Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Following the footprints of Jesus. Holy Week and Easter Reflection

From Palm Sunday to Easter Day the great liturgies of the catholic tradition encourage us to walk with Jesus, from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to his disappearance from the tomb. The journey of this week is an annual opportunity and it reminds us that the life of a Christian disciple is one of movement. It is a movement that is primarily about following, but also involves watching and waiting, and finally it brings an opportunity to witness. Who are we following? What are we waiting for? What are we seeing? What is it that we believe because of what we have seen?

These are questions that each disciple is invited to consider afresh in Holy Week. The movement and the journey work best if we engage with the story in its entirety. After following Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we wait and pray. On Maundy Thursday Jesus calls his followers to gather with him in the Upper Room; it is here that we hear the invitation for the first time to receive the offering of Jesus’ body and blood in the common cup of the wine and the shared bread. It is here that Jesus gathers us around him and mirroring his servant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, serves us his followers, by washing our feet. This intimate invitation and this generous servanthood is broken apart by the prophecy of betrayal, we are confused and worried, what will happen? Amazed and disorientated we try and wait with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but our desire to be present with Jesus and pray is limited by our fleshly desire to sleep.

Before we know it, aroused from our sleep, Jesus has been betrayed and arrested by the soldiers. Our expectation and joy at the entry into Jerusalem has been dramatically shattered. What sort of king is this?  We turn to what we know and try and resist the disruption and the upset with argument and force. But it’s no good, Jesus looks at us like we understand nothing. Desertion and betrayal are at the fore on this day, it is here that humanity is found wanting. Crucified, Jesus is raised up before all the world. Today, Good Friday, Jesus asks us anew: where will you be?

Holy Saturday is a day of darkness and waiting, a day for nothingness, no liturgy, no prayer even, just a hole where hope and faith were. From earliest times followers of Jesus gathered together to read scriptures through the night and into the early morning of Sunday. The Saturday evening vigil service begins informally in half-light with scripture readings from the Old Testament. As the story changes and news of disappearance and re-appearance enter our ears, so we move to re-affirm our faith, lighting the new fire for the Easter Candle and renewing our baptismal vows.

On Easter Sunday, the question again addressed to us is: What have you seen and what do you believe? How, why, if, we rejoice at the presence of the Risen Lord depends entirely on where and when we encountered him as the Risen Lord. Our thanksgiving at his appearing is more personal and more intimate than that which has been experienced so far. His hand may be outstretched towards you now with a wound he’s inviting you to touch. A journey through Holy Week is one which is unlikely to leave you cold – will you accept the invitation?

Thursday, 18 January 2018

What's your name? Where are you from? What do you do?

Stock photos courtesy of

I grew up in Essex, so I know all about what it means to come from a place that is ridiculed and joked about. I used to dread the question, ‘where are you from?’ Yes, I come from a place where the women are routinely mocked as being sexually promiscuous with vulgar jokes. Of course, it can be traced back to the tenacity of the English class system in Britain. People dwelling in Essex were, after the 2nd world war, mainly former slum dwellers, who were encouraged to move out to the new suburbs in Basildon and Harlow in Essex. Former East- Enders, who, if they were lucky would go to Southend-on-Sea for a day out in the summer, became increasingly wealthy as they took the advantages of suburban living. As the decades progressed they enjoyed the economic boom time, no longer working in manufacturing or skilled manual labour. Slum dwellers became middle-class, and so we had better bring them down a peg or two! Can’t have social mobility in Britain! How do we characterise the working class who have money in Britain? - as vulgar and with bad taste; herald the birth of the Essex girl and her counterpart the Margaret Thatcher voting Basildon-man.

‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth’, Nathanael says to Philip? With this single comment we enter into the dynamics of the characterisation of place in Jesus’ time. Nazareth, we can assume, was not a popular place; indeed, it was a small village, from which nothing very much came at all. It wasn’t so much vulgar as insignificant; a place that you would only go to if you had to. And yet, from this small village God chooses to signify his glory in all the world.

Right from the beginning of Jesus’ birth our Gospel writers are keen to ensure that we understand the dynamics of this. Jesus was a Jew, born in Bethlehem, growing up in Nazareth, son of a carpenter, who never moved far beyond the geographical world of his people. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t from a sought-after part of town, he wasn’t heading for any awards. And yet this insignificant boy challenges our notions of identity: he brings wise men from the East to his birth, gathers poor shepherds around him and flees to Egypt because he threatens the power of Kings. This ‘no-one’ is the Son of Man – the person for everyone – the saviour of the world.

The power of naming, the significance of place and the desire to become something are instructive. From our own birth we are named, we live somewhere in particular, and our future identity is constructed by the sort of aspirations we are encouraged to have. Where we come from, what our names are and what we do are all powerful signifiers in our culture – are you a grammar school boy, did you grow up in Clifton or Brownsover, what papers do your parent’s read, if any at all? What job will you have?

For Jesus, these questions were instructive too – but from them he taught his followers to come and see something different and to come and be a part of something radically different.

What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do?
These must be three of the most common questions that we ask each other and they form part of the way in which we categorise people and judge them.  In the kingdom of Heaven we are liberated from such judgments.

What’s your name – nuns and monks take on new names at their profession to reveal that they are made and named by God. At our baptism we are named; placing our naming within the context of our faith in God as the creator is important. The practice of taking a spiritual or Christian name is significant, for it mark's us out as God's child, not just the product of our parent's preferences, rank in society or other.  In can be liberating to take on a new name that marks out our identity in Christ. Perhaps you would like to do the same?

Where are you from – as Christians we are from the Kingdom – which means that we seek to live in a new relationship to one another, characterised by equality and mutuality. We are not defined by our towns, whether sought after or sink, but by God’s invitation to dwell in his kingdom.

What do you do – as Christians our most important identity is crafted from the knowledge that we are made and loved by God; and by the fact that we are made to love God and love one another. As Christians that is ultimately what we ‘do’ – how we earn a living is a different question entirely – but one that should be in line with our Christian vocation to love God and love neighbour.

The Gospel upsets our notions of respectability and status and asks us to re-appraise our stereotyping and judging. The story of Jesus should make us suspicious about worldly status, power and class; as a community of Christians we should be a mixed bag of people from every warp and weft of life. It’s a place where we’re all equal, not judged and condemned because we’re rich or poor, a carpenter or a surgeon, a business person or a teacher; we should value each other as the equals that we are - a new family made in God’s image - not structured by our human need to sort the best from the worst, to put other’s down and categorise, but made from God’s desire to see his people flourish and live in harmony.

Monday, 25 December 2017

God's Photos of You

Most of the time it’s possible to live quite happily with the absence of religion. Our lives are full and content without it, indeed most people would probably say less restrictive and less judgmental. But then Christmas arrives with its magical talk of angels, a miraculous birth and God with us. The nativity at school, the lit candle in the darkened church and the carol service remind us of a time when going to church and believing in God made sense. The tune of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ is grasped like an old friend – and it takes us to a place of remembered community, of solidarity, of a secure identity and experience. It gives us a story, which stretches way back, that we can be a part of. Our memories, faded and nostalgic as they are, nonetheless are full of hope, reminding us of an identity that we’ve lost, encouraging us to claim a future that will always be ours. Like the Queen’s Speech, Match of the Day, Strictly Come Dancing – Christmas is the photo frame which collects together the diverse experiences of our disparate lives, making sense of them, giving them some coherence.

It doesn’t matter that what we believe is tangled together - half remembered Old Testament stories from Primary School; a once recited prayer; a body’s memory of kneeling, but rather that we remember. Along with the Christmas tree, the mince pies, the sharing of gifts, the caring for the poor, the stockings and the charades, for one night we place ourselves in the photo frame that our maker has crafted of our lives.

The photos that he’s taken may surprise us. He sees as no-one else does: like the lover on the pillow next to ours who is full of joy, the joy of being close to the beloved; or, like a young child who only has eyes for its mother, is utterly devoted and enthralled; or like the father who gives his every breath to the needs of his baby, suffering and sacrificing so that that the baby can thrive. So, God’s photos of us reveal that he has numbered every hair of our head, been to every nativity play, turned up for every prize giving, every birthday. God has been present in the moments of our private grief and public joy, he has been there when we’ve damned him and when we’ve offered a stumbling prayer. He’s been there when we thought we were all alone, unwatched and disregarded. Like the neglected parent who waits for the yearly card, the annual phone call, the belated present, and holds onto each like they are paradise itself. So, God longs for us, for me and for you and waits to show us the beauty and the splendour that our lives contain.

