“Seeing” the Kingdom of God, when you have no “power”.

Introduction.

Undoubtedly, how we see life, is shaped (in so many instances) by the “perspective” we take…

on life,

the world we live in,

in understanding and making sense of life’s “happenings”.

And, I do wonder, if there is often a lot more to it than just being someone who sees their glass as in being “half full” or “half empty”?

(Or is the real truth in the question…”What’s in the glass in the first place?” 🙂 )

Here’s this week’s Sunday Gospel reading, which sees Christ refocus His disciples understanding of the perspective” they were beginning to take, of themselves. It’s a challenging read…

The Gospel reading

30-32 Leaving there, they went through Galilee. He didn’t want anyone to know their whereabouts, for he wanted to teach his disciples. He told them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.” They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it.

So You Want First Place?

33 They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?”

34 The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.

35 He sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.”

36-37 He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.”

http://www.Biblegateway.com

Reflection.

It strikes me from this passage, that Christ; having been in ministry for nearly three years, is decidedly unhappy by the conversation that His followers on the road to Capernaum are debating.

He knows that something is afoot “What were you discussing on the road”? (Mark 9 v 33) and doesn’t take long to find a response to their embarrassed admission… “…they had been arguing with one another over who among them was the greatest”. (Mark 9 v 34).

The disciples, Christ’s closest companions who for nearly three years had….

walked with Him,

witnessed miracles through Him,

heard the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Him,

no doubt touched Him, laughed with Him, cried with Him…

and yet on the road to Capernaum they lose their “perspective” of the matters at hand,

and argue over who is the greatest.

Just for a second use your imagination…

Christ calls His closest followers together, they know something is brewing and cast furtive eyes at each other.

He sits down with them and clearly, without hesitation chastises them “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be servant of all.” (Mark 9 v 35.)

To make sure His message has got through Christ brings a child into the middle of the room.

The youngster is over awed. Wide eyed. Nervous possibly.

Christ takes the child in His arms and cradles “..the little one” (Mark 9 v 36) whilst praising the “spirit” of trust, love, wonder and appreciation the wee one shows in response to Christ’s love and tenderness.

Just as He hopes His followers might do.

And turns in one action, an action of love and compassion, all that the disciples had been arguing about. On it’s head.

For all of the disciples debating, arguing and no doubt posturing as to who was the greatest, a child’s perspective on what really matters in life, in who really matters in life turned their worldview upside down.

A child…with little or no “status”.

A child…with no “power” or “agency”.

A child…with no ego to feed.

A child…open and vulnerable.

A child who in their time (alongside women, foreigners, the diseased and many deemed “other”) discovered what it was to be put first for once and not last.

And a child, who knew from the warmth and embrace of Christ that she (or he) was fully accepted. Fully loved and fully safe in the arms of Christ.

Which for all of us, is no bad place to begin to have our perspectives on ourselves and the world we live in…renewed and re-energised.

“Seeing” and experiencing the Kingdom of God. Exactly because we have no power, yet are fully loved.

Thoughts?

“And, you. Who do you say I am”?

Introduction.

For some, this week’s Gospel reading will be quite familiar or “familiarish” (if such a word might be allowed to enter the lexicon).

But.

Might we take this Gospel reading too lightly…for our own and others’ spiritual well being?

Maybe?

Have a wee read to yourself…

The Gospel reading.

The Messiah

27 Jesus and his disciples headed out for the villages around Caesarea Philippi. As they walked, he asked, “Who do the people say I am?”

28 “Some say ‘John the Baptizer,’” they said. “Others say ‘Elijah.’ Still others say ‘one of the prophets.’”

29 He then asked, “And you—what are you saying about me? Who am I?”

Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ, the Messiah.”

30-32 Jesus warned them to keep it quiet, not to breathe a word of it to anyone. He then began explaining things to them: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.

32-33 But Peter grabbed him in protest. Turning and seeing his disciples wavering, wondering what to believe, Jesus confronted Peter. “Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.”

34-37 Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?

38 “If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Reflection.

Amidst some time away from the demands and pressures of His ministry, Christ turns to his disciples and asks two very direct questions…

“Who do the people say I am” ? (Mark 8 v 27) and “And you…what are you saying about me”? (Mark 8 v 29).

In so,

so many ways,

the whole Gospel of Christ rotates on His two questions and maybe as importantly our response.

