Sunday, January 28, 2024

You Are Who You Eat With: A Homily for the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany


Preached on the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, January 28, 2024, at Prince of Peace, Wasaga Beach, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.  

Readings for Today:   Deuteronomy 18:15-20 ; Psalm 111; Corinthians 8:1-12;  Mark 1:21-28





“But when you the sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience who it is weak, you sin against Christ.”  (1 Cor 8:12)



Perhaps you’ve noticed that planning meals when families get together has gotten a lot harder these days.   Everybody, it seems, has their own personal rules on what they will and won’t eat.   As a case in point, our six year old granddaughter has recently decided that she is a vegetarian.     We’re not sure where she got the idea from, possibly from her mother who generally won’t eat meat “if it comes from an animal with a face” but has been known to make exceptions.  


At any rate, this is our granddaughter’s conviction and we feel that we have to respect it.   The days when a parent or grandparent could say, “you’ll eat what’s on your plate and like it” are long gone, and I think for the better, because conscience and ethics have entered into the equation.  We’ve gotten used to the idea that someone can be a vegetarian or a vegan for moral reasons, because they are opposed to cruelty to animals, or because they oppose methods of farming that are destructive to the environment.   Likewise, as the world gets smaller, people of faith recognize that we have different ideas about food.   I’m sure that ou wouldn’t invite a Muslim or Jewish friend over for dinner without asking them what they could or couldn’t eat. 


So as you might have guessed by now, my homily today is on our lesson from First Corinthians and Paul’s remarks on food, specifically meat.   Most biblical scholars think that First Corinthians is an answer to a series of questions that the members of that church had ent to him, Paul, as one of their teachers, to answer.   In the case of chapter 8, Paul seems to be answering one or more questions about members of the church with different ideas about eating meat.


Meat would have been a rare thing to say on the dinner tables of the Christians in Corinth.   It was rare because it was expensive, and most people in the Roman Empire were vegetarians by economic necessity. If you wanted to taste meat and could actually afford it, you wouldn’t go to a Loblaws or Woodland because they didn’t exist then.  Most likely you’d go to a temple of one of the official Roman gods, like Jupiter, where the priests would sell cuts of meat from the animals sacrificed there.    Some of these temples operated restaurants where you could go and eat meat from animals sacrificed to the pagan gods.


Well, you can see the problem for the Christians in Corinth if they wanted a nice steak.  They had been taught by Paul and other Christian leaders that the idols were false gods, and that there was only Jesus Christ, the son of the living God.  Paul says as much in our second reading:  “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and though whom we exist”  (1 Cor 8:6).    In contrast, Paul says, the temples of the Roman gods, like Jupiter, were just buildings, dedicated to idols that have no existence or meaning.    So we can imagine that some of the Corinthian church would have thought, “well, if the idols are fake, then the sacrifices of animals to those idols is meaningless, and it’s just meat, so, I might as well go ahead and get my juicy steak from the temple of Jupiter and have a nice steak dinner.”


So somebody like this person could come home from the temple of Jupiter with a juicy cut of meat and a clean conscience.  This is a person who has what Paul in our second reading calls “knowledge”.  But, imagine someone else in the same church that isn’t so sure about all this stuff.   Perhaps this person is a recent convert to Christianity and grew up believing in the Greek and Roman gods,  Maybe they still believe that the Roman gods exist in some form, but are inferior to their new God, Jesus.    Maybe this person believes that the temple of Jupiter is not an empty building but an evil building where an evil god lives.  This person might believe that Jesus is a better god, but they still fear the contamination of the old Roman Gods.  Paul would say that this person has a “weak conscience”, meaning simply that they are new in the Christian faith.


Now imagine that this new believer shows up at a Corinthian church potluck where the first person has brought a nice stew made from meat sacrificed to Jupiter.   The second person will likely feel that the dinner is unclean because of the temple meat in the stew.  This second person is what Paul calls a “weak believer” and the first person has put what Paul calls “a stumbling block” in their path.  


