Category Archives: Sermons

Trinity 16 – Agony and Ecstasy

That you might be filled with all the fullness of God!

This morning (at the 9am service at Holy Trinity in Utrecht) we rejoiced in the baptism of Eva Cremer Eindhoven.  She has been drowned in the waters of Holy Baptism, and raised up, resurrected, in a sense, a new creature in Christ.  We believe that in this sacramental act, she was regenerate – has been joined mystically with Jesus, and so, made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of eternal life.  In this union of her soul with Christ, there is a cleansing from sin and the gift of new life in the Spirit.

And this is the case for each one of us here who has been baptized.

In the exhortation to godparents and parents after the baptism, there is a reminder to each of us of our profession as Christians, that is, to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be make like him; that as he died and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptized, die from sin and rise again unto righteousness, continually mortifying (or, putting to death) all our evil and corrupt affections, and daily proceeding in all virtue and godliness of living – the new resurrection life.

And this is a lifetime project – our sanctification in Christ.

And we might find this sometimes (or often) wearying!  But it seems that in God’s plan this very struggle that we have continually in our lives here on earth, brings about the engagement of our full humanity – our personality and personhood, body and soul, in a transformation that could not have been the case had we not engaged in the battle.

The greatest theologians of the Eastern and Western Churches have taught that the place we are being brought to by Christ, through faith in Him by His grace, is not back to the garden of Eden and to that earthly paradise, but to somewhere much higher, more exalted – to the heavenly places to sit with Christ Himself, being partakers of the divine nature, enjoying a friendship and deep union with God that Adam and Eve never knew. (So, for example, in the three books of ascent in the Divine Comedy by Dante, the earthly paradise is not the subject of the third book, but is found at the end of the second book.)

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Raising the Son of the Widow of Nain, Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1569

In our Gospel today (St Luke 7:11-17) we have one of the miracles that Jesus performed of the raising up of a person from death.  In this case it is the only son of the widow of Nain.  In the story we learn that there was a procession out of the city presumably to the burial sight.  The young man was on a funeral bier with his mother by his side weeping.  The whole crowd is in a state of mourning, recognizing also, perhaps, the particular tragedy for this widow whose only son has died.  Jesus meets this procession with a crowd who had been following him.  One procession following death and other following Life itself.  When they meet Jesus tells her not to weep and raises up the young man from death.  We are told that the young man sat up and started to speak.  We may wonder what he said!

Surely there is nothing that could be more shocking to witness!  And yet these Jewish people in both crowds had been prepared for such a miracle by their knowledge of the Scriptural accounts of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, each of whom raised a boy from death through their prayers – we heard the account of this in our first reading, 1 Kings 17:17-24.  And so the immediate reaction of the crowds is not unbelief, or to question if the man had ever really been dead, or to think it was some evil at work, but rather to glorify God and to proclaim that a great Prophet is risen among them – like the greatest prophets of old.

But these Gospel stories, like the parables, are given to us to bring with them deep teaching, they point us to eternal truths about what God is doing in Jesus Christ.

Yes, it points out that Jesus is like the great prophets of old – one aspect of his threefold Messianic ministries on earth as prophet, priest and king.  Yes, it points to God’s promise to raise us up at the last day.  But there is also a moral teaching in the circumstances surrounding the miracle.  And it is why, until recently, this Gospel has been read for 1500 years in churches in the West at this time in Trinity season.

We have been looking at the passions of the soul in the early part of Trinity season (Trinity 3-9), and about their reordering in Christ – a kind of focus on how they are expressed in our outward lives.  Then we looked at the same passions more inwardly to open up our hearts to the light of Christ to see not just our outward actions but our innermost motivations.  Think of last Sunday where Jesus calls for a more radical following of him, seeking him out first, even before food, drink and clothing, trusting fully that God will provide (related to the first stirrings in the heart of the passion of covetousness).

This Sunday’s Gospel miracle is a kind of parable of our lives. It is precisely what was spoken of in the baptism exhortation – continually mortifying (or putting to death) all our evil and corrupt affections, and daily proceeding in all virtue and godliness of living.

The word Nain means Pleasant or Pleasure in Hebrew.  If we would rise up with Christ, there must be a willingness to put to death not just sin but our excessive dependence upon earthly consolation.  The young man is a parable of every one who has died to earthly pleasure, and comes to know something utterly new – rising up to see Christ face to face.

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Mosaic, Montreale Cathedral, Sicily, 1180s

What about us? Are we content to live a life of balancing our happiness or contentment by a mixture of earthly pleasures or do we want to see Jesus face to face?  Our call in the Gospel and Epistle today is that would not rest content but keep ever in this search to seek out God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, to really desire what God has to offer us in all its fullness even now!

Listen to St Paul in today’s Epistle! He is certain that God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. And so he prays…

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being(at the very heart of who we are) so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend (our souls are not yet ready for such glory! yet God is making us ready (e.g. Daniel when faced with the angel needed grace to bear the vision, first fell on his face, then with a touch was able to rise to his hands and knees and then with a further word was able to stand – Daniel 10)) to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (not just a knowledge of facts, but to know their significance in our hearts, to really know the Lord), that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  (Ephesians 3:13-21)  Can you imagine anything more to desire than to be filled with all the fullness of God?!  Could we be more alive? could we be wiser? could we be more in love? could we be more full of joy?

There is no moderation here! There is no restraint on what we can expect!  There is a kind of ecstatic writing here and St Paul is grasping at the possibilities of our encounter now, in this life with God.

