Sunday 13 December 2009

Repentance & Hellfire

An address given on Sunday 13th December 2009, Advent 3, at Templederry and Puckane Roman Catholic Church, which Fr John Slattery and his parish have been kind enough to invite us to use while Killodiernan is being re-roofed.

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’
John the Baptist had quite a way with words, didn’t he, as Luke records them in today’s New Testament reading (Luke 3:7-18). Luke has just told us that John travelled around the Jordan region as a wandering preacher ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. He was what we would call today a ‘hellfire preacher’. It seems he not so much ‘proclaimed the good news to the people’, as sought to terrify the crowds who followed him into repentance.

The Jewish crowd perhaps felt that as God’s chosen people they were safe from God’s judgement – for hadn’t Zephaniah in our Old Testament reading declared (Zeph 3:14-20), like other prophets before and after him, ‘The Lord has taken away the judgements against you’? But for John it was their own fruits worthy of repentance that mattered, not their genealogy, not their descent from the patriarch Abraham.

‘Even now’, John goes on, ‘the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’.

It’s strong stuff, isn’t it – ‘Repent and do good or you will be judged and sentenced to the fires of hell’, seems to be John’s message.

It’s not a popular message these days, but it is an important one I think. Let’s try to tease it out a bit more

First, there is repentance.
Jesus preached repentance too, of course - Matthew summarised his teaching in these familiar words, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2).

Now, in modern English the word repentance carries at least a suggestion of penance, almost of punishment, of a stern authority saying, ‘I’ll make you sorry!’ But the Greek word μετάνοια – metanoia, translated as ‘repentance’ in the NT, didn’t carry this baggage; it simply meant ‘change of mind’.

People 2000 years ago were very much like us, a mixture of good and bad. They loved their families, their home places and their synagogues - but they also feathered their own nests when they could, exploited other people, and did what they knew they shouldn’t to get what they wanted. Both John and Jesus challenged them to change their whole attitude, to live their lives not by the standard of their own advantage, but by God’s standard of what is right.

And surely when they responded to the challenge they felt a sense of liberation, not punishment. Like all of us they had consciences, they knew the difference between right and wrong, they felt guilt for the bad things they did, and when they experienced this change of attitude the psychological burden of guilt was lifted. God responds with forgiveness when we repent.

Second, there are the ‘fruits worthy of repentance’.
That warm feeling of forgiveness, of being freed from guilt, is meaningless, of course, unless we actually change our behaviour, unless we really do live up to God’s standard. This is what John means when he insists that we must ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’. It is what Jesus meant when he told the woman taken in adultery, whom he had saved from stoning, 'Go your way, and from now on do not sin again' (John 8:3-11)

The crowds following John ask him what they should do. I think his answers are very significant. He tells them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise’. He does not tell them to spend more time in the Synagogue; he tells them to practice living in the world by God’s standard of loving their neighbour as themselves. The well-off must support the less fortunate among us. We should take John’s words to heart, I think.

Many poor people are struggling in this recession. Organisations like St Vincent de Paul and Protestant Aid seek to help them, but they need support from the rest of us to do so. If you can afford it - only of you can afford it, why not give them an extra Christmas present this year? Perhaps equivalent to what you would spend on a member of your family?

And then there's Budget 2010. Perhaps Brian Lenihan should reflect on John's words. Social welfare and the overseas aid budgets have been cut, while taxes on the better off have been left untouched. Are these ‘fruits worthy of repentance’?

And lastly, there is the fire.
John answers the people who were speculating whether he, John, was the Messiah in these words: ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ As Christians we believe he is speaking of Jesus. ‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand’, he continues, ‘to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

The image is of Jesus, the Messiah, like a farmer threshing his corn, separating the full grains - which he saves, from the useless chaff - which he throws on the fire. John uses it to illustrate the consequences of not ‘bearing fruits worthy of repentance’. I find it a terrifying picture of judgement, because we all know how often we fail to live up to God’s standards: are we grain to be saved or are we chaff to be burned?

Matthew tells us (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43) that Jesus also used the image of fire, in his Parable of the Weeds, sometimes called the Parable of the Tares. Here, if you remember, the farmer sows good seed, but his enemy sows weeds in the same field. The farmer orders they be left to grow together, because pulling the weeds might uproot the good seed. But at harvest time, the farmer has the weeds separated out and burned in the fire, as he saves the good grain.

I suggest we need to take this metaphor of judgement fire seriously. Our actions do have consequences – it does matter whether we bear ‘fruits worthy of repentance’, or not. God will know it if we don’t - and we will too, deep inside ourselves, because our God-given conscience will tell us so. Our loving God allows us all the time we could need to produce good grain, but he does not force us to. If in the end we do not, it is we who will have consigned our own souls to the metaphorical fires of hell. God does not wish it, but God can only look on in sadness at our human wilfulness.

Let’s finish with a prayer:
Loving Father,

who through John the Baptist called us
to bear fruits worthy of repentance,
show us what we must do to live up to your standards,
so that our souls may not suffer in the fires of hell;
in the name of our saviour Jesus Christ we pray. Amen

Sunday 29 November 2009

Apocalypse and Advent

An address given at St Mary's, Nenagh, on 29th November 2009, Advent Sunday.

We have witnessed appalling sights over the last 10 days.
Homes, businesses and farms have been flooded, devastating the lives of thousands. More thousands have been deprived of clean water to drink. Close to home, the Shannon has risen to levels never previously recorded, and there are fears for critical infrastructure such as the bridge at Killaloe and the Ardnacrusha dam. Those of us who have been spared have a duty, I think, to help those who are suffering. So I urge you to put your hands deep in your pockets for the retiring collection suggested by Bishop Trevor, which will be channelled through the Irish Red Cross. Or alternatively you can make a donation on their website by credit card.

Many people are asking themselves whether all this is due to climate change. No one can say so with certainty, I think, because climate is a matter of statistics. But climate scientists say that global warming will increase the frequency of extreme weather events, and also that winter rainfall in the west of Ireland is likely to increase as temperatures rise, making flooding like this more common. I believe we should take these floods as a wake-up call to act now to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Catastrophic global warming is not just something that will affect people far away – our own future is at risk.

We are increasingly afraid, afraid that the world as we know it is about to undergo a terrifying change. And I think we have cause to be afraid. We are living in apocalyptic times.

Luke records Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms in today’s Gospel reading.
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves’, Jesus says. ‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.’

Jesus’s words are in an apocalyptic literary tradition reaching back into Old Testament times - “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” is actually a quotation from the Book of Daniel, one of the apocalyptic books. The tradition reaches forward to the New Testament book we call Revelation. And from there through medieval visions of the last judgement to, I suppose, modern science fiction fantasies of disaster.

Does Jesus forecast in these words an apocalyptic end of the world? There are Christian fundamentalists who look forward to the second coming of Christ amid awful battles and destruction in the end-time. They clearly believe so - but I cannot. They take scripture too literally, and I think they are deeply misguided. Instead I suggest that Jesus intended his words to apply to every time, to all times, not just to an end-time.

