Friday, 28 April 2017

Easter Week 2 Friday

Readings: Acts 5:34-42; Psalm 27; John 6:1-15

We begin reading chapter 6 of Saint John's gospel, which recounts the sign of the miraculous feeding, Jesus walking on the water, the crowds following him to the other side, and the great discourse on the bread of life which serves as an interpretation of the sign. Many of the resurrection encounters have strong Eucharistic overtones, most explicitly the one at Emmaus where the disciples recognised him in the breaking of the bread. In the life of the Church, where the Risen Lord continues to be present with his people, it is particularly in the Eucharist that we are with Him and He is with us.

So Jesus feeds a large crowd with five loaves and two fish. Seeing that they were going to come and carry him off to make him their king, Jesus withdrew to the mountain alone.The fear is that they wanted to imprison him as their king, imprison him in the understanding and exercise of kingship which their traditions had taught them to expect. He is the Messiah, they say, the Prophet like Moses. It is true that he is to be priest, prophet, and king but on his terms, on the terms set by the Father, and not on their terms, the terms that would imprison him within their own understanding and expectations.

Jesus escapes because his hour had not yet come. There is more work to be done before the hour comes. Most of that work is pedagogical, he needs to teach the people, telling them more about the sense in which he is a king. In the hour of his passion he is literally taken by force and he is crucified, ironically, as their king. We heard all this again on Good Friday, the debate with Pontius Pilate about the kingship of Jesus: 'are you the king of the Jews?' 'my kingdom is not of this world.' 'so you are a king then?' 'It is you who say it.' 'Jesus the Nazarean, the King of the Jews.'

In the midst of that dialogue about his kingship two sentences jump out, 'defining moments' in a drama of many defining moments. 'We have no king but Caesar', say the Jewish authorities, in the heat of the trial against Jesus. They are effectively renouncing their faith in the Lord, the God of Israel, who had been their only King from ages past.

Ironically also Jesus is crucified as their King, a charge that is meant to mock him but which actually states the truth to which he had come to bear witness. The Jewish leaders are not amused: 'You should have written 'This man says 'I am the king of the Jews''. And another sentence jumps out: 'What I have written, I have written'. So Jesus is held up before all the world and forever as King of the Jews, the promised Messiah, who is also the prophet long expected and the priest who offers the one and only acceptable sacrifice of love and obedience.

We need to be warned again and again about the danger of idolatry, even as we claim to be followers of Christ. It is very likely that in wanting Jesus to be our king we will imprison him, get him in place as a symbol of interests of our own. Under pressure, and in the heat of daily struggles, we may find ourselves realising that our king in actual fact, and contrary to what we profess with our lips, is one or other of the 'Caesars' we are tempted to worship - some pleasure, power or arrangement which is the real god of our lives.

We must seek to live in the kingdom of truth: this is the currency and wealth of the kingdom of Jesus. He came to bear witness to the truth and in the first part of the discourse to follow he speaks of the wisdom and understanding with which, as our 'bread of life',.he nourishes us. Gamaliel, famously, takes the enlightened and liberal position: if it is from God this movement will continue, if it is from men it will fizzle out by itself. The apostles, and the Church, continue to speak in the name of the Lord Jesus and their witness shows that this movement is indeed from God. We have no king but Jesus, as the Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate, in spite of themselves, help us to realise.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Easter Week 2 Thursday

Readings: Acts 5:27-33; Psalm 34; John 3:31-36

The readings speak of a complete identification between Jesus and his disciples - 
  • Jesus is from above, they, through faith in him, have been born from above. The same word is used today of Jesus being 'from above' as was used earlier in John 3 to talk about Nicodemus being born 'from above';
  • As the one who comes from heaven Jesus speaks with authority and the apostles too speak with authority because they speak in his name and in the power of his Spirit sent from heaven;
  • Jesus provoked outrage by his preaching and they provoke outrage by preaching in his name.
So the disciples teach now with the authority of Christ, the one who has come from above. They do it because they have been born 'from above' through faith and baptism. But they experience also the rejection and strong reactions that Jesus experienced. They are, in a quite literal sense, following Him. This is an important theme in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, coming to a climax with the death of Stephen, the first disciple to die for His sake.