God is Spirit and we are to worship him in spirit and truth.  As we die to earthly pleasures and worldly aims, there is a new life that comes about for us.  And this doesn’t make us hate the world or reject it, but rather, when we re-engage with the world after this turning of ourselves over fully to God, there a new brilliance, a new shine to everything that we see, a new appreciation.  We are being led to a place of loving God with all that we are, and to be infilled with Him and so seeing the world in a loving beholding, to see all its glory through God’s eyes.

May we be encouraged to this seeking out of Jesus, and pray like St Paul for one another, that we may all come to know the breadth and length and height and depths, and to know not just in our minds but in our hearts, the love of God in Christ Jesus.  To Him be all glory.  Amen.

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The raising of Lazarus, Vincent van Gogh, 1890.

Trinity 14 – Fruitfulness

Jesus said to them, “Go and show yourself to the priests.”
And as they went they were cleansed.

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Our readings today are really dealing with this question: how do we inherit the kingdom of heaven?

It is not God who is holding back in giving, but we who hinder the pouring out of his grace and his filling us up with all the gifts that flow from heaven.

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In the Old Testament lesson (2 Kings 5:9-16), we have the example of a very important man, Naaman, who is the chief army commander from Syria, a much more powerful kingdom next to Israel (8th century BC). He comes to seek out healing for his leprosy from the prophet Elisha. The reason Naaman came to Elisha was that he’d been told by an Israelite woman, who was in service to the Syrian king, that Elisha could heal him.

When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha didn’t come out himself to meet the “important” man, but instead told his servant to go and tell Naaman what to do – and the advice itself, go and wash in the river Jordan seven times and he would be made clean, offended Naaman a second time. His pride is pricked and it leads to him to become enraged: “are not the Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”  He walks away, unwilling to receive the promised healing.

This is an example of the very thing that can hinder us from being healed – we need a humble spirit and a spirit of simple trust in what the God of Israel is telling us to do.  Naaman is finally convinced by his own servants, who know humility, to submit to the command of Elisha.  Finally he humbles himself and goes in obedience, washes seven times in the Jordan, and he is healed – his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child.  It may remind us of something Jesus was to say later, Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 18:3)  Naaman’s healing began when humbled himself and began walking to the river.

Is there some simple command of Jesus, like that given to by Elisha to Naaman, that we are failing to listen to, that is hindering the further healing of our souls and so hindering us from receiving more of God’s spiritual graces, from knowing more fully the kingdom of heaven?

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In today’s Epistle reading (Galatians 5:16-24), St Paul contrasts two ways of acting: walking by the Spirit or gratifying the desires of the flesh. He’s reminding us that it the choices we make daily that affect how much we know even now of life in the kingdom of heaven. When St T14 - Fruit of Spirit - treePaul speaks about “inheriting the kingdom of God” here, he is not just speaking about some final judgement or some kingdom to come when Jesus returns, but about the degree to which we inherit God’s kingdom here in this life, today!  How do we know that?  Because all of the fruit of the Spirit that he speaks about are things that can be known even today – that is the inheritance of the kingdom of God – spiritual fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Our actions today, affect our inheritance today.  There is, if you like, an immediate judgement on our actions today, for good or for ill.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality (he means sexual activity forbidden under the law of Moses, there is no other definition in Scripture), impurity, sensuality (an excessive attention to satisfying the senses), idolatry, sorcery (attempting to manipulate spiritual forces for worldly ends – it sounds medieval, but I assure you I encounter it in my ministry today), enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions (surely we all know this temptation to divide, to be over and against others), envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

When St Paul speaks about “the flesh”, he means all of the impulses, the passions that arise in our bodies or souls, as human beings living after the Fall, that lead to sin.  Remember Naaman, how quickly he was enraged?  His pride led to his anger and at first he refuse to be healed!

Surely we all know the thoughts behind these works of the flesh? Maybe the jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, covetousness, impure thoughts?

Each of us struggle inside differently, because we have fallen in different ways outwardly in the past. For each one of us the battle we face inwardly is unique.

Paul is suggesting, like Elisha, a very simple way for us to be healed of these continued disturbances to our fuller enjoyment of the kingdom of heaven.  It is no jumping through a flaming hoop of fire, no long painful pilgrimage on bare feet, no beating ourselves with a stick until we bleed.  It is simply this: No longer gratify fleshy desires, and walk daily in the way of Jesus.  That is what it is to wash seven times in the river that is right before us – that River welling up in each of our hearts to eternal life (John 4) – we have the opportunity in our daily encounters with God in our souls to be cleansed.

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Ten Lepers, Alexandre Bida

In the Gospel today (St Luke 17:11-19), we have the same message from Jesus, but also something more.

Ten lepers cry out in faith for Jesus to heal them of their leprosy.  Think of that leprosy as a symbol of whatever sins outwardly or inwardly that we might be struggling with.

Jesus says, Go show yourselves to the priests.  And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.  

Under the Law of Moses, you may know, before someone who had leprosy could join back into the community, they had to be pronounced clean by the priest who would examine their skin. So there was faith on the part of all the lepers, to follow Jesus’ command – in walking to the priests they had some hope that they would be healed.  They were being healed as they walked, not by some great act on their part, but by a simple trust, a simple obedience to what Jesus commanded.

The same thing happens to us as we obey St Paul’s simple advice – Walk by the Spirit.  Just stop satisfying the impulses of our fallen nature, gratifying the flesh, and the fruit of the Spirit dwelling in us will be revealed – we don’t have to will them, they appear in us as we follow in obedience the way of Christ – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  

It is as the Psalmist says (Psalm 19):

The statutes of the Lord are right, and rejoice the heart :
the commandment of the Lord is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes.

