3rd Sunday of Year A

There are divisions in the Church. Sadly, there have been divisions since the earliest days of Christianity, as is made clear by the opening of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. But just because something has gone on for a long time doesn’t make it right. Quite the opposite! For the last seven days Christians around the world have been praying for unity, to heal the divisions which so mar the Body of Christ, the Church. And while it is good to focus our prayers on unity for a week, I would venture to suggest that the unity of Christians is something which we should all be praying for all the time. It is shocking that the tribalism which St Paul condemns in the first century, is still alive and well today. People are still defining themselves as one sort of Christian as opposed to another, or by the place where they worship. Our culpability in this is something for which we need to repent. We need to turn away from division, and to turn back to the God of love, who longs to heal our wounds and divisions; fostering unity is following the will of God. 

This morning’s Gospel begins with the news that John the Baptist has been arrested. His criticism of the immorality of the ruling family had upset the powers that be. Calling out Herod Antipas for divorcing his wife, and then breaking Jewish law by marrying his brother Philip’s wife, seems the right thing to do. We expect our rulers to set an example. It’s only right and proper. The church continues this prophetic vocation, calling out what is evil and wrong. This may, and will, indeed make people uncomfortable: That’s the point! No one likes having their wrongdoing pointed out, I know I don’t! But unless someone does, then we’re unlikely to change our ways. 

In the Gospel, Jesus has just been in the desert for forty days, praying, fasting, being tempted by the Devil. He begins his public ministry by leaving Nazareth, the town where He grew up, and walking to Capernaum by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is a day’s journey. This is an important place for Jesus to start His public ministry, because it fulfils a prophecy in Isaiah, which St Matthew quotes, ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’ (Mt 4:15-16 ESV) This part of Israel is where people were first taken off into captivity by the Assyrians, seven hundred years before. So Our Lord’s restoration of Israel starts in the place where the Northern Kingdom first began to fall apart. 

Strikingly, Jesus begins His proclamation of the Good news of the Kingdom by repeating the exact words of His Cousin, John the Baptist: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. Their message is the same: turn away from your sins and turn back to God, turn back to the God who loves you, and who longs to heal you. These are words of hope for the future, for restoration. This is a message which we all long to hear. 

When Jesus sees two fishermen, Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew casting their nets,  and invites them to ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ It is quite a simple and straightforward invitation. On hearing Jesus’ words they drop everything and follow Him. Immediately! They don’t stop to put their affairs in order, or to say goodbye. A little later, James and John do the same, leaving Zebedee, their father, behind in the boat. Nothing is more important than following Jesus, but these early disciples show us that following God has a cost. It transforms our lives, totally, but not without cost. 

So what does Jesus do with this band of disciples? He takes them into synagogues, where He teaches and interprets the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament. Jesus proclaims the Good News of the Kingdom, that we are loved by God. He demonstrates this love in practice by healing the sick. God’s kingdom is a place where wounds are healed, where people are restored to wholeness, in mind, body and soul. There is a cost to following God, but here we see the reward of the Kingdom. Each and every one of us needs that healing and wholeness, which only God can provide. The Church continues to proclaim repentance from sin, belief in the Kingdom of God, and participates in the healing power of God. 

These things begin with us, here, today. We hear the Kingdom proclaimed, we confess our faith together, we pray for the Church and the World, and we join in the banquet of the Kingdom. The source and summit of the Christian life is the Eucharist, where Christ feeds and heals us with His Body and Blood. God’s love is a reality, with the power to transform us and our world, if we have the humility to let God be at work in our lives. He does not force Himself upon us like a tyrant, but rather gives us the free will to choose to turn to Him. 

