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How the Trinity encourages play

This Bank Holiday Weekend many people have been out having fun with their family, but what has this got to do with God the Holy Trinity? Our 1st Reading today (Deut 4:32-40) seems far removed from having fun. Here God is an immense power present everywhere “in heaven above as on earth beneath” – a God that should make us tremble! Our Gospel is even more challenging, as Jesus on the mountain – a symbol of God in all his glory and mystery – tells us to go “and make disciples of all nations.” And then, as if that wasn’t hard enough, he makes it even more difficult by telling us that we are to baptise people, not simply in the name of Jesus, but in a God who is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – a God who thus possesses this more than difficult concept of being so great, so beyond our understanding, that he can be both one and three at the same time! No chance of linking that God to fun time with the family.

 It is St Paul in our 2nd Reading (Romans 8:14-17) who helps me today, because he tells us that this God of power and might and mystery has come into us – into the heart of all that we are – as the Holy Spirit given to us by Jesus; and there, within us, he teaches us what Jesus first taught. He teaches us to call this God, that is so far beyond us, by a very familiar name. He tells us to call God “Daddy” – “Abba” in the original language of Jesus.

Now the thing about Daddies (or Dads) is that they love to do trivial things with their children. To kick a ball around, to play hide and seek, to put them on a bouncy castle, or to take them for rides on all kinds of mechanical objects – at fairgrounds or on my favourite fun time – steam trains!  Of course parents (not just fathers) are also deeply interested and concerned about other more serious things in their children’s lives – like school and exams and their future. But the parent who does not play with his or her child, the parent who does not do fun things with them, has missed out on a vital part of what it means to love their child.

So if the God, who is the immense power behind the Universe is also Daddy, then he is a God who’s interested in every aspect of our lives, not just the serious bits. He doesn’t want us to waste our lives on triviality, but he has made us, and indeed many other animals, as creatures who love to play. Indeed psychologists tell us that play is a vital part of a child’s development. It is crucial to what we are as human beings, and if this is so, which it clearly is, then play is an essential part of the design of the Creator. No wonder Jesus teaches us to call God Daddy.

It’s worth remembering at this point that the fact that Jesus taught this idea of God is one of the things that led to his execution. The religious establishment of his day were shocked rigid by this man who could speak about God in such a familiar way. And that is why St Paul links this teaching, to call God Father, to the massively significant idea that we are  all called to join with Jesus, to become one with Jesus, as children of God. There’s that word “children” again!  And beyond that, it is only by accepting that we are children of God, that we can inherit God’s glory – “sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory” – as St Paul puts it.

Now I am sure you realise that I am not suggesting that the whole of life ought to be one mad round of trivial pursuits, but we all know that we need such things to help us stay sane in this mad bad old world. God wants us to have fun because it is good for us, and helps us to be better human beings. Indeed in the Immigration Centre the other week I made a breakthrough with one group of men by playing Table tennis with them!  It was great fun even though my old knees found it a bit hard!

So when we pray, we need to be very careful not to limit our sharing of ourselves with God to the serious and solemn things, as if he is only interested in them. People often worry that when they pray their mind wanders off into all sorts of trivial things. But I always tell people not to worry too much about this, because God is interested in the things that concern us – the small things of life as well as the big momentous things.  This is precisely why we Christians know God as Trinity, because God is both immensely distant, far beyond us, and yet close within us as Holy Spirit, and beside us as Jesus our friend.

So there we are then! You might have thought that Holiday Weekends and God in Trinity had nothing to do with one another. I hope I’ve shown you today, that whatever you do to have fun, God has actually willed that such fun is part of what he has created us for!

