Rogation Days

Posted in Uncategorized on May 18, 2009 by stpeters1956

Rogation Day-1In the Western Calendar the Rogation days are four days traditionally set apart for “solemn processions invoking God’s mercy” (Dictionary of the Christian Church). Traditionally they are April 25th – the Major Rogation falling on St. Mark’s day – and the three days before Ascension Day, called the Minor Rogations.

The first Rogation was introduced originally as a Christian substitute for the Roman pagan celebration Robigalia which was a special celebration to pray for the crops. In Roman mythology Robiga – meaning green or life – along with her brother Robigus were the fertility gods of the Romans. Her festival was April 25th. When Christianity came along it took the idea and christianized it.

The second set of Rogation days was introduced in AD 470 by Bishop Mamertus of Vienna and are the three days – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – that lead up to Ascension Day

The word ‘Rogation’ comes from the latin verb ‘rogare’ meaning ‘to ask’ underlined by the Gospel reading from the previous Sunday from John 16:24: “Ask and you shall receive.”

Traditionally Rogation Sunday marked the start of a three day period when clergy were not allowed to marry anyone. Priests were invited by local farmers to go and bless their crops. Violet vestments were worn and on the three days before Ascension Day Christians were required to fast in preparation for the feast.

A commn feature of Rogation days in the past was the ceremony of “beating the bounds” in which a procession of parishioners, led by the priest, churchwarden and choir would proceed to the boundary of their parish and pray for its protection for the coming year.

A few comments:
1. We should not be disturbed by the fact that the origins of Rogationtide were pagan. Human beings were created with the capacity and the need to worship God and if they don’t know or reject the notion of God, so powerful is this inbuilt instinct that they will either pray to or worship someone or something else instead. By taking over the pagan festival that preceded it the Church is taking hold of that basic need and redirecting it towards its true location – God.

2. Having Rogation days in the calendar of holy days is a good idea but like all good ideas it loses the notion of good if it remains only an idea. It’s a ‘good idea’ to believe in a loving and gracious God, but as long as it remains on the level of an idea, no matter how good, it is meaningless. If we are to keep Rogation days then we really need to think about using them as they were intended or stop them altogether.

3. “Beating the bounds” – walking the whole length of the parish and praying for its people is an interesting notion and has been to a certain extent taken up by our free-church brothers and sisters-in-Christ with their Jesus marches or prayer-walks. I am not saying we reintroduce walks with robed choirs and churchwardens – which would attract attention for all the wrong reasons – but praying for the parish while walking its outer edges would at the very least add a sense of perspective on our responsibilities as churches. Worth a look.

4. Rogation at the very least reminds us that God encourages us to always be unafraid to ask Him for things. There are so many passages in the scriptures that underline this: Luke 11:9-10; John 16:23-24, 11:22, 14:13-14, 15:7,16 etc. Even if God will not always grant our requests because of reasons that seem best to Him, the fact that He encourages us so many times to ask Him suggests to me that in some way, some of the time, He intends to answer. If that’s not an encouragement to pray then I don’t know what is.

So Rogation days are worth another long hard look with a view to using them again perhaps.

Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist

Posted in Uncategorized on May 1, 2009 by stpeters1956

st-markToday is the Feast of St. Mark, a day when we remember and give thanks for the life of the writer of the second of the four gospels in the New Testament. I want to give a brief overview of what we know of Mark’s life and try and draw out a few things that will hopefully help us on our own Christian walk.

There are several sources to draw on in putting together a picture of Mark’s life. Primarily of course there is the New Testament itself but there is also history and tradition.

First the New Testament which has a good deal to say about him. He was the son of a well-to-do lady in Jerusalem whose name was Mary (Greek) or Miriam (Hebrew). Acts 12:12 tells us that her house was an important meeting place in the early church. Luke records, in the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, that when it had “dawned on Peter (that an angel had led him to safety out of prison) he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.” (Acts 12:11-12)

So from the beginning Mark was brought up in an environment of prayer and Christian fellowship.