God also wills that the Church be united, as Jesus prays in Gethsemane, ‘I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.’ (Jn 17:20-21 RSVCE) May we pray and work so that Our Lord’s will is a reality and that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

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2nd Sunday of Year A – ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’

John the Baptist looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ Lambs were a central part of the Jewish festival of Passover. In order to avert the tenth plague in Egypt, the people of Israel were instructed to take a young lamb without any blemish and slaughter it. They were then to anoint the doorposts of their house with it, so that their firstborn would be saved, not killed by the Angel of Death. The lamb was to be roasted over the fire and eaten standing up whilst dressed for a journey. This festival of Passover is the high point of the Jewish religious calendar, and marks the start of their journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Israel. It is also the time of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

In order to meet the needs the large number of people celebrating the passover festival in the early 1st century AD, there needed to be a lot of shepherds raising flocks of animals for slaughter. In the Christmas story we see that the first visitors to the Holy Family in Bethlehem were shepherds. As Bethlehem is only six miles from Jerusalem, these shepherds were raising the lambs that would be consumed at Passover in nearby Jerusalem in their thousands. Jesus, like these lambs was also without blemish and would be killed at Passover. So from the very moment of Christ’s birth, His Death is foreshadowed. 

Traditionally Jesus’ death is understood to have happened at the ninth hour, 3pm, which is the same time that the passover lambs began to be slaughtered in the Temple in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. This is not mere coincidence, but rather signal proof that Christ’s death is sacrificial, and represents the new Passover, and the freedom of the people of God. In this morning’s Gospel Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, greets Him, saying, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’. John understands that Jesus is the passover Lamb.

The image of a lamb brings to mind a passage in the prophet Isaiah, where the Suffering Servant is compared to, ‘a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb’ (Isa 53:7). This prophecy will be fulfilled in Holy Week on Good Friday. Here, at the start of John’s Gospel, just after the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, when John the Baptist saw the Spirit descend on Him, (before the first sign of turning water into wine at the marriage of Cana), John’s description of Jesus is a prophetic utterance which points forward to Jesus’ death on the Cross. So then, from the very start of Our lord’s life, as with the gift of myrrh at Bethlehem, the beginning points to the end: to Calvary (and beyond). 

In Genesis, we read of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, who is saved when at the last moment a ram appears in a thorn bush. Isaac carrying wood for the sacrificial fire, prefigures Christ carrying the wood of the Cross. The ram in the thorns foreshadows Christ, the Lamb of God, crowned with thorns. Mt Moriah, where these events take place, is the mountain on which Jerusalem was built, and whose highest point is Golgotha, which is where Our Lord was crucified. The old foretells the new, and is completed by it.Prophecy is fulfilled. In Christ, God is glorified, and of Him the prophet Isaiah says, ‘I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ (Isa 49:5 ESV). 

In the Eucharist, just before we receive Communion I will repeat the words of John the Baptist, ‘Behold the Lamb of God…’ so that we may recognise Christ in our midst; we respond with the words of the Centurion, in Luke 7:6-7, ’Lord I am not worthy…’ It is this sense of unworthiness which keeps us both humble and reliant upon God to transform us. We hear John the Baptist’s words so that we may join in his confession that this is the Son of God. Christ is truly present in the Eucharist in a way which we cannot understand, which words and language cannot express, because that is how God is. As a result of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us, God incarnate makes himself known so that we might worship God, and that God might be at work in us. Unlike the sacrifices of Passover and the Day of Atonement which needed to be repeated annually, the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross happens once, to deal with all sin, past, present, and future, to reconcile humanity to God and to each other. It is this reality which we celebrate today: we have been set free. 

This is the Good News of the Kingdom. We are loved by God, who flings His arms wide on the Cross to embrace the world with love. A God who embraces the shame of a slave’s death, the most brutal demonstration of Roman power, the most degrading way to die, to show the world love. It isn’t what you’d expect, and that’s the point. God does not want to compel us to love Him or worship Him, but rather makes a relationship possible, so that we might come to know Him, and love Him. As we approach the altar, this is what we are to receive, the Body and Blood of Christ, the self same body and blood which were nailed to the Cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world. Our hands will hold and our lips will touch him who created the entire universe. How can we not fail to be shocked by the generosity of a God who gives himself to us in such a personal way, in a way that we do not deserve? Yet, we can never deserve such a gift, that is why God takes the initiative and gives himself to us, freely and gladly. Like the Father of the Prodigal Son, God rushes to meet us, to embrace us and to celebrate with us, to show his love for us. God became a human being at Christmas so that we might become divine, through our baptism and our participation at the altar, in the feast of the Lamb.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity, uniting heaven and earth through the sacrifice of Calvary, allowing all humanity to share the body and blood of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, feeding on him so that we may become what he is; enabling us to share eternity with him, and to live lives of faith and hope, and love. So then, let us join the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb and enter into the mystery of God’s self-giving love, so that we may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now, and forever.

