Monday, January 30, 2012


Icon of Jesus healing
  • Isaiah 40:21-31
  • Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
  • 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
  • Mark 1:29-39 

    What is a modern reader to make of the extended references to ‘demons’ in the Gospel for this Sunday? Does such a passage not reveal just how far we have moved away from New Testament times in our understanding of both physical and mental disease? Let us suppose that it does. What implications should we draw from this?

    One inference that seems obvious to many people is that the miracles attributed to Jesus didn’t actually happen, and that this is either a record of human credulity, or fanciful embroidery after the fact. But this is too hasty. There is no doubt that modern understanding and treatment of physical illness is vastly advanced on what it was even one hundred years ago. At the same time, there is much that remains mysterious to medical science. Furthermore the effectiveness of modern drug therapies is not as well established as it is often made out to be. And, when it comes to mental illness, our understanding has advanced surprisingly little, with effective treatments few and far between.

    So a measure of humility is in order before we too quickly relegate people in times past to superstitious ignorance. Humility, in fact, is the message that the wonderfully poetic passage from Isaiah invites. ‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. . . . his understanding is unsearchable.’

    If, as Christians believe, this everlasting God was uniquely incarnate in Jesus, there is no very great puzzle in claims that he had a dramatic effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of the people he encountered. We should not overlook this important fact, however. On this, as on many other occasions, Jesus quietly moves on elsewhere, lest he be seen primarily as a miracle worker. His first call is not to heal, but to “proclaim the message” of salvation  “for that is what I came out to do.”

Monday, January 23, 2012


 JesusMAFA 'The Possessed'

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. So says St Paul in this week’s Epistle, thereby seeming to endorse the line in a famous Beatles’ song – ‘All you need is Love’! This emphasis on love fits in very well with a widely held belief that feelings are much more important than theological doctrines when it comes to Christian faith. Yet, in the very next paragraph Paul emphasizes the importance of not mistaking idols for the one true God. This is knowledge not everyone has, he says, and it can make a crucial difference. So is love enough or not? Or do we need real knowledge of God as well? 

The other two readings throw some light on this important issue. The Old Testament passage from Deuteronomy could not make it plainer that God uses prophets -- people of special insight who will reveal his Word -- and that one such prophet will stand out from all the rest.  The Gospel passage casts Jesus in this light -- as someone who teaches, but an authority greater than all the other prophets. The heart of this short episode is to be found in the opening paragraph, in fact, because the extraordinary power to heal demented people that he subsequently demonstrates, is taken as evidence of this special prophetic authority.

Theological speculation can indeed be a kind of knowledge that puffs up. People often attain impressive expertise in a sophisticated intellectual enterprise that, in reality, has little to do with knowing how to live a life of faith.  At the same time, it wrong to infer that this means Christians should abandon reason in favor of emotion. John’s Gospel describes Jesus as ‘the Truth’. Elsewhere Paul tells us that ‘the Truth’ will set us free. It can only do so if we know what it is – a task God has given us minds to work on.
JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the Lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. Each of the readings were selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by the community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings. Courtesy of the jean and Alexander Herd Divinity Library

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


The Calling of Peter and Andrew -- James Jacques Tissot (1834-1902)

This week’s readings are remarkably short. The Gospel continues the story of Jesus’ early ministry. The times were turbulent, and dangerous ones for Jewish prophets and teachers, who were easily branded political rebels or dissidents. John the Baptist’s arrest is the signal for Jesus to leave his home in Nazareth and establish himself on the shores of Galilee, the familiar location of so many Gospel stories. It is here that he finds and calls the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John who were to be his ‘core’ disciples and, after his death and resurrection, his apostles.

Mark’s account of this episode is rather briefer than the one given by Matthew, who links the Galilean context to the prophecies of Isaiah. The lectionary, however, establishes another important Biblical resonance that underlines the connection with John the Baptist.  Jonah is sent to call Nineveh to repentance, and does so successfully.  

Interspersed between the readings from Jonah and Mark, though, is one of those awkward passages that seem inextricably tied to a belief that the world will end very soon. Paul tells the Corinthians to abandon their normal way of life completely, even to the point of ignoring familial obligations to both the living and the dead. We know, of course, that ‘the appointed time’ had not ‘grown short’, since the world is still here almost two thousand years later. Paul’s apocalyptic tone, however, is not without purpose even yet. Repentance does require us to see our normal life in a quite different light, and to radically review our priorities. Without that, discipleship loses its spiritual edge, and degenerates into conventional piety -- just going through the familiar motions.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


He Qui -- Adoration of the Magi
John baptises Jesus -- Jesus Mafa (Cameroon)

First Sunday after Epiphany, RCL

Pictures courtesy of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library

The Feast of the Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ are major celebrations in the Christian year. The modern calendar makes it a little difficult to celebrate them both, especially when Epiphany (January 6th) is close to the following Sunday, as it is this year. There is good reason, however, to consider them together, since they are equally important as ‘epiphanic moments’ or occasions of ‘manifestation’

The brief and mysterious episode of the Wise Men, which only Matthew's Gospel relates, has long exercised a fascination on the Christian imagination. Whatever its basis in history, deep layers of theological meaning have been found in it. This is especially true of the gifts that the wise men leave in the stable. Each has symbolic meaning. Gold is  a traditional gift for a king, frankincense carries overtones of priesthood, and myrrh presages death – a strange gift for a baby. More importantly perhaps, these travelers are foreigners, the only Gentiles to be present at the Incarnation. This signifies, right from the start, that the story of the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus has a meaning far beyond the confines of Jewish life and culture. The episode reveals that the Gospel is a Gospel for Gentile as well as Jew.

The Sunday immediately after Epiphany is now widely observed as a commemoration of John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, an event recorded in all four Gospels. This year the Lectionary uses Mark’s version, and in it John makes it plain that while he offers a ‘washing away of sin’, the coming of Jesus will complete this with spiritual transformation.  By submitting to John’s baptism himself, Jesus shows repentance to be a pre-condition of this transformation, and in that very action he reveals his divinity.

The descending of the dove is the ‘epiphany’ of this story, one of those times when, quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance is revealed to us. At the Feast of the Epiphany and then at the Baptism of Christ, we are invited to celebrate two epiphanic moments. In both of them the person of the historical Jesus is revealed to be the eternal Christ.