Taste and See: endurance and hope

 

Paul, St Paul os the Walls

The First Reading at Mass on Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Easter, came from the Acts of the Apostles and told of the completion of St Paul’s first missionary journey (together with Barnabas). It includes a lot of place names and is almost just the itinerary of their journey. But there is more…

Paul and Barnabas went back through Lystra and Iconium to Antioch. They put fresh heart into the disciples, encouraging them to persevere in the faith. ‘We all have to experience many hardships’ they said ‘before we enter the kingdom of God.’ In each of these churches they appointed elders, and with prayer and fasting they commended them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.

They passed through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. Then after proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia and from there sailed for Antioch, where they had originally been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now completed.

On their arrival they assembled the church and gave an account of all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith to the pagans.

Acts 14:21-27

In itself the list of place names should  give contemporary Christians pause for thought, and pause for prayer. These are places in modern day Turkey, a country currently housing 2.7 million refugees from Syria.

What also should give pause for thought and prayer is the example Paul and Barnabas set for their support of the new Christian communities they have established, and the putting in place of elders: in these ways, and by their own example, resourcing the local Church to endure hardship and remain faithful.

  • Who do we resource and how?
  • What is the example we give?
  • To whom do we give account of what God has done with us?

St Paul, servant-slave, preaching the Gospel. Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls, Rome. (c) 2016, Allen Morris

Speak Lord: To help us speak

Paul's Place

Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter, and the first reading comes from the Acts of the Apostles. It tells of the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas in what is modern-day Turkey.

Paul and Barnabas carried on from Perga till they reached Antioch in Pisidia. Here they went to synagogue on the Sabbath and took their seats.

When the meeting broke up many Jews and devout converts joined Paul and Barnabas, and in their talks with them Paul and Barnabas urged them to remain faithful to the grace God had given them.

The next sabbath almost the whole town assembled to hear the word of God. When they saw the crowds, the Jews, prompted by jealousy, used blasphemies and contradicted everything Paul said. Then Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly. ‘We had to proclaim the word of God to you first, but since you have rejected it, since you do not think yourselves worthy of eternal life, we must turn to the pagans. For this is what the Lord commanded us to do when he said:

I have made you a light for the nations,
so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.’

It made the pagans very happy to hear this and they thanked the Lord for his message; all who were destined for eternal life became believers. Thus the word of the Lord spread through the whole countryside.

But the Jews worked upon some of the devout women of the upper classes and the leading men of the city and persuaded them to turn against Paul and Barnabas and expel them from their territory. So they shook the dust from their feet in defiance and went off to Iconium; but the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.

Acts 13:14,43-52

One of the ways in which the Bible, and the Church’s reading of it, helps us today is by preserving and re-telling stories of failure. The Old Testament and the New Testament are full of stories of people failing to understand, failing to follow through if they do seem to understand, confronting opposition and persecution. These negatives really ought  never to come as a surprise when we encounter them in our lives, ministry or mission today. They are par for the course. Indeed Martin Luther claimed ‘persecution’ as one of the marks of the Church, alongside ‘One’, ‘Holy’, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Apostolic’ – though perhaps that was special-pleading.

The bigger picture of the Bible’s story and stories is of God’s over-arching love and mercy that calls us on, and offers protection, encouragement, hope even in greatest darkness.

In today’s reading Paul and Barnabas respond to opposition with apparently immediate joy. We may be a little slower to admit joy into our hearts, but please God we will never keep at at bay for too long.

  • What challenges do you face?
  • What helps you?
  • What undermines you?

Window and place of proclamation of the word at Paul’s Place, an evangelical centre in Antalya, Turkey. (c) 2013, Allen Morris.

 

Speak Lord: Even to warn us

Judean Desert nr St George's Monastery

The Second reading at Mass tomorrow comes from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. Paul reflects back on Israel’s experience of journeying through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land, during the Exodus, and what Christians might learn from this.

I want to remind you, brothers, how our fathers were all guided by a cloud above them and how they all passed through the sea. They were all baptised into Moses in this cloud and in this sea; all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink, since they all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them as they went, and that rock was Christ. In spite of this, most of them failed to please God and their corpses littered the desert.

These things all happened as warnings for us, not to have the wicked lusts for forbidden things that they had. You must never complain: some of them did, and they were killed by the Destroyer.

All this happened to them as a warning, and it was written down to be a lesson for us who are living at the end of the age. The man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall.

1 Corinthians 10:1-6,10-12

The Destroyer is the destroying angel who carries out God’s punishment in Exodus, the slaying of the first-born of Egypt.

However we understand that, and however we understand the warning here, it is presented as a matter of life and death. We are offered life and urged not, instead, to choose death.

We presently make our journey through Lent, a season given us to help us consider how we make our journey through life.

  • Let us notice the choices we make and the choices we refuse.
  • Where are they leading us?
  • What would be the best choices we could make? Why might we not make them?
  • Ask the Lord to send his Spirit to help you in your following of Christ.

