Tuesday, 12 September 2023

Little children, love one another

The tomb of St John at Ephesus (photo Patrick Commerford)

Reflection at Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 12th September 2023

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another”, so says St Paul to the Romans (13:8-14), echoing Jesus’s words in St John’s Gospel (13:34), “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

This reminds me of a lovely story bequeathed to us by St Jerome, who is best remembered as the man who first translated the whole Bible into Latin in around 400AD. Known as the Vulgate, his translation was considered authoritative by the undivided Western Church.

Jerome tells the story that St John, the beloved disciple, continued to preach in Ephesus well into his 90s, even when he was so enfeebled with old age that he had to be carried into the Church on a stretcher. When he was no longer able to deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on each occasion and to say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued even when he was on his deathbed.

Then he would lie back, and his friends would carry him out. Every week in Ephesus, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘Little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is this: “Little children, love one another.”

After John’s death in the year 100AD when he was about 94 years old, he was buried on a hillside above the city of Ephesus. Later a great basilica was erected over the reputed site of his tomb. It has long been ruined, and was deserted when I visited it many years ago, but someone had left a fresh posy of wildflowers on the plaque marking the site of John’s last resting place.

St Paul goes on to urge the Roman Christians to wake up: ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’.

Paul does not only speak to the Romans - he speaks to each one of us, I suggest. As an older person, I feel this ever more strongly, as I realise the days left to me to earn my salvation are ever fewer. But I know that I will not go far wrong if I follow the way of Christ, loving God and loving my neighbour as myself.

Let us rejoice in God’s wisdom, the image of God’s goodness in the holy soul of St John, and say with him, ‘Little children, love one another’ – because it is enough.


Sunday, 3 September 2023

Finding life by losing it

Address given at Templederry & St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 3rd September 2023, the 13th after Trinity

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

What a shock it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus address him in these cutting words, as recorded by Matthew (16:21-28) in the reading we have just heard.

Peter had been the first to say, ‘You are the Messiah’, when Jesus had asked ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But now, ‘Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem … and be killed. Peter is shocked by Jesus’ words. Like most Jews of his day, he expected the promised Messiah to come as a great conqueror to destroy the gentiles – including the hated Romans - and to rule over a revived Kingdom of Israel. The Messiah would vanquish his foes, not be killed by them! So Peter remonstrates with Jesus: ‘Look here, Jesus, that can’t be right!’ he says - or words to that effect. Then Jesus turns on Peter and likens him to Satan.

Why was Jesus so hard on Peter, his great friend and disciple? Jesus knew that God’s way was not the way of violent earthly conquest, but the way of self-sacrificing love. He needed to teach Peter and the other disciples to change their thinking. I feel sure Jesus didn’t want to die a painful death, but he must have realised this was the inevitable outcome of what God called him to do. He was determined to face it bravely. But Peter tries to argue him out of it, in an echo of Satan’s tempting in the wilderness.

Isn’t this often the way it is? When we’ve made up our minds what is the right thing to do, even at a cost to ourselves, our friends and loved ones may try to talk us out of it. The tempter can be the very person dearest to us! Yet we must not allow even the pleading voice of love to stop us from doing God’s will. This surely is what Jesus felt that day – no wonder he responded as he did.

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

 If any want to become my followers’, says Jesus, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Jesus’s honesty is startling, isn’t it? No one can ever say Jesus lures his disciples to follow him on false pretences! He does not offer them – he does not offer us - an easy life or a comfortable way to God. Like other great leaders, he calls us as Churchill did to ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. But again like a real leader, he does not call us to do anything more than he was prepared to do himself.

First Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’, to say no to our own selfish instincts. We must do God’s will, not our own will, to the best of our ability, in all things.

But more than simply practicing self-denial, Jesus tells us we must be prepared to take real risks – even to risk our very lives – if that is what God, through our conscience, tells us is right.

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

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

The very essence of life is in risking it and spending it, not in saving it and hoarding it. If we live selfishly, always thinking first of our own security, profit and comfort, not of others, then we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we follow Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice, we are winning life all the time.

The truth is that the only way we can find a life that matters is by losing it in the love of God and the love of our neighbours. That is the way of Jesus, that is the way of God, and that is the way of happiness too.

For what will it profit them’, says Jesus, ‘if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

I’m sure you, like me, can think of people who are outwardly hugely successful, but who in another sense are living a life that is not worth living. In business, they may have sacrificed honour for profit. In politics, they may have sacrificed principle for popularity. In their personal lives, they may have sacrificed their deepest relationships for their own ambitions or desires. Whatever the reason, such people are usually not comfortable inside their own skin. They often regret their bad choices.

It is a matter of values really - Jesus is asking us where our values lie. As he says elsewhere, you should store up your treasures in heaven, not on earth, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Our values should be God’s values, as Jesus reveals them to us, not the false values of worldly success.

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

Jesus knows that many people do not like what he says and how he behaves. He stands up for the poor, the despised, the rejected, and he befriends sinners. And the scribes and the Pharisees – the pious and the respectable - attack him for it. With these words Jesus warns his disciples that they will be judged for their actions.

It is a simple truth: we cannot expect to share with Jesus the joy of shaping the world into the place God means it to be, if we are not prepared to act on Jesus’s message of loving self-sacrifice.

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

  • to be ready to take risks to do God’s will, rather than my own;
  • to find true life and happiness by losing my life in the service of God and others;
  • to live my life by God’s values, not the false values of worldly success.
  • to follow joyfully Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice.

