Monday, September 15, 2014

PENTECOST XV 2014

Red Vineyards at Arles -- Van Gogh (1888)
The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard. Unlike many other Gospel parables, this one has a beginning, a middle, an end, and  a punch line, all of which makes it easy to understand -- at one level. The problem, though, is not simply to understand it, but to see just what its message is.

Occasionally people have thought that this parable has direct application to the workplace, and implies that Christian bosses ought to pay their workers equally. Or they have found warrant in it for a even wider  principle of Christian ethics -- one that supports equal pay for company workers. Yet, Jesus makes it plain that he is talking about ‘the Kingdom of heaven’. That is to say, his parable concerns the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other. Even if this is what the parable aims to illuminate, however, there still seems be a problem of interpretation. The vineyard owner says to the laborer who complains that he has worked all day. ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. Perhaps so, but is this a good enough answer? How can it be just to give the same reward to radically different amounts of work? Don’t the laborers who worked longer deserve more?

Salvation -- Endre Bartos (1979)
These questions have familiar religious parallels. Universal redemption means that past sins are wiped out. Can it be just for God to treat cheats, child abusers and serial killers in the same way as those who have been decent Christians all their lives, so long as they express repentance on their death beds? What is the point of lifelong faithfulness if it makes no difference in the end?

To this recurrent, and heartfelt question, the Epistle from Philippians suggests an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is ‘inestimable’(as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). Since  knowing the love of God in Christ is supremely beneficial, regardless of how early or late in life we come to it, nothing can improve upon it. There simply is no greater benefit that lifelong laborers could hope for, or deserve. This remains true irrespective of how God treats other sinners.  

Knowledge of salvation, then, should dispel all envious glances at those who ‘got away with it’. How could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, and to do so for as much of our lives as possible?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

HOLY CROSS 2014

Legend has it that in 326 AD, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem, Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered  the True Cross of Jesus . She ordered a church to be built at the site of the discovery. On Sept 14 635 AD a portion of the Cross was carried into the newly consecrated 'Church of the Holy Sepulchre'. Since that time Sept 14  has been a red letter day in the Christian Calendar. Holy Cross Day invites us to meditate on the deeply mysterious fact that God chose an instrument of tortured death to be the means of salvation.
Recognition of the True Cross -- Piero della Francesca
Stand Holy Cross, between my God and me,
and cast a shadow
where my heart can hide its frail morality
from God's perspicous light
The Cross of Christ provides the shade I need
to see, with sinless eyes, God's sabbath day.
And, as horizons widen shore to shore,
as light on light enlightens more and more,
this greater vision brings a deeper peace
where sin and sorrow cease.
Stand, Holy Cross, between my God and me.

 Collect for Holy Cross Day
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Monday, September 8, 2014

PENTECOST XIV 2014

The Unforgiving Servant JESUSMAFA
In one way or another, the readings for this Sunday are about judgment, tolerance and forgiveness. In the contemporary liberal democratic world,  being 'judgmental' is among the worst of sins, and that explains why most mainline Christian denominations have been anxious to cast off the Church’s historical reputation as ‘judgmental’, and embrace instead a non-judgmental inclusiveness that reflects what they see to be God's unconditional love in Christ -- God loves you whoever, and whatever, you are.

Conservative Christians sometimes condemn this as a willingness to abandon a Gospel that preaches sin and salvation, in the interests of appeasing the secular world. Yet, the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that serves as this week's epistle, does provide biblical support for non-judgmentalism. The disagreement Paul writes about – whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols -- is not one that concerns us today. But the advice he bases upon it has much wider application. Though we ought to be firm in our own convictions, we ought not to pass judgment on, still less despise, those who disagree with us. The Gospel passage puts the same thought in the wider context of those who harm us. Forgiveness is ‘seventy times seven’ more important than retribution, however natural the desire for this may be. Here we have a truth that everyone has reason to welcome, if we are not to fall into the rank hypocrisy of the indebted slave.

