Ordinary people are the best missionaries

When Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel today (Mark 6:7-13) not even to take spare clothes when they go out to try to share the faith with others, he is clearly not meaning them, or us, to take him literally. He exaggerates in order to press home an important point, just as when he says “If your hand offends.. cut it off.” He doesn’t mean it literally. So what is the important point he is making? 

The answer lies in a mistake many good people like you make in thinking that you aren’t clever enough, or well-trained enough, to share your faith with others. Too often I hear good Christians saying how they can never think of the right words to say, or that they don’t know enough, to be able to share their faith, and so they don’t attempt it. It reminds me of schools that think they are doing a good job at making young people into practising Christians if they teach them all about the Bible and the facts about the faith. In each case the mistake is to think that being a Christian is all about knowing enough facts. Now of course I’m not saying that facts are not important, but facts alone will never bring anyone to faith, because faith is about a relationship with God, with Jesus.

That’s why priests like me, and teachers, people who know a lot of facts, are not the best missionaries. We are good at teaching people more about the faith once they have started coming to church, or have started to be interested in Jesus, but you the ordinary people of the Church are much better at sharing the faith simply because you are just ordinary people. That’s why I always say to you to look out for that moment when someone asks you why you go to Church. When that happens it’s easy to play down your faith, precisely because you fear they may start asking you questions that you don’t know the answer to. Jesus often says “Do not be afraid” and in this context this means that you must not be afraid to show up your ignorance, and thus miss the opportunity to say. “I can’t explain much, but would you like to come with me to Church just to see what happens?”

Part of the reason this invitation to Church is so important is because we must no longer assume here in the UK that most people know what happens in Church, and especially what happens at a Catholic Mass. The power of the presence of God in a group of Christians singing and praying together is so much more effective than words or facts. The mystery of God’s special presence in the bread and wine is even more powerful, and we must never underestimate it. Getting people just to come and see is one of the most important things each one of you can do.

Our Gospel passage is backed up today by our 1st Reading, where Amos (7:12-15) actually glories in the fact that he is an ordinary shepherd and not a professional prophet. Indeed we all know only too well that it is often the professional – the priest – who puts people off going to Church. Quite often I meet people who tell me that Father So and So said this or did that 20 or 30 years ago and that they were so angry that they haven’t been to Church since. Your example of coming to Church to pray and to offer yourself to God despite the failings of us priests is the best way of all of teaching people that faith does not rely on the quality or otherwise of the man at the front. 

The message for us all today is also rammed home by our 2nd Reading (Eph 1:3-10) Listen to it, and apply it to yourself. “Before the world was made, God chose me, chose me in Christ… to praise the glory of his grace… He has let me know the mystery of his purpose.. that he would bring everything together under Christ. And it is in him that I was claimed as God’s own…chosen to be for his greater glory, part of the people who would put their hopes in Christ…  this brings freedom for those whom God has taken for his own, to make his glory praised.”

So Jesus wants his missionaries, that’s all of you, not to rely on outward supports for your work as Christians, but simply to rely on God’s power, God’s grace, in other words God the Holy Spirit, working in you. Don’t underestimate yourself. Your simple words of encouragement, your sympathetic listening, your little acts of kindness, your invitation for someone to come with you to Church, or even to come with you to light a candle in church quietly, these are all things through which God can and does work.  We priests have a job to do to support you, but you are the front line troops. That’s why Mass always ends with the word “Go”. It does not mean “Go away”. It means Go and live out in your life what you have proclaimed here, and God will work within you.

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A power that defeats evil and sin

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-  Many years ago, when I become a convert to Catholicism I was in conversation with the wife of the then Anglican bishop of Oxford. Her somewhat dour response to my news was, ‘We had one in the family once, and she turned out much nicer.’ Well, all I can say is that God has a much bigger project in mind, no less than the transformation of the entire creation, making us of his being and likeness, ‘much nicer’ simply will not do.

