Monday, May 14, 2018


Pentecost -- Titian
The Day of Pentecost was a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, observed fifty days after the Passover as one of the traditional festivals of the Jewish religious year. Luke tells us that this was the day on which the disciples found themselves so filled with a ‘Holy’ Spirit that, even though the Risen Christ no longer appeared to them, they were brought back into the full presence of God. Because of this, ‘Pentecost’ became an important Christian festival also, and the passage from Acts that recounts this event is always read on this Sunday, fifty days after Easter.

But thereafter the Lectionary gives us a choice. We can read it in conjunction with a lesson from the Old Testament, and thereby look back to the long salvation history of which it is the fulfillment. Confronted with a whole valley of dry bones, the LORD asks Ezekiel, 'Can these bones live?', and in one of the most dramatic images in Scripture, God's 'breath' gradually brings spirit to matter and gives them life again. Alternatively, the story from Acts can be read in conjunction with the Epistle to the Romans where Paul, steeped in that same theological history, reflects on what ‘the Spirit’ means and how it works in us.

Vision of Ezekiel - David Bomberg (1912)
Both contexts underline something central, that the coming of the Holy Spirit -- in the Apostles’ lives, in the lives of those they converted, and in our own lives -- is not a once and for all spiritual experience complete in itself. Rather it is the often faltering beginning of a process of spiritual growth. As the first disciples discovered, no emotional experience, however powerful, can eliminate the continual need to deepen our understanding of God’s Incarnation and our salvation through the Cross.

This explains why, in the Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples “it is to your advantage that I go away. . . I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own”. Pentecost, it often said, marks the birth of the Church. This makes it an occasion of special celebration because the Church is ‘the Body of Christ’, a community that unites across the centuries all those who have been enlivened by the Holy Spirit. And, despite all its manifest failings, the Church is thus enabled and empowered to go on guiding us in the Truth about God.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018


The Apostles

"Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world . . . While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost  . . . I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them." These words of Jesus from the Gospel for this week seem specially pertinent for the Sunday after the Ascension. Yet John  recounts them as having been said before the Crucifixion. So the waiting period between Ascension and Pentecost should be seen as the culmination of a process that began when Jesus knew that his ministry was over and the time of his sacrifice had begun.

Without Jesus in their midst, the Apostles are especially vulnerable. They have to stand in a place of spiritual and moral tension. Jesus recognizes that, as his followers, they ‘do not belong to the world’ and yet he does not ask God to ‘take them out of this world’. This ambivalent relationship to everyday life is crucial. Christ's disciples live in the world, often very actively and energetically. But insofar as they do so for God, and in Christ, they run the risk of being despised, or even hated, by ‘realists’. While true disciples cannot just go along with the ways of the world, their holiness does not rest on rejecting the world. Rather they are committed to living in it ‘sanctified in the truth’. 

To be sanctified in the truth means being a witness for the Christ who is no longer immediately present. Faithful disciples are people whose words and actions present a perpetual challenge to every false faith, however widely held -- that belief economic prosperity, political success, military conquest, or social prestige constitute the indispensable elements of a life worth living. Idolatry nowadays does not often consist in 'bowing down to wood and stone'. The idols against whom Christians are called to bear witness are much more alluring than this, and for this reason those who worship them are likely to do so with dogmatic insistence on their importance and value.

Duccio Apostle Matthias (1311)
Who is called to witness as Peter, James and John were?
In the reading from Acts set for this Sunday, Matthias is called to be an disciple, not directly by Jesus, but by the other apostles. This brief episode shows that discipleship was never confined to those who encountered Jesus in the flesh. Everyone and anyone, at any time and in any place, can hear the call to be 'sanctified in the truth'.

