Life for us humans is more than just living isn’t it? It is thinking &planning & imagining. It is measuring & calculating how our world works as in maths & science. It is communicating with each other & understanding each other, using speech and words, & it’s expressing ourselves in music & dance & art. All this and more makes us human, and all of this happens because God the Holy Spirit, the Life giver, is within us whether we accept his presence or not.

 

But when we Christians talk about the Holy Spirit giving us knowledge and wisdom, which is what I am going to talk about today, we mean much more than knowledge and wisdom as the world describes it, however special to us that may be. We see this in our 2nd Reading today (1 John 2:1-5) where St John makes very clear that “knowing” God is more than just knowing about God. There are, after all, many people who say they know about God, or know about the Church or the Bible. Yes, they may know lots of facts, they may even appear on the TV telling us what they know, but actually although they may know about God, they may not really know God at all. Getting to know someone is a long process isn’t it? We may start with some facts about them; but knowing another human being, and even more knowing God, is a much deeper process than that.

 

It’s also a fact that much of our communication, our transmission of knowledge, is non-verbal. Look up non-verbal communication and you will see a whole list of ways in which we do it. True knowledge therefore means a sensitivity to others that comes from caring about them at a deep level – what we Christians would call “keeping God’s commandments”.  Jesus illustrates this kind of knowledge all the time. He sees into people’s hearts and knows what they are like inside, (See John 6:64. 8:19 & 16:19) and we too are called to be like that. It is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to us. The disciples meet the risen Lord on the beach, and “None of (them) dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. “ (John 21:12)

 

The world sometimes calls this ability “being psychic”. Some of you may recall moments in your life when you have sensed what is going to happen, or what you should do; sensed, maybe without realising it consciously, that God was talking to you in this way.  I’m a great believer in acting on what the world calls “our instincts”. So if I sense that I should do or say something, I will do it, and quite often (though not always!) my instinct can be right. This, we must remember, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it enhances our natural abilities, and we should ask God to help us to be more like that, and thus possess true knowledge.

 

Equally “wisdom” for the Christian does not mean worldly wisdom. The disciples knew their Bible; not as well as Jesus, of course, but they were devout Jews, and they knew their ancient stories – about God, and the great prophecies from God given through their ancestors like Jeremiah and Isaiah. Yet, like many Jews of their day, they failed to understand at a deeper level what the Bible was pointing to. Their wisdom was superficial. They failed to understand that God’s Messiah, God’s Christ, would be someone who was prepared to suffer and die, and only then to show his glory. Thus we hear in our Gospel, the risen Jesus “opening their minds to understand the scriptures.” (Luke 26:45) And later they are given the power by the Holy Spirit not just to understand them in this new way, but to explain this to other people.

 

But the gift of wisdom doesn’t just mean being able to understand how God speaks through the Bible. St Paul makes clear how easily we can revert to thinking about our knowledge and wisdom in a worldly way. He makes this very clear when he writes to the Christians in Corinth who think themselves very wise. He points out that true Christian wisdom may appear as foolishness to the world. In a long passage at the beginning of his 1st Letter to them, (1 Cor 1:18-31) he goes on about this at some length. Let me give you just a bit of what he says to remind you For .. the cross is folly to those who are perishing (He means those who think only in worldly ways) but…. it is written,       “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.”

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. …………For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

This should remind all of us that sometimes it is the simplest thing about our faith, shared with someone else,  that can help them more than any number of clever words. Those of you who do not think of yourselves as very clever, can sometimes be more effective in communicating the Gospel than those of us who are academic. The Holy Spirit can give this true wisdom often more effectively to those who “know” less in worldly terms. So never underestimate what God can do in you. Say what you feel, and your words can sometimes convey the wisdom of God in ways that might astonish you.

St Paul puts it like this:- “Consider your call….. not many of you were wise according to worldly standards …….. but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” 

So yes the Holy Spirit can give a true and deeper wisdom and knowledge to every Christian, not just the so-called clever……… provided we allow God to work in us in this way!

