July 24, 2016
It is easy to forget that when Jesus taught us to call God “Father”, he did not mean Grandfather. I always get furious with people who think we Christians believe in a God who is like an old man – a grandfather with a beard – sitting on a cloud! No! What he wanted to share with us was that very special idea that God is very close to us and that through our brotherhood with Jesus we are drawn into the same closeness with God that he has. Listen to the prayer of Jesus just before he is arrested “I pray also for those who will believe in me.. that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
This doesn’t mean, of course, that God is so close to us that he is not far away beyond us as well. Jesus prayed regularly in the Synagogue and the Temple where God was always addressed in more formal ways, just as we all do when we say “Holy holy holy, Lord God Of hosts” during Mass. Indeed these are words Jesus knew well, as they are from the great prophet Isaiah’s vision of God, (6:3) a vision taken up by us Christians where we find it in the last book of the Bible as a vision of God in heaven (Rev 4:8)
It is only when we have something of that vision of God – a power quite beyond our understanding eternal and almighty – that we can feel something of the shock and the wonder of the teaching of Jesus, that this same God can also be approached as “Father”. Indeed in our Gospel today, (Luke 11:1-13) when Jesus teaches us to pray, he puts the two images of God side by side. “Say this when you pray : Father, may your name be held holy”
But our Gospel takes us further into the teaching of Jesus on the closeness of the Father with his story of the two neighbours. Our problem here is that we are so concerned with our own desire to pray better, that we concentrate on that aspect of the story; so we need to look more closely at the relationship between the two neighbours. Think about it! Nobody would have the nerve to go banging on their neighbour’s door late at night unless they knew them very well indeed. Jesus emphasises how inconvenient it is, by having the disturbed person cry out from inside the house, “Go away, we have all gone to bed.” By this time Jesus has all his listeners laughing. But then he takes the story further, for the man outside continues knocking and calling until .. finally.. his friend, with a sigh I guess, gives way and gets out of bed and gets him what he wants. Did you notice how I put in that word “friend” because that’s the point. That neighbour would never have got up unless they had actually been friends as well.
Remember that Jesus says in another place “I have called you friends”? (John 15:15) This is so important to him, he wants us to see God as our friend, to see God as someone whose door we would feel happy to knock on in the middle of the night. So God is not only a Father to us, but also the kind of father who we feel really comfortable with, the kind of father who we would be happy to phone up and chat to, even in the middle of the night. I know of one person who sometimes does this, and knows that her father is always happy to hear her voice and listen to her problems even if he is far away. We may not have a father like that, but we can imagine what it is like, and that is the God that Jesus gives us, as he calls us to be his friends, and thus the friends of God.
We might end by looking at what we are given if we do pray like that. We might think that Jesus is teaching us that if we persist in prayer we will get what we want. But that is not what he says. He says “If you then… know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Did you hear that? What God will give us if we persist in prayer is not what we ask for but himself as Holy Spirit. In other words he will fill us with his strength and his wisdom and it is that which will answer our prayer. We may not get what we want, but what we will get is his even closer presence to guide us and probably show us that what we were asking for is not necessarily the riht thing for us.
I remember when I was in great pain in hospital asking God again and again to take away the pain so I could sleep. Finally I realized that I was going to have to live with the pain at least for a while, and instead of crying out for relief, I had to simply relax in his presence. and in that knowledge manage that living with the pain that I did not really want. God sometimes answers prayer this way. It may be hard but if God is with us, we can and will manage.
July 21, 2016
Frances writes on Sunday’s readings :- There is a wonderful journey of discovery of the nature of God laid out in our readings for this week. In them we move from an Old Testament view, and a very early one at that, in which the divinity can both create and destroy, and is willing to do so and, in the minds of his followers, on a colossal basis. In our Readings, we move forward to St Paul’s ecstatic and refined ideas about our relationship with God and his purpose for us.
I always love the Genesis (18:20-32) picture of the relationship between God and humanity set out for us in the discussion on the proposed destruction of the city of Sodom. In this picture we meet Abraham, the Father of the Jewish people, arguing for the preservation of the people and the city like a haggler in a souk, reducing the bill from 50 down to 10; and we see that eventually Abraham ‘saves’ the city from the supposed wrath and destructive power of God. Sadly it appears that most of us have not moved on in our understanding of God, for a surprisingly great number of us still seem to think that evil, death, destruction and grief come from God. This is a dualist view and is not in fact what Abraham actually learns about God at all. What he really discovers is that God is merciful, and merciful to just and unjust alike. The reputation of Sodom was apparently horrendous in antiquity, if we are to believe our Genesis stories about it, and yet we find that a God, who reveals himself as caring and merciful, refuses to destroy the city despite its bad behaviour. Perhaps therefore the story is an allegory for the entire Jewish people, who the patriarch realised had little to commend them from their personal behaviour, but were nevertheless beloved of God and therefore are preserved, despite their lousy morals and their continual flouting of God’s will.
