Taking Blessing Breaking Giving

The Gospel of John records three feasts of the Passover in the time of Jesus’s ministry.

The first would have been very shortly after Jesus was baptized, likely in 28 AD. That was when Jesus visited the Temple in Jerusalem and made enemies of the Pharisees by overturning the tables of the money changers.

The second was around the time of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. It was accompanied by some serious teaching about Jesus’ body and blood becoming food for his disciples that caused many of his followers to leave.

The third was the Passover, likely in 30 AD, when the crucifixion took place.

What has interested me of late is the way in which Jesus’s teaching changes between these Passovers. In the early part of his ministry, his parables are about growth—seed planted in different soils; yeast in a lump of flour; a mustard seed growing into a great tree; bad seed spoiling the harvest of the good, and so on.

The later parables are more demanding. They deal with wealth, man’s parsimony towards his neighbor, dishonesty, waste, being unprepared. Although these may also stress God’s concern to “seek and save those who are lost”, they have terrible condemnation for the rich of the world who neglect the poor, and for the spiritually blessed who have cornered the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven, keeping others out, and never entering themselves.

Christ’s life, and the Eucharist, are modelled on a simple formula which we too are asked to follow: taking, blessing, breaking and giving. Perhaps this explains the pattern of teaching. The taking and the blessing correspond with the sowing of seed, and its growth to maturity. This is the production of fruit, that Jesus continually expects from his disciples.

Fruit, however, is not an end in itself. It has to be the source of seed for another harvest. It also exists to provide food for mankind. The fruit that does not find one or other of these uses will be wasted and spoil.

Isn’t this the blockage that we find so often in the ministry of the church? God has blessed us in our country and in our churches with wonderful resources, whether of wealth or education or worship, and the fruit grows well. Where, though, is the breaking and the giving? Are we like the stewards who have been given the resources for growth, but are not willing to account to their landlord and employer for the harvest?

Income tax time will soon be with us. If we are like many of our fellow citizens, we will be moaning and complaining about waste and the burden our different governments place on us, and trying to make our contribution to the public coffers as small as we can. How different it would be if we made our taxes a thank offering—for the public safety we enjoy through armed forces, police and fire departments. For our health services. Our pensions. Our public facilities. Our justice system. Our social safety net. Our right to free speech and free elections. How different if we made our giving to the church a thank offering also, rather than a duty, for “our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all, for God’s inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.”

The breaking and the giving belong in the Christian life as much as the taking and blessing, and it is by them that the Church lives and continues from generation to generation. Yet, as St. John records, after thousands have received miraculous food at Jesus’s hands: “Many of his followers heard this and said ‘This teaching is too hard. Who can listen to it?’… So he asked the twelve disciples, ‘And you—would you also like to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him ‘Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.’”

That just about sums it up.

– Anglican Messenger, 2005*
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Freedom from Fear

A lesson I have been learning over the past few years has to do with crime, sin and the connection of these with the emotion of fear.

Even in the Bible, and certainly among the public, even churchgoers, there seem to be two very different views about sin and what has to be done about it.

One is the predominantly Old Testament idea of a world divided between the Just and the Unjust, with ‘bad guys’ who are and always will be, sinners (often because of their ethnic background), and ‘good guys’, a chosen people whose conduct, if not perfect, is good enough to keep them out of jail and wean them into God’s good graces. Like the Pharisee who said “Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men are …”

The other view is the double barreled message that Jesus brings us in the Gospel. First, that the bar of being without sin and so fit for the Kingdom of Heaven is so high that no human other than himself can attain it—not just no murder, but no anger; not just no adultery, but no lust; not just no theft, but no covetousness; not just no false witness, but “swear not at all.” Pluck out your eye, cut off your hand, if these make you stumble. Secondly, though, that those—even Gentiles—who admit and repent of their sins, can enter the Kingdom through trust in the free and unmerited forgiveness of God.

