Monday, August 11, 2014

PENTECOST X 2014

Blind Men Sergey Ivanov (1883)
The relation between Judaism and Christianity has long been highly problematic. On the one hand, anti-Semitism greatly marred European Christianity in medieval and early modern times, though of course, hatred of the Jews attained its most monstrous manifestation in the secular, post-Christian ideologies of Nazism and Communism. On the other hand, and perhaps by way of compensation for the excesses of anti-Semitism, contemporary Protestants, both liberal and evangelical, tend to regard Judaism and Christianity as deeply consonant faiths rooted for the most part in the same Scriptures.

The Epistle and the Gospel for this Sunday reveal that the question of how the relation between 'old' and 'new' testaments to God's work in the world should be understood, surfaced at a very early stage. It confronted not only Paul, but even Jesus. Both faced the charge that embracing the Gospel meant abandoning the ‘faith of their fathers’, and by implication rejecting the God of Israel.

Their response makes it plain that the Christian Gospel is not about propagating a new religion and displacing the old, but about renewing faith in God’s promises to his Chosen People. ‘I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham’, Paul declares. ‘God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’.

The Canaanite Woman  Bazzi Rahib (1684)
This is wholly in keeping with the remark that Jesus makes in his encounter with the Canaanite woman. His principal mission, he tells her, is ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, and the first part of the Gospel passage shows that his target is not Judaism, but ‘Pharaseeism’. Contrary to their own self-assurance, the Pharisees are lost in a complex of ritualistic practices and conventional norms. Their guidance is now useless to anyone who would walk in the ways of God, tantamount to the blind leading the blind.

The Canaanite woman, though, extracts from Jesus a hugely important concession. While the fresh ‘bread’ he offers is intended first and foremost for the ‘children’s’ table, the spiritual nourishment it offers is available far more widely, to anyone who has the faith to ask even for some crumbs. Here we see the ultimate answer to the question. God’s promises to his ancient Chosen People are also the promises he makes to all humanity through the Body of Christ. Ethnicity no longer matters. It is this crucial truth that makes both anti-Semitism and uncritical support for the modern state of Israel problematic from a properly Christian point of view.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

PENTECOST IX 2014

Christ walking on the water -- Alexander Ivanov (1855)
To the modern mind, powerfully influenced by the success of natural science, the miracles recorded in the Bible present difficulties that previous eras did not experience. Can we honestly believe that such supernatural events really happened? The difficulty is especially acute when the events involve Jesus, because the Gospel writers clearly think that his miraculous powers were strong evidence of his divinity. The Gospel passage for this Sunday contains just such an incident, and a very puzzling one. The disciples encounter Jesus at dawn walking towards them across the surface of a wild and stormy sea. Peter tries to do likewise but unsurprisingly sinks into the water until Jesus reaches out to save him. Then, wonderfully, the fierce wind dies down. Awestruck, the disciples hail Jesus as truly divine.

Could this be the record of something that actually happened? Yes, is the simple answer. If we believe, as the Church teaches, that Jesus was truly God incarnate, then compared to the creation of the cosmos out of nothing, even the most amazing  miracle is child’s play.  At the same time,  for Christians miracles have to be more than a conjuring trick, because Jesus is far more significant than any magician, however impressive. The difference lies in meaning. Often, actions speak louder than words. So miracles are not just wonders that we are expected to marvel at; they are signs from which there is something important to be learnt.
Jesus walks on water - Ivan Aivazovsky, (1888)

To grasp the meaning of Jesus’ miracles it is essential to see in them what devout and faithful Jews witnessing them would have seen –  the connection they forge between Christ's mission and the one true God revealed in the Old Testament. Since this is the God who ‘trampled the waves of the sea’ (Job 9:80), and whose 'path was through great waters, though his footsteps were unseen’ (Ps 7:19), it is hardly surprising  that Christ's action causes the disciples to declare ‘Truly you are the son of God’. Since the connection is plain, the meaning is clear.

In the light of this truth, the episode with Peter incorporated within this Gospel passage is especially instructive. Peter believes that his deep devotion to Jesus will carry him across the water. The fact that he starts to sink shows how mistaken it is to make the strength of our own belief the ultimate test of our faith.  Our will for good, and for God, may be both determined and powerful. Yet the deep and uncomfortable truth is that however sincere and committed, we cannot make ourselves the means of our own salvation. Relying on our personal resources, we are likely when things turn out badly to sink beneath life’s waves. It is only the presence of Christ within our lives that can save us.

Monday, July 28, 2014

PENTECOST VIII 2014

Feeding of the Multitude  Limbourg Brothers
The feeding of the five thousand, the subject of this week's Gospel, is a strange episode for modern readers. Are we to believe that bread and fish actually multiplied? Can we visualize how this might have happened? However perplexing these questions may be, we cannot ignore the fact that this miracle is recorded in all four Gospels. It even occurs in Matthew a second time (with four thousand), as it does in Mark. Evidently, 'the feeding of the multitude' was a strikingly important event for the Gospel writers. But what are we to make of it?

