Friday, May 28, 2021

Pentecost

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, Pentecost. My podcasts are available wherever you listen to your podcasts. Search on your podcast app for: Ross Royden.

Pentecost

Reading: John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15

We are celebrating the Feast of Pentecost. The day when, as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit came on the disciples to give them the power they needed to be his witnesses. Immediately before he ascended to heaven to return to his Father, Jesus told the disciples that they should wait in Jerusalem for the ‘Promise of the Father’, which they had heard about from him (Acts 1:4).

The Feast of Pentecost was one of the big three feasts of Judaism. These three feasts were pilgrimage feasts, that is, when Jews from all over Palestine and the world came to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. It is at another of these three feasts that Jesus, in St John’s Gospel, first promises to give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him.

Significantly, this promise is made at the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles, also known as the Feast of Booths, was a popular feast and one that was full of joy and celebration. It still is amongst Jews today. The Feast of Tabernacles lasted for seven days with an eighth day added at the end to bring things to a conclusion. This year, the Feast of Tabernacles begins on September 20.

The Feast of Tabernacles marked the end of the harvest, and, like our Harvest Festival today, which is held at about the same time, it was a time of thanksgiving. It also remembered Israel’s time in the wilderness when the people of Israel lived in temporary accommodation such as tents. Jews, at the time of Jesus, as they do now, built ‘booths’ outdoors, which they lived in during the Feast to reenact this time in the wilderness. As they celebrated the harvest of the year just past, they also looked forward to the year ahead and prayed for rain, something particularly important in a hot, dry climate.

It was not just physical water to renew the ground that they looked forward to, however, but the living water that God would provide when he visited and renewed his people as the prophets had promised. The book of Zechariah was popular at this Feast. Not least these verses from Zechariah chapter 14:

‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter. And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.’ (Zechariah 14:8-9)

For the Jews, Jerusalem was the ‘belly’, that is, the navel or centre of the world, and it would be from Jerusalem that God’s Spirit would flow out to all the world. The ceremonies that took place during the Feast were full of symbolism. Each day, for example, the priests would process down from the Temple to the Pool of Siloam and fill a golden pitcher with water from it. They would then process back to the Temple to the sound of music and the singing of the ‘Hallel’ Psalms, Psalms 113-118.

At the Temple, they would circle the altar and the water would be poured over it, symbolizing the day when the Spirit would flow from the Temple and as a prayer for rain in the months ahead. They were reminded of how God had provided water for his people from the rock in the desert, and they looked forward to the day when he would do so again. As it said in Psalm 118, God is the God:

‘… who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water.’ (Psalm 114:8)


On the last day of the Feast, instead of circling the altar just once, the priests circled it seven times. This was the ‘last great day of the feast’. It was on this day that Jesus ‘cried out’:

‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let him drink.’ (John 7:37)

Jesus continued his cry with the words:

‘…the one who believes in me just as the scripture said, ‘Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.’ (John 7:38)

Grammatically in Greek, this verse may mean either that rivers of living water will flow out of the one who believes in Jesus or that they will flow out of Jesus himself. This ambiguity is reflected in the different translations. Whichever way it is translated into English, from the words on their own, it is not clear exactly what Jesus means. So, St John adds an explanation for us. St John writes:

‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive …’ (John 7:39)

St John’s explanation helps, I think, to decide which translation we should prefer of Jesus’ words. Jesus is telling those at the Feast that the water that they looked forward to flowing from the belly of Jerusalem would now flow out from Jesus himself to all who believed in him. God’s promises, remembered so vividly at the Feast, would be fulfilled in the person of Jesus himself.

While this explanation by St John helps us to understand what Jesus is saying, what St John goes on to write is quite shocking. St John continues his explanation with the words, which, when translated literally, are:

‘ … for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ (John 7:39)

It is worth reading St John’s explanation again in full:

‘Now he [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ (John 7:39)

This is so shocking that the translators of some versions translate the final part of St John’s explanation as: ‘for as yet the Holy Spirit had not been given’. This may be what Jesus meant, it is not, however, what he says! What Jesus is saying is that the difference that the Holy Spirit is going to make to believers when they receive him will be so great that it will be as if the Holy Spirit didn’t exist beforehand.

What is so shocking today is that, for many present-day believers, the Holy Spirit may as well not exist for all the difference he seems to make in our lives. What would be different if the Holy Spirit did not exist? How would it change how believers thought about God and Jesus and how they lived their lives? Not a lot is the answer.

The obvious question, then, is: what difference should it make?

The reason that St John gives for the Holy Spirit not existing for the disciples was that Jesus had not yet been glorified. It is only when our Lord knows that the hour for him to be glorified has arrived that he tells the disciples in more detail what difference the Holy Spirit will make.

It is in his Farewell Discourse in the Upper Room during the Last Supper that Jesus speaks to them about the ‘Promise of the Father’. And this is what Jesus is referring to when he tells them to wait in Jerusalem before he ascends to his Father.

In the past few weeks, we have been thinking about some of what Jesus said to his disciples during this Last Meal with them (John 13:33). Jesus told them that he was going away and that they could not follow him. This, understandably, troubled them. Jesus comforted them by promising he wouldn’t be leaving them for long, but would come again to them in a ‘little while’ with his Father to make his and the Father’s home in them (John 14:19). They were to be one with him and the Father as he and the Father were one (John 14:21).

Although this would bring comfort and peace, it would not be an end to their trouble and suffering. The world, Jesus told them, would hate them as it had hated him (John 15:18), and they could expect persecution as a result. The world would be their enemy, and in the same way that it had refused to believe Jesus, so too it would not believe them (John 15:20). Jesus is telling them in advance to prepare them for when it happens (John 16:1). Real though their trouble and suffering will be, Jesus gives them peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27). The world will oppose them and do all it can to destroy them, but they are to be courageous, for Jesus has conquered the world (John 16:33).

But what has all this to do with the Holy Spirit and the difference he makes?

