Tuesday 19 August 2008

Bed-sitters and baptism

It was a great joy for me to be take part in the christening of George Edward de Warrenne Waller on 17th August 2008 in St Mary's Nenagh, at which I was privilged to give this address.

1. Today is a joyful occasion, a day for celebration, a day of baptism!

For many of us it is a family celebration. Particularly so for William and Orla, as with their daughter Esme they bring their baby son George to be christened in the presence of so many of their relatives and friends, who share their joy in him. It is a special joy for me to be here, because William was christened by my father, and I was present at Esme’s christening.

For George’s Godparents, for Clodagh Conroy, Adam Waller, and Tom Waller - Tom unfortunately cannot be here today, but I know he is with us in spirit - it is a day when they promise to encourage George in his life and in his faith. It is a day to celebrate the start of a very special relationship they will have with him as he grows up. My daughter, when she was small, called her Godmother ‘my bed-sitter’, because when her Godmother came to stay she would sit on the end of her bed and have long talks with her. My daughter loved those special talks. May you as Godparents be equally special ‘bed-sitters’ for George!

It is surely right for families to celebrate as families. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself was reared in a human family, and he took part in family celebrations such as the wedding in Cana of Galilee.

2. But today is about much more than just a family celebration.

Today’s reading from St Matthew’s Gospel tells us how Jesus commissioned the eleven to make disciples of all nations, and to mark it by baptism. They in turn passed on the commission to others, handing on the gift of faith to new generations. And so we, as that part of Christ’s church gathered here today, as Jesus’s disciples, pass on this gift to a new generation, to George.

We are here to welcome George as a new member of Christ’s Church. Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God, which will last for the rest of his life. Whether we are family or not, we celebrate that today. And as we renew our baptismal vows, let us reflect on our own journey, and let us be determined to support George’s parents and Godparents as they guide him on his journey.

3. George will be baptised “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

Matthew tells us that Jesus himself used these words. Those of us who are Anglicans share this baptismal formula with most other Christians, including the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox and most Reformed Churches. It is a symbol of unity within the diversity of our denominations that we baptise in the same words.

We shouldn’t see the Trinity as a static thing, I think. Rather, God reveals himself in the Trinity in a dynamic cycle of loving relationships. The Father and the Son loving each other; the Son and the Spirit loving each other; and the Spirit and the Father loving each other.

May George grow up to recognise God’s dynamic cycle of love reflected in his own relationships!

4. According to Matthew, the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples are these: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus was speaking to the eleven, but he still speaks these words to his disciples today.

What an amazing thing it is, that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, our friend and brother, is travelling with us on our journey. Even when we are tired or anxious, lonely or frightened, doubting or lost, Jesus is there with us, to encourage and support us, to love us.

The loving Christ journeys with George, and with every one of us. Let us give thanks for it, and let us celebrate it!

Sunday 10 August 2008

Walking on Water

1. Have you ever been out on the water at night in a small boat in a gale? I have, and I can vouch for how terrifying it can be!

When I was a teenager, I used to spend the summer holidays with my parents in a cottage on Lough Derg. The only way to get to it was by rowing-boat, though it wasn’t really on an island, and the distance to row wasn't very far. Those were lovely holidays! But I remember one stormy night when my mother and I were returning to the cottage. It was blowing a full gale, with a big sea running, and the waves breaking. With one oar each, side by side, we pulled against the wind, inching forward, sometimes being thrown sideways as the wind caught the side of the boat, shipping water all the while. We made several attempts and were thrown back, but eventually we made it to calmer waters, and arrived safely on the other shore. By that time I was shaking like a leaf and quite scared, as I think my mother was too, though she never showed it. It taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: respect for the water – it’s not our native element, and we must never underestimate the power of wind and wave.

Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14:22-33) brings this memory back to me. I feel I can identify with the disciples, even though I don’t think I was in real danger, as they must have been. The Sea of Galilee, more than 200 metres below sea level in the Jordan rift valley and surrounded by hills, is renowned for the fierce and dangerous storms that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and abate just as quickly.

The story of Jesus walking on the water comes immediately after the feeding of the 5000, and it is recorded in the Gospels of Mark (6:45-52) and John (6:15-21) as well as Matthew, but not in Luke’s. I want to try to enter imaginatively into the story, drawing on all three accounts, and then finish by reflecting on what we can learn from it today.

2. First, why did Jesus send the disciples away by boat and go up himself into the mountain alone to pray?

Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard that Herod had executed John the Baptist, he went across the lake to be by himself. Herod’s rule did not extend there. Perhaps Jesus was afraid that Herod would try to arrest and kill him as he had John. And no doubt he wanted time to pray for God’s guidance on what he should do next.

But the crowds followed him. And we heard last week about what happened then – the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.

After that John tells us that Jesus realised that the crowd was ‘about to come and take him by force to make him king’. This I think is the clue. Jesus knew that earthly power was not what God intended for him. It was a dangerous situation. Perhaps Jesus thought the disciples might complicate it, because they were still thinking of him as an earthly ruler as well.