So let’s say you’re a churchwarden in Corinth, you’re at the potluck, and the second person comes to you complaining about the first person.  What do you do?  How do you decide?   If you weren’t sure and you wrote a letter to Paul, your answer would be our second lesson.  Paul’s answer is that the first person should respect the beliefs of the second person.   If your temple meat is going to offend the second person, then don’t bring it to the church pot luck.  If your beliefs offend the second person, then you should moderate your behaviour and respect where the second person is.   Otherwise, as Paul says, you’re sinning against members of your family, in this case, your church family.


Now to some of us, this part of First Corinthians, and much of this homily, might seem irrelevant.  We get our meat from Loblaws, not Roman temples, so what’s the problem?   But in fact the problems remain, they just have different moral occasions.   Should I mock my granddaughter for calling herself vegetarian and try to change her mind by giving her a baloney sandwich, or should I provide her with a lunch that won’t offend her newfound convictions?  Or, if my dinner guest is passionately opposed to veal because of they way they force feed calves, should I maybe not serve veal for dinner?


As another example, my son has a long history of problem drinking and I’m so grateful that he goes to AA and is now sober.  My son also likes to host family gatherings and is a good cook.  When we visit, we all bring water or soft drinks.  Nobody would dream of bringing beer or wine.  None of us want him to fall off the wagon  None of us would want to be what Paul calls a “stumbling block” for him.  That’s just good family practice.  That’s the same rule of love that Paul speaks about.


Recently I heard a lecturer who was talking about conspiracy theories and how they are becoming more widespread thanks to social media.  Social media also has the effect of putting us into groups where we only interact with the people we agree with.   However, there are times, like family gatherings, where we have to sit with people we disagree with.  If on one of these occasions, someone declares views on, say, the American presidential election that we might disagree with, are there ways that we might gently disagree with that person but not fight?   Perhaps a disagreement on immigration could be reframed to discuss our common humanity.


Likewise in our church today we might hold different views on social justice, or climate, or gender.   I had a gentleman in my last parish who disbelieved in global warming and felt that the church should not speak on political issues.   I found it difficult to argue with him and did my best to say that God gave all of us a duty t care for God’s creation and that was something we might agree on.  It’s possible for church members to disagree on some things if we can accept that Christ is Lord of all.


Paul’s letter to this ancient church in Corinth is fthus ull of lessons for our own very divided time.   Yes, there are some views that, if hateful or just plain wrong, need to be forcefully addressed.   But most of us, particularly in church disputes, as in family disputes, have as much in common as we hold in difference, otherwise, we would’t be church or we wouldn’t be family.     Some people in disputes thrive on being right, come hell or high water.  Paul is saying, don’t always just settle for being right.   Try instead to love and respect the place your neighbour is in, and maybe together you can find your way to the higher ground where we stand with Jesus as brothers and sisters.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Christ the Guest and Christ the Bridegroom: An Epiphany Homily on the Wedding At Cana

This homily is part of our Apres Ski series of Saturday Eucharists that All Saints, Collingwood, hosts during the ski season here (though this season is pretty terrible, thanks to climate change).  During this series, were reflecting on the church’s traditional Epiphany readings and on how they teach us about Gods glory as reflected in Christ.   Im enormously indebted to Fleming Rutledge for the ideas in her book, Epiphany, the Season of Glory, from the Fullness of Time series published by IVP.  MP+

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (Jn 2.11)



If you’ve been to a wedding recently, you’ll have noticed that our social practices and customs around weddings have changed.  Churches have been largely replaced by wedding venues in picturesque locations.   Clergy as officiants have largely been replaced by a friend or family member with a temporary license from the state.  And the nature of refreshments offered to the guests has changed as well.

Last summer Joy and I were invited to a wedding at a winery just north of Barrie.   Among the treats on offer were attractive glass boxes full of carefully rolled cannabis cigarettes for the guests to enjoy, and by late in evening the air outside was quite fragrant.   I thought it was unusual, but cannabis is of course legal now, and one of the criteria of a successful wedding is that the hosts are generous and the guests are relaxed and happy.

It’s tempting to understand our gospel story, the Wedding at Cana, in the same way, that Jesus wants to help the hosts, please his mother, and make the guests happy.  Thus, the water jars are filled to the brim and when the steward tastes the miraculous wine, he declares that it is “the good wine”.   As an aside, I leave it to you to decide if we have served equally good wine at our reception following our eucharist tonight!However, as Fleming Rutledge notes in her wonderful short book on Epiphany, we should not sentimentalize this story (“how nice that Jesu wanted everyone to be happy”) but rather see it in the spirit of Epiphany, as a manifestation of Christ’s glory.


