Gospel Weekly

The Gospel weekly

On this page the Gospel for the coming Sunday is displayed, along with a commentary.

With the Gospel we are encouraged to:

* Open our minds and hearts to God in prayer
* Read the passage once – or better, twice – and think on it.
* Read the commentary, and prayerfully reflect on the impact of the Gospel.
* Do the same again another day, for several days; that is, to meditate on the passage.

Our thanks go variously to to Rev. Gavin Williams and to Rev. Alex Aldous. Previous Gospel readings with their commentaries can be found lower down the page.

Third Sunday of Lent – 3rd March 2024

John 2: 13 – 22

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Commentary

This story of Jesus in the temple follows the turning of water into wine where Jesus inaugurates his sign-giving and reveals the glory of God in Christ. We behold a scene where his authority is unveiled and unleashed in a manner not seen elsewhere in any of the gospels. As Jesus enters the court of the Gentiles the scenario is one that resembles a stockyard with the stench and the filth, the bleating and the lowing of the animals destined for sacrifice. It is true that each worshipper was permitted to bring an animal of their selection, but it was the corruption that went with this where dealers were taking advantage of them, that was particularly heinous.

As with many bad habits which creep in with honourable motives, things can get out of control and the focus is entirely contrary to what was intended. Jesus sees with fresh eyes, yet knows the heart of man. With his deliberate act of godly aggression and the pain of the Fatherhood of God he purges the temple of those turning this place of prayer into a tawdry market for profit. Jesus establishes his authority and does so in the Father’s name. It was the Father’s glory which became his glory at the wedding feast; now it is the Father’s authority and anguish which becomes his own. And what was the sign? The mystery of God’s temple in Zion becoming his own temple destroyed and raised again for our salvation.

Reflection

The veiled response of Jesus concerning the temple and his body stands in contradistinction with the sinister, yet overt attempts of the traders who knew what they were doing yet chose to ignore God’s law and true worship. Christ ‘knew what was in a man’ – as the chapter concludes. This Lent will we be afraid of facing up to our motives and ways of operating as people of faith and in the world? Do we understand what is ‘in us’? – our intentions, our longings, and desires? As we make time for God may we discover what is in the heart of God and seek first his kingdom and his righteousness; then, as Jesus said: ‘all else will be added unto you.’ His ways can be our ways, his priorities our priorities and his thoughts, our thoughts.

Prayer

Lord, you who desire truth in our inner parts, may we discover afresh your ways in our worship and in our service to you, so that your glory may be made known through your name. Amen.

Second Sunday of Lent – 25 February 2024

Mark 8.31-end – Peter gets it wrong again

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Commentary

It is easy to forget that Mark’s gospel was written for a community which suffered regular persecution by the authorities. For several centuries Christians were forced, in a courtroom setting, to choose between professing Jesus or denying him. Choosing Jesus was likely to get you crucified or worse. Safe from persecution, we have domesticated the meaning of the text by spiritualizing Jesus’s challenge to the disciples. ‘Taking up the cross’ has come to mean a privatized self-denial. For example, in Lent we are often encouraged to adopt spiritual disciplines like fasting, praying, charitable giving. No one is going to object to us reading the Archbishop’s Lent book! Contrast this with Jesus’s expectation that his followers, as advocates of justice, would inevitably come into conflict with the powerful and suffer death as a result.

Reflection

‘Get behind me Satan!’ is a powerful rebuke and one that we all need to hear. Are we thinking as God does or as men (without God) think? Whose interests are we committed to serving, given that we can have only one master? What does it say about us, individually and collectively, that those with power consider Christians to be irrelevant rather than a threat?

Prayer

God, our strength and our salvation, we confess that like Peter, we prefer a triumphant God to a suffering God, so our faith is fickle and weak. We pray that you would strengthen our faith, that we may take up our cross and follow Christ. In your loving mercy, hear our prayer.

The First Sunday of Lent – 18 February 2024

Mark 1.9-15 – This Changes Everything

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Commentary

The curtain rises with hardly a word of introduction or explanation to reveal Jesus, the central figure in Mark’s drama. In three short paragraphs we learn that Jesus has been anointed God’s Messiah by the Spirit at his baptism, that the battle to overthrow Satan and the powers of evil has begun, first in the wilderness and then in the public ministry of Jesus and that John the Baptist, the herald of the Messiah, has completed his work. Strangely, Jesus does not proclaim himself to be God’s Messiah. He proclaims the good news that the time of waiting for God to act is over and God’s sovereign rule has ‘come near’ (in the person of Jesus himself).

Reflection

‘Repent and believe the gospel’ (1.15) is part of the announcement that God is taking over. Mark’s Gospel is going to be a book about change, changed minds and changed lives. It is about how the world came to look different to those who knew Jesus and about how Jesus’s life and death changed the life it is possible for us to live. Are we prepared to allow ourselves to be spoken to by the central character in Mark’s drama? Are we ready for the challenges that the changed state of affairs described by Mark will present to us?

Prayer

God our hope, at our baptism you called us by name and made us your own. As Lent begins you call us once again to repentance, renewal and trust in you, for your desire is to make all things new. Grant us therefore to hear Mark’s Gospel with fresh ears and to meet your beloved Son as if it were for the first time. Amen.

Sunday Next Before Lent – 11 February 2024

Mark 9.2-9 – Dazzled by the glory of the Lord?

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Commentary

At the Transfiguration, the extraordinary change in Jesus’s outward appearance, three of the disciples glimpse the glory that belongs to Jesus because he is God’s beloved and obedient Son. The clue Mark gives as to what that obedience will mean is found in the timeline – ‘six days later’.

The Transfiguration takes place six days after Jesus had told the disciples that he would have to suffer many things, be rejected, be killed and after three days rise again (8.31-33). That the passion of God’s beloved Son would reveal the essential link between his suffering and his glory was (unsurprisingly) not understood by Jesus’s disciples until much later. This lack of understanding in his friends was one of the many things Jesus would have to suffer and it separates him from them.

Reflection

Suddenly when they looked around… Jesus was alone. From this point forwards Mark portrays Jesus as an increasingly isolated figure, culminating with his cry of abandonment on the Cross (15.34). It is Jesus himself who must work out what he is going to do. There is no script for him to follow. In Gethsemane there is no voice to tell him what to do. Heaven is silent. He himself must establish what the voice of God and the presence of God, experienced so strongly at the Transfiguration, might mean for God’s beloved Son.

Prayer

Mysterious God,
have we beheld your glory,
been dazzled
by the glory of your justice,
by the glory of your holiness,
by the glory of your love?
We pray for the coming of the time when there shall be no more suffering and death, for the glory of God’s beloved Son shall fill the earth. Amen.

Second Sunday before Lent – 4 February 2024

John 1.1-14 – The Father, Jesus and Us

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Commentary

The relationship of the Son to the Father is the central theme of John’s Gospel. But contrast what John says about Jesus with what the other Gospels say. Mark shows Jesus as Son of God at his baptism. Matthew and Luke show Jesus was Son of God from his conception. John starts much further back. He deliberately begins with the first words of Genesis, ‘In the beginning… the Word was with God, …was God’. And the Word became flesh.

Sadly, the incarnation is not a universal cause for celebration. Another major theme that runs through John’s Gospel is judgment (1.10-11) as those who meet Jesus judge themselves by either accepting or rejecting him and the life he offers to all.

Reflection

Jesus enters a world of deep darkness (1.5). John’s Gospel is written to reassure us that as we follow Jesus into the darkness of this world, we can be confident that love, not darkness, has the last word.

Prayer

God our healer, dwell with us and make us whole.
God our consoler, dwell with us and comfort us.
God our strengthener, dwell with us and refresh us. Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany – 28th January 2024

Mark 1: 21 – 28

1 21 They (Jesus and the disciples) went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

Commentary

The raison d’être and summation of the whole gospel here in Mark has already been enunciated in the very first verse of the book: the proclamation that ‘Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ The preparation for Jesus’ ministry is commissioned by the Spirit through his baptism, a team of followers to assist in the work of proclamation is gathered to him, but the demonstration of his identity is only picked up in this passage, as Jesus actively engages with his surrounding context. Mark immediately takes great pains to point out that it is in both word and deed that he is shown to be different: twice in these few verses does Mark punctuate this with the identifying feature of ‘authority.’ This word epitomises what Mark is establishing in his gospel: he stamps his authority on it by asserting that this distinguishing mark of Jesus’ ministry is carried out to the end of his life on earth and the good news of this new order spreads quickly.

Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with that of the teachers of the law and the people are ‘amazed.’ Then the word of authority flows out into action in the way he has control of the powers around him: there is no room for debate with the powers of darkness and no room in the Kingdom of God for its habitation – Jesus simply commands the evil spirit of the possessed man to leave. There is no doubting by the end of these verses that God is at work and is in their midst…and it begins in the house of God. There is a cleansing of the synagogue in what is done and proclaimed, and thence Jesus will carry his authority into the outside world.

Reflection

By what authority and under whose aegis do we live our Christian lives this day? Is it noticeable that our words and actions bespeak of Christ’s kingly, yet humble authority? The world cries out for authentic living, and under Jesus’ majestic rule we have the potential to transform the world around us with that authority – however quietly and meekly it is administered. May our speech be seasoned with grace and truth, and our deeds be tempered with a Spirit-led immediacy, filled with light and compassion.

Prayer

Lord, lead me this day in all my words and actions, that the divine authority of Christ’s servant rule might characterise my life in all my doing and my being. For his kingdom’s sake. Amen.

Third Sunday of Epiphany – 21st January 2024

John 2: 1 – 11

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Commentary

Cana was 4.5 miles north-east of Nazareth, not far from Capernaum, and a place that would have been familiar to Jesus’ family, such that a wedding invitation was extended to some of Jesus’ family and those close to him. St John takes care to point out that his disciples were there, for having been revealed something of His glory in the first chapter with Nathaneal, now, possibly, all the Twelve were to witness the first public sign of that glory as Son of Man.

There is a dramatic tension as Jesus’ mother reflects on Jesus’ words and the servants are informed that they should be attentive to what he said. As we see, Jesus reveals that he is Lord of time and that there is a particular moment when the miraculous should be exercised: ‘My hour has not yet come.’ The mention of the instruction to fill six ceremonial jars with water is no insignificant detail. These jars represent the old order of the Law: they are soon to be the vessels containing the most exquisite wine – a symbol of the new order of God’s Holy Spirit and the power to recreate and bring renewal. The master of the banquet becomes the humble servant of God’s abundant ministry – the midwife to news that God reverses the order of things: the last becomes the first and the best wine is brought out at the banquet’s conclusion. No wonder the disciples were there ‘for such a time as this,’ and ‘believed in Him.’

Reflection

How many times do we face seemingly impossible situations when disaster has struck and there seems to be no way forward? I once heard the founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall speak about financial challenges, when the accountant shakes his head and there seems to be no hope; it is then, he said, the time to be most creative and think outside the box. How much more so when we are under the influence of the Holy Spirit and not constrained by the old order of doubters and logicians? The order to which we are called, under the influence of the Holy Spirit brings life out of death, new out of old and the divinely creative out of the moribund. In what, and in whom do we choose to place our faith this year?

Prayer

Lord, teach me this year what it is to allow your transforming power to take what I think is impossible and transform it into that which is abundantly possible, and brings glory to your name and your Kingdom. Amen.

Second Sunday of Epiphany – 14th January 2024

John 1: 43 – 51

1 43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

Come and see,” said Philip.

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Commentary

Unlike the Synoptic gospels, where the Messianic Secret concerning the identity of Jesus emerged shortly before Holy Week, we witness this being declared in the very first chapter. No sooner than Jesus has been baptised, Andrew exclaims to his brother Simon that he has found the Messiah. Now we see in verse 43 that on the following day, Jesus establishes his Messianic mission in Galilee and it is here that St John makes it clear that the glory of God is shown through His divinely anointed One. Jesus’ invocation of one of His crowning names – ‘the Son of Man,’ and the ‘heaven opening with angels descending upon him,’ is a fulfilment of prophecy in Daniel chapter 7: Jesus doesn’t wait until his trial in the gospel of Matthew to declare similar glory. The Jews would have known that Christ’s reference to himself in this way indicated his Kingship and his role as Saviour.

As we look back on the previous few verses, we see the contrast between what Nathanael expects of a Nazarene and that with which he now encounters. Jesus’ glory radiates through his foreknowledge and omniscience of Nathanael’s situation: Jesus imprints his divine mark firmly, but winsomely, upon his calling and his appealing. From henceforth his divinity will be demonstrated further with more majesty and magnificence – thus foreshadowing the Seven Signs that will follow in ensuing chapters. Nathaneal’s worshipful response echoes the glory revealed to him with unreserved abandon: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel.’

Reflection

The wonder of this passage is the contrast that is set between the surprise of Nathanael regarding the state of Nazareth as a focus for anything good, and the wonder and majesty of Jesus’ words concerning the glory of the Son of Man. However, even more amazing is the contrast between this great glory on a more expansive scale and Christ’s interest in the smallest detail of Nathanael’s life – ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ For us, as we begin a new year, let us be mindful of the fact that God in Christ has the smallest detail of our lives not only in view but as part of his fatherly concern. There is not one detail of your life and mine that He is not interested in and wanting to shape for his glorious purposes.

Prayer

Dear Lord, I thank you this day that there is nothing outside your interest of us as a world and as individuals. Enable me to take a similar Christ-filled interest in the concerns and people that cross my way, so that your glory might be shown and magnified. Amen.

First Sunday of Epiphany – 7th January 2024

Matthew 2: 1 – 12

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Commentary

One might well have expected this passage to have been an addendum to Luke’s birth account: no sooner had the birth story been told in Matthew 1 than we see a world-embracing appeal of the gospel. It was spiritual astrologers from the east, possibly as far as Afghanistan, who were wholly captivated by the right royal star demanding their respect and obeisance of a new king born. But Matthew’s focus is upon this kingship rather than a babe who attracted the attention of the poor and lowly. It was these magi, long equated with kingship, who gave a gift of gold as a token of the role that bespoke of the Christ-child’s status.

Matthew embraces the prophetic, and the other gifts of frankincense and myrrh were such that reflected the line of Old Testament temple worship and of the anticipated Suffering Servant who would die and be embalmed with oil.

However, before meeting the King of Kings, the wise men came face to face with the nemesis of the kingdom’s young male population. We see in relief the much- travelled welcome of a king contrasted with the threat of a local monarch who sought to exterminate any possible pretender to the throne. But it was the star that had guided the wise men to Jerusalem that was to lead them to the little house in Bethlehem. The God who threw stars into space with majestic awe, was the one who drew kings to the King of Kings and bypassed the efforts of any seeking to undermine the purposes of the Almighty.

Reflection

We tend to marginalise the reading of signs and wonders in this age and prefer to hide ourselves in the truth of scripture and the safety of liturgy and its guiding practice week by week throughout our church calendar. But the birth stories and that of the Epiphany are revelations which should open our hearts to the God of the supernatural who can and does still speak and work in miraculous ways. The lesson of the magi should surely concern our awakening to the possibility of the miraculous today in the life of his kingdom in us and through us, and to the challenge to ride by faith as we this New Year present ourselves and our gifts to Him and worship in expectation.

Prayer

Lord, may I not be like Herod – threatened and disquieted by the movement of faith and the presence of someone greater, but like the Magi, eagerly seeking Christ with all my heart so that I bend in humble adoration at his feet and cast myself before Him.

Amen.

First Sunday after Christmas – 31 December 2023

Lk 2.15-21 – The shepherds worship Jesus

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Commentary

Shepherds were despised by the pious because their occupation prevented them from being regular attenders at religious meetings (did they leave one of their number to guard their flocks when they hastened to Bethlehem?). And yet they are chosen to be the first worshippers to come to Jesus. And what they see is on one level perfectly ordinary, a mother and father with their newborn babe lying in a manger. And yet at the same time they also see God’s glory, which is God’s kindness to them and the fulfilment of his word to them (and of the prophet Micah 5.2-5). Contrast the amazed reaction of the locals to the shepherds’ tale with Mary’s calm understanding of all that God is doing.

Reflection

The worship of God in Christ by the shepherds emphasizes how close God has come to us. God is not cold and aloof on his heavenly throne, ignorant of human experience. He comes down to our level, to a stable in Bethlehem. Like the shepherds we have to kneel in the mud to get down to God’s level. This is not good news if we want religion to be another power system with ourselves near God at the top of a pyramid where we can avoid getting our knees dirty.

Prayer

To thee, O Christ, word of the Father, we offer our praise and thanks; because for love of our fallen race thou didst most wonderfully and humbly choose to be made man, and to take our nature, so that we might be born again by thy Spirit and restored in the image of God, to whom be all honour, majesty and dominion, now and for ever. Amen.

[Adapted from a prayer of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, 1555-1626].

Christmas Eve – 24 December 2023

Luke 1.26-38 – Discipleship means saying ‘Yes’

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Commentary

Angels are unexpected visitors. In the Christmas story they come to bring a message of change and at the same time they offer much needed reassurance. At a time when unmarried mothers in the hill villages of northern Israel were ostracised or worse, we can understand why news of her unplanned pregnancy might have frightened Mary. Gabriel tells her that God has chosen her to bear a son who will be not only a great king, but also both God and man. But God will only act with her consent. God gives Mary a voice as well as a choice. Is she going to accept this task that will involve her becoming the ‘Mother of God’? The entire history of our salvation depends on the response of this young Jewish girl. It is one of the greatest moments in human decision making. She replies to Gabriel, ‘Tell God I say yes’.

Reflection

Mary’s unexpected pregnancy means she faces a very uncertain future, just when her life had seemed so straightforward. And yet, whatever happens, her story says that God is with us, beside us and ahead of us. God is quite at home dwelling within us. Do not be afraid.

Prayer

God of surprises, we give you thanks for the faithfulness and courage of Mary. Help us to face our fears, that strengthened by your Spirit and following her example, we might say ‘yes’ to you, ‘yes’ to change, ‘yes’ to an unknown future and ‘yes’ to love. Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent – 17 December 2023

John 1.6-8, 19-28 – The remarkable humility of John the Baptist

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Commentary

John offered to baptize people, not just in respect of their own personal shortcomings but for the sins of national failure, to prepare Israel for its rebirth as the people of God. This is why he was ‘in the wilderness’ where the people of Israel in the Old Testament were prepared for their life in the promised land. This is why he baptized in the Jordan, with those he baptized symbolically repeating the crossing of Israel from the wilderness into the promised land.

Is John the one who will bring about this national rebirth? Was he Elijah or the Messiah or a prophet reborn (powerful Old Testament figures)? No. Instead he points to the ‘one who is coming after me’ whose sandal he is not worthy to untie. John says his role is to ‘make straight the way of the Lord’. His role is to identify Jesus as ‘the Lord’. John bears witness that Jesus is God. It is Jesus who is our light and our life.

Reflection

John identifies Jesus as being ‘among you’ but unknown. What are we doing to make him known? Is it our humility, like John’s, that enables others to see Jesus, or are we getting in the way somehow? The story continues in John 3.22-36 where John again shows his humility, saying of his relationship with Jesus, ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ (Jn 3.30). Can we make this our prayer?

Prayer

O God our hope, make us faithful messengers to all with whom we share our lives. Make us a prophetic people who testify to the light that all might know the joy of believing. Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent – 10 December 2023

Mark 1.1-8 – John the Forerunner

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Commentary

Mark’s prologue is written so that when the curtain rises later in the chapter, readers will know who the main character is (even if the other actors do not) and can understand the true significance of what he says and does. Mark believes that in Jesus, all Jewish hopes found their fulfilment, that the powers of evil would be overthrown, and God’s sovereign rule established. This is why he calls what follows ‘good news’ or ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. But he knows this is not obvious to everyone. The events that follow do not necessarily ‘speak for themselves’. This is why Mark tries his best to prepare us so that we can properly understand them.

If John the Baptist is the herald of God’s Messiah (which is what Mark believes) the stage is fully set for the entry of the Messiah himself. Cue the entrance of Jesus from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the river Jordan in verse 9.

Reflection

John preached a ‘baptism of repentance’. Unless they repented, people would not be ready to receive the teaching of Jesus or live as he did. How many of us would like our lives to be different but do not want to change? How then can we receive God’s blessing?
Here is a link to a painting by Pieter Bruegel (1566). Can we see ourselves in the crowd? If you click on the painting you will be able to zoom in.
https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-sermon-of-saint-john-the-baptist-pieter-bruegel-the-elder/eQFtxANEO2mvnQ

Prayer

Advent God, you come to us offering salvation, justice and peace, sins forgiven, love and joy. By our words and actions, through repentance and confession, help us to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. Amen.

Advent Sunday – 3 December 2023

Mark 13.24-end – He commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Commentary

Christians might be forgiven for finding it difficult to make sense of all that Mark says about what is to come. Here, using a variety of images from the prophets Isaiah and Daniel, Jesus tells the crowd that judgment is imminent, although he has previously warned against assuming this. When the end comes, Jesus himself (The Son of Man coming in clouds), will exercise a power and authority given to him by God. Jesus warns that the end may be expected within a generation and yet tells his disciples not to get too excited about this! Only the Father knows the day and the hour. What the parables make clear is that as time passes, the disciples must always remain alert. In other words, they are to stop speculating and get on with the job in hand. This is what it means to be ready for the Lord’s coming.

Reflection

People sometimes joke, saying, ‘Jesus is coming, look busy’. But what if Jesus is already among us and waiting for us to notice what he wants us to do? Hence the importance of Advent as a season when we watch and pray.

Prayer

Renewing Spirit, as we watch and pray, may we be alert to your presence in our lives and the lives of those around us. Lead us into the truth and make us one with those seeking to love and serve you. Amen.

Christ the King. Sunday next before Advent – 26 November 2023

Matthew 25: 31 – end.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Commentary

This is the third of a trilogy of parables which Jesus told in this chapter on the mount of Olives, and it is the summation of these to prepare one for the coming King at the end of time. Here we have Christ the King providing his own description of the Day of Judgment, although a minority of commentators would regard this as Christ’s premillennial judgment as he returns to earth: this might accord with the concept of ‘all nations being gathered together’ in the shadow of the Parousia, but such a gathering can equally be applied to the ‘final things.’

However, whether pre- or post-millennial, it is the King and Shepherd, Jesus, who divides people into two firm categories: that of sheep or goats. In Biblical times – as may be witnessed in the present day – sheep and goats are quite compatible together in terms of their grazing ability, but their temperaments differ: While goats are curious, independent animals, sheep are distant and aloof in nature but have a strong flocking instinct. It can perhaps be posited that goats’ independence can be interpreted as not feeling for others in the flock or herd: this may be counterbalanced by the sheep who have a sense of community and belonging. It is this call to sacrificial giving to the rest of the flock, however small or insignificant, that Jesus provides as a yardstick for recognition as true sheep and worthy of acceptance into the heavenly kingdom. The way we express our love first and foremost to His Body on earth is Christ’s concern. Many, too, would see further application of this love to a wider audience, but ‘the least of my little ones’ does point primarily here to those in fellowship with Christ; and if we have true fellowship with them then it is true fellowship with Christ: the Body’s wounds are Jesus’ wounds, the Body’s hunger is His hunger. Without this capacity to feel, our independence and ignorance of the needs of the saints carries a grave and everlasting penalty.

Reflection

To what extent are we prepared to lay down our lives for the other sheep in the fold to which we are called? How does this spur us on in our prayer life for the persecuted brothers and sisters in countries to which we may not have travelled, but see online or read about? Do we feel the pain of the suffering church? For some of us we may find it easier to pray and yet do less for the brother or sister alongside us. For others our hearts may go out to those near us, but we disregard His body across the world. May we seek to have a heart for all.

Prayer

Lord, give us large hearts: for the flock we are called to serve in our community and town, and equally for those whom we will never see but only hear about across our land and sea. Help us to be kingdom carers – to see Jesus in the miniscule and in the macroscopic. For his Kingdom’s sake. Amen.

Second Sunday before Advent – 19 November 2023

Matthew 25: 14 – 30

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 22 The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. 28 So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”

Commentary

This parable takes up what the last parable of the Ten Virgins left unanswered: ‘What is readiness in the context of trust?’ It was not a strange idea in the ancient world for servants to be given great responsibility and it reflects the magnanimity of the Master, the Christ figure, respecting free-will and free enterprise. The servants are given free rein as to how they use their talents with the expectation that there is productivity, judged through the lens not of ‘brilliance’ or ‘being distinguished’ but of ‘goodness and faithfulness.’ Each servant was given 1, 2 or 5 ‘talents’: the ‘talenton’ (Greek) was a ‘weight’ of coinage, but generally equating to 6000 denarii, equivalent to a day labourer’s wages of 20 years. Thus, all talents given were generous, reflecting the beneficence of God, the Giver. These talents have applicability, naturally, as life resources – time, money, abilities and authority – and each is given such that it suits that person, so there can be no strict numerical comparison made. Each has the opportunity to maximise their potential and be faithful in fulfilling that.

The wise two- and five-talent bearers increased their value, knowing that they were accountable and were ready to testify accordingly and were praised and rewarded by their Master two-fold. In contrast, the one-talent recipient, did nothing with his talent: he didn’t think, he didn’t work, didn’t even try and made excuses, blaming his own Master for being a grasping task-master. This servant reflects the person who is never grateful for what has been given in life, and seeks to make nothing of his/her life. Thus in the heavenly stakes, what has been given is taken and passed on to those whose ‘outlook is outward’ and contrariwise his/her reward is eternally bleak.

This parable demonstrates that God’s kingdom is wherever each faithful person inhabits, simply being a co-creator with their Lord, ready to serve, ready to give and ready to provide an account for the way they have multiplied God’s riches within them.

Reflection

As Jesus revealed in his observation of the woman giving her mite to the temple treasury, it is not volume per se that God requires but what he has given us which is then yielded, pressed down full and running over and given back to him, that counts, in all areas of our lives. It may be that we are given half a mite, but we succeed in returning another half in his service. Whether a mite or a million, the challenge is how we use it for Him. How am I using my talent for him today?

Prayer

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man I would my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart. (C. Rossetti.)

Remembrance Sunday – 12 November 2023

John 15: 9 – 17

15 9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

Commentary

This passage – an oft-used text as a template for sacrificial giving at Remembrance time – has at its root a far deeper intensity of love mirrored within the Trinity, which, however, can be imitated as the noblest of human virtues when loss of life for a higher cause is all too evident. The manner and full extent of loving betwixt Father and Son can never be fully comprehended by humankind: our love is not only tainted but cannot necessarily enter into the full nature of the divine. Christ’s ‘agape’ love had its purposes not only for continuous and unsullied triune fellowship but to involve that part of God’s creation made specifically in His image. As His workmanship and the derivative of God’s exclamation: ‘Let us make man,’ so love was poured out in rivers to us, the progeny of such creation.

In John 13: 1 we read that: ‘Jesus knew his hour had come, having loved his own in the world…to the uttermost.’ Now Jesus in 15:9 speaks of this love to those who respond to his invitation being of the same quality and magnitude as that experienced by Jesus of his Father. In this, there is the very antithesis of selfishness: it is the emptying of self, it is an abandonment of the outward trappings of his divine nature to put on flesh and identify with us. He could not have appeared to us face to face in his pre-incarnate glory, for intimacy of relationship would have been inaccessible. But by leaving that glory, it was transposed to human giving which ended with the ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

We cannot deign to rival such giving for we are flawed and cannot be a propitiation for sin. But the next greatest thing we can do is to abide in His loving and live sacrificial lives for others. To be obedient to Christ’s words to love as he has been loved, requires keeping his laws of love, but these laws have to do with not simply survival but flourishment as human beings and human doings. But God’s architecture of love is that as we obey him we love more; and so the cycle of the divine flows, and demands to reach out further to those whom we are called to serve.

Reflection

Abraham was given the enviable title of ‘The Friend of God.’ He experienced the intimacy of companionship with the Almighty in the days before Christ was revealed but knew this friendship meant hope for a nation. How does my experience of God as friend bring hope to my friends and neighbours, as I seek to mirror such love? To what lengths do I go? To what extent am I being called to love in his strength this week…to the friends in Christ I sit next to in church, and to the friends I reach out to in prayer who are one in Christ in Gaza, Jerusalem and Kiev? Do I find it easy to pick and choose friendship, and on what basis?

Prayer

Dear Lord, I praise you that through your grace you have chosen me to be a friend of yours in order that I can see into the heart of God who loves to the uttermost. Help me to give away that love to those on my heart now. Amen.

Fourth Sunday before Advent – 5 November 2023

Matthew 24: 1 – 14

24 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.”

3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.

9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Commentary

Unlike the other synoptic gospel writers who preface this passage with a direct reference to Jesus’ being in the temple observing the offerings, Matthew records Jesus’ heartfelt cry concerning Jerusalem being the focus of destruction of its prophets by Pharisee ante-types and its ‘house’ being desolate (23:38). When the disciples point to the building itself (Mark and Luke make reference to its beauty) Jesus ‘builds’ upon his remarks by predicting its total ruination which came about in AD 70. There is a hint to Jesus’ reference to the Samaritan woman of John 4 that the focus of worship is neither in Jerusalem nor on a mountain but worshipping in ‘Spirit and truth.’ The disciples amalgamate this event with the Parousia and Jesus addresses them firstly with a note of caution, prophesying that many will come and claim to be the Messiah. Then Jesus stipulates various conditions to predate his return, which are quite general: national insecurity, hunger and earthquakes. Of course, some of these contrast starkly with the Pax Romana which has been a feature of rule to date.

The prophecy then turns back to what seems like a first-generation occurrence: Jesus talks of ‘the authorities’ handing ‘you’ (plural) to be persecuted and killed’: this certainly accords with the Neronian and Vespasian treatment of Christians to their death. Alongside their spiritual fortitude would be those whose faith would be threatened to extinction; but in the light of Tertullian’s remarks that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’ the concept of increased wickedness and ‘hearts growing cold’ would be more likely to accord with a more distant eschatology, accompanied by the world-wide proclaiming of the gospel, which herald Christ’s return.

Prophetic literature, we must take note, can be interpreted on several levels and at various times and seasons, but nevertheless for the Christian vigilance and the urgency of the Gospel remains paramount.

Reflection

For many Christians, the conflict in the Middle East not only spurs us on to pray for peace and reconciliation and feel for those in despair, but also to utter the heart-cry: ‘maranatha’ – ‘Lord, please come.’ The turbulence in the world which Jesus discusses with his disciples can be mirrored much with today’s chaos in the Holy Land and the restlessness in the earth’s climatic vagaries with threats to communities across the globe. Our calling is to remain faithful to the end, to our being diligent in proclaiming the relevance of the Christian message of hope and peace surpassing understanding, and to long for His return when the ‘lion will lie down with the lamb’ and all nations recognise that the Saviour of the World has come.

Prayer:

Dear Lord, help me, O Lord, ever to keep one eye on the hurting world today, and the other on eternity and your Kingdom which shall never end. Amen.

Last Sunday after Trinity – 29 October 2023

Matthew 22.34-end – The coming of God’s kingdom of love?

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
44 “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Commentary

The question about the greatest commandment is a test because it invites Jesus to downplay or ‘annul’ part of the Jewish law. He avoids the trap by declaring that two commandments (Leviticus 19.18 and Deuteronomy 16.5) stand together as a guide to all the other commandments of the law. Each depends on the other: we have an obligation to love God and man, man and God.

