Category Archives: Gospel for Today

Gospel reflections for 7 & 14 April

The Gospel reading  for Sunday 7 April is John 20.19-31

‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you… receive the Holy Spirit’

After the bewildering events of Holy Week and Easter, no wonder we find the disciples huddled in an upper room!  This Gospel is about the Risen Lord’s effect on his dispirited and anxious followers.   Jesus sends the Spirit on his disciples that they, in turn, might be sent out.  We’re reminded that the Church exists not for itself but for the world—to make the Word flesh in every generation.  As in Jesus’ life, that involves courage and generosity.

Pope Francis’ homily on Maundy Thursday (as his clergy renewed their ordination vows at the Chrism Mass) expressed this very clearly:

It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord… [G]race comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.

It also involves conflict – because the values of this world are not the values of God’s Kingdom – and so those who bear God’s Word in every generation should also expect to bear the scars of the cross.

The Gospel reading for Sunday 14 April is John 21.1-19

 

 Jesus said to Peter, ‘Follow me.’

This Gospel has echoes of Jesus’ initial meeting with Peter —the unsuccessful fishing, followed by an abundant catch; and the call to move from catching fish to spreading the Gospel.

The difference is that this conversation comes after Peter’s betrayal.  It was the ultimate test of loyalty, and a test he was confident he would pass.   But in the end, at the most crucial moment, he was found wanting.

It’s a shattering feeling— one many of us will have had at some point– to have our courage and loyalty tested, and be found wanting.

The good news of today’s Gospel is that Jesus gives us a second chance.  This isn’t to deny the pain and harm our betrayals cause; but it reminds us that God’s grace is sufficient to triumph even over these.

 

Reflections on the Good Friday and Easter Gospels

Good Friday: John 18 & 19

Powerlessness, suffering and injustice are experiences the human race knows very well.  And they lie at the heart of these stories.  Jesus is revealed, not as a far-off ruler, but as someone who is with us in the midst of these things.

He is human—and so bears these experiences alongside us.  But he is also divine—and so his bearing of judgment, hatred and violence also vanquishes them.

Jesus becomes our sacrifice.  He is scapegoated by humans unnerved and disappointed by his message.  Some are unnerved because his truth-telling challenges their lies and their manipulation.  Others are disappointed, having expected Jesus to be a very different kind of Messiah.They thought he would impose God’s Kingdom at the end of a sword.  But, as Jesus tells his disciples, those who live by the sword die by the sword.  A Kingdom imposed by violence and fear could not be God’s Kingdom.

The Kingdom Jesus brings in is one where domination, violence and judgement are conquered by self-giving love.  This is his new creation, born in the water and the blood which flow from his side.  As we are reminded on Maundy Thursday, we taste and see this new creation both in the sacramental life of the church and in practical acts of love.

Easter Vigil: Luke 24.1-12   Easter Day: John 20.1-9

The Easter Gospels are joyful; but they are also filled with confusion and even fear.  Expectations are upset. What was secure is turned upside-down.   Jesus’ journey from death to new life is foreshadowed by the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  That too was a disorienting experience—an uncertain journey, requiring courage and faith.

Neither exodus nor Easter spell an immediate end to struggle and pain.  The early Church soon faced the realities of persecution and violence.

Resurrection life is found where human beings cease to see their good as something to be won over against others, and cease to scapegoat those who are unlike them.  Our risen Lord was the ultimate scapegoat – the friend and healer of those his society rejected, the one crucified ‘outside the gate’.  The Gospels make the extraordinary claim that this radical and sacrificial identification with outcasts and scapegoats is the way to life all its fullness.

Reflections on the Palm Sunday Gospels

‘What do you really want?’  That is the question the crowds face on Palm Sunday, and the disciples face as Jesus goes to the cross.  In what do they place their deepest hopes and trust?

