Sunday 29 May 2022

My Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension - 29th May 2022 - We are in Christ so lets live that reality!


'The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one'

Unity or Oneness is a constantly recurring theme in the New Testament and it is especially emphasised in John's Gospel and most especially in the passage we heard today from John 17. Jesus desires and asks of his father that all may be one. For Jesus the goal is one of ultimate reconcilliation when all are united through participation in the divine Unity of God. Despite the misguided behaviour of so many of his followers then and now who seek to divide the World on the basis of those who are in and those who are out Jesus is conversely about drawing people together, creating a unity of diversity and also revealing the fundamental unity of the whole of Creation.

We have a long way to go to achieve that unity when we look at the state of our World today – The Ukraine is an obvious example where one side has denied any sense of common human identity or unity by the most terrible and gatuitous acts of murder which ignore the humanity of those they kill.

So too is the Texas school massacre of last Tuesday. We have seen displayed here once again the fundamental disunity in a nation which is at war with itself over its historic love affair with guns – And this is rooted in a mindset where the individuals right to bear arms trumps all other rights and responsibilities.

The tragic results of this and so many mass shootings before this is the most obvious demonstration of how exercising our rights with no regard for others or for any sense of unity can have very destructive consequences.

It is of course an extreme example and we rightly condemn it but it is not unrelated to the philosophy which underpins most western society which is the cult of the individual or in some cases one group of individuals over and against another group of individuals. Unity is not high on our agenda. We see that ironically as much as anywhere else in church circles where certain groups are more concerned about being doctrinally right than being in right relationship with others – we see it in our increasingly disfunctional and broken politics which is so often single issue driven and takes no account of other issues or people for that matter - we see it in the failure to respect the rest of Creation in the way we live on this planet and are now reaping the consequences in terms of global warming and climate change - we live in a world of THEM AND US and for many people that is not a problem – they see no issue with it – For me to succeed somebody else has to fail – Unity is not the goal but rather my personal realisation of my goals and God help anyone who gets in the way!

And that is the kind of world in which such tragedies as the Texas massacre will continue to take place – a world where my individual rights are both the route and destination of life – and this is the predominant philosophy in our world today and it is antithetical to any possibility of unity, reconcilliation or healing.

Where did this come from? Ironically Christianity had a large part to play in this and it goes right back to the events of that 1st Easter.

As you know this is the Sunday after the Ascension and the Ascension like many other events in Jesus life is depicted very clearly in art and iconography deriving from the Gospel stories – Indeed right through from the Annunciation to the Ascension all the key moments in Jesus life and ministry are recorded in the Gospels and by extension in art and iconography with the exception of one event which is not described in the Gospels but only its aftermath and that is of course Easter – the single most important event in the life of Jesus and the calendar of the Church.

However as the New Testament theologians John Dominic Crossan and his wife Sarah Sexton Crossan, in their book Resurrecting Easter, have observed it was inevitable that in the absence of any direct record of the Ressurection the Christian imagination eventually created a direct image of Christ's Ressurrection............In fact 2, one in AD 400 and the other around AD 700 but they were very different. The first focuses on Christ alone and is based on the empty tomb and is seen as part of the individual ressurrection tradition whereas the second is part of the universal Resurrection tradition because in it Jesus raises all of humanity with him. In it (and here I quote): 'he reaches out towards Adam and Eve, the biblical parents and symbols for humanity itself, raises them up, and leads them out of Hades.'

Although the universal image appears initially to be a later one, the Crossans also note that this universal concept was in circulation at the time of the earlier individual image as demonstrated in the writings of St Ambrose of Milan - this next extract written on the death of his brother in 379 - ' If Christ did not rise for us, then he did not rise at all, since he had no need of it just for himself. In him the world arose, in him heaven arose, in him the earth arose. For there will be a new heaven and a new earth'

..............and later they quote the Gospel of Nicodemus which is one of the Gospels that did not make it into the canon of scriptures: 'Why then do you marvel at the Ressurection of Jesus? What is marvellous is not that he arose but that he did not arise alone, that he raised many other dead ones who appeared to many in Jerusalem'

While some might dismiss this because it is not included in the canon of Scripture its basis is absolutely concrete and is found in two New Testament verses about which very little is ever said:

Matthew 27:52-53:  The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

So it is clear that this much more unified and universal vision of Salvation is a genuine part of the Biblical and early Christian understanding of what happened at the Resurrection and the fact that the narrower concept of individual Ressurection and Salvation held sway in the Western Church had huge implications not only for our theology but for the whole of our Western society in its emphasis on individualism. It is important to note that the opposite is the case in the Eastern Orthodox tradition which is very much in the universal tradition.

