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,

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