Good News

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4,14-21

Jesus returns to Nazareth, his home town, as was his custom goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and reads a short passage from the scriptures, as might any Jewish male, after which he sits down to teach, as the custom also was, and all eyes are on him. What will he say by way of comment on those beautiful but challenging words from Isaiah? What comes must be just about the shortest sermon in recorded history – “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

The atmosphere in the synagogue must have been electric. Just consider those words: good news to the poor. Most of these people would have been poor. The poor need good news – they cannot buy favours, let alone loyalty or compassion, they are powerless in a world where power counts for everything. Beyond that they are frequently personally unappealing – smelly, badly dressed, often addicted to drugs and other life denying habits and stealing to fund their habits.

Christ in te Synagogue of Nazareth, National Gallery of Ireland
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Our ancestors used to talk about the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, but Jesus makes no such distinction – it’s not why they are poor, but the fact that they are poor which dictates that they need good news – which is not simply a matter of handouts and sympathy of the kind that says “I feel your pain” – they need new ways of living, they need to recover their humanity, and Jesus’ good news offers them just such an opportunity. And poverty extends far beyond material things – surely our generation is spiritually poorer than almost any since our ancestors crawled out of the primeval swamp or got out of their spaceships from Mars if you prefer that version. To their credit, Christians have been bringing such good news to the poor for two thousand years now and anyone rash enough to be a Christian needs to work out how in his or her life they can follow the example of the Master. As we have been blessed so we should be a blessing to others.

And the Lord concludes his brief homily with words of challenge and encouragement – today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. A short sermon but the challenge of a lifetime, and a challenge for a lifetime. It can all seem too much, far too idealistic: the world’s not like that, and if you get in the way of the powerful you get hurt. But God can work wonders even with unpromising material like us. No one is going to bring about that new order that we call the Kingdom single handed. But together we can, and we surely must all play our part. It’s the application of synergy. Synergy is the highly unmathematical proposition that 2 + 2 = 5. In other words if two people on their own can do so much, add another two and they will do more than twice as much.

We are all called to be synergists. So we are challenged to think on these things, pray about these things and listen to what God is saying to us. Not just once, but day by day, so that God will show us how we can be a blessing to others by doing our bit to bring about the Kingdom which Our Lord lived for, died for, and rose to glory for. 

Fr. Edward Bryant

Cana Revealed

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 2,1-11

Signs and signposts are essential for finding our way about. When car drivers first travelled from country to country they were often provided with a windscreen sticker to explain the different road signs. We all need signs, and nowhere more than in matters of faith to explain the meaning of an event in which the hand of God is believed to be at work. This is especially important today which is an age when many people have lost both the sense of transcendence and also the background information to pick up the clues that might help them in making sense of religious experience and in searching for more meaning and purpose to life.

The season of Epiphany is a time especially given to looking closely into accounts sometimes very well known in the lifetime of Jesus that the Church from earliest times regarded as signs that pointed to a deeper meaning. The Gospel of St John has twenty one chapters mainly revealing seven signs that may not even have been fully understood in his own time but in which this great mystic saw the hand of Almighty God at work. The very first of these took place when Jesus arrived in the small village of Cana in Galilee and changed water into wine and in so doing pointed prophetically to a dramatic development in sacred history.

Mural, Greek Orthodox Church of the Wedding Feast, Cana, Israel
[Hoshvilim, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

There is a special importance in the setting itself, because marriage was not only already a sign of the sacred union between God and the people of Israel but would become crucial to the way Christians would understand their communion with Christ who will lay down his life for the Church which is his bride. [St Paul uses this in his letter speaking of “the great mystery of Christ and his bride the Church”. Ephesians 5,32] The sign of the spousal bond returns in the conclusion of the Book of the Revelation. Here the Christ will come again in glory to claim his bride the Church. This spousal sign will be significant throughout the earthly ministry but for now the whole mission to create his bridal church can begin.

