A vision of humanity with divisions overcome

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-  In a time when Britain struggles over the nature of the terms of its exit from a long enduring treaty with much of Europe, and politicians rip each other to shreds, and when the self-professed clairvoyant Mr Trump believes he knows best, the Readings for this week speak volumes as to the personal interests and power games played by those who lead our countries. God’s way it appears is very different, devoid of all the bravado and supposedly smart deals which we make, and later discover were not to our benefit at all.

Jeremiah (23:1-6) wrote during the time of the Babylonian exile, C 587 BCE when the horrifyingly misjudged policies of king and court had seen the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem and other major cities, and the carrying off into exile of the elite of Judah. Jeremiah’s attempts to stop the folly of the king and his courtiers nearly resulted in his own death. His message to the defeated, conquered people was that they comply with the demands of their new overlords, and that ultimately God himself would deliver them, as happened under the rise of the new Persian war machine. Gone would be the smart deals, the seeking for self interest in their leaders (failed shepherds, as he calls them) and instead God would provide them with rulers of ‘Honesty and integrity’, people who could be relied upon to restore the nation rather than looking to their personal interests.

In last week’s Reading from Ephesians, we encountered Paul’s great praise-song to Christ as he considered all that that meeting between divinity and humanity had achieved. Here, in our given passage (2:13-18) he speaks of the way in which this great Saviour and Redeemer has and is achieving his purpose in us. It is one of Paul’s favourite themes. Paul knew full well of the divisiveness of human societies, most especially of the rigid divisions between Jew and Gentile; and quite clearly the newly forming Christian communities had to deal with this in all the cities where the faith took off. Jews who lived by the Torah, the Jewish law, had a host of regulations requiring them to live apart from non-Jews, not to mention their entire Old Testament history, which cast aspersions on foreigners, non-Jews, in general advocating their extermination. Clearly the ministry of Jesus had rejected such separation and negativity, as the Gospels so abundantly demonstrate, and Paul’s and indeed Peter’s work was all about the equality of Jew and Gentile. Paul especially pointed out that the Jewish law did not stop people sinning, nor did it grant salvation; this was only achieved by the death of Jesus on the cross, an act of pure self-giving which reconciled all humanity to God the Father.  Yet we know that the Early Church was bedevilled by this problem; indeed that it had caused a huge falling out between Paul and Peter and other missionaries in Antioch. Quite clearly a similar situation prevailed in Ephesus where the Jewish-Christians often separated from Gentile Christians, converts from paganism.

The point is that this bond, forged by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, was not simply some ‘nice idea’, it was fundamental to the life of the Church, the developing Christian community. For those earliest missionaries, the celebration of the Eucharist at that time in the context of a meal, was fundamental to their Christian life. It was THE MOMENT in which day by day they met the risen Lord Jesus, celebrating his presence with them by the work of the Spirit as the culmination of God’s revelation of his ways for them through Judaism, but now opened out to the entire humanity. The capacity of all Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ to eat together was what ‘made’ them the new communities of the redeemed. Indeed, so important was it that Paul insistently describes how Jesus’ death, entered into vividly at every Eucharist, is the great act which forges this new community together in an indissoluble bond. Our Jerusalem Bible translation speaks of Christ ‘Actually destroying in his own person’ the division. In Greek he uses the word sarx here translated person which means ‘flesh’ to stress the bodiliness of this transaction, as those at the agape meal would go on to share his body and blood together. Now united as a ‘Single new humanity’ we are fitted to come to the Father. For us, for Paul, few things were of such seminal significance as our God-uniting in the death of Christ, and its continual celebration; and without this unity the entire Christian project was a waste of time. Sometimes one wonders if the ‘shepherds’ of our day have understood this at all.

As an antidote to all those incidents of misguided human leadership, in our Gospel we see Jesus taking control (Mark 6:30-34) when the apostles return worn out from their mission. He sees that they are in need of rest and recreation if they are to be of use in the future. What is most significant here however is that when they are followed by crowds of needy people, Jesus neither chases them away nor suggests that the apostles just grin and bear it. Rather, he takes the situation in hand and ‘He set himself to teach them at some length.’ Indeed it was the prelude to the feeding of the five thousand! The revelation of the Messiah, the giving of the Kingdom of God it appears can come when we least expect it, or are least well prepared for it. Perhaps at the very core of good shepherding is the need to prepare the shepherds for the unexpected. At the very least we need them to be people able to think and act laterally, risk takers, and those who are prepared to go out on a limb.

