Sunday 30 August 2020

Finding life by losing it.

Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 30th August 2020, the 12th after Trinity.

‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block for me!’

What a shock it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus address him in these cutting words, as recorded by Matthew (16:21-28) 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 now, ‘Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem … and be killed. Peter is shocked by Jesus’s words. 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 Peter and calls him Satan.

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 must have realised this was the inevitable outcome of what God called him to do. He was determined to face it bravely. But Peter tries to argue him out of it, in an echo of Satan tempting him in the wilderness.

Isn’t this often the way it is? When we’ve made up our minds what is the right thing to do, even at a cost to ourselves, 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.

Jesus immediately seized the moment to show the disciples his way, the way of the cross, how to find life by losing it. It is worth reflecting on his words, which go to the very heart of our Christian faith.

 If any want to become my followers’, says Jesus, 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 lures his disciples to follow him on false pretences! He does not offer them – or us - 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.

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 and the prompting of the Spirit, tells us is right.

For those who want to save their life will lose it’, says Jesus, ‘and those who lose their life for my sake, will find it.

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

The very essence of life is in risking it and spending it, not in saving it and hoarding it. If we live selfishly, always thinking first of our own security, profit and comfort, not of others, then 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 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’, says Jesus, ‘if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

I’m sure 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 usually not comfortable inside their own skin, and often live to regret their bad choices. We have been watching a few squirm on the media over recent days.

It is a matter of values really - 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.

‘For the Son of Man’, says Jesus, is to come with his angels in the glory of the Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.

Jesus knows that many people do not like what he says nor how he behaves. He stands up for the poor, the despised and the rejected, and he befriends sinners. And the scribes and the Pharisees – the pious and the respectable - attack him for it. But Jesus also knows that he is doing God’s will.

With these words Jesus warns his disciples that in the end they will be judged before him for what they have done, both the good and the bad.

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 act on his message of loving self-sacrifice.

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

·         calling me to be ready to take risks to do God’s will, rather than my own;

·         calling me to find true life and happiness by losing my life in the service of God and others;

·         calling me to live my life by God’s values, not the false values of worldly success.

·         calling me to follow joyfully, Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice.

Let us pray for the grace to respond to Jesus’s call:

O God,

whose Son has shown the way of the cross

to be the way of life:

transform and renew our minds

that we may not be conformed to this world

but may offer ourselves wholly to you

as a living sacrifice

through Jesus Christ our Saviour;

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen


Sunday 16 August 2020

Clean and unclean

 Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 16th August 2020, the 10th after Trinity.

‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’, as surely we all heard as children.

A lot of people think this proverb must come from the Bible, since the Bible has so much to say about cleanliness, but it does not. The idea behind it can be traced back to the Babylonians, to the earliest civilisations we know of. And the first known use of the phrase in English is in a sermon by John Wesley from as late as 1778.

As we learn to live with Covid-19, we realise just how important cleanliness is to our health and the health of our communities. If we are to beat the virus, we must avoid contaminating ourselves and others. Among other things we must wash our hands frequently. In particular, we ought to do so before we leave our homes, in case we are infected, to lower the risk of spreading the virus to other people. And we ought to do so again when we return home from public places, to lower the risk of bringing the virus into our households from outside. We must also for the time being avoid close physical contact with our neighbours, even in our churches.

For Jews of Jesus’s time ceremonial cleanliness was truly next to godliness. Jewish law forbade anyone who was unclean from approaching God in worship, and such a person would be shunned by all pious Jews.

They believed that a person or thing was made unclean by contact with a wide range of things, from a mouse to a pig, to a dead body, a menstruating woman, or a gentile. And this uncleanliness was, so to speak, infectious. If a mouse touched a pot, the pot became unclean and anything put in it became unclean. Anyone who touched or ate anything from the pot became unclean. And anyone who touched such an unclean person became unclean themselves.

No doubt these ideas had their roots in sensible and practical hygiene. But by the time of Jesus religious leaders had elaborated them into a complicated system of religious law to purify unclean things to make them clean. This included ritual washing of hands before meals. For the scribes and Pharisees, following the correct washing rituals had become as important as keeping every other aspect of the Jewish Law, including the Ten Commandments.

This is the background to today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 15:10-28).

