Perhaps the most frequently chosen greeting on our Christmas cards is ‘peace on earth’. Regardless of the religious perspective of sender or recipient, we believe that this is a universally desirable message. However, what do we really mean when we send this? For true peace is about much more than the absence of conflict or some warm fuzzy feeling of general well-being.
What are your experiences of nativity plays? They can be extraordinary events, can’t they? At times they are full of bathos, clumsy and comic. At other moments they can be wondrous and moving, full of pathos. These days of course all kinds of characters can sometimes be found in them: space folk, aliens, rocket ships, and even Harry Potter. Mostly however we have the traditional cast: with the so-called ‘three kings’ perhaps the most striking of all. What do you make of them, I wonder? As we mark the feast of Epiphany, perhaps it is worth a closer look, not least at the often passed over gift of myrrh. For, in my view, much more than gold or frankincense, myrrh takes us to the heart of Christian discipleship and the love of God in Jesus, and certainly beyond 'conventional' gender, and other, nativity norms…
If the Feast of the Epiphany tells us anything, it is that truly holy gifts come from surprising places. Why else would the bearers of gold, frankincense and myrrh not only be Gentiles – unclean foreigners, from other nations – but also Magi to boot? Recent Christmas tradition has called them the Wise Men, or the Three Kings, but there is nothing in the text to say that they were kings, or only male, or only three of them, or even ‘wise’ in typical Jewish understanding. In fact the word Magi may indicate the word ‘magician’, as used, disapprovingly, elsewhere in the New Testament. So we have a story today where the main bearers of the revelation of Jesus Christ, and its symbols, are potentially very dodgy outsiders indeed. Of course this is highly intentional. For, from the very start, in its genealogy of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel is keen to tell us that God’s revelation, and salvation, involves surprising people and surprising divine moves. So it was then and remains now, if our eyes, ears and hearts are open. When I begin by saying my address this morning is inspired by a funeral I attended this week, you may therefore recognise something of that same surprising movement of our surprising God…
‘We believe Life before Death, do you?’ Let me say that again: ‘we believe in Life before Death.’ Do you believe that?
Quite a few years ago now, Christian Aid in the UK used those words as a way of highlighting their aid and development work. In doing so, they deliberately turned upside down a widespread, but deeply mistaken, view of the Christian Faith as a whole. For ‘we believe in Life after Death’ is a popular affirmation of Christian Faith, isn’t it? Of course, that is true also. The Love of God we trust in in Jesus Christ is indeed so strong that nothing can stop it, not even the powers of death. The Love of God into which Christians are baptised is truly eternal Love, eternal Life, extending through all time and space, and dimensions of existence. Sadly however, too many Christians become so caught up in the ‘Life after Death’ affirmation, that they neglect, or even look doubtfully, on the idea that Jesus, and Christian Faith, is also, and first and foremost, about ‘Life before Death.’ Too many people, in and outside our churches, understand Christianity in terms of getting to heaven when we die. What an amazing turning-upside down of the life and teaching of Jesus!...
‘There was an ancient music on the earth before humans ever came here. Imagine what the first music of the wind was like when the earth was born out of nothing. Imagine the wind being released for the first time, and finding itself running into silver mountains, dark mountains, skimming over boiling oceans. And if you enter into the dream which brought you here, and awaken its beauty in you, then the beauty will gradually awaken all around you.’
- so begins the introduction to the film ‘Celtic Pilgrimage’ which shares much of John O’Donohue’s life and work. And, in a way, like many of his sayings, those gorgeously fashioned few words alone might really be enough for us to ponder tonight. For the heart of much of his insight and encouragement to live is contained in them: the vitality of creation and the landscape; the call to imagination and to enter into the dreams of our life; and the centrality of beauty and of wonder. John O’Donohue’s life and work was an invitation and example of how to attend to such presence and to travel as adventurous pilgrims into them…
Goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death.
These are Archbishop Tutu's words, and they sum up the good news that Christians bring to the world in remembering Good Friday and celebrating Easter. They celebrate Christ's victory over death, and thus the possibility of resurrection for us and all creation. There is no darkness so deep, no grief so unbearable, no injustice so challenging that Christ cannot transform it.
