Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Women’s Ordination: why are we not agreed?
February 26, 2017, 10:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

glory 3a

There are a number of issues on which there is no common mind in the Church of England. Notable among them are the issues of women’s ordination and same-sex marriage. Why is this?

First, we are not agreed about the theology of sexual differentiation. Its biological significance is clear; human beings have it in common with the rest of the animal kingdom. Sexual differentiation has evolved as an efficient means of securing the continuance of a species, with a capacity to adapt to changing environments. Procreation is, as it were, the engine of evolution. The theological significance in Christianity, however, is less obvious and has not achieved consensus. It certainly has a significance in marriage (St Paul’s remarks about a great mystery, relating to Christ and his Church), although with the current debates about same-sex marriage even this is less clear than it used to be. But beyond this, as regards the relationship of the sexes in general, and in regard to priesthood, the implications are very far from agreed.

Again, we are not agreed about the theology of priesthood, in particular what is called the ministerial priesthood. This is in part because we are not fully agreed about the significance of the Eucharist, how it relates to the Sacrifice of Christ, how it may be termed a sacrifice, what happens to the bread and wine and in what way they become the body of Christ. Not surprisingly, all this has consequences for the theology of priesthood. We use the same words, but mean different things by them. Our different practices manifest these differences of belief. For instance, the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist leads almost inevitably to devotional practices such as genuflection, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and so on. To (for instance) a Conservative Evangelical such practices are certainly not a legitimate consequence of their belief, but are actually incompatible and abhorrent.  Even the word “priest”, applied to an ordained minister, is suspect. The ordained ministry is not so intimately connected with the Eucharist as it is in Catholic theology.

Thirdly, we are not even agreed on the theological importance and status of these questions. Bishop Tom Wright, in his final Presidential address to the Durham Diocesan Synod, made a very clear explanation of this matter, based on the word  “adiaphora” used by St Paul.

“The word adiaphora means, literally, ‘not-different things’, or ‘things that don’t make a difference’. And the question of adiaphora can be posed … like this: granted that there are many differences between us, how can we tell which differences make a difference and which ones don’t? How do you know? Who decides? How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?”

St Paul was faced with a situation where some Jewish Christians still felt bound by the dietary laws of Judaism, while other Christians were happy to eat meat that had been sacrificed in pagan temples. How could the Church accommodate such a variety of practice? He allowed that some things are adiaphora, but Christians should still respect the different beliefs and practices of others, and be careful not to induce them to act against conscience. But some matters are so central, that if Christians cannot agree they may have to separate, or be excluded from the community. But, Bishop Wright points out, the question of what issues are, or are not, adiaphora cannot itself be adiaphora. And that means it cannot be decided locally, at the risk of creating, perpetuating or increasing division within the wider Church.

Bishop Wright pointed out that this principle, the discernment of what is and what is not adiaphora, applies very obviously to two contentious issues in the Church of England, that of Holy Orders and that of Matrimony. It has been consistently held in the Church until modern times that both these institutions (sacraments, I would prefer to say) are “gender-specific”. A priest or bishop must be male, matrimony must be between a man and a woman. It is now maintained that one or both of these views are adiaphora, and that the former practice may, and even should, be changed.

And here is the rub. Who decides? It is clearly not the universal, or even morally universal, view that the gender-neutrality of Orders or Matrimony is right. On the contrary, the majority view is that it is not right. To my mind, the moment at which the General Synod went astray was not in 1992, but much earlier, when it decided that the issue of women and the priesthood was a matter of discipline rather than doctrine. As Bishop Wright makes clear, such a question must itself be a matter of doctrine, not discipline. As such, the General Synod was not qualified to make it, both because it is only a local, national body, and also because its own constitution precludes it from making changes in doctrine. Having taken this one wrong step, the rest followed.

The Church of England is making a valiant, well-intentioned, but probably ultimately futile attempt to square the circle by its current legislation for Alternative Episcopal Oversight. But already there are problems, because for many the issue of ordination is bound up with the question of the equality of the sexes, and this too is seen by them as not adiaphora, with room for compromise. No wonder we cannot agree on a common practice!

