Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Third Sunday after Trinity

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

The Third Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 4:35-41

Last week, our reading was also from chapter four of St Mark’s Gospel. This chapter is one of only two chapters in the Gospel that contains any extended teaching by Jesus. The other is chapter 13. Chapter four, as we saw last week, in addition to containing several parables of Jesus also has Jesus’ explanation of why he teaches in parables.

After describing Jesus’ teaching in chapter four, St Mark describes how Jesus and his disciples cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee features prominently in the ministry of Jesus. The Sea itself is relatively small, just 13 miles or so from north to south and 8 miles from east to west. The area, however, was a busy one for trade and local industries such as farming and fishing. One scholar (C. Parker, 2016) describes it this way:

‘The area surrounding the Sea of Galilee is a limited geographical arena, yet in the first century this is where worldviews converged. Galilee was primarily Jewish, the Decapolis was primarily Hellenistic, and Gaulanitis was a mixture of both. Three political units, controlled by different rulers and representing a variety of lifestyles and worldviews, shared the small shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. The residents of these areas enjoyed the same freshwater resources: fish from the lake, a temperate climate allowing for abundant agriculture, and international roads providing opportunities to trade outside the region. The fact that each political unit included sizable cities around the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee emphasizes that the entire area was full of industry, trade, and access to international peoples.’[1]

In next week’s podcast, we will see what happens when Jesus and his disciples get to ‘the other side’ and what happens when they come back.

This week, however, we are concerned with what happens on this trip across the Sea. Jesus’ calming of the storm is a well-known and much-loved story. It has famously been depicted in art, not least by Rembrandt in the seventeenth century.

Jesus and his disciples set out to cross the Sea in the boat that has been serving as a pulpit for his teaching of the crowds. Suddenly and unexpectedly, they are caught in a severe storm. It is so severe that even the disciples, some of whom are experienced fishermen and used to being on the Sea, fear it will lead to their death.

Jesus himself is asleep at the back of the boat after a busy day oblivious to what is going on, and, the disciples seem to suggest, unbothered by it in any case. The disciples wake Jesus and in desperation say to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4:38). Jesus rebukes the storm and then rebukes the disciples! Jesus is far more concerned by the disciples’ lack of faith than he is by the storm itself.

We saw last week that modern interpreters of the parables have great difficulties in understanding them. These difficulties continue with this week’s passage. We know, don’t we, that this sort of thing simply can’t happen? The weather can’t be changed by someone telling it to! That might be something that naïvely was once believed in more primitive, less scientific days, but we now know better. Don’t we always!

So, what to do with the story? It certainly shows the faith that St Mark and his readers had come to have in Jesus that they believed he was capable of such a thing (even if we today don’t think he was). But the fact that the story comes immediately after St Mark’s account of the parables suggests another approach to the story that makes it relevant to us today, when many don’t believe, as people once did, that it actually happened. Why not treat the story of the calming of the storm as itself a parable?

Preachers all over the world this week will be doing just this in their sermons on this passage. Congregations will be told that Jesus will help us in the storms of life and calm them too. The preachers of these naïve sermons will not, however, be telling their congregations that Jesus also rebuked the disciples for their fear in the storm, thereby suggesting that it wasn’t his original intention to do anything about it. Nor will preachers be telling their listeners that Jesus regarded their fear as a lack of faith. If we treat the story as a parable, we might find that it says things that we don’t necessarily want to hear.

The problem is, of course, that Jesus doesn’t always calm the storms of life, and, indeed, it is rather cruel to suggest that he does. Jesus is most definitely with us in the storms of life, but that is not the same thing as him making the storms of life go away. Many have turned to Jesus during their life storms and have asked, for example, for their loved one to be healed or their marriage not to fail or their business not to go bust, only to be disappointed when Jesus hasn’t done what they have asked.

If we don’t believe that Jesus can control the weather and the story is not a parable, where then does that leave us? Is the story of no relevance to us? Scholars have suggested a more sophisticated approach to the story that seeks to show how St Mark himself may have understood the story. Again, there is no question of them accepting that Jesus actually did calm the storm. Instead, they ask whether St Mark, although he may mistakenly have thought it actually happened, may also have had another purpose in mind by including the story in his Gospel. If he did, then maybe this will enable us to derive some benefit from the story even if, again as many believe, it didn’t actually happen.

Many scholars, then, approach the story of the calming of the storm by looking at the story not so much in the context of Jesus’ ministry, but in the historical and social context of those for whom St Mark wrote the Gospel.

St Mark’s Gospel has traditionally been thought to have been written by St Mark in Rome at a time of persecution. There are references to persecution in St Mark’s Gospel that suggest the author wanted to encourage his readers who were suffering persecution themselves. On this approach to the story, the ‘boat’ that Jesus and his disciples are in is interpreted as symbolizing the Church; and the storm, the persecution that threatens to overwhelm it. The calming of the storm by Jesus is understood to be a promise that Jesus will calm the storms of persecution that the Church is facing.

While expressed in academic language in scholarly articles, this interpretation is no better than the one more popularly expressed in sermons. There is nothing to suggest that this interpretation is what St Mark has in mind. In any case, Jesus doesn’t always calm the ‘storm of persecution’, thereby saving his followers from it, any more than he always heals those who are sick. On the contrary, the book of Revelation, for example, is written to warn believers in Asia of the persecution that is coming their way and to inform the believers that many of them can expect to die in the persecution when it comes.

So, does this mean that we are left with a story that we can’t believe actually happened and which has no relevance at all to us today?

To begin with, let me state my own position on whether Jesus actually calmed the storm. We need as believers to make our minds up. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t recite the Creed every Sunday and come out with all this stuff about how God is the Creator and how Jesus is his Son through whom he created all things, and then say that it was impossible for him to calm the storm.

For too many people, if there is an apparent conflict between science and their faith, it is always our present scientific understanding that we must follow. But God, if he is God, must be able to act within his creation. It is, then, not our understanding of our faith that is wrong, but our understanding of the science.

Now I realize that this has led believers in the past into trouble and into resisting scientific ideas that are now accepted by just about everyone. I am not arguing that scientists have got it wrong when it comes to understanding how weather systems work. I am suggesting that this doesn’t mean that God is limited in how he works because of them. Science does an amazing job of explaining how things work in the natural world. God, however, is the one who works both naturally through his creation and supernaturally, as it may seem from our point of view, whenever he chooses.

