Thursday, 25 April 2013

A new commandment

GospelJohn 13:31-33,34-35 

When Judas had gone Jesus said:
‘Now has the Son of Man been glorified,
and in him God has been glorified.
If God has been glorified in him,
God will in turn glorify him in himself,
and will glorify him very soon.
‘My little children,
I shall not be with you much longer.
You will look for me,
And, as I told the Jews,
where I am going, you cannot come.
I give you a new commandment:
love one another;
just as I have loved you,
you also must love one another.
By this love you have for one another,
everyone will know that you are my disciples.’

Now, in hindsight, Jesus' farewell at the Last Supper is seen as prophecy; as a warning; as a promise. How had they not known?

Jesus had certainly known; with his acceptance of Judas' betrayal he has set the last wheels in motion towards the fulfillment of God's Will. 

Over the weekend I have been in several conversations about whether Jesus was bound to die. There are many changes in circumstances that fill the could have/should have of how it could have been avoided. 

In the end it comes down to the same choice of 'Yes' or 'No' that Mary had, that Joseph had, that Judas had and that, now, Jesus has. Just outside the city walls is the road that leads back to the Galillee; dozens of villages and towns where he could play the prophet, the carpenter or the fisherman. There is nothing to stop Jesus from running and yet he doesn't run. Jesus is challenged not only by the great temptations of the desert and the garden but by these simple choices of stay or go. 

For Jesus, the deciding factor is his Father's Will. Knowing that he is walking the path, as horrible as it may be, that will bring his children and his Father back together, he rejoices in what it will accomplish. Jesus is the Light at the end of the tunnel and he glories in the knowledge that he will be there when the darkness breaks. 

Yet such choices bring regrets and separation. With a word, Jesus steps up into a different relationship with his disciples; his children; his beloved. The separation will be hard but it will not be forever. To remember Jesus; to re-member Jesus; they must take the heart of who Jesus is and live it in their own lives so that their life - becomes Jesus' life - becomes the Father's Will. 

All the denials, sufferings and separations will only be justified if, at the end, there is Love. There are no words to justify or explain what Jesus does for us except Love. There is no way that we can be part of the realisation of Jesus' mission except to Love.

To Love

To throw a quote back at you, Lord
You do not know what you ask…

To love one another 
as you love
and to make it sound so simple 
one law; 
one commandment.
But Love, Lord?
I don’t even know how you love me.

And yet you say the Word
And I am healed.
So the least I can do
Is try.


Thursday, 18 April 2013

A life's work

GospelJohn 10:27-30 

Jesus said:
‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice;
I know them and they follow me.
I give them eternal life;
they will never be lost
and no one will ever steal them from me.
The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone,
and no one can steal from the Father.
The Father and I are one.’

The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is the first image that Christians proclaimed. Around the 3rd Century there are many artist’s impression of Jesus as a young man with a sheep held safely on his shoulders.

From our earliest years the pastoral style of the Children’s Bible illustration has given us this lovely, warm image; an image of comfort and protection; the gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

Except that now we know, that the shepherd is not who we used to think he was.

Shepherds in the time of Jesus were hard, itinerant men with little regards for polite society. The hills were wild places, living in them meant you had to have a certain wildness yourself; there were few places to safely lay your head and the ability to survive did not mean living by the rules but knowing how to go around them; to become a law unto himself.

So, what would be a good shepherd? Certainly not one that had gone over to a genteel way of life.

In the wilderness there is no delegation, nor deciding that the job is not for you. It is all on you. Months at a time when you have a flock to protect from wolves, wild dogs, thieves and other shepherds; when you have to provide that flock with food, water, shelter; when you have to know the lie of the land and the cost of safe passage. Experience builds a good shepherd from one who has been there, done that, walked that, fought that and suffered that.

He has to give the best of care for the least of his flock and he has to have put them first over and over again, so that they are safely delivered to his Lord’s enclosure.

