I want to concentrate on prayer over the three great days of the Easter Triduum, particularly to see how the ceremonies in which we take part, teach us more about how to pray. So let’s begin with Holy Thursday

Our Gospel (John 13:1-15) has given us the  familiar story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and that is the ceremony that Bishops and priests with their people re-enact on this Holy Thursday night. But what we humans too easily tend to concentrate on is the command at the end – to wash one another’s feet. In other words we tend to concentrate on ourselves, on what we should be doing. Now certainly it is important to hear and act on that message to love one another, but if we are not careful we miss out on what comes first, not on what we should do, but what we should allow God to do to us. We have to allow God to love us.

We see this in Peter’s refusal, to start with, to allow Jesus to wash his feet.  In typical Peter fashion he says “Never…. you shall never wash my feet”. Jesus then has to explain to him, and thus to us, that unless we allow ourselves to be washed by him we cannot be in communion with him.

This is the mistake most of us make in prayer. We tend to think that prayer is something we do, that prayer is us communicating with God. When we approach prayer this way we are treating God as a power outside us, at a distance from us. Now although God is distant from us, the heart of the message of Jesus is that God has chosen to come close to us, to be one with us in and through Jesus. To really pray as a Christian we have to begin by recognising  that prayer is principally God speaking to us, God working in us, God with us – Immanuel.

As I said Peter shows us this very graphically. First of all he doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet at all. He wants to love and to follow Jesus, just as we all do, but he wants to do it, as we do, in his way. He has grand ideas, as we do, about being the servant of God, of doing his will and following his ways. But in Jesus God turns the whole thing upside down and Peter has to learn this, just as we do. We have to allow God to serve and to love us first, for he is the source of love and thus the source of all prayer.

This becomes even harder for us to grasp when the ceremonies of this holy night move on. As the altar is stripped of all its finery and everything is left bare, we are reminded that in the end all that we have to offer to God however special it may be, is, in the end, nothing. For in the end it is just us and God.  Let me read to you a parable that expressed this from a great writer on prayer – Ruth Burrows.

It is from her simple book on Christianity called “To believe in Jesus”.

God has given each of us the task of fashioning a beautiful vase for him which we must carry up the mountain in order to place in his hands. This vase represents everything we can do to please God, our good works, our prayers, our efforts to grow to maturity ; all this God values most highly….  When we reach the top a double shock awaits us. God is not there – there is silence, no response when we make our arrival known. Secondly the vase… it isn’t beautiful anymore. There it is in our hands, a tawdry common pot… the vase into which we had put our all. A deep instinct is telling us that if we want God we have to go over the other side of the mountain.. We can’t go down with anything in our hands; we must drop the vase, still precious though so disappointing.. Beautiful or not, we cannot take it with us, we must go to God with nothing in our hands. Our spiritual achievement is our most precious treasure. It has to go.”

Now I do not want you to think that there is therefore nothing we can do for God, nothing we can say to God. Ruth Burrows and other great teachers on prayer make clear that all that we do and say matters to God. The problem comes when it begins to matter too much to us. Then, if we reach a time, when we find it difficult or impossible to pray as we used to, when some tragedy strikes us, or we are faced with illness or depression, we can think that God is not there.  Then we go to Mass and feel nothing, and think that if we feel nothing it is not worth going when actually God is just as present as he has ever been, and what we need to do is go on as if through a desert until some oasis in our life enables us to realise that actually he was there in our darkest moment.

 We will think of this more on Good Friday – the darkest day of the year for Christians – but for now we are left with the challenge that Jesus poses to his disciples after the Supper is over and they have moved on to the Garden of Gethsemane. He simply asks us, as he asked them. “Stay with me, remain here with me. Watch and pray”  This is when prayer gets really difficult for our minds are full of all the things in our life that we want to think about and which seem to distract us from being with him. We try to sit or kneel with him in the silence, and feel we are failing as our mind races around on this or that which seems to take us so far from what we should be doing.

Some people find help here by saying the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer or reading the Bible, and yes these can be good ways of helping us to stay with him, to watch with him. But sometimes it is better just to be quiet with him despite all the distractions, to just admit before him how weak and silly we are, and maybe like the disciples how hard we find it to stay awake. We need then to remember that when he wakes them up, Jesus still loves them as he loves us for that is why he washed their feet. Our prayer has to be most of all a dwelling, an abiding in that love.

Remember how Jesus compares us to the branches of a vine. He is the root, the stock from which all the growth, our love and activity, comes. He says

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. ………..  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing”  (John 15:1-5)

In the end we need to know that prayer is just being with God. That is why the greatest prayer of all is not our words or our thoughts, but simply the action of the Mass. The greatest prayer is his presence with us – his Body and Blood that he gave us as the way to be one with him on this holy night. Yes he wants us to love God and to love our fellow humans in every way we can, but in the end, he calls us simply to be one with him – to be with him in the silence and to know he is always with us even to the end of the world.