However, even given that it did happen, if, the story cannot also be interpreted as a parable about how Jesus will save us from the storms of life or protect the Church in times of persecution, what is its relevance for us?

Firstly, and most importantly, this story is included by St Mark in his Gospel to tell us something about who Jesus is. The parables in chapter four have been about the ‘secret of the Kingdom of God’ (Mark 4:11). Jesus’ message, St Mark has told us, has been that the Kingdom of God is near’ (Mark 1:15). But what we conspicuously have not been told is where Jesus personally fits into all this.

Now, after we have read of how Jesus calms the storm, the disciples will voice the question for us. St Mark writes that the disciples say to one another:

‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mark 4:41)

Jesus himself, at this point in St Mark’s Gospel, is reticent about giving a straight answer to this question. (We will talk more about this in future sermons!) St Mark, however, has already given us quite lot to help us give an answer.

We have already seen how Jesus has authority to cast out demons, forgive sins, and decide what happens on God’s Sabbath. Now we see that Jesus’ authority isn’t simply a spiritual and religious authority, but an authority that extends over the whole of creation.

The Kingdom of God, whatever else it is, is the Kingdom of God. So far in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been acting in a way that only God was believed to be able to act. The Kingdom of God, St Mark is telling us, is, by implication, intimately tied up with the character, work, and person of Jesus himself. We might not yet be at the stage where St Mark and his readers can say not simply that Jesus is sent by God, but that he is God. We are not, however, far off.

It is precisely because this is the implication of what Jesus says and does that the Church came to think of Jesus in the way that is reflected in the Creed we say each week. Seeing Jesus as himself God and understanding God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, what is known as the Trinity, is the Church’s answer to the disciples’ question:

‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mark 4:41)

This understanding of God, that we are celebrating in this season of the Church’s year, isn’t the result of pagan and alien philosophical ideas entering the Church, as is often alleged. Instead, the understanding of God as Trinity came out of a careful, prayerful and, at times, painful commitment by the Church to be faithful to the evidence of the Scriptures. In this they were led, as Jesus promised they would be, by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13).

Secondly, the disciples, having experienced Jesus’ calming of the storm, are themselves now beginning to get some feeling of who Jesus really is. They are not yet ready to say as Thomas will say, ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). They are, however, beginning to realize that Jesus is not just a teacher or prophet. After all, in the Scriptures, it is God himself who calms the storm (see, for example, Psalm 107:23-29). How the disciples react as the truth about Jesus begins to dawn on them shows us how we too should react. St Mark writes:

‘And they [the disciples] were filled with great fear …’ (Mark 4:41)

Before Jesus wakes and calms the storm, the disciples are afraid of the storm and that they will perish in it. Now that Jesus has calmed the storm, they are in fear of him. One of the greatest missing elements in our experience today is an experience of the fear of God.

We want God to be approachable, accepting, and forgiving; and so he is. But that is not all he is. God is also incomprehensible, holy, and just. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: ‘for our God is indeed a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29).

While this might be how we see the Old Testament God, we want to believe that this is not how we should see God now. We might have feared him once, but since Jesus has come, we fear him so no longer. In fact, the opposite should be the case. The writer to the Hebrews, for example, suggests that now Jesus has come, we should fear God all the more. He writes:

‘See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!’ (Hebrews 12:25)

We are remarkably causal about God. We don’t take him particularly seriously and, consequently, give so little time and thought to him, turning to him only when we feel he can be of some use to us. We need to have experience the ‘fear of God’. By this, I don’t only mean that we should be reverent and respectful to him; nor that we should simply have a sense of awe in our worship. True though this is. No, I mean that we each need to have the experience of being absolutely afraid of him, of being completely and utterly overwhelmed by his power and glory, so that we become conscious and ashamed of our weakness and sinfulness, and fearful of what is going to happen to us.

An experience of the fear of God, such as the one experienced by Job in our first reading and the disciples in our Gospel reading, isn’t meant to drive us to despair, but to bring home to us how powerless we are and how dependent we are on the mercy of God. Job says to God:

‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’ (Job 42:5-6)

We will never have faith in God while we continue to have faith in ourselves. We will only abandon faith in ourselves when we see for ourselves how great is our God and how small and insignificant we are in his presence. St John writes that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18). But it cannot cast out what does not exist, and if we are to experience the love of God, we need first to know the fear of God.

St Paul begins the passage of which our second reading this week is a part:

‘Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others…’ (2 Corinthians 5:11)

Those who have known what it is to fear God, and who take God seriously as a result, will want to persuade others. This is not, as it is so often said, because we are frightened of hell and want to scare people into believing. Rather it is because, having seen who God is, we have seen how futile and false are all the other things in this world that people trust in and lust after. Anyone who has experienced the fear of God is unable ever again to trust in the systems of this world or to take seriously the claims of those who take pride in themselves and who boast of their achievements.

Having experienced the tremendous reality of God in Christ, we will want to expose the meaninglessness and emptiness of all that we are encouraged to believe in and seek after in this world. We do this in the hope of leading people to see the truth that is in Christ and in Christ alone. Knowing the fear of God, we seek to persuade men and women of the need to be saved from the storms that will overwhelm and destroy those who don’t put their faith in him.

The disciples asked Jesus:

‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4:38)

It is because he cares that we are perishing that Jesus came and died for us. It is through faith in him that we can be saved from perishing. As St John writes:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

As we experience the presence of God and are overwhelmed that one so great could love us and go to such lengths to save us, we will not only want to respond to him ourselves, but to share his grace with others and to do so urgently.

As St Paul writes:

‘As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!’ (2 Corinthians 6:1-2)

May God give us the faith we need to experience his salvation.


[1] Parker, C. (2016). Crossing to “The Other Side” of the Sea of Galilee. In B. J. Beitzel & K. A. Lyle (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels (p. 159). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Second Sunday after Trinity

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

The Second Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 4:24-34

For our Gospel reading this week, we are continuing to read St Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus. We will be reading St Mark’s Gospel throughout the season of Trinity. So, what have we learnt about Jesus in what we have read so far?

St Mark told us at the very beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ (Mark 1:1). In St Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, God himself has also told us that Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 1:11), and, for good measure, the demons have repeatedly told us that this is who he is (Mark 3:11).

St Mark has given us a summary of the message that Jesus proclaimed as he went throughout Galilee. St Mark writes that Jesus proclaims:

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:15)

St Mark has given us examples of Jesus’ ministry. We have seen how Jesus heals, casts out demons, and attracts large crowds. We also seen how Jesus is a very controversial figure, not least because of the authority he claims for himself, and particularly the authority he claims to have to forgive sins and to decide what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath. Such authority was believed to be authority that belonged to God alone.

