St. John's Gospel begins with a revelation that we are loved beyond our wildest expectations. Now, in today's Gospel he tells us that loving Jesus in return is the only thing needed to receive and understand what He chooses to reveal. Those who love Him open their hearts, and all of their lives, to another kind of loving - a Sacred Love. This love brings strength instead of power. The Strength that will be needed to walk the pathways of Sacred Love in time.
As Jesus prepares His disciples for His death and departure, He speaks directly to their breaking hearts. There is a
secret hidden in the heart of every death. Wherever there is loss there will be a gain! Even more, The Holy Spirit will take up residence in the heart of every disciple and help them to remember and make this teaching their own. You might want to pause here to consider the beauty of this reveal.
Like every person who knows they are dying, Jesus wants to leave gifts for those who love Him. But there is no
financial legacy in His will. Instead He bequeaths the spiritual/mental enhancement that the revelation of His dying makes possible. And so, it is Peace that He wants to leave them. But not just any old peace. He calls it MY Peace. This is very different from the absence of stress, distress and fear. As Saint Paul wrote in his amazing letter to the Church in Rome, it is nothing less than the conviction that nothing can separate us from the Love which is our life. The non-abandoning presence of God is everywhere. On Calvary, the place of total loss, this Sacred Love is revealed as a protecting nearness which will not permit the final destruction of the Beloved.
Someone once said, "Where there's a will, there's a war". Few of us have not witnessed, or heard stories of the trouble caused by the cash inheritance. Inherited money can be dangerous. What was intended to help can cause hurt and division. Perhaps this is why in St. Luke's Gospel (Lk 12:13-14) Jesus refuses to divide a man from his brother over money. This same theme is repeated again in St. John's Gospel, where relationships are valued and cherished above all else. This is why Jesus' bequest to His disciples is something that will not hurt them or tear them apart. He leaves another gift - one that will be an active energy in keeping them in community. He leaves Peace, the only gift which can guarantee them a future. Peace does not divide people but restores them to one another.
If someone has left us the gift of money in their will, we might choose to spend it. Jesus has left us the gift of Peace. This gift cannot be spent. We can only remember it an act on it. Jesus is very clear that the gift of the Holy Spirit is given so that we will not forget, but perhaps even more to teach us the ways of Peace. We remember and we learn.
I heard a great story once of a man who left his family home in Ireland. He was not the eldest brother and the farm
would never be his. So, he went to America to seek his fortune. He worked hard to make a comfortable life for his wife and three children. He wrote to his brother every month 'with no news from this end' but always sent a cheque to help his family. His brother Michael wrote back every month 'with no news from his end' but never mentioned the cheque. When Tom reached the age of sixty-five a yearning to visit his home grew stronger in him. He decided to go and take his granddaughter with him. When he arrived back at the family home, there was tension in the air. His brother expected a rich 'yank' and he expected to meet a wealthy landowner. In each case, it wasn't true!
As the evening unfolded the two brothers found themselves alone in front of the big fire. Michael went to the cupboard and pulled out a beautiful homemade crusty loaf. Tom found his duty-free bag and produced a good Irish whiskey. When his granddaughter woke in the morning, she found crumbs on the table and a half empty whiskey bottle. But of Tom and Mick she saw nothing. She went to the bank door as the sun climbed into the sky and in the field, she saw them both, having a smoke and inspecting the earth the way a parent checks a new-born. They had stayed up all night. When they saw her, the waved and walked stride by stride together back to the house. As she waited, she knew that although she had not yet had to stay up all night to beat back the darkness with her love, when the time came, she would be able to do it. She shouted to them, "Wow, you made it all the way to morning!"
Peace. Is St. John right to say it is the only inheritance if any real value?
As Judas leaves to set in motion the events that will lead to the death of Jesus, there is no attempt to stop him. Instead, he is invited to act with haste. It is clear that Jesus understands His death as central to the purposes of God. Jesus is so completely at one with this purpose than the departure of Judas is like an overture to His exclamation.
It is clear, step one, that Jesus sees His death as a glorification and as a revelation of what divine love will do to save those who are lost. This revelation retells the truth about who Jesus really is: the One who is lifted up for all to see and who draws all people to Himself. In this one action he will reveal the truth about God, as a self-giving flow of life and of love to his children in their most frightening moment - the moment of their death. The twofold revelation of the Son of Man and of His Father strengthen each other. Their unity expressed and celebrated as mutual glorification.
