Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17
This Sunday uses a word most quoted in the Christian faith, yet probably the least understood, trinity or trinitarian. It is certainly a word you will never find in the Bible yet it is a word which has come to express what God is to the Christian faith. The nearest the Bible ever comes to using trinity as an expression is in the gospel of Matthew 28.19 but this was in the shadowy time before the Ascension when his instruction to them was to “Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Yet none of the other gospels either repeat it, or indeed approach the words that Matthew uses. Most theologians through the ages have seen the importance of the task Jesus was leaving us with, even though the words have come from a later time in our history.
Throughout the Bible there is an on-going intrigue as to the nature of God. When we read the first account of creation in Genesis we come almost immediately to a surprising statement. It is at the point in the account where humans are introduced and is recorded as, “Let us make man in our own image, in our own likeness”. Up to this point we seemingly have God simply being the creator of everything. Now with this conversation going on in verse 26 the whole concept of what God is comes into focus. We are confronted with a picture of God which is even more complex. Our image, our likeness, brings new questions into play. Who was God talking to? This passage has been both a difficulty and an inspiration throughout man’s quest to understand God. This passage, this early question that Genesis poses, was the source of inspiration for a famous icon by Andrei Rublev, consisting of three figures seated around what appears to be a table which is holding the cup of sacrifice (Genesis 18). It is very well worth while contemplating the accompanying picture and perhaps trying to come to some idea of what God is in this icon and in your life.
“God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them”, is a familiar part of our faith. This icon proclaims it completely. Whatever else we may notice about it, the fullness of love is the very heart of it. How do we understand such all-encompassing love in a world where life can often be seen as a commodity of self-interest?
One of my favourite TV programmes is The Repair Shop. It is simply a collection of highly skilled and highly motivated craftspeople using every part of that skill to restore prized, but often broken or aged, cherished artefacts to their former glory. Just watching these people at work, either individually or in collaboration, portrays a wonderful glimpse of their deep love for the things they restore. The restorations become the very centre of their being as they use every ounce of their skill and knowledge to return them to their former glory, or in many cases to a glory that even exceeded what they were. Occasionally with some materials these articles are restored to a glory that reflects what they would have been like when they were first made. More often than not they are restored in a way that shows both their original wonder but also allowing the journey and scars of their existence to enhance that glory still further. When I watch this programme I am always amazed by the tremendous skill of the restorers, but also by their incredible patience and love. Often, they will reduce an article to a myriad of small components before cleaning and restoring every part leading to a miraculous restoration of the whole thing. But it is, as Bill Shankly once commented on football, there is something, “Much more important than that”. It is about seeing a love and joy beyond human understanding. It is not about tick lists or critical path analysis, or efficiency. Those craftspeople simply strive to reclaim perfection. It is in that the spiritual dimension emerges for me. It speaks of the God which is at the heart of creation.
In particular it speaks of God who is all loving. God does not just perform acts of love. His whole being is love. Often, we are tempted to want to touch strands of this love, to bring back something which was precious to us, or to remove something which becomes unbearable to us. But God’s love is far, far deeper than that and seeks to restore us to the wonder of our creation. Just like the Repair Shop where so many skills are required for it to work, so God’s restoration of creation and each aspect of it requires so many different approaches to achieve the restoration which He so desperately seeks. It is here in this widely conflicting range of demands that the concept of a plurality of God emerges, a concept which we understand as the Trinity.
Love rests upon the plurality of the Trinity. In the Trinity, in the Community of God, we see love as its very reason for being. Such a God is full of love and that love will always be its outcome, whether we can perceive it or not. God does not choose to love, God is love. Everything that comes from God originates in love. Creation arose out of the sheer vitality of that love and it is sustained in that same vitality of love. Whether we can understand it, or whether we can explain it is of no importance. The important part is to believe it and take hope in it. There is a wideness in God’s love which encompasses every moment, and a fullness in that love which will overcome everything including the deepest failures.
That is exactly what those early Christian leaders at Nicaea, then later at Constantinople, tried to encapsulate for their people and for future generations. Trinity was their way of expressing it. Their aim was that we should never lose sight of a God who creates all, who restores all and who inspires all. The Trinity, this complex collection of the multi-faceted God, was their way of expressing it. As we ponder what the Trinity might mean to us, may the heart of what they wished to portray be just as important as how they portrayed it. Sadly, that was the hurdle that prevented Nicodemus fully grasping what he so desperately sought, to participate fully in the community of God. Paul urges the Romans not to fall into the same trap, but simply encouraging them to allow God’s love to sustain and re-new them.
God the Father, God beyond us, we adore you.
You are the depth of all that is.
You are the ground of our being.
We can never grasp you, yet you can grasp us;
the universe speaks of you to us, and your love comes to us through Jesus.
God the Son, God beside us, we adore you.
You are the perfection of humanity.
You have shown us what human life should be like.
In you we see divine love and human greatness combined.
God the Spirit, God around us, we adore you.
You draw us to Jesus and the Father.
You are the power within us.
