Trinity 3 (17.6.2018)
Did anyone watch the Super Eagles’ game last night? That’s the Nigerian national football team, for those of you who aren’t (yet) infected with World Cup fever. Pity about the result.
One of the things about sport that I notice more and more as I get older (especially now I have a son who is a qualified football referee) is how much more technical it has become: how much more focused on “stats”. Not just obvious things like “number of goals” or “number of fouls” or “number of red/yellow cards”, but things like “shots on target” and “passes completed” – even “metres run” by each player on the pitch. And it isn’t just sport. We seem to have arrived at a way of looking at the world which says “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.” Schools and colleges – even universities – find themselves in “league tables” shaped by the exam results of their pupils. Hospitals – certainly in the UK, I don’t know whether this is also true of Italy – hospitals are ranked according patient through-put and clinical “success rates”. Farmers measure their land by how much fertilizer and weed-killer they put on it in relation to the size of the crop they harvest.
It was, as today’s Gospel reminds us, all very different in the world which Jesus knew. Farmers in first-century Palestine didn’t do the kind of maths that farmers in Europe do today. They didn’t work how much fertiliser to spread, or how much pesticide and herbicide to spray on their fields. They scattered the seed. They ploughed it in. After that it was up to God. Like the one in the story Jesus told, every peasant farmer in Palestine would scatter his seed and then “sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” All he could do was pray that God would bless him with a crop large enough to feed his family, to pay his taxes, and to leave him with seed for sowing the next year. Then it was simply a matter of waiting until the crop was ready for harvest “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head” – and when it’s ripe send in the reapers to cut it.
Now that, said Jesus, is how the kingdom of God works. Be patient. Trust. Don’t push things. Do what is yours to do. Don’t give way to resignation at “the way things are”. And don’t be fooled by slick slogans promising a short-cut to the kingdom.
There’s a message there for us. Our task is to sow the seed. Life and growth come from God. Don’t try to force things. Don’t try to measure things. Even if the Church of England insists on asking for the “Statistics for Mission” each year, don’t take it too heavy. Don’t worry about being “successful”. Ezekiel has something to say about that in our first reading. It is God, acting in the lives of faithful human beings, who “brings low the high tree,… makes high the low tree;… dries up the green tree and makes the dry tree flourish.” It is God who gives growth – and God will, despite all our fears and anxieties. So don’t give up!
God is at work in us, waking or sleeping. God is at work in us, bringing forth an abundant harvest for his kingdom. God is at work in us as a community, however small and fragile we may think we are, however far from God some of us may think we are. God is at work in us, growing us like that mustard-seed, so that we can provide shelter and protection for those who need it, so that we can be a sign of hope and encouragement for those who need it. All God asks is that we remain faithful; that we put our trust in God as the one who brings life and growth, who “makes high the low tree” and “makes the dry tree flourish”. So, when things don’t go to plan, don’t be discouraged. When you feel weak and inadequate, don’t give up hope. We aren’t called to be heroes. We aren’t called to be successful. We are called to be faithful – faithful in our following of Jesus our Lord. So, remember the seed growing secretly in the story Jesus told. And hold fast to God’s promise to Israel through the prophet: “I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.”
Trinity 2 (10.6.2018)
This morning’s Gospel all gets a bit extreme. On one side there’s the family of Jesus, coming out in order to take him home because they have heard he has gone out of his mind. On the other side there are members of the religious establishment, who have come to the conclusion that in sitting light to the Law of Moses, in gathering up crowds of ordinary people and those on the edge and telling them “you matter to God”, Jesus has crossed to “the dark side”. That probably won’t need explaining to any “Star Wars” fans, but basically it means that the scribes from Jerusalem are saying Jesus isn’t just deluded, as his family imagine. They are saying that he is in fact demonic: that he is under the control of Beelzebul and he uses the powers of darkness to cast out evil spirits.
Now, in first-century Palestine that must have been quite a hit to take. Family networks in the Middle East, and on other parts of the world, wider clan and tribal networks, were and still are very important. If the family think you have gone too far – as Jesus’ family clearly did – then you have to sit up and take notice. The same is true of the religious “establishment”, represented here by the scribes from Jerusalem. These are the people who interpret God’s rules for living set out in the books of the Torah and apply them to daily life. Their opinion also matters. As we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, they have been murmuring about Jesus for a while – and even beginning to contemplate doing away with him. That seems like not a good place for Jesus to be.
So what will he do? Will he back off? Will he go home with the family to Nazareth and pick up his carpenter’s tool-box again? In a word: “No.” First of all he has a go at the religious authorities, the big men from the city. He points out that the argument they are using against him doesn’t actually work – even on the political level. A country that is split down the middle is in a very bad way, however you look at it – as people engaged in the continuing debates about how the United Kingdom stands in relation to the European Union after next spring are at last beginning to realise.
And then there comes that dramatic condemnation, which has puzzled scholars and worried scrupulous Christians for twenty centuries. What did Jesus mean when he warned against the “eternal sin” of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
Quite simply this: that in their eagerness to take Jesus down, and to scare off his followers, the scribes from Jerusalem had shown a fatal blindness and hardness of heart. There’s a gap of a few verses between last Sunday’s Gospel and the beginning of this Sunday’s. Part of that gap Mark fills with a very brief account of how people came to Jesus from all over – and he healed them. He cured the sick. He drove out evil spirits. This is what the scribes say is the work of demons? This healing of body and mind? They have allowed their ideology to pervert their vision, so that they call what Jesus is doing “demonic”, instead of naming it for what it is: God breaking into human lives with blessing, and wholeness, and hope. Their vision has become so distorted that there’s no way back. To see a blessing and call it evil – that is their sin.
