Monthly Archives: March 2015

Palm Sunday – Let this mind be in you

Matthew 21:1-11, Zechariah 9:9-12, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 27:1-54

“Have this mind be in you, which is yours in Christ Jesus: who…humbled himself;
by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a Cross. “

The created world around us in this season of Lent is poised to explode in colour – on this wet Spring day the blossoms on trees are just beginning to open – there is the expectation of Easter joy and glory ready to burst forth after months of winter!

Yet it has been a sad week in the news, with the plane crash in the Alps, and with the chilling details being revealed that it was a deliberate act by someone put in a position of such great responsibility for the lives of others.  Described in the media as “hard to comprehend”, certainly.  But, as some said, “unthinkable”, no, as Christians we are realists, we know that humanity is in need of a Saviour.  We know that in the past century, human beings in government, not suffering a mental illness, but by cold calculating reason, made choices that led to the deaths of millions.  There are many destructive ideologies today that result in the deaths of thousands every month.  We know the hearts of human beings are capable of great evil…but also of incredible goodness – how can we change the human heart that it seeks only what is good?  We can’t.

Then how can God accomplish that without another flood?  This is precisely why we are here today looking to Jesus Christ.

Today is the start of Holy Week.  We will bring before our minds this week Christ’s suffering and death.  It will be before our minds in all sorts of ways even in the secular world we live in (on my drive to Zwolle today Radio 4 was playing Bach’s St John’s Passion!  Everywhere they are going the through the motions selling eggs – why eggs! We know what must come first!).  We are called to think on Christ’s passion again – not to glorify its violence, but because it is a knowledge, if really taken inwardly, that breaks apart stony hearts.  We come to know more clearly the cost of sin, and with greater certainty the love of Christ, and that it might be shed abroad in our hearts.

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Triumph Chariot, bas relief from Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, 2nd century.

Triumph Chariot, bas relief from Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, 2nd century.

In the first gospel reading today we have heard about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  He was riding on a donkey.  At the time of Jesus’ earthly life, after a great military victory, a ruler would come home to celebrate the victory with a huge parade, and a triumphal entry back into the main city of the country.  It was the custom that the general or King entered the city riding a large stallion, the best horse, a symbol of power and of majesty and authority.  Or in the case of Roman Emperors, they were often depicted in a chariot drawn by four of the best horses.  And palms were waved as a sign of Victory in war.

Jesus, the true King, the one through whom the whole creation was made, chose to make his entry into Jerusalem, the City of Peace, on a donkey – a symbol of humility, the choice of a poor person for transportation in that day.  Imagine the reaction of the Roman soldiers to this sort of entry – not much of a threat, more of a joke, who are these Jewish people and their strange customs?  Yet, whose power has endured, Caesar or Jesus?

PalmSundayGod chooses ways to get around the obstacles that we set up to reject him. Our pride is the foremost obstacle to submitting ourselves to the rule of heaven, so God comes to us humbly, to slip by us and so strike at our hearts!

Jesus chooses the donkey also, very deliberately, knowing himself to be the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

It was prophesied in Jacob’s final blessing of his 12 sons, who come to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, in Genesis (49:10-11, from the Septuagint translation, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, widely used at the time of Christ and often quoted in the New Testament).  To Judah, Jacob says,

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
Until he comes to whom it belongs;
And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples(not just to the Jews)
Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
(remember Jesus said, I am the Vine, (John 15))
He washes his garments in wine, his vesture in the blood of grapes…

That’s from the Law (the first five books of the Old Testament, ~12th century BC), and here from the prophet Zechariah (6th century BC, representing the Prophets), as we heard in our Old Testament reading:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O
 daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey and on a colt the foal of a donkey. 

Here, remarkably, the wording parallels in a  way the much earlier blessing of Jacob, but the reference to the vine is now more explicitly connected with Israel’s coming king.

Jesus, the One whom David called his Lord (Ps 110) and who, as David’s descendant and the Messiah is called Son of David (Mt 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38), follows the same way of entry into the holy city as David did 1000 years before.

Next, we have heard from St Matthew’s Gospel account of the Passion of how that victory is achieved: not easily, not immediately, but the true conversion of hearts to God, one person at a time even to present day. It comes about through the accepting of Jesus’ death upon the Cross for us.

This coming Holy Week in our services at Holy Trinity (or if you cannot come you could read them at home) we will read through the passion story as told by Mark (on Monday and Tuesday night), Luke (on Wednesday and Thursday nights) and then John on Good Friday. And there are so many things revealed about human nature that are so vivid before our minds: the surprise anointing of Jesus body beforehand with precious ointment by a woman in a loving and prophetic gesture; the Last Supper together between Jesus with his disciples – he says, With desire have I desired to eat this Passover with you; the fleeting moments in the garden told to us of human weakness and Christ’s steadfastness; and then his arrest, trial, conviction, and crucifixion.  We hear of the excitement and terror of the disciples, of betrayal and cowardice, of justice perverted, of truth denied, of the cruelty of man to man, of abandondment, and in the midst of it moments of the flashing forth of great courage and of course, of our Lord’s patience through all of it and, most profoundly, of His love.

What other movement political or religious focusses so much on small and great interactions over a period of three days?  These moments recorded in Scripture are all so excruciatingly human, they are so woven into our daily encounters with others, they are repeated again and again in human society. And if we are listening deeply, we catch ourselves from joining in with the mockers, we step in the breech when we see another being bullied, we hold back our anger from spilling out on the innocent around us, we weep over the oppressed, we take the right action…and are hurt, like him…and we know a kind of death, like him… and then also, like him, a resurrection.

The palm cross that you have been given today, holds together as a symbol the teaching of the two Gospels we have heard today:

  • the palm, a symbol of our Lord’s victory, and the victory that he makes possible for us; and
  • it is in the shape of the Cross – the way and means to that victory.

St Paul says, Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.

The Son of God “though he was in the form of God, … made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men: and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

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Jesus came to all humanity humble and riding on a donkey into Jerusalem. He didn’t force the people to accept Him as King, even though He is King of the Universe, even though he could call upon those legions of angels to force an earthly kingdom. But he didn’t use his power that way then and he doesn’t use it that way now. He comes to us humbly, to serve us; the tables are turned, He waits for us to allow Him to serve us.

Jesus is riding humbly to our souls today. He is even now asking, knocking, waiting for us to open wider the door of our hearts to Him. He waits for us to accept Him as our King, He wants us to want Him, to love Him freely.

Let’s open wider our hearts to Him this week and always.

Almighty and everlasting God; who in your tender love towards mankind, sent your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Palm Sunday - triumphal entry - unknown French Master

Lent 4 – Jerusalem above is free

Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

This is Mothering Sunday, it has been a tradition to remember our mothers this day who gave life to us from their very flesh and who have and continue to nurture us in our earthly life (even if they have passed on to the next – by example, by their wise counsel, and behind the veil, with love and prayers).

In England Mothering Sunday has also been celebrated in times past by everyone going to the Cathedral of the Diocese to participate in worship together, remembering that the Church is our mother – bringing us to a spiritual birth and nurturing us in that heavenly life. Of course that would be very difficult in our Diocese, the Diocese in Europe – all of us making our way to Gibraltar, just for the day!

An earthly life and a heavenly life – we need to be brought to birth and to be nurtured in both. Without a heavenly birth our lives, in the end, are futile – without transcendence, without hope. But without an earthly birth there can be no heavenly birth. Both are miraculous! Both most necessary!

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Lent 4 - o-jerusalem-greg-olsenOur Epistle reading today contrasts two kinds of mothering: one which leads to bondage and the other that leads to freedom.

Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 

You remember that Abraham and Sarah were promised by God to have a son, and that after many many years without conceiving, Sarah gave her maid Hagar to Abraham – thinking that maybe this was the way through which God meant to give them a son, since Sarah was now past the normal age of childbirth – that child was named Ishmael. But after 14 more years, Sarah finally conceived and had a child, as had originally been promised, and they called him Isaac.

Paul says, These things are an allegory:

Allegory is a word derived from Greek ‘allos’ meaning ‘other’ and ‘agoria’ – meaning ‘it speaks of’. What Paul is saying is that the very circumstances of the lives of these women of the Old Testament speak to us of something else.

These women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 

Because of the confusions that had become of the teaching of the Law of Moses through the scribes and Pharisees – the Law, given to show us what love is like and to make us call out for a Saviour, had instead become an instrument of bondage. It was used by the scribes and Pharisees as a means of self-righteousness and of holding people back through guilt. Remember that Jesus held his strongest rebuke to the teachers of the Law of Moses. Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites, white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones! Their lives appeared righteous on the outside, but they were full of pride and envy inside and it led them to anger when Jesus challenged them in their midst – it led them to plot to put him to death. They were still ‘fleshy’ or ‘carnally’ minded – they thought they were fulfilling the Law of God, but they were hypocrites, because it was only an outward following.

The Scribes and Pharisees are an example of motherhood gone wrong – they used their greater learning and their position of power to oppress and to keep the others from growing up and from freedom. Jesus said that they had failed to enter the kingdom of heaven themselves, and they prevented those around them from entering also.

This is a warning to mothers, in exercising their motherhood – it is such a position of power and authority over a child growing up – motherhood is to be exercised in a way that neither oppresses their children nor prevents them from entering into full adulthood. Mothers rejoice as they see their children beginning to think for themselves – how difficult to resist the temptation when they fail to say, I told you so! how difficult it must be to hold their tongues sometimes when they know they have good advice but know it won’t be received! But that is love. Mothers rejoice to see their children taking flight, with independence of mind and exercising their will.

And this is a great warning to the Church, in the exercise of its ministry – the ministry is not meant to obtain a slavish obedience of its adherents through guilt or through keeping them in ignorance. But the Church, when acting in love, is an instrument by which God brings individuals to full maturity in Christ – so that they become truly free sons and daughters of the living God. St Paul says – I labour to bring Christ to birth in you! (Gal 4:19) (e.g. the Reformation – the Bible in the language of the people? – the Reformers came out on the side of, yes there is a danger of misinterpretation, but there is an even greater hope – that people will be fed and come to full maturity in Christ – internalizing their faith.)

The Jerusalem above is free; and she is our mother. 

The Jerusalem above – Paul is referring to the perfected Church, the Kingdom of Heaven, which is mingled with the Church here on earth. We all know too plainly the failings of the Church here on earth – they are very quickly pointed out by the world around us.  But also, somehow, despite its errors and imperfections in the exercise of its ministry, something of the Jerusalem which is above, something of that perfect Church in heaven continues to shine through – it is a divinely inspired institution.

The Church brings children into the Kingdom through baptism and nurtures them on their journey through teaching them God’s Word written and the administration of the other Sacraments.  How to be a good mother requires much grace and many prayers.

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The ancient Collect for this morning reveals something of the dilemma for the Church in its ministry as our mother.  I suspect some of these phrases are shocking to modern ears.

Grant, we beseech you, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of your grace may mercifully be relieved; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Do we really believe that we do evil deeds?
Do we really believe that we do worthily deserve to be punished for them?
Is it really a mercy to be relieved and forgiven through Jesus Christ our Lord?

How do we hold the teaching of these different sides of the Gospel together so as neither to oppress a child and nor to spoil the child?

Some might read the Epistle reading today as saying that the Moral Law of the Old Testament is oppressive and should be rejected – it only leads to bondage, the bondage of people feeling guilty and being held back. But is that what St Paul is saying? If we remove the moral law as a description of true love and of what is evil, that is, of what denigrates life and our flourishing, do we not spoil the child? St Paul is clear elsewhere that by no means do we throw off the gift of the moral law. St Paul is throwing off a confusion in the way the Law was taught – the Law cannot not save us – if we think it can, we remain in bondage. We need and have been given a Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is faith in Him that saves us, that leads us to freedom.

Some might think that the punishments of the Old Testament are excessive for wrongdoing, for justice to be met. That somehow the God of the Old Testament is wrathful, harsh and contrast that with the God of the New Testament.  But that is both to underestimate the destructiveness of sin to life and to well-being and it is also to denigrate both the need for Christ’s sacrifice and hides from us the depths of God’s mercy shown to us. We are so used to living under the mercy of God, that we can forget that it is mercy – that is, undeserved forgiveness from God for things very destructive to life and to community. We can forget that the only reason we can show mercy is because we all have received mercy to continue to live in God’s world.

But how to hold these sides together, how to preach both the destructiveness of sin and of the depths of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ so that the Church’s children are neither spoiled by failing to be called to account, nor oppressed by excessively focusing on “our wretchedness” [The Collect for Lent], and so in neither case ever really knowing the depths of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ!

Knowing when to speak and when to be silent, knowing when a word may be heard and when it will not be, knowing how each person can be counselled in their individual circumstances and maturity, requires the wisdom of God.

Pray for me and for the Church that she may get her teaching right and her way of teaching right.

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Lent 4 - Ravenna960The Gospel today is Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand with five barley loaves and two small fishes.

It is a Gospel miracle that has been seen as pointing to Jesus’ gift to us of Holy Communion – the people were in the wilderness and were fed, just as the manna was given to the Israelites in their desert wanderings. Jesus blesses and breaks the bread and fish and it is distributed through the disciples to all people as he does this now through the Church. From a very little the many are fed and are contented.

In Holy Communion, we know God’s love, here we know our salvation. After receiving, we rest in a state of perfect forgiveness and are strengthened in this nourishment for our souls like no other nourishment on earth.

But its efficacy, its power, is such only because of a kind of hiddenness in today’s Gospel about how it comes to be for us life giving – Holy Communion is effective only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate the Holy Communion, we have joy, and yet that joy is mingled with sorrow – we are remembering Jesus’ death until he comes again.

Sin and grace, sorrow and joy, punishment and mercy, death and new life, crucifixion and resurrection: we hold them together or we will be spoiled or feel oppressed.

Let us bring before God today our disappointments, our failures in love – let us bring them, as mature sons and daughters of the living God, in the new light of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Jerusalem which is above, with full faith and confidence in Jesus Christ.  And may our hunger be met and our thirst quenched with heavenly food.

And let us give thanks to God, and pray, for our mothers – both earthly and heavenly.

Amen.