Passion (Palm) Sunday: Isaiah 50; Philippians 2; Mark 14 – 15.

Isaiah has the audacity to imagine someone wholly alert to the divine call and dialogue – and he speaks as if he himself is that person: “The Lord has given me a disciple’s tongue.” Why? Immediately Isaiah portrays himself as a messenger to all humanity in its weariness. That is why anyone single person is brought into partnership with God in the divine dialogue – so that the dialogue can go out to embrace the whole of humanity – in the royal progression from one person, to a group and then to all. This is the only human way, human because it preserves our identity as human, it expresses our nature and preserves our freedom to say Yes or No.  God can only speak to us in human voices and eventually in one human voice.  Isaiah paints lovely intimate images: “Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple.”  And: “The Lord has opened my ear.” Magic!  Then Isaiah turns immediately to the consequences of one who listens to God, who is a disciple, who “speaks” out of the dialogue with God. They will suffer. But also he is convinced: “The Lord comes to my help….I shall not be shamed.”

 Paul now reveals how his contemplative entry into the meaning of the life and death of Christ enables him to have the greatest clarity about that meaning.  This is one of the greatest hymns in the New Testament.  Isaiah imagines a disciple whose dedicated listening to God and then “disciple’s tongue” as he brings God’s heart to others (the weary) spells suffering inevitably. Paul is able, after his experience of the risen Christ, to merge the divine and human partners in the dialogue into the one person of Christ. He then masterfully and with the greatest economy of words delineates the consequences and effects: “His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.”  Isaiah has us contemplate the delicate interplay between God and a listening, then speaking, then suffering servant or disciple. Paul has the audacity, impossible before his or anyone’s experience of the man Jesus and his death and risen life, to place over one another the templates of God and the Man Jesus – to merge and overlay both God and Man in one. The man Jesus is at once the Divine Lord and the listening, obedient and suffering disciple or slave.  The divine-human dialogue has reached its illogical but inevitable conclusion.  The result of his accepting death as a slave is that, blessed paradox: “God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names…so that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  This revelation given to Paul is one of the greatest expressions of the human mind seeking to express plumbless mystery.

Then we come to Mark’s account of the passion of Jesus.  From the anointing with costly ointment; the plan to betray him by Judas; the last meal with the bread and wine of his body to be broken in death; the agony in the garden; his arrest and trial; the denial by Peter; his appearance before Pilate; the mistreatment by the guards; his crucifixion and death and burial. There are innumerable touches in this simple and restrained account which point to the deeply human and almost mundane nature of the surface story – it does not offer any so-called deep theological or spiritual interpretation.   Its genius and hence the deepest theology is to stay on the level of a personal drama with simple characters with just enough political and social background to set that scene. The horror of torture and death by crucifixion is underplayed. Here is a cross section of (“wearied” – Isaiah) humanity caught up in all their frailty, men and women, in a messy and brutal execution which brings out the best and the worse in them all. We are left with two women: “Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of  Joset were watching and took note of where he was laid.”  Only a small hint that the story is not yet over.

So also our lives and deaths – humdrum, normal, unremarkable, bringing us to partial heroism and partial cowardice – but as Isaiah and Paul have divined this very human humanity is shot through with divine significance and meaning – we are caught up into the divine dialogue which will make us partners and co-equals with God – slaves even unto death but thereby given names which are above all other – sons and daughters of God.  Thus is Jesus incarnated in all humanity and so takes us into the Christ of the transformed resurrection.


5th Sunday in Lent: Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 5; John 12.

