Sunday, 3 April 2016

Taste and see

"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." (John 20:25)

Was Thomas the Twin temperamentally unwilling to rely on what others told him? A natural skeptic? Or did he learn confidence to seek the truth and test the reported evidence from being with Jesus, who encouraged others to find out and decide for themselves?

"If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I in the Father."  (John 10:36-38)

It is all too easy to regard the doubt of Thomas as a weakness, a failure to take anything on trust, but it for him to want to see Jesus again and look at the wounds inflicted on him was an act of courage in seeking the truth of what had happened.

When the imprisoned John the Baptist sends a message to Jesus to ask if he is the promised Messiah, he received this reply;

"Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor." (Luke 7:22) 

John's messengers are invited to consider the evidence and make their own decision on what to report. 

Belief in God and God's saving works must be based on what rings true in our understanding and experience. This enables us to go beyond what is knowable and enter into a relationship of trust in God's love and providence knowing that we have a secure foundation. 

'Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.' (Hebrews 11:1)

'So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.' (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Faith develops by living with an attitude of trust in God above all else, something that prayer nurtures, as we review the whole of our experience in God's presence, express our gratitude and offer up all our concerns to the Author of our existence.

'Cast all your cares on him, because he cares for you.' (1 Peter 5:7)

The reality of these statements can be put to the test through desire and determination to 

'Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing'  (1 Thessalonians 5:17) 

'Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who trust in him.' (Psalm 34:8)

Saturday, 2 April 2016

With us always

The experience of being with the resurrected Jesus changed the disciples utterly. Their fearfulness and lack of understanding about Jesus and the depths of his message was transformed into a confident grasp of the truth and an ability to express themselves in a way that astonished others, given they were uneducated peasants without social sophistication. 

They were men and women who learned by being with Jesus and doing things with him. Learning happens with and without the benefit of structured or designed schemes, in every area of life. Learning a spiritual path relies only on being accompanied by another person. They may have wisdom and understanding to share, but they too may have much to share with others, and will learn more, simply by having to 

'... give an account of the hope that is in you.' (1 Peter 3:15) 

Jesus sends out his disciples to continue proclaiming the Good News to all creation (Mark 16:15), and the more they tell others what they know, the more they will learn and deepen their understanding. He remains present with them always, in and through the relationships they have and the relationships they make, with others and with God in prayer. The love they share is love God continues to pour into the world, through Jesus, through the ages. His passage from the realms of time and place remains an incomprehensible mystery, yet the experience of his living presence with us always has never gone away. Our lack of awareness, our self absorption is what blinds us to greater reality.

No matter how we bring ourselves to stillness and seek to open our hearts to God in prayer, the sense of his love enfolding us will return, heal and restore us, in a way that God alone knows best meets our true need. Sometimes, when we find it desperately hard start praying, it can be enough to be in a place where other people are praying, alone or together. God never leaves us without witnesses to his presence. The love their devotion releases can reach out and touch us, and inspire us to pray despite our weakness and failure to persist.

"Wherever two are three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20)

Friday, 1 April 2016


The disciples of Jesus returned to Galilee, to a place of safety away from the controversy surrounding his death, just as he had told them, and returned to work as fishermen, with no idea of what the future would hold for them. He comes to meet them at work, and at first they do not recognise him in the early light of day, but they hear his voice across the water, suggesting to them where their efforts at catching fish might be fruitful. Perhaps because this is not the first time he has made this kind of intervention, Peter realises it's not any bystander calling out advice, but the Lord. They trust and act upon the advice and yield an impressive catch. When they come ashore, they find he has prepared a meal for them.

In Jerusalem he came to them when they were hiding behind locked doors, but here he comes to them in the open, where they live and work. The experience of meeting the risen Jesus is not restricted to one kind of place or another. It can happen while blessing God for their bread, while talking about life as his disciples, in places of work, in places of sorrow and joy. And when he finally takes his leave he says:

"Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the ages."   (Matthew 28:20)

The importance of remembering, and especially remembering and praising the works of God as part of the story people tell about themselves is deeply embedded in Hebrew spirituality:

'O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make know his deeds to all the peoples.
Sing praises to him sing praises, tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name, let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles and the judgements he uttered.'
(Psalm 105:1-5)

St Paul recalls being told of all the appearances of the risen Jesus

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles." (1 Cor 15:1-7)

He doesn't elaborate on any of them, however, apart from that of his own conversion 

"Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me" (1 Cor 15:8)

His story appears twice in the Acts of the Apostles, once as narrative (Acts 9:1-30), then in his own voice as personal testimony (Acts 22:1-16), and again in Galatians 1:11-16. 

"I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being."  

