St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 31 May 2013

Te Pouhere Sunday*

June 2                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Te Pouhere Sunday*

[*Note.  For readers of these Notes who are not members of the Anglican Church in this country, I should explain that our General Synod has designated this Sunday, the first after Trinity Sunday, as a day on which we "celebrate our life as a three Tikanga Church".  Through a major overhaul of our Constitution, completed and brought into force in 1992, we adopted a structure of three "tikanga" or cultural strands, identified as Maori, Pakeha, and Polynesian or "Pacifika".  Briefly, this allows for each of those broad cultural identities to worship and practise their faith in a way that is culturally appropriate for them.  It also means that in the governance of the Church each of those partners has an equal say, and may dissent on any particular issue where a proposal that is acceptable to one is not acceptable to another.  While all this sounds (and is!) of limited interest to anyone who is not afflicted by an incurable love of canon law, or by the far more common addiction to interminable conferences in Auckland and even more exotic locations in the South Pacific region, the issues raised in these notes may be of wider interest to Christians of a more practical bent.]

Texts:  Isaiah 42:10-20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19; Luke 6:46-49

Theme:  The orthodox choice would be something like "Together we are one in Christ".  In similar vein might be "Christ in all Cultures".  More pointed would be something like "Recognising our Differences".

Introduction.  When we find particular difficulty in selecting appropriate readings for a particular celebration, it's usually a clue that we have in mind, perhaps, the things of human concern rather than the concerns of God; and I must confess that when I first saw this set of readings I thought this might be an instance of that.  (I'll get to the Sentence of the Day shortly!)  Our gospel passage may just pass muster: for "sound foundations" read "sound Constitution" and we get the point.  The second lesson, from Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, is a little more problematic: while the theme of reconciliation may seem apposite, and verse 17 may seem capable of applying to our new constitutional arrangements, it surely preaches a contrary message by urging us not to regard anyone "from a human point of view" any longer.  But isn't that exactly what our new Constitution requires us to do?  It raises the issue of our fundamental identity: am I a Christian who happens to be a Pakeha, or a Pakeha Christian, or (heaven forbid!) a Pakeha who happens to be a Christian?

But the most fascinating choice of readings we have today is surely our first lesson, from the Book of Isaiah.  What is the subtext here?  I have an idea, but it must wait for later.  First, there are some positive things to say about our Constitution, and its creative attempt to tackle the conflict that is at the very root of our humanity, and it's time I acknowledged some of them.


Much of our evolutionary and subsequent history as a species down to the present day can only be understood when we recognise the tension we all experience between our existence as individuals and as members of a larger grouping.  In general we can say that our sense of individual identity slowly evolved with the emergence of self-consciousness.  Before that, we were no doubt driven by our instincts to seek survival, but beyond that we belonged to our small, largely kin-based groups.  As our sense of self developed so the group to which we felt we belonged expanded.  Families became extended families, extended families became clans or tribes, and tribes became nations.  The process continues today, but with ever-increasing resistance.  There are many in Scotland who want out of the United Kingdom; there are many in Britain who want out of Europe; and so on.

Within countries we see growing tension between native-born citizens and later arrivals, particularly those later arrivals who look different, sound different, and are intent on preserving their own culture without integrating fully into the local culture.  None of this should come as a shock to readers of the Bible: it's all there almost from the beginning.  Look at the tension between the tribes of Israel over who has and who has not borne the brunt of the fighting or the building work.

Can faith overcome our endemic tribalism?  St Paul might seem to think so.  The Sentence of Scripture for the day (Galatians 3:28) is one of his many assertions that our identity in Christ transcends our national or ethnic identities: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Hence the temptation (one to which I have given in on a number of occasions) to hold that in Christ there can be no such thing as "Maori and Pakeha", and therefore our new Constitution is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.  But in my older and wiser years I am wondering if it really is as simple as that.  First, the Book of Revelation suggests that ethnicity or nationalism is not going anywhere any time soon: see, for example, 7:9, which seems to attest that among the vast multitude singing out "Salvation belongs to our God..." will be some singing in Te Reo Maori and some in Gaelic!

But to my mind, the more important challenge to St Paul's pithy universalism comes when we think about it from a Jewish perspective.  How does his assertion sit with them?  Granted he was a Jew himself, which may lessen the offence slightly, but does it not still sound somewhat imperialistic to Jewish ears?  Like a slogan or even a battle-cry of an invading force? 

Which gets us back to our Constitution and this mysterious choice of our first lesson from the prophet Isaiah.



Isaiah.  If we take chapter 42 as a whole, today's reading begins to make more sense.  The previous chapter ended on a pretty dismal note, with a general diatribe against idol-worshipping.  Things had reached rock-bottom, and the question therefore arises, what can God do about it?  Enter the enigmatic figure of the Servant.  He is going to bring in a new reign of justice and righteousness.  So far so good – Israel, God's chosen people, is to receive a divine visitation to make all things good again.  But as we go through verses 1-9 we find that the mission of the Servant is not limited to the people of Israel, but has universal application.  He is to "bring forth justice to the nations" (verse1), and God has given him "as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations".

Today's passage opens with a call to worship, throughout the lands, from the mountains to the coastlands, and the mood remains generally upbeat until, in verses 13-15, it suddenly darkens, before swinging wildly in verses 16 and 17.  But the real crunch comes in verses 18-20, where suddenly we discover that the Lord's specially chosen Servant is as spiritually blind and deaf as everyone else!  What on earth is this all about?

It seems that all this marks a growing revelation of two things.  First, Israel's calling is not exclusively for its own benefit, and certainly not in recognition of any particular merit on its part.  God has created and called Israel to be his instrument in the redemption of the world.   So the mysterious Servant is not a prophet or some other individual person but the nation of Israel itself.   And before Israel can pump itself up with pride again it is made clear to Israel that it is no better than the other nations to which it is called to minister – it suffers from the same spiritual blindness and deafness as they do.

Now, where does that get us?  Are we any closer to seeing a possible connection between this reading and our brave new Constitution?  Well, here's my take on this.  Britain saw herself as special, advanced, civilised, Christian – and only just, through natural British reserve and a distaste for discussing religious faith in public, restrained itself from claiming to be the New Israel itself.  Britain certainly suspected that it had been called to be a light to other nations, and there was a good bit of this attitude in its approach to New Zealand, shared, of course, by the early Missionaries, including those from the Church of England.  They had come, not so much to bring Christianity to these shores, but civilisation itself.  They had come to convert the "heathen savages" into civilised (read "British") men and women, and adopting proper Christian beliefs was a part of all that.  Hence, after an early heroic attempt on the part of individual Christian leaders, including some Anglicans, to protect Maori interests and secure for them a modicum of justice, the Anglican Church soon became the Church of the (white) settlers, the "elect" ones who were there to help the Maori people to become like them.

Quite unaware of their own spiritual blindness and deafness.  Our old Constitution incorporated that sense of superiority, and that is why it needed to be changed.  Not just to bring justice to Maori, but to heal us of all such manifestations of arrogant pride.  In doing so, perhaps, it gave us another interpretation of St Paul's famous dictum: in Christ there is no such thing as superior and inferior – or is that what he meant by "slave or free?"  The blind cannot lead the blind, said our Lord; but perhaps by coming to the same Divine Therapist we can both be cured of our blindness and our deafness.

And when we are it might be time to revise our Constitution again.

Taking It Personally.

  • What impact (if any) has the new Constitution had on your faith journey, or on the practise of your faith?  Does it have any relevance for you?
  • Go slowly through verses 11 to 15: how much might apply to New Zealand's geography and history?
  • What sort of "Servant" might this country be for the other nations of the world?  What light do we shine on them?
  • Spend time in prayer for our country.  Give thanks for the good things about it.  What do we need to do better?  How might you contribute to a better future for this country?  Pray for guidance, encouragement and empowerment.


Corinthians.  In this passage St Paul is very clear: just as we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, so the foundation of our life has been made new.  Everything is different: the former things have gone – there is a new creation.  And we can continue this work for we have been given the same ministry of reconciliation, to call people back to God through Jesus Christ.  At the heart of this is a single petition from the Lord's Prayer: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.


Taking It Personally.


  • A time for self-examination and reflection.  With whom do you need to be reconciled?  What are you able to do to bring that about?  When are you going to do it?
  • Perhaps you need to start with a little mirror time?  Look yourself in the eye and tell yourself, "Christ died for me, so that I might now live for him.  Therefore, I am a new creation, and will no longer regard other people from a human point of view."  Repeat until you are sure you believe it.  Then go and be reconciled.




I'm out of space.  This passage needs no explanation; but it does raise an obvious question.  What are the foundations on which you are building your life?  Are they strong enough to withstand anything that might come your way?  What strengthening work might be required?  When are you going to start on that?


Friday, 24 May 2013

Trinity Sunday

May 26                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Trinity Sunday

Texts:  Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16: 12-15

Theme:  It may be best to stick with the obvious this week.  But for something a little more adventurous something like "The Reality at the Heart of Reality", or even "A Statement of Fact".  The point is that God IS Triune, and would still be Triune even if we had no doctrine of the Trinity.

Introduction.  The second lesson and the gospel passage are well chosen for today.  Both of them are clearly and explicitly Trinitarian, providing ample ammunition to blow out of the water those who still contend that the whole concept of the Trinity is a post-biblical invention by theologians and bishops with too much time on their hands in the fourth and fifth centuries.  All three Persons are there in each of these texts.  Somewhat more problematic is the choice of the first lesson, from the Book of Proverbs, as beautiful and as stirring as it is.  Yes, Wisdom is personified, and yes, it provides perhaps part of the Old Testament scaffolding used by the Fourth Evangelist in the construction of his wonderful Prologue.  But is Wisdom the alter ego of the Second or the Third Person of the Trinity?  And whatever your answer to that question is, doesn't it still leave us one short in this passage?  And then there is verse 22 in which it is said that God "created" Wisdom, whereas we don't believe that the Second or Third Person was created, do we?  And is Trinity Sunday the right day to reflect on the Creation?  If nothing else, the choice of this passage is perhaps a reminder that, whenever we ponder the Trinity we end up with far more questions than answers.  And it is a wonderful passage!

Background.  None of this means that there is nothing to be said about the Trinity: on the contrary Trinity Sunday needs to be seized by all preachers and teachers as an opportunity for fearless apologetics, and for a counter-offensive against those who would prefer to substitute their own woolly theology for Christian orthodoxy and creedal clarity.

Let's start with the common objection that the Trinity is merely a human construct, made up by learned (and not so learned) attendees at theological huis held over the first few centuries of the Christian era.  The most obvious rebuttal is to point out that it is based on a confusion between the Trinity on the one hand and the Doctrine of the Trinity on the other.  Of course, the latter is a human construct: so are the laws of physics, or Pythagoras' theorem, or the Periodic Table of elements.  Does that mean that they should be disregarded because they are not real?  What the Doctrine of the Trinity is designed to do is describe for us the identity of God as it has been revealed to us.  We might, of course, be wrong is our "observations" of God on which we have based our doctrine, just as scientists might discover that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is wrong in accurately describing ist subject matter.  But to say that we are wrong in our observation of the Triune identity of God is one thing: to say that God is not Triune is quite another.

What this is about, then, is what all good theology is about – explanation of our actual experience.  The Doctrine of the Trinity is our best attempt to explain how it is that we have over the centuries experienced the God whom we worship.  And, of course, all that is rooted in our belief that God has perfectly (fully) revealed himself in and through the birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

So this Sunday is, for me, the first of our Summing-up Sundays – coming, as it does, roughly halfway through our Liturgical Year.  We have now recalled, pondered, and celebrated the major stages of the life cycle of the Christ: after today we turn our attention to issues of discipleship as we seek to apply our understanding of who God is in our daily lives of faith.  That is exactly the process followed by the early Church in arriving at the conclusion that God is Trinity.  How could this man Jesus of Nazareth do the things that, hitherto, only God could do?  How could this man Jesus of Nazareth be put to death and yet re-appear three days later?  What sense does all the testimony by eye-witnesses to these events make?  And who is this "Abba" to which he directed his prayers; and this "Spirit of Truth" whom he promised and who came in such abundance at Pentecost (and has kept "coming" ever since)?

We need an intellectual framework, a mental construct, to make sense of these actual observations and experiences for exactly the same reason that scientists need one to make sense of gravity.  They call theirs "laws", we call ours "doctrines", but essentially they are the same.  We say that God is Triune because, to the best of our knowledge and belief, GOD IS TRIUNE.

And while I'm in an argumentative mood, here is something else I want to vent.  When the late Archbishop Brian Davis was Bishop of Wellington he used to send a monthly Ad Clerum to his clergy.  In one edition he included an Episcopal Directive to the effect that all baptisms were to be conducted "in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".  I can still remember my bewilderment on reading this directive as I was still very new and green in the priestly ministry at the time, and I hadn't realised that any of my colleagues might have thought otherwise.  However, reading on I discovered that some clergy had decided to substitute words such as "Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life", apparently because the traditional formula was considered too patriarchal for modern tastes.

Archbishop Brian was a gentle soul, and he didn't really enjoy issuing directives; but he pointed out that the traditional formula was spelt out in the Scriptures, had been used by the Church throughout its history, and was included in our baptismal liturgy, the only formulary approved for use in the diocese.  While it is, of course, true that God is our Creator, that is a relationship we share with every other part of creation: we have the unique privilege of being children of God through baptism, and therefore it is appropriate to acknowledge God as our Father.

I doubt whether many priests changed their practice as a result of the directive, if only because we prefer to be seen as warm, fuzzy, trendy and in touch with the mores of the time, rather than respect our own traditions, teaching and understanding.  But at least on Trinity Sunday, can we worship unapologetically the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and leave the modern mushy alternatives for less important occasions!

Proverbs.  What a wonderful passage this!  The whole chapter is worth reading.  The first part, of which verses 1-4 are a summary, seem to be about the dawning of consciousness.  To see what I mean, read verses 22-36 first, and then verses 1-21.  First comes creation, and then we reach a stage where dialogue between Wisdom and humanity becomes possible.  Verses 22-31 make it clear that there was nothing random, or whimsical, or experimental about creation.  I mustn't use such a charged expression as "intelligent design", of course, but "Intentional Creation" would surely be a fair summary of what these verses say.  Before God created anything Wisdom was there.  God, so to speak, conversed with himself, consulted himself, thought things through in his head, before he started his creative work.  "Let us make humankind", is a clear example given in Genesis 1:26.  Creation is a deliberate and deliberative action that continues to this day.  And it is one that brings with it great joy, as verses 30 and 31 make it clear – "rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race".  Come back to verses 1-4ff, and we see the parental care and guidance following on from the delight of childbirth, calling the new species to grow in understanding (consciousness and self-awareness).  It's all very Teilhardian!

 Taking It Personally.

  • Read the whole of chapter 8 over slowly, several times.  Pause with any phrase that grabs your attention.  This is a great passage for lectio divina.
  • Pay particular attention to verses 32-35.  How might these shape your own spiritual practices?
  • Go for a walk, or look out of your window.  Select a small created item and gaze at it a while.  Experience your feelings as you do so.  How would you describe them?  Would "rejoicing" and "delight" come close?
  • Remind yourself that God's delight in the human race includes his delight in you: how do you feel about that?
  • Remind yourself that God's delight in the human race includes all those special people in whom you delight, too.  Share God's delight in them, and thank God for them.
  • Make a list of them, and pray God's blessing on each of them each day by name.  Add to the list whenever you think of someone else in whom you delight.
  • And do it all in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!




Romans.  Characteristically, St Paul starts this passage with "Therefore".  Therefore, before we go any further we need to check back to see what he has just said.  We find that he has been reminding us that, because Abraham believed the wild promises of God, it was credited to him as righteousness.  Now, says St Paul, in a similar way, our faith in the promises of God made manifest in the resurrection of Jesus Christ will be credited to us as righteousness.  This term" righteousness" is a rather clunky way of saying that our previous battered relationship with God is restored to health, and so we have peace with God (we are reconciled to God through our Lord Jesus Christ).  But wait – that's not all!  Also through him we have gained access to the ongoing grace of God.  And that's not all either!  We also now have hope of sharing in God's glory (or as the author of Second Peter puts it, we may become participants in the divine nature).  So, says St Paul, even suffering takes on a new meaning, as it enables us to "man-up" spiritually.  The key here is hope, and that is rooted in the love of God that has been (past tense, not will or might be at some time in the future!) poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  And there we have a brief theological summary of baptism, which (as I may have already mentioned) is always conducted in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Taking It Personally.


  • Are you at peace with God?  Take time for self-examination.
  • Are you conscious of standing in the grace of God?  What does that feel like? Reviewing the past week, can you think of any particular moment in which you were particularly conscious of standing in the grace of God?
  • Focus on verses 3 and 4.  Has this been your experience of suffering, or has suffering been anything but a time of growing closer to God?
  • Are you aware of the love of God in your heart?  Do you feel in need of a top up?  Ask God, in the name of his Son, to send his Spirit upon you afresh this very day.