       This is an image of a fierce man; but you will not get sheep to obey through fear. A fat, healthy sheep depends on being part of a flock; of feeling safe; of being cared for.

So there is another side to the shepherd – the mother - who imprints his voice, his smell on the young lambs by being there at the birth, by carrying them around with him. He lives in and among them; knowing them intimately. As we wish to be known. All we have to do is to listen to his voice. There is a tale that if a lamb is very wayward, a bit too much of a risk-taker then the shepherd will snap a small bone in the leg – meaning that he has to carry the lamb around – it has to learn, the hard way to rely only on him.

But that still doesn’t stop us going astray as sheep will get lost. And that is where the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost. Who puts those woolly headed beasts, who all look alike, ahead of his own safety.

When I was younger, I remember finding a sheep on the Great Orme, stuck upside down in a ditch wrapped in barbed wire, its heavy fleece soaked with rainwater. Heaven knows how long it had been there. The hills of Wales are as wild as any Palestinian range in their way but we just don’t have that sort of shepherd any more.

Impulsively, I climbed into the ditch and started to pull the wire away, ripping my own hands open, the sheep turned and twisted until it could feel it was free, then jack-knifed itself out of my hands, kicking back and sending me flying 200 feet down the Orme; the scree stones ripped the rest of my skin off before I was able to stop. 

        For the sake of one sheep – that will never know what it nearly cost me and wouldn’t even know the meaning of gratitude.
        I nearly died that day and still remember it every time this Gospel comes around. A stupid sheep – an even stupider me; but only one sheep and only the once. 

        But for me it serves as a reminder that Jesus takes that risk; makes that sacrifice and more; every minute of every day.


Saturday, 13 April 2013

One hundred and Fifty Three

GospelJohn 21:1-19 

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples. It was by the Sea of Tiberias, and it happened like this: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee and two more of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said, ‘I’m going fishing.’ They replied, ‘We’ll come with you.’ They went out and got into the boat but caught nothing that night.
  It was light by now and there stood Jesus on the shore, though the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus. Jesus called out, ‘Have you caught anything, friends?’ And when they answered, ‘No’, he said, ‘Throw the net out to starboard and you’ll find something.’ So they dropped the net, and there were so many fish that they could not haul it in. The disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ At these words ‘It is the Lord’, Simon Peter, who had practically nothing on, wrapped his cloak round him and jumped into the water. The other disciples came on in the boat, towing the net and the fish; they were only about a hundred yards from land.
  As soon as they came ashore they saw that there was some bread there, and a charcoal fire with fish cooking on it. Jesus said, ‘Bring some of the fish you have just caught.’ Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore, full of big fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them; and in spite of there being so many the net was not broken. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, ‘Who are you?’; they knew quite well it was the Lord. Jesus then stepped forward, took the bread and gave it to them, and the same with the fish. This was the third time that Jesus showed himself to the disciples after rising from the dead.
  After the meal Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?’ He answered, ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Look after my sheep.’ Then he said to him a third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was upset that he asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and said, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.
‘I tell you most solemnly,
when you were young
you put on your own belt
and walked where you liked;
but when you grow old
you will stretch out your hands,
and somebody else will put a belt round you
and take you where you would rather not go.’
In these words he indicated the kind of death by which Peter would give glory to God. After this he said, ‘Follow me.’

Given the Judaic practice of using  mystical numbers to underpin story I have spent time in other years trying to work out what was so meaningful about one hundred and fifty three fish. This year I think I may have it - there is nothing meaningful about them - the meaningful part is the need to count them. 

I don't know why but I had always assumed that Peter jumped into the water to get to Jesus first but this is not suggested at all. In fact Simon Peter is acting very much as I do when I am experiencing a feeling that he may well be feeling.  

In John there are ways of 'seeing' from the superficial to the deep insights; grace-filled or transitory. The beloved disciple, being innocent and loyal sees ' knows' the Lord even at this distance. Simon Peter, feels Jesus' eyes on him and feels ashamed; he knows he is forever guilty of denying Jesus at the trial; he is not reconciled to what he has done. 

