Sunday, 18 July 2021

The household of God

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 18th July 2021, the 7th after Trinity

The Library of Celsus, Ephesus 

(By Benh LIEU SONG - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15578063)

In today’s 2nd reading (Ephesians:2:11-22), Paul addresses the Ephesian Christians as ‘you Gentiles by birth, called the “uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”’.

Called that is, by Jews – like Paul himself – who were brought up to despise and dislike Gentiles, whom they saw as immoral and unclean.

What sort of people were the Ephesians Paul was writing to? In his time Ephesus was the Greek-speaking capital of the Roman province of Asia, with a population second in the Empire only to Rome itself, perhaps as many as half-a-million. It was as vibrant and cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith as any modern European city. And it was rich, as I saw from the amazing archaeological remains when I visited 35 years ago – including an amphitheatre big enough for 20,000 spectators, and a massive public library!

Paul stayed in Ephesus for 2 years on his 2nd missionary journey, according to Acts. His first dozen or so converts had been baptised by John the Baptist – they were surely Jews like himself. Paul re-baptised them in the name of Jesus and they received the Holy Spirit. At first Paul preached the gospel in the Synagogue, but he encountered opposition there, so he withdrew elsewhere with his growing flock of Christians, both Jews and Gentile Greeks. By the time he left 2 years later, he had converted enough followers of the Greek goddess Artemis to threaten the business of local silversmiths who specialised in making shrines to her, provoking them to a nasty riot.

Clearly, by the time Paul wrote his letter the Ephesian Christians were overwhelmingly Greek speaking gentiles.

Paul believes in the continuity of the new faith in Christ that he preached with the old faith of the Jews.

He reminds the Ephesians that before they became Christians they were cut off from the true God that the Jews knew. They were ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’.

But he is intensely conscious also of the change that Christ brings. Christ has ‘create(d) in himself one new humanity in place of (Jews and Gentiles), thus making peace, reconcil(ing) both groups to God in one body through the cross’. All Christians, whatever their background or tradition, are made one people in Christ, ‘for through him (all of us) have access in one Spirit to the Father’.

Paul’s insight is just as important for us here today as it was for the Ephesians then. Our towns, our country, are increasingly cosmopolitan like Ephesus. Our neighbours come from many countries, speak many languages and hold many faiths. The old divisions of Catholic and Protestant are increasingly irrelevant. All our churches must work together, we must break down the barriers between us, we must move from being exclusive to being inclusive, if we are ever to make a reality of Paul’s vision of one new humanity in Christ.

Only then will we be able to hear Paul’s words clearly, ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’.

The Church, ‘the household of God’, is like a building, says Paul.

This lovely, suggestive metaphor is an alternative to the more familiar metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, which Paul also uses later on in his letter (Ephesians 4:11-16).

It is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone’, says Paul. ‘In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God’.

Without the right foundations a building is unstable – as unfortunate people living in new houses discovered, when foundations made from unsuitable pyrite rock swelled and cracked in and around Dublin 15 years ago. And now similar problems are being discovered in Donegal and Sligo with mica in concrete blocks. The people affected deserve not just our prayers but redress.

The right foundation for the church is the teaching of the apostles – those Jesus sent out, of which Paul understood himself to be one – and the prophets – no doubt Christian as well as Hebrew prophets. As the Church we must be grounded solidly in scripture before we can build anything worthwhile using tradition or reason.

In Paul’s day builders made sure the walls of a building were true by carefully aligning them with a cornerstone – Jesus serves that function for the church. Jesus joins all of us together into a structure worthy of God, in which we can find God present.

Is today’s Church recognisable in Paul’s description?

Or do we see instead a building site with an untidy, higgledy-piggledy jumble of jerry-built shacks and lean-to extensions, where the architect’s plans have been ignored? We need to take lessons in construction, I suggest!

If we cannot feel proud of the Church we see about us today, we should not be fearful for its future. We should listen to what the prophet Nathan says to King David, in today’s 1st reading (2 Samuel 7:1-14). Nathan advises David that the time is not yet right to build the Lord God a great Temple to live in. God is content to live in the portable tabernacle inside a tent which the children of Israel have carried with them since the Exodus. But, says Nathan, your offspring shall build such a Temple. David’s son Solomon was to build the first Temple in Jerusalem, but that of course was destined to be destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again.