John.  Jesus, the teacher, has taken his disciples as far as they can go at this stage.  To go further they need the infilling of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth as Jesus calls him here.  Perhaps we should pause here and think about this.  Our human capacity to hear, to learn and to understand can only take us so far along the way of faith – to go further we need the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In other words there is a wisdom greater than human wisdom, whatever Geering, Harris and Dawkins may wish to have us believe.  And of course, that wisdom comes to us courtesy of the Holy Spirit who draws it from the Son who has received it from the Father.  I don't want to labour the point, so I'll leave it at that.


Taking It Personally.


  • There comes a time when words just don't cut it.  Spend time in silent adoration of the Triune God at the centre of all Reality.  And be thankful.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Day of Pentecost

May 19                        NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         The Day of Pentecost

Texts:  Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, & 16:4b-15

[Note that the reading from the Book of Acts is "compulsory", but, in effect, there is a choice between the reading from Genesis and a brief one from Romans 8.  I have gone with Genesis, but there is a risk that the choice of that reading can suggest that all Pentecost is about is a sort of reversal of the linguistic equivalent of the Adamic curse.  If only it were that simple!]

Theme:  Obviously something to do with the Holy Spirit, but beyond that it's a matter for personal taste, perhaps.  This is one of the great joyful feasts so I think I would go with "That's the Spirit", and I might even allow myself to add an exclamation mark.  For a more sober congregation something traditional like "The Outpouring of the Spirit".  [It's just occurred to me that it might be worth exploring the idea of the "Out-sourcing", of the Holy Spirit.  Just a thought – and may well be unhelpful.

Introduction.  St Luke is THE apostle of the Holy Spirit: Pentecost without his story is inconceivable.  For all the excitement and drama of this narrative, the basic truth remains simple: our faith is born out of experience followed by reflection guided by the Scriptures.  Thus we can divide this reading very obviously into two parts: verses 1-13 tell us what happened, and verses 14 to the end provide the "theological explanation", rooted in Scripture.  As stated above there is a common idea that Pentecost reverses the "curse of confusion" inflicted by God on the builders of the Tower of Babel.  That's not quite right, of course; at Pentecost the diversity of language continues, but the language barrier is overcome through the gift of the Holy Spirit which enables the apostles (the Church) to speak the language(s) of the non-Church people.  (Now there's a thought – more about that in a moment.) In our gospel reading the focus is on the work of the Holy Spirit, which is essentially cast in terms of continuing Jesus' teaching ministry.

Background.  In Luke 12:51 Jesus shocked his hearers (and his modern-day followers) by saying: Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  As any survivors of the last charismatic renewal can testify, much the same could be said about the coming of the Holy Spirit!  And I'm not sure that we have all managed to move on since then.  Has the Holy Spirit brought peace, harmony and unity to a church near you?

The linguistic issue is just one part of that particular challenge.  Whenever I hear someone in the Church extolling the virtue of linguistic diversity I have great difficulty in resisting the temptation to scream, "What about Genesis 11:1-9?"  The clear purport of that story is that, in the beginning, humanity had "one language and the same words"; but God was so outraged by our hubris that he decided, in language very similar to that used in the creation narrative, to "go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech".  In short, he cursed us with linguistic diversity.  Now, of course, we can argue that this story is an etiological myth intended to "explain" why there are so many languages in the world; but that is very different from pretending that linguistic diversity is a particular blessing from God.

What, if anything, does Luke's account of the coming of the Spirit add to this particular issue?  A careful reading suggests that it supports neither extreme: what it does seem to encourage is the translation of the Scriptures into the different languages of the world, regardless of how those languages came into existence.  It is a pragmatic solution to the actual circumstances of the time.  The gospel is for everybody, so it needs to be expressed in words each and every person can understand.  (WE need to speak the language of the people!)  And that's what happened among the crowds present on that first Day of Pentecost.

Changing the subject from one difficulty to another, what are we to make of the fact that Luke is very much the Apostle of Pentecost?  Matthew and Mark know nothing of it; and John has his own, very simple, "private", and understated version in 20:22.  If the apostles had already "received the Holy Spirit" on Easter Evening, why would the Lord tell them to wait until they had received power from above?  No, I don't know either.  Perhaps the most helpful approach I have come across is to suggest that these two approaches are types of "conversion" experiences, what we might call the introverted and extroverted approaches.  For some of us the process is gradual and unspectacular, for others it is a sudden, unexpected and overwhelming experience.  The important truth is that the Holy Spirit "comes" to those who believe in Christ; how he comes is less important.

A third divisive issue concerns the "role" of the Holy Spirit.  On the one hand the more charismatic Christians lay great stress on specific actions, "miracles", or for followers of John Wimber, "signs and wonders", of which there are many examples throughout the Book of Acts.  But if we look at the Holy Spirit's job description in today's gospel passage (and similar passages in this gospel) we will find very little hint of such ministry.  First, John's account suggests that the Holy Spirit works with the body of believers, far more than with individuals; and secondly, as stated above, the main ministry of the Holy Spirit seems to be a continuation of the Lord's teaching ministry – it is essentially revelatory (rather than demonstrative), leading us deeper and deeper into the divine truth revealed in and through Jesus Christ.