The second sign emerges from the first words, “on the third day” [John 2;1]. We are not told what third day this was a part of, but we do know that God had revealed himself to Moses on a third day, and Jesus had been raised from the dead on a third day. It seems that this was intended to be a similar third day sign. Especially so with a huge amount of water, 180 gallons, set aside in the Levitical laws for the Jewish rites of purification. This water Jesus transforms into wine because there had been a shortage. Jesus had not come to overthrow the Hebrew tradition but to fulfil it. Here was a clear parallel with the later feeding of the multitude that are preludes pointing to the abundance of the eternal life that flows from the Eucharist of his body and blood that are so crucial in becoming part of Christian self understanding.

Finally, for Jesus Cana is the beginning his missionary campaign. He has just gathered his small band of disciples and now everything must change. This all takes place with a change in the mother-son relationship. Hitherto Mary has played a quiet but important part in her son’s life. She is aware that she will suffer a pain greater than any birth, for Simeon had prophesied that by the sword of pain, her “heart will be pierced” [Luke 2;34.] Mary is a principal guest at the wedding, maybe she is a close relative. Her son, Jesus comes later and it is then that for the first time she, his mother, intercedes. “Whatever he says do it” [John 2; 5.]. This is a request that comes out of the needs of others but also a recognition of his authority. Mary is in her quiet action a model for us. Here the mother who had given birth to a child who has been subject to her, but now the role is reversed and she will play a supportive role until the end. In this way she has given life to his ministry that now goes out into the world and she the woman becomes subject to him, becoming the very first member of his Church. From this point the cross will overshadow everything as Jesus goes about transforming and bringing life out of death hope out of despair.Only by reflecting upon these signs are we able to begin the journey of faith and through our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Why Was Jesus Baptised?

Baptism of the Lord

Luke 3;15-16,21-22

What are we to make of the strange matter of Jesus’ baptism? Baptism has many meanings, but it is undoubtedly for us about the forgiveness of sins: At some stage of church history, people postponed getting themselves baptised until they were on their death beds, because they reasoned that if they expired immediately after the water had been poured, they died sinless, and therefore went straight to heaven.

But where does Jesus fit into this? The Church has always believed that Jesus in his human incarnation was totally free from sin, so how can he, who was “God-in-man” be baptized for sin? This is Impossible. Two reasons may explain the Baptism of the Lord. First, it was an act of obedience: it was the will of his heavenly Father that he should do this; and how could he call others to loving obedience, if he was not prepared to set an example? And the second reason – solidarity. Solidarity with his human brothers and sisters who needed cleansing from their sins, in a way that he did not. Jesus in his baptism expresses his oneness, his solidarity with all of God’s children, who without exception stand in need of God’s forgiveness. 

Mural from the John the Baptist Church at the Jordan River
[David Bjorgen CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons]

To accept Jesus’ solidarity with us however also challenges us. How do our lives match up to the sinless Son of God? If we hold up a mirror to our lives, what do we see when look into it? The same old face that we have grown half to love, half to hate over the years? Or do we see rather someone who is being changed more and more into the likeness of Christ? 

In Jesus we see one who is perfectly good, perfectly holy, perfectly loving. He has no ambition in his life save that of doing his Father’s will, of drawing all men to the fire of the love of God, of reconciling man to God and man to man. The world, of course, has other ambitions: the ambition for money, the ambition for power, the ambition to destroy, the ambition to bring evil down upon others. If Jesus had been prepared to keep quiet, to be a silent eccentric, then he could probably have lived out his life in the carpenter’s shop, but as the modern hymn puts it, he had a Gospel to proclaim, and it was inevitable therefore that his other-worldly ambition would come into head on conflict with the ambition of this world. So the result was that they put this dangerous dreamer to death, and thought that they had silenced him for good. 

We know that isn’t how it turned out. We know that Jesus’ resurrection proves that love is stronger than death; we know that that puts the ultimate question mark against the world’s way of doing things. Does not the resurrection prove conclusively that the only ambition worth having is the one that Jesus had, of doing the will of God the Father, come what may? Jesus’ ambition is God-focused and leads to new life; the world’s ambition is self-focused and leads to death. Equally our baptism calls us to share to the full in all that Jesus is: his love, his obedience, his other-worldly ambition, or as the word would put it, his hopeless eccentricities. 