This big, strong man was Jesus' best friend yet look at what he did, couldn't save him; wasn't even at the foot of the cross. What must Jesus think of him? So, like Adam in the garden, he grabs his clothes and hides away; going into the water; into his element, so as not to deal with the excitement of the others; knowing that his joy is tempered by another emotion - shame. 

When the rest of the disciples finally come ashore, Simon Peter goes back onto his boat; the one place where he is still in charge, lets the other disciples disembark and takes over all responsibility for the catch -this is what he is good at; this where he can prove himself. 

Eventually, however, he must come onto dry land nearer and nearer to his friend and Lord, but there is still an opportunity to procrastinate - 'let's count the fish'. Like tidying the cutlery drawer, putting all the books on the bookshelves into alphabetical order or sorting out the recycling - anything; anything other than look his friend in the eye and deal with what has gone before; however long it takes to count to one hundred and fifty three. 

And at the end how foolish he must have felt? As doubtful as Thomas he needed to hear the words, to see the look in Jesus' eye. 

What was it that he had been avoiding? A warm and ready welcome; generous hospitality; an invitation to be fed. A friendship to be re-named. No accusation; no exclusion; no judgment - but too hard to believe?

He who takes away the sins of the world begins as he means to go on - it is us who find it hard to believe.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

Do you know?

GospelJohn 20:19-31 

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’, and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and he said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.
‘As the Father sent me,
so am I sending you.’
After saying this he breathed on them and said:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.
For those whose sins you forgive,
they are forgiven;
for those whose sins you retain,
they are retained.’
Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples said, ‘We have seen the Lord’, he answered, ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.’ Eight days later the disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. The doors were closed, but Jesus came in and stood among them. ‘Peace be with you’ he said. Then he spoke to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him:
‘You believe because you can see me.
Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’
There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.

I have always thought that this should be read as two separate Gospels - the gift of the forgiveness of sins and the doubtful Thomas make a complex passage for reflection. Especially as most homilies I have heard tend to concentrate on Thomas and his unfortunate  reputation. I was reminded today that whenever I have seen an either/or in the Gospels that I should look for a both/and. Thomas and the forgiveness of sins belong together.

As I get older, my sympathies have moved closer to Thomas. It is easy to criticise him from here yet we still live a faith that seeks to evidence what we believe through scientific and philosophical reasoning. 

I sympathise mostly because of repeated conversations with my students, particularly the older ones,  when they demand proof that Jesus exists; that God exists; that heaven exists. They are studying Theology but they don't believe it - it doesn't give them answers. Anselm's quote 'Faith seeks understanding'  has real meaning for them - but they expect it to be empirical. 

So many Thomases making the same demands as two thousand years ago and who, really, can blame them? They live in a world of cynicism and disbelief; they live in a world that, as far as they can tell, hasn't benefited much from the Resurrection even if it did happen. There is still suffering; bad things still happen.

Although there is a lot of bravado when challenging authority; there is something else in their challenge that wants to be comforted and proved wrong. False hope is far worse than no hope and this is what Thomas fears. 

As he was away from the group; it seems that he had managed to find some reason to carry on; caring for others in the community, getting supplies? However he feels inside; he has started to rebuild himself; he has put on the brave face, knuckled down and put away hope. A survival instinct that is not always healthy but is all too common.

His grief has sent him so far outside himself that only the physical presence of his Risen Lord will bring him back; the words of reassurance that tell him it is true.

An option with the students is to withdraw from the debate; to suggest that 'we have a lesson to finish'; that it can't be discussed now; that perhaps they should talk it over with their family. 

To blame them for their doubts as we so readily blamed Thomas. If I just give their doubt back to them without acknowledgement - would this be retaining their sins; would this be keeping them from a Truth that  they deserve as much as I do? Is this the link?