To me this Gospel message has the greatest significance when dealing with crime and criminals. It is fear that leads to our crimes and our sins—fears often experienced from traumas received when we were too young to even put them into words, and which subconsciously stay with us for the rest of our lives. Fear of being abused, leading to anger, violence and murder. Fear of poverty, leading to gluttony, materialism and theft. Fear of being unloved, leading to lust and sexual crimes.

The difficulty is that the ‘moral majority’, priding itself in staying away from these crimes, still succumbs to other sins in facing these fears. From fear of abuse, we become prideful perfectionists, or slothful non-performers. From fear of poverty, we give ourselves to avarice, or succumb to cowardice, sacrificing our talents and initiative in submitting to the demands of the daily ‘rat race’. From fear of being unloved, we break out in envy, or pretend phoney friendship with hypocrisy.

If only we could be freed from fear, we would be a long way towards being freed from crime and sin—and much ill health as well. One cannot go far into the Bible without seeing how much people’s conduct has been affected by fear. Adam and Eve hide from God in Eden after eating the forbidden fruit. The shepherds at Jesus’s birth are “sore afraid”, but the angel says “Fear not”. Jesus talks about a man who confesses “I was afraid, and hid thy talent”. He talks about the end times, when “men’s hearts” are “fainting with fear”. Faced with Jairus’s plea for his deceased daughter, he says “Fear not: only believe”. Over and over again he says to those whom he has healed: “Your faith has saved you”, sometimes also adding the assurance that “your sins are forgiven”.

One of the joys I have had working in the jails with the Alternatives to Violence Project is to see people becoming transformed into open, caring men and women, as a setting is established where all are free from any fear of being ‘put down’, and they learn how a community will come into being around them that is supportive rather than hostile, when they use the tools of hope, faith and charity, care for others and respect for themselves, to harness the innate energy within them constructively, that once was wrongly used in violence towards the world outside.

In his time of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus gives us the answer to our fears. We are to be willing to embrace poverty, to be willing to work without recognition, and to renounce earthly power and be “obedient unto death”. In that way we, with Jesus, will be able to say that the “Prince of this world has come, and he has no part in me.”

The picture the Gospel gives us is not of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people being sorted out by Saint Peter at the pearly gates. It is of the tragedy of a whole world in the grip of lack of faith, and so plunged into crime and sin. It is of faithless humankind in all its different ways, trying to create an earthly Paradise for itself without God’s help.

But the Gospel also gives us the hope of a world that will be redeemed by those who confess their sins, place their trust in God’s mercy, and dedicate their lives to following as best they can in the footsteps of Jesus.

Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” That’s true for “the vilest offender who truly believes.” It’s true also for us.

– Anglican Messenger, October 2001

Meditation

Besides completely revising my views on the nature and purpose of anger, one of the most interesting things I learned in taking the “Free to Live, Free to Love” course last spring was the value and importance of meditation.

Describing the process of meditation is easy. You sit comfortably in a straight backed chair, hands clasped in your lap, preferably in subdued lighting and with your eyes closed. For a minimum of 20, but preferably 25 or 30 minutes (best timed by an alarm clock), you sit completely still. You occupy your mind by mentally repeating a single phrase (your ‘mantra’) over and over again. Fr. John Man, in his “Moment of Christ” suggests the Aramaic word “maranatha” (I Corinthians 16:22) – or you could use its English translation, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Absolutely nothing else. If your thoughts wander, discard them, and go back to your mantra. Imagine nothing. Desire nothing. Expect nothing. Be aware of everything but pay attention to nothing. Don’t go to sleep. Practice morning and evening. Continue daily for months at a time.

To a twentieth century western mind, of course, this whole thing sounds by now like a most ridiculous waste of time. The difficulty about meditation, in fact, is nothing at all about what has to be done. I have already told you what needs doing. It is in persuading a person to start, let alone to persist. Yet mediation is one of religion’s most revered and widespread practices. The great religions of the East all hold it in honour. Christ’s hours of communion with his Father “rising up a great while before day” surely involved mediation, as do the practices of contemplative monastic orders today, who can trace their ancestry back to apostolic times. Perhaps the twentieth century mind has missed something!