At the Jordan river all the people were baptised and Jesus was there in the middle of them. Isn’t this how the Church should be? We should be a people of joy, acknowledging the presence of the Lord in our midst. With that confidence, we should then, like Jesus be ready to be ambitious for God out there, taking his message to the world, a private affair no longer. And if we are regarded as fools, then what better than to be fools with Christ, fools for Christ? Don’t worry: with God on our side, who can be against us? 

Fr. Edward Bryant

Journey with Wise Men

The Epiphany of the Lord

Matt 2,1–12

Is it true, this fantastic story of wise men from the East coming to worship the baby Jesus? There is probably a bit in all of us that says that it couldn’t possibly have happened in this way – it seems to stretch credibility too far, so is it true?. The question of truth with regard to the Scriptures is a big one, and it can be taken at different levels. For example, the account of the Creation in Genesis is not these days generally accepted as literal truth – there is simply too much scientific evidence for evolution over a period of millions of years.

That however does not in any way detract from the religious truth of the story, for it tells us that the world is God’s creation, that he loves it, that there is beauty and order in creation, and that men and women are made in God’s image and so on. So when it comes to the journey with the Wise Men, before we simply dismiss it as a piece of beautiful but fanciful writing on Matthew’s part, we do need to remind ourselves that the Middle Eastern world of two thousand years ago was very different from the world of today and truth or wisdom come not just literally but in many ways.

There were Wise Men – Magi, astrologers – in abundance in the ancient world, they did study the stars, they did believe that important messages came to them in that way, they were prepared to travel long distances in search of the truth; further, it appears that at about the time of Jesus’ birth, there were strange phenomena apparent in the stars, even if we now know that a star would not literally go in front of people to guide them; we also know that Herod the king really was paranoid – he trusted no one and in the process had his wife and mother in law and three of his sons assassinated. For all these reasons, therefore, and, yes, recognising that there are problems with the story, we still should not be too ready to dismiss it as a mere flight of fancy.

The Magi – Fresco in cave church, Cappadocia, Turkey [Anonymous, Public domain]

But beyond the literal level of the text, there are important religious truths contained in this passage. For now, just consider on one point, namely that these men were not Jews. It is one of the wonders of Christianity that it exists at all. At the time of the first Pentecost, and for some years afterwards, it was really little more than a Jewish sect. Had it remained so, it would almost without question have died out when the Romans smashed the Jewish nation in the year AD70. But before then, men of vision, and notably St Paul, had helped the new faith to break the bonds of Judaism and set it on the path to becoming a faith for the whole world.

The point about the Epiphany, grandly subtitled the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the English Book of Common Prayer, is that right from his birth the Lord Jesus is shown to be Lord of all, and not simply another Jewish prophet. The Wise Men come looking for the one born King of the Jews, but they acknowledge his dominion over them as non-Jews also as they present their gifts to him. This child born in obscurity to a humble Jewish family is to change the world, and the world, in the shape of the Wise Men comes to pay him homage.

Our task is twofold: first to join with the Wise Men in the symbolic offering of our lives to the Lord Jesus, but second to play our part in the ongoing manifestation or revealing of Jesus to the world, for there is great ignorance about who Jesus is, as great as that shown by Herod. And we will be doing our part by the kinds of lives we lead and by the words we say. As St Paul puts it, we are all ambassadors for Christ, by virtue of our baptism, and we must take this calling not as an imposition but as a wonderful opportunity to bring Christ to the world, and the world to Christ.

Fr. Edward Bryant

The Symbols of Christmas

The Nativity of the Lord

Luke 2,15–20

Early in September the British public were hearing that Christmas dinners were in jeopardy because there would be a shortage of turkeys and trimmings including the essential “pigs in blankets”. Plastic toys from China, and other essentials were also being delayed. Midwinter festivities are now so thoroughly pagan that the meaning of the nativity of Jesus Christ is ever more difficult to uncover. So in the words of St. Luke, “let us go to Bethlehem” and reflect upon history’s greatest miracle – the mystery of the convergence of human and the divine – hidden in the birth of a boy child.