The Day of Judgment Viktor Vasnetsov
To this extent then, biblical teaching coincides with contemporary liberal opinion. At the same time, in its wholesale rejection of ‘judgmentalism’ it conflicts with a key element in these readings -- that human beings are indeed under judgment, both for what they believe and for what they do. Who, especially around the anniversary of 9/11, could truly deny that beliefs matter, and cannot be treated as simply personal opinion? Beliefs, even if sincerely held, that warrant the willful slaughter of thousands of human beings are bad, and their fruits are inevitably evil. Paul's point, though, is that Christians – even in this kind of case -- ought to be very careful that they are not trying to preempt God’s judgment. ‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” Paul cautions his readers. To this extent he takes his stand against judgmentalism. Immediately, though, he places it in a larger theological context: “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”. The Gospel story of the hypocritical slave, let it be noted, ends with his being “tortured” as an act of justice.
In the past Christians have been very ready to usurp God’s justice. Nowadays they are more likely to make the error of presuming upon God’s mercy. The difficult thing is both to witness to the solemn truth that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and to do so in a spirit of love rather than loathing.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

PENTECOST XIII

The evening prayer -- Gerard Sekoto (1942)
The Gospel for this Sunday contains a phrase that has powerfully consoled Christians in difficult circumstances of many sorts –‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. Faced with social isolation, political oppression, cultural indifference or simply declining membership, it is both critically important and deeply reassuring to hold fast to the truth that neither popular success nor numerical majority is relevant to the promise of divine presence. Indeed, perhaps we have less reason to be confident of the presence of Christ when two or three thousand are gathered together, since mass movements have often proved the enemy of true religion.

At the same time, there is always this risk -- that ‘where two or three are gathered together’ is reduced to a self-justifying mantra. This happens when it is invoked by opinionated minorities in defense of their splits and schisms. It also happens when it is used to exempt complacent churches from their evangelical obligations. In both cases, divine assurance is displaced by human complacency. It is salutary to remember, therefore, that the wonderful assurance this sentence offers is not unconditional.  

Ecce Homo -- Albrecht Durer
The extract from Paul’s Letter to the Romans prescribed for this Sunday, addresses just this issue. Though relatively brief is also remarkably dense. Its central message is that Christ is truly present only to those who have ‘put on Christ’. What does this mean? It means adopting a cast of mind (the mind of Christ) whose key elements are these. First, we need the conviction that ‘now is the time to wake from sleep’ i.e. that the things we often struggle for, such as wealth, power, or personal career, are in an important sense unreal. Second, we need to abandon ‘the works of darkness’ i.e. the devious and destructive ways in which we commonly pursue our goals, and be willing to have the brightest light shine on our lives. Third, we have to affirm that love best fulfills ‘the law’ i.e. that living truly in accordance with the laws of God means being motivated chiefly by a love for the world around us.

Christian conduct down the centuries has shown just how hard it is to follow these prescriptions. Yet the prospect that underlies them is extraordinary – that we mere mortals can live in communion with the one true God.

Monday, August 25, 2014

PENTECOST XII 2014

St Peter -- Durer

In the Epistle for this Sunday, Paul sets a very high standard for Christian conduct: ‘Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit . . .Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer . . . Bless those who persecute you . . . Live in harmony with one another . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.’ These are all admirable injunctions, of course. Yet they are also counsels of perfection. How many Christian lives actually model this ideal? How many ever have? Very, very few, is the only honest answer. 
 
Happily, if this seems a depressing conclusion, the Gospel for this week offsets it to a considerable degree. The passage brings to the fore the strange relationship that Simon Peter had with Jesus. In part this was a result of his impulsive and vacillating character. Peter was the sort of person who could be inspired to leap over the side of a boat one moment, only to be crying out in fear the next. In terms of the whole Gospel story one vacillation is especially well known  -- his behavior at ‘the time of trial’. When danger looms -- in the unlikely form of a servant girl! -- Peter's emphatic assurance of love and loyalty to Jesus is  rapidly displaced by three equally emphatic denials -- 'I never knew him'.

Jesus too seems to vacillate in his attitude to Peter. Last week's Gospel recorded how, early in their relationship, Jesus declares Peter to be the ‘rock’ on which the church is to be founded. Now, in this week's passage that same rock is declared ‘a stumbling block’, someone who has to be told, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’  -- a dramatic reversal indeed.

Christ Saves Peter -- Alexander Ivanov
Yet this fact remains. Jesus chose Peter. He made him a witness of the Transfiguration. He granted him the largest number of post-Resurrection encounters. Why? An important clue to the puzzle lies in this rebuke: ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’. It is precisely Peter’s inconsistent character that equips him for the role he has been assigned. In his weakness, he is a true representative of our common humanity.  In his devotion to Jesus, however faltering, he exhibits a spiritual hope of which we are all capable. Paul’s counsel of perfection is a description of that hope, but its ultimate realization is not in Peter or in us, but in Jesus. That is why he is to be hailed as true man and true God.

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.