Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- When St Paul wrote to the people of Thessalonica in northern Greece, (1 Thess 1:5-10) he was full of enthusiasm and great praise for the depth of their belief in Christ. Our translation rather loses the level of meaning implied here, for it says that they became ‘imitators’ of the apostles and of Christ. Imitation in English is not always a very positive term. The Greek actually uses the work ‘mimetai’, mime; from the theatre, implying a complete entry into the mindset of the person portrayed; becoming that person, here God, even to the loss of one’s own identity rather than the poorer ‘imitation’ which our translation gives. In the theatre a really fine actor becomes the person they portray, they are utterly convincing, persuading the audience that they actually are Oedipus or Clytemnestra. That is what real mime, really powerful acting is about, when we take on the personality of the character we are portraying, becoming one with that person. Paul paints a powerful picture of the effect of the faith of the Thessalonians as he speaks of the ‘pattern’ of their faith spreading over different Roman provinces, from Macedonia to Achaia, a large area. This sense of their oneness in the faith is shown by their ‘waiting’ for Jesus to come from heaven.

Again, our translation rather misses the point; we are not speaking of waiting for the bus. The Greek verb is anameno, related to anamnesis; what we believe happens at the Eucharist in which we are one with the original redemption of the slaves in the Exodus which ‘made’ the Jewish people, and true participators in the redemption Christ acted out at the Last Supper and achieved on the cross. In the Eucharist, and as members of that community, we are already joining in the consummation of all things; sharers now by the power of the Holy Spirit in all the fullness of the kingdom which God is and gives. In this understanding a far greater sense of the power and completeness of things is present, as Paul speaks of our lives as already fulfilled in Christ, and of our final end. Our ‘waiting’ here, or rather our full exposure to the original event of salvation in Christ, is then a corporate and above all an active thing, never a merely passive waiting.

We are powerfully reminded of the process of achieving this when Exodus (Ex 22:20-26) speaks of the kind of behaviour which fits us for contact with the Lord. Exodus of course was speaking to direct Jews in the right and appropriate behaviour, pointing out that their practice of their faith should always be directed outwards, towards justice and concern for others. Our passage from Exodus therefore speaks in very practical ways of caring for the stranger, the widow and orphan; of the manner to be adopted in lending money to others. Our God is a God of pity and mercy with his eyes continually on the needy, noting the quality of our care and outreach to them. As with the Thessalonians, so the founding material in the relationship between God and Israel is not about ourselves but rather our heart,s as experienced in our recognition and response to the needs of others.

Jesus reflects on this ancient tradition and teaching in our gospel. (Matthew 22:34-40). This is part of Matthew’s lengthy run-up to the passion and death of Jesus. Various groups, as we saw last week, are determined to destroy Jesus and his ministry of care and outreach to those in Judaism who did not fit the grade, the exacting terms for membership required by the religious purists. Last week we saw how the Pharisees would join with their bitterest enemies to achieve this, and in this week’s reading we see the Sadducees taking up the baton. Sadducees were the aristocrats and religious fundamentalists of their day, interpreting the bible literally and rejecting any attempt to look at alternative interpretations. The High Priests and temple authorities were all members of the Sadducees and controlled the wealth of the temple and access to it through the police force they ran. If the Pharisees were devoted to a scrupulous fulfilment of all the demands of the law, we can imagine just what a tight check on things was exercised by the Sadducees. Quite clearly they had monitored Jesus’ activities and were scandalised by his behaviour, not the lest because his actions by-passed the temple and denigrated their hold on power. They asked Jesus which was the most important commandment. He replied that it was about love of God but, knowing God as he did, he immediately joined that with outreach to others, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” Those of you familiar with the 10 commandments (Exodus 20) will be aware that Jesus’ response is indeed a compilation of the commandments, but not the letter of the law, as Jesus well knew and made clear, “On these two commandments hang the whole law and the Prophets also.”

Fulfilling the letter of the law but neglecting its spirit, can have fatal consequences as Jesus foresaw in his clash with those who were so outraged at the manner and content of his messiahship. It is clear from these readings that our Church intends us to recognise that merely ticking the boxes; obedient to the requirements of the Church but strictly no more, is not enough. We have to be risk takers with and for the faith, ready to get a bit messed up and mixed up in our day to day living out of life as ‘mimers’, imitators of Jesus. To do that is indeed a very risky business, with the possibility of our becoming sacrificial victims along with Christ, just as have those who have been murdered whilst taking charitable aid to the oppressed in Iraq and Syria, or workers among the victims of Ebola.

 

 

This is the Talk I am giving this afternoon :- I am sure that you all know only too well that when we say “The Lord will provide”, we do not mean that whatever we need will just be provided. Life just isn’t like that, is it? For we all know the truth in the old saying “God helps those who help themselves.” So what do we actually mean when we say “The Lord will provide” (Genesis 22:1-14)

Let’s start with Abraham. We have to remember that the Bible tells the story as if a voice actually spoke to Abraham, but we all know that rarely does God actually speak like that. Only once have I actually heard a voice, and that was in a dream when God said quite clearly “Remember, I am the Lord” and that word has been a great help to me ever since. But my guess is that when Abraham told this story to his family later on, what he meant was that God spoke to him in his thoughts, just as he speaks to us. Abraham and his nomadic family was surrounded by lots of other groups of people many of whom believed in human sacrifices It was therefore not surprising that he might think that the God he had chosen to follow might want the same. So he takes his son Isaac up the mountain, prepared to show God how obedient he is, and how much he trusts in him. In one sense then Abraham is already believing that God will provide, for that has been his constant belief on his journey from the North down into the land we now call Israel and Palestine. We know well the story of how he had no legitimate children and looked up into the sky and saw the millions of stars and was told that his descendants would be as many as those stars. We know too that he and Sarah were told that they would have a son even though everyone thought Sarah was beyond child-bearing age; and we know that Sarah did have a son as promised – Isaac. So the God Abraham followed – the Lord – had already provided.