Jesus asks a question of his own to try to clear up the confusion around the title ‘Son of David’. The crowds have hailed Jesus as ‘Son of David’, hoping for a Messiah, a successor to David who would sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem and be king of Judah. But Jesus sees it is a cross that lies ahead of him. In what sense then is he David’s son?

The point Jesus makes here is that the title Son of David is misleading and inadequate as a guide to understanding his messianic mission. The Messiah is no mere successor to David, he is his Lord with a vastly superior authority, for it is God (The Lord) who says to Jesus (David’s Lord) ‘sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet’. Rather than admit that Jesus is ‘something greater than David’ (See Mt 12.6, 41, 42) and have to act accordingly, the religious leaders keep silent.

Reflection

As the Sermon on the Mount has already made clear, ‘neighbour’ is not just people like us, it includes our ‘enemy’ (Mt 5.43-47). Note that Jesus does not command us to love ‘ourself’. He assumes that we are fundamentally self-centred and requires his disciples to overcome this basic orientation.

Prayer

God of love, you know we do not find loving easy. It demands so much of us:
So much commitment and self-denial;
So much thought and imagination;
So much courage and trust in you.
God of love, that we may love you and our neighbour better,
transform our hearts, souls and minds we pray. Amen.

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity – 22 October 2023

Matthew 22.15-22 – How can we ever say thank you to God?

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Commentary

The imposition of the poll tax by occupying Roman forces had caused a rebellion by Jewish nationalists in 6AD. This had been crushed without mercy by the Romans to make the point that paying it was not optional. Because Jesus is leading a ‘kingdom of God’ movement to establish God’s rule, it is reasonable for Jews to assume he intends to get rid of the Roman tax. If his enemies could get him to say this, they would have evidence of treason and could force the Romans to get rid of him. If he refuses to oppose the hated tax, his followers will feel betrayed and turn against him.

Jesus avoids the trap. He points out that the objection to paying the tax, the desire of the Jews to demonstrate undivided loyalty to God, raises the question whether his opponents were themselves sincere in wanting to give God their full allegiance (a question found also in the parables of the tenants and the wedding feast in Mt 21 where Jesus suggests many of the religious only want God on their terms). The fact that they are carrying the despised Roman coinage suggests they are compromised.

Jesus does not divide life into ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ but recognises that the secular (the authority of Caesar) finds its proper place within the overriding claim of God. As Jesus tells Pilate, secular authority is ultimately from God (Jn 19.11), a point made also by Paul in his letter to the church in Rome (Rom 13.1).

Reflection

In Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ Jewish nationalists discuss the question, ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ The point is that secular authority can be a great blessing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qc7HmhrgTuQ).

Everything we have (including good government and well-run public services) comes from God. How can we repay God for the blessings we have received, including life itself?

Prayer

Loving God, you are the creator of every good thing and giver of every good gift.

We pray that we may be a grateful people, fulfilling our responsibilities conscientiously, enriching the lives of those who have not, and living in love and peace with all. Amen.

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity – 15 October 2023

Matthew 22.1-14 – Called but not chosen?

1Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’

Commentary

Jesus makes clear that it is God who takes the initiative in salvation not us. It is God who wants to prepare a feast and God who wants us to be his guests. We ought to keep asking ourselves, ‘why? what makes us so special?’. Instead, we are apt to take God’s grace for granted, as somehow being our due. Note that the two guests who had previously accepted God’s invitation feel they can turn him down when the moment comes. ‘After all’, they might have said, ‘a farm and a business will not run themselves’. Did they think God would understand? Why does their desire to enjoy all that God has promised fail? Had they forgotten Jesus’s warning about Mammon (Matthew 6.24)?

The mood among those who refuse God’s invitation turns ugly. They cannot remain ‘tolerant’ towards the message they have been given. They resent the fact that God is ready to welcome them to his feast at what is for them rather an inconvenient moment and they become hostile. They feel judged and they know God’s judgment to be correct. Whatever they may say, however religious they may appear to be, they do not want to have God in their lives on his terms.

God’s banquet still goes ahead. Rejected by the religious, God turns to the nobodies, to the poor, the sinful and the unlovable, and he takes them all to be his beloved children.

Reflection

God’s business is forgiveness, but this demands a response. All arrive at the banquet as sinners, but as God’s beloved children, wanting to share in God’s joy, we will want to humbly pray for God’s help to set things right insofar as we can. This is what it means to want to be properly dressed for the wedding. Our repentance is itself born of joy. For repentance is not a miserable affair, it is how the guests want to live ‘when the king comes in to see them’.

Prayer

Lord of the banquet, it is a great mystery to us why we are invited to share in your joy. Help us to see that it is you who is waiting and longing for us, far more than we wait and long for you. Please help us to live in a way that is appropriate for one of your guests. Sorrowful, may we be always rejoicing. Poor, may we make many rich. Having nothing, may we yet possess everything. Amen.

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity – 8 October 2023

Mt 21.33-end – The rejected son and a rejected stone

33‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:

“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?

43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Commentary

Jesus tells a story about a disappointing vineyard that would be very familiar to his audience (it closely parallels the story in Isaiah 5). The reason for failure given by Jesus is different this time – the problem is the tenants and not the vines – but no Jewish hearer could fail to recognize a picture of God and his people Israel. Israel, misled, has failed in its duty to give God his due and is in grave danger. In verse 41 Jesus’s opponents are made by his question to pronounce their own condemnation. The rejection of God’s sovereignty and of his son would have terrible consequences. Less than forty years later, Jerusalem would be laid waste by the Romans and its inhabitants killed or enslaved.

Reflection

There is no room for complacency on the part of the new people of God – those ‘other tenants’ to whom the vineyard is leased. Their tenure will also depend on producing ‘the fruits of the kingdom’.

Prayer

Let us praise the God who made the stone the builders rejected the cornerstone.
Let us give thanks to the God who raised Jesus from the dead and set him at his right hand.
Let us pray that the God who is building a people from all nations will make us a fruitful people.
Amen.

Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity – 1 October 2023

Mt 21.23-32 – Who are we to decide who is acceptable to God?

23When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Commentary

Those who seem to be devoted to the divine may actually be slaves to human expectation and convention and refuse or be unable to see it. Before Jesus will tell the Jewish leaders where his authority comes from, he asks them whether the authority of John the Baptist was ‘heavenly’ or ‘human’. His opponents show that their own authority is derived from human beings by worrying precisely about what the crowd – who had accepted John as a prophet and had been baptised by him – will think of them if they admit they had refused to accept that John was a messenger from God. If they had believed John was a prophet, they would have accepted Jesus. Afraid of strong popular disapproval, Jesus’s opponents are silenced.

Reflection

The parable that follows makes the point that what matters to God is not what we say but what we do. The religious prefer to remain outside the kingdom of God rather than admit their own moral and religious insincerity and their refusal to see unmistakable evidence of God’s saving power at work in the world – the tax collectors and prostitutes whose lives were transformed by meeting Jesus. We might be reminded of the story of the elder brother who refuses to feast with his (prodigal or wastrel) younger brother, notwithstanding that he has repented (Luke 15.28-30).

Prayer

Heavenly Father, you call us to follow the example of your Son who loved so unconditionally.
Help us to love as Jesus did, in deed as well as word.
We pray for all those with power to affect the lives of others for better or worse.
Help them to love as Jesus did, in deed as well as word. Amen.

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity – 24 September 2023

Matthew 20: 1 – 16 

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Commentary

The parable of the labourers in the vineyard is unique to Matthew. The stories that surround this parable — the rich young man, Peter’s claim to have ‘left everything,’ Jesus’ third prediction of his death and disciples James & John’s request — were consecutive stories in Mark. Matthew’s inclusion of this parable interrupts that narrative flow. In Matthew’s narrative context, Jesus’ parable seems to be a story directly related to discipleship issues, possessions, and authority and builds upon the Peter’s claim of commitment. The promise of receiving ‘a hundred times as much’ (19:29) and an eternal inheritance, is now put to the test in this parable of Chapter 20. ‘If you are leaving everything to follow me,’ Jesus is in effect saying, ‘Will you work on my terms and not on the terms and conditions offered by the world? Is your commitment total and unconditional?’

In viewing this parable without the background surrounding it, the tenor of the story does fly in the face of what is deemed as ‘fair’ – surely a worker deserves to be valued according to the amount of effort expended – how can you compare earning the same, working eleven hours compared with just one? How unreasonable can one get? But as the landowner reminds the workers at the end of the day, no contract has been broken, the landowner has been true to his word, and all workers throughout the day have been agreeable to the terms. In fact, the landowner turns things on their head by reminding them that if they care to look through the ‘other end of the telescope’ it is generosity which characterises the landowners’ dealings rather than any miserliness.

Analysing the text in terms of the preparedness of the landowner to take on hired labour and focus on 21st century issues of migrant workers or the need for consistent relative pay, is to miss the point. Here Jesus is focusing upon commitment, the welcome into the kingdom and the acknowledgment that principles in that Kingdom of ‘the last being first and first last’, are of another order. The very fact of Jesus’ reiteration of this strapline deserves our attention. It might point forwards to the dialogue on the cross (in Luke’s gospel) where Jesus utters reassurance to the dying thief at the ‘11th hour’ that he will indeed join Christ ‘when he comes into his kingdom.’

To add to the summary of this parable speaking of commitment, one is ineluctably led to conclude that this is a story, too, of unbounded grace.

Reflection

How hard do you, do I, find commitment to our Lord? It is when we look askance at others and begin to compare our ‘lot’ with theirs that we can be guilty of falling into the trap that the first hired labourers felt. It may be reflected upon in the light of what service we offer the church and Christ – the longevity of our good deeds which seem to go unappreciated, compared with those ‘flyby nights’ who breeze in at the last moment and receive all the adulation and praise. On the other hand, we may pause to reflect on our commitment in the light of our salvation with the Parable of the Prodigal Son in mind: the elder son felt cheated of his father’s attention and appreciation when compared with the coming home of the younger son who had been nothing short of a ‘waster’. Let us remember that God is the giver, that it is all of his grace, and he values each of us on our own merit and we will each be rewarded in heaven where there are no barriers, divisions or pretensions.

Prayer:

Teach me, Lord, this day, to ask: ‘What will you have me do?’ and then to run that straight race without looking at how others are running or whether they join the race late or in a different guise. In your name we pray. Amen.

Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity – 17 September 2023

Matthew 18: 21 – 35

18 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Commentary

Peter’s impulsiveness is often regarded as part of his unrefined pre-Pentecost character, but the question that flashes from his lips elicits vital teaching from Jesus. Peter probably regarded his suggestion of seven-fold forgiveness as generous and meriting praise from his Master: in Rabbinic teaching, it is posited that ‘he who begs forgiveness from his neighbour must not do so more than three times.’ As a ‘holy number’ ‘7’ would indicate a form of completion and wholeness. But as in a number of instances in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew we witness Jesus exercising hyperbole in order to emphasise crucial pastoral practice emanating from the heart of God: forgiveness should be offered not seven times but ‘seventy-seven times’  – there is no end to it. Grace is limitless.

To illustrate Christ’s ‘outrageous grace,’ he relates this parable. There are elements of it which seem harsh – but to view it thus is to be caught up in the minutiae and not see the grander, fuller picture. Jesus deliberately exaggerates the amount of the debt owed to the king and the punishment that would be meted out. Jesus here is pointing out the severity of sin and its abhorrence to a perfect and almighty God. Romans 6:23 points out that ‘the wages of sin is death.’ Without the costly sacrifice on the cross and God’s longing to bestow the gift of God of eternal life, we would all languish in the condemnation that sin deserves. The debt in the parable translates to millions of pounds – totally unrepayable. However, the servant appears contrite and flings himself on the mercy of the king and his debt is completely cancelled. But there is a rider to this. The servant then goes out and forgets or ignores the grace just given and holds a fellow-servant to account for a paltry sum owed to him. No grace is exercised, and his debtor is sent to prison.

The king gets to hear of the servant’s actions and is hauled before him. The grace that is given, though free and unmerited does have one condition: he, the servant, and thereby all of us who hear these words, need to forgive as our Heavenly Father forgives. Our sin as a totality far outweighs any misconduct done to us by another  individual. Again, these words carry hyperbole – God does not seek to torture anyone – it is the understanding of how great our sin is and what love he has for us that should be kept uppermost in our hearts in our dealing with others.

Reflection

How do I, how do you, look upon those who cross our paths and cause us grief such that we need to forgive? Our passage last week reminded us that no sin in the church family or outside should be ignored and swept under the carpet, but equally no sin should stand unforgiven. It is as we once more turn our gaze to the cross of Christ and understand the lengths he has gone to, to pay for our sin that we understand not only our own condition, but recognize how much God loves those who have wronged us. As someone once said: ‘To love those who love us is human; to hate those who hate us is animal; to hate those who love us is devil-like; but to love those who hate us is God-like.’

Prayer

Dear Lord, Teach me more about your grace this day as I turn to the cross afresh. Deepen my heart for you and my compassion for others so that my love and my forgiveness comes not from myself, but from you.

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – 10 September 2023

Matthew 18: 15 – 21

18 15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Commentary

These verses are, in the main, focused upon the integrity of the body of Christ and the need to exercise due pastoral care in the light of sin committed. To begin with, there is no question over the fact that we all, to employ the archery term implied here, fall short of the mark set out by God and in his Law: ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,’ declares Paul in Romans 3:23. But if someone has transgressed against another, for the sake of the relationship between one and another in the fellowship of the Kingdom and for their own understanding that a sin has been committed, it is right and appropriate to confront the other. This then avoids bitterness on the part of the offended and gossip within the church community, and it diffuses any possible ignorance on the part of the offender. All believers should practice longsuffering and bear with one another’s weaknesses, but there is also an accountability which should be exercised. In the first instance, a quiet word should be made between the two parties: this gives the opportunity for the offender to realise what he/she has done and for any misunderstanding to be cleared up.

Jesus then sensitively explores the possibility of this approach breaking down: it is then that other reliable listeners should be introduced who can weigh up and test the defendant’s grief. As Proverbs 18:17 states: ‘The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his/her neighbour comes and examines him.’ Jesus then implies that if there is stubbornness on the part of the accused then he/she is in effect putting themselves outside church jurisdiction and must be removed from the congregation and treated as apostate. The care of the body of Christ is no longer valid because trust and respect is abrogated. However, this does not mean that the door of the church is permanently slammed in their face, but such ‘binding on earth’ as the two/three witnesses are doing, if exercised humbly and according to God’s Word and law is something which is done on God’s behalf.

Jesus then turns the conversation of the two/three into something positive, for where there are just the two or three gathered in God’s name, to worship, to study scripture and God’s Law then there is the promise of God’s abiding presence, which is something that the unrepentant person cannot enjoy. Gathering in Jesus’ name is not about a particular place or time, it does not depend upon the rank of the individual or take any particular form – it simply concerns the glory of fellowship in Christ’s name and we can be assured that Christ himself graces us with his presence.

Reflection

The power and reality of meeting together as Christians where there is a oneness in heart and mind and where there are no grievances is something that can be underestimated, and which defines koinonia, setting it apart from meeting with people who do not share one’s faith. It is fellowship where Jesus’s name is exalted, where he is invited to be there through the power of the Holy Spirit and it is then that we can expect the power of prayer to be vivified, a love for Him intensified and a sense of purpose and vision clarified.

Prayer

Dear Lord, as I avail myself of fellowship this week with others who bear your name, help me to value each afresh, knowing that you delight in gracing us with your glory and presence to reveal more of yourself and your vision for us as a body. Amen.

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – 3 September 2023

Matthew 16: 21- end

16 21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Commentary

Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Christ and is blessed by him and given a new status in the kingdom of God. This then heralds the moment for Christ to unravel the ‘Messianic Secret’ and share the purpose for which he had come to earth, with Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and resurrection. But a dead Saviour is not part of Peter’s interpretation of Messiahship, and he raises his voice to forbid such an action. Perhaps Peter should have known better – had he never read Isaiah 53? But for him, Jesus was surely here to challenge the enemy which prevented his nation from flourishing?

Jesus quickly reveals his hand in who the real enemy is at this moment. Christ’s mission was to seek and save the lost through his impending death, and he recognised any attempt to thwart this plan as devilish, and so it was Satan whom he rebuked. On the back of this, Jesus appeals to his followers to be those who face forward and do not look back: to be a true disciple is one who denies reliance on whatever he is by nature and depends for salvation on God alone. For the Jew living in Jerusalem at the time, he or she would have known all too clearly the challenge and extent of pain carrying their own cross-piece, and where that led to. It is at this juncture that Jesus plays with the concept of life and loss and states the paradox of losing in order to gain. The climax comes in verse 26: gaining fame and fortune for self-indulgence brings death, but renunciation of the self and unhealthy attachment to the material world brings life in all its fulness. When this work of salvation has been completed Jesus then can address the remainder of his mission in the future, namely the Parousia – his return to earth. This time, it would not be as a humble, vulnerable baby, but as one with all wreaths of empire and a heavenly host, who is then ready to reward the faithfulness of individuals who have not sat idly by, but worked tirelessly for Christian truth.

Reflection

Unswerving focus and dedication to our Saviour is a whole-hearted commitment, where all we may want to be is replaced with what all that Christ would want of us. But there can be no greater delight, no more fulfilling state of mind which ceases to question our Lord and learns joyful obedience in serving him: this is to gain heavenly inheritance and a seat in his presence for ever.

Prayer

Teach me Lord, this day, to throw off all pretensions of self and choose to follow you, even if it may entail mockery, insult and rejection as you did. Help me to nail my colours to the mast and feel the Father’s heartbeat and his voice saying: ‘This is the way, walk you in it.’

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – 27 August 2023

Matthew 16.13-20 – Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Commentary

Up to this point in the gospel there has been a lot of speculation about who Jesus is. Matthew has given us his view that Jesus is the one in whom God’s purposes are fulfilled (from Mt 1.1 onwards) and has also recorded the views of God the Father (3.17) and the demons (8.29). But even John the Baptist is not sure whether Jesus is the promised Messiah (11.3), never mind the authorities who demand a sign to settle the matter to their satisfaction (16.1). Now, Jesus tells the disciples (and only them) he is not just the Messiah, the long awaited saviour of God’s people Israel, he is also the Son of God (a very special relationship!).

Note that Peter’s grasp of the truth about Jesus is God given. Jesus now reveals the truth about Peter and what his role in fulfilling God’s purpose will be. It is Peter who was the acknowledged leader of the disciples and of the developing church in its early years. His function (not his character – he was not very reliable) was to be the foundation stone of Jesus’s new community. Note that Jesus says my church, not God’s – Jesus is God’s anointed king – and Jesus promises that this community will last forever. ‘Binding’ (permitting) and ‘loosing’ (forbidding) are terms applied to the pronouncements of rabbis. One example of Peter’s exercise of this authority is his acceptance of Gentile converts (Acts 10; 11; 15.7-11), a decision that had already been made in heaven, not the other way around – the tense is difficult.

Reflection

God has given us the same faith he gave to Peter, that we may see Jesus is God’s anointed king, the son of the living God. Are we still learning as Peter did, a slow and painful process, that this involves rejection and suffering? And yet, notwithstanding the apparent weakness and instability of the church, can we see that it is through our faithful service that God continues his work of building a kingdom of peace and justice on earth as it is in heaven?

Prayer

Lord Jesus, we pray that each of us will recognize our calling. Bless us as you blessed Peter, that using the abilities you have given us in your service, we may work together in all things for the good of all. And give us a constant faith. Amen.

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity – 20 August 2023

Matthew 15.21-28 – The Gentile Woman’s Faith

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Commentary

Jews in Jesus’s time kept themselves separate from Gentiles to avoid ‘defilement’. This was still an issue for Jesus’s followers when Matthew’s gospel was written. Two stories could have helped to break down the division between the two communities: when Jesus heals a centurion’s servant (Mt 8.5-13), and when Jesus responds to the faith of a woman. Both the centurion and the woman were Gentiles.

At first, Jesus is reluctant to heal the woman’s sick daughter. Jesus seems to have thought the benefits of his mission – the arrival of the kingdom – should be enjoyed exclusively by Jews (Mt 10.5-6; 15.24). His words to the woman, calling her a ‘dog’, are harsh (some argue that his tone was softer than his words). And yet she does not give up. She also has a mission – the healing of her daughter. She persists, turning Jesus’s argument back against him. This is the only occasion when the gospels record Jesus being outargued! And it is not a male legal expert but a non-Jewish woman who gets him to change his mind! Immediately, Jesus heals her daughter.

Reflection

The Gentile woman is not submissive but assertive in speaking for her daughter. Because she refuses to be silenced, she enables Jesus to see his mission in a less narrow way. Jesus the healer, who is also the teacher of wisdom, sees the wisdom in what she says. So too, we can only deny justice or healing to ‘others’ or ‘outsiders’ by failing to see their humanity. Indeed, they might have something to say to us which, for the sake of God’s mission, we also need to hear.

Prayer

Almighty God, give us the courage to cry out to you as the woman did, ‘Have mercy, Lord’. Give us the humility she had in the face of opposition. Give us her faith and her perseverance, that we may continue to pray until we have obtained from you all you desire for us and for others. Amen.

Tenth Sunday after Trinity – 13 August 2023

Mt 14.22-33 – Are we to attempt the impossible?

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Commentary

As with the feeding of the five thousand, Matthew uses this episode to reveal the power of Jesus and the challenges of discipleship. Once again, the disciples are left to cope with a difficult situation on their own. It is the middle of the night and they are struggling to make any headway, rowing against the wind. They are wet and very tired.

The disciples have been in trouble in a boat in a storm before (Mt 8.23-27). When Jesus rescued them on that occasion they asked themselves, ‘What sort of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?’.  This time Jesus is revealed as the one who gives his disciples the power to follow him. Peter does so, but his faith gives way to fear. In the face of the facts (the strong wind) he forgets the power of Jesus. Peter is an example of a disciple whose faith does not survive a crisis.

When the disciples see what happens they cry out in amazement at the power of Jesus. Their statement prepares the way for Peter’s later confession, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (Mt 16.16) after which Peter will again demonstrate his little faith (Mt 16.22)!

Reflection

Matthew’s narrative shows that the insight gained by the disciples was not a smooth progression but a roller coaster ride. There are repeated fits and starts. Now they get Jesus, now they really don’t. Now they are brave, now afraid. To know that they experienced the same struggles as we do should be reassuring for us. Nevertheless, we could ask ourselves, when we want to follow Jesus, what makes us hesitate? Are the difficulties we think we face really insuperable?

Prayer

Saving God, have mercy on all whose faith is weak but who seek to follow you. Help us to see that even in the storms that trouble us, Christ is always present among us. May he speak to us and tell us what to do and may we not hesitate to take his hand. Amen.

Ninth after Trinity – 6 August 2023

Mt 14.13-21 – What can God do with our bits and pieces?

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Commentary

When the disciples told Jesus they had understood all of his teaching about the mystery of the kingdom of heaven they appear to have meant ‘Yes, but no’ (13.51). They share Jesus’s compassion for the hungry crowd, but when Jesus says, ‘you give them something to eat’, they are at a loss to know what to do. They had failed to fully grasp the meaning of the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven (13.31-33) about the miraculous providence of God.

Just as God provided manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16), and Elisha the prophet miraculously fed one hundred and twenty men (2 Kings 4.42-44) so Jesus feeds the crowd with five loaves and two fish and there are twelve baskets of leftovers. This was a messianic gesture, based on a widespread Jewish expectation that the Messiah would provide manna (Revelation 2.17). For Matthew, this meal points forward to the messianic banquet, that great feast at which Jesus will be host to his people of every race. Note that women and children are included too (though not counted! v21), no group is excluded from Jesus’s new community. In the meantime, the Eucharist is a foretaste of this future, pointing to a greater unity of God’s people and a greater sharing to come.

Reflection

All the feeding miracles, all the accounts of Last Supper and the meal at Emmaus use the same four verbs for Jesus’s actions, ‘take’, ‘bless’, ‘break’, ‘give’. But it is not just bread and wine that we can offer for use by God. Just as the disciples offered bread and fish, we can offer our ideas, time, energy, money, sense of humour, talents, love, gifts, knowledge and much more. If we spend time close to Jesus we will find that when we offer what we have, knowing it is not enough, he will take, bless, break and give it to us to share with everyone else. It is amazing what God can do with our bits and pieces.

Prayer

Patient God, we confess that we are often like the disciples and think the task of caring for others is impossible for us. We say we do not have enough time, or energy, or ability. As we give thanks for your amazing grace that always exceeds what we can hope or ask, help us to offer the little that we have to you. Take, bless and break our small offerings and make them great in your service. Amen.

Eighth Sunday after Trinity – 30 July 2023

Matthew 13: 31-33; 44-52

13 31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Commentary

It is good, first, to remind ourselves of the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven, or how it is referred to in Mark and Luke, as the Kingdom of God. Although some parables refer to a place – the eternal reward – the Kingdom is not restricted to any one area: it is simply the rule of God within people’s lives, the acceptance of Christ as King, rather than the rule of self, which is essentially what sin concerns. Here in these parables we behold different perspectives on how this relationship with God is to be construed, and it begins with putting one’s faith in that relationship. The story of the mustard seed demonstrates vividly how God accepts the smallest of offerings on our part, faith-wise, and how in his hands he can multiply it. God is the Creator, the multiplier, the awesome miracle worker who receives and delights in the attitude: ‘Here am I, use what I have and am.’ Perhaps it is no accident that we see this parable worked out in the miracle of the Feeding of the 5000 in the next chapter where just five loaves and two fish were multiplied (and in John’s account it is the offering of one small boy.)

The parable of the woman kneading her dough with the yeast focuses more on the effect of faith and trust in God – it permeates every part of one’s being: it is not a detached religious entity that is pulled out for use only on the Sabbath or when it suits us. The parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl reflect on how this relationship with God is to be valued: on discovering it, it becomes something for which it is worth laying down one’s life: the field in which the treasure is found is purchased in its entirety, and all is sold for the sake of gaining the pearl. If one is seeking a parallel story as a miracle, we need not look further than chapter 15 when the Canaanite woman demands with every fibre within her that Jesus has mercy upon her daughter suffering from demon possession: she, ‘the dog,’ longs to eat the crumbs from the master’s table.

Finally, the parable of the net echoes more the tone of last week’s parable of the weeds and its eschatological flavour: all manner of fish are caught, but it is the good fish which are retained whilst the bad fish are thrown away. As Jesus explains again, there are eternal consequences for the bad as well as the good.

Reflection

There is a reciprocation in terms of the response within the love of God’s kingdom rule: as we offer our little to him, every little part of it is valued by our Lord; but as we realise the great bounty which has been bestowed upon us at such cost, so we in turn should have that glorious abandonment in valuing all that has been given to us. ‘What does it profit someone if s/he gains the whole world and loses their own soul, says Jesus.’ Our challenge is to forsake all that the world deems as ‘profitable’ in order to value and gain the pearl of great price. Our relationship with him becomes both of infinite value to us and to him – that is what makes relationship truly divine, for he has become human to demonstrate its extent.

Prayer: Teach me, today, O Master, what it is to be of infinite value to you, and to value you infinitely and others made in your image, for the sake of your Kingdom.

Seventh Sunday after Trinity – 23 July 2023

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

13 24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Commentary

We continue this week with a parable which appears to be of a similar ilk to that of last week’s: it concerns sowing and reaping with the Sower being Christ, a malevolent presence causing distraction to the work of the kingdom and a harvest emanating from the good seed. However, the emphasis here is not on the qualitative gradations of hearers’ responses to God’s word but draws out starkly the distinct contrast between the good seed – those who respond to God’s word positively – and those who in the end do not. The focus is eschatological, dealing with how, in the end, judgment will fall on every individual. It deals pragmatically with sin, that the presence of Satan and sin is a fact: from the Fall it is part of the woven fabric of the world and continues in this present era. The parable highlights how the weeds, the ‘tares,’ the ‘zizania’ which grows in Palestine today under the name of ‘zewan,’ while growing looks like wheat, but when full grown its ears are long and the grains almost black. Each grain of zewan must be removed before grinding wheat or else the bread is bitter and poisonous to the taste. This, Jesus highlights, is the subtlety and deceit of sin and Satan, that he appears as an angel of light. Vigilance and prayerful discernment is therefore necessary for all Christians – take heed lest any of us fall. The parable leaves one in no doubt that there are consequences for a life of sin and that hell is a real entity, but through staying close to the Sower we may avoid it and by grace enter into his Kingdom at the last.

Reflection

None of us ultimately know what it is the heart of man or woman – God alone is judge, but the question is: are we close to the Sower, allowing ourselves to be good seed yielding a true harvest of righteousness? The deceit of sin is ever present, and it is only through confession, walking in the Spirit and allowing ourselves to be steeped in his Word that we remain close to Jesus. As Peter once said to Jesus: ‘To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Prayer

Lord, keep me close to yourself today that I would be true to you as Sower, to be one whose seed only produces authentic fruit for your Kingdom and to shun anything that is counterfeit and not according to your Word and Sprit. Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Trinity – 16 July 2023

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Commentary

In Matthew’s gospel to date, one parable has been related – that of the wise and foolish builder – but now in chapter 13 we read a sudden flurry of stories, the first three having agrarian connotations. Part of Jesus’ arsenal for communicating the Father’s heart for the people, was to impress on them Kingdom values through picture language, ‘not as the scribes taught.’ Broadly speaking, the parables relate to the Kingdom viz-a-viz its Entry, Ethics, Extent of Faith and Eternal Reward, and here, as with the two succeeding parables, the Parable of the Sower discusses how faith is exercised. Unlike them, however, there is a clear picture of four different types of response to faith, and more particularly God’s word as it’s communicated to its recipients. Whilst the Parable of the Sower is not entirely allegorical, there are direct parallels with elements of the story matter: the farmer is God, the removal of the seed is an agency of the Devil and the terrain on which the soil falls is the human heart.

The first three types of soil – the path, rock and thorns are all places where nurture is challenged, and growth is impeded. There is almost a resignation on the part of Christ that if people do not have good ‘soil-hearts’ then spiritual maturity cannot take place: each person hearing God’s message needs to provide a healthy environment whereby the seed can tenderly be allowed to flourish. Jesus recognises that in this world there will be those who are apathetic towards the gospel, those who do not educate and fuel their initial sparks of passion for God and those who succumb to temptation – worldly distraction, wealth, and anxiety. To sum up: the parable revolves around what the last parable centred upon – foundations and roots, for with them the spirit can thrive and produce much fruit, 30, 60 and 100 fold.

Reflection

How far will I, will you, go to prepare the ground for God’s word to take root in my life? Is my life punctuated by meaningful, attentive prayer that longs for God to work in? When temptation, worry, and strife come my way, have I the anchor, the roots in God that allow for deeper maturity in Him, rather than fickle dismissal of Him, in order to point the way forward?

Prayer: ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ (Psalm 42: 1,2)

Fifth Sunday after Trinity – 9 July 2023

Matthew 11: 16-19; 25 – end

1116 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will not lose their reward.

