Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Drowning in a sea of tears

An icon of the Advent or the Second Coming of Christ

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 2 December 2009

5 p.m.: The Community Eucharist


Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25: 1-9; I Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.


We had a very comforting service in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last Sunday afternoon, with the Advent Procession. The cathedral was slowly lit up with candles at different points as the Advent readings were read from different points in the cathedral.

It was a reminder of our need to – our call to – take the light of the Gospel into the darkness of the world. But so often this is more of a challenging than a comforting call.

I know some of you were in the cathedral on Sunday afternoon. But how many of you had the more challenging task of preaching on Sunday morning … on the readings we are using this evening, the readings for the First Sunday of Advent?

These are not very comforting words for people who are not regular churchgoers and who are drifting back to Church at the moment for the comforts and cosiness of Christmas, with carols, and the holly, and the Sunday school nativity plays, and the mulled wine, and the cribs, and the advent wrath.

It’s nice to think of the coming of Christ as some precious, cuddly gift from a God the Father who is more akin to a benign Santa Claus in the sky, given as the centrepiece for a shop-front crib.

It’s much more difficult, for many, to think during the Advent season about the coming of Christ in the way his advent is presented in our Gospel reading this evening – to think of it in those dramatic apocalyptic terms of signs in the sun, moon and stars, distress among the nations of the earth, with everyone confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves, and people fainting from fear and foreboding.

If you were listening to this Gospel reading last Sunday in Church in Ballinasloe or Ardrahan, or Cork, and your home had been flooded for a week or more, you would find it very difficult indeed to find any good news in the prospect of your world being confused by the roaring of the waters – not if the ground floor of your new home or your small shop was under three feet of water, and you are not covered by insurance.

As you try to keep your head above water, physically and financially, how can some people expect to find hope in circumstances such as these in this Advent? And how would you bring them hope?

But there are so many other seas and waters that people are drowning in at the moment, without any signs of hope.

I think of all the tears that must have been shed, tears enough to fill many lakes and to flood out many family homes as a response to the horrific child abuse that we have heard about in the Murphy Report in the past week.

There are the tears of the victims, whose stories are so horrific that I am not going to cite any one of them this evening.

These are tears wept not just in the past. The victims continue to drown in their woes and their sorrows to this day. Some have even been driven to despair to the point that even as adults they could not cope with the memories and have died by suicide.

How does someone cope with the loss of childhood and the loss of innocence?

How does a family cope with feelings of trust betrayed? Feelings of inadequacy and failure when it came to protecting those they should have been nurturing, cherishing and protecting.

One of the first baptisms I was involved in after ordination was with a child whose father wanted to know could I drop the questions in the rite that ask: “Do you reject the devil and all proud rebellion against God? Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?”

He thought they were superstitious and old-fashioned questions.

But when children’s lives are destroyed, when you see the heart-break of those children, those former children, their parents, their families, their loved ones, you know there is nothing old-fashioned or superstitious in facing up to reality of the devil, proud rebellion, deceit, corruption and evil.

How do we cope with the loss of faith in thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who had once been asked to and had readily placed unquestioning trust in their Church?

These were not simple people. These were good people. And their goodness has been trampled on, stolen from them, drowned in the seas of their tears and sorrows.

Church attendance is dropping rapidly. There is a crisis of confidence in authority – all sorts and shapes of authority – in Ireland today. People no longer have faith in our politicians, in our banking and financial system; the collapse in the property market means they also know that there no linger is such a thing as something that is “as safe as houses.”

And the crisis facing the Roman Catholic Church today is a crisis that faces not just one tradition in the Church but that will rock the confidence people once had in all the traditions of the Church.

As one caller to a phone-in show said: “A plague on all their houses!”

This is not an opportunity for the Church of Ireland. This is a time for us to weep in the Church of Ireland. People are going to have their ears closed to the Word of God, their mouths shut to the sacrament, their eyes closed to Christ … and they won’t care who ministers, who proclaims and preaches, who shepherds and pastors.

And how will you cope with the tears and sorrows of your colleagues in the ministry?

I hear many people saying things such as: “I know there are many good priests in the Roman Catholic Church.” But this is not fair. It is not far because it is an under-estimate. In other words, it is damning by feint praise.

The truth is that the overwhelming majority of priests in Roman Catholic Church are good priests. And in their lonely solitude at night they must be drowning in seas of sorrows and in their tears as they realise how day after day, each day, they are bearing the blame that ought to be shouldered by a few, but who have been protected, in the past and sometimes even in the present, by some bishops and even by some in the Vatican.

Who can they turn to bear their grief, to share their sorrow, to listen to their woes, to show their tears?

I hope they can turn to their colleagues in the other traditions in the Church, that they will find listening ears and sympathetic hearts among their colleagues who are deacons, priests and bishops in the Church of Ireland.

In some cases they are not being provided with the leadership they need and they deserve. A bishop should not cling onto office on the basis of some opinion poll, some X-Factor vote, some popularity contest among his clergy and their parishioners.

A bishop must be a focus of unity.

Sometimes bishops make mistakes. We all make mistakes. We all make administrative mistakes. Administrative mistakes should not be a cause of resignation for anyone. After all there is a popular saying, “It could happen to a bishop.”