Paul's story gets so much coverage not just because he is such a key figure in the emergence of the Gospel of Christ as Good News for the whole world, but because his encounter with the risen Jesus comes despite his rejection of the story proclaimed by the Apostles. There are instances of early public preaching meeting a response, with many being converted at one time, where the revelation follows the hearing of the message. As Paul himself asserts.

'So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.'  (Romans 10:17)

Paul's experience causes him to reassess what he had rejected. He has to re-interpret his own Jewish faith anew before he has anything to say to the world. This is decisive for the development of Christianity, and apart from the opening chapter of the book of Revelation where John the Divine speaks of hearing and seeing the risen Lord, there is little else to compare with it in the New Testament. Yet, such unbidden experiences have continued to shape the life of some Christian converts down the centuries since.

One may pray for a lifetime and never have such a life changing decisive experience. It is given by God where it is most needed, so it is not necessary to crave for it or to seek it in order to grow in faith. Those to whom such experience is not given need only to learn how to follow, just like the rest of the disciples, trusting and obeying the message received and understood.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Word of life

The risen Jesus appears to his disciples as they are discussing all that has happened and wondering what it means for them. When he appears he has to reassure them by re-engaging with them in a normal way, showing them his wounds, eating with them, demonstrating that he is truly with them and not just a figment of fearful imagination. He also teaches them to look back again at the scriptures which they have often heard read and pondered upon, and understand them in a different light.

"Everything written about me in the law of Moses in the prophets and the Psalms has to be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44)

The way the story of Jesus is told in the Gospels relies on references to Jewish scripture, both directly and indirectly through images and metaphors used about Jesus. Succeeding generations of people who hear the story of Jesus learn to make sense of it by getting to know the Jewish scripture and understand how it points beyond its own frame of reference to One who comes whose existence will be relevant to the whole of humankind.

In addressing the questions of doubting Thomas, Jesus declares;

"Happy are those who have not seen, and yet believe." (John 20:29)

The fact that others come to believe who weren't there relies upon their ability to enter into the story and experience it and identify with it through the power of the imagination. In different ways reading and thinking about the stories in the Gospel opens heart and mind to work at a deeper level, leading to prayer that connects with our own real life experience, and inspires wonder and thanksgiving for the graciousness of God made known to us.

The meditative reading of scripture is not an end to itself however, at points us in the direction where our hearts can truly be lifted up to God. It has its roots in Judaism where deep reflection on stories of heroes of faith is also a prominent feature of spiritual tradition.

"Lord what love have I for thy law; all day long is my study in it." (Psalm 119:97

Christians also draw inspiration from the exemplary lives of the saints, whose stories are told in ways that point back to the Lord Jesus, above and beyond all else.

"If you are risen with Christ then, seek those things which are above, where Christ is." (Colossions 3:1)

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

In spirit and in truth

Two disciples leaving Jerusalem start discussing the events of the last few days. As they are walking, a stranger joins them and is told about the what has most recently happened that the men have heard about the empty tomb and the rumours about Jesus being alive. They cannot make sense of these reports, and are surprised when the stranger directs them to thinking about the message of the prophets relating to the fate of the Messiah. When they stop for the night they invite the stranger to join them, and say grace at their meal together.  Only then do they realise it is Jesus with them, and before they can respond he's gone again. It leaves them astonished, yet full of encouragement and hope, so they return to Jerusalem that same night, despite travel risks to tell other disciples what happened. 

It's yet another story of how the risen Lord is made known when his followers begin to talk about him, try to work out what has happened and what it all means. Thinking about the meaning of scripture in relation to Jesus, remembering him and breaking bread together, are all bound together here, and in this the seeds are sown for all acts of Christian worship and fellowship that will evolve as time passes. There is no elaborate ritual prescription as with Passover and Temple worship under the Jewish Torah.

Speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus says;

"The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him."  (John 4:23)

In his teaching about God's kingdom, he explains his own position;

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17)

The fulfilment of all kinds of ritual words and actions prescribed for worship is found 'in spirit and in truth' - the inward disposition of the heart, the sense of purpose and purity of intention towards God that flows from genuine spiritual freedom. It doesn't matter in the end what outward forms worship may take, what matters is the free openness of the heart to give God due honour and praise. The source of this motivation is sharing the story of Jesus, remembering him and what it all means for us and for the world, embedding this in everyday life following him. 

The prescriptions of religious tradition aren't abolished, nor are they irrelevant. They are simply no longer binding or restricting, but a foundation that secures the culture of religious worship in its history, with full permission to develop differently in the future. Although the diversity of forms of Christian worship seems very different from those of Judaism, it is not difficult to identify many elements in common - use of Psalms of praise and penitence, the blessing (=giving thanks for) and sharing food (especially bread and wine) and many other gifts of God, public scripture reading, prayer of intercession.

