Lord, will only a few be saved?

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 21 August 2016 (Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30.Find the readings here

One of the people following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem asks him: “Will only a few people be saved?” Jesus’ reply is hardly reassuring. He talks about a narrow door that even those why try might not be able to enter. Whatever happened to the gracious offer of salvation to all who call on the name of the Lord?! The questioner seems to be concerned with insider / outsider divisions. Are we a small elite group, or is the circle drawn wider? Jesus doesn’t answer in those terms. Instead, he exhorts his hearers to commit to the hard work that following him involves. It isn’t about being ‘in’ or ‘out’ with God or about getting one’s ticket sorted for heaven. We are called to live Kingdom lives, to enter already into the new life that Jesus brings, to experience the salvation of being radically transformed as individuals and as community. Jesus is all too aware that very few, even of those who claim to know and follow him, are actually committed to making that journey with him.

What do we mean when we call ourselves “Christian”? Are we really following Jesus? Jesus warns against assuming too easily that we know him. So much of what is done today in the name of Jesus is an absolute contradiction of God’s Good News in Jesus Christ. Jesus cannot be domesticated or made to follow our agendas. Invoking his name for projects that do not reflect the Kingdom values that he lived and taught is blasphemy. I know that I am not sounding very gracious. But the stakes are high. I am utterly convinced that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It is very serious, then, when those who ‘claim’ Jesus are actually obscuring and distorting that Way, Truth and Life and making it difficult for people to recognise the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of how seriously a good father takes the training of his children. If the Church is the sacrament of Christ in the world, in other words, a sign and a source of encounter with the Risen Christ, then surely it matters to God what the Church communicates and models to the rest of the world. We need to take very seriously our calling to live lives that are rooted in and reflective of Jesus Christ.

To go back to the original question that is posed to Jesus, will only a few be saved? Jesus returns to a picture that would be very familiar to his hearers, of the glorious messianic banquet at the end of the age, where God’s People would sit down to eat with all the saints who had gone before them. Some purists thought that only a small, holy remnant of the People of God would be included in that eschatological feast, others were more generous and believed that most or all of Israel would be there. Jesus, echoing the prophets, challenges this exclusivist vision in its narrow or broader form, and says that there will be people from all corners of the world flocking to the banquet. This is an upside-down Kingdom, where the first are last, and the last first. Jesus isn’t saying that it is only the few elite who manage to enter the narrow door who will enter the Kingdom.  The race isn’t for the strong, but for those of us with drooping hands and weak knees, who listen to Jesus and who take the next wobbly step on the journey.

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Fire on the Earth

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 14 August 2016 (Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40:2-4, 18; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53 Find the readings here.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of fire on the earth, a distressing baptism, and causing divisions within families. It doesn’t sound like Good News! That is a difficulty that those who speak for God have had over the centuries – truth is often disruptive and met with huge resistance. Unfortunately, those who preach peace and prosperity are more often than not false prophets. Jeremiah, the prophet in our first reading says as much elsewhere (Jer 28:8-9). A message that all is well and all will be well addressed to the comfortable in an unjust society is a voice in support of a status quo that violates the values of God’s kingdom. It is a lie.The prophet Jeremiah during a time of great national crisis did not give the encouraging message that those in power wanted to hear. He warned that things were even worse than they thought. That led to the accusation: “The fellow does not have the welfare of this people at heart so much as their ruin.” Jeremiah ended up waist-deep in mud in a deep, dark cistern where he was left to die. Jesus knew that his own journey would entail great difficulty. He anticipates with distress a ‘baptism’ (literally ‘immersion’), an experience which would engulf him in suffering. Those who follow him faithfully should be prepared for the same.