The traditions of Christmas have the power to gather us together, they form community, they create a shared history and they offer us a shared future. Christmas is the reminder we need that despite our turning away, despite acting collectively like independent 20-year olds (determined to make up our own minds and make our own mistakes), that God is always there to come back to; waiting and hoping and delighting in our return. Christmas is an invitation to live again in the eternal hand of our Maker- who turns the cosmos and holds the key, but who most of all longs for us to receive and return his love.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Sheep and the Goats

Image result for sheep and goats lawrence op
This 5th-century mosaic from Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna depicts the Last Judgement in which Christ separates the sheep from the goats. It is considered among the oldest mosaic depictions of a New Testament scene. 
Photo by Lawrence OP
Last week we looked at Judgment and the End Times in the ‘Parable of the Talents’ and I alluded to the fact that the lengthy passages of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel on this subject ended with the story of the sheep and goats. It is this story that we will look at more closely today. The story itself, in rounding off the passages on the End Times, introduces the main drama of the Gospels – the plot to kill Jesus, his arrest, crucifixion and resurrection (Matthew 26-28).

The ethical reasoning in the sheep and the goats’ narrative demands further exploration. It seems to pose the question: why should humans treat each other with compassion, love and charity? The answer given is simple and clear: because humans are made in the image of God:

‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who
are members of my family, you did it to me’.

As Christians we believe that the image of God has been revealed fully in Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, and so in showing love and compassion to each other we are honouring Jesus. Similarly, in rejecting, ignoring and turning away from the needs and suffering of others we are rejecting Jesus himself. Having seen and encountered the glory of humanity in Jesus we are commanded to remember that that image is present in all God’s children. Jesus’ rationale for asking that we behave in a certain way is because divine life runs through all of creation.

This is a transformative and radical ethical teaching especially when placed in the context of the legal presentation of right behaviour that Jesus was consistently challenging in the Pharisees. More interesting still, in a peculiar reversal, the rationale for the teaching undermines the punishment which is foretold at the end of the teaching: if man truly reflects the glory of God then how can man be subjected to eternal damnation and hell fire? Surely then the divine is being subjected to such a punishment? God is killed.

And that is one way in which the crucifixion of Jesus can be understood.

Jesus, as the Son of Man, reveals in human form the glory of God, present in all of creation. At the same time, the Son of Man is destroyed by the sin, hatred and corruption which is to be found in the human heart and in human relationships (this is made to clear to us in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and in Peter’s denial of him, even his closest followers are unable to do the right things). Jesus’ actions acknowledge that despite his teaching, we humans will continue to deny and betray God. Nonetheless, by entering into death, he reveals that God’s life cannot be subjected to death – Jesus’ descent into death, the harrowing of hell and Jesus’ resurrection transforms our understanding of Judgment and the End Times.

For, being in Christ, we are in God, and being in God we cannot be subjected to death.

We cannot save ourselves, we cannot be perfect, yet, as we have been created by God and bare his image we are granted his life and not our own. What we are commanded now has evolved from ‘you must behave like this or be damned’ to a divine commission.  At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples:

‘Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had commanded them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

Jesus here is Lord of all the universe, with all authority in heaven and on earth being handed over to him, and yet he does not offer words of condemnation, nor a threat of punishment, rather he commissions and authorises. And what we are commissioned to do as Jesus’ disciples is significant; we are not asked to deliver a programme of ethical teaching, rather we are commissioned to baptise, teach and obey. Furthermore, Jesus promises his eternal presence with us ‘to the end of the age’. His presence is one of encouragement, empowerment and peace.

And so, we can see how judgment has been turned on its head. From being faced with unachievable goodness or death, we are led into the story of sacrifice and forgiveness; and from that place we are commissioned to talk of love and not condemnation; to teach forgiveness and baptism from a place of humility; to model compassion and charity; to recognise the inevitability of failure and to lament, but in all things to recognise Jesus as Lord.

Italianate Landscape with a Goat and Sheep, Philipp Peter Roos
17th century, wiki free picture