Thursday, June 9, 2016

PENTECOST IV (Proper 6) 2016

King David does repentance - Albrecht Durer
Durer - King David Does repentance
The Old and New Testaments depict largely male dominated worlds. Indeed it is from the religious tradition of the Old Testament that our word ‘patriarchal’ derives. Yet surprisingly, given that tradition, memorable women make their appearance again and again, often playing key roles in the story of God’s dealings with humanity. Three such women feature in this week’s readings – Jezebel the wife of Ahab, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and an anonymous woman who anointed Jesus feet with perfume. Between the last two, there are some striking differences.


Bathsheba’s astonishing beauty makes her a victim of sinful lust. David uses his royal status and 'manly' power, not only to force an adulterous relationship with another man’s wife, but even to contrive her husband’s death so that he can 'possess' her permanently. The very language of possession speaks to the conception of male/female relations at the time. For a while, this seems to go unpunished, though not ultimately. In a famous scene, the prophet Nathan tells David a story that a prompts David, inadvertently, to admit his own guilt. Even so, in the story Nathan tells, what matters is the relationship between two men, the one rich and the other poor, and the rightful possession of a 'ewe lamb'. This is the not very flattering analogue of Bathsheba, who, like the lamb, is the passive object of male desire throughout.

Christ in the House of Simon Dieric Bouts (1415-1475)
The Gospel passage has some interesting parallels. Jesus, like Nathan, tells a little story to person of some wealth and importance in order to elicit a moral judgment that will cast light on the hearer's own behavior. It works in this instance also. Simon concludes as he is meant to. But in this story one of the two main characters serves directly as analogue for the anonymous woman anointing Jesus' feet. Unlike Bathsheba, however, she is not the innocent party. In fact she is the more guilty of the two. All we know is that she is a 'sinner in the city', which tradition has  interpreted as prostitute. If so, she is a prime target for the culture's condemnation. Yet Jesus turns it all around. She is not the one to be criticized, but the prosperous Simon whose hospitality, like that of the rich man in Nathan's story, falls decidedly short. That too, is to be forgiven, but precisely because it is the lesser fault, repenting it is easier. It is the woman we should take as a better model of faith and repentance.

The comparison of Jesus' attitude with the story of David and Bathsheba shows us just how counter cultural it is. This is not always easy to see, precisely because in some respects such an attitude remains deeply counter cultural for the modern world too.


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

PENTECOST III (Proper 5) 2016

Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta - Strozzi Bernardo
The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta - Strozza
On this Sunday, unusually, the ‘continuous’ and ‘thematic’ readings from the Old Testament overlap. The first takes up the story of the prophet Elijah again, while the second picks out one element of that story. As it happens, perhaps not coincidentally, this means the Old Restament reading and the Gospel resonate especially well this Sunday.  The passage from 1Kings and the passage from Luke both recount episodes in which an only son dies and then is restored to his grieving widowed mother. The question, of course, is what we ought to learn from these. 
 
A striking feature of the two episodes is this. The widows are grief stricken, and yet their first reaction to the miraculous restoration of their sons, is not the straightforward expression of relief and joy that we might expect. On the contrary, the widow of Zarephath’s immediate reaction is to hail Elijah as a bringer of ‘truth’, while Luke tells us, even more strangely, that a ‘great fear seized all the people’ who witnessed the Gospel episode. 
 
Tissot - Raising the Son of the Widow of Nain
Why these reactions? The answer is this. Though it seems obvious to hail events like these as wonderful miracles, this is not their most important dimension. Rather, they break the regular course of the natural world in order to point to deeper, spiritual dimensions. It is by means of miracles that both Elijah and Jesus momentarily draw back the veil of ordinary experience, and reveal the depths of mystery behind it -- the awesome presence of a transcendent power whose reality we can only glimpse. More importantly in those actions, Elijah and Jesus reveal themselves to be fully at home in that mystery. That is to say, these are men whose lives are oriented to the holiness of God.
 
