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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Really listening to God

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Last week we began Lent with Readings designed not to tell us off and sort us out, but to remind us who precisely is in control of events – God; and we saw how the Jesus of Mark is at one with the creation he made, and redeems as he undergoes temptation in the wilderness. Those unfamiliar with our Reading of this part of the Abraham sagas, (Genesis 22:1-2.9-13.15-18) may well come away with the ‘Didn’t he do well’ approach towards Abraham; suggestive of the idea that his wise behaviour and choices, even his virtue, won the day; but this is not the case. Once we have read our way through the stories of the father of the Israelite nation, I think we can all agree that a much more human and fallible picture of the patriarch appears.

True, Abram responds to God’s call and leaves his ancestral home in Ur down in the Persian Gulf and eventually discovers the one sole God and discards his ancestral deities. Yet the stories of his dealings with those around him on this long journey are far from rosy. Under pressure from the more powerful, he not once but twice fobs off Sarah his wife onto unsuspecting rulers as ’my sister’, and therefore an object of barter. He will take a concubine to rear a son when his wife appears barren; and then cracks under pressure and sends both mother and child off to die in the wilderness. Nor should we forget the unfortunate trip to Sodom and its catastrophic ending. All in all, Abraham appears to be someone who does listen to God sometimes and respond, but who frequently fails through fear and the desire for self preservation. Abraham is not super man, he is you and me, and like him we all need to learn to listen more rather than doing our own thing.

My guess is that the present story, the ‘sacrifice of Isaac’ tale comes from a time when human sacrifice was still quite common in Israel. Certainly 1 Kings 16:34 speaks of the ruler of Jericho sacrificing two sons, Abiram and Segub under the walls and gateway of his newly reconstructed city. This story, of divine intervention and the provision of the ram as a substitute may be a folk memory of that distinctive shift as Israel turned from human to animal sacrifice at times of significant need. The Abraham stories then are not so much accounts of historical events as etiological tales showing how the people moved away from one form of religious practice to another. It marks a point in the saga in which Abraham did stop and listen to God, and began to understand something deeper than previously about his relationship to divinity. Abraham was learning something quite different from the concept of the God-man understanding of the nations around him and from which he came, based in fear and submission; in which one surrendered what was most dear. He was learning about the gift of life which comes precisely from God and is infinitely precious. It was to be the precursor of a much deeper relationship on which Israel was to journey, one we recognise in the coming of God the Son amongst us. In the 3rd century CE, Origen, a great Christian writer, would reflect powerfully on the analogy of Isaac and Christ – Isaac of course who receives at God’s hands a last minute reprieve, and Christ who does not. Isaac, who carries the wood for the sacrifice as Christ carried his cross, and the questioning by the son of the father suggestive of the temptation Christ underwent. Origen would also see the ram as a type of Christ, as innocent, it was substituted for the sins of the human race. One might stretch the analogy further, with its implicit rejection of animal sacrifice and of the whole temple sacrificial system, by reflecting how in Mark’s Passion the veil of the temple is ripped from top to bottom at the death of Jesus. God and man are now no longer divided, kept apart, but at last, face to face.

We see some of this beginning to be etched out in our portion of the Gospel (Mark 9:2-10) and the account of the Transfiguration. On the mountain Jesus appears along with Moses giver of the law, and Elijah the foremost of the prophets. And Jesus appears in dazzling glory. The disciples are terrified, and immediately rush to ‘do’ things according to old ways, such as suggesting building places of memorial. Whatever the experience was, it robbed them of their normal understanding of the Jesus they had known and followed for so long. What they finally hear after all this dithering is the divine voice. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ This was precisely what they should have been doing all along! It is when we focus that we perceive, and when we are overwhelmed by other things we so easily loose our way. Immediately after this experience Mark has Jesus give his instruction that they were not to tell anyone of this event until he had risen from the dead, and shortly later he gives the second of his Passion Predictions at 9:31. The first was at 8:31 and the final will be at 10:34. What Mark makes horribly clear is that the disciples do not listen on any of those occasions! Perhaps if there is anything we need to draw from today’s Readings it is this message; that we stop and listen rather than rushing in and going our own way.