To the carnal immature soul, these fruit seem somehow less immediate, less strong, less tangible, even less desirable compared with the louder more immediate experiences known by the body or the mind of a person driven by the flesh.  But Jesus promises and St Paul confirms, the fruit of the Spirit is what it is to be truly alive, truly an inheritor of God’s kingdom, today, now.  And in time, as we are healed, we begin to desire, even to love these fruit much more than the blinding and loud clamour of gratifying the flesh.

If the Spirit has shown you today, as we’ve been reflecting on the Epistle, some way in which you have been refusing to be obedient to Christ, the call is to humbly walk this week in a new way, not gratifying that fleshy desire but walking in the Spirit.  Jesus will strengthen our wills to follow in that new way.

But the Gospel today goes a little beyond the teaching of the Epistle.

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks; and he was a Samaritan.  And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God, except this foreigner?  And he said to him, Rise and go your way; your faith has made you whole.

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Jesus commends the one who turns back to him to give thanks – he is not just healed of his leprosy, but is told by Jesus that he is whole (KJV).

This morning each one of us wants to be like the one who turned back and gave thanks, right?

What is it about him that is different from the others?  Perhaps being a Samaritan, not a Jew, he had less expectation of God’s grace including him, and so when he saw it he was especially surprised – like someone who has been out of the Church and suddenly trusts and experiences God’s saving grace and is more zealous when coming into the Church than those who have been there all their life.

The gospel says the Samaritan was moved to return to Jesus when he saw that he was healed.

Let’s take a moment this morning to look at ourselves, wherever we are on our journey of healing and the restoration of our souls.  Compare your life today with where you were last year, or five years ago, or twenty years ago.

Do you realize that it is by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, that we are being made whole?  Do you see how the kingdom of God is being manifested in your soul today?

We have opportunity now in the liturgy, the hymns and prayers, to return to Jesus, to fall at his feet and to give him praise.

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   [Ancient Collect for Trinity 14]

Trinity 9 – The Unjust Steward

Make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous wealth;
so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

[Lk 16:9]

This morning’s parable is considered by many to be the hardest parable to understand of all Jesus’ parables. When the Church of England came up with a series of Old Testament lessons to accompany the ancient lectionary that we use, they also provided an alternative gospel parable for this morning.  But let’s face the challenge today and try to extract some honey for our Lord’s words.

I want to suggest a certain interpretation that comes out of the location of the placement of this gospel in the overall scheme of readings during Trinity season.  This season is about our sanctification in Christ. And over the past several weeks the readings are related to the passions of the soul, strong emotions or thoughts or feelings that come upon us – very human reactions to situations, but because we are fallen, we often respond to in a way that is destructive to the life of holiness.

Foremost is pride (Trinity 3), followed by vainglory, dejection, wrath, sloth, greed – these are the result of passions in the soul gone awry and there are only two left.  Once we deal with the ordering of these passions, God can infill us more fully with a whole range of spiritual gifts – and this is what we will look at in the weeks to come, beginning next Sunday.

According to the ancient wisdom we have been directed to reflect on the more destructive passions first, and to finish off with the least destructive passions of the soul – gluttony and lust.  Whoever formed the lectionary, suggest we deal with these two passions together, because they are both related to desires of the body, like no other passion they engage of the senses most fully: sight, smell, taste, touch. And we deal with them together because the antidote to both passions is similar.

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In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul reminds us of the movement of God’s people Israel, out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. St Paul uses this Old Testament history as a kind of allegory of our movement out of slavery to sin to the new life in Christ.

The fault that Paul recalls is that “the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play”.  This is a veiled way of referring to their decision, when Moses was delayed on the holy mountain, to make a golden calf, the people then made a big feast to celebrate. In worshiping the beast they became beastly, less human, they ate and drank excessively, and engaged in sexual immorality. St Paul says they were overthrown in the wilderness, and that with most God was not pleased.

“Now these things were written for our instruction.” Not everything goes. We are given great responsibility to take care in the fulfilment of our desires in such a way that we are not destroyed by them.

In the modern Church we have great debates about where the line is crossed, about how narrow is the way (and I am unconvinced by modern arguments that suggest any change), but all agree that there is a line, that there must be a narrowing, that not everything we might want leads to life.  In Proverbs we are warned: There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end are the ways of death. [14:12]  Our own judgement about what seems right is not always a sure guide to what isright.  The Epistle is a warning to us that there are dangers in the spiritual life from excess in food and drink and from sexual immorality.

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Parable of the unjust steward, Marinus van Reymerswaele (1540)

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us a parable about a rich man who calls his steward or manager to account because he was wasting his possessions. I want to suggest to you that every one of us is a steward of the gifts of God. And it doesn’t take a lot of self-reflection to agree that every one of us is in some way wasting God’s possessions.

We get some sense of this in the debates about being environmentally friendly.  I think we would all agree that it is very hard to live in this life in the West in a way that is as green as we would want – we are contributing to the pollution of the planet: we buy more than we need, we throw out more than is sound – we can try to do our part, and we should, but we will never quite get it right until we radically change our lifestyles.

But I would like us to consider another kind of wastefulness, which is related – that is, of the grace that is poured out on us from above, and how we are using that. For example, God pours his love into our hearts and we can’t quite seem to spend it without wasting it. We are given desire by God to reach out to Him and to love our neighbour, and we satisfy that desire in ways unrelated to its true end.