 

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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.

Humanity at its best displays God’s glory

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings : – Being human we all like to measure our lives by our successes. This may be in educational achievement, business acumen, or even the production of beautiful, healthy, and we trust successful offspring. Whatever the means, we do tend to see the less able, the less gifted, or those who suffer misfortune as ‘failures’, and to be pitied or even scorned. This was also the approach of ancient peoples; those like us who liked to think that they were in control, in the know, and who derided those of a different achievement or persuasion. But God’s way is quite different, as we know from the appalling message of Jesus’ death on the cross, and even the idea that in the end it all worked out alright doesn’t cut much ice when applied to our own lives.

Yet that was God’s way right from the beginning, as the entire story of Israel demonstrates. In our Reading from Amos (7:12-15) we find the lone prophet Amos in conflict with the court prophets and the great shrine at Bethel. King and court had gone to war against Syria its neighbour, and Amos advised against it. In the end he was quite right, as this series of power struggles allowed the up and coming Assyrians of the 8th century BCE to gain power and sweep the entire area into their control, and enslave Israel / Samaria, the Northern kingdom, sacking the wealthy cities and forcing its elite to their knees. Had they but listened to Amos they could have come to terms with this powerful conqueror, and avoided all that death and disaster; but they would not, and instead followed the powerful court elites to their ruin.

It is the background to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which is so important. Ephesians (1:3-14) is a glorious piece of prose-poetry about the Christian status. But we should not imagine that Paul knocked it off in a mood of triumphalism, for that was very far from the case. Paul was in prison in Ephesus probably around 52-3 CE, partly due to the hatred of the Jews, but certainly because he had rattled the pagans in this powerful imperial city whose centre was the worship of Artemis, better known as Diana, a cult based on the fertility of nature and the huge sacrifice of animals in her temple. Acts 19 speaks of the upset Paul caused to the silver idol trade there. Whilst imprisoned, Paul received very unwelcome news from Corinth which left him depressed and anxious, feeling that his life’s work was a failure. Only gradually did he and his fellow imprisoned missionaries come to understand the power and grace of God, and it was out of this time of reflection on the life of Christ and his own life that Paul was able to write this letter to the Christians of Ephesus along with those to Philippi, Colossae, Philemon, and the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians.

The praise song that he then recites to the Ephesians is of the giving of the extraordinary intimacy between God and his followers achieved through Jesus Christ. For the world of paganism, and many of the Christians in Ephesus would have been converts from paganism, this would have been a truly mind-blowing statement. Their former relationship to the many pagan gods never involved any closeness, anything we could call intimacy. They worshiped them to keep the Greco-Roman state in order, and feared the gods and placated them by sacrifice. Here amazingly, Paul claims that God had destined his followers for this relationship achieved in Christ before the creation of the world! God, he claims, has adopted us in Christ to be his own sons, and enabled us to live pure and holy, like the Son. No longer tied as before to the vagaries and chances of this world, we are those who have cast off the slavery of mortality, and live in the knowledge of God’s purposes, sharers in and with the Son by God’s grace in all his purposes for the creation. We exist for the glory of God; we were made for this, and through Christ achieve our full and eternal destinies. ‘In Christ we were claimed as God’s own.’ In this tour de force Paul has cast off his despondency and fear and depression at his own apparent failure, and now understands his whole life and mission as a modelling on Christ, and with that understands his circumstances quite differently. The very fact that his letters survive; the story of some of the earliest Christian movements, copied and passed on endlessly, is the great evidence that he finally got it right.

Our Gospel (Mark 6:7-13) speaks to a similar situation. In it Jesus insists that his missionaries do not make great provision for their evangelistic journeys, but only take a staff, protection against wild beasts, and the means of providing shade, using their cloaks as a tent. They wear sandals to protect their feet, but don’t even take spare clothes or money. In other words, they go out not as superiors but beggars, dependant on the charity of those they will convert. They are flung on the world as physically dependant, themselves needy to preach Christ to those needy of salvation and through their own need are more able to identify and relate to those they will convert. Just as Jesus spent so much of his ministry among those in need, because of their illness or outcast status, the missioners for Christ also go out as givers and receivers, not flaunting any status; something which made both Jesus and his followers so different from the scribes and Pharisees who criticised and ultimately brought about his death. It appears that it is precisely because of their material poverty that the twelve are able to carry out their successful mission; it perhaps gives them humility and an empathy which reflects the love and grace of Christ himself. It was in his self-emptying that Jesus was most godlike. Thrown on the world, he will achieve its salvation not by power or by raising a great army to rid Palestine of invaders, but as the one stripped bare on the cross, the one who is the perfect image of the Father, the one who does his will.

