Readings: Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This week is Pentecost Sunday, and next week is Trinity Sunday, and those two weeks together ought to remind us, loud and clear, that there is much more to God then we can possibly imagine.
Actually, why don’t we try that for a moment. Close your eyes and imagine God.
And now come back to Earth for a moment.
Focusing our minds on God in this way is doubtless a good thing, and it may be a first step to moving us deeper into contemplative prayer, but here is the thing: whatever we imagine God is like, is wrong. The theologian Anselm said that the God we can imagine is never the real God because, if we tried a little bit harder, we could probably imagine a greater God. Whatever image came to mind a moment ago I am sure, if you tried again, you could imagine something bigger and older and more loving.
If we struggle to remember the name of that nice person we met yesterday or which Christmas it was that Auntie Bertha dropped the Christmas pudding, then let’s not kid ourselves that we can truly imagine the fullness of the God who spoke the whole universe into being, who upholds it from moment to moment, and who knows the beginning and end of all things.
The wholeness of God is beyond our human imaginings. But that doesn’t matter and should not cause us any consternation, because we were not created to understand God, as if he were an equation or a text book, but to enter into a relationship of love and worship towards him. And if you think that love needs understanding then I can tell you that I don’t understand my wife and children most of the time, but I still love them. And sometimes worship them, but not in an idolatrous sense.
God is not simply a creator who stands apart from his creation, like a watchmaker observing the cogs, but that he continually reaches out to it, and participates in it. We see that primarily through the incarnation of Jesus but, because of the events of Pentecost we are reminded that God continues to reaches out to the world through his Holy Spirit.
I once heard a preacher say that the Holy Spirit came into being at Pentecost, but of course that is nonsense – the church as we know it came into being at Pentecost, but the Holy Spirit had been with God and been part of God since the beginning – in Genesis 1:1 we encounter the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. The Holy Spirit is evident throughout the Old Testament, primarily in the lives of the prophets. But the New Testament is full of the Holy Spirit, and much of that before Pentecost. The obvious example is the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowing’ Mary at the Annunciation but the Spirit is also present in the story of John the Baptist, with Simeon and Anna at the Temple and at the Baptism of Jesus.
Prior to his Ascension Jesus promised his followers that he would not leave them comfortless, and we heard those words of promise in our Gospel reading this morning – Jesus would send his followers an advocate. When I was a lawyer I often acted as an advocate and, as such, one steps into the shoes of the client and speaks on their behalf, saying the things they would say if they had the knowledge and vocabulary so to do. But the job of the advocate is not just to represent their client’s case to the court, it is also to explain to the client how the system works and what is happening. So the advocate is not just a mouthpiece but is better understood as an interpreter – translating client speak into court speak and vice versa.
Jesus says that the ‘Spirit of Truth’ will testify on his behalf and will prove the world wrong about sin, and righteousness and judgement. So the Spirit will stand in the shoes of Jesus and continue to speak into the world. But the Spirit doesn’t just speak into the world – Jesus says that the Spirit will also speak what he hears and declare it to the followers of Jesus, because they are not able to bear everything now. So, in that sense, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit is representing God to the world and to the church. But we also believe that in our baptisms each of us becomes recipients and dwelling places of the Holy Spirit and as that Spirit leads us into truth we hope also that he acts as our Advocate to God, saying what we would say if only we had the knowledge and vocabulary.
In our reading from Acts we saw the events of the first Pentecost, and we also learnt an important lesson. God the Holy Spirit doesn’t just exist ethereally or in the abstract, rather the Holy Spirit is made manifest in the body of the church – on their own wind and flames are unintelligible and unknowable but when they land on the church and people start to speak as they hear from the spirit, then barriers are broken down and individuals become a church. In a very real sense, if Jesus is the incarnation of God the Son then the Church is the incarnation of God the Holy Spirit.
Whilst we celebrate and remember Pentecost as the Holy Spirit giving birth to the church we should also remember that this was not a once and for all occasion. Only a couple of weeks ago I spoke about the Pentecost of the Gentiles, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and his family in Joppa, I have already mentioned the work of the Holy Spirt throughout the Old and New Testament, in John’s Gospel Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his followers even before the Ascension and we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to be poured into the church, which, of course, also does not exist ethereally or in the abstract, but only exists through each and every one of us.
The God who created the universe is not just ‘up there’ but is also in here and in each of you and, therefore, in us collectively. As Christians we are not just called to be nice to one another but to remember that we are filled with the fullness of God.
God is vaster than we can ever imagine, but he also looks at the world through your eyes and cares for the world through your hands, because the Holy Spirit dwells amongst us and within us.
When you imagined God a moment ago did that picture also include Jesus who took our humanity into heaven? Did it include the Holy Spirit who fills each of us right now?
Our homework for this week, as we prepare for Trinity Sunday, is not to constrain God by the limits of our imagination but to allow the fullness of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us enter into proper relationship with him, with ourselves and with one another.
Sunday 9 May 2021 – Easter 6
Readings: Acts 10:44-end, John 15:9-17
May I speak this morning in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Next Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension, when we remember the resurrected Jesus returning to be with God the Father.
Having seen Jesus die on the cross and then having undergone both the disbelief and the joy of the resurrection the disciples, and perhaps us by extension, have become used to having Jesus around again. But he can’t stay in the world forever – it may be interesting to imagine a world in which Jesus simply never died and never left – but that was not God’s plan for the world and for the church. So Jesus is now getting ready to return to the Father and, perhaps more importantly, he is also getting his followers ready for a world without his physical presence.