Jesus makes it plain that the way he is going to come and make his home with those who believe in him and be with them in all the trouble and suffering they face in the world is through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is returning to the Father, but, he tells them, he will ask the Father and the Father will give them the ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 14:15-17). The world cannot receive the Spirit; only those who believe in him are able to receive the Spirit. The Spirit is already ‘with them’, but now he shall be ‘in them’ (John 14:18). Later, in his final words to them, Jesus tells them that it is he himself who sends the Spirit of truth to them (John 15:26; 16:7), although, Jesus says, it is from the Father that the Spirit comes (John 15:26). Jesus can say that both he and the Father send the Spirit because he and the Father are one (John 17:22).

We have, I am sorry to say, a rather ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to these words of Jesus, and we don’t take them very seriously. Just how seriously Jesus took them, however, can be seen from how Jesus says to his disciples in our Gospel reading for this week that it is good for them that he is going away, otherwise the Holy Spirit would not come to them (John 16:7). If they loved him, they would rejoice at this news (John 14:28).

So, let me ask as we celebrate Pentecost, are we rejoicing? Do we think it is good that Jesus has gone? Not really, I think is the honest answer. Most of us, if we were honest, would much prefer for Jesus to be physically here on earth; anywhere on earth. What Jesus is saying is that by sending the Spirit to them, he can be in everyone who believes in him, who loves him and keeps his commandments, and not just be confined to one physical location. We, however, would much prefer him to be somewhere in this world, even if only on YouTube or sending out tweets and pictures on social media. That would be infinitely preferable to all this vague talk about the Spirit.

So, did Jesus get it wrong? We would never say that, of course, but deep down it is what we think. The reason we think like this is that, for most Christians, either Jesus is physically with us or he is not. Clearly, he is not with us physically, so, by definition, he is not with us. We may be able to pray to him, read his words, and look forward to being with him one day, but, in the meantime, we have to cope without his actual presence.

The whole point of the Farewell Discourse, however, is that Jesus is trying to convince his followers, who thought exactly like us, that there is another way. Yes, he is going to the Father, but he isn’t leaving them. Jesus is just changing his mode of being with them by being in them and by making his home in and with them.

This helps us to understand something that continues to puzzle commentators on St John’s Gospel. In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus uses a word to describe the Holy Spirit that translators find hard to translate into English. Jesus uses the Greek word, parakletos, which is usually rendered in English characters as ‘paraclete’. This word occurs four times in St John’s Gospel (John 14:16; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7).

It has been variously translated as: advocate, comforter, companion, counsellor, friend, helper, intercessor, and patron. Despairing of ever finding the right way of translating it, some translations just leave it as ‘paraclete’. This may be honest, but it doesn’t really mean very much! To make matters worse, the Greek word is only used one other time in the New Testament and that is by St John himself in his first letter. So, we really don’t have a lot to go on. The problem isn’t just finding the right word to translate ‘paraclete’; it is also understanding what Jesus is seeking to convey by it.

The word itself is used in Greek outside the New Testament with a variety of meanings, hence the problem in discovering its meaning here. Its basic meaning is: ‘one who speaks for someone in the presence of another’.

For example, ‘paraclete’ can be used of an advocate speaking on behalf of someone in a court of law. This is why ‘advocate’ is one of the more popular translations. St John often uses legal imagery, so ‘advocate’ as a translation fits, but it feels inadequate. It doesn’t seem to capture all that Jesus is saying about the Spirit in his words to the disciples.

The word ‘paraclete’ can also be used of someone who offers help and assistance, and this explains why some translations use the word ‘helper’. After all, elsewhere in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is certainly said to help us, but is that all he does, and is that what Jesus is saying here in St John’s Gospel?

Jesus, I think, gives us a clue as to how he is using the word, a clue that is often missed by those seeking to understand what Jesus is saying. In John chapter 14 verse16, in his first use of the word, Jesus says:

‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete …’ (John 14:26)

For the Spirit to be another Paraclete, there must be an original Paraclete. Who, then, is the original Paraclete? Obviously, it is Jesus himself. In fact, in the only other use in the New Testament of the word, it is used by St John of Jesus. St John writes:

‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have a Paraclete with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous …’ (1 John 2:1)

Jesus was the Paraclete on earth before he became our Paraclete in heaven. But, and this is a very important question, whose Paraclete was he when he was on earth? If we take the basic meaning of the word as ‘one who speaks for someone in the presence of another’, then the answer is clear. Jesus was the Father’s Paraclete: Jesus spoke for the Father in presence of the world and his disciples. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Jesus tells people, including his disciples, often enough that this is what he is, even if he doesn’t use the word ‘paraclete’ itself.

Jesus was sent by the Father (John 7:28-29; 8:42; 12:44-45; 13:20; 16:5; 17:3). The words he speaks are the words the Father who sent him gave him to speak (John 8:28; 8:40; 12:49-50; 14:24; 17:8). The works he does, he does for the Father (John 5:19; 5:36; 10:37; 14:10). His overriding concern with his disciples before he leaves them is that they should believe that the Father sent him and that he came from God (John 16:29-30; 17:8). Jesus has come to speak and to do what the Father sent him to do. He is his Father’s representative. Anyone who believes in him is believing in the Father who sent him (John 12:44). He is the Father’s Paraclete in the fullest sense of the word. In the same way as he now speaks to the Father on our behalf, so while on earth he spoke to the disciples on the Father’s behalf.

The Holy Spirit is now ‘another paraclete’ in that he takes over the role that Jesus had while he was physically with the disciples. This role includes comforting, counselling, helping, speaking on our behalf, and acting as our advocate. The Spirit’s role, however, is not limited to any of these actions. To understand the role of the Spirit, we need to see that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to work for the Father and the Son and to be their authorised representative. He is given to us in their place, to be them for us.