It is the immense privileged burden of the prophets to speak God’s part in the great dialogue. So here is Jeremiah speaking as if from the heart of God, giving voice to the unimaginable desire of God to bring humanity into an ever closer relationship of love and trust with him. So he speaks of a new covenant, to be “written” on their hearts. Jeremiah imagines God saying there will be no more need for neighbour to teach neighbour the knowledge of God, since” “they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.”   Jeremiah’s vision and status as prophet comes from his insertion into the dialogue, an insertion so profound, we tend to under-estimate its potency. This is an amazing witness to the contemplative spirit.  Jeremiah sees, and it is revealed to him –  the desire of God not just to replicate the exodus (“I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt”) and its attendant covenant, but to exceed it by planting the law deep within their hearts. Jeremiah is swept up into the divine desire and yearning so as to declare: “I will be their God and they will be my people.”  It is barely comprehendible.  This is yet one more explosion in the long beautiful string bead of the dialogue – as Jeremiah says – the days are coming!

No wonder the author of the letter to the Hebrews is able to say that when the days dreamt of by Jeremiah have come, one called the Christ offers up prayer, entreaty, aloud and in silent tears on behalf of all humanity in response and obedience to the God who saves even through suffering and death.  Jeremiah reflects the God who so yearns to bring salvation to all humanity that this God will die to bring humanity eternal life. This is the final message – the dialogue completed in the tears of the man Jesus.

Can we then imagine the delight when Jesus hears that there are some Greeks saying: “Sir, we should like to see Jesus.”  The vision of Jeremiah is being translated and transformed into reality. Humanity stands on the verge of really “seeing.”!  No wonder that John has Jesus declare: “Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  He adds to Jeremiah the mystery of the cost of the new covenant – that it will be achieved only through his death.  But then an even greater mystery – that all humanity will be saved by following the same path: “anyone who loves life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life.”  Jeremiah’s great insight into the heart of God now is ratified by John’s account of the voice from heaven: “I have glorified my name.”  God’s glory is to be displayed in the culmination of the dialogue with humanity.  God can “speak” to all in their hearts by the actions of Jesus, the Word incarnate and the Word dying.  So all humanity can now see that the way to fulfilment and human destiny is the way of dying to self and thereby coming to “eternal” life – the life of God. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men to myself.”  John attaches this saying to the kind of death Jesus would undergo – but we can also chisel out the central message that ALL HUMANITY will be drawn to God – inexorably and wonderfully.

4th Sunday in Lent: 2 Chronicles 36; Ephesians 2; John 3.

In the long slow process of being led into the realisation of the nature of the God who invited the people into a dialogue of unfathomable love, the author here depicts God as a Lord whose patience, tested by the infidelities of those same people, at last runs out. He depicts God as the “tireless” sender of messenger after messenger: “since he wished to spare his people and his house”.  The destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile of its peoples for 70 years and their eventual release by Cyrus king of Persia – are all brought into service to illustrate the overriding conviction of the author, that this God is a God whose love cannot be deflected by any human profligacy and which all human agencies and powers in the end serve.  The events of history are just another expression of the divine pressure to dialogue with humanity – so Cyrus, the Babylonians, the Israelites, its priests and prophets – all humanity – are all alike players in the divine drama of salvation. God wishes, despite human fragility and perfidy, to spare his people and his house and will bend the events of history so to do.Paul can name this love which is unable to be deflected as “grace” – a sheer gift from God.  So the dialogue has achieved, what centuries of experience could only hint at, but which only dialogue-made-man could achieve – a reversal of all human expectations and the realisation that:  “it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything that you have done.”  Then, as if illuminated by his own carefully worded convictions, he is able to say in a burst of poetic understanding, including in so saying, himself and all his audience: We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus!”   In the past God’s “grace” was seen to be somehow dependent on human responses. If the people went wrong – God punished, his patience ran out and his “wrath” was vented on them. Or God’s love was dependent on the righteousness of the people – they earned or merited God’s love. Not so now says Paul. Humanity cannot earn God’s love – it is pure gift – given even when we were “dead”!  So we are God’s “work of art”. And this has been meant from the beginning of time.

It is not clear that we have understood this yet – or that religions, including Christianity have.

