Wednesday, 15 June 2022

The Trinity is not a mystery

 Reflection at Morning Worship with the Community of Brtendan the Navigator on Tuesday 14th June 2022

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, the day we celebrate our understanding that the God we worship is one God, but three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jews and Muslims, our fellow monotheist ‘peoples of the book’, vehemently reject the idea of God as Trinity – they allege that Christians do not really believe in one God, but in three Gods. Even some Christians find it puzzling. How can one God possibly be divided into three persons? Surely 1 + 1 + 1 = 3?

Over the centuries Christian apologists have answered this question in different ways. We have all heard how St Patrick illustrated the Trinity with the trefoil-leaf of a shamrock – three leaflets within the one leaf. John Wesley said: ‘Tell me how it is that in this room there are three candles and but one light, and I will explain to you the mode of divine existence’. And it is true in mathematics that if you add three infinities the result is still infinity. But I personally don’t find such arguments helpful. The Catechism of the RC Church says that ‘God’s inmost being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone’. But to leave it at that seems like a fudge to me.

Very early on Christians came to believe that the one God they worshipped was manifest in three different ways, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But they struggled to understand the relationships between their Lord Jesus Christ, the loving Creator whom Jesus addressed as ‘Father’, and the Spirit of truth whom Jesus asked the Father to send to his disciples.

By the 4th century the Church had captured the imperial Roman state. Amid power struggles in the church, dogmatic theologians were arguing bitterly over what the Trinity really meant. These disputes were eventually settled at a Council of Bishops, convened in Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius in 381AD, which defined the doctrine of the Trinity in the words of a creed, which we still use in the Holy Communion service. Almost all Christians, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and the Anglican Communion maintain that this is still the best way to think about God.

It is not hard to understand the historical reasons why Christians came to believe in God as Trinity. But I do not think that our belief, that God is best understood as Trinity, should rest only on the words of scripture and the partisan arguments of Church Councils more than 1600 years ago. I believe that divine revelation did not cease when the last full stop was written in the last book of scripture. God continues to reveal himself in his creation. In the world around me I see signs of our Trinitarian God everywhere.

I see the Loving Father in the beauty of the universe he created. He has precisely tuned the fundamental physical constants to support the miraculous, evolving web of life on our planet. He has made it to be a place where you and I and all creatures can flourish and be fed, if we would only tend and care both for it and for our neighbours, as we ought.

I see the Saving Son in the widespread altruism that exists in the natural world. I see him in communities of living creatures, including ourselves, in which each part depends on others to flourish mutually. I see him in the worker bee’s dedication to raising a sister’s brood. I see him in the three-cornered dance of insects, fruit trees and seed dispersing animals. I see him in the cycles of death and resurrection that drive evolution. And I see him in our human capacity to love our neighbours as ourselves – even if we often fail to do so.

I see the Holy Spirit in the continual innovation of living creatures and ecosystems through evolution. I see him at work exploring new expressions of what is possible in the arts and the sciences. And I see him inspiring human beings, in all their variety, with their different gifts, to come together to make the world and their societies more like the kingdom of heaven.

We should not, I think, see the doctrine of the Trinity as very difficult or a great mystery, but rather as something very natural. It is very simple really – but also very profound.

 

 

Sunday, 12 June 2022

Understanding the Trinity

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan Church on Trinity Sunday, 12th June 2022

On this Trinity Sunday we celebrate our understanding that the God we worship is one God, but three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jews and Muslims, our fellow monotheist ‘peoples of the book’, vehemently reject the idea of God as Trinity – they allege that Christians do not really believe in one God, but in three Gods. Even some Christians find it puzzling. How can one God possibly be divided into three persons? Surely 1 + 1 + 1 = 3? 

Over the centuries Christian apologists have answered this question in different ways. We have all heard how St Patrick illustrated the Trinity with the trefoil-leaf of a shamrock – three leaflets within the one leaf. John Wesley said: ‘Tell me how it is that in this room there are three candles and but one light, and I will explain to you the mode of divine existence’. And it is true in mathematics that if you add three infinities the result is still infinity. But I personally don’t find such arguments helpful. The Catechism of the RC Church says that ‘God’s inmost being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone’. But to call it a mystery seems like a fudge to me.

So today let me reflect on how I as a Christian seek to understand the Trinity.

We must start, I think, with how the early Christians came to understand God.

First, the early Christians had their roots in the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. There they learned that God created all that was and is and is to come, as reflected in today’s reading from Proverbs. And they also learned that God had created them in his own image. More than that, God had an intimate relationship with them, as a parent, as a father or a mother. Hence the OT stories where their God hears the cries of the people, brings them out of bondage, cares for them as a hen cares for her chicks. The first Christians did not see God as remote, but as a loving and gracious God, like a parent, like a Father. They followed Jesus’s lead by praying to their Father in heaven. And following St Peter and St Paul, they came to see him as a God for all people, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free

Second, the early Christians also understood God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From the apostles and disciples they heard the story of Jesus - how in Jesus God lived and acted in new and profound ways among people. Through them they encountered the risen Christ, and heard him promise, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. They learned that God was made manifest in Jesus, that God was not just out there somewhere, but had also lived as one of them, as their brother, through his Son, Jesus, who had ascended to his Father and would come again. The stories were written down in the Gospels to show that God was not only their Creator, but also Jesus Christ their Saviour and Redeemer.

