Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Micah 6:1-8 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12
Psalm 15

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." So writes St Paul to the Corinthians in this week’s Epistle. Ever mindful of his double identity as Jew and Christian, he is quoting Isaiah, and immediately applying it to Jesus. In the Cross, he says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise”.

It is easy to give assent to this message, without actually acting upon it to any significant extent. Everyday Christians ‘boast’ of the Cross, but then do not let it much affect the conventional values by which they run their lives, still less overturn them. Personal happiness, professional success, material prosperity, social position, and perhaps political office, are the things around which our lives are built.

In the Gospel passage for this Sunday, though, Jesus sets out as plainly as possible, the alternative values that Paul is referring to. In what are known as ‘the Beatitudes’, he lists the kinds of life that we ought to rejoice in. The problem is, they don’t seem to bear much resemblance to the things we normally seek. The “blessed”, he tells us, include people who are reviled, slandered, persecuted, and do not have the guts to stand up for themselves. This seems like a drastic rejection of the ways in which we naturally hope to raise our children. Can we believe it?

What is at issue here is the nature of a truly redeemed life, a life in which the grace of God has swept away everything mean, grubby and self-serving. At the center lies “purity of heart”. Professional failure, material poverty and social ridicule are truly powerless against those who possess this purity of heart, because they can “see God” and nothing can compare with that. It is worth remembering that wealth, fame and success aren’t necessarily incompatible with purity of heart. Yet as so many novels and movies reveal, they do tend to militate against it. These are the weeds that choke the wheat, very often. When they threaten to do this, our faith is truly put to the test, because at that point discipleship calls us to endorse a way of life that will inevitably strike wise and sensible people as foolishness.
Sermon on the Mount by Laura James by kind premission of the artist

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Caravaggio's Conversion of St Paul
Acts 26:9-21
Galatians 1:11-24
Matthew 10:16-22
Psalm 67

January 25th is the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. Arguably the single most important event in the history of the Christian Church, St Paul's conversion is such a compelling story in itself that "the road to Damascus" has become a universal symbol. The expression now encapsulates all those experiences whose result is a complete transformation in the lives and minds of those who undergo them.

It would be difficult to exaggerate Paul's impact on the reception and understanding of the Christian religion. So great is it, in fact, that some have argued the Christ Paul preaches is his own invention, a radical re-interpretation of the real Jesus of Nazareth. This goes too far, and yet behind it is a key truth. It was given to Paul to see a much deeper significance in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus than any other contemporary did. It is powerful evidence of how far his theological Letter to the Romans is ahead of its time, that it has sustained two thousand years of academic study and religious reflection.

Yet, still more important than this is the implication he saw in the theology he framed for his own discipleship. Called by God in Christ to be a faithful Jew who was prepared step outside his spiritual comfort zone, he accepted the awesome responsibility of becoming an Apostle to the Gentiles. This meant, in effect, the whole of the ancient world, which required him to set out on his famous journeys. Travelling by risky means to dangerous places, he preached Christ crucified wherever and whenever --sometimes to acclaim, sometimes to mockery, often to violent abuse. To his distress, many of his converts distorted the message he taught them, or fell away when times got tougher. At some point his mission ended in such obscurity that we do not know where he is buried, or even how he died.

In the Gospel for this feast day, Jesus tells his disciples: "I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves". It is a very daunting commission, one that must have alarmed even those whose love and devotion Jesus had won in person. Paul's strange encounter on the Damascus road enabled him, amazingly, to accept the very same commission. By this he showed that Jesus calls disciples for evermore, and on this day in January he remains a model and mentor for the millions and millions of Christians who have heard that call.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Isaiah 9:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23
Psalm 27:1, 5-13

Somewhat oddly, the Gospel for this week is almost a repeat of last – Matthew’s account of the episode John told us about – an encounter with John the Baptist, followed by the recruitment of Simon Peter and Andrew his brother, to whom Matthew adds James and John, the sons of Zebedee.

There is, however, a subtle but important difference. In John’s version, the initiative in becoming disciples is taken by Andrew and Peter. In Matthew’s version, it is Jesus who calls them, as he does James and John. What is more, he calls them to leave not only the work they are engaged in, but everything that they have. Their instant response is usually held up as exemplary. But what about Zebedee who is left sitting in the boat?  Has he no claim on the sons he has raised, and on whose labor he will depend in old age?