The Wedding at Cana has long been associated with the season of Epiphany.   In the old Book of Common Prayer, it is the gospel reading for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany, though today the Revised Common Lectionary offers us other choices.   In the traditional Epiphany gospel readings, the Wedding at Cana follows the Baptism of Jesus, and this is deliberate.  At the Baptism, God the Father is the actor, and declares that Jesus is his beloved Son.  At the Wedding, it is God the Son who is the actor, and by the miracle of the wine he shows that he is indeed the Son who is one with the Father.  The point of what Jesus does at the wedding is not to make the guests happy, but to reveal the Father’s glory, and the revelation of glory is a key theme of the season of Epiphany.

That the miracle happens at a wedding feast is also deliberate.   Rutledge notes that the wedding feast reminds us of the heavenly banquet, the Messianic feast, that the prophets speak of.  Isaiah spoke of a time of hardship when there was “an outcry in the streets for lack of wine” (Isa 24:11) but he also promises a day of wonderful abundance:

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
   a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
   of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
   the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
   the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
   and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
   for the Lord has spoken.  (Isaiah 25:6-8) 

So the Son’s actions at the Wedding are not just an act of kindness but also a revelation of Jesus’ glorious purpose:  to be the Saviour who brings abundance and joy, who brings all people together and who frees us from death and pain.  Think of this story as a first instalment in the glory of the Resurrection, when we see the Son’s glory most clearly. 

Finally, some more quick thoughts about weddings.   The Wedding at Cana is one of the traditional gospel lessons recommended for the Christian celebration of marriage.   Our ideas of marriage in the church have deep roots in scripture, going back to the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures, and finding fulfilment in the idea of Christ as the Bridegroom.  The old Prayer Book marriage rite mentions that marriage signifies “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church” (BCP 564).   So, just as we hope and pray that marriage unites two people and changes them for the better, so Epiphany calls us to welcome Christ into our church and into our lives, so that we may grow closer to him and thus reflect his glory.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Forgiving Nineveh: A Homily for the Third Sunday After Epiphany

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 21 January, 2024, The Third Sunday of Epiphany.  Readings for this Sunday:  Psalm 62.6-14; Jonah 3.1-5,10; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20





When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it (Jon 3.10).


Today I’d like to spend some time with our first reading from Jonah, a book we don’t often hear read on Sundays.  Most of us think remember Jonah as a fish story, thanks to children’s bibles and the Gershwin song: 

Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale, Fo' he made his home in / Dat fish's abdomen. / Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale.

Which may be one of the cleverest lyrics ever written, but I digress.   Fewer of us, I suspect, think of Jonah as a book about how God can freely forgive even the most unlikely of people, so I want to suggest today that the book of Jonah can be seen as a thought experiment about how God’s grace works.

But first, speaking of thought experiments, some of you may have heard that Pope Francis created some controversy recently when he said in an interview that “I like to think of hell as being empty. I hope it is.”  This was a personal comment; Francis was not trying to Catholic teaching, which, like most Christian teaching, acknowledge’s God’s right to judge us and to reward or punish us.  However, given the turmoil in the Roman Catholic church over Francis’ teaching, this comment ignited a minor firestorm.    Some claimed that Hell was a necessary part of God’s justice and that there must be consequences for sin.   Others felt that  theology that relied on hell to enforce good behaviour and church attendance was an impoverished understanding of God’s grace.

While we must leave our Roman Catholic friends to make decide what to think of the Pope’s remarks, in the larger Christian family there has long been a debate about how how unconditional God’s love and forgiveness might be.   In theology there’s a position called universalism, which holds that God’s grace is so all-encompassing that all sins could be forgiven should people want that forgiveness.  Within Anglicanism, C.S. Lewis said it well, I think, when he wrote that if the doors of hell have locks, then they must be on the inside, for those who consciously wish not to know God.   These are speculations (what theologians get paid for) but they are based on the solid foundation of God’s love and grace, which brings us back to Jonah.   What if the Book of Jonah was a similar speculation:  could God forgive the most evil people that ever existed?