In this role, Jesus tells the disciples, the Spirit will teach us everything that the Father wants us to know and remind us of all Jesus said (John 14:25-26). He will testify on Jesus’ behalf (John 15:26-27). We often take this to mean that he will testify through the disciples, but Jesus says they also will testify. The Spirit’s testifying is something else apart from this. Who does the Spirit testify of on Jesus’ behalf? Why the Father, of course, and not to the world but first to the disciples, and then through the disciples to the world. The Spirit will expose how wrong the world is in not believing in Jesus, in its thinking about Jesus, and in siding with the devil (John 16:7-11).

The Spirit will guide the disciples into all truth, for he will not speak on his own account, but only what he hears (John 15:12-15). In other words, he will be a ‘paraclete’ in its most basic meaning! The Spirit acts as both the Father and the Son’s spokesperson. They will communicate with us through him. The Holy Spirit is their mouthpiece.

Once we see that the Spirit is acting on behalf of Jesus in the way that Jesus was acting on behalf of the Father, it all becomes much clearer. Even though we may still struggle for a precise word to describe what he does. At least, we now know what it is we are talking about!

In his prayer to the Father, Jesus says:

‘ … for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.’ (John 17:8)

Now that Jesus has returned to the Father, the Father and the Son have given the role that Jesus had to another, and it is now His job to reveal the Father and Son to us in the way that Jesus revealed the Father. The disciples had to wait in Jerusalem for the ‘Promise of the Father’ before getting on with the work that Jesus had given them because it is impossible for anyone who believes in Jesus to live for him unless he first lives in us through the Spirit.

We began Lent with the words:

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’


But how are we, who are weak sinful creatures of dust, to be faithful to Christ? How are we to be his witnesses in a world of darkness that hates us as it hated him?

In telling them to wait for the ‘Promise of the Father’, Jesus said:

‘This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ (Acts 1:4-5)

We too are called today to be Pentecost people. People baptized in the Spirit, full of the Spirit, living in the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, led by the Spirit, and used by the Spirit. Used, that is, to do the work that Jesus has given us to do: to testify to the world of him.

Pentecost is not a PS, an after-thought of a festival, added at the end to round off this part of the Church’s year. In celebrating the giving of the Holy Spirit, we are celebrating the beginning of what Jesus came to make possible. The living waters are flowing. Eternal life is now offered to those who believe in him. Even now, here in this world, we can know the Father through the Son by the Spirit. The Father and the Son can live in us and not just with us.

And so, on this Feast of Pentecost, we pray:

Veni, Sancte Spiritus.
Come, Holy Spirit.


Amen.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for this week, the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  My podcasts are available wherever you listen to your podcasts.  Search on your podcast app for: Ross Royden.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 17:6-19

At the end of chapter twelve of St John’s Gospel, Jesus realizes that his ‘hour’ has now come. In the first part of St John’s Gospel, St John has described Jesus’ public ministry, that is, his ministry to the ‘world’ that God has sent his Son into. In the second part of the Gospel, St John will describe the events of Jesus’ ‘hour’ and Jesus’ time with his disciples before it.

St John concludes his description of Jesus’ public ministry with these words:

‘After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.’ (John 12:36-37)

On the night of his arrest, Jesus meets with his disciples for a Meal one last time before leaving them. Famously, he washes their feet and tells them that they are to serve one another, not seeking power and position for themselves. Jesus then tells them that one of them will betray him. It is not turning out to be the happy occasion Passover meals normally were! St John captures the atmosphere brilliantly in just a few words. After Judas leaves them, St John writes:

‘And it was night.’ (John 13:30)

The dark mood continues with Jesus telling Peter, his leading disciple, that Peter will betray him. This, then, is the setting of what is known as the ‘Farewell Discourse’: Jesus’ last words to his disciples. Given how the evening has gone so far, it is not surprising that Jesus begins it:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)

Jesus wants to reassure his disciples and prepare them for what lies ahead, not only on that night and the days immediately following it, but also into the future as they continue his work on his behalf. Jesus tells them:

‘So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.’ (John 16:20)

Jesus explains to them that he and the Father will make their home in the life of the believer through the Holy Spirit, who will be given to them. Not only will the Holy Spirit live in them and make the presence of Jesus real to them, he will give them the power they need to serve him in the world. Jesus is absolutely clear of the challenge they face. He says:

‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.’ (John 16:18)

So intense will the hatred of the world be towards them that people will think that by killing them they are ‘worshipping God’ (John 16:2).

The disciples struggle to understand what it is Jesus is telling them. Who can blame them? We ourselves still struggle even now to understand what Jesus meant. There is, however, hope. As Jesus is coming to the end of his words to them, the disciples say to him:

‘Now we know you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ (John 16:30)

The disciples are moving to the light, but they are not there yet. Jesus goes on to tell them that they will abandon him and leave him alone. Jesus does not end his words to them on a note of defeat, however. Although they will leave him alone, his Father will not; Jesus will complete the work he has come to do. Jesus closes what he has to say to them with the words:

‘I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face affliction. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (John 16:33)

Having said what he has to say to his disciples, Jesus prays to the Father. In every service, we pray the prayer universally known as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’: ‘Our Father in heaven …’ This is not, however, a prayer which Jesus ever personally prayed himself. It is the Lord’s Prayer in the sense that our Lord taught it to his disciples; it comes from him. The Lord’s Prayer, however, in the sense of the prayer our Lord actually prayed himself, is this one in St John’s Gospel, chapter 17. In this prayer, Jesus will pray first for himself; secondly, for his disciples; and thirdly, for us.

I have stressed the context of Jesus’ prayer, because to understand it we need to see the emotion that Jesus and his disciples were experiencing. Jesus is about to be betrayed, denied, and abandoned. He will undergo terrible suffering and death. And it will soon be time for his disciples to experience the same. This is not a relaxed prayer, detached from the events about to take place, but one made all the more urgent by the time that has now arrived.