If you cast your minds back over the previous several weeks I hope you will recall the lengths that Jesus went to in order to demonstrate not only that he had been risen from the dead but that he was physically real. He was neither a ghost nor a purely spiritual being – he had hands and feet and a side still bearing the wounds of the cross. He ate and drank with the disciples both to prove his physicality but also to continue to share fellowship with them from the other side of the cross – the Last Supper was not really the last at all.
But if the resurrected Jesus was physical then, of course, the Jesus that ascended was also physical. Whilst we may seek to put God into a space marked ‘spiritual’ and ourselves and the world into a space marked ‘physical’ it seems to me that the incarnated, resurrected and ascended person of Jesus takes away that distinction.
By being born into human flesh, which was created in the likeness of God and which becomes literally the image of God in Jesus, by defeating death which entered the world through disobedience and by being lifted up to the Father in the flesh we are shown time and again that God wishes to reconcile the whole of our being with him. God came to us in Jesus so that we could be lifted back to him.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
How are the followers of Jesus to cope in the world, without Jesus being with them?
In the Gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples that they should ‘abide in his love.’ This word ‘abide’ was also in last week’s Gospel when Jesus used the image of the vine branches abiding in the vine.
We would usually abide in our abode. Our home. Our dwelling place. Somewhere where we bide our time, where we want to spend our time.
Jesus is saying that his love is our home – the place where we can and should abide.
We should live in the love of Jesus.
And if we live in the love of Jesus then we know that we are living directly in the love of God the Father, because Jesus abides – lives and spends his time – in that love.
Jesus says that if we live in his love that our joy will be complete.
The world can be a difficult and dark place but if we feel that in May in 21st century Kent then never forget that the world has been much more difficult and dark in most other times and places.
Jesus knew that, because it literally crucified him.
But, despite that, it is possible for our joy to be complete if we make our home, our dwelling place, in the love of Jesus.
However, abiding in the love of Jesus does not, and never meant a purely private, spiritual, relationship between Jesus and individual followers.
Jesus makes it clear that the fruit we bear when we make our home in his love is that we love those around us – ‘that you love one another, as I have loved you.’
‘As I have loved you’.
How did Jesus love?
By giving everything he had, including his life, for those that he loved.
The love Jesus had for his disciples and the love he commands them to have for one another is never a purely spiritual love. It is the opposite of a ‘thoughts and prayers’ love, which rarely results in thoughts, prayers and certainly not in action. The love that Jesus has, and the love he commands us to have, is a love which finds expression in thought, word and deed. The Good Samaritan loved the injured man by taking costly action.
So the disciples, and by extension us, learn to cope without the physical presence of Jesus here on earth by dwelling in his love and allowing that utterly spiritual but deeply real and practical love bear fruit in the world for all those around us. We cope with the absence of Christ by making Christ present.
But Jesus knew that we needed some extra help with that and we know that in two weeks time we shall celebrate Pentecost when the Holy Spirit arrived in power to breath new life into the disciples so that they would become the church, the body of Christ on earth. I shall keep my powder dry for that but in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see that the Pentecost was not simply a one-off event for the very first members of the early church but that the Spirit of God comes to all those who believe.
Sunday 25th April 2021
Acts 4:5-12, John 10:11-18
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Nearly every week I start my sermon in that way – seeking to ground my thinking, my writing and ultimately my speaking in the name of God.
“…there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.”
Names are important and names are powerful.
The name by which you are known, and how others use it, can speak volumes about relationships. If someone you don’t know well changes your name without consent – perhaps they shorten a Stephen to a Steve or a Vivienne to a Viv – then not only can it cause annoyance but it can also feel as though that person has become over-familiar and trying to exert informal power.
One of the redeeming features about being called Paul is that it is not an easy name to either shorten or lengthen – although I was called Pablo when I lived in York many years ago. I guess that could now be Padre Pablo. That has a certain ring, but no!
When parents shout, or say quietly, your full given name, including your middle names, then you know you are in trouble.
People in close relationships may use all sorts of nick-names for each other, which may not be known or used by anyone else, and which reinforce intimacy.
People who don’t like each other, or wish to be deliberately unkind, may call each other horrible names:
‘…sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me…’ – I think we all know that is not true.
People with depression or self-esteem issues may call themselves all sorts of bad names, which can change the way they think of themselves. When we think lowly of ourselves and give ourselves demeaning names, remember always that that is not how God sees us – he knows our real name.
The importance and power of names runs like a golden thread from the beginning to the end of the bible – let me highlight just a few:
At the very beginning, when God spoke creation into being, he also named that which he created: ‘God called the light “day”, and the darkness he called “night.” (Gen 1:5) The act of naming completed the act of creation.
When Abram entered into a new covenant with God, at the age of 99, an age when most of us are quite used to our names I suspect, God changed his name, perhaps to complete the act of creation in his life: “No longer will you be called Abram your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations”. (Gen 17:5).
Many monks and nuns change their names when taking religious vows. I once stayed in a monastery and ended up sitting next to a monk called St John of the Cross. Which felt a little intimidating but he was very nice.