Commentary

Our gospel portion commences with a hive of frenetic religious activity, and ends with rest, stillness and ‘being.’ Jesus picks up on the restlessness of a generation which in rejecting their Messiah made judgments about both John the Baptist and him, the Christ. To the Jews, John was a bedevilled ascetic, to whom they felt uncomfortable to relate, remembering that they had not been exposed to prophetic voices for 400 years. Contrarywise, Jesus identified with ordinary people and their immediate environs, but because it was more so with the dregs of society Jesus was regarded as not respectable enough. The concept of being a ‘friend of sinners’ was derisory to the Jews but was to champion Christian ideals. In short, Matthew is stating that the Jews refused to hear God’s voice in either form, the sombre or the joyful, in judgment or in mercy, if it did not accord with their conventions. However, as writer and editor, Matthew stands back from this passage in history and declares that God’s wisdom in sending both John and Jesus is vindicated in both their actions as Messiah and herald to him.

Matthew then picks up the concept of wisdom in Jesus’ prayer to his Father, with the tongue in cheek reference to the so-called wise, for the message of the gospel was being unveiled to people standing outside the formal educated route, and true knowledge and love of God, Jesus states, is only via mediate revelation through himself. It is to those who are in need, to those who admit they are burdened and weary and not consumed with their own self-sufficiency that Jesus will give spiritual refreshment and enlightenment. Jesus uses an agrarian simile – the yoke: the ox-yoke in Palestine was used to graft the younger animal to the older and more experienced. The ‘easy’ yoke was literally ‘well-fitting.’ It is in this context that a disciple of Jesus may rest assured of their Lord and Teacher’s gentle and sensitive handling as s/he comes to Him.

Reflection

The challenge of this passage is that we do not miss the message, or more importantly, the Messenger, as he longs to be grafted with our souls. It is all too easy for us to become enmeshed in lofty theological concepts and conundrums and content ourselves with knowledge of issues and ideas instead of basking in the relationship we have with Christ – the ‘knowing’ is one of intimacy and dependency. The invitation is ‘to come,’ whatever we may feel about ourselves, or however much life is battering us, for we can find rest in the one who is the life-giver and fount of blessing.

The prayer of St Augustine: ‘Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless ‘till they find their rest in Thee.’

Fourth Sunday after Trinity – 2 July 2023

Matthew 10: 40 – end

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will not lose their reward.

Commentary

This passage comes as concluding remarks from Jesus after he has commissioned his disciples to be his ambassadors and evangelists. The Twelve had been mentored, taught and demonstrated the life of the kingdom through being with Christ, and now they were no longer ‘followers’ but apostles – ‘those who were sent out.’ Jesus provides instructions as to how they are to conduct themselves and how they should respond to people’s reactions towards them, as they ‘become Christ’ to others. They are ennobled with the status of being Christ-ones, taking up the cross as Jesus has done, and Jesus proclaims that their status is his status and goes further by stating that they are children and emissaries of God. For bystanders and onlookers to bring down the personhood of the apostle was tantamount to insulting and defacing the very being of God the Father.

Jesus then continues to describe their role as prophetic and their responsibility as righteous people. As St James says in his letter: ‘The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.’ Prayer, preaching, healing and proclaiming the Kingdom was now the prerogative of the ‘grown-up disciple’ and be an example to all those who take on Christ’s name. They, and we, are elevated to the office that the Old Testament prophets and righteous men held, but with two differences: the role is for everyone who is being discipled by Christ, and it is with the power of the Holy Spirit that these roles are fulfilled.

Then in the last verse there is a delightful inversion of power: whilst we all can be the righteous and the prophet as discipled believers, we are still ‘little ones’ in the kingdom. Anyone in that Kingdom who gives to another brother or sister in Christ with the simplest of acts – even the proffering of a cup of water – is indeed handling a treasured gift and one worthy of reward by the omniscient Father.

Reflection

As Christ-ones we have the status through God’s grace of being ambassadors and apostles who represent our King, knowing that we are commissioned and equipped to be all that Christ was and did on earth. It behoves us all to represent him transparently in word, deed and reaction, treating other fellow believers with the deepest dignity and respect. That is the challenge and our God-given responsibility: as St David said, to ‘do the little things’ as well as the big, for Him.

So help me Lord!

Third Sunday of Trinity – 25 June 2023

Matthew 10 28-39. Take Heart.

29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Commentary

Matthew’s Gospel was written for a community in which synagogue members needed encouragement to risk separation from family and friends to follow Jesus. This was not just a counter-cultural move; it was dangerous. Here the message is ‘Take courage!’

Reassurance of two kinds is offered to the fearful. First, the writer strongly affirms God’s providence: our lives are in God’s hands, there is therefore nothing to fear (notwithstanding that our enemies may kill us! Mt 10.28). Secondly, he reassures his audience that Jesus himself will be an advocate for those who choose solidarity with God the Father rather than solidarity with men. There is no way of avoiding the divisiveness of Jesus’s mission. Once again, we are reminded of the paradox at the heart of the gospel: if you do not love you are dead and if you do love they will kill you.

Reflection

The aim of Jesus’s mission is the restoration of our relationship with God. Jesus says no other loyalty can be allowed to prevent this from happening. Think of St Francis who, despite his father’s objection, left his wealthy home to follow Jesus. Like other Jewish rabbis, Jesus taught that if it comes to a choice between obeying our father or our rabbi, we must obey our rabbi. But Jesus is the only rabbi who has claimed to be one with God the Father! Jesus’s demand of absolute loyalty continues to be a considerable challenge for those who profess to be his followers. What needs to change in us? Is it our priorities, our desires, our attitudes, our relationships or what?

Prayer

Gracious Lord, give us courage: courage to make experiments and not to be afraid of making mistakes; courage to get up when we fail and to go on again; courage to overcome all our fears. Teach us day by day what you would have us do and give us courage and strength to follow the path you set before us. Amen.

18 June 2023 – Second Sunday after Trinity

Matthew 9.35-10.8.  Job Opportunities in Troubled Times

35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ 

10 1Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. 

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

Commentary

The authority that Jesus displayed in word and deed in the Gospel up to this point is now seen to be extended to the disciples. Like Jesus, their ministry will also be teaching, preaching and healing. Like him, they are to be shepherds of the sheep and workers for the harvest, remembering that although the workers are few, God is Lord of the Harvest.

Their task is urgent because the sheep are harassed and helpless, but there is also a fantastic opportunity because the harvest is plentiful. Jesus sees that people are ready to respond to the good news of God’s kingdom. The disciples are sent out to proclaim that ‘the kingdom has come near’ (9.35 gives examples of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven). What the twelve have freely received is the astonishing gift of discipleship, now discipleship is what they are to give.

Reflection

Jesus’s Jewish audience expected the labourers in the harvest field to be angels sent to execute judgment on the nations, not men sent to rescue others from judgment beginning with Israel itself. Might we still need saving too? When we see ‘the crowds’ are we filled with compassion for them or do we experience a more mixed response, understanding what it might cost to be a disciple?

Note that Jesus tells the disciples to pray for God to send out more labourers (9.38). In the next verse that prayer is answered in the sending out of the twelve. Do we see what Jesus did there?

Prayer

Lord of the harvest, we thank you for calling us to be your disciples. We are humbled by the idea that you will give your authority to us to teach, preach and heal, but we struggle to believe that the harvest could be plentiful.  Please help us to see what we should be doing differently.  Amen.

11 June 2023 – First Sunday after Trinity

Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26

9As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 12But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

18 While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ 19And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. 20Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, 21for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ 22Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well. 23When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, 24he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. 25But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. 26And the report of this spread throughout that district.

Commentary

Matthew contrasts Jesus’s notorious willingness to eat with ‘sinners’ (part of his mission to ‘the lost’) with the attitude of Pharisees whose main concern seems to have been practical observance of laws and regulations. To them, ‘sinners’ were those who could not or would not keep the rules about paying tithes or maintaining ritual purity. Tax collectors, the immoral, heretics and Gentiles (non-Jews) were all ritually unclean and should therefore have been avoided by Jesus.

The difference between Jesus and these Pharisees lies in their disagreement about priorities in the will of God. Jesus invites them to reflect on Hosea’s underlying concern, the danger of a religion which is all external, in which ritual demands have taken the place of love. Pharisees may be ‘righteous’ according to their standards, but they have misunderstood what true righteousness means. Jesus understands that eating with sinners is what God truly desires. For sinners who ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (Mt 5.6) are closer to God than the seriously (superficially, narrowly or formally?) religious.

Reflection

Also ‘unclean’ (and therefore to be avoided by those concerned to remain ‘clean’) are a dead girl and a woman with a menstrual disorder. Jesus is touched by one and touches the other and yet does not become unclean. Rather, something in Jesus ‘saves’ or ‘rescues’ both the woman and the dead girl. Those with faith in Jesus, the woman and the girl’s father, receive ‘healing’.

The mission of Jesus and those who trust in him is to heal the world.

Prayer

Lord, all our religion is meaningless without a faithful love for you, our neighbour and ourselves. As we understand and experience your loving kindness towards us, please warm our hearts so that we can welcome into our fellowship those we find it difficult to love. Amen.

Trinity Sunday – 4 June 2023

Matthew 28.16-end – An End and a Beginning

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Commentary

Matthew reports at least three visits to a mountain, all are significant. There is the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration and this scene which is both climax and conclusion to the gospel. But the end is also a beginning.

Here Matthew revisits important themes. Note the recurrence of the word ‘all’.

  1. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. This is far more than Satan offered him in the wilderness (Mt 4.9,10). It also makes Jesus not just the king of the Jews promised in chapter 2, but a universal sovereign Lord.
  2. Those who have been disciples henceforth are to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them all Jesus had taught them. The mission is to the Gentile world as well as to Jews.
  3. Joseph was promised ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God with us’ (Mt 1.23). Now Jesus himself promises, ‘I am with you always’.

Matthew says some disciples worshipped and some doubted, or possibly that they worshipped while doubting. This may reflect a division within his own community about whether or not Jesus is worthy of worship with God the Father, a question worth noting on Trinity Sunday. Or it could mean that some took longer than others to accept the reality of the resurrection. This could be a genuine ‘historical echo’. Those who were there never forgot their conflicting emotions and beliefs in that unique experience.

Reflection

Disciples are to take over Jesus’s teaching role but note that this is not really about conveying abstract ideas. It is largely to be done through living as they had been told to do, loving one another. And disciples are not ‘made’ unless they also observe Jesus’s commandments. Jesus was a ‘show don’t tell’ sort of teacher. Are we?

Prayer

Lord Jesus, we rejoice that your reign has begun. However, the world still seems to be full of corruption, greed and wickedness. We tell ourselves that this will only change when you return to bring the world under your just and gentle rule. Remind us that we are not waiting for a deus ex machina, but that that your plan is to work towards this goal in and through us, wherever we are, one day at a time. Amen.

Pentecost Sunday– 28 May 23

John 20: 19 – 23

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Commentary

John is very specific as to the timing of Jesus’ appearance to the collective gathering of the disciples: much had happened on this day already. It is declared as the first day – Sunday – and this was to be the special day when Christians were to worship and proclaim his resurrection. This new order stands in contradistinction with the immediate mood of the disciples, where the hallmark was fear. They were confused, overawed by the power of both Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers who had put their Lord to death, and they had not understood the words that Jesus had already spoken before his death of the concept of peace and the giving of the Spirit.

Jesus had claimed six chapters previously that he would give his peace: a peace that the world did not know. And now Jesus’ bodily post-resurrection presence appears and his first words to them with double emphasis, are: ‘Peace be with you.’ The Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ and the Greek here ‘Eirene’ are almost identical, and when New Testament writers wrote ‘eirene’ they were mostly thinking ‘shalom.’ In the classic Greek, this word literally means a condition of law and order that results in the blessing of prosperity. The New Testament interpretation is more all-encompassing, with a broad vision of human flourishing with its emphasis on God’s saving work through Christ. As 1 Corinthians 14:33 states: ‘God is not a God of confusion but of peace (eirene) – he is the God of the way things are supposed to be, where everything is working as he intended. This human flourishing Jesus leaves as a legacy and a treasure to be valued and nourished.

Jesus’ pronouncement of peace is then endorsed by physical evidence of that work on the cross with those visible signs in hands and side. There is no room for the docetic (anti-flesh thinking) here: Christ was raised in spirit and in body. The result of this was joy, blessing and a commission. The breathing upon the disciples of the Holy Spirit was a down payment before Pentecost and it was the most intimate imparting of God in Christ in giving of the third person of the Trinity there and then. It spelt continuity for the disciples and marked the end of one era and the beginning of another for them and for Jesus..

Reflection

The empowerment of the Spirit in this passage is preceded by the giving of peace. Knowing that in Christ we are made one with him through his work on the cross we can receive first a state of being which is at one with self and one with God – we can flourish. It is then that we can be open to receive the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit – to be empowered to ‘be Christ’ in the world and demonstrate his life to those around us. This Pentecost, may we not crave for power as the world interprets and expresses it, but receive more of his flourishing form deep within, knowing that we have been put right with God, through his grace and love.

‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.’

The seventh Sunday after Easter, 21st May

John 17: 1-11

 17 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.

“I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.

Commentary

 This passage, known as the High Priestly Prayer, comes as the consummation of the preceding discourses with the disciples, as Jesus lifts his eyes up to heaven and his focus is upon the glory of God and our Lord’s fulfilment of his mission on earth. In one sense it is a model prayer indicating that the glory of God should be the purpose of our petitions, but in another sense this prayer stands alone and is unique and we can never reflect what is being echoed to the Father.

The hour had come – this was the moment when the Son of Man would conclude his earthly mission and Jesus considers how he has reflected his Father’s glory on earth and how his disciples may represent him when he has gone. This provides a timelessness to the person of the Logos of John 1 who has existed with the Father since before time began, is passing through human time for the sake of his mission and will continue into eternity. One can see this prayer being offered for all generations: for the church militant and the church triumphant who will go on being the reflection of Christ on earth until Christ returns.

We see in no clearer terms in scripture, the fact of Christ’s pre-existence with the Father in verse 5: the shekinah glory – that presence of God from the foundation of the earth- was suppressed on earth for the sake of his incarnation and for his earthly season we see only glimpses of his full glory such as that at his baptism and transfiguration. Nevertheless, it was God’s name which was his glory, revealed to those who would respond to Christ’s message of salvation: the people who had come to know Christ’s origin and mission. It wasn’t God on Sinai, not God’s glory through the still small voice to Elijah, nor in the temple with Isaiah: it was the sharing of His name and the Word. It is those who have, and are responding to God’s call that Christ’s priestly intercessory prayer is made manifest, so that they who remain will continue to have the protection of the power of God’s name, until such time that the Spirit falls and empowers each.

Reflection

As we are confronted once again with Christ’s ascension and the coming of the Spirit, what is it that we are reflecting in our lives? Stravinsky once said: ‘I am a vessel through which the music passed.’ Do we believe that we too are chosen vessels through which the glory of Christ passes as his ambassadors on earth? Too often we can allow stones and shadows to block the light of Christ and obscure his glory in and through us. We have such a divine arsenal of power at our disposal: the name of God and his word, his spirit which abides in us and the revelation of scripture that he promises to be with us to eternity.

Let us this day open up our lives and hearts to meditate on Christ’s glory which has passed through time upon his followers, and by his grace receive of it in fuller measure, so that those around us will see Jesus and him only.

14th May 2023 – Sixth Sunday after Easter

John 14: 15 – 21

15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

Commentary

The continuation of Jesus’ discourse to his disciples begins with a reference to what he has referred to in the previous chapter: the new commandment to love as he loves. Loving him and God the Father, however, is rooted in what texts such as Psalm 119 discuss, namely delight in God’s word and in his law. Living and loving are inextricably bound together, and God’s law becomes a code of love – how his followers are to live is in accordance with what he says.

From reflecting on the past and present, Jesus then speaks of the future revelation of God amongst his people – the outpouring of the Spirit. Resulting from their  relationship of love and abiding in him, there is the promise of one who would lead them into all truth- the Counsellor. This concept is anathema to the world but will become a living reality for all those who have trusted Christ. What Jesus has described concerning his relationship with the Father (his being in the Father and the Father in him) now is worked out through the Spirit’s being the one living in them. The reader, of course understands this in terms of Pentecost and following, but for those still grappling with Christ’s imminent departure, it was a totally new and unrelatable concept to anything else previously heard. What gives confidence to them, however, is that Christ’s followers will not be left destitute and without direction and understanding: they will know more of what Christ’s relationship with the Father is and that they belong as part of Christ. Again, there is the reference to life, love and obedience to God’s loving law: his followers are those who are enfolded in this glorious intertwinement.

Reflection

The living hope of the Christian follower is that he or she will not be left as orphans – there is always the promise of the Counsellor that he is living at the core of their being – it is ‘Christ in you – the hope of glory,’ as St Paul echoes in Colossians 1. Whatever abandonment there may be by the world, by others, there is a certain knowledge that the Christian is never alone. It isn’t just a divine spark, or a frothy feeling of love, the Spirit’s work in us becomes an anchor and a guide into all truth, as we hide the word of God and his commands within us. Knowledge about God is translated into the fruitfulness of loving assurance that he is God and he is within us. Our bodies become temples for that Spirit to reside – so may we worthily bear his being within us and reflect that to a lost and hungry world.

Prayer

Come Holy Spirit, come and reside in me today so that I may know that I am never alone in the world, but participate in the activity of the Trinity for the sake of others and his kingdom. Amen.

7th May 2023 – Fifth Sunday after Easter 

John 14: 1 – 14

14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

Commentary

The start of this Supper Discourse indicates a close connection with the previous chapter where the disciples’ hearts and emotions were inevitably put on edge and  in need of reassurance. Their security has been thrown to the winds – Judas is exposed as a betrayer, Peter’s denial has been foretold and Jesus has spoken clearly about his imminent death. But the question concerning Jesus’ leaving them is been shrouded in mystery to his followers. In John 13 the question is posed: ‘Where are you going?’ The answer, the reader knows, concerns his death. But now at the beginning of chapter 14 Jesus picks up what he was saying at the beginning of the pervious chapter – that he was returning to his Father, but this will be a place he is preparing for those who follow him. Instead of Peter asking the question, it is Thomas, this time, who asks the same question and broadens this to a question as to how to find it.

Jesus now deflects the question about ‘the where’ and points his disciples to himself, for in him there is a route to God (the Way),a reality where there can be no confusion (the Truth) and a dynamic for living which continues form this existence into eternity (the Life). Philip joins the discussion with a request for them to see the Father, to whom this dynamic is directed, and Jesus then makes some astounding theological statements to emphasise that God the Father and the Son are one, and the essence of God is the essence of the man Christ Jesus. No religious leader had ever made such bold claims, without appearing as a madman. Jesus sympathises with their mental and spiritual gymnastics which they are being required to exercise and brings the issue back to their own encounters with Christ: had they witnessed miracles? It is from these empirical observations of miracles first-hand that indicate Christ’s divinity, on which they may place their faith. But lastly, it is such faith that can equip each disciple, too, with power to ‘be Christ’ in the world and imitate their master through deeds that will even surpass his. It is at this point that the discourse becomes an equipping for the task of mission.

Reflection

‘The Way, Truth and Life’ as assigned titles for our Lord are themselves a rich treasure trove to delve into, and in one sense we need no other guide, for it is our salvation past, present and future, and all else can only be spiritual niceties. It is because we reflect not on an abstract philosophy or an unreachable force but on a living Being and Personality in whom all our faith, hope and love is founded. It is as we ponder Jesus’ saying that we indeed can have direction in this life and into the next, we can know of its certainty because he has passed through death and out the other side, and that what we are searching and are destined for, is life in all its fulness – to be with, and found in the bosom of his Being. As St Paul expressed it: ‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection.’

Prayer

Lord, help me to place my hand in yours today, and know that you are the way, the Truth and the Life and to be content in the knowledge that I am known by you even as you are known by me. Amen.

30 April 2023 – Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10.1-10 – The Sheep, the Shepherd and the Brigands

1‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Commentary

In the previous chapter, Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth. Finding himself on the ‘wrong’ side of the dispute about whether Jesus was ‘from God’, this man was ‘cast out’ or excommunicated from the synagogue (Jn 9.34). This story raises the question, who is the true leader of the true people of God? Who has the authority to include or exclude anyone from God’s people? Hence the parables about sheep and shepherd in John 10.1-18.

In the first parable (Jn 10.1-5) the background is Ezekiel 34, where the leaders of Israel are lambasted as lazy and self-indulgent shepherds who neglect the well-being of the flock. Jesus contrasts himself with these shepherds; he is the good shepherd (v11) Jesus is also making an implicit further claim when he calls himself the shepherd of the sheep, for the true shepherd of Israel is God himself (Psalm 23).

In the second parable (v7-10) the shepherd is contrasted with thieves and bandits.

Thieves and bandits would lead the flock to destruction. The good shepherd leads them to abundant life (v10). This is why Jesus uses the gate image. He is the way that must be followed (Jn 14.6; see also Matthew 7.13-14, the broad and narrow ways). Fortunately, the sheep ‘know his voice’ and they follow him. The authority of the true shepherd is not based on coercion but on loving care and his willingness to lay down his life for the sheep (v11).

Reflection

To whom should we listen? Who is to be trusted? Who should we follow?

There is rich imagery in this ‘figure of speech (v6): sheep, shepherds, thief, bandit, gate, gatekeeper, stranger, and later, hired hands and wolf (v12, 13). We can use it to exercise our imaginations. This should help us to follow the good shepherd and attend to his voice in the face of conflict, danger, and life shaping decisions.

How should we live?

There is also an important ecological dimension to this imagery. As members of a consumer society we have all ‘stolen, killed and destroyed’ (v10). It is difficult to see how we can avoid collective responsibility for distant harms, for example those caused by global warming or the mining of lithium for the batteries we use. But Jesus’s disciples can help to repair the damage that has been done to so many ‘green pastures’ and to those who live in them.

Prayer

Good shepherd, it can be difficult to hear your voice and follow you. Loud are the voices of the thieves and bandits who for their own profit are leading us to destruction. We know that there are many who do not experience life in all its fulness both close to home and far away. Help us to listen to you and, as best we can, to look after the sheep and the pastures you have put in our care. Amen.

Third Sunday of Easter – 23 April 2023 

Luke 24.13-35 – Light Dawns at Dusk

13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Commentary

The stories of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan (found only in Luke’s gospel) could be the finest told by Jesus. The tale of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (also found only in Luke) could be Luke’s best.

The conversation which Jesus interrupts was not a discussion but an argument. Hence the rather ill-natured question put to him (verse 18). The two deeply unhappy disciples have given up their cherished hope that Jesus would redeem Israel (v21) yet this is exactly what the one they are talking with has done.

Like everyone else in Israel, they had been reading the Bible through the wrong lens. They had been seeing it as the long story of how God would redeem Israel from suffering, but it was instead the story of how God would redeem Israel through suffering, and in particular through the suffering of Israel’s representative, the Messiah (v26).

To what did Jesus refer when he explained ‘the things about himself in all the scriptures’ (v27)? We are not looking for a few isolated verses chosen at random. Rather, the whole story from Genesis onwards points to its fulfilment when God’s anointed takes Israel’s suffering upon himself. Luke’s description of the blindness of the disciples (v16) suggests that only when we learn to see Jesus within this bigger story will we be able to recognize him. It is when Jesus breaks bread at Emmaus that the eyes of the disciples are opened to the meaning of the Last Supper and the crucifixion. Only then do they see that redemption is through the broken body of Jesus.

Luke deliberately echoes Genesis when he describes the meal at Emmaus. When, in the first meal after Creation, the woman took the fruit of the tree, gave some to her husband and both ate, ‘their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked’ (Gen 3.6-7). Describing the first meal of the new creation Luke says, ‘he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him’ (v30-31). The first meal is rebellion and estrangement, death and sorrow. The new meal is full of life and joy and new possibility.

Reflection

What matters when we study the Bible is not just that we try to understand the big picture (including everything in the Old Testament!) which culminates in Jesus’s death and resurrection, but that we experience it for ourselves. To what extent do we know God not just in our heads, but also in our hearts? (See v32).

Prayer

Risen Lord, so much is wrong with the world, the church and in ourselves. May we learn to listen for your voice as we walk along, seek to apply scripture to all that is going on and find you in the breaking of bread. Amen.

Second Sunday of Easter – 16 April 2023

John 20.19-end – The Surprising Presence of Christ

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Commentary

On the first Easter Sunday the disciples were locked in and afraid. Jesus sets them free from the grief and fear that controlled them. He greets them, ‘Peace be with you’, and he shows them his hands and feet to demonstrate that suffering and death do not have the last word. He sends them as he was sent, to serve and pray, into conflict and suffering and death. He sends them as he was sent, to encounter others face to face and to be inspired, innovative and creative in those encounters. This is why he gives them the Holy Spirit, to inspire them and lead them into new truth.

When John says Jesus breathed on the disciples he is using imagery drawn from Genesis (and found elsewhere in the Old Testament eg. Ezekiel 37.1-14). In the beginning, God breathed into the nostrils of the man of dust and he became a living being (Genesis 2.7). The breath of the crucified and risen Jesus is new life from God. The disciples are to receive it. Again, openness is required, as it was for the disciples to receive his greeting and his mission.

Finally, the disciples are to be open to the implications of the life and peace that Jesus brings. They are to forgive sin. Strangely, this is the first explicit mention of forgiveness in John’s gospel. It is mentioned here because the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a new community into being and without forgiveness there can be no community because there can be no love, or truth, or trust.

Reflection

When we share the Peace at the Eucharist how might it help us to think about the disciples in the locked room, filled with doubts, grief and fear for the future?

How open are we to receiving the mission Jesus gives to the disciples?

Forgiveness is a gift to any community. What might have prompted the writer to say this in the opening of his letter to a church?

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1.8-9).

Prayer

Note that there is no closure to the Easter Sunday scene or to the one that takes place a week later. When Jesus ‘came and stood among’ the disciples and when he ‘came and stood among them’ when Thomas was present, there was no departure. Try meditating using the following familiar greeting and response and give thanks.

‘The Lord is here’

‘His Spirit is with us’. Alleluia!

Easter Sunday – 9 April 2023

Matthew 28.1-10 – The Tomb is Empty and Jesus is Risen! Rejoice!

1After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

Commentary

Nowhere does the New Testament describe Jesus’s resurrection. What we are given is the story of how the tomb was found to be empty and of how the disciples met with the risen Jesus. Rather than try to use these as evidence to support the Christian claim that Jesus was raised from the dead, Matthew’s emphasis is on the restoration of the relationships that had been broken by Jesus’s death and how important this is for continuing Jesus’s mission (Mt 28.16-20).

It is not surprising that the different gospel accounts of Easter Sunday are difficult to reconcile with one another. As Matthew says, the two Marys were bewildered and exhilarated by their experience at the tomb. They were doubtful and yet reassured by their vision, for Jesus’s rising from death is attended by angelic messengers just as his birth had been. Remember that an angel of the Lord comes with all the majesty and authority of God. No wonder the women were both fearful and filled with joy after their encounters. The word ‘Greetings!’ (v9) that Jesus says to the two women may be ‘Hail!’ or ‘Hi!’ but can also be translated ‘Rejoice!’. The women have seen Jesus and worshipped him. The eleven male disciples must wait until they get to Galilee before they see their risen Lord.

Why go to Galilee? For Matthew, Galilee (v7 and 10) is where light dawns (see the Isaiah quote in Mt 4.12-16). It is to be contrasted with Jerusalem where Jesus meets rejection and death and over which he had said a prophetic lament (23.37-39).

And the guards? Knowing only fear they return to the city which will be destroyed.

Reflection

Throughout the gospel, Matthew has shown how God’s purpose must be fulfilled. This is why the disciples must see the risen Jesus, for that seeing will involve a commissioning. God’s kingdom has come. A new age has dawned. There is work to be done.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (a Narnia story by C.S.Lewis) Aslan returns from death and tells his followers,

‘Our day’s work is not yet over and if the witch is to be finally defeated before bed-time we must find the battle at once.’

‘And join in, I hope, sir!’ added the largest of the Centaurs.

‘Of course,’ said Aslan.

What is our day’s work to be? Where are we going to join in?

Prayer

Lord Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel you reveal yourself to us as the one through whom death is defeated and everything is changed. Risen Lord, grant us all we need to turn dreams into reality: wisdom to see what we ought to do, courage to begin it, faithfulness to continue it and strength to complete it. Amen.

Palm Sunday – 2 April 2023

Matthew 21.1-11 – Salvation, Fantasy and Reality

1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Commentary

Matthew has been preparing us for the confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. At last, the city comes in sight. It was overflowing with pilgrims preparing to celebrate Passover. Jesus’ arrival is a deliberately staged symbolic act, designed to make an impact on the already suspicious Jerusalem authorities (15.1). Jesus makes a deliberate Messianic claim. He has walked all the way from Galilee, but now he requisitions a donkey and a colt.

For Matthew, the Old Testament tells the story of Jesus, hence the use of quotations from Isaiah 62.11 and Zechariah 9.9-10. Readers of Zechariah will expect Jesus to act exactly as he does. He is a humble king, not at all like the military leader of popular Messianic belief. Riding on a donkey (not a warhorse) is proof of this. His ‘triumphal’ journey leads to suffering and humiliation.

However carefully Jesus selected the prophecy he enacted, it was inevitable that the crowd would express ideas from popular Messianic belief. Sure enough, some start shouting ‘Hosanna’, which means ‘Save us, we pray’. These exclamations of religious enthusiasm are from one of the Psalms chanted at all the great festivals of Israel (Psalm 118.25-26).

It is no surprise then that ‘all Jerusalem was troubled’, just as it had been when the Magi came looking for the one born King of the Jews (2.3). Now, when the king arrives, all the city is stirred once again. Is this enthusiasm or apprehension and will it produce the same murderous desire? For the moment, it is not clear exactly who Jesus is. He might be just ‘the prophet from Nazareth’ (v11). In the week that followed, Jesus would make it abundantly clear both to the crowd and to the authorities that he was ‘a prophet and much more than a prophet’.

Reflection

Today, just as when he enters Jerusalem, Jesus fully intends to answer the cry of ‘Hosanna’. He knows that we need urgent help for all that ails us. He knows people are hungry and thirsty, homeless and in prison, sick and dying. He can see what we are doing to the natural world. He has come to rescue us from ourselves. But is he the Messiah we want?

Jesus tells the people of Jerusalem that they are under judgment (Mt 24). Do we want to hear this? He says he will rescue them from evil and oppression but think about what it cost. Similarly, Jesus offers to rescue us, but have we looked at the price tag?

Prayer

Lord Jesus, you know our dangerous preference for fantasy over reality, for the easy way and the short cut. We are slow to learn that what we want you to do for us is unlikely to be what you expect us to do for ourselves and for others. Help us to get over our disappointment and to follow you into Jerusalem. Amen.

26 March 2023 – Fifth Sunday of Lent

John 11: 1-45

11 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2(This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”

9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”

40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Commentary

This powerful and poignant story of love, compassion and triumph over death holds a deep, threefold significance for the unveiling of God’s plan of salvation through Christ for humankind. Firstly, it is perhaps the greatest of the seven signs pointing to Jesus as the Son of God encapsulated in the key verse 25: just as the miraculous multiplication of the bread-cakes was an illustration of Jesus as the bread of life, so this miracle points to him as the ‘resurrection and the life.’ Secondly, flowing out of this, it revealed Jesus to be the Messiah who was to die for his people. In his early ministry Jesus revealed himself to ever-widening circles but was rejected; at the feasts of Tabernacles and Dedication he made his earnest appeal to sinners but was bitterly resisted. Now through this sign along with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus manifests his Messiahship, and it is echoed plaintively through the mouth of Martha in v 27. Thirdly, though outside the parameters of our text, this sign led to the formal decision to put Jesus to death.

