Love – Easter 5C, 19 May, 2019
If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love? What cherished hope or dream would you share? What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer?
In our Gospel this week, we hear Our Lord’s answer to this difficult question. Judas has left the Last Supper in order to carry out his betrayal, the crucifixion clock is ticking down, and Our Lord knows that his disciples are about to face the greatest devastation of their lives. So he gets right to the point. No parables, no stories, no pithy sayings. Just one commandment. One simple, straightforward commandment, summarizing Our Lord’s deepest desire for his followers: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Then, right on the heels of the commandment, a promise. Or maybe an incentive. Or maybe a warning: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What Our Lord doesn’t say? When death comes knocking, and the Son of God has mere hours left to communicate the heart of his message to his disciples, he doesn’t say, “Believe the right things.” He doesn’t say, “Worship like this or attend a synagogue like that.” He doesn’t even say, “Read your Bible,” or “Pray every day,” He says, “Love one another.” That’s it. The last dream of a dead man walking. All of Christianity distilled down to its essence so that maybe we’ll pause long enough to hear it. Love one another.
What’s staggering about this commandment is how badly we’ve managed to botch it over the last two thousand years. It’s simple, and we can easily memorise it, yet we fail so badly at it we remain embarrassed how poorly we comprehend it and put it into practice.
It’s not too hard to name why we perpetually fail to obey Our Lord’s dying wish. Love is vulnerable-making, and we would rather not be vulnerable. Love requires trust, and we are naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and we feel safer and holier policing our borders. Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and we are just so busy.
And yet Our Lord didn’t say, “This is my suggestion.” He said, “This is my commandment.”
For the St John in this Gospel, for the word “commandment” he uses the word “entolen” that means precept, advise, instruction and prescription. It is like the prescription that a doctor writes to get the medicine needed to cure an illness. It is up to the patient to follow or not to follow what it prescribes. In this case a command is not a peremptory order or something we must do. The countercheck that this is the meaning that St John wants to give to the word commandment, is in his gospel where, to define Moses commandments, he doesn’t use “entolen” but “nomos” which we translate as law. To follow and to serve Christ we don’t need that sort of rigid law. Our relationship with God is much more than to follow some rules even if they are good. God has given us commands (entolen) that guide us, shape us and takes us on his path, indications that manifest his willingness for our salvation.
We do this commandment therefore not out of fear, but because this is what we need to do, like taking medicine, to live lives full of health.
But what does it mean that Jesus commands us to love? We fall in love. Love is blind, it happens at first sight, it breaks our hearts, and its course never runs smooth.
But we know that authentic love can’t be manipulated, simulated, or rushed without suffering distortion. Those with children understand full well that commanding them to love each other never works. The most we can do is insist that they behave as if they love each other: “Share your toys.” “Say sorry.” “Don’t hit.” “Use kind words.” But these actions — often performed with gritted teeth and rolling eyes — aren’t the same as what Our Lord is talking about.
Our Lord doesn’t say, “Act as if you love.” He doesn’t give his disciples (or us) the easy “out” of doing nice things with clenched hearts. (I doubt that the people who flocked to Our Lord would have done so if they sensed that his compassion was thin or forced.) He says, “Love as I have loved you.” For real. The whole bona fide package. Authentic feeling, deep engagement, generous action. Doesn’t it sound like he’s asking for the impossible?
Maybe he is. G.K Chesterton once wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Imagine what would happen to us, to the Church, to the world, if we took this commandment of Our Lord seriously? What could Christendom look like if we obeyed orders and cultivated “impossible” love?
We may ask these questions fearfully, because we don’t know how to answer them, even for myself. I mean, I know fairly well how to do things. I know how to make care for the homeless. Or send money to my favourite charities. But do I know how to love as Our Lord loved? To feel that depth of compassion? To experience a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that I rearrange my life in order to pursue it? To empathize until my heart breaks? Do I want to?
Most of the time, if we are honest, we don’t. We want to be safe. We want to keep our circle small and manageable. We want to choose the people we love based on our own preferences, not on Our Lord’s all-inclusive commandment. Charitable actions are easy. But cultivating the heart? Preparing and pruning it to love? Becoming vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain? Those things are hard, hard and costly.
And yet, this was Our Lord’s dying wish. Which means that we have a God who first and foremost wants every one of his children to feel loved: not shamed; not punished; not chastised; not judged; not isolated: but loved.
But that’s not all. Our Lord follows his commandment with a terrifying promise: “By this everyone will know.” Meaning, love is the litmus test of Christian witness. Our love for each other is how the world will know who we are and whose we are. Our love for each other is how the world will see, taste, touch, hear, and find Our Lord. It’s through our love that we will embody Our Lord, make Jesus relatable, possible, plausible, to a dying world.
This should make us tremble. What Our Lord seems to be saying is that if we fail to love one another, the world won’t know what it needs to know about God, and in the terrible absence of that knowing, it will believe falsehoods that break God’s heart, that is, that the whole Jesus thing is a sham. That there really is no transformative power in the resurrection. That God is a mean, angry, vindictive parent, determined only to shame and punish his children. That the universe is a cold, meaningless place, ungoverned by love. That the Church is only a flawed and hypocritical institution — not Christ’s living, breathing, healing body on earth.
Such is the power we wield in our decisions to love or not love. Such are the stakes involved in how we choose to respond to Our Lord’s dying wish, hope, prayer, and commandment. Such is the responsibility we shoulder, whether we want to or not.
But here’s our saving grace: Our Lord doesn’t leave us alone and bereft. We are not directionless in the wilderness. He gives us a road map, a clear way forward: “As I have loved you.” Follow my example, he says. Do what I do. Love as I love. Live as you have seen me live.
Weep with those who weep. Laugh with those who laugh. Touch the untouchables. Feed the hungry. Welcome the child. Release the captive. Forgive the sinner. Confront the oppressor. Comfort the oppressed. Wash each other’s feet. Hold each other close. Tell each other the truth. Guide each other home.
In other words, Our Lord’s commandment to us is not that we should wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we’re invited to abide in the holy place where all love originates. We can make our home in Our Lord’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence. Our love is not our own; it is God’s, and God our source is without limit, without end. There are no parched places God will not drench if we ask.
“Love one another as I have loved you.” For our own sakes, and for the world’s.