In our Gospel, Mark (3:20-35) we get a real flavour of the total transformation Jesus speaks of when confronted with the reaction of the scribes from Jerusalem to his healing, Kingdom message. Feeling very threatened by his ministry, they suggest that his healing powers come from the devil. Jesus responds that it is impossible for evil to do good; it would be contrary to the nature of evil. Now, as in the time of Jesus and at the time when Mark was delivering his astonishing Gospel of Jesus in Rome in the mid 60’s CE, people were bedevilled by evils, distress which beset them from high to low.

Rome in the 60’s was a city living under the increasing paranoia of Nero who murdered his mother and executed numerous aristocrats fearing threats to his throne. He also persecuted Christians, killing among others Paul and Peter. In 62CE there was a violent earthquake in the Campagna, the Naples area, which caused immense damage and many deaths. It was but a prelude to the eruption of Vesuvius in August 79 CE which wiped out the cities south of the volcano. Wealthy Romans all had holiday homes on the Bay of Naples, including the imperial family, so would have been seriously affected by their loss. The port of Puteoli, important for grain imports to Rome would also have been seriously damaged. In 68, with Nero’s assassination, Civil War broke out and factions of the different claimants to the throne ripped each other apart in the cities of Italy. In Palestine another vicious civil war and revolt against Rome smashed the Near East to bits until Titus and his father Vespasian finally gained supremacy. The world must have looked much like Syria does today as death and chaos reigned, and that didn’t even take into consideration ordinary daily events like early death, disease, famine and the personal problems suffered by so many.

Mark brings Jesus’ promise of a power which can fight all this sin, evil, decay and collapse to a people desperate for change, for hope in his story of the ‘Strong man’.  Jesus, is the ‘strong man’, the one whose intimate relationship with the one true God promises to make all things new, a great act of recreation. The hearers in Rome knew that Jesus had been a Jew and lived and died in Palestine, but the final part of our Gospel has Jesus make clear that ‘Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.’ Christianity was showing that it was capable of crossing not merely great seas, but the boundaries which separated the different races, making one new family of God out of them all, and promising them Kingdom life, life beyond the fragility of this mortal one, and not subject to its collapse and terrors.

Our Reading from Genesis (3:9-15) shows how enduring the human quest for answers to the fragility of existence has always been. We should not be beguiled into any search of the Near East for any fabled ‘Garden of Eden’, nor hope to find fossilised fig leaves; for this story is an allegory, a way of asking how come all this appalling tragedy and collapse which eternally haunts not merely human beings but the whole of creation? In it what we meet is our human capacity to row and to push blame onto others, on husbands, wives and even serpents; and we have an insight into the unquietness of creation which in one way or another haunts the entire creation. What the allegory points to is a longing for stability and certainty, a deep desire that things be other than they are, which we call God. Significantly, Genesis continues its tale of collapse with tale after tale of the double dealings of Adam’s descendants, and quite simply it never gets better, they (we) seem doomed to disaster after disaster. Genesis sets the scene for a divine redeemer, one who can set creation on the right track and achieve for it what we are incapable of doing on our own.

By the time St Paul wrote 2 Corinthians (4:13-5:1) around 56 CE, he had been in prison in Ephesus for some time. This prison letter, along with those to Philemon, Colossae, Philippi and Ephesus, are all part of that time of both deep despair and reflection on the purposes of God for us. It is out of this time of great suffering that Paul has come to place all his reliance upon Jesus, and the glorious future he and he alone can give us in God. It is when we place all our faith and trust in God, in our eternal future with him, that we can understand the problems of the present time, indeed, see them as the pathway to a very different future. Following in the footsteps of the suffering messiah he can say, ‘Yes, the troubles which are soon over, though they weigh little, train us for the carrying of the weight of eternal glory which is out of all proportion to them.

Most of us today probably don’t take to this kind of approach very easily. we have been taught to think that we control our own destinies, and especially in the wealthy west, think we can chuck money at things to fix them. Actually this is not the case, as we know from our illnesses, ageing problems, and the other disasters in human relationships which afflict us all. But we still cling on to the idea that we can sort it all out. Paul and his colleagues, who lived in a world as they believed it, ‘beset by demons’, knew life to be infinitely more fragile, and were persuaded to place all their hope in the one true God who has an eternal destiny for all of us. We could learn a great deal from our forefathers in the faith.