We today are not too bothered by Jesus’ claim to be able to forgive sins and to be Lord of the Sabbath. We don’t particularly feel the need to be forgiven for our sins in the first place. The possibility that we won’t be forgiven our sins doesn’t enter our minds. If we have a problem with the concept of forgiveness at all, it is with the idea that we need forgiving in the first place! As to the Sabbath, most of us treat all days the same anyway. We are not bothered by what can or cannot be done on one particular day because, as far as we are concerned, anything can be done on any day.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ day are, however, very bothered by Jesus’ attitude to the Sabbath, so bothered, in fact, that they want to destroy him (Mark 3:6).

Whatever else, from the first three chapters of St Mark’s Gospel, we have learnt that Jesus has made an impression: both positive and negative. People are divided as to their opinion of Jesus. Some think he is mad (Mark 3:21); some, however, think him, not mad, but bad; so bad that they accuse him of being in league with the Devil (Mark 3:22). But mad or bad, they can’t ignore him.

Nevertheless, despite how much we have learnt about Jesus so far in the Gospel, we don’t at this point know very much about what Jesus’ plan is. We have been told he is the Son of God and that the Kingdom of God is central to his message, but we haven’t been told how Jesus understands the Kingdom of God or where this is all leading. We know Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, but exactly what is it that he teaches about the Kingdom and where does he think he personally fits into all this?

In chapter three, we have been given some clues as to what Jesus is up to. Jesus has chosen 12 men to be his apostles. The significance of the number 12 would not be lost on any Jew. It was the number of the patriarchs and of the tribes of Israel.

Now, at last, in chapter four, St Mark gives us some details about Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom of God. The problem is that rather than making things clearer, what Jesus says, and not least how he says it, raises as many questions as it answers. Rather than telling people plainly what the Kingdom of God is, Jesus instead tells stories; a selection of which St Mark gives us as examples. St Mark calls these stories ‘parables’, and he tells us that using parables was Jesus’ customary way of teaching. St Mark writes:

‘With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables …’ (Mark 4:33-34)

Some of the parables are well-known. The parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soils, which begins chapter four, for example, is one of the most popular. The parable of the Good Samaritan and what is commonly known as the parable of the Prodigal Son are two other popular parables. We begin to struggle a bit to remember them after this. One scholar I was listening to recently, however, estimates that there are some 55 parables in the Gospels. I doubt, however, that most people could name five, let alone 55.

In most people’s minds, the parables are stories that are designed to illustrate and help to explain Jesus’ message. They are the equivalent of sermon illustrations. Preachers today use stories all the time to illustrate their sermons. In fact, a sermon is not generally thought to be any good unless it does contain stories.

I was giving the sermon at Mary Rose School’s Graduation Service on Friday last week. I spoke about how I was given a violin as a child and was sent for lessons, but sadly, and to my great regret, because I didn’t practise, I never learnt to play it. In my sermon, I went on to talk about the violinist who was playing for us at the Graduation Service, and how she had had to work hard and have a good teacher to guide her for her to be able to play so well and make such beautiful music. My message was that we are given many wonderful gifts, but that we have to use them and need the help of others as we do so. Music is a gift, but it doesn’t just happen. Life too is a gift, and it doesn’t just happen either.

I am not claiming it was either a good talk or that it was particularly original, but you get the idea. This is what most people think Jesus was doing when he taught in parables: using a story to help explain his message.

This sounds all very well and good until, that is, we read what Jesus himself actually says about the parables and the reason he himself gives for using them to teach. Jesus seems to tell his disciples that the reason he teaches in parables is not so the crowds will understand what he is saying, but so that they won’t! When the disciples and apostles ask Jesus about his use of parables, Jesus replies to them:

‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ (Mark 4:11-12)

The meaning of the parables is hidden from most people who hear them; those ‘outside’, as Jesus describes them. It is only the disciples that Jesus explains the parables to.

It would be like me going to Mary Rose and only talking about how I didn’t manage to learn the violin, but how the teacher who was playing for us did. That and nothing else; no word of explanation or application. It might have been quite interesting as a talk about learning the violin, but, on its own, not exactly what you would expect for a Graduation Service. But that’s what Jesus did with the parables. He told stories, but didn’t bother explaining them until he was alone with his disciples, and even then, only to his disciples. Jesus’ stories weren’t sermon illustrations; they were the sermon.

Sometimes it might have been possible for people in the crowds to work out what the point of the parable was. But very often it clearly was not. The meaning of the parables is not obvious. In Mark chapter four, Jesus says to his disciples after telling the story of the ‘Sower, the Seed, and the Soils’:

‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?’ (Mark 4:11)

Even after Jesus has explained the meaning of several of his parables to the disciples, however, they still don’t always get their meaning, and they find themselves being told off by Jesus for not understanding him (Mark 8:17). Jesus sees the disciples in danger of being like the crowds who are spiritually prevented from understanding what it is he is trying to teach them.

You might think that today, with the benefit of hindsight, we would be able to work out what Jesus meant with the parables he told. As anyone familiar with New Testament scholarship will tell you, however, it is not that simple. Scholars continue to argue over why Jesus spoke in parables, what he meant by the parables, and even which of the stories Jesus told actually are parables. The only thing that everyone seems to be agreed on is that Jesus did teach in parables.

If, then, Jesus told the parables as sermon illustrations to make his teaching clearer and easier to understand, he hasn’t succeeded. We can perhaps understand the disciples’ own frustration with Jesus’ way of teaching. In St John’s Gospel, St John writes that as the disciples listen to what is known as the Farewell Discourse, they say to each other, ‘We do not know what he is talking about’ (John 16:18).

Where, then, does this leave us? As far as St Mark himself is concerned, it would seem that Jesus taught in parables to keep the crowds amused and deliberately to hide the meaning of his teaching from people. The meaning of the parables, on this understanding, is meant only for the disciples’ ears. St Mark tells us that while Jesus spoke only in parables to the crowd, ‘he explained everything in private to his disciples’ (Mark 4:34). Jesus’ hope, according to St Mark, seems to be that the disciples will eventually, at least, come to learn how to interpret the parables for themselves.

We may not like this answer to the question of why Jesus taught in parables, but it is at least an explanation that makes some kind of sense of Jesus’ approach. There is, however, one major problem with this way of understanding the parables. (Isn’t there always?) Why does Jesus bother preaching to the crowds in the first place? If Jesus doesn’t much care whether the crowds understand or not, why bother talking to them?