It is also clear that the death of Jesus will change the bonds of Love which have grown between Him and His disciples. But it isn't simply that it is His time and not theirs. Rather, He is moving ahead of them, pioneering the way. This is why St. Paul refers to Him as first-born from the dead. (Col.1:18-19)
Finally, Jesus sees His dying as the supreme expression of the Love He has been talking about from the beginning. As He lays down His life for His sheep (Jn.10:15) He creates a new Commandment. The world of His disciples is rocked when they are lifted far outside their human inability to love God and their neighbour, into a first love that flows through the person of Jesus. The new Commandment is an invitation to recognise and remember the Son of Man who joins us in our deepest fears and sustains us in our greatest losses.
This new beginning - God loving us without regret, without end and to breaking point - requires a huge shift in the imagination of every disciple. Consider this insight from James Mackey,
"I simply will not feel my own life, my own self, as grace of gift of God, unless someone values me ... I may see, at first blush, this stands the whole logic of the reign of God on its head... The logic should surely read: first feel all life land existence as grace, and then feel inspired to be gracious to others. Not, first feel the grace of some human presence,
feel forgiven, accepted, served then begin to feel all life and existence as grace, and feel inspired to be gracious to others. But it is really a universal human idiosyncrasy that is operative here, not a matter of logic... Most of us can only sense ourselves and our world valued and cherished by God when we feel valued and cherished by others".
(Jesus: The Man and the Myth [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1970]170)
In other words, we come to know and love Sacredness through our humanity. This is the colossal insight of the New Commandment. If disciples can keep faith with the memory of what Jesus has done. If they can aspire to uphold and live a kind of loving that springs from the heart of God's Heart, the presence of Jesus will be eternally available to them. And when other people witness and experience the disciples of Jesus upholding the primacy of Sacred Love in all things, they will be drawn to the well from which it springs. Love will be the tip off that we are disciples of Jesus.
I imagine that every home is filled with loves reminders. There might be photographs of people we have loved and lost. There may be other objects which, worth next to nothing should they be presented at the antiques road show, hold immeasurable richness of the Love that we have grown and shared with others. Some of us may even have a crucifix to remind us of the gift of that 'first love' which flows through Jesus. Most of the time we may take their presence for granted. But every now and again they call to us to pause and remember moments of joy and laughter or moments of prayer.
But the cross of Jesus should be a unique and priceless treasure in every disciples home. We belong to a community and to a tradition which has carried the memory of Jesus through time and space so that we can touch it and make it our own. This is the legacy of people who tried their best to live in the Love that does not fail. When they stumbled and fell, they found their way to forgiveness and started again. The community to which I belong has bridged the centuries from the time of Jesus so that He can speak to my own heart.
We have this gift and we also have the gift of Sacred Scripture. Both are needed if we are to remember the love of Jesus and His Commandment that we should uphold the primacy of Love in all things and bring Love to bear on every violation of Love which we meet along the way. Whenever two or three people are gathered by this truth, an indestructible community is formed. We call this 'the church'. But what I am beginning to see more clearly is this. Remembering the love of Jesus so that we can love one another takes a home and a heart big enough to hold the photographs of cherished family, friends and even pets, and allowing them to stand side by side with the cross
The Beloved Son of God is in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple. This Temple, planned by King David and built by his son Solomon, had seen many changes and additions over the years. But it was only after the Syrians had built an altar to Zeus over the altar of holocausts, and offered Sacrifices to Zeus, that this feast day was set. Their 'desolating sacrilege' triggered the successful revolt led by Judas Maccabee, after which the Temple was rebuilt and re-dedicated to God.
It is the right setting and the right Feast for Jesus. The new Temple is walking in the old Temple - in the portico of Solomon, on a feast of spiritual renewal. The replacement has arrived. How will He be received?
Well, because of what happened on His previous visit with the money changers, Jesus is encircled by a nervous crowd. They know that the Messiah has the right to restore and rebuild the Temple. But Jesus does not seem to have the right credentials. He is confusing them and they want plain talking. But when Jesus tries to illumine their minds the don't get it. And, as far as they are concerned, He is the problem. He will not play the game by their rules. He will not give a direct answer to their questions.
On the other hand, Jesus thinks they are the problem. He has spoken plainly about who He is and why He has come. But they will not believe Him. They are unable to hear the Word or read his actions as revelation.
But there are those who do hear his voice and understand that He is God's revelation of all that is Sacred. To 'hear' Jesus voice means much more than attending to the words He speaks. The hearer must have the wisdom to discern who the speaker is. Jesus invites insight into His identity with every word and action. When His 'sheep' hear his voice they begin to see His unique relationship with God and they begin to speak of Him as Messiah, Son of God etc.