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

O God,
whose Son has shown the way of the cross
to be the way of life:
transform and renew our minds
that we may not be conformed to this world
but may offer ourselves wholly to you
as a living sacrifice
through Jesus Christ our Saviour;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen


Tuesday, 8 August 2023


 A reflection at Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 8th August 2023.

A 'Brocken Spectre' captured on Croagh Patrick.
The spectre is the shadow of a climber cast onto a mist below,
wrapped in a glory formed by sun light scattered
from water droplets in the mist.

A reflection on Luke’s account of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), Peter, James and John’s intense spiritual and emotional experience, set for last Sunday, the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Jesus has brought the three disciples with him high on a mountain to pray. There they see Jesus transfigured, in dazzling white clothing, his face changed, and alongside him Elijah and Moses. As cloud envelopes them they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him’. The same story is also told by Matthew and Mark.

Luke gives us a clue as to what the disciples saw, I think. They are high on a mountain, with cloud around. These are just the circumstances where we may see 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 this is Mie scattering.

Historically, the most famous example is the ‘Brocken Spectre’, seen by climbers on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. This 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. You may be lucky enough to see one yourself, as I did 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 had stood, they each suddenly see a glowing figure – it’s their own shadow cast on a cloud, wrapped in a glory - and two other shadows beside it, those of their companions.

This physical explanation takes nothing away from the transfiguration story for me. Rather it helps me believe in the reality of the Transfiguration, that it was not invented by the Gospel writers to serve their own artistic or theological purposes. I believe that God is present in and works through the laws of the universe he created. Peter, James and John accurately reported what they saw, even if they could not understand the physics. What matters surely is what this revealed to them about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.

They are awed by what they see. They identify the three figures with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Peter, always the impulsive one, calls out to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Peter didn’t want this emotional moment to end – such a human response!

Then the cloud closes in around them. All three are terrified, and they hear a voice as if from heaven, saying ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’

This rings very true to me. When people suddenly understand something truly important, something which changes everything, they often talk of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. We may not have had such a religious experience ourselves, but we may have felt something like it. For instance, in the moment we realise that this very person I am with now is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with.

I believe the Transfiguration was the moment on their long road when Peter, James and John understood their complete commitment to Jesus and his teaching. Starting from the call in Galilee, this road led them ultimately to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the Resurrection, to the Ascension, and on to Pentecost, the birth of the Church. They told no one about it at the time, but they never forgot this moment of insight, for they passed the story on to Matthew, Mark and Luke, and so to ourselves.

We too, in faith, can hear the voice of God say to us from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’

Sunday, 23 July 2023

Parable of the weeds

Burning the tares

Address given at St Cronan's Church, Tuamgraney on Sunday 23 July 2023, the 7th after Trinity

Have you heard the old joke about the hell-fire preacher?

As he reaches the climax of his sermon about the day of judgement, in ringing tones he declares the fate of those who fail to meet the standards of God’s Kingdom: ‘They will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’. At which point an old woman puts up her hand and says, “But Rector, I have no teeth”; to which the hell-fire preacher replies, “Madam, teeth will be provided”.

Joking aside, it is always worth pondering the parables Jesus uses to teach his followers. The parable of the weeds of the field in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:24-30, 36-43) is no exception. So let’s look at it a little more closely.

The images Jesus uses in his parable would have been very vivid and familiar to a Galilean audience.

Weeds were one of the curses against which a farmer had to labour before the discovery of weed-killers. In this parable the weed is no doubt bearded darnel, a kind of rye-grass. In its early stages darnel is indistinguishable from wheat. Only when they both produce seed-heads can they be told apart. But by then their roots are so intertwined that the darnel can’t be weeded out without damaging the roots of the wheat. Weeding would only reduce the yield.

The wheat and darnel can’t be safely separated while they are growing, but in the end they must be, because the grain of the darnel is slightly poisonous. In quantity it causes dizziness and sickness. So the master in the parable gets the reapers to separate them at harvest time. The darnel will be bundled up and burned, while the wheat will be threshed and gathered into the barn.

The idea of an enemy deliberately sowing weeds in someone else’s field would also have struck a chord. It was a crime forbidden in Roman law, which prescribed a punishment for it, so we can be sure it happened.

Jesus tells the crowd that the parable is about the kingdom of heaven, and Matthew records him later explaining it to his disciples, to help them – and us – understand what he meant by it. It is one of several parables recorded by Matthew in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to different things – others are a mustard seed and yeast. Jesus is teaching by analogy, and I feel sure we should not take it too literally, but rather look for the underlying messages.

It is the devil, says Jesus, who sows the weeds, the children of the evil one, in the field which is the world.

We all know instinctively, don’t we, what is right and what is wrong. We have been created as souls with consciences - in the image of God, to use the imagery of the Book of Genesis. But we all also experience insistent little voices within us which tempt us to do what our God-given conscience tells us is not right. Theologians call it original sin, and Jesus personifies it as the work of the devil. But in our culture it may be easier to think of it as the bad part of ourselves, that part of own psyche which allows and encourages us to damage ourselves and others.