At the heart of this story, however, there is also the dynamic tension of Jesus as truly human and yet fully divine reaching out in love for someone for whom he deeply cared: ‘the one whom you love is sick’ came the passionate appeal from Lazarus’ sisters. Whilst there is a natural urgency for Jesus to act, there is an all-pervading sense that this whole encounter is running according to a divine schedule and for a greater divine purpose, so human hurry is transcended even to the point of seeming nonchalance. Jesus arrives at Bethany when humanly it is too late, but it is at this point that Jesus’ humanity and divinity converge. Jesus, whilst knowing that death can be overcome, nevertheless weeps at Lazarus’ tomb: there is a moment of great grief and he enters into the full significance of human separation with the reminder that death is still to be overcome. It is then that Jesus, as resurrection and the life, emerges triumphant as he commands the corpse to come out of the tomb and for Lazarus’ graveclothes to be removed. For the many witnesses, his miraculous act inspires belief and trust in the ever-living One.

Reflection

As we see eternity couched in time, and purpose erupting form the chaos of life and death, may we this Lent gain the stillness that was in Jesus, not to be impulsive and reactive, but praying that God’s glory might be seen in all we do and say, yet knowing that there is a time to weep and a time for joy.

Prayer: Give us, good Lord, an eternal perspective in the moment you place us in, to be all that you long for us to be, yet with unhurried acceptance of all that is. Amen.

19th March 2023 – Mothering Sunday

John 19: 25-27

25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Commentary

It is easy to get embroiled in arguments over which women gathered together, if one casts an eye upon two of the Synoptic accounts – there are obvious overlaps but different descriptions. However, what is of note is that here in John we see women who would seem to be the four most central female characters – those connected through blood ties or relations of Jesus’ disciples, along with the one whom Jesus rescued and befriended – Mary Magdalene. The poignancy of the proximity to the cross is all too evident: Jesus’ mother has carried the pain of Simeon’s prophecy from his birth (“and a sword will pierce your soul, also’’ – Luke 2:35). Ever since Christ was in her arms, the shadow of the cross has dimmed her path. And now it is an unmistakable reality.

Jesus’ attention is not upon himself and wallowing in self-pity: he is concerned about his dear mother. He avoids using the term ‘mother’ at this juncture and uses a term, which conveys in the Greek, care and endearment – ‘woman.’ Then, in using the phrase: “Here is your son,” Jesus is accentuating the true point of Jesus’ incarnation and plan of salvation: ‘Look, this is why I came, this is why I am here – it is the cross where my Father’s plan is to come to fruition.’ But this is followed by a pastoral concern: he asks his brother, the beloved disciple, to take responsibility for their mother. Her role as the God-bearer has come to an end…but the sting of such a life’s work must be soothed.

Reflection

The heart of the mother for her son and its reciprocal response as seen in Mary with Jesus, is mirrored in how what the Mother church is instructed to be through the power of the Spirit: to be a “chosen people, royal priesthood, a holy nation,”   (1 Peter 2:9)  – a beautiful bride for Christ its groom. The church, and indeed all mothers, possess the holy calling to care, to nurture and to reflect on what lies behind and ahead of them. As Mary pondered all things in her heart, so the church must ponder on all that Christ is for us in the here and now – the same, yesterday, today and for ever. What does it mean for us to be part of that royal priesthood as we reflect in Lent on Christ our Passover and Pascal Lamb, slain for us so that we may gain white garments of righteousness? What part of the Mother Church are we?

12th March 2023 – Third Sunday of Lent

John 2: 13 – 22

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Commentary

By John’s placing this story of the clearing of the temple so early in his gospel one might assume that it takes place early in the ministry of Jesus compared with the Synoptics’ account of the same event in Holy Week. However, the nature of John’s gospel is such that it transcends time and space and does not need to be ordered sequentially: the only awareness of time here is that it was nearing the Jewish Passover, shared by the other gospel records. At the trial of Jesus, we see that Jesus’ accusers refer to ‘the destruction of the temple and in three days rebuild another.’ This is only on the lips of Jesus in the Johanine account, and it might suggest that this event took place near the end of Jesus’ ministry. So why did John place it here? It would seem that John wishes to endorse the fact that the eternal Son of God has an open mission and that he lives in the wake of his own death and resurrection which he has known about, and anticipates.

What is John seeking to establish here at this juncture? This story of Jesus in the temple follows the turning of water into wine where Jesus inaugurates his sign-giving and reveals the glory of God in Christ. Now we behold a scene where his authority is unveiled and unleashed in a manner not seen elsewhere in any of the gospels. As Jesus enters the court of the Gentiles the scenario is one that resembles a stockyard with the stench and the filth, the bleating and the lowing of the animals destined for sacrifice. It is true that each worshipper was permitted to bring an animal of their selection, but it was the corruption that went with this where dealers were taking advantage of them, that was particularly heinous.

As with many bad habits which creep in with fairly well-attuned motives, things can get out of control and the focus is entirely contrary to what was intended. Jesus sees with fresh eyes, and with his deliberate act of godly aggression and the pain of the fatherhood of God purges the temple of those turning this place of prayer into a tawdry market for profit. Jesus establishes his authority and does so in the Father’s name. It was the Father’s glory which became his glory at the wedding feast; now it is the Father’s authority and anguish which becomes his own. And what was the sign? The mystery of God’s temple in Zion becoming his own temple destroyed and raised again for our salvation.

Reflection

As bystanders to certain events in scripture, it may be easy to discern the truth and the message where distortions can occur. As we journey on into Lent and look to the point where Jesus’ temple was destroyed and resurrected so that we could know the fulness of the Spirit within our ‘temples,’ may we see more clearly those things which can muddy the spiritual waters. It might be in over-worked rituals, the parading of self in church at the expense of true worship in humility and contriteness, or a haziness in how we allow God to reveal himself to us. Let us this Lent be rid of clutter and only see Christ crucified, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings in our midst once more.

5th March 2023 – Second Sunday of lent

John 3: 1 – 17

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Commentary

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus opens with a question concerning the essence and character of the Christ: signs and miracles performed surely predicated a Being who had been ‘delivered’ from and by God? Nicodemus as a Pharisee had a very clear understanding of salvation through law-works. This Christ in his eyes had ‘performed.’ But quickly Jesus turns the conversation around to those entering the Kingdom of God and stalls mention of his own divine purpose and identity until later. Jesus employs the language of midwifery to this member of the Sanhedrin and how Nicodemus and others may be ‘delivered.’ Jesus pierces his literalist interpretation of being ‘born again’ and makes the contrast between flesh and Spirit. Physical birth gives no-one priority in the sphere of salvation – no ‘clean’ thing can proceed from ‘unclean.’ But it is the Holy Spirit which produces the sanctified nature. For Nicodemus it was a new concept that salvation was not by an act of man but a gift from God and is birthed by the Spirit, whose operation is like the wind – it is of God’s choosing and not one’s own, and it is incomprehensible and mysterious.

Nicodemus continues to ask the ‘how can’ questions which reveal that his perception of true spiritual knowledge has not been revealed to him through his elementary study of the Torah. That which he has come to ‘know’ contrasts with that which Jesus ‘knows’ from his communion with his Father – ‘our testimony.’

Jesus then returns to Nicodemus’ inquiry into the ontology of Christ in speaking of himself as the only one to have descended from heaven. The ‘descent’ of God in Christ then is spoken of in the next breath as the one who will then be forcibly lifted up like the bronze serpent in the desert, made by Moses for snakebite sufferers. There is divine irony as Jesus parallels himself with the accursed being of Satan rejected in Eden. But as the second Adam he becomes accursed as one hanging on a tree who overcomes the evil one and the eternal life source to people who choose to look on him – they are forgiven and assured that they will not perish. And all this is God’s visible demonstration that he loved the world so much.

Reflection

Nicodemus came by night to seek Jesus. In this darkened time of Lent, where will our search for God take us? Will the wonder of Christ’s suffering on the cross for my sin grow? Can we comprehend with the help of the Spirit what it is to ‘look up’ and see no longer the serpent, but one who became accursed so that we could be free? How will our freedom be expressed and articulated as we seek to mirror to others the all-consuming love that risks everything – even to be misunderstood and equated with evil?

26 February 2023 – First Sunday of Lent

Matthew 4.1-11 – The Testing of Jesus’s Vocation

1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Commentary

Once again Matthew’s focus is on the Old Testament and the parallels between the experience of Jesus and that of Moses and Elijah (both fasted for forty days and nights). But the issues are really to do with Deuteronomy 6 – 8, quoted three times by Jesus in answer to Satan’s ‘suggestions’. Deuteronomy details the lessons God put before the Israelites in the wilderness before their mission to enter the promised land. For forty years he tested them (Deut 8.2) as a man disciplines his son (Deut 8.5). Israel failed to learn its lessons, but now the true Son of God, at the outset of his mission, faces the same tests in the wilderness and does not fail.

In solitude and silence, Jesus’s messianic vocation is tested. He is invited to consider ways of being ‘the Son of God’, which if adopted, would wreck the mission God has given him. He could satisfy his physical hunger – but God’s way will mean privation, not comfort. He could work a spectacular miracle which would silence all those who doubted his relationship with God – but testing God cannot be part of the relationship of trust which the Son enjoys with the Father. Or he could compromise his loyalty to the Father and get his followers to make him King in Jerusalem. But Jesus sees Satan for who he is, the enemy of God and of God’s salvation plan. The Messiah must follow the way of suffering, rejection and death. Jesus sees there is no other way. (But see Mt 28.18).

Reflection

In the wilderness, Jesus sees that he could manage and manipulate others. He rejects these possibilities. A community that claims to follow Jesus the Son of God is one in which people do not desire to be ruled by others or to exercise authority over others. The messianic community is characterised by truth, humility and compassion.

Prayer

Loving God, help us to pay proper attention to what gives us life and to be indifferent to all that would disable us or distract us from the life you would have us lead. Amen.

19 February 2023 – Sunday Next Before Lent

Matthew 17.1-9 – Listen to Jesus

1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

Commentary

At the Transfiguration, the Exodus events which took place at Mt Sinai are re-enacted in the life of Jesus who is the new Moses, only more so (this is proper British understatement). Like Moses, Jesus takes three companions up the mountain (Ex 24.1,9). The transfiguration of Jesus (v2) recalls the brightness of the face of Moses after the Sinai revelation (Ex 34.29-35) which made it necessary for him to veil his face. But here it is not just the face of Jesus that shines. Nor is his radiance a reflection, like sunburn after a day on the beach. He himself is the source of the luminosity and it shines from his whole person. Moses and Elijah (v3) represent the fulness of the revelation of God to Israel. But Jesus is the fulfilment of both the Law and the Prophets. Peter’s remark about making dwellings (v4) refers to the Feast of Tabernacles. This commemorated the revelation of the Law through Moses at Sinai. But here the disciples experience the revelation of a greater reality. The bright cloud (v5) is the Shekinah, the presence of God whose glory filled the Tent of Meeting at Sinai (Ex 40.35). On both occasions, God speaks from the cloud. At Sinai, God gave the Law to Moses (Ex 19.9). Here God reveals to the disciples that Jesus is ‘my beloved Son’ and that they are to ‘listen to him’.

Reflection

Mystical experiences like the ‘vision’ of Peter, James and John may leave us feeling confused. Lacking suitable vocabulary, they are difficult to express in words and by their nature they are impossible to verify. And yet such experiences, however short or rare, can be powerfully transformative. For they can offer illumination and a new way of seeing what is real or of experiencing God or the sacred. And if God can be experienced, God is not a hypothetical being who may or may not exist and whom we can only ‘believe in’. Even if we have never had what could be described as a mystical experience, there is a vast cloud of witnesses who have.

Whatever our experience, taking the dog for a walk first thing on a frosty morning, listening to the Sanctus in a cathedral or holding a new-born baby, can we not see that heaven and earth are full of the glory of God?

Prayer

God of glory, on the holy mountain you revealed your beloved son wonderfully transfigured. Mercifully grant that in the darkness of this world, listening to his voice and following his light, your glory may be seen by all. Amen.

12 February 2023 – Second Sunday before Lent

Matthew 6.25-end – Put First Things First

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Commentary

Here Jesus rules out the state of mind we call anxiety. Note that when he forbids anxiety he does not rule out our need to take responsibility for the provision of our material needs. His disciples still need to work. But his message is ‘first things first’ which means ‘God first’. If disciples adopt this attitude, then material concerns for food, drink and clothing will not take first place in our priorities, but (rightly) will be seen as less important than the life and the body they support.

In any case, says Jesus, anxiety is a waste of time. It can achieve nothing. What it does is indicate a lack of trust or ‘little faith’. We see this in the disciples during the storm on the lake (Mt 8.26) or in Peter when he tries to walk on water (Mt 14.31) or the Pharisees and Sadducees who ask Jesus to show them a sign from heaven (Mt 16.8). All of them are described as having ‘little faith’ (Greek – oligopistoi) and in this they behave like the Gentiles. The non-Jewish world does not know it has a heavenly father who can and will provide for them, but the Jews should. Faith, better translated as trust, is the opposite of anxiety and it is a very practical reliance on the God who – as Israel’s history and Jesus’s ministry show – has, does and will provide.

The other first, says Jesus, is a commitment to doing the will of God (v33). If we commit to putting first things first, God can be trusted to take care of the rest.

Reflection

Today in the UK, many people are extremely anxious about not having enough to eat or enough to keep the heating or the lights on, never mind being able to afford clothes. In one of the world’s richer countries, it seems strange that there is not enough to go around. Is this because we (collectively) are not letting God rule the world, but are presuming to try (and failing) to do so ourselves?

Have we ever been struck by what a fundamentally happy person Jesus was? Might this be related to the trust in his heavenly father he displays in the prayer he taught to his disciples (Mt 6.7-14)?

Prayer

Pray the Lord’s Prayer slowly, pausing after each phrase, remembering that the whole prayer is a plea for God to rule and to be seen to rule in our lives – and trust that God will answer.

5 February 2023 – Third Sunday before Lent

Matthew 5.13-20 – Fulfilling the Law

13‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father

17‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Commentary

The Sermon on the Mount starts with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.2-12) in which Jesus tells his disciples the sort of character they are to acquire: willing to give up everything to follow him, full of sorrow for the sins and failures of their community and wanting to turn the world upside down to bring in God’s kingdom of peace and justice. Disciples with these character traits act as salt and light, making a profound impact in their community. However, one consequence will be persecution and insult – in our case, being told we are wrong, irrelevant or an anachronism (past our sell by date). It is easy to understand how and why disciples might lose their distinctiveness. As Jesus says, the wise can become foolish (salt was a metaphor for wisdom) and the person or community who is noticeably different (the light on a hill) can become like everyone else (See Paul’s letter to the Romans 1.21; 12.2).

In verses 17-20, Jesus sets out his attitude to the Old Testament as a prelude to his discussion of how we ought to live in the rest of chapter five. Jesus seems to be saying that his disciples should be guided by the Old Testament, but that their attitude to it should not be the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees. Some rules will no longer be applicable, and others will need to be reinterpreted. Rather, disciples should have a deeper commitment to doing the will of God as the following verses will illustrate, ending with verse 48, ‘You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’.

Reflection

We may think that darkness and light is a theme found mainly in John’s gospel. But Matthew also uses it to talk about the world without God and the transformation brought about by the coming of Jesus:

‘The people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’  (Mt 4.16)

Note that the light will be seen not in the words of the disciples, but in their good works (Mt 5.16), that is ‘in doing the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (Mt 7.21). As St Francis might have said, ‘preach the gospel all the time, but only use words if you have to’.

Prayer

God of hope and life, when we hear, ‘Let your light so shine before men…’ may we not think only of putting money in a collection, but of Jesus crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem. Following his example of self-giving love, may we be salt and light in the world and so help to fulfil the law and the prophets. Amen.

29th January 2023 – Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

John 2: 1 – 11

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Commentary

Cana is traditionally regarded as being 4.5 miles north-east of Nazareth, not far from Capernaum with a 100metre elevation: it would have been a place very familiar to Jesus’ family. There is something quite intimate about this recorded event, for it is rare that we see any normal familial activities recorded in the gospels. However, as the story unfolds, the normal gives way to the supernatural and this becomes the first of seven Jesus’ signs in John to reveal his identity as the Son of God.

The gospel story seems to suggest that Jesus’ mother had faith in him from the first to rescue the bridegroom’s family and the master of ceremonies from utter embarrassment: to run out of wine was indeed a social faux pas of the highest order. We see a typically Johanine potency coming through the text: Jesus is seen as the one who is in control and his timing for the revelation of his glory belongs to the Father.

The context for the ‘sign’ is important: the stone water jars used for ceremonial washing come to represent the old order belonging to the law. They are filled as they would have been filled countless times before, with ordinary water. But as the master of the banquet ladles out the contents, the new wine of the spirit is lavished upon the groom and then the guests. The sign that Jesus has wrought is one that demonstrates that a new order, a new kingdom has been inaugurated, and it is one which is full of God’s greatest creativity – ‘Chateau de Cana’ is new, yet vintage and of the most exquisite quality. Such is God’s kingdom that Jesus is ushering in, where grace and freedom in God’s spirit can flow.

Reflection

Mary’s instruction was: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Are we prepared this year to learn obedience to our Saviour, to listen, to wait and then to act, and in so doing to discover that ‘service is perfect freedom’?

May we learn, too, what it is to break out of traditions which could potentially bind us; and in listening to the Spirit, discover that the life in the Spirit is one of richness and abundance. As we learn under his instruction what it is to be co-workers with Him, we can bring glory to Him through the gifts that the Spirt he liberally showers upon us as we receive them in faith.

22nd January 2023 – Third Sunday of Epiphany

Matthew 4: 13 – 23 

4 Leaving Nazareth, Jesus went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfil what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

Commentary

The passage heralds the commencement of Jesus’ fourfold ministry with the proclamation of the Kingdom and the call to repentance (chapters 4 v 12 – 7 v 29). He moves away from the town of his upbringing in Nazareth to the village of Capernaum – a place reputedly housing 1500 people at the time, on the shores of Lake Galilee in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Jesus’ ministry is regarded from the outset as ‘light in darkness’ and a rescue from death to life. The first thing that Jesus inaugurates is the idea that the Kingdom concerns God’s sovereignty in people’s lives and not the domination of physical territory, which many had been expecting. This is something which is ‘at hand’ and ‘upon them,’ termed as the ‘kingdom of heaven’: Jesus’ words and deeds – his parables and miracles – are demonstrations and explanations of how this kingdom is to be worked out in the lives of his hearers.

Jesus recognises that for there to be mission, there must also be ‘missionaries’ with him for his work and so he calls Simon, Andrew, James and John, and speaking their own language, he prophesies that they will be those who reach men and women within their net – it is they who have to cast it.

Matthew takes pain to emphasise the power of God’s Spirit working in the Messiah for his call to these new disciples is acted upon with immediate effect and they follow their new Master. This power and magnetism is vindicated in the display of powerful preaching and the restoration of people’s lives through healing and casting out of demons. The reader is left in no doubt that something altogether different and majestic is unfolding before their eyes.

Reflection

As we look again at the powerful ministry of our Lord, we recognise that as Christians we are called to follow him to be those who ‘cast our nets’, to reach out and draw people into his kingdom for his name’s sake, and not ours. As we face this new year with all its uncertainties let us once more be assured of God’s call on our lives is to be Christ wherever he places us, on weekdays just as much as on a Sunday, to bring light in darkness.  It may be a ‘net’ that we offer, it may be something else. What might that be and how can we more fully express it in service to him this year?

‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.’ – Romans 12 v 1

15th January – Second Sunday of Epiphany

John 1: 29-42

2 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

Commentary

John the Baptist has just established to onlookers that he is not the Christ but is the one who is preparing the way for him and his ministry, and as Jesus enters this arena immediately John declares Jesus’ identity and role all in one breath: he is the paschal Lamb of God and this means that the system of sacrifice for sin will be brought to a final conclusion through his death, as the one without spot or blemish. The phrase used is: ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who is taking away the sin of the world;’ it is present participle active and reflects something of the divine that John’s gospel radiates, that though the Son of God is corporeally confined to space and time, he is nevertheless passing through them and is not bound by them. Thus, the acts of atonement, expiation and propitiation as the Suffering Servant and Lamb led to the slaughter (prophesied in Isaiah 53) are predestined, foreknown and fully acted out are part of the divine drama that God permits for the sake of human salvation. Jesus, as John speaks of, is one who has ‘surpassed him’ and was ‘before’ him. Jesus was, of course, known to John physically as being his second cousin, but the verb used in v31 refers to a spiritual rather than a physical process. It had to be revealed to him that Jesus was the Christ – he had no natural knowledge above others that he was such. But John knows his own role and purpose is to proclaim and baptise, to make ready for the Christ, so that he might be revealed to Israel.

The gospel doesn’t talk of the physical baptism of Jesus – again, the divine Christ passes through the physical act, but the spiritual is emphasised: ‘the Spirit came down from heaven as a dove,’ and through revelation the Baptist knows that Jesus will inaugurate a new era of baptising with the Holy Spirit – he is the bringer of salvation to the human heart. It is on this basis that John knows the divinity of Christ: he is the Son of God.

The following day we see the leit motif , ‘Lamb of God,’ used once more and this time it elicits a response in disciples’ following Jesus, which then has a ripple effect: it is again the essence of the divine making himself known – ‘we have found the Messiah.’ Then, Jesus makes his response to Simon’s revelation to his brother Andrew, by prophetically bestowing on him a new name and a new role: ‘Peter,’ the rock, or rather ‘pebble’ – ‘Petros’  under the direction of ‘Petra’ – Christ the Rock. Unlike the Synoptics which convey a more gradual understanding of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, John’s gospel firmly establishes it from the outset: the eternal whispers through time the nature of God made flesh.

Reflection

As Christians we are blessed and privileged to be those to whom the Sprit has revealed himself and dwells within us because of the costly work of the Lamb of God who took away our sin on the cross. Let us once more sit in reflective awe and wonder of the God who passed through space and time for our sakes so that he might become known and reconcile us to himself, and that we might be caught up with Him, the Divine. Similarly, as his disciples, let us see ourselves as those ‘passing through’ this world, then to be caught up with his glory beyond. As we come to this New Year, may we be those who are not caught up and preoccupied with things temporal but with things divine, and yet in so doing have Jesus’ heart for all those who have yet to discover the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Like Peter to his brother Andrew, may we, being suffused with the divine, so humbly create a divine ripple effect with those around us.

‘For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’ So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ (2 Corinthians 4: 17,18.)

8th January 2023 – First Sunday of Epiphany

Matthew 2: 1 – 12

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Commentary

Each character called to witness Jesus’ birth and its aftermath in the gospels of Matthew and Luke was led supernaturally and they came in faith. None more so than in the case of the magi from the East – these mysterious more-than-astrologers believed to have sojourned from the region of Iran or Afghanistan. Their journey was not for the faint-hearted, but it is evident from this passage that their motivation arose from their study of the skies which revealed kingship that demanded the utmost respect and due obeisance. Their belief in what they discovered at home, and their faith in an Almighty Creator and Revealer brought them to the point where an emphatic question of faith was made: ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’ This was not some sort of jumped-up astrological conjecture but a belief that a Reality had been divinely born. It took outsiders to make this claim, whilst a megalomaniac leader and the occupants of Israel’s capital seemed startled that such an event had already taken place. King Herod did right in checking with those who studied scripture, rather than skies, and they quoted from Micah 5 that indeed the prophet had spoken of a new king being born in Bethlehem.

The phrase ‘shepherd of my people’ should have comforted Herod, but his paranoia and lust for power went beyond reason: he wanted to know the exact nature of the epiphany and details of this new, supposed, ‘threat to his seat of power.’ The later angelic visitation soon convinced the magi that worship was far from Herod’s mind. It is then that the star seen first in the East made a reappearance and actively guided them to the actual habitation of the Christ-child. This was no ordinary light even when compared with the pillar of fire that led God’s people to Sinai and the unearthing of the Law – it was a divinely illuminated pathway to the Fount of Grace  – a person, Jesus who would save the people from their sins. No wonder the star did not just elicit pure wonderment and awe, but the deepest of joy: even before they met the King of Kings their faith-filled journey was bejewelled  with spiritual delight. The ensuing encounter was then a natural unravelling of all that they had been led to expect – they saw, they worshipped and they gave. The text in Matthew hints at how much they had prepared for this moment – it was treasures that they unwrapped and presented and these contained prophetic moment: gold, to signify Jesus’ kingship, incense, indicating his deity and the embalming oil, myrrh, to indicate his future destiny in and through death. It is not known how much these wise men were divinely inspired to demonstrate the prophetic, but God’s hand was in their journey from start to finish, ending with the dream to divert them form Herod’s clutches. What revelation do we behold here in this chapter! A journey of faith to the King of Kings.

Reflection

If last week’s challenge was to take up the armour of God and be vigilant in the pathway of the evil one, then this week’s challenge arises from the shield of faith taken up as we continue to move into this new year. As we pause to reflect on the journey of faith that those magi made, what will be our journey of faith this year, as individuals, as a nation and as a church? How can we continue to lay before God our skills and search for the glory of God in this place? How do we place confidence not in the dim shadows of worldly living but in the light of God’s grace that leads us to his destination for us, where we might open our treasures and worship Him alone in the beauty of holiness?

‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glorious grace.’

1st January 2023 – Second Sunday of Christmas

Matthew 2: 13 – 23

13 When the Magi had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Commentary

Christian theodicy has many challenges, and not least when we examine a passage in which the entire population of baby boys under the age of two is wiped out in the town venerated for the birth of another little one, the Christ-child, Jesus. However, we are dealing with a despotic and paranoic ruler who will stop at nothing in order to maintain his leadership of that region and exercise his free will mercilessly at the expense of his innocent subjects. On the surface he has been outwitted by the wise men who did not kowtow to his pretending demands. What is clearly apparent on closer examination is the evidence of a supernatural God who is sovereign in this situation but faced with the fury from Satan himself through the person of Herod, out to destroy the incarnate one.

This is a passage which highlight God’s purposes and plans for his Son and those who have been instrumental in heralding and protecting him. After faithfully being guided by a star, the appearance of God in a dream to the magi will have been of no surprise and is duly acted upon in absolute trust. This is then followed up by an angelic visitation to Joseph, again in a dream – a warning message which anticipated Herod’s evil devices. It is to Egypt that the holy family are instructed to flee – the place of flourishment in the time of Jacob, the patriarch, during the famine, whilst in parallel there is a contrasting dramatic tension over the anguish of the prophetic words of Jeremiah 31 where in Bethlehem in the ‘land of promise’, ‘Rachel weeps for her children…who are no more.’

The devil is spoken of in 1 Peter 5 as a ‘roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.’ As the life of God is made incarnate on earth, so Satan, the destroyer, seeks to extinguish life through the arrogant despot, Herod. As with all tragedies, we may ask why God does not intervene: here we do see the intervention of the Almighty but at the same time witness the presence of evil, which though catastrophic to those living in Bethlehem, does not limit the eternal workings of God, who through his Son goes on to lay down his life for the whole world.

The passage ends with another angelic appearance to Joseph in a dream, assuring him of the safety to return to Israel.  v22 points out that there is still a potential threat through Herod’s son, Archelaus being in power and so Joseph is again directed, this time to Nazareth where Jesus was to be brought up: safe but stigmatised as the place where ‘can any good thing come from.?’ The vagaries of the real life, birth and upbringing of our Lord were far from the cosy image often portrayed on our Christmas cards.

Reflection

As we come to another new year, upon what is our trust to be founded? and how deep will that go when that roaring lion may throw anything at us as humans and as believers? We may be tempted to look askance at the tragedy of life and implore despairingly ‘Where is God?’ with more than a hint that God has not rearranged his sovereignty in quite the way we expect God so to do. Or we can choose to stand back in the way of the prophetic and see glimpses of a larger picture in which we believe, as St Paul did in Ephesians 6, that ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ As we face forward into the unknown, we can be confident that ‘greater is he that is with us than he that is against us,’ but mindful that we need to ‘put on the whole armour’ to withstand the enemy. It is certain that we are in a battle, but God’s purposes are sure: the incarnation was the greatest sign that he is with us, and as we put our hands into the Hand of God he will continue to lighten our path through dreams, angelic visitations but mostly through his word, and his indwelling Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Counsellor.

‘And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown”.
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’

  • Minnie Haskins, quoted by King George VI, Christmas 1940

Christmas Day 2022

John 1.1-14 – Life, the Universe and Everything

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Commentary

John deliberately begins his gospel with the first words of Genesis, ‘In the beginning…’ But he is also reflecting on the opening words of Mark’s gospel, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mark 1.1). Why?

John is compelled to reread Genesis and to improvise on the other gospels in the light of what Jesus is doing in the community to which John belongs. And through his rereading of scripture and improvisation on the other gospels, John is going to lead us into a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and how we are to live.

New light and new life are inseparably linked in John’s gospel. As we read it, we follow Jesus into new situations where there is no choice but to improvise. Think of the wedding at Cana when the wine runs out (2.1-11), Jesus’s encounter at a well with a Samaritan woman (4.1-30, 39-42), the moment when Jesus is asked to pass sentence on a woman taken in adultery (8.1-11) or the death of his friend Lazarus (11.1-44). Led by the Spirit of Jesus, we are called to follow Jesus into new situations where there is no choice but to improvise as we engage with ‘all things’ and ‘all people’ for they are ‘his own’.

Reflection

There can be no limit to what is relevant or important to Christians and all our ‘doings’, everything we say and do, everything we think and imagine are potentially fruitful. And we should expect this, for in Christ, God is not just making a new people, he is remaking the whole of creation through the same Word who was in the beginning with God, the Word who becomes flesh and lives among us.

Prayer

Lord Jesus, Word incarnate, who brings light and life to all, with the herald angels we sing your praise and give you glory. Led by your Spirit, may we be as attentive to your presence, and as daring in thought, imagination and action as John was, that all the world might believe. Amen.

18 December 2022 – Fourth Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1.18-end

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Commentary

‘Nominative determinism’ is the idea that a person will end up working in an area that fits with their name. We might have seen Sarah Blizzard, the BBC weather presenter on TV. Names certainly matter to Matthew. The Joseph betrothed to Mary is like the Joseph in Genesis who dreams, who travels into Egypt and who follows a divine plan he does not understand. Both are righteous.

The names for the child to be born matter too. ‘Jesus’ is the English version of the Greek version (Iesous) of a Hebrew word for Joshua (Yeshua). The name means ‘God is our deliverance’. Just as Joshua plays an important role in the deliverance of God’s people into the promised land after the death of Moses, so, Matthew tells us, Jesus will be one ‘who delivers the people from their sins’ (1.21). And the child will be called ‘Emmanuel’ because, as Matthew’s gospel will show, Jesus is ‘God with us’. Moreover, at the end of the gospel Jesus will promise to be ‘Emmanuel’ for evermore (Mt 28.20).