To hear Jesus voice is to share his consciousness. Now they know themselves as Jesus knows them. Believing in Jesus' name means they can now believe in their own.(Jn 1:12-13). Knowing who Jesus is means that I now know who I am - a beloved daughter or son of God. His identity and our identity are interwoven eternally. The revelation of who Jesus is, and who we are, will continue in ways we do not yet understand. But one taste is enough to know that more is to come. From Him we receive eternal life, death can never destroy us and those who seek to snatch us out of Jesus' hand are thwarted.
They wanted plain talking and they got it, but they cannot accept it. If we discern that Jesus is the very presence of God and know that we are children of God who are safe because of the eternal life He pours into us, we will not be surprised when He declares "The Father and I are One." This declaration strengthens us to find our own voice. When we start out we may be unsure. But as our trust in Him grows, the miracles happen.
Here is a wonderful story from Jewish spirituality which is worth reflection.
When Rabbi Zusya grew old and knew that his time on earth was nearing a close, his students gathered around him. One of them asked him if he was afraid of dying.
'I am afraid of what God will ask me', the Rabbi said.
"What will he ask you?"
'He will not ask me, Zusya, why were you not like Moses? He will ask me , Zusya, why were you not Zusya?'
Jesus has returned to the Sea of Galilee, where He had made miracles with loaves and fishes. Now He is about to do the same, only this time, His disciples will fully understand what is being revealed. He has been shaping them over time, to be the kind of disciples who catch people. But the 'catch' live in the depths which, so far, they have not been able to see. Drawing fish from these depths, suggests a new awareness has arrived, and with it, a new day and the new dawn.
The focus in today's Gospel is St. Peter. His horror at the idea that Jesus should wash his feet (Jn.13:1-38) his triple denial (Jn.13:36) and bitter tears, reveal a man who wants to be close to Jesus but does not yet understand Him. The ability to follow Jesus depends entirely on receiving and understanding the foot washing. Peter has to plug his beautiful ego into something even more beautiful. It is not his calling to lay down his life to save Jesus, but to be receptive to the gift, and draw strength from the source of all life. (Jn.1:3). And Jesus trusts that Peter will find the way. There is an 'afterwards' that Jesus is looking forward to - a Morning of enlightenment where Peter will see that his unplugged ego will not bring him to the place where he will understand and follow. Only after the dark night of emptiness has run its course will Peter find Jesus waiting on the other shore, offering the Kingdom of God for breakfast.
The Risen Jesus does what the earthly Jesus does. He invites His disciples to sit and eat a 'breakfast' - symbol of this new dawn. Whatever is on the menu, it is Jesus Himself who is the nourishment. Disciples must eat and ingest the Love that holds out the bread and the fish. This is the third appearance of the Risen One. As such, it marks an end to one thing and the beginning of another. In this new era, whenever Jesus' disciples gather for a community meal they will feed on a Love which will fill their famished souls. And now that Peter has allowed Jesus to feed him, he understands and knows what he must do. Peter will say to the One who knows all things, "You know that I love you". Only now that he has made the connection does he have the strength to feed Jesus disciples and to give his life for them. Peter's following will be faithful and complete to the end. (Jn.13.1)
The Gospel story ends with the instruction 'Follow Me'. Disciples will only catch fish when the have made the journey from the charcoal fire of the night, where ego can only deny and betray the truth, to the charcoal fire of the new dawn. Only those who allow Jesus, the Beloved Son of God, to teach and feed them will be effective in making new disciples of the Kingdom. It depends totally on the conversion which constantly seeks to mirror that teaching and actions of the Christ.
Margaret Wheatley offers this Sacred model for modern times:
"Many writers have offered new images of effective leaders. Each of them is trying to co-create imagery for the new relationships that are required, the new sensitivities needed to honour and elicit worker contributions. Here is a very partial list of the new metaphors to describe leaders: gardeners, midwives, stewards, servants, missionaries, facilitators, conveners. Although each takes a slightly different approach, they all name a new position for leaders, a stance that relies on new relationships with their network of employees, stakeholders and communities. No one can hope to lead any organisation by standing outside or ignoring the web of relationships through which all the work is accomplished. Leaders are being called to step forward as helpmates, supported by our willingness to have them lead us. Is this a fad? Or is it the web of life insisting that leadership join in with appropriate humility".