Jesus names it for what it is, and turns away from them. That’s when the family posse arrives to take him home. Jesus does not condemn them. But he does, in a sense, dismiss them. He looks at the crowd, the ordinary people, those outside the system and outside the networks of protection, hanging on his every word, some of them, perhaps, longing for his touch to heal and make whole, and he tells them “You, if you do God’s will – you are my brother and sister and brother”. Jesus reweaves the whole pattern of human relationships. Family, clan, tribe, nation – in the end all of these are provisional. They fall into the class of things that St Paul in our first reading described as “temporary”. What matters is who we are in Jesus. What matters is who we are as we share his peace with one another, who we are as we gather round his table. What matters is how we live with one another and care for one another in the world beyond these walls.
Trinity 1 (3.6.2018)
Someone once made the mistake of asking a colleague for a text for his next Sunday’s sermon. The reply was instant: “How about ‘We are all cast from the same mould, but some of us are mouldier than others?’”
That isn’t quite what St Paul is saying in our first reading this morning, when he writes about “having this treasure” (that’s “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”) – “having this treasure in clay jars.” All of us are flawed human beings, “all cast from the same mould”, but God doesn’t seem to be too bothered about how mouldy we are. If we are willing to let God shine in our hearts, God can use us. If the circumstances of our life are less than encouraging, God can still use us. Whoever we may be, whatever we may have done, whatever may have been done to us, God can still transform our lives by the power of his life at work in us.
Now that life doesn’t always work in predictable ways. It doesn’t always work in what respectable people might see as “proper” ways, as we were reminded in this morning’s Gospel. But God’s unpredictability is what saves us. In his Son who heals on the Sabbath and offers us life through his death; in his Spirit poured out on the most unlikely people, in a creation which, as an eminent scientist of the last century remarked, is not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine God is at work in us, breaking the mould, transforming lives, making us whole.
Trinity Sunday (27.5.2018)
Long ago, it is said, there was a Pope who wanted to drive the Jewish community out of Rome. The Jews protested and, after much discussion, it was agreed that the Pope would hold a debate with the most learned of their rabbis. If the Pope won the argument, the Jews would leave. If the rabbi won, they would stay. There was only one problem. The Pope knew no Hebrew and the rabbi spoke neither Italian nor Latin. So it was agreed that the debate would be conducted in mime. The day was fixed. The Pope and the rabbi met in St Peter’s. The discussion was lively but soon over – and it ended with the Pope admitting defeat and allowing the Jews to stay.
Back in the Vatican the Pope’s advisers held an inquest to find out why the Pope had conceded. “He was just too good for me”, said the Pope. “To every argument which I raised, he had an overwhelming counter-argument. I pointed to the heavens, to emphasise the transcendent majesty of God. He pointed to the earth, to remind me that God is in our midst. I raised three fingers, to signify the persons of the Trinity. He raised one finger, to stress the unity of the Godhead. I put on the altar the bread and wine through which our Saviour shares with us his body and his blood. He put on the altar an apple, to remind me that it was the sin of Adam and Eve which made the shedding of Christ’s blood necessary. I could not answer his arguments. He defeated me.”
On their way back to the Synagogue, the leaders of the Jewish community were congratulating their champion. “But how did you do it?” they asked. “Blessed if I know”, said the rabbi. “He pointed up in the air to show how high he was planning to hang us if we didn’t go. I pointed to the ground, to say that we were staying put here in Rome. He raised three fingers, to warn us to be gone in three days. I raised one, to tell him that not one Jew was leaving. Then he brought out his lunch and put it on the table, and I brought out mine.”
Which just goes to show how difficult it can be to talk about God in a way that other people can understand – as Nicodemus found in this morning’s gospel.
But this Sunday is not about the bafflement of Nicodemus. This Sunday is about the Christian experience of God. It is about relationship. It is about unity in diversity. It is about fellowship, partnership, sharing. When we talk about the Trinity, we are trying to express the profound truth that God is eternally in relationship – because God is love, love without beginning, without end, without condition, without limit. We are also reflecting our threefold experience of that love: first, loved revealed in creation, in the wonderful variety and intricacy of this fragile world; second, love revealed in a particular human life, because God’s love for his creation is so great that he has willed to enter it fully, no matter what that cost in terms of pain and dying; third, love revealed in the life of God’s people, a love that makes cowards brave, that gives speech to stammerers, that remakes us in the image of our divine Lover as we are “born from above”.
Talking about God as Trinity reflects our Christian experience. And it is part of our experience that this threefold experience of God as life-giver, pain-bearer and love-maker is not the experience of three different beings but of one and the same God. Like a Jew, praying the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”, like a Muslim, reciting the shahada, “There is no God but God”, we can truthfully claim, with the wise and holy men who hammered out the first formal statements of Christian faith “We believe in one God.” We can truthfully do that because Father, Son and Spirit are three realities experienced as part of the single ultimate reality, from whom everything that is draws its existence.
We experience that threefold reality not only in theological reflection, but above all in our prayer and in our worship. The Trinity is not so much to be understood intellectually as it is to be lived and prayed. Christian prayer is classically understood as being offered to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when we make Eucharist, we take bread and wine, gifts of the Father’s creation, so that he may transform them by his Spirit into the body and blood of his Son. At the same time, the heart of the great prayer of thanksgiving, the prayer in which we give thanks for all that God has done, in the creation of all things, in the saving activity, the life-giving death of Jesus Christ, and in which we pray that God’s Spirit may act both on the bread and the wine and on us who receive them – at the heart of that prayer is the song of the angels which echoes through the prophet’s vision and which points us at the same time heavenward with the Pope and earthward with the rabbi: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory”.
In that glory God invites us to share.
Pentecost – Patronal Festival (20.5.2018)
I’m going to begin with the closing words of St Paul’s second letter to Corinth in the traditional version: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with you all.”
A church’s Patronal Festival is a celebration – but also a chance to take stock. It’s a reminder of who we are – and who we wish to heaven we were. And when the “patron” of the Church is the third Person of the Holy Trinity whose “day” is one of the major feasts of the Church’s year – well, that just makes it all the more interesting.