Jesus, then, begins his prayer by praying for himself. He asks the Father to ‘glorify him’ that he may glorify the Father. This was exactly the same prayer he had prayed at the end of his public ministry (John 12:28). Jesus knows that the Father will answer his prayer, not by saving him from the Cross, nor even after he has been through the Cross, but by the Cross. The Father will not save him from this hour for this is the hour for which he has come. It is this that is to be his moment. As Jesus' blood is shed and he dies an agonizing death, it is at this very moment that the Father is glorified. Looking forward to the Cross, Jesus prays:

‘I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.’ (John 17:4)

Jesus’ work will be finished on the Cross. St John writes:

‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ (John 19:30)

In the Church’s calendar, we have now reached the Sunday after Ascension Day, and, not unnaturally, we think of Jesus as being glorified when he ascends to heaven and takes his seat at the right hand of God, ruling over all things. And it is true that our Lord’s ascension does reveal his glory, but his glory is not to be seen separated from the Cross or despite the Cross, but rather as he is nailed to the Cross. We sing in the hymn, ‘Crown him with many crowns’, the words ‘those wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified’. St John, in his vision of heaven, sees a ‘lamb standing as though it had been slain’ (Revelation 5:6). There is no escape from the Cross; no leaving it behind and regarding it as a thing of the past; the Cross remains the defining moment in human history.

Having prayed for himself, Jesus prays for his disciples. He knows that the work he is giving them to do is not going to be easy for them. He knows that the world will hate them as it has hated him. He asks the Father, therefore, to protect them. But he doesn’t just pray for the disciples who are with him, he continues by praying for those who will become his disciples through them: in other words, you and me.

There is so much in the Farewell Discourse and in the Final Prayer of Jesus to think about and reflect on. In the prayer, Jesus famously prays, both for his disciples and for those who believe through them, that ‘they may be one’ (17:11; 17:21). When reading or listening to Jesus’ prayer, we so focus on the phrase ‘that they may all be one’ that we often miss both the context of Jesus’ words in the prayer and what else Jesus says in it. What is more, the type of unity we normally talk about in the light of these words is not the same type of unity that Jesus himself is talking about, legitimate though it may be to apply his words to it.

The context of Jesus prayer is the opposition that Jesus has told his disciples they will face in the world. Not unsurprisingly, then, Jesus refers a great deal in his prayer to the disciples’ relationship with the world, and, indeed, this is main focus of it. In the course of his prayer, Jesus says some very challenging and, indeed, shocking things. For example, in praying for his disciples, Jesus specifically says he is not praying for the world (John 17:9). Jesus closes his prayer by saying that the world does not know the Father (17:25).

Listening to Jesus praying in chapter 17 of St John's Gospel, we learn a lot about what our relationship to the world as believers both is and should be. Jesus says that his disciples have been given to him by the Father from the world (17:6). They are still in the world and the world hates them, but they no longer belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world (17:14). Jesus doesn’t ask the Father to take his disciples out of the world, but he does ask him to protect them from the devil. For emphasis, Jesus repeats that his disciples do not belong to this world (17:16).

So why, when Jesus is so emphatic about his disciples not belonging to this world, does Jesus want his disciples to stay in this world to which they do not belong? It is because of what he wants them to do for him in the world. Jesus prays that the Father may ‘sanctify them in the truth’ (John 17:17), that is, set them apart. As the Father sent him, Jesus says, so now he sends them (John 17:18). These will be the words Jesus will also use when, on the Day of his Resurrection, he commissions the disciples for the work he is giving them to do and breathes on them for them to receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-22).

In praying for those who will believe through the testimony of his first disciples, Jesus asks the Father that they may also be one with him and the Father, so that the world may know that the Father sent him (17:21). This is not simply so that more people may come to believe in Jesus (if it is about that at all). Jesus continues to pray that they may be with one with him and the Father, not only so that the world may know that the Father sent him, but also that the world may know that the Father has loved them even as he has loved Jesus (17:23). This is irrespective of whether it leads people to believe for themselves.

The key to understanding Jesus’ prayer and what it means for us today is to see that it is all about relationship.

First and foremost, it is about the relationship between the Father and the Son. Jesus has glorified his Father on earth, he now prays that his Father will glorify him with the glory he had in the Father’s presence before the world existed (John 17:5). Jesus’ relationship with the Father is a relationship of love that he has had with the Father since ‘before the foundation of the world’ (John 17:24).

In a couple of weeks’ time, we will be celebrating the Feast of the Holy Trinity. Our faith in God as ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ is foundational. Jesus did not come as simply a prophet or teacher, although he is both, he came as the ‘Word made flesh’ (John 1:14), and in him we see the Father: this is what God looks like. He who has seen Jesus has seen the Father (John 14:9).

It is this central conviction that distinguishes our faith as followers of Jesus from all other religions and belief systems. Jesus is not just another significant religious figure. He is the human embodiment of God himself. This is hard for us to understand, and it is one of the reasons why we are more comfortable talking about Jesus as a good man, prophet, and teacher. While we may prefer to talk about our Lord in ways that are easier for us to understand, we must resolutely resist the attempt to reduce our faith to just one more religion amongst many.

It is now common for people, both in the Church and outside of it, to say that there is ‘truth in all religions’. Jesus, however, claims that all truth resides in him. He is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6). It is only when we see Jesus for who he is that we can appreciate what he has done and what he has to teach.

Throughout St John’s Gospel, and in the Farewell Discourse in particular, Jesus says that he and the Father are ‘one’. For those to whom Jesus first said these words, they would have had a shocking impact. There was a prayer that every Jew at the time of Jesus prayed twice a day. It is known as the Shema, and it is still prayed by devout Jews today. We ourselves say a version of it in every service here at Christ Church. It begins with the words of Moses in Deuteronomy:

‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4)

This is an absolute assertion that there is only one God, and it is why Judaism rejected all other gods as idols – and, incidentally, why we should as well. Jesus’ claim that he and the Father are one would have been seen as nothing less than blasphemy, and it is why people tried to stone him when he spoke to them of being one with the Father (John 10:30-31).

The early Church was to spend many years thinking through what Jesus’ words meant for what they believed and how they thought of God. The conclusion they came to is expressed in the words of the Nicene Creed, which we say together in our services. We need to remember when we say it that what we are describing is a relationship within God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is from this relationship that all else comes.

