Friday, 29 March 2013

Signs of love - reflection from Holy Thursday

"Love one another as I have loved you" - there we have it, a new commandment. Fairly simple to preach about, you would think - just do what Jesus says!

But there are dangers here. If the first thing we take away from this evening's gospel reading is that we should do things then we are likely to become absolute menaces. If what we hear is "get up, go and love, do loving things, and do them now..." we will become some kind of frenetic do-gooder, ever in earnest search for the next opportunity to love, unshaken in our self-confidence and sense of rightness, convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone else loved, just like we do. At best, we would be a pain in the neck. At worst we would be deluded - in Christian terms, we would be the kind of heretic who believes that we can save ourselves. Either way, in spite of our initial intention, we would certainly end up being profoundly unloving in practice. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of the ministrations of the kind of person I have described will know what I mean.

 The reason for this is a peculiar feature of love. I cannot give love until I have received love.

Look at what happens to people when they are systematically denied love. They turn in on themselves, putting up defences against a fundamentally hostile world. Other people become viewed simply as threats, and fear of this sort prevents the kind of giving-of-self which we call 'love'. Love is a way of living in the world, a way of being towards another person which sees their freedom as a gift to me, rather than a threat. I cannot live this way unless someone has loved me first, for the simple reason that if I am only ever seen as a threat by others, I will never get the opportunity to develop my own loves. I too, will always have to be on my guard. I need to be given space to love; which is to say, I need to have been loved before I can love.

It is like this with our ordinary, day-by-day loves. It is like this too with our loving relationships with God - the kind of relationship that the Bible calls 'covenants'. Unless God loves me first, I cannot love God. I can be in awe at God, for sure; I can fear God, or plead with him. But what I cannot do, without God's gift of love (what Christians call 'grace'), is love God. Jesus washes his disciples feet and then, only then, when they have received the serving love of the Lord, are they told to wash one another's feet. If we want to love the world with the same love that Christ did - and that is the way of life to which we are called by our covenant relationship with God - then we have to allow ourselves to be loved by Christ. "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me".

We need to open ourselves up to love. Otherwise we will not be able to serve.

We are reminded of this by the foot washing at this evening's Mass. The celebrant, representing Christ, washes the feet of members of the congregation. They don't do anything. They just sit there, having their feet washed - receiving, rather than giving. In our frantic world, this can be a difficult thing to do.

And yet it is what we do, at a indescribably deeper level, at every Mass. At every Mass the convenant of love between God and human beings is signed and sealed. God draws us, his People, into the offering of his Son on the altar, and gives us his Body and Blood of food. Here we have the supreme sign, and reality, of God's love for us. And it is given to us as a gift.

The gift of God's life in the Eucharist is, quite literally, ours for the taking. If we open ourselves up to it we will be transformed, and become the kind of people who can love extravagantly, because we have been loved extravagantly ourselves. Love is the beginning and end of Christian living. Love is the beginning and end of the Mass. Love is the reason we were created, and it is in love that we will find ultimate fulfilment, a fulfilment we look forward to, and receive as an already present gift, every time we do what the Lord said this night - "do this in remembrance of me".

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Message from our bishop at the Chrism Mass

Bishop Richard sending us on our way with his blessings

"We are being given a little more time to develop a transforming confidence not in ourselves but in the love of God; to deepen a healing compassion and to bear fruit in the creativity with which we use our gifts for the common good."

Fr John showing off his new Prebendary wear in a local coffee house

Clergy gather on the steps if St Paul's to be blessed by our Bishop

Father John, Tony and Simon, Reader Angharad all renewed their vows and commitment to their ministry and vocation at the Chrism Mass 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013


On the weekdays of Holy Week we are having a sermon at Mass reflecting on 
characters from the gospel accounts of Jesus' Passion.
Today we focused on Judas Iscariot.

I always felt a bit sorry for Judas. When I was a child, my parents explained to me that Simnel Cakes traditionally had eleven eggs on top because these symbolised the Apostles, leaving out Judas. At the time I remember feeling that leaving someone out was a bit mean, no matter what they had done. 
But, of course, the maligning of Judas goes far beyond Easter customs. His name has become a by-word for betrayal. "Judas", someone famously shouted at Bob Dylan when he produced an electric guitar on stage. Judas' name has been used in anger in relationships scarred by betrayal, in communities during strikes, in nations torn apart by war, the list goes on. And whenever Judas' name is used it carries a power, a sense of accusation.