Behind the events in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels are centuries of Hebrew experience that humanity had somehow been marred, a deep scar running through every generation, and the hope of paradise lost. The Patriarch Jacob had dreamt of a ladder between earth and heaven, reconnecting the communion of the human and the divine. For centuries religiously sensitive people looked in hope for signs that God would restore his divine energy to mankind. Christianity grew from these Hebrew roots. The long awaited sign that God had indeed acted was revealed at the river Jordan to John the Baptist, who seeing Jesus said, “behold the lamb of God” [John 1;29], a manifestation endorsed by the voice of God, “this is my beloved Son”. [Luke 3;22 and Matthew 3;17] Yet many did not see the signs and were frequently offended by the words and actions of Jesus.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the background in which the birth narratives unpack the meaning of the incarnation. The Gospels written forty or more years later do not concern themselves with pure history for even the exact date and place are uncertain; they are presenting signs, frequently revealed by paradox. The greatest example of this is the star in the firmament overshadowing the lowliest of births on earth. Two diametrically opposed signs, focused over the City of David bringing together the entire Messianic tradition from King David and the Prophets, “you will bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David”. [Luke 1;31]

This cosmic symbol gathers the whole of creations purpose, in which humble shepherds and wise gentile astrologers are the first to respond to God descending to the human world in an act of recreation.

The Virgin is also a sign, “a star of Bethlehem,” for this gentle, self effacing, mother pointing only to her child becomes a template of “being church” in which humility of the soul is the preparation for the challenges of fidelity. Overshadowing the whole of the Christmas story, Mary is the icon of the new Eve and also the woman who becomes the ladder in whom heaven and earth are joined, as we shall see again at Candlemas. These with other signs are gradually opening up a deeper understanding of Christ’s birth by the Gospel writers in the years after his death and resurrection when the Holy Spirit had opened minds, as St. Paul said, “and lifted the veil”. [II Corinthians 3;16]

The veil is always present in the hearts and minds of those who are closed to the possibility of divine energy ever entering human lives. Such people are satisfied with the belief that the resources they need for life are all within themselves even the overcoming of evil. Yet more and more evidence builds up that this existence without God ends in loneliness and life without a destiny or purpose. Living has for most people been a journey of searching for self understanding and truth for personal development and renewal. The Star of Bethlehem that caused men to travel from foreign lands, for shepherds to leave their sheep to kneel at the place of the a unique child’s birth that still brings hope to those who still sense their fate, is linked to God’s greater plan for all His creation.

A blessed Nativity to everyone!

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Mary’s Troubles

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1,39–45

This reflection entitled “Mary’s Troubles” was inspired by an Advent poem by U. A. Fanthorpe. The poem called “BC–AD” is printed below.

“Mary’s Troubles” imagines what this unique woman had to go through during the nine months from the Annunciation by Gabriel of that First Christmas when, as St John says, “God the Son [His ‘Word’] was made Flesh in her Womb and lived among us, – but the World rejected Him”. It’s about what happened when God and Man met face-to-face, the Eternal and the Temporal, the Divine and the Human came together, which had never happened (at least in that way) until then. So let us look at some of the difficulties the Mother of God had to face, during those nine months: from saying “Yes” to God’s Plan, to when she gave birth to God the Son on Christmas Day.

Pregnancy is hard enough for any single girl. But Mary had to understand what an angel had said, that her Son would have no human father, but God Himself; that His conception would be miraculous; and, that He (in God’s Plan) would be a King who would ‘rule over His people everlastingly’. Many who heard such rumours would think that she was either lying or had gone mad. 

Meister der Kahriye-Cami-Kirche in Istanbul, Mosaic 1315-1320
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

First, there would be the problem of explaining to her family and contemporaries, and not least to St Joseph, her faithful fiancé, what the Angel had revealed to her about her future life and his. It even took a further angelic visit to convince St Joseph – who was ‘an upright man and wanted to spare her disgrace,’ that his part in God’s plan of Salvation was to act as foster-father to God’s incarnate Son; as well as being Mary’s husband in every other way: to protect and provide for her; and to take her to the Census 70 miles away at Bethlehem whilst nine months pregnant; arguing with a busy innkeeper to let them use his stable for a birthplace, beside finding a local midwife. However, to assist Mary, God had carefully surrounded her with many people whom He prepared to support her.