A party of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem has just challenged Jesus, saying ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’  He chides them, calling them hypocrites, for insisting people obey the details of a man-made tradition while ignoring the spirit of God’s law expressed in the Ten Commandments.

Then, in the first part of today’s reading, he turns to the crowd telling them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out that defiles’.

As he explains to Peter, ‘What ever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer. But what comes from the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.’

In other words, Jesus says, what matters to God is not our ritual observance, but the state of our hearts, which may lead us to do wrong. No wonder the Pharisees took offence! If Jesus is right, their whole theory of religion is wrong, their rules and regulations about purity have nothing to do with being righteous before God. Instead God requires them to look inside themselves, to control those human impulses which might lead to bad deeds, which might lead them into sin.

We Christians don’t have rituals to purify ourselves as many religions do, including modern Jews, Muslims and Hindus.

Though that doesn’t mean we don’t have taboos – I’ve yet to see horse on the menu in Ireland!

But we have built up great edifices of ritual and tradition over time, as all religions have.

No doubt ritual and tradition can be helpful – but only to the extent to which they help us look into our hearts and strive to live as God intends us to live, loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. In today’s reading Jesus teaches us that we must not let our rituals and traditions get in the way of this. But unfortunately disputes between Christians about ritual and tradition all too often do just that.

Details of ritual and tradition keep Christians of different denominations from recognising each other’s baptism, or from sharing in the Lord’s Supper. And our Anglican Communion is threatened by schism over disputes about the ordination of women, the acceptability of homosexual behaviour, and equal marriage.

Christians engaging in such disputes should, I think, reflect on Jesus’s teaching in today’s Gospel. What matters is the state of a person’s heart, and the deeds it prompts, not their ritual observance and tradition.

And all who claim to be Christians should reflect on Jesus’s advice on how to deal with Pharisees. ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.’, he says. ‘Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into the pit.’ In other words, leave it to God to deal with those who we think are mistaken.

When we conscientiously disagree about what is right or wrong, we should not try to bludgeon our opponents into accepting our view. We must do what our God given conscience and reason tell us is right. But we should leave those with whom we disagree to go their own way. If they are mistaken, if they are ‘the blind leading the blind’, our heavenly Father will deal with them in his own way.

As he will deal with us if we are mistaken!

I shall finish in prayer

God our loving Father,

grant us wisdom to distinguish right from wrong.

May our hearts bring forth only what is righteous in your sight,

and make us agents of your peace,

spreading good news for all people.

We pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday 9 August 2020

Walking on water

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 9th August, the Ninth after Trinity.

We have just heard Matthew’s account (14:22-33) of how Jesus came to help his disciples, when they got into trouble in one of Galilee’s notorious storms.

The same event is also recorded in the Gospels of Mark and John.

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 mind’s eye as rather like our Lough Derg – it’s about 40% bigger in area and wider, but not so long. Those of us who have spent time fishing or sailing on Lough Derg can imagine how the disciples felt, because we know how quickly a squall can blow up.

Immediately after feeding the 5000, Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat, while he told the crowds to go home, and went off by himself up the mountain to pray. The disciples set out in the evening light, unaware of the coming storm. I imagine the night was bright and moonlit, since Mark tells us that Jesus saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind.

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 all night, saw the little boat struggling through waves and spray, and came down 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, stepping 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 translation problem 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 dim light of dawn, and Jesus walks through the surf towards the boat. Both interpretations are equally valid. 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.

Whichever way 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 very 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. ‘Lord, save me!’ he shouted, and 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 came 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 you when you stumble and sink.

Finally, what can we learn from this story, 2000 years on?

Well, surely the same things that Peter and the disciples learned! They were privileged to know Jesus in the flesh and to 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 fearful struggle, with ourselves, with our circumstances, with temptations, with sorrow, with the consequences of decisions made, by us or by others. Many today struggle with fear for the future of a world that seems to be spinning out of control towards disaster - fear of the Covid-19 virus and its consequences, fear of an impoverishing Brexit, fear of life destroying climate change. But none of us need struggle with our fears 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?’


Let us finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Mighty God and ruler of all creation, 

give new strength to our faith,

that we may recognise your presence

even when all hope seems lost.

Help us to face all trials with serenity

as we walk with Christ through the stormy seas of life

and come at the last to your eternal peace.

We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen