Christians must know what we do

When Jesus names himself as “The Bread of Life” in Todays Gospel  (John 6:24-35) and then later at the Last Supper takes the Passover Bread and says “This is my Body”, (Mark 14:22) it is clear that he is saying something very significant about his continuing presence with us in this way. Of course, the bread that the priest blesses is not the only way Jesus is present with us ; for he also tells us that he will be present in the sick and the poor when we help them. We know too that God is present everywhere; so that all of creation from the stars in the Universe to the tiniest flower proclaims God’s power and glory. So why then does Jesus pick out this bread in a special way?

I think that part of the answer is that God knows well what we humans are like. We are physical beings, and so we express ourselves in physical ways. We do not just say ‘Hello’ to someone we love, we give them a hug or kiss. We do not just say “Happy Birthday” to someone, we give them a Card, and maybe a Present too. We may know that these people love and care about us without these outward signs, but the outward signs, the hug or the Card, somehow express something that isn’t there in just words.

This is surely why God comes to us as the man who we know is Our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, God is always invisibly with us in any number of ways, but God knows our need for outward signs; and so deliberately chooses to make himself visible for us as a fellow human being. Jesus then takes this one step further; for when his human life with us is finished, he gives us an outward sign, the bread and wine at the Last Supper, that will always affirm what we hear him say at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. “Remember I am with you always, to the end of time.” (Matt 28:20) This marvellous gift of his special presence is something that those of us who go to Mass regularly get so used to, that if we are not careful, we begin to forget how wonderful this gift is.

What can we do then to wake ourselves up to the wonder of this gift? Last week I mentioned rather forcefully the need for the priest to help all of us with this, by the way he celebrates the Mass; but in the end we have to remember that Christ is present for us whatever the priest is like, and so it is up to each one of you to realise this wonderful presence for yourself in one way or another.

In the old days, as many of you know, Catholics were taught that we had to do certain things to indicate God’s presence in this way. We were taught to genuflect, to go down on one knee, as we came to receive, to make the sign of the cross after we received, and to go back to our seat and kneel in silent prayer when that was over. I’m always glad to see that even if people do not kneel before they come up,  worried perhaps that the person behind might fall over them, many bow just before they receive Communion, and many still make the sign of the cross afterwards. These are things that I wish all of us would do, rather than coming up as if we were queuing for a bus, and showing no outward sign that what we are doing is far more important than that.

Note, that doing such things is not just a way for us to more fully realise what we are doing and who we are meeting; we are also doing it for others. People new to churchgoing, as well as children who come to church with us, will only know how important this Presence is if we show it by some outward signs. But beware! If such outward signs become just a habit – something we do without thinking about it – then although it might help visitors, it won’t help us. Unless we accompany our outward actions by inner prayer, unless we admit that sometimes we fail to concentrate as much as we should, much of the point of these outward actions is lost.

Did you notice what St Paul said in our 2nd Reading? He was talking to fresh new enthusiastic Christians, and yet he has to say “Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth.” We too must ask God to help us with this regular renewal of the mind. We may be distracted at Mass, especially if we have little children to look after, (and being distracted happens to the Priest and not just to you) but even then deep down, we have to really KNOW what we are doing. We need to know this even in the midst of distractions, for otherwise we are in danger of becoming hypocrites, saying things with our lips whilst our hearts are somewhere else. And you know what Jesus thought of people like that, don’t you!

 

 

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A new relationship with God is called for

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-  I suppose people have always had difficulty distinguishing between a healthy materialism and one which has become thoroughly misplaced. Certainly for us in the rich West, where amassing ever more stuff is simply what we do, it is an unending problem. Yet we do not want to deride matter. Ever since the Incarnation, we know that God has made holy the very flesh of his Christ and with it our whole humanity and the things that pertain to it; yet it has always been the place in which we were prone to misconstrue our understanding of ourselves and our destiny in God.

