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.

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.