Given all this, it might seem like madness to sacrifice this his only son, the son they thought they would never have; but perhaps he felt certain, given that he had already received one miracle in a son, that if he showed his total love and trust in God by sacrificing his son, then another son would be provided. I have heard people say – and ladies you will like this – that when Sarah realised how determined Abraham was to sacrifice their son, she made a point of questioning this, and suggesting that when he got up there on the mountain God might show him another way. Of course it is not in the text, but it does seem like a good idea, doesn’t it? Anyway, whether she told him or not, or whether she even knew what he intended, Abraham did indeed find an alternative at the last moment. Just at that moment one of those coincidences occurred in his life,  that sometimes occur in ours, which are clearly not coincidences at all, but the work of God. There was the ram, caught by its horns in a thicket so he could catch it – otherwise it would have run away wouldn’t it? – and so he could offer the ram as a sacrifice in place of Isaac his son. Thus the Lord provided what was needed.

You might be interested to know that this story is one of the most important stories in the Quran, and remembering it has thus become for Muslims one of their two main festivals – Eid al-Adha. For both religions it celebrates the great truth that our God is a God in whom we must trust absolutely, because he is the one who provides.  But, for us Christians there is more to it than that, because for us the sacrifice has always been regarded as a prefiguring of the one perfect sacrifice offered by God to wipe away our sins, the death of Jesus on the cross. If you want to see how this prefiguring takes place read the Letter to the Hebrews. This prefiguring is one of the reasons why we sometimes describe Jesus not just as the Son of God, but as God’s only Son – just like Isaac.  And of course we remember that John the Baptist says twice of Jesus “Look there is the Lamb of God” (John 1:29 & 36)

It is always the case that for us Christians a full understanding of any Old Testament passage can only be reached if we see it in the light of Jesus in what he teaches and what he does. So we need to do this to fully understand what the term “The Lord will provide” We should start with the Temptations of Jesus because these were all attempts by the evil one to persuade Jesus to misunderstand what this truth about God actually means. You remember that in each case, stones into bread, flying from the Temple like superman, ruling the world with magical power, the idea was that God would provide, in effect, some easy solution, so that everyone would instantly believe in Jesus and follow him and all would live happily ever after. Of course, we know with Jesus that life in this world isn’t like that, and if God was to come as a man to save us, he could not end up behaving like a superman or a pagan god. Jesus chooses instead the quiet way of teaching and healing, knowing that what he says will lead him to death on the cross.

I am reminded at this point of Job. He did not have to face crucifixion, but he did have to face intense tragedy and pain when all turned against him and told him to curse God. But Job wouldn’t. Instead he said “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return.. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21) and though his friends tried to persuade him otherwise, and though he reached the depths of despair, he never stopped trusting God. We had that thought from Job in our 2nd reading didn’t we, which is why I chose it. But first, think also of that passage halfway through Job that you probably know well :- “Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll,  that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever!

I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;  I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.   (Job 19:23-27)

It is the same for Jesus isn’t it? There is no easy solution for him. Abraham did not have to kill his only son Isaac. God provided a ram in his place. In contrast, God did allow his only Son to die on the Cross, and some might ask, “How was the Lord providing anything there?”  Indeed that is what Muslims cannot accept. So for them Jesus only appeared to die, since a holy prophet from God (which is what they believe Jesus was) could not die like that.  There is of course for us Christians the Resurrection. We might say that it is at Easter that the Lord shows he does provide. But we know it is not quite like, that because Easter means nothing without Good Friday. We believe, do we not, that it is in the sacrificial death of Jesus that the Lord provides the solution of the world’s problems. We are, as we say, saved by his precious blood. So the answer is not power and glory, but service and sacrificial love.

We must not therefore forget how awful the Crucifixion was, and that this was the way the Lord provided for every single human being a way beyond sin and death. So in the end, Jesus is not Isaac in the story, but the Ram that God provides to save Isaac from death, the Lamb of God who is sacrificed for us. Hence in the great vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation, Jesus is seen as the Lamb who was slain. (Rev 5:6) Jesus alone however at the time of his death has the vision to believe that somehow God the Father is with him despite all the suffering and pain. As he says the Psalm to comfort himself “Into your hands I commend my spirit” you can hear, if you listen to more of that Psalm, what he believed. It is Psalm 31

 :-“ Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak.
Because of all my enemies,………………
For I hear many whispering, “Terror on every side! ”They conspire against me and plot to take my life.

So there is all the suffering. But then the Psalm goes on :-  But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me. Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love.
And Jesus does not mean by that, save me from suffering and death, but bring salvation through my suffering and death – a thought he gets from Isaiah 53 : 5 “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities ;the punishment that brought us peace was on him,and by his wounds we are healed.
And then significantly at verse 7, given all I have said about lambs, it reads “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.”

In a way however, it was the same for Abraham, for although he didn’t have to kill Isaac, think of the torment he went through beforehand. Think how often it is thinking about some awful thing that is worse than when it actually happens –like waiting for an operation, or knowing that a loved one is going to die. Then once again God does not provide by cancelling the operation, or stopping the person dying – although of course that may sometime happen – but providing us with the strength somehow to get through it. And for us too in our final moments, the whole point of our Christians faith is revealed, for the Lord provides a way through sin and suffering and death to eternal life with him. And in the end, that’s what it is all about, isn’t it?