God gives us a body with desires for food and sexual desire for procreation and for the uniting of married couples in a bond of love – and we are confused in the satisfying of these desires. The love poured into our hearts by God to lead us to enjoy him, and to enjoy our neighbour, is spent in ways that cannot meet the deep needs of our souls.  We are all surely unjust stewards and we will be called to account.

So what does Jesus suggest in this parable?  He never counsels us to despair, but rather, he gives us good news!  What is it?

And the manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me?”

This is a remarkable thing, if you think about it! God has given us life, he has given us love, he has given us everything we possess, and he watches to see how we deal with it in this life. That is a lot of authority to be given!

The unjust steward comes up with a plan – so that when I am removed from management, they may receive me into their homes. He calls the master’s debtors and gives them all a good deal – making them pay back some and letting them keep the rest of the debt for themselves.

Now obviously Jesus is not counselling us to be fraudulent.  So there must be some more hidden meaning in this parable he gave us.  What follows is an interpretation that suggests we view the debtors not as individuals outside ourselves, but the experience we have within our own soul.

The desires of the body are like the debtors in the parable.  For example, when you feel hungry, it is as though you owe your body some food. The depth of hunger we feel in our souls – for satisfaction, for contentment, for comfort – is more than can be satisfied by food alone, in fact we are made that way by God.  But if I we try to completely satisfy our hunger with food, we will be wasting some of the God given “hunger” or “desire” or love which is meant to lead us to seek out God.  And it is similar in the case of sexual desire.  [That our desire for God and desire for food are connected, can be proved by the fact that if we are hungry and in the middle of preparing a supper, and we are suddenly called to an emergency to help someone, we don’t hesitate – love compels us to act and we completely forget about our hunger (it may be for hours on end) until what we can do to help is finished.  Or if we become really engaged is some work that we are passionate about, we can completely forget about food for hours.  Or St Paul counsels couples to obtain from sexual relations from time to time by agreement for fasting and prayer, that is to redirect the same desire for one another physically to a desire for God spiritually (1 Cor 7:5).]

In this interpretation, Jesus is using the example of an unjust steward doing business deals to describe how we truly are already making decisions day-in-day-out, moment by moment, about how we spend desire, or love, which is what God is giving us to use for His glory. Desire from God becomes in us unrighteous wealth if we spend it inordinately on food or sexual intimacy.

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Giotto Di Bondone 13c
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Ambrogio Lorenzetti 14c

Jesus concludes by commending the unjust steward, not for his fraud, but for his attempt to try to satisfy the debtors and his master.

In relation to our own desires, I think he is telling us to be temperate!  That is, to respond to the bodily desires that come upon us, by not totally satisfying them in earthly ways.  Make deals:  I won’t give as much attention to food as my body may demand (gluttony is: too much or too often or too delicately (being overly picky)); I will respond to sexual desire in a chaste way (which means different things if we are single or married).

Following this interpretation, the parable concludes with a call to deal in this life with bodily desires in such a way that when they fail, in other words, when you die, they, the angels, will receive you into the eternal dwellings, into heaven.

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You might ask why does it really matter?

  • We and others are hurt in the present if we satisfy these desires intemperately (our bodies can suffer physically and our wills can be crippled, hearts hardened);
  • It matters because intemperance hinders our growth in Christ. It short circuits the stretching out of desire to lead us back to God, or to the true love of our neighbour as ourselves.
  • It matters, because God is waiting for us to show self-control, so he can pour out more fully his spiritual gifts upon us, otherwise, we would simply redirect the new gifts to satisfying an out of order bodily desire.  He wants to entrust us with even greater riches (Luke 16:10-11 if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to you the true riches?, and see also James 4:3).

There are great books written today and in the Tradition, bringing out the Biblical insights about where are the lines, about what is the narrow way, and about how to deal with these desires of the body – about being temperate and about being chaste.  [See for example:  Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung, who does a wonderful summing up of insights from the past and present and with very practical advice; Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity by Lauren Winner; or, from the tradition, The Institutes by John Cassian, who gathered together the insights of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and whose work is commended by St Benedict in the last chapter of his Rule.]  [One of the greatest spiritual disciplines that is commended for both these disorders is fasting, and when it comes to sexual desire, that fasting could include a fasting from images (“pluck out your eye” Mt 5:29).]

I hope we all see ourselves as unjust stewards. This is not to denigrate everyone, but simply to be honest about where we all are – we are stumbling along – and Jesus knows it.  Paul assures us this morning that there is no temptation which is not common to us all – which is surely a comfort, we are in this together.  And he says that with the temptation, God will provide the way of escape, that we may be able to endure it.  We are to struggle with all these vices and our very temptations become the place for us to grow in our faith – where we form holy habits with Jesus’ help.

Jesus has shown us on the Cross, and by his gift of Holy Communion whereby we receive continually the benefits in our souls of His once for all sacrifice, both that he has mercy on us in our earthly pilgrimage and that he knows we face an ongoing battle.  He invites us to come forward today to this feast.  He wants us to put our full trust in his forgiveness and to be cleansed by His Body and Blood.  He wants us also to receive His risen life to make us wise in managing our desire in future and to give us the strength to seek Him out with that love.

Amen.

Trinity – A door in heaven

Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-15, Revelation 4:1-11

AFTER this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven.

Today is Trinity Sunday – it is in the Anglican Tradition (and in some Lutheran circles), the beginning of the last season of the Church’s year, Trinity season.  All our Sundays from now until Advent, the last half of the year, are named as Sundays after Trinity.