I wonder (for those of us) raised within a Christian setting, where we have heard many expound on this passage, have we become inured to the sheer shock and awe of Jesus’s interaction with His disciples? Have I, all these years “after coming to faith” (as a child) been over relying on stock responses to Christ’s troubling and soul searching questions?

Stock and well rehearsed reactions that no longer shock me, or awe me in my response to “And you…what are you saying about me”?

As I read the Gospel, I’m familiar with the sequence of events and conversation between Christ and His followers…

In response to Christ’s first query, the disciples seem at ease responding. They know what the crowds are saying that Christ is John the Baptizer, Elijah or one of the Prophets. As Christ pushes the disciples much more personally, it is Peter who utters the famous proclamation that…”You are the Christ….the Messiah”.

And it is Peter very quickly, (on hearing of Christ’s mission now taking a path towards suffering and betrayal), who messes things up by arguing with Christ that this path of self sacrifice; Christ wants His disciples to share should not happen, cannot happen.

In so many ways, Christ’s response is brutal… “Satan…get lost” (Mark 8 v 33).

So.

What’s behind the Messiah’s questioning of the disciples…as to how other’s see His identity and how they, personally see His identity?

Is Christ, unsure exactly of His identity, purpose, mission?

Is Christ having an “identity crisis” in beginning to face a new reality that His path will lead, must lead to “sacrifice” and “self denial”?

Going by this Scripture, such a reading of the text seems highly improbable…

In response to Peter’s proclamation

  • Christ wastes no time in telling Peter to be quiet and not to share this news.
  • He then in this reading goes onto explain to His disciples exactly what He is about to go though, by returning to Jerusalem (Mark 8 v 30 to 32).
  • And with His rebuke of poor Peter, He demonstrates a steely nerve in following the journey of His vocation.

What if Christ’s questions about how other’s and indeed how the disciples understood His identity, where much more about the disciples “identity” ?

We know that from the earliest of years their can be so many facets as to how each of us understand and experience our “identity”.

Age, gender, birth order in the family, life changing events both positive and detrimental, the shaping of “identity” through our peers, roles, jobs, names, biology, psychology and indeed culture and nationality all shape who we are.

Increasingly across all generations, the impact of social media on self image, identity, self awareness cannot be underestimated.

Who I am.

Who I am becoming…

Who you are and who you are becoming. Both fixed and yet more often than we might imagine, challenged and changed and changing.

But.

For the follower of Christ, amidst the changing seasons of life one thing remains unchangeable…

The need to daily answer for ourselves,

The need to daily work out in everyday reality,

Our personal and communal identity, first and foremost through answering Christ’s challenge

“And you. Who do you say I am?”

Is, surely what gives identity and rootedness.

Selah.

When Jesus is, umm…, (almost) unpalatable.

Introduction.

Follow the Church of Ireland Lectionary as I do (in terms of an attempt at maintaining a weekly blog) and one soon realises that the Gospel of John Chapter 6 with its focus on the feeding of the 5,000 (note men, not women and children were included in this figure) and Christ revealing Himself as the “Bread of Life” spans a full five weeks of reading, sermon making, liturgical observance, etc, etc.

I, for one have had “my fill” you might say, of “bread”.

However, this week’s Gospel reading with a focus on John 6 v 56 to 69, has for me at least, caused much to reflect upon. I am uncomfortable with what Christ teaches. I can see myself (in more ways than one) in being a disciple…

who heard Christ,

struggled and wrestled to understand Christ.

And can see why, some, do not nor cannot follow Christ.

Jesus, the “Bread of Life”. Yes! But maybe unpalatable? Please read on…

The Gospel reading.

53-58 But Jesus didn’t give an inch. “Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you. The one who brings a hearty appetite to this eating and drinking has eternal life and will be fit and ready for the Final Day. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. By eating my flesh and drinking my blood you enter into me and I into you. In the same way that the fully alive Father sent me here and I live because of him, so the one who makes a meal of me lives because of me. This is the Bread from heaven. Your ancestors ate bread and later died. Whoever eats this Bread will live always.”

59 He said these things while teaching in the meeting place in Capernaum.

Too Tough to Swallow

60 Many among his disciples heard this and said, “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow.”

61-65 Jesus sensed that his disciples were having a hard time with this and said, “Does this rattle you completely? What would happen if you saw the Son of Man ascending to where he came from? The Spirit can make life. Sheer muscle and willpower don’t make anything happen. Every word I’ve spoken to you is a Spirit-word, and so it is life-making. But some of you are resisting, refusing to have any part in this.” (Jesus knew from the start that some weren’t going to risk themselves with him. He knew also who would betray him.) He went on to say, “This is why I told you earlier that no one is capable of coming to me on his own. You get to me only as a gift from the Father.”