Perhaps it does not matter so much that the Church today does not yet live up to Paul’s vision of the holy temple, because it is what it always has been - a work in progress. It is not yet finished. It is being built generation by generation - by our forefathers and foremothers, by us, by our children, by our children’s children, and will continue to be built by generations yet to come.

What does matter, though, is that we see ourselves as members of God’s household, whoever we are, wherever we come from, and however we worship. We are ‘one new humanity’, in which there can be ‘no longer strangers and aliens’, to use Paul’s words.

The Church is made up of people, not buildings. Christian people like you and I are the Church, in all the glorious variety of our traditions, founded on the apostles and the prophets, with Jesus Christ as our corner stone.

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

Eternal God,
author of our life and end of our pilgrimage:
guide us by your Word and Spirit
amid all perils and temptations,
that we may not wander from your way,
but may run our course in safety
until we come to our eternal rest in you;
through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen


Sunday, 11 July 2021

Guilty Conscience

Salome receives the head of John the Baptist, by Aubrey Beardsley

Address given on Sunday 11 July 2021, the 5th after Trinity, in St Mary's Nenagh, when Josh William Thomas Platt was baptised, and at Killodiernan, without the baptismal reference.

I am going to share a shameful, guilty secret with you - I am a thief! 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, 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. It made me feel awful, as I scoffed them all by myself, but I still did it. I tried my best not to think about it, and I didn’t want anybody to know. 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 of course I’ve felt guilty about much worse things since then.

We have all felt the pricking of a guilty conscience, haven’t we? When we know we have done something bad, or not done something good that we should have done, we can’t stop thinking and worrying about it. It’s a horrid feeling. No matter how young or old we are, 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.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 6:14-29), we heard about King Herod’s guilty conscience. He had done something truly wicked – he had ordered his soldiers to behead John the Baptist, even though he thought John was a good person. So later, when Herod heard people talking about Jesus, he was afraid that Jesus must be John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt him.

Let us remind ourselves again of how Herod came to do this wicked thing.

King Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife Herodias and married her. John the Baptist had bravely told Herod that what he had done was not right - it was against the law. Herod didn’t want John going about making trouble by telling people this, so he had had John arrested and put him in prison.

Herodias nursed a grudge against John. She really hated him and wanted to have him killed, but she couldn’t do so straight away, because she knew Herod liked listening to John and respected him as ‘a righteous and holy man’, even if he didn’t always like what John said.

But Herodias got her chance for revenge when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday, for all the important people in his kingdom. Herodias’s daughter – tradition tells us her name was Salome – was brought in to dance for Herod and his guests. She must have been a good dancer, because the guests liked it; and Herod was so pleased with her that he did something very foolish. He told her that he would give her 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 ask her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ And Herodias told her, ‘The head of John the baptiser!’

King Herod didn’t want to have John killed – ‘The king was deeply grieved’, we are told. But he had just told Salome she could have anything she asked for – absolutely anything - and he did not want to look weak or foolish in front of his important guests. So he gave the order and the soldiers chopped off John’s head. They brought it in on a big serving platter and gave it to the girl, who gave it to her mother Herodias.

It’s a horrid story, isn’t it! A story from which no one in Herod’s family comes out well.

Herodias must have been a thoroughly nasty piece of work to use her daughter to take such an awful revenge. Salome too asked for a ghastly present, but perhaps she was too young to be blamed for doing what her mother asked her. But it was Herod who gave that wicked order to behead John the Baptist, even though he knew it was wrong. Let’s focus on him to see what lessons we can learn. What should he have done differently that day to avoid the heavy burden of a guilty conscience?

Well, the first thing would have been not to make that foolish 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 be very careful what we promise!

Even after Herod had made that foolish promise, he did not 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. So he gave the order anyway. If Herod had been a braver man, not a coward, he would have listened to his conscience – that little voice inside each 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 be brave and do what we know is right no matter what the consequence.

So Herod did the wrong thing. He gave the wicked order and 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 his guilty conscience pricking him. Because Jesus tells us that if we repent of our sins – that means if we admit we have done wrong, if we are sorry and try to make amends and to be better in future – then God, our loving Father in Heaven, will forgive us. The burden of guilt will be lifted from us, and we can find happiness 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 university student and thought myself to be very 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, she filled a bag with all kinds of sweets and gave it to me. Suddenly I was 6 again, and my guilty conscience made me feel bad. I told her about stealing her sweets, and said I was sorry. With a laugh she said, ‘You don’t think you were the only little boy who nicked sweets, do you? I realised what you were doing. And of course I forgive you!’