But how can the way of God’s messiah, the prophet of love and inclusion, bring division, especially in families? Jesus’ followers are not to set out to create discord, but they are to be prepared for the likelihood of opposition even from those closest to them. This opposition is a lived reality for many Christians throughout the world today, as it was in the Early Church. Families can be a place of love and nurturing and growth – that is what they should be. But that ideal is not always realised. It is often those nearest and dearest to us who will vehemently oppose a change in us, especially one that radically alters our values and our life commitments. This picture of opposition within the family, the basic building block of society, points to the way in which the coming of the Kingdom of God overturns the status quo. Jesus’ life and mission issue a fundamental challenge to the way in which the world does things

Jesus’ ‘baptism’, which culminates in his death by crucifixion, was the absorption of great violence – the violence of the political and religious systems that were challenged by Jesus’ radical gospel. Where the Gospel is authentically preached, unjust systems will be challenged and react. These disturbing readings confront us again with an uncomfortable aspect of the Christian message. We are called to love not to hate, but that love can call forth a very violent reaction.

We, like Jesus, are called to keep running steadily the race we started, to fix our eyes on Jesus and not to lose heart. We are an Easter people, and so we know that death and destruction do not have the last word. Crucifixion is followed by resurrection. Jeremiah was pulled out of the cistern and placed back on solid ground. The psalmist too. The fire that Jesus brings upon the earth is ultimately a purifying, energising fire. Love will triumph. In the words of Teilhard de Chardin:

“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

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Your Father delights to give you the kingdom

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 7 August 2016 (Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Wisdom 18:6-9; Psalm 33:1, 12, 18-22; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-12; Luke 12:32-48.  You can find the readings here.

The readings evoke for us the way to live the life of the Kingdom now – a life of radical trust, alert and expectant. The passage from Wisdom is part of an extended reflection on the Exodus. This vignette has the People of God standing around the table on the night of the first Passover, eager and ready for the journey. They are still in Egypt, the land of slavery, and Pharaoh is refusing to let them go. Nevertheless, looking back, they trust God’s promises and so they are facing into the anticipated journey with joyful courage. That had been the way of life of their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us.

In the Gospel, Jesus assures his followers: “There is no need to be afraid, little flock, because it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom.” The Kingdom is the reign of God, where God’s way of love is fully present. We’re called to live out of that reality in a world where so much of what we see and experience is its opposite.  No wonder then, we are called to live by faith, which the writer to the Hebrews describes as the evidence of realities that as yet remain unseen. The Kingdom of God may be among us as something small, the mustard seed, but it should not be entirely invisible. Jesus calls his followers to make it visible in the way they live and act now. (“Sell your belongings and give alms.”) It is a Kingdom completely unlike Pharaoh’s Egypt, a world of scarcity and exploitation where those with wealth and power hang on to it for dear life. Did you notice the strange image at the heart of Jesus’ parable? When the master returns from the wedding banquet home to where the servants are waiting, it isn’t to demand a nice hot bath, or a cup of whatever it takes to make him comfortable after feasting and dancing into the wee hours. No, the master puts on an apron, seats the servants at the table and serves them. That is how things work in the Kingdom which has already been given to us as gift. What is our response? It should be one of radical generosity, because of our utter trust in the kindness of this crazy Lord who serves his servants.

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Numbering our days aright – the Parable of the Rich Fool

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 31 July 2016 (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23; Psalm 90:3-6, 12-14, 17; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11;  Luke 12:13-21 (find the readings here)

The man who speaks up from the crowd to interrupt Jesus with his pressing request – “Tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance” – calls Jesus ‘Teacher’, but I wonder how much of what Jesus had been saying he had really heard. His thoughts were too snarled up in anxiety and anger about not getting a share of his father’s estate. We don’t know if his claim is legitimate or not, and Jesus doesn’t ask. He pointedly refuses to be drawn into this fight. His first words rebuff, refusing to take sides. Jesus refuses the invitation to side with one brother against the other and so contribute to the resentment and discord threatening to tear this family apart. Jesus sidesteps this dance of anger and enters the situation a different way, through the story of the rich man whom God names ‘Fool’.

It isn’t his farming skills or business sense which earns him that unflattering title. It is his splendid but isolated life. Notice how many times the rich man says ‘I” in the story. Also notices whom he talks to – no one but himself. Even his anticipated celebration is probably a party for one. And even if there were to be guests, they would not attend as friends so much as sycophants and envious witnesses to his success. He is the man the sage in the first reading describes, the one so busy working and amassing wealth that he has forgotten to ask “for whom am I labouring?” I wonder who went to the rich man’s funeral?

St Paul tells us to set our minds on heavenly things, not earthly. But ‘spiritual’ people can live like the rich fool, splendidly isolated, though the ‘wealth’ that surrounds them may be their spiritual practices and attendant self-righteousness. When Paul describes ‘earthly’ things, he speaks of evil desires, lying to one another, taking advantage of others, and greed. If our lives are oriented toward God, then they are characterised by the opposite – generosity, desires and passions that promote human flourishing, honesty, and love.

The psalm reminds us to ‘number our days aright’. Anticipation of death can put things in perspective and teach us wisdom. It can remind us of what is really important. What would Mr Fool have done if he was being rich in what matters to God? Would he have hoarded his wealth for his own benefit? And to return to the man, someone’s brother, who asked Jesus to intervene on the matter of the inheritance. What else was as stake here, besides money or land? What other possibilities were there, what alternatives to the destruction that inheritance disputes can wreak on families? Wisdom would take that path.

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God’s Mercy Endures Forever!

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 3 April 2016 (Second Sunday of Easter / Sunday of Divine Mercy)

Acts 5:12-16; Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31 (find the readings here)

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, and on this Second Sunday in Easter, which is also Mercy Sunday, I’ll use the lens of mercy – that amazing loving faithfulness and compassion of God for us in Christ Jesus – to interpret today’s readings.

The disciples were crowded into a shadowy room behind locked doors, cowering and afraid that those who had put Jesus to death might come for them too. Some of them had seen the empty tomb and they had listened to Mary Magdalene’s incredible account of how she had seen the Lord. In subdued tones they were arguing and wondering, trying to make sense of it all. Dare they hope? But even if Jesus were alive, so many of them had deserted him in those final hours. If there were a continuation of the story, and that was still unclear, then surely they would have no part in it. Into the middle of this despondency and confusion, with the door firmly shut against hope, Jesus steps in and greets them: “Shalom!” He offers them peace and brings them joy. He doesn’t tell them that they have failed or that he will need to find a different team to spread the good news. No, he sends them forth with the very mission the Father entrusted to him: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In gifting them with the Spirit, the very breath that has animated his own life and ministry, he gives them all that they need for the journey ahead, a journey in which they will bestow on others the radical forgiveness that they have themselves received. Even Thomas, the disciple who was not there, who couldn’t believe, is not written off. The risen Jesus comes again, with the same gift of peace, especially for him.

Nor had God closed the door on Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was condemned and crucified.  In the face of such a harsh “no” to the divine invitation, God does not turn away, but is present to heal and to save through the community of Jesus’ followers, the fledgling Church.

John the Seer saw a vision of the Risen Christ standing in the midst of seven lampstands, symbols of the Christian communities to whom John will write. This image is a beautiful reminder that Jesus is still present in the Church. As the One who has passed through death to life, he comes to speak hope to those who are distressed and enduring suffering. John’s experience of Jesus is to be passed on to others through what he writes down, through the Scriptures.

The writer of the Fourth Gospel, whom tradition if not biblical scholarship equates with the John of Revelation, also writes with the aim of encouraging faith. Those of us who read or hear his Gospel are those who ‘have not seen’, at least not in the sense that the apostolic followers of Jesus did. But we are invited to experience Jesus alive and present in our midst as we hear the story told. The joy of Easter is not just back then, it is also now. Jesus is still slipping past locked doors to speak God’s peace to us, finding us where we are hiding in fear or exiled in despondency, forgiving, restoring and equipping us to take God’s love to the world.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever!”

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Easter Sunday

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 27 March 2016

Acts 10:34, 37-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9 (Find them here)

This is the day that the Lord has made! Today we rejoice in the wonder of the Resurrection, the triumph of our Lord. The psalm bursts with joyous amazement at the surprising work of God which takes the rejected stone and makes it the cornerstone.