So, who are we in the “Fellowship of the Holy Ghost”? We might think back to some words in our first reading: “devout people from every nation under heaven.” Well, maybe not every nation, but a fair few. Italy, Great Britain, Switzerland, Japan, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria – and that’s a little universe in itself. I read the other day that there are five hundred and twenty languages spoken in Nigeria. Five hundred and twenty! The whole of the EU gets by with twenty-four official languages and five, including Basque, Catalan and Welsh, that are “semi-official”. And even if we were to count up all the minority languages and the main “immigrant languages” (Russian, Turkish, and the like), we’d still be some way short of even one hundred.
Now, language matters. We need it to communicate with one another. We use it to express our inmost thoughts and longings and our deepest feelings. On the day after the royal wedding I probably don’t need to remind you that we use it to say “I love you”! But language can also be used to divide, to set up barriers, to keep out, or drive away those who whose language is “different”. So, when the Holy Spirit opens the mouths of the disciples to speak about “God’s deed of power” to pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe, in words that those pilgrims could understand, then we can see the healing, reconciling work of Jesus continuing, even after he has been, as we heard last Sunday, “taken up from us”.
St Luke’s account of what happened on the Day of Pentecost isn’t just about “speaking in tongues”, as we understand that phrase today, a badge of a particular Christian identity. It isn’t just about a dramatic event in the life of the first Christians. It is about how God continues to break down barriers and to use the most unlikely people in ways they could not have imagined.
The crowd’s reaction was “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” – in other words, people from the back of beyond who can only just get their tongues around Hebrew and Aramaic, and whose knowledge of the wider world is, to put it kindly, a bit limited. But these are the people God chooses to communicate the news about Jesus. As God has chosen us. There may not have been “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” or “divided tongues, as of fire… that rested on each one” of us, but through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at our baptism we have been called and commissioned to testify to the reality of God’s love revealed in Jesus the Christ.
In his sermon at the royal wedding in Windsor yesterday, Bishop Michael Curry spoke about the power of fire to transform and enrich human life, and he reminded the congregation – and all those who were watching on the giant screens outside Windsor Castle or on television, or listening on the radio, or live-streaming it on their computer or their smart-phone – he reminded us all that fire, in the Bible, is often a symbol of the transforming power of love. And the Holy Spirit is pure, undiluted Love, the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
It was the fire of that Love which transformed the lives of those who had been closest to Jesus and sent them out unafraid into the streets of the city whose people had colluded in his execution. It was the fire of that Love which enabled them to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Messiah. It was the fire of that Love which the prophet Joel foretold, when he spoke of God pouring out the Spirit on young and old, men and women, even those with no status in the society in which they lived. And, as Bishop Curry reminded his hearers, “When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children. ‘Cos when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.” That applies whether our mother-tongue is English, or Italian, or Edo, or Ijaw, or Ibibio, or Tiv – or Japanese, Akan, Afrikaans or Schwyzerdütsch. Each of us can hear God speaking in the language of our heart. In the “fellowship of the Holy Ghost” all of us are “actually family”.
Easter 7 (13.5.2018)
If, like me, you explore what they call “social media” from time to time, you may have met the bafflement out there about the way in which President Trump is being given a free pass by white evangelical Christians in the USA, people who have, in the past, been very critical of politicians who have behaved as he has behaved. What makes the difference, it seems, is that he is “their” president. In other words, a surface coating of “Christianity” is covering a political loyalty.
Now Christian faith, as this morning’s readings make clear, is not about what happens on the surface. It’s about what goes on in the depths. In our first reading we heard how the eleven apostles wanted to become twelve again by replacing Judas Iscariot. Now that Jesus is no longer physically among them, they recognise that, they are unable to plumb those depths, and so they leave the choice of replacement to God. Both Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias appear, on the surface, to have what it takes to fill the vacancy left by Judas. Deciding between them is impossible on the purely human level, so by praying and casting lots the disciples hand the decision over to God. It’s a way of appointing leaders that some Churches still use today.
But if you really want to explore the depths of Christian experience take time to read today’s Gospel. That is about what it means to share in the life of Christ and to abide in him so that his joy may be made complete in us. Ultimately, it is about union with God in and through his Son. To us who belong to the Western Church that sort of talk can come across as strange. We tend to think in terms of a legal process, whether we see ourselves as “Catholic” or “Reformed” or, like most Anglicans, as a bit of both. Jesus has paid what we owed, so we are let off with a caution instead of having to pay the full penalty ourselves.
The Eastern Churches don’t see it like that at all. In their eyes what matters is that by his dying Jesus has liberated us from slavery to death and set us free to live in and for God. If you visit an Orthodox Church at this time of year you will see the icon of the resurrection. It shows Jesus hauling Adam and Eve, and the patriarchs, and the prophets, and kings and seers and sages, out of the realms of death into God’s marvellous light.
Christian life is about sharing in that light, shining with that light, participating in the life of the Godhead. This is the eternal life of which St John writes – and it isn’t “pie in the sky when you die”. Jesus does not ask the Father to take his disciples out of the world. No, eternal life starts in us, here, now – if we have the courage to accept it; if we have the courage to open our hearts, our minds, our lives to the fullness of God; to be, as Jesus says in this morning’s gospel, “sanctified in truth”.