(Leadership and the New Science:Discovering Order in a Chaotic World [San Francisco:Berrett-Koehler
Our journey through lent, from darkness to light, from misunderstanding to seeing more, has taken us many places. We went with The Beloved Son of God into the desert to watch Him reject one strategy and choose another for life to the full for all. We have climbed physical mountains with him to see Him transfigured on Mount Tabor. We have followed Him through the twisted labyrinths of a loveless world to find a mercy as sustaining as bread and as intoxicating as wine. And we have listened to the story of His refusal to embrace violence as a means to any end; His utter faithfulness to His mission to bring health and well being to the world.
Now we are ready to follow love into mystery. It begins on the first - and never ending - Easter Day.
Mary of Magdala has visited His tomb to complete the burial ritual, and finds herself being surprised by Angels. St. John tells us it is the first day of the week and it is dark. (a new creation story). Something is happening. Something that can be dimly seen in the morning light but which will come into full view as the day unfolds when darkness will give way to the light. But it won't happen all at once.
Magdala runs to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple. They start out together and they end the day together. But for now, the Beloved disciple is faster than Peter. Faster and fitter because he has access to Jesus' Heart and knows how to read the 'signs' as they appear. Simon Peter follows him. This indicates that he is in a learning position. That only the Beloved disciple can teach him how to read the signs, how to enter, how to see and how to believe.
Now the key sign which is waiting for understanding is the face veil which has been rolled up and put in a special place. The reader is expected to remember the veils of Adam, Moses and Lazarus. For Adam it was used to wipe the sweat from his brow, now that he has condemned himself to working in a broken world. For Moses it was the veil which he wore because the touch of God had made him into light. For Lazarus, it is a discarded veil as he is freed from death and restored to life.
The other clothes - the death clothes - symbolise those Adam and Eve wore when they discovered they were naked. The new Adam has no need for these. And although loves ability to read these signs comes first, the leadership of Peter is reverenced because both are needed to sustain the community. St. John's Gospel describes them as walking home together - another Emmaus Walk - where they have time to reflect, put the pieces together and let their hearts savour what has happened.
I think it was Gabriel Marcel who once wrote, "To love someone is to say, 'Thou, Thou shall not die.'" When we love someone more than ourselves we enter the world of self giving, of sacrifice, of investing ourselves and our resources in their wellbeing. We become fiercely protective of them, and do everything we can to defend and shelter them from any harm. And even though we can have short term success in this endeavour, we know that ultimately we will fail. Marcels promise is one that we cannot keep.
Or perhaps we can. Perhaps we want that 'somehow' the Beloved will survive the death event and that their presence will be continued in another way. For St. John and for St. Paul the question of life after death can only be asked in the context of love. Notice how Martha and Mary begin their conversation with Jesus within loves embrace and how it ends with the declaration 'See how He loved him'. . Notice more how it is the Beloved Disciple and Mary of Magdala who begin, each in their own way, to uncover the meanings hidden in the empty tomb. And notice how St Paul places Love in tension with death and how in the beautiful hymn of 1 Cor 13, it is love that never ends. In all of these sacred texts it is both human and divine love that questions the finality of death.
Easter is an invitation to follow that love into mystery. Somewhere between what we know, and what we do not know, the truth begins to show itself. St. Paul will speak of the grace of divine love in mysterious language. He speaks of the things which no eye has seen and no ear has heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him. Easter is only the first day of the week of the new creation. It is real but it has still to rise like the dawn in our hearts. And it seems that the loving heart creates the right space for God to dance to the music of Resurrection.
The Beloved Son of God has returned to the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives. I want to focus on this part of the Gospel for this Sunday because it is important.
The disciples have been at prayer with Jesus and have seen Him at prayer many times. Remember the visit to Mount Tabor where The Father reveals by illumination and by declaration who Jesus is. This was a stop-over on the deadly journey to Jerusalem, and although the disciples continued to follow Him they were still holding back. They couldn't understand why Jesus walked headlong into fierce opposition. Their lack of understanding needed to be corrected and they could only do this by following the command to 'Listen to Him.' If they can remember the radiance when the darkness comes, they might find the strength to be faithful.
Another time in Luke 11, the disciples ask Jesus for a teaching about what it means to be a prayerful person. He calls them to seek, to ask and to knock on the door of God's heart, not because God needs persuading but because they do! Disciples have to do the groundwork in their contemplative hearts if they are going to receive the fullness of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And here, in the Garden of Olives, the Beloved Son of God teaches them, 'Pray, lest you enter into temptation.' Something is about to happen, and, if they do not pray themselves into these events they will be overwhelmed and captured by them. The strength to say no when a no is needed, and the strength to say yes when a yes is needed will only arise from praying and listening hearts. Tragically it is a lesson that will be learned in the very moment they fail to live it.