And yet despite the triumph of this narrow view of salvation there is so much in the New Testament that points towards a more generous view and dare I say it and as the Crossans suggest in their writings a view that is closer to what Jesus intended and pointed.

In his recent book 'The Universal Christ' Fr Richard Rohr, who is I think perhaps the most insightful theologian at this time, has dealt with this very issue and I find his thinking exciting and compelling:

His treatment of Paul and his writings is especially helpful. Referring to Paul's conversion he says:

'The deep and abiding significance of Saul's encounter is that he hears Jesus speak as if theres a moral equivalence between Jesus and the people Saul is persecuting. The voice twice calls the people “me”! From that day forward , this astounding reversal of perspective became the foundation for Paul's evolving worldview and his exciting discovery of “the Christ”. This fundamental awakening moved Saul from his beloved, but ethnic bound religion of Judaism towards a universal view of religion, so much so that he changed his Hebrew name to its Latin form 'Paul'

Richard Rohr notes that the key phrase in Paul's writings is 'In Christ' which he uses more than any other in his letters, 164 times in total and Rohr summarises the meaning of this phrase: 'Humanity has never been seperate from God – unless and except by its own negative choice. All of us without exception are living inside a cosmic identity, already in place, that is driving and guiding us forward. We are all [in Christ], willingly or unwillingly, happily or unhappily, consciously or unconsciously.

Paul seemed to understand that the lone individual was far too small insecure and short lived to bear either the weight of glory or the burden of sin. Only the whole [Body] could carry such a cosmic mystery of constant loss and renewal. Paul's knowledge of 'in Christ' allowed him to give God's universal story a name, a focus, a love, and a certain victorious direction so that coming generations could trustingly jump on this cosmic and collective ride.

I don't know about you but the first time I read that it changed my whole perspective on Paul and his writings.

And its not just in Paul that we find this broader wider vision of fundamental unity. In St Mark's Gospel Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim the good news to “all creation” or “every creature” (not just humans) and Rohr notes that Paul takes this up in Colossians 1:23:

'if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. '

However we have sadly lost so much of this Biblical tradition – Richard Rohr comments that 'Paul's brilliant understanding of a Corporate Christ, and thus our cosmic identity , was soon lost as early Christians focussed more and more on Jesus alone and even apart from the eternal flow of the Trinity, which is finally theologically unworkable. Christ forever keeps Jesus firmly inside the Trinity, not a mere later add on or a somewhat arbritary incarnation. Trinitarianism keeps God as Relationship Itself from the very beginning, and not a mere monarch.

Rohr also places St Augustine within this more universal tradition which might horrify those who revel in his other legacy of the theology of Original Sin! In his 'Retractions' Augustine said this:

For what is now called the Christian religion existed even among the ancients and was not lacking from the beginning of the human race”

Any reading of the prologue to St John's Gospel tells us that Augustine was right:

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.   All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 

In support of Augustine Rohr asks rhetorically:

'[Were] native peoples on all continents and isolated islands for millenia just throwaways or dress rehearsals for us? Is God really that ineffective boring and stingy? Does the Almighty one operate from a scarsity model of love and forgiveness? Did the Divinity need to wait for Ethnic Orthodox, Roman Catholics, European Protestants and American Evangelicals to appear before the divine love affair could begin? I cannot imagine! ....................Authentic God experience always expands your seeing and never constricts it.... in God you do not include less and less; you always see and love more and more.'

