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