It is also thought – interestingly  – that this same house was the very house whose upper room was the very same one in which Jesus and his disciples gathered for the Last Supper and also where the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. So it ws the holiest house in the world! What a wonderful place to be brought up in.

Mark was also the nehpew of St. Barnabas and when Paul and Barnabas set out on their first missionary journey they took Mark along with them as their secretary and attendant.

In acts 12:25 after Peter’s miraculous release from prison we are told by Luke:
“When Barnabas and Saul (Paul) had finished their mission, they returned home from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.”

Incidentally Mark has three names:
1. Mark, which comes from the Latin name Marcus – which tells us that although he was Jewish he must have had a Roman connection.
2. Johann or John, which means  ‘God has shown grace’ – so often he was called John Mark.
3. His third name which historical tradition refers to as ‘Colobadactolus’ which is a Greek nickname for him meaning ‘stubby fingered’ referring to the fact that his fingers were disproportionate to the rest of his body. So the gospel of Mark was written by someone with stubby fingers!

To return, this first missionary journey with Barnabas and Paul turned out to be a disastrous one for Mark for when they reached Perga instead of taking the safe route to the next stage of their journey Paul decided to turn inland causing Mark to decide to leave the exhibition. We don’t know the reason why but there have been a few educated guesses.

Some have speculated that Mark was still too young and experienced for the rigors of the journey and the challenges it threw up. Others conjecture that there was a personality clash with Paul – not totally unsurprising as he comes across as a strong personality. It may have been that Mark had taken exception to Paul’s assumption of the leadership role instead of the quieter and humbler Barnabas, his uncle (cousin?), and he did not like it?

It may have been that he was afraid because the road chosen by Paul was renowned for being one of the most dangerous roads in that part of the world inhabited by robbers and murderers? Or it may have been much more simple and St. John Chrysostom writing in the fourth century suggests that it may have simply been that Mark was missing his mother (awwww).

Either way he left them and when Paul and Barnabas eventually completed their journey and it was decided to start another one Paul refused Barnabas’ suggestion that they give Mark another chance and take him with them. This time Barnabas disagreed and he and Paul, Luke tells us, had a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39), parting company with Paul taking Silas to Syria and Cilicia and Barnabas taking Mark to Cyprus.

Then the New Testament is silent for a time regarding Mark until his name pops up three times in Paul’s letters:
1. In a letter Paul wrote to the Church in Colossae. In Chapter 4 verse 10 he writes:
“My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, (you have received instructions from him (i.e. Mark); if he comes to you welcome him).”

So whatever differences there had been between the two there has been a reconciliation and they were back on very good terms again.

2. In another prison letter, written this time to Philemon, in verses 23-24, Paul writes:
“Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow-workers.”

So here again Mark is mentioned, only this time as a “fellow-worker”, surely a sign that not only was all forgiven but that Mark was considered integral to the work of the Church.

Lastly, and perhaps more poignantly, Paul is awaiting his execution at the hands of the Roman authorities and he writes to his right-hand man Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:9-11:
“Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”

And so in the end, whatever differences there may have been in the past between Paul and Mark, these have been resolved and Christ’s love has triumphed.

Turning to history and tradition some of the gaps in our knowledge are filled in a little, although it is difficult to conclusively verify the information.

For example Mark tells us possibly something of himself in Mark 14:51-52 which is not included in the other gospels. Jesus is being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane:
“A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”

What an odd thing to include. Why? Mark’s gospel is renounced for being very sparse and compact and does not include anything that does not need to be include. What then , if anything, does this contribute, unless it is an autobiographical detail referring to him. And that would make sense too of what we know about Jesus’ words in the garden as he wrestled with the fate that awaited him. Having told Peter and the others to stay behind, who else would have heard Jesus’ pleas to the Father to have this ‘cup’ taken from him, unless someone had eaves-dropped in on what was happening and later written it down for us to understand what Jesus went through for us.

