Thursday, July 16, 2015

PENTECOST VIII 2015

Landscape with Shepherd and Sheep   Anton Mauve, (1838-1888)

Once again the agricultural world in which Jesus lived and taught provides a central image for the Sunday readings – sheep and shepherds. In the thematic Old Testament lessons, the passage from Jeremiah (reinforced by Psalm 23) uses this image to lament the extent to which the leaders of the Israelites have abandoned their God-given role to be ‘shepherds’ of the people. In the Gospel, Jesus relinquishes his desire to retreat from the constant pressures of the crowds who seek his help, because he suddenly sees them as ‘sheep without a shepherd’.


In the interpretation of this image and its applications in Scripture, we must not suppose that sheep are useless without a shepherd. On the contrary, they know how to cope with basic survival and everyday life. They can secure grass to graze on and water to drink; they can breed successfully and succor their young. It is vital needs beyond the everyday that surpass their natural abilities -- distant sources of ‘living’ (i.e. fresh) water, and protection against climatic hazards and natural predators. These are the deficiencies that the good shepherd supplies.

Paul Preaching at Ephesus Eustace Le Seur (1649)
By analogy, then, we should not think of the crowd upon which Jesus has compassion as a bunch of helpless children. These are adults with homes, families, skills and occupations. Yet they crowd around Jesus because the larger context within which this everyday life is set leaves them at a loss. They know how to cope with ‘things temporal’, but flounder when it comes to ‘things eternal’ – the kind of life in which ultimately ‘true’ joys are to be found.

In short, they (like us) need ‘revealed’ as well as ‘discovered’ truth. It is a contention that the ‘religions of the book’ – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – hold in common. For Christians, though, the essential revelation comes not only through the Word of God, but through the Person of Christ – ‘the Word made Flesh’. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians underlines the profound significance of this shift. Whereas the religion of the book formerly constituted a dividing line between Jew and non-Jew, the possibility of a relationship with Christ overcomes any such division, so that Gentiles (foreigners) are
'no longer strangers and aliens', but equally 'members of the household of God'.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

PENTECOST VII 2015

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist -- Andrea Solario (c 1500)
The Gospel passage for this Sunday records a remarkably gruesome episode – the decapitation of John the Baptist, and, to make it even more grotesque, the presentation of his severed head on a platter in the middle of a party! In just a few verses Mark manages to convey a compelling image of the ways in which different forms of human wickedness – the brutality of absolute power, the consequences of adolescent vanity, the viciousness of revenge -- can combine to create and sustain a world in which the friends and followers of its victims can only  accept such horrors quietly as inescapable realities.

The episode is recounted in a context that characterizes the whole of Mark’s Gospel – the question of Jesus’ identity. What are we to make of him? Is he the Messiah? Is he another prophet like John? The fate of the Baptist is a ghastly catastrophe, yet even those who first read this passage, and wrestled with this question, could not have failed to know that Jesus himself had died a death scarcely less brutal. The difference, of course, is to be found in the Resurrection.

Christ on the Cross - Viktor Vasnetsov (1896)
The disciples of Jesus, just like the disciples of John, ‘came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb’. What happened thereafter, however, changed everything. It did not undo the fact of his execution on a cross, but it did transform its significance. It is precisely this transformation that the reading from Ephesians means to explicate. In the death of Jesus, God ‘has made known to us the mystery of his will . . . a plan for the fullness of time’. ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance’ we have ‘heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation’.

The death of John is a display of human will at its worst. Initially, the death of Jesus looks pretty much the same -- the outcome of political power, popular sentiment and sectarian jealousy. But God's ways are not our ways, and strangely, the mystery of the Resurrection shows Christ on the Cross to be God's saving will.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

PENTECOST VI

Rembrandt - St Paul in Prison
The Epistle for this Sunday is hard to understand, because it appears out of context. It is an excerpt from Paul’s second Letter to the Corinthians, part of a longer passage in which he is arguing against making personal religious experience the basis of spiritual authority. By speaking of himself in the third person, he discounts his own profound religious experience, despite ‘the exceptional character of the revelation’ that was given to him on the road to Damascus.