I have struggled with all these issues throughout the years of my ministry.  That is one of the many reasons why I am so thankful for the insights of Teilhard de Chardin in his little masterpiece, The Divine Milieu.  For Teilhard the starting-point is always the Incarnation, and his understanding of that is very much wider than the strict meaning of the word itself.  Jesus didn't just enter into our flesh through his birth to Mary; he entered into all created matter through his baptism; and the work of the Holy Spirit is to "extend" or give effect to that Incarnation everywhere.  This is far too big a topic to go into here, but, for me, it is helpful to think of this in sacramental terms.  In baptism, the water remains tap water until we invoke the Holy Spirit.  In the Eucharist the elements remain bread and wine until we invoke the Holy Spirit.  And in ordination, the Bishop's hands remain just that until we invoke the Holy Spirit.  But in each case, when we do invoke the Holy Spirit, all is changed: all becomes "incarnated" by God.  If that were not so those sacred rituals would remain empty gestures, of no more significance than any other human habits.

In baptism we pray: Through your Holy Spirit, fulfil once more your promises in this water of rebirth, set apart in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the Great Thanksgiving we pray: Send your Holy Spirit that these gifts of bread and wine which we receive may be to us the body and blood of Christ, and that we, filled with the spirit's grace and power, may be renewed for the service of your kingdom.

In ordination we pray:  Like the first disciples waiting for your coming, empowering Spirit, we watch and pray...Holy Spirit of God, meet us in this moment as you met the apostles of old.  Be with us, Holy Spirit...bring faith and hope, we pray...Come Holy Spirit, present in you power....God of grace, through your Holy spirit, gentle as a dove, living, burning as fire, empower your servant, N, for the office and work of a priest.

And here's a wonderful Pentecost prayer from Celebrating Common Prayer/Night Prayer":

Be present, Spirit of God, within us, your dwelling place and home, that this place may be one where all darkness is penetrated by your light, all troubles calmed by your peace, all evil redeemed by your love, all pain transformed in your suffering and all dying glorified in the risen life or our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

That's a wonderful summary of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, surely!

Genesis.  Before we moderns get too dismissive of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis we should keep one eye and one ear open to the discoveries of modern science.  Much of this is helpfully summarised by Nicholas Wade in his book, Before the Dawn.  Of particular interest in the context of this reading is the increasing consensus among linguistic scholars that our earliest talking ancestors did indeed have only one language. There is also much here about the tension, seen in many passages throughout the Scriptures, between gathering (good) and scattering (bad); and perhaps between permanent settlements (bricks and mortar) and a more nomadic lifestyle.

Taking It Personally.

  • How do you react to the statement that linguistic diversity is shown in this passage to be a curse and not a blessing?
  • What is the essential nature of the "offence" of which the people are guilty?  Do you agree that it is something about trying to make a name for ourselves, or trying to find our own way to heaven?  Something about human hubris?  Are you guilty of that?
  • What might this story have to tell us about our own commitment to "bricks and mortar"?  Would you be willing to let your local church building go without a fight?
  • What might this story have to tell us about settling down and becoming comfortable spiritually?  Are you open to spreading your spiritual wings?


Acts.  It may be helpful to compare this story with the story of Easter morning.  One great difference for us is found in the response of the Apostles.  Clearly, the resurrection took them by surprise, so that they were the bewildered ones wondering what on earth was going on.  Here they seem to have caught on right away, and Peter (who has already emerged as the leading spokesperson, by the way) is ready with his explanation.  The other point, perhaps, to focus on is the reference in verse 5 to the identity of the crowd: they were "Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem".  In other words, we shouldn't get too carried away with the idea of the Spirit breaking down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles right away.  At this point in the narrative this is about the gospel within the Jewish community.


Taking It Personally.


  • How do you honestly feel about the Holy Spirit?
  • Would you like the Holy Spirit to come in power to your local church in this sort of way?
  • What do you think of the "Sacramental" view of the Holy Spirit's ministry?  Is that helpful or not?
  • How might you use the "prayer of invocation" model in your daily life to remind yourself constantly of the presence of God?
  • Ponder prayerfully the Pentecost night prayer given above.


John.  As we near the end of these "Farewell Discourses" this passage sounds like the speech of an outgoing leader preparing the ground for his successor.  In effect, Jesus seems to be saying I am going away; my successor will be the Holy Spirit; follow him as you followed me; learn from him as you have learnt from me.


Taking It Personally.


  • What do you want the Holy Spirit to do for you, with you, or in you today?
  • Pray for the Reverend Jo Fielding as she is ordained to the priesthood on Sunday.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

7th Sunday of Easter

May 12                        NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Seventh Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:14-21; John 17:20-26

[Note:  Today is the Sunday after Ascension Day, and in some churches the readings for Ascension Day may be used: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53.  These notes do not cover those readings.  Note also, that the Second Lesson for today as listed above is not strictly accurate.  The Lectionary gives Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, and 20-21; adding to the tension of the people charged with reading any lesson from the Book of Revelation in public seems too great a price to pay for being spared the unsettling thoughts expressed in verses 15, and 18-19.  Besides, isn't such censorious tampering the very thing that verses 18 and 19 expressly prohibit?]

Theme:  There is something about the Second Lesson and the Gospel that suggest a respectful and sombre choice: "Jesus our Intercessor", perhaps, "Come, Lord Jesus."  However, our First Lesson seems to demand something a little more adventurous: on balance I would go for "Back-to Front and Upside Down."  In fact, that's a fair summary of the outcome of Easter, isn't it?

Introduction.  St Luke is on top form in his story today.  We have in one story a summary of the whole Easter event, as a fitting close to this Easter story.  Everything is turned on its head, as the prisoners become free and the jailer becomes a slave of Christ.  Our Second Lesson is also an appropriate finale for the Easter Season, ending with an offer of grace to all to come to him, and a promise by him to come to us.  And from the heart of St John's mystical understanding of the new relationship with God offered through Christ we have Christ's prayer for us and all who come to faith through the Apostles' teaching.

