All the Gospels are anonymous. But when early Christians began collecting them in the second century, they needed a way to distinguish each one from the others. So they gave them titles. The title “According to Matthew” is affixed to this Gospel because church tradition had credited it to Matthew, one of the twelve. It is fitting that Matthew’s Gospel is the first book in the New Testament because it was the favourite Gospel of the early Christians. You see, the first disciples were all Jews; and Matthew sought to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of David, sent by God to rule His kingdom. So Matthew, more than the other Gospel writers, found Jesus’ messiahship in strange and wonderful places where Jews would know to look: in genealogies, titles, numerology, and fulfilled prophecies.
Matthew wants his mainly Jewish audience, as God’s chosen people, to consider how Jesus is the true son of Abraham, the ideal for Israel, even the perfect candidate to be the Anointed One. So he shows how Jesus identified with Israel—even with their spending time in exile in Egypt—and yet, unlike Israel, He did not fall into disobedience. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus has come to fill the Scripture full by His teachings and His example. In this way, Jesus is a new Moses, a new Lawgiver. But again, He is greater than Moses because He gives the law and writes it directly on the hearts of His disciples and of any who care to overhear the message of the kingdom of heaven. According to Matthew, five sermons of Jesus complete the picture of Jesus as Lawgiver. They don’t replace the five books of Torah, but His words refine and complement God’s instruction to the people of the new covenant.
For Matthew, Jesus is more than the Messiah, the fulfiller of prophecies, the true son of Abraham, and the new Moses who brings a new law: He is “God with us” who promises to be with us forever. That means that Jesus is no mere mortal: He is God in the flesh who saves us from our sins. The coming of Jesus into the world fulfills God’s earlier promises to bring about redemption and a new creation. These images of Jesus that Matthew paints so beautifully fired the imaginations of Christians for centuries so that today, when we open our New Testaments, we find Matthew is first in line.
(The Voice Bible translation, Introduction to Gospel of Matthew)
The readings of the Christmas Vigil Mass are rarely used, especially since you usually get the largest congregation of families and children at the earliest Mass. But following on from the series of the Law of Four, I thought that the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew – the whole of chapter 1 – needed to be read. I chose the Voice as an accessible, yet accurate, translation for the first two Masses (5pm and 8pm)
The Gospel of Mark is both the shortest and earliest of the gospels written. It is also perhaps the most primal and simple of the gospels lacking some of the sophistication of the later offerings. But scholars have discovered a new appreciation for this gospel and its more raw and basic presentation of both Jesus and of his first followers. The disciples are regularly presented as a rather dense lot who ask the wrong kind of questions and keep getting things wrong. But I like it because the disciples are so often like I am!
We arrive today in the very centre of the Gospel – not just because we are in the middle of chapter 8 of this 16 chapter Gospel – but because there is a stark turning point. It is not as clear as the similar point in the Gospel of Luke (9:51) where Jesus “resolutely points his face towards Jerusalem” but true to Mark’s style it is clearly present. Until this point there have been miracles upon miracles as the mighty works of Jesus to heal the sick, cast out demons and bring order to the chaos of nature have helped to frame the question of “who is this man?” – now we are ready to begin to answer it. First the disciples will report what the crowds are saying, then Peter will have a go, then Jesus himself will explain what it means to follow him along the way that this journey will take as he begins to move from the very north of Israel down into the heartland of Judaism on the way to Jerusalem.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (13min)
Sunday 24, Year B. Mark 8:27-35
I am sure you have had the experience of telling a joke where the execution and timing have been rather good – and yet one or more of your friends in the group that surrounds you just don’t get the point. Perhaps you have also had the similar experience of hearing a joke and while other roar with laughter you just don’t get it. At all. Now, someone could attempt to explain what the significance of some key word or missing concept that prevents you or others from understanding why the joke is so funny – but that is far from ideal. We seem to have a very similar situation in the Gospel today – although not nearly so funny as that well executed joke.
The fact that Mark takes so much time to clue his audience into the scene, providing ample additional explanatory notes and asides to them and us, is the main reason that we know that the people that Mark was writing this Gospel to were not Jewish. A Jewish audience would not need to know that they have a bit of a thing – an obsession some might say – with washing hands, dishes and pots. They knew this from their very earliest days. It was just one of those things that you did as a Jew. We might not even think twice about the good and sensible advice of ensuring your hands are clean before eating – surely our mothers told us this many times when we came into the table from playing in the backyard with the dog – but this was not commonly practiced in the ancient world. You only have to travel to other continents to realise that the obsession that we have about food preparation and handling are not quite shared with the same level of passion.
But when Jesus was asked this question about hand washing, he turns the question around to be something about human tradition. Which we will miss the full impact of if we only read the oddly shortened version of this Gospel that is presented by the Lectionary today (both Catholic and Common) which omits some key verses that remind us of the tendency to subvert scripture by human traditions – so make sure you read all twenty-three verses together like I did at Mass today. It doesn’t take long for Jesus to take this discussion about human traditions into explosive new territory.