 

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.

 

 

 

Christians are part of the Vine

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings:- Those of us who sadly do not live in wine-producing areas may find this weeks ‘I am the true vine’ problematical. (John 15:1-8) How very different life is for all those with a vine in the backyard and vine leaves, and of course wine, regularly included in cookery. However, I hope you will recall that I remarked last week on how radical and challenging each of those statements by Jesus were. The vine and wine feature frequently as part of the very identity of Israel and Jewish people, so his appropriation of it would have been noted and been challenging. It all began very early in their national identity, with the spies sent by Joshua returning from the Promised Land with a bunch of grapes. Clearly when Jesus proclaimed himself, using the divine ‘I am’ term as true vine, he was usurping all that national iconography and identification of Israel bound up in land, law and temple and made it redundant, as he focussed it on himself as Saviour. By the time John came to write about Jesus in Ephesus however, I suspect the significance of these images had moved significantly, especially as he wrote after the fall of the Jewish nation in 70 CE and was working largely with city dwelling converts from paganism to Christianity. John’s harsh views on Judaism and its leadership are plain to see throughout his Gospel, so we need to delve a little deeper to understand this saying within its context in the Province of Asia.

As Jesus remarks that his Father is the vinedresser, indeed, the pruner of the vines, cutting away dead wood and forcing healthy branches to bear even more, I suggest that he was seeing all this in terms of a picture of the Christian community tightly bound together, and that the vine stood for the intimacies of the patronage system. It had now become a metaphor for the relationship which was critical to ancient life, and therefore central also to the imagery of Christian communities. Patronage was a central feature of Greco-Roman society; those at the top of the political, economic and social tree would have had many clients, who looked to him for protection, jobs, financial support, and legal aid and so on. As all such great men in the towns and cities of the Mediterranean owned many slaves and regularly freed some of them, setting them up in businesses, shipping, building, import and export, and the like, so they would have had widespread interests. Clients would have been very careful to pay patrons the correct attention each morning, and form part of the entourage of the elite, voting for them in the city elections and generally solicitous for them as supporters; even on occasions forming part of their small armies of thugs, and this regardless of whether they were freed or born free but dependant. Such ‘fathers’ had colossal clout in the ancient world, and of course there was a trickle down emulation, as freedmen owned their slaves and behaved in a similar manner, as did others of the less well off but free.

This is why I think John’s Jesus says ‘Make your home in me as I make mine in you.’ This passage is redolent with the word ‘remain’, it is even more apparent in the Greek than in our text. The other critical word is ‘bear’ as in bear fruit. Now all this speaks volumes of a tight knit relationship, one like the patron-client relationship, which the client severed at his peril. Indeed it was social and economic suicide to do so. John takes a common understanding of how society works, and develops it through the intricacies of the vine/vinedresser/branches imagery to press home the nature of the church, the Christian community. Christianity was of course a relatively new faith and organization in the Eastern Mediterranean, and John has to labour to keep his churches loyal and working together. Whereas pagan clubs and guilds were relatively loose groupings of people, for burial purposes, or particular trades; the Church needed to stress and develop a strong and lively sense of identity if they were to survive and grow; becoming the evangelistic communities we know they did. Significantly patrons dispensed largesse, ‘grace’ (charis) and clients responded by giving their unfailing ‘loyalty’ (pistis). We meet it time and again in ancient letters. John took sayings of Jesus to develop and foster that sense of the community and its absolute interdependence, ones which brooked no fracturing or despising.