In our Gospel (Luke 11:1-13) we have a tiny insight into where this teaching from Genesis led some people. We are still in a Middle Eastern, haggling society where bargaining usually pays dividends. In this parable Our Lord gives us this as a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, a form of address and interaction between people and God in which our closeness to him is stressed as God becomes not a remote and fearsome deity but an accessible and close ‘Father’, indicating precisely the nature of this relationship and the confidence within which we can approach the divine. In his brief and yet staggeringly revelatory career, Jesus quite literally blew apart Israel’s carefully guarded ideas about God, centred as they were on the keeping of hundreds of rules and temple sacrifice. Clearly it was his absolute conviction that God not only loves his creation, and humanity within it, but will bear with the faults in our perception of his way for us. His insistence is that God wants us to have a close relationship with the divine, one so close that the rules and the things humans bring in to bar us from communication and absolute openness to God will be thrown down. In pursuance of this goal Jesus gives in his commentary a radical and new and daring prayer to God.
Imagine he says, for a moment, if God were like your neighbour and friend, and in the middle of the night you need to go and scrounge some loaves off him to feed a late visitor. Probably your friend will be a bit put out, everyone is in bed and you have disturbed the household. Yet you refuse to be rejected and persist in your request for bread until finally he relents – more to shut you up and get some rest than out of any great care for you or your late visitors. This, in a nutshell, is our relationship with God .We can always ask him, and know that our repeated and often desperate prayers will be answered. Perhaps behind it all is something of the endless alertness of God and of his continual outreach and compassion to an unworthy humanity – but that is not what matters.
St Paul, writing to the Christians of Colossae in South West Turkey around 53 AD, gives us a real insight into the stunning effect of the life and death of Jesus, the Son of God, upon the beliefs and thinking of one special group of Christians, who at that early date still had very strong links with Judaism. Gone here are the great divisions separating God and humanity. For the Jesus event has quite simply brought God and human beings face to face, up close and personal, and things can never be the same again. Our Jerusalem Bible translation rather loses the finesse of the connection with its phrases “You have been buried with Christ….when you were raised…brought back to life”. All of these phrases suggest something done to us, something from which we stand apart. But what the Greek actually says is that we are “co-buried”, “co-raised” and “co-quickened” with Christ. In Him, through Him and by Him we are totally remade, reformed, refashioned into christs.
It is when we realise precisely to whom this letter was in part at least addressed, that its amazing and powerful significance emerges. In 213 BC one of the heirs of Alexander the Great resettled Jews from Babylon in the then Province of Lydia, which included the cities of the Lycus/Meander Valley, including Colossae. Subsequently we know that there were significant numbers of Jews in this Diaspora, and Paul and his missionary colleagues were at great pains to bring home to such people precisely the enormity of the shift in relationship Jesus brought between God and humanity. Now no longer is any division to be found between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and therefore with privileged in access to God and the uncircumcised. Christ, God in human form, has smashed such notions apart and, one with us, one of us, Jesus has by his death on the cross made absolutely certain that all of us, all alike, are made to be one with God. Nothing now stands in our way or, putting it in very Roman terms, the records of our debts (sins) are nailed to Christ’s cross. His death is the answer to all that stands in the way of our relationship with the Father, and he himself has paid all our debts. Truly we are free! His so human and so mangled body, a picture of you and me in the snare of our sins, is lifted and quite simply done away with. You and I now meet God face to face. We have come a very long way from Abraham and haggling. Something of which we need continually to be aware.
July 17, 2016
It is important to realise that when Jesus criticises Martha in today’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) he isn’t saying she shouldn’t cook the dinner for him and the other guests. No. What he is concerned about is the fact that she is so worried about it all that she has missed the point of doing it. Someone I know said, “Oh I used to be just like that, fussing that the house was clean and the dinner was perfect and getting stressed for no good reason.”
But cooking and cleaning are not the only things people can get obsessed about. Think of something you love doing – watching and talking about football or some other sport – playing some game on the computer – or watching a particular programme on the TV. Now God is very happy for us to enjoy things. Look how shocked the holy people in the time of Jesus were, when he kept on going off to parties and having meals with some not very proper people. But everything we do must be done for God. What I mean by this is that when we are doing the thing we enjoy, we must know why we are doing it. As Christians, everything we do is meant to be done for God, and that must include not just the more serious things, like helping other people, and praying for them and for ourselves, but also the fun things that we do.