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Called to be one with God in Trinity

Frances writes on the Readings for Trinity Sunday:- These Readings seem to trace their way from an ancient Jewish understanding of God through to the Christian and Trinitarian revelation. We begin with a Reading from Deuteronomy (4:32-34.39-40). Now ostensibly we and those ancient Jews encounter Moses, but in fact this is nothing of the kind. The Book of Deuteronomy dates from the reign of Josiah in the late 7th century BCE, when the patriarch had probably been dead for over 400 years. But it was common in earlier times to tag important works on to an earlier prophet to give it depth and credibility. The reformist King Josiah claimed to have ‘found’ this important document in the Temple at a time when the faith of Israel was in the doldrums and needed a thoroughgoing shake-up, a time for regrouping and return to the old ways which had fallen into abeyance. So this work obviously used earlier material and the temple priests, working for this reform of the faith, developed that material to restore what was necessary. And appeal to earlier times they did, with references to much earlier manifestations of the divine in fire, and that most significant of all formative experiences, the Exodus, the escape from Egypt, the journey through the wilderness and the giving of the Jewish law on Sinai. Josiah’s God was one who rewarded rule-following and punished dissent. A God to be feared and obeyed lest terrors overtake the nation. The fact that this document appeared shortly before Josiah’s untimely death at Carchemish, and the nation’s ultimate fall to Babylon in 587 BCE should not go without notice – Jews of the time certainly got the message!

But the Judeo-Christian understanding of God is light years away from this primitive reward-punishment understanding of the divine. No one reading Deuteronomy could ever have conceived of calling God ‘Abba’, ‘Daddy’ as Jesus did, and the thought that we relate to divinity in the way Jesus laid open would have been incomprehensible. In our Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) we meet Jesus risen from the dead and significantly, and unlike the other Gospels, quite deliberately abandoning Jerusalem as a lost cause for a return to Galilee. Galilee was the heartland of Jesus’ earthly mission, dubiously up-country to the ultra-right in Jerusalem, and the place he felt most at home. Our Gospels portray Galilee as of dubious orthodoxy, an area where those in authority in Jerusalem sent spies to check on Jesus, and didn’t like what they found. Matthew’s Gospel finds Jesus in bitter conflict with Jerusalem and its valuations of the divine-human relationship, and is redolent with his and Matthew’s lament over the failure of his project to take Judaism to its final flowering in the life of its Messiah, who would smash open its old ideas of the enormity of the divide between God and humanity. So it is far from the rule bound holy city that Jesus gives his power and authority to the eleven disciples. It is what he confers upon them that is so extraordinary, claiming ‘All authority in heaven and on earth’, he sends the disciples out to all the nations instructing them to baptise them ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ This means that Jesus claims an authority quite different from that of Jerusalem. It is God’s authority, for he immediately commissions the disciples to baptise, or claim for God, in the name of Father, Son and Spirit – God in three persons – three joined and equal and co-operating entities wholly united in their outreach to a fallen humanity. No longer for Jews set apart from the rest of defiled and defiling humanity, but now reaching out to every human; the work of their joint creation in an outreach that knows no bounds and has no ties with the old God of the law and rule breaking or following. Jesus simply commissions his disciples to teach the faithful to observe his commands, ones which have so little to do with Judaism and its food and other boundaries which separated them from the nations. Now the follower of Jesus, who promises to be continually present to his faithful in his Eucharist, as we ‘do this in anamnesis’ of him, have a wholly different relationship with God, one of intimacy, union, and the care which is the life of the Trinity, what God is.

St Paul here in Romans (8:14-17) is probably the best exponent of what this means. No longer are we outsiders to the inner life of God, but, beyond our wildest imaginings, included in the Triune relationship by grace, by the gift of the Spirit, which of course is Christ’s gift of himself to the world. He makes clear that that old understanding, the one expounded in Deuteronomy making us slaves of God, is finished. Then, we were entirely under his control and, as everyone in the ancient world knew, slaves were disposable items, merely used for a time until worn out and frequently the butt of the master’s ill will. Now, by the union won for us by the life, death and resurrection of God the Son, we have been adopted as sons into the Triune relationship. We have now become children of God, and even more significantly, since we can never be God the Son, we have become God’s heirs as adopted children. In the ancient world, many families, especially rich ones without living offspring, adopted sons from other families to carry on their powerful name and inherit and in turn pass on their property and responsibilities to society. Here, in sharing divinity with us, we too share not only in the sufferings of Christ on earth as Christians, but share his glory eternally with Father and Spirit. Truly, if this is God’s celebration day, it is by their grace ours too.

