25 March 2018
The passage from Isaiah (50: 4-7), clearly reads as though it is from a prophet. He is one who knows what God wants to say to the people, and even though his words may be unwelcomed by those he addresses, he nevertheless puts up with the opposition of the crowd and follows his calling to listen to the voice of God and deliver the message to the people; their reaction may well bring him opposition, verbal or even physical. This passage, like a considerable amount of the Bible (Old Testament) would be quite familiar to the Jews at the time of Christ and in the early church. It is noticeable, for example, that in the Gospel written by Mark (probably the earliest Gospel) there are echoes and sometimes references to and quotations from his Scriptures. This Old Testament reading may well have been in mind as he wrote about the difficulties encountered by Christ in the account of the passion which we hear in the Gospel today.
In the second reading (Philippians 2: 6-11) Paul quotes from an early hymn about Christ. It forcefully and poetically attempts to express the ‘unbelievable condescension’ of God becoming human – one of us. It uses the Greek word for “to empty” (kenoein) which appears only five times in the New Testament and only here of God, of His act in Christ in person emptying Himself – from His divine nature – into our humanity becoming the man Jesus Christ This is a selflessness that we would emulate if we were utterly devoted to becoming saints. The adjective ‘kenotic’ and the noun ‘kenosis’ have now entered the English language and they are used to try and express this ‘emptying’ of Christ without denying His Divinity as well as being used about the implications of this for Christian living and spirituality. The poem we have in Philippians goes on to tell of the elevation that balances this, after Christ has undergone death – the details of which we hear in the passion account in the long Gospel reading that follows.
The passion in Mark’s Gospel came to be written somewhat like this. After His earthly life, those who were ‘followers of the Way’ (later called Christians), acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, Son of God and Saviour. This belief arose from knowing His unique personality before and after His crucifixion, and from the impact He made upon their lives. But they had to find ways to put it into narrative for later generations using what they had experienced or heard of, namely all the significant events that led up to His departure from our world to be present in it in a new way. We have no record of precisely how they did this over the period of the first two decades or so. But then Mark incorporated their traditions, some oral and some already put into writing, into his gospel. So this narrative of the Good News culminates with the last three chapters of Mark’s gospel of which we read the first two today (chapters 14 and 15). Mark tries to make sense of the fact that Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy by the religious leaders and was executed as a criminal by the secular power for claiming to be a king; both authorities were worried about the reaction of the crowd and the disturbance of the status quo; and Mark also wants to admit how Jesus’ friends betrayed, denied and abandoned Him – save for a few faithful women; and how some taunted him, but a Roman centurion seemed to recognise him as son of God. We should not read it as an historical account so much as a powerful message to us about the enormous love of God for us and the selfishness, weakness and sinfulness of ourselves – a powerful homily!
18th March 2018
In last week’s first reading from the history book called Chronicles mention was made of the prophet Jeremiah; in our reading this week from that prophet (Jeremiah 31:31-34), we have the only explicit mention in the Old Testament of the New Covenant – a new pact of God with and for humanity in relationship with God, though Ezekiel expresses a very similar idea (11:19 || 36:26). The pattern of much of the history of the people descended from Abraham repeats again and again: God makes a covenant, – a promise, a command or an arrangement with conditions, and the people default on their obligation – are unfaithful, or just forgetful; disasters beset the people, usually trouble from neighbouring states; yet God renews His contract with them again and again. The prophets have the difficult and thankless job of encouraging and lifting the spirits of the people again and again, as well as berating their inadequate response to God. At the time of Jeremiah the ‘top’ people have been captured and taken into Babylon in exile; they feel quite depressed and let down by God, so there is need for a message of a new beginning. We realise this when, year by year, we go through the attempt to renew or refresh and re-invigorate our commitment to God in Christ during Lent and with the celebrations of Easter. It seems it is no different from the times of the Old Testament – yet, with the strength from Jesus Christ, a fellow human being of ours, we can – let us affirm we will! The responsorial psalm (from Psalm 51) is quite appropriate to these sentiments, it is sometimes called the ‘miserere’ from the first word of the Latin version (numbered psalm 50 there).