Our sins are wiped away

April 17, 2015

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :-  We are now into a period in which we explore, as the first Christians had to do too, the implications of our redemption. What did it mean to them, what does it mean to us to claim that our sins have been wiped out, an idea so central both to our reading from Acts and from the First Johannine letter?

Quite clearly in Acts (3:13-15.17-19) sin looms large as a devastating blot on the people of Israel, as well as on them as individuals. The author, Luke, makes clear that in handing Jesus over to Pilate they have disregarded the God of their ancient faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not merely did they hand Jesus over, but they did so knowing his innocence; “You who accused the Holy One, the Just One.” Moreover, they asked for the release of a murderer and deliberately killed the one Luke calls significantly, “The prince of life.” This is a truly devastating series of accusations; a betrayal of their religion; a triple perverting of justice; since the charges against Jesus were false and Pilate himself had declared him innocent, and they secured the release of a guilty murderer. How then could the death and resurrection of Jesus set this appalling situation to rights? Luke suggests two ways of making sense of all this. First, despite their guilt, they are in reality ignorant of the facts of Jesus’ true identity and secondly, they had failed to understand God’s way of acting for the salvation of humanity which he had continually foretold through his prophets – small wonder then that they made such a botch of things. When one considers the abysmal reception of its prophets by Israel, one cannot but agree. For most of them were harassed and rejected in their lifetimes and their message misunderstood, and when they had spoken of the suffering of the nation, Israel very rarely seemed to understand. Luke sees Christ’s sufferings as prefigured in the suffering of the nation – Israel – and it appears to be a story without end. The endless cycles of violence and hatred continue; the guilt and repetition of the same sad old offences just grinds on.

But what does Luke claim? “Now you must repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.” The solution is clear and simple, and Israel and we too do not need to be stuck in a morass of endlessly repeated disasters, we are not doomed to be forever in this terrible situation. When we look at 1 John (2:1-5) a very similar message is emphasised: we do have a solution to our being eternally stuck in the rut caused by our repeated sinning. “I am writing this, my children to stop you sinning; but if anyone should sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ.” Moreover, John emphasises, he doesn’t just forgive our sins but those of the whole world. Now this is something that most of us find very difficult to take on board. But there it is, in black and white, by following the commands of Jesus, we are forgiven, the entire world of sin can be wiped out, and by this we can ‘know God’. What we have to do is accept that it really is this simple and allow it to happen. Instead, we prefer to hang onto our sins and continually mull over them and those of others, and when we do this we clearly do not have the opportunity to ‘know God’.

In his gospel, here Luke (24:35-48) the writer explores how precisely this comes about as he shows us one incident in the resurrected life of Jesus. Central to this is the Lord’s real bodily life: “Touch me and see for yourselves; a ghost has no flesh and bones as you can see I have.” To drive this message home further he eats a piece of fish so pointing once again to he risen bodily life. His true bodily life is central to his being with us, now and in eternity, knowing God is rooted in knowing Jesus who came back from the dead and has wiped out all the sin and sadness that stands in the way of each of us truly knowing God.

Luke further claims that Jesus went on to ‘open their minds’ to the correct understanding of the scriptures, here meaning the Old Testament with its laws and endless tales of woe and so linked himself to that story that his own suffering and death and resurrection was finally understood as God’s solution to the seemingly endless cycles of death and destruction that beset the creation. Critical to this message is our response – repentance by which sins are forgiven, a message not simply for Jews but for the whole world. Luke writes: “You are witnesses to this.” Clearly he does not simply mean that the disciples are those acknowledging the events of the resurrection, but its implications: that in true forgiveness and in accepting it totally, the world will be a changed place as the first disciples were changed people. We too can be numbered among those transformed human beings and so changed that we are utterly open to God the Father, sharers in his life.