Recorded at St Columbkille’s Church, Corrimal (my final Sunday in this parish)
Sunday 22, Year B. Mark 7:1-23
We meet the disciples of Jesus today as they return from their missionary journeys where they went out in pairs to not only proclaim the message of salvation but they were also tasked to heal the sick and bring release to those bound with evil spirits. They return no longer as disciples – but they are now called for the first time ‘apostles’ – that is ones that are sent. Seeing how tired and stressed they are, Jesus invites them to go across the lake to a wilderness area (eremos topos) – the same phrase that is used to describe the wilderness that Jesus spent the forty days at the beginning of the Gospel. But when they cross the lake they find the even larger crowd has hurried even more than they did and are waiting for them when they step ashore. Jesus models the ministry of shepherd by having compassion on the crowd and he sets about to teach them at some length. (So a long homily is a sign of the preacher’s compassion on the crowds.)
Paul also offers us an insight into the ministry of the shepherd by describing the alienation that his audience used to live in – they were both spiritually and physically excluded from the life of the Jewish people by the commandments of Moses and the wall that surrounded the inner courts in the Jerusalem temple which bore an inscription which warned any Gentiles (in Greek) that if they entered into the inner courts they should prepare to die. Sorry about that.
What happens in the life and death of Jesus is the beginning of the incredible process of reconciliation – the tearing down of all barriers to allow both Jews and Gentiles to no longer be two separate streams, but now one newly recreated humanity able to live in the grace and peace of God.
Recorded at St Col’s, Saturday Vigil and Sunday morning (9mins)
Sunday 16, Year B
Today we hear the final of the seven “I am” declarations that punctuate the Gospel of John – “I am the true vine.” This declaration is also unusual because it is the first time one that is explicitly relational: I am the vine; you are the branches. We should be in no doubt after hearing this declaration about the sense of connection with the divine that has been opened up to us as a result of the ministry of Jesus.
Across the centuries, but especially since the rise of individualism and capitalism, Christianity has been infected with the same idea that ‘the gods help those who help themselves.’ This tendency reached a high point in the teachings of the British monk Pelagius, who was condemned by various councils and especially in the writings of St Augustine. Pelagainism as his school of thought was called taught that the first moves towards God were always our initiative and we could basically move towards a life of holiness and grace with just a little assistance from God. The Gospel today should clearly show that it is never enough for Jesus to be merely an inspiring moral figure or teacher for us. No the Christian life is not about our response to God – but about participating in the very life of God organically.
Recorded at St Col’s, 9am (8min 53 sec)
Sunday 5 in Easter, Year B. John 15:1-8
The transition from the season of Christmas and the gathering around the manger scene to the arrival of the Magi to this feast of the Baptism of the Lord and the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus is a rapid one. We meet the adult Jesus who is presented as the answer to all the hopes and expectations of so many generations of faithful Jews – and yet he arrives innocuously and simply – walking into the waters of the muddy Jordan River. It is only when he emerges out of the waters of repentance and identification with the rest of sinful humanity that there is even a hint of signs and wonders. The thin curtain that separates the world where the glory of God dwells and the will of God is always done – heaven – from the mixed existence that is our ordinary experience – earth – is drawn back and the voice of the Father is heard declaring “my son”, “my beloved”, “my delight.” The gift of the Christian faith is that these declarations – while unique initially to Jesus – are no longer declared to him alone. Through the incredible gift of baptism, the Lord has shared these declarations with the whole believing church.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Camden (8am: 7mins, 30secs)
Baptism of the Lord. Mark 1:7-11.
As we enter the second Sunday in the season of Advent, we come to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. The opening line of his Gospel is somewhat curious – it isn’t immediately obvious if it is meant to be a heading or simply the first line. It richly evokes a number of scripture passages – including the opening line of Genesis (also evoked more clearly in the prologue to the Gospel of John). It declares very strongly and clearly who Jesus is – using and adapting the common political language of the day. Jesus is the Messiah which is good news – he is bringing about a true victory for all who believe in him. Many manuscripts add the additional descriptor that he is the Son of God – although some believe that this is a later scribal addition.
