Trinity XIII

Our first reading this morning from Deuteronomy is taken from a speech which Moses gives to Israel before they enter the Promised Land. Moses tells the people,

‘You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.’ (Deut 4:2)

This salutary advice refers to a common religious problem, one which the Pharisees and their successors the Rabbis found hard to comply with. They would argue that they were not creating new law, but merely commenting upon the old, and exploring its richness. There is, however, a very fine line between the two.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Over the last year and a half we have become more conscious than ever of the value of good hygiene; hand-washing has become headline news. Over 200 years ago, John Wesley wrote a sermon ‘On Dress’ stating: ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. This proverb has found its way into the common speech and the ‘collective unconscious’. But while it is good advice, it is not quite what the Pharisees are complaining about in this morning’s Gospel reading. 

The previous story in Mark’s Gospel is that of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, so food-related matters are on the Pharisees’ mind. They are on the lookout for any minor infringement: something to quibble about, an excuse to attack Jesus. 

‘And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”’ (Mk 7:5)

The point that is being made is that the disciples are washing their hands, they are being hygienic, but they are not conforming to a higher level of ritual purity. The Pharisees are calling out what they see as a failure on the part of the disciples, and especially Jesus as their teacher, to conform to a man-made standard of priestly purity. In the eyes of the Pharisees, they are not holy enough.

In reply to their criticisms, Jesus says:

‘“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”’ (Mk 7:6-8)

Jesus quotes the Greek text of Isaiah (29:13) to make His point. Religious laws are a means by which humanity is sanctified, and God is honoured. They are not an end in themselves. The Pharisees are so concerned with the correct interpretation of religious minutiae that they can no longer see the wood for the trees: they have lost sight of the bigger picture. This approach neither honours God, nor sanctifies humanity. Indeed it drives a wedge between God and His people.

Instead, Jesus offers profound moral teaching to the people about what really matters:

‘And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”’ (Mk 7:14-15 & 21-23)

Rather than parading one’s religion as a pious façade, Jesus teaches people to pay attention to their interior life. What we think and feel affects both who we are and how we live our lives. Jesus is mindful of God’s revelation to Samuel:

‘for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ (1Samuel 16:7)

Rather than focussing on outward aspects (like the Pharisees), Jesus reminds us that our inward thoughts are usually where the real problem lies. Thoughts can turn into actions and become habits which form character. The Pharisees are in effect encouraging a thin veneer of correct behaviour, appearing to do the right thing, while covering up any thoughts and intentions that do not promote human flourishing. Jesus wants honesty, where what you see is what you get. As with much of His teaching, it is very simple in theory, and much harder in practice. We all aspire to what Our Lord teaches, but we often struggle to live it out. 

This is why faith cannot just be a personal matter. We live in community, and as a community we can help and support each other as we try to live out our faith together. We find encouragement to do this in this morning’s reading from the Letter of James. The apostle reminds us of the goodness and generosity of God, and the fact that we are created by Him, made in His image.

James encourages Christians to put their faith into practice:

‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’ (James 1:22)

These words echo those of Jesus in the Gospel. People should in all gentleness and humility both listen to the word of God and do what it says. As Christians, our thoughts and words and actions proclaim the truth that Christ died to save us from our sins, and that He rose again that we might have new life in Him. Faith needs to be real and concrete, lived out in the world in loving action.

As we try to live out our faith, in our homes and community, we can only do this together, supporting each other. We also need to be gentle and generous when we fail, as we inevitably will.  Thankfully we do not need to rely upon our own strength, but upon the love and mercy of God. Then we can be built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory, which proclaims His love and truth to the world. We are called to live lives of forgiveness and sacrificial love which build up, as opposed to being bitter, judgemental and blind to our own faults. We should not be eager to point out the sins of others. Instead, clothed in the humility of our knowledge of our need of God, His love and mercy, let us come to Him. Let us be fed by Him, and healed and restored by Him. Let us live lives which speak of the power of His kingdom, so that the world may come to 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.

The Pharisees question Jesus – James Tissot

Trinity XII ‘Lord to whom should we go?’