Every Sunday we say in the Creed that we believe in “The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life”. This should remind us that without God, as Holy Spirit, being present within us from the first moment of our life in our mother’s womb, we wouldn’t be alive at all. And this is exactly what we hear affirmed in the great Creation story at the beginning of the Bible (Gen 1:2) when it is God as Spirit that actually creates everything, that gives life to the world! Those of you with logical minds may therefore be asking quite rightly, “Why in our Gospel today (John 20:19-31) does the risen Jesus breathe the Holy Spirit on the disciples, if they have the Holy Spirit within them already?”

 

The simple answer to this is that God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit does not exist in the way created things exist, because God is eternal. This means that God is already at the end of all things waiting for us, just as God was at the beginning when everything was created. So when the risen Lord Jesus appears to the disciples, he re-creates for them and in them what is already there. In effect he gives them a new birth, so that whilst remaining the same people they always were, they are being transformed into the brave people, the first saints, that they are going to be. This is why the Church sometimes describes the Resurrection as “the New Creation” using words from St Paul when he says in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians (5:17) “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  

 

In our 2nd Reading today (1 John 5:1-6) we also hear about this New creation, this new birth, although St John uses a word that is less familiar to us, the word “begotten”. So he writes “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten by God”. In other words, we are drawn by the Holy Spirit into God’s New Creation. We are given new birth, by every word and action in our lives in which we proclaim, consciously or unconsciously, that we believe in Jesus and follow him.

 

But some of you might also be saying, “Hold on a minute. Why are we hearing about the Holy Spirit now? Surely the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples at the Feast of Pentecost in 6 weeks time?” Again the answer is that God isn’t like us. A great teacher of the faith once described the Holy Spirit as like water, like soft refreshing rain falling onto the earth. It gives life into whatever it falls upon, soaking into it if it is a plant, or being drunk if it is an animal or a man or a woman. But we always need more, we always need topping up. We can never say “I have received the Holy Spirit and that’s the end of the matter”. Just as we need water regularly to survive, so we need God working within us if we are to reach our full potential.

 

God wants to work in us and through us in all sorts of ways, and he does this as the Holy Spirit; but it’s up to us whether we open ourselves to God working in this way or not, whether we open ourselves to what we might be. So the disciples, like us, first received the Holy Spirit when they first had life in their mother’s womb; then like us they received the Holy Spirit in a new way when they met the risen Lord Jesus,; and finally, like us, they need to receive the Holy Spirit in a powerful way if they are to be brave enough to go out and share the message of Jesus with the world, whatever the world might do with them in response. And of course, for all but one of them they end up being killed for what they proclaim, so they certainly need a lot of courage.

 

In the next few weeks, leading up to Pentecost, I have decided to preach about how the Holy Spirit can work in our lives so that we too can become better disciples of the risen Lord Jesus. I hope to show you that what the Holy Spirit does in us is sometimes easily missed, because his power affirms and strengthens what is already there, what we have within us anyway by virtue of our being alive. So I will talk about how God as Holy Spirit works in our mind enhancing our knowledge and helping us to teach and explain things to others. I will also talk about how the Holy Spirit helps in the process of caring for and healing the sick and the sad, how we are helped to pray more deeply, and above all how we can be helped to love more powerfully, to love even those who might be described as our enemies. For that is what Jesus told us to do. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt 5:43-48) There’s that image of rain again!

 

In all this we must remember how easy it is to take God for granted, just as we take water for granted, just as we take the air we breathe for granted. Yes, it is all too easy to spend most of our time just getting on with living day by day, and missing so many opportunities to bring God’s love to others in one way or another, because we are too concerned with our own lives. Our Easter readings will remind us of this, as we see how the risen Jesus in various ways appears to the disciples, to shake them awake, to make them live out together as the Church, the new community of love, the new birth that he gave them when he breathed upon them.  They too, to start with, tended to carry on with their own lives without realising the significance of what had happened to them and what they were called to do.