This seems to be precisely what Paul is writing about in Romans (8:31-34). Romans 8 is perhaps one of Paul’s most compelling pieces of prose as he recognises the hopelessness of the human case without God. We simply cannot do without the grace and redemption brought about by Christ; we cannot make our own salvation. He begins this section of the letter with his great anguished cry: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’ Paul ultimately realises that we have to rely entirely upon Christ’s redemptive work as Son of God. He is the one who can restore and recreate our lost innocence, taking us to the Father, making us fit for the divine presence. What we need to do is listen and trust in him who died and rose for us, and stands before the Father pleading for us.

Always an unexpected person with whom to share God’s love

Most of us have to face nights when we cannot sleep, because of pain or worry of some kind. Like Job in our 1st Reading (Job 7:1-7) we toss and turn wondering “When will it be day?” I usually sleep well, so when it happens to me I find it very difficult, and if I discover it is about 4 in the morning and I am still awake, then I will give up trying to sleep, and get up and make myself a cup of tea and sit somewhere and put myself into the hands of God.

I wonder if this is what happened to Jesus in our Gospel today? (Mark 1:29-39) He had had a busy day praying with the sick and the suffering, and all was going well; but he knew that his task was not to be successful but to challenge the world with his Gospel message. He knew too that this would end up with his own death, just as had happened to his cousin John the Baptist. So he gets up early, and goes somewhere away from the house to pray, and that’s where the disciples find him. I wonder if his prayer was like his prayer on the night he was arrested, when he agonised about his future with God.

Some people question how Jesus can be God and yet pray to God. They fail to realise that when we Christians talk about God, although we may use language that implies that God is some kind of person in one place, we know that actually God is a power beyond our understanding who can be present in all and every place at the same time. So God can be fully in Jesus, and yet also everywhere else. That’s why, if we are true to the teaching of Jesus, we must live out the Gospel message everywhere. Our love cannot be confined just to our family and friends but must be shared as widely as possible.  

The disciples are small minded men without Jesus’ vision. They have seen his success healing people in the village, and so they want to take him back there, presumably so that they can bask in his glory. But Jesus knows that he has to move on, that he cannot just stay put in one place. So he says “Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’  Later on, the risen Jesus actually says explicitly, does he not. (Matt 28:19-20) Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

This command to go to all the nations is there throughout his teaching. Remember the story in St Luke’s Gospel (4:24-30) when we hear how he went to his home place of worship, and when they praised him he immediately challenged them with a reminder of how God worked powerfully amongst foreigners way back in the time of Elijah and Elisha. They were so offended by this reminder that they then tried to kill him!

It’s always easier for us to speak to people we know, or people from a similar background to us, rather than to strangers ; but as Christians that is what we are supposed to do. As Christians, we must never limit ourselves just to places and people we feel comfortable with. St Paul in our 2nd Reading today (1 Cor 9:16-23) actually says that he only receives the blessings of the Gospel by sharing it. If we keep our faith to ourselves, if we share our love and care only with those we know, then we have failed to follow Jesus; for he told us, as you know, to love our enemies, even those who persecute and hate us. (Matt 5:43-44)

We do not have to travel to foreign countries to do this, but if that is God’s calling then that is what we must do. One of the Catholic Churches in Oxford is run by two Nigerian priests who have felt the call to come and re-convert those who live in England, where so many people are slipping away from the faith. But even in the place where we live, we can find plenty of people we might not think of as people to share the Gospel with. Let me give you an example from the Immigration Detention Centre where I say a Sunday Mass on a Monday. Here I might well encourage the men to think of the Officers, the Staff, as people they otherwise might easily forget. As officials we might well forget that they too are human beings,  children of God, and they too may well be struggling with some problem. A kind word and an offer to pray for them may be just what they need.

Remember Zacchaeus the hated tax-collector up the tree? Only Jesus looked up and did not just see him, but called him down and thus changed his life. Whatever our situation we must never neglect the stranger who might be right under our noses, because that is what Jesus wants us to do