You give and enable abundant life and make us the creation we can be.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
God beyond, beside and around us;
We adore you.
Readings: Acts 2.1-21; Romans 8.22-27; John 15.26-27 & 16.4-15
The Acts reading is probably one we are all familiar with, if for nothing else the way countries and peoples fall off the tongue. Parthians and Medes, Elamites, those who stay in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, in Pontus, in Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and parts of Libya round Cyrene. It may well be remembered by some because they have been on the reading rota of their church and had to try and get the pronunciation of these places! Or it may be just the joy of sitting and hearing those names and places flow over us. Whatever the reason, we remember the readings of Pentecost.
Pentecost, however, is far more than this, it is the beginning of the church. It is a day of miraculous happenings on so many fronts, some of which we will come to later. Perhaps it is better to begin to put this wonderful day into its true perspective. Pentecost was already a festival, a Jewish festival, long before being the birthplace of the church. Pentecost was one of the three great festivals of the Jews namely the Festivals of Passover, Pentecost and the Tabernacles. Pentecost was their first harvest thanksgiving as they came to give thanks with offerings in thanksgiving for their grain harvest. As with the other two major festivals men living within 20 miles of Jerusalem were required to attend. Additionally, by this time the Jewish people were widely dispersed, and so attending these festivals became an important part of keeping their religion in far flung places. This Festival of Passover also had a further religious significance because it also commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai which would account for the wider and significant international element to these Pentecost festivals in particular. Hence, we have this large and disparate group meeting according to Jewish Law in Jerusalem at these times. Significantly, it was also a day when no servile work could be done (Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28), and was, in effect a holiday, thus explaining the large number of local people.
From the way we read the accounts of the Christian church, it is easy to assume that it is here that the Holy Spirit comes into being as a formidable force of God amongst us. In reality we meet the Holy Spirit in many parts of the Old Testament. The Book of Acts itself refers to a number of these events including the Holy Spirit speaking to David (Acts 1), Isaiah (Acts 28) and Stephen in his defence to the challenges of the Jews in that they have always opposed the Holy Spirit which we find in in Acts 7. So, the working of God through the Holy Spirit was far from a new phenomenon.
The other important part of Pentecost relates to that giving of the Laws to Moses by God. At that moment everything changed, it was indeed the Lord’s day. In this Festival the theme of the Lord’s Day would have been very much in the forefront of the minds of those who attended, it would have been a very spiritual occasion indeed. It was this theme of the Lord’s Day that Peter emphasised in his explanation to the crowds of what was going on amongst the disciples. This was the Lord’s Day when everything began anew and at the heart of it was the Holy Spirit. As Jews they would have previously divided time according to the present and what was to come. For the religious their perception of the present was pretty low. They saw in it all the failings of their human religion and realised that it was only God who could put it right. So, for such Jews they longed for the moment in the future when God would take control and we see this particularly through the prophets such as Isaiah, Amos, Zephaniah, Joel, etc as they looked forward to that Lord’s Day. It was in this expectation that Peter simply told them about Jesus, what had happened to him, and their part in what had happened. Most importantly he was saying that in Jesus the Lord’s Day that they longed for, had come. There was no break between what they had now and what was ahead of them. The future was here, they were in it. The present was everything, the future was what they had wasted their lives worrying about. God was with them in this very moment and for evermore. It is perhaps interesting how the church has changed that message over the centuries and putting the emphasis back onto the future, and what people must do to achieve it.
One of the stand-out parts of this first Christian Pentecost is the way that the disciples, and Peter in particular, is able to communicate with this diverse group of people. For some people this is the wonder of Pentecost, whist others feel uneasy in that it seems to resonate with speaking in tongues. This is unlikely to be happening in this situation since all understood, whatever their native tongue, whether Jew by birth or proselyte. he rational reason is simply that Aramaic was commonly used throughout these regions as a second language and there was even a third language, Greek, which was common to them. Most important was their Jewish heritage and history. Above all its purpose was to unite, not divide. The aim was to celebrate what they shared in common, rather than being separated by aspects of their faith which had different interpretations or importance to individuals or groups. This indeed is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit which we can all rejoice in.
Sometimes we are happy to just stay in the story. Knowing a little more about it, however, often enables to see something even more special. Pentecost is perhaps one of those times. This account in Acts is the beginning of our church, based upon God’s love in the action of Jesus Christ and continually inspired by the Holy Spirit in that same love of God. As on that first Pentecost the Holy Spirit inspired them to unite where the people could so easily have divided, and that remains the action throughout our history. God’s will is that we should love. Not always easy to achieve but Pentecost reminds us that this is the inspiration and expectation of the Holy Spirit in a world where time and circumstance are laid aside. We celebrate Pentecost, not just by hearing the story, but by living it.
Poems and Prayers
Part of a poem by Edwin Hatch, used frequently as a hymn
Breathe on me breath of God
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love,
And do what thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me breath of God,
Until my heart is pure:
Until with the I have one will
To do and to endure.