Discover the Holy Spirit at work in you

Most of us have moments in our lives when we long for God’s Holy Spirit to take some action, when we feel that if God exists at all, he is far away from our daily and fairly dull life. So we listen to that dramatic story of the Holy Spirit coming in power to the disciples on that first Pentecost, (Acts 2:1-11) simply as something that happens to other people, never to us. Half the problem is that we are looking for God in the wrong place. So let me tell you a story to illustrate this.

It is an ancient story of a widow whose son died suddenly and tragically leaving her all alone in the world. In her grief she lost her faith in God, and yet longed for God to help her in her misery. Finally she went up in the hills near her village to seek the advice of a holy man who lived there – or maybe it was a holy woman.  She told her story and there was a long silence, and then she was told, “Go back down into your village and bring me back a mustard seed from a house where there has been no tragedy, then I will show you how to find God.”  

So the woman went back down to her village and decided to call at the house of the richest people in the village. “Surely this is where I will find my mustard seed?” she thought. At their door she explained that she was seeking a house where there had been no tragedy. The people in the house were sad to have to tell her that they too had faced grief and sadness, and they invited her in. They shared their story and she shared hers, but of course she could not get the required mustard seed from them. So she moved on to other houses in the village, and found to her surprise that each of them had a tragedy or a sadness to share, and was glad to have someone to share it with, someone who understood sadness because she was going through it too. Nowhere could she find a house without tragedy from which she could gain her mustard seed.

Finally, the woman returned to her holy adviser to tell her that she could not bring her a mustard seed, and was now so busy helping other people that she had no more time to search for a house without some sad story to tell. “So now you have found God” her adviser said; and she realised that indeed she had found God, when she was not looking for him.

A friend of mine quoted a Christian author called L R Knost on Facebook the other day. I had never heard of her before, but liked what she wrote. “Get up off your knees…. When are we finally going to realise that humanity is the solution to inhumanity?… Don’t just pray for someone to do something. Be someone who does something. Don’t just pray for answers. Be the answer.”

I am not suggesting here that we are all going to be the kind of humans who change the world the way that the disciples did. Of course we may be. So many of the great saints began their work by some small action. Mother Teresa just took pity on one poor dying person on the streets of Calcutta. and ended up founding a community of sisters serving the poor all over the world. Later in her life she confessed that often she lost her first experience of God’s presence, but just carried on loving as best she could, believing that God was working within her, as he was, even though she could not feel that presence.

All of us need to realise that. We are God’s people whether we feel his presence or not. That is why the Holy Spirit is often described as being like the air we breathe. Most of the time we breathe in an out without noticing that we are doing it, yet if we did not breathe like that we would die. The doctors tell us that the more we exercise, the more healthy we become, not least because such things expand our lungs and we then take in more air more easily. By the way, we do this very easily both physically and spiritually when we sing, so do attempt to sing whatever you think your voice sounds like, because it is good for the soul and the body!

This is surely the message of Pentecost too. Gradually, very gradually, the presence of the risen Lord Jesus was transforming those frightened and grief-stricken men and women in ways that would astonish them and those around them.  Later on in the story of these early Christians that we read of in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of the reaction of some of the important people in Jerusalem. It reads (Acts 4:13) “When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realised that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed”

Now don’t worry. I am not saying that we should all go out preaching in the streets as they did, but I am suggesting that we can all do little things for God, and in doing them discover his power and his love just as that widow did in the story. We can do it while we are out shopping.  Speak to the person at the checkout, ask them how their day is going. And we can do it in church too.  I am amazed how often I meet people who tell me they have given up going to Mass because nobody speaks to them. I know of someone who moans like this not just about church but about life. “Nobody speaks to me, nobody visits me.” My suggestion is a simple one. Do you speak to them? Make the first move. Speak to them and they will speak to you. And at work, or at school, or in retirement, or in your spare time, find something, maybe some small thing, to do for others, and in doing so you will discover God’s Holy Spirit at work in your life.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Amen