 

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : –  Roughly 20 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, St Paul recorded a hymn in common use by the church in Philippi in northern Greece. (Phil 2:6-11) Quite clearly he was so impressed by its highly developed Christology, its understanding of the two natures of Christ, that he wanted it recorded and passed on to posterity. This hymn or praise song speaks of the remarkable combination of divinity and humanity met in the one, unique person of Jesus, and it was this that stood out and made the Christian faith so distinctive for the faithful of Philippi and the rest of the Christian world of the time. We have to remember that for Greek gentiles, (pagans) there was no real problem with divinity, they had known myriads of pagan gods in their time. They were powerful and to be feared, they were unpredictable and frequently ill disposed to humanity. What was extraordinary and so compelling about Christ was that they believed they had met the one supreme God in human form in Jesus and that, contrary to all previous expectation, he did not behave as a god was expected to do. On the contrary, as God, Jesus, as they had heard, had deliberately and knowingly laid aside all power and divine capabilities to assume total solidarity with the meanest of human beings, even dying the most appalling of deaths for us and with us, thereby providing incontrovertible evidence of his true nature. In Greek, the word we have in the Jerusalem Bible as ‘cling’ to his equality with God is a very rare word, normally reserved for muggers, someone who would smash and grab, even kill to retain power. Clearly this humbling of the divine by the very one who had the power over his heavenly status made a stunning impact on the hearts and minds of Christians. In a world where most people had little control over changing their status, and the masses were at the beck and call of richer and more powerful patrons and the state, the notion that God might meet them on terms of such amazing equality and take them into God’s very life, could be a compelling and very attractive way of thinking and life changing.

Such ideas could be very empowering, despite the cost that preaching such a redeemer might impose. Second Isaiah, the Isaiah of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC (Isa 50:4-7) spoke in a series of magnificent ‘Servant Songs’, in a very powerful way, of the God-given message those compelled by their understanding had to impart to a nation they believed had radically strayed from the faith of Israel. Such was their conviction that God was with them that despite the threat of persecution and even death, they were certain that they were doing the right thing. We have to remember that when Isaiah wrote in the 6th century BC there was no understanding of immortal life with God. So the notion that one might literally throw away ones life in the service and salvation of others, as Isaiah counselled was madness. Isaiah then speaks to ideas of the divine-human relationship which are radical, new and demanding. God it appears can speak to his people and ask difficult and very sacrificial things of them; even to the surrender of their lives. It appears then that in these two cases our lectionary deliberately offers us the opportunity to explore the meaning of the relationship between humanity and divinity at its sharpest and most painful points. On the one hand, Isaiah would consider the possibility of being tortured for his commitment to God’s message, on the other we are invited through the message of Philippians to conjure the almost unthinkable – that God in Christ will set aside all that it means to be God – for us – and will share our human fate to the last terrible dregs of his and our humanity.

However, the Palm Procession Gospel (Mark 11:1-10) sets the scene for this self-oblation within a certain and sure structure. Mark wants us to see that the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and the subsequent events are not mere happenchance. The picture he paints of Jesus’ arrival suggests careful planning on Our Lord’s part  with the arrangements made for the collection of the donkey, and the ‘code’ by which it is collected and recognition given by its owners. Then there is Mark’s description of the entry itself, with the donkey festooned with the cloaks of his followers whilst others strewed their cloaks on the ground and others placed greenery there to cover the roadway. In ancient times kings were thought too important, even sacred, to touch common ground, so that they had to be protected from it by coverings placed in between. It seems that Mark wanted his readers and hearers to be left in no doubt as to the identity of Jesus as he entered the Holy City for his passion. Moreover, this is affirmed by the greeting of the crowds who used the ancient Hallel Psalm 118 to greet the longed for Messiah. Mark’s Jesus is not naïve; he knew that during his passion he would be deserted by his closest followers and savagely turned on by the fickle crowds who had greeted him with such fervour. So Mark again, as with our previous writers will play with the ideas of divinity and humanity thrown up by this gospel passage.  This is the time for all of us, you and I to do some work to get to grips with this extraordinary phenomenon that we call Christ, the God who became human for our salvation.

The problem of pain

March 20, 2015

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : – Most of us find the idea of suffering abhorrent and will avoid it if we possibly can. We view suffering as failure or even as punishment from God and in consequence see it all negatively. Yet the Christ we follow and worship as Saviour of the world was one who won the greatest of victories, that over death and sin, precisely through taking on suffering. There seems to be at very least a contradiction here and perhaps we can make some attempt to see both the choiced suffering of Jesus and that of his creation, which is imposed upon us in a different light. This is not to suggest that death, and the pain it brings either physical or mental, is an illusion or that we become a group of masochists continually seeking out pain.

