Trinity VII Year A

At one level, God is completely beyond our understanding: we cannot comprehend the majesty of God, or the depth of God’s love for us. Yet in Christ, the Word made flesh, we catch a glimpse of what God is like. Likewise Jesus speaks in parables to explain what the Kingdom of God is like – to convey in words and images which we can understand, something of the majesty and wonder of the life lived in union with God.

This morning’s gospel gives us four images to ponder: the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, it is a a small thing, only a couple of millimetres across, which can grow into a plant large enough that birds can nest in it. Likewise our faith may be small, we may not think that we’re terribly good at being a Christian, at following Jesus, but if we live out our faith in our lives together, then our faith can, like a mustard seed, grow into something amazing: it can be a place of welcome, a place that birds can call home. It becomes a reality in the world, something which we share, a place of joy, filled with the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom is like yeast – a small bit can rise an awful lot of dough. It’s alive, and it makes bread – a basic foodstuff – that nourishes us, that gives us life. It reminds us that Jesus is the living bread who came down from heaven, which is why we are here, now, today, to share in that same living bread. We are here to partake in the feast of the Kingdom, where Christ gives himself for us, under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that we may have life in him, and have it to the full, it gives us life, it nourishes us, and gives us a foretaste of heaven, and of eternal life in Him.

The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great price, it is something so wonderful, so valuable, that it becomes the single most important thing in our life: it comes before everything else, because it is about our relationship with the God who created us, who loves us, and who redeems us. We celebrate the single most significant event in human history, which shows us how much God loves us, the riches of His grace poured out upon us, and the wonder of having faith in Him.

The kingdom is like a net full of fish – good and bad. It hasn’t been sorted out yet. It is a work in progress – we should not be so presumptuous to think that we are good fish, nor so pessimistic to think that we are bad. Rather we show our faith by living it out in our lives – the kingdom is here among us, right here, right now. We are to live resurrection lives and to proclaim the truth of our faith to the world, so that it too may believe.

The kingdom is like someone who brings things out, both old and new – rooted in scripture, the Word of God, and in the tradition of the Church – rooted, grounded, authentic, recognisable, not making things up as we go along, or going along with the ways of the world, because it suits us. There is something refreshing and new about orthodoxy, because it is rooted in truth, the source of all truth, namely God. It is old and new, a well which never runs dry, because it is fed by God, something which can refresh us, and which gives true life to the Church.

The challenge for us, as Christians is to live out our faith in the God who loves us and who saves us. We should not compartmentalise our lives so that our faith is a private matter. It needs to affect all of who and what we are, what we think or say or do. It is something primary, and foundational, not an optional extra, not some add-on, but the very ground of our being. It is a big ask; and if it were simply up to each and every one of us, then we would, without doubt, completely and utterly fail to do it. Yet such is the love and forgiveness of God, that His mercy is never-ending, and as people forgiven by God, we likewise forgive each other and are built up in love together, so that the work of the Kingdom is a corporate matter, a joint effort – we’re all in it together – it is what the church is for – a bunch of sinners trying to love God and serve Him, and likewise loving and serving each other, and the whole world.

We can do it in the strength of the Holy Spirit of God, so that we can pray, so that we can to talk to and listen to God. The Spirit is poured out upon each and every one of us in our baptism, whereby our souls are infused with all the spiritual grace we need to get to heaven. We can follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, and likewise spread the good news, and live the life of the Kingdom. We can be confident in Christ’s victory, over sin, death, and the world, and strong in the power of His Spirit, live out our faith and share the joy of being known and loved by God, so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

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The Fourteenth Sunday of Year A (Mt 11:16-19, 25-30)

There really is NO pleasing some people! It is completely impossible especially as some people are only happy when they are complaining or moaning about something. No I’m not talking about present-day church meetings, PCCs or even General Synod, I am reflecting on Jesus’ words to the people of His day in this morning’s Gospel.

It is a very human reaction – not being satisfied, and merely focussing on what you think are the negative points. John the Baptist lived a simple ascetic life and is accused of being possessed  by a demon. Jesus eats and drinks with the ‘wrong sort of people’ and is accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. Both approaches certainly have their place in the Christian life: feasting and fasting are part of who and what we are and do. They are both something that Jesus did and something that we should emulate in our own lives. But when we are worried about being seen eating with tax-collectors and sinners – collaborators with the occupying power, prostitutes, people who are beyond the pale and ‘not like us’: then we know that something is seriously wrong. If the the Church acted in this way, we would know that it was in a serious mess.

It’s just like the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. People who think that they are somehow better, morally superior, don’t really think that they need God. They think that they are ok; they are doing just fine thank you very much. They certainly have little need for religion or anything too extreme. The self-righteous attitude of the Pharisees is alive and well, and all around us. Jesus, however, associates with sinners for the simple reason that they know their need for God, they are not self-righteous, just humble. They know who they need to rely on, and also where their strength comes from.

Jesus’ teaching begins with gratitude. He gives thanks to the Father, the Lord of Heaven and Earth. In the prayer He gives us He starts by recognising both who and what God is, God who is the beginning and end of all things. It is a model for our prayers and our lives as Christians. We need to be GRATEFUL people. God has hidden things from the so-called wise and intelligent, those who think that they know it all, and do not pay any attention to Jesus’ words.

Instead, Jesus has revealed the truth to children, those who are weak and foolish. Simple, trusting souls [cf. Celsus] who know their need of God. The key then is humility. And for this our primary example is the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. God humbled himself to share our humanity, so that we might share His divinity. Through being reliant upon God, and not ourselves we can be rid of the ego, the sense of pride which says, ‘you can do it on your own’. and instead we can put our trust in someone who has been entrusted everything by the Father. In other words we are in Jesus’ hands, and can rely upon Him alone, safe in the knowledge that all will be well.

Jesus’ message is a simple one, ‘Come to me all who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.’ (Mt 11:28 RSV) Jesus gives us what we long for, something which the world around cannot give us, and He gives us it for free. It is the refreshment spoken of by King David in Psalm 23:1-2 ‘The Lord is my shepherd : therefore can I lack nothing. He shall feed me in a green pasture : and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.’ This is a God who keeps his promises to us, and these commitments are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Word made Flesh, the fulfilment of all Holy Scripture.

He calls us to take His yoke upon ourselves.  This is an act of submission, becoming like oxen pulling a plough, and beasts of burden. This image naturally leads us to think of Jesus carrying His Cross to Calvary. Paradoxically this is our rest, the easy task, our dancing with joy, this is the Kingdom of God.

It doesn’t make sense, and it is not supposed to, because it is radically different from anything we are used to. The opposite of worldly, selfish ways. Jesus is inaugurating a gentle humble Kingdom, which shows up the violence of the world for what it is: empty and destructive, sinful and selfish, only concerned with power and domination.

The Kingdom of God, however, offers freedom from this. For those who accept it there is gentleness and joy. Yet for those who refuse it there is the judgement of God. Jesus comes to save us from sin and judgement, and both He and His cousin, John the Baptist begin their ministry with the proclamation ‘Repent, the Kingdom of God is near.’ So my brothers and sisters let us turn away from the ways of the world, the ways of sin, selfishness, and death, and find our rest in Christ. Let us take his yoke, and bear his burden, in the joyous new life of His Kingdom. Let us encourage others to do so, that they may know His love and His peace, so that the world may be filled with his love, and so that all 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.

‘Learn of me,’ Jesus said, ‘for I am meek and humble of heart.’ Humility perfects us towards God, mildness and gentleness towards our neighbour.But be careful that mildness and humility are in your heart, for one of the great wiles of the enemy is to lead people to be content with external signs of these virtues, and to think that because their words and looks are gentle, therefore they themselves are humble and mild, whereas in fact they are otherwise. In spite of their show of gentleness and humility, they start up in wounded pride at the least insult or annoying word.

St Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life III:8

 

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Lent III Year B


Lent can feel something like a spiritual spring clean, and that’s no bad thing. We, all of us, need opportunities for repentance, to turn away from sin, and to return to the Lord Our God. In this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus in quite an uncompromising mood: this is no ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ but rather here is the righteous anger of the prophets, a sign that all is not well in the world.
            When Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God on Mt Sinai the first is ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.’ Could it be that the temple traders in their desire to profit from people’s religious observance have broken this first commandment? The temptation to have power, to be concerned above all else with worldly things: money, power, success, and influence, are still a huge temptation for the Church and the world. We may not mean to, but we do, and while we think of God as loving and merciful, we forget about righteous anger, and our need to repent, to turn away from our sins – the desire to control others and to be so caught up on the ways of the world that we lose sight of who and what we are, and what we are supposed to do and be.
            The Jews demand a sign, and Christ prophesies that if they destroy this temple then he will raise it up in three days: he looks to his death and resurrection to show them where true worship lies – in the person of Jesus Christ. Christians should be concerned with a relationship, our relationship with God, and with each other. Likewise Christians can all too easily forget that Jesus said ‘I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them’. The Ten Commandments are not abolished by Christ, or set aside, but rather his proclamation of the Kingdom and Repentance show us that we still need to live these out in our lives, to show that we honour God and live our lives accordingly. In his cleansing of the Temple Christ looks to the Cross and to the Resurrection, a stumbling-block to Jews, obsessed with the worship of the Temple, and foolishness to Gentiles who cannot believe that God could display such weakness, such powerlessness. Instead this supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, shocking and scandalous though it is, is a demonstration of the utter, complete, self-giving love of God, for the sake of you and me – miserable sinners who deserve condemnation, but who instead are offered love and mercy to heal us and restore us.
            When we are confronted with this we should be shocked – that God loves us enough to do this, to suffer and die for us, to save us from our sins, and from the punishment that is rightly ours. We do not deserve it, that’s the point. But we are offered it in Christ so that we might become something other than we are, putting away the ways of the world, of power and money, selfishness and sin, to have new life in and through Him.
            To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often. If we are changing into Jesus Christ, then we’re on the right track. If we listen to his word in Scripture; if we talk to him in prayer and let him talk to us; if we’re fed by Him and with Him in the Eucharist, by Christ who is both priest and victim, so that we might become what He is – God; if we’re forgiven by Him, through making confession of our sins, not only do we come to understand Jesus, we become like him, we come to share in his divine nature, you, me, all of humanity ideally. We, the People of God, the new humanity, enter into the divine fullness of life, we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet – we are prepared to enter the new life of the Kingdom, and to live it.

            Lent should be something of a spiritual spring clean, asking God to drive out all that should not be there, preparing for the joy of Easter, to live the Risen Life, filled with God’s grace. In our baptism we died with Christ and were raised to new life in the Spirit. Let us prepare to live that life, holding fast to Our Lord and Saviour, clinging to the teachings of his body, the Church. Let us turn away from the folly of this world, the hot air, and focus on the true and everlasting joy of heaven, which awaits us, who are bought by his blood, washed in it, fed with it. Let us proclaim it in our lives so that others may believe so that all may praise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever…

Living the life of the Kingdom – The parable of the Talents

Oh No! It’s a parable about money. Does it mean that the vicar is going to keep on about the Parish Share and the state of the Diocesan Finances? Well I’m sorry to disappoint you, I’m not. I just thought that I’d clear that one up right away, just to put your minds at rest, so that we can get on with the task of drawing closer to the word of God, and to be nourished and strengthened by it.
Reading Holy Scripture, the Bible, can be a strange affair: sometimes it fills us with joy, sometimes it just leaves us confused. Speaking personally, I find the parable of the talents troubling, mostly because I tend to feel rather like the slave who was given one talent and who hid it in the ground. That may well be my own sense of unworthiness informing my reading of the passage, which reminds me of the need in all things to trust in God, and for his grace to be at work in me. The judgement thankfully is not my own, but rather God’s – a loving father who runs to meet his prodigal children. This is a God we can trust, who wants to see us flourish.
No parable has been more misused than Jesus’ parable of the talents. Once a parable is abstracted from Jesus proclamation of the kingdom of God, once it is divorced from its apocalyptic context – pointing to the future, such misreading is inevitable:  speculation begins, for example, about how much talent might be or whether the Master’s observation that the money could have been put in a bank might mean that Jesus approves of taking interest. Speculative uses of the parable have even been employed to justify economic practices that are antithetical to Jesus’ clear judgement that we cannot serve both God and mammon. After all, money is a means, and not an end – which is where we and the world often go wrong.
Jesus is not using this parable to recommend that we should all work hard, make all that we can, to give all that we can. Rather, the parable is a clear judgement against those who think they deserve what they have earned as well as those who do not know how precious is the gift they have been given.
          The slaves have not earned their five, two, and one talents. They have been given those talents. In the parable of the Sower, Jesus indicated that those called to the kingdom would produce different yields. These differences should not be the basis for envy and jealousy, because our differences are gifts given in service to one another – so are the talents given to the slaves of a man going on a journey. It is not unfair that the slaves were given different amounts. Rather what is crucial is how they regarded what they had been given.
          The one who received one talent feared the giver. He did so because he assumed that the gifts that could only be lost or used up. In other words the one with one talent assumed that they were part of a zero-sum game – if someone wins, someone else must lose. Those who assume that life is a zero-sum game think that if one person receives an honour someone else is made poorer. The slave who feared losing what he had, he turned his gifts into a possession – it was a thing, and it was his thing. But by contrast, the first two slaves recognised that trying to secure the gifts that they had been given means that the gifts would be lost – so they use the gifts for the glory of God. The joy of the wedding banquet is the joy into which the Master invites the slaves who did not try to protect what they had been given is the joy that comes from learning to receive the gift without regret, without fear – simply humbly, joyfully and lovingly.
          The parable of the talents just like the parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids are commentaries on the slaves who continue to work,  who continue to feed their fellow slaves, until their master returns – they are parables which teach us how to be a church of loving service. Each of these parables teaches us to wait patiently as those who have received the gift of being called a disciple of Jesus. Jesus’ disciples are not necessarily called to great things. Rather, Jesus’ disciples are called to do the work that Jesus has given us to do: our work is simple and it is learning to tell the truth and love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our Master invites us to share. It is in doing this work that we are separated – sheep from goats.
          It may sound pedestrian, or even humdrum, but living the Christian life, living the life of the Kingdom, is at a day to day level about keeping on keeping on – loving, forgiving, praying – nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, fed by Him, and with Him, freed from the fear which is the antithesis of the Kingdom, rejoicing in the gifts which God gives us, being thankful for them, and using them for God’s glory. It is what each of us, and indeed all of us together are called to be, in this we can be built up in love, together, and invite others to enter into the joy of the Kingdom, so that they may come to believe in and serve God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed this is most right and just all Might,  Majesty, Glory, Dominion, and Power now and for ever…