 

Discovering what this is, is what the life of every Christian ought to be about. We may not do the great deeds of the saints, but in all sorts of little ways God can be glorified in us, if we let him.

 

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Many of us like this gospel (John 20:19-31) at a superficial level. We feel comforted by Thomas’ incredulity and can identify with it; but a more thoughtful and careful reading of the text and the readings chosen to accompany it points to a different message.

We have already been told that Jesus instructed the disciples to look at the marks of crucifixion on his body and thus affirms his bodily resurrection to a group of his followers, and also Jesus himself breathes the Holy Spirit upon them for the forgiveness and retention of sins.  This means that as a community of believers they are immediately entrusted with a special task; that of keeping the growing community of believers firm in the faith; sent out as bearers of the gospel of redemption. This is a special and unique moment, made clear by the choice of the rare Greek word for ‘breathed’, akin to that in Greek Old Testament translations of Genesis 1 at the moment of creation. For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, this then is not a time of doubt or dissension but of absolute certainty and knowledge of what one was doing.

However this account of the doubt and double redemption of Thomas by a very bodily risen Jesus seems to serve a number of needs. Jesus now invites Thomas to have a good old feel of his wounds, so leaving everyone in no doubt at to the reality of his resurrected body. It appears that even then there were those who suggested that the ‘resurrection’ was merely some psychological event, and not to be taken too seriously. Thomas’s turn-about acts to dispel such suggestions, and also acts as a thorough ticking off to this rather unwilling follower. It also emphasises the absolute centrality of the Christian community – we are worshippers of the risen and glorified Christ not in solitary isolation or in the cosiness of our own homes or even in the closet of our own believing, but fundamentally as a community – here, the Community of the Beloved Disciple – and it brooks no ‘doing of one’s own thing’.

But why is this so important? Perhaps the answer lies in the accompanying two readings which serve to direct us in a very particular direction. Firstly, our reading – significantly from the Johannine letters, (1 John 5:1-6). What struck me here was the plurality of things – the constant use of ‘we’…. This is a message, as is the case throughout this series of letters, to a community of believers; people held together even over considerable distances by their common faith and their conviction of the special relationship this created for each believer in God the Father, and through that with every other follower of Christ. We get the impression of tightly knit communities of believers joined together against the ‘world’. Not that the communities of Johannine Christians were revolutionaries, but, by the 80’s-90’s when he was writing, they were increasingly groups under pressure. It was their unity and solidarity over the Mediterranean which kept them going and allowed them to spread their faith in Jesus.  Community was, and continued to be, fundamental to their faith.

This message is backed up by our first reading from Acts – written at about the same time as both John’s gospel and his Letters. (Acts 4:32-35). “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul…” It is precisely because of this unity in faith and practice, this commonly held understanding of what Jesus’ life and death and resurrection had achieved, that they were able to be the great sharing and caring communities that they were. Acts goes on to speak of their financial and no doubt other forms of care exercised by each group, and this can only really be made sense of when we understand Jesus’ great prayer in John 17 that we be one precisely as He and the Father are one.

Some of you may be asking why it is that we no longer seem to have this near communistic understanding of the Christian life, and I do wonder if this somewhat idealistic picture was common everywhere even in the earliest days. What we do know is that Christians from very early on emphasised their worship together and their mutual care for each other, expressed in works of charity and almsgiving. To be a follower of Christ, it is absolutely essential that we meet together regularly for our corporate worship of the risen Lord in the Eucharist, and to meet as the community of carers and healers moulded in his image. To say we are Christians and not to go regularly to church is not merely an anachronism, it defies the reason for which he died.

Frances writes on the meaning of Easter :- For those of us who are over two thousand years from the resurrection it is easy to see why we might believe in Jesus as the Christ, the eternal Son of God for a variety of reasons. Not the least would be the fact that many of us are simply born into families of believers and take it all for granted. We might be attracted to the church for all sorts of reasons, our friends go there; we receive a lot of support and guidance and find the services congenial and the music uplifting. Many will be attracted by the great mix of people, both of different races and ages, and all in all, it seems a good place to be and furthermore, the church has a pretty good track record in helping the downtrodden.

