Tuesday, May 24, 2016

PENTECOST II (Proper 4) 2016

Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem - Tissot James
Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem - James Tissot
We are now in that long period following Pentecost that Anglicans used to call ‘Trinity’, but which the modern Christian calendar refers to as ‘Ordinary Time’. The first period of Ordinary Time runs from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. This second period begins with Trinity Sunday and ends with Christ the King (which will fall on November 20th this year). In “Ordinary Time”, the Revised Common Lectionary offers a choice between two ‘tracks’. These two tracks are not so very different, because the Epistle and Gospel are always the same. It is only the Old Testament lesson and Psalm that differ, and it is a few weeks into Ordinary Time before the Old Testament readings diverge significantly.

The ‘continuous’ track takes congregations through some of the great Old Testament narratives over several Sundays. The ‘thematic’ track, on the other hand, aims to connect the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel in such a way that the first can be seen to foreshadow the second. This foreshadowing is easier to spot on some Sundays than on others, but in the readings for this Sunday the connection is not so hard to see.
At vast expense and with great labor over many years, Solomon has completed the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews now possess a truly fitting place in which to worship the Most High God, a spectacular testament to the superiority of their religion. Yet, standing before the altar, Solomon explicitly prays that the Temple may be a place of prayer for non-Jews also. ‘When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes and prays toward this house, then', he asks God, 'hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name’.

Jesus healing the servant of a Centurion - Veronese Paolo
Jesus Heals the Centurion's Servant -Paolo Veronese
It is not hard to hear the resonance with the Gospel. The centurion whose slave is very ill is a generous friend to the Jews, but he is himself a foreigner, beyond their ethnic circle. Seeking to repay him for his generosity, the Jewish elders ask Jesus to effect a cure. This is certainly a kind gesture, but, in words that Christian liturgies have used for centuries, the centurion expresses his hesitation in accepting such help. ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof’ he says. For Jesus, though, the humble faith that this sentence expresses transcends all ethnic divisions. The centurion’s faith is the kind that really counts; ‘not even in Israel have I found such faith’, he declares. The moral is this: what the Book of Common Prayer calls ‘true religion’ is sometimes to be found far beyond the circles in which we normally expect to find it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Holy Trinity - Peter Paul Rubens
P P Rubens - Holy Trinity
The Sunday after Pentecost is unique in the Church’s year. Whereas every other holy day celebrates an event or a person, Trinity Sunday celebrates a theological doctrine.  And what a perplexing doctrine it is! The One God in whom Christians believe is Three Persons.  It seems to defy even the most basic principles of arithmetic. How can anything be both three things and only one thing? Yet that is what the doctrine obliges Christians to hold. What is more, this is not some optional extra that we may or may not choose to go along with. Since the fourth century, when the Creeds were finalized, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been central to all the major branches of the Christian Church – Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed. There are Unitarian churches who deny it of course, but these have always been in a small minority. 

Why has Trinitarianism been thought so crucial? The answer is revealed in part by this week’s readings. The Epistle and the Gospel comprise two short and familiar passages. The first comes from Paul’s most important letter – his Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote this several centuries before theologians came up with carefully formulated doctrines, and over a thousand years before Trinity Sunday became a fixture in the Church's Calendar. So here, we must say, Paul is not advancing a complex theological proposition, but simply trying to capture, and convey, his own profound experience of what it means to be a Christian. Trinitarianism arises because in doing so, he simply cannot avoid talking about God, and about Jesus, and about the Holy Spirit, all in equal measure.

Celtic version of the traditional symbol for the Trinity
In this respect, however, the Epistle does no more than the Gospel passage itself. Like Paul, John wrote these words of Jesus a very long time before theologians set to work on them. Yet here too we find that if Jesus is to describe his mission properly, and convey his promise to those who believe in him, a threefold reference is inescapable -- the Father who sends, the Son who obeys, and the Spirit who remains. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is certainly perplexing, but this is because it reflects a great mystery to which we are necessarily compelled, whenever we try to affirm the truth about Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


The Descent of the Holy Spirit - Albrecht Durer
Durer Descent of the Holy Spirit

The English word ‘enthusiasm’ does not, generally speaking, have religious overtones. It is most likely to be used in the context of sport or some personal interest. But in fact it comes from Greek words meaning a special kind of zeal or ardor that results from divine inspiration. This is exactly what the disciples display in this week’s passage from Acts. Overwhelmed by the Spirit of God, they showed such 'enthusiasm' that passersby stopped to stare, and concluded that people acting in that way must be drunk.