So Jesus sent them away, dismissed the crowd, and went up the mountain into the night to pray about it, until early morning.

3. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble in one of the lake’s notorious storms.

They had set out in the boat in the evening light, unaware of the coming storm. Mark records that Jesus ‘saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind’. I imagine the night must have been bright and moonlit despite the storm, for Jesus to be able to see the little boat.

Matthew agrees with Mark that, ‘early in the morning’ Jesus ‘came walking towards them on the lake’. The Greek words translated as ‘early in the morning’ literally mean ‘in the 4th watch of the night’. In those days, with no clocks, time during the night was counted in 4 watches of 3 hours each. So at around 3 am, Jesus walking on the high ground after praying clearly saw the little boat struggling through waves and spray, and came down to the shore to help.

John adds that ‘they had rowed about three or four miles’, so they must have been making painfully slow progress through the storm. I can empathise with that!

4. But what is this about Jesus walking on the lake? Should we imagine Jesus far from land, in the middle of the lake, walking on the water over the waves?

This is how most Christians have imagined the scene, I suppose, and many artists have depicted it. But there is a difficulty with translation here. The Greek words translated as ‘on the lake’ could equally mean ‘towards the lake’, or ‘at the lake’, that is by the lake shore.

The truth is that there are two perfectly possible interpretations of this passage. The first describes a miracle in which Jesus actually walked on the water. In the second, the disciples boat was driven by the wind to the shore, Jesus came down from the mountain to help them when he saw them struggling in the moonlight, and Jesus came walking through the surf towards the boat. Both interpretations are equally valid. Some will prefer one and some the other.

All three Gospels agree that when the disciples saw Jesus they were terrified, believing him to be a ghost, until Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.

However we interpret the Greek, the significance to the disciples is perfectly clear: In the hour of their need, Jesus came to them, to help and reassure them.

5. Only Matthew adds the detail about Peter trying to walk on the water too.

It’s a charming vignette, and so in character for Peter, from the other things we know of him. He was brave and impetuous, but often found it hard to live up to his good intentions. Remember, it was Peter who swore undying loyalty to Jesus only to deny 3 times that he knew him the next day.

When Jesus said ‘Come’, Peter bravely ‘got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus’. But his courage failed him and he started to sink. ‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”’

Whether Jesus was miraculously walking on water, or whether he was walking through the surf on the shore to help the disciples in the boat, Peter surely learned this: It is not always easy to follow Jesus, but Jesus is always there to catch him when he stumbles and sinks.

The Gospel writers differ on what happens next. Matthew and Mark both tell us that as soon as Jesus got into the boat, the storm ceased. But John says that ‘immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going’. Whichever it was, the disciples must have been very relieved that they were safe. Only Matthew records that they worshipped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God”.

6. Finally, as Jesus’s disciples today, what can we learn from this story, 2000 years on?

Well, surely the same things that Peter and the disciples learned! They were privileged to know Jesus the man and sail the Sea of Galilee with him. But we are privileged too to know the spiritual reality of the living Christ.

In life the wind is often against us. Life for every one of us sometimes feels like a desperate struggle, with ourselves, with our circumstances, with temptations, with sorrow, with the consequences of decisions made. But none of us need struggle alone, for Jesus comes to us across the storms of life, bidding us to take heart and have no fear in his calm, clear voice. In the hour of our need, Jesus will come to us as he did to the disciples long ago, to help and reassure us. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’!

If we seek to follow Jesus, we will find like Peter that it is not always easy. It will test our faith at times. Our faith will not always be enough and we will have doubts. But when we feel ourselves going under, if we cry out ‘Lord save me’, Jesus will be there for us, just as he was for Peter, reaching out his hand to catch us. Jesus is always there to save us when we are sinking. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

Sunday 3 August 2008

Feeding 5000 (or 500 million!)

1. Today’s Gospel reading (Matt 14:13-21) is wonderfully apt for the day that’s in it!

The August bank holiday is a great time to have a picnic. Provided the weather is good, of course, which thank God it is today, and please God it will be tomorrow! A picnic - this is what Matthew is telling us about, isn’t it? A truly gigantic picnic!

To those of us brought up in the Church the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is a well-loved, familiar story from childhood. We can all picture the scene, because so many artists have painted it over the centuries.

Jesus wants to get away by himself for a while. He sails across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to a deserted place, but the crowd spots him and follows by land, getting there before he does. I haven’t been to the Sea of Galilee, but I imagine it as a bit like our own Lough Derg; a little bigger in area, and wider, but not so long. In my minds eye I see Jesus sailing from Terryglass over to Portumna Forest Park!

Jesus we are told ‘had compassion for them and cured their sick’, and no doubt he talks to the crowd about the good news of God’s kingdom too, as he usually did. And when it gets late and they are hungry he arranges to feed them. In a grassy place, miles from anywhere, the disciples serve a bountiful picnic to the crowd. Jesus provides the food miraculously from five loaves and two small fishes. Everyone eats their fill, and the leftovers fill twelve baskets!

