Chaplain’s Page 2021

Revd Canon Tony Dickinson

Gospel for Monday, 18th October – St Luke (Luke 10.1-9):

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’

Reflection:

There are a lot of academic questions to be asked about Luke: Was he Jewish or a Gentile? Did he write his Gospel before or after Matthew? What kind of sources could he draw on for the life of Jesus and the development and spread of the first Christian communities? Is Luke the Evangelist “Luke, the beloved physician,” mentioned by St Paul in Colossians 4:14?

If we were to tackle any one of those questions properly, we would probably be here for the rest of the day. For the moment it’s probably best simply to note that the jury is still out on most of them and cut to the chase: which, in the case of today’s Gospel, means the closing instruction of Jesus. ‘Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’

The passage we have just heard is the second account of Jesus commissioning his followers to go out and do the same things that he has been doing: the Twelve at the beginning of chapter nine; the seventy (or, according to some manuscripts, seventy-two) here. In both cases “curing the sick” is an important part of the job, an important sign that “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” The Church’s work over many centuries in founding and maintaining hospitals, in funding health projects in pretty well every continent, in encouraging and affirming people who feel called to offer themselves as doctors, nurses, medical researchers, health workers of every kind, is an important part of that proclamation of the kingdom.

But that work, which is hugely important, shouldn’t make us forget the other task, the one-to-one task, which Jesus lays on the seventy. Nearly half a century ago Francis MacNutt, who died last year, told the story of a Native American Christian who silenced a room full of highly educated clergy by asking the simple question: “How come you know Jesus and you no heal nobody?” How, in other words, has something that was so important in the life of the first Christians become so hugely neglected by the mainstream of their spiritual descendants? That’s another question which it would probably take us all day to answer. The important thing is that in the half-century since those priests were put to silence the Churches have begun to rediscover their ministry of healing.

Those who have been blessed by God with what we might call “charismatic” gifts of healing are no longer pushed to the margins, or even out of the Church altogether, as they once were; and congregations which do not have members with such gifts have been rediscovering that there is a shared ministry of healing, delivered by prayer and sacramental acts, listening, the laying on of hands, and anointing; often in the setting of the Eucharist where the presence of Jesus, healing our woundedness, at-one-ing us with the Father, is proclaimed and celebrated.

Today we shall join in that sacramental ministry, aware that healing is always God’s work and that we are no more than his instruments, aware, too, that each one of us has their part to play, and that the prayer that surrounds the anointing is at least as important as the anointing itself, because it is in and through our prayer that God’s Holy Spirit will “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” as a sign that “The kingdom of God has come near to us.”


Gospel for Wednesday, 13th October – Edward the Confessor (Matthew 21.12-17):

Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
   but you are making it a den of robbers.’

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,

“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
   you have prepared praise for yourself”?’

He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Reflection:

In 1848 the novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton published “Harold: the Last of the Saxon Kings”, a work of historical fiction which nine years later formed the basis of Verdi’s opera “Aroldo”: but Harold’s reign lasted only a matter of months, from his coronation on the Feast of the Epiphany, 1066, until his death in battle against the Norman invaders on 14th October of the same year. It was a very brief reign by comparison with the 23 years during which his predecessor and brother-in-law, Edward, had ruled England.

Edward was perhaps an unlikely ruler of the English. The son of the hapless Aethelred, nicknamed Unræd, Edward had been an exile in mainland Europe from his teenage years until his late thirties, while his stepfather Cnut the Great of Denmark, followed by his two half-brothers, ruled England as a province of their Scandinavian empire. When the younger of Cnut’s sons, Harthacnut, died Edward was recalled to England and enthroned as king. For the next quarter-century he walked a difficult tight-rope, balancing the kingdom’s need for peace with justice against the ambitions of powerful families including that led by Harold’s father, Earl Godwin of Wessex, and the territorial claims of his neighbours in Scotland and Wales. There was also the matter of maintaining good relations with his mother’s kinsfolk in Normandy. Edward ruled with what as been described as a combination of diplomacy and determination – and occasional ruthlessness.

However, Edward is not remembered today primarily for his statecraft, although that was seen as reflecting a peaceable and godly wisdom by many who lived through the turbulent decades after his death. He is remembered primarily as a Christian king who put his faith into practice, in acts of generosity and hospitality, in acts of healing*, in the forgiveness of his political opponents, and as the founder and benefactor of the house of prayer which has remained at the heart of the English Church’s understanding of its role embracing crown and people. For this he is honoured as a confessor, one who bore witness to Christian faith in difficult and dangerous times.

As a young man in exile, Edward had vowed to make a pilgrimage to Rome, if he were able to return to his father’s kingdom, but the precarious political situation in England when he did return made a long absence impossible. Instead, he was allowed to fulfil his vow not by the projected pilgrimage but by the founding or endowment of a monastery dedicated to St Peter. He chose the Benedictine abbey on Thorney Island in the Thames, just upstream from London, the West Minster founded by his grandfather King Edgar. Edward rebuilt it as a royal burial-place – and lived just long enough to see it dedicated on Holy Innocents’ Day, 1065, a week before his death.

In the light of Westminster Abbey’s later transformation over the centuries into one of the busiest and most lucrative tourist hot-spots in London, we might be tempted to see the opening of today’s gospel as a double-edged, or even ironic, comment on the results of the Confessor’s piety, but the evidence of his life and the moving account of his death point us to the second part of that reading and to the place of healing and prayer in the life of a man who, in the midst of his concern for the well-being of an earthly kingdom, never lost his vision of the kingdom of God and whose earthly remains, alone of all the saints of England, still rest in the shrine where they were laid, after his canonisation, on this day in the year 1161.

*Edward the Confessor was the first English monarch to “touch” those who suffered from “the king’s evil” (scrofula).


Gospel for Wednesday, 6th October – William Tyndale (John 17.8-8,14-19):

Jesus prayed, ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’

Reflection:

When we hear the words “biblical scholar” we might tend to picture an Oxbridge don, possibly a clergyperson, snug in a college or an old-fashioned vicarage with plenty of room for their library. We probably wouldn’t think in terms of the main character in a John Grisham thriller or a John le Carré novel, a man on the run, living in the shadows, with everyone’s hand against him, pursued by malevolent forces in Church and state, but ultimately triumphant over his adversaries.

In a curious sense both those pictures fit William Tyndale, whom we remember today. Born in Gloucestershire, in the last decade of the 15th century, he studied at Oxford and then at Cambridge before returning to Gloucestershire in his late twenties to take up the post of domestic chaplain to a prominent local family. It is thought that this was when he started to translate the New Testament into English – something that had been illegal in England since the time of John Wycliffe. He moved to London and tried to interest the then Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, a noted classical scholar and a friend of the great Dutch scholar Erasmus, in supporting his venture. Tunstall was not supportive and Tyndale left England in 1524, heading for the heartland of the reforming movement which had been sweeping across the German-speaking lands of northern and central Europe for much of the previous decade.

Tyndale completed his translation and arranged for it to be printed in Cologne, but Cologne was in the middle of an anti-Lutheran reaction and the printing was never completed. He was luckier in Worms and, later, in Antwerp, from where copies of his complete New Testament were smuggled to England and Scotland. There it was condemned by Bishop Tunstall, by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York (the great Cardinal Wolsey), and by Thomas More. Tunstall, indeed, tried to buy up every copy that he could find and had them burned. Tyndale went into hiding, first in Hamburg and later in Antwerp, where he revised his New Testament and published pamphlets on current issues in Church and state – including a negative view of Henry VIII’s divorce, which earned him the king’s enmity. By this time his translation of the first five books of the Old Testament and the book of Jonah, were in print and versions of Joshua to 2 Chronicles were in manuscript.

Then, in 1535, with the connivance of the English authorities he was betrayed by a fellow-Englishman and handed over to the Imperial authorities. He was tried for heresy, garrotted and his corpse was burned at the stake. His last words are said to have been “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”

So where, you’re probably wondering, is the triumphant ending? This seems much more like the end of “The Spy who Came in from the Cold”! Well, the work that Tyndale left unfinished at the time of his arrest was completed by Miles Coverdale, and their joint work has been used by almost every English translation since. It has been calculated that roughly nine-tenths of the King James Version of the New Testament is straight Tyndale. And in terms of today’s Gospel, with its emphasis on receiving God’s word in spite of the hatred of “the world” (which in John’s Gospel means those forces which seek their own advantage and the power that goes with it and are alienated from God), we can be assured that William Tyndale’s faithfulness as a servant of the written word of God will be honoured by God’s living Word, Jesus.


Gospel for Wednesday, 29th September – St Michael and All Angels (John 1.47-51):

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

Reflection:

Shortly before Christmas 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was transferred from prison in Tegel to the Gestapo head-quarters in Berlin. A week before the feast he wrote a letter to his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer, who was at that point living with his parents on the other side of the city in Charlottenburg. With it he enclosed a poem “Powers of Good” which has become something of a classic. It has been turned into a hymn in both German and English and many German children over the years have learned it by heart. The most widely-known English version is the one translated by Keith Clements and the late Fred Pratt Green, although it includes only the first four verses of the original seven:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
and confidently waiting, come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to meet us each new day.

Yet are our hearts by their old foe tormented;
still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, you taught us to prepare.

And when the cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it gladly, trusting though with trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

If once again, in this mixed world, you give us
the joy we had, the brightness of your sun,
we shall recall what we have learned through sorrow,
and dedicate our lives to you alone.

Today, on the feast of St Michael and All Angels, we give thanks to God, as Bonhoeffer does, for the “gracious powers” which shelter and surround us. And we remember that people are most aware of those “gracious powers” when they are up against it. In most of the Bible angels are simply messengers—which is what the Greek word αγγελος (like the Hebrew “malakh”) means – go-betweens ascending and descending between heaven and earth, as Jesus describes them to Nathanael. However, in times of crisis angels are seen as not only messengers but also our defenders against the forces of evil. In such times we become, as Bonhoeffer did in prison, more conscious that there are powers which connect us with God and with those whom we love and from whom we are separated, powers which provide us with a strength which we did not know we had and which is drawn, ultimately, from the Son of Man who is our hope and our salvation; so that we can say with Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
and confidently waiting, come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to meet us each new day!


Gospel reading for 22nd September – Ember Day (Luke 9:1-6)

Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

Reflection:

Today, like Friday and Saturday, is one of those days when we remember before God the women and men who are to be ordained as deacons or priests during the next week or so and when we ask God to “stir up the gift” in those who may be thinking seriously about the possibility that they are being called to a ministry which is more specific and focused than the ministry of all who have been baptised to life in Christ.

For those who are about to take on the ministry of priest or deacon, and for those who are considering whether God is calling them to that role, today’s gospel could hardly be more appropriate, especially in the present climate in the Church of England and all the discussion that has been going on about the Church’s future direction.

First of all: it’s a reminder that the authority which Jesus gave the twelve, our ancestors in faith and ministry, is an authority rooted in service. It is power to heal and make whole. It is not authority to cover-up wrong-doing by the powerful and well-connected and to perpetuate the harm which they have done to vulnerable and sometimes deeply damaged people.

Second: it’s a reminder that those who follow Jesus are to travel light. ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.’ Nearly eighty years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in prison in Berlin, was thinking about the future of the Protestant Church in Germany after the end of the Hitler regime. He shared with his friend Eberhard Bethge the outline for a short book (“not more than 100 pages”) that he hoped to write. He talked about the dead weight of “difficult traditional ideas” and warned that the church would have to give away all its property and not be defensive of its privileged position if it was serious about telling “people of every calling” what it means to live in Christ.

Third: it’s also a warning about the need for rootedness. Even on a preaching tour, the disciples are to base themselves in one place, and not to flit about, but to have a recognised base, wherever they may find themselves.

And finally: it’s a reminder that their message is good news, good news proclaimed by example as much as by words – and that when they experience rejection they are not to judge, but to bear testimony to that rejection. All judgement belongs in the end to God. Their task then, like our task now, was to bring hope and healing to a world in desperate need of both. As we remember those preparing for ordination at Michaelmas, and pray for those exploring the possibility, let us pray that God will equip them to fulfil their ministry.


Gospel reading for 21st September – St Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13)

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Reflection:

It didn’t really make much difference whether you worked for the Romans or for one of the borderline-Jewish puppet rulers for whom the occupying forces had carved out a patch of territory after the death of Herod the Great. If you collected taxes or customs dues from your fellow-countrymen on their behalf, you were hated and despised in roughly equal measure – not least because Roman tax-collection had rather more in common with a mafia protection racket than with the bureaucracy of the Agenzia dell’Entrate. In such an atmosphere, for Jesus to invite a man from the local tax-office to join the company of his disciples was bad enough. For him to go for a meal with such a person and his equally unsavoury friends was even worse. In the world-view of first-century Jews, tax-collectors are up there with herdsmen, leather-workers and professional gamblers on the list of “despised trades,” so far up there, in fact, that they were regarded as outcast from the people of God.

So the Pharisees, as guardians of the purity of God’s people, were outraged. The late Henri Persoz, of the Protestant Church in France, commented on this passage: “Just as they are today meals, whether small or great, were the moment for sharing among friends. Sharing bread, but also words, friendships, solidarities, mutual support. It is sharing that creates community. A gathering that in a way prefigures the kingdom of God, which is often depicted as a great banquet… Good reason, said the Pharisees, for not eating with sinners who certainly won’t be invited into the Kingdom, these strangers who come from no one knows where and who above all don’t live in the way our fathers taught us. What are they coming to do here? Who has invited them? Solidarity among ourselves, of course. But you have to know where to stop.”

But Jesus never does know when to stop. He turns the Pharisees’ argument upside down with his reminder that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” As Henri Persoz also remarks on his commentary on this passage, “The most important thing in these meals is to welcome the others, too, the people who aren’t well integrated into Jewishness, the sinners, and those unbearable people, the tax-collectors. [The Pharisees] don’t need looking after. But those who come from elsewhere, who don’t necessarily believe what [Pharisees] believe, those people who are stigmatised, ill, vulnerable because they do not easily fit into a traditional view of Jewishness, they are the ones who need to be welcomed, to be allowed into the community.”

Those words are important for us, too, in this time of great upheaval when people from many lands are fleeing repressive regimes or collapsing states. What matters to Jesus, and to us who claim to follow him, is not whether they are “the right kind of refugee” but the reality of their need – and especially their need, like Matthew and his friends, for acceptance and integration, integration not into a sharply defined community of the like-minded but into the fuzzy borders of the kingdom into which Jesus welcomes all those whom he has called.


Gospel reading for 15th September – St Cyprian (Luke 9:23-26)

Jesus said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

Reflection:

Like Dante Alighieri, whom we remembered yesterday, Cyprian died on 14th September. Because of the clash with Holy Cross Day, the Western Church has long commemorated him on 13th or 15th (and in the Roman Calendar on 16th in order to avoid the ending of that Church’s celebration of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Although the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer appointed 26th September as his feast day, because of confusion with another holy Cyprian (of Antioch), the more usual date for his commemoration now is 15th September.

Cyprian was a late-comer to Christian faith. Born around AD200, until his mid-forties he was a pagan, a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric in North Africa. Converted to Christ, he gave away all his legal and rhetorical text-books and devoted himself to studying the Hebrew and Christian scriptures with the same energy and intelligence that he had previously devoted to the law, to such effect that within a couple of years he was chosen by popular acclaim as the new bishop of Carthage.

Cyprian was a wise and discerning bishop, whose pastoral heart was sometimes tempered by strictness in dealing with the various divisions which occurred in the North African Church during the middle of the third century. He was merciful to those who had fallen away from faith during the times of persecution, but he was a stern opponent of those who brought division into the body of Christ. Driven out of Carthage once by persecution, he continued to care for the communities in his charge by letter and his letters, and the various books that he wrote about topical issues and controversies in the Church, are an important source of information about developments in during this period. When persecution arose a second time, he initially went into hiding, but later returned, was arrested and, on his refusal to offer sacrifice to the official gods of the Roman empire, executed on 14th September 258. His courage in the face of persecution and willingness to lose his life for Jesus’ sake makes today’s gospel reading particularly appropriate.


Gospel reading for 14th September – Holy Cross Day (John 3.13-17)

Jesus told Nicodemus ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

Reflection:

It was 700 years ago today that the poet, politician, philosopher and theologian Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna of malaria contracted while he was on a diplomatic mission to Venice. He was an exile from Florence, his native city. His property had been confiscated. He and his sons were under sentence of death if they ever returned. By the 500th anniversary of his death the authorities in Florence had come to the conclusion that their hard line against the family might have been a mistake (though they didn’t revoke the sentence against him until thirteen years ago) and they prepared a magnificent tomb in the Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce – appropriately for someone who had died on Holy Cross Day and who had strong links with the Franciscan movement. They had everything ready and waiting to receive the poet’s earthly remains when they were returned from Ravenna. Sadly for them, they are still waiting. The people of Ravenna decided that as the people of Florence had rejected Dante while he was alive, it was not right that they should possess his bones after his death. So they remain in the mausoleum built for them in 1781 next door to Ravenna’smain Franciscan church.

Now today is not only a coincidence of dates. Today we celebrate the power of God’s love to overcome every evil, to make, in the words of the collect for Holy Cross Day, “an instrument of painful death to be for us the means of life and peace”. Today we rejoice that ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ So Dante, whose great poem begins with him lost in a dark wood on the evening of Maundy Thursday 1300, is saved by God’s love from the beasts which threaten him, and from the fear which almost overwhelms him. That poetic summing-up of a mid-life crisis, a crisis compounded in real life by the political and financial ruin which overtook him and his family less than two years later, marks the beginning of a journey into the depths which is the way by which Dante comes to attain the vision of God with which his poem ends.

So, too, Jesus, “the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man”, journeys into the depths of human betrayal, cruelty and rejection, until he is lifted up on the cross, that stark emblem of the misuse of power in the service of the destructive forces of this world. Jesus is lifted up so that human beings may find in him their healing, as centuries before the Israelites had found healing by gazing on the serpent, the image of the poisonous snakes which had caused their suffering.

On this Holy Cross Day, then, let us not be afraid to confront the evil that lies in the depths as we turn our eyes to the image of Christ crucified and find in him our healing and a renewed hope and trust in the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Gospel reading for 21st September – St Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13)

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Reflection:

It didn’t really make much difference whether you worked for the Romans or for one of the borderline-Jewish puppet rulers for whom the occupying forces had carved out a patch of territory after the death of Herod the Great. If you collected taxes or customs dues from your fellow-countrymen on their behalf, you were hated and despised in roughly equal measure – not least because Roman tax-collection had rather more in common with a mafia protection racket than with the bureaucracy of the Agenzia dell’Entrate. In such an atmosphere, for Jesus to invite a man from the local tax-office to join the company of his disciples was bad enough. For him to go for a meal with such a person and his equally unsavoury friends was even worse. In the world-view of first-century Jews, tax-collectors are up there with herdsmen, leather-workers and professional gamblers on the list of “despised trades,” so far up there, in fact, that they were regarded as outcast from the people of God.

So the Pharisees, as guardians of the purity of God’s people, were outraged. The late Henri Persoz, of the Protestant Church in France, commented on this passage: “Just as they are today meals, whether small or great, were the moment for sharing among friends. Sharing bread, but also words, friendships, solidarities, mutual support. It is sharing that creates community. A gathering that in a way prefigures the kingdom of God, which is often depicted as a great banquet… Good reason, said the Pharisees, for not eating with sinners who certainly won’t be invited into the Kingdom, these strangers who come from no one knows where and who above all don’t live in the way our fathers taught us. What are they coming to do here? Who has invited them? Solidarity among ourselves, of course. But you have to know where to stop.”

But Jesus never does know when to stop. He turns the Pharisees’ argument upside down with his reminder that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” As Henri Persoz also remarks on his commentary on this passage, “The most important thing in these meals is to welcome the others, too, the people who aren’t well integrated into Jewishness, the sinners, and those unbearable people, the tax-collectors. [The Pharisees] don’t need looking after. But those who come from elsewhere, who don’t necessarily believe what [Pharisees] believe, those people who are stigmatised, ill, vulnerable because they do not easily fit into a traditional view of Jewishness, they are the ones who need to be welcomed, to be allowed into the community.”

Those words are important for us, too, in this time of great upheaval when people from many lands are fleeing repressive regimes or collapsing states. What matters to Jesus, and to us who claim to follow him, is not whether they are “the right kind of refugee” but the reality of their need – and especially their need, like Matthew and his friends, for acceptance and integration, integration not into a sharply defined community of the like-minded but into the fuzzy borders of the kingdom into which Jesus welcomes all those whom he has called.


Gospel reading for 15th September – St Cyprian (Luke 9:23-26)

Jesus said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

Reflection:

Like Dante Alighieri, whom we remembered yesterday, Cyprian died on 14th September. Because of the clash with Holy Cross Day, the Western Church has long commemorated him on 13th or 15th (and in the Roman Calendar on 16th in order to avoid the ending of that Church’s celebration of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Although the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer appointed 26th September as his feast day, because of confusion with another holy Cyprian (of Antioch), the more usual date for his commemoration now is 15th September.

Cyprian was a late-comer to Christian faith. Born around AD200, until his mid-forties he was a pagan, a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric in North Africa. Converted to Christ, he gave away all his legal and rhetorical text-books and devoted himself to studying the Hebrew and Christian scriptures with the same energy and intelligence that he had previously devoted to the law, to such effect that within a couple of years he was chosen by popular acclaim as the new bishop of Carthage.

Cyprian was a wise and discerning bishop, whose pastoral heart was sometimes tempered by strictness in dealing with the various divisions which occurred in the North African Church during the middle of the third century. He was merciful to those who had fallen away from faith during the times of persecution, but he was a stern opponent of those who brought division into the body of Christ. Driven out of Carthage once by persecution, he continued to care for the communities in his charge by letter and his letters, and the various books that he wrote about topical issues and controversies in the Church, are an important source of information about developments in during this period. When persecution arose a second time, he initially went into hiding, but later returned, was arrested and, on his refusal to offer sacrifice to the official gods of the Roman empire, executed on 14th September 258. His courage in the face of persecution and willingness to lose his life for Jesus’ sake makes today’s gospel reading particularly appropriate.


Gospel reading for 14th September – Holy Cross Day (John 3.13-17)

Jesus told Nicodemus ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

Reflection:

It was 700 years ago today that the poet, politician, philosopher and theologian Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna of malaria contracted while he was on a diplomatic mission to Venice. He was an exile from Florence, his native city. His property had been confiscated. He and his sons were under sentence of death if they ever returned. By the 500th anniversary of his death the authorities in Florence had come to the conclusion that their hard line against the family might have been a mistake (though they didn’t revoke the sentence against him until thirteen years ago) and they prepared a magnificent tomb in the Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce – appropriately for someone who had died on Holy Cross Day and who had strong links with the Franciscan movement. They had everything ready and waiting to receive the poet’s earthly remains when they were returned from Ravenna. Sadly for them, they are still waiting. The people of Ravenna decided that as the people of Florence had rejected Dante while he was alive, it was not right that they should possess his bones after his death. So they remain in the mausoleum built for them in 1781 next door to Ravenna’smain Franciscan church.

Now today is not only a coincidence of dates. Today we celebrate the power of God’s love to overcome every evil, to make, in the words of the collect for Holy Cross Day, “an instrument of painful death to be for us the means of life and peace”. Today we rejoice that ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ So Dante, whose great poem begins with him lost in a dark wood on the evening of Maundy Thursday 1300, is saved by God’s love from the beasts which threaten him, and from the fear which almost overwhelms him. That poetic summing-up of a mid-life crisis, a crisis compounded in real life by the political and financial ruin which overtook him and his family less than two years later, marks the beginning of a journey into the depths which is the way by which Dante comes to attain the vision of God with which his poem ends.

So, too, Jesus, “the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man”, journeys into the depths of human betrayal, cruelty and rejection, until he is lifted up on the cross, that stark emblem of the misuse of power in the service of the destructive forces of this world. Jesus is lifted up so that human beings may find in him their healing, as centuries before the Israelites had found healing by gazing on the serpent, the image of the poisonous snakes which had caused their suffering.

On this Holy Cross Day, then, let us not be afraid to confront the evil that lies in the depths as we turn our eyes to the image of Christ crucified and find in him our healing and a renewed hope and trust in the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”