 

 

 

We are called to live Eternal life now

Some people think of “eternal life” as something we hope to reach after we die; but actually we Christians believe in something rather different. You see, Jesus doesn’t just say that those who believe in him will have eternal life, as in the future; rather, it is recorded in three different places in St John’s Gospel (3:36. 5:24  and 6:47) that “whoever believes has eternal life.” Has eternal life as in the present – here and now. Indeed in the passage in Chapter 5, Jesus actually says “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me…. has passed from death to life.” Given that we all die, what does Jesus means when he says these words?

The answer surely is that when we are in union with Jesus and thus with God, we are in union with Life itself, with a capital L. As we heard in our 1st Reading (Wisdom 1:13-15,2:23-24“Death was not God’s doing. He takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. To be – for this he created all”  What we need to remember therefore is that God does not just give us life, he gives us himself, and since God is LIFE, when we are in union with him we are linked to Life itself. As St John says of Jesus at the beginning of his Gospel, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” (John 1:4) So although we all die physically, as Christians we are in some sense already in eternal life with God; we are already livened by him who is light, and so are already beyond death.

This message is shown to us by the two intertwined stories from today’s Gospel. (Mark 5:21-43) The desperate woman is too embarrassed to ask for help. We need to remember that a woman in her condition, as with a woman during her period, was regarded as unclean by the Jews; and so I guess she thought Jesus would have refused to touch her if she had asked.  Instead she touches him. She touches life itself and immediately feels its effect. For God’s power, the power of life is always there for those who need it. Jesus too knows that this touch on his clothing is different from the ordinary ways he was being touched by the crowd and he turns to find her. It’s a powerful story that reminds us that when people feel unworthy to be touched by God, they can still reach out as that woman did. As we reach out to him in desperation, as she did, then in some way he will help us.

Equally, the people who are mourning the death of the little girl are unaware that the power of life is about to come to her.  Of course this does not mean that Jesus will always bring people back to life from physical death, for as I said earlier that’s something we all must face. Instead, the story tells us that in the midst of death a different kind of life is offered to us. In some mysterious way, the dead who are one with God, are raised into Eternal life with him.

 But this oneness with God, this union with life, is as I said earlier, something that we are actually offered before we die physically. Sometimes I meet people who are so obsessed with keeping fit physically that they seem to be trying to convince themselves that they will never die. It is true that our natural human body fights to stay alive physically, but although we need to look after our physical body, since this is something God has given us, we need much more to look after our spiritual body, what we might call our spiritual being. This is why what matters most is our spiritual fitness, and this is something we develop through prayer and through what we call good works  in other words caring for others even if in the process our physical body suffers.

Just over a week ago we celebrated the feast day of St Aloysius Gonzaga. He was a 20 year old Spanish nobleman who gave up all his money and status to become a Jesuit in Rome. There in Rome he was content to care for those who were dying in the Plague, even though he risked catching the Plague and dying himself. We know that he knew this was a risk because of a letter he wrote to his mother. He writes “You shall rejoice exceedingly that God in his grace and his love for you is showing me the path to true happiness, and assuring me that I shall never lose him.” Aloysius died at midnight on June 20th 1591 with the name of Jesus on his lips.

 We may not have to face this kind of sacrifice, but if we are to be true to Jesus, and to live now the eternal life that he gives us, then we need to develop the same attitude to the care of others that St Aloysius shows us. As Jesus says about himself “The Good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  We may not achieve that level of love for others, but we must be open to it, we must remember to regularly reach out and touch Jesus, and ask him to fill us more and more with his love and his eternal life.

 

Jesus brings God’s Life to earth

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-

We have a tendency to view the miracles of Jesus individually, in isolation; but we should see them all as a whole, a demonstration of God’s great power. He is Son of God, and it would have been this that attracted people to Christianity in its early days. For us moderns who read the Gospel in distinct bits, and see each incident separately, it means we can often sentimentalise their significance –‘Wasn’t Jesus nice to respond to the woman’s need?’ Our Gospel (Mark 5:21-43) is in fact about something much greater. It is about the LIFE that is Jesus, the life that is the being of God himself and the source of all life. We see this in the two miracle stories which unfold in this Gospel. Jairus appeals to Jesus to “Save the life” of his daughter, and the nameless woman touches Jesus in the conviction that this touch will be life restoring when all else had failed. Jesus touches the young child to restore her lost life.