Secondly, however, as if this is not amazing enough, Jesus not only reveals to us the nature of his relationship with the Father, he invites us to share in it. This is what Jesus is praying for when he prays that we ‘may all be one’. Jesus prays:

‘ … that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (John 17:21)

The phrase ‘that they may all be one’ is often used when members of different churches come together at what are known as ‘unity services’ and on those occasions when discussions take place between the churches. And yes, the divisions in the Church are tragic, and we ought to do what we can to find ‘unity in truth’, but the unity that Jesus prays for here is the unity that believers have first with him and his Father, and then, and only then, as a consequence, with each other. The unity that believers have ‘in Christ’ exists regardless of the man-made divisions that exist in the churches. We should, as followers of Jesus, seek to overcome our divisions, but we should not confuse organisational union with our relational unity with the Father and the Son made possible by the Spirit.

Thirdly, the relationship with the Father that we enter through Jesus radically changes our relationship with the world. As we have seen, Jesus says that we have been taken from the world, so that we no longer belong to the world. And yet, having been taken from the world, we are now sent back into the world. But to do what?

St John tells his readers that he wrote his Gospel so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God and that through believing we may have life in his name (John 20:31). In John chapter 3 verse 16, St John tells us that the way God loved the world was by giving his Son. His purpose in doing this was that so that ‘everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ Eternal life is clearly one of the major themes of St John’s Gospel. In his prayer, Jesus tells us what eternal life is. Jesus says:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

As the Father sent him, so Jesus now sends us (John 17:18; 20:21). We are sent into the world by Jesus to introduce people to God, so that they too may experience eternal life. Our mission is to bring people to know God in Christ. Again, we often reduce what it means to follow Christ simply to following a religious teacher with the result that we focus on Jesus’ ethical teaching and separate it from having a relationship with him.

We will, however, never live the way Jesus teaches we should live without first coming to know him. How we live reflects the relationship we have. Telling people to live as Jesus teaches without first bringing them to know him, completely misses the point and risks them missing out on eternal life.

Our faith can only be seen in this limited way as being purely about how we should behave towards each other when it is separated from the relationship with the One who makes it possible to live the teaching Jesus gives. It is one thing to tell people what is good and how they should live; it is another altogether for them to be able to do so. Outside a relationship with him, we are what Jesus describes as slaves of sin’ (John 8:34). It is only by entering a relationship with him that we are both forgiven our sin and freed from it to live the life God wants us to live.

As followers of Jesus, we are not only freed from sin, which holds us captive and prevents us from being the people we were meant to be, we also enter a community of people who share this relationship with God in Christ. It is a community separate from the world sent to welcome people to join us and to share with us in a relationship with the living God.

One way of understanding our relationship with the world as those who belong to God is to think of ourselves as forming an expatriate community. Expatriates are those who live in a city while being citizens of somewhere else. As we know here in Hong Kong, expatriates, while sharing in the life of the city in which they live, will maintain the language and lifestyle of the place they originally came from. They may live in the city, but it is not their real home. They live in the city, but their heart is elsewhere. ‘Home’, as the saying has it, ‘is where the heart is’.

As followers of Jesus, this means that while we are not indifferent to the world that we live in, we are no longer part of it. Already this world has been judged and our prime concern now is to save people from it, so that they may not suffer the judgement that has been pronounced on it.

For us to be effective in the mission Jesus gives us, it is essential, then, that we don’t once again become part of the world. As St John warns us in his first letter:

‘Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world …’ (1 John 2:15)

This world is not our home. So where is our home? Jesus said that he and the Father would come and make their home with us who believe in Jesus (John 14:23). This he does through the Holy Spirit whom he gives to all those who believe in him.

We may be in the world, but our home is elsewhere. Our home is with the Father and the Son. Our task now is to invite people into our home to meet the God who lives there. The God who reveals himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Sixth Sunday of Easter.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 15:9-17

In the Farewell Discourse (that is, chapters 13-17 of St John’s Gospel), Jesus talks a lot about love. Love became very popular in the Church in the twentieth century. Famously in the 1960s, the Beatles sang that ‘all you need is love’, and many in the Church were quick to agree. St John’s famous statement in his first letter chapter 4 verse 8 that ‘God is love’ seemed to sum up exactly who God is and what he is like.

Jesus, as a consequence, came to be seen as embodying this love and demonstrating it by reaching out to people with the unconditional love of God. The Church’s message now is one of unreserved welcome. Its message is that whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you have done, and however bad you have been, God loves you and accepts you just as you are, and the Church does too – well, in theory at least.

This idea that God’s love is unconditional basically now goes unquestioned. It has been enthusiastically embraced by all sections of the Church, not least by Protestants brought up to believe that salvation is ‘by grace’. ‘Grace’ is today understood as another word for the free and unconditional love of God. Protestants used also to say that we needed faith to receive it, but this too has largely also been abandoned as itself putting a limit on God’s love for us. God is love and God loves each one of us. Period. Full stop.

The way this has become the Church’s message was brought home to me this week listening to the BBC Radio drama, The Archers. The Archers is the world’s longest running broadcast drama series. It follows the lives of the inhabitants of a fictional English village called Ambridge. In particular, it focuses on certain key families in the village; not least, the Archer family, after whom it is named.

This week in the drama, Alice and Chris, members of two of the other key families in the village and who are married to each other, planned to have their new baby, Martha, baptized. Alice has until recently been something of a golden girl: beautiful, well-educated, intelligent, successful, and from a wealthy background. She appeared to have it all. Alice, however, is an alcoholic, and she has been causing much pain and grief to those closest to her. Up until this point in the series, very few people know of her alcoholism. Alice herself realizes her life is a mess, but she seems powerless to do anything about it. She is full of guilt and shame.

Before the baptism, Alice attends a baptism ‘rehearsal’ with the local Vicar, the Reverend Alan Franks. Alan is a thoroughly modern Vicar who is not easily shocked; he is accepting, inclusive in his approach, and unwilling to pass judgements. While talking to him about the baptism, Alice, without admitting to her alcoholism, talks of her feelings of shame and worthlessness, and how she has been selfish, hurting and letting down the people who care for her. Alan assures her that God loves her unconditionally and accepts her as she is.