Other stories tell us that Mark acted as personal assistant to Peter and when some members of the early church, worried about impending persecution, asked for a record of Peter’s sermons lest they be lost should he be arrested, Mark wrote them down. Again this makes sense of the theory that Matthew and Luke (and Mark’s own gospel) made use of Mark’s material as the basis of their own ‘lives’ of Jesus.

Tradition also tells us that Mark went on to become one of the early bishops of the Church at Alexandria and when a crowd took exception to his preaching to them to turn away from their false Egyptian gods in AD 68, they tied him to several horses which dragged him around the streets until he died. Today his head is preserved in the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria.

Finally, what lessons can we learn as we look at St.Mark’s life and witness?
1. No church is perefct and the greatest of saints fall out with one another from time to time, as Mark and Paul did. I know many people who have left their respective churches because they have become disillusioned with the bickering and quarrels that sometimes take place amongst the family of God. But we should all remember two things in this respect:
(i) It is inevitable. WHen we are baptized and confirmed or come to faith at some stage in our lives, we do not immediately become the finished product. In fact the challenge of the Christian life is to so co-operate with the Spirit of God within, that we will, with his help and God’s grace, change and become more and more like Jesus. But we are ALL a work in progress and there will be peaks and dips, twists and turns along the way as we wrestle with our sinful- selves.
You only have to glance through the pages of the New Testament and you will soon find splits in Corinth, naked ambition in James and John, personality flaws in Peter and others and flashes of anger in Paul. These are real people, who, just like us, need much grace from God in order to move forward.
(ii) When you do decide to leave one church because it is imperfect, where are you going to go? Scratch the surface of any if them and you will find the same kind of flaws and imperfections. Why do you think the greatest passage ever written about love was aimed at a church in 1 Corinthians 13? Every church I know has more than its fair share of selfish, moody, inconsistent and imperfect Christians.

2. Mark is a powerful illustration of the need to give people a second chance. I like Barnabas because he was someone who understood this one crucial important truth. WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES. None of us has the right to expect perfection of others because none of us is perfect. And the one who is perfect – Jesus – is actually the one who shows the most grace and forgiveness. I love that verse from Romans 5:8 in this respect: “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS.”  While we were in a state of rebellion and opposition to God (and how many times have we rebelled against God?). That’s the very time Jesus died for us. This applies AFTER we met Christ as well as before.

3. Finally Mark show us what potential there is in our young people if only we learn to show the patience and encouragement needed to tease it out and bring it to fruition. Barnabas was able to see that in Mark, making plenty of allowances for his youthful exuberance and impetuous promises which sometimes did not lead anywhere. And because of that Mark was able to have the space and time to mature and grow, learn from his mistakes, and take his place as one of the important early leaders of the growing church, recording for us important information about Jesus to be handed down to us today. He also became a bishop in Alexandria, dying the life of a martyr for Christ and leaving a wonderful legacy which still lives in the Coptic Church in Egypt today. Not bad then for a stubby-fingered flasher from Jerusalem?

Catherine of Sienna

Posted in Uncategorized on April 29, 2009 by stpeters1956

St. Catherine of SiennaCatherine Benincasa was born in 1347 as one of 25 children (the 23rd). Her father was a wealthy dyer of Sienna. At the age of six she had a vision of Christ in glory surrounded by his saints. It had such a profound effect on her that from that time on she spent most of her life in prayer and meditation. This didn’t please her parents who wanted her to live the ordinary life of a girl of her social class. Eventually however, seeing how serious she was, they gave in and at the age of 16 she joined the third order of St. Dominic (first order = friars, second order = nuns, third order= laypersons). Here she became a nurse and cared for patients with leprosy and cancer, doing the jobs the other nurses did not like to do or tried to avoid.

As she grew in her faith she began to acquire a reputation as someone of spiritual insight, wisdom and sound judgement, and many people from all walks of life came to her for spiritual advice, either personally or through correspondence. There is a book containing 400 of her letters to bishops, kings, scholars, merchants and obscure peasants. She also persuaded many priests who had become corrupt and compromised by wealth and luxury to give away their goods and live more simply.