John sets out his own cosmic understanding of the meaning of the life and death of Jesus – the Dialogue-become-Flesh.  This has offered humanity “eternal life”.  God cannot condemn the world, as the author of Chronicles had God condemn the people all that time back. He has sent his Son not to do this but so that through him the “world might be saved”.  Who cannot be saved? God wills the salvation of all – “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son.”  John says the only person who cannot be saved is the one who refuses (logically we have the freedom to refuse the outpouring of the self-emptying God) to accept the gift – “whoever refuses to believe is condemned already, because he has refused to believe in the name of God’s only Son.”  Is this more of a logical impossibility, than a moral possibility?  John suggests it is by his use of the word “already”.  I think that what John asks people to “believe” is not the divinity of Christ or some such connected “dogma” or article of a creed – but the message conveyed by Christ’s “being lifted up” – his death and resurrection and their meaning. If people refuse to “believe” in the message of Christ, and if God respects our freedom of choice to love or not love (forced love not being real reciprocal or any sort of love) then God is bound by the freedom he gave us. In this sense the man who refuses to believe (in the message of Christ’s death and hence in his name as God’s Son) is “condemned already” not by the all-loving God but by the logic of his own freely chosen refusal. Does that make any sense?

Suppose someone “understands” (believes) that Jesus is the sent Son of God, who dies (is lifted up) so that those who “believe” this is the meaning of his death will have eternal life.  Suppose someone “refuses” to believe this. What prevents them?   John says it is because they prefer darkness to light, because their deeds are evil, everybody who does wrong hates the light.  We cannot judge the nature of this “refusal” and cannot measure its effects.  In the end it is about a refusal (because of what?) to accept the plain truth. Even God (are we sure?) cannot force someone to “believe what is true” or to accept the plain truth. Suppose someone, fully aware and accepting that God sent his Son Jesus to show us the extent of his love by dying out of love for us, was to refuse to “believe” that as true or to trust in it as true – then what can God do more? But I cannot think such a person actually could exist!  Evil could blind them to this truth – but who can judge their culpability in this evil – only God.

All this has nothing or very little to do with those who “reject” Christ or who do not accept Jesus as the Son of God – like Jews or Muslims etc.  This is not what John is meaning by talking of those who do not believe in Jesus. He is talking about belief in the meaning of the death of Jesus as the outpouring of the love of God. “The Son of Man must be lifted up…so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” We are asked to “believe” in that – not in any doctrine about the person of Christ or his nature as divine.

3rd Sunday in Lent: Exodus 20; 1 Corinthians 1; John 2.

The mighty flow of God’s loving dialogue as recorded in Scripture (and reflected in the entire world’s sacred writings) here comes to one of its climactic watersheds. We pass over un-noticed: “God spoke all these words.”  The foundation “miracle” is the fact that the Biblical authors can depict God in a “conversation” with humanity. So this dialogue helps us to define the characters of both participants – God is defined as the one who speaks; man as the one who can participate, engage and respond to this divine dialogue. Something more is underlined here. The dialogue demands the people’s allegiance. It reveals a God who guides, cajoles, delivers, acts to save and is solicitous for the ones he has chosen as a patron might care for a protégé whose development into maturity depends on a strict routine. God reminds the people: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  God “dialogues” – in actions and then refers to those saving actions, to remind the people who He is.  Those chosen to be God’s instruments in bringing God’s “word” to all humanity must be taught to be faithful to the God of the Dialogue. So here we have the picture of the God of the Decalogue.

Paul reflects on the dialogue’s radical transformation and completion in the death by crucifixion of Christ.  Whoever (the whole of humanity summed up in his words: Jews, Greeks or pagans) will now engage in the dialogue must come up against “a Christ who is the power and wisdom of God.”  No longer is there a “word” spoken by God, but an anointed Man (Jesus) who in his life and death turns on its head the human concepts of wisdom and of power. Only thus could, in the end, humanity heed and listen to the God of the dialogue – it had to be spoken and lived out by a man. God is disqualified from ultimate effectiveness – it is only God Incarnate who can “speak” so to:  guide, cajole, deliver and act to save. This preaching is of a crucified Christ. It alone is efficacious in revealing the foolishness of God which is wiser than human wisdom, this weakness of God which is stronger than human strength.  In the end the dialogue transforms the definition of what it means to be human. It is to be taken up into the weakness and foolishness of God.