The words of the Gospel reading are surprisingly muted in comparison. The hope and realisation dawn slowly, more like a sunrise than a fireworks display. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty but she does not yet know how to make sense of it. I wonder what the beloved disciple believed when he saw. That’s not quite the right way to ask the question: it is not what he believed, but in whom. He still had not understood the resurrection but, believing in Jesus, he was open to the journey ahead, the journey of coming to understand Easter. There is real wisdom in the Church calendar which gives us the next 50 days, a whole season of Easter, to explore this radical, transformational mystery which is the root and foundation of our faith. The empty tomb – the realisation that Jesus is no longer confined in that place of death and hopelessness – is just the beginning of the journey. The disciples, including Mary Magdalene, are still to meet the Risen Christ. May that be our journey this Easter season – from a vague intuition of the hope that is Easter to a transformative encounter with the Risen Christ.

We know the story, of course, we hear it every year and enter into it week by week in the liturgy, but let us ask again for the grace of knowing this earth-shattering, world-transforming reality in our daily lives. When Paul encourages us to set our thoughts on heavenly things, he is not proposing that we become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. No, he knows that there is a deeper reality that has been unleashed through resurrection power and he wants us to allow our lives and our loves, what we think and what we aspire to, to be shaped by that. St Paul  uses images of above and below, heaven and earth. I find myself imagining it more in terms of the surface of things and the inner depths of reality. The seeds of the resurrection have taken root. Our own resurrection life is hidden in Christ, yet to be revealed in all its glory, but there are already green shoots breaking through. The deepest truth out of which we live is that Love has triumphed.

By the time Peter stands up to give the sermon recorded in Acts 10, Pentecost has come. The disciples have been encountered by Jesus risen from the tomb and they have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. That encounter and gifting has transformed them from bewildered followers of a crucified man to bold proclaimers of the Gospel and apostles of forgiveness. But there is still more for Peter to discover. Although today’s reading does not make the context of Peter’s homily clear, this is actually the first time that Peter has ever been in a non-Jewish home, and he is about to be surprised by the eagerness with which God welcomes these supposed ‘outsiders’ into the community of the People of God. Before he has even finished speaking the Holy Spirit will be poured out on his audience. So even Peter, who has come to the profound understanding of the crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus that he is able to articulate here, has more to discover of the power and possibility which is our Easter faith.

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4 January 2015 – The Epiphany of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8. 10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12 (Find them here)

The prophet knew that God would come. In a period when the People of God were small and insignificant, subject to the power of a foreign empire, he described how their battered and tattered capital, Jerusalem, would take its place among the great of the world, a shining light and a magnet for great wealth. Jerusalem began to look that way in the time of Herod with his ambitious building projects and extravagant tastes. But that, of course, wasn’t what the prophet meant. It wasn’t where the King was born either, though it was where he was executed thirty-something years later.

God came in the form of a child in the Palestinian village of Bethlehem. The magi found him there and gave their gifts: gold for a king, but not like Herod; frankincense for divine presence far from the Temple in Jerusalem; and myrrh. That last gift wasn’t mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecy. It is the spice used for anointing the dead. We remember the magi’s journey on the feast of the Epiphany. I wonder if the magi had an epiphany, in the sense of a striking realisation, a shocking discovery, that God is to be found at the margins, in the humble, among those who suffer. The psalmist was moving toward this realisation, in praising the king as one who would save the lives of the poor. But this is even more radical – that the King is poor, and will cry out to God when there is no one else to help him in his affliction.

St Paul had his own epiphany. As a devout Pharisee, he was zealous for the purity of the People of God. But the mystery revealed to him was that the walls which kept the outsiders out had come tumbling down. The Gentiles – the unclean outsiders – are invited to be part of the people of God. Now many Jews of Paul’s day could countenance the possibility of Gentiles converting, of becoming Jews and adopting the boundary markers of circumcision, eating kosher and observing the Sabbath. But Paul preached something different: he vehemently opposed circumcision for Gentiles -read Galatians – because it was as Gentiles, not as Jews, that they were to be included alongside Jews in God’s covenant community. The foreigners paying homage to the Christ child is a striking image of this mystery.

What will be your epiphany? In what unexpected place or person does the glory of the Lord shines today?

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