Perhaps his parable is a clue: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.’ Trees sprout new leaves every year – the image is of something that happens again and again and again, not just once at the end.

And it is true, isn’t it, that every generation is faced with its own apocalyptic fears. We may be terrified by the looming catastrophe of global warming. But my parents were haunted by the horror and destruction of total war. Their parents suffered the horrors of the trenches followed by a bloody liberation struggle and fratricidal civil war. And every previous generation has lived through its own nightmares.

Jesus’s message is surely one of hope as we confront our fears, hope for us and hope for every generation that hears his words. ‘So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.’ Even if these things are terrifying. ‘Stand up and raise your heads’, he tells us, ‘because your redemption is drawing near’.

The basis of this hope - our hope - is the miracle of the Incarnation.
This is the first day of Advent, the time each year when we look forward to the Incarnation; the miracle that God has chosen to be part of the world he created, our world; the miracle that God has taken on our flesh in a stunning act of solidarity with his creatures. We wait in expectation for the kingdom of God and our redemption to come near.

On Christmas day Jesus will be born as the helpless baby son of Mary and Joseph into a frightening world. A Roman imperial decree will make his parents travel from their home to far away Bethlehem, where they will find no shelter but a stable. And soon they will be forced to flee as refugees from Herod’s violent wrath. Mary and Joseph had to confront their own fears just as we must.

But through the eyes of faith we will see this helpless child grow up to be ‘“the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory’, who announces the kingdom of God and promises us redemption. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’, he says, ‘but my words will not pass away’.

Jesus urges us, ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ So I shall finish with a prayer:
Loving Father,
who sent your Son Jesus Christ
to proclaim your kingdom
and restore the broken to fullness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world and of your people;
Give us the strength to overcome our fears
and to stand before the Son of Man;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord and Redeemer.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Generous widows

An address given at Templederry on 8th November 2009, the 3rd Sunday before Advent, Year B

Did you notice the common themes running through today’s readings? I’m sure you did - if you were listening!
1st - they’re both about widows. 2nd - they’re both about giving generously:
  • In the OT reading (1Kings 17:8-16), we met the generous widow who fed the prophet Elijah during a great drought and famine.
  • In the NT reading (Mark 12:38-44), Jesus first warns his audience against scribes who ‘devour widow’s houses’, and then he points out another generous widow, who puts all the money she has into the Temple collection.
This morning I want to reflect a little about what the readings say to me.

First, there are the scribes that Jesus warns us about.
‘Beware of the scribes’, he says, ‘who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.’

Now, I have to confess Jesus’s words make me feel a little uncomfortable. Here I am dressed up in long robes - a cassock with a flowing surplice. Of course it’s really no more than a uniform, based on the plain clothes of long ago, but perhaps I ought to wear a decent work suit, not long robes, to lead worship. I like to be treated with respect too, just like everyone else. And you probably think that the prayers I lead are too long. Perhaps you should beware of me! I don’t think I devour widows’ houses though.

The scribes were the leaders of society in Jesus’s day. Today we might identify them with the professional classes – the lawyers, the doctors, and the business leaders; the developers, the bankers, and the politicians - as well as the church hierarchy. The widows, on the other hand, were among the most vulnerable and marginalised of the poor then – in today’s terms they might be those trying to live on social welfare or the minimum wage.

Jesus is criticising the well-got for feathering their own nests at the expense of the poor and vulnerable – ‘they devour widows’ houses’, is the cutting way he puts it.

As we approach the budget in December, we are hearing a torrent of voices calling for cuts which would hit the poor and vulnerable hard, and we hear the same voices asserting that the well off cannot afford to pay more in taxes. I think we too should ‘beware of the scribes’. The truth is that the rich can afford to be generous in their support of the poor.

Then there’s Elijah, caught up in a great drought sent to punish Ahab, King of Israel, prophesied by Elijah himself.
In the passage just before today's reading, Elijah is first guided by the word of the Lord to find refuge by a stream in the Wadi Cherith in the Eastern wilderness, where the ravens bring him food and he has water to drink - but the stream dries up. Then, as we heard, the word of the Lord directs him to Zarephath where he meets the widow.

She is poor, she is vulnerable, with a son to feed. She’s at her wits end, ready to give up. Elijah asks her for food, and she answers, ‘I have … only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die’.

But Elijah assures the widow that God will provide. ‘Thus says the Lord the God of Israel’, he tells her, ‘the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth’.

And with amazing generosity – with reckless generosity - the widow does as Elijah asks. She shares her small stock of food with him. And it lasts all three of them until the famine is over.

This surely is a parable about sharing generously. When times are hard, if we share generously what we have, there will be enough for all – God will provide. Times are hard now. So many of us are worried and anxious about how we will get through the next few years of economic depression. It would be very easy to hoard every red cent we have because we might need it later. But if instead we are generous in sharing what God has given us, we will all come through it together.

Finally, there’s the poor widow Jesus spots at the Temple treasury.
It was the custom for people to give money at the treasury to support the Temple, in much the same way as we take up collections in Church. Jesus is a great observer of people, a people-watcher. He watches and sees many rich people giving large sums. Then he notices the poor widow contributing two small copper coins – I imagine them as like those annoying 1 cent coins which few of us bother to pick up from the ground anymore. And he uses this contrast to teach his disciples about generosity.

‘Truly I tell you’, he says, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on’. Her generosity is reckless, just like Elijah’s widow’s – she might have put in just one of her coins, but no, she puts them both in!

Real generosity isn’t about how much you give; it is about the sacrifice you make. You get no brownie points in heaven for giving more than someone else, but you do for giving until it hurts.

You should all have had Mission Sunday envelopes, and I want to remind you they are due back today. I hope you will fill them generously, because our diocesan mission partners rely on our support to be able to carry out the good work they do. But if 5 cent is a sacrifice for you it is quite enough, while if €50 is no sacrifice, perhaps you should consider giving more.

I think it is rather wonderful that the person Jesus marks out as a pattern of generosity had so little to give in money and possessions, because they really have nothing to do with it, nothing at all. The last verse of Christina Rossetti’s beautiful carol, In the bleak mid winter, which we will soon be singing, sums up what real generosity is about, I think:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him, give my heart.

Sunday 11 October 2009

The eye of the needle

An address given at Templederry on 11 October 2009, the 18th Sunday after Trinity.

Do you know how to catch a monkey?
First take a jar with an opening a little larger than the monkey's hand. Attach the jar to something that can't be moved, like this pulpit. Then put something in the jar that the monkey wants – a sweet, perhaps. The monkey reaches in, grabs the treat, but with his hand full, he can't get his hand out of the opening. He's so greedy he won't let go – you have him trapped!

The man in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:17-31) is rather like the monkey, isn’t he?

