For or with? Contract or relationship?
In tonight’s brief passage from the Gospel of St John, we heard the parable of the grain of wheat. Christ drew this parable about resurrection on the Kingdom of God from the everyday circumstances of life; it was quite easy for his rural audience to understand the principle of “resurrection produced by dead seeds sown into the earth: the image of the grain of wheat dying in the earth in order to grow and bear a harvest can be seen also as a metaphor of Jesus’ own death, burial in the tomb and Resurrection.
Using the example of a wheat seed Jesus tells the disciples that he must die. A wheat seed by itself is just one seed. However, this same seed planted in the ground dies to itself and becomes something much greater. Jesus says the time has come. His time to be glorified is approaching. He will die and through his death there will come an abundance of fruit. In the Gospel there is already evidence of the possible fruit. Who has heard this parable of the wheat seed? There are the disciples. There are some leaders of the Hebrew people. Also, among them there are some Greeks. They have come to see and speak to Jesus. People are coming to see him. Not just the Jewish people, but also the Gentiles. Jesus will die not for the few, but for the many. Jesus will die for the generation to whom he speaks and Jesus will die for the generations to come. Jesus dies for you and Jesus dies for me.
But we hear a lot of “for”. During this last week we have been spending time with Christ – so what of the “with”?
Around Good Friday in 1373, an Englishwoman was stricken by the plague, and facing what she thought would be her own death. Much of her life is a mystery. Her baptismal name is not recorded, but we know her better by her adopted name. She is remembered as one of the greatest of all English mystics. We know her as Julian of Norwich
In her long-ago fevered haze, Julian received a series of visions of Jesus, which she wrote down in a book entitled Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love.
The Eighth Revelation, the heart of the book, concerns the Passion and the Cross, focusing on Jesus’ pain and suffering. “Is any pain like this?” she wondered, “…Of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer?”
Recounting the vision, she ruminated on Jesus’ mother Mary’s suffering, the one who suffered more than any other in his death; then expanding the circle to include “all His disciples and all His true lovers suffer pain” at this death. In this community of pain, forged by the suffering of Jesus, Julian articulated one of her great theological insights: “Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us: for when He was in pain, we were in pain.” To Julian, the Cross was about ONEING—the complete unity of God with us and us with God; and not only us as humans, but as she relates from the vision, the ONEING of “all creatures that suffer pain, suffer with Him…and the firmament, the earth, failed in sorrow” and the planets, all the elements, and even the stars despaired at Christ’s dying. The cosmic circle of grief, emanating from Jesus’ Passion, reveals that Jesus not only suffered for us; but he suffered with us—his death occurred for the sake of “Kinship and Love” with all this was, is, and will be.
Did Our Lord suffer for us or with us?
On many a Good Friday, I have sat in a darkened church, listening to readings and music, all focused on the first preposition of the Passion’s equation: Jesus suffered for us, for sinners, for the world, for me. But only rarely have I heard spiritual reflection on the second preposition: Jesus suffered with us, with sinners, with the world, with me.
Some of us here are writers. They choose prepositions carefully. There is a huge difference between for and with. For is a preposition of distance, a word that indicates exchange or favour, it implies function or purpose. I do something for you; you do something for me. Notice: someone does something on behalf of or in another’s place. For is a contract. Jesus suffered for us—means that Jesus did something on our behalf; he acted on behalf of a purpose, in place of someone else. “For” always separates the actor and recipient, distancing a sacrificial Jesus from those for whom he died. At the Cross, Jesus is the subject; we are objects.
For or with? Contract or relationship? Exchange or participation? Quid pro quo or friendship?
If we are honest, with is a hard preposition in the world of today. Are you only with those who share your party or cause. We judge others on what they can do for us. Indeed, we are for many things. But we are sceptical of with—indeed; much of what we do in the world makes us ridicule, doubt, and even fear with. It is often safer to remain at a distance, to stay away from with.
When we come to Christ, we see the for. We understand the exchange, that God died for me, so I get baptized or confirmed or serve the church. Jesus sacrificed his life so that I might exchange Hell for Heaven. People sacrifice and die for something nearly every day, and it is particularly sobering–as in the case of soldiers—when someone sacrifices or dies for my freedom or safety. Indeed, thinking that Jesus died for salvation may give pause, cause us to raise a prayer of thanks, feel sadness or relief; but ultimately, the idea that someone dies for something is theologically and spiritually uncomplicated.