As well as names, there are important titles here. ‘Messiah’ is one, ‘son of David’ is the other and they are linked. ‘Son of David’ belongs to Joseph by virtue of his descent from David over twenty-eight generations and a thousand years (see the genealogy in Mt 1.6-17). But although it is made clear that Jesus is conceived ‘from the Holy Spirit’ and that Joseph and Mary abstain from ‘marital relations’ until Jesus is born, Jesus becomes ‘son of David’ because by his acceptance of a pregnant Mary, Joseph makes Jesus his son and heir. This is important because only one born of King David’s line can be the Messiah. See also Gabriel’s message, (Luke1.32). As the prophet Isaiah says:

‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.’

Isaiah 9.6-7

Reflection

Matthew’s gospel tells us that God is present with his people. God does not ‘intervene’ from a distance, but is always active, sometimes in unexpected ways. Indeed, one way of thinking about the meaning of the virgin birth is to say that it shows how God alone can and does takes the initiative (because we are helpless to help ourselves). God does what is for us both impossible and inconceivable (pun intended) to keep his promise to rescue us from ourselves. Looked at from this perspective, everything, not just in the Christmas story but in the whole Christian story, is God’s initiative, born of God’s love and brought to being through God’s grace.

Prayer

Advent God, we are not sure whether to be frightened or reassured when we hear that ‘God is with us’. As ‘Christians’ we are aware that our lives often fall short of what this title suggests we should be like. May your presence with us help us to stop being afraid and to be Christians, people whose lives are filled to overflowing with your love and grace. Amen.

11 December 2022 – Third Sunday of Advent

Matthew 11.2-11 – Is Jesus the Messiah?

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Commentary

As we saw last week, John was expecting the one who followed him to be the Messiah. This Messiah would be a mighty agent of divine judgment, baptising with fire, burning up chaff and using an axe to cut down unfruitful trees (Matthew 3.1-11). Given this terrifying vision, he warned his followers to flee! This week we have a perplexed John, wondering whether he was mistaken in his earlier conviction that Jesus was the one who would accomplish God’s judgment. In prison he may have heard that Jesus did not fast as John’s disciples fasted and that he kept company that a careful Jew would have avoided (Mt 11.19). Hence his question, ‘Are you really the Messiah, or should we wait for someone else?’

The reply Jesus gives shows that he has a very different understanding of the Messiah from John and his Jewish contemporaries. The mission Jesus has received from God is not about punishment but is all about healing. The implication is that John could have worked out the true nature of God’s Messiah from Isaiah’s prophecy:

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert…

Isaiah 35.4-6

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…

Isaiah 61.1

Key to understanding what is going on in Matthew 11 is the beatitude, ‘Blessed is the one who is not upset by what I am doing’ (Mt 11.6). John seems to have expected ‘vengeance and terrible recompense’, the establishment had no need of good news for the poor, and the relief of suffering and the restoration of sinners was irrelevant to those crying out for national liberation. Chapters 11 and 12 of Matthew’s gospel introduce many who have no time for Jesus and his message.

Reflection

If Jesus is the Messiah, why is John in prison and not released? If Jesus is the Messiah, where is the Messianic age? Where is the kingdom of God?

How does Matthew’s gospel try to help those who find Jesus irrelevant or hard to take?

Prayer

Unexpected God, Advent should unsettle those who are satisfied, content, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds. Uneasy about our way of life, but able to imagine a better world, may we patiently work towards making it a reality. May we continue to be troubled in soul, knowing ourselves to be poor and imperfect, but looking forward to seeing those good things you have promised: healing, justice and peace. Amen.

4 December 2022 – Second Sunday of Advent

Mt 3.1-12 – ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’

1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Commentary

John the Baptist is one of the heroes of Matthew’s gospel. He is the prophet who fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy and his preaching foreshadows Jesus’s preaching. John proclaims, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ and so does Jesus (4.17). The water of repentance offered by John points ahead to the fire of purification that Jesus will bring through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. John’s execution will foreshadow Jesus’s death. Note that in each case, what Jesus does is superior to John’s foreshadowing!

The way of the Lord that John prepares is a straight way. So why will so many miss the way that leads to Jesus? John warns his Jewish audience not to trust in genealogy to guarantee their redemption. Although the Pharisees and Sadducees are descendants of Abraham there is an important difference between superficial repentance and the real thing. If it is genuine, it will be fruitful. If it is not fruitful, it is not repentance at all. And repentance is not just a change of mind or a feeling of remorse but it means an end to rebellion against God and a deliberate return to the covenant with God.

Reflection

The Pharisees and Sadducees who went to see John were warned about the dangers of a false sense of security. John’s warning could be important for us if we believe that we have some status that guarantees God’s blessing regardless of repentance. For ‘God with us’ is not only God for us, but is also God against us, against our pretensions and the falsehoods that prevent us from being faithful to the new covenant that Matthew sets out in his gospel.

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season during which we are encouraged to consider what is wheat and what is chaff in our lives. Jesus’s mission ‘destroys’ what is worthless by showing us ‘a more excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 12.31). But it can be hard to see the worthlessness of what so many value, hence the need for prayer, meditation and honest self-examination as well as study and conversation.

Finally, if teachers and leaders are not always to be trusted, perhaps we need to take more responsibility for making sure we keep to the straight and narrow path.

Advent Sunday – 27 November 2022

Matthew 24: 36 – 44

2436 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Commentary

Jesus’ preaching was mostly practical, but, in this chapter, there is a prophetic discourse – a prediction of things to come to guide and instruct the disciples as Jesus was preparing to return to his Father. On this Advent Sunday, we might have been excused for believing that our thoughts would begin by looking towards the birth of a Saviour and in our minds and hearts eagerly await for that. However, our gospel is calling to take a broader sweep towards Jesus’ second coming and to be ready and vigilant for that day.

Firstly, there is no expectation that we have any control over that day or tie God down to a particular date: no-one knows the day when it will arrive, but if we are to be true Advent people we must be ever watchful. There are, nevertheless, certain signs which will be fulfilled as we wait, most noticeably that it will be a period of wanton sensuality – indulgence in the flesh with a pre-diluvian parallel. The sins, if they indeed reveal themselves as such, are not murder, rape and theft, but eating and drinking and marriage and giving in to marriage. These seem tame on the surface, but it is the pre-occupation with self instead of God that is in the broad brushstroke. It is the attitude that self remains king and God has no place in people’s lives before Christ comes again.

There is then not only the surprise of Christ’s appearing, as the flood was to Noah, but a separation as a consequence. The Parousia is marked by their being a foretaste of the ‘sheep and goats’ divide on judgment day: Christ’s coming will herald a time when those who are looking up and ready in their hearts for their Saviour will indeed be rewarded with a drawing up to heaven. By contrast, those who are looking down and are preoccupied with themselves will indeed be left to flounder on their own. Advent, is a time when we are called to look up, to be vigilant and make ourselves ready to take leave of a world of sin and darkness and seek first the kingdom of God.

Reflection

As we are called into this season of light, how may we be watchful and not be distracted from a spiritual focus? We are all aware of the mania of Christmas which leaks ever into previous months to achieve the ‘perfect Day’ when 25th December comes round. This could indeed be the temptation of materialism-shaped sensuality which we are called to resist and keep our minds on higher things. How might our present economic stringency serve our souls to be more watchful and allow the Saviour’s light into our lives with more incandescence than might have been the case?

20 November 2022 – Christ the King, Sunday before Advent

Luke 23.33-43

33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Commentary

As we come to the end of our year with Luke, we are reminded of his main interests: the compassion of Christ, the saving of the lost and the placing of Jesus’s story within the continuum of history.

At the heart of Luke’s picture of the crucifixion is the mocking of Jesus as king of the Jews. Throughout Luke’s gospel Jesus has stood the meaning of kingship and the kingdom on its head. He has enjoyed the hospitality of the wrong people, he has commended the wrong people and offered peace and hope to the wrong people: the prodigal son, the unjust steward, the repenting publican, Zacchaeus the tax collector, prostitutes and finally, a thief.

At last, Jesus is hailed as king, but in mockery. At last, he has a royal cupbearer, but he is a Roman soldier offering him the sour wine that poor people drank. At last, he has a royal placard announcing his kingship to the world, but it is the criminal charge giving the reason for his execution.

Only Luke records the two incidents that make plain Jesus’s true royalty, his prayer and his promise. In his prayer Jesus does not curse those who crucify him but asks God to forgive them. Then, like a king on the way to his enthronement, Jesus promises a place of honour, rest and refreshment to one who requests it. Both the prayer and the promise bring the life of heaven to earth, God’s future is brought into the present as we look forward to the gift of new life at the resurrection.

Reflection

From early on in church history, the death of Stephen, the first of Jesus’s follower to be martyred, has been commemorated on the day after Christmas Day. It is a reminder to us that the arrival of the king and the kingdom is not met with universal rejoicing. Stephen’s death also shows us how Jesus’s followers immediately began to follow his example. As he is being stoned, Stephen prays:

‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. (Acts 7.60-8.1)

Indeed, Saul was the one at whose feet those who stoned Stephen, ‘laid their garments’ (Acts 7.58). The evidence that forgiveness brings the life of heaven to earth could be here, for it is conceivable that hearing Stephen’s sermon and his dying prayer leads directly to Saul’s crisis and change of heart on the road to Damascus.

How then might we be able to help Christ the King bring the life of heaven to earth?

[Clue: the prayer, ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’].

13 November 2022 – Second Sunday before Advent

Luke 21: 5 – 19

215 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.

Commentary

In this week of Remembrance, it is easy to want to focus upon the issue of ‘Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom’ as a discussion point that wars persist and as the poet Steve Turner put it: ‘History repeats itself – it has to, people don’t listen.’ We yearn for peace, but the perennial malady of man has always seen that the wars within us cannot but come out and spread themselves destructively across the face of the earth. However, this passage begins with a state of apparent peace and the disciples’ indulgent delight in the adornments of their temple, handsomely illustrating the centre of Jewish worship and national identity. This, of course, was the second temple which had been erected after the exile after the destruction of Solomon’s far grander edifice of centuries before.

Jesus, as prophet, calls on the disciples to stand back from benign contentment in the physical ramifications of worship and foretells the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of this structure, which came about in AD70.

The conversation then quickly turns into an eschatological survey which rightly revolves around Christ himself. Instead of gazing nostalgically at temple fittings, to hark back to Jesus’ reference to himself in the previous chapter as the ‘capstone’ of a spiritual building, the disciples are being spurred on to be vigilant in their watch of Christ’s return and not to be drawn away by false Messiahs making their own mistaken claims. Jesus freely acknowledges that wars, revolutions, strife, and empire collapses will necessarily happen, along with many other signs in nature, before the end will come and Christ will return.

It is at this point we are faced with a problem of timing for is all this to happen before AD70? We know that the temple was destroyed, and that Roman domination of the Jews and Christians became an ever greater threat, but it would seem that Jesus’ answer to them is sufficiently veiled so that there is not a definite time-scale laid out. What is certain, besides the issue of the temple collapse, is that Jesus’ followers would suffer persecution. This was certainly born out in practice as many of the disciples would see a torrid time ahead and with many of them facing severe interrogation and castigation. But seemingly here Jesus’ prophetic words do not permit death and martyrdom: ‘not a hair of your head will perish’? Some commentators see this as spiritual safety, but this sounds rather limp. Others say that while martyrs may perish, the church as a community will remain sound, but that makes Jesus’ words rather disingenuous. The relevant thing that can be drawn out from this is that ‘by standing firm, you will gain life,’ whether it be through persecution involving death or otherwise, or whether it be through the vagaries of war and conflict and natural disaster. In the end it is a spiritual lesson that Jesus wants his disciples to grasp, that it is their souls and not their bodies that are of ultimate value, and for this, all hardship can be and will be endured as they seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Timings, and even physical life itself and whatever existence might throw at us are of secondary importance. ‘By standing you will gain life.’

Reflection

How easy it is for each of us to hang on to physical things which do not last when the spiritual is of greater importance? We can all too readily become nostalgic and romanticise in the presence of a great religious building, such as St Chad’s and hide in its portals, especially when all around us the fixed certainties of life are crumbling.  Jesus reminds us that all things fade and will ultimately have their demise, but the question that is pertinent is: how do we face up to the threat of persecution? Our Christian brothers and sisters in many other countries face hostility and do not get away with the hairs of their heads remaining unscathed. Is there sufficient evidence about our faith that it might incite hatred and intimidation? The assurance is that if we seek Christ first and stand firm, we will gain life. What might this look like, and do we believe that?

6 November 2022 – Third Sunday before Advent

Luke 20: 27 – 38

20 27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

Commentary

It is always interesting in the gospels when we see a group of teachings which focus on one particular subject, but then observe a seeming interruption with text that is seemingly unrelated. This is true of this passage which sits between the Parable of the Talents at the beginning of the chapter and Jesus’ encounter with the Widow’s Offering at the beginning of the next chapter. This ‘interruption’ is termed ‘intercalation’ and we see it appearing at times in the synoptic gospels. Although text may seem irrelevant to the general flow of teaching, hidden within its content is something that has bearings upon the bigger view. In this case, what is striking is a ‘poverty’ – a poverty of understanding amongst the Sadducees concerning the resurrection.

It was the Pharisees who believed in bodily resurrection, and this can be attested from sources from the book of Acts, from Maccabees and Josephus, as well mention in the gospels themselves. They believed that after this mortal life they would, in some sense, be with God, until the age to come when they would be given new bodies to share in the new world. In contrast, the Sadducees did not believe in the eventual transformation of the world or of human beings; and so, they disbelieved, too, in any post mortem ongoing existence. To them, resurrection was a dramatic and revolutionary doctrine and being conservative in approach they held back in their beliefs. Consequently, the Sadducees were out to trick Jesus by posing what seemed like a ridiculous contravention of logic over who would be the correct wife in heaven after repeated deaths of the husband’s legal spouses.

The point about Jesus’ reply was to go back to the Torah itself which all conservative Sadducees held as authoritative. What is also worthy of note is that Jesus defines himself with reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on the basis that God would not define himself in relationship with people who could now be classed as non-existent. As Jesus said: ‘God is not the God of the dead but of the living.’ But before he draws his conversation to this conclusion, Jesus draws a firm distinction between what belongs to ‘this age’ and the ‘age to come.’ Heaven is a place of the consummation of relationship but is not tied to familial or marital boundaries – it is an existence which transcends all that has been known, whilst at the same time being called into the relationship where, as St Paul describes in        1 Corinthians 13, ‘I will know fully, even as I am fully known.’ Heaven will, in the end, be focused on Christ who is the Alpha and Omega, the bridegroom who has invited us to the wedding supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9). This spiritual inheritance will be for those ‘who are considered worthy of taking part in that age’: this inevitably rules out what might seem a more palatable ‘heaven for all’ and balances what Jesus says of God stating that ‘all are alive.’

Reflection

What areas do we find ourselves in, mentally and spiritually, where there is a ‘poverty of understanding’? Do we allow ourselves to be governed more by feelings conditioned by the age, a false sense of entitlement or wishful thinking? With regard to the after-life, we would like all, perhaps, to assume a place in heaven except maybe the likes (according to poet, Steve Turner) Stalin, Hitler and Genghis Kahn! But what Christ is implying in this passage is that the after-life has room for all even if it a realisation that we need a Saviour at the very last moment, like the dying thief.

For us all as Christians, therefore, how does the reality of the after-life shape our lives now in our sense of mission and vigilance in witness, in life and word? How much might be saying to ourselves: ‘Maranatha, come Lord Jesus,’ but not quite yet?

30 October 2022 – Fourth Sunday before Advent

Luke 19.1-10

1He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was very rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6So he hurried down and welcomed him with joy.

7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a proper old sinner.’

8But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look Master, I am giving half of my possessions to the poor; and when I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.’

9Then Jesus said, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

Commentary

For Luke, tax collectors are sinners on their way to becoming righteous. They come to John for baptism (3.12-13; 7.29). They listen to Jesus (15.1) and they dine with him (5.29-30). A tax collector called Levi becomes one of Jesus’s apostles (5.27). And then there is Luke’s story about Zacchaeus whose name means ‘Mr Righteous’. His problem is that his neighbours do not think he is righteous. They despise and exclude him.

When he hears people in the crowd call him a sinner (v7) Zacchaeus refuses to let the public slur go unanswered (v8). In front of his accusers, he tells Jesus that he does not knowingly extort, and when he takes what is not his, he repays it fourfold as required by the most stringent stipulations about restitution in the Law of Moses. He also gives regularly to the poor, which in Luke is a sure sign of a proper disposition towards God (compare Zacchaeus with the ‘righteous’ rich ruler in 18.23-24, who could not sell any of his possessions and give to the poor).

Jesus vindicates Zacchaeus. Jesus acknowledges the way Zacchaeus conducts his life, especially his concern for the poor. Jesus addresses the crowd, telling them Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham too. Zacchaeus is ‘lost’ only in the sense that he is excluded from the household of God. As Luke showed in the parables of the lost sheep, coin and son (Luke 15), Jesus came to restore people like Zacchaeus to their rightful place as obedient children in the family of his Father. No wonder Zacchaeus was filled with joy (v6).

Reflection

When Jesus leaves Jericho to continue his journey to Jerusalem, it seems that Zacchaeus does not go with him. Although Jesus has declared him to be a true member of the family of Abraham, do we think there will be an immediate change in how his neighbours view him? Will they admit him to the synagogue?

Try to imagine what his new life is like as he tries to establish himself as part of the renewed Israel in the town where Jesus met him, continuing to share his riches with the poor and striving to be an honest tax collector. How hard would this be? Will his neighbours’ puzzlement and hostility ever turn into acceptance?

In the film Kinky Boots, Lola, a flamboyant drag queen helps to save a shoe factory from going bust by re-inventing the business. However, Lola faces considerable prejudice from some of the workers. This comes to a head in an arm-wrestling competition which Lola deliberately loses. Watch the clip and think about Lola’s parting words to Don Mason (played by Nick Frost). Is there someone who we need to change our mind about?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVM6K9LMh9g

23 October 2022 – 19th Sunday after Trinity

Luke 18.9-14 – Salvation for all?

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Commentary

Christians who have read and studied the gospels may well have come away with a negative view of Pharisees and a positive view of tax collectors. For Luke, tax collectors are invariably sinners on their way to becoming righteous and Pharisees are usually enemies of Jesus. Our sympathies are therefore with the tax collector in this parable.

This is exactly the opposite stance from that of a first century Jewish audience who saw tax collectors as traitors, agents of Rome, facilitators of the imperial occupier, corrupt, wealthy and merciless to other Jews. What is this man doing in the Temple in Jerusalem? Their sympathies were with the Pharisee, a respected teacher who walked the walk as well as talked the talk.

In Jesus’s parable, both men are deliberate caricatures. The Pharisee is a caricature of an ultra-religious saint, designed to make people smile. The important moment in the parable is the part of the Pharisee’s prayer where he negatively judges the tax collector. The Pharisee in the story fails to understand that the Temple’s sacrificial system will lead to the tax collector’s justification as well as his own. Jesus’s story compels his first century audience to recognise that a tax collector could be righteous too, because God’s mercy extends to all within the covenant of which the Temple in Jerusalem was such an important part. In the Temple, the tax collector believes he can find atonement for his sins, and he is correct.

The translation of Luke’s explanation (v14) is problematic. If we think the Pharisee departs from the Temple without receiving God’s mercy, then we have the same judgmental attitude, ‘thank God that I am not like that Pharisee’, that is condemned in the parable. The problem in verse fourteen is the Greek para ekeinon when it is translated ‘rather than’. Para can also mean ‘because of’ or ‘on account of’. Its primary meaning is not antagonism (‘rather than’) but juxtaposition. Paralegals and paramedics are those who work alongside and with others like them. If verse fourteen reads, ‘This man went down to his home justified alongside the other’, it makes much better sense of Jesus as the leader of a communitarian movement within Judaism in which people pray in the plural, ‘Our Father…Give us…Forgive us…’ and in which each member of the community is responsible for the other. I am my brother’s keeper.

Reflection

If a number of difficult questions emerge for us in the parable and the commentary, Jesus would be pleased! He used parables to challenge lazy thinking. Is the Pharisee praising God or praising himself? Is the tax collector trusting God or not? Will he give up his day job? Who do we identify with, the Pharisee who does so much more than is expected or the tax collector who has done nothing for the benefit of the community? But beware, if we judge one as better than the other, we are judged by the parable. God’s grace cannot be limited. Why not celebrate that all can be justified?

16 October 2022 – 18th Sunday after Trinity

Luke 18.1-8 – The Vengeful Widow

1Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ 6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Commentary

Luke’s introduction to the parable in v1 makes clear that he thinks its central emphasis is on the need for persistence in prayer. As Luke’s earlier teaching on this subject (Lk 11.5-13) has already pointed out, God is to be contrasted with a human judge (or reluctant neighbour) who helps only out of self-interest. God’s justice and readiness to help those who call on him is not to be doubted. But will we persist in prayer like the canny widow?

Luke uses the parable to address disciples experiencing the ongoing delay between the arrival of the kingdom of God and its final consummation with the (second) ‘coming of the Son of Man’ (v8). There are good reasons why disciples might lose heart in these between times (v1). We are only too aware that neither we nor the world, are as transformed as God intends them to be. The prayer demands of God’s chosen or elect (v7), however incessant, seem to go unheeded. What is the God of righteousness doing? Where is the promised deliverance?

Reflection

It is easy to ‘domesticate’ the parables, that is, to remove their ability to challenge us by making them conform to our expectations. For example, if we think this parable concerns an ‘unjust judge’, we might assume the widow is righteous, but is she? It is important to note that the Greek word for what the widow wants (v3) is not ‘justice’ (Greek, dikaiosyne) but ‘to be avenged’ (Greek, ekdikeo). What if she is not poor and defenceless but wealthy and therefore powerful? All the first century legal evidence suggests this is possible or even likely in Jesus’s Jewish social setting. After all, she has time to persist in visiting the judge to insist on getting her revenge. If this is the case, has the widow made the judge just by convincing him to rule in her favour, or has she corrupted him? What do we think?

If we are prevented from making a positive assessment of either character (difficult, because most people tend to side with the widow), Jesus’s parable becomes much more interesting. There is no reconciliation in this parable and no compassion. Jesus is asking his hearers difficult questions about their moral compass.

Consider the ambiguity in the widow and the judge. How does he become complicit in her plan to take revenge? It is because she threatens him. The Greek for ‘wear me out’ (v5) is a boxing term meaning, ‘do violence to me’, or ‘give me a black eye’. The widow’s threat creates a relationship with a man who had no relationships (v2), who had tried to ignore her. She finds a way to ‘get to him’. The judge acts to protect himself, he wants to be left alone. By giving a verdict in her favour, one that is expedient rather than just, both get what they want. The question remains, am I like the widow, using what power I have to come out on top? Or am I like the judge, willing to accept almost any compromise in exchange for the quiet life I want for myself?

Once we have been unsettled by the parable’s assessment of our character, we may return to Luke and his interest in how disciples should be praying. We may find that our prayer has changed and that we want to ask God to grant us more time for amendment of life.

9 October 2022 – 17th Sunday after Trinity

Luke 17.11-19 – The Grateful Samaritan?

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

Commentary

The story of the healing of the ten lepers is found only in Luke. It is the only New Testament story in which ten people are healed of the same disease by obedience to the command to go and show themselves to the priests (does this mean a journey to Jerusalem?). Luke could be using it as an example of the miraculous effect of faith which he has just mentioned (17.6: ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.’). Or if not about faith, is Luke stressing the importance of gratitude? Possibly, but what if Luke’s concern is not just with faith and gratitude but with the person who is expressing them?

The word used by Luke that is translated ‘foreigner’ in v18 is the Greek allogenes. It meant a religious alien. It was used in the inscription on the barrier in the Temple in Jerusalem warning non-Israelites not to proceed further than the Court of the Gentiles. But in this healing story, Luke is showing that a religious alien who has had to keep his distance (v12) may now draw near to God (v16) to show his gratitude for all that God has done for him.

Again and again, it seems to be the response of non-Israelites to Jesus which interests Luke. Jesus is sought out by a centurion whose faith he commends, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith’ (Lk 7.9). Such is the faith of another centurion, Cornelius, that Peter must baptize him and his household (Acts 10). Another religious alien, a high official at the Ethiopian court of Queen Candace, demonstrates his faith by insisting on being baptized by the apostle Philip (Acts 8.36-38).

Reflection

The word translated ‘faith’ in v19 is the Greek pistis (Latin, fides). Professor Teresa Morgan argues that we need to reassess our (mis)understanding of faith as propositional, a matter of intellectual assent (and of endless dispute). Instead, she says that those who wrote the books and letters that later became the New Testament, and its early readers, would have understood pistis as ‘relational trust’. This was the case personally, among family members, patrons, clients and friends; and professionally among soldiers, lawyers, diplomats and (even) politicians. This was also the case in relation to gods (the problem for pagans being that the gods were not always trustworthy).

Thus the pistis of the Samaritan leper is his trust in Jesus. Similarly, Christians belong to a community based on and structured by trust. Our pistis (in the sense of trustworthiness as well as trustfulness) should be evident in the way we relate to each other and to God.

And how might we relate better to ‘religious aliens’?

 

2 October 2022 – Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity

Luke 17.5-10 – Lord, ‘Increase Our Faith!’

5The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

7‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” ’

Commentary

The apostles could be asking for more faith because Jesus has just told them that they must forgive one another seven times a day (v3-4) and they have realised how hard this is. But the solution to the apostles’ request is not great faith, it is faith in a great God. The faith Jesus is talking about using hyperbole (dramatic overstatement) is a combination of expectation and persistence, both of which are rooted in trust in God. The question is often whether we are willing to trust the God revealed to us in and through Jesus.

Jesus could also be using hyperbole in the parable of the master and servant (v7-10) to guard us from misunderstanding God. It is a warning to those tempted to adopt a bookkeeping mentality in their dealings with God. To think like this is to make a serious mistake about the kind of God that God is. Jesus’s disciples cannot run up credit in a ledger that puts God under an obligation. The whole idea of acquiring merit through good works or being able to demand our ‘just desserts’ must be abandoned in all our dealings with God, for God is no man’s debtor. ‘All things come from him and of his own do we give him’. Nevertheless, God loves to give good things to his children when they ask (Luke 11.9-13) for God is generous, merciful and compassionate.

Reflection

On a recent holiday, surrounded by breath-taking scenery, these words of Isaac Watts’s famous hymn kept repeating themselves to me:

‘Were the whole realm of Nature mine,
That were an offering far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.’

Jesus’s disciples will not want simply to do their ‘Christian duty’ (a slave’s mentality), for they will be moved to act by love. Unlike most superheroes with superpowers, the Christian’s ‘miraculous power’ is love. Without this love, given to us by the God in whom we put our trust, being able to forgive each other ‘from our hearts’ is as likely to happen as a tree being “uprooted and planted in the sea” because we tell it to.

25 September 2022 – Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 16: 19 – 31

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Commentary

We continue our journey through Jesus’ teachings on riches in which Luke has a special interest and longs for his readers to sit up and take notice. In our passage here a contrast between rich and poor is starkly drawn. Some versions of this text have traditionally employed the name, Dives, (‘wealthy man’) but the original Greek gives him no name, in contradistinction with the poor man who is given the name Lazarus, ‘God will help.’ Jesus is immediately stressing that the poor have value – they have a name, and with-it significance, and in providing this particular name, Jesus is stating that God is on the side of the poor: there is help at hand. However, Jesus is saying here that this ‘help’ is not necessarily in life on earth but that the tables can be turned in eternity. Indeed, Lazarus languishes as a beggar and he receives no sympathy or relief from the rich man: the odds seem stacked totally against him.

The rich man receives due recompense for his preoccupation with self and money and arrives in Hades, whereas Lazarus is called up to heaven. A picture is painted to us of an archetypal Jewish and later, mediaeval view of the world – a three-tiered universe: heaven ‘up there,’ earth, and then hell ‘down there’: it is there to emphasize a spiritual condition graphically in our minds, not to furnish us with cosmological reference points. In his agony, the rich man calls out to the father of faith – Abraham, whom he would have made nodding assent to during his life. He is reminded, however, that his faith was redundant and had no bearings on his personal life-style. The rich man longs for relief from his hellish torment and recognises Lazarus as the possible source of comfort. Abraham clarifies the situation – there can be no transmigration of souls for the benefit of others – an uncrossable impasse has been created and there is no redemption after death.

As pain and suffering bite, so this fictitious rich man shows some remorse and realizes that his own kin need to be warned. But Abraham states that the opportunity has been given to them – in their faith they were provided with the Law and the Prophets, but it is the testament of the history of Israel that people chose their own way despite the oracles of God.

Finally, there is a twist in the story and one realizes that this parable is not just about the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots, but it is about general human response to Christ. Here Jesus, as it were, prophesies his own death and resurrection and says that even though he will rise from the dead, still men and women will choose to remain dead in their sins, through selfish indulgence, through apathy and self-deification, oft driven by money and power. The story has a poignant ending: humanity can choose to reject or accept God’s means of salvation – no amount of grace on God’s part can twist the hand of free-will, but ‘God will help’ those who call out to him.

Reflection

After hearing the Dean at St George’s preaching on the Second Coming of Christ one Sunday, Queen Victoria exclaimed: ‘O how I wish I could see him in my life-time…so that I could lay my crown at his feet.’ As we have reflected on our late Queen’s life, she it was who had scant regard for personal wealth and chose to divest herself of the trappings of the self and crowns of materialsm, and instead sought to follow her Master to the last. What a contrast to the Rich man in this story – he held on to all that he counted dear, whereas the Queen sought only others’ interests… people like Lazarus. Thus she leaves a rich legacy in our hearts and the hearts of all. So this challenges each of us: how lightly do we cling to things of this world and hold fast to those things that are unseen and measurable only in the scales of eternity? What is it that we are sowing for the next kingdom and for the kingdom within others’ hearts and lives now?

18 September 2022 – Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 16: 1 – 13

16 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

6 “‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.

“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’

7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’

“‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.

“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’

8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Commentary

This portion of scripture is part Jesus’ teaching on money, with a parable concerning a wasteful manager attempting to redeem himself, followed by some comments from Jesus about use of money and concluding with the definitive statement that one cannot serve both God and Mammon. Like the remainder of the passage, the parable is peculiar to this gospel, and to many it has been seen as peculiar in itself, and one of the most difficult to interpret! It begins with judgement: the manager for a rich landlord has squandered his money; he is asked to give account for his misdealings and there is a pronouncement that he cannot continue in employment. But instead of concentrating on a defence by the accused, Jesus’ story focuses on redemption: having been brought up short and confronted with his crime, the manager seeks to make hasty reparations on behalf of his boss for accounts that are due. He realizes his own physical limitations in being able to work himself, cannot face the ignominy of begging, but instead sharpens his own quick wittedness in clawing back payments from clients that might never have been redeemed and everyone seemingly is a winner: bills are slashed, the money is returned to its rightful owner and the dishonest manager is commended on his actions. It is this man’s astuteness that is being commended, not his commercial practice. As TW Manson observes: ‘there is a world of difference between, “I applaud the dishonest steward because he acted cleverly” and “I applaud the clever steward because he acted dishonestly.”