Let’s take football, or some other sport, as an example, and before those of you who don’t like football or any sport sigh and turn off, let me tell you that I rarely watch it and have hardly ever played it except when I was made to at school! But as Christians we have to work out what is the relationship between football and God? In other words, does God approve of football? The answer must lie in deciding what is football for? Well it fulfils a number of roles. It makes many people happy either playing it or watching it. Indeed for many very poor people struggling with life, football can be a very welcome distraction from their misery. It helps to keep people fit, and to play together as a team. It encourages people to enjoy something together, to shout and laugh and sigh. Surely all these things, God wants. God doesn’t want us to be dull. He made us to fill the world with happiness and laughter, to make a world where people work and play together as friends. He gives us ways through sport of supporting our country against others without going to war, to create a friendly rivalry that spurs people on to be the best they can.
But if football becomes an obsession, if someone neglects his family and his friends because all he is doing is watching it, or analysing the results, or worrying about how his team is doing, and so on, then he is like Martha, isn’t he… or occasionally she? Jesus will say to him or her – You are worrying and fretting about this, and in the process you are missing the point of life.
St Benedict, whose day we celebrated last week taught his monks that they must have a balance in their lives. They must work and pray and rest. Rest here means not just sleep, but any kind of relaxation, though I am pretty certain his monks never played football! So anyone who works all the time, or prays all the time and never rests, never has any relaxation, is not actually doing the will of God. But a lazy person who sits around enjoying himself all day and never works or prays would also be failing God. Each of us must have a balance in our lives, and we do that by trying to remember that everything we do, whatever it is, should be done for God, should be something that God wants us to do.
Let’s go back to Martha now, entertaining Jesus. A famous TV chef once said that when you entertain people you should aim to cook something that does not leave you in the kitchen all the time stressed out at getting the meal right, because if you do, you have missed the point. That was Martha’s problem and that is why Jesus told her she was wrong. To put it another way, St Paul tells us in the 2nd Reading (Col 1 :24-28) that we must remember the mystery that we believe is at the heart of life – “The mystery is Christ among you – your hope of glory.” How easily we can get fussed about the outward things and not realise God’s presence in everything good we do. Some of us can get obsessed like Martha with how we entertain, or like my example can get obsessed about football, but we can also get obsessed about getting our prayer right, or our work. As St Paul says a little later in this letter to Colossians (Col 3:23) “ Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters”
July 14, 2016
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I often think this Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) is the bête noire of most hosts or hostesses! There we are, trying our best to feed and satisfy our guests, and all we get is a load of flack. One’s sympathy is all with the unfortunate Martha and irritation felt towards Mary, and even Jesus. Perhaps the wisest solution is the one I once gleaned from a famous TV cook who said “Remember, your friends have come to see you, do something manageable rather than trying to impress them.” Yet there still remains the difficulty of actually getting them fed, and the need for nipping to the kitchen and the pauses in conversation that brings about.
Interestingly enough, the compliers of our lectionary, whether knowingly or otherwise, have given us a passage from Genesis (18:1-10) in which Abraham entertains an angelic/divine figure or three figures; it is uncertain as there is number slippage here; and in which he finds the solution. In this passage we see Abraham the ‘Father’ of the nation in full paternalistic flight. He certainly has no necessity to dash off to the kitchen, for he commands everything, servants, wife, and operations, and in so doing fulfils all the laws of hospitality perfectly. Sarah his wife is merely the passive recipient of his orders and stuck in seclusion in the tent. Yet the upshot of all this welcoming and feasting is that the heavenly guest promises a son to Sarah, and this child is only given we would discover if we read on from the actual text, after Abraham has learned some significant lessons, about the nature of his authority and the need for truthfulness in his dealings with others in the countryside in which they pass through, a lesson he repeatedly ignores. In a tight spot, don’t chicken out and pass your wife off as your sister and therefore available to any despot whose territory you happen to traverse. The question arises then as to whether simply following the time honoured customs about hospitality and social convention are the most important things; something which we know Jesus frequently and knowingly ignored.
Are we then to find the solution to our dilemma in St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians? (Cols 1:24-28) Those who know Paul well will be aware that in the opening of some of his letters he describes himself as the Servant or rather Slave of Christ, and we might expect this term to appear here too “I became the servant of the Church…. ” But this is not the case. The word here is “diakonos”, meaning “minister” or rather identifying his purpose or office, and the term significantly also used in our Gospel for Martha.