But mistakes based on poor moral judgment, on low moral standards must be a cause of resignation. If a bishop does not expect high – not necessarily the highest, but certainly very high – moral standards from his priests, then he is not just negligent of his office, but he can no longer be the focus of unity that is at the heart of the primary ministry of a bishop.

I have the highest respect for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Not just because he preached here in this chapel; not just because he is the brother of a very good friend; not just because I know he has a wonderful working relationship with my own archbishop. But because he is willing to provide moral leadership, and to provide it even when he has to take tough decisions.

You will have to take tough decisions throughout all of your ministry. I hope they are not of the magnitude that many Church leaders are facing this Advent.

Immediately after your ordination as priests, your ordaining bishops will warn you in these words:

“Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross.”

But beforehand, the bishops will also remind you: “… remember in your heart that if it should come about that the Church, or any of its members, is hurt or hindered by reason of your neglect, your fault will be great and God’s judgment will follow.”

In the old rites, the words are even sterner: “And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.”

Those were the words used at my ordination … and they sent shivers down the spines of some of my friends present who didn’t know what to expect.

You will need to be supported in your commitment to your ordination vows. And when you know the joys and the necessity of that support, remember too, in love and charity, those who cannot find that support, your colleagues and neighbours who will not have that support either because of the past actions and misjudgements of their bishops, or because of enforced celibacy, or because others say things like: “A plague on all your houses!”

Hold before you the hope that the Son of Man is coming this Advent, as our Gospel reading reminds us, in power and glory. When you hear the sort of things we’ve heard and see the sorts of things we’ve seen, stand up, chin out, raise your heads, strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before God at his coming.

And help your colleagues to do the same.

And take courage, help them to take courage too, from the words we heard from the Apostle Paul this evening: “… may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (I Thessalonians 3: 12).

And now, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in the chapel on Wednesday, 2 December 2009.

Saint John’s Gospel (6): John 3: 22-36

A traditional icon showing scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist

Patrick Comerford

22 Μετὰ ταῦτα ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν Ἰουδαίαν γῆν, καὶ ἐκεῖ διέτριβεν μετ' αὐτῶν καὶ ἐβάπτιζεν. 23 ἦν δὲ καὶ Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων ἐν Αἰνὼν ἐγγὺς τοῦ Σαλείμ, ὅτι ὕδατα πολλὰ ἦν ἐκεῖ, καὶ παρεγίνοντο καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο· 24 οὔπω γὰρ ἦν βεβλημένος εἰς τὴν φυλακὴν ὁ Ἰωάννης.

25 Ἐγένετο οὖν ζήτησις ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν Ἰωάννου μετὰ Ἰουδαίου περὶ καθαρισμοῦ. 26 καὶ ἦλθον πρὸς τὸν Ἰωάννην καὶ εἶπον αὐτῷ· Ραββί, ὃς ἦν μετὰ σοῦ πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, ᾧ σὺ μεμαρτύρηκας, ἴδε οὗτος βαπτίζει καὶ πάντες ἔρχονται πρὸς αὐτόν. 27 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰωάννης καὶ εἶπεν· Οὐ δύναται ἄνθρωπος λαμβάνειν οὐδὲν ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ δεδομένον αὐτῷ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ. 28 αὐτοὶ ὑμεῖς μοι μαρτυρεῖτε ὅτι εἶπον· οὐκ εἰμὶ ἐγὼ ὁ Χριστός, ἀλλ' ὅτι Ἀπεσταλμένος εἰμὶ ἔμπροσθεν ἐκείνου. 29 ὁ ἔχων τὴν νύμφην νυμφίος ἐστίν· ὁ δὲ φίλος τοῦ νυμφίου, ὁ ἑστηκὼς καὶ ἀκούων αὐτοῦ, χαρᾷ χαίρει διὰ τὴν φωνὴν τοῦ νυμφίου. αὕτη οὖν ἡ χαρὰ ἡ ἐμὴ πεπλήρωται. 30 ἐκεῖνον δεῖ αὐξάνειν, ἐμὲ δὲ ἐλαττοῦσθαι.

31 Ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν. ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐστιν καὶ ἐκ τῆς γῆς λαλεῖ· ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστί, 32 καὶ ὃ ἑώρακεν καὶ ἤκουσεν, τοῦτο μαρτυρεῖ, καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν αὐτοῦ οὐδεὶς λαμβάνει. 33 ὁ λαβὼν αὐτοῦ τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἐσφράγισεν ὅτι ὁ Θεὸς ἀληθής ἐστιν. 34 ὃν γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ Θεὸς, τὰ ῥήματα τοῦ Θεοῦ λαλεῖ· οὐ γὰρ ἐκ μέτρου δίδωσιν ὁ Θεὸς τὸ Πνεῦμα. 35 ὁ πατὴρ ἀγαπᾷ τὸν υἱόν, καὶ πάντα δέδωκεν ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ. 36 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς τὸν υἱὸν ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον· ὁ δὲ ἀπειθῶν τῷ υἱῷ οὐκ ὄψεται ζωήν, ἀλλ' ἡ ὀργὴ τοῦ Θεοῦ μένει ἐπ' αὐτόν.