This is not because he underestimates its important in any way, but because he does not want ‘boasting’ about it to make anyone ‘think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me’. It is not his one-off encounter on the road to Damascus, but his whole way of life as a living instance of the grace of God, that must prove his faith in Jesus. Indeed, to keep him from ‘being too elated’ he draws explicit attention to ‘a thorn in the flesh’ that constantly reminds him of his real life.

We do not know what this ‘thorn’ was, but its role was to keep Paul mindful of this fact: the discipleship to which he was called was not a matter of elevated mystical elation, but ‘weaknesses, insults, hardships’ borne for the sake of Christ. Paradoxically, it is only when we fully acknowledge our own weakness that we are properly aware of the strength of God’s grace within us.
Gustave Dore -- Christ in the Synagogue

The Gospel passage from Mark resonates with this important truth. Even Jesus, in whom the grace of God is brought to perfection, must confront ‘insults’ in his ‘own country’. Those who knew him as a boy dismissively discount his message to them in the synagogue. They cannot look beyond their own assumptions, and see the prophetic voice the boy they knew is now revealed to be. This rejection is a prelude to instructions about discipleship. At the heart of discipleship, we might say, is a balancing act. True Christians must avoid the temptation to seek self-affirmation either in persecution or in popularity. That is because both turn spotlights unto ourselves, and away from Christ.

Monday, June 15, 2015

PENTECOST IV 2015

Rembrandt Christ in the Storm on Galilee
The brief but striking episode recorded in Mark’s Gospel for this Sunday -- in which Jesus appears to control a storm at sea with a simple command -- is usually referred to as a ‘nature’ miracle. But, as so often in the Gospels, this ‘miracle’ should be understood as a ‘sign’ rather than a ‘wonder’. What matters is what it says, not what it accomplishes.

Storms are natural metaphors. They easily transfer from the world of nature to human life, and can thus be used to signify, and communicate, a climax in the strains and stresses human beings experience. This use of the image is common in the Bible – in the Psalms – for example -- and sometimes the metaphor and the literal event are inextricably interwoven – as in the story of Jonah.

In either case, the natural event of the storm is to be read as a symbol. It reveals something about Jesus and his relationship to God. The punch line, of course, is the stilling of the storm, at which point the terror of the disciples is changed, not into grateful relief as we might expect, but into ‘awe’ at the person of Jesus – "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?". Their allusion to divine power is made even more evident by the thematic Old Testament reading from Job in which God's awesome power includes 'stopping the proud waves'.


Seascape, the Poplar - Gustave Courbet
Seascape Gustave Courbet
But in a way, the key moment in the Gospel episode is to be found a few verses earlier, when Jesus lies sleeping on a cushion. It is in response to their frightened accusation "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" that he stills the storm. The enormous gap between his relationship to God and theirs is thus revealed not only by his extraordinary power over the storm, but by his ability to sleep in the midst of it.
 
This is where we find an important resonance with the accompanying Epistle. The 'hardships and calamities' that Paul recounts to the wayward church at Corinth, include the storms he experienced as he sailed on his missionary journeys. While the disciples, though they had Jesus with them, were fearful, Paul having encountered the Risen Christ, could declare that even when calamity left him with nothing, his faith in Jesus Christ meant he had everything.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

PENTECOST III 2015

In this week’s Gospel reading there is a parable unique to Mark. The chapter in which it appears begins with the familiar story of the sower that Matthew and Luke also record. At the end, though, Mark uses the same image of seed planted in the ground to turn our thoughts in a different direction. ‘The kingdom of God is like this', Jesus says, and invites us to dwell on something both utterly familiar and deeply mysterious. We plant seeds, and after a time we harvest the crop they produce. Sprouting and growing are essential to our success, of course, and yet, wholly reliant as we are on these processes, they happen quite independently of our labor.

The sower in Mark's parable is anonymous and represents everyone and anyone. What matters is the seed, and its mysterious power to produce grain. The message is clear. Christians believe that in humanity's age-old struggle with ignorance, evil and death, truth and goodness will finally be victorious in the Kingdom of God. The life, death and Resurrection of Jesus guarantee this. In the ‘present dispensation’, however, we have to await that final triumph, and while we do, our task is primarily to witness to that hope by being content to ‘sow the seed’ wherever there is opportunity in our own time and place, relying on spiritual germination and growth that we cannot control.