When Moses was called by name from the burning bush and sent to rescue his people from slavery, Moses asked the name of the one who was sending him: “I AM WHO I AM” or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE – Pure being-ness and becoming. (Ex 3:14)
When God, I AM WHO I AM, later gave the ten commandments to Moses the fourth commandment was that his people should not misuse the name of God – ‘for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’ (Ex 20:7). In response to this commandment many Jews will not even write or say the word ‘God’, for fear of even accidently misusing the name, and will refer to God as “HaShem” – which simply means the Name.
I don’t know about you but when I hear people using the name of Jesus Christ as an exclamation or a swear word it really hurts me. I feel it in my heart. It is misusing the name of God, it is misusing the name of someone we love and follow and I would certainly hope that no practising Christian would even be able to do this.
When God called the boy Samuel to be a prophet he called him distinctly by name, as he had called Moses before, and, as we heard on Easter Day, when Jesus wanted Mary Magdalene to recognise him following the resurrection he simply said her name. Although God calls in many and varied ways he is also quite capable of simply calling us by name. If we are brave enough to approach the burning bush, willing to seek the counsel of those who are wiser than us or simply take a moment to wipe the tears from our eyes, or metaphorically unblock our ears, we may recognise and respond to the one who calls us by name.
When John the Baptist was conceived his father Zechariah was struck dumb and was not able to speak again until he confirmed that ‘his name is John’ (Luke 1:57-66).
Having started in Genesis the theme of the power of names, both for us and for God, goes all the way to Revelation: “To the one who is victorious I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (Rev 2:17)
Doubtless a mysterious verse but one which suggests to me that our true identity, our eternal name, is known only to God and that the act of creation in us will be completed on the other side of this life when God gives those who have won through that white stone with our new and real name written on.
And, at the very end of Revelation, in the new heaven and the new earth we are told of God’s people that:
“They will see his face and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:4)
There is a beautiful circularity here: The people of God both receive a new name from him, which is their true identity, but ultimately they are known not because they wear their own name, but because they wear God’s name. This is the opposite of misusing God’s name, it is being known as His people by making his name our name.
Then, of course, last but by no means least, there is the name of Jesus:
“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow,
every tongue confess him, king of glory now.”
I do love that hymn, but, like many hymns it is based in scripture, in this case Philippians 2:9-11:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The name above all names.
Although I don’t bow my knee every time the name of Jesus is mentioned you may have noticed that I often bow my head during the liturgy, and those that wear birettas to worship would doff them at that point – this is no mere affectation or empty religiosity but, for me at least, comes from the same heart that is hurt when Jesus’ name is misused – it is a heart that recognises the name of Jesus as the name of my friend, my brother, my judge, my king of kings and my God. How could we be unmoved by that name?
The disciples were asked:
“By what power or what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7)
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit said:
“It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead…. there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.”
There is no other name by which we must be saved.
Sunday 18th April; Doubting Disciples
Readings: Acts 3:12-19 Luke 24:36b-48
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is sometimes easy to forget that Easter, like Christmas, is not a single day but it is, in fact, a whole season.
We don’t simply hear the story of the resurrection on Easter morning and then get back to ‘business as usual’, or at least we shouldn’t.
For the 50 days of the Easter season we travel with the disciples in their struggles to come to terms with the reality of the resurrection, and what it might mean for them and for the world.
On Good Friday this year Professor Alice Roberts, the President of the Humanists in the UK, Tweeted that ‘dead people do not come back to life.’ Apart from demonstrating a severe lack of grace I wonder what she was hoping to achieve – would millions of Christians suddenly realise the error of their ways?
Of course, we know that dead people don’t come back from the dead, apart from in ghost films, and the disciples also knew that dead people do not come back to life. Well there was Lazarus and Dorcas but they are exceptions because Jesus did that, but generally dead people don’t come back. It’s simply common sense, and the disciples were sensible people – fisherman, tax collectors, grown ups.
Dead people do not come back to life.
Last week we heard about the disciple Thomas. And ‘thank you’ Christopher for reminding us that the stories of the disciples did not end when their story in the bible ended, and that Thomas may well have travelled to India proclaiming the good news.
Saint Thomas is often referred to as a doubter because he would not believe in the resurrection until he saw Jesus for himself. This is doubly unfair on Thomas – at no point do his words or actions display the slightest doubt, in fact he is crystal clear: At first he says that “unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my fingers in his side, I will not believe.”
I will not believe. That is not doubt.
And then, when Jesus appears to him and Thomas sees and touches the wounds of the cross he says: “My Lord and my God!” That is not doubt either. Thomas was clear in both directions – he would not believe and then he believed.
But the reason that calling Thomas a doubter is doubly unfair is because that word is used in today’s reading and it is not aimed at him:
“…Jesus himself stood among them and said to them ‘Peace be with you.’”
“They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.” “Why are you troubled and why do doubts arise in your minds?”
There is that word – doubt – and it is not being aimed at Thomas but at all those who were gathered in that room.
The disciples knew that dead people do not come back to life. Except for ghosts.
I find it fascinating that some think that it is entirely un-Christian to believe in the possibility of ghosts – when the disciples mistook Jesus for a ghost not once but twice – in this passage and also in Matthew 14 when he walked on water.
Jesus then goes to some lengths to prove that he is neither a ghost, nor a purely spiritual being:
“Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”
This reminds us that the resurrection of Jesus was never a purely spiritual matter. Jesus rising from the dead had nothing to do with a ghost or a spirit or a soul shedding it’s earthly shell, floating around for a bit and then floating up to heaven.