And so we come back to today's Gospel and that prayer of Jesus which I think speaks emphatically of a God of all things and all peoples, a Universal Christ who calls each one of us to live in the Unity that is already and always was a reality and so bring healing and reconcilliation to a World that is already in Christ.

Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

And finally today's collect for the Ascension reminds us that we are forever in Christ:

Mercifully give us faith to know
that, as he promised,
he abides with us on earth to the end of time;

How different would our World look if we lived this reality that Christ is all in all and we are all one in Christ? – That is our calling and it is never to late to start! Amen.

Sunday 17 April 2022

Easter Sermon 2022 - Easter after Bucha and Sligo

 Click here for Sermon Video

Easter Sermon 2022

I am sure that I am not alone in finding this Easter more challenging than usual – A couple of months ago I was certainly looking forward to it – the first Easter in three years without the strictures of Covid measures and lockdowns was an exciting and joyous prospect. But then the war in Ukraine happened and with it our world has been thrown into yet another series of crises and a whole nation is fighting for its very survival in the face of unspeakable evil. The revelations about the horrible massacres in Bucha and other cities made me ask myself whether we should or could celebrate Easter while so many people were trapped in a long Good Friday experience.

And closer to home we have had the ugly spectre of hate crime and in particular homophobic murder come to the fore with the tragic events in Sligo. And I have to say as a Church of Ireland priest I am not comfortable with how our own church has in the past and still today discriminates against those of diverse sexuality and has played a part in feeding the fear and hatred that ultimately results in crimes like the murders of Aidan Moffitt & Michael Snee. So there is a lot of darkness...........

But we are here tonight/today and we are celebrating the Resurrection, as we must, because the alternative is to give in to the darkness and the hate and that is not an option.

When I shared my thoughts about the difficulty of celebrating Easter in the current context more than one of my friends wisely pointed out that it is always Good Friday somewhere on this planet. Its just that we are more aware of the plight of some than we are of others.

If Christ is not being crucified on the Streets of Bucha then he is in Aleppo in Syria, or among the Rohinga Muslims subjected to genocide by the Burmese military, or in the terrible conflicts in Ethiopia, Southern Sudan and the Congo.

And yet these tragedies do not impact on us in the same way as the Ukraine war has done and that is understandable if not questionable – We identify more closely with the people of the Ukraine because they are more like us – they are europeans in all but name and they look more like us – Of course it shouldn't be this way – All human beings of whatever race, ethnicity or religion are equally precious in God's sight and while our compassion as a nation for the Ukranian people is commendable it does raise uncomfortable questions about all those other situations where Christ is being crucified in our world and our response has been less than audible.

Turning to the Gospel from John that first Easter was mired in chaos and grief and bewilderment – The story was over as far as most of his followers were concerned – Jesus (their great hope) had died and now the final indignity the discovery that his body has apparently been stolen – the distraught plea of Mary Magdalene first to the disciples and then to the angels in the tomb captures the mood so perfectly:

They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ (the words of one utterly broken)

And it is then that Jesus reveals himself to Mary and she recognises him: when he addresses her 'Mary' and she responds 'Rabbouni' (Teacher) an acknowledgement that the story is not over – he still has more to teach her.

Easter is fundamentally about refusing to close the pages on our story and God's story – stories that are fundamentally intertwined and undergirded by the Hope that allows us to imagine the next chapter. That is not to say we can leave the suffering and hurt behind – There is no Resurrection without Good Friday but seen through the lens of Easter, Good Friday is not the last chapter which it may appear to be – There is more to come.

Our lesson from Isaiah 65 paints a wonderful picture of the unfolding of God's story and our story and it one in which justice and peace are central and one in which we are assured they will come to fruition:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard.....or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labour in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the 
and their descendants as well.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,

says the Lord.

That is the story of which we are a part and that is the only story that can help us move beyond Good Friday to this Easter Sunday which we celebrate tonight/today. I cannot help but think of a wonderful sermon preached by Tony Campolo in which he spoke to this very issue – The Sermon was called 'Its Friday but Sunday's Coming' and I think in challenging times it is a motto to live by – Its Friday but Sunday's Coming' It reminds us that Easter changes everthing – We are people of Hope and Resurrection – people who believe that the story is not over – people who will not let Hate win but celebrate the unstoppable Love of God that will ultimately prevail.