Indeed, that is the truth. After following the meditative path for a while, we begin to understand. The only real world we can live in is in the world of “now”. The everyday perception we think we have of the world is in fact a sham. It is a collection of memories and emotions relating to past experiences—in person, in school, from newspapers, TV, friends and other sources—from which we have constructed a mental and emotional picture of the world outside us that is certain in many points to be prejudiced, obsolete and erroneous. Worse than that, we derive from this erroneous vision of the past, not only a biased interpretation of the present—a kind of hypnotism that means we do not see things as they are, but as we have programmed ourselves to expect to see them—but also a picture of the future which will be one either of negligent optimism, or unrealistic apprehension about what will happen. The blunt truth of the matter is that the future is a subject we know nothing about at all. We simply do not know what any day is going to bring forth. Our best forecasts amount to nothing but guesswork.

The effect of meditation, and the use of a repetitive ‘mantra’, is to confine our attention entirely to the ‘now’. Like a movie camera focussed on a single subject, frame after frame conveys the same message: our attention cannot escape. Our prejudices, emotional scars, and other assorted baggage from the past become inaccessible. So do our apprehensions and fears about the future—those ‘phobias’ that paralyze us if we allow them to run away with our imaginations. And by leaving our inaccurate, fearful, imaginary mental world behind, we find ourselves, perhaps for the first time, more and more aware of the one world we really live in, the world of ‘now’—and of a Presence in the world, a loving presence that we can sense, but will never fully comprehend.

The process may seem tedious—but the journey is worth the effort. Try it!

– Gemini, October 1990

Easter Life

If you have been following the news on TV or in the papers this past week or two, there have been a number of stories to make us doubt the joy of the Easter season. Explosions at Charlottetown and in Oklahoma City. Poison gas in the Tokyo subway. Racial warfare and extermination in Rwanda. And the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, when it was routine for thousands of bombs of the size that blew up an office building in Oklahoma, to be dropped night after night on different European cities.

Where is the God of Love in all of this? It’s much easier to think of the God of the writer of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament—“Vanity of vanities—all is vanity.” The rich, the powerful, the famous—all come to the very same end as the poorest sinner. So what’s the use of life? What’s the use of anything?

Perhaps to our surprise, the New Testament message doesn’t help us very much. Jesus talks about the rich man who had everything in this world—and he ended up in hell fire. He talks about a tragedy of his day—eighteen people killed in a building collapse in Jerusalem—and all he comments is that “except you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He talks about people saving their lives, and losing them—and losing their lives and finding them. He himself lays down his life on the Cross—indeed, he so confronts the leaders of his time in such a way as to make it almost impossible for them not to kill him. St. Paul recounts all the religious advantages he has had in his life, and then says that he counts them all as so much garbage.

So, in our confusion, perhaps it is good to turn to the passage from the Book of Revelation that we had as our second lesson. Revelation dates from a very difficult time in the history of the early church. Christians were looked on as subversives: they would not burn incense to the Emperor, and claimed that Jesus was their King. Many of those to whom John was writing would have lost friends to persecution, and perhaps faced death themselves. The promised return of Jesus Christ hadn’t occurred. And, as so often happens in the church, it was just in such a time of discouragement, when the hardships of the present life were at their worst, that a great mystic writer appeared to show the reality of the life beyond.

As we heard last week—“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” If our idea of what life is, is just to be born, to grow old, and to die, then indeed it is all ‘vanity’ and emptiness. But there’s more to life than that.

Indeed it is true that in this life, we start to die the moment we are born, and none of us are going to escape from the death of our bodies. But that’s not the whole story. A tree grows, and a tree dies—but during its lifetime, a tree also bears fruit. That fruit nourishes others, and gives life to them. More than that, that fruit also contains seeds—even a few of which, if planted, will continue the life of that tree for another generation. Life, in fact, is not a one shot deal. It is a cycle between seed and organism, from organism to seed, generation after generation.

Moreover, when we look at the teachings of Jesus, he may well take a limited view of our bodily lives—but when it comes to fruit, the story is entirely different. Fruit is important. “I am the vine, you are the branches” he says. “If you fail to bear fruit, you will be burned. Even if you bear fruit, you are going to be pruned so that you may bear even more.” As with the fruit, so with the seed. The seed of the “word of God” is what the Sower sows, and the way that it comes up is of immense importance to the spread of the Kingdom of God. Yes, our earthly bodies are subject to death, are wasting away—and as we get older, we all begin to feel it. But if we bear fruit and seed during our lives—‘fruit’ of good works, ‘seed’ of Christian character and example, then the cycle is continued, and our lives have not been wasted.

This is not just the maintenance of physical life in the world over the generations—though this is true, as we have families, and bear and bring up children “in the knowledge and fear of the Lord.” It is that the character we develop in this world, as we learn (regardless of pain and suffering) to value the good and resist the evil, is the seed that will ripen into a new and spiritual life in an age to come. Oscar Wilde said that “a chicken is an egg’s way of creating another egg.” Is it too much to say that “the Universe is Christ’s way of creating brothers and sisters who will share his nature”—where in the life of the world to come, we will have the character that will enable us to share with Him the responsibility of the government of a new heaven and a new earth.

So, in our reading from Revelation today, John talks of Jesus as being the king of the world, and we church people being “kings and priests.” Not priests in the New Testament sense of the ‘presbyters’ or elders of the church, but priests in the Old Testament sense, of those who made sacrifices to God on behalf of the people—and particularly, Christ himself, who made the perfect sacrifice of himself on behalf of mankind. It is by adopting the way of Christ by the sacrifice of ourselves that we, too, whether ordained or lay, follow in his Priesthood.

I hope that this will give you courage to look on life from a new perspective—the perspective of Easter. From that perspective, all we strive for in this world is temporary and will not last. What is all important is the fruit we bear, and the seed we sow of character for our lives in the world to come. “It is sown an earthly body. It will be raised a heavenly body.”

The Easter hymn says it very well:

“My flesh in hope shall rest
And for a season slumber
Till trump from East to West
Shall wake the dead in number.
Had Christ that once was slain
Ne’er burst his three day prison
Our faith had been in vain
But now has Christ arisen, arisen, arisen.”

Or, as in the funeral service:

“Weeping o’er the grave, we make our song
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

May this be the song in our hearts, as we face—and conquer—the troubles of this world this Eastertide.

– Text of a sermon delivered in April 1995

Pain

An incident recorded in St. Matthew’s gospel set me thinking recently. Before being nailed to the Cross, Jesus was offered “vinegar to drink mingled with gall”—presumably to dull his pain—and “when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink it.”

What a contrast to the modern wold, where the smallest headache is the signal for TV commercials promising faster and more effective pain relief than the world has ever known, as our just reward for the stressful lives we lead!

What concerns me is that pain is not without a purpose in nature, nor is it necessarily an evil. Pain is the signal from the body to the mind that all is not well: a warning light hat some part of the body is being mistreated. Sometimes the mistreatment comes from outside ourselves, as when we put our hand onto a hot stove. In such a case, pain warns us to remove ourselves from the source of the injury, and our body is preserved. Sometimes, however, the mistreatment comes from the inside. We may fill ourselves with worry, overwork and stress, with suppressed hate, resentment and the like and end up with painful physical symptoms. At this point, pain in our body can be telling us to clean the garbage either out of our minds or out of our lifestyles, because it is causing us injury. To suppress such pain with alcohol, aspirins or tranquilizers, rather than dealing with its cause, is the modern version of ‘shooting the bearer of bad news’, and the very height of unwisdom.