Harvest -- Van Gogh (1888)
In our spiritual ‘labors’, as in all our other endeavors, it is hard not to look for solid evidence that our efforts are bearing fruit. Mark’s parable aims to stop us thinking in just this way. We should be content to be sowers who can ‘sleep and rise night and day’ confident that the ways of God, which we cannot fathom, are always at work in bringing our witness to fruition. In a time of declining church membership in Europe and America, this can be especially testing. The temptation is to turn to recruitment and leadership techniques drawn from the worlds of business and politics.  But St Paul tells the Corinthians in the Epistle -- ‘Walk by faith and not by sight’. ‘From now on’, he says, ‘regard no one from a human point of view’ as regards success and failure, because ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’. Unlike a business strategy, that is to say, the Spirit's efficacy is not to be assessed from a human point of view.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

PENTECOST II 2015

The Prophet Samuel -- Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

At this point in the year the Lectionary offers a choice between ‘continuous’ and ‘thematic’ readings from the Old Testament. The thematic readings are intended to fit better with the New Testament readings, while the continuous readings allow us to follow a rather longer story over a number of weeks.

In Year B the continuous readings take up the long story of the Israelites' problematic relationship with their political rulers, beginning with the celebrated 8th chapter of the first book of Samuel. Up to this point in their history, the Israelites have been guided and governed collectively by judges. But the elders now ask Samuel to find them a king so that they can be ‘like other nations’. He warns them about the dangers of kingship, and the consuming vanity that is likely to fill someone holding a monopoly on power. But they persist, since above all they want victories over their enemies. Reluctantly, Samuel concedes, and in this way the stage is set for a long and turbulent saga. The reigns of Saul, David, Solomon and many of their successors begin in hope but always end in disaster until, by the time of Jesus, the Israelites have long been a people subject to imperial powers.

The lectionary passage leaves out the verses in which the Israelites' demand for a King is interpreted as a rejection of God. Yet this conflict between divine and human sources of hope lies at the heart of the whole story, and it provides the background against which Jesus’ messiahship has to be understood. Jesus emphatically rejects ‘the nation’ as a focus of hope and salvation. 
Jesus in the Portico of Solomon -- James Tissot
But the Gospel passage implies a still more radical claim -- that faith in God requires us to reject not only political loyalties, but family loyalties also. Jesus seems to show a startling heartlessness in disowning his ‘mother and brothers’, leaving them to stand outside, though Mark's version is not as harsh as Luke's, in which true disciples are told to 'hate' their father and motherEven allowing for the exaggeration typical of middle eastern rhetoric, this is unquestionably one of the hardest of the 'hard sayings of Jesus', and very difficult to interpret. The core message, though is this. God demands, and requires, and rewards, a devotion far deeper than any human being – king or parent -- can properly ask or warrant.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

TRINITY SUNDAY 2015



Throne of God with Elders and Four Evangelists
  Bamberger Apocalypse, Germany c. 1000 AD

Trinity Sunday is in some ways the culmination of the Church’s year – not because it generally coincides with the start of summer (which it only does in the Northern hemisphere of course) – but because it draws together the different emphases of the liturgical seasons that lead up to it. In Advent attention is focused on the sovereign majesty of the God who made the world and will judge it . From Christmas to Easter attention is focused on the incarnation of that God in Jesus – his birth, ministry, sufferings, death and Resurrection. As the Easter season segues through Ascension into Pentecost, the Jesus of history becomes the eternal Christ as the Holy Spirit calls forth the Church to be his Body in the world.

The lessons appointed for Trinity Sunday in Year B of the Lectionary are especially easy to connect along these lines. They begin with Isaiah’s dramatic vision “in the year the king Uzziah died” and the seraphim’s hymn that has become so closely identified with Trinity Sunday  -- “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

In the Epistle to the Romans, St Paul points to the extraordinary way in which the Holy Spirit creates a mysterious unity between our innermost being and the being of Almighty God, "that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’.

Nicodemus and Jesus on a roof top Henry Ossawa Tanner
John’s Gospel, meantime, recounts an intriguing nighttime conversation. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”, Jesus tells Nicodemus. This seems to make the work of the Holy Spirit a rather chancy thing. We might encounter it, or we might not. But anxiety on this score only serves to bring to the fore once again the centrality of Christ. We are not dependent for our spiritual salvation on the vagaries of religious experience. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”.