Tuesday 5 April 2022

Thoughts in the light of the Bucha Massacre

 Easter is late this year but Good Friday has come early – Christ has been crucified again, this time on the streets of Bucha in the Ukraine and not just once but time after time as people of all ages lie dead in the streets with their hands tied behind their backs and a bullet in the back of their heads or strewn over a bicyle or shopping cart where they fell or in black sacks in hastily dug trenches. 

I can't get these images out of my head as I go about my daily tasks. They overshadow everything, as they should for this is all they have left on this earth and I cannot deny them that – I cannot turn away – I must see them and acknowledge that they too were only days ago like me living breathing people who even amidst the horrors of war had hopes and dreams of a better future. 

Everything I do today seems hollow and empty – I am in the supermarket choosing something for dinner and I wonder were some of those lifeless bodies out looking for food when evil men on a whim decided to end their lives. I am not sure what I bought in the shop and it doesn't really matter because it seems somehow wrong that I should take pleasure in eating food that others may have died in the pursuit of. 

 I consider going for a walk and perhaps to take a few photographs of some of the beautiful countryside near where I live but I realise that this is not a day for beauty – I and we have to live with this terrible brokeness and horror – While these bodies lie on the street there is no beauty anywhere! – There is but a terrible darkness and for a time I and we have to be in this darkness alongside our sisters and brothers who are still being murdered and raped and tortured by the forces of evil. 

I want to see an end to this Good Friday and look forward to Easter Hope and Resurrection but at the moment that seems a long way off and too soon to contemplate – While this slaughter continues part of me wonders would it be blasphemous to celebrate Easter in less than 2 weeks time? 

Can we proclaim the Resurrection while children and women and men are being slaughtered on our doorstep? I truly do not know how to do that and yet honour those whose corpses lie rotting on the streets of Bucha, while they and their families are still living Good Friday.

Sunday 16 January 2022

A tale of two women - Ashling & Mary (A response to the murder of Ashling Murphy)


Text of Sermon

It would be very difficult to stand in any pulpit in this land this Sunday and not mention the horrific murder of Aisling Murphy. We wanted to move on from the monotone of Covid conversations but this event is not what any of us anticipated or imagined – It is just too awful to contemplate! And yet we must – we owe at least that and a lot more to Aisling Murphy.

And while this very specific kind of event is rare the fear felt by women on a daily basis is clearly far greater than many of us imagined and I include myself in that – It has been a sad revelation to hear women talk of how when alone they carry their keys between their fingers to use in self defence (my own wife told me this week that she does this), how they consciously avoid going out in the dark or walking alone because of the possibility that they may be attacked, raped and or killed by a man. And their fear is justified – It rarely happens in plain view but as we are finally acknowledging attacks and assaults by men are the real experience of a very large number of women.

Also very sobering is the realisation that casual sexism and objectification of women is part of the same problem - yes at the lower end of the graph but any behaviour which demeans or mocks women and makes them lesser human beings than their male counterparts does in a subtle way contribute to the mindset that taken to its extreme allows a man to attack, rape or kill a woman.

And of course there is also that characteristic of a Patriarchal society that is inclined to write women out of history and the church has ben especially guilty of that in ignoring the significant role of women in the early church, often glossed over and even hidden. That too is part of the same problem as it takes identity and agency away from women and makes them lesser beings.

Sometimes these failings seem quite innocent but their significance cannot be underestimated in creating a culture where women do not feel safe.

Some years ago I was conducting a wedding (in my previous parish) and it was inter-church and I was assisted by a Roman Catholic priest who was a relative of the grooms family. As is my practice I shared as much of the liturgy with him as possible and among the things I invited him to do was the introductory preface of the service.

You will probably recall the line in the preface which is inspired by today's Gospel story: 'Our Lord Jesus Christ was himself a guest at a wedding feast in Cana' – At this point my ecumenical colleague added with pronounced emphasis these words 'As was his Mother Mary'.