Many times Jesus had warned them about this turn of events: the disciple is not greater than his Master; if they listen to me they will listen to you; if they refuse to listen to me they will refuse to listen to you. And it has continued like this, of course, wherever the gospel has been truly preached.

So they 'filled Jerusalem with their teaching', which is a lovely phrase. Not physically, surely with the frequency or volume of their preaching but in another sense, that the Word of God whom they preach is the fulness of truth. The message they bear fills the city, and the earth, and the heavens. Jesus is the Eternal Wisdom of the Father who fills human hearts, brings our lives to perfection, and draws all things to Himself.

We are called to follow him and to be his witnesses in the world. We are to fill our place with this teaching, not because we are great and loud and influential but because the Word we bear is great and all fulfilling. He is the Word who created all things and who became flesh to bring mercy to humanity.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Easter Week 2 Wednesday

Readings: Acts 5:17-26; Psalm 34; John 3:16-21

So is there or is there not a judgement? It seems that today’s gospel gives different answers to this question. ‘God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world ...’ and ‘whoever believes in him will not be judged’. On the other hand, ‘whoever does not believe in him is judged already’ and ‘this is the judgement: that the light has come into the world and people have preferred the darkness to the light’.
From this passage of the gospel it is clear that the judgement is not a new action on the part of God but is already contained, is implicit, in the actions God has already accomplished in the mission, the passion, in the paschal mystery of his Son. In the light of the life of the Incarnate Word, the light of his passion and the glory of his resurrection, the truth of our life becomes clear. This is seen in the experience of Thomas the Apostle. ‘My Lord and my God’, he says. The manifestation of the Risen Jesus with the marks of the nails and the other marks of his passion is enough, there is no need for further words.
This theology of the judgement is to be found in the works of the Dominican artist Fra Angelico. His representations of the last judgement are all like this: Jesus glorified shows to the whole universe the marks of his passion, the marks of the love with which God loved the world so much. Our situation, our weakness, our need are evident in the light of this glory. Further words of judgement are not required: in this light we can see the truth of our condition.
In the Risen Jesus we see the complete and absolute unity of love and truth, of justice and mercy. It is extremely difficult for us to maintain this absolute identity of truth and love, of justice and mercy. But this is what we see in Jesus. Another famous Dominican, Thomas Aquinas, has a very beautiful phrase to describe our Saviour. He is Verbum spirans amorem, the Word that breathes Love. He is our judge because he is Word, Truth, Wisdom, Integrity; he is our saviour because he is Love, Compassion, Mercy.
Let us live therefore in the light of this Word that breathes Love, acting in the truth so that it will be clear that what we do is done in God.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Easter Week 2 Sunday (Year A) - 23 April 2017

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

All religion, we might think, operates with a distinction between what Saint Paul calls the flesh and the spirit. Religion is concerned with spiritual things and is often referred to these days simply as ‘spirituality’. Paul encourages us to be spiritual rather than unspiritual.

Jesus is often proccupied in trying to lead his hearers from what we might call a ‘fleshly’ understanding of human desires to a ‘spiritual’ one. The woman of Samaria is taught that besides physical thirst there is in human beings a spiritual thirst for living water (John 4). The disciples interpret a reference to food as a statement about physical hunger and Jesus corrects them, pointing out that there is another kind of food to be considered also (John 6).

The man born blind is able to see the one who cured him but Jesus leads him to another kind of seeing whereby he perceives Jesus as the Son of Man (John 9). The Pharisees think they see what is spiritually significant but are actually blind as long as they do not recognise Jesus (John 9).

Chapter 11 of Saint John’s gospel tells of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Once again there is a contrast between life and spiritual life, sickness and spiritual sickness, death and spiritual death. The disciples take Jesus’ reference to Lazarus resting to be an indication that he will soon be better and Jesus is obliged to underline the fact that Lazarus really is dead. Martha and Mary listen to Jesus’ words of comfort and love but still feel that had he come sooner the life of Lazarus might well have been saved.