We meet this in our Reading from Exodus (16:2-4.12-15). The Israelites had been aided by God to escape their Egyptian captivity, and en route to the Promised Land when the going gets tough all they do is complain; indeed they lament their lost captivity and the steady food supply it had given. God intervenes once more, with we note, further instructions to the escapees; he will provide meat and bread for them every day, just enough for their needs. But as the story progresses, we would find if we read on, that many with an eye to making a bob or two gather more in the hope of  presumably selling it on! Small wonder then that God is once more displeased with them; they do not live according to his decree. Indeed, the whole history of Israel is of disobedience, as Jesus tries to wean them away from their obsession with land, temple and sacrifices and rule keeping. They, like us, have become fixated on the means to redemption and set them in the place of the God revealed in Jesus.

It was probably the greatest problem our Christian ancestors had to face too. In the Letter to the Ephesians Paul had begun the letter with his great praise-song to the Father, celebrating our new redeemed life in Christ the Son who has enabled us to become ‘sharers in the mystery of God’s will’. Ephesian converts from paganism it appears had no trouble with all that. Citizens of this great Imperial city with its many cults and magnificent libraries, they knew all about wisdom and the search for the ‘spiritual life’; but when it came to lifestyle, ah well that was a problem. Paul urges them (Eph 4:17.20-24) to give up their old lives with its corrupting, illusory desires, or as the Greek has it lewdness and greediness, in favour of a wholly new mindset, that shaped after the very likeness of God in Christ.

As the smart new Imperial capital of the Roman province of Asia, Ephesus was a bustling Greco-Roman city, with all the amenities Rome had on offer from its temples, baths, theatres and facilities for blood sports. People who lived there would have been intensely upwardly mobile, aping their imperial masters, and ever with an eye to social, economic and political advancement. It was a concern which left little room for charity and the thoughtfulness towards others the Gospel required. Its port brought in items from Egypt and even as far away as India and Arabia. Moreover Augustus, in the early days of his reign, saw the usefulness of exploiting the Imperial cult in the province. (Worship of the emperors) With this in mind, he and his successors allowed and encouraged the building of cult temples by the wealthy of the cities. By the end of the first century, Pergamum the old capital boasted proudly that it was the only city in Asia to have three temples to the imperial cult, nekoros. Proud Ephesus retorted that she went one better, being fourfold nekoros! Clearly this acquisitive lifestyle belonged to entire cities as well as the men and women who inhabited them. Belonging, following the crowd, for good or ill has a very long history.

Jesus, it appears, had this problem too; (John 6:24-35) as the crowds follow him not because they desire his teaching or his divine presence, but simply as the way to an easy meal – and plenty of it, as we read in last week’s Gospel. Throughout his Gospel, John will describe the various miracles of Jesus as ‘signs’, indicators of something more, in this case pointers to his true identity, God-with-us. Significantly, the crowds ask for ‘more signs’; in their case, I suspect hoping for more material goodies, but they don’t seem to look beyond the simply material, and if they do it is only to attach him more firmly to their ideas of the longed for messiah. They hoped for someone who would lead a massive revolt against their Roman oppressors, and free them to be an independent and powerful nation. They hoped that their temple and sacrificial system would become all powerful, drawing the world to Jerusalem. The fact that Jesus had an entirely different agenda was not something they wanted to hear. The whole of Chapter 6 of John, with its lengthy ‘Bread of Life’ exposition, is Jesus’ attempt to get people to think differently, to think the way of the Incarnation, of God’s huge adventure as he reached out through the Son to a fallen humanity, and offered them an entirely different understanding of the world. We note that the crowds ask Jesus what ‘works’, material acts, they should do to inherit eternal life, to key into the ‘Food the son of Man is offering you.’ Jesus replies that they must believe ‘In the one the Father has sent.’ Now believing was about loyalty, changing ones allegiance, here accepting God as one’s super patron, and living according to his ways. But the people get it wrong again, fixated on ‘works’ acts, they insist on further ‘signs’, proof of his identity, as if the feeding of the 5,000 was not enough. Jesus speaks of himself as ‘the bread of life’, food for eternity, enduring beyond the daily meals God gave Israel through Moses. A new relationship with divinity is called for, a letting go of old, time honoured ways, focussing ones understanding beyond the merely material, following Jesus to the cross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Listening to God is challenging