How do we do that? How do we allow God to “sanctify us in truth”, to complete Christ’s joy in us as he longs to do? There is no easy way. It isn’t a matter of learning a few slick sound-bites. It’s about serious waiting on God in prayer – and when I say “waiting”, I mean “waiting”. Prayer isn’t about coming to God with a long list of our needs and wants – or other people’s needs and wants, for that matter; though concern for others and for the world, is part of praying. Prayer is about listening for God, sitting in silence, not worrying about what the time is or what you’ve got to do next, but being present to God in the present moment, allowing God to enter your heart and mind. It’s also about reading the Bible regularly, seriously; maybe with the help of study notes or a commentary; maybe just sitting down with a short passage and reading and re-reading it, not trying to puzzle out what it means, but letting words and phrases shine out at you from the page. Letting them sink deep into your mind and your heart. It’s about letting Jesus feed you in Holy Communion, about receiving all that he offers you, allowing him to reveal to you and in you who you are in God, the true self which God loves and in which Jesus is glorified, despite our faults and failures, despite our woundedness and need for wholeness. And it’s about those acts which reflect and reveal God’s love in our dealings with the people alongside whom we live and work and worship, the people we encounter in the street, or the shops, whoever they may be: not having “all the answers”, but just being there for them.
That is what it is to “be sanctified in truth”. That is what it is to have eternal life.
Easter 6 (6.5.2018)
Last Sunday we heard Jesus telling his disciples about the importance of their relationship with him, of the need for them to share in his life as grape-bearing branches share the life of the vine of which they are a part. If you were here last Sunday you may remember that I said a little about that image of the vine and the branches during the service and a little more at the Annual Church Meeting that followed. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus develops that idea in terms of his relationship with the Father and in terms of our relationship with the Father through him. It’s a relationship which is expressed in one word, a word which we heard more than once in last week’s Gospel and which was repeated in the passage we have just heard.
That word is “abide”. Jesus abides in the Father’s love. We abide in the love of Jesus. To abide in his love means to rest in that love – not in the sense that we don’t do anything apart from wafting around telling the world that (in the words of one of my least favourite hymns) “My God loves me”, but in the sense that knowing that we are loved by God empowers us, enables us, to love others, to be open to others, to respond to their needs and concerns and not just our own.
When I first arrived in Genoa, a couple of months ago, I thought that I really ought to find out a bit about the history of this city, and particularly about its spiritual life. Who were the people whose lives and whose prayers made this city rather more than a “merchant pirate superpower”, as it has been described in a recent book? And I discovered St Catherine.
Caterina Fieschi was the youngest daughter of Jacopo Fieschi, a leading citizen of fifteenth-century Genoa. He died when she was a teenager and she was married off, at the age of sixteen, to the son of another prominent family, Giuliano Adorno. It was not, to put it mildly, a happy union. Giuliano was a classic abusive husband, violent, spendthrift, and unfaithful. For ten years he made Catherine’s life utterly wretched – so wretched that she prayed to become seriously ill, because serious illness would be better than what she had to put up with in her marriage. Then, one day in March 1473, she had an experience which turned her life upside down.
Catherine was suddenly filled with the overwhelming realisation that, even if her husband did not love her, God did: that she was, to borrow words from this morning’s gospel, “no longer a servant but a friend”. That realisation stopped her, almost literally, in her tracks and turned her life around. She found a joy that she had never known and a deepening relationship with God which transformed not only her life but also had a powerful impact on Giuliano, who stopped his womanising, began treating Catherine with respect, and started taking his own faith seriously. Together they became involved in the life of the Pammatone Hospital, then Genoa’s main hospital, which used to stand where the Palazzo di Giustizia now stands in Piazza Portoria. After Giuliano died Catherine became the director of the hospital until her own death in 1510.
All through this time of active service to the people of Genoa, Catherine continued to be a woman of deep prayer and profound insight, abiding in God’s love and sharing that love with the people around her, her husband, the daughter he had had by another woman, their co-workers at the hospital and, above all, the patients there. Catherine’s was a life that was powered by prayer and by experiences of God that were, at times, quite as mind-blowing as what happened to Cornelius and his household in today’s first reading as they listened to the preaching of St Peter.
Now, “powered by prayer” is, I gather, the main theme for this year’s Archdeaconry Synod in the autumn and it’s a theme to which I would like to devote time and energy while I am with you in Genoa. I said something about that at the Annual Meeting last Sunday, drawing attention to various possibilities, including a group that meets for intercessory prayer, a group that explores the way of meditation and contemplative prayer, a group that meets to study the Bible prayerfully together, and a group that prays for people who need healing. There are sheets of paper at the back of the church, listing these opportunities. If you are interested in any of them, please sign up. As Catherine found, it is as we share in the Eucharist, as we engage with others, and as we pray that the risen Christ encounters us as friends and energises us both to love and to bear fruit in his service.
Easter 5 (29.4.2018)
We have just heard two terrific readings to prepare us for our annual meeting today: one passage from the Acts of the Apostles and one from St John’s Gospel, which together spell out the twofold task facing any Christian community.
In the reading from Acts Philip is prompted by God’s messenger to go down to the main road south-west out of Jerusalem. Then there is another prompt: to get alongside the vehicle of a visitor, heading home after worshipping in Jerusalem. No big deal, you might think, but for two factors. One: the visitor was black African, not Jewish. And two: he was a eunuch, barred by the Law of Moses from being part of God’s people. Maybe that’s why he was reading Isaiah’s poem about the suffering servant of the Lord – another outcast like himself. Philip gets alongside him, listens to him, answers his questions and then shares with him the good news about Jesus, good news that includes someone so different in race and culture. Then Philip seals that inclusion with a roadside baptism. The Ethiopian is no longer an outcast. He is loved and accepted by God.
From that joy, we turn to this morning’s Gospel with its rather different focus. The story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian turned our attention outward. The words of Jesus at the Last Supper direct our attention inward. He talks to his friends about the need to root their lives in his life, as the fruit-bearing branches of a grape-vine share the life of the vine. If they don’t, they wither and die and bear no fruit. This isn’t just about belonging to a circle of friends, being part of Jesus’s “gang”. This is about listening to his words, opening ourselves to his Spirit, letting him feed us in the Eucharist, living close to him, letting his love transform our lives.