He had asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” - ‘Jesus, looking at him’, we are told, ‘loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’

I think the man is a failed apostle. He received the same call to leave everything and follow Jesus that Peter and the rest of the Twelve did. Jesus loved him and must have seen his potential. But the man was trapped, trapped by all his possessions, and he could not respond to Jesus.

Is there something we should learn from this man’s story?
Should we all, perhaps, do what this man couldn’t do – sell all our possessions, give the money to charity, and follow Jesus in holy poverty?

Just imagine what would happen if everybody did that. Prices would immediately crash. The economy would come to a grinding halt, putting our current recession into the halfpenny place. And as ever the weak would suffer the worst consequences.

No, the fact is that Jesus calls each one of us uniquely, personally. He does not call us all to be or do the same thing. He calls some to follow him in holy poverty, as he called his twelve apostles, as he called others through the centuries like St Francis of Assisi, and as perhaps he calls some today. But very few of us are called to be apostles.

Rather each one of us should practice listening attentively for Jesus to reveal our personal call, through prayer, through our conscience and through the working of the Holy Spirit. And pray that when we hear Jesus call, we will be able to respond.

Jesus goes on to reflect on how wealth and possessions can cut us off from God.
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

What a knack Jesus has for vivid, humorous images! – once heard, no one ever forgets this image of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle, as a metaphor for human impossibility.

Almost all of us here in Ireland are rich compared to most on the planet, despite the wealth which has been destroyed in the crash. Surely we must all sit up and take notice of these words of Jesus, whatever else our personal call might be.

The trouble, I think, is not wealth and possessions in themselves; it is how we use them - and how we allow them to use us. They are God’s good gifts, but it is all too easy for us to allow them to close our ears to Jesus’s call, preventing us from being the people God wants us to be – in other words preventing us from entering the kingdom of God. We must always be prepared to surrender wealth and possessions back to God, if that is necessary to do God’s will.

Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, coined the slogan ‘To be rich is glorious’
Doesn’t that sum up the false values of our busted Celtic Tiger economy? We share those values with all other modern industrial societies. Advertising encourages us to want more and more stuff we don’t need. We run around in circles to get the money to buy it, at the expense of our health, our communities and our families. And we consume it and finally throw it away, damaging our environment in the process. Yet we are no happier for doing so!

We all know this kind of collective madness cannot go on, unless we are peculiarly deaf and blind. People made in God’s image are being hurt. God’s planet is being trashed. And we are threatened with a global warming catastrophe. This cannot be God’s will. The Holy Spirit is speaking very clearly, and our consciences must tell us this is wrong. Now, surely, we need as a society to discard the false values, to surrender our greedy dreams of riches, to offer back to God some of the riches we have received.

Jesus tells us that it is almost impossible for us to enter God's kingdom while we hold on to our riches. But how hard it is to let them go! “Then who can be saved?” say the disciples to one another. “For mortals” – that’s men and women like you and me – “it is impossible”, says Jesus, “but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

May God show us how to live more abundantly with less, how to rekindle community, and how to serve fundamental human need instead of worshiping greed.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Creation in Crisis

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on 13 September 2009, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, on the theme Creation in Crisis suggested by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland for Creation Time.

God’s creation is in crisis!

Well, perhaps not the whole of creation, but this planet is in crisis. And it is we human beings who are making an unholy mess of it - this beautiful world, our wonderful Garden of Eden, which we share with so many others of God’s creatures.

There is room for very little argument about the facts of climate change, nor that human beings are playing the dominant role in causing the crisis of global warming.

The message from the climate scientists working in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is very clear. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has gone up, largely due to people burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas, but also due to people cutting down forests and intensifying agriculture. This is causing average global temperatures to rise inexorably – by about 1°C already, with more inevitable. As a result:
  • sea levels will rise - probably by around a metre by 2100, what ever changes we make now – threatening coastal communities around the world;
  • extreme weather events – storms, floods and droughts – will become more frequent, causing increasing death and destruction;
  • and eco-systems world wide will be disrupted, with potentially serious consequences for the entire web of life on earth.
Aid agencies like Christian Aid and Trocaire warn, correctly I’m sure, that in the immediate future those most threatened will be the poorest of the poor in the Third World. But as temperatures rise, we will all pay the price.

Scientists also warn that unless we limit global warming very soon, the planet may pass one of several points of no return and undergo run-away heating, with quite apocalyptic and irreversible consequences.

Wouldn’t it be wise for people all over the world to heed these warnings and start to make the changes necessary to limit global warming? The UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen in December will be an opportunity for the leaders of the nations to do just that. But there are wishful-thinkers and sceptics who refuse to believe the climate scientists, and there are those who selfishly procrastinate, waiting for others to act first. Will global leaders rise to the occasion? We must pray that they will.

All this echoes today’s OT reading (Proverbs 1:20-33)

Wisdom is personified as a woman, appealing to the people in the street. She calls them to ‘choose the fear of the Lord’ – in other words to do God’s will not their own. But many – the simple, the scoffers, the fools, she calls them - refuse to listen to Wisdom.

‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof’, she begins.

And she goes on to warn them of the consequences of not listening: ‘Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.’

The climate scientists and the climate activists are calling all of us to change the way we live and work to limit and reverse global warming, in much the same way surely, as Wisdom called the people on the street to ‘choose the fear of the Lord’ in the Book of Proverbs. Will we listen to Wisdom, or will we respond like the simple, the scoffers and the fools?

The climate change crisis is one part of the Crisis of Creation – but not all of it, I think.

We are also experiencing a social crisis on a global scale, where millions of people live on the edge of starvation in the poor world, while millions of people in the rich world live on a treadmill of consumption, using up the earths finite resources at an ever increasing rate which cannot continue. And we are also in the middle of an economic crisis, with asset prices crashing and people being thrown into unemployment, impoverishing millions.

All these crises are I think deeply linked. And as Christians we should be able to recognise the root cause of them all very well: it is human selfishness and greed – old fashioned sins to which people have been liable since the dawn of time.

Jesus challenges us to believe in the good news about God – that if we repent he forgives. And that enables us to follow the way Jesus shows us, seeking and working for God’s kingdom which is coming near. That is the way we must overcome the crisis of creation.

But today’s NT reading (Mark 8:27-38) reminds us that the task will not be an easy one. He tells the crowd and his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’

Now, in rich Ireland – and compared to many others we are still rich, despite the crash – not all of us are particularly selfish and greedy. But most of us have become trapped – within my own lifetime - in a lifestyle of high consumption fuelled by lots of cheap fossil energy. That will have to change or we will destroy God’s planet for our children and grandchildren. The change can only start with individuals - with you, with me. And the change will be painful.
  • Will you deny yourself unnecessary consumption and make a start to tackle the crisis of creation? Will you?
  • Will you take up the cross, changing the way you live and work to reduce damage to the planet? Will you?
  • The ball is in your court and mine. What will your decision be?