But with is complicated, even frightening. Good Friday plunges us into with. Have you sacrificed with others? Have you walked the way of death with someone? Felt the power of the suffering love? Do you know, in every fibre of your being, the ONEING of God in Julian’s visions? Do you feel Jesus dying with his Mother, his friends, with us, with all creatures, with the firmament, with the planets and the elements? Can you embrace the truth that, at Calvary, Jesus’ Mother, friends, US, all creatures, the firmament, the planets and all elements died there with him, too?
The Cross isn’t a contract between God and sinners; the Cross is God’s definitive expression of kinship and love—that everything, everywhere, through all time, is connected in and through pain and suffering. We are with Jesus on the Cross, not at a distance from it, standing by, watching safely from afar; those are our hands and feet nailed, our blood dripping, our voices crying out “We thirst.” And Jesus on the Cross, naked and mocked, is with us all on every broken-heartened, betrayal-laden, blood-soaked day of human history. That is God’s Passion; that is Jesus’ Cross. And, in the tortured Christ, we find the hope to endure, a love for others and creation, the power to enact God’s dream of love and justice for the whole world. We are with God. God is with us.
We are often asked if we have time in our lives for Christ. As believers we do. But what is much better in terms of our relationship with him is that we do, as we have done during this last week, spend time with Him.
the simplicity of a child
The scene that we heard about in the reading earlier has been repeated many times throughout history. There are many instances which can be seen online of children approaching great teachers, some getting through the security, others being pushed away. But in today’s Gospel, the greatest teacher of them all tells his followers that they mustn’t get between the children and him.
Children coming to great teachers and holy men is nothing new, it is a practice from antiquity. In Genesis 48.13-20 we read of Joseph bringing Ephraim and Manasseh to Israel to be blessed.
Jesus didn’t just bless the children. He used them to illustrate his message as he is recorded to have done in many other places in the Gospels of St Luke and St Matthew as well as the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. Jesus said,
“Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.”
The simplicity of a child. Quite a challenge to those of us who have passed into adulthood, have grown up, and had to leave our childish behaviour and thinking behind to survive in the world in which we live.
As I was reading this passage this morning, re-reading it, time and again, to see what I should say tonight, I realised something quite special. When a person becomes a member of the Church, when a person accepts Jesus as the Lord and Saviour of mankind, that person becomes a child of God. We are all children. Thinking in another way, Jesus lived on earth as a man around two-thousand years ago. By anyone’s reckoning those of us living today are like children compared to Him.
So what do we do now? What is this passage saying to us gathered here today in our time and place?
To me, it is a reinforcement of the central message of Jesus – a message of a God of Love. A God who does not push people away, but welcomes them in and blesses them. As members of the Church, it is our duty to share this Love to all that we meet.
Tomorrow, many people will be walking in the Belfast Pride Parade as it winds its way around the city centre and back to Custom House Square for a huge party. Some of us from Faith and Pride will be standing as a witness of God’s Love for all of his children just outside the gates of St George’s in High Street, just as we did at last year’s parade. Everyone on that parade and everyone in the whole world is worthy of our respect and our love, for as Blessed John XXIII – whose imminent canonisation was announced today – said,
“We were all made in God’s image, and thus, we are all Godly alike.”
Surely we must all work within the Church to ensure that all are welcomed, not pushed away. We’re all children, and like little children we will be welcomed, and blessed by Jesus, when we approach Him now, and when we reach the end of our life, we can safely ask Him,
“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
This is the text of the meditation given at 15 minutes with Christ on Friday 5 July 2013.
Faith and Doubts?
Thomas hasn’t had a great press down the years, precisely because of the episode described in the Gospel reading for today.
From this, we get the term ‘doubting Thomas’, used to describe someone who is irrationally doubtful about an obvious truth. But maybe we are being a little too hard on Thomas. Holy Scripture alludes to this fact by telling us that Thomas was a twin.
Obviously he was used to being mistaken for his twin and it was logical to him that perhaps the disciples merely saw someone who looked like Jesus and was not actually him. Only the real Jesus would bear the marks of the crucifixion, and this was what Thomas demanded to see.
The first mention of Thomas in John’s Gospel comes at the death of Lazarus, in John 11, when Jesus was about to go to Judaea. His first foray into Judaea had managed to upset the religious authorities to such an extent, that they now actively sought his life. To go back there was madness to the disciples, but Thomas simply says,
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas clearly was a devoted disciple. He was prepared to put his own life on the line in following his master. This is not the action of someone who is not able to grasp the truth.