Third, the early Christians came to understand God as Holy Spirit. As we heard in today’s 3rd reading, Jesus promised that the Spirit of truth would come to them. That Spirit first came to them at Pentecost to the whole community, not just to a select few. It made them fearless. Responding to Jesus’s call, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’, they proclaimed their faith to all who would listen, baptising and gathering around them people from every nation in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. And the same Spirit came to the gathered groups of new Christians, just as it had to the apostles and first disciples. The Acts of the Apostles reads like an adventure story as the Spirit spreads like a wildfire through the Roman Empire. And the Epistles reveal for us how the Spirit formed the self-understanding of the gathered groups that we can now call churches.

It is clear that very early on Christians came to believe that the one God they worshipped was manifest in three different ways, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

By the 4th century the Church had captured the imperial Roman state. Amid power struggles in the church, dogmatic theologians were arguing bitterly over what the Trinity really meant. These disputes were eventually settled at a Council of Bishops, convened in Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius in 381AD, which settled the doctrine of the Trinity in the words of a creed, which we now know as the Nicene Creed, but more properly the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed, and still use in the Holy Communion service.

Almost all Christians, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and our own Anglican Communion maintain that this is still the best way to think about God.

It is not hard to understand the historical reasons why Christians came to believe in God as Trinity.

But I do not think that our belief should rest only on the words of scripture and the partisan arguments of Church Councils more than 1600 years ago. I believe that divine revelation did not cease when the last full stop was written in the last book of scripture. God continues to reveal himself in his creation. In the world around me, I see signs of our Trinitarian God everywhere.

I see the Loving Father in the beauty of the universe he created. He has precisely tuned the fundamental physical constants to support the miraculous, evolving web of life on our planet. He has made it to be a place where you and I and all creatures can flourish and be fed, if we would only tend and care both for it and for our neighbours, as we ought to do.

I see the Saving Son in the widespread altruism that exists in the natural world. I see him in communities of organisms, including ourselves, in which each part depends on others to flourish mutually. I see him in the worker bee’s dedication to raising a sister’s brood. I see him in the three-cornered dance of insects, fruit trees and seed dispersing animals. I see him in the cycles of death and resurrection that drive evolution. And I see him in our human capacity to love our neighbours as ourselves – even if we often fail to do so.

I see the Creative Spirit in the continual innovation of living creatures and ecosystems. I see him at work exploring new expressions of what is possible in the arts and the sciences. And I see him inspiring human beings, in all their variety, with their different gifts, to come together to make the world and their societies more like the kingdom of heaven.

We should not, I think, see the doctrine of the Trinity as very difficult or a great mystery, but rather as something very natural. It is very simple really – but also very profound.

Let me finish in prayer.

God of heaven and earth,
before the foundation of the universe
and the beginning of time
you are the triune God:
Author of creation,
eternal Word of salvation,
life-giving Spirit of wisdom.
Guide us to all truth by your Spirit,
that we may proclaim all that Christ has revealed
and rejoice in the glory he shares with us.
Glory and praise to you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 5 June 2022

The Living Church

We’re moving into Summer and Spring is already behind us!

We all love the sense of new life burgeoning 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.

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.

The Lectionary readings are of course all about the Spirit. Let’s have a closer look at them.

In today’s Gospel (John 14:8-17,25-27), Jesus tells his disciples that he will ask the Father to send them the Holy Spirit.

For what we know as the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity, John uses a Greek word translated as ‘advocate’. Jesus is speaking on the night he was betrayed Jesus. Let us hear his words again:

‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth... You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you… The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’.

These are very important words. Jesus tells his first disciples that through loving him they will know the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father. The Spirit will stay with them and be in them. And the Spirit of truth will teach them, as well as remind them of Jesus’s teaching.

Surely the same applies to his disciples in every age, including ours. 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 the 2nd reading (Romans 8:14-17), St Paul tells the Roman church that this Holy Spirit is a spirit of adoption.

‘When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.’

When we pray, when we seek God’s forgiveness, it is the Holy Spirit, the Advocate whom Jesus asked his Father to send to those who love him, the Spirit of truth which abides within us, who reminds us that we are children of God and so joint inheritors with Christ of all that is good and true and beautiful in God. What a simply stunning thought that is.

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 promised them. The OT uses 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 – 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 using this as a device to signify the Gospel message is universal, for every person, from every nation? Or was it just the disciples’ obvious enthusiasm and joy, bubbling forth, that impressed the crowd?

Then Peter comes forward. Peter the simple fisherman from Galilee, who just seven weeks before 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! So Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we could explain what happened with, say, the science of psychology. But I think it’s enough 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, people sometimes say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional. But nobody can be a Christian alone – for 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, 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 no doubt planting seeds in the minds of the ancient prophets of Israel 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 for us as Christians let us rejoice in Christ’s Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, a living organism, sprouting from the seed Jesus sowed, and constantly growing in new ways.

So to conclude:

As we rejoice in the glorious growth in nature around us, let us also rejoice in the gift of the Holy Spirit which abides in us, and reminds us we are children of God by adoption, and let us also rejoice in the Church as a living, developing organism, inspired and guided by that Holy Spirit.