Monday, May 7, 2018


The Ascension - John Singleton Copley
Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter  and and Pentecost, and yet it has rarely been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church, or in the practice of individual Christians. Perhaps this is in part 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 is found only in Matthew). Perhaps it is because over the centuries, its precise location in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But mainly, I think, it is because the theological significance of the event it celebrates -- Ascension -- is very hard to separate from the two events by which it is surrounded -- Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

One way of identifying the uniquesignificance of Ascension, however, is to note the special way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. The Apostles Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched, listened to him and ate with him over the three years of his ministry. That ministry ended in apparent failure of course, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, the Apostles were granted a second opportunity to be in the company of the Son of God.

The Ascension of Christ - Altdorfer
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. The Ascension is special because it marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, importantly by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight"  meant that for a short time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, but without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his Ascension required them to relinquish their privileged position and 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.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018


St John the Evangelist - Giotto
 The theme of love is especially prominent in the Epistle and Gospel for this week, both from John. It is a theme to which contemporary Christians warm very readily since it is relatively ‘theology-lite’, so to speak. If 'God is love', can we not just speak of 'Love' to those who are puzzled or alienated by references to 'God'? Many Christians take this line, but the drawback is that it is too easy for talk of 'love' to amount to little more than the rather banal claim that 'we ought to care about other people'. Concern for others is admirable, certainly. The difficulty from a Christian point of view is that making a case for it doesn't seem to need the story of God's Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Human decency is enough, surely.
There is in fact a deeper issue here. Is love truly God -- the animating spirit that informs the world in which we live? Materialism -- to which many modern Christians implicitly subscribe -- takes physical forces and biological processes to be the ultimate explanatory factors. If materialism is true, we are left to regard happiness as simply enjoying life to the best of our abilities, and helping others to do so. 
Did Jesus have an enjoyable life? The question seems all wrong somehow. He tells his followers to "abide in love", but this love of life, he says, can find its fullest expression in "laying down one's life for one's friends" -- not ultimate satisfaction, that is to say, but ultimate sacrifice.
Conversation with God - Nicholas Roerich
How could that make sense? If the world into which we are born is indifferent (or even hostile) to what have proved to be humanity's deepest attachments and aspirations -- love, justice, beauty, truth -- then we only have our own resolve to live in accordance with these as best we can, while we can, and under the constant shadow of our own mortality. On the other hand, if those things on which our hearts are most deeply fixed lie at the foundation of reality, if they are the things that called us into existence in the first place, then there is a profound harmony between the human spirit and the creative spirit that underlies the world.

'God is love' means love is ultimate, not because we can make it our Ultimate Concern, but because the Eternal Word has made it the Spirit that infuses all things. We do not choose God; God has already chosen us.

Monday, April 23, 2018


This week three much loved passages make up the readings. The first tells the arresting story of an encounter between a spiritually curious Ethiopian, and Philip the Evangelist, one of seven ‘deacons’ the early church appointed, not to be confused with Philip the Apostle, one of the Twelve. The deacons’ special  role was to take responsibility for help and assistance to poor Christians, and thus free others to be preachers -- though as this episode, and Philip’s title ‘Evangelist’  shows, deacons could also be very effective in spreading the Gospel.

The second reading is taken from the first Letter of John. This letter, the most frequently quoted Epistle not authored by Paul, boldly and unqualifiedly asserts that ‘God is love’. It is the very affirmation, of course, that underlay the creation of deacons as visible  agents of that love. On the surface, the Gospel passage seems to have a different tone. Jesus develops the metaphor of the True Vine in a way that ends with a warning. Like the metaphor of the Good Shepherd (from last week), however, this image is drawn from a world very different to ours, and so needs a little interpretative work to ‘get the message’.
Vision of Divine Love -- Hildegard of Bingen
The message, contrary to appearance perhaps, does explain the connection between this Gospel and the readings that precede it. Together they reflect three fundamental truths about Jesus that lie at the heart of the Christian faith. First, Jesus is the suffering servant to whom Isaiah, the greatest of all the Jewish prophets, looked for Israel’s salvation. Second, God and love are so deeply intertwined that even a ‘sheep led to the slaughter’ is a far more adequate means, and expression, of God’s saving power than any ‘conquering hero’ would be. Third we will only be transformed into the image of the God of love if we allow our lives to become wholly dependent for their vitality on life in Christ.