As Jesus kneels and touches the earth, He sees the conflict that will erupt from the religious and political powers. He does not want to suffer and He does not seek it. But as He kneels and touches the earth, He finds that He loves something more than His fear of suffering - His commitment to his Fathers
will. Now let's be absolutely clear here. It is not God's will that Jesus suffers and dies. Much more, it is God's will that the power of forgiveness and reconciliation be continued in all circumstances. This is what the Beloved Son has pledged to do. In the events that will unfold, Jesus will not be drawn into violence. He will forgive those who persecute Him and offer the Kingdom to the repentant thief. He can only do this because His centre is centred on God. It is from here that His actions flow. He is about to enter a contest where the strength and steady flow of love will be all that is needed.
But His disciples have not stayed awake and He finds no strength in them. For St Luke, this means they have abandoned their contemplative hearts. For them, the situation that is coming is beyond their resources. They are overwhelmed and overcome. The world, and its violence is too much for them. When Jesus asks them, 'Why do you sleep?' it is a prophetic question that disturbs the sorrowful slumber of the disciples. No answer comes because there is no answer. He can only repeat, 'Rise, pray lest you enter into temptation'. But they cannot do it and everything begins to unravel in their hearts.
Suddenly, the violent are upon them. A mindless crowd, led by Judas (one of the Twelve) do not believe in Jesus' way of seeing and acting. But Jesus is awake. He is integrated. He holds as one and will not let go of, His love for His Father and for His people; the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. The Way of the Son of Man, this expression of human potential, is present in Jesus and possible for others. And it is this potential which Judas, even though he walked with Jesus, contradicts. On the outside, he offers Jesus the kiss of loyalty, but on the inside his heart is full of betrayal. If you like, Judas is the perfect example of the very split which the Son of Man has come to heal.
The other disciples, sensing the violence which is to come, act to stop it. They ask Jesus if they should strike with the sword. The sustaining momentum of prayer is not available to them because they have not listened. An ear falls to the ground. As far as they are concerned the dialogue is over. But the One who has spent his life giving people ears to hear says, "No more of this,' and follows these words by restoring the ear to its rightful place. As Jesus prayed and stayed awake He teaches powerfully that loves dialogue is never over. The power of forgiveness and reconciliation continue to flow through Him even when it is halted by His disciples.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is treated like a terrorist. He allows the burden of the sins of the violent to fall across Himself. Perhaps this is what the Gospel writers mean when they call it, 'His Hour'. It is His because He reveals the Fathers persistent and non violent love even for those who harm the Beloved Son. It is this 'Hour' of eternal time which moves forward to meet the darkness and the hatred and the futile attempt to kill Him. And His Cross, is the eternal declaration that in the contest between Divine Love and Human Sin, there will only ever be one winner.
According to one tradition, the Divine Glory once resided in the Temple in Jerusalem. But the sins of the people were so awful that God departed, leaping from the Temple to the Garden of Olives and then up to heaven. Now God is back. Jesus, the bearer of Divine Glory is returning to the Temple by the same path. It is early - a new day - so we can expect something new. What will happen when divine glory encounters sin once more?
St. John sets the scene, "All the people came to Him..." This teaching is for all people and for all time because they need it. Jesus is seated and is about to teach but there is an interruption. This teaching will be a masterclass in relationships, taught relationally. The lost tribe of the scribes and Pharisees are at it again. Clearly the Parable of the Prodigal didn't have the desired effect. A woman (who was clearly committing adultery all by herself) is 'caught', 'brought' and 'made to stand there'. This is what the Pharisees do really well - holding people in their sin. Notice too how they make full use of a favourite tool of the self righteous - the stare. It is used to demote a person to an object, to hold them in the sin and to close off the flow of time and the newness it might bring. Their real agenda is to trap Jesus, to hold Him. But in their haste they have unwittingly given Him the raw material of His response.
'Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground'. (v.9). It doesn't matter what He wrote, but that He wrote twice with his finger, on the earth, and that twice He bent down and straightened up. The One who writes with His finger is close to God (Ex:31:18) like Moses, who having witnessed the sins of his community goes back up the mountain to plead for them. When Moses asks if he can see the diving glory, God accepts but hides him in the cleft of a rock. Then God tells him to cut two more tablets with these words. "I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablet which you broke". As the Glory of God passes by, Moses is treated to the beautiful words of Exodus 34, 6-8. You can read it for yourself! So God writes a second time, God frees what people can only hold.