 

The tradition that suffering is somehow linked to transgression and failure and is punishable by God is of course very old, as we see from the Old Testament. In the work of Jeremiah, (31:31-34) we see how God promises to restore the Jewish nation after its exile in Babylon and the cruel ravaging of the nation with the destruction of its monarchy and aristocracy. In this passage a chastened nation is promised a wholly new covenant relationship, one in which they will be obedient to God’s law and all will go well. The telling line is “They broke that covenant of mine, so I had to show them who was master.” In this simple but primitive understanding of the divine-human relationship, modelled on that of earthly rulers and their subjects, there exists a straightforward system of punishment and reward.  It suggests that when things go wrong with creation we have only ourselves to blame, for we have sinned and must put things to rights. The tragedy for Israel is that its failings and their results never seem to alter things; all we seem to have is more of the same. Yet this is not true of reality, is it? After all, children learn from making errors: falling over produces tears, better balance helps. Scientists tell us that it is through innumerable ‘wrong-turnings’ that progress is made.

 

Over the centuries Jewish writers explored this concept of repeated failure and suffering and gradually began to see how defective and inadequate it was. After all, good people suffer and die along with the bad as we see with Job. Those righteous for God’s law can be horribly put to death, as we see with the Books of Esther, Maccabees and the great Servant Songs of Isaiah, not to mention Syrian and Iraqi modern Christian martyrs. By the time of Christ and the writings of St Paul, we can see situations in which the entire created order seems to be at odds with its creator and not necessarily through any deliberate fault on its part.

 

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (5:7-9) daringly explores the idea of vulnerability and weakness in God himself. Incarnate in Christ, God the Son deliberately enters into our fallen and marred creation in complete solidarity with us. As immortal God he is incapable of suffering and death, made human in Jesus he can, and willingly submits himself to all the pain and suffering which mortal beings of necessity are a prey to. Hebrews makes clear that this is not a pleasant or easy path for the Son to have followed, but that in doing so he truly identifies with us, he really does become one of us, so that his prayer to the Father can be uttered from the depths of his abject despair and his total solidarity with us. If through this exchange we become divine, most assuredly by it divinity has also taken on frailty and failure and the threat of the annihilation which is the cause of all our fears.

 

In our gospel, from John (12:20-33) we see this etched out in a homely but shattering analogy. Jesus has returned to the environs of Jerusalem and was staying with Lazarus (the one Jesus raised from the dead) and his sisters. The Jewish Sanhedrin had already met to determine his fate and resort to the time honoured idea of the sacrifice of a scapegoat in order, so they claim, to protect the rest. Jesus was by this time well aware of their hostility and malign intentions towards himself, indeed, would have to have been intellectually blind or stupid not to have known his fate. So he gives a developed and well constructed meditation o suffering – his own and that of others who will follow him. “Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain….” He speaks of a process of the absolute destruction of the wheat seed which thereby and only thereby produces the next year’s crop. There are times when this degree of suffering is the only thing that can recreate and renew a situation. The levels of suffering will be horrendous, but the end result will be worthwhile. Those of us who suffer debilitating illness or injuries will have felt something of this process; those divorced or separated; faced with the loss of loved children will know of it too; for such suffering can only be deeply harrowing and may frequently leave the sufferer at a complete loss as to how to make anything positive from the experience. Christians suffering in Syria and Iraq will be living it out on a daily basis. In this we will experience the self-emptying of God the Son. It won’t be a good experience, for it wasn’t for him either. Hebrews describes it thus: “Christ offered up prayer and entreaty aloud and in silent tears…”. John’s Jesus says: “Now my soul is troubled, what shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour.” It will be a kind of dying, and in it all we will have to cling onto is the truth that Jesus underwent this in faith, his faith – quite unrelieved at the time – that his Father would not ultimately desert him. It is what we all live for as believers, Christians who follow the Christ who was vindicated by his Father, who came back from the dead.

The wonderful thing about the Internet, and especially Facebook, is that I can keep in touch with lots of the students I knew from my time as Chaplain at Oxford Brookes University; and one of the things that many who are women share is their experience of being a young mother. I get pictures of the baby in the womb, of the baby just after birth, and many more. But they also share the troubles of being a mother, the worries, the sleepless nights, the hospital visits, even in one case the greatest tragedy of all. Looking at all this means I do a lot of praying as I follow their joy and their tears, and assure them of my support.

 Christianity, following its Jewish ancestry, avoids calling God a mother because in ancient times it wanted to distinguish itself from mother god religions in which God was not distinct and other. The sense of God as separate from us is an important one calling us on beyond ourselves and our small concerns into something bigger leading us one into infinity. But there is one way in which we do think about God as mother without often realising it ; and that is when we call on God to have mercy. For mercy is a word that in its original Hebrew origins has the same root as the word “womb”. So when we say “Lord have mercy” or “Kyrie Eleison”, we are asking God to be like a mother to us, and indeed we are asking God to be like a womb for us.

Now that’s a pretty important idea, especially for those who have got a rather frightening notion of a God who is far away and is always judging us. It is certainly the theme of all our readings today. Listen again to St Paul from our 2nd Reading “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ.”  (Eph 2:4-10) and then from St John’s Gospel (3:16) Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.”