The ongoing financial crisis poses these questions to us all.  Our society is reaping the harvest of a financial system which has spun out of control – a system which placed its trust in things and disregarded people.  The Palm Sunday and Easter readings speak to us of a God who breaks through the narrowness and greed of human hearts, not to judge and condemn but to offer ‘the life that really is life’ (1 Timothy 6.19) .

The Palm Sunday Gospel readings are Luke 19.28-40 (Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem) and Luke 23.1-49 (Gospel of the Passion)

As Jesus enters Jerusalem, what is it that the crowd think they see?  They think they see a king – perhaps a military leader who will end the rule of the Romans.  But Jesus doesn’t meet their expectations. What they are after is not what he provides.  His arrival on a donkey overturns their expectations, but the reality takes some time to sink in.

Of course, we read this with the benefit of hindsight – but the Gospel poses this question to  each of us every bit as much as it does to them.  ‘What are you after?’  What do we seek from Jesus?  And are we willing to allow him to challenge, and to disappoint our expectations?  As the disciples learn, it is in not giving us what we are after that Jesus gives us what we truly need.

Gospel Reflections for Sunday 10 March

The lectionary readings in the Church of England and Roman Catholic church diverge this Sunday.  The Missal gives us John 8.1-11

A preacher gave a sermon against gossip in his church one week. He preached exactly the same sermon the next week…

…and the next! This time, some of his congregation asked him why he was doing this. He said, ‘I’ll go on to the next sermon once you’ve taken this one to heart!’

Just like that preacher, today’s Gospel underlines the message of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which many churches read last week.  We are given the same message again and again, because we need to absorb it in our hearts as well as our heads.

As we were reminded two weeks ago (when we reflected on the Parable of the Fig Tree), there is a world of difference between the free grace offered in Jesus Christ and ‘cheap grace’, which allows us to continue complacently in our sin.

The point of guilt is to change our ways so we ‘go and sin no more’. We are reminded of this every time we look at the cross: God’s response in Christ to sin is not vengeance, but love. How many times do each of us need to hear that, before we take it to heart?

The Church of England reading for this Sunday is John 12.1-8.  This  speaks to us of one woman’s response once she had taken the message of the cross to heart – for she anoints him prophetically, for burial. This is how grace transforms us: we only come to such overwhelming generosity in our worship of God and our relationship with neighbour and stranger when we have begun to grasp his overwhelming generosity. “We love because he loved us first.”

Almighty God, as we stand at the foot of the cross of your Son, teach us to see and know his love for us, that in humility, love and joy we may place at his feet all that we have and all that we are, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Reflections on readings for Mothering Sunday

On March 10th, the Common Worship lectionary offers an additional set of options for churches who will be celebrating the Fourth Sunday of Lent as ‘Mothering Sunday’.

These include two possible Old Testament passages – the story of the baby Moses being found in the bulrushes (Exodus 2.1-10) and of Hannah’s dedication of her longed-for son Samuel to God (1 Samuel 1.20-28).  They also include two Gospel passages – Simeon’s prophecy to Mary that her child is destined for the falling and rising of nations and that ‘a sword shall pierce your own heart also’ (Luke 2.33-35) and Jesus’ commending of his mother and the beloved disciple into one another’s care (John 19.25-27) as they stand at the foot of his cross.

The first thing to observe about these four stories is how unsentimental they are.  These four Biblical stories all involve pain and disruption.  Behind the story of Moses in the bulrushes is the fear that if the child’s true race and identity is known, his life will be in danger.  Behind the joy of Hannah are many years of childlessness – and the complex feelings ’Mothering Sunday’ may provoke in those who long for their own children.  Luke 2 contains the much-loved Nunc Dimittis (used in many churches and cathedrals each evening) where Simeon prays ‘Lord, you now let your servant go in peace…for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared before the sight of every people…’  In offering Luke 2.33-35, the lectionary reminds us that after these words of rejoicing and comfort, Simeon offers Mary a prophecy of pain.  That prophecy is fulfilled in John 19, as we see Mary standing at the foot of the cross with the beloved disciple, as her son is executed as a common criminal.