Monday 17 August 2009

Walking on Water

An address given at the ecumenical service of thanksgiving for the Lough Derg Yacht Club Regatta, on Sunday 16th August 2009.

Have you ever been out on the water at night in a small boat in a gale? I expect many of you have been. Were you frightened? I can tell you, when I was, I was terrified!

It was a wild night and I was a teenager. To get back to the cottage in Luska bay where we were staying, my mother and I had to row less than a hundred yards - but it was blowing a gale, with a big sea running, and 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, terrified. My mother probably was too, though she never let me see it. It taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: respect for the water – it’s not our native element, and we underestimate the power of wind and wave at our peril.

Today’s reading from St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) brings this memory back to me. The same event is recorded in Mark’s and John’s Gospels. 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 is renowned for the fierce and dangerous storms that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and abate just as quickly. I see it in my minds eye as rather like Lough Derg – it’s much the same size: about 40% bigger in area and wider, but not so long. We all know how quickly a squall can blow up on Lough Derg, but Galilee's position, 200 metres below sea level in the Jordan rift valley, can make theirs much more ferocious.

The disciples had got into trouble in one of Galilee’s notorious storms - and they had no RNLI or Coastguard to help them!

Immediately after feeding the 5000, Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat, while he told the crowds to go home, and went off up the mountain to pray by himself.

The disciples had set out in the evening light, unaware of the coming storm. Mark tells us that Jesus ‘saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind’. I imagine the night was bright and moonlit for Jesus to be able to see the little boat.

‘Early in the morning’, Matthew tells us, Jesus ‘came walking toward them on the sea’. 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 sometime between 3 and 6 am, Jesus, walking on the high ground after praying, saw the little boat struggling through waves and spray, and came to help.

But what is this about Jesus walking on the sea?

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 we should be aware of a possible problem 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 Jesus miraculously walking on the water in the middle of the lake. In the second, the disciples’ boat is driven by the wind to the shore, Jesus comes down from the mountain to help when he sees them struggling in the moonlight, and Jesus walks through the surf towards the boat. Both interpretations are equally valid, I think. Some will prefer one and some the other.

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.

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 he 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.

Finally, is there anything we can 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. 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 9 August 2009

Living Bread

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on 9th Aug 2009, Trinity 9

One of life’s greatest pleasures is to share a meal with loved ones and friends, isn’t it?
It is for me, and I'm quite sure it is for you too – good food, good drink and good company! And it must have been so for Jesus as well, since so often in the Gospels we find Jesus sharing meals with others. He shared table fellowship not just with his disciples and friends, but also with tax collectors and sinners, and with Pharisees and scribes – with all kinds of people.

When Jesus himself broke bread as the host at a meal, he had a special way of doing so – first he took the food, then he gave thanks or blessed it, and finally he broke it and shared it out. It was so distinctive that only when the disciples on the road to Emmaus saw it did they recognise Jesus, after his death and resurrection. Today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 6:35, 41-51) comes just after Jesus shares a meal with others on a grand scale – the feeding of the 5000 – a gigantic outdoor picnic. There too in his special way, he took, blessed and shared the five barley loaves and two fishes to feed the crowd.

We can recognise this same sequence of actions – taking, blessing and sharing - in the Last Supper as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And that of course is the model for Holy Communion - the Eucharist - which we with all other Christians continue to celebrate in his memory. The Last Supper can be seen as an acted parable – and so, I think, can all the other meals Jesus shared in his Eucharistic way of taking, blessing and sharing.

But what does the acted parable of Eucharist mean? In today’s reading John opens out for us the spiritual significance of Eucharist for Jesus himself, in Jesus’s own words. The last verse (John 6:51) sums up what Jesus meant:

‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Today I’m going to share with you my own reflection on these words.

First, what does Jesus mean when he says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven’?
Jesus says ‘I am’ many things on different occasions, among them ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the door’, ‘I am the way’, and ‘I am the true vine’. He is of course talking in metaphors, about his relationship with those he is talking to, but also his relationship with God, who he calls his loving Father.

Jesus has just been responding to hecklers in the crowd who want him to display earthly power as Moses did by sending bread from heaven - manna - to feed the people in the wilderness, so naturally the metaphor Jesus uses on this occasion is about bread.

As Jesus tells the hecklers, it is God who sent the manna, just as it is God who sends the food we all need to nourish our bodies. But Jesus wants his listeners to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. God also provides what we need to nourish our spirits – by analogy with the bread which feeds our bodies, this is bread from heaven.

And Jesus knows that his loving-father God is calling him, by his every action and every word, to offer this spiritual nourishment to all people. So he uses metaphor to describe himself as the living bread which comes down from heaven.

The hecklers in the crowd knew quite well who Jesus was - the son of Joseph the carpenter from nearby Nazareth. They chose not to understand the metaphor – and they ridiculed the idea that Jesus came down from heaven.

Second, what does Jesus mean when he says, ‘Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever’?
I suppose people since the dawn of humanity have dreaded death and had fantasies of living for ever. But we all know, as Jesus did, that our physical bodies are doomed to die and decay.

Yet for Jesus this is not what truly matters. What does matter is our relationship with God. It is those who believe that God is like a loving Father, enfolding and protecting them, that are released from dread of their own mortality. So he says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life’. Eternal life is surely another metaphor for a loving relationship with God.

And more than that, Jesus knows his own importance. Working in and through him, God reveals his own nature as loving Father to those who listen. Those who feed on Jesus’s words and actions, as on bread from heaven, have eternal life.

'This is eternal life,’ says Jesus, after the Last Supper in John's version, ‘that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’

Third, what does Jesus mean when he says, ‘The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’?
Jesus goes on to equate bread from heaven with his own body, his own very flesh. He does so again at the Last Supper, when he says ‘Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you’, words we still hear every time we attend Holy Communion, when the priest consecrates the Eucharistic bread.

What a shocking thing to say, with that suggestion of cannibalism! It certainly upset the hecklers in the crowd. And it also upset many of Jesus’s disciples, who, we are told, ‘turned back and no longer went about with him’.

And it still causes problems for some of Jesus’s disciples today. On the one hand we have those who accept - perhaps with difficulty - the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby in some miraculous way the essence of the Eucharistic bread is actually transformed into the essence of Jesus’s flesh. On the other, we have those who are disturbed by the idea that the Eucharist involves eating human flesh.

I think that perhaps some Christians interpret these words of Jesus too literally, as the hecklers in the crowd did. For here surely Jesus is extending the metaphor of bread from heaven, and to understand it we need to look behind the literal words.

Christians have wrestled to understand Jesus’s metaphor of his flesh as bread ever since. They have come up with many different ideas – and perhaps this is part of the strength of the metaphor, that it can be understood in so many ways. For myself, I wonder if the point is simply this - that Jesus is expressing the depth of his commitment to God’s saving work for us. He is ready to give up his life, his human existence, his very flesh for it. For that is what he did for us on the cross.