I wonder if we are reluctant to feel pain, because anger naturally follows pain, and it has become almost a commonplace of Christian thinking that anger is sinful. However, the Sermon on the Mount only renders us liable to judgement if we are angry with our brother “without cause”. Ephesians tells us to “be angry, but sin not”. If God is to be our example on this subject, literally hundreds of Bible references refer to the “anger” or the “wrath” of God. In some cases we are told that this anger is “slow”—but in many, many of them, no doubt is left at all that it is “fierce”.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that God feels and reacts to the pain caused by the sins of humankind very acutely. To feel anger, understand it and express it makes it possible to face a problem, to reconcile and forgive. Read the Psalms, and one sees how often the Psalmist’s relationship to God is established after a phase of anger. And to take the question further—is it not possible that that loud desolate cry of Jesus from the Cross “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” was a cry, not just of pain, but of anger: the anger of Isaac, of Job, of all those saints of God who have been tested to the limits of their obedience, by a God who seems not to care: a God who originated the downfall of humankind by placing a snake in the Garden of Eden?

Of course, the Passion story does not end there. It ends in resurrection, redemption, reconciliation. But these treasures of the Easter message may perhaps never be ours to enjoy, if we do not first go through the experiences of pain—and of anger.

– Anglican Messenger, March 1991

Satan

A sermon I had to give recently on the Book of Job gave me cause to think again about the role of Satan in God’s universe. Satan, after all, was the angel who by asking God “Does Job serve God for nothing?” set in progress God’s permission for the horrible disasters with which Job and his family became afflicted.

Satan’s name when translated is “the Adversary”. He is sometimes referred to as the Tempter or the Devil—“one who leads astray”, to entice mankind into sin or “missing the mark”. In the New Testament letters of Jude and Revelation, he is described as a rebellious angel, determined to create mayhem among mortals, and destined to eternal punishment at the end of the age. The Puritan John Milton, writing in the seventeenth century, develops this concept in great detail in his great poem: “Paradise Lost”.

Throughout the Bible, we find stories of how its leading figures were in one way or another tested. Adam and Eve were led astray by the snake in the Garden of Eden. Abraham was tested (by God) to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice. Joseph was tested by slavery and imprisonment. David was tempted on a number of occasions, and sometimes fell. Job was put to the test, and Zechariah reports Joshua the High Priest being opposed by Satan. In the New Testament, Jesus himself is tempted by Satan, as is St. Peter, and the disability of many whom Jesus healed was attributed to Satan’s work.

Yet in the Book of Job, the picture is different. Satan is not so much God’s enemy, as he is God’s Quality Control Manager. The conversation between God and Satan is quite cordial. In this way, Job’s sufferings have nothing to do with punishment, and everything to do with testing his loyalty and his faith in God’s ultimate goodness. After all, in the world we know, we have teachers who are continually testing their students, to make sure that they have understood their lessons. Often these tests are ‘multiple choice’—a correct answer is mixed in with a number of plausible but incorrect alternatives. Sometimes also they are ‘surprise tests’—as we often find in the incidents of life. We have Quality Control Managers in the automobile industry, who deliberately take a perfectly good car off the production line, and run it at speed into a concrete wall. This is not because of any hatred of cars, or wish to undermine their manufacturer. The aim is to ensure that the car, besides being able to take people from A to B, will do this in safety, so that if there is an accident the driver and passengers will have maximum protection, from seat belts and airbags, as well as from energy absorbing design, to keep them from injury and harm. In the case of Job, then, Satan is God’s obedient servant, bent on ensuring the quality and loyalty of those whom God calls into his service.

Needless to say, these two views of the place of temptation in this world create two very different views of what Christianity is, and how Christians should live.

On the one hand is a religion of doom and gloom, based on the threat of hell fire and punishment, where God is by no means Almighty, and mankind is brought in to save the situation by fighting valiantly against the evil in the world—not so much the evil within oneself, as the perceived evils of others who drink, smoke, gamble, fornicate or use drugs, fail to attend church, belong to the wrong religion, or fail to observe the Sabbath. A great amount of this view came over to North America with the Pilgrim Fathers, and colours the views of the ‘religious right’ today.

We find the other view in the letter of James. “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into manifold temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience … that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing.” God is at work even in our trials. As Joseph told his brothers who sold him into slavery “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good… I was sent before you to preserve life.”