The incarnation of Jesus does not just mean that God joined himself with our fleshly humanity in birth but he also joined himself to our physicality in death and resurrection.
But even having seen his hands and feet the disciples were still not sure and so Jesus ate some fish in front of them.
Poor old Thomas gets called a doubter and yet here is Jesus having to do party tricks in front of many of the disciples to get them to believe that a dead person had come back to life.
Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures. What a gift – to have your mind opened in person by the resurrected Jesus so that we can see him throughout the scriptures and see in him the fulfilment of those scriptures – we pray that the Holy Spirit will work in each of us that way.
But it is not kept secret – this is not a gnostic gospel – Jesus says clearly that the scripture is fulfilled by the Messiah who suffers and rises from the dead on the third day. This, we know, is the thing which distinguishes Christianity from the other Abrahamic faiths – that apparent failure and disappointment will be overturned by new life and resurrection. And that forgiveness for the repentance of sins will be preached in all nations.
Christianity has a had bad rap for being too focused on sin, historically, and often for the condemnation of sin. I sometimes wonder whether we have gone too far the other way in not thinking about sin at all and pretending that we are all fine with God exactly as we are, with no change required. If the latter is true then, frankly, there would be no point to faith at all. Actually I think we need to rediscover the import of what Jesus is saying here:
Sin is real – not everything we do is what God would have us do.
Repentance is real – We can turn from wrong.
Forgiveness is real – When we admit our sins and turn to Christ we are not condemned, rather we are forgiven.
Those who know their need for repentance and experience the forgiveness that only Christ can bring are always the most powerful witnesses to the power of faith.
And I want to close on that word ‘witness’ – it is used in both the reading from Acts and the Gospel reading. For us to be a witness means two things: It means to see something happening – to witness an event.
But witnesses are not merely bystanders. They are those who are prepared to stand up and act as witnesses to what they have seen – to give evidence of what they have witnessed.
The mission that Jesus gives the disciples is to be witnesses to his bodily resurrection. To see that although dead people do not come back to life that Jesus came back to life and not as a ghost but as flesh and bones. It is the resurrection first and foremost that makes us who we are. Having acted as witnesses to his resurrection Jesus charges them to be witnesses to the whole world of the forgiveness of sins and the new life that brings.
Sisters and Brothers in Christ. In the power of the resurrection the dead do come back to life – that is the lesson the disciples learnt and that is the lesson for us.
“You are witnesses of all these things.”
Go out into the world and be witnesses to the difference that the resurrected Jesus makes to you.
Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on the Second Sunday of Easter 11th April 2021
Readings: Acts 4 vv 32 – 35 Believers share their possessions
John 20 vv 19 – End The risen Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter Day and a week later.
Introduction. I have said before that there are two people in the New Testament who get a bad press, namely Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and the Apostle Thomas. Today I want to focus on Thomas. In the late 1960s, I had a posting to Royal Air Force Muharraq, accompanied by Julia and our very young son Philip. As a licensed reader in the RAF, I assisted quite often at services in the station Chapel. In my second year in Bahrain there was no chaplain at the main Anglican Church, St. Christopher’s in the capital city of Manama and so I was also conducting services there from time to time. There were other churches in Manama , one of which cause the Mar Thoma church, providing for Christians from the Indian subcontinent. You may have heard of the Mar Thoma Church. By strong tradition the Church was founded by the Apostle Saint Thomas who is considered to have landed at Crananore in South West India in AD 52. In the period 1997 to 2003 when our son Philip was firstly senior engineer and then project manager for a project repairing the dry docks in Dubai, we visited him and his wife Karen on a number of occasions. In Dubai there is also a branch of the Ma Thoma church which at that time, like many other congregations, met in the Anglican, Holy Trinity Church. They now have the own church in the complex of churches a few miles away on land at Jebel Ali, given by the ruling Sheikh. At the first service on the 16th December 2001, it is recorded that there were 5000 participants. Certainly, one has to recognise that the Mar Thoma Church is a strong Church, probably as a result of Thomas’ initiation in the 1st century.
2. Thomas. What do we know about Saint Thomas and the early Mar Thoma Church? There are broadly three sources. In no particular order there are:
- Writings ascribed to Thomas but probably written by others,
- There are brief references to him by reliable historian of the Church,
- There are references to him in the New Testament from holy scripture.
3. Books of Thomas. There are three books named after the Apostle.
- There is ‘The Acts of Thomas’. This is the only one of the five principal apocryphal ‘Acts’ which has survived intact. Probably written in the late second century or early 3rd century A. D. The setting is almost certainly Indian. Thomas is reputed to have been martyred in India. There is a chapel on St Thomas’ Mount, the traditional site of Thomas martyrdom, near Madras (photo at end).
- There is the Gospel of Thomas, a Coptic papyrus discovered in Egypt in the twentieth century. It is largely comprised of the sayings of Jesus, with many paralleling the canonical gospels. The Gospel is probably the earliest of Thomas’ books
- The Apocalypse of Thomas is one of three principal apocalypses, the other two being attributed to the Apostles Peter and Paul. Thomas’ Apocalypse has a strong emphasis on light.
In summary the books of Thomas give considerable support to his active ministry in India and probably elsewhere.