Paul has become the bearer of the great revealed mystery to the pagans, “Christ among you, your hope of glory.” For Paul, it was the knowledge that he had been given this mind-blowing message of the revelation of Christ to humanity, and of our ultimate destiny in him, which surpasses everything else, indeed, which even makes his own sufferings on Christ’s behalf as nothing. Last week our reading from this same letter was the recitation of that great hymn about Christ as the “Image of the unseen God”, the ultimate creator and the one who is greater than any worldly or heavenly powers. We just rather take all that for granted, but if we could imagine the impact of those words on a pagan audience, which lived in fear of the demonic powers; fearful of marauding tax officials from the Emperor; terrified of the diseases which frequently ravaged entire populations; not to mention famines and earthquakes, such news that God himself had come down to earth as a human being and shared our lot, ultimately dying to unite us to himself eternally, would have had an enormous impact. His aim, according to the hymn, is to reconcile the entire created order to Christ, and that everything be at peace. Such a message would have been a miracle, opening a whole new understanding of the divine to the people of Colossae. The fact that Paul deliberately twice uses the term ‘mystery’, in an age of mystery cults which had nothing to do with the human lot, is significant. Here at last are the hidden depths of the one creator God laid bare and shared with the entire humanity, in Christ and through the service of Paul.
Is it then that Martha, whom we know also from John’s gospel at the raising of Lazarus to have shared her grief with Jesus equally with her sister Mary, is she simply just used as a foil at this point by Luke? Significantly, he interjects this tiny and troubling passage in-between the stories of the Good Samaritan, a type of Christ, (for he risks his own life for the Jew he saves), and Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer and the repercussions which follow, when Jesus casts out a demon and is accused of working with the devil. In other words, is our problem one more of the way modern people read an ancient text, which of course originally had no punctuation or chapters? The modern divisions we give certainly help us to reference material and find our way, but they do bring artificial breaks to the text. Are we meant to see Martha’s irritation with her service, her diaconal duties, as Our Lord’s criticism of anything which gets in the way of a true attentiveness to God, and no comment actually on Martha at all? She would stand in such a scenario in Luke for anything which got in the way of the Gospel and as such, we need to take it to heart, be it a rap over the knuckles to fussy liturgists, or any one else. God knows, there’s a lot of it about.
July 10, 2016
It’s easy to forget, when we read stories from the Bible, that Jesus wants us to think less about ourselves and what we should be like, and much more about God and what he is like, and how he can and does help us in various ways. The story of the Good Samaritan from today’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) is a good example of this. We tend to concentrate on the last words, “Go and do the same yourself.” Doing this, we easily miss the other more important point about what God is like – in this story that God is like a Good Samaritan to us. We may not be very good at loving and caring for people who are strangers or foreigners, but God cares for everyone whoever they are and whatever they are like, even for people that others have long given up on.
The question we may well ask when we hear this message is how does God help me. Often people tell me “I prayed and prayed for help Father, but no help has appeared.” The answer to this is not an easy one to give, because it is one we may not want to hear. Perhaps God is helping you, indeed perhaps God is at work in you now, but not in the way you expected. Deep down we would all like God to work in a magic way – I make a wish…a prayer.. and it all comes true. But actually true prayer is not like that at all. True prayer is opening ourselves up to the ways of God.
When I was a priest for a hospital, I remember visiting on ward where I got to know the nurse in charge very well. She didn’t believe in God, so once she got to know me, she was able to pose the hard question. She pointed towards all the sick people on her Ward and said, “So, where is your God in all this?” On this occasion I found the right reply straight away. “God is in you.” I said “As you care for each one of them in such a splendid way. God is in you.”
That’s the first point the Good Samaritan story makes. We might expect to see God at work in the priest or in the Levite – that’s the equivalent of a good church-going person. They are the sort of people who often do good, and we might well see God at work in them. But instead in this story, God is found at work in the Samaritan who is the hated foreigner with a different religion. So the answer to our prayer may come in unexpected ways and through unexpected people, and we must be careful not to be so concentrated on what we think the correct answer to our prayer will be, that we miss God helping us in a different way.
The other point the story makes relates to the condition of the man being helped. He’s described as “half-dead”. Indeed, that’s probably why the other two didn’t help him. They thought he was dead, and were scared of touching a dirty dead body, so they “passed by on the other side.” We know that he was still alive, because we know the end of the story, and my guess is that he was unconscious. So when the Samaritan helped him and took him somewhere to be cared for, the man may not have known who was helping him. Think of him eventually becoming fully conscious at the inn where he is now in a nice clean bed being looked after. He asks who helped him, and is astonished, even shocked, when the innkeeper tells him that the man who rescued him, and has paid for him to be looked after is “a Samaritan.”
Surely that’s the same for us. Often it’s only later, when we look back on a time in our lives when things were hard, at times when we prayed and prayed for help, and nothing seemed to happen. But now, looking back, we can see how God was at work, helping us, but in ways that we were not aware of at the time. We were in a way “unconscious”. We were “half-dead”. Indeed St Paul actually says to the Christians at Colossae “When you were dead in your sins… God made you alive with Christ.” Often our own selfishness makes us unconscious of what God can do in our lives. We look for help in the wrong way, but looking back we can now see that God did help us, but in his way and in his time.