22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized – 24 John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. 34 He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

Introduction

A Syrian Orthodox icon of Saint John the Baptist

Without any transition – for there is no sequence between verses 21 and 22 – the narrative of the Fourth Gospel returns once again to the story of Saint John the Baptist. Indeed, Jesus has already arrived in Jerusalem, so we might ask how he went into Judea.

Verse 23:

Aenon near Salim has not been identified with certainty or with confidence. It may have been in the Upper Jordan Valley or, perhaps, near Shechem in Samaria, which is the setting for the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in the next chapter.

Verse 24:

The timing built into this section is interesting, for this means the Fourth Gospel places all of the ministry of Jesus in chapters 1 to 3 before the arrest of John the Baptist, while the Synoptic Gospels know only of a ministry after John’s arrest.

Verse 25:

The NRSV says this discussion was between the disciples of John and “a Jew”; some versions read “the Jews.” The discussion about purification is about Jewish religious ceremonies. The water turned into wine at Cana was in six stone water jars used for the rites of purification (see John 2: 6), so the author is preparing his readers to expect a reference to a wedding or a bridegroom.

Verse 26:

The success of Jesus and his disciples puzzles the followers of the Forerunner. When they learn that the disciples of Jesus are baptising people, they mentioned it to John and express what appears to be a competitive or even begrudging attitude.

Verse 27:

John the Baptist is provided with a final opportunity to bear witness. He responds: “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.”

John made it clear that no work – ministry, project, task, etc.—will please God or bear fruit unless it has been assigned by God. If it is the work of people rather than of God, it will not bear fruit. Therefore, in order to do fruitful work that is pleasing to God, we must pray and follow God’s leading, rather than deciding what we want to do, and concocting our own plans and strategies.

What is more, we need to trust God, not only in deciding what to do, but also in the doing of it. The work must be performed by the Spirit of Christ, working through us, rather than in our own strength.

Verse 28:

John makes it clear to his disciples that he is not the Messiah, the Christ. “I am not the Messiah,” he tells them. John has accepted who he is – and who he is not.

Verse 29:

Christ the Bridegroom ... a traditional image in Greek Orthodox iconography

But, while he is not the Christ, John is one who rejoices greatly to hear the bridegroom’s voice.

The image of Israel as the bride of God is an image found throughout the Old Testament (Isaiah 54: 6; Hosea 2: 19). The true Israel has been solemnly betrothed to God, and now Christ is coming to claim his bride. Have we been prepared for this concept with the story of the Wedding Feast of Cana (see )?

In traditional Jewish weddings at the time, the bridegroom came with his friends to his bride’s house to take her to his home. The bridegroom’s best friend would stand at the bride’s house to make sure that no-one entered the house before the bridegroom arrived.

Casting himself in the role of the bridegroom’s best friend who stands and listens out for his arrival, John the Baptist now hears the bridegroom (Christ) coming to claim his bride (the true Israel). As the best man should, he now rejoices that he can fade into the background.

How could John express any bitterness or resentment about having a lower rank than Christ? In fact, he says, his joy has “been fulfilled.”

Verse 30:

John’s statement is consistent with what Jesus teaches in 15:4-11: the person who abides in him (seeking, listening, submitting, obeying) will have his joy in him, and his joy will be full.

He must increase, but I must decrease. John accepted that he was not to be praised by people – Jesus was. John did not seek his identity, personal value, or contentment based on how his circumstances compared with those of other people. He focused on God, not on himself. He wanted to live out God’s plan for his life. And his identity was tied up in his relationship with God. Likewise, Christians should be content with God's will for them – nothing more, nothing less.

We should view our circumstances, not through the eyes of the world, but from God’s perspective. Each Christian is given different gifts, talents, and opportunities; but one thing applies to all of us: Christ must increase, and we must decrease.

In the NRSV, the quotation marks close at the end of this verse, but some interpreters hold that the quotation should continue through to the end of verse 36.

Verses 31-36

The speech in this smaller section at the end of Chapter 3 appears to be a repetition of Christ’s address to Nicodemus earlier in the chapter, according to Raymond Brown, who points out that almost every one of these six verses here have a counterpart there.

I suppose, therefore, we should understand these verses in the light of the problem of Nicodemus. They represent the revelation of Jesus even if they appear, because of the context, to be the words of John the Baptist.

But some commentators see this passage as an explanation by John the Baptist for the reasons he must decrease while Christ must increase, and of the ways in which he is different from Jesus.

Verse 32:

No one here is a generalisation, a reference to those Jews who do not accept the message of Jesus.

Verse 33:

The word for testimony is the same as witness and also gives us the word martyr. The word for has certified in the Greek means to set a seal.

Verse 34:

The author and others do believe and attest that Jesus speaks the words of God authentically.

Note the Trinitarian interpretation that we may read into this verse and verse 35.

Next: John 4: 1-42, The Samaritan woman at the well.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial with B.Th. and M.Th. students on Wednesday 2 December 2009.