 

We forget that for the first Christians, who had been followers of the human Jesus and had deserted him at his arrest and trial and had witnessed his terrible crucifixion, it was his return from the unthinkable – from death itself which was so miraculous and compelling. They, along with Jesus were the people of the resurrection. He came back from the dead, just as he had said he would and they witnessed to his real, bodily life among them again. Such a thing had never happened before and would never happen again.

 

For the writer of Luke/Acts (10:34.37-43) this was the critical point and the founding feature of their faith: Now we are those witnesses – we have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead – and he has ordered us to proclaim this to his people and to tell them that God has appointed him to judge everyone, alive or dead. In time there is no doubt that this event would be differently expressed, as for instance when we think of the great 4th and 5th century mosaics of Ravenna and the Byzantine world with their stunningly powerful Christ hanging over all in the apses of their churches as a great reminder of the power of God the creator and redeemer or we see it in reverse in the savagery of many medieval crucifixion scenes, but behind them all is this profound knowledge that this unique man came back from the dead.

 

Our reading from Colossians (3:1-4) emphasises the profound change wrought in the life of every believer by this knowledge and the faith it inspires: you have been brought back to true life with Christ…..when Christ is revealed – and he is your life – you too will be revealed in all your glory with him. The Christian is one who was not fully a human being prior to his/her recognition of the power of Christ revealed in the resurrection and now, that we have, our lives are lived in a totally new dimension, one moulded and shaped by Him. We are now human beings destined to share his eternal life, to become like him. Clearly the writer of Colossians be it Paul or one of his students was at pains to get the citizen Christians of Colossae to take on board the enormity of the change which had occurred in them by the power of the Holy Spirit when then took on Christ. Like many of us, perhaps they too tended to down play the  extent of the change and did not appreciate what it was to be ‘enchristed’, ‘for he is your life’, as significant as the air we breath; as the blood pulsing through our veins. Becoming a Christian is to take on the persona of Christ, to allow his being to fill and animate us every moment, and quite clearly for some, this became a living reality, as we see in the lives of the early martyrs.

 

But not all were called to die for the faith, and we know this was the case with St John, writer of the 4th gospel. (John 20:1-9). It appears he lived out his life into old age in Ephesus. So just how did he carry Christ , the risen and glorified Christ in his body every day of his life, since we know he was not killed for the faith? Perhaps the clue lies in that small phrase he saw and believed. It is the nature of his ‘seeing and believing’ that we need to explore. Other parts of his gospel speak of his closeness to the Lord, indicating that he had some real affinity with Our Lord’s teaching and was deeply attracted by his personality, as it appears Jesus may have been by his. There seems to have been some real meeting of minds and hearts here, which is perhaps why his gospel is so different from the synoptic accounts. John does not simply recount incidents in Jesus’ ministry and his teaching, though he does that, but it is the depth of his development of Jesus’ teaching on his relationship with God the Father and, central to that teaching the inclusion of us within that relationship which is so disturbing and deeply compelling. Reading john’s gospel is akin to participating in a very complicated dance or exploring a work of art of extraordinary complexity as John enters ever deeper into this great work of exploring who Jesus is and where we fit into this great art work with him. What john, the seer and believer does is invite us all to go on that great journey of daily exploration into the being of Jesus, the one the ‘Beloved disciple’ quite simply couldn’t get enough of and invites us to follow in his footsteps.

The ceremonies that begin our Easter Vigil remind us very vividly what Christian prayer is like. We stumble around in the dark. A fire of God is lit, but the light that we have received from it is one tiny flame that so easily might get blown out. We follow that light, but fearfully, as we worry whether we might trip over in the darkness. Then gradually, very gradually, we are given our own little light, only to be told to put it out and sit in semi darkness listening to strange passages from the ancient writings of the one we are trying to follow, our friend Jesus Christ. Yes, praying as a follower of Jesus is often like this, a struggle to follow the light and to keep on in the midst of a dark world.