This is precisely what the references to 'truth' and 'fear' on the part of the beneficiaries reveals. The modern world’s success with health and healing, makes it is easy to be blind to what less medically sophisticated societies saw. We thereby often miss the true significance of the Bible’s miracle stories. Were we possessed of such powers, it is most likely that we would value them primarily as a wonderful short cut to dealing with illness, a way of dispensing with complicated and expensive medical procedures. For Elijah and Jesus, who did possess them, they are far more than that -- dramatic signs by which people can be brought to God.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

PENTECOST II (Proper 4) 2016

Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem - Tissot James
Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem - James Tissot
We are now in that long period following Pentecost that Anglicans used to call ‘Trinity’, but which the modern Christian calendar refers to as ‘Ordinary Time’. The first period of Ordinary Time runs from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. This second period begins with Trinity Sunday and ends with Christ the King (which will fall on November 20th this year). In “Ordinary Time”, the Revised Common Lectionary offers a choice between two ‘tracks’. These two tracks are not so very different, because the Epistle and Gospel are always the same. It is only the Old Testament lesson and Psalm that differ, and it is a few weeks into Ordinary Time before the Old Testament readings diverge significantly.

The ‘continuous’ track takes congregations through some of the great Old Testament narratives over several Sundays. The ‘thematic’ track, on the other hand, aims to connect the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel in such a way that the first can be seen to foreshadow the second. This foreshadowing is easier to spot on some Sundays than on others, but in the readings for this Sunday the connection is not so hard to see.
At vast expense and with great labor over many years, Solomon has completed the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews now possess a truly fitting place in which to worship the Most High God, a spectacular testament to the superiority of their religion. Yet, standing before the altar, Solomon explicitly prays that the Temple may be a place of prayer for non-Jews also. ‘When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes and prays toward this house, then', he asks God, 'hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name’.


Jesus healing the servant of a Centurion - Veronese Paolo
Jesus Heals the Centurion's Servant -Paolo Veronese
It is not hard to hear the resonance with the Gospel. The centurion whose slave is very ill is a generous friend to the Jews, but he is himself a foreigner, beyond their ethnic circle. Seeking to repay him for his generosity, the Jewish elders ask Jesus to effect a cure. This is certainly a kind gesture, but, in words that Christian liturgies have used for centuries, the centurion expresses his hesitation in accepting such help. ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof’ he says. For Jesus, though, the humble faith that this sentence expresses transcends all ethnic divisions. The centurion’s faith is the kind that really counts; ‘not even in Israel have I found such faith’, he declares. The moral is this: what the Book of Common Prayer calls ‘true religion’ is sometimes to be found far beyond the circles in which we normally expect to find it.
 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

TRINITY SUNDAY 2016


Holy Trinity - Peter Paul Rubens
P P Rubens - Holy Trinity
The Sunday after Pentecost is unique in the Church’s year. Whereas every other holy day celebrates an event or a person, Trinity Sunday celebrates a theological doctrine.  And what a perplexing doctrine it is! The One God in whom Christians believe is Three Persons.  It seems to defy even the most basic principles of arithmetic. How can anything be both three things and only one thing? Yet that is what the doctrine obliges Christians to hold. What is more, this is not some optional extra that we may or may not choose to go along with. Since the fourth century, when the Creeds were finalized, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been central to all the major branches of the Christian Church – Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed. There are Unitarian churches who deny it of course, but these have always been in a small minority. 

Why has Trinitarianism been thought so crucial? The answer is revealed in part by this week’s readings. The Epistle and the Gospel comprise two short and familiar passages. The first comes from Paul’s most important letter – his Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote this several centuries before theologians came up with carefully formulated doctrines, and over a thousand years before Trinity Sunday became a fixture in the Church's Calendar. So here, we must say, Paul is not advancing a complex theological proposition, but simply trying to capture, and convey, his own profound experience of what it means to be a Christian. Trinitarianism arises because in doing so, he simply cannot avoid talking about God, and about Jesus, and about the Holy Spirit, all in equal measure.

Celtic version of the traditional symbol for the Trinity
In this respect, however, the Epistle does no more than the Gospel passage itself. Like Paul, John wrote these words of Jesus a very long time before theologians set to work on them. Yet here too we find that if Jesus is to describe his mission properly, and convey his promise to those who believe in him, a threefold reference is inescapable -- the Father who sends, the Son who obeys, and the Spirit who remains. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is certainly perplexing, but this is because it reflects a great mystery to which we are necessarily compelled, whenever we try to affirm the truth about Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

PENTECOST 2016

The Descent of the Holy Spirit - Albrecht Durer
Durer Descent of the Holy Spirit

The English word ‘enthusiasm’ does not, generally speaking, have religious overtones. It is most likely to be used in the context of sport or some personal interest. But in fact it comes from Greek words meaning a special kind of zeal or ardor that results from divine inspiration. This is exactly what the disciples display in this week’s passage from Acts. Overwhelmed by the Spirit of God, they showed such 'enthusiasm' that passersby stopped to stare, and concluded that people acting in that way must be drunk.

The Feast of Pentecost is observed six weeks after Easter and commemorates precisely  this event. Though it no longer has anything like the same profile as Christmas and Easter, even among practicing Christians, it is in fact a third major festival of the Christian year, and no less important than the other two. Why is it so important? The answer lies in today’s Gospel. The passage begins with a request – ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’. Everyone who has any feel for religion can hear the deep longing that Philip expresses. But Christ’s answer  -- 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’ – contains a salutary reminder. We can fail to be satisfied with the truth.

A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace - Primachenko Maria

The Spirit which took possession of the disciples, John tells us, was expressly sent by Jesus – ‘The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. It is in Truth, Peace and Love that this Holy Spirit is to be found.It is properly understood as a gift, but it is given not ‘as the world gives’. The spirit of truth, love and peace raises human beings to their finest level, but it does not lay any store by accomplishment, popular endorsement, or vindication in the eyes of the world. All of these are things on which both societies and individuals tend to fix, and that is why we are prone to reject the gift of Holy Spirit and keep on looking for something else.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that if this truly Holy Spirit is to ‘abide in us’, we must not' let our hearts be troubled 'by worldly desires, or 'be afraid' of worldly failure. Peter himself, of course, is a shining example of just what this means.

picture: A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace -- Maria Primachenko (1982)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

EASTER VII 2016

The head of Christ - Edouard Manet
Jesus Christ -- Eduard Manet (1864)
Just who was Jesus? This is the question that the disciples had to grapple with following the Resurrection, and that we too are left to grapple with on our own account. Up to the first Easter morning they knew him to be a highly charismatic preacher, a teacher with a radical interpretation of the Jewish law, and a person possessing remarkable gifts of healing. These aspects to his personality made him the kind of person who could either attract intense loyalty, or generate envy and hatred.  If this is what he was, then Jesus’ life repeated a pattern found in the lives of many other prophets. 
When he met a painful and humiliating death, it seemed that for all his charisma, Jesus had been a failure.
The Resurrection dramatically altered this estimate. Now he was special to the point of being unique. But how special, and in what way? John’s Gospel is far more centered on this issue than the other three. Most especially, it records long speeches where Jesus talks at length about who he is, and what his relationship to God is. It is plausible to think that these speeches in the first person – “I am” --  look back on the historical Jesus with the benefit of Resurrection hindsight. They record the profound theological insights that a follower of Jesus was compelled to come to in his struggle to understand the full significance of Christ.
Christ Blessing - Antonello da Messina
Christ Blessing -- Antonello de Messina (1475)
This week’s readings include two of these ‘first person’ passages, one from John’s Gospel and the other from Revelation, a book that tradition attributes to the same writer. They record what might be called the final verdict on the question ‘Who was Jesus?’ and they affirm a truth central to the Christian faith.  Jesus is the “the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” who has brought the faith of David to a perfection in a way that no other human being ever has. To express this truth, John has Jesus declare “You, Father, are in me and I am in you’. Christ is fully human and God filled, so that despite all their imperfections, human beings now have the chance to “become completely one” with the God who made them, who loves them and who will be their judge.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

ASCENSION DAY 2016

The Ascension - John Singleton Copley
Ascension -- John Singleton Copley (1775)

Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means that it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter  and and Pentecost. Yet, it has rarely, if ever, been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church or the practice of individual Christians. Partly, this is because the event it commemorates -- the ascension of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke, though that is also true of the Epiphany which has been much more prominent. Partly, it is because over the centuries the precise location of Ascension in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But a more important reason is that the theological significance of the event Ascension celebrates is squeezed into a very short period of time between the Resurrection on one side, and and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the other. The modern calendar reflects the difficulty, but has intensified it, by scrapping the season of Ascensiontide, and rolling it in to Easter.

This means that we are even more at risk of overlooking the special significance of Ascension, namley the unique way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched and listened to him over the years of his ministry. It ended in apparent failure of course, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, they were granted a second opportunity to be in the privileged company of the Son of God.

In the pursuit of our discipleship we do not have these advantages. We must live in faith in a way that those few Galileans did not have to do. Ascension marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight"  meant that  for a time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his ascension required them to prepare themselves for what the rest of us rely on -- a Holy Spirit that draws us into the eternal life of the Father whom we do not see and the Son whom we never met.