In the churches of our parish union, in our new wider diocese, in the Church of Ireland, let us pray that God’s Holy Spirit will guide us to be a living church, changing and developing as God wants us to:

God the Holy Spirit,

come in power and bring new life to the Church;

renew us in love and service,

and enable us to be faithful

to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

(BCP p149)

Sunday, 1 May 2022

Giving thanks for Saul/Paul

 

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 1st May 2022, the 3rd Sunday of Easter

Imagine for a moment that you are Saul, who we heard about in the 1st Reading (Acts 9:1-20).

You are approaching Damascus, one of the great cities of the Roman Empire. You are on important business. You carry letters from the High Priest himself, which give you the authority to round up the subversives who follow what they call the Way, both men and women, followers of that notorious criminal Jesus of Nazareth who was justly executed for inciting rebellion against lawful authority.

Suddenly, a light flashes around you. You collapse in a heap on the ground. You hear a voice saying ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Where is this voice coming from? ‘Who are you?’ you say. ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’ the reply comes. ‘But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.’ Then you realise that you can see absolutely nothing, even with open eyes.

What a terrifying realisation – you have been struck blind, completely blind. Your travelling companions lead you by the hand into the city, and there you stay in a room for three days, sightless, neither eating nor drinking. Your mind races, returning again and again to the agonising question, ‘Why me? I am a good Jew, a Pharisee, punctilious in keeping the Law. Surely I don’t deserve this fate?’

Then at last a man called Ananias comes into your room. He is a Jew like you, living in Damascus, but he is also one of those subversive followers of the Way, against whom you have been breathing threats and murder. He simply touches you with his hands and says softly, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’. And suddenly you can see again – it is as if something like a blindfold fell off your eyes.

What a surge of relief you feel! And as your strength returns you find that everything – the whole course of your life – is changed.

This is the bones of the story told us by Luke, the author of Acts. But let’s look a little closer at this man called Saul in Hebrew or Paul in Greek. He is worth studying because he - more than any other of the first generation of Christians - has profoundly shaped our Christian faith through his missionary activities and writings.

Saul was a cosmopolitan Jew of the diaspora.

He was born in Tarsus, a major Mediterranean trading port in what is now South East Turkey, to a devout family - in his own words (Phil 3:5) he was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee’. The family must have been quite well to do for him to inherit Roman citizenship.

He could read and write fluently in Greek, the common language of the Eastern Empire, as well as Aramaic and Hebrew no doubt, and he was sent to Jerusalem to complete his education in the famous rabbinical school of Gamaliel. He said of himself that though he was not an impressive speaker he wrote words of wisdom.

He had learned the trade of tent making, by which he proudly supported himself during his later missionary journeys. But he may have been trained for ownership or management. He knew how to use a secretary and dictate letters, and he displayed the managerial skills to plan, monitor and control missionary teams in the growing network of churches he founded.

It is clear from his letters that Paul was a disputatious personality. He was quite prepared to challenge the authority of Peter and James, the leaders of the growing Christian community in Jerusalem, when he thought they were wrong, for instance when he insisted that his gentile converts should not have to adopt the whole of the Jewish law. And he must have been a prickly individual, always certain that he was right, who was known to fall out with his co-workers.

Saul was also a zealot – he would throw himself body and soul into whatever project he believed to be right. This led him to prominence in a pogrom against Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem, after he watched the stoning to death of Stephen, the first martyr. And hunting those who fled the pogrom brought him to travel on the road to Damascus.

Saul’s religious experience on the road to Damascus changed his life utterly.

Religious experience is a strange thing. God seems to choose to reveal important things suddenly to some people. Not just to Jews like Saul, or to Christians – many claim the experience of being ‘born again’ even today - but to individuals of other faiths – for instance the Buddha Gautama’s awakening under a Bo tree. But most of us discover religious truth and faith in a much gentler, gradual way, as I have, absorbed as if by osmosis in a process which takes a lifetime.

What exactly Saul experienced is uncertain. Acts says that he saw a bright light and heard a voice. Was it an epileptic fit or a kind of migraine perhaps? In his own letters he says only that ‘God revealed his Son to me’, and claimed he had seen the Risen Lord, which is why this reading is set for the Easter season. He used it to justify his claim to be the equal of the original apostles. And he believed he had been called not just to serve Christ but to accomplish a special task – to convert the gentiles. This is what he dedicated the rest of his life to.

And the Christ who chose to appear to Saul chose well. Saul was the right man in the right place at the right time. His personality and his skills made him outstandingly successful at the task of converting the gentiles. The book of Acts tells the dramatic story of his missionary trips throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. At some point he ceased to use the name Saul, so that in the latter part of Acts and in his letters only his Greek name Paul is used.

Paul founded vibrant congregations, and nurtured them by writing letters to encourage and sometimes chastise them. He developed a Christology and a theology of salvation which continues to inspire and perplex us. And he bravely endured many hardships and punishments over some 30 years of work, culminating in two years of house arrest in Rome. There, according to tradition, he was beheaded as a martyr in the reign of Emperor Nero – he who allegedly fiddled while Rome burned.

In 70 AD, just a few years after Paul’s death, the Jews of Judea rebelled against Rome.

Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed – just as Jesus had predicted, according to St Matthew, though he may have been writing in hindsight. All the inhabitants of Jerusalem were dispersed as refugees. The fate of the Jewish Christians is uncertain, but most probably they merged into the Greek speaking gentile churches created by Paul. Without Paul’s churches the small, vulnerable Christian minority might well have been wiped out – and we would not be here today.

So let us give thanks to God for Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, for his mission to the gentiles which has led us to Christ, and for the inspiring and challenging words he has left us.

I will finish in prayer in the words of the collect for the Conversion of St Paul:

Almighty God, who caused the light of the gospel

to shine throughout the world

through the preaching of your servant St Paul:

Grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversion

may follow him in bearing witness to your truth;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Changed, all changed

Here we are, one week after our Easter celebrations of Christ’s resurrection.

We are still in the season of Easter, and our mood is one of joy, as we meditate on the appearances of the resurrected Christ to his disciples, and prepare to celebrate his ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

It took Jesus’s disciples 7 full weeks to process the meaning of Jesus’s passion, death and resurrection.

At first they cowered in fear behind locked doors, not sure what to make of it at all. That is the context of today’s 3rd reading from John’s Gospel (20:19-31). But at Pentecost, 50 days later, they experienced the full power of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire and a rushing, mighty wind. They went out into the streets to proclaim the good news of Christ to the crowds, and with increasing boldness they persisted in doing so, despite the authorities attempts to stop them. This is the context of todays 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5:27-32).

Let us reflect on the two readings to better appreciate the change the Spirit worked in the disciples.

John tells us that Jesus appeared to the disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection.

Jesus appears suddenly, through doors that the disciples had locked for fear of those who had demanded his crucifixion. Notice how Jesus is changed by his resurrection. His best friends do not immediately recognise him: Mary Magdalen at first mistook him for a gardener, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus only recognised him when he blessed and broke bread in his inimitable way. Now he shows he can come and go even through locked doors.

Jesus shows his wounds to the disciples, and reassures them, saying, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. Then he breathes on them, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. This, I feel sure, is Jesus planting the seed of the change that comes over the disciples. From now on the seed of the Spirit grows in them, deepening their faith and their confidence, until it bursts out into the light of day at Pentecost, so that they can proclaim the good news in public.

Thomas, however, is missing, and when the other disciples tell him of their experience, he refuses to believe them. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands’, he says, ‘and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’. Thomas is one of those sceptical people who does not believe anything unless he can test and prove it. I admire him for that. He does not fall for ‘fake news’ - we need people like him to keep us grounded in the truth.

A week later, Jesus appears again, and this time Thomas is there. Jesus speaks directly to him, saying, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe’. Thomas answers, ‘My Lord and my God!’, to which Jesus replies, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’.

We have not seen Jesus as Thomas did, but we are blessed to believe as Thomas did. Rather unfairly, he has been called ‘Doubting Thomas’, in our western church tradition. But I prefer the way the eastern church calls him ‘Believing Thomas’.

In the 1st reading, the apostles have been arrested and brought before the Council of leaders.

This is the 3rd time that the temple authorities have arrested them. On the day of Pentecost they had gone out into the street boldly proclaiming the resurrection. The Church was born that day, and 3,000 people who welcomed their message were baptised. As time passed, ‘day by day the Lord added to their number’, we are told. But at first the authorities took no action.

Then one day, Peter and John met a cripple begging at the gate of the Temple, and healed him in the name of Jesus Christ. A crowd gathered, and Peter addressed them. The authorities could no longer ignore the apostles. They arrested them, and brought them before the Council for the 1st time. Peter and John refused to back down, and Peter repeated his message. The Council realised they couldn’t move against them because they were so popular with the people, so they ordered Peter and John not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, and released them.

But the apostles would not stop their teaching, and we are told that ‘yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord’. Finally, the High Priest ordered their arrest for a 2nd time. They were thrown in prison. But when the Council assembled, they discovered that the prisoners had miraculously escaped from the prison, and were back in the Temple teaching again.

So, the apostles are arrested for a 3rd time, and brought before the Council, as we heard in today’s reading. Peter and the apostles bravely confess their faith in Jesus. ‘We must obey God’, they say, ‘rather than any human authority’.

This enraged the Council, many of whom wanted to kill them. But thanks to the intervention of a respected Pharisee called Gamaliel, they were persuaded to have the apostles flogged and released, after ordering them - once again - not to speak in the name of Jesus. But, of course, the apostles continued to do so: ‘every day in the Temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah’.

The change in the apostles between these two readings is truly striking, isn’t it?

In the reading from John’s Gospel they are terrified, hiding behind locked doors. In the reading from Acts they are fearless, confronting the Jewish authorities and disobeying their order not to speak in the name of Jesus. So what caused them to change? It is surely the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, working within them over many weeks, liberated them from the fear that caused them to cower behind locked doors. It emboldened them to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, despite the danger and opposition they encountered. And it enabled them to bring more and more people into the growing church.

Today, in our increasingly secular society, many harbour doubts. If we confess our faith in Jesus Christ, we may suffer mockery or unpopularity. But let us listen to Christ's voice say, ‘Peace be with you’. Let us trust that the Holy Spirit he breathes on us will grow within us. And let us prepare to go out with him to continue his loving Father’s work. Then our doubts and fears will fall away, and we can declare as the apostles did, ‘We must obey God, rather than any human authority’.