This is the third lesson: if we repent of bad things we have done, God will forgive us, just as Mrs Pullan forgave me!

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

But what, you may ask, has the story of Herod’s foolish promise, his cowardice, and his wicked order to execute John, got to do with Josh’s baptism?

In a few moments Josh’s parents and godparents will promise, with the help of God, to care for him, and to help him take his place within the life and worship of Christ’s church. We pray that they will teach him, by their example and love, to be brave and do what is right. And we pray that they will also teach him to repent and seek forgiveness when he falls short.

It will be important for Josh, with their help, to learn from Herod’s story, because the lessons it teaches are tools to protect him from the pain of a guilty conscience.

So today it is right for us all to celebrate and rejoice in Josh’s baptism, with his family and his godparents, as he is joined with us into Christ’s body here on earth, the Church.

 Let me finish with a 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 costs them dearly.
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. Amen

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Double baptism of Ailbhe Lynda Cahill & Adam John Nevin

 Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 13 June 2021

Today is a joyful occasion, a day for celebration, a day of baptism - and a double one too!

For many of us it is a family celebration. Particularly so for Sandra and Ruari, and for Sharon and Robert, as they bring Ailbhe Lynda and Adam John to be christened in the presence of so many relatives and friends, who share their joy in them. Sandra and Sharon are daughters of John and Myrtle Gloster.

For their godparents, it is a day when they promise to encourage them in their life and in their faith. Each pair of parents will stand as godparents for the other pair's child. It is a day to celebrate the start of very special relationships they will have with their godchildren as they grow up.

My daughter, when she was small, didn’t understand what a godmother was. She called her godmother ‘my bed-sitter’, because when she came to stay her godmother would sit on the end of her bed and have long talks with her. My daughter loved those special talks. May you as godparents be equally special ‘bed-sitters’ for Ailbhe and Adam!

It is surely right for families to celebrate as families, because our Lord Jesus Christ himself was reared in a human family, and enjoyed family celebrations -  we remember the wedding in Cana of Galilee.

But today is about much more than just family celebration.

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

We are here to welcome them as new members of Christ’s Church.  Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God, which will last for the rest of their lives. Whether we are family or not, we celebrate that today. And as we renew our baptismal vows in a few moments, let us reflect on our own journey, and let us be determined to support Ailbhe’s and Adam’s parents and godparents as they guide them on their journeys.

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

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

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

May Ailbhe and Adam grow up to recognise God’s dynamic cycle of love reflected in their own relationships!

In today’s Gospel reading (Mark4:26-34), Jesus likens the kingdom of God to sowing seeds.

Today’s baptisms are like the sowing of two seeds. When we sow seeds in the kingdom of God, we must be patient. We must live in hope and trust in God’s goodness and loving kindness to us all.

We pray that both Ailbhe and Adam, nurtured by the love and examples of their parents and godparents, may grow like mustard seeds in God’s kingdom. May they live in hope, trusting in God’s loving faithfulness, and both yield and receive a great harvest of goodness in the kingdom of God.

 

Sowing seeds

 

Van Gogh: The Sower (after Millet) 1881

An address given in Killodiernan church on Sunday 13 June 2021, the 2nd after Trinity

Mark tells us in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 4:26-34) that Jesus spoke only in parables in his public teaching, but explained everything in private to his disciples.

Why did Jesus take this approach, I wonder? Perhaps he realised that if he spoke his mind too directly, his enemies among the religious and political leaders would move against him before he was ready. Speaking in parables for others to interpret was safer, yet he needed to make sure that the disciples he chose had understood his teaching correctly.

But a more important reason is this, I think. Jesus wanted people to use their own minds, to wrestle out the truth in his parables for themselves. By doing this they would better understand his teaching, and the images in his parables would help them remember it. That is a powerful technique, used by great teachers.

Today Mark gives us two short parables about the kingdom of God, often known as ‘the parable of the growing seed’ and ‘the parable of the mustard seed’.

The kingdom of God is central to Jesus’s teaching. He teaches us to pray, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.’ As I said to you the Sunday before last, I feel sure we enter the kingdom of God when we do God’s will here on earth, as it is done in heaven.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus explained today’s parables to his disciples, so let us look at them closely ourselves, to tease out what they mean for us.

‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground’, says Jesus.

Who is this sower who scatters seed? Some have interpreted it as Jesus himself, but I am sure this is wrong. The sower does not know how the seed sprouts and grows, but the Son of God surely knows.