She also became involved in some of the church politics that were damaging the Church at that time. For example the popes – bishops of Rome – had been living for many years in Avignon in France rather than Rome under the political control of the King of France. (The Avignon Papacy is sometimes called the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy). The whole thing began when King Phillip the Fair of France captured Rome in 1303 and took the then Pope away and put him in Avignon. Catherine visited Avignon in 1376 aged 29 and told Pope Gregory XI that he had no business living away from Rome. He listened to her advice and moved back to Rome. She then acted as his ambassador to Florence and was able to reconcile a quarrel between the Pope and the leaders of that city. She then returned to Sienna where she wrote a book called The Dialog which contains an account of her visions and other spiritual experiences as well as advice about how to cultivate a life of prayer.

Things went wrong again in the papacy when Gregory XI died and the cardinals elected the Italian Pope Urban VI. When he attained office he turned out to be arrogant, abrasive and  tyrannical. The cardinals then met elsewhere and declared the first election invalid on the basis that they had made it under severe duress from the Roman mob. They elected a new Pope, Clement VII who then lived in Avignon. Catherine could not stand by and see the Church rip itself apart and she became involved again and worked very hard to try and persuade Urban (the arrogant Pope) to mend his ways and then persuade the others that the peace and unity of the Church required the recognition of Urban as the lawful Pope. Catherine’s letters were remarkable for being both respectful yet severe and uncompromising, one historian stating that she had perfected the art of kissing the Pope’s feet whilst at the same time twisting his arm behind his back.

This time however Catherine failed, dying in the process on April 29th aged just 33. The Papal Schism continued until 1417 greatly weakening the prestige of the Papacy and paving the way for the Protestant Reformation which split the Church a century later.

Catherine was a truly remarkable woman and will be remembered for many things during her short life:
1. As a mystic and contemplative who devoted herself to prayer. However instead of this leading her to step away from the world it had the opposite effect as she became more and more involved with others through her political interventions, her concern for the church and the poor and sick. Through prayer she glimpsed the heart of God – as all true prayer should – and God’s tenderness and love for His creation became hers too.
2. As a councillor and adviser who always made time for whoever came to her, the troubled and uncertain, those with large problems and those with trivial ones, those with religious concerns and those with secular ones. No one was turned away.
3. As an activist who fought tirelessly for the renewal of Church and Society and was unafraid to take a strong stand on the issues affecting society in her day. She never, in the words of the Quakers, hesitated to “speak truth with power” whenever she thought it necessary.

Pope Pius II canonized St. Catherine in the year 1461 and in May 1940 Pope Pius XII made her a joint Patron Saint of Italy along with Saint Francis of Assisi.

PRAYER

Everlasting God, who so kindled the flame of holy love in the Heart of blessed Catherine of Sienna, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Saviour, that she devoted her life to poor and sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of His Glory, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Psalm 22:1 “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?

Posted in Uncategorized on April 23, 2009 by stpeters1956

jesus-cross-bwFrom a short talk I gave on Monday of Holy week. “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) There are various reasons given for what happened to Jesus on the cross when he felt so abandoned by God that he cried out, using the words of the psalmist, “My God, my God, wht have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) Let’s consider a few this evening: One reason that is given is that God could not bear to look on Jesus because, in taking on himself the sins of the world, he became an offence to God’s purity and perfection. The reasoning is based on logic. If God is light and in Him is no darkness (1John 1:5) – the light referring to God’s perfection and the darkness to sin – then God’s ‘abandonment’ of Jesus is His distancing Himself from the sin Jesus had taken upon himself. For a long time I accepted this argument but now to me it is a bit too clinical. It is also far from fair or loving. It’s not fair because in 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul tells us that: “God made him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” If God made Jesus ‘sin’, it seems far from just to then go and abandon him. And its not loving either. If God “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life”, then to send him and then abandon him for doing what he was sent to do just makes no sense – not to my definition of love. Another reason I have heard used is that Jesus was so badly bloodied and beaten that God could not bear to look on him. If our children were in such a state we would find it hard to look on them too – we would want to look away. God turned away because it was too painful for him. But God turning away from His Son and Jesus feeling abandoned are two different things. To be abandoned is to be bereft, cut off, ignored and forgotten. Its more serious than the mere averting of the eyes. I think the real reason is something much more straight-forward. What Jesus was experiencing was what it was like to be fully human. In his letter to the Philippians Paul quotes an early hymn or creed: Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8) One translation renders verse 7 as “he emptied himself of everything of what it meant to be God”. In other words he experienced the full gamut of what it is to be human including what it is to die. Not just to die physically, but to die spiritually, to experience separation from God which is far, far worse. And as someone so familiar with the language of the psalms it is natural that as he suffered in agony of the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” I can identify more with a saviour who rescues us from below rather from above. Someone who is not immune and unsullied by what I, the object of his salvation, suffers. Jesus is such a saviour. His agony is ours, his death is ours, his abandonment is ours, and therefore his resurrection is ours.