An example of this is the way many advertising campaigns play on our innate greed by whispering, ‘Because you’re worth it’. They tell women that they will look younger and more beautiful if they buy this or that cosmetic product containing plastic microbeads which are not biodegradable and pollute waterways and oceans. They tell men that they will be more powerful and live more exciting lives if they buy a new car which will pollute the air in cities and damage health. It is the thin end of a very fat wedge. Further down that wedge we find unscrupulous interests that seek to persuade us that we and our communities cannot afford to take the steps needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

As Christians we must resist the insistent little voices that urge us to do wrong, to sin. For as St Paul recognises (Romans 8:12-25), we have been given the Spirit of God to help us resist them. ‘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’.

Jesus warns us against pulling the weeds in case we uproot the wheat.

He is teaching us not to be too quick in our judgements of others. We are all too liable to classify and label people as good or bad without knowing all the facts. And people can change. We can be redeemed from sin by the grace of God, and equally we can disfigure a good life by a sudden collapse into sin. As Jesus says elsewhere, ‘Let he that is without sin cast the first stone’.

We are not entitled to make a final judgement about the righteousness of any other person – only God has that right. It is God alone who can discern the good and the bad. It is God alone who sees all of an individual and all of a person’s life.

Of course we can’t help forming opinions of others, using our reason which is also God-given. And it is surely right that we should let such opinions guide our actions when appropriate. But we must never forget we may be mistaken. And we would do well to remember the Quaker maxim – ‘There is something of God in every person’ – and try to find it.

We must leave judgement of others to God. But God will judge each one of us eventually.

‘Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

When Jesus talks about the ‘end of the age’, I don’t think we should take it literally as the end of time. Rather I think we should see it as a time which will come to us all – as certain as our own death – in which we see ourselves as God sees us, in one piece from our conception to our death, how we have touched those we have met, all the good in us, and all the bad too.

At this time we shall see clearly. We will burn in the torment of shame for our sins and the evil we have done in our lives. We will weep and gnash our teeth. But for the good we have done, we ‘will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father’.

I shall finish with the Collect of the Word for today

Saving God,
in Jesus Christ you opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure and constant wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 16 July 2023

Sowing the seed

Address given at Templederry on Saturday 15 July 2023 & St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 16 July 2023, the 6th after Trinity

Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:1-9, 18-23) is commonly called the Parable of the Sower.

But what is a parable? A parable is a story describing a scene from everyday life, which conveys a deeper meaning. I think Jesus taught so often in parables because they conjure up memorable images, which lead those who hear them to reflect on their meanings, and to discover the truth in them for themselves. However in this case, Jesus chooses to explain it to his disciples, when they ask him why he speaks in parables. No lesson is better learned than one you tease out for yourself! Parables are a bit like slow-release fertilizer, gradually yielding up their truth to people who ponder them.

The parable of the sower comes in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels as well as Matthew’s, and in startlingly similar words. Scholars believe the vivid image was remembered and recorded, and an edited version was used by the Gospel writers when they composed their texts years later. All three Gospels also contain the same authoritative explanation by Jesus of what the story means.

So let us in our imaginations picture the scene, let us reflect on the parable’s meaning, and let us tease out its relevance for us now, 2000 years later.

Let us enter into the parable in our mind’s eye.

So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat to address the crowd on the beach. The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it as rather like Lough Derg. It’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. Imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this prompted the parable, and everyone could literally see what he was talking about.

The sower isn’t using a seed-drill; he is broadcasting the seed by hand, just as our ancestors would have done only 150 years or so ago. The seed is in a bag or a basket, and he walks steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he can. Even at a distance it is quite clear to everyone what he is doing: they have seen it hundreds of times before, and many have done it themselves.

Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips belonging to one family, with paths between them, tramped down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower swooping down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sower’s skill.

Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality.

# Some parts are stony: don’t imagine small pebbles, imagine great sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top, like parts of the Burren, for instance. The soil above the rock warms early, and the seeds germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings will soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.

# Some parts of the field are infested with perennial weeds: imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which will quickly outgrow the delicate crop, choking it.

# But other parts of the field are good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop will have nutrients and water enough. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the grain sown on it.

Jesus said many other things to the crowd that day in parables, we’re told. We don’t know what they were, but I think we can take it that Jesus was proclaiming the good news of the kingdom’ as Matthew tells us elsewhere (Mat 9:35).

‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ Jesus finishes.

Jesus himself explains the parable in terms of ‘the word of the kingdom … sown in the heart’.

When his disciples ask him why he teaches in parables, Jesus interprets the parable for them, no doubt to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at: 

# The seed sown on the path is the word heard, but not understood, which the evil one snatches away, before it ever has the chance to sprout.

# The seed sown on rocky ground is the word received with joy, but by a person without roots, without character, whose initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution.

#The seed sown among thorns is the word heard by those who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.

# And the seed sown on good soil is the word heard by those who understand it, and act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.

Like those who crowded to the lakeshore 2000 years ago, we are the soil in which Jesus sows the seed.

On a personal level, the message of his parable remains what it was then: we need to cultivate our characters so that as good soil we yield a rich harvest. Each one of us must strive to develop the character traits of attention, persistence, and detachment. Attention, so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes. Persistence, so that we can withstand trouble or persecution when we answer God’s call. And detachment, so that we are not distracted from acting on God’s call by the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth.

For Jesus, the sower is one who proclaims ‘the word of the kingdom’.

That is himself of course. But it is also his closest disciples, the twelve apostles, whom he sent out saying ‘Proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Mat 10:5-7). No doubt the twelve took comfort from the parable that even when their teaching seemed to show poor results, enough people would accept it to make it all worthwhile.