If they are rightly understood, therefore, we can ‘ace’ life’s trials with the same satisfaction as a student enjoys when he is able to ‘ace’ a difficult test, and after that enjoy the teacher’s commendation of ‘Well done.’ Satan sets the tests. Our joy, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is to pass them with flying colours.

– Anglican Messenger, 2006*

The Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer

I’d like to start by congratulating all you who have braved the snow to be here this morning, and especially those responsible for clearing the parking lot. Twenty centimeters of snow is not to be sneezed at!

Our first lesson today gave us the text of the Ten Commandments—the very essence of the Jewish law of the Old Testament, delivered by Moses to the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai after their flight out of Egypt. It raises the question that we all in the church have to face—how far do these commandments of the Jewish Law bind us in the Christian church, three and a half thousand years later?

It’s an important question, because some of the commandments of that Law seem out of place in the modern world. If we listen to all the Laws of Moses, we cannot wear clothes of two different types of cloth. There are many foods we are not allowed to eat—including pork, blood and animal fat. There are elaborate rules about inheritance, marriage and sexual relationships, debt forgiveness and slavery, as well as a slew of religious ceremonies and sacrifices that seem completely out of date in this modern world.

Matters are made more difficult for us by those who thump the Bible and say that every word therein is indeed a commandment that we have to obey, particularly when it comes to sex. Fortunately, if you look in our Book of Common Prayer, you will find towards the end of it the Thirty Nine Articles, which deal with questions of faith from an Anglican point of view. In Article VII, dealing with the Old Testament, we do have a rational answer.

This Article divides the Old Testament Law into three categories:

First is that of sacrifices, rites and ceremonies. Following the teaching of the Letter to the Hebrews, it is held that these sacrifices of the Old Testament were only “shadows of things to come”, and have been replaced by the perfect self-sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. They are of historical and symbolic interest only.

A second is that of political organization and civil law. Inheritance, marriage, landholding, debt forgiveness, Sabbath observance, criminal law, employment, civil remedies, sanitation, public health, food safety and a whole lot of other things—these are all matters that any government has to deal with. We can look to these for guidance, but in our own society, we do not slavishly have to follow the organizational pattern of a different culture and civilization.

Thirdly, though, there are ‘those commandments called moral’—covering the way we behave towards God, our families and our neighbours, summed up most clearly in these Ten Commandments, and particularly the last five of them. Those, we are expected to observe.

It reminds me a little of the rules we have for playing games. When our children were little, we could pass the time with a game of Tic-Tac-Toe. A crosshatch pattern was drawn on paper, and each player placed X’s and O’s alternately in the nine spaces so created, until one player won by placing three of his symbols in a line. At first, a child doesn’t find it important where the X’s and O’s are placed, but it doesn’t take long to realize that if you start in the middle of an outside row, you may well be beaten: if you start in the middle, the player who then goes into a corner can force you to a draw, while if you start in a corner, and the other player doesn’t go to the middle square, you can probably win. What seems like a great choice of options, in fact, very quickly turns into a very limited one if we wish to have any chance of success. “Broad is the road that leads to destruction … narrow is the road that leads to life.”

It’s a bit the same in a game like hockey. All sorts of matters are set out in the rules of the game set down by the NHL—size of rink, size of goal, numbers of players on the ice, length of periods, size of goals and goal pads, offences like roughness, high sticking, boarding, fighting and so on, and the penalties for each. The NHL even provides referees and linesmen to see that all these rules are observed. But your poor hockey player is not finished yet. He has also to listen to his coach, who teaches him not so much the rules of the game, as the strategies he needs to win it. How to do a two on one, or a three on two. How to defend the net. How to play different lines at different times.

Now we don’t necessarily all play hockey, or Tic-Tac-Toe. But we are all playing the game of life. A lot of the setup, such as physical laws and laws of government, is pretty well completely beyond our control—that’s a given. So we need those Ten Commandments, because they give us the strategy by which we are able to win that game, no matter what the cultural ground rules may be.

Jesus adopts these Ten Commandments, but he does so in a most interesting way. He puts them in the form of a prayer.

The first commandment says “No other Gods but me”. Jesus tells us to pray “Our father”.