 

My discovery of Jesus

October 19, 2014

By the time I was 12, I had decided that religion was a load of nonsense – a series of fairy tales with no reality behind them. But then I found a new friend at school, a highly intelligent person, and discovered he was a Christian! Soon he had invited me to join him at a Christian Boys Club and they introduced me to Jesus! Yes I had known about Jesus before, and sung about him in Hymns and Christmas Carols, but the Jesus they introduced me to was a real person, a strong dynamic preacher who was prepared to die for the message he carried, and did so. What’s more they introduced him to me as someone who could become my friend, my companion on the way, and he has been that for me ever since.

It was Jesus who gradually brought me back to God the Father That may sound strange to some of you, but to start with Jesus was all that God was for me if I believed in God at all! I was still stuck with the idea that God the Father was an old man with a beard sitting up there somewhere on a cloud. But Jesus was a real person with a radical message that challenged people to make a choice – for God or for Caesar – (Our Gospel Matt 22:15-21) for a world of love and peace, or a world of money and privilege and power. So I chose Jesus!

This, of course, is precisely why God chose to become a man, a real historical person with a real historical background, as a 1st Century Jew, with a real mother who was clearly as radical as her son. For Mary said “God has put down the mighty from their seat, and raised up the poor and lowly.”  (See Luke 1:46-55) This was another reason why I loved Jesus. When I had been taken to Church as a boy, it was to a very conventional middle of the road place in respectable London suburb. But the Jesus I now met challenged all this, because whatever else he was, Jesus was not respectable!

It took me some years to realise, at least in part, what it means to say that Jesus was not just a man with a wonderful message that he died for, but also that he was God in human form. This is an amazing claim you know, that we too easily take for granted. The pagans at the time certainly had stories of gods appearing as human beings, but they were still gods only pretending to be human. Now there are some people who think Jesus is like that, but beware – he isn’t. Pagan gods in human form do not suffer and bleed and die. Pagan gods zap in and out of this world at will performing miracles like a marvellous magician who can disappear in a puff of white smoke. Jesus was not like this.

This is particularly shown by his reluctance to say that he was the Messiah – the Christ – the Holy One of God. We believe that now, but we are looking at him after his death and resurrection; but Jesus knew how easily this idea of him as the Christ could be misunderstood. After all the great prophet Isaiah even hailed as Messiah a foreign Persian king who ruled the greatest Empire then known. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus.” (1st Reading Isaiah 45:1.) No, Jesus knew he must not be thought of like that.

Actually in the time of Jesus all sorts of people appeared at various times claiming “I am the Christ”, and, if you think about it, by claiming it showed that they were not. It would be a bit like me wandering around saying “I am the greatest Catholic priest ever”. As soon as I began to say it or even think it, I would have condemned myself. Jesus knew that people had to discover for themselves that in him they were meeting God, and only gradually to work out the implication of this earth-shattering discovery. Think of St Peter, who at one time declared Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16) and yet couldn’t cope with the idea that this Messiah could suffer and die like an ordinary man.

Again and again, when he is asked questions about himself Jesus turns the question upside down and leaves us to decide whether to choose the way of the world – or the way of God. Later, after he has died, the risen Jesus does not appear like a thunderbolt from the sky, so obviously God that no-one can do anything but accept him and bow down before him. No, even in his risen Body, and still today, Jesus allows each of us to choose whether to follow him or not, whether to take up our cross alongside him, as our Master and our Friend, or to go the way of the world.

We, you and I, still have to make that choice every day. I may have chosen to follow Jesus when I was 12, but I have had to choose to follow him again and again in the years since. You have to do the same. It is not enough just to come to Mass. We have to make it real for ourselves. Yes with the help of the Church and of others around us, but also on our own inner spiritual journey with God. Sometimes we just have to say “Jesus, God, help me. I am really struggling to believe in you.” At other times we must not forget to say “Jesus, God, thank you for being with me when I was at my lowest ebb, or at this wonderful moment of joy.”

This journey for me has been a discovery of his power and his presence, but also a hard road in which there have been many worries, difficulties and tears. It must be the same for you. Blessed John Henry Newman makes a distinction, which I have only just discovered, between “difficulties” of which there are many, and “doubt”. Before, I often said I had many doubts, but now following him I call them difficulties, because deep down, despite so many things that worry me and trouble me, I have no real doubt that God in Jesus is with me, and will be with me to the end of time. So I offer my life to him, and plod on.

 

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- In this week when dreadful people who support UKIP are banging on about the need to exclude foreigners, and how much they cost our State, I was very interested to look at the biblical view of their significance.

Second Isaiah, (Isa 45:1-4-6) Prophet of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, was one of those who could see the huge significance of foreigners. Far from writing to castigate them, he saw things very differently. When the Persians conquered Babylonia they acted differently from the Babylonians whose policy it was to take peoples away from their own territory to exile in different places where they worked for their oppressors. Persian policy was to resettle the previously conquered back on their own lands with the expectation that they would be loyal vassals of Persia. Isaiah saw this enlightened policy as God-given, and acclaimed Cyrus, the Persian king as ‘Messiah’, God’s chosen agent for his work. He saw that under this strategy the Israelites would no longer be doomed to die in a far off land but that their offspring would return to their homeland. Cyrus was their ‘saviour’, their ‘redeemer’, and he was a foreigner. It appears that the thing most longed for could come not from within faithless Israel, but that the far off worshipper of a pagan deity could be Yahweh’s agent for salvation.