If you wanted a candidate for the most evil people who ever existed, you’d probably not go wrong if you said the ancient Assyrians.  That’s the people that poor Jonah gets sent to preach to.   Unlike the other prophets who hector their own people about Israel’s failings to live up to God’s covenant, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it” (Jon 1.2).  It would be like today a Christian evangelist getting sent to the capital of North Korea.

Assyria had a terrible reputation in the ancient world because it had built an empire on terror.   It had a professional army that excelled in capturing cities.  Any people that resisted were enslaved and their leaders tortured and slaughtered.  Kings of Assyria, like Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal, left inscriptions boasting of how they cut throats of captives like lambs and dyed the hills with blood.   Assyrian kings were feared (and hated) from Egypt to Babylon, and that hatred eventually meant their ruin.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Assyria was particularly hated by several of the prophets.   One, the prophet Nahum, wrote a whole book in which he imagined God destroying Nineveh, rather like the author of Revelation imagines God destroying Rome.   Nahum called Nineveh a “city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful” (Nah 3.1) and predicted that it would face “Devastation, desolation, and destruction” (2.10).  He imagined a time when the world would learn of the destruction of Nineveh:

All who hear the news about you
   clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped
   your endless cruelty?  (Nah 3.19)

So it’s not really surprising that Jonah wasn’t all that keen to go to Nineveh and probably embrace a martyr’s fate.  He buys a ticket on the first ship going as far from Nineveh as possible, but as you recall the story, Jonah can’t escape his destiny.  God sends a giant storm, the sailors appease God by throwing their passenger overboard, and Jonah ends up in a giant fish which “the Lord provided” (Jon 1.17).  In the belly of the fish, Jonah thanks God for saving him and praises him as the true God: “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jon 2.9), by which Jonah says more than he realizes.

It doesn’t occur to Jonah that if deliverance belongs to the Lord, then the Lord can deliver or save whomever he wishes, including the people of Nineveh.  After what is sometimes called the worst sermon ever preached (loosely paraphrased as “Forty days from now, God will kill you all!” Jon 3.4), the King of Nineveh repents, along with the whole city, even the animals.  “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3.8) and God has mercy on them.   Jonah however is not pleased at this, he pouts, and in the final chapter, God teaches him a rather comic lesson about mercy.  First God makes a plant grow to shelter the pouting prophet, and then God kills the plant, and when Joseph is angry, God teaches him a lesson:   you’re angry that the plant died, but you were ok with a whole city being destroyed, so how is that right (Jon 4.11).

Jonah is a strange book of the bible, and Joseph is one of the bible’s antiheroes, the patron saint of reluctant missionaries and unwilling evangelists.   The totally unexpected repentance of the Ninevites is probably intended to make show the superiority of the Hebrew God over people who, as Job says, “worship vain idols” (Jon 2.8), which is a very common Old Testament theme. In that respect, Jonah says the same thing as his fellow prophet Nahum.  However, Jonah makes a radically different point by imagining God forgiving a repentant Nineveh rather than destroying it.   If deliverance does indeed belong to the Lord, then God is far more merciful then the self-righteous Jonah could have imagined.

As one commentator put it recently with marvellous simplicity, the Book of Jonah teaches us that God loves the people that we hate.     Jonah wants Nineveh destroyed because he hates them and fears them, and with good reason.    The Assyrians were a terrible, cruel empire, and historically they suffered the fate of other cruel empires.   But history and theology don’t always teach the same lessons.    The author of Jonah dared to imagine the love of God for all of his creation, even for the enemies of Israel, and took that thought experiment to its logical conclusion, where bad people can repent and be forgiven. 

If Jonah teaches us that God loves the people that we hate, how do we implement this lesson in our lives and in this historical place and time?  A friend of mine said that the partisanship and bitter politics and social media made him a worse person.   I confess the same thing.   In times of bitter division, it’s a great temptation to think the worst of those we disagree with.   Here in Canada, we’ve seen a change in our own politics and a deterioration of our civil discourse that seems driven by the events of the last five years, and maybe longer. 