This idea that Jesus wants to limit whom he includes seems to go against what Jesus says he has come to do. After all, when criticised earlier in St Mark’s Gospel for eating with the tax-collectors and sinners, Jesus says explicitly:

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Mark 2:17)

If Jesus’ purpose is to call sinners, isn’t it rather counter-productive only to speak to them in a way that they are going to find hard to understand? Shouldn’t it be the sinners in the crowds that Jesus explains everything to in public, rather the disciples in private?

Now, I should say that what I am about to say needs to come with a health warning! My own approach to the parables is not one that everyone would share – not by a long way. Many simply cannot accept that Jesus would make it difficult for anyone. So, by definition, any suggestion that Jesus was deliberately using an approach that he knew would lead to people not understanding what he was saying must be wrong. Jesus, it is commonly believed, must have wanted the crowds to understand what he was saying.

All I can say is that this really isn’t how it sounds from what St Mark writes. Many scholars would acknowledge this, but argue that this, then, must mean that St Mark, and indeed the early Church itself, got it wrong and misunderstood Jesus. You have in that case to decide who is more likely to understand why Jesus spoke in parables: St Mark and the early Church or scholars and people today.

Maybe the reason that so many don’t understand the parables today is that they are a part of the equivalent in the present of the crowd that Jesus speaks to only in parables. Perhaps we too are members of the crowd who don’t understand rather than his disciples to whom Jesus explains everything in private when they are alone with him.

But what about the crowds, then and now?

In St Mark’s Gospel, we read how Jesus is calling people to follow him and become his disciples, and we see how he is gathering disciples around him and around his chosen apostles. That much may be clear, but where is it all leading? St Mark hasn’t told us yet or given us any clues, but, as we shall see as we continue to follow St Mark’s account, he will. We still, however, have to explain what the parables are all about.

If we are to understand the parables and Jesus’ purpose in using them, I believe it is necessary to make an important distinction within Jesus’ ministry. It is the distinction between, firstly, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom and his call upon people to repent and believe the good news, on the one hand, and, secondly, his teaching about the Kingdom to those who have repented and believed the good news, becoming his disciples in the process, on the other.

To be clear about this: we need to distinguish between Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God to the crowds and his teaching about the Kingdom of God to his disciples.

The crowds are those who, while interested in Jesus for all sorts of different reasons, do not respond, or have not yet responded, to Jesus’ message. In St John’s Gospel, the crowds represent the ‘world’, which does not believe in Jesus. St John closes his account of Jesus’ public ministry with the 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. This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah …’ (John 12:36-38)

St John goes on to quote from the prophet Isaiah in order to explain why the crowds don’t believe in Jesus. St John includes in what he quotes from Isaiah the words Jesus himself quotes to explain why he doesn’t explain the parables to the crowds. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus continues after this to teach the disciples in private. St Mark and St John may structure their Gospels differently, but they describe this separation of the disciples, who believe in Jesus, from the crowds, who do not.

Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom in the parables is for those who have responded to Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom and to Jesus’ call to repent and believe the good news. Jesus tells the parables to the crowds knowing full well that they won’t understand them, but in the hope that some, perhaps, will want to become his disciple, so that they can learn how to understand them. We might say that anyone is welcome to join the club and membership of the club is open to all, but the benefits of membership are only available to those who join.

I realize that this distinction between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ is one that completely goes against modern approaches to Jesus and his teaching; it is a very different way of seeing things to how the Church today sees its mission and role in the world. It is an approach that is not without its dangers, but all approaches have their dangers!

The church’s approach to mission today is often based on the assumption that all, in principle, are in already and that everything Jesus said and did is for everyone. From a New Testament perspective, however, this is simply wrong; nice and inclusive though it may sound.

Jesus’ invitation and welcome is indeed for everyone, but what Jesus says to those who respond to his invitation and welcome is different to what he says to those who do not. Jesus’ desire is that all should respond, but there is also a recognition in Jesus’ teaching and throughout the New Testament that not everyone will.

Much of what Jesus teaches is for those who are his disciples and, indeed, Jesus’ teaching can only be understood by those who are his disciples. St Paul explains why this is. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul writes:

‘Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.’ (1 Corinthians 2:14)

This need for spiritual understanding is why Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again from above by the Spirit’ (John 3:1-8). Unless he is, Nicodemus will continue to struggle to understand what it is that Jesus is saying to him, and so for that matter will we, unless we too are born of the Spirit. As Jesus says:

‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (John 3:3)

The problem for us in understanding the parables and the teaching of Jesus today, as it was then, is not simply one of understanding the parables on an intellectual level. Our problem is spiritual. We don’t understand the parables and the teaching of Jesus because, at a fundamental level, we are not capable of understanding them. We will only be able to understand the parables when we have made a personal commitment to the One who tells the parables and have become his disciple. Then he will explain everything to us too.

Those who refuse to make this response of faith to Jesus can never hope to understand what it is that Jesus is saying. Again, this is not simply an intellectual problem. The problem is spiritual. As Jesus says, we are unable to see the Kingdom of God without being transformed spiritually. Unless we are born from above, we will remain unable to see the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ parables. As St Paul explains, when writing about his preaching of the Gospel:

‘… the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’ (2 Corinthians 4:4)

So, what has all this to say to us today?

Firstly, there is an important message to us as the Church. We love crowds. We want people to like us, even if it is only on Facebook or Instagram; the more ‘likes’ the better. This translates into our church life as a concern for how many people come to our services or how many members we can claim that we have. If we need to build bigger church buildings to be able to fit the crowds in, then so much the better. It is a sign of our success. It shows that we are growing.

And because we see the presence of crowds as a sign of success, we adopt a three-step approach in the hope of appealing to them.

First, we try to come up with a plan to attract people to our churches. What can we do to get people’s interest and encourage them to come? How can we entice them through the doors?

We work hard to make our churches accessible.

Secondly, there is no point getting people to come if they are not going to like what they see and hear when they get here. So, we seek to accommodate their likes and dislikes. For example, we change the format and style of our services to make them more user friendly, more exciting, and more entertaining.

We work hard to make the experience of coming to church agreeable.

Thirdly, having got people to come and having created an environment where they will feel comfortable, we have to make sure that they don’t go away. So, we adjust our message to avoid putting people off and so we won’t cause them to question whether they are in the right place. We play down or drop altogether those parts of the message that they may not like or may find offensive.