 

 



The Sacrifice of the Mass
February 20, 2017, 8:01 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, on February 19th 2017

I’m sure I don’t expect anybody to remember what I said on this Sunday, three years ago! Until I looked it up, I didn’t remember myself! But I preached on the first reading, the story of creation, and one of the things I said was that the author of Genesis “imagines God building a house, or perhaps rather a Temple, roofed over by the sky, with sun and moon as its lamps, with plants and animals, but most importantly with human beings charged to look after the house, to be priests of the Temple.”

This time I want to take up what I only said in passing the previous time, that God has appointed human beings to be priests of his Temple, the Temple of Creation. This has all sorts of implications for the environment, for ecology and for so-called “green” issues generally.

A priest is essentially an intermediary between God (or in some religions gods) and human beings. A priest leads human beings in their worship of God, the offering they make of themselves. He is their spokesman. He also has the responsibility of making known to human beings the will of God in their regard. He is God’s spokesman.

The great High Priest of humanity is our Lord Jesus Christ. In him, God and humanity are united in a single Person. He is, above all, the supreme Mediator between God and human beings. And because human beings, through their own fault, have become estranged from God, Jesus is also the great Reconciler, the Redeemer who frees humanity from its exile and slavery to sin, and brings them into the liberty that is their heritage as children of God. This is, as it were, the big picture.

The Old Testament, which begins with the story of creation we have just listened to, continues with the story of mankind’s disobedience, and the degeneration that occurs as a result – Cain murdering his brother Abel, and so on. It then tells the story of God’s activity to put all this right, starting with Abraham, through Moses and the prophets, up to the coming of Jesus. Even the Chosen People of Israel were constantly falling away let alone the pagan nations), but God never faltered in his plan.

This story is also about revealing the pattern of this plan, with the themes of Kingship and Temple, sacrifice and priesthood. When Jesus came, he came as both King and Priest. He himself became the new Temple, the dwelling-place of God among men; he himself became the sacrifice which would blot out the sins of the world. What is more, and this is the key-point of what I am saying today, he associated those who put their trust in him with this work of reconciliation. WE are the Body of Christ, WE are the new Temple of the Holy Spirit. We regularly say this, but do we always think about what it means?

In the old Prayer Book communion service (which we still use here on occasion), the priest says that Jesus, on the cross, “made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.”

By a “memory”, the Church does not mean simply that we should think about it now and then, or even regularly. It means that we should, in the Mass, re-present that his precious death; and “re-present” means both “make present again”, in every age until Christ’s coming again, and also “present again”, offer again, ourselves personally, the Sacrifice of Christ, and so to unite ourselves with it that we can say (again in the words of the Prayer Book), “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee.”

Think about that: at Mass we offer ourselves, body, soul and everything we have and are, in union with our Lord Jesus Christ, to God the Father. And why? “For the sins of the whole world.”

Our modern services have tended (if I may say so) to have soft-pedalled this, making it all a little too cosy, a nice family meal for those who are “inside”. When we make our common confession, we say merely that we have sinned “in thought, word and deed.” The old Prayer Book was much harsher: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”

Does that sound a bit “over the top”? Well, yes it is, if we have in mind only our own selves. But the point is, we are the Body of Christ. We are a priestly people, sharing in the priesthood of Christ, the priesthood that (in a certain sense) belongs to the human race from its origin. And the human race, if we just look at history and at the world of the present day, IS full of grievous and intolerable sins. Savage murders, the refusal to come to the aid of refugees fleeing from violence, abuse of children, exploitation of the weak and vulnerable: it’s all going on, all over the world, day after day. And when we come together, on Sundays, to share in Christ’s holy sacrifice, these are the things we have to implore God’s pardon for, to ask his mercy for. We are spokesmen for our race: like Jesus on the Cross, we are praying, “Father, forgive them,” Father, turn their hearts.

As priests of the world, we give praise and thanks to God on behalf of the whole creation. Through our voices, sun and moon, birds and beasts, mountains and springs and “everything that has breath” gives praise to the Lord. That’s easy. But also, through us, sinful humanity, still so often unaware of its position, needs to implore mercy and forgiveness for its failure to cherish and care for the world, and above all for its inhumanity to mankind. Lent is drawing near, the season of penitence leading up to the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus died to save the world; here, we are privileged to stand with him and pray, “Lord, have mercy.”



Thoughts on the Papacy
January 8, 2017, 2:35 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Having recently been in discussion on another thread regarding Papal authority, I offer the following thoughts for discussion.