Based on a reflection by Debie Thomas:
St George Day Sermon by Archdeacon Michael Whiting 5 May 2019
It was my task, as a young rectory boy in rural NSW, every Sunday morning to raise the flag of St George on its flagpole immediately in front of our country church – in the 1950s there was to be no doubt we were the church of the English! Then in recent years Janine and I discovered that St George does not belong just to the English at all! Everywhere in the Holy Land the white flag with the red cross is flying,or there is engraved on many Christian houses reliefs of St George slaying the dragon – we now know that St George is the patron saint of virtually every church in the Christian world, and even the Muslims claim him!
Here are three quite unrelated quotations to muse upon:
The fame of Saint George spread all over the East, and the Crusaders brought their devotion for the warrior Saint back to Europe. Through the Crusaders, Saint George became the patron Saint of England. He is also the patron Saint of Syria and Lebanon. The Emperor Constantine dedicated a church to him not long after his martyrdom, and in later times, he became an object of devotion for Christians and Muslims alike. Saint George is the protector of Christians, and the patron of all who fight for righteousness. His cheerful fortitude and unswerving loyalty have inspired generations of Christians the world over…
Saint George the Victory Bearer, depicted as a horseman slaying the serpent appeared on Moscow’s coat of arms, and became an emblem of the Russian state. This has strengthened Russia’s connections with Christian nations, and especially with Iberia (Georgia, the Land of Saint George) …
William Dalrymple himself visited (the shrine of St George at Beit Jala outside Bethlehem) in 1995. “I asked around in the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem and discovered that the place was very much alive. With all the greatest shrines in the Christian world to choose from, it seemed that when the local Arab Christians had a problem—an illness, or something more complicated—they preferred to seek the intercession of Saint George in his grubby little shrine at Beit Jala rather than praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem]He asked the priest at the shrine “Do you get many Muslims coming here?” The priest replied, “We get hundreds! Almost as many as the Christian pilgrims. Often, when I come in here, I find Muslims all over the floor, in the aisles, up and down”…
Perhaps you are all set to hear, yet again, a terrific sermon about St George – lances and dragons and princesses, persecutions and martyrdom, a white flag and a red cross? Sorry to disappoint. Instead let us consider the prior question: why are there saints? They always seem to be those ‘other’ people, don’t they? What is it they have and we do not? Are they better Christians?
Saints are indeed always those holy others, with two remarkable signs: they have mastered what I call ‘disassociation’, and, they have embraced the uniqueness of the Christian faith which is an intimacy with Almighty God. What is meant by ‘disassociation’? Well, we usually call it ‘renunciation’ – a turning away from the associations and claims of this world and embracing the divine. This is achieved by them with obedience to Christ’s teachings, bearing the burdens of others, and living in the shadow of the cross. The world sees the cross as the end of the ministry of Jesus; for the Christian, the cross is the beginning of our communion with Christ.As we obey, and renounce, and share each other’s burdens, so we are picking up our cross. As one writer has put it: ‘when Christ calls, He bids us come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave their homes; it may be a death like losing someone very dear to us; it may be the death of being rejected or ignored socially or in the workplace’. Remember when Jesus summonsed the rich young man? He was calling him to die, to turn from his attachments and live, because only the person who is dying to his or her own will can follow Christ, and live. As in our gospel of today:
Jesus said to his disciples: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you”.
What is meant by ‘the uniqueness of the Christian faith which is intimacy with Almighty God’? Well, saints are people who really want to know God – more than that, they never lose sight of this want. Why? Saints are folk who know God as Holy, the only source of the divine; there is none but He, and He makes an immeasurable claim upon us all. This difference in God is the starting point of our religion, and what is unique for the Christian is that this Almighty God identifies Himself, intimately, with each of us. Saints sense this intimacy and are overwhelmed by it, and their response is one of the imagination, and lives are changed dramatically as a result.
Saints have a means of expressing this radical intimacy – they feel total failures but remember the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. God, through Christ, has identified Himself with them, and themselves with God. For Christ is the Son of God, and He is immediately present to the heavenly Father, and the heavenly Father to Him. Saints realise that Christ has identified Himself with them and they with Him. The saints know that their effort to pray is simply a part of Christ’s prayer; their failure and darkness is overcome by the light of Christ. Christ does not reject or disown the saints (or you and I) as long as they believe and welcome Christ’s saving grace.
So – we can all be saints, can’t we? The answer is ‘yes’, but suppose you say, “But I cannot see things that way, I cannot feel things that way?” Well, Jesus Himself has provided a remedy for this; He gives Himself in the blessed sacrament. If our difficulty is one of imagination, a failure to feel and live our identification with Christ, is not the purpose of the sacrament to overcome, and make visible, and make real the presence of Christ?
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them … the one who eats this bread will live forever
So, it is right to claim St George as one of these saintly people. St Peter Damian, in the 11thcentury, said this of the festival of our patron saint:
Today’s feast, my dear people, doubles our joy in the glory of Eastertide like a precious jewel whose shining beauty adds to the splendour of the gold in which it is set.
So, to our Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all praise, honour and thanksgiving, now and for all eternity. Amen
The Peace of the Risen Lord – Easter 2, 28 April 2018
Poor Thomas, poor doubting Thomas. Some names in history really get stuck with connotations. Judas has been on the no-use list now for 2000 years. Adolf, or Adolfus, was once a popular name, has not been used now since the Second World War, whereas other names have a spurt in popularity. The last baby I baptised a few weeks ago was Charlotte: virtually unknown a few years ago, it’s now one of the favourites, thanks to the Royal family.
However, with Thomas, we get the name doubting Thomas, from the reading today. But why did he doubt?
Think about it. St John in his Gospel records that Thomas had gone with Our Lord to Judea and seen the raising of Lazarus. If Our Lord could bring Lazarus from the tomb, why could he not rise? After all we are told that Lazarus had been dead three days, and this too was three days. Why did Thomas have these doubts?
Now there are several possibilities. One is that he had seen the power of Our Lord calling someone else from the tomb, but can a dead man call himself back from death? Also, Our Lord had been killed. If he could not stop his own execution, then could he have the power to rise again? Perhaps Thomas could not understand that a person could allow his own death and yet still raise himself. The doubt is not only the rising, but also the power to let oneself die. For that means that he chose to die, and the implications of that are a lot harder. So to believe in his resurrection, is to believe also that a person could willing let himself be taken and tortured to death.
But there is also another point to consider. Every time Our Lord meets with his disciples here he starts with the greeting of “Peace be with you.” He also links this with the showing of his hands and his side, the place of his wounds and the power to his disciples to forgive. As an aside, there seems to be some interesting themes running between Luke and John here – John emphasises the hands and side, while Luke emphasises the hands and feet. Yet John has the unique record of the washing of the feet, so why does he omit the signs of the feet here? Maybe John is teasing us with the missing feet to tie it back to that last night he had with his disciples, the time he was with them all together, and he washed their feet. The message from that night was that discipleship is about service, not power.