In order to facilitate this process we see in the Johannine Letters (1 Jn 3:18-24) how this sense of group solidarity needed to reach out into the actual lives of adherents to the faith.  John stresses that belief in Jesus is not just about an idea, like the Greek philosophies current in places like Ephesus, a great centre of pagan learning. Our faith must be enacted in our daily behaviour, in our relationships to and with others, in the way we structure our lives, making them models of Christ. Our text opts for a very modern word ‘conscience’ to do this, but the Greek has the word ‘hearts’. It is an interesting contrast between the mind thing – so very Greek – and the active thing, what we do as our hearts pump blood through our veins and enable us to live at all. John, like the earlier Paul, would have been all too aware of the difficulties converts from a moral-free paganism experienced, as they learned to live as followers of Christ.  His Gospel is the one in which Jesus commands believers to ‘love’ one another, (13:34) and what a minefield of misunderstanding that could embrace! Developing the correct appreciation of precisely how the convert lives in God and God lives in him would be and remains still the work of a lifetime, but it was something John hung onto. The believer is truly one with God the Father, owing him absolute obedience and honour, the process however can be a very rickety affair, and is a measure of the Father’s creative genius and toleration, something that penetrates and shapes our lives. Our Reading from Acts (9:26-31) is a brief but very telling insight into the growth of the Christian community and its capacity to forgive even persecutors and murderers within the community, as people like Paul take on a new life in Christ. It still has the power to carry that resounding message of divine forgiveness and change, and it is something we who live in such a blame culture could do well to ponder upon.

Look for little bits of heaven on earth

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I am intrigued how these Readings all seem to connect the crucifixion of Jesus with ‘sin’. Now one of the major problems with our understanding of this lies in the fact that today we personalise sin, and have done so since at least Reformation times. This means that every wrong action of mine carries an enormous weight and responsibility for the death of Jesus, and goes a long way to explaining the enormous guilt complexes that religion has fostered in so many. Yet if we look at the context of our Readings, and most especially understand them within their original Jewish and Greco-Roman framework, we may get a better picture of what was going on. It is after all rather a big assumption to think that my puny sins, anger, irritation with family and neighbours etc are actually the cause of the death of God the Son.

Our Reading from Acts (3:13-15.17-19) is part of the account of Peter and John’s confrontation with Jews in the temple in Jerusalem, after they had healed a cripple in the name of Jesus. Peter makes his apologia for Jesus, defending his name from those who killed him because they saw him as a threat to the Jewish law, and because he was not the kind of Messiah they were prepared to accept. Peter recognises that they did what they did out of ignorance, and insists that Jesus has been raised to new life, ‘glorified’ quite precisely by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the great ancestors of the race. What therefore he is claiming is that the Jewish authorities, as so frequently happened in their history, had misread and denied their own faith and its teachings as they had become enmeshed in a rigid following of rules, and as the Old Testament all too frequently pointed out, had deserted their God for others. It is this corporate failure to follow their own teaching which appears to be the ‘sin’ of which they must repent and strike out in a new direction. This surely was what Jesus himself had been dealing with all along, as he offended law-righteous Pharisees and temple authorities, whose rigorism cut so many off from the faith.

This does not mean of course that there are not individual acts of evil which are unacceptable, like murder; but the writer of 1 John (2:1-5) was dealing with a much more corporate world than ours, one where people lived cheek by jowl alongside each other in the fetid atmosphere of most Greco-Roman cities. He was writing for Christians who were largely converts from paganism and, like St Paul, was all too aware of the difficulties of living the Christian life as former pagans surrounded by the pagans with whom they lived so closely. These would have been family members, business partners, traders on the streets, and some of course were themselves slaves owing allegiance to their masters and at his beck and call, or were freedmen and women still tied to former owners. All of this placed restrictions on the freedom of choice such Christians had. Invited by your former owner to a banquet, you would not be free to pick and choose your food, or the amount of wine or the company you dined with. As members of the entourage of such important men, you would go to the Games and be expected to ‘enjoy’ gladiatorial fights. Precisely how did such converts form part of the new community made in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus? Surely John is talking about something far more important than the odd trip to a brothel, when he writes of Christ as ‘Our advocate with the Father….who takes our sins away….and the whole world’s’. I think John, and he surely was ‘the Beloved Disciple’, the one who best understood Jesus, is thinking of the new creation, the new world, the new communities striving to live in Christ amidst the tumult of pagan cities where Christianity came into being. The forging of that new mindset, of which we are heirs, was something much bigger than the odd personal slip up, though there is no doubt that they accumulate and ultimately wrong-foot a whole society.