Breathe on me breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.
by John Bennett
So free, so bright so beautiful and fair
the Holy Dove descends the earthly air:
in startling joyance come
from its immortal home,
it bears the Glory that all may share.
Through ancient space and newest time, it brings
transcendent reason to a world of things:
it shows each mind and heart
how to assume its part
in dances born of God’s imaginings,
On wings of subtlest flame, the Holy Dove
flies through the human world and offers love:
it teaches heart and mind
how to transcend their kind
and praise Go who lets all being move.
So free, so bright so beautiful and fair
the Holy Dove descends the earthly air:
always there descending,
always there ascending,
it brings the Glory that all may share.
The Church Collect
from Common Worship
God, who at this time
taught the hearts of your faithful people
by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit:
grant us by the same Spirit
to have a right judgement in all things
and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort.
7th Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 1.1-11; Psalm 47 or 93; Ephesians 1.15-23; Luke 24.44-53
In that well known description of Jesus appearing to Mary in the garden we often focus on that first communication of Jesus when he refers to her by name. The joy of the resurrection is complete, our mind rests on that intimate moment. Yet if we were to read on a little, we would come to something else which Jesus says to Mary, “Do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to the Father”, which is difficult to understand. Wasn’t the resurrection complete? Wasn’t the miracle enough in itself?
Certainly not for Luke, who refers to this further development in both his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles when events move on with the ascension of Christ. Apart from John’s oblique reference, all the other gospels make no reference to it at all. Yet for Luke this period of Ascension is particularly important, and Ascension Day has featured largely in the life of most Christian churches. It is to say the least confusing, and trying to research the emergence of this important day in the life of the church, doesn’t shed much light upon it. We have descriptions of Ascension Day traditions from around the world and related art which focus largely upon the account in Luke, but little else. Yet it was a significant day in the life of the church and as such we need to ponder it as well as keeping it. In many of our own churches we will see one particular aspect of these traditions whether Ascension Day is more widely celebrated or not. This will simply be in relation to our Paschal Candle which is lit as a matter of course during the Easter period but ceases to be so after Ascension Day, signifying the separation of Jesus from the world. In the absence of more thorough research the following are my own thoughts on the development and importance of this festival in the church. It is perhaps something we as Christians should all ponder on, if we really do want our faith to grow.
The difficulty seems to begin with the way in which we as a church understand the notion of a personal God. We feel safe if God is beside us, holding our hands. It certainly can be a comfort when there is uncertainty or a crisis is looming. The problem is that Jesus didn’t ever suggest that God would lift us out of such situations, but he did say that God would be with us in them. We would not be facing the situation alone. Indeed, the whole account of the ministry of Jesus centres around this idea of God travelling the journey with us, but not directly with us and certainly by not taking our human life over.
We can perhaps glean some basic understanding if we think of human parenting. In some way or another parenting by a whole range of people has made us what we are. It is all about the way we developed from the child that needed close intimate connections maturing into a person far more self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency hasn’t come from within ourselves but has been gradually built-up within us by all those people who have nurtured us, and who continue to nurture us. That nurturing isn’t about dictating who we are but encouraging us to reach onwards to who we can be. Real parenting may begin with holding us safe in difficult and frightening situations, but its aim is producing a character within us which can cope without it.
The ascension of Christ is similar but to a much higher level. In Jesus, God has travelled with the disciples. He held them safe when it was necessary, but all the time he was moving them on to a point where they can manage that journey and that ministry on their own. Following the resurrection that independent journey began, but Jesus was still there to encourage them and to reassure them. The task would only be complete, however, when his presence was no longer required, they could do it themselves. If that great love of mankind which Jesus was proclaiming was to reach out into the world it would depend upon their individual commitment and participation. They undertook the task with great enthusiasm and hope, knowing that God was always with them. They may not have him by their side but they had an even greater hope in that God was with them whatever happened along the way. Indeed, they went back to the Temple with joy to wait for that moment when God’s reassurance would fully rest upon them. They had grasped that no matter if they couldn’t understand it, the psalmist had already got it right, “All things shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.”
Ascension then was a moment of great hope and great joy, it even exceeded their joy at seeing their Lord risen from the tomb. Here was the promise of greatest hope. God had not only found them in Jesus but now was the promise that he would be with them in all that they were. Ascension is not about a place or a time, it is that great promise that the ascended Lord will be there whatever happens.
In more recent years there has been a tendency to try to subtly change that message. So often we have tried to reduce God to the role of a personal guardian. If only we can let God know what is happening He will put it right, seems to be the thinking. God didn’t do that for Jesus, or for the disciples, so why should it be so for us?. They took hope in the ascension of Christ, knowledge that we would never suffer alone again. They may not always understand but in God all would be well.