66-67 After this, many of his disciples left. They no longer wanted to be associated with him. Then Jesus gave the Twelve their chance: “Do you also want to leave?”

68-69 Peter replied, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Reflection.

I love Petersen’s paraphrase of the Gospels. He uses a turn of phrase that opens up in new ways and profound ways the thrust of Christ’s teaching…no less than in the above Gospel passage.

Those that follow Christ, those seeking “the bread of life”, those seeking healing, wholeness; those seeking political liberation, those seeking salvation, those caught up in the scrum of the “personality” of Christ…

… are beginning to find His teachings and His truth “too tough to swallow”.

Witness their exasperated cry…”This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow” (John 6 v 60), in response to Christ’s teaching as how we are to receive Him…

“My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink”. (John 6 v 55).

And let’s not start THAT debate.

So, as a follower of Christ; I hate to admit it, but there is so much I find “tough to swallow” in my “following”.

Almost as if the “bread” Christ offers me is “unpalatable”… certainly at times difficult to live by and digest…

Here are some examples…

From the Gospel of Mark Ch 12 v 30 to 31:

Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”

From the Gospel of Matthew Ch 6 v 34:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

Again from the Gospel of Matthew (Ch 5 v 38 to 40):

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously”.

In so many ways, Christ and His teachings are hard to swallow, unpalatable. The three examples cited above (amongst many that our Lord taught) I understand, are to be lived by and built into my/our lives.

Action. Yes. But at a cost. The “Bread of Life” that is almost unpalatable.

The “Bread of Life” that is almost unpalatable…

Outside of the love, support, hard work, difference and community of fellow believers, seeking to serve, understand, digest… “the bread of life”.

Outside of the global Church’s wrestling and engagement with “mission” as articulated by (for me succinctly) in the Anglican Communion’s “Five Mark’s of Mission” https://www.anglicancommunion.org/mission/marks-of-mission.aspx

Outside of the work and witness of God’s Holy Spirit who makes Christ’s words and teaching “life making” (John 6 v 63).

Outside of a discipleship seeking to thoroughly “digest” Christ and the “Bread of life” he offers.

And, actually…is.

Selah.

Picture courtesy of Wendy Brown.

Jesus. For the many (and not just the few).

Introduction.

I am nervous about this week’s Gospel passage…

I am treading upon holy ground…

But, here goes.

How does we understand “who” is saved, redeemed and set right, by the life, witness, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ?

Please do consider this passage from the Gospel of John prayerfully…

The Gospel reading.

35-38 Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. I have told you this explicitly because even though you have seen me in action, you don’t really believe me. Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don’t let go. I came down from heaven not to follow my own agenda but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me.

39-40 “This, in a nutshell, is that will: that everything handed over to me by the Father be completed—not a single detail missed—and at the wrap-up of time I have everything and everyone put together, upright and whole. This is what my Father wants: that anyone who sees the Son and trusts who he is and what he does and then aligns with him will enter real life, eternal life. My part is to put them on their feet alive and whole at the completion of time.”

41-42 At this, because he said, “I am the Bread that came down from heaven,” the Jews started arguing over him: “Isn’t this the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father? Don’t we know his mother? How can he now say, ‘I came down out of heaven’ and expect anyone to believe him?”

43-46 Jesus said, “Don’t bicker among yourselves over me. You’re not in charge here. The Father who sent me is in charge. He draws people to me—that’s the only way you’ll ever come. Only then do I do my work, putting people together, setting them on their feet, ready for the End. This is what the prophets meant when they wrote, ‘And then they will all be personally taught by God.’ Anyone who has spent any time at all listening to the Father, really listening and therefore learning, comes to me to be taught personally—to see it with his own eyes, hear it with his own ears, from me, since I have it firsthand from the Father. No one has seen the Father except the One who has his Being alongside the Father—and you can see me.

47-51 “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life. I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread—living Bread!—who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.”

(www.biblegateway.com).

Reflection.

I was taught at Sunday School and in attending numerous holiday Bible clubs as a kid; that all one had to do to ensure eternal life was “to ask Jesus into your heart”.