There is however an additional point about God being like a womb that is worth mentioning. You see when we say “God loves us so much” we are using human terms to describe a power that is not like us at all. In one sense God does not love, because God is love. In the same way God does not exist but God is existence. In both ways God is like a mother’s womb which surrounds the tiny baby with protection, which is the source of that baby’s existence, which is almost part of that baby, and yet is entirely separate.

When we think of God as loving us so much, it is easy to begin to think that sometimes God loves us less and sometimes God loves us more, according to the way we behave. But God’s love is not like that. That is why St Paul says “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.”  Note that. God’s love for us is not dependent on anything we have done. All we have to do is to accept that infinite love. That is what believing in God means, not believing in a lot of propositions about God, or Jesus, or the Church, simply accepting God’s love, accepting one’s part in God’s Church.

It is intriguing that just before today’s famous passage in St John’s Gospel (See John 3:1-15) about God’s love, we hear Jesus saying that in order to be part of God we do not have to do anything, except…and this is the significant bit……..be “born again”. Nicodemus, who is being told this, actually protests.  “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” And Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  And that’s the point. Of course we have to accept the gift of life from God. Of course we should use that gift well. That is what grace is – God giving himself. But the gift is given, life is given, like life is given to a baby in the womb. And that is how we need to receive it. Being born again means being “like a little child”, being like a baby in the arms of God.

In one sense this imagery is impossible to understand isn’t it? We want to think of God as a bit like another person, and Jesus wants that too, which is why he teaches us to call God “Father” or more accurately “Abba” – Daddy. But he also wants us to go beyond that in our understanding of God, and in our relationship with God. You remember earlier I said that in one way God does not exist? It sounds extraordinary. But think about it. Things that exist are all made by God – the creative power underlying the Universe. But God is not created. God is infinite. God is the power that creates existence and so God does not exist, God is existence. As St John says of Jesus as the Word of God at the very beginning of his Gospel. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”

A baby, both in the womb and after birth, only gradually understands itself as separate from its mother and from other people. We have to remember the reverse. That whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, we are never separate from God, for if we were separate from God, we would not exist. Of course, we believe that God has given us the ability to choose that way, to choose to absolutely and for ever deny him by denying all that is good and true, but the offer of eternal life is always there. That is why Jesus died for us.

Not about giving up Gin!

March 13, 2015

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- I suppose our history all through the ages has been such that we think of God as having created in perfection and watching in fury and even sadness whilst his creation continually messes things up. Thinkers of various persuasions then go on to suggest that God, in a negative mood, punishes his creation with a whole series of disasters, some natural, such as earthquakes, famines and floods; whilst others are man induced, involving the destruction of his ‘chosen people’ by foreign invaders. Either way they would see God as an interventionist deity, zapping in periodically to punish, and thereby restart the entire process of the relationship between God and humanity. Many still view the incarnation in this way too, God’s final act of desperation, sending his Son to redeem an apparently heedless and irredeemable humanity.

Such an outlook is expressed many times in the Old Testament, here notably in the Book of Chronicles. (2 Chron 36:14-16.19-13). In its final form this writing must stem from the period after the Babylonian exile and the time of the Second Temple. Its focus is very much on the rescue of Israel from slavery in Babylonia and the return of the exile families after their 70 years away from their homeland under the enlightened policy of Cyrus the Persian and his successors. This time, of course, God’s agent in redemption is a pagan foreigner, but the emphasis is clear, the fault is that of Israel, now duly punished by the Babylonians and restored by God’s initiative. Central to this tale is the restoration of the exiles to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem; things are back once again to a perceived perfection.

It comes as something of a surprise to realise that this is not the Christian view at all. We do not hold with that ideal of some vanished Golden Age now awaiting restoration when all will be well – until the next disastrous mess up. Deep within this flawed valuation of things lies the notion that if only we are ‘good enough’ God will love us and save us; and many of us therefore spend years struggling with guilt and inadequacy and blame ourselves for our lack of what we imagine is our right relationship with God.

This was not St Paul’s understanding of the God-man relationship, and anyone who thinks otherwise would do well to read the Letter to the Romans in which he explores this dilemma in all its poignant realism and sadness. His answer is also well expressed in the passage to his Letter to the Ephesians where he writes: “It is through grace that you have been saved….not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.” (Ephesians 2:4-10) This letter, the product of a profound understanding of precisely what we are all called to in God rests its case on the belief that God quite simply is God and that his will for his entire creation has existed from eternity and will endure to the close of time. We are created in love by the good creator and are, as the Greek puts it so well, ‘co-raised and co-enthroned’ in Christ Jesus. So this owes nothing to us at all. Put like this, we see that our salvation is always God’s plan, not a desperate afterthought. Of God’s grace there can be no doubt, and he has enabled us to enter this relationship through faith; here, a supernatural gift and not the choiced decision we might think it to be, as the first chapter of Ephesians makes this clear. “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.”

This evaluation of things is reiterated in St John’s Gospel, (Jn 3:14-21).Misread, or misunderstood, we again fall into the trap of anthropomorphising God, bringing him down to our level and the Jerusalem translation encourages such a misconstrual with its “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son…” Actually this passage is not about emotions in God, which might change, but a statement about the nature of unchanging divinity, of what it means for God to be God. As such it implies ‘this is how God loved the world, this is how God is.’

John then goes on to give a precise definition of things: those who believe in the Son will be saved – it says nothing at all about their behaviour, good, bad or indifferent. “No one who believes in him will be condemned.” Those who are divided from the Christian community are those who simply refuse to believe. It is this rejection of Christ which is the dividing line and John uses an analogy which would have been so immensely powerful in the ancient world, the distinction between light and darkness. Even in ancient cities night time was a time of fear, even terror, when one did not venture out whereas daylight hours were the times of intense activity. In town or country, at night one just hunkered down. Certainly he goes on to indicate that evil doers ‘hate the light’, making the point about the necessity of actually living the Christian life on a day to day basis; and this would have been even more sharply defined for the original hearers of the Gospel by fear of night time burglars, attacks, murder and mayhem. For John, the believer lives, transfigured in and with Christ, and it cannot be without significance that this teaching is all part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the Pharisee, one of the group obsessed with the following of rules in all their spectacular minutiae as the way to righteousness, and something which Jesus rejects.

We too are called to be ‘people of the light’. Perhaps the important thing about Lent then is not about ‘giving-up’ stuff, be it chocolate or gin or even bad habits, but a taking on of the persona of Christ, of entering the light, and living and being visible to others as beacons in a dark world, one previously unlit by the light of Christ.

The departure from St Peter’s of our Deacon Chris, as he moves to Worcester, has led to one question being asked by many different people. “Will we be getting another Deacon?” The short answer is No, but the reason why this is the answer is best explained if we look first at the Readings for today; and then hopefully all will become a bit clearer.

Why did the holy people of Jerusalem, the priests and the other religious leaders, get so angry with Jesus that they persuaded the Roman authorities to kill him? The answer is that he directly confronted them with their narrow view of God and religion. They were good people. They were very careful to keep to the 10 Commandments that we heard as our 1st Reading today (Exodus 20:1-17) and they punished those who broke them. They also, listen carefully, looked after the Temple in Jerusalem with great reverence, so that people could worship God there. “But surely not?”, you might say “What about all those stallholders that Jesus chucked out, as described in today’s Gospel?” (John 2:13-25)

Well the point is, that the Temple in Jerusalem at that time was an enormous complex of beautiful buildings. There were great covered walkways – porticos – where we hear of Jesus walking in the heat of the day – and places where anyone like Jesus could teach. Remember what he said at his trial? “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together.”  At the heart of the Temple was the really holy area, and this was kept absolutely clear by the priests and religious leaders where the official worship and prayer took place. So the market stalls that Jesus overturned were not there in these holy areas, but in one Court at the edge of the Temple complex called the Court of the Gentiles or, as we might call it “The Court of the Foreigners.”

The holy people who ran the Temple were in fact making a distinction in their minds between holy areas of the Temple, and thus of their lives, that must be kept ordered and pure, and the rest of the Temple where it didn’t matter so much. Jesus presents things differently. He says “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20) And what he means by that is that true righteousness is not what we do outwardly but what we are like within, what we are like as a whole, not just on the surface. Our whole life must be a turning to God for mercy rather than a reliance on our own outward holiness.

So the point of what Jesus did on that day. when he overturned the tables, actually relates to this central message that he repeats over and over again in different ways. It is a warning, a sharp criticism of all so-called holy people. He calls them “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful”. (Matt 23:27) And since it is a warning to all holy people, it is also a warning to all of us in Church today. Is our way of living and praying to God a surface thing, an outward observance only? We go to Church, we try to live a good life, to keep the 10 Commandments, just like the holy people of Jesus’ day, but is it only skin deep? When we are really called on to do something hard for God, to make some real sacrifice, will we do it?

Now we get back to that question about a new Deacon for the Church. Deacons do not appear out of thin air. They appear only when married men with their wives, like Deacon Chris and Margaret, are prepared to make some real sacrifice for God. Now there are married couples like that at St Peters, but at the moment they offer themselves to God in other ways. What we need is both someone with a deep commitment to Almighty God, plus a call to this particular work as a Deacon. To do this he then needs to give up various things he might have wanted to do, and instead devote most of his life outside work for several years to study and prayer; and he has to do this whilst still having a busy life of work and family (Deacon Chris ran his own small business). Only at the end of all this, only then, would he be ordained as a Deacon for this Parish.

So if we want a new Deacon for St Peter’s (or for the Church anywhere) then some man in St Peter’s (or in that particular church), supported by his wife, would have to do this. And since there is no-one doing this here at St Peter’s at the moment, there is little chance of us having a new Deacon. The only other way is if one arrives, as Deacon Chris did, unexpectedly. The point is that most Deacons continue to have full time employment, but of course if they move their job or they retire, and just happen to move their home into our Parish, then we might get a Deacon. And that is what happened with Deacon Chris when he and Margaret moved here many years ago. Now sadly we lose them, and another Parish gains them, and we will just have to manage without them.