Sometimes we forget that God is for us and not against us. When we are in trouble, and sometimes even when things are going well, we can turn our attention away from God. Easter is a time to turn back and re-connect.
On Easter Day the great Easter candle is lit and carried into churches with great ceremony. It stands as a reminder of the truth that God's love is stronger than death and anything we fear. So whatever pain or sorrow is happening in your life, remember Christ bears that hurt with you, and His love overcomes our fear, ultimately wiping our tears from our eyes.
How do we respond to death? I don’t ask that as a negative question but because it is at the heart of our Gospel – our Good News – today, and throughout this Holy Week. It is an unavoidable question, however much we try to avoid it: for, as the old proverb has it, two things are certain in life: death and taxes. Yet, more meaningfully, Christians believe, how we respond to death is at the heart of how we find life in this world, which is the ultimate meaning of our Gospel and the culmination of this Holy Week in the Resurrection. So, as we hear today’s Gospel reading (the story of Christ’s Passion according to Luke) - in three parts - let us reflect upon the challenge of death, so that we may find life again more fully, as Jesus offers it to us…
I have a little confession to make. When I was growing up, I was a bit of a board game geek. Indeed I still have a shelf or two at home full of some of my favourite games. For a number of years, it was also an easy way for family members to buy me presents for Christmas and my birthday. One particular game I grew to love however was actually one of the few given to my sister. It was called Careers. Perhaps some of you have heard about it, and even played it? As the name suggests, it is a game about life, options and seeking success. As such it can be great fun and even educational in some respects. Taken too seriously however, it can represent much that is wrong with the way we approach life, especially in our success orientated modern Western world. For it is the kind of game that the rich young man in our Gospel story today was playing in actual life. Jesus however, as we see in our Gospel story, calls us to another way…
"Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands…and put my hand in his side; I refuse to believe.” Thomas was after certainty wasn’t he?
Often we speak of ‘doubting’ Thomas. Yet the Thomas we encounter here is not so much doubting as demanding proof. There is an aggressiveness in his demand for sure proof that is disturbing, and is matched by the fervour of his response once proof is provided. ‘My Lord and my God’ he proclaims: the loftiest acclamation of Christ anywhere in the New Testament.
In terms of personality it would be more accurate to characterise Thomas as a fundamentalist than a doubter. For him things are very clear with no grey areas. Such clarity produces great zeal and a capacity for courageous and devoted service. It is also potentially very dangerous.
Today across our world we see an increase in fundamentalism. This is true alike of all the mainstream religions and also of liberal securalism. It is a human phenomenon of our times, arising at least in part in response to the uncertainties of the post modern era, with the rapid pace of change brought about by the technological revolution. Fearful of the attack on familiar elements of culture and the perceived rubbishing of important values many people are attracted by the simplicity and apparent clarity of a fundamentalist approach. We can recognise it in ourselves; and we can see it just as clearly in those who would outlaw all religion as having evil consequences as in those who see themselves engaged in ‘Holy War’...
by Jon Inkpin for Advent Sunday 2014
Keep awake – keep alert – again and again we hear this message repeated in the Gospels, especially around this Advent season. Keep awake: like an alarm clock, this message challenges us to rise from our slumbers and get living. It calls on us to open our eyes, open our ears, and open our hearts, to the love of God coming afresh in, and among and beyond us. What a vital message this is for a Christian new year, as well as a preparation for Christmas. Are we awake? Are we alert? Are we expecting God to live and grow and come to birth in and among us?
In many ways, the best response to the Advent challenge is that which we see in Mary, the mother of Jesus. That is why we have taken Mary’s song, the Magnificat, as our Advent theme this year. ‘Give Thanks – Give Life’: that is the refrain. For giving thanks and giving life are two major elements of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we also can share in. Just as Mary gives thanks for the Holy Spirit whom she sees and hears God in and around her, so we too can open our eyes and ears to that same Spirit among us. Just as Mary opened her heart, and her very being, to the love and power of God, so we too can open our hearts, and our very selves, to the love of God in Christ Jesus. Giving thanks and giving life: these things can be symbolised or embodied in ordinary Christmas presents. Yet they are most fully embodied in the giving of of our whole human lives…
sermons and reflections from Penny Jones & Jo Inkpin,