Accepted:

  • The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, “the blessed company of all faithful people”, namely all those who have been Baptised, and have received the infused virtues of faith, hope and charity.
  • Baptism imparts an indelible character, which though it may be impaired or deformed, can never be entirely erased.
  • The Lord gave Peter a responsibility to “strengthen the brethren”, and to maintain the unity of the Church.
  • This responsibility has been passed down to Peter’s successors, de facto the Bishops of Rome.
  • This responsibility is universal, ordinary (in virtue of the office itself) and truly episcopal.

Some conclusions:

  • The responsibility is laid directly upon Peter (and his successors), not upon the faithful at large. Therefore it cannot be interpreted as (I caricature) “Peter may do as he will, but everyone else must do as Peter says.”
  • “Peter” has truly episcopal authority throughout the Church.
  • The Church “subsists” (i.e. exists as a concrete entity) at the universal level (including the Church Triumphant), and in each “particular church” (concretely, diocese) under the pastoral care of its Bishop as principal pastor.
  • I would add that it also “subsists” wherever the Eucharist is validly celebrated: wherever the Sacramental Body of Christ is made present, there too his Mystical Body is made present. Thus in each parish the whole Church is in some way present in the Eucharistic assembly.
  • The ordinary and universal episcopal authority of the Pope implies that (at least in case of need) he can exercise this episcopal authority in any particular church. This may be, for instance, when the local Ordinary is impeded (maybe under a persecuting regime), or is neglecting or abusing his own local authority to the detriment of the faithful.
  • It does not imply (I would submit) that his authority in that respect exceeds in content that which could be exercised by the local bishop. The Pope is not a “super-bishop” with super-episcopal powers.
  • The ordinary and universal episcopal authority possessed by the Pope is to be exercised to promote and maintain the unity of the entire Body of Christ. He is responsible (answerable) to Christ alone for this stewardship.
  • To say that Papal authority is universal is not to say that it is absolute or unlimited. Benedict XVI rightly pointed out that it is incorrect to say that “the Pope can do anything.” He has the duty to maintain the true teaching of the Church (and to this end his ex cathedra pronouncements on faith and morals are guaranteed); and he has a duty to maintain, as far as he can, the bond of charity which unites all Christian people.

Some limits to Papal authority:

  • The Pope cannot, in virtue of his ordinary episcopal authority, invalidate Sacraments which would otherwise be valid. Ordinations by bishops who reject his authority (e.g. the Orthodox) are valid, as are Eucharists celebrated by priests ordained by such bishops. Any Christian may validly administer Baptism.
  • I conclude that the ordinary minister of a sacrament can validly administer that sacrament in virtue of their own power, derived from Baptism or Ordination.
  • The ordinary ministers of matrimony (in western theology) are the couple themselves, who express their mutual consent to a permanent and exclusive union, open to the procreation of children, and who seal or consummate that consent by their actual bodily union.
  • While civil or ecclesiastical authority may lay down rules for the public recognition of such unions, they cannot make such rules invalidate what would otherwise be valid in the sight of God. Certainly civil authority cannot make laws which would (e.g. for reasons of race) invalidate in the sight of God unions which would otherwise be valid.
  • While ecclesiastical authority (diocesan or universal) may require an expressed intention of celibacy as a pre-condition for ordination, it cannot of itself remove the right to marriage, or invalidate a marriage which would otherwise be valid.
  • According to St Paul, Peter and the other Apostles had the right (exousia) to be accompanied by their wives, although he himself chose not to exercise this right. If even Peter himself had this as a right, how can he or his successors remove this right from others?

I offer these thoughts as points for discussion.



New Year’s Day
January 4, 2017, 3:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle

Happy New Year! This is the season when, on Facebook and other Social Media, you get all the comments on the theme, “Good riddance to 2016. Looking forward to 2017.” It’s the same every New Year. Somehow, we keep hoping we can wipe the slate clean of the past, and start afresh. New Year’s resolutions – have you made any?

But in Church term’s, this isn’t a new year at all. It is the eighth day of Christmas, and I hope you have all had your delivery of eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, and so on. We started in Advent, and we go on to Christ the King. Today has several names, the oldest of which is the Feast of the Circumcision.

This name reminds of two facts about our Lord that are often down-played by feminists and by anti-Semites. Jesus was male, and he was Jewish. From the time of Abraham, circumcision was the outward sign (for a male) of belonging to the Covenant Community. Matthew’s gospel begins with a roll-call of names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah… on through Jesse and David, down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus the Messiah.