Let me be clear that the answer is not to give into a kind of “good people on both sides” kind of moral relativism.    God may love the people that we hate, but God hates sin and hatred.   Jonah doesn’t teach us that some things about Assyira good, rather, it imagines a whole people returning to goodness.  In Jonah, the king and people of Nineveh repent because they realize that they have done wrong.   The thought experiment of Jonah thus challenges us with the question:  “if a people can recognize their evil and repent, can we allow God to be gracious to them without being offended?”   Thus, as I said at the beginning, Jonah is rather like Pope Francis’ musings on hell being empty.  It’s a speculation on the depth of God’s mercy and the possibility that all might, somehow, one day, recognize the absolute goodness of God and of God’s love, and allow themselves to be changed by it.

A firm focus on the love and grace of God also has the benefit of keeping us from becoming self-righteous like Jonah.   I can’t help but feel that there is a bit of Jonah in the opposition to Francis’ thoughts on hell.   Why is it that some Christians might not want hell to be empty?  Perhaps it is the satisfaction in thinking that there must be those worse than us who God should rightly punish?  If such folk exist, then their fate is between them and God, and we should pray that they follow the example of the king of Nineveh and “turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (Jo 3.8).

A focus on the loving grace and mercy of God also allows us to hear afresh the words from today’s gospel, the very first words that Jesus speaks in Mark’s gospel:  The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mk 1:15).    Can it be that the kingdom of God is not just heaven, some future place that we hope to go to, but is also a real place where we can live as people who are able to love and forgive others, as we are loved and forgiven by God.  That kind of repentance and self-awareness is a good thing to focus on as we approach Lent.

There’s a lovely line we hear sometimes at Christmas time, in the reading from Isaiah 9.5:

For all the boots of the tramping warriors
   and all the garments rolled in blood
   shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

These lines remind us that the Christ child, the Messiah and Prince of Peace, will bring with him the kingdom of God which will always survive and thrive, whereas the cruelties of human empires, from Assyria to Rome to Putin’s Russia, are doomed to fail and to fade away.  May we always be mindful that we are citizens of the kingdom of God, and give thanks to Christ our king of love and mercy.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Thomas Ward on Tolkien and Moral Clarity


 Artwork by the Brothers Hildebrandt

JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was hugely influential in my early life, when I thought of it in secular terms as a pr-eminent work of fantasy.   As a scholar later in life, I came to appreciate Tolkien’s work a synthesis of early European myths combined with his own poetic sensibility.    As an older man and as a Christian, I’ve slowly come to appreciate the deep faith that undergirds his writing, something that is more elusive and yet perhaps more satisfying than the more accessible faith on display in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books.

This week I’ve been thinking through a marvellous short essay by Thomas Ward, a professor of philosophy at Baylor.  Ward identifies a subtle disconnect between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books and the film adaptations by Peter Jackson, which, while widely (and, I think, rightly) acclaimed, a disconnect which involves our contemporary preference for flawed rather than exemplary characters.  

"Modern storytelling focuses on characters overcoming their own inner conflicts, even as they overcome the conflict that drives the main plot. There’s nothing wrong with this except when, as a kind of storytelling orthodoxy, it eradicates other compelling ways to depict character. Tolkien gave us a few characters who were simply excellent, not without grief or doubt but with no moral weaknesses to prevent them from acting well in the extremely difficult circumstances the book describes. Faramir, Aragorn, Gandalf, Treebeard, even poor Sam: in the films these are all less excellent than they really are.”

As a scholar of philosopher Boethius, Ward is well suited to understand Tolkien’s grand theme, that evil is always fundamentally weaker than good.  The characters in Tolkien who model the good best - Gandalf, Aragorn, Treebeard - possess a power that comes from their intrinsic virtue and from their mastery of fear and base emotion.  In the film, Gandalf quails before the Ringwraith, Aragorn kills Sauron’s spokesman with some sneaky swordplay, and Treebeard is a "doddering fool” who only does the right thing out of anger rather than out of moral choice.   As Ward notes, while these characters in th book are icons of virtue, in the films they become mirrors in which we see our own flaws.

"Again and Again, where the book gives us characters with extraordinary, exemplary goodness, the films change the story to make these characters less good. But while Jackson makes the best characters less good than they are in the book, he makes no evil character less bad than he is in the book.