Background.  In many ways we end the Easter Season very much where we began it, in darkness, hostility, brutality, false accusations, and condemnation; but, oh how differently we now see the outcome!  One of the purposes of having this long Easter Season, rather than an Easter Day, is getting away from the idea that Easter is only about what happened to Jesus of Nazareth.  Over the last few weeks we have been shown example after example of the consequences to other people of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth on Easter Day.  One of the earliest sermons I can remember hearing was about the "ripples of Easter" spreading further and further through the waters of our lives.  Unfortunately, the preacher decided to add to the dramatic image by asking, "And what do we say caused those ripples in the first place?"  You may be surprised as I was then to learn that they were caused by "Satan himself picking up the stone from the door of the tomb and casting it into the baptismal font of life."  Over 30 years later I still think there was some good theology in there somewhere but I still have trouble with the image of Satan as a sort of red-clad shot putter!

Today a better image might be taken from cosmology, as our scientists tell us that from the so-called Big Bang that started our universe going, the whole thing is still expanding and the energy from that initial burst is still traceable.  For us, perhaps, we can think of the Resurrection as a vast explosion of Divine Life, Light and Love re-creating all things and ever expanding to fill the whole of creation.  And notice that term "re-creating" – not "replacing".  The New Creation is not a new and improved version intended to replace the earlier model: it is the old model transformed by the infusion of God's Spirit, the consequence of the Incarnation and taking effect though the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Here's another "re-" word to ponder: in the Easter Season we reflect upon and celebrate the re-union of God and his creation.  This comes through particularly well, I think, in our Second Lesson, where the Book of Revelation takes us right back to the Garden of Eden with its reference to the Tree of Life.  Everything that was torn asunder by humanity's hubris and disobedience – the disunity that came about in that way – is finally healed – that which was dis-united has been re-united.  Easter is the Great Festival of Divine Reunion.  (Come to think of it, that might be an even better theme for today!)

Against that 'Big Picture' stuff, let's look now at this marvellous miniature from the great artist, St Luke.  So much of it sounds familiar, so many of the details ring all sorts of bells in our memories; and yet everything seems reversed, somehow, as if we are looking at it in a mirror, or at the negative rather than the photo.  We start with a slave-girl with a spirit of divination, and we are immediately reminded of some of the 'possession' stories in the gospels.  Sure enough, the spirit recognises the truth in Paul in the same way that the spirits used to see it in Jesus.  But then things start to change.  First, Paul acts, not out of compassion for the suffering girl, but out of exasperation: he's had enough.  He's more like the Judge who gives in to the persistent pleading of the widow or the householder who gets up at midnight to deal with his neighbour: all Paul wants is an end to her wittering; but his less than gracious motive makes no difference.  The exorcism is successful.  Second, far from anyone pleading for help for the suffering child, her "owner" is furious because she has now lost her market value.  Human trafficking is particularly unpleasant, and here we have a gross example of it, defeated by the spreading power of Easter, better known as the Holy Spirit.

The counter-attack is swift and brutal, and surely echoes the events of Maundy Thursday evening/Good Friday morning.  False arrest, perjured proceedings, brutal treatment, even the same sort of playing on prejudice and ethnicity.  These Jews are trouble-makers – they are advocating un-Roman behaviour.  It appears to work in the same old worldly way: the bullies win the first round.

But then comes an earthquake.  (Check Matthew's account of the earthquake-causing angel moving the stone from the tomb, an apparent after-shock from the one that coincided with the moment of Jesus' death: Matthew 28:2, following 27:51-52.)  We associate earthquakes with death and destruction: in the Easter story they bring liberation and new life.  All – even the most powerful forces of nature – are caught up in the explosive power of Easter.

Those who were prisoners – whose fate lay in the corrupt hands of others – suddenly find themselves with the upper hand: they are now the ones with choices, with power over the others; and this complete reversal is played out with great dramatic skill by Luke.  The jailer, the pawn of the corrupt officials, becomes a servant of the King of Kings, saved first from self-harm, and then from all harm.  And then the liturgist in me can't resist drawing attention to a rather interesting 'order of service' in what follows.

The jailer comes to Paul seeking spiritual counsel: what must he do to be saved (verse 30)?  Paul proclaims the gospel message and the teaching follows (verses 31-2).  In response, the jailer washes their wounds – does what he can to make amends for the wrong he has done to them (verse 33a).  Then the jailer and his household are baptised.  Table fellowship follows before a closing burst of worship.  Do you see what I mean?  There's a Eucharistic liturgy in there somewhere, I'm sure.

Acts.  I must resist the temptation to start again on this wonderful passage, but there are some other details that are worth noting.  First, we should recall the physical pain that Paul and Silas were in throughout most of this episode.  They had been stripped and given a severe beating.  Yet they were 'praying and singing hymns to God'!  Secondly, all is dark until the jailer calls for lights to see what has happened.  Light brought into darkness reveals the miracle of forgiveness and love for enemies.  And thirdly, if some smart Alec asks you to explain the confused detail in verses 32-34 – when do they go from the prison to the house and then into the house – you're on your own, I can't reconcile the details either.

Taking It Personally.

·        This is another of those passages that cry out to be prayed imaginatively.  Follow through the twists and turns of the narrative slowly and meditatively.  Pay particular attention to the motives of the people involved, and to your feelings towards those people.

·        What do you think of Paul's motive for exorcising the girl?  Can you recall an occasion when you acted in anger but the outcome was amazingly good?

·        How likely are you to sing hymns to God while in pain or distress?

·        As we come to the end of the Easter Season for this year, what are your thoughts?  Express them to God in prayer.