It was much the same with Paul and his missionary work, as we see in the Letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 1:1-5). I wonder how we in the UK might feel if a small group of foreigners turned up and to, and indeed, our eternal life, if we were to change our religion and social practices. Yet this is precisely what Paul, Silvanus and Timothy did in Thessalonica, right at the heart of the Roman Imperial system. The city became the capital of Macedonia in 146 BC under Rome, and it had good communications with Rome on the Via Egnatia; it had its port at Neapolis and large shipyards. Thessalonica was full of foreigners and foreign languages and gods. Paul and his colleagues found a great welcome and fervent support from the converts of this city, and his letters to them are undoubtedly the warmest and the least grief filled of all his surviving letters. This was clearly a city which welcomed foreigners and accepted their contribution to its society, even where it involved radical change. The leadership of different people and their strange values was to be at the very heart of the city’s success.

Jesus too, as we see in our gospel, (Matthew 22:15-21) is welcoming of foreigners, even conquerors. When the Pharisees, masters of the law and devotees of religious orthodoxy, tried to trick Jesus into an attitude of nationalism and potential rebellion against the Romans, Jesus would have none of it. On the contrary, he revealed that, unlike them, he did not hate the Romans. The Chief priests and Pharisees, so concerned for their law and apparently so compliant to Rome, would ultimately support revolt. Jesus would have nothing to do with it. Jesus lived in the real world, and knew that his gospel of God’s redemption must be open to all, Jew and Gentile, and that it could not involve violence. His attackers were the one’s who were two-faced, plotting rebellion but, as we see in John’s passion, duplicitously prepared to swear devotion to Caesar rather than accept the true King of the Jews. They were the ones prepared to abandon their true birthright, rooted in the Davidic kingly line to secure Jesus’ death. They were the ones who hated foreigners and who would play their part in the Civil war and revolt against Rome, with its savage slaughter of foreigners dwelling in the cities of Israel.

This part of Matthew’s gospel, which continues directly from last week’s reading shows us a picture of Jesus in which he is sadly facing the inevitability of the failure of his life’s mission to the Jews and will turn to the Gentiles, the pagans instead. Indeed, when the Pharisees allied with the Herodians to destroy him, Jesus must surely have lost all hope of ever making any progress. Herodians were the coterie who supported the Herod’s, the line of pagan kings thrust upon the Jews since the time of Mark Antony. Their allegiance to Judaism was always dubious, for we know that the first Herod had constructed the huge temple of Zeus at Baalbek and called the new city he built Caesarea. His heirs were equally dubious and certainly played fast and loose with the Jewish law, as we know from the killing of John the Baptist. For the Pharisees to ally themselves with this group surely suggests the lengths to which they would sink; the way in which they would betray their own deepest principles to destroy Jesus.

Quite clearly, our readings show the great sympathy the bible has for foreigners, and the way in which in New Testament time’s pagans would convert to Christianity and become the bastions of the faith in place of the Jews. Throughout his ministry Jesus seems to have been favourably disposed to foreigners, and it is clear that St Paul spent his whole life as a Christian devoted to them, and received their love and support. We need to welcome foreigners among us; they may well be our route to eternal salvation.

 

 

Calling God our Father

October 12, 2014

Why do we Christians call God “Our Father”? The answer is pretty simple really, but it’s surprising how even people who go to Church struggle with this, as they also struggle with – Why do we go to Mass? And in each case the answer is….. “Because Jesus told us to.” But there is a bit more to it than that, because when Jesus called God  “Father”, he was actually expressing out loud the most important and personal thing in his life. Remember how he said “I and the Father are one” and “To have seen me is to have seen the Father.” (See John 10:27-38) And then, remember how when he was praying in agony and fear at Gethsemane, Jesus calls out in the midst of his tears “My Father”, and then again “My Father”. (Matt 26:36-42) So when we are asked to call God our Father, we are not just being asked to address God in a personal way, but are being drawn by Jesus deep into the heart of God’s love, of the love that is what God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Some people do tend to think however, that speaking of God as a loving Father is something Jesus taught, in contrast to the fierce God of the Jewish Old Testament.  But this is not so. Jesus fulfils the old thinking, he does not cancel it. He teaches us how to interpret the Old Testament by selecting those passages that are most important. Indeed not only are there passages there which express the love of God, as a Father, “Oh praise the greatness of our God….Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you? (Deut 32:3-6), (or as in our 1st Reading today Isaiah 25:6-10) but there are even passages that speak of God as being like a mother “This is what the Lord says:. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”

But, of course in the Old Testament, these images of God as a Father are mainly about God as the first origin, the first cause, of all other things. This is very important in its own right, because it makes clear the link between religion and science; which by the way, I was glad to see Brian Cox affirming the other day even though he is not religious himself! He said “So if you want to think there’s an eternal presence that causes things to happen, that’s not illogical” (Radio Times  4-10 Oct) As a physicist, he disagrees with Dawkins, and his stupid idea that religion and science are incompatible; unless of course you think everything in the Bible is literally true and the earth was made in 6 days! Not a teaching of the Catholic Church!

However on its own, as I said last week, this image can make us think of God simply as, yes the first cause – an immense power underlying the Universe – but still remote, and way beyond any personal relationship with us humans. So, many people can say, “Yes, there must be something there, behind all this”, and assume that somehow this gives us life after death. But this doesn’t really make any difference to their lives. Maybe they try to be good, just as the Pharisees did whom Jesus so often condemned, but they do not see that this is not really enough.

