Tuesday, May 26, 2015

TRINITY SUNDAY 2015



Throne of God with Elders and Four Evangelists
  Bamberger Apocalypse, Germany c. 1000 AD

Trinity Sunday is in some ways the culmination of the Church’s year – not because it generally coincides with the start of summer (which it only does in the Northern hemisphere of course) – but because it draws together the different emphases of the liturgical seasons that lead up to it. In Advent attention is focused on the sovereign majesty of the God who made the world and will judge it . From Christmas to Easter attention is focused on the incarnation of that God in Jesus – his birth, ministry, sufferings, death and Resurrection. As the Easter season segues through Ascension into Pentecost, the Jesus of history becomes the eternal Christ as the Holy Spirit calls forth the Church to be his Body in the world.

The lessons appointed for Trinity Sunday in Year B of the Lectionary are especially easy to connect along these lines. They begin with Isaiah’s dramatic vision “in the year the king Uzziah died” and the seraphim’s hymn that has become so closely identified with Trinity Sunday  -- “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

In the Epistle to the Romans, St Paul points to the extraordinary way in which the Holy Spirit creates a mysterious unity between our innermost being and the being of Almighty God, "that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’.

Nicodemus and Jesus on a roof top Henry Ossawa Tanner
John’s Gospel, meantime, recounts an intriguing nighttime conversation. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”, Jesus tells Nicodemus. This seems to make the work of the Holy Spirit a rather chancy thing. We might encounter it, or we might not. But anxiety on this score only serves to bring to the fore once again the centrality of Christ. We are not dependent for our spiritual salvation on the vagaries of religious experience. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

PENTECOST 2015

Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones - Gustave Dore (1886)
The Day of Pentecost was a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, observed fifty days after the Passover as one of the traditional festivals of the Jewish religious year. Luke tells us that this was the day on which the disciples found themselves so filled with a ‘Holy’ Spirit that, even though the Risen Christ no longer appeared to them, they were brought back into the full presence of God. Because of this, ‘Pentecost’ became an important Christian festival also, and the passage from Acts that recounts this event is always read on this Sunday, fifty days after Easter.

Descent of the Holy Spirit -- 18th century icon
But the Lectionary gives us a choice. We can read it in conjunction with a lesson from the Old Testament, and thereby look back to the long salvation history of which it is the fulfillment. Confronted with a whole valley of dry bones, the LORD asks Ezekiel, 'Can these bones live?', and in one of the most dramatic images in Scripture, God's 'breath' gradually brings spirit to matter and gives them life again. Alternatively, the story from Acts can be read in conjunction with the Epistle to the Romans where Paul, steeped in that same theological history, reflects on what ‘the Spirit’ means and how it works in us.

Both contexts underline something central, that the coming of the Holy Spirit -- in the Apostles’ lives, in the lives of those they converted, and in our own lives -- is not a once and for all spiritual experience complete in itself. Rather it is the often faltering beginning of a process of spiritual growth. As the first disciples discovered, no emotional experience, however powerful, can eliminate the continual need to deepen our understanding of God’s Incarnation and our salvation through the Cross.

This explains why, in the Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples “it is to your advantage that I go away. . . I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own”. Pentecost marks the birth of the Church. It is an occasion of celebration because  the Church is ‘the Body of Christ’, a community enlivened by the Holy Spirit, and – despite all its manifest failings – enabled thereby to go on guiding us in the Truth about God.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

EASTER VII 2015


'So great a cloud of witnesses'

This week’s Gospel is about ‘sanctification’, a concept that the great John Wesley, founder of Methodism and an Anglican priest all his life, took to be the key to Christian discipleship. But what does it mean?  In contemporary English ‘sanctified’ sounds uncomfortably like ‘sanctimonious’, hardly a flattering description, and surely one that Christians want to avoid.

Yet it is a widespread church practice to commemorate the ‘Holy Women, Holy Men’ who have been shining examples of Christian faith across the centuries. Sanctification just means ‘being made holy’. While sanctified people are holy, sanctimonious people are ‘holier than thou’. The difference is immense.
Duccio Apostle Matthias (1311)
In the Gospel Jesus declares that those called to be saints ‘do not belong to the world’. But equally, he does not ask God to ‘take them out of this world’. This dual relationship to everyday life is crucial. Saints live in the world, often very actively and energetically. But they do so for God and in Christ. This commitment brings with it the danger of being despised, or even hated, by ‘realists’ because true saints cannot just go along with the ways of the world. Their holiness, though, does not rest on rejecting the world, but being committed to living in it ‘sanctified in the truth’. To be sanctified in the truth means being a Christian witness, someone whose words and actions present a perpetual challenge to a false faith widely held -- that economic prosperity, political success and social prestige are the indispensable elements of a life worth living.

In the reading from Acts, Matthias is called to be a disciple, not directly by Jesus, but by the other disciples. This simple episode shows that sainthood is not confined to ancient times. Each of us can be called to sanctification now.

ASCENSION DAY 2015


Ascension - MAFA
Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. Yet, while this means it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter  and and Pentecost, it has rarely been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church or the practice of individual Christians. Perhaps this is in part because the event it commemorates -- the ascension of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke (though that is also true of the Epiphany). Perhaps it is because over the centuries its precise location in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But mainly, I think, it is because the theological significance of the event it celebrates is very hard to separate from the Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

One way of identifying this significance, however, is to note the special way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched and listened to him over the years of his ministry. It ended in apparent failure of course, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, they were granted a second opportunity to be in the privileged company of the Son of God.

In the pursuit of our discipleship we do not have these advantages. We must live in faith in a way that those few Galileeans did not have to do. Ascension marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight"  meant that  for a time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his ascension required them to prepare themselves for what the rest of us rely on -- a Holy Spirit that draws us into the eternal life of the Father whom we do not see and the Son whom we never met.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

EASTER VI 2015

St John the Evangelist - Giotto
 The theme of love is especially prominent in the Epistle and Gospel for this week, both from John. It is a theme to which contemporary Christians warm very readily since it is relatively ‘theology-lite’, so to speak. If 'God is love', can we not just speak of 'Love' to those who are puzzled or alienated by references to 'God'? Many Christians take this line, but it is very easy for talk of love to amount to little more than the rather thin doctrine that 'we ought to care about other people'. Concern for others is admirable, certainly, but it hardly requires the story of God's Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection to make a case for it. Human decency is enough, surely.
 
A deeper question, however, is whether love is the animating spirit that informs the world in which we live. Modern materialism makes physical forces and biological processes the ultimate explanatory factors, and leaves us to conceive of happiness as enjoying  life to the best of our abilities and helping others to do so. Did Jesus have an enjoyable life? The question seems all wrong somehow. He tells his followers to "abide in love", but this love of life, he says, can find its fullest expression in "laying down one's life for one's friends" -- not ultimate satisfaction, that is to say, but ultimate sacrifice.
 
Conversation with God - Nicholas Roerich
How could that make sense? If the world into which we are born is indifferent (or even hostile) to our deepest attachments and aspirations -- love, justice, beauty, truth -- we must wrest from it what we can while we can, and do so under the constant shadow of our own mortality. But if those things on which our hearts are most deeply fixed lie at the foundation of reality, if they are the things that called us into existence in the first place, then there is a profound harmony between the human spirit and the creative spirit that underlies the world.

'God is love' means love is ultimate, not because we can make it our Ultimate Concern, but because the Eternal Word has made it the spirit that infuses all things. We do not choose God; God has already chosen us.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

EASTER V 2015

Baptism of the Eunuch -- Rembrandt 1626
This week three much loved passages make up the readings. The first tells the arresting story of an encounter between a spiritually curious Ethiopian, and Philip the Evangelist, one of seven ‘deacons’ the early church appointed, not to be confused with Philip the Apostle, one of the Twelve. The deacons’ special  role was to take responsibility for help and assistance to poor Christians, and thus free others to be preachers -- though as this episode, and Philip’s title ‘Evangelist’  shows, deacons could also be very effective in spreading the Gospel.

The second reading is taken from the first Letter of John. This letter, the most frequently quoted Epistle not authored by Paul, boldly and unqualifiedly asserts that ‘God is love’. It is the very affirmation, of course, that underlay the creation of deacons as visible  agents of that love. On the surface, the Gospel passage seems to have a different tone. Jesus develops the metaphor of the True Vine in a way that ends with a warning. Like the metaphor of the Good Shepherd (from last week), however, this image is drawn from a world very different to ours, and so needs a little interpretative work to ‘get the message’.
 
Icon of 'The True Vine'
The message, contrary to appearance perhaps, does explain the connection between this Gospel and the readings that precede it. Together they reflect three fundamental truths about Jesus that lie at the heart of the Christian faith. First, Jesus is the suffering servant to whom Isaiah, the greatest of all the Jewish prophets, looked for Israel’s salvation. Second, God and love are so deeply intertwined that even a ‘sheep led to the slaughter’ is a far more adequate means, and expression, of God’s saving power than any ‘conquering hero’ would be. Third we will only be transformed into the image of the God of love if we allow our lives to become wholly dependent for their vitality on life in Christ.

Apart from Christ we ‘can do nothing’, and may as well be withered branches, at most worth throwing on a fire. God is love, but the price of divine love (in human terms) is high. That is what Jesus showed on the Cross, and what human beings often struggle to acknowledge.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

EASTER IV 2015

Henry Ossawa Tanner The Good Shepherd (1903)
The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday. It gets this name partly from the fact that the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ – but chiefly because, in each of the three years of the lectionary, the Gospel for the day is taken from John Chapter 10, in which Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself.

The three passages all have a slightly different emphasis. Verses 11-18 provide the reading in Year B (this year). In these verses Jesus dwells on the contrast between a shepherd tending his own sheep, and a hired hand who is merely looking after some else’s. When danger threatens the flock, the hired hand flees; the true shepherd stays to defend them – even to the point of ‘laying down his life’.

Good Shepherd mosaic
This is certainly an exaggeration. Even the most devoted shepherds are  unlikely to die in defense of their sheep? Hyperbole of this kind is characteristic of Middle Eastern story telling, but it serves to make a powerful point. Applied to Jesus, the image of the 'good shepherd' most importantly draws our attention not just to the Crucifixion, but to the Resurrection. On the cross, Jesus hangs in complete isolation, abandoned by his followers. Fear and faithlessness has led every one of his 'sheep' to scatter. He is left alone, crushed by pain and surrounded by hatred.

Yet, amazingly, it is for these very 'sheep' that he has given his life, and accordingly, it is his feeble followers that the Risen Christ first seeks out. His love for those he has made ‘his own’ transcends an impossibly testing time. Sheep they may be, but they are his, and as we now know, this love transforms them. 

The Epistle draws the obvious moral lesson – ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us . . . How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’. The love embodied in the Risen Christ returning to gather his sheep together again both demands and inspires this response.