These words of Jesus are difficult, and you’ve sat patiently through my reflections on them, poor as they are.
But why don’t you take a little time to ponder them for yourself? Take out your copy of the Bible and read John Chapter 6. Jesus's words may speak to you in a quite different way to how they speak to me. And that is alright – it is alright if you disagree with me - metaphors often bear many different meanings at the same time. God will surely grant you the metaphors that are right for you.

To finish, let's listen again to what Jesus says:
'I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Sunday 12 July 2009

Guilty Conscience

I preached this sermon for children (of all ages!) at Templederry and Nenagh, and a variant for adults at Killodiernan, on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 12th July 2009.

Children, today I’m going to talk especially to you, so I hope you will listen, or at least please try to! And those of you who are grown up can listen in, but I’m sure you already know everything I’m going to say!

I’m going to let you in on a guilty secret – I'm a thief! Or at least I used to be...

When I was about 6 years old, in the village where I lived with my parents, I used to go to Mrs Pullan’s shop with my pocket money to buy sweets. And sometimes, when I thought she wasn’t looking, when her back was turned, I would take a few extra and put them in my pocket. I stole them! I knew it was wrong, but I just couldn’t stop myself. I felt awful, so that I didn’t enjoy them as much as I thought I would, but I still went on doing it. I tried my best not to think about it, and I didn’t want anybody to know, because I didn’t want to admit to myself or to anyone else what a bold, naughty boy I was. That’s the first time I can remember having a guilty conscience - but I’ve felt guilty about much worse things since then.

We all know what a guilty conscience is, don’t we? It’s when we know we have done something bad, or not done something good that we should have done, and we just can’t stop thinking and worrying about it. It’s a horrid feeling. And we all suffer from it, no matter how young or old we are, because try as we might to be perfect - or even just ordinarily good - every one of us does what we know is wrong more often than we care to admit. That’s just as true for me as it is for you.

Well, in the reading we’ve just listened to, we heard about how King Herod had a really, really guilty conscience. He had done something very wicked indeed – he had ordered his soldiers to cut off John the Baptists head. And he had done this even though he thought John was a good and holy man and knew he didn’t deserve to die. So later, when Herod heard people talking about Jesus, he thought that Jesus must be John the Baptist come back from the dead as a ghost to haunt him.

Let’s remind ourselves again of the story about how Herod came to do this wicked thing.

King Herod had married a new wife, who was called Queen Herodias. And the trouble was that she was already married to Herod’s brother. It wasn’t right for Herod to take her from his brother and marry her himself. But John the Baptist, bravely, told Herod that what he had done was very wrong – it was against the law. Herod didn’t want John going about making trouble for him by telling everyone this, so he had John arrested and put him in prison.

How do you think Queen Herodias felt about John? She hated him; she really, really hated him! She wanted very badly to have him killed. But she couldn’t do that, because she knew Herod liked listening to John and respected him, even if Herod didn’t always like what John said.

Then at last came the perfect time for Queen Herodias to get her own way. It was Herod’s birthday, and there was a big party, with lots of important people there. Now Herodias had a daughter who was called Salome. And after Herod and all the important people had finished eating Salome came in to dance for Herod and his guests. She must have been a pretty good dancer because when she finished, everybody clapped. Herod was so pleased with her dancing that he did a very silly thing. Can you remember what he did? He told Salome that she could have anything she asked for – even half the kingdom! And all the important guests heard him say it! Salome didn’t know what to ask for, so she went to Herodias her mother, and asked her, ‘What should I ask the King to give me?’ Can you guess what Herodias answered? She said to her daughter, ‘Ask for the head of John the Baptist!’

King Herod was very sad and quite upset, because he really didn’t want to have John killed. But he had just told Salome she could have anything she asked for – absolutely anything - and he did not want to look weak or silly in front of all the important people he had invited to his party. So he gave the order, and the soldiers chopped off John’s head. They brought it on a big serving plate and gave it to Salome, who gave it to her mother Herodias.

It’s a horrid story, isn’t it? All the characters are pretty nasty! Except John the Baptist, who was brave.

Herodias wasn’t nice at all to use her daughter to take such an awful revenge. Salome asked for a truly yucky present - a bloody severed head - though perhaps she was too young to be blamed for doing what her mother told her. But it was Herod who gave that wicked order to behead John the Baptist, even though he knew it was wrong. Let’s think about him to see what lessons we can learn.

What do you think he should have done differently that day?

Well, one thing would have been not to make that silly promise! If Herod hadn’t promised to give Salome anything she asked for, she couldn’t have asked for John’s head, and everything would have been different.

This is the first lesson: we must always be very careful what we promise!

But even after Herod had made that silly promise, he didn't have to give that wicked order! Herod was a coward, wasn’t he? He knew it would be wrong to give Salome what Herodias had told her to ask for. But he was afraid – afraid that his important guests would think he was weak or silly if he didn’t – so he did it anyway. If Herod had been a braver man, as John was, not a coward, he would have listened to his conscience – that's the little voice inside each one of us which tells us what is right and what is wrong. He would simply have said, ‘No, that would be wrong, ask for something else’, and John would have been saved.

The second lesson is this: we must always be brave and do what we know is right no matter what.

So Herod did that wicked thing, and he suffered from a guilty conscience.

We are not told if he ever felt sorry for what he had done. But if Herod had listened to Jesus, he would have known what to do when he felt guilty for doing such a bad thing. Because Jesus tells us that if we own up to doing wrong, if we say we are sorry and really mean it, and if we try our very best to be better in future - then God, our loving Father in Heaven, will forgive us. In other words, if we repent of our sins, God will forgive us. We will no longer feel bad, and we can be happy living a new and better life.

So what about my own guilty conscience over stealing sweets when I was a child? Years later, when I was a student and thought I was grown up, I went back to the village and called on Mrs Pullan in her shop. She invited me in for tea and a chat, and when I came to leave, do you know what she did? She took a brown paper bag and filled it with all kinds of sweets, and gave it to me, to take away! Suddenly I was 6 again, and I felt really badly about stealing her sweets long ago. So I told her what I had done and said I was sorry. Then, with a laugh, she said, ‘You don’t think you were the only little boy who nicked sweets, do you? Of course I knew what you were doing. And of course I forgive you!’

This is the third lesson: if we are truly sorry for the bad things we do, God will forgive us when we ask him to - just as Mrs Pullan forgave me!

I shall finish with a little prayer:

O God our loving Father,
we thank you for the courage of people like John
the Baptist,
who do what is right even when it puts their lives in danger.
Give us the courage to always try to do what is right;
and when we fail
show us how to truly repent, and forgive us.
We ask you in Jesus’s name.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Child abuse and the kosmos-world

An address given at Shinrone and Aghancon on the 7th Sunday after Easter, 24th May 2009.

“I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and for you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

I apologise for my bad singing! But I’m sure you all recognise this song, perhaps best known sung by Louis Armstrong, with his gravelly voice. And it’s true isn’t it! We all know what a truly wonderful world God has made for us to live in - a veritable Garden of Eden, if only we would learn to look after it and use it rightly.