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The Baptism of Christ

Baptism is something with which we are familiar in the Church. But for the vast majority of Christians baptised as infants, it isn’t something we necessarily remember. We are too young to recall the event. But whether we can remember it or not, we know that it happened, and that it marked our entry into the Church, where we were clothed with Christ and  we were born again, by water and the Holy Spirit. And as Christians we are baptised for many reasons, the first of which is that Jesus was baptised, something which the Church celebrates today. 

At one level it looks a little strange. Baptism washes us from our sins, and Jesus is not a sinner, so He does not need to baptized. Hence John the Baptist’s response, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14 ESV). Our Lord replies by saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” (Mt 3:15 ESV). Jesus’ baptism is one of obedience to the will of God the Father. That is why our first reading is the first of the Servant Songs in the prophecy of Isaiah. The prophecy is fulfilled when the Father speaks the first verse, at the moment of Jesus’ baptism. He gives Him as a covenant to the nations, a covenant that will be made on the Cross, to save humanity. Christ is a light for the nations, as Simeon states at the Presentation in the Temple, Christ will open the eyes of the blind, and set prisoners free. This is the reality of the Kingdom of God, something of we, through our baptism, are a part.

Today God does a new thing, which lies at the heart of the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom by St Peter in this morning’s second reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It is the same proclamation that we find in Isaiah. There is a consistency in proclamation down through the centuries, a guarantee of its truth. God the Father expresses His love for His Son, whose obedience to His Father’s will shows humanity that by saying ‘Yes’ to God, the ‘No’ of Adam and Eve can be undone. Christ fulfils all righteousness, and in so doing points His public ministry towards the Cross.  This is where righteousness and obedience lead: to death and suffering, to display God’s love and finally, once and for all to restore humanity. What is foolish in the eyes of the world, is in fact the greatest possible demonstration of love. We will see that love made visible here this morning, where Christ offers Himself to the Father, and offers the Church His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, so that we may feed on Him, so that He may transform us, so that we may come to share in the very life and nature of God. Through our Baptism and the Eucharist the Kingdom becomes a living reality in us. We are transformed to live its life, and transform the world.

Last Sunday we celebrated Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles. Now this Sunday, at the start of Christ’s public ministry, He is again made manifest. God the Father acknowledges the Son in the flesh, and sends the Holy Spirit, the bond of their love. The fulness of the Divine Trinity is united and manifest on earth to proclaim that Christ is Lord, and the Kingdom has become a reality. Christ does not need to be baptised, as we do, but does so to fulfil all righteousness and to sanctify the waters of baptism for those whom He would redeem, to show us the way to new life in Him. At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus shows humanity the way to the Father, through himself. The world sees the generous love of God, which heals and restores us, from the darkness of the dungeon of sin and evil, to the light and life of the Kingdom of God. As our baptism is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so His baptism points to the Cross, where streams of blood and water flow to cleanse and heal the world. We see the love of the Father, the power of the Spirit, and the obedience of Son, and all for us, who are so weak and foolish, and who need God’s love and healing, and forgiveness.

We need this, the whole world needs it, but is too proud to turn to a God of love, for fear of judgement, knowing that they deserve to be cut off forever, and yet it is exactly such people, such lost sheep that Our Lord comes to seek, whom He enfolds in His loving arms on the Cross, whom He washes in the waters of baptism, so that all may be a part of Him, regardless of whom they are, and what they have done. Salvation is the free gift of God and open to all who turn to him.

Ours is a faith which can transform the world, so that all humanity can share in God’s life and love, each and every one of us can become part of something radical and revolutionary, which can and will transform the world one soul at a time, it may sound strange, crazy even, but that is the point. Rather than human violence, cruelty, and murder, the only way to transform the world is through the love of God. This is what the church is for, what it’s all about; it is why we are gathered here, to be strengthened and nourished, through prayer, the Word of God, and the Sacraments of the Church, strengthened and nourished to live out our faith in our lives to transform the world. Nothing more, nothing less, just a revolution of love, of forgiveness, and healing, which the world both wants and needs, so let us live it so that the world may be transformed and believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Epiphany

Imagine the scene, you’ve given birth to a baby and are sheltering with the animals for warmth. First shepherds come to see you, and then rich noble astronomers from hundreds of miles away. It is strange, and out of the ordinary. But then this is no ordinary baby, quite the opposite in fact. Today he is made manifest to all the World. 