The Judean desert, near St George’s Monastery. (c) 2012, Allen Morris.

Speak Lord: to us through us…

Paul , BeroeaThe second reading on Sunday, the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, comes from St Paul and is precious testimony to the traditio, the handing on the faith of the Church – even at this early stage known to be something received from the community of believers, and not a merely personal individual ‘take’ on faith and life.

Brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, the gospel that you received and in which you are firmly established; because the gospel will save you only if you keep believing exactly what I preached to you – believing anything else will not lead to anything.

Well then, in the first place, I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; and that he was raised to life on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared first to Cephas and secondly to the Twelve. Next he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died; then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles; and last of all he appeared to me too; it was as though I was born when no one expected it.

I am the least of the apostles; in fact, since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle; but by God’s grace that is what I am, and the grace that he gave me has not been fruitless. On the contrary, I, or rather the grace of God that is with me, have worked harder than any of the others; but what matters is that I preach what they preach, and this is what you all believed.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Sin, ‘littleness’, nothing in us and nothing about us makes us unworthy to receive the Gospel, or incapable of responding to it. It is freely shared and shared with all.

Having received it we are called, invited, to respond. How we respond will depend on our circumstances and ourselves. But as the example of Paul, especially, makes clear, the power of God in us makes our response capable of being quite extraordinary – leading us to new and unimagined works of grace.

  • What might be your first, next, step to newness in God’s grace?

Shrine of St Paul at Beroea, Greece. (c) 2006, Allen Morris

Speak Lord: Call us to holiness

Saints, Czartoryski museum, CracowThe second reading on Sunday continues our reading of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

And it contains both challenge and encouragement.

I want to urge you in the name of the Lord, not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live. Now that is hardly the way you have learnt from Christ, unless you failed to hear him properly when you were taught what the truth is in Jesus. You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires. Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth.

Ephesians 4:17,20-24

The Lord comes to us to change us. He comes to heal, restore, guide us to ourselves, to the fulness of our humanity to likeness to him.

This change was gifted to us in baptism, but our receiving, ‘owning’, and living of this gift is the work for a lifetime. We need to grow into it, to become skilled in being ourselves.

Today is the day for freshly welcoming and enjoying the gift and the opportunities it brings us.

  • What illusory desires befuddle you? What helps you see through them?
  • What most attracts you about the newness to which God invites you?

Fragment of frieze of saints. Czartoryski museum Cracow, Poland. (c) 2013, Allen Morris.

Taste and See: Trinity

Baptism Piero della Francesco

The second reading on Sunday came from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It is a remarkable account of the blessing we receive in Christ, from the Father, retained by us by the gift of the Spirit.

Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ.

Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence, determining that we should become his adopted sons, through Jesus Christ for his own kind purposes,
to make us praise the glory of his grace, his free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins.

Such is the richness of the grace which he has showered on us in all wisdom and insight.

He has let us know the mystery of his purpose, the hidden plan he so kindly made in Christ from the beginning to act upon when the times had run their course to the end: that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth.

And it is in him that we were claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning, under the predetermined plan of the one who guides all things as he decides by his own will; chosen to be, for his greater glory, the people who would put their hopes in Christ before he came.

Now you too, in him, have heard the message of the truth and the good news of your salvation, and have believed it; and you too have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit of the Promise, the pledge of our inheritance which brings freedom for those whom God has taken for his own, to make his glory praised.

Ephesians 1:3-14

Paul – long before the Council of Nicaea – offers a remarkable description of the Trinity not in itself but as working for our salvation. We are who we are, and are becoming who God longs for us to be, because of the One God, Father, Son and Spirit.

Often in our personal piety, and our understanding of the faith, Christians neglect the Trinity for an expression or experience of faith that is heavily weighted in favour of one or other person of the Trinity. We focus on Jesus at the expense of Spirit or Father, or the Spirit at the neglect of…. You get the point!

The Mystery of the Trinity is a great one, and it is not surprising we have difficulty ‘managing’ it, sometimes veering towards Tritheism (treating theTriune God as though God were three Gods), sometimes towards a sort of Deism (God almost as an abstract ‘given’, rather than God as revealed and revealing, saving us and calling us to live in covenant with Him), and doubtless veering in all sorts of other ways too!

Perhaps Paul’s hymn of praise can encourage us to know again the wonder of God’s personal love for us, and to contemplate the glory of the Trinity.

  • What difference does it make to you that God is Three and not only One?
  • The classic description of Christian prayer is that we pray to the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit. Is this how you would describe your understanding of what you do when you pray?
  • How in prayer (and the rest of life) do you relate to Father, Son and Spirit? What is the same? What different?

Piero della Francesco, in the painting above (in London’s National Gallery) depicts the Baptism in a very naturalistic, worldly way, and at the same time guides us into an appreciation of the transcendent and saving Mystery – in which the gospels describe the active participation of Father, Son and Spirit. Photograph (c) 2015, Allen Morris.