I shall finish in prayer, with a Collect of the Word:

Living God,
For whom no door is locked:
Draw us beyond our doubts,
Till we see your Christ
And touch his wounds where they bleed in others.
This we ask through Christ our Saviour,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

 

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Jesus contemplates his own death

A reflection for morning worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday in Holy Week, 12th April 2022

The reading we have just heard (John 12:20-36) gives us an insight into Jesus’s thinking as he approaches the culmination of his life’s work. He is speaking to Andrew and Philip in front of a crowd

‘Very truly, I tell you’, says Jesus, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit’. Jesus is contemplating his own death. He knows only too well that the path he is set on, the path that his loving Father is calling him to, can only end with a shameful, painful execution. But he also knows that to turn away from that path, to love his life more than he loves doing God’s will, would make his life pointless. It is only by doing God’s will that his life can bear fruit eternally.

Jesus does not want to die – he is a man in the full strength and vigour of his early 30s, he loves life, he loves his friends, and he loves his ministry to those who need healing and forgiveness. ‘Now my soul is troubled.’, he says, ‘And what should I say - “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name’.

John tells us that Jesus received an answer to his prayer. ‘Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again”’. The crowd who heard it thought it was thunder, or the voice of an angel.

Now, Jesus’s mind is made up. He answers the crowd, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’.

The crowd do not understand Jesus’s words and question him. He replies, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light’.

We know what happens next. On Maundy Thursday, Jesus celebrates his Last Supper with his friends. Afterwards, he is betrayed by Judas, arrested and subjected to a show trial. On Good Friday he is lifted onto a cross, dies in agony, and is hurriedly buried. On Easter Sunday he rises in triumph from the dead, and is seen by his disciples. Forty days later he ascends to God and is seen no more. But on the day of Pentecost his disciples receive the gift of the Holy Spirit he promised them, and the Church is born.

As Jesus foretold, his body like a grain of wheat dies and rises and bears much fruit. As Christ’s Church we are that fruit. Although we no longer see him, the Holy Spirit remains with us, a light in the darkness. While we have that light, may we believe in the light, so that we may become children of light.


Sunday, 10 April 2022

Remove this cup from me

Agony in the Garden by Andrea Mantegna, 1458-60

Reflection on Christ's prayer in the Garden, given at St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Palm Sunday, 10th April 2022

That was a long reading (Luke 22:14-23:56), wasn’t it! But I am certain it is good for us to hear the whole story of Christ’s Passion from beginning to end at least once a year, to better appreciate the enormity of those events.

You will be glad to know that I’m not going to preach an equally long sermon too! Instead, I ask you to reflect with me for just a moment on Jesus’s prayer before his arrest: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done’

Jesus is distressed and agitated. In his anguish, he is certain that what he is doing is the will of God, his loving Father. He knows what is likely to happen next – his execution as a dangerous agitator, perhaps even the agonising death of crucifixion. And he does not want to die – he is a man in the full strength and vigour of his early 30s, he loves life, he loves his friends, and he loves his ministry to those who need healing and forgiveness. So he prays to his loving Father for himself, that his death may be averted – ‘remove this cup from me’.

But that is only half his prayer. Even more important for Jesus than his own distress at the prospect of death is that his loving Father’s will should be done. So he finishes his prayer with ‘yet, not my will but yours be done’.

This prayer of Jesus should be a model for our own prayers when we pray for something we want. When I desperately wish for something, it is right and proper for me to pray to God for it. If I cannot ask God for it, who can I ask? But I must never forget how much more important it is for God’s will to be done, than for my wish to be granted. So I should always finish a prayer for myself with Jesus’s words, ‘yet, not my will but yours be done’.

In the end, like Jesus, we must trust that our loving Father knows what is best for us.

The purpose of Christian prayer is not to badger God into doing what we wish for, but to align our wishes with God’s will.

 

Sunday, 13 March 2022

On the road to Jerusalem

photo by Alain Rouiller, under Creative Commons licence

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan church on Sunday 13 March 2022, the 2nd of Lent

Jesus always likes to use vivid, familiar images to catch the attention of his audience.

In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 13:31-35), he uses images of animals - the fox, and the mother hen brooding her chicks.

Jesus has set his feet on the road to Jerusalem, to the Temple at the heart of Jewish religious life, where he knows that he must confront his opponents. He is not rushing, but wending his way slowly through the towns and villages on the way, where he continues to teach his followers, and to heal those who come to him.

Let us travel in our imaginations with him, standing close to him, where we can hear him speak.

Jesus is in the territory of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, a client state of the Roman Empire.

His family has form. Herod Antipas is the son of King Herod the Great, who had ordered the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem after Jesus’s birth there. And Herod Antipas ordered the beheading of Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist, at the behest of his wife Herodias. He is a violent and dangerous petty ruler.

Some Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him ‘Get away from here’, they say, ‘for Herod wants to kill you’. The Pharisees in the Gospels are often portrayed as bitter enemies of Jesus, as many were. Perhaps these Pharisees have been sent by Herod to threaten Jesus, or maybe they just want to get Jesus off their own patch. But I prefer to think that they came to warn Jesus because they admired and respected him. We know that some Pharisees did: Nicodemus, for instance, who came to Jesus by night to discuss his teaching, and who helped to bury him after the Crucifixion.