Ezekiel 34:11-16

Posted in Uncategorized on April 23, 2009 by stpeters1956

Good_shepherdAlong the corridors of Cefn Coed Mental health Hospital where I work as part-time chaplain, are a series of paintings by different artists. Some, no doubt, are painted by the patients themselves. I was walking along the corridor with a patient one day when we stopped before one of them. It was the colourful picture of flowering bushes and dense foliage. The patient asked me how many birds I could see in the picture. I looked hard. I had passed the picture many times in the last six years glancing at it every now and again never even noticing one bird let alone others. At first I thought I could count five. But then I looked harder and after several minutes got up to twenty one. The patient told me she had once counted 27! I was amazed. It’s amazing what you can see if you give enough time and concentration to something.

What is true of that picture is true of the scriptures. A cursory glance or a quick run through may tell you something, but is is only by spending time and looking more closely that we see that there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Our reading this morning is from the prophet Ezekiel. Lets have a clsoe look at it and see if we can identify who the prophet is talking about.

Look at verses 11-12 (from the Church in Wales Book of Common Prayer 1984). At first glance it seems obvious that it is God:

“Thus says the Lord God: “I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep.”

Looking at it closer there are echoes here, surely, of one of the psalms, psalm 23 where David, talking about God,writes:

“The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing. He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” (Psalm 23:1-2)

Look again at verse 14:

“I will feed them with good pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.”

So quite clearly it is God, promising to be the shepherd of his people. But can we identify anyone else in the passage? Look at verse 16:

“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the srippled, and I will strengthen the weak.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Listen to these words from St. Luke’s Gospel:

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

Who is this Son of Man? It is Jesus. And in those whords from Luke he has just emerged from the house of one Zaccheus whom he has ‘found’ and brought back to God. Here is the full quote:

“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)

So we have identified two individuals being referred to in this passage from Ezekiel. God and Jesus. But let’s look still closer and think about what is being promised here in verse 11. god sasy: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep.”

“I, I myself” means God personally. Not someone else, a substitute of representative, but God. But how is this possible? How can God, in person, come and search for his sheep? To answer that question we need to go to the beginnng of the New testament and the birth of Jesus where thses words were written of him:

“All this took place,” writes Matthew, “to fulfill what the lord has said through the prophet: “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22-23)

It’s amazing what you can see if you look closely enough.

St. Anselm

Posted in Uncategorized on April 23, 2009 by stpeters1956

anselmToday (April 21st)  is the day we remember St. Anselm of Canterbury. It’s fascinating reading up on the life of a saint (I gave a short talk at the Eucharist this morning) and St. Anselm is no exception. He was born in 1033 in Aosta, Northern Italy to a “harsh and violent father” and a “prudent and virtuous mother” (see Wikipedia). His mother was responsible for his early religious education and did such a good job that the young Anselm wanted to enter a monastery at age fifteen although his father forbade him. He later revolted but ended up entering the monastery of Bec in Normandy when he was 27 and later, when 44 was elected the Abbot.

While there he developed what has become known as the “ontological argument” for the existence of God, being inspired by the opening line of Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” The basic argument is that if we can conceive of God then He must exist. God is “That than which no greater can be conceived” in Anselm’s words.