And to be very truthful as a 10 year old boy, in a wee Mission Hall in Waringstown, I did “ask Jesus into my heart”.

And I knew that something had changed.

And I am for ever grateful.

Throughout my teens and into my early adulthood this conversion experience rang true for me. It was preached and reinforced time and time again…School assemblies, the Boys’ Brigade, Church, Youth fellowship, Summer camps. Older people, younger people joined together with a certainty that we were “converted”, “born again”, “God’s elect”, a “Royal Priesthood”. So long as your conversion experience was understood and explained in a certain format…you were in. Jesus had been invited into your “heart”.

If truth be told my over riding memory of this season of my Christian journey is one of nurture, security, belonging, fun and occasional moments of well, “weirdness” maybe even “spiritual abuse” (now that I look back at some of what went on in doing “Church” in 1980’s and 1990’s Northern Ireland).

Thanks be to God but at 18, in leaving the highly sectarianised north of Ireland (1985 to 1986) for a year to attend an international Bible school in England, my ideas of who were “born again”, “redeemed”, “saved” began to change…

First there was Ralph …

An indigenous Canadian from Vancouver Island. To my dying day, I will never forget thinking to myself “This guy cannot be a Christian”, on noticing Ralph’s massive fish shaped earring on our first introduction. Boy, did I ever learn not to go by first appearances (or my culture’s first appearances) as to who is or isn’t a follower of Christ.

Then a few years later my understanding of what it was to follow Jesus took a real “kicking”. Thanks to Joe…

A fellow undergraduate, studying Youth and Community work. Irish, Nationalist, Catholic. From West Belfast. Politically and indeed religiously everything I was not. (Or so I understood at that time). But, Joe knew his Bible. Joe was a natural evangelist. Joe when he prayed touched heaven. Joe who set everyone at ease. Joe, who I began to understand was my brother in Christ.

Two stories amidst countless other encounters with people (throughout my faith journey) that had “come to Christ” but did not necessarily fit the “coda” I had been brought up to believe “coming to Christ” looked like. (Or indeed what a Christian should “look like” or even what a Christian “lifestyle” entailed).

Many, many individuals who I have had the privilege of encountering, very different from myself or the culture I grew up in.

Yet,

“Aligned with Christ”,

“Had been given by the Father to the Son”.

Individuals who are part of God’s salvation story for the whole cosmos in being…

“..put together, upright and whole”.

Individuals, (like so so many of us) often broken, carrying their very personal trauma’s and hopes who believe…

and receive eternal life.

Yes. Eternal life in following Christ.

Regardless of their colour, creed, gender, past or current situation, abilities, character, nationality,

or whether or not they have “asked Jesus into their heart” exactly as a 10 year old boy once did.

Jesus for the many. And not just the few.

Selah.

Picture courtesy of @savbrown

Bread. Everyday needs. And what “nourishes lasting life”.

Introduction.

Like so many, during the first Covid lockdown across Northern Ireland, I found myself baking bread at home. Not that I really needed to, rather that it seemed “the thing to do”.

I was pretty happy with my soda farl to be honest and posted pictures to the family (then) scattered in Liverpool, Glasgow and Jersey.

At one level as the Covid pandemic broke across the world, I am very grateful that I did, everyday, have bread on the table.

Many folks might be familiar with this week’s Gospel reading where Christ challenged as to who He is (John 6 v 30), turns to one of His “I am” sayings “I am the bread of life”. by way of an explanation.

But an explanation, I feel, I need to re-visit to understand and further appreciate.

Might I invite you to join me?

The Gospel reading.

The next day the crowd that was left behind realized that there had been only one boat, and that Jesus had not gotten into it with his disciples. They had seen them go off without him. By now boats from Tiberias had pulled up near where they had eaten the bread blessed by the Master. So when the crowd realized he was gone and wasn’t coming back, they piled into the Tiberias boats and headed for Capernaum, looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him back across the sea, they said, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

26 Jesus answered, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.

The Bread of Life

27 “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.”

28 To that they said, “Well, what do we do then to get in on God’s works?”

29 Jesus said, “Sign on with the One that God has sent. That kind of a commitment gets you in on God’s works.”

30-31 They waffled: “Why don’t you give us a clue about who you are, just a hint of what’s going on? When we see what’s up, we’ll commit ourselves. Show us what you can do. Moses fed our ancestors with bread in the desert. It says so in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

32-33 Jesus responded, “The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.”

