Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Wesley Day

Reflection given at a Community of Brendan the Navigator evening service to commemorate Wesley Day on Tuesday 26 May 2020

This evening we join with our Methodist brothers and sisters in Christ in commemorating John Wesley’s heart-warming and life-changing experience in Aldersgate, London on 24th May 1738. So, what exactly did John Wesley experience?

John wrote this in his diary that very night:
“In the afternoon I was asked to go to St. Paul’s. The anthem was, ‘out of the depths have I called unto Thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice.’ - words from Psalm 130, which we have just heard - John continues:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.”

He would have heard these words of Luther.
“To fulfil the law is to do with willingness and love for the works which the law requires.
Such willingness is bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ.
But the Spirit is not given except through the word of God which preaches Christ.
As Paul said: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine
heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
So faith makes righteous for it brings the spirit through the merits of Christ.
And the Spirit makes the heart free and willing as the law requires; and then good works proceed of themselves from faith.
Grace is the good will or favour of God toward us which moved him to share Christ and the Holy Spirit with us.
Therefore, when we believe in Christ, we have the beginning of the Spirit in us.
Faith is a divine work in us, which transforms us, begets us anew from God, bringing with it the Holy Spirit.
O this faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing!
Such confidence and personal knowledge of divine grace makes its possessor joyful, bold, and full of warm affection toward God and all created things;
All of which the Holy Spirit works in us through faith. Pray God that he may work this faith in you.”

These words had a profound effect on John, as they may also have on us - his diary entry continues:
“About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death… I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.”

As well as John’s experience, we also commemorate this evening his brother Charles Wesley’s own conversion experience, just three days before, which inspired him to write over 6,000 hymns, many of which we still love to sing today.

What does the experience and life’s work of these two brothers mean for us today in 2020?

We see in them examples of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of human beings very much like you and me, if gifted in ways that almost all of us are not. Their smouldering faith was kindled into a fire that led them, with others, to evangelise Britain, Ireland, and America. They brought multitudes of men and women, who felt alienated from the established church, to follow Jesus and consciously seek holiness of life. They themselves remained Anglicans, but after their deaths the hardness of other hearts led to the sad separation of the Anglican and Methodist traditions.

So it is wonderful today to be able to celebrate the Covenant relationship between the Methodist Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland. Through this Covenant both churches mutually acknowledge a common faith and each other’s ordained ministries. And both churches commit themselves to share a common life and mission, and grow together so that unity may be visibly realised.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Death stalks the garden

Address given at a Service of the Word for the Community of St Brendan on the Monday of Holy Week, 6 April 2020

Death stalked my garden a few days ago. The wings and feathers of an unfortunate wood pigeon lie strewn over the flowerbed beside the water-filled famine pot where pigeons often come to drink. And I think I know the culprit: next day I spotted the feral cat we often see, skulking close by, no doubt hoping for another meal. Of course, the cat was simply doing what God has created cats to do, and deserves no moral blame - cats must kill to eat, and God feeds cats as well as people.

We all know that a different killer is stalking God’s wider garden just now – the Covid-19 corona virus – and we human beings are its prey. It appears that for most the disease is quite mild. It kills a proportion of both older people like me and those with pre-existing conditions, though even for these most will recover. The Chinese and the Koreans seem to have brought it under some control, and we can pray that we in Europe do so too, but I think most of us will be infected eventually. Lives can be saved if we succeed in reducing the rate that it spreads (‘flattening the curve’), so that the health service is not overwhelmed, and those who need intensive care can get it. This is why it is so important for us to follow official public health guidance. Let us be the good people God has made us to be by doing so, showing God’s love to our neighbours.

I do not fear death. I hope to stay around for quite a bit, to see the grandchildren grow up, and perhaps to welcome their children. I am, of course, apprehensive about dying, dreading indignity and suffering. Yet we will all die, we are mortal, and perhaps Covid-19 is not the worst death.