The sower is surely each one of us, man or woman. We must hope and trust that ‘when we scatter seed on the ground, … the seed (will) sprout and grow, … first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head’. Only when the grain is ripe, through the grace of God, can we gather in a good harvest.

Similarly, when we make our human plans, we cannot know how they will turn out. We can only hope, and trust in the goodness of our loving God, that they will turn out well.

The message Jesus means us to take from this parable is surely this. In the kingdom of God we must be patient. We must live in hope, and we must trust in God’s goodness and loving kindness to us. Because our loving God is faithful, and knows what we need, we can be sure that we will receive a bounty of goodness.

‘The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,’ says Jesus, ‘… the smallest of all the seeds on earth’.

‘Yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs,’ he continues, ‘and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

In his parables, Jesus likes to use images from nature that would be familiar to his audience. But you, like me, may find this one a bit puzzling, because mustard seeds are not particularly small, around 1mm or so, compared for instance to the dust like seeds of an orchid. And nor do mustard plants grow particularly large.

Yet perhaps mustard seed was the smallest of the seeds that his audience would be familiar with deliberately sowing, smaller than the grains of barley or wheat, smaller than peas or beans. And mustard is an annual plant that grows rapidly with large leaves, so that in favourable conditions, by the end of a single season, it could well be big enough to provide shade for birds to roost in on the ground, just as the related oilseed rape does for partridge or pheasants.

In my woodland garden I have many oak trees, grown from acorns I collected from the Botanic Gardens in Dublin just over 20 years ago. My wife Marty planted and nurtured them, and I planted them out as a shelter-belt. Now they are around 40 feet high, providing shade and much needed shelter from the prevailing winds, for me and for a host of birds and other wildlife as well. They are my pride and joy.

I think the message Jesus means us to take from the parable of the mustard seed is clear. The kingdom of God is not a place nor is it a static thing. It is a growing and developing organism. Everything we do for love of God and neighbour, every little act of kindness, nourishes the growing kingdom. Over time, we can see it grow and develop from tiny beginnings to something wonderfully large and life-giving. It is God’s will that we and all creation may flourish in his growing kingdom.

This morning, two of John and Myrtle Gloster’s grandchildren were baptised in St Mary’s.

They are Ailbhe Lynda, daughter of Sandra and Ruari Cahill, and Adam John Nevin, son of Sharon and Robert Nevin. It was a scene of great rejoicing for their families, and I’m sure you will want to join me in welcoming them into our church family.

We can see their baptisms as like the planting of two seeds. Nurtured by the love and examples of their parents and godparents, they will grow organically like mustard seeds in God’s kingdom. We pray that they will live in hope, trusting in God’s loving kindness, and both give and receive a great bounty of goodness in the kingdom of God.

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

Almighty God,
without you we are unable to please you:
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts:
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

 

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Nicodemus talks with Jesus

 

Nicodemus talks with Jesus, Alexander Bida, 1874

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Trinity Sunday, 30th May 2021

We have just heard Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus from John’s Gospel (3:1-17).

It is a difficult passage to understand – at least I find it so. But it is crucial for the development of our Christian faith and Trinitarian theology. So on this Trinity Sunday please bear with me as I reflect on the meaning of their conversation.

Although he is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, Nicodemus is sympathetic to Jesus.

Pharisees have had a bad press they don’t deserve. In general they were good people, rather too pious for some people’s taste perhaps, but they did their best to keep every detail of the Jewish law. As well as being a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, which would later try and condemn Jesus on a trumped up charge.

‘(Nicodemus) came to Jesus by night’, we are told. Perhaps he didn’t wish to be seen visiting a controversial figure like Jesus. But after dark, away from the distracting crowds was also a good time for serious conversation. ‘Rabbi’, he says to Jesus, ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’. And then they talk.

Poor Nicodemus – he must surely have felt that Jesus spoke to him only in riddles! ‘Being born from above’; ‘entering the kingdom of God’; ‘the Son of Man’; ‘having eternal life’: what in God’s name is Jesus talking about? Let me try to tease it out.

We start with the kingdom of God – 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 cannot do so unless something changes in us. In a sense we need to be ‘born again’ to be immune to human wilfulness.

Jesus talks about being ‘born from above’ – but the words could just as well be translated as being ‘born again’ – and that is the sense in which Nicodemus correctly understands them. He understands the necessity of 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 sinful natures – 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 entrust ourselves to God completely, without reservation, as to a loving Father.