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- These Readings are all about listening for the word of the Lord, and how hard that can be for most of us much of the time! We think we know the answer, we assume we know better. Greco-Roman society was intensely competitive and ever more so amongst the less well off classes. Those at the top of the tree would have been content to keep their vast wealth on display; by having the doors of their town houses open so that passers-by could see how beautiful everything was and envy them. Clients visited on a daily basis and the wealth of others would have been very much in your face. Certainly the rich would have been noted for their public benefactions, donating temples, baths, roads, even aqueducts; and of course helping their clients. But in a way it was all designed to stimulate a must-have, an upwardly mobile society, and those in the know bought into it avidly. Thinking and orientating oneself in an alternative direction would have been quite a hard call, and did not come naturally. Listening to a God who had quite a different agenda, one whose victory over death, one whose salvation of the world, was achieved by his appalling death on the cross; and who encouraged you to sacrifice your life for others as the way to ‘perfect freedom’. This was, rather like the rarefied ideas of some of the elite philosophies, pretty wacky.

In our Gospel (Mark 6:1-6) we find Jesus in hot water once again. He has returned to Galilee, to his home town of Nazareth. They had heard of his amazing ministry of healings – of the raving madman in pagan territory over the Jordan, of the woman with the 12 year flow of blood; and then of the raising from the dead of Jairus’ daughter. These were all things which for Jesus proclaim the active presence of God’s kingdom on earth, the very things Jews were longing for, yet served instead to upset the religious hard right, those who thought that such experiences of the divine must of necessity be placed in the right context. This should be in Jerusalem, under the authority of the High priest, following the strict rules of the law, and definitely NOT on the Sabbath. Moreover, everyone in the community agreed that they knew who Jesus was – or thought they did. In a strictly structured world where everyone had his place and knew it, Jesus’ extraordinary acts burst open the system, asking questions of it and the structures which maintained it. In our hopelessly off piste translation from the Jerusalem Bible, we are told they ‘Would not accept him’. Jesus responds with ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relation.” Indeed, we find that their brutal rejection means he cannot make miracles of saving grace there. His announcement of the kingdom must bypass them. According to the Greek however, we find that they are ‘scandalised’ by him, something far more significant; for this God-human will eventually be crucified at the instigation of these men and women, people wholly unwilling to accept the workings of the divine in the manner in which they were presented. God, it appears can bend over backwards in his outreach to his entire creation, but if they don’t like what they hear or see, there is little he can do,

When Paul was writing to the Christians of Corinth, (2 Cor 12:7-10) we find once again that he has to stand his ground against a pushy, know-it-all community, one which had its alleged spiritual elites, and frankly thought Paul a bit of a wash out. They lived as boasters, in their ‘If you’ve got it flaunt it’ society, ever on the make, ever on the way up. Paul responded to them by equally ‘boasting’ of all his sufferings in the cause of the Gospel. Nevertheless he claims to have had extraordinary revelations of the divine, ones which set him on his missionary path. According to the Corinthians, these should have placed him on a superior, elevated plane, above ordinary mortals; but instead, Paul claims God gave him ‘A thorn in the flesh, to stop him getting too proud.’ Shaped and moulded in the image of Christ, Paul has to learn that it is not by his own elevated status or powers that he will make converts for Christ, but by his sufferings – ‘My power is at its best in weakness.’ We are back once again to the God who saves the world by his death on the cross, not the God who could easily zap enemies and compel belief. Paul and the converts from paganism in Corinth are all on a sharp learning curve as they discover and learn to emulate the God who dies naked, despised and with his very flesh in bits. Their world and ours, which so easily follow the rich and powerful and think we can sort stuff out and win through bullying or even sweet reason, have a long way to go.

I suppose it’s left to Ezekiel to sum things up. (Ez 2:2-5) This despised, or rather scandalising, prophet speaks to a nation which believed they had worked out the right way to the defence of their state by human strategies, alliances with those they thought they could trust, in this case, the Egyptians in their revolt against their Babylonian overlords. Come the crunch of course, they were wrong. Ezekiel spoke as God’s lone voice, calling them to repentance and contrition. But God knew, as the prophet soon discovered, that this would involve him in a difficult task, a lonely and derided role. His job was to stand for the truth, regardless of whether the elite would listen or not. They would learn their lesson in exile in Babylon. For the times when we have been deaf to the truth, and have closed our minds and ears to what is right, Lord have mercy on us too. In our world, one of rampant communication, the need to listen to the quiet voices has never been more pressing. 

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.