Questions for reflection

These stories present a challenge to us as congregations and as individuals:

1. They are honest about the challenges facing parents and children,  and those longing to be parents.  Do we – as individuals and as a church – help people to be honest about these challenges – or do we encourage people to keep up appearances, and to hide their difficulties behind facades?  How can we support one another, honestly and generously, in the challenge and joy of family life?

2. They warn us against a rush to judge and stigmatise. In both Gospel readings, the reality of Mary’s faithful obedience contrasts with the way outsiders might have perceived and judged her.  How do we nurture faithful, costly obedience to God’s call – and resist judgementalism?

3. They speak of God’s presence and action in families on the margins of society  The lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are marked by their existence under a violent occupying power: in the flight to Egypt in his infancy, the beheading of Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, and most of all at Calvary.

In maternal compassion expressed by her presence [at her Son’s crucifixion]…Mary is so close to the drama of so many families, of so many mothers and children, reunited by death after long periods of separation for reasons of work, illness or violence at the hands of individuals or groups. (John Paul II)

The story of the Holy Family embraces, and draws our attention to, the plight of refugees and those living with persecution and violence in our own day.  How do we discern, and serve, Christ in those children and parents who live through persecution and exile today?

4. They call us to be a community of nuture and mutual care:  In his words from the cross in John 19 we see Jesus’ compassion and his concern for his mother. .  Entrusting Mary and the beloved disciple to one another as mother and son, Jesus teaches us that the community of his disciples needs to have that same spirit of mutual care and concern.  He is inviting us to acknowledge a responsibility for one another, whether or not we have ties of biological kinship.  What (perhaps small) step can our church take this Lent to be a community which nurtures those who lack security and love  – whatever their age and background?

There is a fuller set of resources for celebrating Mothering Sunday on the Children’s Society website

Gospel Reflections for Sunday 3 March

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Luke 13.1-9.  It is not an easy reading – a warning to ‘repent or perish’ followed by the parable of the fig-tree, which concludes with the words: If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

Judgment is not a theme that Christians can evade.  The Gospel is about grace – about a God whose love for us does not depend on what we do or how we behave – but it challenges us to respond to that free offer, not least because life without that grace is barren and destructive.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it:

Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the church. Our struggle today is for costly grace. … Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock. It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.

The Old Testament reading set for Sunday (Isaiah 55.1-9) reinforces the message.  It speaks of the destructiveness of a life closed in on the self – and the invitation to find fulness of life by turning instead to God and to his ways of justice and of peace.

It is not a kindness – to our neighbours or ourselves – to evade the reality of the choice which God places before each human being.  We respond to God, not merely with the words we speak, but with the way we live, and the things we set our hearts on.  As one writer has put it:

my God is that which rivets my attention, centres my activity, preoccupies my mind, and motivates my action

The disciplines of Lent are life-giving, not life-denying, precisely because they are about the costly process of weaning us offmaking idols of the good things in creation.  In focusing us on the one true God, and setting our hearts on his Kingdom, we find truly abundant life, and we learn to enjoy – and share – his gifts aright.

This is not only true in our individual lives.  One reason the Contextual Theology Centre has launched the Seeing Change course this Lent is precisely because we need to learn this lesson corporately as well as individually – and wean ourselves off the economic idols that are costing us all so dear.

 

 

Gospel reflections for Sun 24 February

This Sunday, the Roman Catholic lectionary gives us the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration – something Anglicans read the Sunday before Lent.  We have blogged on its significance for the early stages of the Lenten journey here.