The Feast of Pentecost is observed six weeks after Easter and commemorates precisely  this event. Though it no longer has anything like the same profile as Christmas and Easter, even among practicing Christians, it is in fact a third major festival of the Christian year, and no less important than the other two. Why is it so important? The answer lies in today’s Gospel. The passage begins with a request – ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’. Everyone who has any feel for religion can hear the deep longing that Philip expresses. But Christ’s answer  -- 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’ – contains a salutary reminder. We can fail to be satisfied with the truth.

A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace - Primachenko Maria

The Spirit which took possession of the disciples, John tells us, was expressly sent by Jesus – ‘The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. It is in Truth, Peace and Love that this Holy Spirit is to be found.It is properly understood as a gift, but it is given not ‘as the world gives’. The spirit of truth, love and peace raises human beings to their finest level, but it does not lay any store by accomplishment, popular endorsement, or vindication in the eyes of the world. All of these are things on which both societies and individuals tend to fix, and that is why we are prone to reject the gift of Holy Spirit and keep on looking for something else.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that if this truly Holy Spirit is to ‘abide in us’, we must not' let our hearts be troubled 'by worldly desires, or 'be afraid' of worldly failure. Peter himself, of course, is a shining example of just what this means.

picture: A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace -- Maria Primachenko (1982)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


The head of Christ - Edouard Manet
Jesus Christ -- Eduard Manet (1864)
Just who was Jesus? This is the question that the disciples had to grapple with following the Resurrection, and that we too are left to grapple with on our own account. Up to the first Easter morning they knew him to be a highly charismatic preacher, a teacher with a radical interpretation of the Jewish law, and a person possessing remarkable gifts of healing. These aspects to his personality made him the kind of person who could either attract intense loyalty, or generate envy and hatred.  If this is what he was, then Jesus’ life repeated a pattern found in the lives of many other prophets. 
When he met a painful and humiliating death, it seemed that for all his charisma, Jesus had been a failure.
The Resurrection dramatically altered this estimate. Now he was special to the point of being unique. But how special, and in what way? John’s Gospel is far more centered on this issue than the other three. Most especially, it records long speeches where Jesus talks at length about who he is, and what his relationship to God is. It is plausible to think that these speeches in the first person – “I am” --  look back on the historical Jesus with the benefit of Resurrection hindsight. They record the profound theological insights that a follower of Jesus was compelled to come to in his struggle to understand the full significance of Christ.
Christ Blessing - Antonello da Messina
Christ Blessing -- Antonello de Messina (1475)
This week’s readings include two of these ‘first person’ passages, one from John’s Gospel and the other from Revelation, a book that tradition attributes to the same writer. They record what might be called the final verdict on the question ‘Who was Jesus?’ and they affirm a truth central to the Christian faith.  Jesus is the “the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” who has brought the faith of David to a perfection in a way that no other human being ever has. To express this truth, John has Jesus declare “You, Father, are in me and I am in you’. Christ is fully human and God filled, so that despite all their imperfections, human beings now have the chance to “become completely one” with the God who made them, who loves them and who will be their judge.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


The Ascension - John Singleton Copley
Ascension -- John Singleton Copley (1775)

Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means that it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter  and and Pentecost. Yet, it has rarely, if ever, been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church or the practice of individual Christians. Partly, this is because the event it commemorates -- the ascension of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke, though that is also true of the Epiphany which has been much more prominent. Partly, it is because over the centuries the precise location of Ascension in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But a more important reason is that the theological significance of the event Ascension celebrates is squeezed into a very short period of time between the Resurrection on one side, and and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the other. The modern calendar reflects the difficulty, but has intensified it, by scrapping the season of Ascensiontide, and rolling it in to Easter.