Anselm sought to understand Christian doctrine through reason and develop intelligible truths interwoven with the Christian belief. He believed that the necessary preliminary for this was possession of the Christian faith.”Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” According to Anselm, after faith is found, the attempt must be made to demonstrate by reason the truth of what is believed.

Later he went on to write a book known as “Cur Deus Homo” meaning: “Why did God become man?” In this book he looks more closely at the cross and the whole question of how Jesus’ death reconciles us to God. Here he argues that the offence of rebellion against God (Adam’s sin and ours) is one that demands payment or satisfaction. Because we are fallen we cannot make adequate satisfaction, so God took human nature upon Him and provided the perfect satisfaction. This whole approach can be summed up in the verse from “There is a green hill far away”:

There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in.”

It has remained such a popular theory of atonement that to this day, for many, it is the only one. I personally have serious reservations about the theory (not the place to go into it now but its too legalistic) but appreciate Anselm’s attempt to render the death of Jesus intelligible to the people of his age and time. However what stands out for me regarding Anselm is not his intellectual prowess or the power of his arguments but his life. Several things in particular stand out:
1. He opposed the crusades which have ever been a black mark on the face of Christianity. As a true man of God he saw through the politics and refused to get involved, openly opposing them.
2. Unlike his contemporaries (and his predecessor Lanfranc) he refused to downgrade the Anglo-Saxon saints as representatives of a conquered race. For example when Lanfranc proposed that Alphege (or Alfege) should not be remembered because he did not die as a martyr, Anselm replied: “If he was not a martyr to faith, he was a martyr to justice and charity.”
3. He was a humble man. In his Preface to one of his works, the Proslogion, he writes:
“I have written the little work that follows…in the role of one who strives to raise his mind to the contemplation of God and one who seeks to understand what he believes.” He continues: “I acknowledge, Lord, and I give you thanks that you have created your image in me, so that I may remember you, think of you, love you. But this image is so obliterated and worn away by wickedness, it is so obscured by the smoke of sins, that it cannot do what it was created to do, unless you renew and reform it. I am not attempting, O LOrd, to penetrate your loftiness, for I cannot begin to match my understanding with it, but I desire in some measure to understand your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”
4. He was a man who knew God in a very intimate and personal way as is evidenced in this song written by him in the same Preface quoted above:

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
You are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
in sickness you nurse us,
and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life:
by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness:
through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead:
your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us:
in your love and tenderness remake us.
in your compassion bring grace and forgiveness:
for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.

Wow. That is from the heart of a man who knows and loves God.

Acts 1:8 – The medium is the message

Posted in Uncategorized on April 23, 2009 by stpeters1956

martyr1In 1964 a book was published called “Understanding Media: The Extension of Man” by Marshall McLuhan. In it he explores the effect of media and technology on mankind. The book was a cult book of its time and in it we come across the phrase “the medium is the message”. Now I may be completely misunderstanding what this was meant to convey but from my reading of it, it means that often it is not the message people remember first – even though that may be the most important part of what is trying to be communicated – but the way or means the message is put across. In other words the medium is what tends to be the first – and sometimes last – point of impact.

The example I can think of to illustrate this is that sometimes we remember the jingle or the joke of an advert before we remember what it is being advertised. For example two of my favourite adverts are the one with the gorilla playing drums to Phil Colin’s song “In the air tonight”  (I still think it is a real gorilla)  or the girl and boy making facial expressions in time with a mobile phone ringtone. I can’t for the life of me remember what they both were advertising but I remember the performances – the medium they were presented in.