The second tells us not to make images of God, or worship any created thing. Jesus reminds us that the God we pray is in the spiritual world: “who art in heaven”.

The third commandment tells us not to despise God’s “name”—God’s loving and merciful character. Jesus says “Hallowed be thy name”.

The fourth commandment deals with our lifestyle. Not 24 hour full employment seven days a week, but including a day of rest with time for God in worship—the Sabbath. Similarly, Jesus teaches us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Next, we are told to honour our parents “that thy days may be long in the land the Lord thy God giveth thee.” Children must care for their parents, especially as these require care and feeding when they are no longer able to work. So that when those children grow old, their own children will be there to look after them. Jesus tells us to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Commandments six to nine are those that we can call ‘moral,’ and are very brief. They prohibit murder, adultery, theft and false witness. Jesus here introduces a difference which gives us a key to the difference between Old and New Testaments. On the one hand, his Sermon on the Mount sets a standard of conduct that we sinful humans cannot expect to achieve—not just no murder, but not even to swear at our siblings. Not just no adultery, but no lecherous eyeing of the opposite sex. Not just no false witness, but “swear not at all.”

Secondly, we are told to ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and Jesus reinforces this instruction by commenting at the end of the prayer that our forgiveness from God depends on our forgiveness of those who sin against us—a new style of life that replaces punishment with forgiveness, making peace and healing a possibility in a world where nobody other than Christ has obtained one hundred percent sinlessness.

The final command is “Thou shalt not covet.” Not to desire things that don’t belong to us. We often say “Deliver us from evil,” but Jesus’s actual words are “Deliver us from the evil one.” That reminds us that in this game of life, we have an Adversary.

The Evil One—who goes by many names, ‘the Devil,’ ‘the Tempter,’ ‘Satan,’ ‘Lucifer,’ ‘the Ruler of this world,’ ‘an Evil Spirit’—has at his heart a commitment to oppose God by making us worship the things of this world: to “worship the creature” in whatever material form this may be made attractive to us, and ignore the Creator, whose love brought all of this into being. It is the story of Faust, the man who sold his soul to the Devil for the sake of earthly pleasures, and came to an unpleasant end. And Satan’s technique is to offer to us things that belong only to God—Kingdom, Power and Glory—as if he were their owner. Jesus faced this in his Lenten fast. The way the Evil One works is to foster the very behaviour forbidden in the Commandments—promoting the godlessness, the violence, the immorality, the greed and the lies that we see all around us in the world today, and are sold to us all the time by politicians, the gutter press and the advertising industry as the keys to pleasure, self-fulfilment and success.

Whether we realize it or not, our souls are a battleground wherein is fought this war between the Spirit of this world, and the Holy Spirit—God’s presence that is always on call to help us.

So let me sum up.

The commandments still have their value. Some, dealing with ritual and ceremonial, may not be relevant today, but they give us some sense of the importance of sacrifice, and of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for mankind.

Others, dealing with the rules for the administration of the Israelite people, give valuable insight into the elements that any community has to look after, and the principles of law that are needed to provide all of the community with peace, order, good government and a resulting prosperity in which all can take part.

The moral commandments, however, are for us, and cannot be ignored or done away with, and in the Christian way of life, they are supplemented by a command to forgive “up to seventy times seven” times those who do us wrong.

Twice now, and maybe more, since I lost my daughter to a homicide, I have been asked if this terrible event had destroyed my faith in God. My answer has been that it has not so much destroyed it, as changed it and deepened it. It is very easy to drift in one’s religion, thinking that all we have to do is to keep the commandments to the best of our ability—God will surely overlook a few errors here or there—and gain a seat for ourselves in heaven, because we’re surely better than a great number of other people we know. That is the religion of the Pharisee.