We work hard to ensure what we say is acceptable.

So focused are we on the crowd and whether they are coming and staying that we don’t realize how different our approach is to how Jesus went about it. In our love of the crowd, we fail to hear Jesus’ warning to us. Jesus said:

‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples a mission (Matthew 28:19-20). He told them to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’. They were to do this, first by baptizing them, and then secondly, by teaching them to obey everything that Jesus had commanded them. Our goal as a Church should be to make disciples who obey. The teaching that Jesus gave to his disciples, which has been passed on to us and which we have in the Scriptures, we are to pass on to those whom we have made disciples. This isn’t about keeping anything secret from those who are not Jesus’ followers; it’s just that the reality is that those who are not followers of Jesus won’t be able to understand Jesus’ teaching until they become his followers.

Yes, we speak to the crowds, not so they will come and fill our churches, but so that they will hear the Gospel. Our hope is that they will believe in Jesus; some will, most won’t. Jesus said so. Those, however, who do believe and who become Jesus’ followers will then be in a position to understand the teaching that we will pass on to them, and they will have been given the chance to obey it. There is a parable about this! The parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soils helps us to understand how people will react and behave after hearing the Gospel. Spoiler alert: it isn’t all positive.

Secondly, not only is there a message to us as a church, there is an urgent message to each one of us as individuals. Jesus says quite plainly, ‘Pay attention to what you hear’ (Mark 4:24).

To any who have not yet responded to Jesus’ call, the message is to ‘hear and believe’ in Jesus.

Jesus calls everyone to believe in him and promises that he will welcome and accept anyone who trusts in him. Anyone that is, no matter who we are, where we come from, or what we have done. No-one is ever turned away (John 6:37). No message could be more inclusive. It only becomes exclusive if we reject it. No-one is excluded; we exclude ourselves.

To those of us who have responded and have become followers of Jesus, the message is to ‘hear and obey’.

As Jesus’ disciples, we are to obey everything that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20). If we love him, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). But we can only do that if we know what they are! Again, as a church, we have a responsibility to make sure that Jesus’ followers know Jesus’ teaching. Those of us who been given the responsibility of teaching in the Church need to do what we can to present the teaching of Jesus in as clear and understandable a way as possible. This means we need to give more time and attention to teaching the faith in our churches, and perhaps spend less time on some of the other things that so occupy us.

But all of us, as Jesus’ followers, have a responsibility to listen and learn. Hearing Jesus’ word to us is not a passive activity. Jesus said that the measure we give, will be the measure we get (Mark 4:24). In other words, we will get out, what we put in. If we think that all we have to do is turn up on Sunday and listen to a ten-minute sermon, then we may find that even this little that we have will be taken away from us. It’s up to us to make time to listen to Jesus, and, having listened, to obey.

In St John’s Gospel chapter 6, Jesus teaches his disciples about what is required of them if they want to continue as his followers. They hear what he is saying, but they don’t like what they hear. ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ is the response of many. And many subsequently turn away and stop following him. Jesus says to the 12 who remain, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6:67). Peter replies, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68).

We too, as we listen to Jesus, may find some of the things he says difficult and hard both to understand and to accept, but Jesus never promises that it will be easy, only that it will be worth it. He has the words of eternal life, and our life depends on us hearing them.

Jesus says, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ (Mark 4:9). That’s where we need to begin: by listening to Jesus. But then, having listened, we need to act. Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper:

‘If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’ (John 13:17)

May we be amongst those who are blessed by our Lord and receive the eternal life he offers.


Wednesday, June 09, 2021

The First Sunday after Trinity

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

The First Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 3:20-35

The readings for our service each week are taken from a three year cycle of readings to be found in what is known as the Revised Common Lectionary. The years are known as years A, B, and C. Once the cycle is completed, it is then repeated.

Each year in Church, as part of this three-year cycle of readings, we read through a different Gospel. This year, Year B in the lectionary, we are focusing on St Mark’s Gospel. Last year, Year A, we read from St Matthew’s Gospel. Next year, Year C, we will read from St Luke’s Gospel. On several Sundays each year, the Gospel reading is taken from St John’s Gospel instead of the Gospel for that year.

We began reading from St Mark’s Gospel on Advent Sunday, we have broken off as we have celebrated the major festivals of the Church’s year and, for the past few weeks, we have been reading from St John’s Gospel. Now that we have entered the season of Trinity, for the next few weeks, our Gospel readings will all come from St Mark’s Gospel as we read St Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus.

St Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the Gospels and many think it was the first. For some in the first century, who were hearing St Mark’s Gospel read for the first time, it would also have been the first time they had heard the story of Jesus. For others who already believed in Jesus, it would have been the first time they had heard the story of Jesus presented in this way. For us, however, hearing it read today, it is not the first time we have heard the story of Jesus or even St Mark’s account of it. This results in it losing some of its original freshness and impact. We need to try, then, as we read through St Mark’s Gospel, to approach it as if for the first time.

The first thing we notice as we read St Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus is that it is not at all like a modern biographical account of someone. St Mark begins his Gospel with John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism by him. St Mark doesn’t describe Jesus’ birth or upbringing or any of the other biographical details we are interested in today when reading about someone’s life. This doesn’t mean that either St Mark or his readers weren’t themselves interested in them. For St Mark, however, his main focus is elsewhere. St Mark is more interested in Jesus’ significance for his readers and that means his focus is on Jesus’ death and why he had to die. Indeed, for St Mark, Jesus’ death is the key to understanding his life.

We also need to remember that the Gospels weren't the only source for people’s knowledge of Jesus. At the beginning of the Church, there were plenty of people alive who had met Jesus during his ministry and who knew all about the events of his life. Jesus’ disciples themselves were also alive. The apostles who had been chosen by Jesus and had been with Jesus during his earthly ministry were, to begin with, central to the life and work of the church. Stories about Jesus circulated amongst the churches as did his sayings and teachings.

Nor were the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the only accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching to be written down. St Luke tells us this explicitly. St Luke writes:

‘Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.’ (Luke 1:1-4)

What our Gospel writers did successfully and authoritatively was to bring together the various stories about Jesus into a coherent account and presentation of Jesus’ life and teaching that people trusted. It is important for us to remember that the Gospels are not an exhaustive account of what Jesus said and did nor are they a chronological account. St John tells us that there were many more things that Jesus did that he has not included in his Gospel (John 21:35). Papias, a Bishop who lived at the end of the first century and beginning of the second (AD c60-c130), said specifically that St Mark wrote accurately what he learnt about Jesus from St Peter ‘though not in an ordered form’.