In the light of what we know of the nature of the divine-human dialogue – that it invites humanity through law to intimacy with God – we should therefore not be unsettled that Jesus has to upset the money-changers and thereby the whole of the Jewish religious apparatus – as his actions would likewise upset all religions which do not have a healthy regard for themselves as mere pointers to the divine dialogue.  Jesus sees the whole of humanity called to the kingdom of God – the dialogue begun with Abraham and Moses now beckons to everyone.  The Temple has become a robber. It is ceasing to bring people into a dialogue with God. It has become a block to that dialogue.  It is stealing and diverting the people away from their mission to talk with God and to draw all into that conversation, which Jesus sums up in his call to repentance and to the Kingdom.  Zeal for his Father’s house devours him – eats him up.  He “swallows” the Temple – all it stands for has to be transformed, re-digested. So he is able naturally to say – I am become the Temple; destroy my body and I will raise it up in three days.  The divine work of dialogue is unstoppable and will only be fully “spoken” by the powerlessness and folly of a death. Only the death of an “anointed” man can reveal what God is in the end. The true nature of the dialogue can only be revealed by this death.

2nd Sunday in Lent: Genesis 22; Romans 8; Mark 9.

As Richard Rohr says the journey into our understanding of the nature of God as told in the Bible always seems to be two steps forward and one step back – progress is slow and halting. So here, with old reverberations of a tradition of human sacrifice as a condition of divine approval, we have the story of Abraham and the offering of his son Isaac in sacrifice. The story is told in the form of a dialogue between Abraham and God. It is easy for us to gloss over the momentous fact – that in our Jewish and Christian sacred writing, we are presented with a God who enters into the back and forth of an argumentative dialogue with humanity.   So here God commands Abraham and he stands as one who obeys and comes through the test of fearing God. Fear and love of God is rewarded by God showering a promise of blessings on Abraham and his descendants so that: I will make them as many as the stars of heaven.” And then, in this foundational story of the people of Israel, the rock-like perspective is given in answer to the unspoken question: Why would God do that? And we have opened for us the foundational insight into the nature of this God of the dialogue and the point of the story: “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, as a reward for your obedience.”   The great theme of the dialogue rolls on. God speaks to Abraham. His obedience sparks God’s promise of a nation – only so (and this is the crucial point we often miss) that the whole of humanity can be blessed! The God of Abraham is revealed as the God who wills to bless the whole of humanity. But, in obedience to the human nature God has created, the enwrapping of that humanity into God, can only be initiated and brought about in a dialogue which conforms and is bound by that same humanity. Otherwise we are not free. God can only speak to us in a language we can hear and freely ignore or listen to. A great thunderous voice from heaven which would leave us unfree and only able to listen, would not produce lovers but slave-like automatons. God whispers his dialogue into the ear of one free man at a time and of a day. That man is able freely to say: “Here I am” and he freely obeys. The dialogue can only leave man free to obey or not, hear or not hear. We arrive slowly at the notion of a God who is unable to avoid loving unconditionally the whole of humanity.  It is the genius and inspiration of the authors of Genesis so to portray all this in the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac.

Paul leaps forward in the story as he sums up his insight into the nature of the death of Christ to his audience in Rome.  The dialogue has lit up the mind of a genius who can then illuminate all who can listen. Through the experience he has had of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, (one huge leap forward in the story) he is able to say: “With God on our side who can be against us?”  He parallels the death of Jesus with the story of Abraham and Isaac. Only now God does not spare his Son. Why not? The lesson is the same as in Genesis:  “to benefit us all”!  The story reaches its conclusion. The lesson of the age long dialogue has been made totally clear. The Son-Dialoguer of God has died. The pressure of God to love the whole of humanity has been released and inevitably this obedience of this free man, this Son in love with God the Father, has opened the way to life for all in God. This man who died has been raised by resurrection to be “at God’s right hand”. Paul shows there can be no more eloquent Word to the dialogue than this Word, Son of God who has lived, died and risen – why? To “tell” of, to embody, to occupy with flesh and blood and bone of ours, the love of God for all. So Paul, in words unable to be spoken before, is able to say: “With God on our side, who can be against us.”  We probably have not yet “heard” the momentous meaning of this. We must look to those who have comprehended its implications more than we can. So we pray to the Saints – today (2015) St David: “Be joyful and keep the faith”!