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

For John the very opposite of the kosmos-world is eternal life, as he tells us in the preceding verses, ‘And this is eternal life, (to) know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’.

In the Gospel reading (John 17:6-19), Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples.

It is the night of the last supper, after he has washed the disciples feet, just before he goes out with them to be arrested by soldiers and police led to him by Judas Iscariot. Jesus is praying for his disciples. But surely he is also teaching them, for he does so out loud, in their hearing.

Jesus’s words are dense with meaning - perhaps because he knows this is his last opportunity to speak to his disciples before he is arrested, tried and executed.

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

The kosmos-world is a metaphor for the evil we encounter all around us, day by day.

It’s hard to see evil for what it is in the abstract. It comes in so many disguises. I think it helps to focus on a concrete example.

In the week following the shocking report of the Commission of Enquiry into Child Abuse, let’s focus on the evil of child abuse. The abuse was perpetrated in Industrial Schools and other institutions run by religious orders, by a minority - but far too many - professed religious. It is now clear that the evil extended far beyond the abuse itself. It extended to their colleagues and superiors who colluded in it by failing to stop the perpetrators. It extended to organs of our Irish State which failed to exercise their duty of care. And it extended throughout Irish society, to all of us who knew there was something wrong, but could not bring ourselves to say so publicly, thus allowing the evil system to fester for decades.

What I find almost incomprehensible is how so many who professed to be Jesus’s disciples could have gone so wrong – but they did. And that must be a lesson to us all not to underestimate the forces of evil. We need God’s grace to protect us from being overcome by them.

So to sum up:

  • The wonderful world God has placed us in is good. We should rejoice in it, and give thanks for it. But as Jesus’s disciples, we must always be on guard against the evil that spoils it.
  • We disciples live amidst evil, but we do not belong to it, because God has given us to Jesus.
  • We disciples must be ready to suffer personally when we fight evil and do not collude with it. We should take strength from knowing that Jesus intercedes for us, asking God to protect us from something much worse than suffering – from being drawn into evil ourselves.
  • Our task as disciples is to continue Jesus’s redeeming mission. We have been set apart to confront and defeat evil wherever it is found. We must not hide ourselves away like cowards in the face of it.

Sunday 10 May 2009

Love one another!

An address given on Sunday 10th May 2009, Easter 5, at Templederry & Killodiernan

Little children, love one another!

Rev Patrick Comerford is the Director of Spiritual Development in the CofI Theological Institute, as well as writing a column for Newslink. I’m indebted to him for his reflection on these words in his excellent blog, which is well worth reading – you can find it by Googling his name.

Patrick quotes St Jerome, that great Doctor of the Church writing around 400AD, telling a lovely story about St John the Evangelist. The Evangelist is traditionally said to be the author of the 1st Letter of John, from which our 2nd reading was taken, as well as St John’s Gospel. The story goes like this:

The Evangelist continued preaching even when he was in his 90s. He was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued on, even when John was on his death-bed. When he finished, John would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.” One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is, “Little children, love one another.” If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.” For John, once you put your trust in Jesus, there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again.

‘Little children, love one another!’

This is precisely the message that John gives us in today’s 2nd reading (1John 4:7-21). And he keeps on repeating it throughout his 1st Letter. 1John is quite short, only 5 pages in my Bible – you might like to take down yours when you get home and read the whole thing.

John tells us that the reason we must love is that God first loved us. God loved us so much that he sent his only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, into the world to be ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins’.

What does this talk of an atoning sacrifice mean? We all know our own sins, don’t we? Our inveterate wilfulness – doing what we know we shouldn’t, and not doing what we know we should. That, and our own guilty consciences, cut us off from the love of God. It would be quite wrong to imagine the atoning sacrifice to be a vengeful God taking out our sins on Jesus. Rather Jesus has shown us the way to reconnect ourselves to the love of God despite our sins, through his example of self-sacrificing love, and by teaching us that if we repent God loves us enough to forgive our sins. This is Jesus’s atoning sacrifice, sealed by his victory on the cross. And the cross is a victory, not a defeat, despite what so many at the time believed. Jesus turned the apparent defeat of the cross into victory by his obedience to his Father’s will even unto death. No doubt this is the good news about Jesus that Philip proclaimed to the Ethiopian eunuch in today’s 1st reading (Acts 8:26-40).

John tells us that if we don’t love each other, people we can see and touch, then we surely can’t love God, who we cannot see and touch.

Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel (John 15:12), ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ Jesus’s love is not an easy, sentimental kind of love. It’s easy enough to love those who are lovable, isn't it? But Jesus also tells us (Matthew: 5:44), ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’. That is the sort of edgy love that John reminds us Jesus asks of each one of us.

We should make love our priority. Forget about ego, forget about career. In this time of elections, forget about political divisions. Forget about bankers’ greedy mistakes. Forget about the silly divisions that we constantly let creep into the Church. Forget about likeability too. Love one another. God loves us. We ought to – no, we must – love one another. That’s what it’s all about.

“Little children, love one another … because it truly is enough.”

Sunday 19 April 2009

Something Happened!

An address given on Sunday 19th April 2009, Easter 2, Low Sunday, at Templederry and St Mary's Nenagh.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Jesus Christ is that we’ve all heard of him!

So claims John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest who is also an eminent particle physicist and Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, in an article he wrote for the Times of London this Easter.

That first Good Friday it must have seemed that the whole life and ministry of Jesus was a complete and abject failure. He started out so well, speaking such wisdom about the Kingdom of God, and acting with great compassion toward the poor, the sick and the needy. But then it all seemed to fall apart. He got on the wrong side of the religious leaders and the state; he got himself arrested; he was deserted by his disillusioned followers; and he was painfully and shamefully executed. Just another 1st Century messianic pretender, destined to be forgotten like so many others! If the story had ended there, none of us would ever have heard of him!

But we do all know the name of Jesus. He has been a powerfully influential figure for 2000 years. It is why we are here today. What is the reason for this? The answer is that something happened to continue the story.

The writers of the NT describe this something as the Resurrection. They all believe and witness for us that Jesus rose from the dead. This counter-intuitive belief emboldened them to continue his mission, now strengthened by the sense of God’s Holy Spirit working in and through them. The followers of Jesus multiply. Less then 3 centuries later they take over the mighty Roman Empire. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Resurrection is a mystery. No one is recorded as witnessing the event itself, just the empty tomb. Many disciples, we are told, met the risen Jesus, but there is something strange about the accounts – even his best friends find it hard to recognise him, and he comes suddenly, even through locked doors. These aren’t ordinary meetings, as I might meet you. The gospel writers do not attempt to explain it – for them the fact of it is all that is important. The fact of the resurrection which they experienced is all that matters. I suggest the same should be true for us. We can’t go back in time to study it with our 21st century science. But something happened – something happened which we might as well call what the NT writers called it: Jesus Christ rose from the dead!