Doing these things together provide a frame of reference, a context in which the risen Jesus continues to reveal his presence to those who continue to commit themselves to worshipping 'in spirit and in truth'.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A revelation shared

For St John (John 20:11-18) the discovery of the empty tomb sets the stage for Mary Magdalene to meet Jesus. She doesn't recognise Jesus because in her inconsolable grief, she doesn't expect to see him at all. Only when she hears him speak her name does she realise that it is in fact Jesus, not a gardener. 

There are times when the painful intensity of human emotions can prevent us from recognising God's presence. This may seem to make it impossible to focus on God in prayer. Mary's experience here may suggest that the effort to 'listen' in some way for the familiar voice of love is what breaks the enclosing cycle of sorrow. This voice from beyond can reach us through the words of scripture, memorised or heard, or the words of some other person reaching out in compassion towards us. 

Sharing in the resurrection experience begins with a breakthrough from beyond ourselves into that dark place where we turn in on ourselves in pain. For the disciples this starts with receiving the disruptive news of the empty tomb, which prompts them to come out of their misery of shame, and talk to each other, if only out of bewilderment and disbelief. Only then does Jesus come to them, unannounced, bearing words of forgiveness and peace. 

Already it is the evening of a new day when he appears, and appears to disciples - gathered in one place, scattered to another - appears once they have begun to share their experiences with each other. His whole ministry has taught them how to share and when they start to share again in earnest, he reveals himself to them.

Personal prayer and communion with God sustains our spiritual lives, but God gives us so much more to enable us to grow into 'the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ'. He gives us each other to share in prayer together. Sharing not just in the formal ritual acts of common worship, but in intimate and personal trust, when hearts are open to each other as well as to God.

No matter how powerful experiences of God may be through personal prayer, experiences that are shared are more powerful still because they can be witnessed to with confirmation from others. Having appeared first to Mary Magdalene, he appears to the eleven disciples and breaks bread with two, travelling on the road to Emmaus. St Paul reports that he also appears to five hundred at one time. Although the detail is scant, the experience conveyed is enough to convince others and lead to the expansion of the church far beyond Palestine. The experience of the individual is confirmed in the experience shared by a group.

The blessings of personal prayer find confirmation or challenge, when shared with others - 

"Where two or three are gather in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matt 18:20)


Monday, 28 March 2016

Sense of place

The discovery of the empty tomb was so contrary to anyone's expectations that the accounts of what happened to the disciples immediately afterwards are confusingly mixed. It is difficult to establish a coherent time-line, as each evangelist recounts the story slightly differently, although each intends to state with confident certainty that Jesus has returned to life from certain death. 

In each of the accounts the women disciples of Jesus play a prominent part in relaying the good news to the men. They come out of the background of a story which has been told largely from a male point of view. Without the women the message would not have been conveyed to the world the way it has been. The angel at the empty tomb says;

'Go quickly and tell his disciple that he has been raised from the dead and indeed is going ahead of you into Galilee.' (Matthew 28:7)

And a few sentences later

' Then Jesus said to them "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." ' (Matthew 28:10)
Jesus also meets with them in Jerusalem was well before they can travel home. To go to Galilee will mean putting behind them the horrors of the last few days, detaching themselves from the empty tomb discovery and facing a different kind of future together.

The religious authorities are already conspiring to spread a false story of conspiracy on the part of the disciples to steal his body, in order the counter the risk that the rumours about his return to life will cause trouble for them with Pilate, and maybe with Jerusalemites hearing these strange stories. They need to put a distance between themselves and dangerous controversy. They need some time and space together to strengthen their grasp on the truth which has caught hold of them so unexpectedly. Matthew is suggesting here that the risen Lord is at work guiding them to a place of safety.

There may often be occasions in the life of prayer when there is no alternative to being exposed to risk and danger, and the Psalms so often contain the pleas of people threatened and under pressure, making a conscious effort to trust in God. There are also other occasions when there is a choice or opportunity presented to quit an exposed position, to withdraw from confrontation and seek God in safe seclusion, where it is possible to relax and let go, and be strengthened by the peace of God's presence. Learning to discern the right moment comes from asking is this right for now? Am I in the right place?

An essential component of realising any vocation on life's path is knowing where you are called to be in order to flourish and be blessed. Sometimes it is not always clear what you're meant to do or how you're meant to act when you're there, but this becomes apparent when the inner impulse to go to a  new right place has been obeyed.

'Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying "Whom shall I send, who will go for us?" And I said; "Here I am; send me!" ' (Isaiah 6:8)