34 They jumped at that: “Master, give us this bread, now and forever!”

35-38 Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. I have told you this explicitly because even though you have seen me in action, you don’t really believe me. Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don’t let go. I came down from heaven not to follow my own agenda but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me.

(www.biblegateway.com).

Reflection.

There is a lot of activity going on in this Scripture reading. Indeed the Gospel story preceding Christ’s self proclamation as the “bread of life” (John 6 v 35) with the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6 v 1 to 24) sees activity, or we might say “work” occur…there is a lot to take on board….

John 6 v 1 to 24.

Christ journeying across the Sea of Galilee. Climbing a hillside and a large crowd joining him. Christ and his disciples (despite some doubts) feeding the large crowd. Christ and His disciples heading down the mountain then across to Capernaum when a storm blows up and Christ is seen walking on the water.

John 6 v 25 to 35.

The large crowd set off in search of Christ. Manage to catch boats from Tiberias. Engage with Christ in Capernaum with a string of questions as to who He is and what He stands for.

Let’s think of the “crowd” for the moment.

As much as they are upbraided (you might say) by Christ as in their focus being on the wrong thing, “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that (John 6 v 27 – the bread that was miraculously shared on the hillside a day or so earlier) the crowd, let us be charitable for a moment, had at least worked hard at seeking Christ out.

And yes they wanted bread.

And yes they wanted healing and miracles.

And yes they needed to understand much more as to Christ’s mission.

However, I don’t really blame the crowd for not entirley “getting” who Jesus was.

Undoubtedly, many of those who worked so hard at seeking Jesus out were indeed hungry. Subsistence agriculture was the daily norm for so many in first century Israel.

And whilst it may be easy to cast doubt on the crowds working hard to see Jesus and experience some form of miracle, my guess is that good news and “miracles” were in short supply in a country brutally oppressed by a superpower and over seen by a religious hierarchy that sought to codify every aspect of daily life.

As much as I want to know Christ as “the bread of life” that “nourishes…lasting life” (John 6 v 27), I cannot but help come to Him alongside and sometimes through my everyday needs, hopes, fears, relationships, emotions, set backs, joys.

I need bread…that builds life in the wholeness of my being.

And I for one need to continue to work at seeking Jesus, understanding Jesus amidst the “everydayness” of life with its search for bread, miracles and purpose.

And not take for granted “Give us this day our daily bread” physically or spiritually.

Selah.

The death of John the Baptist (with a comment on being “political”).

Introduction.

This week’s Gospel reading is uncomfortable. John the Baptist, the one anointed from birth to prepare the people of Israel to meet and receive the Messiah, the Christ; finds himself facing execution.

And ending up beheaded.

His work, his message, upsets some very powerful individuals.

Take a few minutes of quietness to reflect on the Gospel reading set for this Sunday.

As you read, what feelings/emotions are stirring within you?

Gospel reading.

The Death of John

14 King Herod heard of all this, for by this time the name of Jesus was on everyone’s lips. He said, “This has to be John the Baptizer come back from the dead—that’s why he’s able to work miracles!”

15 Others said, “No, it’s Elijah.”

Others said, “He’s a prophet, just like one of the old-time prophets.”

16 But Herod wouldn’t budge: “It’s John, sure enough. I cut off his head, and now he’s back, alive.”

17-20 Herod was the one who had ordered the arrest of John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison at the nagging of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For John had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with Herodias “adultery.” Herodias, smoldering with hate, wanted to kill him, but didn’t dare because Herod was in awe of John. Convinced that he was a holy man, he gave him special treatment. Whenever he listened to him he was miserable with guilt—and yet he couldn’t stay away. Something in John kept pulling him back.

21-22 But a portentous day arrived when Herod threw a birthday party, inviting all the brass and bluebloods in Galilee. Herodias’s daughter entered the banquet hall and danced for the guests. She charmed Herod and the guests.

22-23 The king said to the girl, “Ask me anything. I’ll give you anything you want.” Carried away, he kept on, “I swear, I’ll split my kingdom with you if you say so!”

24 She went back to her mother and said, “What should I ask for?”

“Ask for the head of John the Baptizer.”

25 Excited, she ran back to the king and said, “I want the head of John the Baptizer served up on a platter. And I want it now!”