The next time we see Thomas is at the point where Jesus is explaining his departure to the disciples in John 14, in that very familiar reading which is often used at funerals, to remind us that death is not the end. Jesus tells the disciples that they know the way to the place where he is going.
Thomas pipes up,
“Lord we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Only Thomas is brave enough to verbalise what all the disciples must be thinking. Jesus is speaking in obscure terms, and Thomas for one, wants to be clear about his meaning. There is something very honest about Thomas here. He will not just pretend to understand or know something, he is going to understand for himself everything that is involved.
The next mention of Thomas is as related in the reading for today. Thomas clearly was a devoted disciple, perhaps one of the most devoted. However when it all hit the fan, Thomas broke and ran with the rest of the disciples and left Jesus to his fate.
Why was Thomas not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them? Maybe he was still running. Maybe he was so distraught at the death of Jesus and his own failure to act, that he needed to be alone for a while to grieve.
Then, as is the case with all of us, when someone close to us dies, he needed to be in the company of those who knew Jesus well, to share stories, to grieve together, to work out a way forward.
Only now he found them not grieving, but rejoicing, and telling him that they had seen Jesus alive.
This was too much for Thomas. The other disciples must have gone crazy being cooped up all by themselves. Thomas, called the twin, thought that there must be a logical explanation for what they were saying. Thomas who always sought clarification, needed the most extreme clarification now before he would believe.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Even though he thought they were mistaken, Thomas hung around with the disciples, and eventually the Risen Christ appeared to him as well. He didn’t scold him for not believing, but gave him usual Jewish greeting – “Shalom – peace be with you.”
Then he showed Thomas his wounds and invited him to touch them. Thomas’ response is instantaneous, “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus tells him that he has believed because he has seen, but blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed.
I admire Thomas’ ability to question and just accept things at face value, because it opens the doors for us to do the same. The life of faith is not just about blindly accepting what others tell you. It is also about experience – experience of the living Christ, who doesn’t rebuke us for our doubts or our lack of faith.
Through his wounds he enters into our suffering because he has been there himself. He knows what it is to be abandoned, rejected and let down by those closest to him. But he has overcome all that and he will in us overcome all our doubts, fears and wounding.
I wonder what doubts or fears we have this evening as we gather in the presence of the Risen Christ. We are here because he has called us, and if he has called us then he wants us. Yet we come with feelings of inadequacy, rejection, personal hurt and low self esteem. We find it hard to believe that we could deserve the grace he offers. But Jesus Christ died and rose again so that the whole world in all its diversity could be reconciled to him. His grace is freely offered to all who would accept, so called deserving and undeserving. This is the Christ who gave Judas the traitor bread from the table of the last supper, who answered Thomas’ questions and doubts, who forgave Peter the denier. He will minister to you and I too and accept us exactly as we are, exactly as they way God made us.
The Risen Christ stands before us today with all his wounds showing and invites us to believe. There is nothing that he cannot achieve in us and through us if we believe in him. The derision, the rejection the hurt that we endure in this life is turned around and transformed in the presence of the living Christ, who comes to us and comforts us with the words “Peace be with you – do not doubt, but believe.”
May our doubts also be transformed in the presence of the living Christ to “My Lord and my God!”
This is the text of the meditation given at 15 minutes with Christ on Wednesday 3 July 2013.
Following Christ means transferring our security
In the reading (Luke 9.51–62) earlier this evening, Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem for the last time.
Along the way, He meets three men who have heard His call in their hearts. These encounters teach us three tough lessons about what it means to follow Christ. This evening I am focussing on just one of them.*
To follow Christ, we have to transfer our sense of security. We have to relocate it from ourselves to God. Throughout our lives we have been taught to rely on ourselves for success and happiness, but we have to unlearn that lesson. We have to learn to rely wholly on God, plugging all our efforts in life into His Grace.
This is what was meant when Jesus answered and said,
Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”
Christ is trustworthy, but He is not predictable. When we follow Him, we have to agree to go one step at a time – He refuses to give us a full-life outline in advance. When we follow Him, we have to stop pretending that we can keep our lives under control by our own efforts. Accepting Christ’s friendship, we agree to follow Him, to put our lives under His leadership.
We are on an unpredictable adventure. We do not know where God will lead us, nor what He may ask us to do. When we join Christ’s army, we have to hand him a blank cheque.
We all want to make this transfer of security from self to God. Many of us are here because we know that we know God. By depending more fully on Him, our lives will be brought the meaning and fruitfulness that we all long for.