4. Historians. There are two reliable historians, both of the 4th century, who note Thomas’ work.
- Firstly Jerome, a great scholar, bishop and translator, responsible for the translation of the Bible into Latin in what is known as the Vulgate version. He notes that Thomas travelled to Persia, now Iran.
- Secondly, Eusebius, born in Caesarea, where he founded a monastery and was consecrated Bishop. He drafted the Creed, finalised and approved at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and which we will be saying in a few minutes. Eusebius is sometimes known as the ‘Father of Church History’. He records that Thomas was active as a missionary in the East.
5. New Testament. I come now to the third and most important source of information about Thomas, the Apostle, namely the New Testament. Apart from five mentions in list of disciples, there are three significant references to Thomas, all in John’s Gospel.
Firstly, when Jesus tells the 12 quite plainly that his friend Lazarus is dead, Thomas makes the surprising statement, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” One cannot be sure what was in Thomas’ mind at that point. Jesus had spoken of going back to Judea, but because of the risk of death the disciples expressed surprise at the suggestion. Then after he had told them plainly that Lazarus was dead, Jesus says “For your sake, I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Did Thomas think that they were to join Lazarus in death? The raising of Lazarus is in John’s gospel the sixth and final sign pointing clearly to Jesus’ own resurrection. At the very least we can see in Thomas’ statement a strong commitment to Jesus, even if the belief in resurrection was not yet formed. A belief as expressed a little later by Martha about her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”, a hope shared then by the Pharisees but not the Sadducees, a hope to be shared with all of us.
The second significant reference to Thomas is in John 14, where we find Jesus preparing his disciples for the fact that he will soon die, but in so doing will go to God the Father and prepare a place for them. Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way? To someone like Thomas with an enquiring mind he found Jesus’ enigmatic statements difficult to follow. Was Jesus going to Bethany to see how his old friend Lazarus was getting on? Or was he going to risk going right into Jerusalem where the national leaders were keen to arrest him. Or was he perhaps going to some of the dispersed Jews such as those in the great centre of learning, namely the city of Alexandria in Egypt where the Hebrew version of the Jewish Bible had been translated into the Greek language in what is known as the Septuagint Version, widely quoted from by 1st Century Jews. Jesus’ response is even more enigmatic, for he says “I am the Way”.
The third significant reference to Thomas is in our Gospel reading today. In that we are told that Thomas was not present on Easter Day when the risen Jesus appeared to the 10 apostles. Clearly though he sceptical of the reports from the 10 as he responds, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were and put my hand in his side, I will not believe it.” Here again we see the enquiring mind of Thomas, wanting good proof, hard evidence, not just secondhand reported evidence.
What is more, Jesus graciously provides all the evidence a week later. There is nothing enigmatic about this meeting and Jesus’ response. Probably Jesus already knows that Thomas is destined for a demanding role in the kingdom of God, by establishing a church in Iran and another in India. A truly apostolic role. Jesus, after his initial greeting of “Peace be with you” to all gathered there, then invites Thomas to put his finger into the mail wounds in his hands and to put his hand into Jesus wounded side. Thomas has witnessed Jesus come through locked doors, no problem if one reckons on one extra dimension for a resurrected person. Thomas doesn’t need further proof but rather, responds with the strong affirmation, “My Lord and my God”.
6. Our response. What about our response? We live in a strongly scientific world. Science and mathematics underly much of our practical life, whether in medicine or transport, building or communications. Many people like Thomas want to ask questions, and this can apply to matters of faith as well as the practicalities of daily life. The Christian faith has stood up to 2000 years of questioning. Faith is strengthened by an enquiring mind. Do not be afraid to ask questions, to read, both the scriptures and helpful books.
Maybe, like Thomas, you have had a ‘bad press’, perhaps been put down when you were young either at school or at home. Maybe compared unfavourably to a sibling. God hasn’t written you off. He can use each one of us in the work of his kingdom. Take inspiration from the way God used so-called ‘doubting Thomas’ in the foundation of an important branch of the Christian Church.
Homily for Maundy Thursday 2021
Readings: 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
Leonardo Da Vinci has a lot to answer for.
When we think of The Last Supper it is difficult not to think of that depiction.
I am sure you are right now.
Jesus and his disciples, all wearing brightly coloured and clean robes, artfully arranged along one side of a table, inside a room which looks like a palazzo, and with windows facing onto a Tuscan landscape.
The real scene, in an upper room in 1st century Jerusalem would have been, somewhat, different. The room, less palatial, the robes more workaday and travel worn. They probably sat on both sides of a more rustic table, without a thought to the poor artist. The reality would have been less posed, more incarnational, more real.
Even the title, The Last Supper, are not words that will be found in the bible or the lectionary. Only two people present that night would have had any idea that it was a last supper and not just, well, supper.
Tonight, we celebrate not The Last Supper but Maundy Thursday, Commandment Thursday, Holy Thursday, the Thursday of Mysteries, Sheer Thursday.
A Thursday of many names and many meanings which can be understood on one level at a first reading but, as we dig deeper and seek to live those meanings out, may also sustain a lifetime’s discipleship.
There is the institution of the Eucharist itself. The living Jesus giving us everyday items of bread and wine and making them into the body and blood of Christ in order to sustain the body of Christ which is his church.
Judas’ betrayal, with its themes of freewill and predestination which can cause all sorts of discussion at Lent courses.
Peter’s characteristic but, oh so relatable misunderstanding of Jesus and his subsequent headlong rush of enthusiasm.