Enduring trials and temptations is a vital component of God’s Plan for working towards our perfection. He allows those whom He calls to be His agents, and who say “Yes/Amen” to His call, like Mary, to be tried and tempted so that they too may be ‘made perfect through suffering.’ But God also provides unfailing supporters, both human and Divine, to those like Mary who have agreed to work as His agents, so that they shall not fail. Here is a short list of some whom He prepared to support Mary the Mother of God Incarnate whom He called to bear such a heavy burden: Saint Joseph her fiancé; St Joachim and Anna her parents; Saint Elizabeth her cousin and Zachariah; Simeon and Anna, the Shepherds and the Magi – to each of whom God gave a different supportive task in the early days of the Incarnation.

Later came the Apostles whom Jesus chose to support Him in His ministry, including St John, whose love for Jesus found him standing with Mary at the foot of the Cross with Mary Magdalen and other women witnesses of His Resurrection, like Joseph of Arimathea.

Few of these good people realised at the time what they were really witnessing (and contributing to). Saint John the beloved disciple understood, better than anyone else that the whole World was in the process of being ‘turned upside-down’ by its Creator, but even John took many years to contemplate what it meant, before committing it to writing in his Gospel.

“BC–AD” by U. A. Fanthorpe

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
happened. Only dull peace
sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
could find nothing better to do
than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
when a few farm workers and three
members of an obscure Persian sect
walked haphazard by starlight straight
into the kingdom of heaven.

Fr. Francis Gardom

The evil I do not want, is what I do

Third Sunday of Advent

Luke 3,7-18

From St. John the Baptist Church, Oslo

The stark message of John the Baptist is “Repentance for the forgiveness of sin”. It is the same battle that St. Paul confesses “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want”. [Romans 7;17] This crucial teaching is widely misunderstood and the message lost because of these words “sin and repentance”. Like the prophets before him and Jesus after, these pronouncements are hard and fall on deaf ears. More so for John the Baptist who referred to Jewish leaders as “a brood of vipers”, enough to outrage most people. Fundamentally humans all have an internal switch and become hardened to anything that requires a change in behaviour. Moreover, in the context of today, the message not only meets resistance but ignorance about the Christian understanding of the dark power of evil that empowers sin and requires repentance if it is to be overcome. Everywhere we see evidence of the dark side, and turning a blind eye, for example, to the killing of the unborn, or the social problems in Britain when predictions show 100,000 children will be taken into care homes and so much more.

Jesus was not born in order to turn a blind eye on insensitivity and brutality or to bring a sentimental message of reassurance. He came with a hard message for every single one of us; namely rather than making excuses, blaming others, or retreating into popular ideas of entitlement which creates victims, he brings an opportunity to rebuild life. The word repent “metanoia” means a whole change of heart, mind and outlook which is the start because it recognises, however hard we try (and most don’t bother) we cannot put right all by ourselves the deep flaws that run like grain through us. Sins are these flaws that destroy the person requiring a healing power to overcome.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together discusses how the Christian fellowship should be the place in which the battle with sin through repentance can take place. The Christian community is not some philosophical or theological system, invented by behavioural scientists and therapists. It is God’s gift to reveal his divinity through Christ who operates within the fellowship to bring about change and wholeness.

Bonhoeffer believes man made communities will always encounter the problems that arise from the clash between assorted personality flaws that quickly descend into the darker selves of misunderstandings, divisions and battles of will. No one is perfect, not even the disciples of Jesus, who regularly get into conflicts and must learn the lesson of “metanoia”. The flaw that drove Judas to betrayal came because he was driven by a personal vision of what Jesus was supposed to be. The first Church in Jerusalem struggled with fixed ideas about the admission of gentile converts and St. Paul found many of his own converts never fully understood that the Christian Community rises beyond human fellowship into a spirit led fellowship whose essence is “truth and light” [1 John 1;15] and no longer a merely human community driven by “eros, ”human love and need, rather than “agape”, Christ’s love. “Metanoia” means that the Church struggles continually to be a divine reality whose fellowship must be absolutely different by regular renewal of heart mind and soul.