Let us look more closely at today’s readings, and reflect on what they tell us about what it is like to be disciples of the risen Christ.

In the gospel reading John 20:19-31 gives an account of the disciples meeting the risen Christ.

On the first day of the week, though the doors were locked, ‘Jesus came and stood among them.’ He shows them his wounds and the disciples rejoice. He tells them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then, ‘he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”.

One thing that strikes me about this passage is how meeting the risen Christ makes his disciples feel. Jesus would have used the Hebrew word Shalom, which has a rather wider meaning than the English word peace – it also signifies wholeness, wellbeing. When his disciples sense that Jesus stands among them, they feel his peace, they feel whole, they feel good: as we say today, they feel centred. And this enables them to rejoice, no matter how difficult the situation may be – and it’s hard to imagine a situation more desperate than the one they faced after the crucifixion, isn’t it? Huddled together in a locked room in fear of their lives.

A second thing that strikes me is this: as the risen Christ sends his disciples out, he also gives them the strength to continue his mission of self-sacrificing love and service. He breathes his Holy Spirit on them, just as the Father gave him the strength and the Spirit to begin it. I believe Jesus does so in every age.

It was no easier for ordinary men and women of Jesus’s time than it is for us today to believe in the counter-intuitive idea of resurrection. Even Thomas, one of the original twelve, resisted this interpretation of what had happened. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails … I will not believe’, he says. But when a week later he too meets the risen Christ he is able to say, ‘My Lord and my God!’

Some Christians meet the risen Christ in a personal conversion experience, as St Paul and St Francis did, and as some have done in our own day - but many of us don’t. If you haven’t, don’t worry - remember what Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

The 1st reading from Acts 4:32-35 tells us about the common life of the earliest Christians.

Time has moved on. Many new believers have joined the small frightened band of disciples who had met the risen Christ behind locked doors. The apostles testify ‘to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power’. All the believers, new and old, are ‘of one heart and soul’, and ‘great grace (is) upon them all’. Following St Paul, we usually think of grace theologically as ‘unearned favour received from God’, but here surely the word has the plain meaning of the original Greek charis (χαρις) – ‘that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness’. It is ‘shalom’. It is how the disciples felt when they heard the risen Christ say ‘Peace be with you’.

These earliest Christians were living as a community sharing everything. ‘No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common’, we are told, and ‘there was not a needy person among them’.

Some people see this passage as a scriptural endorsement of Communism, but I think that would be a mistake and an anachronism. Communism as a political philosophy developed only in the 19th Century in response to the injustices of industrial capitalism. The circumstances of the tiny group trying to live a life of Christian witness in an obscure province within the classical Roman Empire were quite different.

But what we should notice, I think, is this: the disciples of Jesus cared intensely for each other. They were generous; they never forgot that when some do not have enough, everyone must help; they wanted to share what they had, because they loved one another, as Jesus commanded them to do. That is a lesson that we should all learn from them, I think.

So to finish

  • Let us all share in Shalom, the peace of the risen Christ – as the first disciples did.
  • Let us go out to continue Christ’s mission of loving service in the world, strengthened by the Holy Spirit he breathes into us – as the first disciples did.
  • And let us care intensely for one another, and be generous with what God has given us, let us share what we have so that no one is in need – as the first disciples did.

Sunday 22 March 2009

Mothering Sunday

An address given on Sunday 22 March 2009, Lent 4, at Shinrone and Aghancon.

A Simnel cake - a traditional Mothering Sunday gift

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. I expect you are too. 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!

The Mothering Sunday Tradition

The 4th Sunday of Lent was not originally a celebration of motherhood. From at least 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.

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 - we may just have borrowed it from the Church of England!

I imagine that as the children 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 they had made. 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. Mother's Day 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, and I cherish the old name Mothering Sunday.

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 readings from Exodus and John’s Gospel 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. Thank God that giving birth in Ireland today is not so dangerous for a woman as it once was, though a very few still do die in childbirth here. But in the 3rd World it remains frighteningly common for mothers to die in childbirth.

In the OT reading from Exodus, 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:

  • 1st, 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.

  • But 2nd, 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.
In the Gospel reading 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. We see an image of the eternal love at the heart of motherhood in Mary at the Cross.

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 described as the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’. It is an ancient tradition of the Church that this disciple was John, one of the sons of Zebedee and Mary’s sister Salome, and the author of St John’s Gospel. If so, 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 to the care of his cousin John, and John to the care of his mother Mary, to look after each other, and to comfort each other in their loss. A truly practical example of the love of God at work in evil times.

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, and all those children who for whatever reason cannot give thanks for a mother’s love.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Finding life by losing it

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 8 March 2009

Get behind me, Satan! Get thee behind me, Satan!

What a shock it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus address him in these cutting words, as recorded by Mark (8:31-38) in the reading we have just heard.

Peter had been the first to say, ‘You are the Messiah’, when Jesus had asked ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But Mark tells us Jesus then ‘began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and be killed’. Peter realised that Jesus was referring to himself, but he was quite unable to understand this teaching. Like most Jews of his day, he expected the promised Messiah to come as a great conqueror to destroy the gentiles – including the hated Romans - and to rule over a revived Kingdom of Israel. The Messiah would vanquish his foes, not be killed by them! So Peter remonstrates with Jesus: ‘Look here, Jesus, that can’t be right!’ he says - or words to that effect. Then Jesus turns on him and likens him to Satan – and he does so in front of all the others!

Why was Jesus so hard on Peter, his great friend and disciple? Jesus knew that God’s way was not the way of violent earthly conquest, but the way of self-sacrificing love. He needed to teach Peter and the other disciples to change their thinking. I feel sure Jesus didn’t want to die a painful death, but he surely realised this was the inevitable outcome of what God called him to do, and he was determined to face it bravely. But Peter tries to argue him out of it, in an echo of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness.

Isn’t this often the way it is? When we have made up our minds what the right thing is to do, even though we know we will suffer for it, our friends and loved ones may try to talk us out of it. The tempter can be the very person dearest to us! Yet we must not allow even the pleading voice of love to stop us from doing God’s will. This surely is what Jesus felt that day – no wonder he responded as he did.

But Jesus immediately seized the moment to show the disciples his way, the way of the cross, how to find life by losing it. As usual, Mark has compressed Jesus’s teaching to a very few words, but it goes to the very heart of our Christian faith. I think it is worth reflecting on it sentence by sentence.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Jesus’s honesty is startling isn’t it? No one can ever say Jesus lured them to follow him on false pretences! He does not offer his disciples an easy life or a comfortable way to God. Like other great leaders, he calls us as Churchill did to ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. But again like a real leader, he does not call us to do anything more than he was prepared to do himself.

First Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’, to say no to our own selfish instincts. We must do God’s will, not our own will, to the best of our ability, in all things.