This is why in our Gospel from Luke (24:35-48) we find the risen Jesus with the disciples and read : ‘He opened their minds to understand the scriptures’. Jesus takes them through their and Israel’s story of redemption, the correct one and not the one stuck with the will for murderous possession and battles over chunks of land in the Near East, or the minutiae of rule-following which somehow was perceived to ‘make’ one holy. The real story was, as it always had been, of the people and their faithfulness – or failures therein to God. Since these new communities of the resurrection were to become peoples who changed the world, by the quality of their lives together as they lived out the story of the resurrection in daily life all over the Roman Empire and beyond, we see Jesus focus not on some impossible feat but on the mundane. In his risen body he invites the disciples to examine his own body, ‘Touch me and see for yourselves; a ghost has no flesh and bones as you can see I have’. To further enforce their realization of his bodily reality he asks for a piece of fish and eats it in their sight.  The point is not simply to convince them of his having returned to life from the dead but also to get them to understand that the Kingdom of God on earth, given in his self offering, is brought into being not by magic but by the quality of their lives together. To be ‘other Christ’s’ to the world was and remains being able to change the world for the better as parents, doctors, teachers and facilitators of others. We today who live with the hell on earth that is Syria and so many other places are uniquely placed to live out the resurrection, be that Muslims who help their Christian neighbours returning to the Nineveh Plains of Iraq to rebuild their churches, or those who selflessly risk their lives to rescue others, or those who do simple things like creating a garden in a wasteland – little bits of heaven on earth.

God is with us in death

We humans are a mixed bag aren’t we? But the one thing we have in common is that every one of us will die. Now as soon as I mention the word “death”, some people will shudder and wish I wouldn’t talk about it. I suppose this is because we humans have the ability to imagine all sorts of things, and death can conjure up any number of deep fears and worries. I guess this is because we are story makers. We cannot help using the past and imagining the future to think about what we are, and what life is all about; and though that can include us imagining great happiness, it can also include the kind of darkness and pain that most of us don’t want to think about at all.

What we need to realise is that God understands our very natural fear of death, and we know this because he chooses not just to come into this world as Jesus, born like us, but also chooses to die in one of the most horrible and painful ways possible. As St Paul says “Nothing…. not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38)  So we need to remember that however much Jesus was God, he was also a human being like us on every way; and so although he is like us who in our faith know we will meet God beyond death, he also is like us in our very human fears about what death brings. We know this of course from that time when he prays in the Garden before his arrest, when he tells God the Father of his terror, and yet knows that this is the way he must go.

Next Sunday we will hear St Mark’s version of this story of the suffering and death of Jesus, what we call his Passion, and it is a very grim story. The Church does not let us forget this. It makes us read the whole long story. We have to stand and face it as it goes on and on, much much longer than the ordinary Gospels. We are also asked to kneel for a moment when we come to the point in the story when he actually dies, and we end it before the story of the Resurrection that follows.

Sadly, there are some Christians who think we are wrong to do this, who even think it wrong to have a figure of Jesus dying on the cross up on our walls. They say this because they think we are getting stuck gloomily thinking about the death of Jesus whilst forgetting the great message that he has defeated death. Thus they argue that a plain cross without a dying figure on it is only image allowed to avoid this obsession with death.

Our answer must be that we always look at Jesus dying on the cross through the eyes of St John, because, as we hear in our Gospel today, (John 12:20-33) for St John, although he gives us Easter stories later in his Gospel, the cross IS the moment of glory. So today we heard Jesus saying that his glory is shown “As a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies” and later,“When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw each and every person to myself.’ Let’s remember at this point that St John is the only disciple who has the courage actually to stand at the foot of the cross. He stands there with Our Lady the mother of Jesus, and watches Jesus die. He faces up to the death of his beloved friend and Lord in a way that the other disciples could not face, for in their fear they had run away to hide.