Jesus then makes the observation that people outside the kingdom are more shrewd than those in the kingdom, and Jesus uses a term which seems quite Johanine: ‘people of the light.’ In addressing the disciples he is asking them to take a leaf out of the world’s book in this regard and not to be overly spiritual: business and the wise use of money is not to be shunned – it is only making it a god that is wrong. Where wealth is not a person’s undoing and an Achilles heel, as in the case of the rich young ruler whom Jesus challenges to give up all and follow him, here Jesus is saying that if one has worldly wealth then it can be redeemed by being of influence for good. The essence of wise handling of our resources, though, begins small: as we learn to be wise with little we have the potential to be trusted with much.

Reflection

As we examine all that the Lord has given us, are we open-handed or do we hold with clenched fist on the pretext that what is mine is deserved and rightly to be enjoyed? Whether we have little or much all of it belongs to our Father in heaven, but how can the small be used for his glory and how can the great glorify God still more? As we realise that we are given all on loan whilst on earth, how may what we possess, where we live, the assets that belong to us bring the most glory to the one who ‘owns the cattle on a thousand hills?’ Do we need to retreat from being overly spiritual about money, and can this be of itself a form of selfishness for the God who longs us to ‘capitalise’ on every moment, with all we meet? I believe our dear late Queen showed us the way in these matters on many an occasion: when she learned once that a reporter’s wife was expecting a child hundreds of miles away, the Queen invited him to join her on the royal plane and share her resources – her deep generosity and kindness more than made friends with that man, that day!

11 September 2022 – Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 15.1-10 – God is a God of Grace

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

3So he told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

8‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

Commentary

Like the parable of the prodigal son, the two parables with which Luke warms up his audience follow the same pattern. There is losing, there is finding and there is joy. All three parables are a justification of the behaviour of Jesus in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees. They are bewildered at Jesus’s flagrant disregard of their ‘spiritual security policy’. They avoided social contact with anyone who might contaminate their ‘holiness’; Jesus runs in the opposite direction. As Luke says, Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19.10). If the Pharisees to do not approve of what Jesus does, heaven does! God rejoices when human beings turn away from all that harms us (this is what repentance means) and find healing, because God loves us!

It is possible to find an echo of Jonah’s attitude to the Ninevites in the attitude of the Pharisees towards ‘sinners’ (and of the elder brother towards his younger brother in the parable of the prodigal son). Jonah would have preferred it if the Ninevites had not repented! Jonah, the Pharisees and the elder brother have to learn that God does not wish those who they would characterize as ‘God’s enemies’ to perish, but longs for his people to welcome them home.

That God is a God of grace is the heart of Luke’s gospel proclamation.

Reflection

To call someone ‘lost’ is to pay them a high compliment, for it means that person is precious in the sight of God. Is this how we see them and are we part of the search party?

Note the confidence with which Jesus speaks of what happens in heaven. He knows God well enough to know what will make God happy. Rejoice that God is a God of grace.

4 September 2022 – Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 14.25-33 – Counting the Cost

25Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Commentary

Jesus has already told any would-be follower of his that they must take up their cross daily if they wanted to travel on the same road as him (Luke 9.23). Now, keen to disillusion enthusiastic Galileans who think God’s rule is about to arrive without significant personal sacrifice, Jesus is relentlessly honest about his journey to Jerusalem. He calls his disciples to an undivided loyalty to God’s project. Given the pressures and dangers they will face, disciples cannot afford to be distracted by family entanglements or preoccupied with possessions because this will lead to fatal compromise or half-heartedness.

Any sensible person would think twice before accepting such hard demands. So, Jesus goes on to explain that although following him may be life-threatening, the alternative is also terrible. If his contemporaries reject him, they will face the ruin of the tower (a reference to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem being rebuilt by Herod the Great and his successors) and the devastation of the lost battle (Jewish nationalists seriously underestimated the power of Rome and the appalling consequences of revolt).

Reflection

William Barclay sees two truths in these verses. First, that it is possible to be a follower of Jesus without being a disciple. We might admire Jesus, listen to his teaching, and yet not be a disciple.

Secondly, it is the Christian’s duty to count the cost of discipleship in every part of their life. We are called to careful and serious-minded consideration. If we feel that too much is being expected of us, it may help to remember that this is not an exercise we have to do on our own. We are called to be part of a body that Jesus has said he will never leave nor forsake. However tough the journey, Jesus will walk beside us every step of the way. He is to be trusted as a guide because he has been this way before us.

28 August 2022 – Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Luke 14.1, 7-14. The Christian life as a party

1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

12He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

Commentary

In this passage, Luke’s gospel does not simply offer a guide to table etiquette for those who belong to the class of people who give dinner parties or attend lavish wedding banquets. Although Jesus does give advice on how to avoid embarrassment when choosing where to sit at a social event, note that Jesus is not among friends. The Pharisees are watching him (v1). So what appears to be wisdom about precedence is actually a parable aimed at them (v8-11).

The parable is about an idea that would have been familiar to the Pharisees from Proverbs 25.6-7 which teaches that if we humble ourselves we will be honoured and vice versa. For Jesus, this is part of an important gospel paradox, ‘the last shall be first and the first last’ (Luke 13.30). It is also part of Luke’s ‘great reversal’. In the kingdom of God, the mighty are put down from their thrones and the powerless are exalted (Luke 1.52). Jesus is rebuking the behaviour of certain Pharisees who he sees choosing ‘the places of honour’ for themselves (v7).

Jesus then turns to his host and calls for him to ignore social convention and invite like God does. The Pharisees restricted their social contacts to those who followed the same religious practices. Whatever satisfaction they got from associating only with those who kept the Jewish law (as they understood it) and who could offer hospitality in return, Jesus says they are missing out. The loving service of the helpless and needy which Jesus exemplifies in his ‘good works’ is the ‘core activity’ of the kingdom of God.

Reflection

William Barclay discusses disinterested charity. He asks us to consider the question, why would we give to those who cannot give back to us?

  1. From a sense of duty, because Christians or good people ought to.
  2. From motives of self-interest, because we fear punishment or hope for reward (v14). But only those who do not hope to gain are rewarded (Luke 6.35).
  3. From a feeling of superiority, to gratify our own vanity. This is not pretty.
  4. Because we cannot help it. This is the best way to give. God gave because he loved us, so must we give, expecting nothing in return. See Luke 6.32-36:

32‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

We may feel we lack Christian virtues like love and the generosity that flows from it. Aquinas teaches that we can acquire the virtues through ‘good infection’ (NB the reverse is also true). First, we should choose friends who are more loving and generous than we are and imitate them. Secondly, it helps us to be loving and generous if we are part of a community which practises these virtues. The more we practice them, the more they become ‘settled dispositions of character’ in us.

21 August 2022 – Tenth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 13.10-17 – Law and Mercy

10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Commentary

Luke continues to develop the theme of judgment and salvation with the story of a sabbath healing found only in his gospel. The story follows a familiar pattern: miracle, conflict and pronouncement. With it he illustrates the truth of Jesus’s recent teaching (Luke 12.49-56), that Jesus has come to bring division and that many in Israel are unable to recognize ‘the signs of the times’.

Jesus’s willingness to heal on the sabbath demonstrates that he is the Lord of the sabbath (6.5) and shows that compassionate action is true religion. The leader of the synagogue had failed to understand the meaning of the sabbath commandment. He should have been able to work out that if it is not just permissible, but is very much God’s will, that we ought to give water to donkeys and oxen on the sabbath, how much more ought we to heal a sick woman (v16)? These are strong oughts!

Note the way in which Jesus uses the language of binding and loosing. The animals are tied and need to be freed. The woman is no less bound and must also be set free. It is Jesus’s mission to set free the oppressed (4.18). The response to the miracle, both of the woman (v15) and of the crowd (v17), is to give praise God. Jesus’s opponents rightly feel ashamed.

Reflection

How does our own nation refuse to change, insisting on things being done ‘by the book’ or ‘in the approved way’, rather than bring restoration and life to those who are suffering? How might we seek to change this?

How has ‘systems thinking’, which prioritizes the good of the institution over the good of the individual, infected the church? What might we do about this?

How might we make our sabbath a day of mercy?

A final thought: If it is true that Jesus changed the world without taking power, does this mean that anyone can change the world?

14 August 2022 – Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 12.49-56

49‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Commentary

Luke’s theme here is judgment with an echo of John the Baptist’s prophesy of the coming divine judgment (Luke 3.16-18):

‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

John would have been very surprised to learn that Jesus understood his baptism to mean his own death (Mark 10.38). Jesus the Messiah will not inflict God’s judgment on others but will himself undergo the baptism of God’s judgment when he passes through the deep waters of death. This is his mission (and God’s plan) and it is the reason why he is going to Jerusalem. When he gets there, he knows that Israel’s people and its leaders will have to choose between God’s kingdom and their own. Jesus can see what will be recorded by Luke. Offered Jesus, God’s people will demand to be given Barabbas instead (Luke 23.13-18).

From now on, given this inevitable clash of loyalties and the rejection of all he has tried to say and do, Jesus tells his disciples to expect division. (This fulfils Simeon’s prophecy, Luke 2.35).

Finally, Jesus addresses the crowds (v54-56). He warns them to pay as much attention to the times in which they live as they do to the weather. The rejection of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed would have devastating consequences for Israel. At this point it was not too late for repentance and for people to put their trust in God. But the crisis, and with it the moment for decision, is approaching fast.

Reflection

We live in a time of crisis and are faced by the need to make some difficult choices. We know that ‘scorching heat’ is already causing fire, drought and famine. Extreme rain events this year are also linked to global warming. Our political and economic systems (and the belief systems on which they are based) appear to be a significant part of the problem. Fixing them may be extremely divisive for Jesus’s disciples as well as for society generally.

Pray for God’s people to be able to read the signs of the times so that, trusting God and putting aside our selfish desires and anxieties, we may all play our part in God’s plan.

7 August 2022 – Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 12.32-40 – Enough is Enough

32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

Commentary

Jesus does not call his followers to poverty but to simplicity. The word ‘simple’ is now used to mean ‘weak-minded’ – and Christians are often accused of this, sometimes with good reason – but the disciples were called to be uncomplicated and single minded in their rejection of the attitudes and actions that cause poverty. Poverty is both degrading and destructive. It has no place in the kingdom that God longs to give his flock. Critics who have not understood this accuse Christians of wanting to make everyone poor. But the enemy Jesus has in mind in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12.16-21) is not possessions but excess in the form of a grain mountain. Disciples are not to cry ‘Nothing!’ but ‘Enough!’ Our enemy is covetousness, stoked by ‘the consumer society’ which teaches our appetite and desire to want more than we need.

What does it mean to be among faithful servants – note we do not wait alone – ready and waiting for the return of the master? In a twenty-first century western context, unless we can discover and put into practice a radically different style of living, we know we face impending crisis in terms of climate breakdown and many people in this country being unable to pay their bills. We are currently a long way from seeing people enjoying the sort of big party at which Jesus promises to serve us. We can start by trying to be generous. Jesus would be pleased to see so many people donating to or helping to run food banks. This follows the OT practice of tithing (giving away a portion of one’s harvest or flock – Deuteronomy 26.12-15) to celebrate God’s generosity to us. Jesus would also be delighted to see people sharing their home with Ukrainian refugees and discovering the joys (and tribulations) this can bring.

Reflection

What is our treasure? Is it some aspect of ourselves that we treasure, or another person (‘she’s a little treasure’) or some treasured possession? For Jesus, treasure is what we find when we act on the priorities that God has given us.

How could our life be ‘simpler’ in the Christian sense?

31 July 2022 – Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Luke 12: 13 – 21

12 13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Commentary

This parabolic teaching of Jesus is set between warnings that Jesus issues about those forces from outside and a follow-up on what is contained in the above passage, concerning worry about material provision. Jesus began the chapter by saying ‘Be on guard’: this concerned the hypocrisy and devices of the Pharisees whose show of religion concentrated on the ‘outer.’ Now in this section of text Jesus again issues this warning: ‘Be on guard’ concerning an ‘inner’ enemy, namely that of greed. We may be familiar with Jesus’ teaching in the Parable of the Talents where Jesus actively encourages us to invest wisely and responsibly and make more of what one has been given – surely a template for entrepreneurship if ever there was one? So how is this concept of building bigger barns to house the fruits of one’s labours any different?

It is in the attitude we have towards material gain and money itself that is in question: Jesus is not saying that profit is ‘evil,’ in itself, but it is how we come to rely upon what we acquire as a security – a hedge to surround us and keep us comfortable – that is to be questioned. If it is our belief that life is for our consumption and our benefit then one’s thinking can go awry and one’s heart be corrupted. What leaps from the text is the last phrase: ‘…but is not rich toward God.’ The more that people put their trust and belief in Mammon and material gain, Jesus would argue the more it draws us away from God and we are then not rich toward Him.

Jesus speaks in Matthew 6 of the need for his followers to ‘Seek first the kingdom of God…and then all these things will be added unto you.’ Here in this parable, the opposite is happening: in seeking first the kingdom of self and material gain it leads to spiritual and emotional implosion for it excludes the dimension of God. Being ‘rich toward God’ concerns putting him first, laying up one’s treasure in heaven and investing in His work and people of his choosing.

Reflection

How much time is spent in the pursuit of happiness through material gain in the course of our allotted years on earth? We are given skills and aptitudes to put our ‘hands to the plough’ and make something of ourselves and reap rewards, but how much do we live by the adage: ‘live simply, that others may simply live,’ and by Jesus’ words: ‘to whom much is given, much is required’? As we seek to cultivate a mindset of thankfulness for that which we have and are given, so may we also earnestly seek to be ‘rich toward God,’ knowing that he is not only the Giver but the one to whom our lives, our motivations and our hearts are answerable. St Paul put it like this: ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’

May we be found to be those who today are ‘rich toward God’, ‘pressing on to toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’

24 July 2022 – Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 11: 1 – 13

11 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“‘Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Commentary

We have this timeless, simple, yet all-powerful template for prayer in the Gospels in response to the disciples’ heart-felt desire to know how to communicate with God effectively. It is so easy for us to become blasé about it through over-familiarity, but as we look at its elements afresh, we can behold great truths which can empower our own prayer lives.

It is the beginning of the prayer which puts everything else into context – how we address God: it is simply ‘Father,’ or ‘Our Father.’ The Greek word employed is ‘Pater’ which is used by Jesus on occasions with the accompanying Aramaic term ‘Abba.’ It is a point of intimacy and immediately breaks from the predominantly Old Testament concept of the ‘ineffability’ of God – that which cannot be articulated. It is through the Word being made flesh in Jesus that he himself calls on his followers back into close relationship with God as Father. God can be approached and much more: it is the picture of the child sitting on his knee, the Good Shepherd bearing his lost sheep on his shoulders and the embrace of the son who is lost becoming found. The intimacy carries with it, however, the notion of obedience and submission as indeed all meaningful familial relationships require; as St Paul says, ‘Submit to one another,’ within the family of God. In prayer to God, intimacy with him as Father goes hand in hand with obedience and submission and this naturally is followed by honour – hallowed, respected is his name. This is a name not to be blasphemed or taken lightly, for it is in recognizing his greatness and authority that we can be confident in his kingship being exercised – ‘Lord, let your rule, your divine will, your kingdom be worked out in our lives, our society and our world.’

From recognizing that we are part of God’s kingdom if we have submitted to his kingship in our lives, we can then have confidence to avail him of his providence – to provide us with our basic needs (not wants!). Being in right relationship with God, too, means a receiving and giving of forgiveness: like breathing we inhale it into ourselves for  all the things that mar our friendship with God, and then we likewise exhale forgiveness to those who have wronged us: this is not up for debate, but becomes a natural outflowing of God’s love through us as his followers, as we recognize the costliness of his forgiveness on the cross.

Lastly, the prayer ends with a preventative concept: we need forgiveness, but for our future walk with God we need to be protected and kept from temptation’s power: it is a prayer for wisdom and guidance that we would walk aright and not of our own volition walk into the snare of the Enemy.

This whole prayer is then framed in Luke by friendship and the invitation for us to be persistent in asking God for those things that are on His heart. In the same way that when we are in urgent need of bread for a friend who has come to stay, so we need not fear about presuming on God to meet our every need. Because he counts us as friends and we are genuine in our asking, so we can have confidence to ask, seek and knock, with the certainty that we can be given unto, find and have the door opened for us. This passage then concludes with a glimpse into the generosity of God: he is not only willing to give us good gifts as we pray and ask, but he longs to share in the life of God in the Spirit; and it is this Lukan emphasis on the Holy Spirit which introduces us to a life that is directed by him, through his Spirit. Prayer begins with intimacy, and it is sustained and lived out in the power of the Spirit.

Reflection

How refreshing to remind ourselves once again that prayer is not about a million incantations, reciting a series of mantras or working oneself up into a frenzy in making demands on the Almighty. It begins with intimacy and all else flows from there, in the knowledge that God wants to hear us and to pour out his blessings as we ask him. I wonder whether we are those who are either too ready to come with shopping lists and not spend time on the lap of the Father, or conversely are those who feel it would be too much of an affront to ask things for ourselves in prayer. As we get to know God more deeply and our friendship develops, so it is natural to spend more time with him and feel what is on his heart and from there be bold to make requests that can make substantial changes in our world and allow his ‘kingdom to come.’

How are you, how am I coming to God today? As a divine slot machine who owes us a few favours, as a remote Controller who is not really interested, or as Father who longs to listen to, and delight in, his own children and then to give and give again?

17 July 2022 – Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 10: 38 – 42

8 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Commentary

The sisters and brother -Mary, Martha and Lazarus – became close friends of Jesus and feature significantly in the pages of the Gospels. There is evidence to suggest that this Mary was indeed the Magdalene who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7 and John 12 and the Lazarus who was raised from the dead who next spent time with Jesus in Passion week. What we see here is a contrast between these two sisters: between one who epitomized ‘doing’ and ‘action’ and the other embodying ‘reflection’ and ‘being.’ It may seem a little ironic that whilst the emphasis Jesus brings out is ‘being,’ this is a passage which succeeds one which stresses Christian action: ‘Go and do likewise,’ as Jesus exhorts the teacher of the Law in verse 37: Christianity is intensely practical and it has to be shown in goodness to others.

However, when we look at the ‘works of Martha’ they have a different orientation. On the surface, her preoccupation with ‘doing’, in being busy about the house, springs from wishing to care for their Master and show hospitality. In contrast, Mary is not lifting a finger, but simply sitting at Jesus’ feet and engrossing herself in what Jesus had to share with her. This provokes tension and an outburst on the part of Martha which demanded that Mary should come and relieve her of the strain of her work and share it out. To this Jesus responds with a light criticism of Martha: ‘you are worried about many things.’ It was not over the giving of herself in wanting to please Jesus through domestic diligence, but over the issue of how she allowed it to take first place in her outlook, thus giving no time to attend to the person of Jesus in her heart.

It is a fine line, but it is what Mary had chosen to do which received sympathetic approbation from Jesus. There is indeed a time ‘to do’ but this a passage emphasizing how much we need to step back and wait upon the Lord, to ‘be still and know that he is God.’

Reflection

In our western society it is a perversion of the Protestant work ethic which seems to prevail: even the most zealous of evangelicals who would denounce ‘good works’ as a means to faith can become obsessed with mission sometimes at the expense of reflection and being still. May we allow ourselves the challenge of knowing that as we are loved by God, irrespective of anything we choose to ‘do’ for him, then the wonder and awe of being caressed in the palm of his hand will cause us to bask in his presence and listen to what is on his agenda rather than on ours. It is then that we will know the whisper: ‘Walk this way,’ ‘Be my disciples.’

10 July 2022 – Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 10: 25 – 37

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Commentary

There are certain passages in scripture which are so familiar that it is easy to claim certain knowledge and to deny their power, and this text ranks high in those stakes.

As we see on numerous occasions, the scribes and lawyers within the Jewish courts are challenged by Jesus’ presence and attempt to wrong-foot him by their ‘clever’ questioning and here an expert in the law – literally from the Greek – ‘stood up, testing him’ concerning the requirements to gain eternal life. Jesus uses his customary formula of throwing the question back to the inquirer in order that they might reflect on the evidence already present in scripture. The issue of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ (Jesus encourages the man to remind himself) proceed from agape love with every fibre of oneself, for God and for neighbour. Jesus affirms his answer – such living is commensurate with true living. But then the lawyer seeks to clarify the nature of a neighbour. According to Old Testament and Jewish conception, a neighbour is one who is a ‘member of the Hebrew race and commonwealth.’ So Jesus allows him to see for himself in this renowned parable of Jesus…

A Jew was travelling from the nation’s holy capital to Jericho, reckoned by many to be the oldest city in the world, and where as many as 12,000 priests and Levites dwelt, who all attended the service of the temple. He was subject to a vicious attack, robbed of everything he had on him and left severely wounded and helpless. Given the above information, it was no surprise that priests and Levites were found on this main travel route. Both priest and Levite noticed the man – one of their own race – but instead of being moved by love and concern, took the active step of deliberately passing by on the opposite side: their ‘knowledge’ of Leviticus 19: 18 was abstract, with no practical or heart application. By contrast, it was a Samaritan man who came to rescue him. He it was who by the lawyers’ standards and all Jews alike, was apostate and was classed as an outsider, corrupted by their former syncretistic worship under the Assyrian deportation of foreigner settlers in to Samaria during the Exile. It was this outsider who showed love as if it was to himself: tending to his wounds, carrying him to an inn on his donkey and paying for his keep and care beyond what was needed or required, with a promise to return and settle up any outstanding costs. Here Jesus is challenging any kind of thinking that God’s grace can be withheld from a certain race or class and indeed demonstrates that God’s abundant love to us can be shown in and through such a person or category. Here are reflections of Galatians 3:28 – ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek (or Samaritan), slave nor free, male not female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ It is as St Paul then develops in the next verse, that such act of loving is Christ-like and that is what makes one of ‘Abraham’s seed.’

The lawyer cannot but agree with Jesus and is told to be that kind of neighbour.

Reflection

The question of ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is as pertinent today as ever before in our church, our community and in our world. The challenge of being the ‘one who is near’ (neighbour) can speak loud into our hearts in this global village where God has placed us. On the one hand it may be easy to ignore the person on our doorstep and immerse ourselves in good works overseas in showing hospitality to a Ukranian refugee, but on the other hand we can be so caught up with our own type and class that we fail to move out in compassion, both on the streets of Shrewsbury and to places in urgent need abroad.

The challenge is how we respond to the person who crosses our line of vision in person and on our news bulletins. As we lay before God the day before us, do we offer all the possibilities of our meetings with others, praying ‘with the people on our hearts’ as is our priestly call to all believers? As our hearts are moved with compassion and the sacrificial love of Jesus so he will lead us to those people He chooses, which may not be those to whom others are being directed. What is of greatest importance is that our hearts are set on fire with that love, ready to be directed where he will choose.

3 July 2022 – The Feast day of St Thomas

John 20: 24 – 29

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Commentary

The incident with Thomas and Jesus’ revelation to him, comes at the climax of the gospel as John prepares himself to declare that his written record has been set down so that ‘you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (v 31). This passage is about belief and trust in Christ for who he is, but is an insight into the different layers that it holds. The introduction to this passage is laid out quite starkly, making the contrast between the ten disciples who have witnessed Jesus’ appearance with that of Thomas who has not: for them there is joy and understanding because Christ’s physical appearance brings certainty in their belief in his resurrection whereas Thomas has seen nothing of this and for him there can be no belief. He has earned the nomenclature ‘the Doubter’ although in earlier times, there perhaps was a kinder title in calling it ‘the incredulity of Thomas’ – the subject for the baroque artist Caravaggio’s powerful depiction of Jesus’ meeting with Thomas a week later.

There is reason for John inserting this passage: it is an examination of a person’s mind and attitude, of the longing to grapple with reality and for it to be intensely personal. Thomas sets out his conditions for faith: he wants obvious, rational, proof experienced through his senses. It must have been a long week that ensued, with the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’ living side by side until they were all in the same house once more. The same greeting is used by Jesus as he comes into their midst: ‘Peace (Gk. ‘eirene’) be with you,’ from which our word ‘serenity’ is derived. Although Christ has provoked all manner of reactions through the gospel, it is a deep serenity which he seeks to bring to the lives of his followers.

Jesus comes straight to Thomas, with his knowledge of Thomas’s agonizing, but the transaction that follows transcends all that has gone before. The invitation to extend his hand to satisfy his rational senses could have been met with : ‘I believe – I have seen the proof and it satisfies my inquiry and replaces doubt with certainty.’ What we read in Thomas’ response, however, goes far beyond that: his joyous and unbridled exclamation is ‘My Lord and my God.’ This is not a rational response – it is the cry of revelation, the cry of declaration that this is the Word made flesh who has come from glory and that death cannot hold him, and is worthy of worship, adoration and total commitment. This is the message that St John longs to impress on his readers with this climactic encounter; and with it, Jesus’ postscript across time to all of us that are not blessed with such physical manifestations, that faith is not dependent on proof: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’

Reflection

At times in our journey of faith, we can all long to see nuggets of proof that indicate the veracity of things in which we place our faith. But that is the nature of faith – faith that God reaches out to us through his word, through those who have trod before, like Thomas the Incredulous. But as we place our faith in something that transcends earthly senses, we can be assured of the serenity of Christ when we least expect it, for he has given us his Spirit to dwell in our hearts and bring that quiet certainty that He is my Lord and my God. But this passage asks of us, in our doubting, to ‘reach out,’ ‘put our hands into his side,’ to know that he promises to walk alongside us in the shadow of death as much as in the light of life, and that he is not just a Lord, a remote omnipotent, but is my Lord: such a knowledge and deep realization brings, and is, serenity.

‘Teach me, my God and King
In all things thee to see;
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.

26 June 2022 – Second Sunday after Trinity

Luke 9.51-end

51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.

57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Commentary

The prophet Elijah appeared earlier in this chapter at Jesus’s Transfiguration (Luke 9.30). Now Luke makes two further references to illustrate that Jesus is the greater prophet. First, whereas Elijah was famously ‘taken up’ in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2.11), Jesus will be ‘taken up’ (v51) through rejection, crucifixion resurrection and ascension. Secondly, when wicked king Ahaziah sends soldiers to fetch Elijah, he calls down fire from heaven to consume them (2 Kings 1). When James and John want to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans who have rejected Jesus, Jesus rebukes them. The ferocious Old Testament way of dealing with God’s enemies is at an end. In our thinking and our acting, Elijah must give way to Jesus and his new way of loving his enemies and dying for them.

Equally radical are three stories about the cost of discipleship. In normal circumstances it is good that we have somewhere to call home, that we look after our parents and that we show affection to our family and friends. But what if the call of the kingdom is so urgent and imperative that all other loyalties must give way to it? Those who would follow Jesus are warned about the conflicts they will face and the sacrifices that will be required in terms of their security (v58), duty (v59), and affection (v61). The hard choices in life are not between good and evil, but between good and better. For example, when we think about our own journey of faith, we might be tempted to look back instead of looking ahead (v62). Nostalgia for ‘former times that were better than these’ might hinder us from going forwards to discover what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2.9).

Reflection

How should we respond to evil and to enemies of the good? In Romans 12.9-21, Paul picks up many of the themes found in Jesus’s example and teaching (Matthew 5.38-48). It has extraordinary relevance still. What is God saying to us?

9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ 20No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

What is our direction of travel? What helps us move forwards on our spiritual journey?

First Sunday after Trinity, 19 June 2022

Luke 8.26-39

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Commentary

The story of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac raises a number of difficulties for Christians reading Luke with a twenty-first century worldview. First there are questions about how we are to understand demon possession and exorcism. Secondly, the drowning of the pigs seems problematic from an animal cruelty perspective and there is also the likely economic catastrophe for their owners. Can we put these questions to one side and try to ‘hear’ what Luke, with a first century worldview, is saying? For example, can we see that demons were intensely real to the people of Gerasa and in particular to the man who lived among the tombs?

  1. Demons obey Jesus’s commands, as do winds and water (Luke put the calming of the storm immediately before this healing miracle). Note the way Luke concludes the story. Jesus tells the man to declare how much God has done for him. Instead, the man proclaims how much Jesus has done for him (v39). Luke’s point is that Jesus is sovereign and rules over all creation, demons as well as wind and waves. His mission is to bring peace to disordered humanity.
  2. The demon possessed man appears to be a Gentile (non-Jew), the only one Jesus meets in Luke’s gospel. Once cured, he wants to follow Jesus but is told to go and witness to his own people. This foreshadows the disciples’ mission to the Gentile world (Acts 1.8).
  3. The locals ask Jesus to go away, for they were afraid (v37). Fear is the usual human response to a mighty act of God in Luke’s gospel. The word ‘fear’ appears fourteen times, ‘afraid’ eleven times, and ‘terrified’ six times. Perhaps the locals thought asking Jesus to go away would bring them ‘peace’, meaning that they could go back to living how they wanted.

Reflection

  1. In which area of our lives would we like Jesus to demonstrate that he is ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’?
  2. Jesus tells the man he restores to wholeness/sanity that ‘mission begins at home’. How easy do we find it to witness to our ‘nearest and dearest’, to our neighbours, work colleagues and those we meet each day?
  3. Which kind of peace would we prefer to have, as the world gives or as God gives? What do we think the cost of each kind is likely to be?

Trinity Sunday, 12 June 2022

John 16.12-15

12‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Commentary

Jesus promises the disciples (including us) that there is a lot more truth to come and that he will share it with us. But it cannot be taken in all at once because it only comes with experience, especially experience involving suffering. This is what Jesus says the disciples cannot bear now (v12).

Notwithstanding the limits some traditions try to put on what is and is not ‘the truth’ and who is authorised to decide what it is or is not, John says we are all to seek truth continually, wherever it may be found. This is because ‘All the truth’ (v13) is God and the whole of created reality. There are no limits to ‘all that the Father has’ (v15). We are to listen and read attentively for what is ‘declared to you’ (repeated three times) for Jesus says ‘it is mine’ (repeated three times). We are all to dedicate ourselves to the truth Jesus wants us to have (Jn 17.17-19).

The effect of this can be seen in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was a victim of the Nazis. Growing up, his mother insisted her children were always to tell the truth. In Bonhoeffer’s family, ‘Only lying was a punishable offence, but torn clothes, windows accidentally broken, even trampled rosebushes in the garden were scarcely noticed.’  As an adult, Dietrich’s refusal to compromise on truth meant that he would eventually come to ‘share in Christ’s suffering’ (Romans 8.17; 1 Peter 4.13).

Reflection

Jesus had called the disciples and they had followed. This is the very beginning of the story. John says that praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit is essential if we are to learn from him how the life we have set out on can be lived. The question we always need to ask ourselves is ‘what is the Spirit teaching us now?’

This leads to questions about living in line with who Jesus is and what Jesus commanded (which brings us back to footwashing and loving to the point of dying for others). Essentially, the question is, ‘what will glorify Jesus?’ (v14). Does the way I treat my friends and family glorify Jesus? Does this way of treating the earth glorify Jesus? Does this way of doing politics glorify Jesus? Does our economic system or our culture glorify Jesus?

Day of Pentecost – 5th June 2022

John 14.8-17 [25-27]

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. 15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

[25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.]

Commentary

In verses 8-14 John hammers home the message that Jesus and the Father are one. Philip’s request suggests that the disciples had still not grasped this central truth that Jesus had been trying to communicate through the ‘signs’ he performed, starting with the wedding at Cana. Now, Jesus develops his radical teaching about God still further and explains its practical significance for disciples.

