Declare before God

Commitment Sunday

The Gospel today invites us as a church to ‘declare ourselves before God’ as good stewards. God loves giving – he gave no lesser gift than the wonderful gift of Jesus to ensure that we are not alone in this life. We are also invited to not be afraid – the most common commandment that the Lord tells us. When we think about our response to the Lord in the areas of time, talents and treasures, all kind of misconceptions and myths can get in the way. We imagine that (1) we need to earn God’s love – when we can do nothing that will make God love us more. We believe that if we (2) obey God we will not enjoy life and miss out on so many things – yet Jesus tells us that he came that we may have life in abundance (John 10:10). Finally, we think that God is angry and needs to be appeased, so we think that (3) we need to buy God off and try to do this at the least possible price – surely those few coins that we toss into the collection will be just enough!

In fact, giving shapes our hearts and lives. Giving is so much more about our need to give than God’s need to receive. He doesn’t need anything from us – but we certainly never grow until we learn to freely give. There are many places in scripture that teach the principle of the first fruits – beginning in Genesis 4 with the offerings of Abel and Cain – then the offering of a tithe from Abraham to Melchizedek (Genesis 14) and the instruction that God gave Moses to offer the first-born children to be redeemed by the Lord. This continues in the Exodus tradition of offering sacrifice, and culminates in the offering of the first fruits of the land once they take possession of the Holy Land (Deut 26).

Everything belongs to God!

When we think about our giving, we are invited to think about a few issues. The first is “How do I give?” – do I give intentionally, or only accidentally? The second is “What do I give?” – do I give my very best (the first fruits), or do I only offer the leftovers to God and the church community?

When we want to grow in any area of our lives, it is important to remember that it takes time to learn something new, and to become skilled and gifted in an area. So the first of the baby steps that we need to take is (1) begin to give regularly by making giving a priority in our lives. When St Paul teaches on giving (over several of his letters) he tells us that our giving should be Proportional and Regular (eg 2 Cor 8:1-3 and 1 Cor 16:1-2). As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, do not be afraid of this. It takes practice to learn to do anything that is truly valuable.

If we have been giving for a while, then we may be ready to move onto baby step 2. Which takes the commitment to not just give something regularly, but to consider our finances and carefully determine how much we can afford to give – and then increase that amount by 1%. Remember, it is not the whole dollar amount that we give that matters – it is the proportion of our income. If we only give from our excess, then we have not even begun to really give. If it is too easy – perhaps we need to add another 1% to what we give – or maybe even 5%?

Finally, if you have been committed to giving sacrificially for sometime and you are willing to really trust in the Lord, then you can really level up with step 3 – which is committing to tithe on your gross income. There is a strange economics that comes into play once you commit to tithing. Even with a degree in Economics and Accounting, I am not sure why my finances have continued to do so well after I made this commitment many years ago to give what is already God’s back to God, his church and his people. But I know that this is something that we can always trust in – we can put God to the test in this area and he will be faithful. Guaranteed!

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All resources
Video Reflection: We Give (Dan Stevers)
Song Reflection: Open Up Our Eyes (Acapella by Bammel Church)

Corpus Christi – Lessons in Love

This Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ does not only draw to a conclusion this extended season of Easter Feasts – it also draws together the whole of the mystery and wonder that we have been celebrating since the beginning of Lent. The twin feasts of Trinity and Corpus Christi hang uneasily at the conclusion of the Season of Easter. We have already returned into the Season of Growth and Discipleship with the return of the green vestments as a sign of the new life of discipleship. But these two feasts, although described as feasts of the Lord in Ordinary Time, are really best understood as extensions of Easter, from which they derive their context.

What we discover is that these days are all about lessons in love.

Beginning with Holy Thursday, the Lord strips himself of his garments to be a slave washing the dirty feet of the disciples as an example. Then he continues to offer this example and choice on Good Friday when love refuses to say no, and the Lamb of God is sacrificed for us and for our salvation. The day of Resurrection joy is the day when love has the final say and sin and death do not. The whole of the season of Easter provides a continuing reflection for us as disciples to continue to grow and learn in the school of love. As Easter draws to a conclusion, we move into this series of four feastdays that together celebrate this particular gift of love.

The Ascension opens us to the reality of love as gift and return. Pentecost draws us deeper into love that is as close as our breath. The Trinity reminds us of the dynamic union of love that exists in the very heart of God – a circle-dance union that we are invited to join. But all of these beautiful and powerful feasts can remain too abstract and distant from our ordinary lives and experiences. Which is where the gift of such ordinary elements – bread and wine – which are transformed and changed to become for us these beautiful and precious gifts. If we should ever doubt that God is close to us, the gift of food that we can eat and drink should be enough to tell us that our God is never distant, never alien. God becomes this ordinary bread so that we can hold him, and take him in our hands and place him on our tongues, that he might become one with us at even a molecular level. We could not even imagine something so intimate?!