In the Church of England calendar, we read Luke 13.31-35.  In this passage, we see Jesus being extraordinarily blunt about King Herod – Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will finish my workand going on to express a maternal love towards the people among whom he ministers and lives, even as he acknowledges their violent rejection of God’s prophets (and anticipates his own rejection) – How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

This passage challenges us to reflect more deeply on the character of Jesus; to look beyond our own preconceptions and projections, and see how he actually thinks, speaks and behaves.  Jesus combines courage (he is not afraid to speak truth to power, even though he knows that speaking out against Herod and his family ultimately cost John the Baptist his life); clearsightedness (he knows that the very crowds who now praise him will turn against him and cry ‘Crucify!’) and compassion (he nonetheless longs to gather them together ‘as a hen gathers her brood’.

These are characteristics we find it incredibly hard to hold together.  When we engage in conflict with others, we find it hard to remain truly compassionate.  When we seek to be compassionate, we find it hard to also speak words which challenge and generate tension.  It is tempting, then, to re-make Jesus in our own image: either to emphasise his compassion, in a way that obscures his capacity for confronting and disturbing the powerful, or to emphasise his courage, and lapse into the very judgmentalism and hard-heartedness he condemns.

It is only be returning again and again to these Gospel stories – in our common worship and in our times of personal study and prayer – that we can allow the Spirit of Jesus to re-make us in his image, instead of we re-making him in ours.

Reflections for the start of Lent

Many Christians, have imagined Lent to be about placating or impressing God – winning a better seat in heaven, by fleeing the corruption of sinful human life. But in Christ we see a love that needs no placating. His is a love that persists even as we do our very worst to him.

God’s answer to human sin is not to demand retribution. Instead, in Christ he takes upon himself all the violence, all the retribution, that the world can offer. He does not stand over us; rather he shows the depth of his love by standing among us. In Christ, we find God’s presence most of all with those our world isolates and scapegoats. The purpose of Lent is to clear away the clutter – our pride, our sin, our desire to blame and scapegoat others – so that we might recognize God’s presence, and allow his grace to refine and to renew us.

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18 (or 6.1-6, 16-21)

Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent is Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Pride seems like the hardest sin to root out. The moment you think you’ve conquered your pride…and you begin to feel smug about it…that’s when you’re proudest of all.

The sin of pride comes when we rely on our own power, and see the world only in terms of our importance and achievements. Pride stops us seeing other human beings as equals. They become our rivals.

The temptation to pride often comes when our relationship with God seems to be going well. We congratulate ourselves on our success, rather than giving glory to God.

It’s at the point when Jesus is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ that we read of the devil tempting him .  The temptation is for Jesus to use his power to impress and dominate the crowds.

Jesus recognises and rejects this temptation because he is rooted in prayer.  Because he is focused on the things that really do matter, he can identify and reject the temptations of pride and self-seeking.

As the forty days in the wilderness helped Jesus to clarify and refine his calling, so in these forty days of Lent we can be refined: so that our pride does not crowd out the love and grace with which God longs to fill us.

Resources for  prayer this Lent

The Contextual Theology Centre is organising a Quiet Afternoon on Silence: The Contemplative Way to help Christians deepen their prayer lives this Lent.  Details are on our events page.

The Centre and the Church Urban Fund have also developed a Lent course called Seeing Change which includes practical action for social justice – and roots it in prayer and Bible study.  You can download it here.

Reflections and Prayers for Sun 10 Feb

This Sunday is the Sunday next before Lent – and the Church of England lectionary gives us the story of Jesus’  Transfiguration (Luke 9.28-36) to inform our preparations for this penitential season.  The lectionary followed by Roman Catholic churches is different – continuing to read through the Gospel of Luke, and reading the Transfiguration story on the Second Sunday of Lent.

There is something very fitting about reading the story of the Transfiguration as we prepare for Lent (or in its early stages).  To the disciples – and to us each Lent – it is a glimpse of the destination as we prepare to walk the way of the cross.

So what does the Transfiguration tell us about the direction of the Christian pilgrimage.  And what light does this cast on how we might best spend Lent?