Let’s consider again that greeting of peace. This is linked with the idea of forgiveness. “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” On an aside this passage was used at Anglican ordinations of priests, unlike Roman Catholic or Orthodox clergy. Now, we may be tempted to think that this is a gift of power – we can control the forgiveness of sins. But we should also remember from the washing of the feet, that primary duty as Christian and disciples is to serve. So it cannot be a giving of power, but a message of service. We are to serve people by learning to forgive or retain sins.
The forgiveness of sins then becomes a message to us believers, the modern disciples; that we serve the world by learning to forgive. By that we bring a peace into the world. Our Lord comes into our midst telling us that his peace is with us. You see, the change in the world starts with how we show forgiveness. If we want peace, we have to learn that it is only possible through the gift of forgiveness in life. If we don’t forgive, the sins are retained, and the world does not change: if we forgive the sin is forgiven and the peace of Our Lord comes instead.
The heart of this message is that we, as disciples, have to learn to forgive. It’s the only way to change the world and give peace. The bearing of grudges and the holding back of forgiveness is the Easter message for us. It’s not easy. We are often hurt by the damage that has been done to us, often it is malicious. It is the evil in our midst that we struggle with. Sometimes it may be our own besetting sin, as the quaint old phrase puts it, our own inability to seek forgiveness for our own sins. Sometimes it may the damage done to us by family or workplaces. Whatever it is, wherever it happened, peace will not come from anything else but learning to forgive.
I should also point out that when we have committed sin, the first stage is seeking forgiveness, then the second stage is what we call reparation, and the last stage is absolution. By reparation we have to try and make good the evil we have done. If we have stolen, we must restore; if we have told lies, we must expose them. Forgiveness is not possible without reparation. We do not obtain forgiveness easily, but then the peace of Christ itself is not bought cheaply, but is the price of his own blood.
Which brings us back to Thomas. The signs that Thomas see are the signs of Our Lord’s suffering. He shows to Thomas the cost of his peace. We too, who remember how Our Lord washed our feet to teach us service, should also remember that the cost of peace is living with wounds, wounds that no longer are painful though, but resurrected in the new life of the Risen Lord.
The Most Important (and Ignored) Day of the Year – Easter Vigil 20 April, 2019
We have been celebrating Holy Week. We have had some strange adjectives: Holy, Maundy and Good to distinguish the names. Sometimes you even hear the rarer Spy Wednesday as another adjective. But let’s just consider today, which is called Holy Saturday or Easter Even.
Our Lord rose on the third day – he was buried on Good Friday before sunset, lay in the tomb all day on Holy Saturday, and rose on Easter Sunday morning. Holy Saturday, then, was the only full day that he lay in the tomb. That, by itself, makes it holy. But is that all?
Holy Saturday is usually one of the most ignored days in Holy Week, and we may tend to view it as merely an unwelcome waiting period – a delay, even – between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Or maybe we view it as a day to forget about the pain of Good Friday so we can get into the proper, happy mood for Easter Sunday.
What does it have to do with us, anyway? Well, if on Easter Sunday nothing has changed but the calendar, then we have nothing to celebrate and Easter is just like any other day, except for the eggs and chocolate.
Back to the tomb. What, exactly, was going on in the tomb on Holy Saturday? If we had been there in the tomb, with Jesus, what would we have seen? Did he simply lie there, dead and unmoving, all day and all night on Saturday, and then spring to life instantaneously on Easter Sunday? Or was his resurrection a gradual process, perhaps indiscernible at first, followed by a mild and gentle stirring, as if awakening from a usual night of slumber?
If we had been there with him in the tomb, what would we have observed on Sunday morning? Would he have slowly begun to move, then gradually sit up? Did He rub his eyes and hold his head in his hands, aching at first with the pain of his crucifixion, his hands and feet and side in agonizing, holy pain?
Popular images of Easter morning show Our Lord, radiant, outside the tomb – and sometimes standing with his feet off the ground, as if he had floated out of the tomb, as though the Ascension into heaven had already begun. What were the mechanics of the Resurrection? Did the stone roll, of its own, from the tomb’s opening? And did Our Lord then simply walk out of the tomb, where he remained until the women who visited the tomb found the tomb empty, and mistook him for the gardener? Or was the Resurrection something akin to a bomb going off, with the stone cast aside like a piece of rubbish, and Our Lord rocketing from the tomb? Or did Our Lord simply push back the stone, himself, and just walk away, quietly and assured?
What would we have seen if we were there? Perhaps it is foolish to think about seeing anything. With Our Lord dead and in the tomb, the world was in darkness. The forces of evil seemed to have conquered the forces of goodness and light. It appeared that we were meant to spend the rest of our lives in fear. But then Our Lord is raised from the dead – and our world is no longer broken, and our lives are no longer to be filled with despair.
Our lives are spent in anticipation of resurrection, both in the present life and in the one that is to come. In a way, our entire lives are a kind of a theological purgatory, as we await our own resurrection in Christ. We are stuck in Holy Saturday until we can find our way to the other side.
It’s similar to our faith journeys. Some of us have had great conversion moments, they know exactly when they became a believer. It’s likes having the tomb door blown open. Others have had a slow escape form the tomb, and don’t know when exactly they did believe, when they left the tomb of doubt. Then there are many who will never leave that tomb, and it is our duty as Christians to pray for them anyway; perhaps extra hard.
Does Our Lord stir in the grave? Is his resurrection gradual or instantaneous? Like Our Lord, our own Holy Saturday may not follow a gradual, continuous path from slumber to life. There may be movement, both small and large, as well as long periods where it appears that nothing is stirring.
But we can make a choice to work toward emerging from our slumber. The key is love. Love is the animating force that propels us on our journey from Holy Saturday to our own Easter experience – our resurrection in Jesus Christ.
Whether you believe that we are all fallen angels in need of awakening, or whether you simply accept that we need to awaken to our own life’s true calling – our true mission or purpose in life – Holy Saturday can serve as a reminder that we are in need of our own Easter experience. We need to stir from our mortal slumber and find a way to roll back the stone that has blocked us from living our true life and experiencing that which we are meant to be, and that which we are meant to live.
