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.