In the book of Hebrews, (Heb 5:7-9), the author is trying to express the ‘new’ situation that the Christians are in; and trying to do it in the language that they would understand. They might well be converts from the Jewish religion, perhaps living in Egypt and in the context of a culture and a view of life influenced by Greek thought and civilisation. Because of the literary style and intricate thought system, it would be best suited to well-educated Christians, knowledgeable of the Old testament and presently living their faith without much difficulty. In the last decades of the first century it presents the new and unique priesthood of Christ: a man with the appropriate priestly qualities, i.e. he can represent others (all other humans) since He became one of us, he has an empathy with the troubles and difficulties of being a good human (a righteous person) in an unsympathetic environment for he was tempted and had his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, and he has been appointed by God Who says to His disciples (and that includes us), “this is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”
The gospel reading is John 12: 20-32. Up to this point in this gospel the ‘hour’ of Jesus has not come – as He told Mary in the story of the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:4) when she looked for a miracle from Him. Also in this gospel apart from His dealings with the Samaritan woman (chapter 4) Jesus has confined all His activity to the Jews, but now we hear of Greeks wanting to see Jesus – and ‘seeing’ in this gospel often means coming to believe. Is it this that triggers Jesus’ words “now the hour has come?” He goes on to speak of the pattern of His life and death, which is one of self-denial and service of the other. The followers of Jesus must adopt this pattern in their lives too – it is a scary thing to do. And the writer alludes at this point to the agony prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, a prayer to be freed from this ending of His life, but the prayer is answered in a different way. (In this Gospel there is no account of the agony in the garden as in the other three gospels). His lifting up on the cross is also a lifting up to a new risen life, to the glory of God and to encourage all to ‘follow’ Him. Where He is we should be, and except when we are in sin, where we are, Jesus is there in us, with us and for us!
11th March 2018
The first reading is from the last few verses of the Second Book of Chronicles (2 Chron 36:14-23 passim). History is written not just to inform us about the past but so that we can learn something for our present situation and for the future. Much of the history of the nation of the people of the bible was written in the books called Samuel and Kings, then Chronicles was written to tell the story again, all with hindsight and to teach a new lesson to match the situation at the time. At the time of writing Chronicles the people had been unfaithful to their God and His laws (and not for the first time), they had not been radically changed by the preaching of the prophets or the efforts of reforming kings; this resulted in them failing as a nation and being overrun by other powers, and then many of their aristocracy were deported and Jerusalem left to rack and ruin – the Babylonian Captivity or the Exile as it is called. But after about fifty years they were allowed back by the grace of Cyrus the ruler at the time. God restored them through an unexpected power! The reading tells the last part of this account; it makes the point that God is not just the god of the Israelites; He is the god of all peoples, and they are moved by Him when whatever they do is good and righteous – Cyrus was such an one.
The second reading is from Ephesians (2:4-10). This book seems to be an encyclical i.e. a letter to be handed around to a whole group of Christian communities; it was written in general terms about the essence of Christian belief and about living in harmony with and for each other. In some of the manuscripts that exist, it is addressed to the Laodiceans, and sometimes just to “the saints” but mostly to the Ephesians which gives it the name we use for it. As we know Paul wrote many letters to the Churches that he knew well and addressed their particular situations and problems; in this letter we have ideas that are developed from the thinking of Paul but many think that the letter was not written by him; as well as the different theology, the style of writing is somewhat different as well. Nevertheless all this does not deteriorate from the great value of our inspired reading. The passage we are looking at affirms God’s great love, even for sinners, and says we are “the work of art of God”. It is difficult for the translator to capture the full meaning of some of the key words which literally say God “makes us alive together” (συνεζωοποιησε) in Christ, and “raises us up together” (συνηγειρε), and “seats us together (συνεκαθισεω) in the heavenly (sphere) in Christ Jesus.” We are just utterly involved in the life of God because He is totally in the whole of our lives (it’s a gift from God).
In the gospel (John 3:14-21) we read words on the lips of Jesus addressed to Nicodemus. First of all a reference to the incident in the Old Testament (Numbers 21:4-9) when Moses told the people who were ill to look towards the serpent lifted up (on a pole – a sign to be followed). So also Jesus will be lifted up (the same word is used each time), and those who believe (follow his way) will live with eternal life. It is in this section also that we have many beautiful phrases about the pattern of life we should lead and the love of God for us. This is the first time in this Gospel that the author uses the phrases “eternal life” and “lifted up” which have such a deep meaning (alluded to and expressed in the reading we had from Ephesians). The author of this Gospel uses words well; here he uses ‘light’ in a mystical, poetic but also in an ordinary sense, for shining a torch or switching on a light always reveals the reality that is there but otherwise unseen, and it is unseen because of the darkness (which is also a symbol of disbelief and wickedness). We shall use this symbol with the Easter (Pascal) candle on Holy Saturday when we celebrate the victory of Christ over sin through the fulfillment of His life on earth at His ‘passing’ (His dying and rising).