The desires for food, drink, companionship, sight, life — all these are natural and healthy things in the human animal. But the human being is made for more than these things (which does not mean that the human being should try to live without them). It is relatively easy, I suspect, to think of a kind of ‘second-order’ of desire in us, a higher or deeper level, at which talking about spiritual food, water, communion, vision and intimacy with God seems to make sense. Sometimes people even talk of having ‘spiritual experiences’, of some direct acquaintance with this level of desire and fulfilment.

But just as we must raise serious questions about all our concepts and images of God, subjecting them to reflection and criticism, we must raise serious questions also about any experience which claims to be an ‘experience of God’, subjecting it to reflection and criticism also.

A good friend of mine in the Order died some years ago. He was a slight, shy, quiet and gentle little man, difficult to hear behind a paper bag. Along with a kind of simplicity he had a mighty soul. I asked him once whether we can know that we believe. He answered immediately. ‘No’, he said, ‘we cannot know that we believe. We believe that we believe.’ Because faith is a unique and mysterious contact with God, and is not just an experience of ours, faith itself must fall under faith. It is not an experience in the ordinary sense of the word. This means that Christianity is not just a ‘spirituality’ as that term has become popular, addressing the ‘deeper part’ or ‘higher bit’ of human beings.

In the wonderful texts of John 4, John 9 and John 11, it is not just a simple question of drink and spiritual drink, sight and spiritual sight, life and spiritual life. The spiritual might still refer only to something within us whereas for Saint Paul the spiritual always refers in the first place to the Holy Spirit who unites us with the Father through the gift of faith in Christ. In these gospel passages the focus comes, eventually, onto Jesus himself and onto faith in him as the doorway to the life about which he is teaching us. He says to the woman of Samaria ‘I who am speaking to you, I am Messiah’. And to the blind man ‘You are looking at the Son of Man; he is speaking to you’. And to Martha ‘I am the resurrection. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die’.

Faith then is the central Christian ‘experience’ (for want of a better word). Because faith unites us with God as the truth it is the guarantee that our spiritual aspirations are not just the creation of our own hearts’ longings . By faith we know that what we long for is true and is not just a nice story. But we only know about this believing through believing. We enter Christian life by coming to believe in Jesus as the Christ. We do not come to see and then believe. Nor do we believe and then see. Here, on this life’s journey, believing is seeing.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Easter Saturday

Readings: Acts4:13-21; Psalm 117; Mark 16:9-15

How does the gospel of Mark end? Critical editions of the text have it ending at 16:8: 'they said nothing to anybody because they were afraid'. It seems like a strange ending to the gospel which is one of the reasons why we find shorter and longer endings added in some of the early manuscripts. The passage we read today is the longer ending, a summary of the encounters the disciples had with the Risen Lord in the days after the resurrection and which are recorded more fully in the other gospels. This reading is an appropriate summary to end the first week of Eastertide.

The fact that Mark's gospel has various endings reminds us that the gospel does not end. It is a story which opens on to the lives of those who hear it. The subsequent chapters of the gospel are the life of the Church, the lives of anybody and everybody who hears its message, the lives of everybody for whom the gospel is intended.

The Never-Ending Story was a popular film some years ago. It is the story of a boy who finds a fascinating book in which, as he reads it, he discovers to his amazement that he is a character in its story. The gospel is like this. Everybody is a character in its story. The life of each human being is yet onemore chapter in the fascinating and never-ending tale of creation and salvation, of sin and grace, of promise and fulfillment.

The strange endings of Mark's gospel also bring out this point, that the resurrection is not just a happy ending to what otherwise would have been a tragic tale. It is not that we can all go back to our ordinary lives relieved that the story of Jesus had a happy ending after all. Rather, the resurrection is the opening of a new story, the beginning of a new tale. The Resurrection is a first chapter, not a last chapter or an epilogue. And it is awesome, this story of new creation (which implies a de-creation), of new life (which implies a death), of radical renewal (which implies radical change in our understanding and in our way of living).