Our failure to fully live out Pentecost

Frances writes on next Sundays’s Feast of Pentecost:- Pentecost was one of the great Jewish festivals, celebrating the wheat harvest, and therefore critical for life in a world where the majority lived on bread. It followed on 50 days after Passover, being the link between the Exodus and the great covenant with God at Sinai and the giving of the law. Jerusalem would once again have been full of pilgrims celebrating their commitment to a time of justice and righteousness, or obedience to God. We must therefore try to imagine the impact of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon those early Jewish-Christians and their followers, as they became aware of God’s great final act of self-revelation through Jesus. (Acts 2:1-11). Read in Greek it becomes clearer that this divine revelation comes at the end of the festival, thereby definitively setting God’s seal on the whole series of events and, as Luke presents it.

Most people in the Eastern Mediterranean and into the Middle East at this time spoke and even wrote in some form of Aramaic, and had done for over a millennia. Those in the major cities spoke Greek. What is significant about the Spirit’s giving of the gift of languages to the apostles which enabled them to communicate with Jewish pilgrims from the many far flung parts of the Roman Empire and even beyond would appear to be the sense of courtesy, the graciousness of God’s method of communication. The individual language or dialect of a place serves to mark you off from others; indeed, there can be times when communications can be quite difficult. I guess that Jews from Mesopotamia, descendants of those taken into exile by the Babylonians in the 6th Century BCE may not have found any great fluidity in speaking to those of Italy or the uplands of Cappadocia though no doubt they all made efforts. Moreover, their different accents, dress and style might well have marked out some as inferior. Those of the Greco-Roman Empire were notoriously snobby to those considered ‘barbarian’. What this particular gift of the Spirit ensured, and made very clear, was the equality of all the recipients. None were marked out as different or inferior, and any traveller knows precisely the joy and relief when we meet up with someone with whom we can communicate effortlessly. Luke, who wrote his Gospel and Acts for his patron, a rich and powerful convert from paganism, who knew a thing or two about class division and status, would immediately have picked up the innuendoes here.

Certainly by the time Paul was writing to his convert Christian congregations in Corinth around 54CE, he too wanted to stress this sense of oneness, solidarity under Christ. (1Cor 12:3-7.12-13) Corinthians were notoriously divisive as Paul discovered. Some following his version of Jesus, others that of Peter, and yet others that of Apollos. He was horrified and with good reason, for it seemed as though the faith was to become divided and divisive, with different groups shaping Jesus after their own tastes and for their own needs. He reminds them of the wholeness of the human body, in which all the different parts working together form a whole, eyes, hands, feet etc, each playing their appropriate part for the benefit of the whole organism, and so it is with the Christian message.

No doubt this is why in our Gospel (Luke 20:19-23) Jesus is shown identifying himself by the marks of his wounds – a vivid even livid reminder of the central fact of the Christian faith. Jesus, God the Son, died by crucifixion to restore the entire humanity to its proper relationship with the Father. Once we forget this, we easily begin to make Christ after our own image, nicely domesticating him or reducing him to some supernatural figure, devoid of reality and incapable of suffering. It was something the early church had to work to press home, as we see in Paul’s correspondence. Only when he is identified in this way does Jesus breathe the Holy Spirit, his Spirit and abiding presence, upon the disciples with their power to forgive or retain sin. In other words, we all know precisely who we are worshipping and what his purposes for us are, we, like the apostles are not free to go off and do our own thing. Perhaps, if anything, Pentecost serves to remind us of the scandal of Christian disunity and what that implies. We cannot say we did not know or had not been told, and we modern Christians, like those of ancient Corinth live in the shadow of our constant failure to live out the message of Pentecost.