The old tradition of giving something up for Lent is good practice for this, particularly if we turn it into something positive, like giving what we save to a good cause. It’s not too late to make a Lenten resolution if you haven’t done so already!

But more than simply practicing self-denial, Jesus tells us we must be prepared to take real risks – even to risk our very lives – if that is what God, through our conscience, tells us is right.

‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’

Jesus focuses our attention with this great paradox: to save life is to lose it, and vice-versa.

The very essence of life, I think, is in risking it and spending it, not in saving it and hoarding it. If we live cautiously, always thinking first of our own profit, comfort and security, if we make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we follow Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice, we are winning life all the time.

The truth is that the only way in which we can find a life that matters is by losing it in the love of God and the love of our neighbours. That is the way of Jesus, that is the way of God, and that is the way of happiness too.

‘For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’

I have no doubt that you, like me, can think of people who are outwardly hugely successful, but who in another sense are living a life that is not worth living. In business, they may have sacrificed honour for profit. In politics, they may have sacrificed principle for popularity. In their personal lives, they may have sacrificed their deepest relationships for their own ambitions or desires. Whatever the reason, such people are unlikely to be comfortable inside their own skin, and they often live to regret their bad choices.

It is a matter of values really, isn't it? Jesus is asking us where our values lie. As he says elsewhere, you should store up your treasures in heaven, not on earth, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. Our values should be God’s values, as Jesus reveals them to us, not the false values of worldly success.

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Jesus knew that many people around him were uncomfortable with what he said and how he behaved. He stood up for the poor, the despised and the rejected, and he was the friend of sinners. And the scribes and the Pharisees – the pious and the respectable - criticised him for it. With these words Jesus warns his disciples not to be ashamed to follow him publicly. For if they are ashamed, how can they expect to share with him and the holy angels in the glory of God’s kingdom?

These same words should also be a warning for us, I think. In Ireland - and in Europe generally - it is becoming rather unfashionable these days to own up to being a Christian. Even if we believe in our heart of hearts, many of us find it easier not to speak openly about it for fear of being mocked or thought less of. In fact, we behave as if we are ashamed of it.

It is a simple truth: we cannot expect to share with Jesus the joy of shaping the world into the place God means it to be, if we are not prepared to stand up and be counted for Jesus and for his message of loving self-sacrifice.

So to sum up, when I reflect on these words recorded by Mark, I hear Jesus’s voice urging me, down through the ages:

To do God’s will, not my own, and to be ready to risk all for it;

To find true life and happiness by losing my life in the service of God and others;

To live my life by God’s values, not the false values of worldly success;

To follow joyfully, fearlessly and without shame, Jesus’s path of loving self sacrifice.

Let us pray that we may all be encouraged to respond to that voice. In the words of St Igantius Loyola:
Teach us, 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 22 February 2009


Address given at Shinrone and Aghancon on Sunday 22nd Bebruary 2009 - Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before Lent

An example of a Glory - the Brocken Spectre

Today is traditionally called Transfiguration Sunday.

In today's Gospel reading Mark gives us a short account of how Peter and James and John had a strange spiritual and emotional experience. They saw Jesus transfigured, in dazzling white clothing, with Elijah and Moses, high in a mountain. The same story is told in the other synoptic Gospels, and scholars tell us that most likely Matthew and Luke made use of Mark’s earlier account.

The Church obviously sees this as an important story, because the traditional church calendar also takes a second bite at it, with the Festival of the Transfiguration on 8 Aug.

So what is its importance? Some people have seen the Transfiguration as a miracle story prefiguring Jesus’s Ascension, a sort of artistic device to reinforce the Gospel drama. This might be all well and good as literary criticism, but I feel there is a lot more to it than this!

In reflecting on the Transfiguration story, I’m going to look first at the physics that may lie behind it, then at the disciples’ emotional response to it, and lastly at the effect their experience had on them

First to the physics:

Mark’s account gives us a clue as to what the disciples actually saw. They were high on a mountain, with cloud around. These are just the circumstances where we can see an optical effect called a ‘Glory’. In this effect sunlight is scattered back from water droplets in a mist, as a glowing halo. The technical term for this is Mie scattering, and you can even download software packages from the Web to calculate what can be seen for different droplet sizes!

Historically, the most famous example is the ‘Brocken Spectre’, so named because of sightings on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. This appears when a low sun is behind a climber who is looking downwards into mist from a ridge or peak. The spectre is the shadow of the observer projected onto the mist, and it is surrounded by the glowing halo of a glory. Above you can see a photograph of it, and another here.

You might be lucky enough to see a Glory yourselves, as I have. I saw it when I looked down from a plane at the shadow it cast on a cloud. The shadow was surrounded with a halo of light – this was the glory! Try looking for it the next time you fly off on holiday.

If you are interested in more of the physics, see

I do hope you don’t feel that this takes anything away from the transfiguration story. Far from making the Transfiguration more mundane, for me, as a modern man with just a little scientific training, the physical explanation makes me think that Mark did not just invent it to serve his artistic and theological needs. It helps me believe that the event really did take place!

Now, let us focus on what the disciples actually experienced, emotionally and spiritually.

I imagine Peter and James and John close together on the mountain, with Jesus a little bit away, as the clouds swirled around them. Where Jesus had stood, they each suddenly see a glowing figure – it’s their own shadow cast on a cloud, wrapped in a glory - and two other shadows beside it, those of their companions.

They would not have understood the physics, as we can, but they are awed by what they see. Peter was always the impulsive one. Just days before, when Jesus had asked the disciples who people said that he was, Peter had blurted out ‘You are the Messiah’. Now he identifies the three figures with Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

All three were terrified. The cloud came down around them, and it was as if they heard a voice, saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’

This description of their spiritual experience rings very true to me. When people suddenly realise something of vital importance, something which changes everything, they often talk of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. Many people have reported such deeply emotional religious experiences. This is so in our own Christian tradition, for St Paul or St Francis for instance; and perhaps for some of our ‘born again’ contemporaries. But it is also so in other faith traditions, such as for Gautama, the Buddha, who experienced enlightenment under a Bodh tree, and for Mahommed, peace be upon him. We may not have had such a religious experience ourselves - many never do - but we may have felt something similar, for instance at the moment we realise that this person here is the one I want to marry, to spend the rest of my life with.

Finally, if Peter and James and John had such a life-changing experience, what effect did it have on them?

Neither Mark nor the other Gospels tell us much about this. After all, Jesus forbade them to talk about it, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. But they remembered its importance clearly, for they passed on the story through Mark, to Matthew and Luke, and so passed it on to ourselves.

The voice the disciples heard told them to listen to Jesus. I get the impression reading on in Mark’s Gospel that from then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, as if preparing them for their role as apostles after his death.

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

With the start of Lent, we too shall be starting out on this road to Jerusalem, we too shall be following the Gospel drama.

I believe we should value Peter and James and John's transfiguration experience, and other transfiguration experiences, because without them, and without the commitment that flows from them, there would be no church, and we would not be here today!