It reminds me of the story of the man who thought that God only worked in magic ways, so when he was drowning he prayed for this magic hand of God to come down and save him, and instead he died. In heaven he said to God indignantly “Why didn’t you help me when I was drowning?” and God replied. “But I sent you help and you refused it. I sent you a life-saver but you refused his help. I sent you a lifeboat and you refused their help. I sent you a helicopter and you sent it away. In each case you told them you knew that God would help you so you didn’t need them, and so you drowned.”
So let’s keep our eyes open for the unexpected ways and for unexpected people For this is the way God often works.
July 7, 2016
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings : In our Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus poses a number of questions. In our account it was to a lawyer, one schooled in Jewish religious law and its minutiae, one concerned, as were the Pharisees that the individual achieved ‘righteousness’ a perfect relationship with God. Fundamentally, Jesus did not disagree with the lawyer, but realised that in practise things were much more complicated than might appear on the surface. In confronting these issues, he borrowed from a tale in the Babylonian Talmud which reflected on 2 Kings 37 and which went back to the Babylonian Captivity of the 6th century BC. In that story ‘the good rescuer’ was a Babylonian, a pagan and one of the occupying enemy. The fact that this story had been passed down through the centuries indicates precisely what a problem ideas of Jewish purity and their interpretations of the law incurred. What is of ultimate importance in salvation; my own purity, or my outreach to others in which my ‘purity’ may become hopelessly compromised? Jesus, no more than the sages of the past, was willing to let his own people off the hook.
The Jerusalem Bible translation softens the lawyer’s intent by its use of ‘disconcert’, whereas the Greek actually says tempt or trap. He is intent on lining Jesus up with sinners, lawbreakers, and on bringing a case against him which will ultimately lead to his death. But Jesus, as we know from Luke 9:53, was already resolutely set on going to Jerusalem and his passion. That passion would be for the salvation of the world, and in this ancient story, reworked by Jesus, I think we find a small passion drama, hints and glimmers of what is to come. First of all I think we cannot possibly assume that travellers, such as temple priests going or returning from their stint of service in the temple, travelled this notorious route between Jerusalem and Jericho alone. There is a community, a community of rejecters involved too. In such cases, the priest and the Levite, (a temple assistant) quite deliberately made decisions against risking ritual contamination and the need for purification this might involve for themselves and their companions. We note that in both cases, they kept well clear of the victim, not even approaching him, a feature so reminiscent of the behaviour of the Jewish hierarchy in our passion gospels, and exploited to the full in John’s gospel. By contrast, the victim is described in graphic detail as stripped, severely beaten and deprived of all his possessions, and finally left as half dead; a set of images of Jesus during his passion. It is then natural that Jesus borrows from the ancient tale, but places a despised Samaritan not a Babylonian as the rescuer/redeemer of the victim. Indeed, he even pays for the man’s lodging, and promises more if necessary to prevent his becoming enslaved for non payment of his debts. Perhaps then we have a short vignette of the atonement here, not just a story with a moral clout, as we traditionally give it in the modern West.
This whole question of the value or otherwise of the law and the salvation it may or may not bring; (here always religious law, since there was no distinction for Israel) is raised in our reading from Deuteronomy (30:10-14). On the surface, it all looks so simple – ‘pay up and you will be saved’. Yet Deuteronomy is centuries later than Moses and was the work of the priestly reformers under Josiah, just before the Babylonian invasions, at a time when things had got very slack, and even Passover – that central and pivotal celebration of the nation’s being – was not being observed. This book then is the King’s reformist policy and a wake up call to his nation. One might see it as a desperate plea, issued more in hope than certainty, a call for clarity and action when things were going very wrong and the writing was on the wall.
Such was St Paul’s plight when he wrote from prison in Ephesus to the Christians of Colossae, (Col 1:15-20) up the Meander River, and the home of Philemon and the hapless Onesimus. Clearly is was quite possible that Paul would have been executed at that point, and so, instead of any adherence to the Jewish law, he threw all his hopes on the risen, glorified Christ, reiterating here a hymn he had learnt from a Christian community he knew. Significantly, given the circumstances of his incarceration he defiantly and insistently ascribes the powers that may have brought about his detention, and those under whom he was detained, “Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties and Powers”, as part of Christ’s creative work and ultimately subject to him. Paul is therefore confident and certain that whatever happens to him personally, Christ’s work of ‘reconciling the universe to God’ will ultimately be achieved. He has this great sense then, not of his own importance, or of his own righteousness or purity, but rather that he, along with all Christians, had irrevocably thrown in their/our lot with Christ – and that is all that matters.
July 3, 2016
Have you ever wondered what we mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come”? In the Gospel today we heard Jesus tell his disciples to proclaim “The kingdom of God is very near”, and it makes us ask the same question – we talk about the kingdom but what does it actually all mean?