I smiled to myself at what I assumed to be him putting the stamp of his own tradition on the service – I was probably one of the few people who noticed it but on rereading that Gospel story of that event and in the light of the tragic death of Aisling Murphy I realise now that intentionally or not he had done something very important in recalling Mary's presence at that event because she wasn't simply a bystander – she was infact the driving force of the story – without her it wouldn't have happened!

We tend to get fixated on the miracle itself – All the old jokes about inviting Jesus to your party and getting him to turn water into wine are wheeled out.

But the story is not simply about the miracle itself … it is something far more profound and every bit as controversial. In simple human terms, Jesus did what he could to help his neighbours in their hour of need….and it is an example worth following. Of course it is also a sign of who he was. He was a young man from Nazareth but he was much more than this. He was the Messiah, God’s chosen One, sent to advance God’s Kingdom on earth.

But as I said already without Mary's role in this story we not have this revelatory event.

Even before this miracle Mary obviously believed that her son was different, other, special. However it is only after they had seen his power in action that the disciples believed in him.

Not so Mary - With faith in herself and in him it was Mary who challenged the young Jesus to meet the need of the situation in which they found themselves. This was a wedding party and it was going to always be remembered as the party when they ran out of drink unless Jesus could do something to rescue the situation.

Jesus responds in this “the first of his signs” as it is described in the Gospel and in so doing “revealed his Glory”.

But Mary took a big risk – she did not know what Jesus was going to do and yet she recognised in him the gifts of God and encouraged him to use those gifts.

We do not possess the same power as our Lord but we do all possess gifts and very often we go through life without using them. Sometimes this is because we are too lazy or we couldn’t be bothered. Other times and more often though it is because we do not recognise our own gifts. Maybe we are insecure, shy, modest, doubtful of our own giftedness?

This is where we need other people – to see us as we cannot possibly see ourselves and to identify in us the gifts that we have to offer to the community of faith. That is what Mary did and she deserves the prominent role she has in this story. Ironically we often describe the scriptures as patriarchal but in John's Gospel Mary's fundamental role is explicit and undeniable and yet in the preface to the wedding liturgy it is we in the contemporary modern church who by the sin of omission loose the oportunity to proclaim a very important truth in acknoledging her presence and agency.

How much good is left undone because nobody has the vision to see another person’s potential for good and to call it into action?

When someone (such as Mary) does they are helping to fulfill the will of God and helping the other person to live up to their God given potential – to be the best human that they can be.

And the corollary of that is equally true – when we demean or mock the inate giftedness of another human being we are frustrating the will of God and we are damaging the potential of the other.

Aisling Murphy died because some depraved individual did not recognise or acknowledge her full humanity, her giftedness (not just as a talented teacher and musician whose work involved uncovering and enabling the gifts of her students) but as another human being into whom God breathed life and a potential that she had the right to hope to fulfill.

We may never know the who or the why of this profoundly disturbing event but we might ask ourselves – What started her killer down a road that would lead to a hate filled murder? – What shaped his attituide to women that allowed him to cross that line? What part did the casual sexism that too many of us (mostly men and myself included are guilty of) what part did that play in the early days of his journey into misogony and murder? What gave him permission as he saw it to exercise power over a woman to the point of extinguishing her life?

I don't have all the answers and there is a huge job of work to be done by all of us (especially us men) at every level to rid society of endemic sexism and violence against women, but I think in the example of Mary in today's Gospel we have a very helpful starting point. Look for the gifts in each other and draw those gifts out by encouragement – acknowledge the sacred humanity in each other and resist the urge to demean and undermine one another. Sometimes we do this unconsciously and pass it off as a bit of fun.

Most of us will never go further than what we see as fun and banter but we have a responsibility to create a society and a world where women have the right and the expectation to feel safe and secure and so we have to begin at this very basic level. Too much of our human identity is built on knocking each other down – That is not the will of God and as we remember Aisling Murphy before God today let us do all in our power to end this evil which took her life and robbed so many people of her gifts and her love. To do nothing is not an option and gives permission for this to happen again. For her memory and for the sake of our shared humanity let us resolve to be agents of this necessary and long overdue change.