Alan asks Alice what she thinks baptism is about. Alice replies ‘cleansing sin’. ‘You’re not wrong’, comments Alan. His tone is that of a kindergarten teacher who has asked a child a question and doesn’t want to discourage the child by telling them it is the wrong answer. ‘But there is so much more to it than that’, Alan continues, correcting the child in a positive and encouraging way instead. You get the idea.

What are we to say, then, about Alan’s emphasis on the love of God? I personally would say to him and to all those who think like him, what he said himself to Alice, ‘You’re not wrong.’ I would also add, ‘But baptism is so much more specific than that.’ Baptism is not simply a general statement about how much God loves us. It shows us the way in which God loves us and that is to be seen principally in God cleansing us from sin. Alan’s reply to Alice implied that we shouldn’t worry too much about sin. On the contrary, we should worry about sin, and we will never even begin to understand the love of God unless we get it right about sin. Ironically, it is the messed-up Alice who gets it right and the ever so accepting Alan who gets it wrong.

So how should Alan have responded to Alice? Well, certainly not by ignoring the reason for Alice’s feelings of guilt and shame. Alan effectively dismisses these feelings, and doesn’t even ask her why she feels like this. Alan wants to be seen as taking Alice really seriously as a person and to be affirming of her worth, but by his refusal to take her guilt and shame seriously, he is doing nothing of the sort.

Instead of offering Alice the sort of platitudes that she could get from any self-help book or life coach, Alan should have helped her face up to her sin and to accept that indeed she is guilty and should be ashamed. Having affirmed her in her sin, he could then have shown her how, despite her legitimate feelings of guilt and shame, that God’s love for us takes over precisely when we have no love for ourselves.

The script writers get Alan right as an example of a typical Vicar, and, in their script, they are only reflecting what most Vicars nowadays would say in such a situation. What the script writers also continue to get right is that what Alan says is totally ineffectual and unhelpful.

When the day of the baptism itself arrives, Alice has a very public crisis outside the Church, before the baptism, in front of most of the village. And the baptism itself doesn’t take place. It sounds great all this talk of acceptance and unconditional love; the problem is: it just doesn’t work.

Telling someone who hates themselves with just cause that they need to accept the love of God and love themselves seems somehow to miss the point. It is, in fact, in our very guilt and shame and by facing up to the reality of our sin that we discover the love of God. St Paul doesn’t dismiss a believer’s sense of shame. He writes:

‘So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.’ (Romans 6:21)

Far from being just a small part of what baptism is about, ‘cleansing sin’ is at the heart of what it is about, because it is sin that is at the heart of all our problems. Again, as St Paul writes:

‘Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

As believers, we may disagree over precisely how baptism works, but, at the very least, the water of baptism speaks of our need to be cleansed from sin. Baptism symbolizes the washing away of sin. This is made possible by the death of Jesus for our sins on the Cross. It is the blood of Jesus himself that actually washes away our sin. As St John writes, ‘the blood of Jesus his [that is, God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:9).

Alice does need professional help for her alcoholism. What she does not need is to have the damage she has done trivialized and dismissed as unimportant. Ironically, by doing so, Alan has prevented Alice from experiencing the love of God that is to be seen in the death of Jesus for our sin. As St Paul puts it:

‘But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

In my podcast for Easter, I spoke of the meaning and importance of the death of Jesus and of how in the New Testament the death of Jesus is understood as being ‘for our sins’.

This can all sound very theoretical and unrelated to the lives we live. It is, however, in the death of Jesus for our sins and in his blood shed for us that there lies hope for those who feel guilty and ashamed. It is the blood of Jesus that offers freedom and forgiveness from those things that trap us and hold us captive. It is the blood of Jesus that offers hope to the alcoholic and to all those whose lifestyles have become destructive of both themselves and others. It is only the blood of Jesus that can wash away our sins and make us whole again.

As the old hymn puts it:

‘What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus.’

May we find forgiveness and freedom in the blood of Jesus shed freely for us on the Cross.

Amen.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for this week, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 15:1-8

In our services, we are now beginning to think towards Pentecost and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Our Gospel reading this week comes from what is known as the Farewell Discourse in St John’s Gospel (John 13-17). This is Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples before leaving them. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus’ earthly ministry is divided in two: his public ministry in Galilee and Judea (chapters 1-12) and his private ministry with his disciples in the Upper Room on the night he was arrested (chapters 13-17). Jesus’ public ministry comes to an end in Jerusalem with people preferring darkness to light. Jesus then meets with his disciples for one final time in the Upper Room for what we know as the Last Supper. During the Meal, Jesus prepares them for the work he will give them to do for him after he has gone.

The Farewell Discourse can itself be divided into three: chapters 13-14; chapters 15-16; and then chapter 17, which is Jesus’ prayer to the Father for those who belong to him.

Some have suggested that St John’s Gospel, like many books today, may originally have gone through more than one edition. They suggest that the first edition, for example, may not have included chapters 15-17. They observe that the end of chapter 14 seems to lead very well straight into chapter 18. They argue that when the second edition was issued various additions were made, including chapters 15-17. Frankly, we do not know, but nor does it matter. If there were previous editions, we don’t have them; we only have the final edition.

In the Farewell Discourse, there are three major themes: the unity between the Father and the Son, which is shared with Jesus’ followers; the love Jesus’ disciples are commended to show one another; and the hostility from the world towards Jesus and his followers. Jesus tells them that the world hated him and it will hate them (John 15:18-19). How, then, are they to cope, keep Jesus’ commandments, and testify to him? Where are they to get the strength they need in the face of such hostility from the world, especially when it is ruled over, as it is, by the ‘ruler of this world’, the devil (John 14:30)?