During my ministry I have been confronted by quite a lot of people who can be very angry with God. Where is God when these terrible things are happening? Where is your God when someone is dying in the most terrible circumstances? How can God let this happen to a young baby? …… Alongside that is the expectation that the Christian community is at fault for if they really prayed properly these things would be taken away. The reality is that we never will understand these things at all but despite that God does and will put everything right in His way and in His time. The trouble is, however, that people have been led to believe that they can decide and they can change things if they implore God to do it. That subtle changing of what happened in Galilee 2,000 years ago, has been found out by people. To establish a true presence in the world we must be prepared to accept that we can not influence such things, but we can pray in hope to God who will make all things well. The way we live our own lives is a powerful pointer to it. We may not seem to have much chance of changing many of those things ourselves, but we can have the courage to challenge those who can.
The ascension of Jesus is the centre of that hope. It is there where God put his trust in the world, it is there that God chose to influence the world through his people. We need to ponder these things if we are really to live out our ministry in the world.
St. Anselm 1033-1109
My God, I pray that I may so know you and love you
that I may rejoice completely in you.
And if I may do so fully in this lie,
let me go steadily on
to the day when I come to that fullness.
Let the knowledge of you increase in my heart,
and there let if grow to fullness.
Let your love grow in me here,
and there let it be fulfilled
so that here my joy may be in great hope,
and there in reality.
St. Columba 521-597
Alone with none but thee, my God,
I journey on my way.
What need I fear, when thou art near
O king of night and day?
More safe am I within thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand.
John Wesley 1703-1791
Lord, let me not live to be useless
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 10.44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17
We will all have recently completed the Census return which will form the basis for much strategic planning over the next ten years and probably many more years than that. The trouble with the Census form is that it requires each of us to fit our lives into a series of one word or short phrase answers. This may be easy for most people’s situations or indeed for all of us in most categories, but I am sure there may well be instances for many filling in the form where the range of options did not quite provide the answer they wished to give. Filling in forms can be limiting and do not always give the complete picture, perhaps even leaving out the most interesting parts. Brevity excludes so much on occasions, just as a short sermon can so easily do by limiting us to what others want us to know!
I feel it is the same with the with the lectionary reading of the Bible. In limiting these readings to a relatively short snippet we often lose the richness of its writings. This can be particularly true of the Epistle and supplementary readings, some of which may additionally be left out all together in churches. Today’s reading from Acts suffers spectacularly from this. We simply have a very short extract which fits in with the theme of the day, but sadly causes many people to never hear the wonderful story to which it relates, the story of Cornelius. The story is not just about Cornelius, a Roman captain, it is also a world expanding story of Peter and most importantly, OUR STORY. To really understand this you will need to read Chapters 10 and 11 of Acts where the whole story of all-encompassing Christianity emerges.
Cornelius is a Gentile who has a deep faith in God, through which he is led by the Holy Spirit to seek more deeply by asking Peter to come and speak to him and his friends. Peter has been touched by the Holy Spirit but as yet his understanding of his calling is not complete. He remains in much of the traditions of Judaism, emphasised in this account by the specific law concerning unclean food. In a dream, or a vision, Peter was instructed that what he was doing was of his heart, not of God’s. The food presented to Peter in a dream enabled him to see the faith he was being asked to proclaim in a much wider context than he at first thought. It was then that Cornelius’ messenger arrived at the house he was staying in at Joppa, and that vision of the food was fundamental to Peter seeing the need to reach out far beyond the Judaism of his up-bringing. Chapter 11 leads us on to a situation where that action was supporting Jewish Christianity without which support the new faith could easily have been lost. It is a beautiful story to read and significantly Cornelius was possibly the first Gentile Christian, certainly the first named one. Cornelius is the beginning of our story, it is our heritage.
Peter simply tells the story of what Jesus was and what he did. Importantly he talked of the love of God that had no bounds, even giving himself to the very depths of suffering and death because of the intensity of that love for humanity. Cornelius recognises in this story something of what he tries to live by and seals that relationship by baptism.
It is here that our thoughts turn to that recently completed census, one of whose questions asked for the faith of people. I wonder what Cornelius would have made of that question? Most of us would have given Christian as our answer, but to Cornelius it would not have been. This new approach was more about a relationship with God than a type of style or religion. What Cornelius heard from Peter was the description of a God who loved us and would go to great lengths to find us. It was the relationship he sought beyond himself, both with other human beings or with the supreme being. In the early days then Christianity, or the Way as it was termed, really referred to how the relationship was lived out in the realities of life rather than a set of rules or regulations. A relationship, not a creed or control system which all must live by.
We see this in Jesus himself. He was born a Jew, lived his life as a Jew and died as a Jew. That was his religion, yet he sought far more than that. The over-riding wish of Jesus was to be in union with God, to have a deep relationship with God, and for all of us to have that same relationship. He realised that to do that we must first of all have a relationship with each other and with the creation in general. This was the requisite to that all- encompassing relationship with God. So, for Jesus the issue was not about religion, it was simply that of building up relationships with our world and our neighbours, and most importantly with God himself. How many people described themselves on the recent Census return as Christian? How many did so because of the rules? Or how many were really able to answer the question honestly by the relationship they had or sought with God, or one another? Perhaps Christianity shouldn’t have been an option in the first place, perhaps we can live out those relationships in a variety of ways.