And what is the stone that blocks us from living our true life and experiencing what that which we are meant to be? It’s our lack of awareness – an awareness that we are all interconnected with everyone else. It’s our inability to see, or accept, that we are all members of the Body of Christ. It’s our unwillingness or inability to accept everyone else, especially those people who aren’t like us, people we don’t like, and people who may even mean to hurt us. It’s our eagerness to exclude these people, and to treat them differently. It’s our limited sense of responsibility toward everyone and everything that God created. To put a point on it – it’s our inability to recognize and accept that everyone is a part of God’s creation, no less important than whatever importance we place on our own position in God’s creation. And along with that recognition and acceptance is the realization that we are all responsible for one another, and for building up God’s creation – and that we are to do more than simply not actively work against it. This is the time to recognize that we need to do more than simply avoid sin. We need to seek out goodness. The absence of evil in our lives does not equate to the presence of goodness. That’s not the way it works, and we know it in our heart of hearts. We cannot consider ourselves to be good merely because we believe that we are not as bad as other people. We need actually to be good, and to seek and to do good things. This is the work that God has given us to do. To love one another. Not in the abstract, writing-a-check kind of way, but in the real, day-to-day encounters we have with all people, and with the people whom we never meet. No exceptions.
Maybe that is the real reason we call it Holy Saturday. It’s holy because we, too, have a sacred obligation to sanctify our lives for a greater need, something beyond ourselves. Maybe Holy Saturday isn’t about inactivity. Maybe it’s the inner activity that we have to undergo before we, too, can find new life after the crushing defeat of our own crucifixion.
When we love, or even when we open ourselves to the possibility of loving another person, we allow a small opening to appear in the hardened shell of our isolated existence, and we get a glimpse of heaven on earth. Of God’s Kingdom on Earth.
The only force that could have raised Our Lord from the dead was love; love was the force that allowed Jesus to raise Lazarus from the grave; so much more love was required for Jesus to rise on Easter Sunday. And love is the only force that can raise us from our own Holy Saturday slumber. Our love of others is required, but it is not enough – we need Our Lord to raise us from our own graves of lassitude.
We are born in Christ. We die in Christ. We are with Our Lord in the tomb, and it is Holy Saturday, every day.
Based on a reflection by Carlo Uchello.
The Second Part of Lent Starts – Lent 5C, 7 April, 2019
Here we are at Passion Sunday, in the second part of Lent. Just a reminder, we are called to prayer, fasting and almsgiving, calls that are never too late to start. If you don’t have a Lenten rule worked out, then it’s not too late, the best part is still to come. Next week is Palm Sunday and then it’s Holy Week and all the fun. So time to get on with it.
You may be wondering though, if Lent is all about prayer, fasting and almsgiving, then what does the Gospel reading have to do with it. Today is the story, from John, of the woman caught in adultery. It does not seem to fit the pattern of Lent in many ways. In many lectionaries it no longer falls as part of the Lenten cycle.
It’s a strange passage. In some of the earlier document traditions this passage does not occur, so it has been marked with suspicion: we are not sure if it originally formed part of the Gospel according to John or was a very early insertion. If it was an insertion, we don’t know where it came from as it doesn’t form part of the other Gospels either. It’s also the only time we hear of Our Lord writing, as well. So, it’s all a bit mysterious, but that’s another story.
It starts with the woman being dragged before Our Lord. It’s early morning and the scribes and Pharisees we hear bring this woman and make her stand before Jesus. The element of coercion is very clear. It begs the question: if this woman had been caught in adultery, then where is the man? He is a glaring omission, and the Law was clear that both a man a a woman caught in adultery were meant to suffer the same passage. But, it’s a man’s world, and the man does not have to face the music, so these other men make this woman stand before Jesus.
The whole idea is to catch out Our Lord here. But then Our Lord does this really odd thing, the only time we hear of him doing anything like this, he bends down and writes on the ground. In fact, it is mentioned twice he did this. What was he doing? Was he writing other texts out for the scribes and Pharisees to read? But by bending down he also does not face these men either.
Then there is the challenge: Let any one amongst you without sin throw the first stone. Normally we would like to challenge people face to face, but Our Lord is avoiding their gaze. He’s not forcing them into a corner, to challenge them to declare their self-righteousness, but letting each one of them think on the words as he is bend over writing on the ground.
And they go away, one by one, the elders first.
The Gospel says quite a bit about forgiveness. It tells us we need to endlessly forgive. What that means we are still working out. Here at St George’s we look after the Oblates of St Benedict, those who follow the Rule of St Benedict that was written for the guidance of religious communities from the 6thC, and it still being read chapter by chapter each day. It’s a fascinating way the Christian life has shaped communities. St Benedict has rules for members who sin grievously: first they are shunned then if they don’t get better they are told to leave. The point is, that although we are called to endlessly forgive sometimes healing can only be done by exclusion. A brother in a community that endlessly breaks the rules needs to go to see if this is where he is called. The same applies in our lives. The child on drugs, the unfaithful partner, the cheating work colleague: at times we need to exclude people for their own good from the community to which we belong, for the good of the person involved to let that person sort things out if he or she wants to remain. Forgiveness is one thing, but communities do exclude for the sake of the sinner.
Which gets me back to that woman forced to stand before Our Lord. Alone. Without the man who had been caught with her. Now without her accusers. Our Lord asks her, where her accusers are, the first time he addresses her. She now has a voice and says no one. Then Our Lord says to her, that neither does he condemn, and go and sin no more.
It’s worth noticing that the woman does not ask for forgiveness. Being dragged before all those men was enough. Our Lord doesn’t make her beg, he just gives her that forgiveness she needs. It that lovely touchy point of the compassion of Our Lord.
This passage is part of the Gospel readings for Lent as it reminds us about the nature of sin. Sin is never just something that hurts an individual, grievous though it can be, but also hurts a community. When we sin, we not only let down ourselves but let down others. But sin is not about condemnation to death: sin is about Jesus telling us to go and sin no more. Forgiveness is always about new chances and new life: not punishments and condemnation.
When you think again about prayer, fasting and almsgiving, you also start to realise that it is the opposite of sin. They are the works of mercy, the works we can do to make the world a better place, and even perhaps make ourselves better people. They are the opposite of sin: making communities better as well. Don’t underestimate the power of these works. The power of of prayer, the power of fasting, the power of almsgiving. All are the weapons we use in the fight against the evil of the world.