“When the fullness of time had come,” writes St Paul, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.” By speaking of “the fullness of time,” the Apostle opens up a whole perspective of history. History – even salvation history – did not begin with Jesus. The birth of the Messiah was the culmination of a story which stretches back not just to Abraham, but to the very beginnings of humanity. God has been playing a very long game indeed.

We are, sadly, not as familiar with what we call the “Old” Testament as we should be. But we remember at least the story, poetic and symbolic as it is, of how when God made humanity from the dust of the earth, he made them male and female and gave them a garden to live in. He made them free, but with limits to their freedom that they had to respect, for their own safety. They chose (prompted by the Evil One) to ignore those limits, and thereby endanger themselves and all those who would come after them. The word “salvation” comes from a Latin root meaning both “health” and “safety”. God, the loving Father, would not leave his children spiritually sick and in danger. He promised to rescue them, from their own folly and from the Evil One who prompted it.

All this is, in a literal sense, “pre-history”. But about 4000 years ago, Abraham received a call to leave his homeland and his old gods, and travel to the Land the one True God would give him. God did not (as we sometimes say) “choose Israel” from the other nations. He created a new nation, Israel, from one man and his wife. That nation, like humanity at large, was frequently disobedient. But century by century it was shaped by God, through the experience of sin and forgiveness, to be the community into which the promised Saviour could be born. “In the fullness of time.” “Born of a woman” – born, in fact, of The Woman, the true Eve who was destined to be the indispensible partner of her Son, the true Adam and archetypal Man. Marked with the sign of the Old Covenant, which was to be transformed into the New.” Born under the Law,” which he summed up as the love of God and of neighbour, a law to be written not on stone but in human hearts.

Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” The Word of God means both the words of Scripture and the Eternal Utterance of the Father, which has taken human nature and lived among us. Mary kept the Word in her womb for nine months. She kept it in her heart perpetually. With God, nothing is new and everything is new. Jesus was born after a preparation of centuries, not just months. But a new day dawned, and new hopes were born with him. 2017 will never escape the legacy of 2016, 2015 and all the way back to the beginning. But with God’s help, and following Jesus, we can reshape that legacy and make good come from it. God’s plan is still in progress. It has opened out from the Jewish people to embrace all humanity. “From the old we travel to the new,” as the song says. Christ has come, and Christ will come again. But all the while he is Emmanuel, God with us now. Travel with him.



Christmas Midnight
January 4, 2017, 3:08 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton

Here in this darkened church, at this midnight hour, we do not need many words, we simply need silence to keep watch and to wonder. Christ is being born. God is entering the world he made, as one of its inhabitants. When the ancient Hebrews thought about the creation of the world, they depicted God as building himself a house, a Temple, in which he might take his rest. This is the moment when he does so, or should we say: that was the moment, more than two thousand years ago, when he did so? For God, all times are the same; it is only we who have to take reality one moment at a time journeying on towards our entrance into eternity.

In the days of Herod the king, Jesus was born at Bethlehem in Judaea. Caesar Augustus had ordered a census, and a poor carpenter and his wife were forced to travel from Nazareth where they lived, to the little town from which Joseph’s ancestors had come. Joseph the poor carpenter was himself a descendant of kings, so he must register in the city of David called Beth-lehem (a Hebrew word meaning “house of bread”). With him is his wife Mary, who is in the last stages of pregnancy.

Only Joseph and Mary know that the child she bears within her is the Messiah, the true King of Israel. It must have struck them as providential that the kings of the earth had, all unknowingly, conspired to ensure that the Son of David would be born in the town of David. Yet when they arrived, there was no room for them in the inn – symbolic of the way the world, then and now, fails to welcome its Saviour. They find shelter in a cave (I’ve been there) where animals were stabled. There Jesus was born, and tucked up not in a cot but in a manger.