26-29 That sobered the king up fast. But unwilling to lose face with his guests, he caved in and let her have her wish. The king sent the executioner off to the prison with orders to bring back John’s head. He went, cut off John’s head, brought it back on a platter, and presented it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and got the body and gave it a decent burial.”

(www.biblegateway.com)

Reflection.

I don’t know about you but sometimes reading the Gospel story provokes (for me at least) discomfort and uneasiness. This passage describing the death of John the Baptist is one such portion of scripture.

A prophet.

Called by God to proclaim a message of holiness. To call a nation to repent and “ready” themselves for the coming King; who also has time to “call out” the inappropriate relationship between the then ruler (Herod) and his brother’s wife (Herodias). John the Baptist had, if nothing else, the courage of his convictions.

And finds himself imprisoned and then beheaded.

Losing his head so that Herod might “save face” you might say…

An uncomfortable and a disquieting reading.

Many, many years ago, I found myself wandering around the bookstall at Greenbelt (then and now) one of the UK’s leading Christian festivals when I came across Jim Wallis’s book ” The Call to Conversion” (Lion Publishing 1981).

I devoured it. Jim Wallis’s story of conversion from being a member of the Plymouth Brethren (with an emphasis on personal Christian piety) to establishing with many others, the “Sojourner” community in downtown Washington DC with an emphasis on serving the poor and marginalised and challenging the societal/political systems that kept folk poor, marginalised and disenfranchised.

I was studying Youth and Community work then, trying to “save the world” in my own small way and I was rocked to the core of my being by Wallis’s book that took Christ’s message of hope and liberation and redemption applied it to the USA…politically, morally, socially.

Coming from Northern Ireland, seeking to understand God’s call, wrestling with the sectarian politics of my country, “The Call to Conversion” book deeply shaped my theology and practice and applied at home (as I saw it)… politically, morally, socially.

Wallis writes the following…

“Conversion marks the birth of the movement out of a merely private existence into a public consciousness. Conversion is the beginning of active solidarity with the purposes of the kingdom of God in the world” (Lion Publishing 1981:9).

John the Baptist understood that the “One” to come (Christ) would usher in the fulfillment of the “Kingdom of God”.

A rule of life, a way of living and being that honoured God, both personally but also you might say “politically”. John’s message got him tangled up in the power structures and powerful individuals of his time.

Such engagement came for him at a considerable cost.

However we understand “the Kingdom of God” and Christ’s life amidst the everyday of our lives, it will (as Wallis points out) involve a “movement” towards “active solidarity” with “God’s Kingdom” and the work of God amidst a broken world.

Possibly, as I read this week’s Gospel reading that is why above all, I am most uncomfortable. In speaking out, in following Jesus, personal and societal transformation is required. And this is not without cost.

It is one thing to speak of personal conversion.

But if a “personal” experience of Christ is not in some small way “political” and seeking to transform unjust structures, systems, falsehoods, individuals and their communities, then what is Christianity other than some form of eternal (personal) insurance policy?

Selah.

On Father’s Day…the Church and “men storms”.

Introduction.

I am not honestly sure who came up with the idea of “Father’s Day” or for that matter “Mother’s Day”? Was it the Church? Or was it a card making company that spotted a gap in the market? And therefore encourages us to spend money on cards, meals out, balloons, chocolates and other paraphernalia?

At one level the origin of “Father’s Day” does not really matter too much. The sentiment however surely does.

And having worked with men and young men for nearly 30 years, and in ever more, becoming concerned as to how men in society and especially young men today are facing very real “storms” (men storms?) in their life, this Gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark Chapter 4, offers fresh challenge in how the Church might follow Christ’s command to “Let’s go across to the other side” and engage more robustly with men…of all ages backgrounds, needs and possibility.

The Gospel reading.

35-38 Late that day he said to them, “Let’s go across to the other side.” They took him in the boat as he was. Other boats came along. A huge storm came up. Waves poured into the boat, threatening to sink it. And Jesus was in the stern, head on a pillow, sleeping! They roused him, saying, “Teacher, is it nothing to you that we’re going down?”

39-40 Awake now, he told the wind to pipe down and said to the sea, “Quiet! Settle down!” The wind ran out of breath; the sea became smooth as glass. Jesus reprimanded the disciples: “Why are you such cowards? Don’t you have any faith at all?”

41 They were in absolute awe, staggered. “Who is this, anyway?” they asked. “Wind and sea at his beck and call!”

(www.thebiblegateway.com)

Reflection.