As St John would so graphically put it in his Prologue “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” Having become incarnate for our salvation, Jesus brings God’s life to earth, and gives his wholly life-giving spirit to those he heals. When he touches he cannot give less than the touch of the divine, the fullness of God himself. With this life-giving touch those outcast from society and the worship of Israel are once again made full members of it. The religiously ‘dead’, as well as the truly dead, are made new. We have little appreciation of the purity codes of Israel and their excluding effect on the sick, the maimed, the dead and indeed those who became contaminated by contact with them, as undoubtedly Jairus and his family would have been by handling their dead daughter; and the woman remember had suffered abuse and ostracism for 12 years, much of her adult lifetime in fact. In that touch, Jesus did far more than reach out to the excluded, he broke down barriers which had for centuries cut people off from the worship of the God of Israel. He made clear whose power and glory he reflected and bore by that simple touch. Jesus is life itself, and just as the veil of the temple rips from top to bottom at his death, so here we see God’s power manifest, clear, visible and unmistakable. Now God is no longer confined to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, but is here in the dirt and bustle of Galilee. It was never just an opportunity to be nice to the suffering or even to show forth God’s power, it was a correcting of Israel’s whole valuation of God himself, and their manner of meeting him. Small wonder then that so many in power were so upset.

Sometime between the 3rd to 2nd century BCE the writer of the Book of Wisdom (Wis 1:13-15; 2:23-24) was developing Hebrew thinking about the nature of God, and he speaks of God’s nature and his intention towards us. “Death was not God’s doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living”. To the contrary, the writer insists that “God made man imperishable”, that the powers of death, Hades, are not the end of our story since we are “Made in the image of God’s own nature”. This belief would later be reasserted and refined in the writings of St Paul, particularly in Romans, insistent as he is that we have an immortal destiny, fixed in God. This of course does not refer simply to our existence after death, but as Paul makes so abundantly clear, it is part of the here and now. You and I are designed for Life, God’s Life; for this is what Paul knows Jesus affirmed in word and deed. In our rather unfortunate selection from Wisdom, the missing verse (1:16) makes clear that human death is the result of our evil but that that is by no means God’s final word on the matter, “God did make man imperishable, he made him in the image of his own nature”.

In writing to the Christians of Corinth, (2 Cor 8:7. 9. 13-15) Paul was at pains to express the new immortal nature of the believers, and to bring home to them that their being, as a “New creation”, (2 Cor 5:17) committed them irrevocably to a new mindset, independent of the old one framed by the cut and thrust of the Corinthian hoi polloi. In the actual context of the letter he writes to remind them of their promised collection for the suffering church in Judea, which they appear about to renege upon. Nonetheless, the overall context, relevant for all of us too, is that the more outgoing we become in our lives, the more Christ-like we become, and the more we find our reward. This giving of self and possessions will not in any way reduce us, but will fill us to become vehicles expressing the life-giving nature of the Saviour himself.

 

 

 

 

A Christian view of Marriage

On August 24th this year my wife Frances and I will be celebrating 50 years of Marriage, so here are some thoughts on how God has helped us get to this point in our marriage.  

When I began to think about what is the most important Gospel truth that has supported me through this time, I found myself thinking back to my first experiences of becoming a fully believing Christian. I had been vaguely brought up as a Christian but it was all very formal and so at the age of 12 or 13 I was set on rejecting it altogether. But then a friend invited me to join a Christian Boys Club, and with them I went on a Christian Holiday, and it was there that I first encountered the wonderful message that I hope you all know only too well – that Jesus died on the cross FOR ME!  -that his death was not just a sad story of a good man killed many years ago, but was a powerful message of sacrificial love that I needed to respond to personally. I still remember the tears!

Gradually then over the years as a teenager my faith grew. It had its wobbles of course, but nonetheless by the time I went to University I was a committed Christian, and it was at a Christian event that I first met Frances. The story of how we first went out is an amusing one, but not very relevant here, though you will find it in my book. Anyway we fell in love, and in 1968 got married.