In John chapter 7, when Jesus is speaking at the Feast of Tabernacles, he makes reference to ‘rivers of living water’ (John 7:38. St John explains:

‘Now he [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ (John 7:39)

This is an extreme way of putting it, and it is clear from what he writes elsewhere in the Gospel that St John doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit didn’t exist before Jesus was glorified. St John’s point is that, as far as the disciples are concerned, the difference the Holy Spirit is going to make in their lives after Jesus’ death and resurrection will be so great that it will be as if the Spirit hadn’t existed before.

It is in the Farewell Discourse that Jesus teaches the disciples about the Holy Spirit and tells them what to expect. In chapter 14, Jesus says of the Spirit:

‘This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.’ (John 14:17)

One of the words in Greek that St John uses for the Holy Spirit is ‘parakletos’. The problem for us is that it is very hard to find a word in English to translate it. Various words are used by translators: comforter, helper, counsellor, and advocate are four common ones. Some translators just give up and keep the Greek word itself, expressing it in English as ‘paraclete’. The idea behind the meaning of the word in Greek is of one who comes alongside to help us and represent us. This may take place in a legal setting, hence the use of the word ‘advocate’, but not necessarily so.

In whatever way we want to translate the word Jesus uses, Jesus says that he will ask the Father and the Father will give them another ‘paraclete’ (John 16:16). So, who is the original paraclete? The answer, of course, is Jesus himself. In his first letter, St John describes Jesus using the same word ‘parakletos’ (1 John 2:1). The Holy Spirit will take over where Jesus left off, so much so that Jesus even tells his disciples that it is good for them that he goes away because only then will the Spirit come (John 16:7). It is better that he goes away and the Spirit comes, than for Jesus to stay with them and the Spirit not to come.

Zoom has become quite a feature of the pandemic. If we were to have the choice of a Zoom session with Jesus on a regular basis or the Holy Spirit, which would we choose? I guarantee that most of us would go for the Zoom sessions. Jesus himself, however, encourages us to think differently. The Holy Spirit makes a spiritual closeness and intimacy with Jesus possible that could never be achieved simply by his bodily presence - on camera or off!

Jesus begins our Gospel reading this week by saying ‘I am the True Vine’. There are seven ‘I am something’ sayings of Jesus in St John’s Gospel. Jesus says that he is the Bread of Life; the Light of the World; the Gate; the Good Shepherd; the Resurrection and the Life; the Way the Truth, and the Life; and then, finally, the True Vine. But if Jesus is the True Vine who is the false Vine?

In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is Israel who is described using the image of the vine or the vineyard (see, for example: Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80). Very often, the prophets use this image in the context of condemning Israel for her failure to be true to God’s covenant with him (see Ezekiel 15:1-8). All too often Israel has shown herself to be false. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that around the entrance to the Temple was a magnificent vine made of pure gold. Anyone going to the Temple couldn’t fail to miss it. It represented Israel. Jesus tells his disciples that he is the True Vine and his Father the vinegrower.

Developing this image as a metaphor for his relationship with his disciples, Jesus tells them that his Father, as the vinegrower, removes every branch that fails to produce grapes. Every branch that produces grapes, he prunes, so that it will produce even more.

In John chapter 14, Jesus has spoken about how the Father and the Son will make their home in the life of the person who believes in him (John 14:23). This will happen through the Spirit, whom Jesus will send to them from the Father (John 15:26). Jesus has told them that the Spirit will abide in them. He now tells them:

‘Abide in me as I abide in you.’ (John 15:4)

Just as the branches cannot produce grapes unless they remain connected to the vine, so too we, his followers, cannot produce the fruit that God seeks unless we abide in Jesus and remain connected to him. He is the vine; we are the branches. If we abide in him and he in us, we will produce the fruit that God seeks. But in the same way that the vinegrower gets rid of branches that don’t produce grapes and burns them, so too God will get rid of us if we don’t live the sort of lives he requires.

More than that, as the vinegrower, God prunes those branches that do produce fruit so that they will become more fruitful. This is both a warning and an encouragement. It is a warning, frankly, we just don’t take seriously. God is saying that if we don’t show in our lives that we are Jesus’ followers, we are like dead branches that are fit only to be destroyed. God is too nice to destroy us, we tell ourselves, and so we get on with living as we wish without any regard for the commandments of God in Christ.

Secondly, though, as we produce fruit in our lives by seeking to trust and obey Jesus, God works with us and on us to make us more fruitful. This he does by cutting away that which is bad in our lives. This may not be things which are sinful in themselves, but things which are bad for us and get in the way of our service for Christ. In the same way, as the vinegrower tends and cares for the Vine, so that it will grow in the right direction and produce the best grapes, so too God works in our lives to guide us and lead us.

The vinegrower’s care for the vine is essential, but it is also vital that the branches remain attached the vine or else they will die and have to be got rid of. Jesus tells them that they must abide in him as he abides in them. They must remain attached to Jesus, the True Vine. Jesus tells them in the starkest of terms:

‘Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.’ (John 15:4)

Jesus continues:

‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5)

Jesus wants us to be completely dependent on him. Unless we are, we are no use to him. We are to abide in him. Abiding in Jesus is more than abiding with Jesus. It is about a close and intense union in which Jesus and the believer are one. Jesus could not be more emphatic about this.

It is, then, worth asking how we think we should live our lives as believers. Some of you will be familiar with the various personality tests that are used to analyse someone’s personality. People are grouped into personality types based on the answers they give. Employers, for example, will often use psychometric tests to assess a potential employee. If we were to devise a personality test to describe believers and churches, I think that you would find that believers and churches tend to fall into four broad ‘types’. (You may have heard me describe these different types of believers and churches before!)

1. The Doctrinal: This type describes those who put an emphasis on right belief and the teachings of the faith. They want to understand and explain what it is that we should believe if we are to be true to God. They worry about false teaching and want to guard against it. They place an emphasis in the Church on the sermon, Bible Study, and Christian education.