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Trinity Love

For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…

The famous and beautiful Gospel today (from John 3 verses 16-18) is the last part of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a man who is called a leading Pharisee and leader of the Jews. Even though he is a teacher of the law, it is clear that old Nic does not get some of the subtle distinctions that Jesus makes between earthly and heavenly realities and the clear gift that God wants everyone to have – the life of the age to come.

The whole approach of God to the world is rescuing it from its bondage to sin and death so that all human beings will be drawn into the communion of life and love that we can only find in God. Jesus tells us that this is the work of the Son.

Remember that in the Gospel of John, sin is not about morality – it is all about belief. So, judgement is not about some future reality or event, but about what happens in the here and now. Jesus brings it ‘down to earth’ and makes it present in himself.

Each person determines for herself or himself what their judgement will be. The only question that determines this is precisely the question of whether they decide or not to accept the revelation of God as a God of love, that comes to us through Jesus.

What we are seeing is exactly what God’s own love looks like. When Jesus died on the cross this was the complete and dramatic display of God’s own love. The cross was not a muddled accident. The cross was not God letting the worst happen to someone else. The cross is at the centre of this amazing new image of who God is.

He is now to be known as the God who is both father and son, and the son is revealed, ‘lifted up’, when he dies under the weight of the world’s evil. Evil which was and is in the world, indeed, which is deep-rooted within us all, was somehow allowed to take out its full force on Jesus.

When we look at Jesus lifted high on the cross, what we are looking at is the result of the evil in which we are all stuck. And we are seeing what God has done about it. In this amazing way, we are seeing what God’s own love looks like. We are seeing the gift of the Trinity of love – this community of love and life that we are invited to be part of.

Because evil lurks deep within each of us, for healing to take place we must each be deeply involved in the process. This doesn’t mean that we just have to try that much harder to be good. All we can do, just as it was all the Israelites could do, is to look and trust: to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love, and to trust in him.

This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should have the life of the age to come.

The point of the whole story is that you don’t have to be condemned. God’s act in the death of Jesus has lodged a sign in the centre of history. And the sign simply says: believe, and live.

Recorded at St Paul’s, Trinity Sunday, Year A. John 3:16-18

Personal Pentecost

The Gospel today (from John 20 verses 19-23) takes place on the evening of Easter Sunday. Mary Magdalene, who is the first apostle to see the Lord tells them about her encounter with Jesus. Now these disciples also see him.

By saying it happens on “that day” perhaps the author also wants us to remember the understanding that the Hebrew scriptures had of ‘the day of the Lord’ – for example, Isaiah 52 verse 6 that says, “My people shall know my name; on that day they shall know it is I who speak.”

John tells us that it is the disciples who are gathered – not just the Eleven – or the 12 apostles minus Judas. Jesus then greets this larger group of disciples who have gathered with what had become the standard greeting within rabbinic Hebrew – shalom alekem – “Peace be to you.” Here, the words of Jesus are not just a wish – but a statement of fact.

Jesus then shows the disciples his hands and side and it is at this moment that they can begin to move from disbelief to belief and they are ‘overjoyed’ at seeing the master. Showing his body to them connects his earthly body to the risen Jesus and fulfils the promise that Jesus had made during the last Supper that their pain and sorrow will turn to joy (see John 16, verses 20 to 22).

After their recognition of him not simply as the risen Jesus, but also as their Lord, Jesus can now greet them again with shalom alekem – “Peace be with you.” Only now can they actually receive his gift of peace. And only now, after receiving that gift of peace, can they hear and receive the commission of the Lord: ‘As the father has sent me, so I’m sending you.’

All of these disciples, through their faith in the risen Lord, and with the gift of his peace, are now able to be sent, that is to become apostles of the risen Lord, just as Jesus had been sent by the father.

How on earth are the disciples to do such an extraordinary thing? Only with this precious gift from heaven – the gift that comes through the breath of Jesus – the gift of the holy Spirit. The Spirit is precisely that which empowers this fragile community to continue the work of Jesus. This is the only time that this word ‘to breathe’ is used in the New Testament, and it clearly evokes God breathing the breath of life into the first human in Genesis 2.

The Spirit-empowered mission of these disciples is to forgive sin – which in the Gospel of John is all about belief, not morality. To sin is to be blind to the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. So the commission that the disciples and the church receives in this Pentecost moment is to continue to make the love of God in Jesus known in the world. By doing this we are true to what Jesus said about the action of the Paraclete back in John 16 – “to prove the world wrong about sin – because they do not believe in me.”