 

 

 

To be fully human we must be spiritual

I sometimes despair of people who make fun of Christians because they think that we think that when we go to heaven we end up sitting on a cloud with God. St Paul had this problem too, with some of the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 15:35-55) who thought like this. He even called them fools, and then went to great lengths to explain the difference between a “physical body” and a “spiritual body”. He says quite clearly that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” and that “we will all be changed”. (vv 50-51)

It’s essential that we get this into our heads, if we are to understand the teaching of Jesus, and above  all the last appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples, the event we call “The Ascension”. Until then, and for a special reason, the risen Jesus appeared to them in a way that is physical, that they can see and touch; although even then his physical risen body is not quite the same as it was, for he appears and disappears which is something our physical bodies cannot do. But at the Ascension, he tells them that they will not see him like this anymore, but instead that he will be with them in and through the invisible presence of God, that is in and through God the Holy Spirit.

Down the ages people have again and again misunderstood this, and so great preachers have had to explain it. In the 5th Century St Augustine said “He did not leave heaven when he came to us, nor did he leave us when he went up again into heaven.”  Thus we see that the phrase “Jesus ascended into heaven” means that he is no longer with us physically in one place, but that he is present with us spiritually wherever we are. This is so important, isn’t it?  He appeared in his Risen Body to the disciples, so that their fear and grief that he had died horribly on the cross, could be transformed into a new courage and joy, that through him death had been defeated. But the risen Jesus cannot be stuck in one place where the disciples are. He has to leave them in one place and time, in order to be present for us, for all human beings, in every place and time; and that’s why he says to them “You will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria”; and then comes the crucial bit “And indeed to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:1-11)

St Paul expands on this in his Letter to the Ephesians (4:1-13) “The one who rose higher than all the heavens to fill all things is none other than the one who descended.”  And he goes on to draw out the implications of the presence of the risen and ascended Jesus for us, by speaking of the various gifts that Christians will receive to “build up the body of Christ.” The Body of Christ here means all Christian people throughout the ages working together to bring the glory of God more fully into the world, and into the hearts and minds of all who are open to receiving it.

That is our calling now, to do the work of Jesus, to make clear to all who will listen that we humans are more than just physical bodies; that to be fully human we all need to realise that we are spiritual beings too; and that deepening and widening our spiritual being is an essential part of the process that makes us more human and thus one with God. In other words, in and through Jesus, we are called both to bring heaven to earth in every way we can, and also to know that, in the end, our relationship with Jesus now will bring us beyond the death of our physical bodies into a union with God that is eternal. Or as St Paul puts it “In this way we are all to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself.” (Eph 4:1-13)

This is why prayer must most of all be an opening of ourselves to God. It means listening to God, allowing God to work in and through us, rather than just telling God what we want. Of course he wants us to share all our worries and troubles with him, but not that by some magic everything can be put right. Rather we pray like this to open up to God even the darkest and most difficult areas of our life. God has given us freedom, and therefore he will not invade our inner being unless we let him in. He cannot be more fully with us and in us unless we invite him to be, and it; is as we invite him into our troubles that we learn new ways of coping with them, often in ways that are far beyond what we could ever have imagined.

Being spiritual does not mean being wafted into some other world where everything is beauty and joy, rather it’s about having the courage and strength to find and give beauty and joy to others, even in our darkest places. It was that vision that inspired those disciples, that transformed them from people of fear and grief into people of courage and joy, even though they knew that their path after this would be a hard one.

The end of the Gospel of Mark does not have an explicit description of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but it’s clear that the Holy Spirit was at work even as the risen Jesus left them to be more present everywhere .   And so Mark writes, “They, going out, preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the signs that accompanied it.” May we follow their example and be given the courage and joy to live out our Christian life in his service whatever troubles we may face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Church is an altered reality

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I suspect that most of us reading either John’s Gospel (17:11-19) or his Letters (1 Jn 4:11-16) read them with little appreciation of their original impact. We, totally mistakenly, read them in sentimental terms. They are about that much abused word ‘love’, either saccharine or sex and we completely miss the authors point.