This means that we are even more at risk of overlooking the special significance of Ascension, namley the unique way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched and listened to him over the years of his ministry. It ended in apparent failure of course, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, they were granted a second opportunity to be in the privileged company of the Son of God.

In the pursuit of our discipleship we do not have these advantages. We must live in faith in a way that those few Galileans did not have to do. Ascension marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight"  meant that  for a time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his ascension required them to prepare themselves for what the rest of us rely on -- a Holy Spirit that draws us into the eternal life of the Father whom we do not see and the Son whom we never met.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


The Vision of St. Paul - Nicolas Poussin
The Vision of St Paul -- Nicholas Poussin (1649)

In a profound way, the readings for this Sunday summarize and connect the origins, work and goal of the Church. In the Gospel, Jesus gives his followers an early indication of what will happen when he is no longer an earthly presence among them. He promises them a ‘Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name’ and who ‘will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. It is here, of course, as Jesus talks about himself, his Father and the coming Holy Spirit, that we find a Gospel basis for the Trinitarian theology that has been, and remains, the truly distinguishing mark of the Christian faith. Its principal importance, though, lies in the assurance that we, who never experienced the historic Jesus, can nevertheless encounter him in a Spirit of life that remains accessible to people in every age and place.

It is this same Spirit that prompts, and enables, Paul’s response to the famous dream in which someone in far off Macedonia calls to him to share a Gospel whose power and relevance must break all geographical and ethnic boundaries, and speak to the human soul that lies within everyone.

The gate with a tower. New Jerusalem - Lentulov Aristarkh
Gate with a Tower: New Jerusalem - Lentulov
Between the Gospel promise and the missionary Acts of Paul the Apostle, lies Revelation’s compellingly beautiful statement of the ultimate goal in which the work of the Spirit will culminate. What is striking about it, is just how God centered it is. The picture of the ‘heavenly’ Jerusalem that it paints, is not a paradise in which all our desires and needs are met, but one in which they are transformed and transcended within the Person of God. We now no longer need sunlight, or clean water, or political security, or even places of worship, because God’s presence will be so immediate that everyone ‘will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads’. This vision is no promise, of course, for those whose hearts are set on wealth and power as the world understands these. But to those who long for a full realization of the spiritual nature that God has planted in them, no more wonderful prospect could be imagined.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


    Prayer in Church - Gerard Sekoto (1947)

    The Gospel for this Sunday is just seven sentences long, but of great importance. Often, when people are asked to summarize the Christian faith, they say that there are two great commandments – to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself, because Jesus is recorded as saying this in three Gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, to think that this summarizes the Christian faith, is an important mistake. That is not what is going on in these passages.

    Jewish scribes asked Jesus to pinpoint the crucial commandments among all those that were to be found in their scriptures – several hundred in fact. He picks just two – one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus – and declares that everything else in the Jewish law and prophets hangs on these two commandments. He declares that he has not come to abolish the law, but he does not actually say that they summarize his own faith. In contrast to the other three, John’s Gospel does not record this episode. Rather, John tells us that Jesus offered his own disciples a third, and new, great commandment – ‘that you love one another’. As faithful Jews, their love of God and neighbor was something that could be taken for granted. What was to mark them out as followers of Christ is their special love for each other.

    Churches in the New Jerusalem  Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943)
    Given the divisions, persecutions and mutual contempt that have so often marred the history of the Church – and still do – it is this third, distinctively Christian commandment that has proved very much harder to live by, virtually impossible in fact. The judgment of history, then, seems to make the Christian faith a hopeless undertaking. But the reading from Revelation reminds us to place our hopes in a future world that God has promised, not a world that human beings, however well intentioned, will make. It is God who makes all things new -- in ways that human beings find hard to discern.  This means we must wait until ‘the home of God is among mortals’ before we can expect ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.