For Jesus, the Pharisees and Scribes have not truly understood the law of Moses. The true interpretation is that God always writes twice. What happens between the first and second writing? An understanding that there are no people who are without sin and that they live only because of God's infinite mercy. If all live by Grace, who can throw the first stone? The need to ask for forgiveness for myself takes precedence over the need to condemn another? Jesus alternative to the holding stare of the Pharisees and their followers is to hold up a mirror and then bend down again. He will not use their staring strategy. He gives them the self knowledge they need to change. The divine glory does not have to return to heaven as it has found another way to heal the sins of the earth.
Jesus writes with his finger as a sign that God is speaking. He writes twice as a sign that God is forgiving. He writes
on the earth as a sign that this teaching is for all peoples of all times. He refuses to stare as a sign that sins are not
held. And when they got what He was trying to say what did they do? Did they let go of vengeance in favour of
forgiveness? Did they give up judgement in favour of friendship? No! They walked away, preferring to live in isolation - one by one - than in the joy of the community. They remained alone and unconnected. A tragedy which proves that the longer we choose to live as judge, jury and executioner of the weak the harder it is to see the truth and power of the alternative.
But Jesus keeps faith with her. He stands and looks without staring. And just as those who walked away needed to see their distorted self in order to repent and have life, she needs to see her true self reflected in His gaze so that she can 'see and believe'. He calls her 'Woman' - a title of honour - and points her to her true self. He asks her, 'Has
no-one condemned you?' This is the first and only time she speaks and her answer is powerful. "No-one, Lord". The suffocating neck brace of condemnation has evaporated. When she calls Jesus 'Lord' she knows He speaks from the heart of God. She knows she must now Go! But she also knows that as she goes she must walk
The Divine Glory has returned. Sin will not drive it away. He has written the truth of twice upon the earth, and built a new Temple of forgiveness in the precincts of the old. The woman is free to take her first steps into the future that is coming. The question is, are we?
Who is listening to the Parable of the Prodigal Son? First, the tax collectors and sinners who are 'outside' the law. Second, the scribes and Pharisees who are 'inside' the law. And here they all are, gathered at the feet of Jesus. What will he teach them?
The Pharisees and scribes are described as 'grumblers'. They are very confused that Jesus is welcoming and accepting people whose bad behaviour has put them outside the law. Is He approving and sanctioning their behaviour? But Jesus doesn't see the world the way they see it. He shares a meal with the lost daughters and sons, and has conversations with other lost daughters and sons. Whatever He is doing He is seeking out the lost. In today's Parable, a father welcomes two lost sons. The youngest, symbol of the 'sinners', the eldest, symbol of the Pharisees. Jesus has diagnosed the same sickness in all of them - their failure to rejoice. The story that unfolds is an invitation to a celebration that just has to happen.
This Parable is so rich it is hard to know where to mine it first. Should we gaze upon an unusual father who keeps
nothing for himself, who behaves rather oddly throughout the story? What will he do with a younger son who is lost in sin and an older son who is lost in self-righteousness? How will he change their mindset to party mode? Or should we focus on the son who went away? Who severs his connection to family and community. Who squanders resources he never worked for. Who becomes a pig. Who, like so many others, takes the gifts of God but does not deepen their connection with the Giver? Who end up running on empty and alone? Who live like slaves in exile instead of the life of a beloved child at home? Who resign themselves to being treated as a hired hand? Who talk themselves into the loss of love? Or should we focus on the Son who stayed in the fields? The hard worker whose foot never taps to the sound of music? Who is suspicious and angry and refuses, even though he did take his own half of the dough, to accept the invitation to dance? Who stayed at home, not as a Beloved Son but with the calculating mind of a slave? Who lives with smouldering resentment which erupts in a tirade against his father about how unfair he has been?
The lost son makes the first move and it is all that he needs to do. The father has been waiting for this moment and his compassion covers the distance between them instantly. Arriving, this same compassion erupts in kisses and embraces. It is a tsunami of tenderness. It is a picture of overwhelming love and reconciliation. People have to turn back to God but they don't have to crawl back. Compassion meets them more than halfway and tears up the script of unworthiness. What happens when a broken sinner meets a wildly joyous father?
The other lost son has chosen the identity of a hired hand, with all the dullness that enforced employment brings. If he had chosen to live in the house and as a free and vibrant worker in the vineyard, he would now be singing and dancing to the music the father has written. What would his life had been if he had not turned it into drudgery? What if he had rested in the joy the Father always brings? Celebration is the natural overflow of divine love. If only he would take his cup and drink.