2. The Ethical: Those of this type place more emphasis on what we do and how we live. They are concerned that we should follow the teaching of Christ and about how we care for and help others. They focus on issues of right and wrong and want the Church to be clear on its moral and social teaching. They are active in working for justice and fairness and in seeking to right the wrongs they see in the world, and they want the Church to be active too.

3. The Experiential: This is those for whom emotion and experience are important. They point out how in the past believers have been very concerned with the intellectual dimension of faith. They want to put some feeling back into it. They are concerned that people should feel welcomed and accepted when they come to Church. They particularly focus on worship, which, in churches of this type, is lively and expressive.

4. The Ecclesial: This is those who focus on the Church itself and on the communal dimension of our faith. They are concerned with how the Church functions and is organized. They want it to be strong and well ordered. They work hard, serving on various committees and raising funds for the Church’s work. They are the ones who volunteer, and they can be relied on to keep the Church going.

Now we need all four emphases if we are to be Biblical in our approach as followers of Christ. Believers of each of the different types have something important to teach us. St John himself stresses the importance of what we believe. In his letters, St John tells those to whom he is writing not even to associate with anyone who believes things which are false (2 John 10). Jesus in the Farewell Discourse stresses the importance of keeping his commandments (John 15:10) and of bearing fruit for him. What we do and how we live matters. It is also true that feelings and emotions are important, and they have often been neglected when it comes to our faith. After all, in most of the important decisions we make in life, how we feel about the choices facing us plays a major part in what we decide to do. To exclude feelings from faith is to shut our faith off from an essential part of who we are. Jesus said:

‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.’ (John 15:11)

So too with the communal dimension of our faith. Jesus said that where two or three are gathered together in his name, he is there in their midst (Matthew 18:20). Throughout the Farewell Discourse, Jesus stresses how we must love one another (for example, John 15:12) and, in John chapter 17, Jesus prays that we, his followers, may be one. Being a follower of Jesus is something we don’t do alone but with others.

Important though all these different dimensions of being a follower of Jesus are, none of them is central or gets to the heart of what it means to be a believer in Jesus as he himself explains it. Central to believing in Jesus and from which everything else flows and holds together is having a relationship with him. The relational dimension is key to understanding the nature of and giving meaning to being Jesus’ follower.

The people who have understood this the most in the history of the Church are those often described as ‘mystics’. Interestingly, there are four female Doctors of the Church, and they are all ‘mystics’. A ‘Doctor of the Church’ is someone that the Church recognizes as an authoritative teacher of the faith. The ‘mystics’ of the Church, who have been both men and women, put knowing God and a consciousness of his presence at the very heart of their faith in Christ.

Last Thursday was the Feast Day of St Catherine of Siena. She was one of the first women to be declared a ‘Doctor of the Church. St Catherine was born on March 25, 1347 just as the black death was beginning in Europe. The black death was to wipe out up to 60% of the population of Europe. At the age of 6 or 7, St Catherine had her first vision. At the age of 16, she cut her hair to make herself unattractive to the men her parents wanted her to marry. When she was about 21 (c.1368), she was to experience instead a mystical marriage with Christ, which she describes in the most intimate of terms. The book for which St Catherine is famous is called, The Dialogue with Divine Providence (c.1378). In it, she gives an account of a conversation she has with God. St Catherine lived the life of a nun without joining a convent, and committed herself to fasting and prayer. She was to die at the age of 33, probably as a result of excessive fasting.

Today, we would probably think her mentally unstable. There certainly would be no chance of her being ordained in today’s church. Yet she devoted her life to helping the poor and nursing the sick. Kings and rulers turned to her for counsel and advice. She worked for the reform of the church and of the clergy in particular. This was 100 years before the Reformation in Europe. She even persuaded the Pope that he should return from self-imposed exile in France.

Whatever we think of her and her visions, St Catherine and her fellow mystics put their relationship with God above everything else, and it was the reality of this relationship that led them to be active and effective in reaching out to the poor and working for those in need. To use the metaphor in this week’s reading: it was their relationship with God in Christ that led them to produce the fruit that God was looking for in their lives.

However, because their lives and experiences are often so strange to us, we put the mystics in a separate category, so we can respect them while not seeing them as having anything to teach us personally. What, however, these teachers of the Church have to teach all of us is that our relationship with God needs to come above and before everything else. Yes, theirs was a special and to us at times strange relationship with God. What matters, however, is not the form of the relationship but its reality. St Catherine prioritized her relationship with God just as Jesus in our Gospel reading tells us we should do. St Catherine abided in Christ.

Her life and language can sound extreme to us, but we forget just how extreme our Lord himself could be. He told his disciples:

‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.’ (Mark 9:43-48)

Hearing these words of Jesus, St Catherine cutting off her hair seems quite mild by comparison!

The presence of God was real to St Catherine. We are not called to have the same sort of relationship with God that she had, but we are called to have our own relationship with him; a relationship that is just as real and personal. Jesus tells us that he is the True Vine and we are the branches. This is not the language of academic theology, but of connection and personal relationship. Jesus says ‘without me you can do nothing’.

We live at a time when we are encouraged to believe we can do anything if we but put our minds to it. In the Church, we emphasize free will and human autonomy. These words of Jesus, then, sound strange and alien and to us. Like the world around us, we too have cultivated a culture of success. Our heroes, for example, are those who are successful and who have large congregations or who are polished and popular speakers.

St Paul instead speaks about how God’s power is made perfect in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). If he must boast, St Paul writes, he will boast of things that show his weakness (2 Corinthians 11:30). As he explains, ‘For whenever I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). What Jesus wants is for us to be completely reliant on him. This is what it means to be a branch attached to the Vine.

A Prayer of St Catherine of Siena.

Eternal God, eternal Trinity,
You have made the Blood of Christ so precious
through His sharing in Your Divine nature.
You are a mystery as deep as the sea;
the more I search, the more I find,
and the more I find, the more I search for You.
But I can never be satisfied;
what I receive will ever leave me desiring more.
When You fill my soul, I have an ever greater hunger,
and I grow more famished for Your light.
I desire above all to see You,
the true Light, as you really are.

Amen.