The Gospel writers, then, are not simply trying to give us information about Jesus, but to present a message. The message they are presenting is a message about a person, but more than that, the person is the message. It is the Gospel writers’ collective hope that their presentation of the message will lead people to respond to and believe in Jesus.

St Mark’s Gospel itself is made up of small units or paragraphs. (Scholars called them pericopes.) Some of you will have an Instagram account. You will use this to post pictures and brief descriptions of events in your life. These will sometimes be of significant events such as anniversaries or holidays. Sometimes they will be when you meet with friends or simply go for a meal. They are not an exhaustive account of your life by any means, but anyone following you will get an insight from your posts into your life: who you are and and what matters to you. This is what St Mark is doing. In his Gospel, he is ‘posting’ selected incidents from Jesus’ life to give us an insight into the person of Jesus, so we can decide if we want to follow him ourselves.

In our reading this week, we have one such post. St Mark captions it for us. He writes:

‘Then he [Jesus] went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.’ (Mark 3:19-20)

Home for Jesus during his ministry is in Capernaum, a place on the Sea of Galilee. Although Jesus was originally from Nazareth, some 20 miles away, Jesus made Capernaum his base for his ministry in Galilee. Capernaum was strategically situated on a major trade route. It is also where at least two of his closest disciples, Peter and his brother Andrew, both lived (Mark 1:29).

In our Gospel reading this week, we pick up St Mark’s account at the time when Jesus is now becoming well-known. St Mark tells us that as soon as people see that Jesus is ‘at home’, a crowd gathers. Jesus and his closest disciples cannot even eat because of it. St Mark, in describing the scene, tells us something very interesting; he writes it in such a way that we almost miss it. He describes some of those present in the crowd as scribes from Jerusalem (Mark 3:22). What are religious figures from Jerusalem doing there in Capernaum so far from their own home?

Although St Mark doesn’t tell us in his Gospel, we know from St John’s Gospel that Jesus, in addition to preaching throughout Galilee, has, by this point, also spent time in Jerusalem, where he has made a significant impact - both positive and negative. The scribes from Jerusalem may originally have come across Jesus there. Again, it is a reminder to us that each of the Gospel writers have been selective in what they have included in their accounts. What they tell us is important and part of the picture, but it is not the whole picture.

So why does Jesus being at home provoke so much interest? There are principally two reasons. First of all, Jesus healed people. St Mark writes at the beginning of his account that Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases (Mark 1:34). By the time of this week’s reading, St Mark, as well as describing Jesus’ healing of people in general terms, has also given us several specific examples. St Mark relates the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-34); of a leper (Mark 1:40-45); of a paralytic (Mark 2:1-17); and, on a Sabbath, of a man with a withered hand.

Secondly, St Mark tells us that Jesus in addition to healing people who were sick also cast demons out of people who were possessed. At the beginning of his account of Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue at Capernaum, St Mark writes of how Jesus frees a man with an ‘unclean spirit’ (Mark 1:21-28). St Mark stresses that this was a central feature of what Jesus did. St Mark emphasizes that Jesus cast out many demons (Mark 1:34). In summarising Jesus’ ministry, St Mark writes:

‘And he [Jesus] went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.’ (Mark 1:39)

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that people are divided in their opinion of Jesus. Whatever their opinion of him, the crowds are all interested in him - as crowds always are interested in anything sensational. Jesus isn’t just going around telling people to love and forgive one another; he is dramatically healing people and confronting Satan. People didn’t know what to make of this then any more than we know what to make of it today. Amongst those who are there with Jesus at his home in Capernaum, there are two different of explanations of who Jesus is and of what he is doing.

Firstly, at the time, some try to explain it psychologically by saying that Jesus is out of his mind. In our time, we might say that it is anyone who believes Jesus cast demons out of people who is out of their mind. In whatever way we today explain what Jesus was doing, his behaviour was not seen even by people in his own day as normal, and it led many to question his sanity. This included, it seems, some of his own family. St Mark writes that they came to restrain him (Mark 3:21). Whether this was out of a concern for him, or for their family’s reputation, or both, we are not told; but whatever his family’s motive, they feel constrained to do something.

Secondly, however, the scribes who have come from Jerusalem explain Jesus’ actions theologically. The scribes acknowledge that Jesus actually is healing the sick and casting out demons. They have seen him do so for themselves. As they cannot deny what he is doing, they seek instead to offer an explanation for how he is doing it. They accuse Jesus of being in league with the Devil. It is because Jesus is in league with the Devil, they argue, that he can command the Devil’s subjects to do what he wants.

Neither the scribes nor the Pharisees can accept that Jesus is doing what he does by the power of God. The reason they can’t accept that Jesus is acting with God’s approval is, quite simply, because Jesus is claiming an authority and acting towards the Law of God in a way they think shows that he cannot be from God.

In the first place, Jesus claims he has the authority to forgive sins. This is an authority the religious leaders believe belongs only to God. Jesus, however, tells them explicitly that he does have authority on earth to forgive sins and proceeds to demonstrate it by healing someone in front of them (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus’ point is that if he has the power to heal people’s bodies, then surely he has the authority to forgive their sins? To the scribes who are present, Jesus’ claim to forgive sins sounds like blasphemy. Indeed, if it wasn’t true, it would be!

Secondly, Jesus doesn’t feel bound by the command to keep the commandment about not working on the Sabbath. This is not just about Jesus disagreeing with them about what constitutes work on the Sabbath and whether healing someone is work or not. Jesus claims that he is the Lord of the Sabbath, and so he gets to decide what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). Acting as Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus, then, goes on to heal a man with a withered hand, after having first asked the Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ It is a question they refuse to answer (Mark 3:1-6).

What, then, the different opinions about Jesus come down to is that Jesus either is mad or bad. It’s one or the other.

Jesus responds directly to the accusations against him. Firstly, in response to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus tells them parables. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. In other words, if an army starts fighting against itself, it will soon lose the war. If Jesus is acting on behalf of Satan in casting out demons, it would mean Satan was fighting against himself. Jesus tells them that the only way a strong man’s house can plundered is if the strong man is bound first.

Jesus warns them that to attribute to an unclean spirit something that is the work of the Holy Spirit is to put themselves in severe spiritual danger.