I would like us to think for a moment of the world in which John lived and worked, a Greco-Roman world, a world in which sex was very much ‘in your face’, seen in statuary, vessels for eating and drinking, frescoes on the house walls, lamps and not least in the portrayal of the gods. You met it on every street, in the temples, people’s houses, at the baths, in the forum and markets. It was inescapable; you were literally bludgeoned with sex. John, in writing, does not use the Greek word ‘eros’ in his writing about the Christian life, but rather ‘agape’ suggestive of a caring, a solicitude for the other and attention to their needs, in this kind of loving sentiment itself could be completely suspended. It was much more about putting yourself in the place of the other, responding to their needs, like the Good Samaritan, who knew nothing of the man he rescued. As John lived in a very class and status conscious society, where rank made an enormous difference to how you lived, how others treated you and your position under the law, one can begin to imagine the true significance of his statement ‘My dear people, since God has loved us so much, we too should love one another.’ Faith in Jesus required that at very least; within the Christian community one put aside the divisions of class and status. St Paul’s Corinthian Letters demonstrate precisely just what a tall order this was, even at the Eucharist. Yet John reminds his hearers that it is precisely in their relationships one to another that their understanding of their salvation in Christ is made manifest, and not in some esoteric beliefs.

Greco-Romans frequently resorted to exotic cult beliefs and their demands. For soldiers there was the cult of Mithras, in which the adherents worked their way up through a number of levels, often with strict rules of behaviour and a moral code, until they became superior to others. At the heart of the cult was the slaying by Mithras of a great bull, so clearly this was a pretty macho thing. At a very different level, the Cult of Isis, which required careful disciplining of life, was more popular. Isis was a goddess with many concerns, from childbirth to sailing, and her priests were all castrated as a sign of their purity and commitment. Both cults were the product of mythologies about the universe and the following of strange eastern gods. Christianity was different in that it spoke of a human being, Jesus, Son of God and fully of us, whose self offering for humanity reached out to draw an entire world into the very life of God himself. None of the other cults did this.

John 17, of which we read a small part is seen as the great prayer of Jesus to his Father shortly before his Passion, and it is redolent with imagery of the relationship between Father and Son, one of knowing, acceptance and care; and filled with Jesus’ utter conviction that we, his followers, are to be incorporated into his and his Father’s shared life. Significantly, Jesus speaks of how this valuation of things alters reality, alters his and inevitably our whole perception of the world in which we live, they lived. ‘I say these things to share my joy with them to the full. I passed your word on to them and the world hated them, because they belong to the world no more than I belong to the world. ‘ Clearly these were not just nicely phrased words, beautiful rhetoric, but indicative of the newly found life to be lived out in the real world by converts who now found themselves curiously estranged from the world they knew so well. Ultimately this new reality would embrace almsgiving to the poor (rather than those whose patron one was and over whom they exercised such power). It would become a world in which the super rich built hospitals, schools and monasteries to include the poor; it would include those who died for their witness to the faith, emulating Jesus, and something unheard of in paganism. Ultimately, the tiny house churches would become vast basilicas, dominating the landscapes and able to call the faithful to prayer and a sharing of Christ’s body and blood.

We begin to see something of the first tentative development of this altered reality in our Reading from Acts (1:15-17.20-26), in which the community met to choose a replacement for Judas. In ancient times, common men did not have any say in the government of their society. In the Roman Empire at this period, the Emperors were the members of the Julio-Claudian line, and later would be chosen by Emperors to succeed them. Governors of provinces were those who had often had high ranking army careers, or were from the Roman elite; and even local magistrates needed money and would have come from leading families in the area. In Acts by contrast, we see the apostolic community casting lots to choose from a number of suitable men, significantly, ‘Someone who was with us right from the time when John was baptising until the day when he (Jesus) was taken up from us.’ What was required therefore was a person fully cognisant with the real life and ministry of Jesus, that and no more. There was no talk of his class, his abilities or other things; they relied on the guidance of the Spirit in casting their votes.  They were part of a new world, a new vision of the God-Human relationship and above all, they had to live it out day by day, moment by moment, as we do too.