The way I see it is this. My life from birth to death is like a string winding through the 4 dimensions of space-time, starting at birth and ending in death. My life-string twines around the life-strings of every other person I encounter along the way, including family, friends, neighbours and strangers. God is not constrained by dimensions. God sees and knows the whole of my life-string, from birth to death. Love is what pleases God. God judges me as a function of the love I show, both for him and for every person my life-string touches, summed over the whole of my life-string. And despite the times I have displeased him, I believe that God is forgiving and will always love me, always love the whole of my life-string, just as he sees and loves everyone else’s.

This, to me, is eternal life. This is why I do not fear death.

And God’s garden is full of life as well as death. While we worry about Covid-19, the natural world burgeons and unfolds as the days lengthen, this year as every year. The buds of the magnolias in my garden have opened already. The asparagus is sprouting in the poly-tunnel. And other pigeons are billing and cooing, getting ready to raise a new generation.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Nicodemus visits Jesus

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th March 2020, the 2nd Sunday of Lent

Today I want to reflect on Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus as recorded by John in the Gospel reading (John 3:1-17)
Jesus uses that conversation to teach Nicodemus – and through him ourselves – some great truths, which are crucial for the later development of our Christian faith and Trinitarian theology.

Nicodemus finds it hard to understand what Jesus is saying – as we may too – because Jesus is speaking in the language of metaphor. It is as if  Jesus is speaking in riddles! ‘Being born from above’; ‘entering the kingdom of God’; ‘the Son of Man’; ‘being lifted up’; ‘having eternal life’: What in heaven’s name is Jesus talking about? Let me try my best to tease out what his words mean to me.

We should start with the kingdom of God, I think – what did Jesus understand by it?
The key I think is in the prayer he taught us: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.’ I feel sure we enter the kingdom of God when we do God’s will here on earth, as it is done in heaven. But that ain’t easy – we have to resist our human impulses to do what we want, not what God wants. We can’t do so unless something changes us to be immune to human wilfulness. That change is like being ‘born anew’.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’.  Now ‘born from above’ can just as well be translated as ‘born anew’ – and that is the sense in which Nicodemus correctly understands it. He understands the need for it, but he does not understand how to achieve it. ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?’ he asks. ‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

So Jesus explains, ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’. We need to be washed clean of our wilful natures which lead us into sin – that is what baptism symbolises. But we cannot by ourselves surrender our will to God’s will. For that we need God to take the initiative through the power of his Spirit. Only then can we surrender ourselves to God’s will completely, without reservation.

In NT Greek the same word ‘pneuma’ is used for both wind and spirit. Jesus says, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ He is telling Nicodemus that he doesn’t need to understand how the Spirit works, he just needs to know that it does work.

There’s nothing very difficult about any of this from Jesus’ point of view, I think. This is just how human beings are made psychologically – it is a plain observable fact, an earthly thing - not a deep truth, a heavenly thing. But Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. ‘How can these things be?’ he says in exasperation. And Jesus chides him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? … If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?’

But I think Jesus likes Nicodemus, and is enjoying their conversation.
Because Jesus does indeed go on to tell Nicodemus – and through him us too - about deep heavenly truths, theological truths.

‘No one has ascended into heaven’, says Jesus, except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’.
‘The Son of Man’ is a typically Jewish way of saying ‘the ideal man’ – in other words, the perfect model of what God has created a human being to be, whether a man or a woman. Jesus is saying that for the ideal man to go up to God, he must have come down from God in the first place. And he clearly understands himself to be the Son of Man, the ideal man, who has come from God.

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness’, says Jesus, ‘so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’
Moses lifting up the serpent refers to a strange story in the Book of Numbers (21:8-9). On their journey through the wilderness, the people of Israel complained about their hardships since they left Egypt. God sent a plague of deadly serpents to punish them. When the people repented and cried for mercy, God instructed Moses to raise an image of a serpent on a pole in the centre of the camp, which healed those with snakebite when they looked at it.
Jesus is saying that he, the ideal man, is destined to be lifted up – on the cross and to God in heaven - to bring eternal life to those who believe in him, just as the image of the serpent healed those who came to it.