This then is what St John wants us to do. He wants us to see the glory of God, the love of God, in the midst of the suffering, and most of all at the moment of his death. He wants us to understand the great message from the Old Testament that God wants to enter into the deepest corners of our heart, into the very place where our greatest and darkest fears lie hidden. We heard this in our 1st Reading. (Jeremiah 31:31-34) “Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts. Then I will be their God and they shall be my people.” 

Read St John’s story of the death of  Jesus and you see Jesus showing that love, that is the love of God, even in the moment of agony just before he dies. He looks down at John and Our Lady and gives them to one another, and then he utters a great cry and dies. That great cry is often translated as “It is finished”, but sometimes as “It is accomplished” because it is a cry of triumph not of despair. It is finished means that the work of God’s love has been completed. Finished like we would say in triumph when we had to face something really hard to do, and could finally sigh with satisfaction when it was complete. It reminds me of those great words from the Bible, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race” (2Timothy 4:7)

Those are words I would like to say as I die, knowing that as I die Jesus is with me, to the end of time.

God loves us so much

I was being driven home after a Funeral in all that snow just over a week ago, and the young funeral director asked me a question. “Could you explain why Catholics have a figure of a man tortured to death on a cross at the centre of their churches?” He was a young man in his 30’s – a father with children. I wonder what your answer would have been. This was mine.

Occasionally we hear on the News a story of a parent – a mother or a father – risking their life to save their child. They save the child, but die in the attempt. Ever afterwards that incident is remembered by the family as a day of utter sadness at the death of the mother or father, and yet of great joy that the child was saved. That’s how we think of that day when Jesus died on the cross. “Ah” he said “I see what you mean.” Of course, he could have gone on to ask me how the death of one man two thousand years ago saved anyone, but we’d arrived home and so I was never required to answer that much more difficult question.

We heard familiar words from Jesus in our Gospel today (John 3:14-21) “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” We may take that for granted, but how would you explain it to someone else? I always start, as I do at funerals, by reminding people that we Christians do not think we get to eternal life with God automatically. Strictly speaking our imperfections, our failures to be fully the great work of art that God intended, mean that we are destined only for death : the artist who realises the painting has gone wrong, simply throws it on the fire and starts again. But we also believe that God loves us and wants to draw us into his love, into eternal life in him, despite our failings.

In the last few weeks, we have heard a number of examples from the Bible of how God has shown his love : the rainbow for Noah – the lamb to replace his son for Abraham – the great commandments of love given to Moses : and today (2 Chron 36:14-23) the bringing home of the people from exile. But these, and other examples of God’s love, are only pale images compared to the fullness of love that God finally shows to us in Jesus. In Jesus, God does not simply show us his love, but gives himself in love to us in a way beyond words. He comes to us as a fellow human being, as Jesus, and then he dies for us on the cross.

Now although there is no doubt that a man called Jesus preached a message of love 2000 years ago and was killed on a cross, the fact that this was God giving us his love is something that cannot be proved. It is something that we can choose to believe in or not, and sadly some people will choose not to believe that God has acted in this way. I’ve heard true atheists say quite accurately, “When I die, I die, and that’s the end.”, and I respect them for their honesty ; but most human beings want to believe that the love we experience in life, the love of our mother for us when we were children, the love we have experienced from family and friends, is not destroyed by death. It is a belief that in some way the power of love – what we call “God” – can save all that is good within us from eternal death. That is what we believe God does for us through the life and most of all the death of Jesus, and that is why we have in our churches a symbol of a horrid death, that is for us a sign of God’s saving love.

This is what we heard in our 2nd Reading today (Eph 2:4-10) We have no right to eternal life with God. Eternal life is simply given to us by God, and why? Because he loves us, because we are his “Work of art”; and he does not want us to be thrown away. God wants to wash away all our failings to love, and to take all that is good within us, all the love we have received and the love we have been able to give, and to remake it into that perfect work of art that he always intended us to be. This loving action by God is so wonderful that we give it a special name. We call it “Grace”. And what does God ask of us in return? Simply that we trust in his love. And the word we use for that is “Faith” .

 Listen again to the end of that 2nd Reading: “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it.”

Thanks be to God.