In Greek the same word is used for both wind and spirit – ‘pneuma’. 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 – 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 does not 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 enjoys their conversation.

Because Jesus does indeed go on to tell Nicodemus – and through him us too - about deep, heavenly truths, about 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 ‘a representative man’. Jesus is saying that for a representative 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 representative man.

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, 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 representative 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 in the ancient Hebrew scriptures the image of the serpent healed those who gazed on it.

But what does Jesus mean by ‘eternal life’? We should distinguish it from ‘everlasting life’, I think. Everlasting life might just as well be hell as heaven, experiencing the same things over and over again. Duration isn’t the point - 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 that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’

Jesus is revealing to Nicodemus – and to us – that Jesus the Son of Man, the representative of all human beings, is also the only Son of God. The extent 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. And God sent his Son to save the world, not to condemn it – to offer us the chance to reconcile ourselves with God by aligning our will with his, rather than to be punished for not doing his will.

John does not tell us what Nicodemus makes of all this.

You might expect him 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 Sanhedrin 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. Let us hope that this was the case.

And let us give thanks for the insights Nicodemus prompted Jesus to reveal about the relationships within the God of the Trinity, between the Father, his Son, and his Spirit, and the relationship between God and human beings like us. They are the scriptural basis for our Trinitarian faith.

Let us finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word

O blessed Trinity,
in whom we know the Maker of all things, seen and unseen,
the Saviour of all, both near and far:
by your Spirit enable us so to worship your divine majesty,
that with all the company of heaven
we may magnify your glorious name, saying,
Holy, holy, holy. Glory to you, O Lord most high. Amen

Sunday, 23 May 2021

The Church is a living, developing organism

 Address given on Pentecost Sunday 23rd May 2021 at St Mary's, Nenagh & Killodiernan church

We’re moving into Summer, Spring is almost behind us, and we have returned to our churches!

We all love the sense of unfolding new life and development at this time of year. And it is right for us to rejoice in the changing of the seasons. It is the creative power of the Spirit of God at work: as today’s Psalm 104 puts it, When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.”

This Sunday is Pentecost – what we used to call Whitsunday. For Christians it ranks alongside Christmas and Easter as one of the great festivals. It celebrates the day when the Holy Spirit filled Jesus’s followers, empowering them to begin the great task of making disciples of all nations. The first Pentecost was the spring-time of the Church, the day when the first green sprouts burst into the light of day, the day the Church was born. It is right for us to rejoice in it!

Jesus told his disciples that he would send them the Holy Spirit from the Father.

For what we know as the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity, John uses a Greek word translated as ‘advocate’ or ‘helper’ in today’s Gospel (John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15). On the night he was betrayed Jesus tells the disciples, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.’

Jesus goes on to say, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth’. These are very important words. Jesus tells his first disciples that they do not know the whole truth. They must trust the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father to guide them. The same applies to his disciples in every age, including ours. It is too easy to say ‘we must hold to the faith once for all delivered to the Saints’, because all truth is provisional. Jesus teaches us our faith must be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – it must be a living faith, open to development.

In today’s 1st reading (Acts 2:1-21), Luke describes the events of that very first Pentecost.

7 weeks after Christ’s resurrection, 10 days after his ascension, something happened among his followers. Something that caught the attention of the crowd – citizens of Jerusalem and visitors from all over the Roman Empire, alike. Something that caused the crowd to stop and look and listen. What was it that happened?

The disciples suddenly experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, in them and in their lives, as Jesus had so recently promised them. The Hebrew scriptures use wind and fire as symbols of the presence of God. So it was natural for them to describe their extraordinary experience in terms of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire. And they were changed by it, changed utterly.

They began to speak in tongues, we are told. This is what first attracts the attention of the crowd – some people even thought they were drunk! Did they really speak in all manner of foreign languages? Or is Luke telling us that the Gospel message is universal, for people of all races and tongues? Or was it the disciples’ obvious enthusiasm and joy, bubbling forth, that impressed the crowd?

Then Peter comes forward, the simple fisherman from Galilee. Just seven weeks before he had been afraid to admit he knew Jesus. Peter as spokesman for the others starts to speak confidently to the crowd, quoting from the prophet Joel; and Peter goes on to declare his faith in the risen Christ, with such eloquence that we are told he convinced 3000 people that day to believe and be baptised. What a change in the man! Thus Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we can understand what happened through, say, the science of psychology. But I prefer to use the same words Luke did – ‘All of them - the disciples - were filled with the Holy Spirit’, and they were changed by it. And this sense of receiving and being changed by the Holy Spirit has marked out and empowered Christians in every generation ever since.