Which is why we have this Gospel reading today. Life is, and will always be, a lifelong struggle with sin. Our struggle with sin will finish only when we have been dead for ten minutes. Lent should not be skipped over. The calls of Lent are small things in themselves: a little less to eat, a few extra dollars out, a minute to say a prayer. God will take any thing we offer, no matter how small. God doesn’t need it: but we need it. We need to give what we can, give our best, to be the best. So when we start with little things, such as even saying no to chocolate during Lent, we start our training. By learning to struggle with little things we learn to face big things. We learn to face sin and deal with it. Sin exists and we need to face it: as our Lord faced it for us in the Cross. Welcome to the second part of Lent, and the training for the rest of our lives.
The Sons – Lent 4C, 31 March, 2019.
This Gospel reading today is one of the best loved and most beautiful, with the image of a God with open arms ready to receive us in a loving embrace. God is always waiting; God is always willing to take us in; God does not look back to our own miserable past, but God offers us the immediacy of love. Keep this image before your eyes.
“All this is from God,” St Paul assures us, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” This act of reconciliation is rather difficult for us to understand since reconciliation implies that each side has been estranged before coming together, that, as we have drawn away from God, God has drawn away from us. Here is where language fails us, because, as both Our Lord and St Paul make it quite clear, it is we who have moved away, we who must return and be reconciled. God’s arms remain open in order to embrace us when we return. These arms never push us away. Never.
In the familiar parable of what has come to be called “The Prodigal Son,” the father has never stopped loving the child who chose to go away, to live a dissolute life. Through one powerful sentence in the story; “But while he was still far off, his father saw him,” we too see the father constantly on the lookout for his lost son. And even though this formerly rich, well-nourished, and well-dressed young profligate is now filthy, skinny, and in rags, the father recognizes him from afar and runs to meet him with open arms.
The picture of the younger son who lives a life of sin and estrangement is nothing new. We recognise him all too well. He is the perfect image of selfishness; he takes what the father offers and goes away in order to waste it. We recognize human selfishness because it resides in all of us; we recognise the sin of saying “I am my own, I belong only to myself, I owe nothing to my Creator; I will do as I please.” We see younger son in this parable lowering himself to the ultimate degradation for a Jew of his time; to live among pigs. In the eyes and ears of Our Lord’s Jewish listeners, nothing was dirtier than dealing with pigs.
If the story ended there, with expressions of “It served him right because he was an ungrateful son,” the depression and desperation would be complete. But, it doesn’t. The young man looks at his condition and is first aware of the terrible needs of his body, of hunger: “Here I am living among pigs while even my father’s servants have enough to eat.” Of course, this is a selfish reaction, but we are tied to the needs of the physical self and it’s an honest reaction. God gave us life and life must be preserved. But the young sinner acknowledges his sin and does not conceal his guilt: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” This is the beginning of repentance, of turning around, of knowing that we don’t belong to ourselves alone. Our separation, our sin, is first against heaven and then against those who have loved us. Acknowledging this state is the first step toward reconciliation.
The younger son sets off to return to his father, confident that he will be received, because he knows his father’s heart: and he is not wrong. The father is indeed keeping vigil, his arms open, his eyes searching the horizon to see the returning son, to recognize him as his own, no matter how disfigured he now is. The son is welcomed home, the fatted calf is killed, and the party starts.
Now we could leave this parable here or explore a little more the nature of mercy and forgiveness. Sometimes the reading we hear of this parable stops here, in the interests of brevity. But there is a far deeper meaning and this parable goes on.
It’s the other son. He comes back tired from his work and hears the party. Then he refuses to enter, and the father comes out and pleads with him. The father ends with the words: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
But the parable ends there. We don’t know the response of the elder son. The parable ends there, with the father’s plea, but the elder son is still outside the party, in the evening gloom, with the music going inside.
Think for a moment for whom St Luke was writing the Gospel. We think that they were probably more Greek than Jews, maybe to an area north of Galilee, maybe where Syria is today. Early Christians met on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, which was a work day, so they met early. So, they certainly didn’t have a late night.
To be honest, most of us here today are very similar. We didn’t party hard last night. We, like the early Christians for whom Luke wrote, probably have more in common with that elder brother than the younger. Not many of us have had to live with pigs, not many of us spent our lives in the fleshpots of Adelaide spending our money on prostitutes and fast living. We, like Luke’s congregation, have probably worked hard, just like the elder brother.
It may just be that the elder brother is meant to be us.
So, the elder brother becomes much more important for us. We have seen the others go off and enjoy the fleshpots of life and waste their money. Perhaps we have even gloated when fate catches up on them. Perhaps we resent when after all the damage they have done they are welcomed back with a party. Perhaps they remind us of a brother or sister we know who has wrecked our families.
Maybe we are the ones who are standing outside the party full of resentment, hearing the party going on, but not going in.
Maybe that’s the whole problem of the Church in the world today, we are outside in the darkness, refusing to go into the party, full of moral judgment and indignation.
Now Our Lord doesn’t give us an easy answer. He leaves the fate of the elder brother in the air. That’s the parable challenging us. That’s where we leave it. Where do we stand at the moment? When do we stand in the darkness, hearing the party going on, but refusing to enter because our anger and judgment? When do we forget to celebrate but make our work and routine justification? When do we forget to forgive?
There is Always Hope – Lent 3 C 24 March, 2019
Well, we have a great passage for Lent today. It asks some of the most common and complicated questions that challenge our faith. They are questions that virtually everyone who has experienced suffering or loss has considered: where is God in this?
Even more difficult are the related questions: Why is there so much suffering in the world? Is suffering somehow linked to behaviour? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Then, there are the most pointed questions of all: Does God cause suffering; and is suffering a form of Divine punishment?
Suffering and its existence in a world created by a good God is one of the most basic theological dilemmas and cause many to question the faith. We can say a lot of words and give explanations, but we often don’t deal with the very real pain and brokenness of those who dared utter these difficult questions in the first place.
Even so, amidst all of its snares and dangers, to those who have been battered and bruised by the changes and chances of this life, the Gospel today from Luke offers an important word of nourishment.
The context of the passage is this: news reaches Jesus that Pilate has made a religious sacrifice to the Emperor, who was often considered a kind of demigod in those days, and as a part of that burnt sacrifice, he slaughtered a gathering of Galilean Jews and placed their remains on the sacrificial pyre.
And as if that is not horrifying enough, at the same time that Our Lord hears of Pilate’s treachery, news arrives that a tower in Siloam has fallen, crushing eighteen people.
The crowd who relayed this horrible news to Our Lord was burning with the same question that has echoed throughout Christendom for 2,000 years: “Why did this tragedy happen to these people?”