I can never pray this Parable without being moved to tears of joy by it. I know in this I am not alone. Tears flow on the border between time and eternity, the Sacred and the profane. And this story is truly one with the power to make tears because it shows what God is like in conversation. It is a story of how we can so easily separate ourselves from the love that does not fail. It is the story of how obsess about the mistakes we have made and cling ever more tightly to our brokenness, even though God is not doing that at all. It is a story of the tragedy of those who sit just outside the gates of God's heart like beggars waiting for a reward, while God is saying, come in and have it all.
For the Father, and for His Beloved Son, Grace is Grace is Grace is Grace. When the punishment and reward mindset meets the indiscriminate host it shouts 'Not Fair'. Perhaps we all have an instinctive understanding of the older brother because he is so much like us. The Gospel is an invitation to Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice! But we can only be joyful when we have let go of the mindset that keeps us imprisoned in misery. When we break free of our attachment to old sins (our own and those of others) and when we can break free from the belief that we are working for rewards, will we hear the music, the chink of the glasses and know that we are home!
Having committed murder, Moses is on the run. He has hidden himself well; a new life with a new wife and a job to
pay the bills - or so he thinks. On the 'Mountain of God' where he is looking after sheep, he sees a fire that does not
consume, and hears a voice, coming from the heart of the fire, telling him he is on Holy ground. Margaret Clarke takes the view that since all flows from God, all ground is holy. I think she is right! On this piece of Holy Ground, God reminds a barefoot Moses that he still belongs to a community. Moses covers his face but what is it he is afraid to see? The One who speaks or perhaps himself as the man who ran and walked away?
It is interesting that God does not mention his crime. Instead God shares a heartfelt concern for the suffering of His people, His intention to liberate them from their oppressors and to lead them to a better life with Moses at the front! And Moses can't believe what he's hearing. He says to God, "So you want me to go back to the place I've been running from all these years?" "And if I do this, who shall I say sent me?" Jim Finley has a wonderful take on God's answer, "I Am who I Am." He puts it like this, "Tell them reality sent you". It's worth pausing here to consider these words.
As he describes this strange encounter, the author holds the same vision that we, as individuals and as a parish community are growing into. There is no doubt that Moses' vocation; his Contemplative Heart and his mission to liberate and ease the suffering of others, are movements of the same dance. And so the psalmist sings.
In today's Gospel Reading, the group described as 'some of those present' represent a conventional point of view. If you like, Jesus is speaking to humanity in general as they try to make sense of tragedy. It seems that some people
from Galilee were visiting Jerusalem and went to offer sacrifices in the Temple. Tragically this involved the killing of animals. For some unknown reason, Pilate sent in some of his troops who murdered the Galileans, mixing their blood with the blood of the 'sacrificed' animals. If the blood of these animals were sin offerings, the Galileans were murdered in the very act of repenting. Could it be that their fate was somehow tied to the magnitude of their sins? Thinking like this is more common than we might like to admit.
But before Jesus corrects them, He pushes their question a little further. What Pilate did was morally evil. So what about physical disasters and the accidental events that destroy people's lives? He reminds them of a recently tumbled tower that killed 18 people. Was it the hand of God that pushed it over? Is all misfortune punishment for sin?
The Beloved Son of God is absolutely clear that this is nonsense and admonishes them to stop thinking like that. But, as we know, listening to Jesus can be comforting as well as challenging. Jesus shifts their attention away from the fate of others and asks them to consider the more important question of their own fate. A fate that does not depend on Pilate getting out the wrong side of bed or shoddy workmanship on a building. Fate requires a personal decision. The invitation to become an intentional disciple can only be embraced if we stop looking out and start looking within. Gods will and God's call to a new life on earth are revealed in the heart. Speculating about moral evils and tragedies will only leave us feeling confused and deflated. But bringing God's Will to earth is clear and uplifting. This is the change of mind. This is the repentance that is needed.
Which is why Jesus tells the Parable of a fig tree with no figs. Why does a fruit tree produce no fruit? Fruitless, it is
about as much use (in Kingdom terms) as a lamp in a tub or salt that has lost its savour. The tree is not doing what it
is supposed to do. A tough and realistic Jesus teaches that we either produce or perish. This makes great sense to
me and opens a reflection on how we carry a personal and a community responsibility for each other. Listening to
Jesus, we sense an urgency in the situation. We must act as faithful disciples and we must act now! He will create
the right conditions for us to flourish and grow. There is soil, manure, a gardener, a shovel and time. But the time is
not endless. If we do not change we will perish - not by sudden and tragic events - but because we failed to bring
heaven to earth when we had the chance to do so.