I have a friend, Mamdooh, who was brought up in Pakistan and from a devout Muslim family. That remains his religion. Yet he yearns for more, much more. “We have the rules and the duty” he says but “You have the man”. Clearly what Mamdooh seeks is a God to have a relationship with, and I suspect that he does far more than he thinks. Yet we have the man, Jesus Christ, the link that makes everything possible. I think I know how Mamdooh, because of his great family tradition would have responded to that Census question, but I wonder equally what he would have said had that question been posed a little differently. For me, he certainly looks and works for the things that were special to Jesus, in many ways Mamdooh is the Cornelius of our time. Has the classifying of Christianity into a religion rather than a relationship, separated many from the very place of their being?
The First World War which had a significant impact upon changing Christianity from one of relationship to one of duty, also has its great stories of relationships and friendships. One stands out for me. A soldier sought one of his companions who had been badly injured in a clash and lay in no-man’s land. He sought permission to leave his trench to go and get him. Reluctantly the Officer gave permission, adding that he thought it would be of no use since his compatriot might well be dead or so badly injured that he could not be saved, and that the man himself might die. Despite the warnings he persevered, found his desperately injured comrade and brought him back. He struggled back with him on his shoulders both being hit by bullets. Finally, they both fell into the trench. The officer after examining the colleague and realising he was dead, and the soldier who himself was dying, said “I told you that it wasn’t worth it, you both will soon be dead.” But the soldier contradicted him, “Sir, it was worth it. When I got to he my friend he was still conscious and he simply said, “Jim, I knew that you’d come””.
That is the God that Jesus knew and so desperately wanted us to know. Let us not allow the rules, or the need for brevity that the world has adopted, stop us from seeing it.
O Lord, I knew you would come.
You found the disciples, you found Cornelius
You found anyone who desperately searched for you.
The world has changed us, Lord
We no longer look for answers
We want to find them waiting for us.
We want instant answers to our prayers
We want instant resolutions to our problems
We have no time to wait
Or to search.
We think our answers lie in our faith
When all the time they are in You
In the ongoing life you have placed
Between us, between you and me
And between me and my fellow creatures
In the life that we share.
O lord I knew that you would come.
That is what Jesus was all about,
That you would never leave us,
When we really let go and needed you,
You would come.
My life is sustained by your promise,
That when I really need you, You will come.
But the most joyous thought of all
Is that when that final moment comes
It will not be me saying those words,
It will be you.
Fifthe Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 8.26-40; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8
As we progress through this season of Easter the readings move from accounts of resurrection appearances of the Risen Jesus to the “I am” readings explaining the ministry and action of Jesus. Last week’s gospel reading on the Good Shepherd was relatively easy to understand but the idea of the vine and the branches is not so easily fathomed. At a surface level the message might seem straightforward, but anyone who has any understanding of the actual vine will realise that it is a strange analogy to use. Apart from the grapes they produced the vine would seem to have few other qualities to recommend it.
Yet the Old Testament uses it in many ways to reflect Israel as the vine of God. In reality the people would have realised that within itself it is a useless plant. It has the unique quality, that apart from the grapes it can be coerced into producing, it is the only plant where even the wood is completely useless. Indeed, in the Old Testament we see one such law illuminating its uselessness. At certain times of the year it was expected that the citizens brought wood to the Temple to maintain the temple fires, yet vine wood was excluded as an offering. It could not even be burned satisfactorily. Furthermore, as a trailing plant, it needed other plants or structures for support even when it was growing. Still it had two great redeeming features beginning with the grapes it produced. It was the grape that transformed life. Water in its natural state was often life threatening because it was rarely free from disease, and still is so in many parts of the world. It was the fermentation of the grape and the resulting wine acidity which produced safe drinking, as such it was revered in early civilisations. Secondly its very long stems enabled it to traverse the most inhospitable terrain and even cover large rock surfaces, searching out even the smallest patches of fertile soil on which new life could be established.
Knowing something of the vine we can begin to see the analogy Jesus drew of his own life. A life fully dependant and entwined with God, and a life which sought out the sustenance of life for all.
“I have come that they may have life, and have it in its fullness” John 10,10.
The vine is the very heart of that life growth. But to bring that life to its fullness still requires human husbandry. It is only by human beings controlling the spread of runners through pruning, that the vine produces its fruit which will create the situation where the grapes will develop with their life changing qualities. Now we begin to move into an understanding of the ‘I am the vine, you are the branches‘ analogy. Jesus is pointing out that the world will only come to fruition when we also play our part in that process. In a sense it is indicating a benign God who creates the building blocks for the world, yet without humans it will remain simply potential. We are an important part of God’s plan to bring it to its fullness. A fullness, Jesus is saying. that can only be complete when we, like Jesus, dwell completely in God. We are not parachuted into creation, but are an essential part of the way creation develops. Our role is significantly more than being beneficiaries of creation, we are co-creators with God.