Apart from Christ we ‘can do nothing’, and may as well be withered branches, at most worth throwing on a fire. God is love, but the price of divine love (in human terms) is high. That is what Jesus showed on the Cross, and what human beings often struggle to acknowledge.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


The Good Shepherd (MAFA)
The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd Sunday". It gets this name partly from the fact that the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ – but chiefly because, in each of the three years of the lectionary, the Gospel for Easter IV is taken from John Chapter 10, in which Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself.

The three passages all have a slightly different emphasis. Verses 11-18 provide the reading in Year B (this year). In these verses Jesus dwells on the contrast between a shepherd tending his own sheep, and a hired hand who is merely looking after some else’s. When danger threatens the flock, the hired hand flees; the true shepherd stays to defend them – even to the point of ‘laying down his life’.

This is certainly an exaggeration. Even the most devoted shepherds in Jesus' time were unlikely to die in defense of their sheep. Hyperbole of this kind is characteristic of Middle Eastern story telling, but the exaggeration serves to make a powerful point. When applied to Jesus, the image of the 'good shepherd'  draws our attention not just to the Crucifixion, but to the Resurrection. On the cross, Jesus hangs in complete isolation, abandoned by his followers. Fear and faithlessness has led every one of his 'sheep' to scatter. Crushed by pain and injury, surrounded by hatred and contempt, he is left completely alone.
A Shepherd -- Marc Chagall (1931)

Yet, amazingly, as these very 'sheep' soon learn, he has given his life, for them. It is his faithless, feeble followers that the Risen Christ first seeks out. His love for those he has made ‘his own’ transcends an impossibly testing time. Sheep they may be, but they are his, and as we now know, this love transforms them. 

The Epistle draws the obvious moral lesson – ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us . . . How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’. The love embodied in the Risen Christ returning to gather his sheep together again both demands and inspires this response.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


The message of the Resurrection of Jesus in the light of his Crucifixion lies in an assurance that, in some mysterious way, the sin and suffering that so obviously mark and mar human life have been overcome. Despite appearances, evil does not triumph and death is not the end. But how? Those troubling appearances are no less common than they were. Can we really accept that their reality is ultimately temporary?

People have often found it tempting to seek reassurance in the hope of life in a world other than this one, where there is neither pain nor grief. From this perspective, the resurrected Christ is a prototype (so to speak) of our own heavenly existence,  Yet a striking sentence from the Epistle for this Sunday suggests otherwise."Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." Whatever may be true about our future, the author says, the Resurrection assurance is that we are God's children now, and in the light of that assurance, we are enabled to live comfortably while still in ignorance of what we will be. What we do know is that, when all is revealed, we will not remain the same, but be transformed. We will become like Christ, by willingly sacrificing our egos to him when we are finally able see him as he really is.

Peter Preaching
This is a different and more inspiring vision of heaven, than the common idea of a continuation of this world minus its troubles. Importantly, it resonates better with the fears and doubts of the first disciples recorded in this week's passage from Luke. Jesus gives them tangible evidence of his reality, but only enough to satisfy them that he is not a ghostly apparition. The aim is to make them better enable to recognize the Messiah in him.

The passage from Acts is part of Peter's Pentecostal proclamation in the market place. Here too, however, the emphasis is on his present experience, not on speculation about the future. Faith in Jesus, he tells his audience, has made the ordinary Peter they "see and know" to be "strong" and "given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you". A remarkable transformation is what he has become now. It is what he is now that will enable him to face evil and death in the future when he confronts his own martyrdom. He has been reborn with a spiritual confidence in the present that is the gift of God in Christ.