Today’s Old Testament Reading from the last chapter of the Book of Joshua records a pivotal moment. The people of Israel have settled in the Promised Land, and Joshua calls them together at Shechem to renew their covenant with God. Joshua asks the people of Israel a question: 

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’” (Joshua 24:2& 15)

Do the Israelites want to serve the Lord their God, or would they prefer to follow their ancestral gods, or those of the land in which they now live? Joshua tells them what he will do:

“But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

Joshua makes a clear choice, and the Israelites follow his example. They are mindful of what God has done for them:

“Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:16-18)

Their religious faith is a conscious act of the will, they choose to serve the God who has saved them. God has shown that He is the God of Israel. 

In this morning’s Gospel we come to the end of the Bread of Life Discourse in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus’ teaching has offended some people. All this talk of eating flesh and blood sounds to them like cannibalism, which was strictly taboo. The mere suggestion of it was offensive in Jewish culture; it went against everything people had been taught. It is thus hardly surprising when some of His disciples say: 

“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6: 60)

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, and those present are not used to this kind of teaching. It turns everything they know on its head. In Hebrew the word for flesh (baśar) and the word for good news, glad tidings, or the Gospel, sound the same. Such word-play is intentional, and may be linked to the Hebrew Wisdom tradition:

“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:5-6)

Jesus notices that some of His disciples are grumbling, just like the Israelites in the Exodus story we read a few weeks ago. So he says to them: 

“Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (Jn 6:61-65)

This strategy seems a strange one. If people were not shocked enough to begin with, Jesus goes on to make other claims which could be taken as blasphemous. For us to have life in Jesus we need to be baptised. For our sins to be washed away, we need to hear the Good News. We need to eat the Eucharist, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. These are all outpourings of grace, of Divine generosity, given to transform us, more and more into the likeness of God. 

Jesus’ teaching has a profound effect, rather than attracting people to follow Him, it leads to the exact opposite response:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6: 66-69) 

Jesus asks the Twelve if they too would like to leave Him too, which leads to a profound declaration of faith by St Peter. They have a choice to make, and they choose Jesus, as no-one else can offer what He does. Here Peter is confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. To be a Christian is to make the same confession as Peter, and to have the same hope of eternal life in and through Jesus Christ. 

Jesus’ teaching is hard to accept, and difficult to understand, but we can experience it, when we receive Holy Communion. For Peter, and for us, belief precedes knowledge. We believe and then we come to know.

It is a question of commitment, which involves love and sacrifice — the two go hand in hand. It is what marriage is all about, and it also describes God’s relationship with us, and ours with God. It will see Jesus die on the Cross for us, to show us just how much God loves us, and wants to restore our relationship with Him, and each other. To be close to God is wonderful, but it isn’t something God forces us into: we may choose to accept God’s love, or to refuse it. This love is freely given.

St Paul’s advice to the Christians in Ephesus is another difficult text, which revolves around making a choice. For St Paul Christian marriage is all about loving service of one another, as demonstrated by Christ. Jesus lays down His life for us, so we should do the same for each other. Thus, in marriage in particular, and in society in general, loving service and self-sacrifice are the ways in which we should live. It is a generous form of life, because its model is Jesus, the most unselfish person ever, who created all that there is, and who redeemed it by offering His life as a ransom for many. We see this on the Cross and we commemorate it in the Eucharist, where Christ continues to feed us His people with Himself, so that we might have life in Him. 

So let us come to Jesus, let us choose Him, and put our trust in Him. Let us be fed by Him and with Him, so that we may spend eternity singing the praises 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.

James Tissot – Jesus Discourses with His Disciples

The Assumption 2021

Today the Church celebrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which commemorates her being taken up after death, body and soul, into Heaven. It is important to stress that Assumption is something passive rather than active; Jesus ascends to Heaven, whilst Mary is assumed. This is a profound difference between the two. Jesus ascends because He is God, Mary is assumed because she is the Mother of God, and the model for all Christians to follow. Humble and obedient in her life, in her death Our Lord’s Mother shares fully in the resurrection of her Son, and points the way for us as Christians. Where Mary goes, we hope to follow, trusting in the love and mercy of God. It is a sign to us as Christians that we can trust the promises of Christ who went to prepare a place for us, that where He is, we may also be. 