A little understanding of this strange analogy brings us, then, to a much fuller understanding of our very presence. The Acts account of Philip and the Ethiopian official is a perfect example. The reason for Philip being on that road at that precise moment may be seen by some as miraculous, by others as coincidence, but the real miracle was his action not his presence. Here was the vine and the branches being lived out. Philip realising what was going on saw his own responsibility and soon turned the blind searching for knowledge into hope for the Ethiopian official. That vividness of searching, which Luke so wonderfully portrays, and the subsequent enlightenment, suggests a world made immediately better by Philip’s action. In that one moment Philip had played his full part as co-creator with God, and a new God dimension emerged. Philip didn’t stop there, continuing to bring that same hope to many people in Azotus. We can only follow Philip’s life from this point from non-canonical scripts, but the Acts of Philip suggest that with his sister and Bartholomew he dedicated his life to such action in Greece, in Phrygia and in Syria. His life was one which many would have regarded as one of miracle. Philip himself, regarded it simply as being one of the branches of the vine of God, taking responsibility because God loved us first, and joy in being a co-creator with God.
The First Letter of John reading takes us further into the human role as branches of the vine, branches which turn that love of God into a liveable reality. It begins simply with the assertion that we must simply love one another as God has loved us. Countless Christians before us, including Philip, have used the situations they find themselves in to do just that, to give hope through love. How well do we match up to their example? What sort of branches have we been to the fullness of the vine who gave us life? Our world seems to have found many ways to speak of it, but rather less in actually doing it. What of us? Mair has been speaking this week of the sermon she heard in church last Sunday. One phrase, in particular stayed with her. Real love only exists when it affects our diary and our bank balance. If we are to be truly branches of that life giving vine it will influence and change everything we are in life, everything we do in life. Nothing special is required, simply being where we are and seeing need around us. We don’t have to be clever or important in the system, we just have to be ourselves. But first, we have ourselves to be transformed by the love of God, we can only love fully because God loved us first. When we realise that we are changed and wen will have the strength and the courage to change the world into the one which Jesus advocated, the one that God longs for.
From The Prophet
by Kahil Gibran
You give little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
And there are those who give and know not
pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with
mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes
its fragrance into space.
Through the hands of such as these God speaks,
and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.
God forgave my love in Jesu’s name
by Carol Owens
God gave me a task in Jesu’s name,
To be a branch in Jesu’s name.
In the vine of Jesus, I come to you
To share his love as he told me to.
He said: Freely, freely you have received;
Freely, freely give.
Go in my name, and because you believe,
Others will know that I live.
All hope is given in Jesu’s name,
In earth and heaven in Jesu’s name.
In the vine of Jesus I come unto you
To share his wonder as he told me to.
He said: Freely, freely you have received;
Freely, freely give.
Go in my name, and because you believe,
Others will know that I live.
In the vine of Jesus I can give hope
without which I can do nothing.
So in the vine of Jesus I come unto you
To live his love, his hope, his joy.
He said: Freely, freely you have received;
Freely, freely give.
Go in my name, and because you believe,
Others will know that I live.
Some quotes worth pondering
Freely you have received, freely give
Nothing is small when God accepts it.
St Teresa of Avila
A man there was, though some did count him mad,
the more he cast away, the more he had.
John Bunyan, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’
It is well to give when asked, but is better to give unasked through understanding.
Better not to look at the gift, but at the person who needs it.
Hubert van Zeller, ‘The Inner Search’
A cheerful giver does not count the cost of what is given.
Their heart is set on cheering the one to whom the gift is given.
Julian of Norwich
Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely calculated less or more.
William Wordsworth, ‘King’s College Chapel’
Third Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 13.12-19; 1 John 3.16-24; Luke 24.36-48
Luke has two colourful accounts of the appearance of the Risen Lord. In the first Jesus joins two people journeying away from Jerusalem to a safer place, Emmaus. In the second he suddenly appears in the midst of his disciples in a way very reminiscent of John’s account of the same event. In both the accounts of Luke, the dimension of food is significant. On the Emmaus road it is in the breaking of bread that they finally recognise the stranger who has journeyed with them, whilst in today’s gospel reading we see Jesus asking the disciples if they have anything for him to eat. Is it just to add colour and context that Luke and John add this food dimension? Or is there something more significant going on here?
Most theologians make a fundamental mistake in their research of the Last Supper, often concluding that it was the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. As we read on, it evidently was not. Indeed, in his book, ‘Resurrection’, Rowan Williams takes a very different view in acknowledging the enormous importance of the resurrection meals. So, what has Rowan Williams seen that most theologians have missed? What, indeed did Luke and John see in their reflections of those first encounters with the Risen Lord? Is it more than something that will add interest to their accounts, or something more profound?
To get a grip on this we will need to go back to that Last Supper, when the final two things that Jesus did was to share with the disciples the bread and the wine, his body and blood. Nothing greater could he give and they accepted it willingly, even displaying absolute resolution in following him. Yet it did not work out that way and in the space of a few hours they had all forsaken him, all failed him miserably. The torment for all of them at some stage must have focussed itself on that last meal he had shared, on the very fact that it was there he gave his very self to them. Now Jesus is dependent upon them for food. It is in the acceptance of their food that they give that he is giving his absolute forgiveness.