In different ways this overcoming of the dark side, the power that so easily destroys, is the heart of the Gospel, even when Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, he means “Metanoia” which is another way of repeating the message of John the herald of Jesus to repent and be willing to leave the old life that leads us all into darkness.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Be Prepared

Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 3;1-6

Imagine that you’ve just had a message from God. He wants you to be the advance guard for his Son, who is coming soon to preach a revolutionary message of love for all, and who will ultimately die in the cause of unconditional love. How do you react?

Probably you feel like running away, but you’re too far in now to get out of it. Surely God has made a mistake, there is no way you are the right person for this vital task. But, God’s ways are not our ways, and God doesn’t make mistakes, He knows exactly what he is doing.

St. John the Baptist, 15th century, from Nabakhtevi Virgin Mary Church, Georgia [Unknown artist, Wikimedia Commons],

St John the Baptist, whose call is recorded in today’s Gospel. Definitely not the sort of person you would have chosen. He wasn’t anyone famous, he was a rough sort of character, who was proved to be abrasive in tongue, if not downright hostile. He lived on a strange vegan diet and didn’t exactly dress in the height of fashion. Humanly speaking he did this strange thing of going out into the desert wilderness to preach – a place where no one lived! Truly God’s ways are not our ways, truly God picks the strangest people to serve his purposes in the world. 

Think about our own journey of faith, and the milestones along the way: think about the unassuming saints we have known who have shown us more of God’s love than any number of learned professors of theology would ever be able to do. Who prepared the way for us to know Christ? For many it will have been parents, probably nothing in the eyes of the world, but people seeking to follow Christ in precisely the ordinary things of life in the world of work, the world of the family. Who made the path straight for us? Who filled in the valleys and lowered the hills so that we could see the Lord? Who made the crooked paths straight and the rough ways smooth so that we could see the salvation of the Lord? It is the ordinary faithful people of God who have done this, many of whom would run a mile if you said they were saints. And that is our challenge and our calling, that we should straighten paths, smooth rough ways, prepare the way of the Lord for those whom we meet.

Various Christian thinkers have said there is a God-shaped hole inside each of us. Either God fills it, or the false gods of this passing age will enter. Our challenge is to help people see that Jesus is the answer to the deepest needs and longings of the human heart, and to encourage them to fill their lives with him and experience for themselves how things will never be the same again, new life indeed. We are called even in our ordinariness and unworthiness to know Christ and in so doing to step outside our comfort zones and be prepared to do great things for Christ. There are many ways we can do this, but if we are prepared to be truly open to the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, ordinary, uncertain though we often are, God can do great things through us, and enable us to prepare the way for others.

Fr. Edward Bryant

Christian Hope

Advent 1.

Luke 21;25–36

Fifty years ago people might occasionally have seen a miserable looking man wearing three large placards walking the streets of cities like London, declaring the end of the world was nigh. Today’s apocalyptic message of doom is promoted by the media twenty four hours every day. Throughout history there have been many times when people became aware of human vulnerability even the possibility of the extinction of homo sapiens. But today it must be true, that against the background of greater and greater scales of human power and far larger populations, such feelings of individual frailty and impotence will feel ever greater.

In addition we are experiencing the convergence of a whole series of threats at the same time from global warming, species extinction, social disorder, floods, fire, earthquakes and more, all in the context of a world pandemic. It can hardly be a surprise that mental health issues are increasing or that the young are too frightened to bring babies into the world. These grave matters must be taken seriously, while at the same time knowing that fatalism has been a regular feature of human history from the earliest times and also that there will be some religious sects who too readily become tempted to use present day events to claim knowledge of the mind of God. The end times have frequently been a fertile ground for fringe sects to distort and mislead the anxious and vulnerable.

The Great Panagia (Our Lady of the Sign), 13th century, the Saviour Minster in Yaroslavl [Unknown author, Public domain]

For Christians Advent has been a time to look again at the Church’s consistent understanding and responses to any critical times. The extract from chapter 21 of St. Luke’s gospel is set in the context of a critical time before the Lord’s death when Jesus had said, “there will be signs….stress among the nations…men’s hearts will fail…” With such passages it would be too easy to cull predictions of the events taking place now, as some sects have done without referencing the context or the overall Apostolic teaching.