And not without good reason. Betrayal cuts at the heart of what it is to be human. We are, by our nature, social creatures. The biblical account which has God saying that it is not good for Adam, the symbolic human being, to be alone confirms what ordinary life teaches us. We thrive in community. We depend on others for our food, our security, and for fellowship. There is something fundamentally lacking in a human life which does not involve mature and open relationships to others. It is no surprise then that the Christian account of salvation is a social one: the reality the Bible calls the 'Kingdom of God' is, by its very nature, collective. It is not about me being saved through my personal relationship with God. It is about us, a people, being saved together. The Church, anticipating the Kingdom, is a reminder of the communal nature of our human destiny.

Betrayal attacks all of this. Through undermining the trust which is essential to significant social bonds, it attacks those bonds themselves. It is for this reason that Dante thought betrayal the worst of all sins, and placed traitors - notable amongst them Judas - in the lowest pit of Hell in his Divine Comedy.

Yet we are all traitors. All of us turn away from Christ and from others to a greater or lesser extent. All of us deny him when it suits us. All of us reject what we know to be the things that loyalty to Christ and to humanity demands. We are all traitors.

The gospel reading for today's Mass describes two traitors. Not only Judas, but also Peter, will betray Christ. There is one difference. Peter, after Jesus' Resurrection, is reconciled with Jesus, professing love three times and so 'undoing' the three times he denied Jesus. Peter is  forgiven, and sent out to 'feed my sheep'. Judas does not seek reconciliation - in other accounts he is described as hanging himself. We are all traitors - nevertheless the Christ who is the ultimate object of all our betrayals, big and small, welcomes us back and promises to restore us to flourishing relationships with himself and with others. He invites us, we need to accept that invitation.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Fig Monday

The next three days of Holy Week have traditional names, taken from incidents in the gospel accounts of Jesus' last week. Tuesday is known as Temple Tuesday, Wednesday as Spy Wednesday.

My favourite name, however, is tomorrow's. Holy Monday is also Fig Monday. The name comes from the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree. In Mark's account, the cursing of the fig tree 'frames' the story of Jesus' protest action in the Temple. Jesus attacks not the Temple as such - the sorry history of Christian anti-Semitism has sometimes led this point to be overlooked - nor even commercial transactions. Rather, this story needs to be read against the background of the Temple's role in the domination of Palestine under Roman occupation. Jesus' action (the context of which is unfolded brilliantly in Borg and Crossan's very readable The Last Week) is a statement against misusing the things of God to get power over other human beings. It is a statement that still needs to be heard today.

And figs? The sour figs are a symbol of an instituion (the Temple) which has become bitter, unfit for purpose. The cursing, and subsequent withering, of the fig tree are a warning to all of us trying to be the Church in the 21st century.

Now, why not have some figs for your pudding tomorrow? See here for a recipe.

Palm Sunday

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
Hark! all the tribes Hosanna cry;
Thy Humble beast pursues its road
With palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die!
O Christ! Thy triumph now begin
Over captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
The wing├Ęd squadrons of the sky
Look down with sad and wondering eyes
To see the approaching sacrifice.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh;
The Father, on His sapphire throne,
Expects His own anointed Son.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, Thy power, and reign.

The third and fourth verses of this hymn we sang today speak elegantly of what we will be celebrating in the coming week. Christ is truly our sacrifice. He enters Jerusalem to offer himself for us and for the whole world.

But we misunderstand sacrifice if we think it is all about destruction, death, and violence. Far too often the Cross is presented as the appeasing of a wrathful God by the violent death of an innocent victim. No, what matters is not how Jesus dies, but who it is who lives and dies. Jesus is the Father's 'own anointed Son'. Our Christ, our anointed one, is both God and a human being. As a human being, living and dying as one of us, he invites us into the offering of love that is at the heart of the life of God. This offering, lived out in a human life, was summed up on the Cross.

It is an offering we are invited to participate in, this week and every week.