It is Jesus then, who shocks the Pharisees and many others around him, by taking the more personal passages from the Old Testament, and making them even more personal. It is in the process of sharing with us his own personal relationship with God, that he teaches us to pray to God as “Our Father”. We take this for granted, don’t we? We say the “Our Father” without realising that every time we do so, we are being drawn into the love of God. This is one of the reasons why it is such a powerful prayer, and therefore why, at Mass, we are asked to use this prayer to speak to God in this most intimate of ways, just before people receive Holy Communion. Indeed those of you who do not receive Holy Communion for one reason or another should aim to use the prayer like this, as you make what the Church calls your “spiritual communion”.

But the other thing we should notice is that calling God “Father” also draws us into union with one another. We do not call God “My Father” as Jesus does, but “Our Father”, and it becomes even more strange as the prayer goes on, because each of us does not pray “May my sins be forgiven” but “Forgive us our trespasses”. So we are praying for one another to God. You are praying for me that my sins may be forgiven, and you are also praying for all the different people around you, even maybe for those who you find most difficult to forgive! Thus significantly the prayer goes on, “As we forgive those who trespass against us” – which is surely the most challenging part.

In the end, it is this personal and communal friendship with Jesus, and thus with God our Father and Creator, that we Christians believe supports and sustains us; especially when we face the hardest things that life can throw at us – most of all sickness, pain, fear and death.  Hear again what St Paul can say from prison – because that is where he is in the passage I am about to quote! He can say, as a man who knows how weak and sinful he can be, and who has faced all kinds of hardships. He can say (2nd Reading Phil 4:12-14) “I know how to be poor and I know how to be rich too…. I am ready for anything anywhere.. There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength”. And then, in a prayer that is clearly deeply personal to him, and also ought to be for us too, then he says, “Glory to God the Father, for ever and ever. Amen.”

And Amen means for Paul, and should mean for us every time we say it, “It is true. I really mean this. It is not just words. It comes from my heart.”

 “Glory to God the Father, for ever and ever. Amen.”

  

Seizing God’s Moment

October 10, 2014

Frances writes on Sunday’s readings : – I am gradually coming to realise what an exceptionally ‘dark’ picture Matthew paints of Jesus in the latter part of his Gospel. We think of his infancy narrative with the magi, and romanticise the flight into Egypt, and plough our way through Jesus’ extensive teaching in the Beatitudes and its explanation in chapters 5-7, and think it’s all rather mundane; but any one who follows the story from Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem and its bitter and grief-filled parables will find here a very different picture, indeed, one very distinct from that of his fellow Gospel writers.

Last week we had the tenants in the vineyard and here, once again,         (Matt 22:1-14) Matthew’s Jesus tells today’s parable specifically to the Chief priests and the Pharisees, those in control of the temple and the ultra-devout, leaders of the people and those best equipped through their learning to recognise the Messiah when he came.

Jesus sets the scene. It is the wedding feast of the king’s son. Just think how our nation celebrated the last royal wedding, that of William and Catherine. It would have been quite inconceivable that anyone who had been invited to those celebrations in Buckingham Palace would have refused to attend, or that they would have done so in such churlish terms. In ancient society, especially in the East, such an action would have been a clear act of rebellion. Not only did it offend every understanding of the importance of patronage, in which the king would have been the greatest of all patrons; but the treatment of his slaves and the behaviour of those who refused the king’s offer would have been an intolerable insult and all would have known that it would be their death sentence. I trust by now that it is not necessary to say that the king in the story represents God the Father and the Son, Jesus. Here, in this great series of Kingdom parables, we witness Jesus’ final and desperate attempts to get the leaders in Judaism to recognise who and what he is and to respond accordingly.

By the time Matthew wrote his gospel in the 80’s, some 50 years after the Resurrection, the Jewish Revolt had torn his nation to shreds. Christian Jews had played no part in the revolt or the civil war and had split irrevocably from Judaism. Matthew, following Jesus his master, was heartbroken. This series of desperate parables should be seen as a call for us, for the Church, to wake up and act before our time runs out and we lose the Kairos, the time to act, with devastating results for the faith. This is why the Synod of bishops meeting in Rome at this time is so important, and clearly, for Pope Francis, so urgent. Reform in our Church, growth and the possibilities of new beginnings are ever present for those with the vision to see what needs to be done. We all need to pray about this fervently.

Mercifully, there are always those whose vision is capable of reaching out beyond the gloom to hope for the future.  First Isaiah, (Isa 25:6-10) writing during the chaos of the Assyrian invasions in the 8th century BC, was both capable of castigating his people for their failures, as we saw last week, and of positive hope for the future. In his vision, a reformed, faithful Israel would attract all the nations to worship of the true God on Mt Zion in Jerusalem. Despite his own death, as a martyr for the truth, this courageous prophet could see that there was hope for Israel, a rich and international hope in which she would not just be powerful, but devout and honoured by the nations, the centre of a world-wide faith. It was during their and his own darkest hours that Isaiah would write this great visionary promise; that his and God’s beloved people would not go down the pan but become the beacon of hope for others.

Similarly St Paul (Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20) could write a letter full of hope and assurance to the Philippian Christians from prison in Ephesus. This is one of Paul’s most warm and positive letters to a church he founded, one which, despite the threats it was under in this great imperial Roman city, did not waver but responded well. Perhaps it was precisely because of the difficulties which they faced that they did indeed realise the significance of what they were and whose they were.

Perhaps the election of a reforming Pope like Francis and his grasp of the urgency of the situation is again such a moment in the life of our Church. Our problem in the safe and complacent West is that we fail, like the Chief priests and Pharisees to recognise that the Kairos, the crisis, God’s in-breaking is upon us. How will we respond?

 

As we look around the world at the suffering that we humans inflict on one another and on the natural world, we may well agree that we are like a Vineyard that only produces sour grapes! (1st Reading Isaiah 5:1-7) Today I want to look at the Christian solution to this problem, and again I will do so by explaining another of our technical terms – ie “salvation – being saved” – that Jesus is our “Saviour”

But the image I want to start with is the image of my mother. For a good parent is one of the best ways we have of thinking about the God that Jesus shows us. I was a very bad-tempered little boy, screaming with rage and breaking or throwing things when I was upset. My mother loved me, but that didn’t mean that she just tolerated such behaviour. I remember being sent to my room in tears on numerous occasions, but always before very long, my mother came to me. Then she would talk me down, listening to why I was so upset, but also helping me see it in a different light, and helping me to work out how to cope without losing my temper in the future. Above all she showed me, that although she was sad that I had behaved like that, she also loved me.

There is little point in trying to be a better person if we are not loved, and that is what Jesus taught us. Instead of trying desperately to please an angry God, Jesus taught us that although God is angry when we humans are bad, he carries on loving us, for he knows we need his love if we are to escape from the mess we often find ourselves in.

Yes, that’s the point. We believe that only God’s love can make trying to be good worthwhile, that without God we are like someone drowning. We need someone to plunge into the water and save us. God therefore plunges into our fallen humanity by becoming a man – Jesus – and offers us a way to be saved. All we need to do is to accept this way out of our mess – to be like St Peter who thought he could walk on the water unaided, but then realised he was sinking. Then he cried out “Lord, save me!” and immediately Jesus reached out his hand and saved him. (Matt 14:29-31)

It is no accident therefore that the first sign – sacrament – that shows that we are being brought within this saving action of God – is Baptism. The water stands both for the chaos and danger of our human life from which we need to be saved – which we call original sin – and the cleansing waters of God’s love – which we call salvation. Of course it doesn’t stop us getting things wrong, but it frees us from being trapped in our failings. Like me in my room after I had lost my temper, we know when we fail that God will be with us to love us and show us a better way.  

So the Christian faith is not about being a good person but being a loved person. We come to Mass as people who need God’s love, who have failed in one way or another to live up to that love, who feel trapped in a human world of war and suffering and death, and like someone drowning call out “Lord save me.” The Mass is full of this image, full of words calling out for God’s love.. “Lord have mercy” “Lamb of God have mercy”

That is why Jesus subtly changes the Vineyard image. In the original Vineyard there are only sour grapes, but in Jesus’ story (Matt 21:33-43) there is no problem about the grapes – clearly there are lots of them. The problem is that the people harvesting the grapes – that’s us – fail to acknowledge the owner – that’s God. We think we can do it on our own, that it is all our work. We forget that without God there is nothing, nothing at all. And even when we acknowledge that God is the creative force, we see God as some distant force that started things off, and fail to recognise that without his power working in our minds and hearts now, we would not get anywhere.

This wonderful and ever-present saving love of God is something that we need to recognise and accept every day, not as some nice theory to make us feel good, but as an ever present reality that we need to respond to. Think what it would have been like if when my mother came to my room I turned my back on her, and said “I know you love me but now go away and leave me to work it out all by myself”

 This is why prayer is part of salvation. Prayer is not asking God for things, although we can do that too. Prayer is letting God help us think things through. It is allowing his love to penetrate into our everyday activity. It is sharing everything with him – good and bad – in thanksgiving or sorrow. Because without him we are nothing, but with him we are everything, and our life is always full of potential and promise.

 I went to a person who was dying recently and after I had anointed her and given her Communion, she sat there for a long time in silence with her eyes closed, and I didn’t disturb her because she was clearly allowing herself to sense that God was with her and would be with her on her final journey. Death makes a mockery of the foolish idea we humans have that we are in control of things. When we are dying there is no longer anything we can do, except to put ourselves into the hands of our loving God. It is not impossible for people to do that at the last moment, but it is certainly easier for someone who has practised the presence of God throughout their life, as this lady had done.

 Without God we are drowning. With God we are saved, and death is not the end, but a new beginning.

Failure in the Vineyard

October 3, 2014

France writes on this Sunday’s readings :- When we think of vineyards it will often be of idyllic views of the South of France with perfect sunny days, glorious old chateaux, luxurious vines and the promise of really good booze. When Israel used the image of the vine/vineyard it was as the preeminent image of its fertility, productivity and blessedness, its role as the ‘chosen of God’. There was no image that better stood for the nation’s self-understanding as special, set-apart from the rest and cared for. When prophets therefore spoke in parables about vineyards, it cut immediately to the very heart of the nation’s self understanding.

Conversely, when Israel was seen to have thrown away its ancient birthright and privileged position, this imagery would be used to express their fall from grace. This was the case in the 8th century BC. First Isaiah, (5:1-7) expressed his utter horror and contempt at their apostasy precisely by turning the great national icon, the vineyard, against the people in a piece of the most devastating lyric poetry. Israel, God’s ‘Beloved’ had been planted as the choicest of vineyards, tenderly cared for and nourished, with no expense and concern spared by God the owner; only to have it all thrown in his face by their depravity and abuse; their rejection of the things given by God such as ‘justice and integrity’ in favour of their turning to ‘violence and bloodshed’. The upshot would be God’s savage and violent rejection of the vineyard/nation as their territory was overrun by the invading Assyrians, conquerors of staggering violence and ruthlessness. But this message of the prophet’s was unheeded and rejected, indeed, resulted in Isaiah’s being put to death by his own people.

Over the last weeks we have been reading the Parables of the Kingdom, from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is by this time in Jerusalem and the shadow of the Passion looms large. Time after time, in miracles of healing and in these kingdom parables, Jesus has challenged the authorities in Judaism and ultra devout Pharisees. Matthew’s word for Jesus is ‘scandal’ – what he is to these men – and Jesus’ word for the situation that they cause by their continual refusal to see God in him. They reject God’s actions in Jesus as he opens himself/God to the poor and the sick, the needy and the thousands cut off from worship by situations which made ‘sinners’ of those who did not or could not conform to the rigid demands of the law. By touching and healing the sick and the dead; by associating with tax men and prostitutes; foreigners and outsiders; Jesus deliberately made himself ‘unclean’.

Matthew 21(33-43), the parable of the wicked tenants with its devastatingly vivid reminder of the parable in 1st Isaiah, is central to the climax of this story. It is uncompromising, bitter and total in its condemnation of his own nation as Jesus comes to face the fact that his clash with Judaism will be fatal to himself and ultimately to his nation. It can be no accident that Matthew, writing his gospel of Jesus in the aftermath of the Jewish Revolt and the savage civil war that ripped the nation to shreds, placed this story close to the Passion itself. It and the subsequent parables and events are pregnant with his bitter sadness, grief and loss; feelings Matthew closely identified with and made his own. The rejection and devastation all around is tangible and terrible to behold, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him when the season arrives.”  When Matthew wrote from Antioch his country was occupied; Jerusalem the cult centre for a Roman pagan god and what was left of his nation enslaved far from home. Some 3 million had been slaughtered. It is the fate which hangs over the Near and Middle East today.

The quote from Ps 118:22-23 is part of the great Hallel psalms sung as the people entered Jerusalem for Passover and should have been a reminder to the authorities that God and man did not always think and work in the same way. Even whilst this psalm was sung in greeting to the pilgrims arriving for Passover, it became clear that its powerful message and import was lost on those it should most have inspired and encouraged. “I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

The palpable anger and sadness that hangs over our readings cannot really be lightened, or perhaps should not be so by the inclusion of the positive reading about ‘not worrying’ from Philippians 4:6-9. There are times, surely, when our bible is right to draw our minds unrestrainedly to the seriousness of things, to the imminence of the Kairos, that great moment of decision when we make our options for the things of God or those of the world. When we relate these readings to the significance of events in the Middle East today we can no longer afford the luxury of thinking it’s all a long way away or only affects foreigners. You and I are all involved, it may well be that the decisions made now by Western governments will affect our lives immeasurably, especially those of our children and grandchildren.

It’s easy to suggest that if only everybody made the effort to be good, and to stop being bad, then the world’s problems would be solved. There are many Christian texts that support this view. St Paul writes “Everybody must be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself.” (Phil 2:2) But although there are many texts like this, St Paul also makes it clear that however hard we humans try to be good, we do not always succeed. He knows this because before he became a Christian he was one of those very strict Jews, that Jesus was often in conflict with, called the Pharisees. They had a very strict code of life and believed that being perfect was possible.

St Paul certainly wanted people to aim to be perfect, but also to face the reality that something more was needed if people were to be acceptable to God. He writes, For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.… For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my body another law at war with the law of my mind.” (Romans 7:19-23) I expect we all know what that is like, when we get irritable with people we live with, and make some cutting remark, or even lose our temper and say things that later we regret. Then we might, with St Paul again say, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Well maybe we wouldn’t be as dramatic as that, but we certainly wish at times like these that there was something that would stop us when we go over the top like this, and hurt someone we love!

Christianity is based on this view that however hard we humans try, sometimes we will fail. Jesus knew this only too well which is surely why he expresses again and again how much God loves us even when we mess up. It is however absolutely central to our Christian faith that we admit that we fail, that unlike some people out there in the world, we do not have a “so what” attitude. Some of you may have seen that shown on the TV recently, when a man was found parking in a disabled space, who when challenged simply said “So what?”- thus displaying no sense that he might have done something wrong. This ignorance of what is right and what is wrong is normal in a tiny child. Gradually, good parents teach their children about caring about others and sharing what they have. What is sad is that some are either never taught or never learn, and carry on being selfish even when they are adults. At its worst that leads to the violence and war that is reported to us every day, and we just wish would not happen.

Of course we think that we’re not like that, don’t we? And that is our danger. That we begin to think that we, unlike those other people, are good and kind all the time, and conveniently forget the other times when we have failed, as well as the many other times when we could have done good but didn’t. Then, we are like the son in another story told by Jesus, who said he would go and work in the vineyard, but failed to go. (Matt 21:28-32)

We Christians have a couple of technical terms that we use to describe this situation in which we find ourselves – with war and violence around us, and the failings that we can’t cope with within us. We call the whole messy situation “The Fall”. This comes from the idea that God intended us to be good and perfect from the beginning, but by giving us free will, also allowed us to fail. And fail we did! It’s expressed in the story told at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis 2:15-3:19) where the story teller imagines man and woman living originally in a beautiful garden in perfect harmony with each other and with the world around them. But then they become aware of other things they could do that were not good, and so everything goes wrong and they have to leave the garden for the big hard world outside. Yes – the story of Adam and Eve. That’s the Fall.