The gift of the Spirit comes so that we can continue what God sent Jesus to do.

How is this woman mother of God?

The understanding that Mary – a seemingly ordinary teenager growing up in Judea or Galilee who happened to be visited by the archangel Gabriel to hear the announcement that she would become the virgin mother of the saviour, who would be called Jesus – thereby becoming the mother of this unique person who was both human and divine, and therefore she also receives the title of mother of God. Not a bad title for a resume. (Although it was not uncommon in the Roman world, where the Caesar’s following on from Julius all adopted the title of ‘son of God’ for themselves, which also gave a boost to their mothers as well.) In our Diocese one of my brother priests has been struggling with this question, prompting our bishop to send a pastoral letter reminding the people of God what the church teaches on this point. So, let us take a moment to consider why this title for Mary came about, and what it might mean for us today.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am Mass (10min)
01 January – Solemnity of Mary, the holy Mother of God.
Numbers 6:22-27; Ps 66; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

The child in whom we live and move

So many of our Christmas traditions are based on the barest threads of details. For example, in the gospel of Luke, although we are given very complete information about the announcement of the birth of first John and then Jesus, and the details of their parents and travels, when it actually comes to the moment of the birth of Jesus, Luke covers the event in just two lines. Because of our developing fascination with the birth of Jesus, those two lines have been parsed and prodded in order to provide material for artwork, plays, sculptures, carols, movies and homilies. For example, the only thing that suggests that Mary gave birth in anything other than a normal house is the fact that she places the child Jesus in a manger / feeding trough, because there is no room in the ‘inn’ (katalumati in Greek). And although ‘inn’ is a valid way of translating this word, it is certainly not the only way, nor perhaps the best way. For example, when describing the upper room where the disciples gather for the last supper, in Luke 22:11, it is the same word that is used. Yet centuries of tradition have now placed their heavy burden upon this interpretation, even though the word could simply be translated as ‘house’. I like this simpler translation, because it still speaks of the rough and impoverished conditions of the birth of Jesus, without completely separating it from Matthew’s account (which has the parents of Jesus living in a house at the time of his birth). But it also speaks of the normalcy of the relationship that Jesus has come to have with us – a relationship of friendship and joy, grace and wonder.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 8pm Vigil (8 mins)
Christmas, Mass during the night. Luke 2:1-20

Christ the King of mercy

34c-christ-the-kingMany of the parishes around our Diocese celebrate First Holy Communion on this day – which seems like a lovely idea, given the name of the Solemnity with which we conclude the liturgical year. But I am intrigued about the disjuncture between the apparent theme of the liturgy and the strong and provocative images that are always presented by the liturgy. Today is no exception. Although Paul begins his prayer reflection in our second reading with the high and exalted language that describes Jesus as “the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation…” Yet Paul knows that the only way that Jesus was able to reconcile all things through him and for him – everything in heaven and everything on earth – is through the peace that he brought about through his death of the cross.

And this is the heart of our faith. It is only in and through the cross of Jesus that anything that we profess or believe begins to make sense. It is what we have been celebrating all year with the Year of Mercy that Pope Francis inaugurated and which has challenged us to continue to be caught up in the flow of forgiveness and mercy. We considered this in more depth during the season of Lent as we reflected in the series on Moving Mercy. Today we are invited to move deeper into the experience and reality of mercy that is still available for each of our lives.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 7.30am (11mins 20)
Sunday 34, Year C: Christ, the universal king
Luke 23:35-43; Col 1:12-20.

Compassion raises the dead

10C Widow of NainThis seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke begins with two stories of healing: the first is the healing of the Centurion’s slave; the second is our gospel story today – the raising from the dead of the son of a widow in the town of Nain. In the first story the healing comes at the very specific request of the Centurion who implores Jesus to heal his servant. But when Jesus makes his way across the Valley of Jezreel to Nain, there is no obvious candidate whose faith Jesus is responding to. The dead son cannot be the candidate, but nor is there any reference to his mother making a request to heal her dead son.

When Jesus comes across the scene, the whole town is involved. Although death is common enough, everyone would be touched in such a small community. Unlike in our sanitised and overly formal Western experience of death, there are professional wailers and mourners whose loud cries provide the permission for those who are closest to the deceased person to mourn and weep in whatever way they wish. There would be tears streaming down the cheeks of everyone in the crowd. Others would have spices prepared to anoint the body and prepare him for burial by wrapping the spices into the burial clothes, to offset the smells of decomposition.