It is not always possible to keep the dialogue free from the glory with which it is clothed. So Mark tells the story of the “transfiguration” of Jesus. On the mountain note that this involves a triptych of those who can sum up the divine-human dialogue in all its magnificence – Elijah to represent all those prophets who were favoured partners in the dialogue; individuals possessed by the vision revealed to them by being partners in the dialogue of the immensity of the love of God for his people and through them for all humanity.  Moses, who through dialogue with God on Sinai, revealed the law of God for his people so that they could bring to the nations a knowledge of the God of all.  They are in conversation (DIALOGUE!) with Jesus.  No wonder Peter cannot cope with this enactment of the whole drama of the divine-human dialogue, culminating in its climacteric in the man he knows as Jesus but who now has clothes so white they are “unearthly” in their brilliance. He blurts out his instinct – that here on the mountain is in sum the whole of what it means to be human and Divine.  Elijah and Moses find their fulfilment in Jesus and so the voice of the God in one last note: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him.”  This is as near as we can get to that power of God, the full use of which would kill all hope of a dialogue that would leave us free. And so it proves. The three men, representing us all are so frightened that they are unable to speak – dialogue on the edge of being compromised by divine theophany. But they come down the mountain, the vision clears and they are able to return to that dialogue (discussion) amongst themselves, produced by what Jesus then asks them to do for the time being: “tell no-one what they have seen”. The power and glory of this transfiguration can only usefully be revealed in that “rising from the dead” which it points to and pre-figures.  The resurrection of Jesus still leaves humanity free to hear, listen, accept or not. It leaves us free – in ways which the Transfiguration, if on-going or repeated would not.  So they can discuss what rising from the dead could mean. And so can we!

1st Sunday in Lent: Genesis 9; 1 Peter 3; Mark 1.

Amazing that the universality of the Divine-human dialogue is here expressed in its fullest form. Dialogue takes the form of a covenant between partners – Noah and his sons, his descendants and through them with the whole of the earth, the whole array of creation.  Its sign is the rainbow.  We are tempted to take for granted that the passage takes God as the speaker: “God spoke to Noah and his sons.”  Why are we not yelping with utter astonishment at this – more than a writer’s conceit – more like the writer’s conviction that it is God speaking. Dialogue reveals the nature of God and defines God as “Being that communicates”.  This dialogue also defines humanity as beings in relationship. It gives us then the audacity to cast God as an active partner in dilaogue.  So God can “speak” and say: “I will recall the Covenant between myself and you and every living creature of every kind.”   Not Noah who could say: “Whenever the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the Covenant between you God and us.” No – it is the nature of this dialogue to announce that it has been initiated by God not man. What insight lies behind this instinct of the author to have God speak and not any human?  Sheer genius and inspiration. We have lost our sense of wonder at it and have grown used to it. We ought to rekindle our amazement at the words: “God spoke”! 

Peter in this somewhat convoluted passage is convinced that underlying everything is the unstoppable pressure of God’s saving dialogue. He connects his experience of the dialogue “spoken” by God in the life and death of Jesus, to the story of Noah. The same reality underpins both stories.  He tells of Jesus dying to lead us to God. He recalls how it was through water that a small group were saved in the time of Noah.  That water is a forerunner or type of the water of baptism which saves now. The constant is the God who wishes to save – through water then, through baptism now, linking it to the resurrection of Jesus. Peter’s stage, like Noah’s, is cosmic – the action of God affects all not just some – though it has to be mediated through the individual – a man who saves others – Jesus following Noah.