Let’s remind ourselves first what we mean by God. God is the invisible power that is present everywhere, from deep within the earth itself right out to the furthest reaches of the universe. So God is the power of life in each one of us. Breathe in and out and wonder at the life within you! Nothing would exist and nothing would be alive if God were not in some way within it.
This is surely what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom of God is very near. Too many people think of God as a faraway force – an immense power yes – but very distant from us. Jesus wants us to realise that although God IS a very powerful distant force, quite impossible for us to understand, quite impossible for us to see, yet God is also very very close to us, and through him, through Jesus, we can understand what God is like and how much he loves us. “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son… has made him known. (John 1:18)
But if the kingdom of God just means the presence of God, and that presence is very near, why do we need to pray “Thy kingdom come”? I think the answer is that God does not force his presence on us, instead God has given us a part to play in making his presence known. We do that in a number of ways taught us by Jesus. First of all, we make his presence known every time we show love and kindness to other people. The Bible tells us that “God is love and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them” (John 4:16)
But secondly Jesus has given us a very special way of bringing God even closer to us than we could ever imagine. He took some bread and wine and said “This is my Body. This is my Blood” and in another place he says “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” (John 6:54) This is why the Mass is so wonderful, for not only are we taught within Mass about how important it is to show God’s presence to others by acts of love and kindness, but we are also given his focussed presence through Holy Communion to help and support us in doing the good things he wants us to do.
Can I explain that word “focussed” by telling you about a rather naughty thing I used to do when I was a child? On a nice sunny day, I would get a magnifying glass, and a bit of newspaper, and I would hold the glass above the paper so that the sunlight was pinpointed on it. Then, quite quickly, the paper would catch light and I would have a tiny fire. That is what focussed means. I focussed the sunlight on the paper and it made it so hot it set it on fire. Light, sunlight, is like God. Indeed we are told “God is light”. (1 John 1:5) Sunlight is everywhere even when it is cloudy, as it often seems to be in England, but sunlight, like the presence of God can be focussed. When we focus God’s presence in this way, then God’s power can be shown.
This is what happens when the priest, on our behalf, does what Jesus told us to do, and focusses God’s presence for us in and through the bread and wine. But then it is up to us to use that focussed presence to bring his presence into the world by acts of love and kindness. His presence in and through Holy Communion is not a magic spell to put everything right for us ; but it a power that we can use, if we want to.
So when we pray “Thy kingdom come”, we are asking God to help us to make his presence real in our lives and in those around us. It is a bit like electricity present in our house. It is no good to us unless we plug in and switch on. We plug in to the power and presence of God every time we come to Mass and receive Communion. We switch on every time we use that power and presence that we have been given to help others in some way, and when we do that we are doing our bit to bring the Kingdom of God nearer. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, every day, in us, Lord God.
June 30, 2016
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- The great danger, either with referenda or ancient foreign policies, is or was that they induce people to think in terms of phantasy worlds – everything will be all right now! This of course is absolute rubbish. When 3rd Isaiah (66:10-14) wrote his ecstatic song of the joys of returning to Jerusalem of those whose ancestors had been exiled by the Babylonians, he paints a wonderful but totally unrealistic picture -“That you may be suckled, filled with her consoling breast, that you may savour with delight her glorious breasts.” – and peace will be like a stream in spate -Jerusalem would be the glory of the nations. What a load of old cobblers! In fact, Jerusalem was a shabby ruin and its temple smashed to bits and of course, the country was filled with the foreigners put there by the Babylonians. You might say that those who opted to stay back in Babylon were the real ones to savour prosperity, education and the delights of civilisation.
When Luke was writing his Gospel (Luke 10:1-12.17-20) Jesus sends his disciples out as missionaries with a much more realistic and pragmatic sense of the world in which they are to preach the Good News of the kingdom; and he is altogether more aware of the way they need to present themselves to their listening public. Far from coming as powerful, wealthy and reforming visitors from distant parts, with a message to impose on others less fortunate, they are sent out like Lambs among wolves”. They are to be utterly vulnerable. Indeed, as they are told to carry no purses, no haversacks or sandals, they appear to be sent out as beggars, dependent on the generosity of the natives, rather than as having some superior knowledge or power to impart. Contrary to Isaiah’s spurious vision of wealth, power and riches (all that metaphor of breasts), it is by their very vulnerability, their own need, that the disciples will attract others to the Gospel.