But then comes the magic moment for me. The priest begins the Gloria, the bells ring, the lights come on, and the glory of the risen Jesus, alive and with us, reverberates in our minds and hearts. Yes, there are moments in our lives, in our prayer, when the glory and mystery of God suddenly and wonderfully becomes real for us. It can often be a moment that doesn’t last long – a beautiful sunset or dawn – a first glimpse of the sea or of some natural wonder – a tiny new baby or a toddler’s first steps – or the sudden realisation that we are in love.

But most of you know that for me God’s glory can also be found in the wonder of human invention, or in the magnificence of human care. I had one of those moments this Wednesday when Oxford station was transformed as a Steam engine puffed in as I was waiting to go to Birmingham. Glorious! Equally a great bridge or a magnificent building can speak of God at work in us. Engineers know that such things have a mathematical basis to their construction that underlies their solidity, a mathematics that is a given, that exists separate from us, which speaks of the glory of God.

Yes, it is in moments like these, that the light comes on – and if we are spiritually awake we can see and feel, if only for a moment, the wonder and the glory of God. I urge you to look for those moments in your life. Look back to those moments of joy and thank God for them. Sometimes they only come after, or in the midst, of a long period of darkness when God seems far away. Or they come like an oasis in the desert, where we can only stop for a short while before we press on. Indeed, for many people the reality of God only comes home to them when they have faced or are facing some great sadness or darkness in their lives. It is at times like this when they feel lost and alone, that someone or something speaks to them and brings them light. It is then that they know that God is real

The poet R.S.Thomas expresses this well in one of my favourite poems “The Bright Field”. Let me  read it to you.

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I was watching the funeral of Richard III the other day and was struck by the strange mixture of play-acting and reality that one saw there. Two men on horseback dressed up as medieval knights was a weird thing to see in front of a real coffin with a real body inside it. My Dominican friar friends sent me pictures of their procession through the streets of Leicester from their Church to the Cathedral. They were in their habits of course, and many watching might have thought that they too were like those medieval knights, just a few men play-acting. But of course, they weren’t play-acting. Whatever they looked like, they were for real. What they wore was what they wear every day, as they dedicate their lives to serving Jesus and preaching the message of his Gospel to the world.

We too, we at Mass today, will sometimes be seen by the world outside as play acting, as putting on a performance. There are even, sadly, some who come to Mass and see it like that – who come for the performance! But we know that this is not a performance, that this Mass, especially this Easter Mass, is underpinned by real prayer. Indeed, if Mass were not underpinned by prayer, prayer that can sometimes be a great struggle in the darkness, it would just be a performance. But this is real, real because we Christians make it so, we Christians have even died, and are still dying, because we follow Jesus. This is real because here at Mass we are bringing our real lives into the presence of God, so that we may live more fully for him. That is real.

Men dressed as medieval knights can get out of their armour and go home to their ordinary lives; but for us Christians what we do at Mass, and what we get from Mass, is part of our real life lived out in the service of God. What makes it real is yes, this faith, this real prayer deep from our hearts that we cannot put into words. But most of all what makes it real is the real heart-rending prayer of Jesus suffering at the hands of men, and dying on the cross.

Be careful. When we hear from our 2nd Reading (Colossians 3:1-4) that we “must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.” ;we must realise that we are meant to find these things of heaven here on earth in our ordinary lives. Indeed in another passage from the Easter and Ascension stories the friends of Jesus are told off by an angel for looking up into the skies. They are told firmly to find the risen and ascended Lord Jesus here and now in their ordinary lives.

We must look then for the glory of God all around us and within us, and often in unexpected ways. There is much darkness and sadness in the world, and in our lives, but the Christian message is that God is with us in the darkness as well as in the light, and if we wait and watch and pray, however feeble we may feel our faith to be, there will be moments of glory, glimpses of God, that are the reality that will support and strengthen us. Thus, in darkness or in light, whatever the world thinks of us, we will strive to serve God, shown to us in the suffering Jesus and in the risen Jesus, and so bring his love and his light to the world.

 

 

 

 Last night I reminded us all how easy it is to think that prayer is all about what we say to God, when actually prayer is most of all not talking but listening. As I often remind people, Jesus calls us his friends, and if I had a friend and I always talked about myself and never listened to what they wanted to tell me, they wouldn’t want to stay friends with me very long!

There are all sorts of ways of listening to God. Every time we realise how beautiful the world is, or how wonderful our loved ones are, we are listening to God ; and every time we realise there is something we can do to help someone, we are listening to God. However, it becomes much more difficult to listen to God when things start going wrong for us. I remember vividly how my prayer fell to pieces when my mother died. She was only 61 and I was devastated, and every time I tried to pray, the tears welled up and I just felt immense pain and sadness.  Of course weeping, if there is a good reason for it, is prayer;  but just by itself it can blot out everything else that I might want to share with God, or that God might want to say to me.

 

At the time then, all I could do was read the Bible, especially the Psalms, and read or follow the set prayers of the Church as at Mass. These had the power to hold me close to God when everything else seemed to be falling apart, and if one sheds tears at Mass, most people understand, for it is after all an appropriate place to weep.

 

In the end, I can look back now on this, and other moments of pain or confusion or sadness, and realise that even though I did not feel God close to me, he was in fact closer than I could ever know. I now know that God was at work when I could only sigh and weep, as St Paul says in the 8th Chapter of his Letter to the Romans, my favourite passage from the Bible . He writes “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”  (v.26)

 

Many great teachers on prayer say how important it is for us to realise this. St John of the Cross from 16thC Spain is best remembered for his teaching on what he called “the dark night of the soul”. He reminds his readers first that there are many good and lovely things to be gained from the easy side of prayer, provided they do not become an end in themselves. But he spends more time on what happens to people as they progress in prayer; for it is then that periods of darkness arrive, periods – often long periods – when the Christian loses the sense of the presence of God. He writes “The soul makes greater progress when it least thinks so, yea most frequently when it imagines that it is losing. The soul makes the greater progress when it travels in the dark, not knowing the way.”

 

Another writer on prayer, Augustine Baker, speaks of prayer in extreme old age. He recommends his readers to be prepared to find the purifying hand of God in the sordid illness of old age, in mental disturbance…. in simply finding oneself a nuisance… and so on. (See The Wound of Knowledge : Rowan Williams)

 

Finally, of course, there is that moment when we die. The moment when everything good that we have done, and all the links we have with our loved ones, appears to be dissolving into dust, into nothingness. The greatest of saints have found a final battle to fight here. My own patron, St Martin of Tours, saw the powers of evil as he died and, like the soldier he had first been, challenged them with his last breath, crying out, “You will find nothing of yours in me, you living death. I go to the arms of Abraham.” (From the Letters of Sulpicius Severus)

 

St Martin knew, as I hope we all know, that although death is, as St Paul calls it, “the last enemy” (1Cor 15:26) , there is one power who can defeat death for us, the power of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. And how do we know that Jesus has defeated death? Because he has been there. He has died on the cross willingly for us, and in doing so he has entered into death and defeated it.

 

That is why when we look at the cross, as we will do in a moment, we know that we are not just looking at a real and very sad event from the past. No we look not at a past event, but at an action by God which is eternal, which exists in every moment in time, an action which defeats death and brings us to eternal life. So we must look at the cross today, and see beneath the outward form the inner reality.

 

This is well expressed in a hymn that most of you probably know only too well – the hymn “Abide with me”. Sadly it is sung so often at funerals that the power of its words, taken from that great passage of St Paul from which I have already quoted, (1 Cor 15) often escapes us.  Look at the cross today and remember these words:-

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

 

 

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.