What does it tell us about our own era that our villains can be thoroughly evil but our heroes can’t be thoroughly good? We’re weighed down by despair, and therefore prone to cynicism. We can recognize goodness when we see it, and we are attracted to it – this is why nearly all popular stories continue to make the good guys win – but we don’t really believe that the good is more powerful, more fundamental, than the bad. The bad is more basic, more real, than the good. So a villain need not be complicated by a tug toward the good (though plenty of villains are portrayed this way, appropriately so), but every hero must be conflicted."

My friend James, who is a much better Tolkien scholar than I am, agreed with Ward’s thesis and added his own observations about the difference between the Elves in the book and in the films:   “Tolkien’s elves are high minded, intellectual, deeply spiritual, alien but inherently good people but have been written over by Michael Moorcock;s Elric Saga and Dungeons and Dragons where elves are arrogant tropes for aristocracy and class warfare.  Which i why most people like the earthy, ‘working class’ dwarves over the ‘poncey’ elves."

Perhaps the prince we paid for the Jackson film adaptations was to have them reinterpreted according to the secular age, and perhaps too that was made possible by Tolkien’s famous aversion to allegory.   After all, Tolkien’s work has inspired people led people in directions - swords and sorcery fantasy games, ecology and counter culture - other than to a fulsome Christianity.   Other works would be more resistant to Jackson’s levelling of the moral playing field.   Could an adaptation of the Narnia stories be satisfying were Aslan to be flawed?   

As a person of faith, I need to reread Tolkien to remind myself of the moral clarity that Ward sees in him, and which was there all the time for those who value moral clarity and depictions of virtue.


Sunday, January 14, 2024

Not Dazzled But Befriended: A Homily for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese off Toronto, on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany January 14 2024



Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." (John 1:46)

Today I’d like us to think about the word “glory”, one of the words that’s key to the season of Epiphany that we’ve recently entered (Epiphany means the showing of God and God’s glory in Christ).


First, let’s think a bit about the word “glory” itself.  It’s rich in meaning, but it’s not one that we use in everyday speech, is it?   It can mean beautiful, as in “that was a glorious sunrise”.  Sometimes we use it to speak of olden days when things were better, particularly in sports.   Toronto fans might speak wistfully of the glory days of the Leafs, though that age is fast receding from living memory.   


The word has long been associated with military exploits and feats of arms.  The heroes of Homer fought for glory, and probably the Victorians were the last people who could speak sincerely about fighting and dying for glory.    Since the mass murder of World War One,  death in battle just seems tragic and wasteful.  As for politics, if anyone thinks they will find glory in elected office, well, that person should get help.


Perhaps church is one of the only places left where we we can use the word “glory” with sincerity.   The psalmist says that “In the [Lord’s] temple all say Glory!” (Ps 29) and that’s pretty much what we do here on Sunday.   We begin our worship with a song of praise called the Gloria, and we end with another song of praise called the Doxology which has become a bit of a dance number at All Saints.  The prayer’s Doxology, comes from the Greek word doxa, which means glory, so “doxology” literally means “speech about God’s glory”.


But God’s glory is hard to talk about because it can seem like looking at the sun.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, glory is one of the fundamental attributes of God.   God’s glory is overpowering, otherworldly, it overpowers those who see it, which is why Moses turns white on Mount Sinai.   The prophet Isaiah sees a vision of God - “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” and is ashamed because be is “a man if unclean lips” (Isa 6.3-5).    Fleming Routledge notes that Isaiah’s “vision of the glory of God results in an instantaneous perception of the contrast between God’s purity and his people’s contamination, their “uncleanness” because of sin”.


A faith that stressed our continued unworthiness wouldn’t be very interesting or healthy for many, and it’s not our faith.  Thanks to Christ, as one of euchariststic prayers says, we “are made worthy to stand before [God}”, and instead of dwelling on our sinfulness, Jesus has given us the much more interesting job of being his chosen and loved disciples.


Thus, we can sing confidently about God’s glory on Sundays, but, if we maybe grow a little too confident and even a little blasé about how wonderful God is, then maybe that’s what this Epiphany is for.  I’m grateful for the season of Epiphany because it calls us to be like the Magi, to seek out and honour the gloriousness of God as revealed in Christ.


The lovely collect for Epiphany in the Book of Common Prayer puts it well when it asks that “we may be led onward through this earthly life, until we see the vision of thy heavenly glory” (BCP 117). 


