Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67Psalm 45: 11-18
or Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145: 8 - 15
Romans 7:15-25aMatthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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.

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, even his most passionate determination to keep the law, it turns out, always fails. Sheer will power will 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 20, 2011


Marc Chagall -- the Sacrifice of Isaac

Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Jeremiah 28:5-9Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23Matthew 10:40-42

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 the sacrifice of 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? Suppose we leave the difficult issue of the boy’s own well being aside. We might 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, something that turns his 'faith' into fanaticism? And anyway, what does it say about the God who would demand such a sacrifice?

There is no easy answer to these questions. One thing worth noting, though, is that the story provides essential 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.

In the end, 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 Gospel narrative. It is when we have exhausted every effort – technological, theoretical, political or ethical – to transcend what Paul in the Epistle refers to as our “ natural limitations’– that God provides a solution for free.  “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.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Triqueta -- an ancient symbol of the Trinity

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8 or
Canticle 2 or 13
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

This Sunday is the only day in the whole Christian Calendar that is dedicated to a theological doctrine rather than a person, event or sacred symbol. Compared to other occasions, the Feast of the Holy Trinity came to be observed rather late in the Church’s history and was not made official until 1334. The intention was to conclude the liturgical commemorations of the life of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit by focusing on the whole nature of God. The Feast was taken up with particular enthusiasm by the church in England, and so came to be specially identified with the Anglican Church that resulted from Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 16th century.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity  -- that there are Three Persons in One God -- is  central to orthodox Christianity, and figures in confessions of faith both at baptism and confirmation. At the same time, though we are asked to affirm it, it is immensely difficult – perhaps impossible -- to understand completely. How did we end up in this position, of having to believe what we can hardly understand?

The answer is that as early Christians struggled to hold on to the essentials of the Jewish belief in One God while acknowledging the full significance of Jesus’ Resurrection, and at the same time being able to explain their sense of spiritual empowerment even after the Risen Christ was no longer present to them, they sort of stumbled on a formula. We owe its most familiar version – as a blessing – to St Paul in today’s Epistle  --“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all”. But this simply reflects the “great commission” that Jesus gives his disciples in today’s Gospel – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

These two very short lessons follow a much longer one, the first thirty five verses of the Old Testament in which the creative acts of the sovereign God to whom we owe our very existence are recounted. The heart of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity lies in this thought: the awesome majesty of the God who made us is the very same reality that we encounter in the humanity of Jesus and in the experience of grace in our daily lives. We may not know exactly how to integrate them theologically, but all three ‘Persons’ are indispensable to the ways in which Christians come to know and to love the one true God.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Pentecost Quilting by Linda Schmidt
Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 7:37-39
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

The Gospel for this Sunday is unusually brief. That is because our attention has to focus on the reading from Acts if we are to celebrate the powerful experience that the disciples underwent on Shavuot, a Jewish festival that occurs in late spring and commemorates God’s gift of the Ten Commandments.

The Christian festival which arose from that 1st century Shavout takes place fifty days after the Resurrection, hence the name ‘Pentecost’. Commonly regarded as ‘the Birthday of the Church’ it marks the moment at which, following Christ's Ascension the first Christians were inspired by the Holy Spirit in a way that  transformed them into His  Body on Earth. So to celebrate Pentecost is to claim this extraordinary privilege – to be the incarnation and enduring presence of Christ for all humanity. It is also an awesome responsibility, however, since with the privilege come spiritual dangers. Chief among these is the possibility that the way we exercise that privilege makes Jesus Christ an object of the world’s contempt or indifference rather than a figure of hope and veneration.

Unhappily, this has often been the reality. Christians have been so divided, so much at odds with each other, that the glorious commission given to the Apostles has lain hidden behind a screen of intolerance and narrow mindedness. Pentecost presents us with an annual opportunity for real spiritual renewal. Its images of wind and fire invite us to spread our sails to a Spirit that will take us out of the doldrums into which we have fallen, and to burn much more brightly as the ‘lights of the world’.

In an alternative reading for this Sunday from the Book of Numbers, Moses laments the spiritual lethargy of the Israelites and cries “Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!". There could hardly be a more appropriate prayer for Pentecost.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Ascension: Detail from the Altar Tableau at the Keur Moussa Monestary, Senegal
Acts 1:1-11
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53
Psalm 47 or Psalm 93

Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. Yet, while this means it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter  and and Pentecost, it has rarely been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church or 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). 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 is very hard to separate from the Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

One way of identifying this significance, 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. 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 Galileeans 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.