Food is not an ancillary part of these moments, it is central to them. Just as the giving of food has always been a sign of friendship, love and relationship, it has become here the absolute sign of forgiveness. The disciples find it hard to find the words they want to say to Jesus. Perhaps there are no words that can ever convey their desperate failure. Yet in the giving and receiving of food all is said, nothing more needs to be said or thought. The giving and receiving of the food has laid all to rest. Just as we hear nothing of Melchizedek’s blessing on Abram, only recognizing it in the bread and wine he gave to him, to the blessing and hope of the wedding breakfast through the centuries. They are signs of the hope and blessing for a new life.
This resurrection food goes much deeper than symbolism, however. It defines the very nature of the resurrection. In his life generally and in his ministry with the disciples after the resurrection Jesus needed food. The gospels of Luke and John are anxious to portray that in his risen life he still needs it. The fundamental truth which they are anxious for their readers to understand is that this is not a ‘super-charged’, resurrected Jesus, it is the very Jesus they always knew. He hasn’t become changed by the resurrection, at least in the way that they see him. It is they who are expecting something more and fail to see. The person, the body of Jesus hasn’t become something else, it remains exactly the same as it was before. To accept anything else would be to accept that the incarnate Jesus was inferior in some way. As Jesus ate the food, as he blessed the bread and the wine, and as Thomas inspected His wounds it was the same Jesus. The resurrection had opened their eyes not only to see Him as he was now, but as He had always been. The sight of the risen Lord had opened their eyes just as He surely had done for blind Bartimaeus in the previous ministry they had shared. Accepting and eating food with the disciples was just the same as what He had done with Zacchaeus, with the tax collectors and the sinners. Those events had signified God’s forgiveness and acceptance of those with whom he shared those meals. These events signify the same absolute forgiveness for them.
The resurrection is not then about adding another phase to life, it is about seeing clearly what already exists and in a wider dimension It is a prompt to look beyond the simplicity and security we often wish to see life in, and see it as God had created it. We cannot comprehend its joys by anticipating what is to come, we can only comprehend it by finding the joys, the love and fullness of God in it as it is now, even in the darkest moments. God is with us, what more do we need? Gerard Manley Hopkins sums it up in his poem, God’s Grandeur;
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil:
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Just as the Maundy Thursday meal preceded the events and failures which were about to happen, the resurrection meals are true moments of forgiveness and reconciliation, the re-gathering of the shattered company of disciples, the re-gathering of shattered hopes. It is fitting then that funeral wake meals have become part of our time as a place where new dimensions and new hopes are re-built out of the old. As today’s reading from 1 John acknowledged, it is by living in that resurrected hope that we will recognise him, and it is by the Spirit of God that we will know it. As our Acts reading reiterates, in ourselves, we are as broken as the man crippled from birth was as he was carried to the Beautiful Gate. It is by the same power that we are healed like him in the faith of Jesus Christ, who was and is and is to come.
As the disciples ate the broiled fish with Jesus they knew they had found their God, not in miracles, but in the fullness of human life. It is not in the extra-ordinary that we will find him, but in the ordinary.
Thomas Hardy writes about hearing a thrush singing at days end on a bleak winter scene. It ends:
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed hope, wherof he knew
And I was unaware.
The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy
O Lord help us to be aware,
Aware of your wonder which we meet
In the ordinary situations of our lives.
It is so much easier in the spectacular, in the miraculous,
In the moments when our hearts sing with joy.
Yet you are there in the darker moments, the struggle moments too.
It is there where it is easy to lose sight of you.
Help us to know what your creation already knows.
The joy in the song of a bird, in the bursting
forth of a shoot from the cold earth.
It is so much easier when we can trace the path,
So much harder where there is no path to see.
So much harder when our hope is lost, it is there
where faith feels thin.
O Lord, help us to live the wonder of the ordinary,
To see the ordinary is indeed the extraordinary.
Not to live our lives waiting for something special,
But finding the special in the moment we have.
Help me to see the life in its fullness
which you give, help me to see it in every part
In the miraculous of the ordinary.
Second Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 4.32-35; 1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20.19-31
We return to the Easter story, but this time with John’s gospel. At once we notice differences, a difference in chronology and in geography. Last week Mark simply recorded the three women arriving at the empty tomb and someone asking the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, two days journey for them. In today’s reading the appearance of the risen Lord is much sooner and happens somewhere in Jerusalem. Quite a number of theologians suggest this could well be the same room where the disciples had shared the Last Supper with Jesus.
The account is dramatic. In fear for their lives, they are huddled together, with the room locked and sealed. Suddenly in their midst is Jesus with his message, “Peace be with you”. It is a greeting well known within our later Christian communities but at the time of the resurrection it would have been a regular greeting in the general Mediterranean area. However, if we trace the idea of peace back to the Greek translation of it, eirene, we get some better idea of its meaning, to be just and fair. When Jesus was wishing the apostles ‘peace’, that was his wish, or even his command to them, to know peace by being just and fair to each other. Psalm 85.10-13 speaks of righteousness (justice) and peace kissing each other. So, it is not surprising that, in today’s 1 John reading, we see justice and righteousness at the heart of the way they lived together in community, where everyone gave what they had to the communal effort. They were indeed living out those first words to them from the Risen Lord.
Jesus goes much further and says that he is sending them out in the same way that God sent him out. He does much more that tell them, he breathes upon them giving them the very power that sustained him, God’s spirit and power. In a sense we have the process complete, as humanity now fulfils its part in the blossoming of God’s kingdom on earth. For the Jews this would have rekindled much of their history. In Genesis 2.7 it was God’s own breath that breathed life into Adam and Eve, then later on in a story dear to Israel, Ezekiel is commanded to breathe life into the valley of dead bones (Ezekiel 37 particularly verse 9). As Jesus breathed the breath of God upon them, they received his commission to go out and do likewise. It is this spirit of God which makes the charge to forgive and retain sins of others possible, not that as humans we can do either of these things but we can help in leading people to where this will be possible in God’s prerogative.
For me, and I suspect for many, the account becomes even more dramatic. Thomas appears on the scene and adds a vibrancy to what is happening. Thomas was not with the others originally but had been told about what happened. He will have nothing to do with it without much more proof than the apostles originally seemed to demand. One week later it happened again and as Thomas inspected those crucifixion wounds his only response was “My God and King”. Thomas is the first person to refer to Jesus as God, and thereby leads us to a more detailed discussion into the term “Risen Lord”. The majority of the post-resurrection responses focus around the joy of Jesus being alive, Thomas moves into a new dimension, Jesus is exalted. Thomas, the isolated disciple had been the one to accept that they must go with Jesus to Jerusalem even if it meant dying with him (John 11.16), proves again that challenging Jesus can indeed lead to a more complete and satisfactory answer than just by accepting it (John 14.5).
It is this same wholehearted, though dogged, honesty which we find reflected in the 1 John reading. It is through such honesty that we will become children of the light. Through the same doggedness to live that light rather than by the clever use of words to suggest that we do is the route of faith. We will probably never be able to achieve it, yet today’s reading still leave us with fullness of hope. John the Elder, simply explains that our failings can never deter us because we have the forgiveness of Jesus through his atoning sacrifice. How much better, though, if we could just begin to get there as Thomas did.
So, we return to the reading from John’s gospel. As happened with the Mark reading last week, we appear to come to the end only to find that it doesn’t end there. There is a significant difference though between the real and added ending in Mark’s gospel and that in John. The additional part of Mark’s gospel was clearly not the work of Mark and can be easily deduced from the style of the two possibilities offered and from their style of writing. Most significant, however, is the chronological discrepancy of perhaps more than 10 years. The ending of John’s gospel is very different in this respect. Firstly, as the last gospel to be written, there would be no need for additions as fresh ideas came to light. Most importantly, though, the writing shows a clear continuity with the rest of the gospel. How then did John Chapter 21 appear, after the original must have ended with the author saying that there was so many things to write about that there would never be enough time or place to write them all. How does this fit together?
The most probable answer is that the author of this gospel was not John the Apostle, although he was certainly the originator of the ideas expressed in it, and just as certainly the gospel was based very largely around his recollection of events. These memories, very different from those expressed by place and time. John’s gospel is so arranged that it encompasses a theme, the picture that John finally had of the ministry of Jesus, after many years of reflection. It is likely that the author(s) put this gospel together from these events which John had spoken of many times, probably writing them soon after his death as indicated by the timing of the gospel some 60/70 years after that time. In this respect they are the thoughts of the Apostle, just simply recorded later. This may well lead into an answer regarding the addition of the 21st chapter of the gospel. After John’s death events may well have unfolded that brought Galilee into focus in relation to the meeting of the disciples and the Resurrected Jesus. It was certainly included in Mark’s gospel of some 20 years earlier. The author of John’s gospel simply realised, at some later stage, the significance of this meeting and added the event, adding much more detail and gravitas to it than Mark’s original version. This would certainly account for the closeness in style and approach of the original gospel. Significant research seems to indicate that author as John the Elder, as it does with the letter of John.
The whole point of John’s gospel is that we shall only find its secrets and its joys when we bring our true self before him. It is not intentions, or even actions, which will lead to his ultimate peace. Then and only then will we have the true life that is in Him.
Put your finger here,
in the hole in my hand.
Put your hand into the wound in my side
if that’s what it takes
for you to believe.
And then I knew
I didn’t need to touch him,
that I was looking
into the face of God.
O Lord, you know
what was important for Thomas.
what is important for me.
Help me to wait for that moment
As Thomas did,
And like Thomas realise that you will
Touch my life
Just where it matters.
It is only then
That I can begin to realise
That I am looking
Into the face of God.