4th March 2018
It is in Exodus, chapter 20, verses 1-17 that we have a version of the Ten Commandments. These were the basic formulae for good order introduced for when the tribes settled as a nation in Israel which they saw as their promised land. We know that the young need rules to bring discipline and order into their lives, and we are all young in our development towards full Christian living. But notice that it is not just external conformity that is wanted but internal attitude as well, and hence not only ‘do not steal’ but also ‘do not wish you had (covet) what is not yours.’ Some of the commandments are about religion but most about social order and interpersonal relationships – for good community – for once the Israelites settled in the ‘promised land’ religion and social order were much the same – there was no merely civil society.
In the second reading, (1 Cor 1:22-26), Paul develops his message to this community composed of both Jews and Gentiles who can easily disagree with each other, and bemoans the fact that some folk want miracles and signs to support their belief and others want religion to make sense and be reasonable. But, he points out that in matters relating to God, some actions and beliefs that might seems foolish are sensible and actions and beliefs that might to others seem weak are powerful – as evidenced particularly in the last days of the life of Jesus, but should be visible also in the way the Christians live out their Christianity. Like the Corinthians, we may have to do some daring things or put up with worldly scorn to live and improve ourselves as Christians.
The cleansing of the Temple (John 2:13-25), in the other Gospels reads as though it is about the actions of an outraged prophet, doing foolish things which lead to his demise; but in John’s gospel it is about the dramatic transference of the focal presence of God from the Jewish Temple, to the risen Body of Christ. That’s why the dialogue about the destruction of the Temple and its restoration comes within this story rather than at the trial as it does in the other gospels. Incidentally, in John’s gospel the restoration of the Temple is described as it being raised up again in three days, whereas in the others it says it will be rebuilt – raised up emphasizes the underlying and deeper meaning in John. The question of where to worship the presence of God will be raised in John (4:19-21) by the Samaritan woman (a non-Jewish person). The message there as here is that with Jesus there is a new presence of God in the world – in a human person, Jesus; the ‘body’ is how a person is visibly present in our world, and the whole of creation, all people, notably the communities of Christians and the Eucharist are the Body of Christ.
25th February 2018
Verses 1-2,9-13 and 15-18 of Genesis 22: are part of a well-known and challenging story, but we should see it in context. Previously in the story God has promised Abraham he will be the ancestor of a vast number of people (Genesis 12:1-3) and even though he and Sarah are old they will have a son (Genesis 15:1-6) of their own, Isaac. It is through Isaac that there will be many descendants to fulfill God’s promise made to Abraham. But in this reading we hear that God asks Abraham to sacrifice this son, Isaac. Now this story purports to be about an event that took place about 1800 BC, so whatever was its source, it has been told and retold a considerable number of times before it was incorporated into the Jewish Bible. There was a time when they lived among others who sometimes sacrificed a child to bring good fortune or ward off some evil; certain Israelites themselves may have been lured into this practice and this tale about Abraham may have been told to illustrate the truth that God does not really want a child sacrificed even if it seemed to anyone a good ‘religious’ thing to do. But the story could also carry the homiletic message that sometimes God may ask of you things that seem quite appalling to you but you must trust God for He will always do right by you in the end; have faith in God for that will bring you righteousness.
In the reading from Romans 8:31-34, Paul says something that can be helpful to us. He is in the process of explaining his understanding of Christianity and here he expresses the utter confidence in God that we should have. After all God sent His Son to be one of us and to live and die for us; what better sign could we have of God’s concern for us. If God is for us, Paul says, then who can be against us. But we know from our experience that we can be accused and condemned by other people; Jesus Himself underwent accusation, trial, condemnation and even execution; but God raised Him to the new life with God – this is our belief and the foundation for our confidence in God.
The gospel reading from Mark 9:2-10 is about the Transfiguration. In the Book of Exodus, Moses goes up a mountain to commune with God and is in a cloud for six days before any revelation comes then he remains for forty days and forty nights. Some might reflect that Jesus with the inner circle of disciples is transfigured up some other mountain. With him appear representative figures of the Law and the Prophets which in His own way Jesus is bringing to completion. Peter couldn’t believe it when Jesus said He would suffer and die; the two didn’t match with how Peter thought the Messiah would be. But Peter now experiences things a little differently – he sees Jesus transfigured and hears God’s voice declaring Jesus to be His Son. This is utterly mysterious and no one can really speak about such things till they encounter Jesus risen: “he didn’t know what to say, they were so frightened.” We must try to see Christ in all the people with whom we have dealings, but that is often just as astounding and hard to realise!
18th February 2018
Many nations have an ancient story about a massive flood that covered a great deal of the earth (http://creation.com/many-flood-legends); it is a traditional tale that they like to pass on to each generation. The Old Testament presents its version of this story as a desperate measure taken by their God, angry because of the huge wickedness of the people that he had created. It extends into the story of the ‘salvation’ of Noah in the Ark together with his immediate family and a viable sample of all living creatures; with this it becomes the story of a new beginning, a second chance and especially a firm promise from God that He will never react this way again – a covenant for a new beginning. The story relates that God arranged that the appearance of the rainbow would remind people of this settlement. This version of a flood story can still give us confidence in the love of God for us that can extend into forgiveness for whatever sins we have and of which we repent. It is symbolized well by the combination of rain and sunshine producing the rainbow which we still rejoice to see. Indeed, just as we are told that none of us in fact see the same rainbow, so God’s attitude to us treats each one of us as a beloved individual person.
(1 Peter 3:18-22)
This letter comes from a period when the Christians were clearly a distinct and new religion and were liable to criticism and even persecution from Jews and from those who followed the Roman or Greek gods. The letter is attributed to Peter, but written too late to be his; it reads as a general letter to a number of churches from an overseer (a bishop). Its content definitely relates to the sacrament of Baptism and our reading comes from a section that is like a sermon explaining the symbolism of water in terms of the flood story – it is a new beginning for people and even though times might be hard, they were hard for Jesus too (unto death) but because of Him, difficulties can be lived through, for He now lives in glory with God. The original recipients were quite likely to suffer persecution from Roman authorities and possibly ostracism from members of their own family and onetime friends. If we are trying to live in an upright way as shown to us by Jesus, then we will face difficulty both from the situation we are in and the temptations that we will have, then this ‘sermon’ will have something to say to us.
This extract is typical of the author’s short and pertinent style. John is a man who preaches conversion; not a change of religion but perhaps, a renewed, commitment to live up to the ideals that one knows one should – appropriate for Lent; his message is often summed up with the word ‘repent’ in the Greek original (μετανοιειτε) “change your whole way of thinking.” Mark writes that Jesus (we suppose at about the age of thirty) leaves his life in the little village of his family and friends, Nazareth, and comes to John to symbolically express this dramatic change in his way of life thenceforth. Mark emphasizes this ‘new beginning’ by relating three life-changing moments: firstly, Jesus saw (we might say envisaged) the heavens ripped open; secondly, just as at creation, the Spirit of God hovered over (with creative power as in the opening words of Genesis); and finally, the creative voice of God (Who said ‘let there be… and there was…”) declares Jesus to be His Son, loved and doing what pleases God. It is from this moment of commitment that Jesus’ life begins to be really a struggle; he is lead by the Spirit into the desert – a traditional place for difficulties, and among wild and lawless people, though attended with the heavenly angels. Then Mark’s abrupt style puts John to one side and Jesus straight into His public ministry, as we call it, of encouraging this same conversion in others, which is really good news for them
11th February 2018
(Lev 13 1-2,44-46)
This extract from the Book of Leviticus is about the laws governing the isolation of those with leprosy or similar ailments. Like some other religious traditional rituals and laws, these rules arise from a matter of hygiene and community health, and are given a religious interpretation. So it says that those with the disease or in contact with them will be considered religiously ‘unclean’ and not allowed to participate in religious ceremonies or even mix with others in public places. These laws were still in force at the time of Jesus and it is quite significant that He transgresses this ruling by touching the unclean in order to heal them. Perhaps it is still the case that not all church laws have to be kept, depending on the particular situation!
(1 Cor 10:31-11:1)
In this reading Paul is responding to another question that the Corinthian Christian Community have put to him, which concerns the food that they might buy in the market place which may have been offered to ‘false’ gods; they wonder if it is right to eat such food. Paul’s answer is based on the premise that all things are permissible as long as they do not offend others – we must always try to do good to others, as Christ did. In practice, however, this is more complicated than it might seem, because sometimes you have to take a course of action that ‘offends’ someone else; Paul’s rule is absolute though – whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God.
Here we have an isolated story that Mark includes in his gospel at this point; it may well be based on an original account told by Peter, from whom much early information about Christ came to Mark. We see that Jesus reaches out to touch the leper despite the ritual uncleanness that Leviticus mentions (see first reading); and again, this account, like others, reminds us that Jesus came to show us how to live as God would wish us to – not in all details but in the basic attitude and principles – even though this may offend some religious rules and perhaps some people. If we allow the life of Christ in us to drive all we do, then all things are permissible, because all we do will be based on the love of others and through them the love of God. There is an interesting diversity in the translation of the feelings that Jesus is said to have: sorrow, anger, compassion etc. This difficulty is also found in early manuscripts that some of which use a Greek word meaning “was angry” and others a different word meaning something like “deeply moved.” Most scholars think that anger was the original for you can imagine a scribe changing that to compassion but not vice versa; but this whole issue gives us pause for thought – what attitude should we have to the woes that others undergo: sorrow, anger, deep concern or should it always result in action, even cutting through the accepted practice of the time?