So, there is our twofold task. The Spirit moves us to be alert to those who have stories and questions, whoever they are and whatever their background may be; to accompany them on the way to faith and inclusion. Jesus invites us to share in his life in its fullness – and in its hurt, because the process of pruning is never pain-free. But what matters is the love which bears the pain, which transforms lives and which bears fruit to the Father’s glory. Let us keep silence.
Easter 4 (22.4.2018)
It’s nearly thirty-five years since I was ordained priest in St Alban’s Abbey, a few miles outside London. Before he ordained us, the bishop read out words which set out our responsibilities. “A priest,” he said, “is called by God to work with the bishop and with his fellow-priests, as servant and shepherd among the people to whom he is sent… He must set the Good Shepherd always before him as the pattern of his calling, caring for the people committed to his charge, and joining with them in a common witness to the world.” Those words point us directly to this morning’s Gospel. And they are rooted deep in the Christian tradition. When my Protestant colleagues are introducing me to people from their churches whom I haven’t met yet – and there are an awful lot of them! – when they introduce me, they always describe me as “il pastore anglicano”. We are all the pastors, the shepherds, of our various flocks.
So why is it that when the task of shepherding God’s flock is located so firmly in the ordained ministry, and specifically the priestly ministry, I feel a little twinge of unease? I’ll explain why. First of all, limiting the task to a specific group of people, set apart for a particular role in the Church doesn’t seem to fit with what Jesus says at the beginning of this morning’s gospel: “I am the Good Shepherd.” Shepherding the flock, in other words, is what Christ does. The mosaic above the altar is a permanent reminder of that. And if we ponder that, we begin to realise that shepherding is something that the Church as a whole does, and not just the clergy, because it’s the Church – not the priest – it’s the Church that is the body of Christ. It’s the Church as a whole which cares both for its own members and for the people around them, the people who, for whatever reason, “do not belong to this fold”, but who are equally loved by God.
Now, if there is one thing about this congregation that has impressed me tremendously in the short time I have been in Genoa, it is the way in which its members care for one another, the way in which, to use an American expression, they have one another’s back. Your life together reflects the image in that mosaic. It cuts across boundaries of race and culture and age. It’s brilliant. So please don’t stop doing it just because you have an ordained “pastore”.
And that brings me the second reason why I worry when ordained ministers are seen as the only “real” pastors, the only shepherds. It devalues and deskills those who aren’t ordained. And it can corrupt the clergy. In recent weeks I have been following the horrid tale of abuse in the Church of England. Those who committed the abuse, and those who went along with them, seem to have felt that they belonged to an elite, so that abusers imagined that they could do what they liked, that they could get away with anything. They had lost any sense that they and those they abused belonged to the same flock, Christ’s flock. They behaved like those hired hands about whom Jesus was so scathing. And they have shamed the Church.
They have been bad shepherds. But Jesus is the Good Shepherd. That’s an expression which calls to mind a beautiful picture – like the one above the altar. However, it has been pointed out that, while Jesus the good shepherd is often portrayed in a rather cuddly, misty-eyed, romantic way with the safety of the sheep centre stage, actually being a shepherd in first-century Palestine was a pretty dangerous occupation, so that being quietly with the flock, like Jesus in our mosaic, was not always possible. That is why Jesus’s words, which began with a focus on the safety and protection of the sheep, suddenly shift their focus to danger to the shepherd.
You probably saw the news reports last month about the Gendarme officer who offered himself in exchange for one of the hostages being held by a terrorist gunman in a supermarket in a quiet country town in South-West France and who was fatally wounded by the gunman as the siege ended. You may not have realised that he was a committed Christian. Colonel Arnaud Beltrame laid his life on the line for the safety of others. He did it knowingly and willingly, though he had, as people say, everything to live for. He “set the Good Shepherd before him” in a way that enables us to hear this passage from John’s Gospel afresh and that makes real, in our own day, the love of the Good Shepherd for his sheep. Like Jesus his Lord he laid down his life for others, so that, in Christ, he might take it up again. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter 3 (15.4.2018)
“Have you anything to eat here?” Has it ever struck you what an odd question that is for the risen Christ to ask his disciples? It makes him sound more like someone who has missed lunch than someone who has been raised by God from the dead. Mind you, his first words after greeting the disciples are equally matter-of-fact. “Why are you frightened?” Why? We know why. Luke tells us: they thought they were looking at a ghost. That is why Jesus is so keen to reassure them that it really is him; that what they are gazing at is the person they had known, the person who had suffered a cruel death at the hands of the authorities two days before. Not his spirit. Not a ghost. “It is I myself.” The body of the risen Jesus may be different from our body in some respects – not least in its ability to pass through walls and locked doors – but it is definitely not “ghostly”. Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones. Ghosts can’t be handled and held.
I spent a couple of days in Rome last week at a meeting and reading today’s gospel on the train coming back reminded me of one of the most touching scenes in the great poem about Rome’s beginnings. That poem tells how the Trojan hero Aeneas goes down to the underworld, the realm of death. There he meets his recently dead father and tries to embrace him. Three times his arms close around the old man’s form and each time they close on nothing. Aeneas’ father has become a shadow with no substance. That is not the case with Jesus. He is alive, fully alive. Luke insists on that. The Jesus who appears to his disciples is not a ghost, not a spirit, not an insubstantial shade. He has also been on a journey to the realm of death, though not as a visitor like Aeneas. Jesus goes down to the dead because he has died. But now he is alive and the life in him is life that death can never snuff out, because it is the life of God, the life to which the sacred writings of Israel, the Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms, all bear witness.
It’s by unfolding how the Hebrew Scriptures bear witness to this that the risen Christ shows those who follow him how to understand their relationship with God – and not just their relationship. The death and resurrection of the Messiah, God’s anointed one, have meaning for all the nations, a message for non-Jews as well as Jews. And all need to hear it.
That message is good news – capital G, capital N. As the risen Christ tells the disciples, it’s about repentance and forgiveness of sins. Now, we need to be clear what that means. The English word “repentance” translates a Greek word, “metanoia”, which is made up of two parts: “meta”, which has to do with change, and “noia”, which has to do with understanding. So repentance means “changing how we understand the world”, and in particular changing how we understand God. It has been wisely said that Jesus did not die to change God’s mind about us but rather to change our mind about God, to help us to understand that God’s love for us is so great that, despite all, we are already forgiven and accepted. That is the thread that runs through the whole of Scripture. That has got to be good news, hasn’t it?
And it’s there at the heart of this morning’s Gospel reading. Jesus would have had every reason to be angry with the disciples. They had all abandoned him. Peter had sworn blind that he didn’t know him. Judas had handed him over to those who sought his life. But the very first words Jesus utters when he appears to the disciples are not words of rebuke or reproach. Instead they offer peace and reassurance. And the next thing he does is to eat some food in front of them. That seems like such a trivial detail. “They gave him a piece of cooked fish; and he took it and ate it in their presence.” But in first-century Palestine, whose food you shared mattered, as it still does in many parts of the world. It mattered because it showed who your friends were and said a lot about who you were. Jesus was regularly criticised by pious and respectable people for the company he kept. Tax-collectors and prostitutes were not fit company for a religious leader. And Jesus knew that and he didn’t care. He still doesn’t. Jesus puts up no barriers to relationship with God. He shared the food which his shamed disciples gave him. He shares this meal to which he invites us this morning. He invites us to change the way we look at the world, the way in which we understand God, to realise that our follies and failures have already been wiped out by the immensity of God’s love. Then, like the forgiven Peter in our first reading, we can share with others our witness to the joyful news. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter 2 (8.4.2018)
I think Thomas gets a very raw deal. “Doubting Thomas”, that’s what people call him. As if the only thing he had ever done was pour cold water on the enthusiasm of the other disciples when they kept telling him “We have seen the Lord!” But although Thomas doesn’t get more than a name-check from Matthew, Mark and Luke, in John’s Gospel he comes across as a real person, and one of the most faithful of the disciples. He would, I think, have followed Jesus anywhere. In fact, the first time we meet him is in the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, when Jesus tells the disciples that their friend Lazarus has died and announces that he is going to Bethany, even though he knows that in Judaea there have been death threats against him. The other disciples, as you might expect, react rather nervously to this plan – except for Thomas, dear, brave, faithful Thomas, who says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” But, instead of them all dying with Jesus, they look on in astonishment as Lazarus, four days dead, is recalled to life.
It’s pretty much the same at the Last Supper. After they’ve eaten, Jesus warns the disciples that the next few days will be (to put it mildly) a bit difficult, but he promises that everything will be all right in the end. “I will come,” he says, “… and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” And, once again it’s Thomas who replies, very bluntly – and bravely – putting his finger on what the others are scared to say: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And again, in reply to what Thomas says, Jesus opens up a whole new world of possibility when he answers, very simply, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
So, those first days after Jesus was raised from the dead, the other disciples were fizzing with excitement – they had seen the Lord! But Thomas hadn’t been there; and being the down-to-earth, level-headed person he was, he wasn’t going to take what they said on trust, however often they repeated it. He wanted to see what they had seen. He wanted to experience what they had experienced – and to be sure that it was true.
Now we mustn’t forget that all of them lived in a world in which ghosts and other supernatural beings were part of everyone’s mental furniture. How was Thomas to know if what the others had seen was really Jesus, or whether it was his ghost, or some malignant spirit trying to trick them for whatever reason into believing that Jesus was alive? So he lays down some pretty firm conditions. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” That “not”, by the way, is very emphatic. John uses a Greek phrase which in another context we might translate as “No way, José!”
And then it happens. The following week, all of them were together, including Thomas this time, and Jesus is with them again. He invites Thomas to do what he had said he wanted to do. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” And this time it is Thomas whose words mark the giant step forward. It’s what Thomas says that opens up immense new horizons. John doesn’t tell us if Thomas did as he had intended. What John does tell us is that Thomas’s next words were “My Lord and my God!” That is a life-transforming, world-transforming statement. God is revealed in the body of a crucified man – the risen Jesus still bears the wounds the soldiers had inflicted. God, in Jesus, identifies completely with the suffering human beings inflict on one another in this cruel, wounded, broken world – and overcomes it.
So what does that mean for us? Well, yesterday afternoon I was reading the records of annual meetings for most of the past twenty years, and I’ve been amazed at the Thomases and Thomasinas who have been part of this church down the decades, people who have looked at possible futures for this church, some of them quite dark and hopeless, but have set themselves, like Thomas, to follow Jesus faithfully along the way, trusting that our Lord and our God is with us in the darkness, and that by his wounds he will transform it into his own marvellous light and a blessing for those who have not seen and yet have believed.
Easter Day (1.4.2018)
Do we have any “pesci d’aprile” here this morning? Anyone been caught out by an “April Fool” trick? If so, you might be in good company, because what happened to the women in today’s gospel can look like a particularly nasty “April Fool”. Finishing the job that the men hadn’t had time to complete on Friday afternoon was probably one of those projects that “seemed like a good idea at the time”. But it was more than that. It was a last labour of love for the friend who had meant so much to them, the friend who had shared so much with them – and whom they had lost so cruelly and violently on Friday. So, they had done the late-night shopping on Saturday and got themselves out of bed in the dark of a spring Sunday morning. They had crossed a city in darkness, a city that wouldn’t be wide awake for a while yet. And here they were, at their destination. It sounds, from the way Mark tells the story, as if this was the point at which the adrenaline rush wore off. The two Maries and Salome began to realise the difficulty of the job they had taken on. They faced for the first time the glaringly obvious question: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”
Now, that’s the point at which the whole story moves into another dimension. It stops being a sad story and becomes that nasty “April Fool”. Because the stone – “a very big stone”, Mark tells us – the stone has been moved, and the body that two nights ago had been hurriedly laid in the tomb behind it has gone. But instead of someone shouting “April fool!” the women find a stranger, a “young man dressed in a white robe”, who gives them some startling news and some disturbing instructions.
The startling news is that Jesus – the Jesus they had seen publicly executed the day before yesterday – Jesus is no longer dead. “He has been raised; he is not here.” The disturbing instructions follow on from that: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Well, the women take the first part of the message on board. They go. “They went out and fled from the tomb.” But they don’t carry out the second part of the young man’s instruction. That was altogether too disturbing: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
And that’s where Mark leaves it; with probably the strangest ending of any book that has survived from the Ancient Mediterranean world, creating a problem for later generations of Christians, and a minefield for New Testament scholars. Why are there no accounts of the risen Jesus appearing to his friends, as there are in the other Gospels? How could Mark end his book so abruptly? That last sentence, in Mark’s original Greek, is barely proper grammar.
That’s a problem to which people have been trying to find a solution for nearly two thousand years. Some early Christians found the ending so “unhelpful” that they wrote a number of new ones: maybe a few sentences, rounding the story off in a more upbeat way or, in one case, a whole new paragraph which cobbled together edited highlights from Matthew and Luke and John. Some later scholars wondered if the last leaf of the original manuscript went missing early on. Others suggested that Mark was overtaken by illness and never finished writing – or that the Roman authorities caught up with him while he was still writing and carted him off to gaol, leaving an unfinished gospel on his desk, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer seventy-odd years ago, who was arrested by the Nazis while he was working on a book which was published, unfinished, by his friends after his death.
But to see the ending of Mark’s Gospel in those terms is to miss the point. The ending of Mark’s Gospel isn’t a problem; it’s a challenge – the same challenge with which he faces his readers all the way through. The resurrection isn’t knock-down proof that Jesus is God. The resurrection is an invitation to follow. That’s why the women are told to tell the disciples: “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” The risen Jesus is returning to the place where it started, the place where his disciples learned their trade, earned their living, raised their families. They are to follow and find him there. Galilee is, if you like, the world of “everyday life”.
That is where we are summoned to follow Jesus, at work, at school, in the networks of neighbourhood, family and friendships. That is where we will find him, where we will experience the reality of resurrection. Mark doesn’t need to finish his gospel. In a sense, he can’t. “The good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God” doesn’t come to an end on the first Easter morning, it continues in the lives of those who have followed Jesus down the centuries. It continues in our lives today. That is why this Easter morning we will renew our baptismal promises. In our baptism we (or our parents) have staked everything on Jesus’s promise that if we follow where he leads, we will see him. The young man at the tomb repeats that promise. Do we flee from it in fear, as the women did? Or do we respond to it with a new commitment to follow the Lord? If we make that choice we will discover once again the living reality of the Easter proclamation:
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Palm Sunday (25.3.2018)
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” We hear those words. We think about them. We put them in context. How often, I wonder, do we apply them? Paul’s letter from which those words come were written to a city which was the home of many Roman citizens, a lot of them solders or ex-soldiers, including the privileged children and grandchildren of men who had fought in the civil wars of the previous century, people whose lives had been spent serving the state which tried and executed Jesus of Nazareth.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The same mind that was silent before his accusers and before his judge. The same mind that endured torture, insults and mockery. The same mind that turned down the offer of easy oblivion in a cup of drugged wine. The same mind that walked the path to certain death, stripped of clothing and all human dignity. For some in church this morning that journey into darkness may not be far different from real-life experience. For others it may sound like an unimaginable nightmare. For all of us, it’s a reminder that the events which we recall, which we relive, this week are anchored in the reality of human suffering, suffering made worse by the mocking taunts of others, suffering made worst of all by the sense that God has abandoned us.
But the one who is silent, the one who is tortured and mocked, the one who suffers and dies – dies the slaves’ death – he is the Lord, God almighty, God with us. God with us. God with those who are trafficked, those who are tortured, those who are exploited or abused, physically or mentally, whoever and wherever they may be. “Come down from the cross, and we will believe” say his enemies. But he won’t. Not until after he has breathed his last. Not until he is taken down by his sorrowing friends. Not until he has shown a broken and distracted world the infinite depths of God’s healing love. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Lent 5 (18.3.2018)
From time to time the Church finds itself following a fad. One fad that has been very popular in parts of the Church of England is the fashion for every congregation to have a “mission statement”, a short, snappy sound-bite which tells the world what it is about – or, at least, what it thinks it is about. Usually mission statements are warm, fuzzy phrases like ‘Know, Grow and Go’, ‘Love, Learn and Live’ or ‘Loving people to life’, but a few years ago I came across one with a real “edge” to it. It’s the mission statement of a congregation in the Diocese of Coventry, in the heart of the English Midlands, and like the statements I quoted just now it’s just four words long: “Follow Jesus and die.”
Nothing warm or fuzzy in that mission statement, is there? It’s a challenge – and a very sharp one. I was reminded of it when I read those words of Jesus that we’ve just heard in the gospel. “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” That is tough. But, as Archdeacon Vickie reminded us at my licensing yesterday, nobody said that the Christian life is supposed to be easy. And at this time of year there are plenty of reminders of that as we enter the way of the cross.
Yesterday was Saint Patrick’s Day, the day on which we remember a man who was kidnapped by pagan pirates somewhere in western Britain and trafficked into slavery in Ireland. He escaped from that slavery, returned to his homeland and was ordained as a Christian priest. He then went back freely to the land where he had been a slave and spent the rest of his life in the struggle to share the good news of Jesus with the people who had enslaved him. At the Communion on Wednesday we shall remember an English archbishop, put on trial for his life and burned at the stake to satisfy a queen who wanted revenge for the part he had played in her parents’ divorce. This coming Saturday it will be thirty-eight years since a hitman killed another archbishop, Oscar Romero of San Salvador, shot as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel.
Each of those men followed Jesus and two of them died. But because, in the end, each of them was prepared to give up his life for the sake of the Gospel, each of them “bore much fruit” like the grain that falls into the earth. They followed Jesus and died, but his life in them lives on. Originally it lived on in those who heard their teaching, or responded to their preaching, or were touched by their example of Christian faith. And each of those people in turn touched other lives, which touched other lives – down the years, even down the centuries, and across the world, until we arrive at us, here, now, in Genoa.
So now it’s our turn to “follow Jesus and die”, not, I hope, in the sense of being burned at the stake, or shot by an assassin, but in the sense of being prepared to lay our lives on the line for the sake of what we have found in Jesus, to take risks for the truth, the love, the joy, the peace, the hope, the reconciliation that we have found in him. It’s our turn to be ready to respond to anyone who says to us today, as those Greek-speaking pilgrims in Jerusalem said to Philip, “We wish to see Jesus”.
How would we – how do we – respond to that request? That’s something to talk about after this service, perhaps. Where would you take them to show them the Son of Man being glorified? In lives transformed, I hope; in loving service; in openness to people who are, in whatever way, different. And in people who know who they are in God’s love, rather than who they are in the “self” they project to the world. In some ways that is the hardest death: to die to the idea we have about ourselves and the idea we would like others to have about us, the idea that we fight hard to project and protect. It’s sometimes called the “false ego” or the “false self”. St Paul called it “the flesh”. Whatever name we give to it, that is what has to “fall into the earth and die”, so that we can be made alive, fully alive, as we are drawn closer to Jesus, “lifted up from the earth” on the cross.
Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday – 11.3.2018)
There’s an old Egyptian proverb which says “in the eyes of its mother every dung-beetle is a gazelle”. What that proverb is telling us is that the love of a mother sees only the beauty and the goodness of her offspring. That isn’t always true. There are mothers who have difficult relationships with their children. But it is true much more often than not. Mothers love their children because once those children were part of them, carried for nine months in their womb; and even after the great separation which is childbirth, that closeness remains. Mothers love their children without strings, without conditions. They love them simply because they have given them life.
That’s why mothers are often fierce in protecting their children. Many years ago, when I was a student, I spent part of the summer helping to build a playground in a poor part of Birmingham. Some of the local children came and “helped” us – but their “help” wasn’t always very helpful, if you see what I mean. Sometimes the children were just up to mischief – and one little boy was so fond of doing things that were dangerous, to himself and to other people, that in the end a friend of mine had to speak to him quite sternly. The boy ran off, and we thought we had seen the last of him. We hadn’t. Ten minutes later he came back with his mother. She was about five feet tall, and very Irish, and absolutely furious that one of us had dared to speak sternly to her little boy. It all got quite heated, but eventually she understood why her son had been told off – and I don’t think she was very pleased with him after that. But he was still her son, and it was up to her to chastise him, not some posh student. “In the eyes of its mother every dung-beetle is a gazelle”.
Now, our readings this morning show us a love like that, a love without strings, without conditions. That love is ours simply because it is the love that has given us life. It’s the love which loves human beings even when we are, as our first reading says, “dead through our sins”. It’s the love with which, as today’s gospel says, “God loved the world so much”.
Let’s finish that quotation from John’s Gospel: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” Then let’s hear the first part again: “God loved the world so much”. God, the creator of everything that there is, billions of galaxies spread across millions of light-years of space, with unimaginable numbers of stars and planets and the life that goes with them, “God” loved the world so much. Isn’t that amazing?
What is more amazing is that “God loved the world so much.” God cares about what God has made. God does not interact with it through power and control. God interacts with the universe in love, treating the universe as a mother treats the child to which she gave birth. A wise and holy English woman who lived more than six centuries ago recognised how fragile the universe is, and how much it depends on God’s love – just to continue in being. But it does, and it will, because, as she saw, “God made it. God loves it. God keeps it.”
All that is made continues to be because “God made it; God loves it; God keeps it.” But this “it” includes “the world” – and “the world” in St John’s Gospel often behaves very like that little boy in Birmingham nearly fifty years ago. “God loved the world so much” and sent his Son into “the world”, even though it is the world which is in the hands of those who “hate the light and avoid it”, those who indeed reject the light and who will try to put out the light, and put it out permanently, by lifting up the Son of Man on a criminal’s cross.
And when we recognise that, dear brothers and sisters, we begin to get a glimpse of what the life of Jesus means, what the suffering and death of Jesus means. As we shall be reminded in two weeks’ time, the worst thing that could happen does happen. The Son of Man is indeed lifted up, killed by the forces of human fear, and anger, and foolishness, and greed for power. The worst thing that could happen does happen – and God still loves us. Through the cross God shows us how much is that “so much” with which God loves the world.
Now, as the letter to Ephesus explains, all of this happens “not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God.” In the coming of Jesus God has “brought us to life”. God has shown us hope for the time to come – and I’m aware that for many of us hope is in short supply at present. That hope is based, firmly, solidly based on what God has done in Jesus, the light who has come into the world, “not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.”
Christians often talk as if Jesus came in order to change God’s mind about us. He didn’t. Jesus came to change our mind about God, to show us the generosity of God’s mercy. Jesus came to enable us to become what we already are – and, as the letter to the Ephesians points out, “we are “God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life, as from the beginning God had meant us to live it.” So, dear brothers and sisters, do not let this time of insecurity turn us aside from the path which the coming of Jesus has lit up for us. Instead let us follow it, confident in God who never gives up on us, as a mother never gives up on her children, and let us never give up on one another.
Missing Third Christmas – Rev.d Clifford Owen