But how do we do that? How do we become more faithful followers of our Lord, more hope-filled disciples, more stable Christians? This transfer of security from ourselves to God is a virtue – the virtue of hope. Like all Christian values, it was planted in our souls like a seed when we placed our trust in God. It’s already there, we have to help it to grow, which we can do by exercising it.
One of the mot effective ways to exercise this virtue is by practising a long-standing tradition of beginning each day with a prayer – often called a morning offering.
This is a prayer we say before the day begins – perhaps immediately on getting out of bed, or perhaps after our shower and before we head to breakfast.
It’s a short prayer,† putting everything in perspective: thanking God for the gift of another day; asking God for guidance and protection; renewing our promise to accept and do whatever He asks of us as we continue on the adventure of following His unpredictable path.
This is the text of the meditation given at 15 minutes with Christ on Sunday 30 June 2013.
* The other two are: 1. Following Christ means persevering through difficulties; 2. Following Christ means actively taking risk.
† One example is: “Lord, you have brought me to the beginning of this day. By your power, keep me on the road to salvation ; do not let me fall into any sin today, but grant that all I say, all I think, all I do may glorify you. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” (catholic-forum.com)
Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God
From the treatise Against Heresies by Saint Irenaeus, bishop
The glory of God gives life; those who see God receive life. For this reason God, who cannot be grasped, comprehended or seen, allows himself to be seen, comprehended and grasped by men, that he may give life to those who see and receive him. It is impossible to live without life, and the actualization of life comes from participation in God, while participation in God is to see God and enjoy his goodness.
Men will therefore see God if they are to live; through the vision of God they will become immortal and attain to God himself. As I have said, this was shown in symbols by the prophets: God will be seen by men who bear his Spirit and are always waiting for his coming. As Moses said in the Book of Deuteronomy: On that day we shall see, for God will speak to man, and man will live.
God is the source of all activity throughout creation. He cannot be seen or described in his own nature and in all his greatness by any of his creatures. Yet he is certainly not unknown. Through his Word the whole creation learns that there is one God the Father, who holds all things together and gives them their being. As it is written in the Gospel: No man has ever seen God, except the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father; he has revealed him.
From the beginning the Son is the one who teaches us about the Father; he is with the Father from the beginning. He was to reveal to the human race visions of prophecy, the diversity of spiritual gifts, his own ways of ministry, the glorification of the Father, all in due order and harmony, at the appointed time and for our instruction. Where there is order, there is also harmony; where there is harmony, there is also correct timing; where there is correct timing, there is also advantage.
The Word became the steward of the Father’s grace for the advantage of men, for whose benefit he made such wonderful arrangements. He revealed God to men and presented men to God. He safeguarded the invisibility of the Father to prevent man from treating God with contempt and to set before him a constant goal toward which to make progress. On the other hand, he revealed God to men and made him visible in many ways to prevent man from being totally separated from God and so cease to be. Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation gives life to all who live upon the earth, much more does the manifestation of the Father through the Word give life to those who see God.
This is the text of the meditation given at 15 minutes with Christ on Friday 28 June 2013.
Can we make space for God revealing himself?
The small scripture passage in Matthew chapter 13 that is provoker of our thoughts and mediation this hour is a curious one. It is another example for me of the integrity of the gospel writers to include some of the flaws and complexities to Jesus’ reputation and ministry. What we find here is a an experience for Jesus, for his neighbours and family and his followers that cautions, hesitates and hinders his activities and words but also, I would suggest, enhances the incarnation and the gospel. In taking time to consider the interactions of divinity with dust in Christ as well as the people around him, we as followers and/or the curious can consider our own interactions as the incarnation and with the incarnation of Emmanuel- God with Us.
The first interaction the gospel writer reports is the locals amazement at Jesus’ teaching, knowledge and most likely his confidence. They are in no way ignoring or dismissive of his wisdom and powers. However in the second interaction they are very quick to strip back Jesus’ reputation to what they know- ‘this is who we say he is’ ‘this is who he is’ – a putting him in his place, a clipping of his wings, a containing of his power, potential and person. The third interaction is where these people ‘take offense’ – I like to imagine other words like ‘disgruntled’ ‘noses out of joint’ where he is not fulfilling the roles assigned or expected of him and undermining the family and community expectation of honour. Lastly we note Jesus’ response both in his statement that ‘a prophet is not without honour except in his own town or home’ and in the gospel writers observation that Jesus did not do many miracles here because of people’s ‘lack of faith’ – I understand the phrase ‘lack of faith’ here to describe an attitude and lack of receptivity and warmth to Christ’s words and actions.