It seems that it is simply the compassionate heart of Jesus that is stirred into a response so that he goes to the bier upon which the young man is being carried and commands the young fellow to get up. Jesus doesn’t even seem to be afraid to make himself ritually unclean by touching the body of the deceased lad. The account of the story is stark and honest, describing the raising to new life in very simple terms. The town of Nain is just across the valley from his own village of Nazareth, so it is not too hard to imagine that Jesus had visited the town before, since it was only an hour or so’s walk away. Perhaps the woman and her son were already known to Jesus.

Another possibility is the fact that at this stage of his life, it seems that his adoptive father Joseph is already dead. So Jesus is the only son of a widowed mother, so he would certainly have known exactly what the woman in the story was going through, and her social and economic destitution that would be the result of the death of her son. Whatever the motivations of Jesus to bring new life to this young man and his mother, the crowd recognises the power of this moment in a flash. They erupt with joy and delight and perhaps disbelief that one like the great prophets of old is now in their midst, doing these great and mighty works. They knew that in this scene, ‘God had visited his people’ – he has drawn near to them to save and rescue them. Many in the crowd would have longed to see the signs and wonders like their ancestors had seen, and now their wildest dreams were being fulfilled before their eyes.

The same is true for us. Whatever the week ahead holds for us, God will again draw near to us to bring his love and salvation for us. He will draw near in the person of Jesus to provide the one thing that you most desperately need, even if it is not the first thing that you seem to want. The fact that Jesus will draw close is always enough. That he is here means that we also will be able to make our way through the darkest of nights to see the light of his dawn again.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (one of three first Holy Communion Masses this weekend; 8 mins 30)
Sunday 10, Year C. Luke 7:11-17

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Watch the Video Reflection

Above text is from the Journey Radio Program version, available here.

Feeding the hungry

One of the things that might first strike us about the readings that are presented to us for our reflection on this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, is that we are not given the account of the last supper from the Gospel of Luke. Instead we are given the only account in Luke about the mighty work of Jesus in feeding the hungry poor in the midst of a desolate place. And the text from the Hebrew Scriptures that is given to us to reflect upon the Gospel is not one of the miracle stories of Elijah feeding the widow during the drought, or Elisha feeding his hungry men with a few loaves of bread, or the sustaining of the people of God in the wilderness with the manna from heaven, but the frankly odd story of this priest-king Melchizedek of Salem, who provides food of bread and wine and a blessing for warrior-king Abram on his return from rescuing his nephew Lot (it is not clear whether there is enough food for the 318 men who form part of his retinue) and in return, Abram offers one tenth of his spoils to the priest-king of God Most High.

In the Gospel, Luke wants us to see the connection between this mighty work of Jesus and the continuing ministry of the Church. So he adds details to the original account found in the Gospel of Mark by telling us that Jesus spoke and taught (over the course of the whole day) about the kingdom of God, while also healing the sick and needy. While sounds like the work of the church when it is functioning its best – in offering education and healing. The twelve, who have just returned from their missionary journey reporting great success, at least are able to identify the need of the crowd when the day draws near to its conclusion – that they need food and shelter. But in one the standard lines of Jesus, he invites them to share in the mission of grace and compassion: You give them something to eat. The Lord is always inviting us to join him in this work of redemption and compassion. He wants us to partner with him in the work of the kingdom. Even if we have so little to give (five loaves and two fish), the act of surrendering that to the Lord is all that is necessary. He will do the rest – alongside of us and our continuing work of sharing in this mission.

Recorded at St Paul’s. (10 mins, 45 secs)
EBC. Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year C.
Genesis 14:18-20; Luke 9:11-17

View Slide Presentation
Listen to Vigil Mass

Watch Video Reflection: Taken for Granted (Igniter Media)

The Trinity and Whole Thinking

One of the great difficulties that we face in the western church in attempting to appreciate the gift and mystery of the Holy Trinity is the fact that so much of our thinking and even our whole conceptual framework is formed by Greek thinking and the three laws of Greek logic as given to us by Plato and his followers. For all the richness of Plato, his logic gave birth to a form of dualistic thinking that has enabled the particular form of the prosperous western world, but severely limited our ability to move beyond an either/or framework. Dualism is a direct result of the three laws of logic, namely the laws of identity (white is white), contradiction (white is not black) and the excluded middle term (something cannot be both white and black at the same time and in the same way). Now, of all religious systems, Christianity should have been the most immune to this limited way of looking at the world. The fact that we place the Trinity at the centre of our faith and understanding should immediately alert us to the truth that not everything is able to be reduced to either this or that. Yet, we continue to categorise the world into such simple and simplistic categories as right or wrong, black or white, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, etc. To move beyond such simple categories is the first step to a much more richly nuanced and beautiful understanding of the Trinity.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (14 mins)