All of this is beautifully captured in The Lords' Prayer. As we pray it, we stake our claim to a common humanity who hallows the name of God as Father of All. We work tirelessly to make His Kingdom come on earth - as it is in heaven. I do believe this is what Jesus means when He talks about bearing fruit. He is clearly saddened by those who look in the wrong direction to find answers to the puzzles of human existence. But sadder still that so many are yet to see the Wisdom of making the journey within. So many are yet to kiss the Fathers will. So many are yet to arise, in the face of too much suffering, to enact that will and create a better world.
Today St.Luke paints a portrait of Jesus at prayer. As we gaze upon Him, we are struck not just by His transparency, but by how He is totally at one with His Father in Heaven. He radiates the Spirit which has been given to Him without reserve and the world is better for it. His Light comes from within but it searches out the arena of engagement and action. If flows into the world. Then guests arrive. Moses and Elijah. Both were men of the high places. They went to the mountains to talk to God about what was happening in the valleys, and there they received Wisdom, Courage and Illumination for what they had to do below. They don't seem to be over absorbed in the Transfiguration of Jesus. There is a more pressing concern - the events which are about to unfold in Jerusalem. They are on the mountain to consider the affairs of earth. Prayer is only preparation for action! This is why all three appear in Glory. For they are not isolated individuals in touch with God. Glory is how they act on the earth, and Jesus, the Beloved Son of God, is moving to redeem the history of the world.
St. Luke portrays the disciples as being in a kind of twilight zone. They are sleepy yet managing to stay awake. They get it and don't get it all at the same time. They see but not as clearly as they could, and they sense that something more is to come. We can therefore forgive Peter for not being sensitive to the departure of Moses and Elijah. Peter wants to hold them where they are, build three tents, as if the three were equals. All of this gets blown away by a spectacular unfolding. The cloud covers them and Jesus is revealed for who He really is. But the voice is speaking to the disciples this time. Jesus is the Beloved Son, the Chosen One. All disciples have to do is Listen to Him! With these words the cloud shatters and Jesus is now alone. I love it that these disciples are half right, half wrong, half asleep and half awake, seeing and not seeing, hearing and not hearing. So they are commanded to listen to the Divine Teacher. They are to ponder the meaning of the events they have just seen. It will take time - learning how to listen to Him.
In ancient China, on the top of Mount Ping stood a temple where the enlightened one lived. One of Hwans disciples was Lao-Li and he had been a student and disciple of the Master for many years. Yet he had never reached enlightenment and he decided to return to the valleys below. When he went to tell Hwan, he was at prayer. But before he could speak Hwan said that he would make the journey down the mountain with him the next day. The next morning, as they stared out, the master looked out at the vastness surrounding the mountain peak and asked, 'Lao-li, what do you see?" "Master, I see the sun beginning to awake on the horizon, hills, mountains that stretch for miles, a lake and an old town." The master smiled and they walked the rest of the way in silence. When they arrived at the foot of the mountain, the master asked Lao-Li again, "What do you see?" "Master, I see cows asleep, roosters on the run, children at play, a flowing stream."
The Master was silent till they reached the gates of the town. He invited Lao-Li to sit with him a while. "What did you learn today, Lao-Li? Perhaps this will be the last Wisdom I can impart to you." Lao-Li was silent. After a long while the Master said, "The road to understanding is like the journey down the mountain. It comes only to those who realise that what one sees at the top of the mountain is not what one sees at the bottom. Without this Wisdom, we close our minds . But with this Wisdom there comes an awakening. We realise that alone one can see only so much, which, in truth, isn't much at all. This is the Wisdom that opens our lives to improvement, topples our prejudices and teaches us to respect that which we do not yet fully understand. Never forget this last lesson Lao-Li: what you cannot see can be seen from another part of the mountain."
When the Master had finished speaking, Lao-Li looked out to the horizon and saw the sun setting before him. It seemed to rise in his heart. Lao-Li turned to speak to his master but the great one was gone.
For you and me, Jesus is the other part of the mountain. There will be days when we get Him and days when we don't. But the reason we Listen to Him is that He has the words of eternal life. But to make room for these words,
we have to let go of the words that bring death. So we listen until His Word does its work in us, until life overcomes
death. For this Transfiguration was the first step on the road to Jerusalem and to the Garden of the Resurrection.
CATHOLIC PARISH OF ST JOSEPH & ST MARGARET CLITHEROW
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1BE (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1BE (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871