In our readings in the first half of the Christian year, from Advent until now, we have looked at the revelation of God as Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.  In the last half of the year we will be considering our entrance into the life of this triune God and our growth in that spiritual life.

I have been preparing 20 young people for confirmation, God willing, on June 20 – and I find the hardest part of that catechism, the teaching of the Church, is to speak about God the Holy Trinity.

We can use images to try to make some sense in our minds of who God is – like St Patrick, who is reported to have used the shamrock, when travelling through Ireland to teach about God the Holy Trinity – three leaves on one stem.  Of the course every picture we try to make with our minds, if we think about it for a moment, falls apart somehow – one of the three leaves on the stem looks like less than the three on the stem – so that doesn’t work.  Or Dante tried to describe his vision of God as three concentric spheres of rainbow light – but how could you see the three distinctly if they are concentric?  And the image of a sphere still expresses God as somehow having a body, as contained, but God is without a
bT00 - Rubilev Icon 1411ody.  Our minds fail, and must fail in trying to comprehend the incomprehensible God.  (The Orthodox only authorized icon of the Trinity are images of the three angels who visited Abraham to announce the birth to Sarah of a son.  In that mysterious encounter, we hear of three sometimes and sometimes of one.  Rublev’s icon (right) is beautiful for many reasons but especially because all three figures have an identical face.  Still, we might be confused in seeing the image that somehow the substance of God is divided.)

In recent times, to justify diversity in doctrine, some theologians have said that the Trinity is a wonderful example of community reflecting unity in diversity – yet, that statement falls apart – because there is no difference whatsoever between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God – and yet there are not three God’s.  You cannot say of one of the persons that they do not have something that the other two have or that person would not be God.  The only thing we can say is different between the persons is their relation to one another – as is described in the Creed of St Athanasius – The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father and the Spirit is not begotten but proceeds from the Father and the Son.

God has no body, parts or passions, God is beyond gender, and yet we are given words to describe God, by Jesus Himself, God in the flesh, that keep us searching, and tell us something about the nature of God.  And in the light of Jesus Christ, we can see God the Holy Trinity being revealed from the beginning of Bible to the end.  The first few verses of the Bible – Genesis 1:1-3 speak of God (the Father) speaking the Word (the Son) and all things coming into being by the Spirit.

So why does God reveal Himself as Father, Son and Spirit, yet one God in the Bible?

That God is trinity, helps in seeing God as self-knowing, and God is a dynamic relation of love – the Father and Son behold one another in Love, the Holy Spirit.  That each one of us in our souls is made in the image and likeness of God – gives us something to ponder and reveal about the Trinitarian nature of our souls – its deformation by sin and what it looks like when it is reformed by grace.  (St Augustine speaks of being/memory (the Father), knowing/intellect (the Son) and willing/will (the Spirit) as an image in the human soul.  The Collects each Sunday pick up on this trinitarian psychology.)

The holy Trinity is not a teaching that may be finally made clear in a sermon, or a 1000 sermons – only perhaps that we can say that some things cannot be true about God.  But our minds are left in a kind of awe and openness and a necessary and healthy confusion to the glory and wonder of God when we try to ponder the Trinity.

Because Jesus told us to believe in the Trinity, there must be something that brings health to our minds and hearts about worshipping the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity, of joining in the song of the angels that Isaiah and St John saw in a vision – Holy, Holy, Holy, (are these adjectives or nouns? they are both, expressing the Trinity) is Lord God Almighty (expressing the Unity), who was and is, and is to come.

It is helpful to hold before our minds the Trinity in Unity – if we speak uncautiously, as if there are three Gods, we can prevent others – such as Muslims and Jews – from being able to accept Jesus and the Christian faith.

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We have images of the worship in heaven of the Triune God, seen by Isaiah and by St John in our readings today.  Our end is to be taken up into this God through faith in Jesus Christ – one day we hope to be lost in that wonder and glory.  The visions of Isaiah and John are meant for our minds not yet ready for such glory, though to see the Kingdom of heaven is something we are to expect to have opened up for us even while we still walk on the earth.

In our Gospel, Jesus declares to us, how it is that we can get from here to there.

Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus is saying that by our creation as creatures we cannot know or participate in the life of heaven, to see the kingdom.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh.  For us to know and enter into the life of heaven, that is, to see, to enter the kingdom of God, we need spiritual eyes, and to receive such eyes, we are in need of a new birth – that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  

God is Spirit and to see God, we need a new birth that comes from above – the descent of the Holy Spirit to open up that vision of God.

But how can we receive that Spirit from above, to lift us to the heights of heaven, to see that spiritual world?  And why did God wait until Jesus to pour out his Spirit on all flesh?  What was God waiting for?

Jesus makes it clear here, as he did in last Sunday’s Gospel – the necessary receiving of the gift of the Spirit is linked with what Jesus has done for us on the Cross.  In the last verse of today’s Gospel Jesus says,

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.

Jesus is referring to what happened to the Jews on their wilderness wandering out of slavery in Egypt to the promised Land.  The people sinned by despairing on their journey and even despising God’s provision of bread.  Poisonous serpents began to bite them on the way, and they were dying (a kind of outward clear sign of what was happening to their souls inwardly).  Moses pleaded with God to deliver the people, to forgive them – and God said, here’s a way that the people can be saved – make a bronze serpent and put it on a wooden pole – and when the people are bitten, if they look to the bronze serpent, they will be healed – in other words, if they turn in obedience and faith to God for help, he will help them.  But they later confused why they were given the bronze serpent – later some even began to worship it!  And it had to be destroyed.