The season of Epiphany traditionally includes several stories about the glory of God revealed in Christ, from the star that leads the Magi to the voices from heaven at the Baptism and at the Transfiguration which proclaim Jesus as the Son of God, to miracle of the water turned to wine at the Wedding at Cana.   All of these stories show something about who the child in the manger was born to be:  a king, messiah and saviour of Israel, a miracle worker, the beloved son of God.     But these are all momentary revelations.   The beloved Son goes off alone into the wilderness, the light fades and he comes off the mountain to journey with his friends.   If we see glory in Jesus, do we not also see the ordinary?


Take today’s gospel reading, from the first chapter of John.  In the prologue to that gospel, we heard that “we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1.14).   Then John the Baptist appears, and when he sees Jesus he hails him as the Lamb of God and the Son of God.   But, when Jesus finally comes on to the stage for the first time, we’d expect him to say he’s going to Jerusalem, to be at the centre of things, but instead he’s decided to go to Galilee, a backwater province whose residents had a funny accent.  It would be as if a superstar, like a Taylor Swift, coming to Ontario, chose to bypass th Roger’s Centre in Toronto in favour of an arena in deepest Grey County.


Certainly that’s why Nathanael is unimpressed when his friend Philip tells him he’s found the Messiah, from Nazareth.   Scholars think that at the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a village with a population of around 400, not really very impressive.   And so he responds with a sneer that any of us can recognize, because one thing that unites most of us is that there’s always some town smaller than ours that we like to fix our scorn and ridicule on.  But those of us who wish we were better at evangelism should note how his friend Philip responds.  He doesn’t try to prove his case, he doesn’t bombard his friend with dogma or arguments, he just offers three simple words:  “Come and see.”  It’s a good tactic because it invites someone into a relationship, and that’s exactly what happens.


When Nathanael does met Jesus, there is no display of power or majesty, but rather a relationship that begins in Jesus’ deep knowledge of Nathanael and affection for him.   Jesus says, in effect,  “here’s an honest man”, which isn’t said with any kind of banter or bonhomie.  It reminds us of th scene in John’s account of Jesus meeting the women of Samaria at the well, and already knowing all the details of her life.  It’s not glory as in a heavenly choir or a bright light, but it’s a kind of glory in that it’s a manifestation of Jesus’ knowledge of people, their thoughts and motives, in some profound and supernatural way.   It’s evidence of this knowledge (how could he have seen me under the fig tree when he wasn’t even there) that convinces Nathanael that Jesus is the Messiah.


So yes, Jesus demonstrates a power of foreknowledge that impresses Nathanael, but what follows next is ordinary friendship.  Nathanael and Philip and Andrew will become disciples, the twelve friends and companions who will walk dusty roads, eat and laugh together, and often get Jesus wrong.     If it is glory, it is the glory of relationship that deepens over time and survives even dark betrayal as when the disciples abandon Jesus in the garden.   If this is glory, it is wrapped up in ordinary lives and ways of living.


Certainly there will be miracles and signs and wonders.  When Jesus tells Nathanael that he “will see greater things than these”, those words will very soon come true at the Wedding in Cana.  Some of these greater things, Jesus says, will be apocalyptic, “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon son of Man”.   Those words remind us of an old story from Genesis, Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven busy with angels, and the Lord God standing beside him.   Jacob was crooked and wily, not honest like Nathanael, and yet when he woke Jacob had the wisdom to say “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen 28.16).


Maybe this is how God’s glory works, it is present even when it is not seen.   It comes unexpectedly to ordinary places.  Yes, Nazareth may have seemed like a joke to Nathanael, but yet it was where the Angel Gabriel came to visit Mary and give her the best news anyone has ever received.   Jesus saw an ordinary guy sitting under a tree, perceived  the good in him, and called him to be a disciple and apostle, a founder of the church.     It’s fortunate for us that God reveals God’s glory in these ordinary ways and in these everyday places, because we could not stand it otherwise.   As the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “The truth must dazzle gradually, / Or every man be blind”.    