At the Last Supper, Jesus has told his disciples that he is leaving them and tries to address their very natural concern about what would happen after his ‘departure’. In verse 16, Jesus tells them the Father will send another ‘Advocate’ (the Latin word used to translate the Greek word parakletos, meaning either ‘one who stands alongside’ or ‘comforter’ or ‘counsellor’. The ambiguity may be avoided by using the word ‘Paraclete’).

Just as Jesus has been telling the disciples that the Father and Son are one, so now he makes clear that where the Spirit is, the Father and the Son are too. Amazingly, Jesus says that through the Spirit, God will dwell in us. Moreover, the Spirit will be with us for ever, and will lead us into all truth and full understanding (v17, 26).

Note that this abiding with and in us (v17) is on the condition (v23) that disciples should ‘love Jesus’ and ‘keep his commandments’. Interestingly, John does not give any detailed practical moral teaching, he simply insists on the kind of love Jesus has already demonstrated when he washed his disciples’ feet (Chapter 13).

Reflection

What John is describing in relation to Jesus and the Holy Spirit is similar to the ‘handover’ from Moses to Joshua or from Elijah to Elisha. As Paul tells Timothy (2 Timothy 2.2) our job is to pass on to others what we have received. The baton has been passed to us from those who have come before us. Fortunately, the Spirit is going to help us play our part in God’s mission! Part of this mission is to pass on the peace we have received (v27).

Are we any good at loving people? Are we growing in learning? How might we be counsellors and comforters?

29th May 2022 – Sunday after Ascension Day

Luke 24: 44 – 53

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Commentary

This passage which surrounds the return of Christ to the Father contains more than simply a physical ascension. It begins with a rising in the hearts of the disciples of a new and fuller understanding of the person and character of Christ and an indication of how his presence on earth was fully predicted across scripture. It had begun with Jesus unveiling the Messianic Secret in Luke 9 when he first unpacked Simon Peter’s declaration about Jesus being the Christ and how he was required to die and be raised again. It was followed by at least two further predictions concerning his death and what followed; Jesus then walks alongside the two to Emmaus after he had risen and points to himself in scripture and is recognized as he breaks bread at the house.

However, it is now in this passage that the disciples’ understanding reaches new heights: on the surface, it would appear that it is old ground being covered – Jesus refers to what was written of himself in the Torah and Psalms; but the key phrase is in verse 45: ‘then he opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures.’ The two walking to Emmaus had confessed: ‘didn’t our hearts burn within us while he talked with us and opened up the scriptures?’ Jesus now goes one step further – his death and resurrection are explained, but in verse 47 that ‘fuller revelation’ connects soteriology with mission: Christ’s offering of himself on the cross and his triumph over death are now translated into the need to preach Christ’s purpose for coming. His death, Jesus implies, cannot remain as a passive observation by believers, for it confronts humanity with the need to change. ‘Metanoia’ (repentance) requires a complete revision of thinking and return to God, whilst knowing at the same time, that the work of propitiation is complete and cannot be added to – the sufficiency of the cross cannot be augmented by any ritual or good work on man’s part. This is the message of Good News which now the disciples have the responsibility and freedom to declare to the world. As v 48 says: ‘You are witnesses of these things.’ This ‘witnessing,’ of course, had consequences for those who spread this vital message, for it’s all in the Greek word ‘martyreo.’ But for now, Jesus’ words were followed by the promise of the Father – the gift of Spirit and the equipping through ‘power from on high’ as they waited in Jerusalem.

Jesus’ words which were a blessing in themselves were finally accompanied by a personal blessing as he ascended. Far from being the frightened, confused followers that they had been, the clarity of vision, the revelation of all that Jesus shared and the promise of what was to come were catalysts to worship and great joy as they awaited a new spiritual era.

Reflection

Before we can fully function as ‘apostles’ – those who are ‘sent out’- there is always the need firstly to have assurance of the transforming knowledge of repentance and the total cleansing from our sin and to recognize Christ emanating from every pore of scripture. The challenge is to lay ourselves open to God’s word so that we are gripped and captivated by it and then to wait before him to be endued with power from on high.

As we are caught between Ascension and Pentecost, am I awaiting afresh for God’s fresh anointing of the Spirit? Am I longing to be filled and empowered for the work he has given me/ has given us, as a church to do? ‘Unless God builds the church, the labourers work in vain.’ The starting place is to wait, to re-aquaint ourselves with the legacy of Christ in scripture, to worship him in Spirit and in Truth and to be open to all that he has for us. The future with God may not  always be certain but it is ‘dynamic’ and life-transforming wherever we may be.

22nd May 2022 – Sixth Sunday after Easter

John 14: 23 – 29

23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

28 “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29 I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.

Commentary

John chapter 14 begins with Jesus’ words of reassurance: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ and he reiterates this again in verse 27. To the disciples all their security is being thrown to the winds – Judas is exposed as a betrayer, Peter’s denial has been foretold and Jesus has spoken clearly about his imminent death. But amidst this maelstrom, Jesus pours oil on troubled water: he speaks and demonstrates his sacrificial, agape love in becoming a servant to them and washes their feet as servant. Now Jesus continues to explain the ramifications of such loving for his followers.

The natural consequence of loving Christ is obedience to his teaching. But as we uncover the context, it is not ‘didache’ that is spoken of, but ‘logon.’ John, of course, describes in his Prologue that Christ is the ‘Logos’ – the ‘Word made flesh.’ It is not therefore the detached teaching or wisdom emanating from an ordinary Rabbi that we witness here, but something that is the very ‘procession from his divine being.’ His spoken word is an extension of all that he is as God in the flesh. In the same way that God in Creation spoke the words. ‘Let there be’ and the heavens and earth came into being, so Christ’s words to the sick, the dead and to those needing life-giving spiritual input are of the same order. It therefore becomes a natural extension of our loving that we would want to receive of this spoken life-source – whether it appears as commands, exhortations or quiet encouragement. To love Jesus is to receive everything that he has to offer. The consequence of this is a beautiful complement to this initiative on our part: ‘the Father will love (us) and will come to (us) and make our home with (us.)’ This is truly a glorious concept that, as we take on the being of Christ to become our own, so the Godhead comes to inhabit us and dwell the deepest recesses of our being; there is a mutual indwelling – He in us and us in Him where love and obedience flow from one another in perfect harmony.

Jesus then goes on to speak of the Holy Spirit continuing this role of teaching and act a reminder deep within of all that Christ has ‘logged’ with us through his incarnation. What is displayed in this passage is therefore an outworking of Truth and Love and now Jesus speaks of the third member of this spiritual triumvirate, and which is the hallmark of his presence in v 27 – Peace. It is peace that passes all cognitive and ‘taught’ understanding and is a reflection of His love: in this we can have confidence that our fickle hearts and minds need not have to be lambasted with fear, for as John says in his first letter: ‘Perfect Love casts out fear.’ It is in this passage we see the majestic interplay of Truth, Love and Peace which we as believers can claim as our own inheritance through faith; not as abstract, cerebral concepts but as living realities as we seek to be Christ in the world, despite whatever turmoil and disaster there might be.

Reflection

I wonder how many times we consider Christ’s code of love and life to be a hard process and one that we cannot easily attain to? We can all acknowledge very readily that our hearts can be more than troubled and perplexed by all that is going on in our world. But the challenge of these verses is to recognise what pain Christ underwent in those crisis days prior to his execution and that it was right at the very worst of moments he breaks in to provide us with a life-line.

Do I, do we, deny the very incarnation of Christ to make God real at every level of existence by simply not embracing his Being and consequently his loving and his exhortation to be more fully part of him and his ‘word for us?’

What might be the things that we ‘make home for’ which run counter to Christ’s higher way and exclude the Lord’s loving and being in our lives. What might also be the impact of our church, our community opening wide our hearts so that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit might fully take up residence amongst us. What might that look like? Dare we imagine? It is indeed a glorious thought…and it can become a reality, as we listen to His Word, embrace His Love and welcome His Peace.

15th May 2022 – Fifth Sunday after Easter

John 13: 31-35

31 When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

33 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Commentary

This passage nears the end of a dramatic chapter: it would seem that from reading verse 31 that Jesus reflects an unswerving triumphalism and lofty Christology which is remote from the engagement with the disciples and their lives, but this could not be further from the truth. The beginning of the chapter revealed a Christ who turned the concept of leadership on its head with Jesus washing feet and demonstrating his role as servant – something the disciples found hard to swallow. Then Jesus exposed the fact that one of his own protegees would betray him, sharing bread – but not fellowship – from the same bowl as Christ Jesus. As the Authorized version states, he ‘was troubled in spirit’ as he revealed the hand of Judas, and like something reminiscent later in Macbeth urges: ‘If ‘twere done, do it quickly’: the planned assassination of Jesus was soon to come to pass.

From being a stooping servant to announcing a hurtful rejection with a torment within, as Judas departs, Jesus is then able to step back from the drama and recognize the hand of the Father in leading him forward to Calvary. With the dismissal of Judas, the die was cast. Not that there was any doubting or uncertainty with respect to the divine plan that Jesus was to lay down his life for his people – but now this pivotal moment in history moves ineluctably closer. There is no sense of resignation – no, Jesus knows that the purpose for which he came from glory is ever closer, and all he longs for as part of his submission to the Father is to glorify him.

The words: ‘I will be with you only a little longer’ adds poignancy to the moment, but it’s a phase which is applicable pre-death and pre-ascension, for the revelation of God in Christ cuts through space and time and John conveys the majesty of that, which is not obstructed by human intervention but given for our eternal benefit.

Jesus then returns to where he began, at the start of the chapter, unveiling his sacrificial love for all those who follow him. His disciples had witnessed in no uncertain measure the concept of agape and learned what it was to receive from their Master/Servant and be washed. Now the disciples were to love in just the very same manner: this would of course come in fuller measure after the giving of the Spirit, but this kind of loving of one another would indeed become a hallmark of being a ‘Christ-one,’ and something that would distinguish them from everyone else.

Reflection

‘All you need is love’, but not the love that depends on circumstance or other’s feelings but the kind of love that kneels at the lowliest bunion-ridden, blister-worn feet – that exchanges comfort for drudgery, and ‘the sweeping of a room, as for thy laws, makes that and the action fine.’

The key to such loving is always to go back to the Saviour and receive – to allow ourselves to gaze into the Master’s eyes as he, on bended knee, tends to the most unlovely parts of us. The more we receive, the more that we will want to give in like fashion and to love without counting the cost.

Lord here are my feet and now I see others’ needy feet. Prepare, equip and envelope me so that I might give my all to them, in your name. Amen.

8th May 2022 – Fourth Sunday after Easter

John 21: 1-19

16 “All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. 2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. 3 They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. 4 I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.

16 Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

17 At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” 18 They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

19 Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’?

Commentary

This passage is part of a discourse from our Lord which begins in chapter 14. It changes in character from being a word of comfort, to a word of admonition and now to a word of prediction in this chapter. It is fitting that we should reflect on this post Easter, in that it is a preparation for Christ’s final departure from earth and an anticipation of the work of the Spirit, the Advocate. The whole tone of this passage is one of gentle, yet firm, steering of the disciples’ mindset, in order that they make the transition from dependency on Christ as a space-occupying, God-incarnate presence to a reliance on God’s indwelling work to be Christ in and to the world.

Jesus does not want his followers to be taken off-guard by what is to come for he knows what dangers they will face and how what will be done against them will seem to be done in the name of God. His call to them is for them to cherish and be nurtured by all that Christ has shared with them, for his words are their ‘bread’, ‘everlasting water’ and ‘eternal life’ (to draw on metaphors used earlier in the gospel). It is understandable that the disciples’ hearts will be sorrowful at the prospect of His leaving, but verse 7 is a hinge verse for their positive reflection: ‘it is for your good, it is to your advantage, that I leave you’ Why? So that that Spirit can come. We live in this Holy Spirit era where Jesus’ life and work is done through us by the equipping and enabling work of the Paraclete. It is well to be reminded as verse 8 draws our attention that the first role is for that Spirit to convict the world of sin and demonstrate righteousness and judgment.

It is easy to forget that as custodians of the truth, as revealed in Jesus, we are to be those who re-enact and live out that truth by His Spirit: we are to be beacons, the yardstick of how to live in the world and not become part of it, how to be above sin and its deceptions, and as required, to be tools of winsome judgment. As Jesus pointed out (v9) the world may not believe in the presence and work of Christ and know not right from wrong, and this is why we are to be so infused with his Spirit that the world can see our pointing to Him. In the very trinitarian verse 15: our role is made clear: all that the Father has embodied and made lively in the person and work of Christ is now transferred by the work of the Spirit to us. He works through us as channels reflecting God in Christ. We are not alone, but we have a mission, a life-call to represent the living Lord Jesus as he leaves this earth: the batten is now for each one of us to take up.

Reflection

It is easy to feel, like the disciples, abandoned and alone as we seek to make sense of God in the world and our role to be his ambassadors: the responsibility can feel overbearing, too challenging and daunting, at times. But it comes back to the renewal of our minds through His Spirit, that it’s not about us but ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’ Like light reflected through a prism, we are called to shine out His being, His Spirt, in our own unique way, but based upon our immersion on scripture and the memory of his words and work for us. It is as we look back at the cross and his costly sacrifice that we can look forward with His spirit to be resurrection people and be Christ in the world now, for his glory.

Prayer Poem

Wait…
Without expectation
Which might focus
Attention too narrowly,
So, that we miss the coming.

Wait with expectancy, alert,
Hearts, minds, ears
Open to receive the gift.

from ‘Watching for the Kingfisher’ – Ann Lewin

1st May 2022 – Third Sunday in Easter

John 21: 1-19

21 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.[c] 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Commentary

After the majestic ending in chapter 20, where the purpose of John’s account is plainly set out – that in ‘believing in Christ we have life in his name,’ we arrive at chapter 21, which to many seems like a mismatched postscript.. Most theologians hold that as a supplement it was almost certainly written by another leader at Ephesus, though endorsed by the Beloved Disciple. Having discovered the reasons for the first 20 chapters, what then is the purpose of chapter 21? Although, somewhat anti-climactic as we begin our reading, it soon becomes clear that some important messages are conveyed, which have an impact on the life of the church and for the individual disciples who will be spearheading the work of mission.

Firstly, we notice that the disciples appear to have regressed in their social and missiological orientation: they return to their former livelihood where they feel most comfortable, given that their Master appears remote from the day-to-day dealings, compared with what they had become accustomed to over the past three years. But into the midst of their own stomping ground comes Jesus, but like Mary Magdalene at the tomb and the men walking to Emmaus in Luke 24, they fail to recognize the risen Christ. There he stood on the shore, but like Mary they are dejected – there’s no hint of any fish – and then comes Jesus’ request to them: ‘Cast your nets on the other side.’ It seems that seasoned fishmen would not normally heed a random recommendation to do something impulsive, but what is conveyed here is that it is a voice of authority to which the disciples submit, and with what consequences!

This passage teaches the value of obedience and heeding the voice of Jesus: there can be no mission if the followers of Christ are not readily available and willing to commit themselves. Jesus communicates his words through the ordinary in an extraordinary way and it jolts them into the recognition that their Lord has greater designs on their lives than just fishing. The number of fish may be seen as allegorical – 153 being the addition of all numbers 1-17 which broken down is 7+10 – both numbers of completion. But whether real or symbolic, or both, the super-abundance of the haul reflects abundant life through serving Christ.

The second purpose for this chapter revolves around Peter, from verse 15. He has seen the risen Lord, but there lingers in the air that matter which has thus far remained unresolved, or that is what this passage hints at. In Peter’s denial of Jesus before Jesus was sentenced to die, love and trust was abrogated, and here Jesus tests his love correspondingly three times. But what is of interest is that Jesus begins by asking Peter whether he agape loves Jesus, and Peter’s response is that he filos loves him – cares for him as a friend. The second time, Jesus frames the question in the same way, and Peter responds in kind. However, the third time Jesus seems to reach down to Peter’s present level of love-communication and asks: ‘do you even care for me as a friend?’ and Peter, agitated, replies that of course he does. Peter appears hurt, but Jesus is wishing to test Peter to the limit, even as Jesus’ love was tested, so that he might be reconciled within himself as well as to Christ. The writer knows that Pentecost is to come, when the spirit takes hold of Peter and emboldens him as God’s mouthpiece and brings him into a true comprehension of agape. Here the reader can see the preparation for that great event as Christ confronts Peter with raw truth. But there is more, for Peter will in the end know what it is to agape love Christ in recognizing that going on mission with Jesus may end up with crucifixion and sacrifice.

Reflection

There is always a way back for us. However, far we may feel estranged from the love of Christ through circumstance or our own sin, Christ’s love is greater and broader, higher and distinctly knowable. But he starts where we are. I wonder what that starting point is for us? We may not feel that we are ready for Pentecost, to be suffused with all that the Spirit wishes to give us, but Jesus comes quietly, and begins where we are: ‘do you care for me as a friend?’ This passage indicates that being with Christ on mission there is a super-abundance of grace – 153 fish worth – that there is the availability of the wealth of agape, but he does not rush us into force-feeding us. We are called to wait in this intervening period before Pentecost – what does that waiting look like for us? Do we desire for greater and be immersed more fully in his love? It is there to receive when we are ready.

Prayer

Look, Lord, on an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
In faith I am weak – strengthen me.
In love I am cold – warm me and make me passionate
so that my love may go out to my neighbour.
I doubt and am unable to trust you completely.
Lord, strengthen my faith and trust in you.
You are all the treasure I possess.
I am poor, you are rich,
and you came to have mercy on the poor.
I am a sinner, you are goodness.
From you I can receive goodness,
but I can give you nothing.
Therefore I shall stay with you.

Martin Luther.

27 April 2022 – Second Sunday of Easter

John 20.19-end – Receiving, Believing, Trusting

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Commentary

‘Shalom’, the greeting used by the risen Jesus, is Hebrew for ‘Peace be with you’. Christians who share ‘The Peace’ at a Holy Communion service would do well to note what follows. It means far more than, ‘good morning’, or even the modern, ‘are we good?’ (meaning ‘have we forgiven each other?’). For as soon as Jesus has established his identity by showing the disciples his wounds, he gives them a commission they might have thought was more than a little daunting. The mission God had entrusted to Jesus, Jesus now entrusts to the disciples. They will need to receive the Holy Spirit.

Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them. The imagery of breathing takes us back to the creation story in Genesis and the moment when God breathed life into the nostrils of the creature God had made from earth (Gen 2.7). The breath of the risen Jesus is new life from God, and it is the spirit of Jesus. The disciples are infused with the reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so it is natural that they are inspired to continue Jesus’s ministry of ‘making all things new’. Breathed on by Jesus, they themselves become part of God’s new creation!

This explains why John says that those, like Thomas (20.28), who believe in Jesus as Christ and Son of God (20.31) ‘have life in his name’. What does this expression mean? John has already spoken of ‘praying in Jesus’s name’ (John 14.13). This means more than finishing a prayer with the words, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. Because the name of a person is that person, it means offering the prayer as if the believer were Jesus and the prayer were that of Jesus. Likewise to ‘have life in his name’ is to have or to share Jesus’s life. John’s astonishing claim is that Christians are partakers in the life of God.

Like any good sceptic, ‘Doubting Thomas’ demands a special experience or physical proof that Jesus is alive. But ‘Trusting Thomas’ denies his scepticism when he expresses his belief that we live in the presence not just of the risen Jesus, but of the living God. Thomas is a witness to the reality of the new creation. Like Thomas, we are invited, by the way we live, to bear witness to the reality of the God who is with us and for us and to share the life of God. Then we will be blessed and be a blessing to others.

Reflection

The Easter season is a time of thanksgiving and of looking for new beginnings. Death is not the end. The end is life, God’s life in us. So let us ask ourselves:

What have we received?

What have we believed?

What are we trusting God for?

And let us be thankful.

Easter Sunday, 17 April 2022

Luke 24.1-12 – The Empty Tomb

1But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Commentary

Christians reading Luke’s gospel for the first time might be surprised (and frustrated) to find he offers no account of the resurrection itself. Exactly what happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a mystery about which Luke has nothing to say. God’s act of raising Jesus could not be told and none of the gospel writers attempt to do so. Luke cuts from Jesus’s burial to the discovery of the empty tomb.

What matters, in Luke’s resurrection narrative, are the women who followed Jesus every step of the way from Galilee and had seen him crucified and buried (23.49). They were named at the start of his ministry (8.1-3) and they are named again here (v10). It is these faithful women who are the first to proclaim the resurrection. They ‘witness’ to the male disciples and they are not believed. It is the women who believe in the resurrection before Peter, the leader of the disciples. Only when Peter goes to the tomb does he accept their report. But even then, it is not clear whether he believes that Jesus is alive. Such belief appears to come only after Jesus has appeared to him (Lk 24.34).

Luke’s target here might be condescending male superiority. We can imagine the disciples mansplaining to the women why they must be mistaken about the empty tomb. Alternatively, or additionally, Luke might be making those who have difficulty believing in the resurrection feel better about it. Sceptics and doubters are in good company. The disciples on the Road to Emmaus (24.25) and the Eleven (24.37-38) did not believe that Jesus had risen until he ate with them.

Reflection

Luke’s gospel ends where Christian faith has begun. His final chapter tells stories about people who come to confess that ‘Jesus is Lord’, or who believe in ‘Jesus Christ who died, who was raised from the dead’ (Rom 8.34). However, the resurrection remains a stumbling block to faith for many. Rather than thinking about it in terms of life after death, might it be more helpful to talk about the resurrection as leading to a new way of life? Luke 24 shows that, starting with the women, the disciples share their lives with the risen Christ. The risen life is not another life, but the fulness of life starting now:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another (1 John 3.14).

We will not find Jesus if we look for him among the dead. Jesus is alive, Hallelujah.

Palm Sunday – 10 April 2022

Luke 19.28-40

28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

Commentary

‘The Return of the King’ is the last part of Tolkein’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Luke could have given the same title to his account of Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. Luke wants his readers to see that Jesus is the King coming to be enthroned. He does this through the story of the borrowed colt and the acclamation of Jesus by the disciples.

In Jesus’s day, it was kings who were able to requisition transport animals. Moreover, the garments spread on the road (v36) could represent the men themselves and their submission to Jesus’s kingly authority (See 2 Kings 9.13). Garments placed on the animal can be interpreted as a symbolic act of enthronement, forming a throne for a king to sit on.

The acclamation of the multitude who are singing Psalm 118 is modified by Luke. He inserts the word ‘King’, hence, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’ And what kind of King is Jesus? The answer is, the one who will establish a reign of universal peace. The disciples who have seen the deeds of power done by Jesus cannot stop themselves singing, ‘Glory in the highest heaven!’. Here they echo on earth the song of the heavenly host at Jesus’s birth (Luke 2.11-14).

The Pharisees are right to be worried that the enthusiastic reception of a king would be regarded by the Romans as insurrection (v39). Sure enough, Pilate will ask Jesus, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (Luke 23.3). Like Aragorn, Tolkein’s returning King, Jesus must follow the way of pain and death before he may sit upon his throne.

Reflection

The multitude praises God for all the mighty works they had seen performed by Jesus in his ministry (v37). In his Gospel and in Acts, Luke says that the Church should continue to offer this praise and worship. What has Jesus done for us or for others for which we might praise God? How regularly do we count our blessings?

What of those who reject God’s joy, peace and reconciliation? Pray for those who are caught up in disastrous wars because some reject God’s offer of salvation (19.41-44). How might we prepare for God’s ‘visitation’ ourselves?

3 April 2022 – Fifth Sunday of Lent

John 12.1-8 – The Anointing at Bethany

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

Commentary

The story of the anointing at Bethany is found in all four Gospels. John gives it a theological twist. Like Mark (14.3-9), John interprets it as a foretelling of the death of Jesus. But by mentioning Lazarus who has just been raised from the dead by Jesus (John 11.44), he links Jesus’s death with resurrection, and by reporting that Mary anointed Jesus’s feet (not, as in Mark and Matthew, his head) and wiped them with her hair, he links Jesus’s death with the forgiveness of sins (Luke 7.47). John is portraying Jesus as both the triumphant Messiah (literally, ‘the anointed one’, anointed as king) and the one who is about to die for the sins of men (anointed for burial). He also shows that even now, so close to Jesus’s arrest, the disciples do not see this. Only Mary is clear sighted.

As in Mark and Matthew, her extravagant action raises eyebrows, and Judas complains money could have been put to better use. Jesus answers by drawing attention to his imminent death, and by quoting Deuteronomy 15:11. The grumblers have missed the point, indeed, they are suffering from spiritual blindness. ‘You will always have the poor with you, and you can help them any time you want,’ says Jesus. ‘But have you realised who I am, that I am the resurrection and the life’?

The sign performed by Mary enables us to see who Jesus really is. But Judas cannot see, for whilst he complains about how Mary uses her wealth (three hundred denarii was a year’s wages), he abuses his position as ‘treasurer’ to enrich himself.

Tragically, Judas sees the truth when it is too late. Overcome with remorse for having betrayed an innocent man or realizing that he loved Jesus, though he chose a strange way to show it, he takes his own life (Matthew 12.1-10).

Reflection

John’s portrayal of Judas is an uncomfortable reminder to anyone who has ever adopted a holier-than-thou attitude. Like him, we are more than capable of deluding ourselves and we are certainly adept at misleading other people.

‘All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.’ (Proverbs 16:2)

It is easy to place a convenient explanation on an unexpectedly strong emotional reaction without questioning it properly, especially when the reality may not reflect so well on us. Understanding our own feelings, and those of others, may require self-examination and help from God and from those same others. Our critics may speak a true word. 

‘The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.’ (Proverbs 20:5)

Contrast Mary with Judas. Mary is extraordinary. Her extravagant gesture prefigures the foot washing in John 13. It is daring, a sign of her love and devotion, and an expression of her gratitude to Jesus for giving her brother back his life. It also expresses the abundant extravagance and generosity of God.

Try to imagine the ‘scent event’ in the house in Bethany. The only place most Jews could experience a fragrance like this was the Temple in Jerusalem where nard had been the incense used at the altar. As Mary wipes Jesus’s feet, not with a towel but with her hair, she too becomes an anointed one, who shares the fragrance that symbolizes the worship and faith of the whole forgiven, risen, community. This is the Christian church, the community that assembles, not in the Temple in Jerusalem, but around Jesus.

This story is a powerful reminder to us of the roles, ministries and vocations within and beyond the church that women have exercised, and of the opposition they have faced. What might we not learn from it?

27th March 2022 – Fourth Sunday in Lent

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Commentary 

The parable of the Prodigal Son & Elder Brother stands alongside the Good Samaritan as the most familiar and best known of parables. Our parable here speaks of the entry into the kingdom of God, but it can be interpreted on various levels regarding coming back to the fold of the Kingdom.

There is the approach which says: humankind lived with God’s rule and authority but then chose to take its own way – the younger son turned his back on the Father and this indicated the Fall of Man. Humankind generally contents itself with being in a strange land where ego plays pride of place and enjoying the fruits of God’s gifts until such time when people are faced with crisis and come to the end of themselves – materially, emotionally, spiritually. It is then in the pig-pen of life that people may choose to reflect on their circumstance and realise that life with the Father is far more preferable. It is this ‘coming to his senses’ which is the turning point, the ‘metanoia’ – ‘the change of heart and direction.’ It is at the point of the son – humanity – taking responsibility and choosing to come home, that the Father runs to meet his son, who he has been looking out for. Jesus deliberately makes the Father look foolish in the eyes of the pharisees – men were to act with decorum and running did not befit their status and position. Convention is abandoned and it is all for the sake of grace, that continues with the son’s efforts to ‘do penance,’ and instead, he is lavished upon, with the throwing of a party…grace in abundance.

Rather than seeing the parable in terms of the Fall of Man it can be interpreted as the mirror into many of our lives which plays lip-service to God, rejects him and then at a later time longs to come back to the Father whom he/she knows is their sole source of spiritual survival. This then contrasts with the Elder Brother who says and does the right things but his heart is far from him. Jesus longs for integrity and authentic living and he recognises this more in the sinner however low he/she has stooped than in the falsity and hypocrisy of religious play-acting.

Reflection 

It may be that we see ourselves sometimes in a far-off land and running away from God, even though we know what is right but choose to reject it. At other times, we can be guilty of feigning religion and putting on a ‘good front.’ Lent is a time when we can make time to inspect our interior journey – knowing that the Father is always longing to embrace us in his Everlasting Arms when we come to him in penitence and faith and ‘come alive in him and be found.’

 

20th March 2022 – Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13: 1 – 9

1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Commentary

One of the key issues which the desert experience of Lent throws up is that of suffering, and in the three stories referred to in this passage, they would seem to be riven with the issue of seeking explanations as to why or whether judgement should fall on individuals or part of nature; with a) Galileans being executed b) 18 dying as a result of a tragic tower collapse at Shiloam c) the parable of the possible destruction of an unfruitful fig tree. The theodicy that is postulated by curious inquirers around Jesus was that the evidence of a calamity or accident points to sinful behaviour and is God’s wrath being meted out on its perpetrators.

However, Jesus immediately questions this and by inference suggests that the Galileans and those who suffered at Siloam are not guilty of more sin than anyone else. As Jesus makes this point, he shifts the emphasis from trying to find theological blame, back on to each one of his hearers and to us: each of us needs to be aware of our relationship with God and repent of our sin. If we do not turn away from our wrong, then, as Jesus says: ‘you, too, will all perish.’ The issue of suffering is translated into an issue of personal responsibility: as St Paul echoes in Romans 3:23 ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ whether accidents befall them, whether they go through trials and tribulations, or enjoy what may be considered as a ‘good life.’

The parable of the questionable fig tree and the owner’s desire to cut it down and the gardener’s response, demonstrates that though we need to repent and deserve judgment for our sin, nevertheless, God always seeks to show grace and be merciful: ‘leave it alone for one more year’; in other words our Lord longs for us to produce fruit in our lives and be given maximum opportunity to do this…but beware that ‘no man knoweth the hour.’

Reflection 

We do not have to go far today to encounter suffering, personally or on the world front, and it is easy to agonise over the ‘why, God?’ Our Lord, above all else feels for those who weep and are downcast. But the challenge is this: how does the presence of suffering and evil in the world cause us to reach out for people’s salvation, not only materially, but also spiritually, since ‘the days are evil’ and ‘time is short’? Do we first know the invitation: ‘to come to me all you that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’? The Prodigal Son knew that this involved soul-searching in the desert and making an about-turn to journey back to his Father.

How much has the situation in the Ukraine caused you to rely more heavily on your heavenly Father? What might he be saying to you about journeying with them in heart and mind?

Prayer

Lord, I don’t understand suffering – sometimes I want to blame you and shout out loud. Other times, when I have quietened my spirit, I just want to nestle in your arms, knowing that they encompass not just me but the whole world. Help me to trust you enough to know that you have the answers, and to be humble enough to admit that I might be part of the solution. Amen.