Notice that the disciples were all together in one place when they received the Spirit.

It was a gift to the whole community who followed Jesus. I think that if Christians of different traditions were more often gathered together in one place, we would receive more of the Spirit.

I can be a Christian without going to Church, folk sometimes say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional. And for much of the last year, the pandemic has prevented us from gathering physically in our churches, and still prevents us from singing, though very many have continued to join together as a worshipping online.

The truth is that nobody can be a Christian alone, because as Christians we are those to whom God has given his Spirit, and the Spirit is a community Spirit. We are not given it for our individual salvation. We are given it to empower us to be the Church, the community of believers, the body of Christ, so that we may pass on the good news to others, not necessarily by words but in our lives.

I believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired people since time immemorial. Long before Jesus’s patient sowing of the seed with the disciples, the Spirit was planting seeds in the minds of the children of Israel and their ancient prophets, as they, like us, struggled to understand their relationship with God. And who can say that the Spirit has not also inspired what is good in other religions?

But as Christians, let us rejoice in Christ’s Church as a living, developing organism, sprouting from the seed Jesus sowed, constantly growing in new ways, and guided by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sends from the Father.

So to conclude:

As we rejoice in the glorious growth in nature around us, and as we rejoice to be able to gather together in our churches once again, let us also rejoice in the Church as a living, changing and developing organism.

And let us pray that in this small part of Christ’s Church, in the churches of our parish union, in the Diocese of Limerick & Killaloe in the Church of Ireland, God’s Holy Spirit will guide us to change and develop according to God’s will:

Almighty God, 
you sent your Holy Spirit,
to be the life and light of your Church:
open our hearts to the riches of your grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love, joy, and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Casting out demons

Reflection given at morning worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 20th April 2021



We’ve just heard Luke tell us (Luke 4:31-37) about how Jesus healed a man with an ‘unclean spirit’ in the Synagogue in Capernaum. In Jesus’s time all kinds of mental illness were put down to possession by a demon, but today we would probably describe the unfortunate man as suffering from some kind of psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia.

The man rants at Jesus, ‘Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God’. One thing that strikes me about the story is that in his madness the man recognises Jesus for who he is, ‘the Holy One of God’.

And that gets me thinking about how like this mad man we all are. Each one of us is created in God’s image as a soul with a conscience, a conscience by which we know right from wrong, truth from lies, beauty from ugliness. It is through conscience that God speaks to us, and we can hear Jesus’s voice through our conscience. We say we believe in ‘the Holy One of God’, but when we hear the gentle voice of Jesus calling to us, with the authority of God Almighty, all too often we ignore it. It may be in the little things of life, when we do what we know we shouldn’t, for our own selfish reasons. It may be in a great thing, when we are faced with a life-changing decision for good or ill, perhaps a costly decision to speak out for justice or to follow a vocation. We hear Jesus calling to us, but in our head a nagging demon drowns out his voice, shouting ‘Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth’. And so we do the wrong thing, we take the wrong road, time and time again.

But as Luke tells us, Jesus has the authority and the power to rebuke the demon. Through prayer and reflection, the God-given voice of our conscience is strengthened, so that we can hear Jesus’s voice cast out the nagging demon, saying ‘Be silent, and come out!’. When the demon’s voice is drowned out, he can do no harm to us, and we can calmly and courageously choose to do the right thing, to take the right road.

We must pray, I think, for the voice of conscience to be stronger than our desires and our fears. And we should pray too for the courage to follow our conscience, whatever the cost might be, so that we may follow the path of salvation that Jesus shows us.

We pray in the words of Joan Chittister, an American Benedictine nun and passionate advocate for peace and human rights, for conscience and courage:

Loving God, lead us beyond ourselves to care and protect, to nourish and shape, to challenge and energize, both the life and the world you have given us.

God of light and God of darkness, God of conscience and God of courage, lead us through this time of spiritual confusion and public uncertainty.

Lead us beyond fear, apathy and defensiveness to new hope in you, and to hearts full of faith.

Give us the conscience it takes to comprehend what we’re facing, to see what we’re looking at, and to say what we see, so that others, hearing us, may also brave the pressure that comes with being out of public step.

Give us the courage we need to confront those things that compromise our consciences or threaten our integrity.