Matthew’s version of the call to the disciples is echoed in many other parts of the Gospel. Following Jesus is repeatedly spoken of as being all consuming, even to the point of abandoning family responsibilities. Doesn’t this mean discipleship requires a kind of fanaticism? How could we answer such a call ourselves, given our love for parents and children, our belief in the value of what we do, and our obligations to the wider community?

Elsewhere, confronted with questions like these, Jesus allows that for many people wholesale commitment of this kind is just not possible, but he promises that God can work with less than this. It is enough to start with simple penitence, seek more and more ways in which ordinary life puts Christ first , and relinquish rival claimants to our most fundamental allegiance. The Epistle for this Sunday illustrates just how easy it is to fall into subsidiary loyalties. The loyalties for which St Paul chastises the Corinthian Christians mean nothing to us now. But we have our own rivals for Christ’s headship – family, nation, profession, ethnic group, sports team. If few of us can respond as immediately the twelve disciples did, we can at least resolve to take more steps in their direction.

Christ's Call to Peter and Andrew, 14th century altarpiece from Siena, National Gallery of Art (US)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42
Psalm 40:1-12

For several weeks now the Lectionary readings have been bringing to our attention a deep connection between Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus. The readings for this week continue to build a bridge between Old and New testaments. This passage from Isaiah sets out a much larger divine plan than previous prophets proclaimed. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations”. God’s love is no longer to be confined to the Children of Israel. He has called Isaiah to a far more ambitious prophecy, so that “My salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

In the Gospel, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him and declares “Here is the Lamb of God”. This expression is now so well-worn, it is easy to miss the religious implications of this extraordinary metaphor. It too forges a connection between past, present and future, by means of two powerful resonances deeply engrained in the consciousness of the Jews,.  One is the memory of the Passover Lamb, the sprinkling of whose blood on the doorposts played a key part in the Israelites liberation from slavery. The other is the Suffering Servant of the book of Isaiah, who is led like a Lamb to the slaughter. The spiritual intensity that makes John such a formidable figure also enables him to penetrate the real significance of Jesus.

But this Gospel passage takes the bridge building a step further. Among the first to hear John’s metaphor are Andrew and Simon. It is given to the otherwise undistinguished Andrew to grasp the truth and tell his brother “We have seen the Messiah” – the “Anointed” for whom, as devout Jews, they have been taught to yearn since infancy. Together they take the first hesitant steps on new a spiritual journey. This will bring them through the disillusionment of Passiontide to the transformation of Easter.

John the Baptist identifies the Lamb of God -- sculpture relief in Amiens cathedral, courtesy of Jean andAlexander Heard Library

Monday, January 3, 2011

EPIPHANY I : The Baptism of Our Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17
Psalm 29

The first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is now widely observed as The Baptism of the Lord. It commemorates an event that is recorded in all four Gospels. Outside of the Passion narrative, relatively few episodes in the life of Jesus appear in all the Gospels, so this degree of Scriptural warrant is special.

The Gospel for this year is Matthew, but in fact, though the four Gospels record the baptism slightly differently, they all lay special emphasis on three aspects. First, they affirm a theological link between John the Baptist and the preparatory, prophetic ‘voice’ that Isaiah describes as ‘crying in the wilderness’. Secondly, they all speak of the highly charismatic John as nonetheless secondary to Jesus. Thirdly, they make the baptismal event a “manifestation”, that is to say, one of those very special occasions – like the Transfiguration – when Jesus’ divine nature and commission shone out unmistakably to all who were present. 

These three aspects are importantly connected. The prophet is a notable feature of Judaism, and as the reference to Isaiah implies, John stands out in this long and continuing line. Yet, with the appearance of Jesus, there is, so to speak, a change of gear. In the First Coming we move beyond the level of even the most distinguished prophets, and encounter not just another valuable source of spiritual insight and passionate human integrity, but a revelation of the Holy Spirit itself.

Written in retrospect, the Gospels struggle with this question – Just who was Jesus? Eventually they tentatively arrive at an answer which the Church has sought to refine ever since – Jesus is the Christ, the one human being in whom God is made fully manifest. In line with an ancient practice, baptisms are commonly celebrated on this Sunday. This is not just a matter of happily fitting the Gospel of the day. If Jesus is the perfect unity of humanity and holiness, our own lives become holy to the degree that they are lived in him. Baptism is the sacrament by which we are initiated into that life.

The depiction of Christ's baptism by John comes from a mural in Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The cathedral was largely destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake. This is one of a many murals there that were painted by Haitian artists in the 1950s.Courtesy of Jean and Alexander Heard Library