Two stories from the Old Testament on which I had to preach at the time of that loss took me out of that attitude. One was that of Absalom—David’s vain son who thought that his aging father had passed his best before date (as we might think of some politicians today), and so staged a rebellion to push him off the throne. David fled for his life and gathered his army to restore law and order. But he gave strict instructions that Absalom’s life should be spared. Nonetheless, Absalom’s life was taken by David’s general, Joab, and David was heartbroken—“Absalom, my son, my son, Would I had died for you, Absalom my son.” David’s grief over a son who had tried to depose and kill him was to me an eye-opener on the degree to which God loves even his enemies who rebel against him. The other was the well-known story of Job—a man who was incredibly attentive to all the duties of religion, and enjoyed great riches and blessings from God. But the question arose—is Job a faithful supporter just for what he gets out of it? In a very New Testament way, he was made to realize that God was not obliged to give Job prosperity just because he was so religious. And when Job came to the point of confessing that God’s ways were more wonderful that this kind of coin-in-the-slot religion, God and Job were reconciled, and prosperity could return again.

Our Gospel today talks about Jesus cleansing the Temple from moneychangers, folks who had turned religion into a commercial enterprise. It also talks about the Temple, the place of worship established under the Old Covenant, being replaced by Christ’s body, raised up in three days rather than forty six years. St. Peter and St. Paul both tell us that our bodies are intended also to be “Temples of the Holy Spirit.” Can we be so filled with that Spirit that for us also, the desire for wealth and the good things of this life take second place to our love of the God who has forgiven us, and of his commandments? Can we be so thankful for God’s forgiveness and goodness towards us (as Peter was, who led the early church even after he had betrayed his Master, or Paul, the dedicated evangelist who before his conversion had been a persecutor of the church) that we feel the call to spread this good news to others, through our speech, our own forgiveness, and through our service to others? That is the way in which the war against evil can be won.

– Text of a sermon delivered in March 2006

Unconditional Love

There is a fascinating scene towards the end of St. John’s Gospel. Jesus meets his disciples by the Sea of Galilee, and serves them breakfast after guiding them to an enormous catch of fish. After breakfast, he calls out Peter, the disciple who had denied him three times in the court of the High Priest the evening of Maunday Thursday. He poses a question to him (John 21:15): “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” To which Peter replies: “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.” The identical words are repeated for a second time by both parties. Finally, Jesus asks the question once again, and Peter, exasperated by this time, says “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you”, and is told once again to “Take care of my sheep.”

What does not appear in most English translations of this story is that there is a subtle and meaningful change in the words that Jesus uses, and this could well be what caused Peter to become so upset.

What is translated into ‘Love’ in English can be one of four different words in the original Greek. Almost always, when Divine and Christian love is referred to, the word used is ‘agape’, which is most closely rendered as ‘caring’, involving not simply a feeling, but rather a behaviour. That is the word with which Jesus addresses Peter. Peter, however, replies using the word ‘philia’, which could be rendered ‘You are my friend’. So when Jesus, the third time, instead of ‘Do you care?’ asks ‘Are you my friend?’ we can understand why Peter gets upset!

God’s love, Divine love, is Covenant love. It is caring that will continue regardless of whether we respond to it or not, even though in the latter case, the caring may involve the same type of discipline that a caring father gives to a disobedient child. Human love is at a lower level. Contract love (philia) is for our advantage as much as that of another—“You be nice to me, and I will be nice to you, but if you will not, then our relationship is at an end”, or as a lawyer would define it, “Termination of Contract by Breach.” How many marriages in our modern world are failing, because what should have been a Covenant has been treated as a Contract!

In St. Luke’s Gospel (6:32-35), Jesus is perfectly clear: “If you love only the people who love you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners love those who love them! … No! Love your enemies and do good to them; lend and expect nothing back. You will then have a great reward, and be sons of the Most High God…”

On the human level, that is a very tall order, and all of us likely fall short at times. But that is precisely what this season of Pentecost is all about. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, “to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13) is the key by which we are empowered to follow this higher and harder way, the door to the Kingdom of Heaven is opened for us, our life with God and our life with our neighbours moves from Contract to Covenant, and the Kingdom of Heaven, as a result of God’s faithfulness, becomes His precious gift to us.

– Anglican Messenger, September 2010*