We’ve heard this question asked before elsewhere in Scripture: the Gospel according to John asks the same question in a different way, as Our Lord is asked about a man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”
In other passages, well-intentioned but inadequate answers to the problem of suffering are suggested. Take, for example, the Book of Job, as Job’s so-called friends gather in the wake of Job’s terrible string of suffering and say well-meaning but dumb things like, “You need to seek God,” or “It could be worse,” or “God’s punishment is less than you deserve.”
We only have to think of the dreadful tragedy in Christchurch, innocent people, many of them refuges from other horrors, killed. “Why has this terrible thing happened to such innocent people?” we well may ask.
A lot of this comes from one of the most basic and widely-accepted rules of modern science is that every demonstrable effect is derived from a cause. We have transposed this equation onto everything from religion to sports to politics to the economy—you name it, we human beings love trying to explain it!
So, things from as simple as a paint scrape on a new car to suffering as profound and heart-wrenching as a divorce or an ominous diagnosis, or even the death of a loved one, can cause us to ask the question, “What did I do to deserve this?”
In many ways, this search for answers is an indispensable part of our humanness.
From the depths of despair, there are times when any explanation is better than nothing at all.
But as the crowd asks Our Lord the question of who or what is to blame for these tragedies, Our Lord cannot be clearer: Those who died were no better or worse than we are. Rather, Our Lord says, we have all made mistakes and lost sight of God’s will for our lives, and we are all sinners.
What’s more, although Our Lord insists that the relationship between sin and suffering is not causal – that is, God does not cause us to suffer because of our sin, Our Lord also reminds us that sin itself can cause us to suffer. There is no question that Pilate’s murderous deeds – as well as the horrific actions perpetrated by today’s tyrants – are sinful. And sin has consequences.
Destructive behaviours, violence, the lust for power, and the quest for vengeance and retribution lead to much suffering in the world. The Church is called to speak out in opposition to these forms of suffering, and to do all in its power to combat them.
But with all of that said, what sense can be made of the parable of the fig tree? Why does Our Lord tell that particular parable, and why does he do it here?
It becomes easy to read this parable as though it were the angry and vindictive God being placated by Jesus meek and mild.
But what if it’s not quite that straightforward?
Humans, both ancient and modern, hold “fairness” as an important value. Fairness, in a moralistic sense, is often defined as receiving rewards for doing good and receiving punishment for doing evil. When we hit our targets at work, or we made our grades at school, we expect a little gratitude, or maybe even a bonus. In the same way, when we fail to hit the target or earn the grade, we might expect some sort of ramification or punishment.
This concept of fairness is at play in the parable of the fig tree. The landowner says what most of us have come to believe about fairness: “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”
In other words, it hasn’t met its mark or lived up to its potential, and it’s affecting my bottom line, so it has to go.
But the gardener proclaims another possibility: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
Perhaps this parable is a reminder that God operates, not on our conventional conceptions of fairness and causes and effects; but rather, God operates on contrarian wisdom: patience, faithful tending, and hopeful expectation.
Rather than certainty; rather than providing a recipe for putting an end to human suffering; rather than offering a panacea that would make the world turn on blissful peace and harmony, the Gospel today offers a word of good hope: God is still tending the garden.
God is still working in and through God’s people to bring light and life, love and peace to a broken and sinful world.
And in that, there is indeed hope for us all. So, despite all the bad news in the world, or the tragedies of our own lives, God is still there, and there is always hope.
Based on a sermon by Fr Marshall A. Jolly, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina.
Temptation Time – Lent 1 C, 10 March 2019
Well, here is Lent and we start our Lent with the reading of the temptation in the wilderness. It’s a great passage, and you can imagine it, with Jesus and the devil and all the temptations. There have been some great pictures of it by many of the great painters of the world.
Today, being our third year of our readings from the Gospel, we have Luke’s account. Luke is always the most visual – he tells us so often where people are, it’s almost as if he were a playwright, visualising where everyone has to be for the maximum impact. His structure for the temptation here is also different. There are the three temptations, but also a common question and answer structure.
But let’s look at what the temptations are.
The first is “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” It’s the temptation to satisfy hunger, the needs of the body, when Jesus had not eaten for forty days. So many of the temptations we have in life are to deal with our physical comfort: things that we often don’t need, a more comfortable car, more luxurious food. We have to be aware in our lives that our taste for comfort does not become an indulgence. We have probably all met people who go on endlessly over the tritest thing that discomforts them, it’s too hot, or too cold, it’s all too easy to do. But one does not live by bread alone. Our physical comfort is not the only thing that is necessary in life: there is self-sacrifice and the need to support others in our community as well.
The next temptation was the temptation of the glory of the world. “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” We are all susceptible to the glory of the world, fame, renown the good opinions of others. But the glory of this world is a fickle creature. We have all seen stories of people who are famous one moment, then reviled the next. What is important in life is not what others think of us, but how we are with God. The Devil promises the world, but we trade away our peace and our soul at the price. We are made to worship our God and only him: the world is a tempting but broken promise.
So the first is the temptation of the flesh, the second is the temptation of the world: what then is the third? “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Jesus responds to it with: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” This is the test of learning that we are not god. God never saves those who do not want to be saved. If you want to throw yourself over a cliff, it will happen. God has given us free will in our lives, and loves us so that God will not overthrow that independence. We can choose to live with God or live alone. God will not be put to the test – the love of God is that he will allow us to make our own choices. The temptation of the devil here was to offer Jesus a chance to be outside God, to do whatever he wanted separate from the will of his Father. But God will not be put to the test. Luke puts this temptation last – the temptation to be god, to make oneself the centre of the universe, and live without our real God. This temptation is idolatry, where we make ourselves god.
“When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.” Luke finishes the temptations with this line, that is often skipped over. But Luke is too much of a storyteller to let this go by. The clue to this is in the crucifixion, much, much later, when Jesus is dying on the cross. He is reviled by many, but at one stage we hear that (23:36-37) the soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” It is the same sentence structure again, “If you are, then.” The devil has returned, this time speaking through the soldiers. It’s also interesting that this is linked with the offering of the sour wine, which Jesus has said earlier at the Last Supper, that he will not drink again until the Kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). Some scholars see this as Jesus completing the Passover Meal at the cross – the last supper does not conclude in the upper room, because Jesus refuses the last cup, drawing the Passover meal on till his death on the cross, thus uniting the meal with his death.