Jesus is saying that, there is a way, despite our failures in love, to be forgiven and to be restored and to have the vision of God opened up to us, to be able to see the Kingdom of heaven and to enter it.

Jesus says, the Son of Man must be lifted up – and Jesus knows it will be on a cruel cross –that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

We trust in the offering of Jesus on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins and to heal us from the destructiveness of sin.  And once forgiven, we don’t go back to that life which by its very destructiveness blinds us to the vision of the Kingdom.  Rather, we cooperate with the gift of the Spirit to turn away from sin and to lead a life more and more in righteousness and holiness – because that life alone opens our eyes to the Kingdom of heaven that has come and is coming.

Soon we will present Jesus Christ crucified, in the Holy Communion.  Here we can be forgiven our failures in love, here our blinded vision of the thrice Holy God, is cleansed.

Let us prepare ourselves through true repentance and a lively faith.

Amen. +

Easter – He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Rejoice now, all ye heavenly legions of Angels:
all high things that pass understanding:
for the King that cometh with victory,
let the trumpet proclaim salvation.
Sing with joy, O earth, illumined with this celestial radiancy:
and enlightened by the eternal God thy glory,
believe and know thou hast put away the darkness of mankind.
So likewise let our Mother, his holy Church,
welcome the bright beams of light shed upon her:
and let his holy courts be filled with the praises of his people!

ResurrectionStSaviourIstanbul2
The Resurrection – St Saviour’s Church in Istanbul – covered in white plaster at the Muslim conquest for 500 years until restoration in the 20th century.

These are the words that begin the ancient hymn – Exsultet jam angelica, sung at Easter Vigil to bring in this great feast of the Resurrection.  Creation, which had longed for redemption, witnesses the Resurrection – Jesus is the first-fruits and we who follow Him are filling up the harvest for glory!

Today in our Gospel we heard of the first moments, according to John, of the breaking in of a new reality in Creation – it is a very subdued account.

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried while it was still dark. She went out of loving devotion – to anoint the dead body of her Lord, because it had been quickly buried just as the Sabbath began (on Friday night) and she chose, out of faithfulness not do this work on the Sabbath.

And she sees the stone that had covered the grave had been taken away from the tomb. She looked in and saw that the tomb was empty, and she ran to tell Peter and John – “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Our proclamation of the Resurrection begins with a revelation of the absence of our Lord – as John recounts the events that happened – he and Peter ran to the tomb, they see the burial garments but not the Lord’s body – and John says when he looked in, he saw and believed!  Despite all of the preparations Jesus had made, it wasn’t until the actual disappearance of Jesus’ body, that belief in His Resurrection began to come to their minds.

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Whatever idea we might have of the resurrection of Jesus, we should pause before such a great mystery and keep an open mind, so as not to limit the truth and greatness of what happened that day.  It is something that we can’t quite put our minds around.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his excellent book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, notes that in the gospel resurrection accounts there seems to be a “mysterious combination of otherness and identity.”

On the one hand, Jesus does not seem to be recognized when he appears.  Think of Mary Magdalene, mistaking Jesus for the gardener [John 20:15].  Or think of the two on the road to Emmaus, who are joined by a stranger, who speaks on and on with them as they walk, but is only known later in the breaking of the bread – at which point he disappears [Luke 24].  Or remember Jesus’ appearance at the Sea of Tiberias, where he calls out from shore to the disciples who are in a boat to ask if they have any fish.  They say no, so he tells them to cast out again, it is only after the catch, that they know him [John 21].  In every case, it is not by outward physical appearance that they recognize him, but by “a kind of inward knowing”. [Benedict]

On the other hand Jesus is clearly physically present to them – he tells them he is not only spirit, and proves it by eating a piece of fish in their presence – and yet his body is not restrained or confined by the laws of physics that we know.  He appears in their midst in a locked room – he is able to appear and disappear at will.

Jesus’ resurrection is not simply a resuscitation, like his miracles of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain or that of Lazarus, who were resuscitated, only to die again later – but rather, Jesus is now permanently beyond the reach of death.  He is showing us something utterly new.  As Benedict puts it, “Jesus’ Resurrection was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it—a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence.”  Life has burst forth from the grave and opened his followers’ eyes to a new reality, a far greater glory that awaits us.   Truly a “mysterious combination of otherness and identity.”

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I want to say something for those here today who who are just beginning to come in or to return to the Church.  When I was a young Christian, and people said, Christ is risen! and others responded, The Lord is risen indeed!  I wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about – was I supposed to be feeling something?  Did they actually see him?  Is there something I’m missing?  What do they mean by saying, Jesus is risen?

Well it’s not that every true Christian has had a direct vision of Jesus.  Even in Jesus’ resurrection appearances the Bible says it was only to chosen witnesses.  So what is it?

For one thing, it is simply an affirmation of faith – something we believe because of the many witnesses in the Bible who attest to it.  And the Apostles say, that unless Jesus rose from the dead, the whole of our Christian faith is worthless – they hold that it is as key to our understanding our faith and God as Jesus’ birth and his death on the Cross.  And the Apostles are all adamant in the Bible in stating that they have truly seen Him.

So first of all the Resurrection of Jesus is a matter of faith – we trust the Bible, which holds the testimony, the witness of the Apostles.