 There is just one more thing I want to say. There is a tendency for any man who might train as a Deacon here at St Peter’s not only to say “I am just too busy”, but more significantly “I am not good enough, or holy enough to do this.” The answer to this is in our 2nd Reading  (1 Cor  1:22-25) where St Paul tells us all NOT to rely on our own strength or wisdom, but on God. He reminds us that what might seem as foolishness or weakness to the world is the way of God. And whatever God calls us to do for him and for others, that is the way that we should all follow even of that seems foolish.

 For as St Paul writes : “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

 

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- “To those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). My guess is that throughout the entire story of the human encounter with God, humankind has misconstrued the relationship, taking as folly, as foolishness, God’s actions towards us and believing that we know better. Even today, Christians find it almost incomprehensibly difficult to accept that Almighty God could become incarnate for us and suffer and die for humanity, whilst the notion that his intention for us is that we actually share divinity with him is simply risible. We can only think about God according to our terms; those parameters fixed by power, control and above all success; and however much we claim to follow Jesus the Son who died and rose for us we actually find it almost impossible. Each Lent, reaching up to Easter, its dramatic climax or damp squib depending on how one views things, we follow Jesus on the route to his death and our salvation, and the utter incomprehensibility and folly of God hits us in the face. Many will try to excuse the catastrophe of the passion and death by claiming that Jesus did not really suffer; that he did not really die or that the resurrection, when it came, was some elaborate psychological game. Those of us who do believe it simply have to shake our heads. It is quite inexplicable.

Perhaps this is why the compilers of our lectionary get us to explore the 10 commandments at this point in our Lenten journey. (Exodus 20:1-17). This set of rules, by which the people of Israel were to abide, clearly dates from considerably later than the time of Moses, though some of them may have come up from an earlier format and would have been rules to safeguard the smooth running of the community. We can see this in the injunctions against killing, stealing, and bearing false testimony. Others date from a period when the Jerusalem temple and the Jewish faith were more securely established and religious conformity was de rigueur. Such would be the demand to worship one sole God, (distinguishing him from times when many were known); the injunction against the making of images and their worship (one recalls the tales of the making and worship of the golden calf, let alone the influence of the pagans and their gods); and the setting aside of the Sabbath as a day of rest and thanksgiving. All of these latter commandments have very clear ties to the unique relationship the Israelites had with Yahweh and were designed to give that relationship shape and sustenance. In a way all of the commandments are materialistic, they shape and define Israel as much as they tell us about their relationship with God.

In St John’s Gospel (Jn 2:13-25) the incident we call the ‘cleansing of the temple’ occurs at the start of Jesus’ ministry, directly after the Prologue, the call of the disciples, and the wedding at Cana. It will therefore set the tone of his entire ministry all the way through. Jesus is presented throughout as the one at odds with temple Judaism. His ministry will embrace dubious foreign women and from early on present an alternative core worship in his great Eucharistic exposition in Chapter 6 “I am the bread of life.” Unlike the brief synoptic picture, which presents the cleansing of the temple as part of the final build up to the arrest and passion, John has done something deliberate and quite distinctive with this well remembered scene. His account is far more detailed and raises the whole issue of the significance and power of the temple and speaks of its complete replacement by the person of Jesus. Why?

Can it be that Jesus believed that Temple Judaism had completely departed from its earlier call presented in the Exodus tradition of the 10 Commandments? Are we to think that his violent expulsion of the animal sellers and money changers represented precisely their adoption of a multiplicity of gods, money being their chief, with their idolatry made clear in their greed and their hypocrisy? Certainly the policy of the temple authorities in allowing these sales to shift into the temple precinct profaned the temple and made the Court of the Gentiles, (where the market was) impure. We know that there were shops around the perimeter of the temple which could offer animals for sacrificial sale, so there was no actual need to profane the temple, apart from the desire of its authorities to get a tighter grip on the sale of the animals. St John’s image of Jesus and of his actions and entire ministry, shaped as they all are by this dramatic incident, leaves us in no doubt that he intended us to see Jesus as someone distinctly at odds with Jerusalem and its brand of Judaism; and as offering the faithful a new and wholly richer notion of their relationship with the divine, summed up par excellence in his great prayer in John 17, in which he calls for our total unity with one another and the Father and the Son, their gift to us, with all its staggering possibilities.

And so, on the Third Sunday of Lent one feels that the pressure really has been turned up as we are faced with the great call of Jesus to move out beyond the rules and regulations, whether we abide by them or not, and to begin to accept the great offer that Father and Son are holding out to us as we, like the temple, prepare to be cleansed and offered new life in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I meet a couple for the first time who want to get married at St Peter’s one of the questions I ask early on is “How did you meet one another?”; not least because this gets them talking about themselves and their relationship in a natural way. What still surprises me is how often one or other of them will say that they didn’t like their partner at first, or didn’t notice them, and then they will look at one another and say “And then something happened….. and here we are now!!”   Yes, it’s always worth remembering that we are not always stuck with our first impressions, that things can happen that can radically change our mind, and that we always ought to be alert for these moments, because it might well be a moment when God speaks, and we must listen.