Jesus replies to them with the first vivid image. ‘Go and tell that fox for me’, he begins. People then saw foxes as both sly and destructive, as those who keep chickens still do today. But they also saw them as dirty, impure, because they scavenged in rubbish tips for dead, rotting meat. To call Herod a fox in public is a great insult – perhaps a bit like a Russian in Red Square today loudly describing Putin as a vulture. Imagine your shock, and the shock running through the crowd, when you hear Jesus’s words!

With his eyes wide open to the danger Herod represents, Jesus refuses to run away from his ministry. ‘Listen’, he says, ‘I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’ Then, says Jesus, ‘I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.’ He will reach Jerusalem in time for Passover, when the city will be crowded with people, both up from the country, and from across the Roman Empire.

By the time Jesus’s words are reported back to Herod, it will be too late for Herod to send his men to arrest and kill him. Jesus will have left Herod’s domains, walking the road to Jerusalem with his disciples, in obedience to his loving Father’s will. There he will confront the religious and political leaders, with his prophetic message. We are following him on that road this Lent. It leads to his crucifixion on Good Friday, and resurrection on Easter morning.

Jesus knows what he must expect when he reaches Jerusalem. He laments: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!’

Jerusalem is the seat of Jewish political and religious power, and a headquarters of Roman imperial rule in Judea. Those who speak truth to power never receive a welcome, but that is what Jesus is going to do when he gets there.

In the OT story, time and again the children of Israel go astray from God’s ways and reject the prophets, sent by God to bring them back to the right path. Jesus knows himself to be sent by God in that same tradition. He has already suffered rejection on a previous visit to Jerusalem. But still Jesus yearns for the people to come to his call, where he can nurture them, and teach them the ways of God’s kingdom.

‘How often’, he exclaims, ‘have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’

Jesus employs a second lovely image – that of a mother hen brooding and protecting her chicks. Can’t you just see these little balls of fluff, so tiny, so fragile, so vulnerable to predators?

Surely this must be how God sees us - like curious little chicks, scattering this way and that, wandering in the farmyard and even out the gate, wandering far from our mother hen, far from Jesus, far from God’s love, easy prey for foxes.

We are not so very different from the pious Jews of Jerusalem in Jesus’s time, I think.

It seems so in our nature to wander wilfully. We often ignore God’s call to love him as he loves us, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, which makes us easy prey for many evils. The evil of selfishness that hurts other people. The evil of greed that wounds the beautiful, bountiful world we have been placed in. The evil of hatred that causes war and oppression. Evil is real. We see it in the war in the Ukraine. We can see it all around us.

Many today are just as oblivious to the dangers as the pious Jews of Jesus’s day were. To them, Jesus says, ‘I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”’. When Jesus finally enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, Luke (19:38) tells us that a multitude of his disciples greeted him in these very words. But not the pious Jews of Jerusalem.

By his life and teaching, death and resurrection, Jesus has shown his disciples – those who have seen him – that’s you and me - how to resist and defeat evil. He tells us that he will be with us always, and he sends his Holy Spirit to guide us, to be like a mother hen to us, gathering us under the shelter of her wings.

But Jesus does not give up on those who have yet to see him. He also tells us that we are to go out and make disciples of all nations, to gather all people under those protective wings. 


Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Praying the Lord's Prayer


 Reflection at Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 8th March 2020

You may find today’s reading both familiar and strangely different – it is the NRSV translation from the Greek of St Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, set for today in the common lectionary. It is deceptively simple, while at the same time encapsulating all that we ought to ask of God. I’m going to share with you some reflections upon it.

First, Jesus’s introduction makes me a bit uncomfortable because I fear I all too often ‘heap up empty phrases’ in intercessions that are too long and wordy. But I take comfort that God, our Father in heaven, ‘knows what I need before I ask him’.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray what we call the Lord’s prayer, as we continue to do whenever we come together as a Christian congregation. But there is nothing explicitly Christian about it. The Lord’s prayer can be said in good conscience by anyone who believes in a loving, almighty God, including Muslims and Jews - both Jesus and his disciples were of course Jews. Notice that Jesus calls us to pray together to ‘our Father’, not individually to ‘my Father’ – it is a prayer to be said together, not a private prayer.

When we pray ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’, we express our reverence for the nature and character of God, who is holy, who is good and who loves all his creatures, just as an ideal father of a household loves all the members of his household. That includes you and me, but others too - not just Christians, but people of other faiths and none – and not just human beings, but all the wonderful diversity of living creatures we share our planet with, because God sees all his creation to be good.

We pray ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. I believe that God’s kingdom is a state of peace and justice where we and all his creatures flourish. This is not the damaged world that we see around us, beset with war, dangerous climate change, and collapsing biodiversity – that is the antithesis of God’s kingdom. But I believe we can glimpse his kingdom, even enter into a small part of it, at any time and place where we do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. Our prayer is an invitation to look to the future in hope.

Jesus invites us to pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Notice he does not invite us to pray for more than our daily needs, and nor should we. If I greedily take all I desire, hoarding it for the future, others will likely get less than they need. We are to share what we have so that all have enough. It is ok for us to ask God for what we devoutly wish for ourselves and for others – if we can’t ask God, who can we ask? But we ought always add, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done’, as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. The purpose of prayer is to align our wishes with God’s wishes, not to badger him into doing what we want.

‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’. The Lord’s prayer in the BCP speaks of sins or trespasses, rather than debts. But they amount to the same thing – a failure to pay what is due, a failure of duty to God or our neighbour, a failure to do what is God’s will. Every one of us has failed many times in our duty to God or to our neighbour. I ask God to forgive my failures, but the sting in the tail is that God will forgive my failures only in proportion to my forgiving the failures of others. We must forgive to be forgiven.

Finally, we pray ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one’. Our time of trial may take many forms. Someone else, even someone I love, may seek to persuade me to do what I know is wrong, what is against God’s will. Or a character flaw in myself may give evil an opening it is hard to resist. Or cruel events may make me doubt the goodness and love of God. So we ask God to spare us such trials and temptations. But when we must face them, we ask God to help us resist them, as Jesus did when Satan tempted him in the desert, as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel reading.

Evil is real. We see it all around us in the violence humankind does to this beautiful planet. We see it in the way people exploit other people for their own ends. And we see it in the death and destruction of war. We see it in the suffering not only of the people of Ukraine, but also of misled Russian soldiers, and those whose lives are upended by sanctions, which will include many here in Ireland.

Now more than ever, we need to pray to our Father in heaven to rescue us from the evil one.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

Am I blessed, or am I cursed?

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan Church on Sunday 13th January 2020, the 3rd before Lent.

There’s a lot about blessing and cursing in today’s readings, isn’t there? And that prompts me to ask myself, ‘Am I blessed or am I cursed?’

In the OT reading, Jeremiah (17:5-10), contrasts blessings for those who trust in God, with curses for those who trust in mere mortals, whose hearts turn away from God. Those who trust in God will flourish. ‘They shall be like a tree planted by water… in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit’. But those whose hearts turn away from God will struggle. ‘They shall be like a shrub in the desert… they shall live in parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land’.

In the appointed psalm, Psalm 1, we see the same contrast, between the righteous who shall be ‘like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither’, and the wicked who shall perish.

In the NT reading (Luke 6:17-26), Luke tells us how Jesus came down from the Judaean hills to a level place where a great crowd came to hear him and to be healed by him. Then Jesus begins to teach his disciples in what is traditionally called the ‘Sermon on the Plain’. It is a clear parallel to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew’s Gospel which is traditionally called the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. They may well be recalling one and the same event, although the details remembered by Luke and Matthew differ.

In Luke’s account, Jesus begins the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ by proclaiming four blessings, or beatitudes, and by warning of four corresponding woes. In Matthew, Jesus begins the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ by proclaiming 8 beatitudes. He leaves the corresponding woes unsaid, but perhaps implicit.

Notice that Jesus does not proclaim any curses. It is not in his nature. Woes are not curses - they are warnings. It is we who bring curses on ourselves if we ignore his warnings.

Let us look more closely at Luke’s blessings and woes.

Jesus points to those who are blessed, those who are included in the Kingdom of God. But he also warns others of the consequences of their choices in life. The paired blessings and warnings are:

·         to the poor - and to the rich;

·         to the hungry - and to the ‘full’;

·         to those who weep - and to those who laugh;

·         to those who are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed - and to those held in esteem.

Most of us here in Ireland are rich, we have more than enough to eat, we have happy lives, at least by comparison with the poor of this world. Does that mean that we cannot be included in the Kingdom of God? Surely not. But it matters what we do with our good fortune.

Jesus does not teach us that there can be no blessings for the rich. But he warns those of us who are fortunate that it matters how we respond to the needs of others who aren’t. Woe to us if we do not listen to him!

If I do not use my riches to help those in need and poverty, I bring a curse on myself. If I am so full of myself, and of my own importance, that I trample on those I see as unimportant, I bring a curse on myself. If I am so consumed by my own pleasure that I ignore those who are suffering and in distress, I bring a curse on myself. The curse that I bring on myself is loss of the blessings to be found in God’s Kingdom of justice and peace.

Jesus knew very well that the OT prophets called for social justice.

In his hometown, Nazareth, Luke tells us that Jesus in the synagogue read from the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus knew too that the powers-that-be hate, exclude, revile and defame prophets who speak out, for he experienced that himself. So he warns his disciples that this is what they must expect if they are to follow him.

We have all heard the Beatitudes so many times that we may no longer notice just how shocking and stark Jesus’s teaching is. It completely upends the conventional thinking of the worldly wise. It challenges the world view of those who hate, exclude, revile and defame others - others who are poor or weak, of the wrong gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. In our own time, anyone who stands up in public to proclaim ‘Woe to the rich’, and acts upon it, can expect to be accused of being a communist agitator. Conservative forces of society and state will turn upon them, to hate, exclude, revile and defame them. But if we are true to Jesus, these are the forces that we must be ready to withstand.

It is ultimately up to each one of us individually to answer the question, ‘Am I blessed, or am I cursed’.

But in our human frailty, we will not find the right answer by ourselves, the answer which admits us to God’s kingdom. We need God’s help, and it is right that we should pray for it.