What we are identifying here is the complexity of people in both the humanity of Christ and the humanity of the family and neighbours that Jesus grew up with. Despite Jesus’ radical teachings, actions and miracles he is unable to move these people to see a different side to him or a different revelation of him. Despite their amazement these people are unable to move past their original knowledge and understanding of who Jesus was and therefore is what an example of the ways that we can try to limit the potential of the incarnation in Christ and within us!
As this week of Pride activities closes may our minds, hearts, souls and bodies turn over the events, words and moments that have occurred this week. Where have we been challenged to look at things differently, remove old assumptions and knowledge and replace it with new revelations and amazements? Those people whom we had decided held certain views or would say certain things or in a certain way – have they surprised us? Can we make space for God revealing himself in them? As we are called to treat them as our neighbours have we learnt from them and nurtured them or should we consider the more we could have done? As we come to faith from an affirming perspective regarding sexuality and gender and liberation are there restrictions and limit we place on our theology, our worship and our divine encounters? What more can we do to recover the incarnation and allow Christ to work without being offended or harbouring a poor attitude to God’s movement.
Let us focus on the moments where we have experienced the incarnation in ourselves, in each other and in God – let us consider our bodies as bearers of divine image with all the complexity of human interaction as we walk tomorrow to show Pride as created beings seeking liberation and flourishment for all people.
This is the text of the meditation given at 15 minutes with Christ on Friday 3 August 2012.
Can we remember our lines?
It’s always nice to get an explanation, especially when something is confusing. The Parables of Jesus are usually presented at face value with the responsibility for making sense of them resting with the hearer. In Matthew 13 it’s the only example we have of anyone asking for an explanation, and here Jesus obliges.
The explanation given reads like an ancient play – a Middle Eastern melodrama. The scene is set – the world is the stage, and on this stage are the righteous, the evil doers, devils and angels, and the burning of all the causes of sin and those who perpetuate them. Sounds great! Except………….it’s supposed to happen at the end of the age.
What about now!?
What about all the suffering that people are enduring now? And what about those who are inflicting that suffering on others? People can be so cruel, even unintentionally so.
Maybe the best we can say is that stuff will be dealt with…eventuality….at the final curtain….but until then we have to live with the reality, believing that it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
A recent report about homophobia in Northern Ireland doesn’t make very positive reading. During this Pride week homophobia, or at best distrust and suspicion, will be to the fore in many people’s minds as they watch the news reports of the events here. The reality for LGBT people in Northern Ireland is unfortunately a grim reality, and there’s no getting round that. So what should the response be from people of Faith?
I’d hope that for many Christian people they would make a ‘Jesus approach’ rather than have a ‘Church reaction’. Jesus was very good at meeting people, and accepting them, way before he asked them anything about their background – and certainly I don’t ever remember him asking people about their sex lives! ‘Zacheus…..come down from that tree, let me go with you to your house for something to eat, and while we’re there you can walk me through your bedroom gymnastics.’ I don’t think that was quite his style.
I love Gandhi, because for me Gandhi embodies the Spirit of Christ – he’s a modern reflection of Jesus in a loin cloth. In a speech to the Suppressed Classes Conference in 1921 he said,
I do want to attain Moksha (salvation, merging with God). I do not want to be reborn. But if I have to be reborn, I should be born an Untouchable so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings and the affronts levelled at them in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition.
While we have faith that God will sort things out eventually, we still have a responsibility to do whatever we can to end the injustices and prejudices that pervade our society, and, sadly, infect our churches. And that will take time. But more than that, it will take courage. Courage from the LGBT community to restrain from the easy, aggressive retaliation that seems such a natural, justified response – and that’s not easy to do because it requires a level of graciousness beyond that which is expected from the average person. But I suppose it’s Grace that takes us beyond average. It also needs courage from the Churches – courage to stand up for, and stand with, LGBT people, no matter what the consequences. And believe me, there will be consequences. No-one likes change, especially those for whom issues are ‘settled’ and roles precisely defined. The opinion of the majority is more often than not a source of comfort, but as Irene Peters has said,
Anyone who thinks there is safety in numbers obviously hasn’t looked at the stock market pages recently.
And so the scene is set. The house lights go down and the stage lights come up. The actors are ready and standing on their marks. The drama is about to commence. Can we remember our lines!? Are we ready to each play our part to the utmost of our abilities!? And may God give each of us the Grace, that where we are wrong, may we be willing to change, and where we are right, may we be easy to live with.
This is the text of the meditation given at 15 minutes with Christ on Tuesday 31 July 2012.