– First, and most obviously, it is about the glory of Jesus Christ.  Like his Baptism, the Transfiguration is a statement of whom Jesus is – and therefore shows him to be the one on whom our hearts and our sights must focus:

“from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.”

– Secondly, the Transfiguration is about the destiny of the whole creation.  This is a point stressed by Orthodox theologians in particular: in the glorification of the earthly Jesus, we see a foretaste of a creation transfigured by God’s glory.  This is something we see, in a different way, at every celebration of the Eucharist.  As bread and wine become for us the body of Christ, we see the vocation of each Christian, and indeed of the whole created order – to show forth the glory of God.

What does that mean in practice?  It involves a recognition that we are stewards not consumers of the world God has given us: which in turn implies a care for, and delight in, the physical environment, and a commitment to sharing its fruits in a way that enables all to experience God’s generosity, compassion and justice.

– Thirdly, the Transfiguration speaks of the indivisibility of prayer and action  in the Christian life.  Jesus’ glory is revealed as he prays: as his attention is focused on his heavenly Father.  It is the fruit of contemplation – but this contemplation moves us to action.  Moses and Elijah speak of the cross (” his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”) and Jesus’ rejects the temptation to remain in the safety and tranquility of the mountain-top vision.  For disciples of Jesus Christ, prayer and practice are inextricably linked. 

Prayer Intentions

Pray for your own church and for its Lent programme, and for God’s guidance on your own journey through this holy season.  Pray that it may be rooted in prayer, and bear fruit in a clearer vision of who Jesus Christ is; better stewardship of the world he has given us, and a deeper attention to his presence in all people.

 

Gospel reflections for Sun 3 February

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Candlemas .  The Gospel reading (Luke 2.22-40) recounts Jesus’ presentation in the temple, forty days after his birth. Simeon and Anna have been watching and waiting in the temple, it having been revealed to Simeon that ‘he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah’.  As Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the temple, Simeon takes him in his arms and recites a prayer used in countless churches every evening down the centuries which have followed (at Evensong or Night Prayer):

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

Simeon then goes on to warn Mary:

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.

Candlemas is a sort of ‘hinge’  in the Christian year – as we turn from the cycle of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (focusing on the birth of Christ, and his light dawning upon a broken world) towards the cycle of Lent, Easter and Pentecost (focusing on the cross and resurrection – and the birth of the Church as an ongoing witness to that saving work).  Simeon’s prophecy looks back and forward – hailing the Christ-child as a ‘light for revelation’ and warning Mary that he will grow up to be ‘a sign that will be opposed’.

The prayers in Common Worship reflect this:

Father, here we bring to an end our celebration
of the Saviour’s birth.
Help us, in whom he has been born,
to live his life that has no end.
Here we have rejoiced with faithful Simeon and Anna.
Help us, who have found the Lord in his temple,
to trust in your eternal promises.
Here we turn from Christ’s birth to his passion.
Help us, for whom Lent is near,
to enter deeply into the Easter mystery.

As we read the Candlemas Gospel, we find a great richness of themes to reflect upon – themes which are not simply of theoretical interest, but which should shape our life as Christ’s Body today. These include…

– The remarkable way in which wisdom and patience of old age (embodied in Simeon and Anna) encounters the potential of new life – How do we celebrate all ages, and their contributions to the Body of Christ in the life of our local churches?  

– The central place of waiting in the life of Christian discipleship – What is the place in our church’s life for silence and stillness – not as an escape from life, but as an essential precondition of faithful and courageous action?

…The combination in the Christian life of delight and of sacrifice  How do we combine the joyful celebration of the light of Christ with a recognition of the swords that continue to pierce the disciple’s heart?

Prayer Intentions

Pray for all Christians planning their individual and corporate observance of Lent – that it may include space the genuine, attentive waiting on God which we see in Simeon and Anna.  Pray for all who will take part in the Contextual Theology Centre’s Lenten Quiet Afternoon on the theme of silence.