It was then that I discovered that she wasn’t an easy person to live with. I have many faults that she has to cope with, and still does, but she has a terrifying temper, and I remember sitting in bed at night with us both in tears, as I tried to persuade her to stop being angry, as I tried to reason with her. My mistake – I discovered about 30 years later – was that I was a typical man trying to produce solutions to the things that were upsetting her, and that just made her more angry. What I should have done is just listen to her, to accept her anger, to sympathise with whatever it was that really wound her up.

Then our first son was born in 1972, and I thought I would read this to you from my book.

By the time my mother died, our first son Sam had been born and we had faced the traumas of being young parents. Sam was a horrific baby who would wake two or three times per night until he was over two and would also scream for no apparent reason during the day! I remember one night when I learnt what love is really like. It was my turn to get up and try to sooth this screaming monster. Putting him over my shoulder I rocked him endlessly, walking up and down his bedroom feeling like smashing his head against the wall. In the midst of this agony some powerful words came to me that I have shared many times since. As I walked to and fro feeling like death I said grimly over and over again, “This is what love means. This is what love means!”  I often recount this story when people begin to talk about love as if it is a beautiful feeling. True love is not nice. It is often hard, and sometimes even horrid. It is an act of the will, not a feeling. We do not want to change a smelly nappy, or care for a baby in other ways in the middle of the night! We do not do it because it feels nice, we choose to do it. It is that choice which is true love, just as Jesus chose to suffer and die on the cross. Frances and I also have infinite sympathy for those who face big difficulties in their marriage at this time in their lives. Faced with all this stress, it was often difficult to “feel” good about one another, and there were times then and later when I wondered if our marriage would last. It did, I suspect, because despite many hard words said in moments of stress, both of us knew and still know, that choosing to love is more important than always feeling in love with one another”.

So the Gospel message that got me through this was the message of love. Not sentimental love that does not last, but the sacrificial love that we see in Jesus dying on the cross for us. Think of that great 15th Chapter of St John’s Gospel especially verses 12-17 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.  I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

 Some of you may have heard the sermon on love from the Royal Wedding and it was great, but my one criticism was that he did not really stress strongly enough how hard it is to really love, that true love is not a feeling but an act of will. I chose to love that screaming baby. I choose to love my wife, as she chooses to love me, even one or other of us is not happy with something the other has said or done. That is the kind of love, of sacrificial love that one needs in marriage.

My wife Frances is a biblical theologian and so when I asked her for a contribution an encouraging text from the Bible she refused. Quite rightly she pointed out that individual texts can easily be misused to prove all sorts of things. What matters is the whole thrust of Bible teaching. So instead she pointed to the great theme of journeys that we find throughout the Bible. A marriage, she said, is like one of those journeys. The journey of Abraham, the journey of the People of Israel through the desert, the journey of the disciples as they followed Jesus to the Cross, and the journey of St Paul as he tried to spread the Gospel. Each journey is a struggle, an attempt of imperfect human beings to reach their goal. That’s why the Bible, is full of human failings and human sins. Life is like that. Life can often be tough. My wife’s childhood was spent with rather difficult and not very loving parents in South Africa under apartheid. She suffered a lot as a sensitive child and she carried that with her as she grew older, and that is why this Biblical message of journeys by imperfect people speaks so vividly to her. It was that, she says, that has got her through 50 years of marriage to me!

 She goes on to write that this is nonetheless a journey towards eternity with God, where all the goodness in our humanity will be perfected and all our sins will finally be wiped away. Despite the struggles on the way, Marriage is also a foretaste of the promised land. St Paul speaks of this in Romans Chapter 8, one of our favourite texts from the Bible, Verses 18-19 read, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” And then verses 22-23 “ We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now;  and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Marriage is part of the oneness with God for which we long, and as a couple we journey towards it as people in the desert looking forward to the promised land. Marriage is not about looking back at the things that have annoyed us in one another, it is always a looking forward, always willing ourselves to love the way Jesus loves us, always calling on the real power of love, God himself, to help us on the journey. For that is the only true way forward, the way in which God working in us, draws us to the final union with him that must be the goal of every Christian.  May it be so for you.

 

 

 

 

 

God shakes our sheltered routines

Frances writes on the Reading for he Birth of John the Baptist that we celebrate next Sunday:-  Our Readings today are all about God’s breaking of the mould. For those of us set in our ways, comfortable with the routine we have set for ourselves, this can be an unsettling thing, and very distressing, just as the advent of John and then Jesus was for the Judaism of his day and its aficionados. Indeed, so upset were these authorities that ultimately they would kill both John and Jesus. Perhaps then the message of these Readings is about being prepared for change, unwelcomed as it may be in its many forms, for in it we may find our relationship with God deepening and developing.

