Easter 4: John 10, 22-30, Acts 9, 36-end and Rev 7, 9-end
Do you have a tribe, clan, or club that you either have, or continue, to feel loyalty and allegiance to? I bet you do. For my part I feel allegiance to my family clan – we have a group on Facebook Messenger called ‘the Clan,’ to Northampton Saints, and to England Rugby. I also feel a huge sense of allegiance with this church; I am deeply invested in it. All of these allegiances shape my identity in some way. They all give purpose and meaning to my life.
But none of these can be ultimate, or eternal, allegiance or identity shapers. I might long for all of these allegiances to be fulfilling, and I do, and especially my family allegiances, but my long-term identity is surely to be found in Christ. Being ‘in Christ', is, and must be for a Christian, our ultimate Be- Longing. In the gospel we have heard Jesus tell his critics that they cannot ‘belong’ because they do not ‘believe.’ Believing it seems begets belonging, that’s why saying, or singing, the creed every week as the juncture between the ministry of the word and ministry of the sacrament is so important. We affirm the essence of our faith, our core beliefs before we share in our communal meal; the sacrament that binds us together as God’s ‘Holy Communion of people.’
Jesus, you see, offers something far more profound than the joys of Northampton Saints winning the odd match, or even the cup. He offers a real sense of belonging, the satisfaction of our deepest desires and newness of life. He offers real meaning, real purpose, real nourishment, real friendship and the integrity of union with God. Jesus says that ‘the Father and I are one.’ The greatest of gospel offers is that we are invited into full participation in this union, or ‘Holy Communion.’
The writer Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it like this: ‘holiness is the union we experience with one another and with God. Holiness is when more than one become one, when what is fractured is made whole. Singing in harmony, breast feeding a baby, collective bargaining, dancing, admitting our pain to someone and hearing them say ‘me too.’ Holiness happens when we are integrated as physical, sexual, emotional and political beings. Holiness is the song that has always been sung, perhaps even the sound that was first spoken when God said ‘let there be light.’’
I love this because it makes it clear that holiness, or the decision to follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is for the whole of life, not just church life. As the Christian poet and hymn writer George Herbert phrases it, holiness must be a ‘seven whole days not one in seven’ saturation. We should also expect that following the Good Shepherd may lead us into some highly unexpected pastures. But the great news is that where we go, we go as members of the flock, not as atomised separate and isolated individuals; we go in unity, in communion. And this sense of unity isn’t just for now. Instead, as the reading from Revelation makes clear, it is eternal. When we belong to Jesus, when we allow him to be the Good Shepherd, he will satisfy our desire to Be-Long.
We are graced with a foretaste of that sense eternal belonging each and every week as we gather for the Eucharist, where we dine with the ‘Angels, Archangels, and All the Company of Heaven,’ and where, like them, we sing of ‘blessing and honour and glory and power.’ Hold on to that vision and let it give you hope and a sense that you do indeed truly Be-Long. In the meantime let the word of God dwell richly in your hearts and let it transform you into the very likeness of Christ. Take confidence from the example of St. Peter who just a few short weeks ago was to be found denying his friend, his master and his Lord and yet, having made the decision to renew his love for Jesus and to follow him now finds himself doing improbable things in unexpected places. Peter is able to raise Dorcas from apparent death, doing an improbable thing in an unexpected place (the Temple – think of the venue for his denial of Jesus), for the simple and straightforward reason that he, Peter, is now fully alive; he knows where his primary allegiance lies and where his true identity is to be found. Peter is fully alive because he has made the decision to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who says to all who believe: ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand,’ they Be-long.
Can I invite you to reflect on these words this week, and let them penetrate your very soul?
Easter 3: Acts 9, 1-9 & John 21, 1-19
Occasionally people ask me what I do with my time. They seem genuinely interested in the working life of a Parish Priest. The reality of the role is that it is, in all probability, that the life of a parish priest is pretty similar in some ways to other jobs or roles: there are good days, and bad days, highs and lows, things I find interesting and things I find less stimulating. There is a basic structure to my day, and of course prayer is central: my day begins and ends with formal prayer and I try to find time to pray during the day. Routine is an important and stabilising part of the priest's day. Having a rhythm of life is keeps me grounded, centred and focused. I suspect it’s a bit like that for all of us.
Sometimes I get irritated when my preplanned routines are interrupted. Maybe you do also? Interruptions can leave us feeling uncertain, discomforted and unstable. Being interrupted can also, however, lead to a renewed sense of purpose and direction. It’s how we respond to the interruption that matters. Today’s readings are all about interruption. Paul, we are told, was a man on a mission: ‘Still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ he ‘went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any, men or women, who belonged to the Way, he might bring them to Jerusalem.’ Presumably these men and women included the apostles, the Mary’s and, of course, Peter. Paul is a man on a mission; a hate filled mission. Meanwhile Peter has gone fishing! He has returned, with his friends, to his old life with its familiar rhythms and routines. Peter is seeking to regain a sense of stability through the tried and tested. ‘When all is uncertain, let’s go fishing.’
Both Peter and Paul are, however, in for a big surprise, for Jesus comes and interrupts their plans, rhythms, and routines, and in doing so questions them and unsettles them. The unsettling, life-changing, question that Jesus asks Paul is, or as he is then known Saul, is ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ The unsettling, life changing, question that Jesus asks Peter, three times, is; ‘Simon - and note how Jesus uses his former name – son of John do you love me?’ I love the way that Jesus doesn’t rush straight to judgement over both Saul (or Paul) and Simon (or Peter), for their acts of hatred and rejection but instead questions them, for it is through the subtle art of questioning that he gets to the very heart of things providing the opportunity for change and redemption.
Paul’s anger and hatred is to be redeemed and transformed by love and into love; Peter’s fear and his rejection of Jesus, his friend, is to be redeemed and transformed by love into love. Peter and Paul, two very different characters, are interrupted by the questioning, loving, redeeming Jesus; the Jesus who makes the improbable possible.
Although Jesus begins his critique of Peter and Paul by asking questions he doesn’t stop there, for to do so would be to leave these two apostles in limbo. After they have answered him, or at least in Paul’s case acknowledged him, he instructs them. He says to Paul: ‘Get up and enter the city and you will be told what to do.’ What Jesus is saying to the temporarily blinded Paul is simply this: ‘you discipleship is going to be entirely contingent on your willingness to trust me.’ Having established that the mightily flawed Peter truly loves him Jesus instructs him to ‘feed my sheep’ and then, crucially, to ‘follow me.’ It is as if Jesus is saying to them, as he does to us, first answer the question, then I will give you the instructions that will allow you to lead lives of real and sustained holiness.
Jesus asks questions of Peter and Paul and then he instructs Peter and Paul. Are you ready and willing be be interrupted, questioned and instructed? Are you ready and willing be be redeemed and transformed. Are you ready and willing to love, feed and serve? These are just some of the questions that today’s readings asks of us. They are the sort of questions that relate directly to one of our three aspirations or three H’s: holiness.
Is it your heart’s desire to allow Jesus to lead you on your life’s journey; interrupting you, questioning you, instructing you so that your pilgrimage is a holy pilgrimage, Amen.
Easter Day 2019
"Let every man and woman count themselves immortal. Let them catch the revelation of Jesus in his resurrection. Let them say not merely ‘Christ is risen’, but 'I shall rise'.’’
Today is the best day in the church’s year. It is, of course, the day when we sing and proclaim loudly that ‘Jesus Christ is risen’ and that ‘death has lost its sting.’ It’s the day when we are invited to believe again in the triumph of good over evil, love over hate, life over death. It’s the day that invites us to believe in and inhabit a new story; a better story. Easter day is the day which beckons us to live lives characterised by faith, hope and love, and what better virtues are there to live by?
Let’s firstly consider hope: I think it is fair to say that all of us, each and every one of us, sometimes feels a huge sense of despair; despair for ourselves and the world around us. Like Jesus we know that we humans are capable of doing appalling things, like Jesus we know that those we think of as friends, family and neighbours don’t always live up to their best intentions. We, again like Jesus, know that all can sometimes appear bleak.
As with Mary Magdalene we all experience the sense of loss and the burden of confusion, asking ourselves ‘how has it come to this?’ But, alongside Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning we too must allow ourselves to be surprised and hear the voice of love calling us by name; that voice that tells us that all is not as it seems. This Easter, can you hear the voice of Jesus calling you by name, gently beckoning you to enter into a different, better and more Godly story, a story animated and interpreted through faith, hope and love?
To hear Jesus calling you by name, to hear him beckoning you to step forward to allow yourselves to feed on him in your hearts with thanksgiving, by faith is to know that you are loved; loved in the here and now, and loved into all eternity, for the resurrection is an invitation to broaden our horizons and to believe in the eternal story. The resurrection invites us to believe in a story beyond ourselves and the limits of both our reasoning and our imagination. The resurrection brokers no limits. Through the resurrection Jesus calls us by name and offers us the hope that our own deaths aren’t sudden full stops, but small punctuation marks on the way to our eternal destiny.
But what of faith? Well faith is a virtue worked out in the here and now. Faith is the decision to live in the light of the resurrection. Faith takes shape when we, like Mary Magdalene, feel compelled to tell the Jesus story. Faith is made real and obvious to others when we live as Jesus would have us live, when we become the sort of people committed to bringing something of the Kingdom of God to ‘earth as in heaven.’
Over the next few weeks we are going to hear lots of accounts from the Acts of the Apostles testifying to what it looks like to live loving, hopeful, faith-shaped lives in the light of the resurrection. If we wish to, with integrity, affirm our belief in the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ we need to take these accounts seriously, replicating them in the here and now.
Can I invite you this Easter morn to recommit to living your lives in the light of the resurrection, for if you do, you will play your part in telling the Jesus story just as Mary Magdalene did all those years ago. If we dare to live in the power and authority of the resurrection we will become agents of faith, hope and love; we will live up to our highest, noblest, most Godly calling, we will make a difference both in the here and now and for all time; we will, when our time comes, be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us all this Easter morning "say not merely ‘Christ is risen,’ but ‘I (too) shall rise.’’
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