We have the commandment to love and serve one another, demonstrated by Jesus getting down from the table and washing the feet of all the disciples, including both Judas and Peter, one of whom was about to betray him to death, the other to deny knowing him and all of whom would flee at his arrest. Jesus knew that, but still he washed their feet.
In your mind’s eye, look again at Leonardo’s Last Supper and perhaps Google it later. Feet may not be the first thing that springs to mind, but look under the table and there they are – some wearing ancient Birkenstocks and some looking bare.
The painter makes those feet look as clean and fresh as the robes but, again, the reality was somewhat different. They were probably dusty, dirty, battered and imperfect, perhaps even smelly. Their feet were as fully human and varied and weird and wonderful as our feet.
I know that some people are embarrassed about having their feet washed at this service, perhaps because they don’t want anyone to see their imperfections, their ingrowing toenails, their bunions, their verrucas, their athlete’s foot or, perhaps worst of all, their chipped nail varnish.
That is the point. We are not called to bring our perfections to Jesus for him to admire. We are called to bring before him those bits of our lives that we would rather not be seen, not just our fungal infections but the deepest imperfections of our lives, and allow him to wash us clean.
We don’t need to get our feet sandal-ready before we bring them to Jesus, rather we get ourselves service-ready by bringing the whole, messy, incarnational reality of our lives to him. As my children would say, we need to get over ourselves, get over our English reserve and let God do what needs to be done to restore his image in us.
Because when we have been washed clean by Jesus, when we know ourselves to be truly and deeply cleansed by the one who took on the sins of the whole world, then we are freed to love and serve others in his name.
Who is the Peter in your life? Who is the Judas in your life? Knowing what you know about those people, imagine washing their feet and seeing not their imperfections but seeing them as Jesus sees them, as he sees us.
Tonight is Maundy Thurday and Jesus wishes to wash our feet. Tomorrow, on Good Friday, his feet will be nailed to a cross for us and for the whole world.
Leonardo Da Vinci has a lot to answer for, by which, I mean that we shouldn’t allow his depiction of beauty make us forget the reality of the original events, because Jesus came to deal with our reality.
But, and this is where I let the artist off the hook, when Jesus is allowed to deal with our reality then he transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, the travel worn into the glowing, the incarnated into the transcended, the imperfect feet which we all have into the beautiful feet on the mountain of those who proclaim the good news, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.
Sunday 28th March 2021 – Palm Sunday
Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 11:1-11
On Thursday I had the immense privilege of being invited to speak about the Christian belief in the Messiah.
One of the things that was discussed was the fact that the Jewish people do not accept Jesus as the Messiah because they still expect that the one anointed by God to save his people will be a human, rather than a divine, saviour and that the salvation he brings would be the physical conquest of oppressors and the physical restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Against that measure Jesus simply did not measure up – in purely human terms he was a disappointing Messiah, and I think that comes across strongly in today’s Gospel reading about the entry into Jerusalem.
For two or three years prior to the entry into Jerusalem Jesus had been healing and preaching and telling people about his relationship with God the Father but now there was a sense that his ministry was reaching its goal and he was riding into the City of David to achieve something great – to do what he had come to do.
But what was his goal? Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem? The crowd thought that they knew – they spread cloaks and palm branches before the colt on which he rode and they shouted:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
They thought that this worker of miracles, who so obviously had God on his side, had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to overthrow the Roman occupiers and to re-establish the Jewish monarchy and so restore the Kingdom of Israel to its rightful place as the home of God’s chosen people. When Pilate uses the term “The King of the Jews” in the passion gospel, which we heard last week, he is not giving it the spiritual quality that we now associate with that term – he thought, and the people thought, that Jesus had come to be the earthly King of the Jews and so the crowd greeted him as a returning king and as a saviour from foreign oppression –
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
But what did Jesus himself think he was coming to do in Jerusalem? We know from earlier readings that he had a quite different understanding of what awaited him. In Mark 8 Jesus taught about what awaited him in Jerusalem and the end of his Journey:
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me Satan!” He said, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
If Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples did not understand what awaited Jesus in Jerusalem and had in mind the things of man rather than the things of God then it is hardly surprising that the crowds who lined the road into Jerusalem did not understand either.
The tone of the people at the City gate is one of triumph and great expectation – the crowd expected great things of this successor of King David. The entry into Jerusalem is like their favourite singer coming onto stage – the crowd are going to get what they want from this person.
And yet how quickly things change and how quickly the mood of the crowd changes.
Even before we get to the events of the arrest and death of Jesus I would suggest that, on a human level, even today’s reading ends of something of an anti-climax.
“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”
Jesus had passed through Bethany already that morning, as is mentioned at the start of the reading. Bethany lay a couple of miles outside the walls of Jerusalem and was the village where his friends the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. In order to go back to Bethany it is more than likely that Jesus and the disciples exited Jerusalem through the same gate that they had just entered it.
So Jesus had ridden into the city to great acclaim and to great human hope. He was greeted as a returning King. But what happened next? Did he give a stirring speech to rally the crowd? Did he promise to kick out the Romans, depose the Herodians and restore proper Jewish rule to Israel, as the Zealots wanted?
No, he went for a visit to the Temple and, because it was getting late, Jesus and the Disciples left the city the way they had come. They may have walked and ridden over the discarded palm branches left there by the crowd earlier. Some of the people who had waved those branches with such hope and enthusiasm perhaps only a few hours earlier may have watched them exit the City the way they had come in.
What must those people have thought? Was this the promised Messiah?
Within only a few days Jesus was arrested and then taken before Pilate. I have no doubt that this arrest was in part motivated by Jesus clearing the money-changers out of the Temple and thereby threatening the money and power of the Sanhedrin and the Chief Priests. But I also suspect that the crowds who had expected Jesus to start an insurrection and throw the oppressors out of Jerusalem were disappointed in Jesus. Yes, he had overturned the money changers tables but other than that he had spent his time in Jerusalem preaching in parables, answering tricky questions meant to catch him out, praying and having supper with his friends.
This was not the sort of revolution the people wanted – they wanted a true man of action – someone prepared to kill for the cause, a true man like Barabbas.
And so when Jesus is arrested how quickly the shouts of the crowd turn from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”
Which, of course, we know that they did and, on a human level, we know that Jesus died on the cross.
I find it interesting that other faiths are keen to deny that the death was real. Because if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the sacrifice for our sins wasn’t real and if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the resurrection wasn’t real and without the resurrection, as St Paul tells us, then our faith is in vain.
On a purely human level Jesus did not fulfil the expectations of the Jewish people for their messiah and, also on a purely human level, Jesus was either dead on the cross and his ministry was at an end or he somehow survived a Roman execution and snuck away quietly.
Which is why our expectation and belief in Jesus as the Messiah are not founded simply in the humanity of Jesus but also in his divinity.
Because it is only as God the Son that the death on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world makes sense, it is only as God the Son does the resurrection make sense, it is only as God the Son can Jesus ascend to take his place back at the right hand of the Father and it is only as God the Son can Jesus send the Holy Spirit to us.
We do have much in common with our Sisters and Brothers in both Judaism and Islam and I look forward to continuing to learn much more about both.
But, as I did say on Thursday, it is our belief in our nature and work of Jesus as Messiah which is our prime departure point. Jesus was not the fully human Messiah that the Jews were expecting and nor was he a prophet of God in a line of prophets ending with Mohammed. For Christians Jesus was a fully human being who died fully on the cross but he was also fully God the Son who transformed that death into new life through the resurrection and beyond.
We are now entering into Holy Week and, like today’s readings, it is a week of contrasts and emotions. It has drama, it has tragedy and, without wishing to spoil the ending too much, this time next week we will be celebrating the greatest victory of all. It is the most important story and the most important drama in human history and, amazingly, each of us is expected to play a part in that story and we have absolute freedom to choose our role, as we have also been reflecting in the Lent course.
Are we the crowd who, because of our disappointment with our own desires continue to cry “crucify him” or are we like the soldier at the foot of the cross who recognises both the humanity and the divinity of the one who hangs in front of us and proclaim in awe and wonder: “This man is really the Son of God.”?
Sunday 14 March 2021
Fourth Sunday in Lent / Mothering Sunday
Readings: Exodus 2:1-10, Luke 2:33-35
This is, tragically, our second Mothering Sunday of not being together here in the church building. That is slightly skewed by the fact that Easter is a bit earlier than it was last year. Nonetheless, when we were put into lockdown last March and, at that time, barred from being in church at all, I am sure that none of us thought, in our wildest speculations, that we would still not be here a year later. Not much longer, God willing.
I always enjoy our normal Mothering Sunday services – especially when we have the school choir sing and the uniformed organisations attend and there are lots of parents and then, of course, there is the wonderfully chaotic time of the blessed flower posies being taken around the church. It is truly a joy and I do pray that we can recapture some of that spirit next year and rebuild it into the future.
However, I am acutely conscious that service does run the risk of perpetuating or amplifying a certain image of motherhood, childhood, parenthood which may not be true for all and may even be a cause of real pain for many.
Like most of us I receive an awful lot of marketing emails from loads of companies but this year, for the first time ever, I have noticed that many of them have given the choice of opting out of Mother’s Day marketing on the basis that some may find them difficult to see.
The reality is that apple pie and posies of flowers are not a universal experience of motherhood or parenthood.
It can be a hard time for those who have lost a parent.
For those who may have had a difficult relationship with a parent.
For those who may have been abused by a parent.
For those who may have lost a child.
For those who may never have had a child.
Today we do think about the love of mothers but our readings from the bible both illustrate that it is more complex, and can be more painful, than we often like to admit.
Last week we had the ten commandments which were brought down Mount Sinai by Moses, but today we step back a little in time and hear the story of Moses’ infancy.
The story of Moses in the basket which is a story with which most of us have been familiar since childhood. It is a wonderful story of a mother’s protective love for her child but, like most of the bible stories that we learnt as children, again a bit like Noah’s ark from a few weeks ago, there is always more to the story than we may first appreciate.
The story of Moses as a child takes place in ancient Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs and there had been a substantial Hebrew community living in Egypt since the time that Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers. However, as the generations passed, Joseph was forgotten, the community of Hebrews grew and a new Pharaoh became afraid that this ethnic minority was becoming too numerous to be controlled. First he put the Hebrews into slavery and then he ordered that all male babies be killed at birth by the midwives. I did warn that it wasn’t all apple pie and posies. But it does get better because this is the point when a female conspiracy of resistance to Pharaoh’s inhuman orders kicks in. First the midwives failed to carry out the order and claimed that the Hebrew women were much stronger than Egyptian women and always had their children before the mid-wives had time to get there!