But what does Jesus mean by ‘eternal life’? We must distinguish it from ‘everlasting life’, I’m sure. Everlasting life might just as well be an everlasting hell as heaven. Duration doesn’t matter - eternal life is surely to participate in God’s life, full of the joy and peace and love that can only be found in God’s presence.

‘For God so loved the world’, says Jesus, ‘that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ Those of us of a certain age will recognise these as the first of the ‘comfortable words’ in the traditional language of the communion service. In these words, Jesus reveals to Nicodemus – and to us – that Jesus the Son of Man, the ideal human being, is also the only Son of God. The breadth and depth of God’s love for the world – for you and for me and for all creation - is shown by the gift of his only Son.

‘Indeed’, Jesus continues, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’.
Our loving God seeks to save us through the gift of his Son, not condemn us. He makes it possible for us to reconcile ourselves with God by aligning our will with God’s will, in imitation of his Son, the ideal human being, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John does not tell us what Nicodemus makes of all this.
You might expect Nicodemus to have taken umbrage when Jesus chided him. But he didn’t.

John goes on to tell us (John 7:50-53) that Nicodemus defended Jesus in the Jewish Council when there was a move to arrest him. And after the crucifixion Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus, contributing the expensive embalming spices (John 19:39-40).

Nicodemus may even have become a disciple of Jesus, and he is considered a saint in both the Orthodox and RC churches.

So to finish
Let us give thanks for the insights – both the earthly and the heavenly truths - that Nicodemus prompted Jesus to reveal about the relationships between God, his Son, his Spirit and human beings like you and me. They are at the heart of our Trinitarian faith.

And let us pray that the Holy Spirit may instil in us trust in God’s promises made through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
God of mercy,
you are full of tenderness and compassion,
slow to anger, rich in mercy, and always ready to forgive:
grant us grace to renounce all evil and to cling to Christ,
that in every way we may prove to be your loving children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Lent is a joyful holiday

An address given at St Caimin's Church, Mountshannon on Ash Wednesday, 26th February 2020.

You’ll be delighted to know that I’m not going to preach a long sermon! But I do want to say a few words about Lent.

The Church invites us, as we heard in the introduction to this service, ‘to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word’.

But to many in the wider society we inhabit, Lenten fasting and self-denial seem plain daft, perverse even.
Oh what a bore!’, I hear them say, ‘Why all this guilt-inducing, self-flagellating, call to gloomy repentance? Go away, and let us get on with our busy lives.’
There is no shortage of people to mock those of us who take Lent seriously.

My answer to them is this: Lent is not a burden – it’s not meant to be a burden, but a gift. Lent is a holiday, a holiday from the everyday - and Lent is an opportunity:
  • An opportunity to liberate myself for a bit from one of those little habits of luxury that can so easily become addictive bad habits. It is a chance to prove to myself that I am more than the sum of my desires. And after the fast, thank God, I shall relish what I denied myself even more.
  • Lent is an opportunity to spend more time with God, to feed my spiritual side, my soul. God is the great lover of souls, but often I feel too busy to respond to his love. There are so many ways to spend time with God that it is difficult to choose, from prayer, or reading scripture, or some other worthwhile book I wouldn’t otherwise find time to pick up, to joining with others in a Lenten course, if that is available.
  • Lent is an opportunity to live more simply for a while and enjoy the present moment. Heaven knows, most of us could do with a break from the pressures to be busier and busier to acquire and consume more and more. Lent is also the time of lengthening days and burgeoning spring – let us enjoy what God has given us - for free.
  • Lent is an opportunity to be as generous as I can be from the surplus of good things God has given me. There is nothing so pleasurable and good for the soul than to help someone in need or donate to a good cause.

But whatever we choose to do or not to do, we must not be gloomy about it! As Jesus tells us, ‘when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

May we all have a joyful, holiday Lent!

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Salt & Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 January 2020

The Lamb of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 January 2020

The Baptism of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 January 2020

The Wise Men's quest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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