Before his ascension Jesus commissioned the apostles to go out and make disciples of all nations. Their commission was handed on to others in the developing Church, which in all its varied denomination still proclaims Jesus’s good news of the kingdom today. In Paul’s memorable words Christians are all part of Christ’s body the Church. Today the Church is the sower. Is there then a message for the Church in this parable? I believe there is.

The Church’s sowing of the seed may not seem to be producing a good harvest these days. The fact is that here in Ireland and in Europe generally, taking a broad view across all denominations, more and more people are losing contact with Christ’s Church. We see falling Church attendance, fewer baptisms, and insufficient ordinations to maintain the stock of full time clergy. We need to understand why and do something about it, and for that we need the Holy Spirit to guide us.

But we should not despair. Jesus himself was completely realistic about the prospects for his teaching, and so should we be as the Church. As Jesus realised, no matter how good a job we do as sowers, the sad fact is that many people will not become his disciples, and will not be led to the kingdom of heaven by his or the Church’s teaching. Yet those who do, make up for those that don’t by the rich harvest of good seed they yield – as Jesus put it, 30, 60 or 100 fold.

So to sum up, we can learn these things today from the parable of the sower:

As Christians we need to cultivate the soil of our own characters, to develop the Christian virtues of attention, persistence, and detachment from the world, so that we may yield a plentiful harvest of good grain.

And we should not despair at the state of Christ’s Church today. Rather we should rejoice in the rich harvest of Christian souls the Lord already has. And we must pray for the Holy Spirit of God to guide his Church, and each one of us, to be better sowers of the word in future, so that the Lord’s harvest may be even greater.

Tuesday, 11 July 2023

Labouring in the Lord's harvest

Reflection for Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 11 July 2023

Our reading (Matthew 9:32-38), set for today in the Common Lectionary, tells us that ‘Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness’

Bear with me, as I imagine Jesus going about the cities and villages of Ireland today, in 2023, as he went about Galilee 2000 years ago.

In my mind’s eye, I see Jesus speaking to crowds wherever he finds them gathered together. He proclaims the good news of the kingdom in Muintir na Tire halls, in theatres, in conference centres, in hotel ballrooms, in dancehalls behind pubs, not just in churches.

Jesus sees all too many people in distress, in poverty, unable to pay all the bills and put food on the table. He sees those who are homeless, in ill health, consumed by addiction. He sees those in difficult or broken relationships. Through his words he gives them hope, and he encourages others to help them. He has compassion for them, because he sees them as ‘sheep without a shepherd’, unable by themselves to find a way out of their painful individual circumstances.

Jesus also sees, I am certain, the damage being done to the beautiful planet his loving Father has placed us on. He sees how we have disturbed the balance of gases in the atmosphere, causing rising temperatures, extreme weather, and rising sea levels. He sees how climate change and reckless use of land is reducing biodiversity, damaging the intricate web of relationships between species on which all life on earth depends, including our own. He hears the whole creation groaning together as if in childbirth, to use St Paul’s vivid imagery (Romans 8:22). We now understand that we human beings are the culprits, through our greedy over-exploitation of earth’s finite resources. But we find it very difficult to see how together we can change our ways to protect our planet. We are all like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. But Jesus, our Good Shepherd, surely has compassion for us all as we face these linked crises.

In his compassion, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ And he goes on to commission the apostles to be such labourers.

What does it mean to labour in the Lord’s harvest? It is surely to follow the model of Christ. As a church we believe that our mission is the mission of Christ, and we have identified 5 marks of that mission.

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Jesus asks us to pray for labourers to be sent out into the harvest. I suggest we should do more than that. I suggest each of us should ask ourselves whether he is calling me or you in particular to be a labourer, and what he is asking of us. A good starting place would be to focus on one or more of the 5 marks of mission. One or two is probably quite enough, because none of us has the strength to tackle them all.

Ask yourself, ‘How can I proclaim good news? How can I support others in the faith? How can I respond to human need? How can I work for justice? How can I care for creation?’

Tuesday, 13 June 2023


Reflection on St Barnabas for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 13th June 2023

Last Sunday was the feast day of St Barnabas, so today I take the opportunity to reflect on who he was, and why it is right to celebrate him as an early hero of our Christian faith.

He was a Jew from Cyprus, named Joseph by his parents, but the apostles in Jerusalem gave him the nickname Barnabas, which means ‘Son of Encouragement’. This tells us something about him, and how he was seen by the other early Christians. He was a committed and generous disciple from the very start of the church in Jerusalem. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that ‘He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet’ (Acts 4:37).

When St Paul came to Jerusalem after his conversion, the apostles were wary of him, because of his reputation as a persecutor. It was Barnabas who took Paul to meet the apostles, and calmed their fears. Some have speculated that Barnabas and Paul had been fellow students in the Jewish school of Gamaliel.

As we heard in today’s reading (Acts 11:19-30), the church in Jerusalem chose Barnabas to go on a mission to the great city of Antioch, now Antakya in Turkey, to investigate stories that had reached them about the great number of new disciples being made there by refugees from the persecution after St Stephen’s martyrdom. Indeed, we are told that it was in Antioch that disciples were first called Christians. 

Barnabas rejoiced at the vigorous faith he found in Antioch. We are told that he ‘was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’, and made many converts.  But he realised that he needed help in his mission in Antioch, so he went to Tarsus to find Paul, at that time still called Saul. Returning to Antioch they worked together as evangelists for a year, before going back to Jerusalem with funds raised for famine relief.

As Acts tells us, Barnabas travelled with Paul on his first missionary journey through Cyprus and cities in Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. When Paul began his 2nd missionary journey, he wanted Barnabas to come with him. Barnabas wanted to bring his kinsman John Mark with them, but Paul disagreed. So Barnabas travelled with his kinsman John Mark to his home island of Cyprus, and Paul took Silas with him. Nothing is known about his later life, but an ancient tradition has it that he was martyred and buried in Cyprus, where he is venerated as the patron saint of the island.

Barnabas devoted his life to the early church, earning the trust of the leaders in Jerusalem. He travelled widely to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, with great success. With Paul, he played a key role founding and fostering Gentile churches, while maintaining good relations with the Jewish church in Jerusalem. 

So it is very right for us to celebrate Barnabas today as a saint and hero of our Christian faith. He truly deserves his nickname, ‘Son of Encouragement’!

And in St Brendan, the patron of our community, I see echoes of the qualities of St Barnabas, in his generous devotion to the church, his travelling, and his foundation of so many Christian communities. 

Sunday, 11 June 2023

Grace, Law and Faith

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan Church on Sunday 11th June 2023, the 1st after Trinity

‘Munster by the grace of God!’

This slogan is claimed by Munster rugby fans, particularly when they are winning - as they did against the Stormers in South Africa a week or so ago, to win the United Rugby Championship. It makes me laugh, but it also gets me thinking about the grace of God.

In today’s epistle reading (Romans 4:13-25), St Paul argues that God’s promise to human beings, that we will be justified through Jesus’s death and resurrection, depends only on God’s grace and the faith in God it evokes in us, and not on our vain human attempts to follow God’s law - in other words our trying to be good. And to make his point Paul uses the old familiar Israelite story of how God blessed Abraham and his wife Sarah, promising them I will make of you a great nation.

It is rather difficult stuff; at least I find it so. And Christians have often bitterly disputed the relationship between God’s grace, God’s law and our faith in God. It was a central theme of the Reformation, and it still causes disputes to this day. So I think it might be useful to try and tease out Paul’s argument about grace, law and faith.

First let us refresh our memories about the story of Abraham and Sarah

It is really the foundation myth of the people of Israel. Most cultures have foundation myths of some kind. We do too: the ancient Irish claimed descent from Milesius King of Spain as the mythical founder of Celtic Ireland through his sons who invaded and dispossessed the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through an O’Brien ancestor I can claim descent from Milesius through Brian Boru through some very dodgy genealogy. Most of you probably can too!

In the small part of the story we heard today (Genesis 12:1-9), God tells Abraham Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a
great nation, and I will bless you.
Abraham obeys, and when he gets to the land of Canaan, God tells him To your offspring I will give this land.

You may have noticed that in the passage Abraham was called Abram and his wife Sarah, Sarai – God renamed them later on, when he made a covenant with Abraham, renewing his promise and establishing male circumcision of Abraham and his descendents as a sign of it.

God tells Abraham that his promise will be kept through Sarah. Through all this long saga, Abraham never gives up his faith that God will fulfil his promises. At long last Sarah conceives and gives birth when he is 99 and she is 90. Sarah expresses her delight in beautiful words, saying God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age. Her son Isaac is the father of Jacob, also called Israel, and the ancestor of the Jewish people.

Now I can’t for one minute believe that Sarah was really 90 when she gave birth to Isaac. But then I don’t think we should treat the story as if it were history. We have to accept it for what it is, a myth. The nugget of truth within the myth is surely that the Israelites looked back to founders who cultivated a strong relationship with a God who promised them so much, and who believed whole heartedly that God’s promises would be kept.

Now let us examine Paul’s argument.

Firstly, Paul argues that the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham in the old story, through his descendants the children of Israel, can have had absolutely nothing to do with obeying God’s law – the Jewish law. After all, the law was given to the Israelites by Moses, long after Abraham’s death. For Abraham there was no law, so there could be no violation of the law, and no wrath, no punishment for breaking it.

Religious Jews were asking then, as religious people still do, ‘How can we get in God’s good books in order to inherit God’s promise?’ Their answer was that they could only do this by obeying God’s law, in other words by being good people and always doing the right thing. It is all up to us, they thought, God will only fulfil his promise if we deserve it. Paul saw with great clarity that this could not be true. No one could fully keep the law, so if God’s promise depends on keeping the law, the promise can never be fulfilled.

So on what, then, did the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham depend? Paul’s answer is that it depended on Abraham’s faith, on his unshakeable belief and trust that God would fulfil his promise. Abraham continued to believe in God’s promise, even when he grew old, and even when Sarah was clearly unable to have children. His faith was reckoned to him as righteousness; that is, it was his faith that gave him God’s favour.

There are two ancient Greek words for a promise. The first is a promise on condition: if you do this, I will do that. Paul uses the other, Eppagelia, which is an unconditional promise out of the goodness of one’s heart. This is the word a father or mother might use when promising to love their children no matter what they do. Fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham was not earned by his good works, it was given freely by God’s grace, it was unmerited, says Paul. All Abraham had to do was believe it.

And finally Paul argues that this applies to us as Christians, in just the same way as it did for Abraham. If we only have faith in the God who raises Jesus from the dead, he will reckon us to be righteous. We will be justified by God’s grace through Jesus’s death and resurrection. And we too will experience God fulfilling his promise, just as Abraham did.

That is what the grace of God is: it is the favour that God has showered on all of us humankind without our doing anything to earn it – the wonder of creation, our loving relationships, our capacity for happiness, our very lives – and our salvation, in the sense that God has shown us how to recover from our innate propensity to sin, to receive forgiveness.

The Greek word translated as grace is charis (χαρις), which literally means "that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness".

There’s the theology. But I suggest another way to look at it is through the prism of psychology.

When I was a child, I was just as naughty as every other little boy or girl. I was wilful, I often did not do as I was told. And I could be quite nasty, particularly to my baby brother when he annoyed me. But rather than expecting more of me than I was capable of, and punishing me when I did not live up to their hopes, my parents always cherished me. They let me know they were sad when I was bad, but they also let me know that I could rely on their loving me whatever I did. Their unconditional love showed me how to love back, and as I grew up, I learned from their example how to distinguish right from wrong.

I think this is the way that God works with us. God does not expect more of us than we are capable of. He does not punish us unmercifully when we break his law, when we do not behave as we should. Rather he promises us unconditional love, which we experience as God’s grace. And when we respond in faith, and learn from his example, we become more like the people he wants us to be. God’s kingdom comes that little bit closer.

So let us pray that we may respond in faith to God’s grace, receive the fullness of his promise, and be led by it to understand and obey his loving law.

And if you’re a Munster supporter, and their victory affords you joy, pleasure and delight, you can reckon it as yet another manifestation of God’s overwhelming grace!

Sunday, 4 June 2023

The Trinity is something very natural

The Council of Nicea debating the Holy Trinity

Address given in St Mary's Nenagh on Trinity Sunday 4th June 2023

This is Trinity Sunday, the day on which our Church celebrates 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 all know 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 inaccessible to reason’ seems like a fudge to me.

So today let me reflect on how we as Christians might seek to understand the Trinity.

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

First, the community had its 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 Genesis (1:1-2:4a). And 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 the best possible Father. They followed Jesus’s lead by praying to their Father in heaven.

Second, the early Christian community 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’, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 28:16-20). 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 Lord and Saviour, through whom they received eternal life.

Third, the Christian community came to understand God as the Holy Spirit. As promised by Jesus, the gift of the Spirit came at Pentecost. It came to the whole community and not just to a select few. It made them fearless. Responding to Jesus’s call, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’, recorded in today’s Gospel reading, they proclaimed their faith to all who would listen. 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. Today’s Gospel reading shows this when Matthew records Jesus’s command to baptise ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. And the Epistle reading (2 Corinthians 13:11-13) shows it too, when Paul blesses the Corinthian church in the words we know as the Grace, ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you’.

By the 4th century the Church had captured the imperial Roman state. Dogmatic theologians argued over what the Trinity really meant, amid power struggles in the church. 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, a statement of belief. We know it as the Nicene Creed, and use it still in the Holy Communion service.

Most Christians today, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and our own Anglican Communion, maintain that this is still the best way to think about God. But we should not forget that the words of the creed were forged in bitter, political in-fighting between Christians. And even today Christians remain divided over the meaning of the words. 

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 Trinitarian belief should rest only on the words of scripture and partisan arguments at 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’s creation all around us is a continuing revelation, and 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 it 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 for it, and for our neighbours, as we ought.

I see the Saving Son in the widespread altruism that exists in the natural world. And I see him in communities, communities of people, but also of other organisms and ecosystems. I see him in the worker bee’s dedication to raising a sister’s brood. I see him in the three-cornered dance of pollinating 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. I see him at work creatively exploring new expressions of what is possible in the arts and the sciences. And I see him in the way that human beings in all our variety, with all our different gifts, come together to build communities with meaning and purpose. The Church, the ‘body of Christ’ as St Paul called it, is one such community.

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

Let us finish in prayer with the Collect of the Word set for today:

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, 21 May 2023

Making sense of Ascension

 Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 21st May 2023, the 7th of Easter

The Ascension, John Singleton Copley  (1738–1815) 

Today we are in an in-between time in the Church’s calendar.

Behind us, last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, when the apostles finally understood that Jesus their teacher was no longer with them in the flesh, as they saw him ascend to his Father in heaven. Before us, next Sunday will be the Feast of Pentecost, when the apostles receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit in tongues of flame, which inspires them to continue Jesus’s ministry.

It is appropriate, then, that today we both look back on the Ascension and look forward to Pentecost, and what this means for the apostles, and for us, his disciples.

Today’s 3rd reading (John 17:1-11) is part of Jesus’s prayer on the night before he died.

Although Jesus prays it before the Ascension, it is a post-Ascension prayer in its content, because Jesus’s concern is for his disciples once he has left them. The apostles had been on the road with him for three years. They had sat at his feet as disciples listening to his teaching, observing his example, and imbibing his spirit. At his Ascension, he leaves them, and they must continue his ministry without his physical presence. He knows that will be challenging and therefore he prays for them to be supported and strengthened in the challenges they will face.

Jesus prays, ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one’.

Jesus prays for his disciples to be protected. Our need for protection is very physical and immediate, in a world we increasingly see to be dangerous, isn’t it? Love and goodness is at the very heart of God. We must embrace it so that it fills our hearts too, our emotions, our words, our actions, so that we may live in love with each other, and with others who are not disciples, at least not yet. That love will transform us, and it will protect us from evil.

And Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, as he and the Father are one, with the Holy Spirit. We need to understand that the unity he prays for is rooted in the Trinity, in which there is a constant exchange of love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Jesus prays that as disciples we may be united in an echo of that love. Unity does not depend on articles of faith. It does not require us all to think or believe the same things. It is to be found, instead, in our relationships, in a constant, continuing exchange of love with others, even if we disagree with them.

In the 1st reading (Acts 1:6-14), we heard Luke’s account of the Ascension.

Jesus tells the apostles that they cannot know what the future will bring – it is in God’s hands. But he renews his promise that the Holy Spirit will come upon them, and will empower them to witness to him ‘to the ends of the earth’. Then we are told ‘he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight’.

Should we imagine Jesus rising into the sky like a rocket until the clouds hide him? Surely not! We have seen rockets climb to launch space craft into orbit and beyond, and we have seen images from telescopes revealing the immensity of the universe. But we have found no sign of God in a heaven above. We can only make sense of the Ascension as a metaphor, a shorthand for a deep spiritual truth.

It was the conventional wisdom in Luke’s day that the earth they walked on was suspended between hell beneath their feet, and heaven in the skies beyond the clouds, so the Apostles, Luke and his readers may have believed in a literal Ascension. Though I suspect they too thought about it as a mystical shorthand for their lived experience.

Before his death, Jesus told the apostles that he would leave them to go to his Father. In John’s words, ‘Little children, I am with you only a little longer… I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.

After his resurrection, the apostles and other disciples continued to experience the presence of the resurrected body of Jesus in a mysterious way. But they came to realise that they could not hold on to the body of Jesus. That would confine the good news to their place and time. They realised they must await the gift of the Spirit of truth that Jesus had promised them, the Spirit who would lead them to know that Jesus remains with them in spirit, even though they cannot see him with their eyes, or touch him with their hands.

The deep spiritual truth of the Ascension is that Jesus in the flesh must leave, so that they - and us - may receive the Spirit. And looking forward to Pentecost, the Spirit does come, to empower them to continue Jesus’s ministry in his name, as the Spirit continues to come to his disciples up to this day.

For me, perhaps the most important element in the Ascension story is the two angels, who point us forward to Pentecost.

As the apostles gaze up to heaven, hoping for a last glimpse of Jesus, two men in white robes tell them, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

What I learn from this is that if we look to the heavens to find Jesus, we are looking in the wrong direction. We must look around us. Then we shall see, through the gift of the Spirit, that Jesus is present in us, in our neighbours, and in creation, continuing his work for the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth.

Jesus is quite clear that he must go away in obedience to his Father’s will, so that his disciples can do the work he is sending them to do. Why should this be? Perhaps Jesus needs more hands, more arms, more feet, to establish God’s kingdom of peace and justice on earth. Perhaps Jesus’s human body must be transformed into the body of Christ, the Church, to heal the sick, to free the captives, to feed the hungry.

This brings Jesus’s final words into sharp focus, ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. As his disciples, let us resolve to tell the world, and show it in action, that God’s love and care extend to every human being, in every place, and to all creation.

I shall finish with the Collect of the Word set for today:

O God,

whose Son, Jesus, prayed for his disciples,

and sent them into the world

to proclaim the coming of your kingdom:

by your Holy Spirit,

hold the Church in unity,

and keep it faithful to your word,

so that, breaking bread together,

we may be one with Christ

in faith and love and service,

now and for ever. Amen

Tuesday, 9 May 2023

Preparing a fertile seed-bed


The Sower,Vincent Van Gogh, Arles 1888

Reflection for Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 9th May 2023

A brief reflection on the Gospel reading set for today in the lectionary (Luke 8:1-15), which is Luke’s account of Jesus’s Parable of the Sower. It is recorded in almost identical words by Matthew and Mark as well. 

The scene is vivid, isn’t it? The sower, walking up and down broadcasting his seed by hand, would have been a familiar sight to the crowd, just as it would have been here in Ireland a couple of hundred years ago, before the introduction of the seed drill. All would understand that only seed which falls on good, fertile soil can produce a rich harvest of grain. Seed which falls on hard-trampled paths, or on poor thin soil, or among rampant weeds, can yield nothing worthwhile.

Many in the crowd must have been puzzled by why Jesus told them this story. Even his close disciples asked him what it meant. So Jesus explains that the quality of the seed-bed is a metaphor for the different way people respond to God’s word:

The seed sown on the path is the word heard, but not listened to. The word is the good news that God’s kingdom has come near, which Jesus offers everyone. But for some the good news is snatched away, before it ever has the chance to sprout in people’s hearts.

The seed sown on rocky ground is the good news received with joy, but by people with shallow roots - without character. Their initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution, and they fall away. 

The seed sown among thorns is the good news heard by people who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.

But the seed sown on good soil is the good news heard by those who understand it, and do act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.

Jesus is nothing if not brutally honest with his disciples. Not everyone who hears the good news he preaches will grow to maturity and yield a harvest of good, he tells them. Some, perhaps even many, will be lost - though I have no doubt that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will never stop searching for the lost. We need to hear Jesus’s honest words today. Ageing and dwindling congregations, in churches of all traditions, are not a reason to give up on our faith and our Christian hope.