But secondly, people through the ages have experienced and into the present areexperiencing in their lives the power of the risen Jesus to bring life out of situations that were very much like death. And they identify the new life they experience as derived from His risen Life.  As a priest I have the privilege and blessing of hearing many accounts of the way people have encountered the risen Lord – for some and for myself it is some combination of these ways:

  • Whether a renewal of vision, a renewal of strength after weakness and spiritual drought, or a miraculous healing of hurts and even painful memories, or the restoration and renewal of broken hearts to be able to love again.
  • For some it does include mystical experiences of visions and / or dreams – as promised by the prophets.
  • For some it is the strange correspondences, “coincidences” where nature itself seem to speak in direct ways at just the right moment, or unexpected encounters with just the right individual at just the right time that seems to have been lovingly arranged by someone, or the sudden unexpected love received from a stranger, that made the person wonder later, who was that?
  • For many it is experiencing profoundly Jesus’ mercy – the certainty of the forgiveness of sins, and a peace that passes all understanding.  Some were found in a place of real hell on earth and then were lifted out by a power and love way beyond them.
  • It is experienced by most as the ongoing inspiration by His Spirit in our hearts revealing the truth about ourselves and our relationships, and leading us to a better place.
  • And it is communal too – Jesus promised us that whenever 2 or 3 are gathered in his name he is there in their midst – and those of us who have come to embrace Christian fellowship know this – know there is something added, something special in those friendships – we attribute it to the presence of our risen Lord.

God’s love, God’s light, God’s life dropping down from above like a gentle rain or experienced as a sudden torrent.

There are a myriad of ways that people experience the risen Lord…and can affirm, when someone says – Christ is risen! – they can affirm, as I can now too, even shout with joy – The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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In our Epistle today Paul says– If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.

We’ve gone through the forty day Lenten fast – if you’ve participated, I hope it has been spiritually enriching and that there is something the risen Lord has brought to your mind – something that bound you, something that must stay in the grave.  Let us pray for the grace to leave it behind, and to seek and find a new and better country, to seek the things that are above, where Christ is.

You see, as Christians we experience the risen Lord as coming to us, but he also says we can participate in the work of being raised up, by putting to death sin and setting our minds on things that are above, by cooperating with His effervescent Spirit that is within us seeking always to lift us into that new life.  His love lifts us!

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Jesus has promised us a another way to know his risen presence – and perhaps you too are longing for it today – the Pascal Feast!

It seems that many of the occasions of Jesus’ resurrection appearances were in the context of a meal.  The two disciples in Emmaus only knew him in the breaking of the bread.  And Peter says in his sermon in Acts: “God raised him the third day, and showed him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen beforehand by God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead.” [Acts 10:40-41]  Remember Jesus’ inviting the disciples to breakfast on the beach at the Sea of Tiberias – it seems he even cooked the fish!  [John 21]

He comes to eat and drink with us today – He says, Take, eat, this is my body; Drink this all of you, this is my blood of the New Covenant.  In this meal he establishes and strengthens our covenant with Him.

We receive in our hearts the presence of the risen Christ.  Jesus transforms the meaning of the Passover meal, fulfilling it perfectly with his own sacrifice, exalting it – His Passover means that judgement passes over us – peace comes to our hearts, if we’ve prepared ourselves by fully acknowledging our sins, and if we trust in His offering on the Cross.  Then we come to know the certainty of reconciliation with God, and His love is kindled in us.

As with the Israelites who stepped out of political bondage to the Egyptians, so do we step out of every situation of bondage and slavery to the past, to walk in faith, in a new adventure, all the time recovering our true humanity and our dignity on that walk.  The true and final Promised Land, is being opened up to us here and now, as we are made partakers of the Divine nature – and there is no better place on earth to be than with God.

And, as love, His Love, is shed abroad in our hearts – that is the risen Christ in us.

Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Caravaggio.emmaus.750pix

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.

Quinquagesima – Who’s blind?

Quinquagesima Sunday – 15 February AD 2015
1 Corinthians 13:1-13   and    Luke 18:31-43

Behold, we go up to Jerusalem. 

On Wednesday of this week, the Church proclaims, as it has from earliest of times, a forty day fast in preparation to stand with Mary and John and the other disciples in awe before the Cross on Good Friday – that great and terrible day – and to celebrate on the third day after, the great Feast of the Resurrection – Easter.

In the Gospel today, Jesus tells the twelve disciples, See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise. 

In the Gospel accounts, we read in several places that Jesus warned the disciples of his coming passion and death. It was clearly not something expected by them, it is something they needed to be prepared for. When Jesus told the disciples, the Gospel repeats three times for emphasis:

But they understood none of these things.
This saying was hidden from them,
and they did not grasp what was said.
 



We, who live after the passion and death of Jesus, and who have heard this story year after year, and who have Christ’s death and passion presented before us every Sunday in Holy Communion, can find ourselves in the same position. We know at one level our Lord’s passion and death is for us, but on another level, we live our lives as if this knowledge wasn’t really at the center of everything we do. We have a disconnect between our head knowledge and the knowledge in our hearts.

Quinqua-jesus-heals-a-man-born-blind_960x480The encounter with a blind man that happens next in today’s Gospel is not just a coincidence, but in God’s providence, a physical way of illustrating the spiritual circumstances that every one of us find ourselves in. We all know at one level the meaning of Christ’s passion and death, but if we would know it at a level that changes our hearts further, we are being told to cry out in faith, like this blind man, for mercy to see, to understand, and Jesus will respond.

We go on this journey of Lent with Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem, and we will be changed: faith leads to insight, to knowledge, and it is a knowledge that changes our hearts forever.

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What are the things we can’t yet fully see about the Cross of Jesus?

  • First, we can’t fully see the depths of God’s love for us.

The more we see God’s love, shown to us in Jesus’ self offering for us, in His mercy, the more we are able to face the truth inwardly about our true motivations.  Jesus allows us to be completely honest with God, to lay bare before Him our hearts, to be truly repentant, and so fully forgiven, and freed up from the things in the present that we can hardly face and the things in our past that we regret, both of which bind us and hold us back from rising more fully to the new life in Christ.

The work of our sanctification, of our being made holy by God, is a work of allowing the truth to enter ever more deeply, and the walk to Jerusalem with Jesus gives us the courage to allow that work of the Spirit inwardly in our souls to happen.  We do not fear condemnation when we hold before our eyes Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  • A second way in which we are still blind to the full significance of what Jesus has done for us on the Cross is revealed in the way that we treat one another.

The crowd, in today’s Gospel, is watching as Jesus passes by, and a blind man in the back of the crowd wants to know what is happening.  They tell him that Jesus is passing by, so he starts to cry out for mercy. But those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent.  It is one of these situations where Jesus reveals to us how the world is upside down.  The blind man sees something the others don’t, namely, that Jesus is one who shows mercy, he knows he needs it, and he cries out for it.  The people who are at the front of the crowd, in other words, with a front row seat to see Jesus physically with their eyes – are shown to be blind – for one thing they are not falling down before Jesus and crying out for mercy for themselves, and they do not know how to show mercy on the beggar who is blind by stepping aside and allowing him to the front so that Jesus can touch him and heal him.  They just think he should shut up.  Their hearts are hard.

The Cross of Christ does not only give us confidence to dwell more fully in the truth about ourselves before God, but when we experience His mercy, if we truly know His mercy, we cannot view our neighbour without showing mercy.  Our hearts are opened to the same sort of love.  When those most vulnerable around us cry out, we don’t silence them or push them away, we show mercy to them, by encouraging them to come to Jesus.  (There is a double miracle here – when the spiritually sighted but physically blinded man is healed physically, the spiritually blinded but physically sighted crowd are healed spiritually.)

  • A third way that we are blind to the full significance of the Cross and Resurrection is in the limited way we take this pattern as our own.  What is that way?

Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow him.  For each of us that is something very individual, very personal – something perhaps known only to ourselves.  Jesus’ burden is the sins of the whole world, and he did not turn aside from it, but bore it faithfully.  It is a way of bearing with suffering, a way that to the world seems an utter failure, and a dying.  If we follow in this way with Jesus, suddenly the very burden that we have been continually wanting to shirk off, to be rid of once and for all, we realize is the thing Jesus is talking about – yes that Cross, bear it in faith, despite the shame and the world’s distain.  I don’t mean our sin, that is a burden Jesus removes from us completely, but some other burden that we must still bear.  Perhaps it is the consequences of our past sin, or the circumstances we are in with our family life, our obligations to others, something in our working life, some expectation that is unmet – we bear it in faith…and glory awaits us, resurrection to new life, a new way of being, the new creation in Christ.

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The Church, taking its cue from the example of our Lord’s life, his forty day fast in the wilderness, has suggested for our spiritual health that we observe Lent with some form of fasting, of prayer and repentance, of self-denial, and special attention to a charitable work – including charitable giving.

Our Epistle reading is set here to remind us that whatever we do, whatever spiritual discipline we might decide to undertake, it is about love and about the perfecting of love.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

St Paul reminds us that we still see in a mirror dimly – that is, our souls, which are meant to be a perfect mirror of the image and likeness of God, are clouded – when we look at ourselves we see a dim reflection of God.  But we are being changed by God – he will perfect all our loves, so that in the end, when we look upon ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ we will see God face to face.

There are many names for love in the ancient languages. CS Lewis wrote a book The Four Loves which describes these different kinds of love and summarizes how each one of the human forms of love can become destructive, even the source of hatred:

  • stor-ge, love for one’s family, a natural affection that all people have, can become perverted – we can think of the horrific destructiveness of sexual abuse, or of a perverse preference for my family above all others – nepotism, or as I saw in Sicily, the Mafia;
  • philia, friendship love which often is held up as the highest of loves, can also lead to an exclusiveness, or snobbishness, cliquishness – as a church we need to be aware not to always be open to the new person in our midst even it is easier to stick with our friends;
  • eros, romantic love is surely of the highest of gifts, but the feelings of being “in love” can become confused and very destructive.

These natural loves that all people whether Christian or not, experience, are good, but can also lead us into trouble, unless they are infused with the divine love, or charity (from the Latin caritas, or the Greek agape – the word that is used by St Paul throughout today’s Epistle reading), which orders them aright, away from their perversions.

The purpose of a Lenten fast is directly related to this – it is allowing God to reorder and perfect all our loves – both for the created order, to be temperate in our love of earthly things, so we don’t miss out on God – and God will perfect our natural loves for one another.

Jesus will show us ever more plainly as we travel with him to Jerusalem what divine love looks like.  As people of faith we cannot behold this Love without being changed.  May God grant that at the end of this Lent our eyes may be opened a little wider, and our hearts more in-filled with the divine warming fire of Christ’s perfect love.

Let us pray,

O LORD, who has taught us that all our doings without charity are worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever lives is counted dead before you: Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

Christ healing a blind man, Mosaic in Ravenna, 6th century