It all comes in the Gospel to the same imperative, the same pressure, the same conviction – like hammer blows. It sets Noah as partner in the Divine dialogue – the rainbow as sign of its universality. Peter builds bridges between Noah and his experience of the work of Jesus – water saves then as now.  Here the dialogue takes on the simplicity of a human life. A man is driven (by the Spirit of God!) into the wilderness to play a part in a cosmic drama – a 40 day drama involving a man, Satan, wild beasts and angels. Then the cosmic stage gives way to the concrete here and now. A political world where a man is arrested and another man proclaims (the dialogue turned Man): “Good News from God.”   This good news was what God told Noah (about salvation and the unutterable desire of God to save so as to have a universal sign of that desire so He will not forget his covenant) and what Peter linked to the saving death of Jesus and to baptism which saves. The hammer blows fall now in words from a man who sums up the desire of God to save. The desire runs from Noah to the whole of creation.  As Peter saw it was achieved by the death of Jesus (and so Angels, Dominations and Powers are subject).  “The time has come, and the Kingdom of God is close at hand.”  Noah turned round (repents), Peter asks his listeners to do the same, and Jesus proclaims the nearness of God’s desire to save, to establish a Kingdom. All this is what is meant by the Good News “from God”.  “Repent and believe the Good News.”  What was always close at hand from Noah to Peter via Jesus now – is declared to be so with great clarity. God’s desire to draw all into dialogue is always close at hand – what is new is the identification of the one proclaiming that Good News with the one who is to save.

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Leviticus 13; 1 Corinthians 10; Mark 1

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Leviticus 13; 1 Corinthians 10; Mark 1

The long story of the beguiling dialogue between God and humanity contains the necessary first steps to delineate a people-in-dialogue and not only separate them from the peoples around them but even within their number divide off those considered “in” and those considered “out”. Initial divisions and the construction of an identity of the community-in-dialogue are necessary before slowly the nature of the partnership in this extraordinary dialogue brings an end to divisions and the slow realisation that God’s dialogue is unfulfilled unless it is universal and inclusive of all that lives and breathes. We still have not learnt this lesson – since endemic to our nature seems to be the need to continue erecting boundaries and identities. We are slow to recognise the call to outgrow the initial stage and embrace the wider vision. God selects individuals and communities ONLY as vehicles or means to reach all humanity.
Here the rules of cleanliness and disease have their place but only so that they can be slowly eroded as the nature of the dialogue is revealed to those who so hesitatingly are drawn into partnership in it. There has to be a “camp” and those living outside it – for there to be eventually an end to all “camps” and for the “camp” to embrace the whole of humanity.

Then comes the revelation fully of the nature of the God-in-dialogue – and Paul gets it and is able to say: “never do anything offensive to anyone – to Jews or Greeks or to the Church of God.” The “camp” has expanded to include everyone. We are called to love everyone at all times – after the model of Christ. But it is extremely instructive to put this in the long context of the story described in the Biblical record. It parallels our own personal psychological development – from, as Richard Rohr puts it, the necessary construction of a “container” to the explosion from that into service of all and the seeking of our true self in that movement. This movement in the last 2000 years has resulted in the secular realisation that there is something valuable in talking of human solidarity and equality.

Mark presents the dialogue in action as it points us in Christ towards its fulfilment. The outcast (still in the camp divided from the clean folk) leper hears this man say, in answer to his request for healing: “Of course I want to!” Everyman the Leper, hears the true voice of the God whose sole reason for being is a love which will reject division, harm, hurt, misery, disease, cancer and all that afflicts humanity. No wonder Jesus has to counsel this man not to say anything. The immensity of what happens and its implications will prevent the true message of the Dialogue-made-Man from being heard. And then, his request for secrecy denied, Jesus replaces the man as outcast and has to stay outside “where nobody lived”. Quite literally he has turned the outside of the camp into the inside and draws all into it. “Even so, people from all round would come to him.” So the divided world becomes undivided and it is the “outside” which becomes the inside to which all humanity are drawn.