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.

.

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.

Monday, June 23, 2014

PENTECOST III 2014



Sacrifice of Isaac -- Caravaggio
On this Sunday the continuous reading brings the story of Abraham to the unnerving episode of his setting out to sacrifice Isaac. It is such an extraordinary episode that it has long prompted debate, and deep perplexity. God grants the aging, childless Abraham an only son—Isaac. It is on Isaac that Abraham pours out all his love, and pins all his hopes. So how could he possibly be willing to kill the being he most loves, and thereby destroy all the hopes he has longed for? Even if we could leave the difficult issue of the boy’s own well being aside, it is exceptionally hard to understand Abraham's state of mind, still less sympathize with it.  We can say what it seems we are  supposed to say -- that Abraham’s willingness to kill the child he adores reveals his even greater devotion to God. But isn't this one step too far. Doesn't such devotion turn his 'faith' into fanaticism? And anyway, what does it say about the God who would demand such a sacrifice?

 
Christ on the Cross -- Odilon Redon
There is no easy answer to these questions. One thing worth noting, though, is that the story constitutes the essential Jewish background for understanding the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christian liturgies describe this as a ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice’, meaning thereby to underline the futility of human sacrifice. Even a sacrifice as overwhelmingly demanding as Abraham seems willing to make, will never bridge the great gulf between God’s divine holiness and our imperfect humanity. Only action in the opposite direction -- from God to human beings -- can ever do this. As things turn out, of course, Abraham is not actually required to sacrifice Isaac. God provides a ram, and the boy survives to perpetuate his father’s lineage. This motif too, is reflected in the Christian narrative. It is only God who can provide the sacrifice.

Though he is writing in  a different context and to a different purpose, in the Epistle Paul has a similar thought in mind when he asks "So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death." "Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God", he adds, "the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life." As he says elsewhere, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Of course, we have to see that this is so, and accept it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

PENTECOST II



Jeremiah thrown in prison -- Marc Chagall

On the Sundays that follow Trinity the Revised Common Lectionary offers alternative Old Testament readings and Psalms. The first is a ‘Continuous’ reading that takes us through major sections of the Hebrew Scriptures week by week and may bear little direct relation to the Epistle and Gospel. The ‘Thematic’ alternative is a passage chosen for its relation to the other two readings (though the connection is not always easy to see).

On this Sunday the continuous reading begins the story of Abraham and Isaac. The climax, about which there is much to be said, is not reached until next week. The alternative OT reading for this week comes from Jeremiah, and it does resonate with the Gospel passage. For, although this section of Matthew reads like a list of only loosely connected sayings, it has a recurring theme – the cost of discipleship. Perhaps the passage reflects the experience of the fledgling Church whose early experience of joyful unity in the proclamation of Gospel was rather speedily followed by cultural rejection, internal divisions, and eventually vicious persecution. But even if Matthew has the benefit of hindsight here, it is still plausible to suppose that Jesus warned his followers about the potential cost of the of committing to his cause, the cost of crucifixion in his own case.

Jesus carrying the cross -- Salvador Dali
Of course, as the extract from Jeremiah clearly reveals, there was nothing new about this in the historical experience of faithful and prophetic Jews. Jesus tells his disciples to expect violent opposition even in their own families, and Jeremiah laments that he has become a laughing stock amongst his own people. Both see, certainly, that this is not pointless persecution. Rather, as Jeremiah remarks, in such persecution and ridicule, “O LORD of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind”

There is though, this notable difference. Whereas Jeremiah prays that he will “see your retribution upon” his enemies, and hence a vindication of his “cause”, Jesus does not ask or offer any such vindication. Rather, he says,Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. Christians in the modern world are still being persecuted in large numbers. Those who are mercifully spared such persecution, however, often forget about the more insidious threats to the soul that the requirements of social conformity and the pursuit of economic prosperity can bring.