We meet this in our Gospel, from Luke (57-66.80). What we have to remember is that Elizabeth had been barren, failing therefore to be a proper wife to Zechariah for any number of years. Then, quite unexpectedly probably in her 40’s, she becomes pregnant. Well, what a shock, not to say even an embarrassment for this Levitical priestly couple well set in their ways. Zechariah, you will recall, was struck dumb whilst serving his duty period in the Temple as a result of an angelic visitation telling him of the coming of this unlooked for child. Now it was normal, indeed de rigueur, for fathers to name sons after themselves. I suspect there would have been a long line of Zechariah’s in the line of Levitical priests who served their few weeks in the Temple each year. But Elizabeth intervenes, this in this so patriarchal society, insisting that this child be given a name never used in the family, and ‘John’ is the name backed up by her husband who then recovers his speech. This child as we see is not destined to follow in father’s footsteps into the Levitical office, but goes off and lives as a hermit in the wilderness. Those who know the story will remember that he challenged the Jerusalem based religious system by his ministry of baptism and repentance in the wilderness, and died as a result of the international scandal in which Herod cast off his lawful Nabatean wife, sending her home, and stole the wife of his brother Philip. John clearly criticised this action and paid the price. There is a tremendous amount of change packed into our small Gospel passage.

We meet this pattern of change again in our Reading from Acts (13:22-26). Paul is busy expounding the Davidic line of descent of Jesus to a synagogue audience in Pisidian Antioch, so it is early in his mission which includes Gentiles, converts from paganism, Godfearers sympathetic to Judaism who will also become followers of Christ. Indeed, we have met this earlier in Acts with his mission to Cyprus and the conversion of the Governor Sergius Paulus, who then helps them get into Turkey where we take up our Reading. What we don’t quite pick up on is the fact that this mission has in fact been facilitated by a wave of persecution in Judaea which drove the apostolic missions elsewhere. During this time of strife Herod had executed James the brother of John, and Peter had miraculously escaped from prison. After the death of Herod, Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem before being sent out to Cyprus and the Turkish mainland, and the point of our Reading from Acts. Paul takes this opportunity to demonstrate to the synagogue audience in Antioch that God can take situations of apparent disaster and use them for the spreading of the Gospel of his Christ. Within that message was Paul’s revolutionary announcement that Christ was the only saviour and redeemer, and that God’s grace and mercy reached out to all people, not simply to Jews. His Christ has in fact broken the mould, taken the faith out beyond the narrow confines of separatist Judaism which abhorred and shunned foreigners, insisting on a law-free entry into the love of God made possible only by the sacrifice of Jesus for every human being. This is why Paul has John the Baptist make his startling proclamation,  ‘I am not the one you imagine me to be; that one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal.’ The one that John, and in his turn Paul, proclaim is the true image of the One, true God, the one who is the radical and revolutionary culmination of all Jewish hope in God.

The writers of Second Isaiah (49:1-6) writing from exile under the Babylonians in the 6th   century BCE were to produce writings of searing beauty from their time of exile, among them the powerful Servant Songs we use in Holy Week. They did not however simply see this as a time for lament or even nostalgia, but used it positively, indeed as a great evangelistic opportunity. The Babylonian policy was to shift large numbers of its foreign captives from all over its huge conquests to different parts to work for the regime. This meant that prisoners from as far away as western Turkey might end up in Palestine and vice versa. Some were sent to Babylon itself, and its literate members worked in their great buildings and places of culture. What we term the Jewish diaspora stemmed from this vast deportation of people. Isaiah and the writers of this time saw this positively; the deportees had a role as evangelists in the remote islands of the Aegean and elsewhere. Those who were about to give up and embrace the gods of the pagans amongst whom they found themselves were given a task – to take the Jewish faith to their foreign neighbours. Indeed their task as seen by the prophet is filled with huge potential, ‘I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’  Perhaps therefore when we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist we should remember not just his semi-miraculous birth, or the wonderful meeting between Elizabeth and Mary, or even his mission of baptism and his sticky and gruesome end. but be open as he was to change, ever able to see the difficulties which mess up our cosy existences as opportunities, gifts from God, invitations to do his work.