No doubt for many, “Father’s Day” as is the case with “Mother’s Day” can throw up a number of reactions…

Sadness as we remember Dads no longer with us.

Happy memories of Dads laughing, playing, working hard to make a living and as teenagers sometimes deliberately embarrassing us.

And if we are honest, sometimes when we think of our Father there may well be that sense of confusion. Dads (alongside Mums) are human too….

As today we give thanks to God for our Dads, I do wonder if the Church needs now, more than ever to have a time of both soul searching and deep engagement with…men.

We know that when it comes to men’s mental health and in regard to how many men die by suicide, men predominately are more likely to end their lives as opposed to women. Every life lost through suicide utterly tragic.

We know that in terms of physical violence, young men as perpetrators and young men as victims can fill our courtrooms.

We know that in terms of domestic abuse, women carry a deep deep burden in their encounter with (some) men.

We know that in the life of a young man, the cancer of pornography can corrode his view of men, women, relationships, sex.

We know that whilst young women sadly form the majority of those living with an eating disorder, cases of young men seeking to conform to the “ideal” male body type and experiencing an eating disorder is rapidly on the increase.

Many men (but not all) and many young men (but not all) are facing “men storms” as never before.

The Church (according to http://www.patrickcomerford.com) has historically understood itself (through this story anyway) as being a boat, carrying Christ, sailing to the other shore and getting caught up in a storm. A boat bringing the Gospel message of hope amidst the threat of being overwhelmed.

This Father’s Day. Let’s not be afraid to set sail into the “men storms” that can sink beneath the waves (some) men (and their families, relationships, communities). Let’s not be afraid to hear and share in men’s stories and lives and experience of brokenness and redemption.

And as much as the Church seeks to introduce men and women, girls and boys to the person of Christ and a welcome too belong to and contribute to the Church; let’s not forget Buber’s maxim…

“No one is a problem to be solved. They are a person to be met”.

Selah.

“Summer Rose” Donegal. Picture courtesy of @savbrown

Metrics, measurement and Christian ministry.

Introduction.

How do those in Christian ministry and leadership ever really know that they are doing a “good job” or have done a “good job”?

Can Christian ministry be ever “measured”?

By the numbers of those “led to faith” in Christ?

By numbers “attending”/”not attending” worship on a Sunday morning?

By the health of the Parish/Ministry’s financial well being?

By the number of ministry “projects”,” initiatives”, developed and maintained?

For those employed as a lay person in Christian ministry… in hitting funding, programme initiative and strategic development targets?

For those in ordained and serving in a Parish/Congregational context…able to carry the majority of the people with you? (And in Anglican polity, avoiding a troublesome Easter General vestry?)

By a growth in…. (insert here what metric you think is an accurate measure of Christian ministry….).

Don’t get me wrong, an ability to know what impact or outcomes one’s vocation, one’s support for a ministry, one’s belonging to a local Church and it’s ministries is important, really important.

If we don’t know where we are and where we want to go too and what “signposts” we need to look out for on our journey towards our destination, then, well, difficulty arises. Real difficulty of course arises when an end destination (hoped for destination) is unclear, confused and at times difficult to communicate.

Our deepest, deepest prayer as Christian believers (my deepest prayer, I hope…) is always that all activity and direction of travel is in response to God’s invitation to join in His work of redemption of the world. No small destination or task it must be said!

And it is amidst a world that in every sphere of human activity seems to need to justify itself, above all, through quantifiable measures, the latest set of “metrics”, through being “successful”, that Christ offers this teaching as to what the “kingdom of God” is like.

I must confess this passage makes uncomfortable reading….

The Gospel reading.

26-29 Then Jesus said, “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps—harvest time!

30-32 “How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like an acorn. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge oak tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”

33-34 With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots.

(The Message, Petersen. http://www.biblegateway.com).

Reflection.

As noted above, I find Christ’s words troubling, “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens”.

The “suggestion” is that the work of God’s kingdom of love, justice, healing, proclamation, prayer, service, teaching, faithful everyday Christian living (the seeds you might say of God’s rule made real) only needs to be “sown” and then “forgotten about”. Ask any first century middle eastern farmer, then, if growing a crop was quite so simple and I am sure they would have raised a quizzical eyebrow.