Taste and See: the challenge of the new

St Paul 14C

The first reading on Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Easter, Came from the book the Church especially listens to during the Easter season, the Acts of the Apostles. The book witnesses to the newness of life in the Spirit, but also, as here, suggests that there was also something in those early days that could be both brutal and brutalising.

When Saul got to Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him: they could not believe he was really a disciple. Barnabas, however, took charge of him, introduced him to the apostles, and explained how the Lord had appeared to Saul and spoken to him on his journey, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. Saul now started to go round with them in Jerusalem, preaching fearlessly in the name of the Lord. But after he had spoken to the Hellenists, and argued with them, they became determined to kill him. When the brothers knew, they took him to Caesarea, and sent him off from there to Tarsus.

Acts 9:26-31

Were it not for his ‘exile’, perhaps Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have got underway. Maybe, too, the Church in the Holy Land needed a certain ‘recovery’ time.

  • Where are we in this? What do we proclaim, teach, espouse?
  • What is the effect on us and others?
  • How do we take responsibility for our way forward? Our own way forward, and theirs?

Carving of St Paul, St Paul outside the Walls. (c) 2014, Allen Morris.

Speak Lord: Let us know our strengths and weaknesses.

Peter and Paul II

The first reading on Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Easter, gives a certain insight to the tensions that challenged the early Church. Saul had once persecuted the Church: now a Christian he faces death – yes, death – at the hand of other Christians. ‘Peace’ is only achieved by packing Saul off to modern day Turkey!

When Saul got to Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him: they could not believe he was really a disciple. Barnabas, however, took charge of him, introduced him to the apostles, and explained how the Lord had appeared to Saul and spoken to him on his journey, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. Saul now started to go round with them in Jerusalem, preaching fearlessly in the name of the Lord. But after he had spoken to the Hellenists, and argued with them, they became determined to kill him. When the brothers knew, they took him to Caesarea, and sent him off from there to Tarsus.

The churches throughout Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were now left in peace, building themselves up, living in the fear of the Lord, and filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 9:26-31

In the absence of Paul, it is Peter who is the key figure in the ‘liberalisation’ of the Christian community, helping shed some of the customs and laws of Judaism, opening the Church directly to Gentiles.

The ‘exile’ does not prevent the mission of Paul, maybe it even helps focus it and empower it.

Maybe the absence of Paul opens up a space in the leadership that Peter rises to in a new way, and forces him to exercise the discernment proper to the leadership of the Church.

  • Where has reversal helped you?
  • Where has it hindered you?
  • When has it been best to flee?
  • When to fight?

Bring the fruits of your reflection to the Lord in prayer.

Photograph of early Christian memorial plaque, Vatican Museum. (c) 2005, Allen Morris.

Taste and See: Beyond passing…

 

Holy Cross church vaulting

The second reading at Sunday’s Mass, that of the 3rd Sunday of the Year, talks of getting a healthy perspective on this passing life.

Brothers: our time is growing short. Those who have wives should live as though they had none, and those who mourn should live as though they had nothing to mourn for; those who are enjoying life should live as though there were nothing to laugh about; those whose life is buying things should live as though they had nothing of their own; and those who have to deal with the world should not become engrossed in it. I say this because the world as we know it is passing away.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Paul, hard-working and conscientious, is all too well aware of how you can focus on the wrong things. And maybe had got the brush off when preaching the good news from people saying ‘sorry, mate, love to hear more but got to get back to the wife’ or ‘got to go open up the shop’

But in our day our response to the lord may well be authenticated precisely by how a husband relates to his wife, or wife to husband; by how someone does business.

The world is passing away, so we do not build kingdoms for ourselves here. But we can live in this world seeking its best for others – wives, business partners, neighbours, strangers; working for the common good, serving God in others. Not engrossed by the world but seeking to be free in it to live love.

Detail from the Holy Cross church, Krakow, Poland. (C) 2013, Allen Morris.

 

Speak Lord: about dying to live

Gethsemane

The second reading at tomorrow’s Mass, that of the 3rd Sunday of the Year, somewhat starkly encourages us to recognise that we are creatures, passing things.

Brothers: our time is growing short. Those who have wives should live as though they had none, and those who mourn should live as though they had nothing to mourn for; those who are enjoying life should live as though there were nothing to laugh about; those whose life is buying things should live as though they had nothing of their own; and those who have to deal with the world should not become engrossed in it. I say this because the world as we know it is passing away.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

What prevents this from being simply a sobering and probably upsetting or nihilistic reminder of our mortality is, of course, its context. The reading is part of a ritual action which is a memorial, an active remembering, of the Paschal Mystery, the Easter Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.

And Paul, above all the other writers of the New Testament, knew how those who are ready to die in Christ will rise with him. Our lives are characterised by a dying so that in our dying we might live for ever.

Detail from the Church of all Nations, Gethsemane, Jerusalem. (C) 2013, Allen Morris.