Abraham in our 1st Reading (Genesis 22:1-18) was convinced that the only way he could show God how much he loved him was to kill his only son Isaac. It wasn’t that unusual to do such a thing in those days; but here we see a man on the lookout for a new way, so that when the opportunity came to sacrifice a sheep in place of his son, he knew that it was a message from God, and his son was saved.

The Old Testament is full of stories of the people learning that the one true God is quite different from the gods of the other people around them. This dramatic story of Abraham and Isaac is just one amongst many that show a people gradually discovering that God is a God of love not of anger. Yes, in the process of learning, they often describe God as angry or fierce and expect him to be like that, but gradually the God we know in Jesus Christ is emerging, is revealing himself, if only they would listen. The great prophets, like Jeremiah (See Jeremiah 7:13-27) were therefore constantly telling the people to listen but so often they didn’t, and it is much the same today.

It is of course in Jesus that this final and complete revealing of God as love takes place; and so God tells the disciples on the mountain at the Transfiguration with Jesus, when they are busy with their own plans “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.” (Mark 9:2-10) You might think that our 2nd reading (Romans 8:31-34) is on a different theme. Yes, St Paul has got there , as he writes of a God who loves us so much that he comes to us as Jesus and suffers in our place. But what we need to remember is that this Paul is the same man, then called Saul, who attacked and imprisoned the first Christians, accusing them of blasphemy. He believed as a Pharisee that God expected us to be perfect and unless we managed this there was no hope for us. He too was to have a moment on the road to Damascus when his mind on these matters was transformed by God, and he had to listen to what God was saying. He writes in his letter to the Romans (12:2) of how important it is to be transformed daily by God. “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Just like Abraham, who was influenced by his world to start with, even to the point of thinking God wanted human sacrifice; so we too can easily be influenced by the world we live in today and be, as St Paul says, “conformed” to its values, rather than following what God wants for us. The world will say we are the stuck in the mud conformists, but actually it is they who follow the latest trend, and we Christians who approach life in a radically different way, or at least we try to.

Our Gospel sees the disciples struggling to understand what God is revealing to them as Jesus is transfigured and so we must not expect our struggles not to be conformed to the world but to follow God to be any easier than theirs. They are told by God to listen to Jesus, but we know that, as the story continues, they are amazed that Jesus is heading for Jerusalem. (See Mark 10:32-45) Even when he explains that he is going to his death, James and John, who had been with him for the Transfiguration, still fail to hear what he has said, and simply ask for seats in glory. They have to be told that they do not know what they are asking for, because they clearly had no idea that it was suffering rather than glory that lay ahead of them.

I was struck this week, as the days are getting lighter and Spring is upon us, how beautiful the world is that God has created. It is so easy to spend our time asking God for things that we think we want, rather than recognising the things he has already given us, and along with all that beauty, the challenges he puts before us to live our life for him and not for ourselves. Listening to what God wants for us is not easy, and allowing God to change our way of thinking and acting is a lifetime’s process, an adventure in which we will never quite know what is going to happen next. All we can do is to try every day to listen to him.

 

 

Death and Transformation

February 27, 2015

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : Each of our Lenten readings speaks of death in one form or another. Last week’s readings reminded us of the extraordinary love of God for his creation and now we are being led further into the mystery of God himself as we are led out beyond our temporal mortality.

I think we have the reading from Genesis (22:1-2.9-13.15-18) as part of our ‘wake-up call’. We are all guilty of investing so much of our time, money and hopes and attention in the things of this world that we cannot really see beyond them, indeed, frequently get stuck with them. It may be our love for our children, our pride in our jobs and our own achievements, or our clinging to possessions or something else; but lovely as all these things are, they can blind us to the truth that these are only temporary gifts from the Creator whose purpose for us is so much greater.

When Abraham was tested by God and was willing to sacrifice his only son and heir, Isaac, something similar was going on. Abraham, we must remember, lived in a time when there was no concept of ‘eternal life’ with and in God. In consequence people invested all their hopes for the future in their offspring, especially male children. Abraham, you will recall, had been childless for many years until persuaded by his wife to take a concubine and produce a child; and it was only very late in life that Sarah produced the beloved son Isaac, literally the pride and joy of his father’s heart, his posterity, upon whom any possibility of an Abrahamic line hung. Imagine therefore the horror of being asked to destroy the child on which so much depended.

Now in the Near East of the time it was not unusual for great rulers to sacrifice sons at great events. We hear precisely of this action by the ruler of Jericho in the First Book of the Kings. I suspect therefore that our story is actually a ‘myth’, a very ancient tale about the shift from human to animal sacrifice; and deeply embedded within it is this story of Abraham’s interior debate as to what is most important, his attachment to his only son, or his relationship with God, from whom he has all he derives. It is only when Abraham gets his priorities right that he can appreciate the real grace and goodness of God and is apparently ‘reprieved’ by the finding of the ram, the alternative sacrifice, sent by God. Only when we are staring death in the face can we truly get our priorities straight.