But that’s not the drive or thrust of Christ’s teaching here, from my reading at least…

We each, as ministers of the Gospel are uniquely called to sow the seeds of the Kingdom, and those seeds vary in the crop they produce across the seasons ,the climate, soil conditions and whatever “metric” we use to assess the growth/outcome of our Christian witness. Paul exhorts the Church at Galatia to “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6 v 9).

Maybe that “metric” at one level is all we need.

The liberating truth of this Gospel passage is that even with our best effort, our “measurements” robustly established (and rightly so) the work of the Kingdom of God, in sowing the seed of God’s grace amidst the boulders of a broken world, will always at its core, remain unknown, hidden from view.

And deeply frustrating when trying to quantify the work of the Holy Spirit using a spreadsheet.

The seed may be sown.

But as it enters the darkness of the soil,

as it dies to itself and germinates,

as it sends forth a new shoot,

as new life and a new harvest emerges,

there is a lot of unknowing and hiddenness,

alongside a call to perseverance.

The work, the growth, the mystery and unknowing of God’s life amongst us is always beyond us.

And yet within our reach and participation…. in sowing the seed with perseverance.

Response.

Amidst the unknown, even the hiddenness, what new growth is Christ seeking for…. in your “everyday following” of Christ?

Picture courtesy of @savbrown

For “Trinity Sunday”. Stepping gently into the mystic…

Introduction.

Funny.

Well, not really that funny…

But when I think of growing up in Northern Ireland amidst the trauma of a highly sectarianised and violent community conflict, it was curious how certain, I and a good few of my buddies were on matters of theology, doctrine, the Bible. I mean “themuns”, over there, with their crosses and statues, and belief in purgatory, Mary and dear knows what else were, well, wrong. I was 13 at the time and ran around with a bunch of wee fellas and wee girls also aged 13 who pretty much held a similar view.

(Reader please note, these no longer are my views, by a long long way).

When it came to matters of faith, theology, politics, in polite company (supposedly) you “Heard all, saw all and said ‘feck’ all”. If you wanted to avoid trouble…

Fast forward nearly 41 years, with this Sunday being for some Churches “Trinity Sunday” with a focus on God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, I have a similar nervousness in (in some way) exploring the “Trinity”.

Reading.

As opposed to a Gospel reading here is one way of maybe, just maybe of “visualising” the Trinity…

Reflection.

There is (for me) a symmetry and sense of flow in the above representation of the Trinity.

The Christian understanding of God is three, yet one. Community despite difference. Belonging, togetherness, full authenticity, yet individual uniqueness and purpose.

I could ramble on and no doubt many good folks much, much, more theologically qualified than I, have rambled on and continue to ramble on as to the relevance of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. And such explorations and “ramblings” remain vital in the processes and experience of faith seeking understanding.

However, in my journey of faith and working through life with its seasons that can be sorrowful, joyful and often everyday, for me,

the unknowing element of the Trinity in Christian theology,

the wrestling with this doctrine of the Church,

the mystery that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

the experience of God who is always beyond our doctrines and dogmas and full awareness,

brings some re-assurance.

In so far, that maybe the most important response to all the seasons of life, sometimes needs to be a deeper appreciation of the mystery of God who calls us, not always to understand, but to get caught up in the…

movement,

the flow,

the “perichoresis” (dance),

that is God. Father, Son, Spirit.

Growing up amidst a culture that was deeply sectarianised, with its certainties not necessarily of who I was but definitely who I was not; I do wonder what my 13 year old self would make of today’s 54 year old self.

And this Trinity Sunday, I am very grateful for the wonder, mystery and awe inspiring invitation that the Trinity calls me (and you) into…movement, flow, dance and to step into the mystic.

Selah.

Picture courtesy of @savbrown

This Pentecost, Holy Spirit. Take us by the hand…

Wee Pilgrim

Introduction.

As human beings, touch conveys so, so much. We are tactile beings and when touch is used and offered appropriately, sympathetically and lovingly; touch builds us and others up.

The touch of a lover, the touch of a small child resting on a parent’s lap, the hearty handshake or slap on the back some folks give their mates, the touch of a steadying hand reaching out to a family member who is ill, the touch of bumping into fellow revelers at a gig, the tap on the shoulder by way of encouragement, the touch and warmth of acceptance when you hold hands with those you love; hug those you love.

No wonder, amidst the socially distancing still required by Covid 19, many have deeply felt the loss of touch and human contact, made, sadly, all too personal.

This week’s Gospel reading mentions the work of the Holy Spirit in…

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