The message, I suggest, is this. To become the good people God wants us to be, each of us must cultivate our own character, and help others to do so too, so that we become like good soil. In that good soil, the good news Jesus offers to all will flourish, and will yield a rich harvest of good. Each one of us needs God’s help to develop in ourselves the qualities of attention, of persistence, and of concentration. 

Attention, so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes to us. 

Persistence, so that we can withstand opposition and the mocking of others when we answer God’s call. 

Concentration, so that the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth do not distract us from acting on God’s call.

Then, by God’s grace, we will grow into maturity as Christians, bear good fruit, and at last enter into God’s kingdom.

Sunday, 30 April 2023

Shepherds & Sheep

‘The sheep follow (the shepherd) because they know his voice’ - so says Jesus, in today’s reading from St John’s Gospel (John 10:1-10).

These words always used to puzzle me. It just didn’t chime with my own experience.

I remember helping to move my Grandfather’s sheep as a child. Those sheep certainly didn’t recognise anyone’s voice, let alone mine aged 12! You couldn’t lead them. In fact it was the divil’s own job to stop them charging off the wrong way. We stood in gaps, we waved our hands and we hunted them as best we could to their new field of fresh grass - but they just wouldn’t follow! Surely, I thought, shepherds in Jesus’s time must have had a very different relationship with their sheep to us.

But then some years ago a farmer explained it to me. He was amused by my difficulty moving sheep. ‘I never have any difficulty getting sheep to follow me’, he said. ‘I just carry a bag of sheep nuts with me, and they come running.’

There’s more than one way for a shepherd to lead his sheep - the sheep follow the shepherd who shows them the way to food!

‘The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing’.

The opening words of 23rd Psalm we read earlier. We all love it, don’t we? It is such a favourite because it is so filled with comforting images of God caring for us and keeping us safe.

This metaphor of the shepherd runs right through Hebrew scripture. That’s hardly surprising because the Israelites were a pastoral people.

God is often likened to a shepherd, as in Psalm 23, or as Isaiah writes (Isaiah 40:11): “(The Lord God) will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

But Ezekiel 34:2 applies the metaphor in a different way, to the leaders of Israel, in a great indictment of their bad leadership and corruption: “Ah you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” The same indictment might be made of some of the great and powerful of our society!

Jesus chooses to use this metaphor of the shepherd in today’s reading.

It is the first part of a longer parable about his relationship with his disciples. In the very next verse, which the lectionary keeps for another day, Jesus continues “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

This image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is lovely and familiar, isn’t it? We have all seen the pictures, I’m sure, of the strong, self-reliant, country man keeping his little flock safe from harm, carrying the lost sheep back to the flock on his shoulders.

In the rugged Judean countryside sheep had to be kept in a sheepfold at night to prevent them straying into the crops, and to protect them from wild animals and rustlers. In the two halves of the passage we have just heard, Jesus is probably talking about two different kinds of sheepfolds.

The first kind is a large communal fold near a village, surrounded by fences with a gate. The village would employ a gatekeeper to protect the sheep in the communal fold. In the morning the gatekeeper would open the gate to the shepherd who would call his own flock out. The other flocks wouldn’t recognise his call and would stay behind until their own shepherd came.

The second kind of sheepfold would be up in the hills, far from the village, and much smaller. It would be used in summer when a single shepherd would stay out with the sheep for days or weeks on end. To protect the flock at night, the shepherd would lead them into a small enclosure, perhaps just a dry-stone wall he had built. Instead of a gate, he would lie down to sleep in the entrance where any movement in or out would wake him up. I’ve found similar structures when walking up in the Burren hills. When Jesus said “I am the gate”, I think he means it quite literally!

In today’s reading, I think Jesus is quite deliberately doing two things:

Firstly he is promising his disciples - sheep who recognise his voice - that he will care for them. He will keep them safe and feed them. “Whoever enters by me will be saved”, he says.  They “will come in and go out and find pasture”. It is also his promise to us, today.

But secondly Jesus is implicitly accusing the religious leaders of his own day for being bad shepherds, just as Ezekiel had done centuries before. “All who came before me are thieves and bandits;” he says, “but the sheep did not listen to them”. The thieves and bandits are surely those who mislead and oppress the people. As his disciples we must not listen to them, but rather we must listen to the gentle, loving voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who leads us to green pastures beside still waters.

Jesus will always be our Good Shepherd, of course.

We should hold on to that comforting, familiar image, and listen to his words. After all he has told us “Remember, I am with you always.”

But Jesus has handed on his shepherd’s mantle to others too, starting with the apostles. John (21:15-17) tells us that Jesus said to Peter “Feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep”. Bishops from that day to this have inherited a shepherd’s mantle, as Bishop Michael has.

We give thanks for Bishop Michael’s wise and loving Christian leadership which it is his job as a bishop to give us. We give thanks too for the appointment of the Rev Keith Barry, to whom Bishop Michael will delegate ministry in our Union of Parishes, when he is installed as our Rector on June 24th. They both need our prayers as they lead us to face many challenges. Because the thieves and bandits have not gone away, you know.

But shepherding is not just a job for those who are ordained. Jesus has commissioned each and every one of us - disciples who follow him – sheep who recognise his voice - to continue his mission to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth - as Fr Peter McVerry spoke so eloquently in St Mary’s last Monday.

So I finish in prayer with the Collect of the Word appointed for today

God of all power,
you called from death our Lord Jesus,
the great shepherd of the sheep;
send us as shepherds to rescue the lost,
to heal the injured,
and to feed one another with understanding;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen