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’.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Good Shepherd Mosaic

Most of the first Christians were Jews, but quite early on they departed from the Jewish prohibition on religious images and started to make pictures. One of the most ancient is Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This decorated the walls of the Roman catacombs, and of course, has deep Jewish roots in the 23rd Psalm. Over the next two millennia, it has proved to be one of the most enduringly attractive subjects for artists of all kinds.

Its contemporary appeal is reflected in the fact that our modern lectionary makes the 4th Sunday of Easter “Good Shepherd” Sunday in all three years, and with unusually little variation between them. The appointed Psalm is always ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and the Gospel for the day, with slightly different selections, is taken from John Chapter 10, where Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself. 

The continuing popularity of the 23rd Psalm has made the language of sheep and shepherd familiar and comforting to most church people. And yet the world in which we live – even in rural areas – is so far removed from the world in which the biblical shepherd was a familiar sight, that we might wonder whether the image can actually speak to us still. For a modern audience, describing faithful Christians as ‘sheep’ can be expected to have negative connotations – suggesting a docile inability to think for themselves.

The Good Shepherd Henry Ossawa Tanner (1903)

To make the metaphor speak afresh, it is essential to understand that shepherds in biblical times had two crucial tasks -- to lead the sheep to sources of water that they couldn’t find for themselves, and to protect them from wild animals. The superior strength, wisdom and care of the shepherd was vital if the sheep were to survive and flourish. Without it, they would “go astray, each to his own way” as Isaiah famously puts it (Is.56:3).

So the message in the image is this. However earnest our spiritual seeking and searching, it is God who finds us, not we who find God. The challenge is to relinquish paths through life of our own devising, and have the wisdom and strength to recognize and follow His call.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Durer's St Peter
This week’s readings record two of the most important events in the history of the Christian church – Christ’s post-Resurrection commissions to the apostles Paul and Peter. Together these two figures tower over all others in the Acts of the Apostles, and even now, two thousand years later, they remain compelling models of what really it means to be an ‘evangelist’ – a preacher of the news that humanity’s salvation is to be found in the life and death of Jesus.

The contrast between them is instructive. Christ’s appearance on the road to Damascus is probably the most famous conversion experience in human history. Saul, renowned for his strength of will and motivated by a profound hatred of Jesus, is first reduced to being led by the hand, and then transformed into Paul, Christ’s most passionate and theologically articulate servant. Peter is a simpler and a softer character. In his case, the risen Christ transforms an almost dog-like faithfulness into inspirational leadership that quickly wins him the deepest respect of the earliest Christians.
Conversion of St Paul -- Benjamin West (1738-1820)
Peter and Paul were both good Jews, and as Christians they remained so. When they finally met it was their attitudes to Judaism that caused their disagreements. Paul heard in Christ a call to transcend traditional boundaries that Peter was reluctant to abandon. It was a dispute they found ways of negotiating, and like the other differences between them, it reveals something very important. Right from the outset, the Bible tells us, Christ chooses to entrust his ‘flock’ to shepherds with a wide variety of gifts and sharply contrasting styles.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Peter Preaching in Jerusalem
In the six weeks of Easter, the Lectionary fills the place normally occupied by an Old Testament lesson with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  This gives special prominence to the dramatic difference the Resurrection made to the lives of the disciples, and gives us a feel for the radical change they underwent. Life with the historical Jesus had itself been powerfully transforming, yet it now turns out that this was only a pale reflection of what life in the spirit of the Risen Christ was to be.
Today’s short passage from Acts reveals that a marked feature of this ‘new life in Christ’ is a special kind of fearlessness. Peter is in conflict with the Temple police and the High Priest once more. But how very different is this Peter from the one who denied Jesus out of fear, and then burst into tears as he acknowledged his own wretched fearfulness. Now he speaks out boldly, even though he knows the risks that he runs by doing so. The important point for us is that the Resurrection has not put an end to persecution and oppression. These things continue, and intensify even; tradition has it that Peter himself was crucified in the end. But the Resurrection gave him, as it gives us, the Spirit with which to overcome fear.
Incredulity of St Thomas - Matthias Stom (1620)
By taking us back to the theme of Advent, the lesson from Revelation makes the same point. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”. This is the passage that provided Charles Wesley with the words of his great Advent hymn. In the light of the Resurrection, we can now read them differently. It is God, not human institutions like the Roman Empire or the Temple police, who will be our ultimate Judge.
It is against this background we should understand the famous 'Doubting Thomas' episode that this week's Gospel of John records. Thomas is granted his demand for empirical evidence. But his declaration 'My Lord and My God' goes far beyond anything that his eyes or fingers might be called upon to confirm. Perhaps this is why John notes, but does not recount all the other Resurrection signs. Faith in the risen Christ is not simply a belief about an historical event. It is something that sets us free to live with the confidence that the love of God alone can give.

Monday, March 21, 2016


'Triduum Sacrum' means 'the three holy days' -- the culmination of Lent and Holy Week. The readings for these three days are always the same, and like the traditional liturgies, invite us to reflect on the events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb -- the best possible preparation for the great culmination of the Easter Vigil and Easter Day.

The word 'Maundy' is a corruption of  the Latin 'mandatum novum', the 'new commandment' that Jesus gives his disciples to 'love one another'. The tradition of foot washing that takes place on this day is a symbolic expression of obedience to that command, and a reflection of what happened in the Upper Room. But the main focus is on the gift of the Eucharist, which is why Maundy Thursday has a celebratory character that the other days of Holy Week lack.


Good Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist lest this should detract from the supreme sacrifice that took place on the Cross. Instead, after the story of the Crucifixion according to John is read, people are invited to express  their veneration of the Cross in the physical action of kneeling before it, and to participate once more in the Last Supper by receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday.

Although nowadays Holy Saturday is often used for children's Easter egg hunts, it ought really to be a day of quiet reflection and prayerful waiting, ending in the Great Vigil of Easter, possibly the most ancient of all Christian festivals.

A curiously empty day,
As if the world's life
Had gone underground.
The April sun
Warming the dry grass
Makes pale spring promises
But nothing comes to pass.
Relaxes into despair
As we remember our helplessness,
Remember him hanging there.
We have purchased the spices
But they must wait for tomorrow.
We shall keep today
For emptiness and sorrow. Elizabeth Rooney (1924-99)