From the early days of the Church there is a tradition that Mary’s tomb, in the valley of Jehoshaphat just outside Jerusalem, is empty, and that her bodily remains are not there. From this developed the belief that after her death she was given a share in her Son’s glory, victory, and eternal life. This is both a reward for her faithfulness and humility, her obedience to God, and also as a sign to us that this is what Christ came to share with us, his people. God in Christ shares our human life, from beginning to end, and offers us eternal life in Heaven, which Mary enjoys. We can trust what God promises us, because God is loving and faithful, even when we are not. He is merciful, so that we can be transformed by His Love. This is the Good News of the Kingdom. We do not deserve it, we cannot earn it, yet God gives it in loving generosity to heal all that has been marred by sin. 

In today’s first reading from the Book of Revelation, St John has a vision of Heaven:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars (Revelation 12:1)

This is why Mary is often depicted this way in art as a woman crowned with stars. At the foot of the Cross, during Jesus’ Crucifixion, John was given a new family:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)

John has been close to both Jesus and His Mother, Mary: in her earthly life, and now, John has a glimpse of her in Heavenly Glory, the Glory of her Son, Jesus Christ. The Church honours her as the Mother of God, Theotokos, meaning ‘God-bearer’ in Greek. Without Mary saying ‘Yes’ to God in the Annunciation, our salvation would not have been possible. Her response gives us the hope of heavenly glory, which she enjoys, close to God in this life and the next. 

John’s vision of Heaven shows us that we can have hope of eternal life, through Christ’s victory over sin and death: 

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come (Revelation 12:10)

It is this hope which allows St Paul to write to the church in Corinth:

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1Corinthians 15:22)

Christ is the new Adam. Sunday, the day of His Resurrection is the first day of the week, and a sign of the New Creation. Likewise, Mary is the new Eve, but whereas Eve is disobedient in the Garden of Eden, Mary is obedient in the Annunciation, agreeing to bear the Son of God in her womb. Thus, Christ is born, and humanity can be saved, healed, and restored. Mary shares in her Son’s victory over sin and death as a Sign of the reality of the Resurrection, a promise made to humanity to share in God’s love and intimacy.

The Gospel reading begins with a demonstration of Mary’s care and service. She goes to stay with her older cousin, Elizabeth, who is six months pregnant, and while Elizabeth’s prayers for a child have been answered the realities of life mean that she needs help. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is busy in the Temple, so Mary lovingly comes in haste to help her cousin. As she arrives, Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb. John the Baptist greets Jesus and Mary with joy: even before his birth. He is a prophet, announcing the wonderful works of God. 

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:41)

Elizabeth recognises the wonderful thing that has happened, and understands that through Mary’s child God’s promise is being fulfilled. She also recognises Mary’s faith, and says to her: 

“Blessed is she who believed” (Luke 1:45)

Mary is indeed blessed in giving birth to the Saviour of humanity, blessed in her obedience, love, and service, and blessed after death to share in the Heavenly Glory of her Son. The way in which Mary trusts God, gives Christians a clear example to follow in living the life of faith. We need to be like Mary. 

This is why every evening at Vespers (Evensong), Mary’s great hymn of praise, the Magnificat, which starts, “My Soul doth Magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46), is recited. These words reveal her complete trust in God, a God who takes it upon Himself to deal with sin and death by giving us His Son. A God who establishes a kingdom of love, forgiveness, and generosity, through which the Church continues God’s work of love and reconciliation in the world. Despite all our mistakes and failures, God showers us with His love and mercy. All the readings this morning are rooted in the simple fact that God loves us, and Mary shows us how to respond to that love. Her Assumption gives us hope that when Jesus says:

In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’ (John 14:2) 

God makes room for us, the question is can we make room for Him? Can we be like Mary, trusting God to be at work in us? Can we let His Grace perfect our nature, to live lives of hope and joyful service, so that after our earthly life we may, in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, sing the praises 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.

The Assumption of the Virgin – Palma il Vecchio

Trinity X ‘I am the living bread’

Today’s Old Testament reading from the First Book of Kings continues the theme of miraculous feedings, which we have been following for the past two weeks. The prophet Elijah is having something of a hard time, combatting King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, and the priests of Baal. Elijah has reached the point of physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion. He wants the pain to go away, even if it means the end of his life, and so he goes into the wilderness, sits despondent under a tree and says:

It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’ (I Kings 19:4)

Despite having reached rock bottom, Elijah prays to God, and God hears his prayer and answers him. The Almighty sends an angel to minister to Elijah’s needs. 

‘And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again.’ (I Kings 19:5-6)

Rest and nourishment are what Elijah needs, and these are provided. After resting, Elijah is fed again, to prepare him for the upcoming journey:

 ‘And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.’ (I Kings 19:7-8)

Elijah is travelling to Horeb, to Mt Sinai, where God gave the Commandments to Moses. God strengthens and gives sustenance to Elijah for his journey of about 250 miles. This prefigures the Eucharist, our bread for the journey, which sustains us in our life of faith. 

Just like the Israelites in last week’s reading from Exodus, in today’s Gospel the Jews are grumbling. They dislike the fact that Jesus has said that He is the bread come down from Heaven. So they complain: 

“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42)

The problem is that they can only understand Jesus in human terms, they see a man, and nothing more. They cannot see beyond this. The Messiah whom they long for is in their midst and yet they fail to recognise him. But Jesus is both fully human and fully divine: True Man and True God. He is the son of Joseph and Mary, but He is also the Son of God, who took flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what we believe as Christians, and state in the words of the Nicene Creed, which we will soon say together, declaring our faith, and placing our trust in the God who loves us.

Jesus tells the people not to grumble among themselves. They do not need to be discontented, as what Christ has come to bring them is the source of the greatest contentment possible: God’s very self and the hope of Eternal Life with Him. This is the greatest Passover possible: to live the life of Heaven. This is why Jesus can promise: 

‘And I will raise him up on the last day.’ (John 6:44)

Jesus has come to offer Eternal Life to those who believe in Him. This is His purpose, His mission. Christ, our saviour, will lay down His life, and die on the Cross to reconcile us to God, conquer Death, and give us the hope of Heaven. Jesus then quotes from Isaiah (54:13):

“It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’” (John 6:45)

This verse comes just before Isaiah’s hope for the future, the Messianic banquet:

‘Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.’ (Isa 55:1)

Jesus’ use of Isaiah both underlines the fact that those present are being taught by God, and looks forward to the fulfilment of the prophecy in the Eucharist. He is teaching them and pointing them towards the hope of the Kingdom of God. We are here today to see that hope fulfilled, so that Christ can feed us with Himself. He states:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:51)

Jesus is the living bread and if we eat Him then we will live forever. We need the Eucharist. It isn’t an occasional treat or a reward for good behaviour, it is necessary and vital, and we cannot truly live without it. The Church continues these miraculous heavenly banquets in feeding the people of Christ with Christ. This is the free gift of God, an act of radical generosity, so that we might be radical and generous in return. Jesus institutes the Eucharist on the night before He dies so that we might do this in memory of Him, so that He is ever present with us, and we are filled with His love. The Sacrament of  the Eucharist is an outward and visible sign of inward spiritual grace. Christ gives us life, so that we may live in Him. As St Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians, 

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ (Eph 5:1-2) 

There is something quite extraordinary and radical about this. It isn’t how most people in the world around us live. Christians are supposed to different, to live different lives in a different way, because we follow Jesus, and strive to live like Him. We operate according to different rules and standards, those of Christ, and not of the world around us. 

As Christians, we have responded to the call to follow Christ, to imitate Him, and His way of life. We are instructed to practise forgiveness, whereas the world around us is often judgemental and unkind, writing people off. Thankfully that is something which God never does. Instead, He forgives, He redeems, He heals, He restores. We pray for the world to become more Christ-like, where people are loving, forgiving, and compassionate. Where the hungry are fed, where those in need are comforted, and cared for. We pray for a more selfless world where people respond to the needs of others, especially those feeling despondent and desperate. So in the strength of this heavenly food, may we live out our faith, encouraging others, so that all may sing 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.

You follow Me for the Miracles – James Tissot