Out in the fields below the town, still called the shepherds’ field, herdsmen were watching over their flocks. To them, and not to kings, the angel announces the birth. Luke says, “The glory of the Lord shone round about them.” In the Old Testament, the Glory of the Lord was the outward sign of his presence, when he dwelt in the Tabernacle in the desert, and in the Temple of Solomon. Now we have the sign that God is coming to dwell in the world he has made, of which Tabernacle and Temple were just images. And the immediate and particular dwelling place will be found in a new-born baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

We are keeping watch tonight, in celebration of that birth two thousand years ago, but also in celebration of God’s continual dwelling in the world. We live from moment to moment, constantly repeating and constantly trying to hold on to the important moments of our lives. Each time we come to Mass, each time we hear the priest repeat the words, “This is my Body, this is my Blood,” we share in the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us. This darkened church, tonight, is Beth-lehem, the House of Bread, the Bread of Life. In the Sacrament, Christ becomes truly present, and remains present as long as the outward signs endure – bread, the most basic food to sustain life, and wine the drink of celebration and fellowship.

Welcome Jesus tonight, and keep him with you. Don’t say, “Lord, there isn’t room in the main part of my life for you, it is full of so many other things, but I do have a little outhouse round the back of my life, and if I’m not too busy I’ll come and say hello sometimes.” Make room for Jesus right at the heart of your life. Make this communion the heart of your life.



Advent 4. St Joseph
December 23, 2016, 4:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A sermon prepared but not preached.

A few years ago, the BBC showed a series for Holy Week called The Passion. It wasn’t entirely satisfactory, I thought but it had its moments, especially in scenes involving the wonderful Penelope Wilton, an actress I much admire, as Mary. There was a scene in the first episode – needless to say not entirely as in the Gospels – when Mary had arrived from Nazareth to see Jesus, and he goes out of the house to speak to her privately. She is concerned for him, naturally, and he gives her (if I may so put it with reverence, but this is a rather wishy-washy Jesus) something rather bland about trusting God. Mary’s reply is quite astringent. “Don’t try to teach me about trusting God,” she says in effect. And then she says, “What if Joseph had said no? What if he had refused to marry me?”

To me, a whole new dimension of the story opened up. The real feelings of a teenager, finding herself unexpectedly pregnant as the result of divine intervention. Trust God? OK, I’ll trust God – but, God, you’re taking a lot for granted . What about Joseph? Supposing he doesn’t trust God? He’s only human, he’ll only have my word about what has happened. Suppose he doesn’t believe me?

Of course, Joseph does what God requires of him. In St Matthew’s Gospel, the first adjective applied to Joseph is “just”, or “righteous”. The just or righteous man is someone whose principle concern is to do what is right; and that means to act in accordance with God’s will. In a Jewish context, that means following Torah, the Law, the way of life revealed and commanded by God.  Joseph was “a just man”, and loving Mary as he did, he knew that the right thing was to stick by her, to look after her, no matter what others might think or say. God knew that Joseph would not say no, just as he knew that Mary would not say no. Not because they were forced to, but because of all the worlds he might have made, he chose to make the one in which both Mary and Joseph said yes, freely and of their own accord. God knew, but Mary and Joseph did not know. They had to believe, to trust.

Then the angel addresses him as “son of David.” The only other person in the New Testament given this title is the Messiah himself. Joseph is put in the line of the shepherd-kings of Israel, even though he is only a humble craftsman. Even though Jesus will not be physically descended from Joseph, he will at the human level receive his royal patrimony through this man. This too is an immense thing.

Finally, Joseph is described (if not called in so many words) obedient. He did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do. Much later, a woman would invoke a blessing on the womb that bore Jesus, the breasts he sucked- in other words, on his mother Mary. Jesus replied, “More blessed those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Joseph heard, and he obeyed. Perhaps this is the most immense thing of all, the well-spring of his righteousness, the expression of his royalty. Joseph is a hero of mine. If I can give away a bit more of my past viewing (and indeed my past reading), he is the Mr J.L.B. Matekoni of the Gospels. Fans of the No 1 Ladies Detective  Agency will know what I mean. He is quiet, kind, loyal, and when necessary capable of real heroism. Joseph is the ideal husband – he knows when to keep his mouth shut and just get on and do what he is told.

Mary, our Lady, is the one human person absolutely essential to God’s plan of salvation. To take flesh and come among us, to be born in order to die, he had to have a mother. That is why we honour Mary as we do. But after her, in concrete reality, Joseph comes next. In the world into which Jesus was born, his holy mother needed a guardian, protector and defender. She needed a husband. Mary was not (as some people nowadays tend to say, a single mother. Joseph was always there, until God called him home. Joseph protected Mary’s good name. Joseph ensured that she got safely to Bethlehem, the place of prophecy for the birth of the Messiah. Joseph took the mother and child safely to Egypt, to escape Herod’s fury. Joseph brought them back safely to Nazareth and supported them all through Jesus’s childhood. Joseph, by his example, taught the Son of God the human meaning of the word “father.”