Give us, most of all, the courage to follow those before us who challenged wrong and changed it, whatever the cost to themselves.

We ask this for the sake of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Sight and Blindness

 


The reading we have just heard (John 9:18-41) is the second half of a story that fills the whole of the 9th chapter of John’s Gospel. It is the story of how Jesus gave sight to a beggar blind from birth by anointing his eyes with mud made from spit, and what happened next. Let us reflect on the characters involved, and what they have to teach us.

Firstly, there is the beggar whose eyes were opened. Life must have been extremely hard for him as a blind man on the margins of society, with no other way to make a living than to beg in the street. And then, out of the blue one Sabbath day, Jesus comes by and cures his blindness. He is an open and truthful person. If we were all as open and truthful as him the world would be a much better place! When his neighbours and those who knew him ask how it happened, he simply says, ‘The man called Jesus made mud and spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’. Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ When they bring him before the Pharisees – the civil and religious leaders – he repeats his story. And adds that he believes Jesus is a prophet - words guaranteed to upset Pharisees who resent Jesus.

Secondly, there are the beggar’s parents. I feel sure they must have been kind parents to raise such an open and honest son. But they are not so open themselves. They guard their words carefully when they are asked to confirm that their son really was blind from birth, and to explain how he can now see. They know the Pharisees have already decided to throw out of the synagogue anyone who confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. So they confirm their son has been blind from birth, but they decline to say how he was cured, saying he is old enough to answer for himself. Perhaps they were afraid for themselves, or perhaps they hoped that their son would change his story when he saw the way the wind was blowing. But for whatever reason they failed to support their son. I am reminded of the many Irish parents of a previous generation, who failed to support their unmarried pregnant daughters in the face of prejudice.

Thirdly, there are the Pharisees, religious and civic leaders who prided themselves on their knowledge of and adherence to the Jewish law. No doubt most of them were good people, admired members of the community – remember, St Paul could boast that he was ‘a Pharisee born of Pharisees’. But their concern for the letter of the law could lead them to breach its spirit. On this occasion they were divided. Some said Jesus could not be Godly, because he did a work of healing on the Sabbath when work was forbidden. Others said he must be Godly, or he could not have given sight to someone born blind. To resolve this, first they call on the parents to testify, as we have heard, and then they call in the beggar to testify a second time. The beggar does not change his story. Instead, he challenges them, declaring that if Jesus were not from God, he could not have given him sight. At this point the Pharisees are outraged that the beggar should presume to lecture them. They come together to drive the beggar out of the Synagogue, ostracising and marginalising him once again. We are not told whether this decision was unanimous or not, so there may have been a dissenting minority. I am reminded of the way that some Christians seek to exclude LGBT people from their churches, while others stay silent for the sake of a peaceful life, and a minority – of which I am one - continues to oppose it.

Lastly, there is Jesus himself. Jesus hears that the beggar has been driven out and goes in search of him, to comfort him, I feel sure. The beggar responds to Jesus, saying ‘Lord, I believe’, and worships him. Then Jesus says, loudly enough for some nearby Pharisees to overhear, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind’. Jesus is confirming the beggar’s insight, but also accusing the Pharisees of being blind to the truth. He understands very well that ‘There are none so blind as them that do not want to see’. It is a warning to us all.

As we pray for eyes to see the world as God sees it, let us also pray for humility to see where we may be blind.


Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Transfiguration

 

A reflection on St Mark's account of the transfiguration, given at Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 16th February 2021

A Brocken Spectre, captured at Glencoe
for more on the science see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glory_(optical_phenomenon)

Mountain tops are special places, places where we feel awed by the immensity of God’s creation.

When the weather is good, the distant views reveal how puny we really are. When the clouds close in, we experience isolation from all that is familiar. And when the wind blows rain or hail or snow in our face, we understand our own frailty and vulnerability.

In today’s reading (Mark 9:2-9), Mark tells the story of three disciple’s very special mountain top experience. High on the mountain, Peter, James and John see Jesus ‘transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white’ – his appearance is changed: the Greek word translated as ‘transfigured’ is from the same root as ‘metamorphosis’. Alongside him they see two figures talking to him, whom they identify as Elijah and Moses, the two preeminent figures of Judaism, representing the Law and the Prophets.

Peter, always the impulsive one, says, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Peter does not want this emotional moment to end – such a human response!

