Monday, August 29, 2011


Christ in the midst of a family -- 16C North German altar panel

Exodus 12:1-14Psalm 149
Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40

Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

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 or simply a 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 a risk that ‘where two or three are gathered together’ becomes a self-justifying mantra, invoked by opinionated minorities in defense of their splits and schisms, or used to exempt complacent churches from their evangelical obligations. So it is salutary to remember that this wonderful assurance is not unconditional.  

The extract from Paul’s Letter to the Romans prescribed for this Sunday, though relatively brief is remarkably dense, and addresses just this issue. Its central message is that Christ is truly present only to those who have ‘put on Christ’. What does this mean? It means sharing a cast of mind 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.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Christ and Simon Peter -- Raphael (1515)
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8

Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

In the Epistle for this Sunday, Paul sets a very high standard for Christian conduct: ‘Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.’ These are all admirable injunctions, of course, but they are also counsels of perfection. How many Christian lives really model this ideal? Very few if any, is the only honest answer. Happily, if this seems a depressing conclusion, the Gospel for this week offsets it to a considerable degree.

The reading 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. More significant, in terms of the whole Gospel story, is his behavior at ‘the time of trial’. Emphatic assurance of loyalty to Jesus is soon displaced by an equally emphatic denial that he ever knew him.

Jesus too seems to vacillate in his attitude to Peter. Early in their relationship, he declares him to be the ‘rock’ on which the church is to be founded, while in this passage that same rock is declared ‘a stumbling block’ who must be told, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’

Yet this fact remains. Jesus chose Peter, made him a witness of the Transfiguration, and granted him the largest number of post-Resurrection encounters. An important clue to the puzzle lies in this rebuke: ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’. Peter’s inconsistent character, just as it is, 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. Its ultimate realization is Jesus - true man and true God.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Brueghel the Elder: The Blind Leading the Blind (1568)
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

The relation between Judaism and Christianity has long been highly problematic. We are inclined to think of it in terms of the anti-Semitism that 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.

Historically speaking, however, this is a narrow and somewhat Euro-centric view of the matter. The Epistle and the Gospel for this Sunday reveal that the question surfaces in the New Testament itself, and 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 in place of 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’.

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 though the Body of Christ.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Jesus Walking on the Water Illustration from the Macklin Bible (1785) Jean and Alexander Heard Library

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b
1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13

Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

To the modern mind, powerfully influenced by natural science, the miracles recorded in the Bible can 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 God incarnate. Even the most impressive miracle is child’s play compared to the creation of the universe out of nothing. But a more important question is the matter of meaning. Many of the miracles of Jesus are motivated by the principle that actions speak louder than words. They are divine ‘signs’ from which witnesses are meant to learn, not mere ‘wonders’ that they are expected to marvel at.

To grasp the meaning of Jesus’ miracles it is essential to see in them what  faithful Jews witnessing them would have seen – the connection they forge between Christ's mission and the God revealed in the Old Testament. This is the God who ‘trampled the waves of the sea’ (Job 9:80), and whose 'path was though great waters, though his footsteps were unseen’ (Ps 7:19). It is this connection, not the action in itself, that causes the disciples to declare ‘Truly you are the son of God’

In the light of this truth, the episode with Peter incorporated within this Gospel passage is especially instructive. It is a mistake to make our own actions the ultimate repository of our faith. However determined and powerful our will for good may be, we are likely to sink beneath life’s waves. Only the presence of Christ in our lives saves us.