When Jesus was twelve years old he was lost for three days, before being found in the Temple. Mary applies yet another adjective to Joseph (and to herself): “We have been looking for you anxiously.” The word used is a strong one: “We have been in pain and distress,” or “we have been grieving,” would be closer. Joseph took his responsibilities seriously. For twelve years he had been the guardian of Mary and her Son. Had he now failed in his stewardship? All was well. Jesus himself, having come of age as far as the Law was concerned – bar mitzvah – had learned to distinguish the business of his heavenly Father from that of his beloved foster-father. In a sense, he was saying to Joseph, you have done your work. You have shown me a father’s care. I now know who I am. I see the reality to which your example pointed me. Even so, he went down to Nazareth and continued to be under their authority – Joseph’s as well as Mary’s. How immense was that!

Husbands and fathers could do much worse than take Joseph as their role model. After all, God chose him to be the male role-model for Jesus.

 



Advent 3
December 16, 2016, 8:24 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sermon given at All Hallows, Easton, 11th December 2016

“Lo, in the wilderness a voice, ‘Make straight the way,’ is crying.” On this third Sunday of Advent, our focus is on John the Baptist and his message.

John may seem a bit marginal to the Christian Gospel, so it might surprise you to learn that, even thirty years after John’s ministry, St Paul would find people who had heard about John – indeed counted themselves his followers – but who had scarcely even heard of Jesus? Probably they were Jews from far away, who in this crucial year had come on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem, who had heard John preach and been inspired to seek baptism from him, but had then gone back to their distant homes and never heard much about later events in Judaea, including the execution of someone John had pointed out as the Messiah. And all four  Gospels give a prominent place to John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – surely a sign that their readers would know who John was. He was still famous. The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived only a little later, has more to say about John than about Jesus.

But before going further, let’s go back to our first reading, from Isaiah. Isaiah too talks about the wilderness. In the coming Day of the Lord, he says, the wilderness (or desert) will blossom like the richly forested mountains of Lebanon or Carmel, like the fertile vale of Sharon. The world will be changed! The weak will be made strong, the blind will see again, the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and the dumb will sing – it’s not just that they will regain their faculties, but they will be filled with joy. God is going to put right everything that is wrong with the world. Those who have been exiled far away will find a clear road – a King’s Highway, in fact – to return to their homes. Jews of a later age, still oppressed by foreign conquerors, clung on to this promise.

Our second reading is, as it were, an interlude. St James is also writing to a people who are in waiting for God to put the world to rights. Be patient, he says, waiting for the Coming of the Lord. The Judge is not far away, he is standing at the door. In Hebrew, a Judge was not just a legal figure, he was a champion of the weak against the strong, like those called Judges in the Old Testament. But until the Judge comes (he is referring to the return of Christ, of course), his hearers must be patient, like the old prophets who were persecuted for speaking the truth to the great ones of their day.

Now in the Gospel, John the Baptist is precisely in that position. He is in prison for denouncing Herod’s adulterous marriage. While there, he hears rumours of what Jesus is doing. Or rather, he hears about “the deeds of the Christ, of the Messiah.” He is inspired to send some of his followers, who evidently could visit him in prison, and who may have been more puzzled by Jesus than John himself was – he sends them to ask, “Are you He who is to come?” That in itself is asking, “Are you the Messiah?” Now this was a very leading question! A very dangerous question to ask in public! Herod was jealous of his authority – that is why John was shut up – and certainly would tolerate no rival King, which a Messiah was bound to be. Jesus therefore does not say simply, “Yes.” He tells the questioners to report what they see: the blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk and so on. In other words, Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled under their very eyes!

While we wait for the Coming of the Lord, people will look at us, at our little community – even at All Hallows – and ask, what are your credentials as People of the Messiah? Are people’s spiritual eyes being opened to see the wonders of God? Are their ears being opened to hear the Good News? Are we still spiritually lame, or leaping for joy? Are our mouths dumb, or singing the praises of our God? Are we marked out by the “deeds of the Messiah,” or must they go looking somewhere else?