s closed and self-satisfied attitude to sinners. It would surely have given Simon a lot to think about! And it set tongues wagging around the table in criticism of Jesus: ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’, because all Jews would know that only God can forgive sins. Though I notice that in Luke’s text Jesus makes no such claim; he only declares to her: ‘Your sins are forgiven’.

· So how are we to interpret this parable today, 2000 years later? On the face of it the clear meaning is that the people who love God most are those who have sinned most and been forgiven most. How can this be true? And if it is, doesn’t it invite us to be as bad as we can be, to be forgiven most and love most?

· Some scholars have detected an ambiguity in the Greek text handed down to us. Clearly the woman loved Jesus very much, and Jesus himself declares that her sins have been forgiven. But was the woman forgiven because she loved, or did she love because she had been forgiven? Commentators have argued at length about this, but I’m certainly not qualified to give an opinion on it.

· I wonder though, if this is to look at the link between love and forgiveness in the wrong way. Maybe we should look at it as a dynamic psychological process at work in a relationship between two persons, rather than as cause and effect operating on abstract categories. Think about how it is between people who love each other, whether they are husband and wife, parent and child, or just good loving friends. This is me speaking to someone I love:

  • I confess I have faults, which lead me to do things I know are wrong and give you pain.
  • I also know that you love me and accept me for who I am despite my faults.
  • And I love you, and I am truly sorry for what I have done to hurt you. I will really try to be better, and I will be better.
  • I know I don’t deserve it, but I ask you to forgive me.

When you do forgive me, my love for you, and my determination not to hurt you, are both reinforced.

· Here the relationship is one where love and forgiveness operate together in a dynamic process – neither one precedes the other.

· Perhaps God works a bit like this too, but in mirror image. Now this is God speaking to us:

  • I know you have faults, which lead you to do things you know are wrong, and give me pain
  • But I love you, and accept you for what you are despite your faults.
  • I can see that you love me, and that you are truly sorry you have hurt me. You say you will really try to be better, and perhaps you will surprise me by being so.
  • You don’t deserve it, but you are forgiven.

4. If this is right, if God really does work like this, it is a message of great hope, isn’t it?

· If we are open to the love shown us by God - Our Father in heaven, as Jesus puts it - God will forgive our trespasses of the past, our sense in the present of loving and being loved by God will be reinforced, and that will make us better able to be good and please God in future.

· It is a virtuous circle, which drives away corrosive guilt and helps us to be better people. As Jesus said to the woman: ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.

· And on this Fathers’ Day, I see an important lesson here for all of us: we should try to model our behaviour in relationships on the loving, forgiving behaviour we experience from our loving-father God!

Sunday 15 April 2007

Year C, Easter 2, St Thomas Sunday, 15 April 2007

1. Introduction

  • In the CofI we celebrate the feast of St Thomas the Apostle on the 3rd July, but the Orthodox churches remember him today, the first Sunday after Easter. They call it St Thomas Sunday, because the traditional gospel reading, which we share with them, tells the familiar story of how Thomas came to be called “Doubting Thomas”.
  • Now Thomas is one of my heroes, one of my favourite saints. I admire what I see of his character from the Gospels. And I enjoy the romance of his legendary missionary expedition to India. I feel it’s a bit unfair to call him by the disparaging nick-name “Doubting Thomas” - I much prefer the way Orthodox Christians call him “Believing Thomas”. So I want to take this opportunity to celebrate him a bit.

2. What do we know about Thomas from the Gospels?

It’s only in John’s Gospel that we learn anything at all about him. Elsewhere in the NT he is only a name on lists of Apostles. He’s dubbed Thomas the Twin – Didymus, in Greek. But the name Thomas itself is from the Aramaic word Toma, which also means twin. So the name tells us nothing except that he was a twin. Eastern Church tradition calls him Judas Thomas, so perhaps he was nicknamed The Twin to distinguish him from other Judases. We’re not told anything about his background. And we know nothing about the other twin.

The first time we hear Thomas speak is when Lazarus has just died. Jesus decides to go to Lazarus’s deathbed, but it’s in Judea. The last time Jesus was there, the people had tried to stone him. The disciples don't like this idea at all, and resist his decision, but Jesus is determined. John gives Thomas the last word: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ He may have been pessimistic, but Thomas was also brave, and he was loyal.