So let me conclude in prayer with this Collect of the Word:

Righteous God,
you challenge the powers that rule this world
and you show favour to the oppressed:
instil in us a true sense of justice,
that we may discern the signs of your kingdom
and strive for right to prevail;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen



Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Morning Prayer with the Community of Brendan the Navigator from Killodiernan Church on Tuesday 8th February 2022


 https://fb.watch/b2213V3I-l/

Apologies for the dodgy captions!

‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!’

·         And it is lovely, isn’t it, to be back in Killodiernan church for Morning Prayer with the Community of Brendan the Navigator this morning.

·         This little rural church is very special for those of us who are part of its accustomed congregation. We come to it Sunday by Sunday – or at least on the 2nd & 4th Sundays a month when services are scheduled. It is special because here we find blessings.

·         Here we chatter with our friends and neighbours as we gather for the service, passing on the news. We sit in our accustomed pews, and remember those who have gone before us.

·         Here we listen to the Word in scripture, and hear it preached. And when words bore us, we look through the windows, contemplating the trees as they change, season by season.

·         Here we are led in prayer for our needs and the needs of the world, and we sing together when we’re allowed to do so.

·         Here we greet our neighbours in the Peace. We eat with them the bread which earth has given and human hands have made, and - when not prevented by Covid – we drink the wine, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. In the great sacramental mystery, we do so in remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose body and blood it signifies.

·         Here, after the service, we chat some more - and if the weather is clement, we linger outside to admire the handiwork of God in the everchanging sward of wildflowers in the graveyard.

·         ‘Here (our) heart and (our) flesh rejoice in the living God’, as the psalmist says.

 

The psalmist declares: ‘The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young: at your altars, O Lord of hosts.’

·         I don’t know about sparrows and swallows, but the bats are back in the roof of Killodiernan church – to my delight, I have recently noticed traces of them once again. They always used to be here, but sadly left after the roof was replaced some years ago, despite the best endeavours of the builders not to disturb them.

·         Yet we must not think that God can ever be constrained to a building, for all the delight we take in our churches, and for all the encounters we have with God in them. God is present everywhere, all the time, not just in this building on Sundays.  God’s altars are to be found everywhere.

·         Much of the time, in our busyness, we do not feel God’s presence, nor notice his altars. But God and his altars are all around us. All we need to do is to stop rushing and still our racing thoughts for a moment, then we can feel God’s presence and see his altars.

·         It may be when we pause our work for a cuppa. It may be when we hear the Angelus bell. It may be when we look up to see a magnificent view, or look down to identify a tiny flower. It may be when we sit down to a meal prepared with care and love.

·         We ought to practice seeking out such moments, focus our attention on being a doorkeeper in God’s house which is the universe all around us, and spend time in the loving presence of our God.

·         Then with the Psalmist we can sing, ‘Blessed are (we) who dwell in your house: (we) will always be praising you’.

 


Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Morning prayer with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 11th January 2022

 https://fb.watch/at9-E3NBd6/ 

Today, many of us are feeling afraid of what can seem like a threatening, dangerous future. It would be very easy to let ourselves be overwhelmed by pessimism, to feel the future is hopeless. But that would immobilise us. It would prevent us from responding to the real dangers we face. And it would make the bad outcomes we dread more likely.

That is not how we as Christians are called to behave. The future is not hopeless. God has given us a great gift of hope, hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. And surely we must share this gift of hope with others, who may not share our faith, but badly need our hope.

The ground of our hope is our conviction that God loves us.

Nowhere is this more beautifully expressed than in today’s reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 43:1-7). Scholars tell us that this passage was probably written around 540BC. The children of Israel are in captivity in Babylon. They are afraid for their future, on the verge of giving up hope that they would ever be able to return to their homeland. So the poet seeks to encourage them in these words:

‘But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’

And why should the captive children of Israel not fear?

‘Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.

These are beautiful, encouraging and reassuring words, aren’t they?

Do not fear … because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you’.

Now Isaiah and the ancient Hebrews saw God’s love in exclusive terms: God loved the children of Israel in a special way; they were God’s chosen people, with whom God had established a covenant.

The very first Christians, and Jesus Christ himself, were Jews. They drew on that ancient Hebrew tradition, and we have inherited their conviction that God loves us, and with it God’s gift of hope – thanks be to God for the insight of the Jewish people!

But from the very start, with a fresh insight, Christians transformed the conviction of God’s love from being exclusive to being inclusive. We believe as Christians that God loves all people created in his image, not just Jews but gentiles like you and me, not just white people but people of all colours and ethnic origins, not just those who are like us but those we find alien.

This Epiphany season is traditionally a time to reflect on how God reveals himself to us.

So let us ponder God’s loving nature, revealed in Isaiah’s beautiful poetry: Thus says the Lord…, ‘Do not fear … because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you’.

Let us give thanks for the insight which we have inherited from the ancient Hebrews and the first Christians, that God loves us. The implications are life-changing:

·       Because we believe that God loves us, we live in hope.

·       Because we live in hope, we do not fear the future, no matter how dangerous it may seem.

·       Because we do not fear the future, we have the confidence to work for God’s kingdom.

All this poses a great question to each one of us – and to us all as a body, Christ’s body, the Church. The question is this: What am I going to do, what are we going to do, to make God’s kingdom a living reality?