Rather than telling us any of the details about the birth of Jesus, Mark launches straight into the public ministry of Jesus, taking us out into the wilderness (midvar in Hebrew) to be with John the Immerser or John the Baptiser. It is only here, away from the distractions of the big city, that the Word of God (davar in Hebrew) can truly be heard and encountered.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Camden, 8am (10 min, 37 sec)
Second Sunday in Advent, Year B
When you think about God and how God offers a relationship with him, it seems to me that the word encounter is one of the more helpful ways of describing this relationship. Yet, when you look up the word encounter, you discover that it comes into the English language via the Old French word encontre, which in turn was based on Latin roots (in + contra) – suggesting that the word originally had a much more negative meaning. Indeed, in its French usage, it was mainly used in a military context, describing that situation when two armies faced each other across the battlefield. Each commander would presumably be thinking about their own soldiers and resources and making a mental and calculated comparison to the might of the force arrayed on the other side of the field. At the heart of encontre then is a strong sense of fear and anxiety caught up in this moment before the battle. So perhaps it is a very appropriate word to describe the way that people have been in relationship with God across the multitudes – a God who is utterly holy and powerful and mighty and awesome – and then there is little ordinary us. How can we possibly compare and enter into this contest?
Yet with the Patriarchs God began to appear to certain individuals and began to speak in terms of covenant and promise. God began to show a new and different dimension to this relationship – where he demonstrates his tenderness and compassion, caring for this people and protecting them, giving them food and water in the wilderness. He begins to speak to them and teach them and form them – especially through the prophets. Even so, there remains a certain distrust of God and an anxiety not to get too close to him.
Until Jesus arrives. When he is born, the evangelist John tells us that now the very word of God has taken flesh. God is going to feed his people in new ways now. Indeed, the evangelist Luke tells us that when Jesus was born he was laid in a manger – a feeding trough. All of this culminates in the passage that is the Gospel tonight, taken from John 6:51-58. Now in the person of Jesus we are offered a new encounter with God – at a level more personal and intimate than anything anyone could ever have imagined before as we are invited to eat (esthein then trogein) his body and drink his blood.
Recorded at St Paul’s 5.30pm (9’23”)
The recording from St Mary’s, 8am is also available here.
verb: encounter; 3rd person present: encounters; past tense: encountered; past participle: encountered; gerund or present participle: encountering
unexpectedly be faced with or experience (something hostile or difficult).
“we have encountered one small problem”
meet (someone) unexpectedly.
“what do we know about the people we encounter in our daily lives?”
noun: encounter; plural noun: encounters
an unexpected or casual meeting with someone or something.
“she felt totally unnerved by the encounter”
a confrontation or unpleasant struggle.
“his close encounter with death”
Middle English (in the senses ‘meet as an adversary’ and ‘a meeting of adversaries’; formerly also as incounter ): from Old French encontrer (verb), encontre (noun), based on Latin in- ‘in’ + contra ‘against’.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16
2 Sam 23:14-17
When we come to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus all manner of things can tend to get in the way. For a start, many people can overstate the literal details in the first reading today, from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, what with all the information of Jesus being lifted up into the clouds and the disciples lost in wonder as they look up into the sky. But it is in the Gospel today, the final verses from the end of the Gospel of Matthew that provides the best context to understand the Ascension.
It is only in understanding the Trinity that we understand the place of the Ascension. It is only there that the declaration of Jesus on yet another mountain that all authority in both created realms – heaven and earth – have been given to him. It is the Ascension that demonstrates the unity that Jesus has with the Father as the unseen source of all life and the Holy Spirit as the breath of life that sustains us now and always. The mission is the centre of all of this – the God that Jesus reveals is the missionary God who sent his healing love into the world in the person of Jesus and now because of the Ascension, his followers are sent out into the world with the same healing love. Baptism is then the sign and seal of this mission.
Although the instruction to baptise people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit quickly became a liturgical formula in the life of the church, it probably is here a powerful description of what kind of life disciples are being incorporated into. This life is nothing less than the very life of God. This life is offered to any person who is willing to repent and believe in Jesus as the fulfilled Messiah, now reigning in the realm of heaven, but whose spirit is now available to all believers. And that is very good news indeed.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (9’55”)
Ascension Sunday, Year A.
Acts 1.1-11; Ephesians 1.17-23; and Matthew 28.16-20
Also available: Evening Mass recording and Journey Radio Program (text above)
The Jewish law, especially the 613 mitzvah or commandments found in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament) – with 365 prohibitions (You shall not…) and 248 prescriptions (Honour your father and mother; Keep holy the Sabbath day…), was a colossal achievement. The whole of the Jewish nation – and not just the scribes and Pharisees – were rightly proud of their laws and revered and honoured both the Law / Torah and the God who gave it to them through their father Moses. Jesus begins this section of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:17-37) by declaring that he had come not to abolish any of the laws, but to complete them. He goes on to declare that anyone who upholds the law and teaches the law will be considered blessed in the kingdom of heaven; but the opposite is also true.
Bizarrely, Jesus then goes on to make a series of six statements (four of which are included in the Gospel this week; the remaining two will feature next Sunday) where he cites the existing laws using the formula – “You have learnt how it was said” – but then he offers a reinterpretation of the existing law, beginning with an authoritative declaration: “but I say to you…”
Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm Vigil (11’49”)