Three sorts of temptations: the flesh, the world and idolatry. Dealing with temptation means recognising it for what it is, then we need to deal with it. Many of us know too well how we are tempted. Temptation is rarely overcome by our own self-will: if it is it usually means another temptation has slipped in. Temptation is overcome by recognition and the acknowledgement we need help. Our Lord responds by quoting Scripture, the power of God. Temptation is dealt with best by leaving it with God, praying and working with God with our recognition of its wrongfulness, as in Scripture, and appealing to God to overcome it. Temptation is overcome by not just being idle, but doing the works of God.
Finally, a last point about temptation: it’s not a temptation unless it’s likely to succeed. Temptation works with the tools of our lives: it’s no use confessing to having the temptation for genocide unless you have the means.
So welcome to Lent and the time to contemplate our temptations.
Specks and Logs – 3 March, 2019
Pell has been all the news this week. I don’t think a jury trial has been poured over in such depth since the Chamberlain trials in the 1980s. People are arguing the rights and wrongs of the trail, whether they believe the evidence or otherwise.
Then this Sunday we have the Gospel reading of Jesus teaching his disciples, note not the crowds, but the disciples, that:
Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye?
The person of Cardinal Pell has been a deeply controversial figure in Australia, not only within the Roman Catholic Church. He is in the line of autocratic leaders that have impacted on Australian politics, the most notable being Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne. Larger than life, with the authority of the church, these figures have been a lightning rod for people’s hates and fears. Figures like Cardinal Pell have a long history with our culture.
Whatever the final result of his appeal and further investigations, the result this week marks a turning point in Australia’s treatment of religious leaders and even the Church. We are all lessened by this verdict. There is a sense of betrayal of trust.
However, the whole problem of abuse is not one that is limited to the Church by any means. The problems of abuse sit deeply in our culture. However, the Church, with its values, has failed, and the contrast between words and actions have been made very clear. We have more than a speck in our eyes and we do need it removed. But there is still a specular log in our whole culture on our treatment and abuse of minors. It joins a series of problems such as racism towards migrants, and the treatment and empowerment of aborigines. None of these problems have easy solutions and simply blaming one or two people may make us feel better, but not tackle generations of prejudice.
We should also acknowledge there is still a residual distrust and prejudice against Roman Catholics. Here is South Australia we were the Paradise of Dissent, as a famous history of the state put it, but that paradise was for Protestants. In NSW the early colony was virulently Anti Roman Catholic and even deported the first priest that arrived, leaving the mainly Irish Roman Catholic convicts without spiritual support for years. They had to make do with a reserved wafer for exposition of the sacrament as their sole eucharistic worship. Our Australian history has been marked by bitter religious prejudices at times. Many of the older ones here will remember the days when Roman Catholics were forbidden to set foot in other churches. An earlier generation would not have seen a cut out figure of the pope in an Anglican church as funny.
The Church has gone through crises of faith before that have questioned its structure and the way that authority is exercised. Many times in the past, the religious orders have stepped in with alternative models of authority, such as the Franciscans in the later Middle Ages, of even the great Roman Catholic teaching orders like Mary McKillop here, who was famously ex-communicated by the bishop of Adelaide because he couldn’t get his way. Autocratic bishops have a tendency to reappear with monotonous regularity. But I think this week we have seen the death of that model here. I don’t know what we will get this time. The orders are dying out, but they continue in third orders and oblates. I don’t know what model of bishop will now develop, but it will be something different from Pell if it is going to inspire a new generation.
The appeal of Cardinal Pell will re-ignite this debate again. There is going to be acres of print written about this, and there will be long discussions as to whether the Roman Catholics, or just Christians in general, are inherently corrupt and should loose what privileges they have. In the meantime, Family Services will be under-resourced and the vulnerable in society will continue to be abused because it is not just Christians who are abusing them, but people from all walks of life. Even if they closed all church schools and banned Christians having any dealings with children, this would not solve the problem, as we know.
In the meantime, the Church is trying to do something about the log in her eye. The Anglican church has put in place a very elaborate training course for its leaders, as the members of your Parish Council can vouch for as they continually try to keep up with the requirements. Our diocese has signed up for the National Redress Scheme. We listen, and try to understand, the stories of those who have been abused. This month the Diocese of Willochra through Joe Johns, the former marine and army chaplain who preached here last November, is opening at Mintaro the mission of St Peter’s Sacred Space and Healing Garden. This ministry is to provide a safe and sacred place for those who have suffered spiritual harm to find spiritual healing. The primary purpose of St Peter’s is to offer spiritual sanctuary for those who may no longer trust institutional religion. It is a ground-breaking initiative. No major Christian denomination has a specific protocol to address the spiritual wounds resulting from church abuse. St Peter’s Sacred Space is addressing this need.
So where does it leave us. Well, we are still not perfect and all of us still are sinners, trying to be faithful and true to our calling to be a disciple of Our Lord. We still burn out and need renewal in the sacraments and love of God. We know, that no matter how bad things get, Our Lord Jesus will be here for us. The Church is, and remains, the bride of Christ, and Our Lord will never desert her. We know and continue to meet holy clergy and laity that through their witness and lives of prayer, sometimes in extraordinarily different ways, that show the Church working with those in need and praying for all. But all of this goodness is because the Holy Spirit continues to guide and sanctify His Church. Maybe it’s a good thing that Lent is starting this week, as we enter a time of reflection and penance as we contemplate our failings, and particularly pray for those we have failed, but know that every Lent is followed by the promise of Easter’s resurrection.
Feast of St Matthias – 24 February 2019, Archdeacon Emeritus Michael Whiting
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The verse immediately preceding the beginning of today’s gospel reads: My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. The compilers of our current prayer book, A Prayer Book for Australia, adapted this verse as a proclamation following readings from scripture: May your word live in us and bear much fruit to your glory. Many of our prayers speak of us ‘serving’ God: but this can be confusing as there is nothing we can ‘do’ for God. What we are able to do in God’s name is bear fruitrevealing God’s gloryto those we meet in this world. When we do that, when we abidein Christ, then truly are we being disciplesas Our Lord calls for.
Just like the original apostles (in today’s reading gathered for what is the Last Supper) we ponder often – how are we to become holy, how are we to share in the divine life Christ invites us to? Our Lord is asked, Lord teach us to how to pray, and responds with the words that matter most, Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. We are called, as disciples, to discover each day how we can hallowGod’s name in this world, how we can bear fruitrevealing His glory. This is the challenge facing the very first disciples of Christ, the apostles.
This Feast Day commemorating S. Matthias is extraordinary for several reasons: not only (after prayer) is a new apostle being chosen, his choice is ‘a toss of the coin’ moment, and although he is named, as is Justus or Barsabbas, yet we never hear of either ever again! Not only that but Matthias is forever to be remembered as the disciple ‘who was not Judas Iscariot’! What a shame for Matthias – never to be known for who he actually is.