I saw a cartoon recently where Thomas was challenging the Twelve - 'How come you never get 'denying Peter' or 'Runaway Mark?'.

And it's true; their 'sins' have been forgiven -why not Thomas? Because doubt is a dangerous emotion in a group of believers; especially believers who have doubted themselves. Doubters are mirrors to our own anxieties; our own disbelief echoed back to us.

But what else can I do? 

What I do is try to be some sort of witness; which gets difficult because that means giving  them 'me' - why I believe; things that have gone wrong in my life; where God was when they happened;  I have to be  vulnerable to them (nerve-wracking I have to admit) -  letting them have the opportunity to look at my wounds and my scars. 

Does it get rid of the doubt? Well at least what they get is some honesty - knowing that as a believer I need my questions more than I need to find the answers.  

The students are young - hopefully they are walking towards that personal experience;  but perhaps with gentleness and invitation, and a willingness to wonder,  they are a little nearer meeting Jesus, their Lord and their God, for themselves.


Tuesday, 2 April 2013


GospelLuke 24:1-12 

On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but on entering discovered that the body of the Lord Jesus was not there. As they stood there not knowing what to think, two men in brilliant clothes suddenly appeared at their side. Terrified, the women lowered their eyes. But the two men said to them, ‘Why look among the dead for someone who is alive? He is not here; he has risen. Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee: that the Son of Man had to be handed over into the power of sinful men and be crucified, and rise again on the third day?’ And they remembered his words.
  When the women returned from the tomb they told all this to the Eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women with them also told the apostles, but this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them.
  Peter, however, went running to the tomb. He bent down and saw the binding cloths but nothing else; he then went back home, amazed at what had happened

We can imagine the two men must have had a incredulous tone to their question. Surprised that the women had the wrong end of the stick.

The culture of the time completely accepted the idea that a person's 'spirit' could be carried on - by their teaching; their example. The women would believe this is what Jesus had meant - that he would be born again in the fellowship of those who had listened to his voice? That the responsbility of his mission had now passed to them, as scary as that may have seemed.

Because that would make sense - but since when had anything Jesus done or said, made sense?

But then, it is easy for us Christians to be critical; sometimes a little 'Elder Son' critical of other people's faith.  After all, we mumble; they were there with him; they saw; they heard. If it happened again  - I would believe, I would know.  

I wouldn't. 

Luke, more than any Gospel writer, plays on the fear, confusion, disbelief, amazement and mystery of what has happened. An event beyond their imagining - it would be just as unimaginable even now.

The women clearly expect nothing more than the opportunity to pay their respects to a beloved friend. They are doing their best with what they have to offer - and they are not consoled. The message adds to their confusion; their grief and even their reputation. 

Yet, the best that we can offer is really all we can do - whether in faith, action, prayer or ministry. We start off in the mundane of life and find ourselves in grace-ful mystery. The Easter message is all about transformation - we start off doing what we want to do, then, if we are prepared to listen - we are filled with the grace to do what God wants us to do. Even without authority or position, even if we remain dazed and confused, we are sent to send people searching for Jesus.

Like the women, I start off having very little problem believing in Jesus; the man; the son; the friend; the teacher. I can feel the truth of him. I can see the challenge and promise of his teaching. I have tried to do the same. 

But then it changes; when I am asked to remember something I thought I had heard and realise that there is a deeper message; when I am not the penitent but the pharissee; when I would be the one standing with the stone in my hand. Believing in the Son of Man is a life of questions not answers. 

The Son of God?

When I was younger I shared the certainty of Paul and his experience of the Risen Christ - I wouldn't dare now.  Listening to Paul, I am filled with a desire to put myself in his place; the evocative romance of his story beckons me.

The Risen Christ is beyond me; no matter what I have seen or heard or read; his reality is my faith; my hopeful Mystery; my consolation. 

The promise of this Easter morning,  is to believe, like Mary,  that 'Nothing is impossible to God'. 

He is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia