Wednesday, 18 January 2012

To see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending

The call of Philip and Nathanael … how do we keep fresh and alive our enthusiasm for the call from Christ?

Patrick Comerford

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Wednesday 18 January 2012,

5 p.m., The Community Eucharist:

The Collect and readings for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany:

I Samuel 3: 1-10;
Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18;
Revelation 5: 1-10;
John 1: 43-51.

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

In any theological college, it might have been easier this evening to opt to preach on the Old Testament reading and the story of the call of Samuel. But I figure if you have not hear this time-and-again at the ordination of each other as deacon last year, you are going to hear sermons on this passage time-and-again at the ordination of each other as priest this year.

So, unaccustomed as I am to preaching, I might have gone for another easy option: after all, last weekend we were led in a series of meditations and reflection by [Dr] Katie[ Heffelfinger]’s tutorial group on the Psalm, which opens with those words: “O Lord, you have searched me out and known me” (Psalm 139: 1).

But then, if you do not know already that God has searched you out and knows you in intimate detail, you are now wondering what you have been doing here for these past few years.

Or, perhaps, I could choose the New Testament reading. There we are reminded that Christ, the Lamb on the Throne, has made us “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God” (Revelation 5: 10), preparing the world for the Kingdom of God, inviting the world into the Kingdom of God. That would allow an opportunity to develop some of the themes I introduced in Monday morning’s reflection on Patristic Spirituality.

But, as you all know, I love Saint John’s Gospel, and I could hardly miss out on our Gospel reading (John 1: 43-51).

These are all appropriate readings for the beginning of a new semester, and particularly good reminders to us as staff of why we are here, even in the midst of a very busy week.

We had the part-time MTh students back last weekend, and we too have to prepare for lectures, tutorials and dissertation supervision. But please, don’t get me wrong – each and every one of us loves this work, and we share your anxieties and your joys as tell us about the “curacy round.”

But we are also aware that some of you as Year III students are being asked to be seen by rectors of parishes that you never even considered going to. Others of you are finding you are being interviewed by a rector only to realise that a parish you once thought very attractive and appealing is now one that you have second thoughts about.

And when the curacies are finally agreed, some rectors and some students may be disappointed, and some may be surprised.

Whether you have spent the best part of one, two or three years here so far training for ordained ministry, you know that the call to ministry came many, many years before you arrived here and knocked on that blue front door.

Now within the next few weeks, the Year III students must start to think about leaving a place that for some has been like a second home for almost three years. You may also have to leave old family homes you have lived in. You are about to start a new job, to move to a new house, to a new town, to an unknown and unfamiliar part of the island.

Any one of these changes is stressful in itself.

Some of you must have been stressed-out for the past few weeks. Some of you may have surprised the interviewing rectors who met you. And some of you will be surprised by the offers you are going to receive in the coming weeks, where you are called to serve Christ in his Church.

God’s call comes to a variety of people, in surprising ways ... and to surprising places.

Our Gospel reading is the story of the call of Philip and Nathanael, and it comes immediately after the story of the call of Andrew and Peter.

Andrew and Peter are brothers but their names indicate the early differences and divisions in the Church, held together in unity by Christ. Andrew’s name is Greek ('Ανδρέας, Andreas), meaning “manly” or “valorous,” while Peter’s original name, Simon (שמעון‎, Shimon), meaning “hearing,” is so obviously Jewish.

And the same contrast is emphasised again with the names of Philip and Nathanael: Philip is a strong Greek name – everyone in the region knew Philip of Macedon was the father of Alexander the Great; while Nathanael’s name is a Hebrew compound meaning “the Gift of God.”

So, from the very beginning of the story of the call of the disciples, the diversity and divisions with the Church are represented, even in the names that show they are Jews and Greeks, the Hebrew-speakers and those who are culturally Hellenised.

In reacting to those false divisions in the early Church, the Apostle Paul tells us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28; see Colossians 3: 11).

The ordained ministry of the Church should reflect the diversity of skills and talents and personalities that God has given to the Church as gifts and as blessings.

The call to ordained ministry that has come to you as a very diverse group of students in many ways reflects how the call that came to the first disciples as a diverse group of people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, often – as with Philip and Nathanael – when they were least expecting that call. But they responded to that call faithfully. Andrew went and fetched Simon Peter. Philip found Nathanael.

Nathanael must have thought there were great things ahead of him. Imagine if you were told by Christ himself: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Did that ever happen to Nathanael?

Quite honestly, we do not know.

After this story in Saint John’s Gospel, he disappears completely from the Bible.

But whether others saw Nathanael as cynical or sceptical, as he presents himself in this story, Christ sees his potential and promise, and sees him as someone without guile. In Christ, Nathanael finds all things are made new, Christ transform the poverty of his nature by the riches of his grace, and in the renewal of Nathanael’s life, God’s heavenly glory is made known.

This is a promise to you and me too, to each and every one of us in our ministry. The call to follow Christ holds out great promise.

But in responding to that call, and in being faithful to that call, we may find ourselves called to the most unexpected tasks and places, but called to the most mundane and ordinary places and tasks – all for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

We may see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man – but without anyone knowing it.

We are not called to fame and glory.

And if our Gospel reading is a challenge to you as students, then it offers us, as staff members, a few challenges too, for it is not fame and glory that we are called to either:

How do we continue to encourage you to move beyond the tolerance of diversity to the respect for diversity and then on to the point of speaking up for diversity as a gift in the Church, so that truly, as the Apostle Paul tells us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

How do we continue to encourage you not to be afraid of questions from others who may turn out to be like Nathanael, asking direct questions, even without guile and in all innocence, but nevertheless blunt and direct, apparently cynical, questions about Christ and faith?

How do we continue to inspire you with enough infectious enthusiasm to want to go back like Andrew to call Peter, to go back like Philip to fetch Nathanael?

How do we continue to help you as students to keep that call to follow Christ so fresh in your minds that it still inspires infectious enthusiasm in you after your three years here?

And I say this – without guile or cynicism – that this alone should be enough fame and glory, for in that alone we shall see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending.”

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of glory,
you nourish us with bread from heaven.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit
that through us the light of your glory
may shine in all the world.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist on Wednesday 18 January 2012.

Christ calls us into relationship

Mediterranean boats in Réthymnon’s charming Venetian harbour in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

Wednesday 18 January 2012,

12.45 .a.m., Said Eucharist

Collect and Readings for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Psalm 62: 5-12; I Corinthians 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20.

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

I know it is not customary to have a sermon at this mid-week Eucharist here in Saint Bartholomew’s. But I just thought I might share a few of the thoughts going through my mind as I work through my sermon for Sunday next.

I imagine our readings next Sunday may offer little comfort in the people in west Cork who are searching for or mourning the loss of the lives of those fishermen – at sea and yet so close to land.

The mere mention of Jonah, who everybody associates with a shipwreck and a big fish, or the story of fishermen being called away for an even-more demanding task, are hardly going to sound like good news to the ears of those who have lost loved ones so tragically in this past week.

Yet, Saint Mark begins his Gospel with the promise that this is “the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.” And again in our Gospel reading, in verse 15, we hear repeated the promise of that Good News: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (verse 15).

I wonder whether those fishermen by the Sea of Galilee in our Gospel reading found the call of Christ good news, to abandon their jobs, their incomes, perhaps even their families, friends and work colleagues? Yet Peter, Andrew, James and John immediately leave their previous occupations, and follow Christ.

One of the first things Christ does is to recruit followers. We could say that proclaiming the Good News, and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near, is not a one-man show. Instead, it involves building up communities, and creating relationships that embody the Good News.

Becoming “fishers of men,” “fishing for people,” is going to bring these Galilean fishers into new relationships, with new demands, new risks and new expectations.

Discipleship is not passive following of Christ. As the Church, we cannot hang any sign outside on our office doors saying: “Gone Fishin’.”

And that call, and the expectations Christ has for us, the relationships he challenges us to build, are some of the things that are shaping what I hope to say here at the Eucharist on Sunday morning.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Almighty God,
whose Son revealed in signs and miracles
the wonder of your saving presence:
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty Father,
your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
May your people,
illumined by your word and sacraments,
shine with the radiance of his glory,
that he may be known, worshipped,
and obeyed to the ends of the earth;
for he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This reflection was shared at the Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on 18 January 2012.