Then the cloud closes in around them.  They are terrified. And they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’ When the cloud clears, they look around, and they can see only Jesus, who orders them not to tell anyone what they have experienced, ‘until the Son of Man (has) risen from the dead’.

Their experience, which we call the Transfiguration, reveals Jesus to them as the Christ, the Son of God. They must have felt it was immensely important, because they remembered it and passed on their story after the Resurrection, so that it could be told to us not just by Mark, but also by Matthew and Luke.

There may be a scientific explanation for what Peter, James and John saw.

High on a mountain, with cloud around, is precisely where we may encounter 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 it is Mie scattering.

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. It 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. Try googling ‘Brocken Spectre’ to find photos of it.

You might be lucky enough to see a glory yourselves, as I have. I saw one 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.

I imagine Peter and James and John close together on the mountain, with Jesus praying a little bit away, as the clouds swirl around them. Where Jesus has been standing, they each suddenly see a glowing figure. It is their own shadow cast onto a cloud, and wrapped in a glory. The other two figures they see, whom they take to be Moses and Elijah, are the shadows of their companions. Is it significant, I wonder, that each disciple sees his own shadow transfigured?

This explanation from physics convinces me that the Transfiguration was not imagined, but a real event. I believe that God is present in, and works through, the laws of the universe he created. The disciples accurately reported what they saw, even if they could not understand the physics, as we can now.

If this explanation is correct, it should not change one whit our awe and wonder at God’s power and glory.

What matters, surely, is what the Transfiguration reveals to Peter, James and John about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God. They saw Jesus transfigured as ‘the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’, in St Paul’s words. The voice they heard told them to listen to him, and this is what they did. From then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, preparing them for their role as apostles after his death.

The Transfiguration is, I think, the moment on their long road when they gave their complete commitment to Jesus and his teaching. Starting from their 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 Christ’s Church.

And as Christians it should inspire each one of us to make our own commitment to follow Jesus as his disciple, wherever that may take us.

 

 

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Sabath observance



Today’s reflection is about the Sabbath. It follows on from the reading we’ve just heard (Mark 2:23-28), in which Jesus says, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath’.

We should think of Sabbath as a gift from God, I believe. The ancient Israelites were, perhaps, the first to see that people can only flourish if they take time off from their busy lives every seven days - time to rest, time to enjoy being with friends and family, as well as time to give thanks to God for all his blessings. So they included this as one of the 10 Commandments in their covenant with God: 

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.’.

The Israelites handed this great insight down through the generations to the time of Jesus, and on to all the Abrahamic faiths, though we now observe our sabbaths on different days of the week: Saturday for Jews, Sunday for Christians, and Friday for Muslims.

By the time of Jesus, the religious authorities had surrounded the Sabbath with so many regulations that its purpose was in danger of being lost. Plucking heads of grain to nibble on a walk was seen as prohibited harvest work, which led the Pharisees to criticise his disciples. But Jesus would have no truck with such pettiness, and nor should we.

Down to this day Orthodox Jews still observe their Saturday Sabbath rigorously. Forbidden work for them includes lighting a fire, and many will not turn electricity on or off on the Sabbath, since to do so might cause a spark. I discovered this when I was staying in Italy with my wife Marty, and the next door hotel was hosting a large party of orthodox Jews for the Sabbath. All the lights were left blazing day and night because to turn them off might make a spark, the lift was out of bounds, and there was no hot food. I was very impressed by the happy family groups walking in the grounds, and by their willingness to stop and chat. They were enjoying their Sabbath rest, and made no attempt to criticise me as a gentile for not joining in their discipline.

So how should we as Christians observe our Sunday Sabbath? Until 20 years ago almost all shops were shut on Sundays, except for corner shops selling papers and food, and the occasional chemist. Nowadays all is changed. The car parks at supermarkets and shopping centres are full on Sundays. I feel a bit sad about this, as it means that most shop-workers are obliged to work on Sundays. True, they will have some other day off, but it must be difficult for many families to enjoy Sundays together. However, we must recognise that society has changed, and it would be wrong and counter-productive to force others who do not share our faith to behave as we might wish.

I am sure that it is wise for everyone to enjoy the benefits of a Sabbath day of rest with family and friends. My wife Marty and I choose to go to church on a Sunday to give thanks to God for all his blessings – by zoom for the time being. Then we relax and cook a Sunday roast. But it is really up to each person how to mark their own sabbath, and on what day of the week. We would do well not to criticise the choices of others.

Because the Sabbath is made for us, for you and me - not you and me for the Sabbath!