Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ALL SAINTS 2014

Icon of All Saints

The Gospel for All Saints in this year of the lectionary consists in ‘The Beatitudes’, so called because they comprise a list in which each item begins with the word ‘Blessed’. Jesus tells his disciples that they are ‘blessed’ when they are persecuted, reviled and slandered. This is deeply counter-intuitive. It is also contrary to those Old Testament passages where the same word is usually translated ‘happy’ and refers to the emotional and material benefits that can be expected to flow from following God’s law. Here, it seems, Jesus is warning his followers that, in ordinary human terms at least, discipleship is likely to be bad for them.

So why would anyone go in for it? Sometimes the answer is thought to lie with post-mortem rewards – benefits that we can expect in heaven, if only we persist. But to follow Jesus for the sake of future benefits has the unwelcome implication that there is nothing to be gained from faithful discipleship now. A traditional hymn begins ‘My God I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby’. That seems right.

Cloud of Witnesses
The short but beautiful Epistle from the first letter of John contains a central Christian affirmation on just this point. The greatest possible blessing in life is ‘that we should be called children of God’ and ‘we are God’s children now’. Speculation about heaven and the hereafter is not really relevant because ‘what we will be has not yet been revealed’.

None of us wants to be persecuted or reviled. Being ‘meek’ or ‘poor in spirit’ is not a goal we are inclined to set our children either. Yet at All Saints we are invited to acknowledge this deep truth.  Though ‘the world did not know it’, the lives of the poor and persecuted who truly lived as ‘children of God’ were as blessed as we can ever hope our own will be.

PENTECOST XXI 2014

Pharisees - Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976)
In the Gospel passage for this week Jesus contrasts those who use religion as a means for self-promotion and aggrandisement, with those who find in it a cause for deep humility. Humility of this kind may be said to be the most distinctive of Christian virtues. Love, compassion, hospitality, and a sense of justice, are all virtues in other creeds, both religious and non-religious. But humility stands out as something on which Christians place particular value, an emphasis that served to set their faith far apart from the Roman world in which it first emerged.

It has never been an easy virtue to accept, and may indeed be even harder now than it was then. A sense of self-worth is crucial to psychological well being, and so we rightly lend importance to self-esteem. In the consumerist world of today, however, this sense easily slides into an assertion of individual rights, desire satisfaction and personal accomplishment. Indeed, these are so often taken to be the marks of what self respecting people should strive for, that humility comes to be despised as a kind of self-abasement. Conversely, praising humility is dismissed as a  covert way of undermining the rights of the poor, the abused or the oppressed.

Micah -- James Tissot
There are indeed dangers here. Telling others to be humble is a familiar form of domination. Still, Jesus could hardly be more explicit in his endorsement of humility against the Pharisees’ great failing -- spiritual pride. Their confidence in their own righteousness was so secure, they assumed they could pursue their own interests with impunity. It is precisely the same fault that Micah eloquently condemns in the accompanying Old Testament lesson.

There is, nonetheless, an element of paradox in what Jesus says – ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted’. Does this not imply a kind of ‘mock’ humility – appearing humble, but really harboring a desire to be exalted? Here it is essential to remember that it was on a Cross that Jesus himself was ‘exalted’. The exaltation that true humility seeks is for spiritual heights, not social or material status -- even in the next life. The prayer of the Psalmist expresses it perfectly – “Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling”. The humility that should result from such a prayer is not a sign of timidity. Rather, it will reflect deep confidence born of honesty about who we are and who God is.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

PENTECOST IXX 2014

The Tribute Money Jacek Malczewski


‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’. The punch line from this week’s Gospel (in its more traditional version) has become a familiar saying. But how should we interpret it? Is this simply a retort by which Jesus cleverly avoids a trap the Pharisees have set for him when they try to show him to be out of step with popular anti-Roman feeling? Or should we read into it a much more serious warning against confusing spiritual aspiration with political protest? To settle this question, we need to see the exchange in a wider context.

In the eighth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, the Israelites ask Samuel to appoint a king. At first he takes this to be a painful rejection of his own authority, but then he learns that its true significance lies in what it says about their faith in God. Thus a long history begins in which royal power and the sovereignty of God come into regular conflict. Notwithstanding the short lived triumphs of David and Solomon, the end result for Israel is political division, and conquest. Moreover, in one of the Old Testament lessons for this week, Isaiah actually voices God’s explicit commission to one of these conquerors, Cyrus King of the Persians. “I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they [the people of Israel] may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me”.

The Tribute Money Emil Nolde
The Roman conquest in New Testament times was just one more episode in the long history of Israel's subjugation. In John’s account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, the subject of kingship figures prominently. When the leaders of the Jews shout ‘We have no King but Caesar!’, they reveal a radical division in their own minds between the hopes they place in God and their recourse to political power. In response, Caesar puts a sign above the dying Jesus. It reads ‘King of the Jews’. Though prompted by a desire to provoke, no doubt, it is an insightful action. The sovereignty of God is indeed, mysteriously, revealed in the Cross. The imperial power of Caesar ruled the ancient world; it counts for nothing now. At the time of his execution Jesus was virtually unknown. Yet he turned out to be the Incarnation of God, and as the real Christ counts for everything now.  

Against this background, the instruction, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ warns us about getting our ultimate priorities wrong. In the Epistle Paul praises the Thessalonians who “turned to God from idols”. Political power is one such idol, and it has proved endlessly alluring, even to Christians with the best of intentions.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

PENTECOST XVIII 2014

Wedding Feast at Cana -- Hieronymous Bosch
The image of a 'banquet’ or 'feast' is one that recurs with great regularity in Christian thought and art, not least in the Bible itself. The reason is easy to see. Religion is about life, and food is  essential to life. The need for food is the new born baby’s first orientation to the world, and by tradition, an offer of food is the last humane act extended to those condemned to death. Nor is food simply a necessity. Specially prepared food and drink provided in abundance is the universal mark of human celebration – at births, weddings, religious holidays and communal festivals.So it is completely natural for human beings to think analogically of spiritual gifts and blessings as ‘heavenly food’, and by extension to conceive of God’s promise of salvation as a ‘heavenly banquet’.
 
At the same time, some of  the most famous feasts and banquets that the Bible depicts have a dark side -- sin subverting celebration and turning it spectacularly in the wrong direction.  Belshazzer's feast in the Book of Daniel is one famous example -- an extravagant celebration that augurs the collapse of a Kingdom. Herod's feast at which Salome dances is another -- her reward taking the gruesome form of the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Feasting, then, ought to mark a joyful celebration, but it can go badly wrong.
 
Jesus' use of the image in the parable that forms this Sunday’s Gospel has something of this ambiguity about it. His audience's familiarity with the passage from Isaiah that provides the Old Testament lesson -- “the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” -- means his use of this image to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven could not fail to resonate. However, it is given a special twist. To begin with, the people who ought to come to the celebration can't be bothered to come, despite the status of the host and the quality of the food. In response, the king tells his slaves to go out into the streets and gather “all whom they found, both good and bad”. Is the message this ---  that social elitism has been abandoned in favor of a wonderful inclusion?
 
King's Feast Pavil Filonov (1883-1941)
Things are not quite so simple. To begin with, the guests on the original list, who treated the invitation lightly, are not included, but punished. And, it turns out, even the people gathered up from the streets and brought in without asking are not assured of a permanent place at the banquet. The hapless man who did not bother to dress properly for the occasion, is promptly thrown out.

The message seems clear. God longs for us to share 'joys that pass our understanding' with him. Good news indeed -- provided we don’t allow willfulness or carelessness to make us lose them.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

PENTECOST XVII 2014

Vineyard Harvest  Micaela Eleutheriade (1900-82)
The Gospel for this week is yet another parable set in a vineyard. Strictly, it is an allegory since it is not simply a story with a message, but one in which the participants can be directly correlated with the people to whom, and about whom, the story is told.

On the surface, the parallels are not hard to see. God is the owner of the vineyard. The tenants are those entrusted with witnessing to his lordship. The slaves are the Old Testament prophets sent by God, time and again, to recall his people to faithful obedience. In the face of their repeated rejection the landlord’s own son – Jesus – is sent to the vineyard. His murder at the hands of the tenants brings God’s wrath upon them, and custody of the vineyard is placed in other hands.

Israel Jean David (1908-1993)
Who exactly are these first tenants? It is easy to misidentify them as the Jews, and hence suppose that the new tenants are the Christians. The lesson from Isaiah puts us right on this score: “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not the tenants, but the vineyard itself – God’s fertile ground – that is to be identified with the Chosen People. The first tenants are the leaders of Israel. Forgetting their obligation to God, they claim the headship of Israel for their own nationalistic purposes. It is in order to rescue Israel, not to abandon it, that God sends his Son. This means that the new tenants do not mark a radical break with the past. Rather, they are called to be more faithful stewards of the same God.

Paul’s Epistle for this Sunday can be seen to reflect this interpretation of the allegory. He emphatically underlines his own Jewishness, and neither discounts nor disowns it. But, he says, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss  . . .  because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

The continuity between Jew and Christian is essential to the Gospel message Paul preaches. It carries this implication, however. If the ancient Pharisees forfeited their spiritual inheritance because of arrogance and complacency, a similar attitude can rob modern Christians of theirs.

Monday, September 29, 2014

MICHAELMAS

An Angel -- Marc Chagall
Michaelmas is the traditional name for the feast of St Michael and All Angels which occurs on September 29th. Though the nature and existence of angels is a topic that barely features in contemporary theology, and figures even less in contemporary professions of belief, the world of angels is long established in the Christian religion, and has an enduring place within it. It is not just that Michaelmas has survived in modern calendars, or the fact that a surprisingly large number of churches have Michael and All Angels as their dedication. In almost every modern version of the Eucharistic liturgy the ancient profession is repeated. "Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels  and with all the whole company of heaven who forever sing this hymn -- Holy! Holy ! Holy!"
Archangel Michael

But what ought we to think about angels and archangels? Thanks to modern science, we know just how little we know about the created cosmos. Human beings are one of the wonders of this creation -- animals with a spiritual, emotional and intellectual life that far surpasses all the other animals. Yet, it would be the height of presumption to suppose that this puts us at the top of all created beings. God is a spirit. Why should there not be spiritual beings who are not animals?


Psalm 103, set for this festival, describes angels as "mighty ones" who minister to God and do His will. Even so, the Psalmist does not hesitate to instruct them -- "Bless the Lord"  and he tells them to combine their praises with those of "all His works in all places of His dominion". This vision of a vast array of beings -- stretching from the simplest insects to celestial beings far surpassing us -- provides a context for human worship both humbling and inspiring. It is captured magnificently by the 17th century Anglican poet, John Mason.

An Angel -- Edward Burne-Jones


How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I Thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluias be.

Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

Monday, September 22, 2014

PENTECOST XVI 2014

This week’s Epistle includes what is plausibly the most beautiful passage in all of Paul’s letters – his theologically deep and poetically compelling affirmation to the Philippians of the incarnation of God in Jesus, an indissoluble unity of the human and the divine made possible by Christ's perfect obedience. The climax of this magnificent hymn looks to a time when ‘every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’. 

There follows, however, an instruction to the Philippians that seems to conflict both with the Lordship of Christ, and with Paul’s well known insistence on faith before works. 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’, Paul writes. Surely the Good News of the Gospel renders this instruction redundant? Since Christ has saved us by being 'obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross', are we not relieved of the burden of working out our salvation for ourselves? Paul, of course, does not mean to deny this, and so he immediately adds to his instruction this essential qualification – ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. But doesn’t this just compound the problem? Is it God at work, or is it us at work?
Icon of Christ Pantokrator (Ruler of All)

The Gospel throws some light on this issue. In another vineyard parable, two sons react differently to their father's instruction to work in the vineyard. The one who explicitly refuses appears to be rebellious, yet ultimately does as his father asks. The other appears to be dutiful by saying the right thing, but in fact goes his own way. Jesus asks his hearers to decide which of the two sons is the obedient one. It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is obvious. The ‘rebel’ is the obedient son because, in the end, he decides to act as his father instructs. Both decision and instruction have key parts to play. The life of faith for us is communion with God, not Christ's perfect union. That is why the Psalmist prays 'Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation'.

It would be difficult to improve on Paul’s opening advice ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. True discipleship means being of one mind with Jesus. But a crucial part of the sentence is the very first word -- ‘Let . .’.