Preaching with love and with authority

‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people’ (Deuteronomy 18: 18) … Patrick Pye’s Triptych in Saint Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday week [Sunday 29 January 2012], the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, are: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8: 1-13; and Mark 1: 21-28.

For this semester, we have decided in our tutorial group, to look at the Old Testament readings provided in the lectionary.

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

[Moses spoke to the people; he said:]

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak – that prophet shall die.’

Making connections:

The other lectionary readings for the day are:

Psalm 111: The Psalm tells us how great the works of the Lord are, and ends with that wonderful verse (10):

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
Those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
His praise endures for ever.

I Corinthians 8: 1-13: In the New Testament reading, the Apostle Paul reminds us of the difference between knowledge and love. There is a difference between knowing who God is, and loving God, just as there is a difference between knowing who someone is, and loving that person. Discipleship, and ministry, are less about knowing, and all about loving.

Mark 1: 21-28: The Gospel readings is the story of Christ’s visit to Capernaum, where he teaches in the synagogue and preaches. All are astounded at is teaching, but when he actually puts it into practice, they are all amazed: He not only teaches, but he puts it into practice, he teaches not just with knowledge, but with authority; not only can he say, but he can do.

Reflecting on those readings may help those us who want to preach on the Old Testament reading that Sunday morning.

Looking at the text:

‘Hang all the law and the prophets’ … the statue of Bishop Charles Gore at the west entrance of Birmingham Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In the verses immediately preceding this (Deuteronomy 18: 9-14), the people are warned against false religion in the form of worshipping false idols, false gods, divination, magic, sooth-saying, sorcery and child sacrifice.

At the time, this must have been seen as weird, every other religion and culture in the region engaged in these practices, and hardly saw them as superstitious.

Then, having dismissed all that, Moses talks about how to tell if a prophet is a true prophet of the Lord. A true prophet is like Moses, conveying ideas and principals consistent with God’s commandments. False prophets are those who intentionally, through deceit, or unintentionally, because of self-delusion, preach false teachings or offer inaccurate predictions.

The people have the laws and instructions from God that are the measure of truth for them. They stand for something so they are not to fall for just anything – in theory, anyway.

If we see the reading as one about law in terms of the Old Testament code repeated in Deuteronomy, we may get bogged down. But we know what the summary of the Law is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength … You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12: 30-31; see Matthew 22: 34-40; Luke 25-28).

The story is told that when Charles Gore – founder of the Community of the Resurrection, the first Bishop of Birmingham, and the Editor of Lux Mundi – loved to play a particular prank on friends and acquaintances.

As a canon of Westminster Abbey, he enjoyed showing visitors the tomb of one of his ancestor, the Earl of Kerry, with an inscription that ends with the words (in double quotation marks): “Hang all the law and the prophets.”

On closer inspection, he would point out, the words are preceded by “... ever studious to fulfil those two great commandments on which he had been taught by his divine Master ...” (see Matthew 22: 40).

So, may we may want to hang some of the prophets if they preach the Word of God as if these were not the two commandments on which depend all the law and the prophets.

If we approach this reading in the context of the difference between knowledge and love, then we may find a more useful, reflective and pastoral way of approaching this passage.

Here we find a good antidote to those who preach, and who know their Bible, but who impose their own rules and regulations on people, without taking any account of the scope of God’s love, which is seen in the life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again of Christ.

Sometimes, listening to them, or hearing about them, can be a deadening experience. If they put their preaching into practice, it might be a very love-less world indeed, and may indeed want to hang all the law and the prophets.

Recently, as I was preparing to preach in three churches on a Sunday morning, I was asked how many sermons did I normally preach.

I replied: “Three.”

And she asked: “Every Sunday?”

No, I said. I only have three sermons to preach, and humorously summarised them as:

1, Love God.

2, Love one another.

3, Love God, and Love one another.

And if that is at the heart of your preaching, you will find you are preaching with knowledge and with love, perhaps even with authority.


Creator God,
who in the beginning
commanded the light to shine out of darkness:
We pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ
may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,
shine into the hearts of all your people,
and reveal the knowledge of your glory
in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Generous Lord,
in word and Eucharist we have proclaimed
the mystery of your love.
Help us so to live out our days
that we may be signs of your wonders in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with a tutorial group of MTh students on Wednesday 18 January 2012