What has this got to do with Christianity? For years I have been consumed with trying to find different and effective ways of communicating the good news about Jesus. One of my favourite texts – one which has become my ministry Mission Statement along with Matthew 28:19ff – is Acts 1:8 where Jesus tells his disciples that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on them and (they) will be (his) witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”

Now I have read and re-read and prayed and preached those two passages dozens of times over the thirty one years I have been a Christian. I have copied them out, meditated on them, discussed them and heard them preached to me over and over again. I have compared different translations of the passages, read the Greek and checked them up with various different commentaries by various different authors and preachers but I have always read them from the same perspective. The need to be a faithful witness through the sharing of the message in as many ways and mediums as I can. But I have consistently interpreted the word ‘witness’ in only one way. I have seen it as someone bearing ‘verbal’ witness to what he/she has seen and experienced. But the word ‘witness’, in Greek (martus) refers not just to the message given but to the type of person bearing witness. He or she is a ‘martyr’ – someone who bears witness by their willingness to give their all, even their very life, for God. In other words it is what they do or who they are that is the primary medium.

This is of interest in several different ways:
First, I find it very poignant that out of the eleven remaining disciples all but one, John, died for their faith:
Peter, according to tradition was crucified upside down during Nero’s reign;
Andrew was crucified in Achaia;
James was put to the sword by Herod;
Phillip was crucified in Hierapolis;
Bartholomew was crucified in Albania;
Thomas travelled to India where he was speared to death;
Matthew was pierced by a sword in Hierapolis;
James the son of Alphaeus was crucified;
Simon the zealot was also crucified;
Matthias was put to death in Ethiopia;
only John was spared to old age although there is an early tradition that he too was put to death by being buried alive. Oh and Paul, the apostle “untimely born” was also beheaded.

So here a witness – in New Testament/Christian terms – is someone whose mode of communicating their faith was their love for Jesus which surpassed the love of their own lives. Their ‘witnessing’ was deed as well as word. And that deed was a willingness to give their all – to die.

Second, as important as the testimony of any eye-witness may be in the case of a crime or accident, it is the character of that witness that is as important, if not more so, than what they say. He or she may be telling the truth about what they have seen or heard but if their character is dubious or suspect then their whole testimony is undermined and held in question. The Christian as witness must always bear this in mind as people are quick to spot hypocrisy, inconsistency and superficiality in those who claim one thing but act in contradiction to it.

Lastly Paul, one of the witnesses or ‘martyrs’ Jesus was referring to , writing to the Colossians uses a phrase that needs looking at more closely in this context. It’s in Colossians 1:24-27:

“To them God has chosen to make known among the gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you the hope of glory.”

“Christ in you. Christ in us. Not Christ alone, but Christ enfleshed in us – you and me – that is the hope of glory. In other words our testimony/our witness, is not just in and through a worded message, but through a medium that itself ‘speaks’ with authenticity. It is that, that validates and empowers and most effectively communicates the message. It is the transformed life of the Christian, the one in whom Christ shines through, that provides the hope for others.

Let me give you a rather banal example. If someone said that they had discovered a miracle cure for wrinkles – and I can see by looking at you that that would be good news indeed – they could quote all kinds of statistics at me, explain in detail the science of  how it works, talk about all the tests that have been run and the successful trials that have taken place with sharpei dogs etc. They may believe and speak passionately and with deep conviction that this miracle cure really does work. But unless they were an eighty year old former smoker with a face like a babies’ bum, their message would carry no authority or power at all. All the work that had gone into presenting ‘the message’ would immeditaely be contradicted by the failure of that message to make any real difference in their own lives.

So the point I am making in all this is a simple one. To be effective witnesses for Christ we must first ‘go in’ and examine our own relationship with Christ, ensuring that we oursleves are faithful and practice it, before we ‘reach out’ in telling others how it works. Only branches which are attached to the vine can bear fruit that will bring health to others. We must continually abide in Christ and live lives that evidence that, lives that are being transformed daily into his image and likeness. Unless the gospel makes a serious difference to us, then all the preaching in the world, no matter how ‘up to date’ or well presented it may be, will not have anywhere near the impact that Jesus meant it to have on a world in desperate need of his saving grace.

That is not to invalidate Alpha, Emmaus or any other evangelistic enterprise. But unless the medium is right – i.e. the lives of those giving the whole message – then there is, in effect, no real message to give. The medium IS the message. And that is Christ in us the hope of glory.