Our second technical term is the one we use to describe the way each of us seems programmed to mess up sometimes, despite our best intentions. We call this “original sin”. This is not the same as “the sins” – plural – that we commit. By sins we mean all our imperfections and failures, not just very bad things. No, original sin (singular) is something in all of us humans that we cannot solve, that leave us like St Paul, from earlier, saying  “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Death!- you might say – surely it’s not as bad as that? Well yes it is, because we Christians believe that if we are to be with God in eternal life when we die, we must be perfect as he is perfect, and that is just what we cannot be, despite our best efforts. And the alternative to eternal life is eternal death.

Next week I am going to talk about the Christian solution to this mess, this problem that we humans find ourselves in; but in order for that to make sense we have to accept that we need a solution, that we need to be delivered, or to be saved – as we sometimes say. This is why we disagree with humanists and atheists. They can often be very good people – sometimes better than us – but they believe that humanity can save itself – that it is just a matter of everyone being kinder and more loving, and then the world will be at peace.

We Christians say that to think like that is to be like someone who is really ill, but doesn’t ask for help from a Doctor. People like that, who try to carry on, are simply stubborn fools who end up making the situation worse for themselves, even fatal, and make it worse for their family and friends too. We all need to ask others for help often, to be mutually interdependent – “to have a common purpose and common mind” – but we also need to turn to help from those who have the means to cure us – the Doctor if we are ill – but God – the invisible power of love – for the rest.

Radical choices to make

September 26, 2014

Franes writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Here we meet Jesus, already in Jerusalem for his Passion.(Matthew 21:28-32) We see, through a series of ‘parables of the kingdom’, how he engages with and confronts those in authority and influence in Judaism, and how the rift between them and Jesus becomes ever deeper; completely irreconcilable in fact. Last week we had another ‘vineyard’ parable. As I said then, these parables are nothing to do with the growing and making of wine. Both last weeks ‘landowner’ and today’s ‘father’ represent God, calling his people to make choices, either to follow Jesus the Son, or to reject him.

It is extremely unfortunate that the translators of our bible have completely altered the text however. In Greek it is clear that it is the second son who, having at first refused his father’s bidding, changed his mind and went and did his father’s will. The first son is the one who says “Yes” and then doesn’t go. The implications of this switch are highly significant, as it indicates Jesus’ rejection of the authorities in Judaism, (the first born, the chosen people), in favour of the pagans. Quite clearly this did not mean the loss of all those who were technically ‘sinners’ in Judaism – the sick, tax collectors and prostitutes to whom he had such an extensive ministry – but it marks a decisive and radical shift. Jesus understood that his saving death would be for the sins of the whole world and that his ‘own’ would reject him.

Our reading from Philippians (2:1-11) gives us a real insight as to the nature of this shift and the demands it made upon pagan converts. “There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.” In Greek these people share ‘one soul’; one mind; that of Christ and the Father. They are sharers in the community of the Spirit, sharers in community in the compassion and pity of God. The implications for the converts were enormous, just as they are for us today, and the impact of this is lost in the rather sentimental language of our translation which speaks of ‘tenderness and sympathy’ rather than the truly gut-wrenching. Greeks saw the bowels – the guts – as the centre of feeling. So Jesus’ response to the needy is about him being torn apart, not compelled to have some vague feelings, and it is this that Paul takes  up in his letter.

We have to remember that Philippi was the imperial capital of Macedonia. It was hundreds of years old, but after the battle and defeat of Caesar’s murderers in 41BC Mark Antony had settled his veterans there, and subsequently so did Augustus later in the last century BC. The city was then, largely Roman, as we know from the multiplicity of inscriptions in Latin, and this prosperous trading and military centre had all the structures and ways of life of Rome. It worshipped numerous Roman gods and was full of their temples. Its prosperous markets sold every conceivable item, including slaves and, as was usual, its civic buildings and amenities were the donations of its people. This was a very upwardly-mobile society, intensely competitive, in which status and the achieving of ever greater civic acclaim truly mattered. Those who donated temples, market facilities and theatres etc expected to see the details of their gift and their names recorded for eternity on their buildings. Competition, conceit, concern for ones own status and pumping it up, was vital in such a society. Being somebody, and the public following it gave the wealthy donor every day as his entourage paraded the streets, was at the very heart of what it meant to be Roman. Imagine then, the impact of Paul’s words on this society, where he stressed their communal obligations and their common spirit to the detriment of their normal way of life. Putting others before one’s-self, indeed, at the cost of one’s own needs is the Christian way. If it was a huge call to the Christian inhabitants of Philippi around 52 AD how difficult is it for us too? They and we are people with radical choices to make.

It was the same when Ezekiel, (18:25-18) wrote to the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BC. They had made choices to abandon their faith in the God of Israel and refused to listen to their prophets, but favoured the attractions of those who persuaded them to rebel against their overlords, with appalling results. Yet, when subsequently they were invaded by the Babylonians and deported, they complained to him, saying that God was unjust. Ezekiel, who knew precisely what the people were like chastised them for the failures, and acknowledged the evil consequences which they had brought upon themselves by their folly.

Clearly all three of our readings are a call for all of us to recognise our personal responsibility for the part we play in society, as part of the Christian, corporate body of humanity. We may think this may be on a small and very local and restricted field, but our biblical teaching is that this is not so, for we all together make up the corporate and international society, part of the human race, and the implications of this for each of us is profound and enormous as we are just beginning to appreciate with the situation in the Middle East. The point, as our gospel makes very clear is that we are not permitted to whine, ‘It’s all to big, I won’t think about it’. For we are committed to it come what may by the Creator God who gave us this responsibility and this gift and grace. We have been entrusted with the kingdom and the stark question for each of us, just as it was for Jesus, is whether to embrace this challenge or reject it.