Secondly, in response to being told that his family have come to take him away because people are saying he is mad, Jesus asks who his real family are. Immediately before our reading this week, St Mark has described how Jesus had gone up a mountain with those he had selected and had appointed 12 of them to be apostles (Mark 3:13-19). The role of an apostle, St Mark explains involves three things: to be with Jesus, to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.

In answering his own question about who his real family are, Jesus directs people’s attention to those sitting around him – the normal posture of a disciple with a teacher. Jesus says:

‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Mark 3:34-35)

We miss the shock of this, especially in a culture where family ties and loyalties were paramount. Jesus is saying that loyalty to him creates a family unit far more important and significant than biological attachments.

Jesus doesn’t exclude his earthly family by saying this. While we know that his ‘brothers’ did not believe in him at this stage in his ministry (John 7:5), we do know that they did eventually come to believe in him. James became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and his other brothers, travelling teachers (1 Corinthians 9:5).

The terrible irony in our Gospel reading this week, however, is that it is not those who are closest to Jesus physically or those who are spiritually the leaders of God’s people who recognize the true identity of Jesus, but those who are his spiritual opponents. The demons know immediately who he is. St Mark writes a few verses before our reading this week:

‘Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!”’ (Mark 3:11)

St Mark describes his Gospel as the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). It is, however, those for whom the Gospel was and is extremely bad news who first recognize that Jesus is the Son of God.

The irony continues in that of those who go after Jesus, fascinated by him and seeking healing, it is the ‘sinners and tax-collectors’ who respond to him. Jesus calls Levi, one of the tax-collectors, to be his disciple (Mark 2:13-14). When the scribes and Pharisees see Jesus at dinner in Levi’s house eating with other tax-collectors, they criticize Jesus to his disciples for eating with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’. When Jesus hears this, he responds:

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Mark 2:17)

St Mark tells us that it is those written off by the religious establishment but who do the will of God that are the ones who become members of Jesus’ family. St Mark would challenge us his readers to make sure, by doing the will of God, that we become members too. What is the will of God? St John writes:

‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ (John 6:29)

The first requirement of those Jesus has appointed to be apostles, St Mark writes, is that they are ‘to be with him’ (Mark 3:14). When Jesus is told his physical family are asking for him, he replies, ‘Who are my mother and brothers?’ He then looks at those sitting around him: this is his family. The ‘will of God’ is that we should commit ourselves to Jesus and become part of his family.

Those Jesus called his family, this weird mixture of different people from all sorts of different backgrounds who didn’t conform to the accepted image of what God’s people should look like, went on to become the Church. They too welcomed strange people to join them and often behaved in strange ways. They ate a common meal together, and, despite their many faults and failings, loved one another.

The ‘family of God’ is an image that describes their own understanding of the Church. They saw God as their Father. All who believed in Jesus, they regarded as sons and daughters of God and their brothers and sisters. Jesus himself was their Lord, but he was also their brother.

They had many other different images of themselves. But all of them pointed to their relationship, first with God, and then also with each other. They were the body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. They, of course, realized that the Church needed leading, organizing, and financing, but they did this as a family and not as a business.

So, what is our image of the Church? Have we allowed ourselves to become more a religious organisation than a spiritual family? Are we more focused on the business of the Church than we are on our relationship with God and each other in Christ.

One of the reasons we get our understanding of the Church wrong is that we have not understood Jesus himself. Do we recognize Jesus for who he is?

The demons recognized him and the tax-collectors and sinners believed in him. The religious people and even his closest family members, however, did not. The religious people thought they knew the will of God and his family members thought they knew him, but they were both wrong.

Jesus was someone who preached the Kingdom of God and called on people to repent (Mark 1:15). He healed people and cast demons out of them. He challenged people’s understanding of what God wanted of them and associated with the least likely of people. He demanded of his followers an obedience that called into question all the normal bonds of human loyalty and family connection.

Jesus was emphatically not an easy person to have around. He was charismatic, exciting, and disturbing. And we are called, not only follow him, but to be like him.

It is no wonder that the religious people did not like him. They preferred the safety of their own way of thinking and doing things. The tax-collectors and sinners responded to him, not because he condoned their sin and accepted them as they were, but because he offered then forgiveness and the chance to change.

If Jesus came among us today, who would he be eating with? Who would he look at and call his family? We need to ask whether we have made Jesus into someone who is acceptable and respectable; someone we can understand and control; someone who won’t make too many demands of us or cause us too much trouble; someone who won’t tell us we have got it all wrong.

Jesus is the One who heals the sick, casts out demons, and challenges the status quo. He says things that make us feel uncomfortable, and he invites all who recognize him and believe in him to join his family. ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’, he also says to us today.

May God grant us to do his will.


Thursday, June 03, 2021

The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity

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

The Most Holy Trinity

Reading: John 3:1-18

Something you hear said regularly, both in and out of church, is that ‘all religions are basically the same’. Sometimes this is expressed as ‘all religions worship the same god’. The thought behind these statements is that, fundamentally, the world’s major religions all believe and teach similar things.

What it is that all the world’s religions are believed to teach is essentially that we should be nice to one another. For those not a member of any one religion, for example, this is often given as an excuse for not going to church, or for not belonging to any particular religion. In our own age, ‘thou shalt be nice’ has acquired something like the status of the eleventh commandment, and we don't need a religion to tell us that we should be nice to one another. What is more, religions themselves haven't always been that good in being nice either to each other or to people in general.

For those in the church, this perception of sameness, provides a reason why we should engage in interfaith dialogue and even for different religions to worship together. We teach similar things, so why not work together? We believe in the same God, so why worship separately? Haven’t other religions got something to teach me about god?

The obvious question then is, ‘Why, if all religions are the same, do we have so many different versions of them?’ The reality is, of course, that all religions are not the same, and we don't worship the same God. This is something that becomes very clear the moment you start to examine what it is the various religions actually believe and teach. The question then becomes, ‘Why do so many people think they are the same and believe that essentially all religions are worshipping the same god?’

Again, for some, it is that they just want a to reason to dismiss religion altogether, and this is as convenient a reason as any other. Lumping them all together makes it easier to reject them all in one go. For others, though, seeing religions as having so much in common comes out of a genuine desire to cooperate with sincere people of other faiths for the good of all.

Whatever the motivation, however, the only way people can think like this and make these sort of statements is because they are making the assumption that religion is all about us and how we live our lives. We are under the impression that religion ultimately is about our happiness, our welfare, and, especially, our behaviour.