Our Gospel, (Mark 9:2-10) is about another moment of death and transformation, here the Transfiguration, literally metamorphosis in Greek. In this, Christ appears, significantly again on a mountain, and is shown to the disciples in all his heavenly glory. He appears alongside Moses and Elijah, signifying the Mosaic law and the prophets, and thus he is encompassing everything that Judaism stood for but much more. It is a moment of crisis, just as Abraham experienced, a moment of decision; whether to continue with the old ways of understanding God given in the Old Testament, or whether to go on the dramatic and radical journey with and in Jesus to become his new creation; heirs with him of God himself, sharers in the divine nature. For many Jews this would be a scandal, an outrage. For the disciples it was a moment of transition, decision to adopt that decisive shift which would transfigure their entire being. It was a moment of death and led to new life. As the Gospels present it, affirmation came to the disciples in the divine voice; “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” It is significant that this moment of the revelation of the true identity of Jesus to his chosen followers was so powerful and earth shattering that Jesus told them not to reveal it to the rest until after his resurrection from the dead. Jesus was insistent that belief in him should come through an encounter with the fully human Christ and not in any sense be compelled by knowledge of his identity given only to the chosen few and then only as an aid to their belief.

When we consider how the twelve actually behaved at our Lord’s passion perhaps we begin to appreciate the sense of this injunction. Indeed, it would be his post mortem appearances that convinced the disciples of his identity and enabled them finally to make that great transition. Death, and the giving of a wholly new and far richer life after physical death, is the thing that really will make the difference for all of us. Just like the disciples, we too, cling onto the familiar, onto this material life, and find it very difficult to place all our hope in eternal life.

Surely the final word in all this must go to St Paul (Romans 8:31-34). So much of this extraordinary letter is focussed on the problem which faced Christians then and continues to drag us down now. It is the problem of our own sins, those we willingly commit and those we simply fall into despite our best intentions. We agonise and tie ourselves into knots over questions of our unworthiness of eternal life; of whether God could possibly forgive us and of our inability to embark on a path of lasting change. Paul provides the answer to all our angst: we can’t and we don’t have to. It is God in Christ who has won salvation and eternal life for each of us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. “He not only died for us – he rose from the dead, and there at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us.” What we have to learn to accept is that Christ Jesus has already won paradise for us. Our Lent is therefore about a literal dying to the past with all its hang-ups and a taking on of the new life we are already guaranteed in Christ. We must allow our selves to be transfigured as he was.

 

As we are now in the world of instant messaging, you will not be surprised that the word that caught my eye from the Ash Wednesday readings was that one word “NOW”  (Joel 2:12-17) We heard it again in the 2nd reading too, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”  (2 Cor 6:1-2)   It reminded me of how important it is to use the text message or the email whenever we can to send support and prayer to those who need it. It is so easy to say to oneself that I will get in touch tomorrow instead of doing it today. Or to say to oneself that I will pray for so and so next time I say my prayers, rather than actually to start praying for them straightway. This approach to prayer is so important. For our prayer must not just be time set aside for our prayers, but something we do as we live – on the bus or the train, in the kitchen or the office. Wherever we are we can and should pray. We should use the moment something or someone comes to mind and not leave it till later.

Making resolutions about something we might do later is rarely a good idea. It reminds me of New Years Resolutions, and Lenten Resolutions are much the same. As a regular swimmer I look at those people who arrive in the Pool every January clearly filled with the Resolution they have made to swim every morning. Every year it is the same. By the end of January most of them have disappeared, as we regulars knew they would, and of course we sigh and think ourselves so superior!! 

So I would advise you against making lots of plans for Lent about giving up this and that, or taking some things on. It is always a mistake to set ourselves on the course for failure rather than choosing one thing that we can do now whatever that may be. So remember to send that text message or email straightaway and let someone know now that you are praying for them. Never say “I will pray for you”. Always say “I am praying for you now”.

It is the same message that we get from Jesus when he tells us not to worry about tomorrow’s troubles, but just to get on with what we have to face today. (Matt 6:30-34) Living for today, living for now is such an important thing to do. Indeed it is at the heart of what the word “Repent” means. Repentance does not mean building up in ourselves a list of things we feel sorry about. It means turning to God now. For if we spend time creating a list of things that we should feel sorry about we are in danger of being obsessed with ourselves rather than recognising our need for God. That is what St Paul is talking about when he says “Now is the day of salvation”. He has just said “Be reconciled with God” and then he makes it clear. Do it now.

This is what receiving the ashes on our heads on Ash Wednesday is all about. We are told to remember that we are but dust and ashes. The priest says “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” and we are reminded that we may die tomorrow so we had better get in with doing things now rather than leaving them till it is too late. So away with lots of Resolutions for Lent. Let us rather decide to do live every day for God, and discover each day what we might do now to serve him.