As with many other instances, it it crucial to remember that the ancient world (like most people at most times and places, in fact), thought in terms of symbolic meaning. For the Jews, symbolic meaning had to be connected with their Scriptural inheritance. In other words, their assessment of Jesus -- who he really was and what his words and actions meant -- drew on the parallels they could find with the promises of God recorded in Scripture. So too it must be for us since, as St Paul emphatically declares in the Epistle, it is the Israelites who were given "the adoption, the glory, the covenants, . . . the law, the worship, and the promises . . . the patriarchs". Furthermore, "from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever".

Grunewald The Prophet Isaiah
Whatever the realities of the event that underlies this particular episode, Christ's feeding the multitude has at least one evident parallel with Scriptural history -- the manna that God provided for the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. There is an echo too of the words of the prophet Isaiah in this week's Old Testament lesson: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." Isaiah is not making dietary recommendations, of course. The background to his remark is the Mosaic warning that "man does not live by bread alone". 

In John's Gospel Jesus himself dwells on  the significance of the feeding miracles.  He draws a key distinction which we might describe as the difference between 'bread for life' and 'the bread of life', which he then declares himself to be. The essential message is that even the provision of astonishing quantities of bread for life is not an adequate substitute for the one True Bread of spiritual life. Viewed from this perspective, the feeding miracles still carry an important lesson for a deeply consumerist culture such as ours.

Monday, July 21, 2014

PENTECOST VII 2014

St Paul  Diego Velazques (1619)
St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the most theological book of the Bible, is an intriguing mixture. It alternates between dense, often convoluted reasoning, and poetry of quite extraordinary power.  The Epistle for this Sunday falls into the second category, and it constitutes one of the finest, most insightful and most inspiring passages in all of Scripture – “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In this single, admittedly lengthy sentence, Paul perfectly captures and expresses the meaning of the Gospel in the lives of ordinary Christians, both past and present, and the assurance that it gives.

But he also thereby brilliantly illuminates the Gospel for today. The Lectionary has omitted some verses from the 13th Chapter of Matthew and in this way intensifies its rapid listing of short parables about the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses the different analogies he employs to impress upon his hearers – and upon us – this thought: when we sign up to Christian faith we are making a choice of the greatest significance. Initially it may seem a little thing, just as yeast makes up a very small part of the ingredients of a loaf of bread. Even so, it transforms all the rest. Similarly, faith that the world despite so many contrary appearances and experiences, is under the control of a personal and loving God, and that the humblest of us can be joyful participants in his kingdom, transforms life from the inside. It is like encountering a priceless treasure that is to be preferred to everything else we possess, or could hope to find.

The Hidden Treasure - James Tissot
Of course, to many people this Gospel is not new. Since they have grown up in the faith, been “trained for the kingdom of heaven”,  sheer familiarity often causes them to lose the sense of its significance. Consequently, their task is to bring out of the treasure they have been given both “what is new and what is old”.

To gain or regain the gift of faith, however, is not to be given guaranteed protection against sickness and injury. Faith is not a kind of cosmic insurance. Rather, Paul tells us, it is to know that, whatever injustices, illnesses, and temptations befall us, “in all these things we are more than conquerors" provided we view them all "through him who loved us” -- and demonstrated it by dying for us.

Monday, July 14, 2014

PENTECOST VI 2014


William Blake Jacob's Ladder (1799)
The Old Testament lesson for this Sunday recounts one of the most compelling and significant episodes in the history of Israel’s relationship with God – Jacob’s dream as he sleeps in a remote spot, his head resting on a stone. When he awakens from the dream he declares "Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!"
 The possibility that we should be standing at “the gate of heaven” and yet be unaware of the fact, is the underlying motif of Jesus’ parable of the sower. The first version which provided the Gospel for last week alerted us to the spiritual dangers of indifference, passing enthusiasm and worldly projects. This week we have a rather different second version, in which the ‘good seed’ of the Gospel confronts not merely human weakness, but the active agency of Satan.

Felicien Rops Satan Sowing Tares (1882)
Belief in Satan is not as common now as it was in times past. And yet, in the light of the horrors of the twentieth century, it is hard to deny the reality of forces of evil that  take possession of the hearts and minds of otherwise decent people, driving them to levels of wickedness far beyond mere selfishness or indifference. The worst and most problematic cases are not those like Rwanda, where, for a few weeks, a huge number of people  participated in a horrifying outbreak of ferocious brutality. Far more perplexing are those of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, where truly evil systems of persecution and death were staffed and sustained for years, by people who, at the same time, went on educating their children, caring about friends and family, and upholding the values of ordinary life -- the decent and the devilish living side by side, we might say.

So the world in which we find ourselves does indeed seem to have Satanic ‘tares’ alongside divinely planted ‘wheat’. An important part of the parable, though, is that these are inextricably intertwined, and will remain so until God brings the harvest in. This warns us of another danger. One of Satan’s favored strategies lies in exploiting our inclination to leap to judgment and to sort out the world ourselves, often by launching political campaigns, employing military might, or strengthening the powers of the State. But, Paul tells the Romans in this week’s Epistle, “we hope for what we do not see”. Consequently, we must “wait for it with patience”. This is the real test of faith in God.

Monday, July 7, 2014

PENTECOST V 2014

The Sower - Grigory Myasoyedov (1888)
‘A sower went out to sow’. In this week's Gospel, Jesus recounts one of the most famous parables ever told. It is a simple story made homely for most of us by its familiarity. Yet it has very serious import, a meaning we can miss altogether because it is so easy, and so tempting, to think of the sower as scattering seed on virgin land. No doubt this is what Jesus had in mind, 2000 years ago when the Gospel he preached struck his first hearers as radically new. But in our circumstances the Gospel is no longer being preached and heard for the first time. It is old news, and the soil, we might say, has been farmland for so long, that we take both the sowing and the harvest for granted.

Even so, the parable still has radical application. It is right to say that week by week in the course of an ordinary Sunday service, the Gospel goes on being ‘sown’ among regular as well as occasional church goers, and the different ways in which it can be received – carelessly, half heartedly, seriously – are not confined to the ever expanding secular world outside the Church, but are possibilities in the heart of the sanctuary also. Indeed, for the faithful there is an additional danger; the story’s sheer familiarity easily sustains an unspoken assumption that the Gospel has already found fertile ground in their hearts. But has it? We can set ourselves a simple test. On Monday, without recourse to the weekly bulletin, can you recall the Bible readings from the day before, and especially the Gospel reading? This simple test is not so easy to pass as one might hope.

Descent of the Holy Spirit -- Jean Fouquet (1472)
In a wonderful phrase the section of Psalm 119 set for this Sunday, says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’. This beautifully captures one way in which Christian faith can accompany our journey through life. But it applies only if casualness, complacency, daily distractions, or worries and anxieties have not prevented the 'seed' of God’s word from properly taking root in our minds and souls. The real purpose of regular worship is to stop them doing so and allow us to hear the Gospel afresh. If only it can be properly rooted and regularly nourished, we can hope for life of a quite different order. As Paul says in this week’s reading from Romans “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” The task of the Christian is to make worship and liturgy the avenue to be this Spirit's dwelling place.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

PENTECOST IV 2014

Isaac and Rebekah -- James Tissot
Both the Epistle and Gospel for this week are difficult to understand – at least on a first reading. What are we to make of the images of children playing in the market place, and the yoke that was used to harness oxen? Are they related in some way, and what is the link between these and Paul’s reflections on sin and the will?

The proper interpretation of these passages is not altogether certain, but it seems clear that it is the Jews of Jesus’ day  -- ‘this generation’ – that he is addressing. The contrast is between Jesus’ own proclamation of ‘Good News’, and the preaching of John the Baptist that preceded it. The ‘children’ reject the first (flute music for dancing) because it is not austere enough, having rejected the second (a call to mourn) because it was too austere.  There is, as we say, no satisfying them.

Their rejection is not just willfulness, however. No one doubted the religious seriousness of the ‘wise and intelligent’ Pharisees. Nevertheless, they were in fact encumbered by their vast knowledge of the Judaic law. It prevented them from seeing what a child could see – that the Messiahship of Jesus was offering them a different way to salvation, one that should be welcomed with open arms.

Two yoked bulls -- Toulouse-Lautrec
This is where, strangely, the image of the yoke comes into play. ‘The Yoke’ was often used to refer to the Jewish law. All its detailed rules for the conduct of life serve to keep us fixed to a useful life and live in harmony with others – just as the yoke usefully unites the efforts of the oxen harnessed by it. Yet, as any picture of yoked oxen reveals, it is burdensome and restricting. By comparison, the way to salvation that Jesus offers is easy and light, and especially welcome to anyone who is wearied by a constant effort to keep all the rules.

Paul comes to realize this in his encounter on the road to Damascus, and the short passage from Romans that is this week’s Epistle is a reflection of that experience. Hitherto a Pharisee of the strictest kind, it turns out that even his most passionate determination to keep the law always fails. Sheer will power is not enough, and so the effort to do so simply burdens him more and more. It is only when he abandons the effort by accepting the fact that Christ has redeemed him, that his burden is lightened.