Speaking for my own faith, I can't blame people thinking like this because this is the impression clergy such as myself often give. As clergy, we find ourselves cast in the role of ‘religious sales people’, so when we are talking about religion, we naturally focus on the benefits and advantages in the hope of convincing people to join us. These benefits and advantages frequently sound no different from one religion to another. So it is hardly surprising when people think that we are all the same.

The faith founded by Jesus of Nazareth, however, isn't in the first place all about me; it's all about God. And the God that Jesus revealed and reveals is not at all like other gods. Now, again, you can forgive people’s confusion. The church often portrays Jesus as a prophet, a teacher of morality, or even a life coach. Our focus when we speak of Jesus is primarily on his ethical teaching and what he said about how we should behave towards one another. And, clearly, Jesus did have something to say about this.

Frankly, though, what Jesus actually teaches about moral behaviour is not especially that original. Much of Jesus’ ethical teaching, as he would be the first to admit, itself comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. If we just limited ourselves to what Jesus teaches about how we treat one another, we might indeed be justified in coming to the conclusion that all religions are the same.

It is not, however, his ethical teaching that makes Jesus unique and different to every other prophet and teacher before and after him. It is who Jesus is that makes Jesus unique, and it is because of who he is that makes the God his followers worship also unique.

For the followers of Jesus, his significance doesn’t lie in the originality of what he teaches about how we should behave towards each other or even about how we should behave towards God. Jesus’ significance lies in the fact that we, his followers, believe that he reveals God and that he reveals God in his own person. As St John, who wrote our Gospel reading for this week, puts it at the beginning of his Gospel, Jesus is the Word who, before the beginning of all things, was both with God and was God. Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, was the Word made flesh who lived among us (John 1:14).

All of which brings us to this week. This week, we are celebrating the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, or Trinity Sunday as it is commonly known. The Church’s year has many festivals. We are all familiar with the major festivals such as Christmas and Easter. Only last week, we celebrated Pentecost. These major festivals generally celebrate an event: Christmas, Jesus’ birth; Easter, his resurrection. The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity is unusual amongst the major festivals in that it celebrates, not something God has done, but who he is. And not simply one aspect of his being, but who he is in his being. As the Church came to express it: God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one God in three persons and three persons in one God.

This is known as the doctrine of the Trinity. Now as soon as the word ‘doctrine’ is used, most people just switch off. It is a ‘trigger word’, warning that what is being described is something theoretical and of little practical relevance; something detached from reality and the lives we lead in the world.

It is, however, anything but.

Science has its own equivalent to doctrine. It has, for example, theories, which seek, albeit imperfectly, to describe the reality of the physical world we live in. Understanding the world through the theories of science enables humankind to invent and do things in the world that would otherwise not be possible. You can only listen to me on the radio or online because the theories of science enable us to understand sound, electricity, radio waves, and how we can transmit data digitally.

So, too, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity enables us to understand something of the reality and character of God. But even when doctrine is looked at like this, we remain unmoved. While we may not understand the various scientific theories that life in the age we live in depends on, we can, nevertheless, see their benefit and application practically. We can, for example, use a computer perfectly competently without having the slightest idea of how it works. We can see the benefit of scientific theories and ideas, but ideas about God? What practical use or benefit are they?

We can only think like this because we have such a limited view of reality and of God. God to many, if not most, people is something or someone remote and separate from their lives. Questions about him may be interesting, but we see them as ultimately of little relevance to our daily lives.

The Bible, however, describes God as the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Rather than God being separate to our existence, our existence depends on him. Everything, every particle and every atom in the physical world that science seeks to understand and describe, exists only and solely because God brought the world into existence and continues to sustain its existence. That means that you and I, quite literally, can’t exist without him. As you are listening to me, God is keeping you alive.

But there is more to God’s involvement and our existence in the world than this. Because we are created in God’s image, there is another dimension to our existence as well as the physical dimension that science attempts to describe. We all sense that this is so. Instinctively, we cannot believe that this world is all there is. ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24), Jesus taught, and, created in God’s image, the truth is that we too are spiritual beings as much as we may try to deny or suppress it.

This is why, for example, so many people cannot believe, when a loved one has died, that they have ceased to exist. It is why so many, even when they are not particularly religious, still hope for a life beyond this world after they no longer physically exist in it.

Seeing this world as created and kept in being by God and seeing ourselves as spiritual beings made in his image makes the need to understand something about God even more important than the theories that we formulate to understand the world he created.

But there is an even more pressing reason for why we should want to know who God is. Most people are not atheists in the sense that they feel certain there is no God. They may live their lives without reference to God, but they don’t feel confident enough to rule out his existence altogether. Instead, they take a terrible risk. They assume that if there is a God and an existence after death, then God will automatically welcome them into it. It doesn’t occur to us today, in the way it once did, that God may not be so welcoming after all. Religious people often express their spiritual optimism by saying that we will all go to heaven when we die.

This, however, is not what Jesus taught. It might be what we think he should have taught, and it is even, sadly, what many Christians think he taught, but he didn’t. And if you don’t believe me just read the Gospels. Jesus did teach about what would happen when we die. He did teach about eternal life and how we could obtain it, but at no point did he suggest that it is ours as a right. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Eternal life in the teaching of Jesus is not just about everlasting life, that is, life that goes on forever after we die. It is that, but it is more than that. Eternal life is about a quality of life that we can experience now, and which will continue after our death in the world to come.

So, what is it and how do we obtain it? Here we return to the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity. In our Gospel reading this week, St John writes:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

Believing in Jesus, as we have been seeing in the Gospel readings for the past few weeks, is not the same as believing about Jesus. Believing in Jesus certainly involves believing he is who he says he is and believing that in him we see God himself. It is, however, also believing that through him we can come to know God for ourself, and then trusting ourselves to him. Jesus said:

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

God is the Father of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is one with the Father. This means, as he himself said, that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:8).

But how are we to come to know God for ourselves? Nicodemus asked Jesus a similar question, again in our Gospel reading for this week. Jesus answered by telling Nicodemus that he must be born again from above by the Spirit. Believing in Jesus is about a life-changing and life-transforming experience; an experience so radical that it can only be described as a new birth. And this new birth is brought about by the Spirit of God.

It turns out that the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity is not so theoretical after all. Believing in Jesus is about entering a relationship with God, which, if it is real, is itself trinitarian. It is about knowing the Father through the Son by the Spirit. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity describes who God is and it is also describes the experience of those who trust in him.

No, the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity is not theoretical and irrelevant; it is rather a matter of life and death: yours and mine.