Revelation.  The final words of the whole of our Scriptures surely have a special power and majesty of their own.  They wonderfully summarise the whole message of Scripture, which at its heart is always concerned with the true identity of Jesus.  Paul famously said that if Christ had not been raised from the dead our faith is in vain: 1 Corinthians 15:14.  That's a great summary of the Easter message, too, but I suggest that it is only one aspect of the even more fundamental truth: if Jesus was not God Incarnate then, indeed, our faith is in vain.  None of it makes sense if Jesus is not God.  Hence, as we come to the last book of the Bible we find that once again that issue of identity is at centre stage.  What is verse 13 if it is not code for "I am God"?  At the same time his human ancestry roots him in our humanity: verse 17.  And as noted above we have two "comings" at the end of this great treasure-trove of Scriptures: we are invited to come to the One who promises to come to us.  In a nutshell, our story can now be summed up as The Greatest Re-union of All Time and All Space.  Alleluia!

Taking It Personally.

·        At the end of this Easter Season, who do you say Jesus is?  Has your faith been strengthened, weakened or unaffected over the period of this Season?

·        Reflect on verse 13.  Does this image help you or leave you cold?  What about the images in verses 16b?

·        Write a short paragraph summing up your image of Jesus.  Imagine you are being interviewed, and the interviewer says, "So in a few words, who or what is Jesus for you?"

·        Repeat several times, slowly and meditatively, verse 21.

John.  On the night before he died Jesus prayed this great prayer.  It is fair to assume, given that context, that he addressed the most important things in his heart and mind.  He prayed first for himself, that he may once again share in his Father's glory.  Then he prayed for his disciples, that they may be protected.  Lastly, he prayed for all those who will come to faith through the apostles' teaching, which, of course, includes you and me.  And what does he ask for us?  For re-union, with God and with one another.  That's why unity is so important within the Church, far more than diversity, and far more than winning arguments on any subject over which we disagree.  Unity is Christ's dying wish for us: how can we claim to love Christ and not seek to promote and preserve unity within his Church?  Last week we were reminded that our love for one another will be the hallmark of the Church, the sign to outsiders that we are his disciples.  This week we are reminded that it is our unity with God in Christ that will prove our case.  There is no conflict here.  The outer unity featured last week arises from this inner unity of which John now writes.

Taking It Personally.

·        Make this prayer (the whole chapter 17) your own.

·        What can you do to promote unity within your local church?

·        End with prayers of thanksgiving for the love that is in you.

·        Prepare yourself for Pentecost.  What might that involve for you?

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 5                          NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Sixth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, and 21:22-22-5; John 5:1-9

Theme:  The question Jesus puts to the sick man at the pool is so important that it might itself serve as the theme for today: "Do You Want to be Healed?"  A more original choice might be something like "One at a Time and All Together", which would capture the mood of this time of the Easter Season, where we have the Big Picture constantly before us made up of individual threads.

Introduction.  St Paul and his entourage are having a frustrating time in their travels (see below), but arrive in Troas.  There during the night he sees in a vision a Macedonian begging him to go to Macedonia to help the people there.  He goes there and meets, not a Macedonian man but a group of women, one of whom is Lydia, who becomes a convert when the Holy Spirit opens her heart to Paul's message.  Meanwhile, St John the Divine is once more in the Spirit as he sees in more detail the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven.  If there is a link with the gospel passage today, the key may be the pool with supposedly healing powers.  True healing comes, not from a mineral spa, but from the Son of God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

Background.  The first thing I want to draw attention to today is the fact that we are now this side (after) the famous Council of Jerusalem: read chapter 15 if you've forgotten the story.  Then keep going into chapter 16 and you will see the painful truth about the human beings who peopled the infant church, our spiritual ancestors whose genes we have so obviously inherited!  The Council held a full and frank discussion and (remarkably) reached consensus: Gentile converts did not have to become good Jews in order to become good Christians.  All those in favour say "Aye", all those against say "No", carried unanimously, or so we are led to believe.

The Holy Spirit has guided the whole lot of them into unity.  The minutes are drafted, the summary of their decision is prepared for dispatch, and these giants of the faith disperse to carry the good news to the various faith communities.  But not so fast.  Go back for a moment to 15:25 and notice the glowing reference to "our beloved Barnabas and Paul".  Now fast forward to 15:39, where we find "our beloved Barnabas and Paul" at each other's throats: The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company.  [No reference to the role of the Holy Spirit here, be it noted.]

Worse is to follow.  Paul arrives in Lystra where he meets a disciple called Timothy.  He is so impressed with the young man that he wants to take him with him, but there is a problem.  Timothy's father was a Greek (Gentile) so Timothy was not circumcised.  [You see where this is going?]  Post the Council of Jerusalem that should not have been a problem, should it? But Paul, the great advocate for equality between Jewish and Gentile converts, took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.  [The traditional explanation is that Timothy's mother was Jewish, she should not have married a Gentile, and she should have brought the child up as Jewish.  So to avoid offending Jewish sensitivities Timothy had to be turned, somewhat belatedly, into a real Jew by circumcision.  Well, St Paul might have been a recovering Pharisee by this time, but it seems the recovery wasn't going too well. Perhaps he should have published his letter to the Galatians anonymously!] And to rub it in the next verse (16:4) reminds us of what they were supposed to be doing in their travels: As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.  So the next time it occurs to any of us that the solemn decisions of General Synod are best honoured in the breach, may St Paul himself be our champion!

The story continues.  St Paul's travels become more frustrating.  First, the Holy Spirit forbids him to speak the word in Asia (16:6); and then the Spirit of Jesus prevents him from entering Bithynia (16:7).  After all that, they arrive in Troas, where Paul had his vision of the man from Macedonia.  Even then there is a hint of further difficulties – St Luke says: When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  The journey was not a short and simple one, as St Luke makes clear in verse 11.