The opening words of Isaiah 61, ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’ (Isa 61:1 ESV) foretells the star which leads the Wise Men to Jesus. It shines as a light in the darkness, and points to Him who is the light of the World, a light which the world cannot understand or overcome. He is the Light of the World, in Him our salvation has arisen, a light which can never be put out. The nations shall come to His light, Christ is made manifest to the gentiles, made clear, and obvious. Kings come to the brightness of His rising, and they bring gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. They come to honour Christ, who is priest, prophet, and King. They come to worship God made man; they come to pay their homage to the Saviour born among them. They come with camels and bringing gold and frankincense to worship their king and their God. They come to Bethlehem, and not to a royal palace, or a throne. This is what true kingship is, true love, that of God and not of humanity.

The wise men bring Jesus gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are and always have been expensive, costly, and precious things. Gold, is a precious metal, which does not tarnish, which is pure. It is a gift for a King: its purity points to a life of perfect obedience, the pattern of how life should be lived. Incense, from Arabia, was offered to God in the Temple in Jerusalem, as the sweet-smelling smoke rose, it looked like our prayers rising to God. It is a sign of worship, a sign of honour, and how humanity should respond to God. Myrrh, often used in the ointment was part of embalming, it speaks of death. Even in Christ’s birth, and appearance to the Gentiles, we see Christ’s kingly power, and his obedience to the will of the Father. We see His role in worship as our great High Priest, which leads Him to Death and Burial

Everything then points to the Cross, where Christ will shed his blood for love of us, where he will die to reconcile us to God. It is an act of pure, self-giving love, which we as Christians celebrate. It’s why we come to the Eucharist, to share in Christ’s body and blood, to be fed by him, with him, and to become what he is.

The Wise Men in the East saw a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in the constellation Pisces, which was believed to represent the Jews , which coincided with a comet moving in the sky. So, on the basis of their observations they travelled hundred of miles to Israel, the land of the Jews, and go to the royal palace in Jerusalem, to find out what is going on. Creation announces, through the movement of the stars and planets that something wonderful is happening. 

The incarnation of the Son of God is the pivotal event in earth’s history: through it salvation has dawned, and humanity is offered freedom and new life in this little child. He is proclaimed to all the world as the King of the Jews and the Saviour of the World, the Messiah. Herod’s reaction was fear of being overthrown which leads him to murder the newborn children in Bethlehem in order to safeguard his position. The world’s reaction is more complex. Mostly it is indifference, nowadays. At its root is pessimism for the future: things will just get worse, they cannot get better. But in Christ a new hope has dawned. We can have hope because Christ is born and made manifest to the world. When the Wise Men saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy, and they came, and they fell down, knelt and worshipped him, because he was God become man in the womb of a Virgin. Our salvation is made manifest to the world, the whole of creation rejoices that God is with us. It is a great reason for joy, and the joy of the Lord is our strength (cf. Nehemiah 8:10) 

So let us rejoice like the Wise Men, let us come like them to kneel before the Lord, born in our midst.  The Wise Men come and kneel and they worship and adore the Lord of creation and the Word of God Incarnate. The King of all is not in a Palace but in a simple house in Bethlehem, and He meets us here today under the outward forms of Bread and Wine, to heal us, to restore us, and to give us life in Him. Let us come before Him, offer Him the gifts of our life, and our love, and our service so that we may see His Kingdom grow.

As we celebrate the Epiphany we also look forward to Our Lord’s Baptism in the River Jordan and his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. He who is without sin shows humanity how to be freed from sin and to have new life in Him. In turning water into wine we see that the kingdom of God is a place of generous love, a place of joy, and of life in all its fullness.

So let us be filled with joy and love, may we live lives of joy, and love, and service of God and one another, which proclaim in word and deed the love of God to the world, that it may believe: so that all creation may resound with the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen

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