It’s the only one of Jesus’s miracles that comes in all four Gospels. They all tell the same story, with the same numbers: a crowd of 5,000, 5 loaves and 2 fishes, and 12 baskets of leftovers.

John adds the charming detail that a boy gave the loaves and fishes to Andrew, who gave them to Jesus saying But what are these among so many? What a generous boy he was! I imagine the boy’s mother sending him off with a packed lunch, and though he must have been hungry himself, he offered it to Andrew to give to Jesus.

What I want to do today is to reflect on what we, today, can learn from this miracle. But before we get to that I think it’s useful first to reflect on the miracle itself, and second to reflect on what those present on the day would have learned from it.

2. So what really happened that day? What miraculous thing did Jesus do?

I suppose that most Christians over the last 2000 years have believed that what Jesus did was quite simply to multiply the loaves and fishes until there was enough to go round. The miracle was to multiply the physical items. If this is what you believe, you are in good company; be content with it, and may you remain undisturbed in your faith. If we believe that Jesus is God, and God is almighty, then Jesus as God can do anything he pleases. There is no reason to believe that he didn’t simply multiply the loaves and fishes.

But many Christians find this difficult to accept, and look for other explanations. Such simple multiplication seems to break the laws of physics, the laws God has established for the material world, which he seems to have made to behave quite predictably.

Some Christians see in this miracle a sacrament. They believe that those present received only the tiniest morsel of food, yet were strengthened by it in a spiritual way so they could return home satisfied. If this is so, then it is a miracle which we re-enact every time we take communion, and go out strengthened to walk the road of love that Jesus has shown us.

Other Christians see in it something at the same time both perfectly natural, and quite miraculous. Surely the majority of the crowd would not have set off on their long trek around the lake without taking some food with them. But they are humanly selfish, and afraid to produce what they have in case they must share it and be left without enough themselves. Then Jesus takes the lead. He takes the boy’s small offering and shares it with a blessing and a smile. And his example prompts the rest of the crowd to share, so that before they know it there is more than enough for all. If that is what happened, the miracle is how the touch of Christ changes selfish people into generous people.

But in the end, I do not think it matters a whit what we believe happened that day, and I do not think we all need to believe the same thing. What does matter is this: when Jesus is there the sick are healed and the hungry soul is fed.

3. So what did those present at the miracle learn that day?

Jesus’s miracles don’t yield their meanings all at once. They work like slow fuses, revealing their meanings bit by bit to those who ponder them.

The crowd who followed Jesus around the lake experienced someone who really cared for them. An ordinary man might have been resentful that they were invading his privacy with their continual demands. But not Jesus. He graciously made time for them, even though he wanted rest and quiet. He healed those who were sick. And when it was late and they were hungry, he arranged for them to eat to give them strength for the journey home. Most of them probably didn’t see what he did or how he did it - with 5000 there, how could they? But afterwards, as they mulled over the events of the day and talked to others about it, I feel sure that they came to realise that this man Jesus cared for them in the same way that, as Jews, they believed God cared for his chosen people.

What of the disciples? They experienced Jesus’s miracle directly, and Jesus made it into an action learning lesson for them. They ask Jesus to send the crowd home when they become anxious that it is late and everyone is hungry. But Jesus is uncompromising, that is not his way. He challenges the disciples, saying ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ What are they to do? They certainly don’t have enough food for such a crowd. In consternation, after searching around to see what there is, they bring him the 5 loaves and 2 fishes and tell him this is all they have. Only then does Jesus take charge, when they have run out of ideas, when they have offered him what little they have. Only then does Jesus bless and break the bread, perform the miracle, and give the disciples enough to feed the crowd with more left over.

They may have been slow to understand what Jesus was teaching them. On a later occasion Mark records Jesus reminding them of the miracle, and saying: ‘Do you not yet understand?’ But they did come to understand in the end, or the miracle would not have been recorded in all 4 Gospels. In years to come they understood that Jesus had taught them an important lesson of faith to guide their work. The lesson of faith is this: what they have to offer may be woefully inadequate to do what Jesus asks; but if they bring it to him, if they place it in his hands and let him use it, Jesus will bless it and he will give it back to them, but multiplied unimaginably, and now more than adequate for his purpose.

4. Now at last we can turn to see what we can learn today from Jesus’s miracle.

Jesus had compassion for the crowd and cured the sick. Jesus saw the crowd were hungry and arranged to feed them. Today as we look around the world, we see millions of people, made in God’s image like us, suffering and dying from preventable disease. And we see more millions of people hungry, many starving to death. Closer to home, the deepening economic recession will likely increase the suffering of the poor and the sick. As Christians, surely Jesus is calling us to show the compassion and care that he showed to the crowd by the Sea of Galilee.

We in the church, in all our denominations, are Jesus’s disciples today. There are many more of us now than there were disciples then. Jesus is calling us just as he called them to carry out his mission of love. And we need to learn the same lesson that he taught them, that lesson of faith.

The lesson of faith is this. Though the needs of the world seem altogether too big for us to make even a dent in them, we must not be daunted. Let us offer what we have to Jesus. Let us allow him to use it. He will bless and multiply what we offer. And it will be enough!