 

Homily on God in us

When we hear the word “love” in the Bible, we must always remember that in the original Greek there are three words for love. In English we only have the one word love, and so it is easy to get muddled by confusing one kind of love with another. Now the love that we have in two of our Readings today (1 John 4:7-10 and John 15:9-17) is not just the caring love (caritas in Greek) that we hope and pray all human beings should have for one another, although sadly they don’t; nor is it the physical love a man might feel for a woman (eros). No, the love St John is writing about is perhaps best expressed in English by the word “friendship”. (agape in Greek)

What’s more, we also need to note that when Jesus says “Remain in my love”, it is just after he has said that he is the Vine and we are the branches. He is showing us very powerfully in that image that we are not just called to be followers of Jesus, but to be as close to him, as much a part of him, as a branch is to the plant it is springing from. It is easy, you see, to think that Jesus just loves us in a vague caring kind of way. We can easily think of God as a rather stern though kindly father looking down on us as if we were little children that he was patting on the head before leaving us to play. I remember once having to do that at a school, handing out prizes to children whom I didn’t know and would never see again. They were very happy and grateful, but there was no more to our relationship than that. I certainly couldn’t have called them my friends.

Jesus makes it absolutely clear in our Gospel today that he has come to bring us a love that is very different from what we might expect from a power that is so much greater than we are. He offers us a love that is those of equals, those who know one another well, who are not just servants but friends. But then he goes further, for the love he offers is that of a friend for whom he is prepared to “lay down his life.”  That is a rare kind of friendship indeed, and that is what he offers us, that is what he challenges us to live out in our lives.

But even the word “offer” here is not quite accurate, and to explain that we need to go back to that image of the Vine. We tend to think that the love and the joy and the grace that God gives us, in and through Jesus, is simply like a great gift that he hands over to us. Here is some love. Here is some joy. Here is some grace. Now use it well. But you see the love and joy and grace that God gives us are not simply gifts, they are part of what God is. As we will hear when we continue to read John’s 1st letter next week “God is love, and those who love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16)

When this true sacrificial friendship love is in us, then it is no longer God giving us something from outside, it is God working inside us. The sap that rises in the Vine, right from its roots until it reaches the branches and bears flowers and then fruit, is not separate from its source but is a continual stream of life. It is why it is often better to describe such love from God as God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us. God in us and us in God.

In the world of the Bible that kind of friendship was very rare, and it is not that different today. In those days, and often today although it is perhaps more hidden, rich people were your patrons. You looked up to them, you put your “faith” in them; and in return they gave you their support, helping you with money or food, or helping you get a job or to grow your business. It was not a relationship of equals. Jesus, and the Church he founded, the Church to which we belong as Christians, had a totally view of what human life should be like. They challenged this view of life which has some at the top and some lower down, and presented instead a vision of a world, a kingdom, where all were equal, all were family, all were friends. So when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come”, we are not simply praying for a future glory with God in his kingdom after we die; we are also praying that our world now may follow the way of our King Jesus, that our world now may become a kingdom where all are prepared to lay down their lives for one another.

In our 1st Reading (Acts 10:25-48) we heard one example of the change that made to St Peter and his fellow disciples. He was a Jew, of course, and Jews did not visit the houses of non-Jews, certainly not of the hated Romans. So when Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius, this powerful Roman soldier goes out to meet him, and kneels before him. He does not expect a Jew to treat him like an equal.  But Peter says, “Stand up… I am only a man” and then he goes on “I have now come to realise that God does not have favourites”; and although we have not heard it in this Reading, he goes into this foreigner’s house and eats with him.

Thus the teaching of Jesus, the love of Jesus, God’s gift of himself as Holy Spirit, has already begun to affect the way people treat one another. Here is a world where all are joined in a friendship, that ignores the differences that so often can exist between us humans. Here is a love that breaks down the barriers, and begins to create a new kind of world, a world that is a little sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God.