Thursday, 28 April 2016

Naming the Saints of God

The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Year C
Acts 16:9-15

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace,
the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi

When the train arrives at the station here in Clermont Ferrand the crowds pour out of the up escalator at the Gare. Crowds at rush hour are pretty anonymous – a nameless mass of moving humanity. You can quickly ascertain who has somewhere to go immediately and who doesn't. The ones with a determined look and a quick pace disappear quickly while the others stop for coffee or stand on the corner talking with their friends. Grab one of the quick ones in your imagination. “Where are you going?”you ask.

I have a class at 8 o'clock at the university.”
I have a sales call in fifteen minutes”.
My appointment at the hospital is this morning and I want to be early in line.”

Newly arrived at Philippi from the dockside at Neapolis long ago Saint Paul lingered with a few of his fellow workers in the high street. He'd been conveyed inland to the right town but hadn't yet been told where he was to present himself. There he stood with his secretary (Luke - carrying the stationary case) and a couple of associates knowing only that God had told him in a vision to come here and be of help to the struggling local church – wherever it was. Together they intended to go where the church would likely meet. They would be shown what to do next. 

Take some time to read through Acts 15-17. God was clearly out and about in the Roman Empire. He was bringing men and women to faith in large centres and in out-of-the-way places. He was bringing strangers together in the towns and cities of the Empire. They were small business people, they were household servants – Jews and Gentiles. The Christian establishment back in Jerusalem was now being called on to be fellow workers with God in the process which he was initiating and with the people who he knew already. All Paul and his friends needed to do was to make themselves available and to weather the uncertainty. They were to “loiter with intent”.

Our story began with a vision from God which St Paul received of an unnamed man in Macedonia pleading for help. It's an imprecise commission but it prompted Paul and his associates “immediately” to get on the next boat. What follows in the rest of chapter 16 and into chapter 17 is a rush of personal names and place names – difficult words which will daunt whoever reads the second lesson this Sunday. Luke goes to length to name these people. The anonymity collapses and personalities emerge. These are the building blocks of the church which God builds.

Do we talk in our churches about Outreach and Mission as if they were projects which began and ended with us? Have we forgotten that the Spirit of God is already abroad in the world? Our role is much more to respond to what he has already begun in hearts of people who we hope to have the honour of being able one day to name and to know.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

They were once like us

Easter 4
Year C
Revelation 7:9-17

The folks at home eating Chinese take-out on folding TV tables scan the celebrities who come into view as a camera pans the crowd at a royal wedding or some other great national event.

“There's Elton John”
says mum.
Who's Elton John?” her granddaughter asks her.
There's the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and, oh yes, that other fellow who was always on the news during the Falklands war – what's his name?'

If mum would ever just “stifle” and stop talking over the television she would be told who's who in due course. Nicholas Witchell, the BBC's royal correspondent does yeoman service filling in the blanks for those of us who need our memories jogged at great events. That's his job, after all. He knows. In the vision of John of Patmos (which we know in English as the Book of Revelation and which the rest of the world calls the Apocalypse), a heavenly elder turns to John the viewer and asks:

Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

At first glance these figures dressed in white with their palm branches in hand who have gathered around the throne of God and the Lamb are angels or some other heavenly beings. In which case, they differ from me in their very nature. That they can show up at the west door with invitations to the heavenly event is no surprise, being born to it and all.

John the Revelator” was possibly a prisoner in the island's salt mines when he had his vision. He writes like a Hebrew or Aramaic speaker who's learned a bit of journeyman's Greek along the way. He's nothing special.  So why does the heavenly elder ask him about the identity of the crowd? John appears put-out at this reversal of roles: Sir, you are the one that knows.” he says.

Why ask the question? Might it be that not knowing at the outset is a part of the process and that a question nails that insecurity better? The first part of the elder's question provokes an immediate response: No, I am not one of those saints. The Revelator must feel the rawness of his own life first - the rags which barely cover his nakedness, the banishment and hard labour on the Island of Patmos. 

Try to remember that the emphasis in the elder's question is on the second part:  ...where have they come from?”  The “clearly not me” surrenders a little bit in the elder's explanation that these are ordinary humans who have 

"...come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and 
made them white in the blood of the Lamb." 

My life in the salt mine as an exile for Christ performs some change in my nature. The pain of faithful life is not wasted. I am a prisoner. I am a member of a persecuted religious minority in a Roman outpost. I write in a language in which I have no ease because I am impelled to testify to the victory of God in the presence of my brothers and sisters. I am a member of a tiny church with a difficult demographic and an uncertain future. My faith is pretty well all that I have. I struggle to profess that faith in the midst of colleagues, parents or children who share little of it. 

I now know the answer to both sides of the elder's question:

I am not there right now.
But those who are 
or will be there
were once where I am now.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Simon Peter in the School of Love.

Easter 3
Year C                                            
 John 21:1-19

Jesus asks Peter – Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?

These ‘what’ exactly? More than ‘this’ life, represented by the items of a fisherman’s trade scattered around on the beach – these nets, these spools of braided line, these floats?

Or – do you love me more than these other disciples love me?
You, Peter, pre-eminent among my followers:
                      Do you love me more than these others do?

The question arising between a man and a woman or a parent and a child - 'Do you love me?' - might be playful or perhaps it probes at some perceived weakness.

Do you love me? (of course you do)
Do you love me? (I want to hear you say it)
Do you love me? (I suspect that you do not)
Do you love me? (I wonder if you know what that means)

I’ll roll the dice and will hold that:

1. When Jesus asked Peter if he loved him more than these that he was referring to the other disciples gathered with them on the beach.

2. He asks the question three times because Peter has denied him three times and;

3. That when he asked Peter whether or not he loved him he was wondering if Peter knew what that meant.

Because it is not clear that we always know what love means.

You'll have heard of the well-known “tussle” here in the conversation between Jesus and Peter:

Three times Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him and twice he uses the Greek word (agapao) which refers to the type of love which gives and sacrifices, a love which lifts up the beloved.  Peter keeps replying “Yes, Lord I love you” and uses the word (phileo) which is a more ordinary emotional attachment or affection.

You would expect that with the the second  time of asking Peter would have twigged that the repeated question with a particular word was meant to hammer him into shape but, in fact, it is Jesus who draws near to Peter and uses Peter’s inadequate word for love in his final question:  "Peter, do you love me?"

Peter has not yet fathomed the love that Jesus asks about.  Jesus, though, will begin in the place where his disciple stands and use the words that Peter can speak and know here in this School of Love which convenes on a Galilean beach.   It was the same way he encountered Thomas in the School of Faith which met behind locked doors in Jerusalem in last week’s Gospel reading.

Jesus starts where these disciples are but the lesson does not finish there..   The School of Love will carry on.  Peter will come to learn love’s meaning.  Jesus finishes with the words:   “Follow me”.