Someone told me last night that they come here every week and somehow they find God here.   We may not see God in majesty and power, but as our song says, we see glory in each face, and that glory comes from a Saviour who chooses not to dazzle us, but rather chooses to befriend and accompany us.  And just maybe, this side of heaven, that’s all the glory we need.  





Many of the insights on Epiphany and glory come from Fleming Rutledge’s wonderful book, Epiphany: The Season of Glory (IVP, Nov 2023, Kindle Edition).


 I’m grateful to L.M. Sacasas for the quote from Emily Dickinson, he includes it in a meditation on the gradually disclosed beauty of a sunrise.  From his Substack, The Convivial Society, Jan 12, 2024.





Saturday, January 13, 2024

Glory Shared: Epiphany and Baptism

A Meditation for the Eve of the Second Sunday of Epiphany

Apres Ski Eucharist Series, All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto

Preached Saturday, January 13, 2024






Since our Apres Ski services start within the season of Epiphany, and since that part of the church year is not understood as well as it could be, Rev Sharon and I have agreed that we would devote our meditations to various themes of Epiphany, at least until we get up to Lent, at which point we’ll change themes and we’ll change the wine and cheese to dry bread and water (just kidding).


So here’s a quick sketch of the background of Epiphany.  It starts on a fixed date, January 6, and the name comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, meaning showing, as in divine revelation.   Thus in the early church the season was also called Theophany, meaning the showing or self-revealing of God.  By the fourth century, the Season of Epiphany came to focus on four particular moments when Christ’s glory as the Son of God was seen:


  • The Visitation of the Wise Men or Magi
  • The Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan
  • The Miracle of the Wine at the Wedding in Cana
  • The Transfiguration of Christ on the Mountain



Our meditations will focus on these and other important moments in the weeks to come, but let’s look back to last Sunday and think some more about baptism.   The baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan has long been remembered within the first eight days of the season, called the Epiphany Octave.   In the Eastern church, that included a liturgy involving baptismal water.


Today we heard the account of Jesus’ baptism from Mark’s gospel, in which John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the promised Messiah and new King of Israel (“the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me”).   John’s words are confirmed by the voice from heaven which proclaims Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved” (Mk 1:11).  


We will hear the voice from heaven again at the end of the Epiphany season, when the traditional reading is the story of the Transfiguration, when we temporarily see Jesus in the full blinding glory of heaven.  But, in Mark’s gospel as in the other Synoptics, after Jesus’ baptism there is no blaze of glory.  Instead, there is the only the hard and solitary forty days of temptation in the wilderness which confirms Jesus’ identity as the sinless Lamb of God.


As we sing each Sunday, it is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and it is through baptism, his and ours, that Jesus achieves this.   We think of baptism mostly nostalgically now, as the christening of cooing, innocent babies in whom it is impossible to imagine any sin.   But baptism is really about rescue, our rescue from the three things that haunt us most:  fear of our guilt and worst natures (sin), fear of being abandoned, and fear of death.


Thus Paul in Colossians writes that through baptism we are brought into the family of “the saints in light”, we are rescued from “the dominion of darkness” and brought into “the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:12-14).  And likewise in Romans, Paul writes that through baptism we are “bought from death to life” (Rom 6:3, 11-16).


Our baptism has rescued us from sin, brought us out of loneliness into the family of God, and allows us to rise with Christ to eternal life.   After this homily, as we say the Apostle’s Creed, we will remind ourselves of these things by a gentle sprinkling with holy water, a custom normally done in churches at Easter, but also very appropriate for now at Epiphany.    Because, if Epiphany is about God’s glory being revealed, then how wonderful it is that we are invited to share in that glory as God’s family in Christ?

The water is blessed, three times, with the sign of the Cross or with a Cross dipped in the water; each time the following is said:


Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit.

Almighty and Merciful God, in the Baptism of your Son, you have restored Creation and fulfilled it as a means of salvation. Show this water to be the water of redemption and the purification of flesh and spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.



From A Rite for the Blessing of Waters, Anglican Church of Canada

Friday, January 5, 2024

Notable Quotable: W.H. Auden on the Post-Christmas Mood

Just stumbled across a poem by W.H.Auden from For The Time Being.

I’d never read this piece until today!  I love how Auden explores the post-Christmas sense of disappointment and disenchantment that we all feel in early January, and then returns to the two luminous lines at the end:

Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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