These remarks of Jesus were prompted when he saw a poor widow offering her pennies to the Temple treasury which was more than adequately adorned with beautiful jewels and treasures and where privileges of the scribes and injustice had been the subject of the Lord’s criticism. Jesus foresaw the collapse of this temple and its empty religion and the need for godly living to return. When Luke was writing thirty years later, the Temple had indeed been destroyed AD70 by the Romans, and Christians were facing persecution. Luke’s task was to offer hope and support to the faithful by recalling the warnings that Jesus had given of the collapse of the temple and Holy City and the trials and desolation that would follow. All of the followers of Jesus needed to know that judgement would often follow evil and they should remain confident in the Lord’s victory over evil and his promises never to forsake them to be alert and watchful and above all not to give in to despair as those without faith who are easily deceived and paralysed by fear. These passages are written to build courage and strength among the fledgling churches and not to fan the flames of doom.

Although religion has often been linked to the end times, some may have imagined that science and technology would deal a fatal blow to these things. Yet it is science itself that now seems to be fuelling the prophet of doom. Christians must remember that our battle is the same as that of Jesus between good and evil, truth and lies, life and death. That behind the science and politics these abound in the cultures of unbelief that give rise to increasing psychopathic social behaviour, lawlessness and criminality committed by States practicing torture and an ever more monstrous culture of death. These too are the signs of decline which we must confront, for “he who endures will be saved”.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Solemnity of Christ the King

Last Sunday of the Year

John 18;33–37

Since 1925 Pentecost ends with the solemn Christian acclamation of the Kingship of Christ. In England this was called “Stir up Sunday” from the collect before Advent. Typically this became associated with preparing the mixture for Christmas puddings rather than stirring the will power of the faithful. But now we can usefully blend the stir up challenge of Jesus as King of the Church.

Think of those first believers who refused to offer incense to the divinity of Caesar. They believed only by asserting the divinity of Jesus could they then be partakers of his divine nature. The Church emerged opposing the overwhelming might of the political powers, resulting in martyrs prepared to embrace the passion and resurrection of Christ their King of a heavenly kingdom.

Kingship would always bring a smile to an American congregation listening to me, an English priest, explaining that altars were the place where Christ the King was enthroned. The truth is that there is no difference between Christians from Republican States or Monarchies, they are both “of this world” and not the same kingdom that Christ proclaimed. The Church must still be the community of Christ, existing through the Holy Spirit, filling people with holiness and truth. We render what is appropriate to the world of Caesar but this does not include the infallibility of Caesar. Many humble and gentle Christians are still paying the ultimate price, for making that choice. This battle rages ever more violently across the whole world today as more that 90% of those persecuted by the Caesar States are Christians.

Detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia [Edal Anton Lefterov, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Messiah and King are deeply part of Biblical imagery. Jesus understands his teaching and ministry in terms of the Kingdom of God from the time of King David and the Hebrew prophets until it was fulfilled in his own life. His kingship is present at the announcement by the angel Gabriel, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”[Luke 1;32+33]. At the trial especially, Pilate asks the political question, “are you the King of the Jews?” [John 18;33ff]. Jesus declares the Spiritual character of his kingship, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate’s begins his descent into cynicism in readiness for saving his own skin, “Are You a king then?”Jesus’ answer reveals the tension between the worldly shallowness of state power and God’s divine truth, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.

The Kingship of Christ we highlight is the central feature of life within the Church, profoundly stated by the former persecutor and convert St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. For this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. To the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.” [1;15-17]. This beautiful, fatherly letter to a son in the faith ends urging Timothy to fight like Jesus, the good fight for the Kingdom of Christ. [6;13-16]. “I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing, which He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honour and everlasting power”. The martyrdom of Paul and Timothy resulted from their total commitment of conscience as they encountered the world that submits to the power of Caesar rather than the world of God. All over the globe the same battle goes on and is getting ever closer to most of us.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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