 

13th March 2022 – The Second Sunday in Lent

Luke 13: 31 – 35

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Commentary

In our journey through Lent, our Gospel reading now takes us to the trials and testing which anticipate the shadow of the cross outside Jerusalem. From the tribulations of the wilderness where Jesus prepares for his mission and his identity  questioned by Satan, we now have other whisperers who attempt to deflect his focus on the endgame, though ‘game’ it is anything but. Instead of Satan directly, it is Herod, John the Baptist’s destroyer, who now uses the Pharisees to announce his intention to be rid of Christ. Jesus stands his ground and treats him with righteous contempt: the tetrarch is devious and twisted – it is no wonder that Jesus later does not play ‘his game’ of performing a miracle at the trial. Instead of running away, Jesus underlines his Father’s work for him: to continue driving out demons and healing people…and then the ‘third day’ to reach his goal. This term can mean ‘in a short time’ but its poignancy is not lost on post resurrection readers: there is triumph ahead from the tomb, but not before his goal is reached in death for humankind.

The focus of the final temptation in Luke 4 is on Jerusalem, with its allure to jump from the temple’s parapet; now Jesus knows that he needs not to ‘jump off’ but identify with the sorrow of God’s capital, Zion. There is an irony that Jesus points to that no prophet can die outside Jerusalem but in being crucified ‘outside the city walls’ Jesus was to suffer even this ignominy. Jesus now utters his lament for this place: he as the greatest prophet who ever has walked this earth now identifies with the brutality shown to other of God’s mouthpieces and whose inhabitants are like sheep without a shepherd, or rather chicks without their mother hen. And Jesus with the deepest of compassion longs to save the innocent from the things that will come – the desolation of that place in future years.

The end of the chapter is left in the balance: is Jesus speaking of his triumph into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, hailed as Lord by the people, or is he speaking of the second advent when he would come from glory?

Reflection 

As the shadow of war over the capital of Ukraine grows ever more chilling, it must be the response of all our hearts that we lament and weep for the occupants of that city. The stand against the evil and of devious leadership has chilling parallels with the Kremlin at this time, and maybe we should not be afraid likewise to use words of righteous contempt, whilst feeling for the masses who have been duped by the darker side of a questionable regime.

Let us redouble our efforts to lament, to cry out to God for release for the captives in our fellow European cities and spur one another on to love and good works in the face of the enemy. In the end we long for that ‘third day’ when resurrection can again take place in the hearts and lives of all people as they look to him who sets his face towards Jerusalem.

 

6th March – the First Sunday of Lent.

Luke 4.1-13:  The Temptation of Jesus

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’”

And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it is written,

‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’

11 and

‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Reflection

We may think of temptations as unwelcome – wouldn’t it be nice if we were never tempted? – but today’s Gospel shows us that temptations happen to all of us, even Jesus the Son of God, and that is in a sense quite reassuring. It is not what we are exposed to that defines us: it is how we deal with it. Furthermore, the Gospel helps us to understand how to deal with those temptations, if we can look beyond our desires for things of this world and keep our spiritual eyes fixed on God. Jesus triumphs over temptation because he understands who he is and what he is here for. Let us use this journey of forty days prayerfully to explore inside ourselves and gain God-led self-knowledge, so that temptation may have less pull on us.

 

27 February 2022 – The Sunday Next Before Lent.

Luke 9.28-36: The Transfiguration

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Commentary

Luke sees Jesus as a man of prayer, for prayer is the activity which opens the world to new possibilities as God’s purpose and will are discerned. Jesus was praying before his baptism, before choosing the twelve and before Peter says that he is the Messiah. He will pray again in Gethsemane with Peter, John and James. Here, Jesus takes with him the same three disciples to support him in the second crisis in his religious life.

The first crisis had taken place at his baptism when Jesus had understood that he was being commissioned as Messiah and the Servant of the Lord. Now, on the mountain, Jesus understands that his Galilean ministry is coming to an end and that it is time to journey to Jerusalem where, as he has already told the disciples, he will suffer rejection, be killed and on the third day rise again (9.22). The ‘departure’ of Jesus at Jerusalem is part of God’s plan for his Messiah.

The three disciples nearly fall asleep while Jesus is praying. They ‘wake up’ both literally and metaphorically to the presence of God. The presence of Moses and Elijah signify that the long-awaited age of judgment and renewal are at hand. Peter’s suggestion that they build tents is a reference to the Jewish belief that in the last days, God would once again dwell with his people as God had done during the Exodus (Ex 36.8-9). But whereas in the events of the Passover, God had delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, through the death and (more importantly from Luke’s perspective) the resurrection and ascension of the Messiah, God will deliver his people from sin and death to new life, overcoming evil and restoring creation. God’s kingdom of justice and love will come as people recognise who Jesus is and do what he teaches. ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’

Reflection

Verse thirty-two can be translated, ‘When they were fully awake they saw his glory.’

Like the apostles, there is often a risk that we might miss what God is doing because we are ‘weighed down with sleep’. We might be set in our ways and unwilling to embrace a ‘new reality’. We might be guilty of confirmation bias, only ‘seeing’ evidence that confirms what we already believe. Or we might suffer from mental lethargy. Who among us would not prefer a life of ease to having to face difficult questions and an uncertain future? Are we fully awake?

 

Second Sunday before Lent – 20 February 2022

Luke 8.22-25: The Stilling of the Storm

22 One day he [Jesus] got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, 23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25 He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

Commentary

The stories of Noah (Genesis 6-9) and of Jonah help us to understand Luke’s telling of the stilling of the storm. Both the Flood which threatens all creation and the storm which threatens to sink the ship on which Jonah is a passenger, are a reversal of the order God imposed ‘in the beginning’ (Genesis 1.6-10). This is because if Man abandons God, there will be a return to primordial chaos, creation will be unmade and we will be swept away. We can see this abandonment of God in all human wickedness (born of weakness and fear), in our relentless accumulation of wealth, in wars and in environmental disasters, all of which threaten to destroy us. This is a judgment we bring upon ourselves. But it is not the end of the story.

Crucially, God’s gracious and merciful concern for all he has made means that although Man may abandon God, God does not abandon Man. This is the ‘golden thread’ that runs through the stories of Noah, Jonah and the disciples on the lake. So it is that when the disciples cry out in distress, ‘Master, we are perishing’, Jesus puts the wind and waves back in their place with a word of rebuke. The obvious answer to the question that follows, ‘Who then is this…?’, is God, or that Jesus is the one who wields authority in God’s kingdom. The disciples should know that no power, no opposition, is able to withstand Jesus’s word of command.

Reflection

‘Where is your faith?’ Luke suggests that we can either trust Jesus or we will be left at the mercy of the storm. What kind of storms have we run into in our lives?

Jesus has already questioned his disciples (Luke 6.46) as to why they call him Lord but do not do what he says. For those who hear his words and do not do them, the consequences will be ruinous (Luke 6.49). In what areas have we found it most difficult to trust and obey Jesus?

 

Third Sunday before Lent – 13 February 2022

Luke 6.17-26

17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
23 Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Commentary

This is the opening of Luke’s ‘Sermon on the Plain’. Less well known than Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Luke’s theme is radical reversal, introduced in the Magnificat (1.51-53) and continued in the Nazareth Manifesto (4.18-19). The Beatitudes (‘promised blessings’) are for his followers in the new Israel and the woes are for those who ignore the new order.

Unlike those whose poverty is spiritualized in Matthew 5.3 (the poor in spirit), the people Luke addresses in the first three blessings are literally destitute, physically hungry and weeping actual tears. If Jesus’s followers are a mixture of rich and poor then Jesus is demanding that they address the gap between them now (the word now is used twice: 6.21, 25). This division was an issue for believers in the early church (1 Corinthians 11.22) and in a world of stark economic inequality, it remains an ongoing challenge both locally and globally.

Jesus’s reference to the prophets is significant (6.23). Jesus appears to identify himself with that part of the Old Testament prophetic tradition that assumes the rich to be both arrogant – because they think they have no need of God – and oppressors of the poor – because the rich are powerful as landowners, employers, or share-holders. The prophets demanded Israel, ‘do justice… love goodness, and… walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6.8). The tradition that developed in Judaism was that all God’s prophets of old were persecuted and many were killed in Jerusalem (Luke 13.33-34).

And yet, the fourth blessing and woe extend the reversal of values to how we should experience hatred, exclusion, mocking and defamation. We are to rejoice when we face opposition as Paul and others did as they continued Jesus’s work of turning the world upside down (Acts 17.6). Paul and Silas were not downcast in prison in Philippi but sang hymns and songs… at midnight! (Acts 16.25).

Reflection

Is it true that, more often than not, the last part of a person to be converted is their wallet?

There is a powerful social taboo around the discussion of money. How might we challenge it?

Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United and England football player, is a Christian who decided to help confront food poverty. The award-winning British rapper Stormzy is a Christian who protested against the government’s mishandling of the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the need to empower black people. How might they inspire those of us who are not quite so rich and famous to ‘do justice’?

NB If we have never seen a performance of Stormzy singing ‘Blinded by your grace’ please follow this link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPuj6UISMhs

I find this version of the song inspiring.

 

Fourth Sunday before Lent – 6 February 2022

Luke 5.1-11

1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5 Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Commentary

Up to this point in Luke’s account, Jesus has been alone in his public ministry. Now he calls on others to follow him and join in his work. Simon’s response is given as a model for us. He does what Jesus asks, even though he might question the wisdom of Jesus’s command (v4-5). Simon recognizes the presence of God in the extraordinary catch of fish. Here there is a parallel with the call of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah (See Isaiah 6.1-10). Like Isaiah, who says, ‘Woe to me… for I am a man of unclean lips’, Simon is conscious of his own unworthiness. But like Isaiah, Simon is reassured and commissioned to go to others.

Although Jesus’s command to fish for people is addressed to Simon alone, others who ‘sail’ with him, like James and John, also obey. Perhaps Luke is anticipating what he witnessed, the growth of the first-century church through evangelists preaching under the authority of Jesus.

Luke’s final statement that those who followed Jesus left everything (v11), is an example of Luke’s insistence that the attitude of disciples towards possessions is symbolic of their response to God’s call. Simon, James and John seem to have left their share of the enormous catch for others to sell!

Even if we accept that our attitude to possessions is an expression of our faith, please note that Luke does not suggest there is a one size fits all response to these questions. Luke mentions a variety of faithful responses including: paying for care of a stranger (10.33-35); avoiding covetousness (12.13-21, 33-34); relying on God’s strength rather than our wealth (14.28-33); avoiding the idolatry of wealth, perhaps by using what we have for the benefit of the poor (16.1-15, 19-25); sharing what we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ (18.18-30; 19.1-27; Acts 2.42). Barnabas sold a field (which may or may not have been ‘all he had’) and gave the proceeds to the apostles to be distributed to those in need (Acts 4.36-37).

Reflection

Do we feel unworthy when it comes to ‘fishing for people’? Why is this? How might we become better at ‘giving an account of the hope that is in us’? We are told that we should always be ready to do this when asked (1 Peter 3.15).

What is our attitude to possessions? Is it an expression of our faith?

 

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany – 30th January 2022

Luke 2: 22-40. Alex explains in his commentary why this text is repeated here (see also 2nd Jan.) Let us use it to deepen our understanding of this passage.

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

Commentary

Having already, mistakenly, put before you this as an Epiphany text at the beginning of the month, let us now pick up some threads as a Candlemas text with its focus upon Christ as Light of the World being presented in the temple.

In olden times, Christmas was not simply a two-day wonder or even a twelve-day celebration but a period of forty days which would bring it to the approximate half- way point to the beginning of Lent.

It is interesting to note that candles in earlier times were sometimes seen as a means of protection against plague, illness and famine. For Christians, despite how we may regard our present pandemic, this passage speaks of light, where Christ’s coming shines through the darkness and offers real hope, not just as sign of God’s glory for the Jews who were looking for their Messiah, but as a revelation to the Gentiles. As Simeon takes the child Jesus into his arms, he declares that Jesus’ appearing is light and salvation, prepared in the sight of all humanity.

As Simeon speaks prophetically over God’s own Son, such light, he explains, is not a passive luxuriating in a beam that is sweet, but a piercing ray that searches the darkened corners of human existence, causing the falling and rising of many in Israel and a sign which will be spoken against. Jesus comes, as he said himself, not to bring unity but division for the sake of His kingdom. The elderly woman of God, Anna, who joins Simeon with a pean of praise for the child Jesus, augments the prophecy concerning revelation, light and salvation, by speaking of redemption of the holy city of Jerusalem. This was the great anointed citadel of King David, but one which has been corrupted over previous centuries with religious and moral abuse. Once more, Zion would become the place of worship in spirit and in truth, where heaven and earth would meet at the foot of a cross and begin a revolution of heart and soul.

Reflection

As we light our candles this Candlemas, may we ask ourselves for what purpose we are doing this? Is Christ the Light of the World one who stands at the forefront of our hearts and minds as the means of hope and channel of glory?

Like Simeon we are called to proclaim the salvation of this Light of the World and at the same time being aware that there is a sword that may pierce the hearts of many, too. Our candles can be torches of hope and markers for pain as we look around us.

Like Anna, we can give thanks to God for all that he has done through the light of Christ and pray for the completion of his redemption in Zion: in Christ all can be redeemed as we offer them into his tender loving hands.

 

Third Sunday of Epiphany – 23rd January 2022

Luke 4: 14 – 21

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Commentary

Jesus returned from forty harrowing days in the desert, being tempted by the devil, but scripture does not record our Lord as being crushed or defeated but one who returns ‘in the power of the Spirit.’ He was tried and tested but came through the fire, ready to demonstrate his mission and unravel his identity to his people, beginning in his home town of Nazareth. After already being received with great acclaim as he preaches and teaches, the focus is upon his place of worship – the synagogue – ‘as was his custom.’ This passage heralds a new era where he declares himself to be the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.

In what is regarded by theologians as ‘heilsgeschichte’ – salvation history – here we see in this chapter a divine moment of revelation: in God’s perfect timing the elected reading for that Sabbath day is from Isaiah 61 and it is Jesus who has been asked to read it. The identity of the Servant in the prophet’s declarations becomes the living Word in Christ. Jesus’ mission and job description is set forth. It is through the promises foretold that Jesus would bring salvation through this jubilee time of history to unleash the Sprit in healing and deliverance, and liberation of the poor and oppressed through good news preaching. Jesus has already been baptised and received his anointing directly from the Spirit, and now scripture affirms it.

The passage ends again with a sense of expectancy: ‘all eyes were fastened on him,’ as he announces that this is the appointed moment for God’s kingdom to be inaugurated.

Reflection

As each of us continue to inhabit the era of the Spirit before Christ comes again, how are we ‘fastening our eyes on him’ and looking to him as the author and finisher of our faith (as the writer of Hebrews chapter 12 describes the journey with our Saviour)? He whose mission is to heal, restore, effect recovery and preach boldly, is now our mission to a needy world and each of us, empowered by that same Spirit, have the gifts and resources to continue that mission.

It is so easy for us to be caught up with the ‘bad news’ of things that press in upon us in our present situation, but as Christians are we prepared to be counter-intuitive and counter-cultural in our approach to the world? If we are, then let us know that Christ plus any one of us, however small we may feel, is always a majority, and today is the ‘acceptable time, today is the day of salvation.’

 

Second Sunday of Epiphany – 16th January 2022

John 2, 1-11

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Commentary

Cana is traditionally regarded as being 4.5 miles north-east of Nazareth, not far from Capernaum with a 100metre elevation: it would have been a place very familiar to Jesus’ family. There is something quite intimate about this recorded event, for it is rare that we see any normal familial activities recorded in the gospels. However, as the story unfolds, the normal gives way to the supernatural and this becomes the first of seven Jesus’ signs in John to reveal his identity as the Son of God.

The gospel story seems to suggest that Jesus’ mother had faith in him from the first to rescue the bridegroom’s family and the master of ceremonies from utter embarrassment: to run out of wine was indeed a social faux pas of the highest order. We see a typically Johanine potency coming through the text: Jesus is seen as the one who is in control and his timing for the revelation of his glory belongs to the Father.

The context for the ‘sign’ is important: the stone water jars used for ceremonial washing come to represent the old order belonging to the Law. They are filled as they would have been filled countless times before, with ordinary water. But as the master of the banquet ladles out the contents, the new wine of the spirit is lavished upon the groom and then the guests. The sign that Jesus has wrought is one that demonstrates that a new order, a new kingdom has been inaugurated, and it is one which is full of God’s greatest creativity – ‘Chateau de Cana’ is new, yet vintage and of the most exquisite quality. Such is God’s kingdom that Jesus is ushering in, where grace and freedom in God’s spirit can flow.

Reflection

Mary’s instruction was: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Are we prepared this year to learn obedience to our Saviour, to listen, to wait and then to act, and in so doing to discover that ‘service is perfect freedom’?

May we learn, too, what it is to break out of traditions which could potentially bind us; and in listening to the Spirit, discover that the life in the Spirit is one of richness and abundance. As we learn under his instruction what it is to be co-workers with Him, we can bring glory to Him through the gifts that the Spirt he liberally showers upon us as we receive them in faith.

 

First Sunday of Epiphany – 9th January 2022

Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21, 22

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Commentary

The passage opens with expectancy and longing. Although prophets had been few and far between, there had been one or two people who had claimed Messiahship and seemed outwardly to have been a saviour to the nation of Israel. Such had been the experience 150 years before with the Maccabean revolt against the Hellenic oppression of the Jews, and then Simon of Peraea in 4BC and Judas the Galilean in 6AD had both led separate uprisings against the Herodians and the Romans and declared themselves divinely appointed kings.

The Grecian oppression had now morphed itself into its Roman successor and the people longed to see deliverance. Could this man John the Baptist then be the Messiah? Unlike many power-driven leaders who sought to inflate their own egos and make divine claims, John the Baptist pointed to Another: to Jesus. With John’s preaching of repentance and readiness to meet this Messiah, came his practice of baptism: a rite of purifications and general cleansing now became a purifying of heart as well as mind and body. But this act prefigured what he said the Christ would bring: a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His would be not just a purifying but a filling and equipping for people to serve and become like Jesus himself.

Jesus enters the mission field, but surprises even John himself, and sets a model for what service would look like as an anointed leader. He had already been circumcised and cut himself off from sin, though his purity didn’t demand it, and now he wishes to be baptised, though he never sinned, and what is more he submits himself to John to conduct such a ritual. In his submission, Jesus then receives affirmation form the Father: like none other, the Father speaks of his beloved Son, and the Spirit whom John has talked about is conferred upon him. His anointing as Messiah comes from God himself and the Spirit is outpoured like a dove.

Reflection 

The people were expectant but did not know whom to look to. We know whom we should look to as we come to this New Year and can be assured of a continuing filling and baptism of the Holy Spirit as our hearts are open to Him. We need not look to another leader but can expect in faith that our Lord and Master should lead and guide us into a greater experience of him as we step into the unknown in these omicron-studded months.

May we like John the Baptist, having been equipped with the Holy Spirit learn more and more what it is to point others to Jesus Christ and his saving power, so that we are not defined by plagues, pestilence or people in leadership around us, but by the power that is vested within us to be different and prepared to make a mark for Him. May we this year, as the Westminster catechism adjures as the chief aim of man: ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’

 

Epiphany – 2nd January 2022

Luke 2: 22-40
22  When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph
and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord  23  (as it is written in the
Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord” [b] ),  24  and to
offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves
or two young pigeons.”
25  Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and
devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on
him.  26  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he
had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  27  Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the
Law required,  28  Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29  “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss  your servant in peace.
30  For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31      which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32  a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

33  The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him.  34  Then
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause
the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken
against,  35  so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will
pierce your own soul too.”
36  There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She
was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,  37  and
then was a widow until she was eighty-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped
night and day, fasting and praying.  38  Coming up to them at that very moment, she
gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the
redemption of Jerusalem.
39  When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they
returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.  40  And the child grew and became
strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

Commentary

Strictly speaking, the celebration of the Epiphany refers to the Matthean revelation
of God to the Magi in guiding them by natal star to Bethlehem. But in our study of
Luke, the passage today can be construed very much as an ‘epiphany,’ or
revelation, in the temple, to those who arrived to behold their Saviour. Firstly,
however, Luke prefaces this epiphanic episode with mention of Jesus’ circumcision
on the eighth day with the name that had been revealed even prior to his conception.
Then after the 40-day ritual of purification that followed any birth, Mary went with
Joseph to Jerusalem, to consecrate their son to God and what is revealed to us is that
the Saviour’s lowly birth is echoed in the humble sacrifice of a pair of doves –
not a lamb, as would befit someone of a wealthier background.
Moving from a Lukan identification with the poor, we now see another Lukan
characteristic at play – namely, that of the work of the Holy Spirit: Simeon, a
devout Jew, in the tradition of the prophets of old encountered and lived by the
power of the Holy Spirit. Eschewing the prophetic silence of God for the past 400
years, Simeon was one who eagerly looked forward to the Messiah’s coming, and
he received an epiphany that the chosen One of Israel was to come before his
death. The Messiah’s appearance is described by Luke as the ‘consolation of Israel,’
fulfilling Isaiah’s prophetic words: ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem that her hard service has been completed, that her sin
has been paid for.’ (Is.40:1-2). The sorrow of the nation, caused by sin was to be
removed by this coming Saviour.
As the Spirt moves Simeon to come to the temple, there the full ‘epiphany’ takes
place: the child Saviour is presented to Simeon and in the words which form the
Nunc Dimittis: ‘my eyes have seen your salvation.’ The Christ-child is to be the
means of salvation, not only to the Jews but to all men and women, but as Simeon
reveals to Mary: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ As Simeon is mindful of
other words of Isaiah in chapter 53, he knew that Israel’s consolation and the
Gentiles’ light would come at great cost – the death of the Messiah for the
expiation of the sin that had been the curse upon God’s people, and indeed, the
sins of the whole world. The sorrow of sin now will translate to become the
sorrow of the Saviour who will bear that sin.
Luke’s third characteristic, already endorsed by his focus on Mary and Elizabeth, is
that of the work and ministry of women, and here in this passage we see the
prophetess, Anna, endorsing just what Simeon had said and breaking out in a pean
of praise for this child who would become ‘the redemption of Jerusalem.’ Mary
and Joseph now return to Nazareth with their eyes and hearts open, spurred on by
all that has been revealed to them: an epiphany for them in every sense.

Reflection

At this moment in the Christian year, may we come with hearts and eyes open to
all that God is wanting to reveal to us in the person of Jesus, through the power of
his Spirit, to be an expectant people of God’s power and grace.
May we follow in the footsteps of Simeon, diligently searching scripture and asking
God to reveal more of himself to us, and like Anna come to our place of worship
in a spirit of prayer and fasting, knowing that our Lord inhabits the praises of his
people.

Let us give thanks for the ministry of faithful people in our midst who persevere
and do not give up, and for the ministry of women who reflect the heart of God
for others. Enable us, O God, to be encouragers and those who are faithful for his
sake in this coming year, and believing that in Christ, there is salvation for us as
individuals and as a congregation.

 

Christmas Day 2021

Luke 2.1-20 

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Commentary

It is no surprise that the message of the angels is given to shepherds. Like Mary, shepherds were socially insignificant, and Luke’s story has already told us that God is exalting ‘those of low degree’ (1.52). So, the shepherds get to hear the good news before anyone else. Moreover, the message concerns a Saviour born in the city of David and David was a shepherd anointed king by the prophet Samuel. Likewise, Jesus will be a shepherd King. Luke’s readers can contrast Jesus with Augustus, who established the ‘Pax Romana’. This ‘peace’ meant Roman citizens having the freedom to go on doing what they liked without interference, lording it over everyone else who experienced the downsides of Empire – taxation, compulsory military service, enslavement, and summary justice.

A not uncommon way we misunderstand the peace announced by the angels is as a private interior feeling of tranquillity or freedom from anxiety – inner peace. Again, this is not what the angels are talking about. Like love, peace only makes sense when it exists between two or more persons. It is relational, a gift from God to us as a community.

It is this relational peace about which the angels are singing, and it is the kind Judean peasants really want. Luke is going to say time and time again that a pretty considerable change in the way the world is organised will be required, especially between the haves and the have-nots. For God’s peace or ‘shalom’ is the prosperous and harmonious community life of the kingdom of God. Luke says it is God’s eternal purpose to establish this peace. God has promised to do so. And the evidence that God can be relied on to keep his promise is the babe in a manger. That is what the shepherds are told to look for, and that is what they find when they go to the stable in Bethlehem. Hallelujah! (2.20).

Reflection

Like the shepherds, let us hasten to the manger and recognize God’s amazing goodwill and kindness towards us.

Like Mary, however much or little we understand about what God is doing in our lives, may we continue to look for signs of the coming of the kingdom and the fulfilment of God’s promises in our lives.

Luke’s gospel does not say whether there was a midwife for Mary when her time came to give birth. But there is a sixth century Celtic tradition that St Brigit was a serving maid at the inn and did what she could for the travelling strangers. Let us remember in our prayers both those who are soon to give birth and all those who will care for them.

 

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2021

Luke 1.39-45 (46-55)

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Commentary

Luke’s story about Elizabeth and Mary is like an overture. It contains important themes that will be developed by Luke as he writes about the ministries of John and Jesus. The first theme concerns the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth and John are each filled with the Spirit. This means that their words, inspired by God, are true. Secondly, Both Elizabeth and John are important in the purposes of God, but both are quick to recognize the greater importance of her or his younger counterpart in God’s unfolding drama. Thirdly, Luke is keen to point out the continuity between the story he will relate, and God’s purposes as stated in the Jewish scriptures. The hymn that Mary sings, is modelled on Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2). On Mary’s lips we hear the prophetic message of the radical and revolutionary nature of the rule of the God whose son she carries. What the church calls the Magnificat, offers comfort for all who are lowly, humiliated, poor and dependent on God and not proud of their own resources and independence. It promises that God will continue to act as God acted in the past, in practical and material ways.  Fourthly, the Magnificat is a hymn of praise with a hard edge. It gives warning to the wealthy and powerful, for the way in which individuals and communities use and share their material resources is a sign of a deeper truth. This is a recurring theme in Luke and in the early part of Acts. See the disturbing cautionary tale of Ananias and his wife Sapphira (Acts 5.1-11) which Luke contrasts with what the rest of ‘those who believed’, including Barnabas, did with their possessions (Acts 4.32-37).

Reflection

Mary is blessed because she responds enthusiastically to the idea of cooperating actively with God’s plan of salvation. Her blessedness consists in this, that having been chosen for special service and having received an amazing promise, she believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord and she acted accordingly. Do we know where we fit into God’s salvation drama and have we found happiness and contentment, as Mary did, in performing the part that we have been given to play?

 

Third Sunday of Advent 2021

Luke 3.7-18

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who
warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin
to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from
these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  9 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the
trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’  11 In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever
has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do
likewise.’  12 Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what
should we do?’  13 He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for
you.’  14 Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not
extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts
concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  16 John answered all of them by saying, ‘I
baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to
untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His
winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his
granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Comment

How can John the Baptist’s announcement of God’s judgment be good news?
Luke is convinced that God intends to save everyone, starting with the crowds and
including unlikely figures like tax-collectors and Roman soldiers. What will not
save anyone is belonging to a particular nation or religion. Only if we repent can
we be saved; only then will God be able to bring new life where there was none
before.
Repentance is seen in practical action. Like Jesus, John demands that people
should share with one another. They should not be content with more than
enough when others have less than they need. Whereas Jesus called his disciples to
leave everything to follow him, John orders people not to leave their jobs, but to
do them as they should be done. Wherever God has put us, we can serve God by
doing a good day’s work.
Finally, Luke leaves us with a picture of judgment. The King is on his way. He will
baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Spirit is the long-awaited presence
of God, dynamic and creative, poured out at Pentecost and thereafter. Fire is more
ambiguous, both light and destruction. There is both threat and promise here. It
could mean there are two baptisms, one of blessing and one of judgment. John the
Baptist has started the winnowing process, separating those who repent from those
who do not. The coming King will assign them their respective places. As Jesus
says when he speaks of fire and baptism (12.49,50), the gospel is divisive. What
John does not see is that Jesus will not be inflicting fiery judgment on others. He
will be undergoing it himself to bring about God’s salvation.

Reflection

George Herbert’s hymn is a good reminder that all of us have a part to play in the
divine economy.
‘Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for thee!’
We do not know whether Herbert’s servants felt they were making “drudgery
divine” when they swept his house. But we can pray that whatever we have to do
on any given day, we would seek, with God’s help, to do it as well as we can.

 

Second Sunday of Advent 2021, December 5th.

Luke 3.1-6

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Comment

This week, our focus is on John the Baptist. His role was to prepare a people for the coming of the Messiah. In chapter 3, Luke’s story begins to pass from the private sphere (the story of the births of John and Jesus), to the public or political realm. Luke gives details of the history and government of the world God intends to save.

The Romans and the three sons of Herod the Great (Herod Antipas, Philip and Lysanias), who ruled using fear and oppression, appear to be in charge. But change is coming: ‘the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah’. John is called to be a prophet. He proclaims a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.

Note that John is in the wilderness and in the region around the Jordan. These places had religious significance because of Israel’s time in the wilderness during the Exodus. At that time, God was especially present with his people, guiding and testing them and the Jordan was crossed on the way to the promised land. Luke is preparing his readers to expect a new closeness to God and a new rescue plan. The rescue plan is going to be for everyone, not just for Israel. God is going to keep the promise he made through the prophet Isaiah: ‘All flesh shall see the salvation of God’. (See also Simeon’s song or the Nunc Dimittis, 2.29-32).

Reflection

Perhaps we feel our lives – personal or political – cannot go on as they are and that something has to change. But what? And how? What kind of ‘road-mending’ might we do during Advent to prepare for the coming of the King of Kings?

 

Advent Sunday 2021, November 28

Luke 21.25-36

25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

 

What are we waiting for?

On Advent Sunday, Christians may well ask, ‘What are we waiting for?’ Luke’s gospel offers
guidance to all who live between what has already happened (the first coming of the Son of Man
and the inauguration of the kingdom of God) and what is still to come (the parousia and the final
consummation of all that God has promised).
For Luke’s original audience, much of what Jesus prophesies in chapter 21 has already taken
place. Jerusalem has fallen (to the Romans in 70AD), and the church has been persecuted (see
the martyrdom of Stephen and Paul’s hardships in the Acts of the Apostles). Most importantly,
Jesus has already revealed himself as the Son of Man. He forgives sins (Luke 5.24). He is lord of
the sabbath (6.5). He has come eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners (7.34). He has
already endured suffering and death.
The kingdom of God is also a present reality. That is why Luke’s account of the Passion places a
heavy emphasis on the kingship of Jesus (22.3). The kingdom has been revealed in Jesus’s work,
in casting out demons (11.20) and in healing (9.11; 7.22). But Jesus also taught his followers to
pray for the kingdom to come in all its fulness (11.2; 22.29-30). And it is prayer which Luke the
doctor prescribes for us, Jesus’s disciples, living as we do between the now and the not yet.
Luke says we should be alert and pray. Pray for strength. Pray that we do not lose heart when
many turn their back on God. Pray when our hearts are troubled. Pray that we may seek relief
from trouble and anxiety in ways that do not harm ourselves or others. Pray that we do not allow
ourselves to be distracted by ‘the worries of this life’. Pray that we may find ways to help others
we know who are in difficulty. In prayer, let us honestly put before Jesus the struggle, weariness,
or fatigue that we are feeling in seeking to follow him in our day to day lives. And let us pray for
the fruits of the Spirit, particularly patience and faithfulness.