The various endings of Mark raise questions, yes, but also confirm that something overwhelming had happened. Of what could they be sure? Of what can we be sure? There is radical change in the disciples and very soon we will hear again about the birth of the Church. There is the possibility of radical change for ourselves as the Risen Lord breathes on his disciples the Spirit who comes to work in their lives.

No wonder the women were afraid, disinclined to speak to anybody about what was for the moment simply baffling and disturbing. A journey is required to enter into what the Resurrection means and today's gospel reading makes that too very clear, a journey from disbelief and fear, through questioning and hope, to faith and joy. Everyone is not yet living happily ever after, so let us read on ...

Friday, 21 April 2017

Easter Friday

Readings: Acts 4:1-12; Psalm 117; John 21:1-14

The final chapter of John's gospel has been described as a kind of reprise, resumé, or recapitulation of much of the gospels: the call of the disciples, feedings, the eucharist, walking on water, the charcoal fire, a miraculous catch, nets, fishing for men, Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, two others (as there are often 'other disciples also').

At the same time it is all now told 'from the other side'. It is post-paschal and a bit surreal (the human beings are in the sea and the fish are on the shore). It happens 'as day was breaking', between the time of darkness and the dawning of day. It happens between water and land. We might be reminded too of the sign of Jonah, men being vomited up out of the sea. And of Christ as fish and bread.

The disciples are led to see that Jesus is alive and is present among them. Love leads the way and the beloved disciple is first to speak. Not for the first time John's gospel teaches us that love will be first to realise things - the beloved disciple reached the tomb first, Mary Magdalen was the first to encounter the Risen Lord, now again love leads the way.

Peter acts strangely. There are good reasons for this. The charcoal fire at which someone is preparing breakfast reminds him of the last time he stood at a charcoal fire and denied Jesus. Famously his threefold denial then is undone by a threefold affirmation of his love for Jesus now. He is still a leader in the group, picked out for special attention, overseeing somehow the work of the Church's fishing.

And the Eucharist is the supreme way in which disciples know they are in the presence of the Risen Lord, recognising him in the breaking of bread, allowing themselves to be fed by him, giving in loving service of others as he has given himself completely in loving service of us.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Easter Thursday

Readings: Acts 3:11-26; Psalm 8; Luke 24:35-48

Peter and John are witnesses. They witness to the events that have happened, the condemnation and execution of Jesus about which everybody knows already, but then also to his resurrection. This is the specific task of the apostle: to be a witness of the resurrection.

It obliges them to become interpreters also, teachers of a new way of reading the scriptures. The Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, the promise to Abraham, the covenant with Moses, the teaching of the prophets from Samuel onwards ... everything has to be re-considered in the light of what has happened. We are familiar with the idea that Jesus' life and ministry takes on fresh meaning when we read it back in the light of the resurrection. What the apostles teach us is that the whole history of God's dealings with the people takes on fresh meaning when it is re-read in the light of the resurrection.

Just as there is continuity and discontinuity in the disciples' experience of the Risen Lord there is continuity and discontinuity in their understanding of Israel's story. Sometimes they recognised him and he was a familiar figure to them. At other times they failed to recognise him or he even filled them with fear and foreboding. The age old promises to Israel: are they fulfilled or superceded in the resurrection of Jesus? Is what happened continuous with what had gone before or discontinuous with it? To this question we must reply 'both': there is continuity in the fulfillment of the promises, there is discontinuity in the radically unexpected way in which they have been fulfilled.

We can make a further move and say that the life of the Church and any life lived in the light of this faith will also be characterised by continuity and discontinuity. Sometimes things will unfold in the ways we have come to expect from what we have experienced already of God's way with us. But sometimes things will unfold in ways we never expected or suspected. There is no end to the ingenuity of the 'God of surprises' who is ever creative even while being ever faithful.

It means that the Resurrection is not simply a matter of leaving what is 'here' in order to be 'there' but is a transformation of what is 'here', this body, these relationships, this behaviour, here and now. It is not just a question of waiting for some future illumination but of new meaning, new light, new possibilities for where we now are and who we now are. It is a question of re-thinking our past, reading it back in the light of the resurrection, so as to live a new life now and on into the future.