Now it is true that Jesus attracted followers to his teaching by way of healing and miracles of feeding; but the setting surely of such events is almost always communal, situations where he meets people and responds to their needs: communities of mourners; families with sick members. Even when people are solitary, as in the case of Zacchaeus the tax man, or John’s Samaritan woman at the well, it is precisely their need for community which is actually addressed. The Kingdom is a place of sharing and giving, and Jesus, we note, wheedles himself into their homes and communities precisely by making apparent his own needs, a bed for the night or food and drink to sustain himself and his lagging followers. This is to be the pattern of future ministry too, as we see Jesus instruct his disciples to eat what they are given and, perceptively, ‘Do not move from house to house’. In other words, do not reject the simple and humble first offers when something better comes along later, remember the society in which you are staying and do not think to embarrass the poor, or be preferential to the better off.
What stands out is the urgency for the coming of the Kingdom of God displayed in this short Gospel passage. Twice we are told “The Kingdom of God is near.” Generations of people have chewed over what Jesus meant by this statement, along with his remark “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven”, and consider that it is all about an imminent eschaton and the end of the world, or some such phenomena. But if we stop to consider the context of all this, and where we are in Luke’s account of Jesus’ story, surely all becomes rather clearer. We have already witnessed the Transfiguration. (Lk 9:28-36) We have already had Jesus’ great predictions of his passion and the feeding of the 5000, so redolent as it is of the Eucharist with its three great consecration verbs, took, blessed and broke. We have already been told (9:53) that Jesus was resolutely heading for Jerusalem and his passion. If what we have come to believe about him subsequently – that he has redeemed us from sin and restored us to a proper relationship with the Father – is true, then there can be no doubt that the Kingdom of God has come in his person and his sacrificial life. The sadness for Jesus lay in the fact that so many Jews, his own people, would not follow him, as seen in his crotchety rebuke of the towns of Israel and omitted from our Gospel passage today.
It was into this mission to the Gentiles, (Galatians 6:14-18) pagan converts to the faith, that St Paul flung himself with such magnificent and wild abandon, travelling in all some 10,000 miles, often on foot. It was to be a slow and arduous mission, as archaeologists of South/Central Turkey point out to this day, and Paul, like his Lord, suffered willingly for the gospel many beatings and other problems, including defamation of his character. There is no doubt that on rare occasions he met with wealth and real financial support on his travels, but by and large, it was his willingness to live alongside those he wished to convert to the gospel that won through in the end. Clearly those of us who refuse to identify with those we would convince will in the end be doomed to failure.
June 26, 2016
Let us remember, as we approach the Feast of SS.Peter & Paul, that when Jesus gives Peter, and thus gives us, the keys of the kingdom, it’s rather like that moment when we move into a house of our own for the very first time. Suddenly we have the joy of organising things just as we want them, and deciding who we will invite in, and who we will leave on the doorstep. But the problem is that however much fun it is to have a home of our own, or a country of our own, it also brings with it a lot of big problems. There’s no-one else to pay the bills, or to organise repairs when inevitably something goes wrong with the building. Think of the people in the past few years who have had their houses flooded. We know how dreadful we would feel if something like that happened to us., so having your own home can sometimes be very tough indeed!
As with our own home, so with our life as Christians, there is both great joy but also heavy responsibilities involved. That’s precisely why Jesus in our Gospel today (Luke 9:51-62) points out how hard it is to follow him. I don’t think he means us to take him literally when he says, “Leave the dead to bury their dead”or “No-one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” but he certainly means us to realise how demanding it really is to be a Christian, and that hard things will be required of us.
Our world doesn’t really like messages of this kind. We tend to vote for selfish reasons. We elect politicians who make us feel good and charge us less taxes. We want to help the poor of the world, but not in a way that will make us less well-off. We worry about climate change and environmental pollution, but we don’t really want to change our lifestyle if it will make us less comfortable. And on life issues, which we were thinking about last Sunday here in the UK, many people will “say” that every baby is precious, and indeed if they have an early miscarriage will mourn their loss, yet faced with a baby in the womb that the Doctors say will cause them difficulties, they will then take the Doctors recommendation, what they think of as the easy option, of an abortion….. although it will be politely called a “termination.”
I think another problem is that if we do choose to do something hard, we do it for a greater pleasure in the future. Basically we are therefore still ruled by a pain/pleasure ethic, even if the pleasure has to be won through a bit of pain. We are like someone who is keen on sport and who is prepared to be put through hard training, training that really hurts, but all for the greater prize and pleasure of doing well, even winning, later on. Thus the basic principle is then ultimately selfish, “Will it give me pleasure eventually?”, rather than “Is it the right thing to do?”
St Peter fell into that trap too didn’t he? So we mustn’t think we are immune from it. He acclaims Jesus as the Christ, but then almost immediately tries to stop Jesus when he starts saying that the Christ must suffer and die. Notice that Jesus is quite brutal with him for thinking that way, as he will be with us. “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus knows that this avoidance of pain is lurking in every human heart, yours and mine, and so although in other places he shows his compassion for us sinners, he also makes it clear that it is an attitude to life that needs confronting head on.
Paul too in our 2nd reading (Galatians 5:1.13-18) has to be equally tough with Christians in Galatia who think that “liberty” means doing all the things you like that make you happy. He has to be very stern with them – “You were called to liberty; but be careful or this liberty will provide an opening for self indulgence” and then he tells us how we should use our Christian liberty – “Serve one another rather, in works of love.”
Now I don’t want us to think that we should not enjoy ourselves and do pleasurable things. Far from it, but we must not let pleasure rule our decision making. Faced with the very human temptation to seek pleasure – to be self-indulgent – Paul tells us to open ourselves to God the Holy Spirit. He wants us, as he says a few lines later (but sadly not in our text today or next week) to pray for the Spirit to give us the things we need to be really good Christians. Some of you will remember this list of the fruits of the spirit – things we certainly need to pray for – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22) If we really want to follow Jesus and do God’s will whatever, then we need to pray regularly for the Holy Spirit to give us these things, so that we may have the courage we need to face anything for God.
June 23, 2016
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- In our readings, from the Book of the Kings (1Kings 19:16.19-21) and our Gospel (Luke 9:51-62) we are entering two very different worlds. The first, from Kings is about an ancient Iron Age society of kings and powerful prophets, of warfare and political coups. The second, our Gospel, is about Jesus’ outreach to people and the very different requirements and demands this makes upon us.
In Kings, we see Elijah the Prophet acting as kingmaker and deciding who is fit to rule and who not. Quite clearly he and his followers were pretty disillusioned with the House of Omri and Ahab its latest ruler in Samaria, the Kingdom of Israel, at a time when Judah and Israel were two separate states. Ahab had adopted Baalism, and many in Israel had turned away from worship of the God of Israel. Elijah and his supporters clearly sided with the Arameans/Syrians in a period of general upheaval in the Near East, and planned a coup to unseat these kings and replace them with others more to their taste. Our reading from 1 Kings omits the first part of the story where he anoints other kings to rule the Arameans and Israelites, and clearly had a hand in promoting the rise to the throne of Hazael who seized Syria by murdering its reigning king. The account of the selection of Elisha as his successor as prophet in Israel is part of this story. Clearly the young man came from a wealthy family, from the details of the twelve yoke of oxen. In an action reminiscent of the Ruth-Boaz story, we find that Elijah claims the young Elisha as his by throwing his cloak over him, and he apparently cannot refuse this summons. Appropriately respectful, he organises a feast, cooking two of the oxen, and then formally bids farewell to his parents. Now he belongs to Elijah. I am sure our translation, “For have I done anything to you.” is totally misleading – he has in fact done a great deal, taking this man from his family to be in effect his son, and heir to the prophetic tradition. We are in a world of very carefully placed gestures, laws and ways of behaving, attitudes which were fixed and could not be broken.
In our Gospel however, we enter a much more fluid and chancy situation, and one in which Jesus deliberately refrains from forcing anyone’s hand in the risky matter of faith in him and the exploration of its meaning. Hence, he is quite content to accept the rejection of an entire Samaritan village and simply moves on. His disciples would have preferred to zap the lot, in a typical Old Testament act of vengeance or honour killing for such a slight. This Jesus firmly rejects. He also rejects the wavering and uncertain follower who is clearly attracted from the wrong motives, presumably because he expected the disciples to be housed and fed along the way, and would soon give up when things got tough. Similarly with the person wanting to follow later “Once I’ve attended to my familial responsibilities.” Here we see someone careful and calculating, possibly without passion for the Gospel, and almost certainly unwilling to follow the radical way of Jesus, and the same appears true of the final vignette with the man who is rejected for saying he wants to say good-bye to his family. It is clearly not that Jesus had a down on friends and families, or on human needs and our obligations to others, far from it, as the Gospel accounts of his interventions continually demonstrate. What does seem to be the case is his requirement that a passion and a commitment for the Good News of the Kingdom of God fire their bellies. True, Jesus knows that they may all do a runner at the crucifixion, but he had a sense that they had enough understanding ultimately to put aside their day jobs, and devote themselves unrestrainedly to the gospel, to his way and that is what he wanted.
This is about being able to think for one’s self, to set aside the beliefs one has grown up with, and the social norms of the day. That was and is what mission is about. It was what St Paul was about too, and why, in writing to the Galatians (Gal 5:1.13-18) against those who would persuade the Christians to adopt Judaism and all its rules, he was so insistent on a law-free way of faith. Put quite simply, their one rule was the law of love, of putting others before self and one’s own needs and values, what he here calls self-indulgence. In Greek they are sarx, attitudes of the flesh, by way of contrast Jesus, through Paul, urges each and every Christian to think carefully and critically about his/her actions in the light of the life of Jesus, and to act accordingly.