So what are we to make of all this?  First, that St Paul was a real person, with real human strengths and weaknesses living in a challenging world, and trying to proclaim a brand new message to people who thought they knew better.  Secondly, the story of the ups and downs of travel is clearly designed to emphasise that all they were trying to do was guided by the Holy Spirit.  Next time your flight is cancelled, diverted or delayed perhaps you will reflect on the role of the Holy Spirit in your travel plans?  Or perhaps not.  But here is a true story from my time in a previous parish.

B was a very zealous, reasonably new convert who became convinced that God was calling him and his family to missionary work in Fiji.  Everything seemed to fall into place, but at the last moment the visa that was supposed to have been a mere formality was refused.  It seems that the Fijian Government had decided that it was having enough trouble with local Christians without importing more from New Zealand.  But how could this be, if all this was God's will?   Then less than two weeks later I received through the post a request for a family to go to Vanuatu as soon as possible to provide assistance in certain specified areas of teaching.  The job descriptions exactly fitted the skills of B and his wife.  Within a very short time they were on their way to Vanuatu.  At their farewell service we had a reading from Acts 16:6-10.  It seemed so right, somehow.

A final thought about the possibility of the link between today's readings being water.  In our first lesson the women's prayer group meets beside a river, though nothing is made of any special significance in that.  In our second lesson much is made of the river of the water of life, the source of which is the Throne of God, and whose waters are as pure as crystal.  In our gospel reading we have the Pool of Bethesda (or Beth-zatha, depending on your preferred translation).  For a people of the desert, constantly alert to the need for a clean water supply, the association of water with life, healing and cleansing is understandable.  In our first reading it seems only incidental; in our second it is central, assured and eternal; in our gospel it offers false hope, at least when contrasted with the waters that spring up to eternal life in Christ.

Acts.  To sum up, it is the Holy Spirit who has guided St Paul to Macedonia, and it is the Holy Spirit who opens Lydia's heart "to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul".  In the big things and the little things, in positive things and negative things, the presence of God can be seen by those who look through the eyes of faith.  If we were to read on in this chapter we would find Paul involved in exorcism, being flogged and imprisoned, surviving a major earthquake, converting his jailer, and being freed, all in the space of a few hours!

Taking It Personally.

  • Read the whole of chapter 16 slowly.  Make a list of the ways in which the author suggests that the Spirit is orchestrating events.  Which of those instances strike you as credible, and which as incredible?
  • Review your last week.  Draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper, so that there are 2 columns.  In the left-hand column list the things that went well during that week, both the things you did, and the things that happened to you.  In the right-hand column, list the things that did not go well, both the things you did or tried to do, and the things that happened to you.  In which of those items in each column did you discern the action of the Holy Spirit?  Are you more likely to discern the action of the Holy Spirit in those things that went well or in those things that went badly?
  • Before reading or listening to Scripture this week, pray a short "Lydia prayer": O Lord, open my heart that I might read/listen to your Word eagerly.  Amen.


Revelation.  The completion or consummation of all things is now shown to St John the Divine in this image of the New Jerusalem "coming down out of heaven from God".  Much of the imagery comes from Old Testament sources, Genesis and Ezekiel being particularly in view here.  There is in a sense a "wish list" here: everything that is most frightening has gone; everything that is most wonderful is here in its plenitude.  Perhaps most surprising is the absence of the temple, long considered the dwelling place of the Lord.  But now all places are holy – God is everywhere – and priests and other intermediaries are no longer required.  The faithful are in the very presence of God: we shall see him face to face.  All created light is missing, too, because the uncreated light of the glory of God illuminates all things and all people (the Transfiguration was a first glimpse of this).  The city gates will never be shut because there are no longer enemies to fear.  Nothing unclean or defiled will be brought into the city.  Instead, people of all nations (converts to Christ) will bring gifts and talents into the city. Night (with all its terrors) will be no more.  And so on and so on.  The river of life, and the tree of life, fruitful and life-giving, are both there because the relationship between God and his people is completely restored.


Taking It Personally.


·         Another wonderful passage for slow, meditative reading, followed by prayers of praise and thanksgiving.

·         Once again, hold this vision in your mind as you consider the irritations and setbacks of your daily life.  Does your perspective change?

·         What would you bring with you into the Holy City as an offering to God?

·         Pray for the healing of the nations.  Reflect on the autumnal falling of the leaves, giving nourishment to the soil for the next cycle of growth.  Perhaps gather one or two leaves as representative of particular countries and pray for the healing of those nations.

·         In what particular ways does our own nation need healing?  Pray accordingly.


John.  This guy has tended to get a hard time from commentators and preachers, who usually paint him as wallowing in self-pity; but perhaps it's time to give him a break!  First of all, notice that he is described as "ill" (v.5) and as "sick" (v.7), so why are we hard on him?  He's been suffering for 38 years!  How would you feel?  But the question the Lord asked him is one of those classics:  "Do you want to be healed?"  I think it's probably that question that leads us into our judgmental ways.  We assume the honest answer is "no", and we have all come across people like that somewhere along the way, haven't we?  Yet, this guy is in a predicament.  If timing is everything – first in gets healed, for others, better luck next time – and if his condition is such that he has impaired mobility, what appears to us to be moaning, may be a simple statement of fact: without anyone to help him, his chances of being first in to the pool at the right moment are nil.  And, of course, when Jesus commanded him to stand up (code for resurrection) he responded immediately.  So give him a clap!


Taking It Personally.


  • Do you want to be made well?    It what regard?  Be as specific as possible.  Pray accordingly.
  • Is there someone you know who has no one to help him/her to be raised up to new life?  Can you help?
  • Pray this passage with your imagination.  Put yourself pool-side.  Watch the action.  Get involved.  What learning is there for you here?