The qualifications for election are set out clearly by Peter: One of the men who has accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection. Here is the crux. Matthias is to be a witness to the resurrection; that momentous event still bewildering the apostles. In the resurrection Almighty God is glorified and hallowed in ways previously unimaginable. This is the good news the apostles are now to share with the world.
Jesus had chosen His original twelve apostles for good reason: the Israel of the twelve tribes is being rebuilt on new foundations. There is a need for twelve apostles as they are to be the foundations of a new Israel and to bear much fruit to God’s glory. They will be enabled to do this as long as the resurrected Christ remains the very heart and substance of their lives, and thus the life of the infant church. Theresurrection is their guarantee, as it is the guarantee of our belief today.
Our Lord, at the Supper, is using the branching and fruitful vine as the image for the life of faith and witness ahead. Judas is severed from the vine, and the question Matthias and the other apostles are asking; how do we not be cut off as well? How are they, and we, to bear fruit for God the Father? Well, we are to make some choices – we are to prune our own lives, seeking simplicity, fewer diversions, and doing better what remains. We know Christ is the vine so, as we prune, there are certain activities we enshrine and place centre stage because they are of Christ: prayer, worship, acts of loving kindness.
Jesus is not asking simply for obedience no matter what. Jesus says – if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. … Jesus speaks of love, friendship, and kindness. The apostles, and we, are to live in this relationship to the vine, and no other. Judas fell away as he lost his loving, and his kindness. That need not be our fate.
In S. John 14.23 we hear Jesus say, those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. As we consider these words then we shall be His fruitful disciples.
So now, with such loving kindness before the One God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we ascribe as in most justly due, all glory, majesty, authority and power, now and forever. Amen.
Fishing for People – 10 February, 2019
Today’s readings tell us of three people who had a true encounter from which their vocation surfaced. Because of his encounter with God Isaiah offered to become his prophet, Saint Paul accepted to be the witness of the Gospel for all pagans, and Saint Peter agreed to Christ’s proposal to become a fisher of men.
For these holy people, the day of their encounter with God was not an ordinary day. For them that day was not like any other else, it was the event that changed their lives. Then, they put their lives to service to God.
It is important to notice that in all these three cases, the vocation was for a mission of salvation and that for God the sins and the fragility of the three people had not been an objection to the call. God forgave them, purified them, and gave them the strength for the task.
All of them received the peace of forgiveness and became missionaries among men. They became the spokespersons of God and of his Kingdom, that is a kingdom of freedom, justice, truth, peace and above all of love.
To Isaiah, who welcomed the divine cry “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”, God changed the heart so that he could answer “Here I am, send me!” The great prophet could answer in this way because the Seraphim had purified his lips with burning coal. This angelic act is the consequence of the fact that Isaiah had encountered God and had recognized his condition as a sinner.
Our Lord gave to Paul his grace and told him in Acts that, “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen [of me] and what you will be shown.” For the Apostle of the Gentiles, the encounter with the Lord was the condition to change the meaning of his life and to live it as a mission. From Saul, the fierce persecutor, he became Paul, the tireless announcer of Christ.
To Peter Our Lord gave a strength steady as a stone so that the first among the apostles could follow Him without yielding. When he was the co-star of the miraculous catch of fish Peter had said to Jesus “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He felt he could not have this Jesus, this Messiah, this Lord, in his boat. The Redeemer answered, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” The humble fisherman of Galilee became the one who fished people, lifting them from the water poisoned by sin and plunging them in the water purified by God’s love.
The recognition of the presence of God by whatever means often leads to a profound sense of unworthiness, and a confession of sin. It is dishonest to stand erect in the presence of the Almighty and proclaim, “I am thankful I am not like other people”. Rather the honest response, modelled so well in this story by St Peter is, “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner.” It is that recognition of inadequacy and sin that is necessary for the transformation of grace. It is only against the background of a true understanding and confession of sin that grace can really have any meaning. Otherwise, as the famous 20thC German theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer noted, it is just “cheap grace.”
The astonishment of the miracle of the fish, the words and above all the encounter with Christ invaded not only Peter but also all the ones who were out fishing with him such as his brother Andrew and his partners James and John.
Furthermore, Our Lord wasn’t alone anymore. Four men, two brothers who became even more brothers because of the common faith, abandoned everything, their job and their families, to become companions of Christ. Four humble fishermen, four workmen who, if not illiterate definitely not doctors, had been called by Jesus to share his mission as the saviour of the human family.
Now St Luke deals with the theme of the calling of the disciples differently from the other Gospels. The calling of the twelve leads the start of Our Lord’s ministry in the other gospels, but St Luke puts it differently. It’s only after the crowds build up that the twelve are called. St Luke has already consistently portrayed the people as eager to hear and Jesus as just as eager to teach them. Later, St Luke will raise the issue of whether “hearing” alone without appropriate action is enough. But here, the crowds were simply eager to hear the word of God from Our Lord and he went to great lengths to teach them. Our Lord now has his mission and followers, he is not alone.
Why did these fishermen leave everything to follow this man who was not promising money nor glory and was speaking “only” about love, perfection, poverty, and joy (“Blessed be the poor because they will be the Kingdom of Heaven”)?
They left everything because God had become the effective centre of their lives and because he was the only one who had words of eternal life. He is the Life of life. The encounter with Christ impacted their insignificance. The discovery of Christ as the centre of everything took away every fear. They experienced themselves that the one who follows Christ doesn’t walk in darkness and they put themselves at the service of the Kingdom of God. They followed Christ and lived in community with him who in a parable had described himself as the Good Shepherd. In this parable, the love of Our Lord is manifested in all its full capacity of initiative, creativity, and strength.
Peter and all the apostles accepted life as a vocation and Christ’s mission became their vocation.
Which leaves the question, what about us? Now we may not be Isaiah with angels touching us with burning coals, or St Paul being struck with blindness: let alone getting into a small wooden boat to catch a haul of fish. But for all of us vocation remains. We are called to be disciples. There is no retirement age for that, probably not till we are dead for fifteen minutes. Who we are called to serve will be our families, our neighbours, our friends, the wealthy and the homeless. But we are still be called to show love, to be disciples and to do Christ’s mission in our own way.
It’s also worth noting that St Luke never tells us what Our Lord says here. Just what they did. Mission is more about doing things, being Christlike, that saying anything. That’s what we are called to do.