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

But it’s in today’s reading that we really see how Thomas’s mind works:

  • He isn’t there when Jesus first appears to the other disciples. They tell him a ridiculous story. Jesus, the man they saw crucified, dead, and buried, has come to them through locked doors, they have talked with him, and he has shown them his wounds. Thomas declares: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
  • A week later, Jesus appears again, and this time Thomas is there. Jesus asks Thomas to touch his wounds, saying: ‘Do not doubt but believe’. John doesn’t tell us whether Thomas really does touch the wounds, but he does report Thomas confessing a new found faith: ‘My Lord and my God!’ And Jesus uses the incident to speak, through those who hear the exchange, to you and to me, and to generations unborn: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
  • Clearly Thomas is one of those independent men who like to make up their own mind. He doesn’t take anything on trust, particularly if it doesn’t square with his own experience. But when he has satisfied himself that something is true, his faith is great and I feel quite sure Thomas would act on it.

3. That’s all we know of Thomas from the NT, but we do have other sources of information about him, which if we can believe them confirm that Thomas really did act on his faith.

There is an ancient tradition, which is supported by early documentary evidence, that Thomas went to India to preach the Gospel, and died there. And there is a living Christian tradition in India that claims Thomas founded their churches. Let’s examine the evidence.

  • The ancient tradition of the Syrian Church has it that Thomas went to the East as a missionary, but there is some uncertainty about just where.
  • Writing before 325AD, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, states that Thomas went to preach the Gospel in Parthia. Parthia is usually taken to mean the Persian Empire stretching from modern Pakistan to Mesopotamia, but the term was often used loosely.
  • And there is the starange Gnostic apocryphal text dated by scholars to the early C3rd, called the Acts of Thomas. It purports to record Thomas’s missionary journeys in India, and eventual martyrdom there. But it also contains a lot of fanciful material.
  • The church at Edessa in Mesopotamia honoured Thomas as the Apostle to India from at least the late C4th. Edessa is now called Urfa, and it’s in modern SE Turkey. From the C3rd through Byzantine times, it was an important Eastern Christian centre with its liturgies in Syriac, a form of the Aramaic language that Jesus himself spoke. Surviving copies of Syriac hymns, attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, preserve a tradition that Thomas’s bones were brought back from India by a merchant after his martyrdom there.

Even today, on the Malabar Coast in Kerala, South India, there are millions of people who call themselves St Thomas Christians, who trace their faith back to Apostle Thomas.

  • They very firmly hold the tradition that Thomas preached the Gospel, baptised, and founded churches there for 20 years, until he was martyred in AD72. They point to a small hill called St Thomas’ Mount, near Madras, as the site of his martyrdom.
  • Many scholars doubt this, but they may be biased. They suggest the St Thomas churches were founded several hundred years later, perhaps by a later Thomas. They suggest the forbears of the St Thomas Christians adopted St Thomas the Apostle as their founder as a sort of Asian rival to St Peter of Rome. The rivalry for pre-eminence among clerics knows few bounds!
  • Whatever the truth, the St Thomas Christians maintained links with the Eastern churches throughout the Middle Ages. When the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar Coast in 1498 he found an estimated 2 million Christians using the Eastern, Syrian rite, with 1500 churches under their own Metropolitan bishop.
  • The Portuguese considered the Eastern-rite churches heretical, and they tried to convert them forcibly to RC doctrines. The St Thomas Christians split, and are now divided over several denominations, but they are still there, 6 million strong and 20% of the population of Kerala. Some are in communion with Rome, and some with various Eastern-rite churches. One group, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, is in communion with the two Anglican churches in India, and so with us.

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

4. So to conclude:

  • I admire Thomas, because in the picture John paints of him I see a loyal friend, a strong character, practical, clear thinking, and independent minded.
  • Some of us are blessed, as Jesus says, with a simple faith, believing what we are told, and acting on it. Others – like Thomas – do not come to faith so easily. I identify with him, because I don’t either. We feel a need to assess the evidence for ourselves, to use our God-given powers of reason to tease out a thing before we believe it. It’s the mindset of modern science, but Thomas’s story shows there have always been people like that. And a faith formed by questioning, as Thomas’s was, can be just as strong as a simple faith, I think. I don’t see Jesus’s response to Thomas as a rebuke: it is much more a simple statement of fact, about different kinds of people.
  • And I want to believe that Thomas took Jesus’s commission to heart and travelled to India to preach the Gospel. It seems to be in keeping with his character. Once he had made up his mind, it is just what I would expect of him. So whatever doubts scholars might introduce, I shall continue to think of him as Thomas the Apostle to India.

Sunday 18 March 2007

Year C, Lent 4, Mothering Sunday, 18 March 2007

1. Introduction

Mothering Sunday is such a lovely opportunity for us to make a fuss of our Mothers, isn’t it? And if they are no longer with us, to remember them, and to recall how much we owe them. We’ll all be doing so today, I’m sure, and it’s right that we should.

I want to start by reflecting a little on how much I owe my own mother:

  • I owe her my very life, of course, as we all do our mothers. She carried me safe in her body for 9 months, and nurtured me, from the time when I was just a bundle of cells until I arrived squalling into the world.
  • Then throughout my childhood she was there, to love me as only a mother can, to comfort me when I was hurt or frightened, to encourage me to be brave and to be ‘a useful engine’. And still she nurtured me – even when I was away at boarding school, every fortnight I received a fruit cake in a parcel through the post from her.
  • As I grew to adulthood she let me go, to make my own way in the world. But she was still always there to love, to comfort, to encourage, and, yes, to nurture me, whenever I needed it.
  • And it was she who taught me the first elements of her Christian faith. One of my earliest memories is of learning my first prayer at her knee: ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on’.
  • I am very blessed to have had such a mother, and I give thanks to God for her. Most of us are similarly blessed. But we need to remember that not all children are so blessed. And also that there are women who yearn for children who cannot have them.

In the rest of this address, I’m going to reflect a little on the origins of the Mothering Sunday tradition, and then focus on the mother themes in today’s OT and Gospel readings – the good compilers of the lectionary have of course carefully chosen ‘mother’ readings for the day that’s in it!

2. Mothering Sunday

The 4th Sunday of Lent was not originally a celebration of motherhood. At least from the C16th in England, it was the day when people returned to make offerings in their “mother church”, the main church or cathedral of the area. Hence it came to be known as ‘Mothering Sunday’.

If children had moved to neighbouring towns and villages, this would be one of the few occasions when whole families could get together. Remember, not much more than 100 years ago, very many children would be sent away from home to work at no more than 10 or 12 years old, as an apprentice if they were a boy, or as a domestic servant if they were a girl.

According to historians, this was the origin of the English tradition that children and young people working away from home should be given the day off on Mothering Sunday, to visit their mothers. I’m not sure if this was an Irish tradition too, but I’d love to know whether or not it was. We may just have borrowed it from the Church of England.

I imagine that as they walked along the country roads, the boys would stop and pick a bunch of violets or other flowers as a present for their mother. And equally the girls might bring their mother a present of a cake. Hence the old traditions of bunches of flowers, and the delicious Simnel cake.

That was the ancient tradition, at least in England. Like so many other old traditions, it was just about extinct after WW1: killed off by social changes and industrialisation. But it got a new lease of life, under the impact of the American invention of ‘Mother’s Day’, which was designated by US President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 to be held on the 2nd Sunday of May. It has now become something of a commercial opportunity, to sell cards and flowers and boxes of chocolates, but I think it’s rather nice that we have managed to retain the ancient traditional Church day for it, on this side of the Atlantic.

In East Anglia, where I spent my childhood, the resurrection of Mothering Sunday is said to be due to the impact of all the American airmen on the bases established there during WW2. I certainly remember it as a living Church festival in the 1950s – my parents would take me and my brother into the woods to pick nosegays of primroses and wood anemones, which would be blessed and given to children at a children’s service to take back to their mothers.

3. The Mothering Sunday traditions, and the emotions they evoke, are warm and tender and comforting. But in case we are in any danger of getting carried away by sentimentality, today’s scripture readings provide the antidote. They serve to remind us that being a mother is not just about flowers and cakes and loving hugs. It is also about heartbreak, and separation, and even death. Even today, being a mother can be a dangerous thing: you may, like me, have seen or heard the news about 10 days ago of Tania Corcoran, a Garda Sergeant, who died giving birth to twins in Drogheda. One of her babies died in the womb, and the other is desperately ill. She was a relative of my sister-in-law and I ask for your prayers for Tania and her family.

a. In the OT reading from Exodus 2:1-10, we heard the strange little tale of Moses in the Bulrushes.

  • The background to the story is that Pharaoh decreed that Hebrew boys should be drowned at birth in the Nile, because he feared the Hebrew minority becoming too strong in his kingdom. The girls were allowed to live: no doubt they would have been married off to Egyptian men, and their children would be Egyptian. A rather nasty ancient case of ethnic cleansing.
  • Moses’ mother saved him from this fate by hiding him, until he was too big to hide anymore, and then she made a little boat for him from a basket, and left him to be found in the rushes by the river-bank. He was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who took pity on him, and decided to adopt him. Moses’ own mother was employed to nurse him, but when he was weaned, she had to give him up to Pharaoh’s daughter.
  • Two things strike me about this story:
  1. how completely torn the emotions of Moses’ natural mother must have been, to be compelled to give away to another woman the child to whom she had given life, and whom she had saved and nurtured. But she knew that was the only way to show her love for him.
  2. the strength of the love of Pharaoh’s daughter for this little Hebrew boy. She no doubt risked the wrath of the state to save his little life, even though he belonged to a hated minority. The love of a foster mother, or of an adoptive mother, is just as valuable in God’s eyes as the love of a natural mother.

b. In the Gospel reading (John 19:25-27) we heard John’s poignant story about how Jesus, even in agony on the Cross, expressed his love for his mother, and the disciple he loved.

  • Public execution is an ugly thing, but the prolonged torture of crucifixion must have been particularly gut-wrenching to watch. Yet Mary his mother found the strength to stay close by Jesus in his agony. How torn she must have been, too: repelled by his ghastly death, yet drawn to be near her beloved son in his last hours. In Mary at the Cross we see an image of the eternal love at the heart of motherhood.
  • Mary the mother of Jesus was supported in her vigil by four others: her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, as well as someone not named, but described as the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’. Scholars have identified Mary’s sister as Salome, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, two of the twelve called by Jesus. She, you may remember, was rebuked by Jesus for asking him to give her sons the chief place in his Kingdom. The ancient tradition of the Church is that the disciple Jesus loved was Salome’s son John, the author of John’s Gospel. If scholars and tradition are right, this John too, like John the Baptist, would be Jesus’s cousin.
  • I find it very moving that on the brink of his death, Jesus should think to commit Mary his mother to the care of John his cousin, and John to the care of Mary, to look after each other, and to comfort each other’s loneliness when he was gone. A truly practical example of the love of God at work in evil times.

4. So, to conclude, it is surely very right for us, on this Mothering Sunday, to thank God for our mothers and for their love for us, whether they are our natural mothers or our foster or adoptive mothers. But let us also remember those mothers whose hearts are broken by death or separation from a child. And let us not forget all those women who long to have a child but cannot, nor all those children who for whatever reason cannot give thanks for a mother’s love.

Announcing Joakim's Godtalk

As well as blogging about my garden under the pen-name Joakim, I'm training to be a Diocesan Reader in the Church of Ireland. Under the guiding hand of my Rector, I am learning the trade of writing and preaching sermons. I prefer to call them addresses, because the word sermon rings too much of teaching, which as a layman I feel neither called nor qualified to do. Rather I see myself as giving witness, and trying to encourage people to think about their faith for themselves.

I find I benefit greatly from the discipline of preparing an address on a text from the lectionary. It forces me to explore and test my own faith, which only serves to strengthen it.

I plan to post my addresses and other God Talk stuff in this blog. If you enjoy God in the Garden, you may also find something of interest here. Whether you do, or not (more likely perhaps!), I would be delighted to get your comments. Feedback is one thing I know that I need!