Pharaoh then ordered that all male babies be thrown into the Nile and that brings us to the starting point of this morning’s reading. Moses’ mother gave birth to him and, rather than obeying Pharaoh’s command, she hid him from the authorities for three months. However, as we know, babies have a tendency to get bigger and more noisy and thus Moses became more difficult to hide. We aren’t told precisely the conditions that these people were living in but the conditions must have been tough because eventually Moses’ mother decides that she has no option other than to put Moses into the Nile. But, as we know, she does not throw him into the Nile as Pharaoh intended; rather she put him in a waterproof basket.
I mentioned Noah’s ark a moment ago and, when God gave Noah the building instructions for the ark he said that it should be coated with pitch (Gen 6:14). When Moses’ mother made the basket for him to go in we are again told that it was coated in tar and pitch (Ex. 2:3). We could think of Moses’ basket as a mini-ark. God had saved his people from destruction through a Noah’s ark, and now he was saving them again through Moses in a mini-ark. If one wanted to take that further it also got me thinking about the ark of the covenant which housed the ten commandments, intended to save the people, Mary as the Ark of Jesus and then Christ’s body the Church as the Ark of the world. But that may be for another day.
Moses’ mother created this mini-ark, put her 3-month-old baby into it and placed it strategically amongst the reeds.
Some of the children’s books and films make it look as though Moses’ basket floated down a torrential river and was only caught up in the reeds and was found quite by chance. In fact nothing could be further from the truth and Moses’ mother was much more careful and loving than that – she placed the basket where she knew it would be found and she had her daughter watch over the basket to make sure that it was alright. How did she know it would be found? Well, Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the Nile at exactly the right place to see the basket. Now, I suspect that Pharaoh’s daughter coming to bathe in the river was not a random event but, rather, it probably happened either every morning or evening and everyone would know where and when it took place. It certainly looks to me as though Moses’ mother knew exactly what she was doing and that she meant Moses to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter.
That probably sounds like a high-risk strategy – entrusting your baby to the daughter of the person who ordered all such children to be killed. However, it seems that Moses’ mother was a good judge of character. And this the where the next level of female resistance to Pharaoh kicks in – Pharaoh’s own daughter is not fooled for a moment about the racial identity of this baby (which is a little bit topical at the moment but I am not going there) and she immediately says: “This is one of the Hebrew babies”. She would have known about her father’s orders and she could, of course, have thrown baby Moses into the river. But she didn’t and, although it was a risk, I suspect that Moses’ mother knew that she wouldn’t.
In some ways the next part of the story is even better – Moses’ older sister, who was watching over the basket the whole time remember, approaches Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to fetch a Hebrew women to wet-nurse the baby. Of course, she fetches Moses mother and Pharaoh’s daughter then pays her to nurse Moses until he is old enough to be taken into the palace. So not only has Moses’ mother saved his life with her bold plan but in one fell swoop she has gone from hiding her baby from the Egyptians to being paid by them to nurse him! A huge transformation brought about by a mother’s love for her child. This whole episode is a great story of women cleverly resisting the immoral commands of men in order to save the lives of children and to bring life out of death.
On one reading that sounds like a happy ending – Moses lived, his mother continued to care for him and was even paid so to do. But it still had its fill of pain. Moses’ real mother only wet-nursed him, possibly only for a short time, and he then went to Pharaoh’s daughter and was brought up as her son. So there was still separation and his real mother would still have had to watch her son grow up from afar – possibly only catching glimpses of him as part of the royal retinue from time to time. We don’t hear of them meeting again in a Hollywood-style slow motion and tear jerking finale. This was not apple pie and posies.
You will doubtless recognise our short Gospel reading as it is not long ago that we celebrated Jesus being presented in the temple at Candlemas and this is a part of the reading we have that day.
Although the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were unusual it appears that Mary and Joseph were doing all they could to be a normal family and to bring Jesus up fully in accordance with the Jewish laws and customs. They took Jesus to the Temple to present him to God and to make the customary sacrifices. Then they had the prophetic encounters with Simeon and Anna. Simeon declared Jesus to be the promised saviour not only of Israel but also to be a light to lighten the gentiles. Joseph and Mary marvelled at what was being said, and Simeon blessed them. So far so good. Then we have today’s words, which foreshadow that love is not without pain:
“…This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
A sword will pierce your soul.
We only have to think of Mary at the foot of the cross, as Jesus handed her over into the care of another disciple before he died, to imagine that sword piercing her soul.
We know that wasn’t the end of the story, but it must have felt like the end of the story for her.
I said last week that love for God and love for neighbour is not simply about fuzzy feelings of good will, but can be truly costly. When God in the person of Jesus Christ went to the cross he was paying the ultimate price both of God’s love for humanity and of humanity’s love for God and for neighbour. But there was other costly love there too – the costly love of a mother.
We are called to love those around us, whoever they are. But real love is not just apple pie and posies – real love brings the risk of real cost, real hurt and real pain. We can’t hide from that anymore that Moses’ mother could, Jesus’ mother could or Jesus himself could.
But we can offer our pain to God as the price we pay for being human and pray that, when we are most vulnerable, that those around us will sit with us when we need it as we would sit with them. We love one another by being able to share both our times of joy but also those times when a sword pierces our soul.