Monday, April 30, 2012


Icon of 'The True Vine'

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’.

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 24, 2012

St Mark

St. Mark the Evangelist Emmanuel Tzanes (1657)

St Mark the Evangelist 

April 25th

Who was Mark? There are several occurrences of that name in the New Testament. There are also traditions that identify Mark with some unnamed characters (the 'young man' who fled naked from the Garden of Gethsemane, for example). Possibly all these refer to the same person, but possibly not. There is no way of knowing. What we do know, however, is that 'Mark' refers to the author of the second Gospel. Whoever he was, we have reason to remember him, because the second Gospel, scholars agree, is one on which both Matthew and Luke relied heavily. So do we, which also gives us reason to celebrate him.

But more than that, we can reflect to considerable purpose on the distinctiveness of his Gospel. Mark has no birth stories. He begins with Jesus' ministry, and most strikingly, he ends, not with the verses later scribes appear to have added, but with the blunt observation that the women who found the empty tomb "said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid". This is consonant with his focus, in fact. Throughout, Mark's Gospel invites us to ask the questions his contemporaries asked -- Who is this Jesus? Is he the Messiah or not? -- and to see ourselves in his disciples as they struggled with their own doubts and faithlessness, only to find that even after death  by crucifixion, Jesus would not let them go.

Monday, April 23, 2012


JESUS MAFA  The Good Shepherd
JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the Lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library

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 the day 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), and in them 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 – even to the point of ‘laying down his life’.

We might think this an exaggeration for even the most devoted shepherd, and perhaps it is, but hyperbole can still make a powerful point. Applied to Jesus it does, and importantly draws our attention not just to the Crucifixion, but the Resurrection. On the cross, Jesus hangs in complete abandonment. Fear and faithlessness has led every one of his followers to scatter. He is left alone, crushed by pain and surrounded by hatred.

Yet, amazingly, it is these same followers that the Risen Christ first seeks out. His love for those he has made ‘his own’ transcends an impossibly testing time. The Epistle draws the obvious 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’.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Christ appears to the disciples at table Duccio, Siena (1308-11)

If there is a single idea that unites the readings for this Sunday it is ‘astonishment’. We often describe something that astonishes us as ‘unbelievable’. On the other hand, we also explain the fact that some things fail to astonish us by saying that they aren’t believable. This is how it is with the Resurrection for many modern people; they aren’t astonished by it, because they can’t believe it happened -- physically .

Luke's Gospel shows that in this respect, people today are not so very different to the disciples. They too were skeptical, and thought that the Jesus who seemed to appear among them was more likely to be a ghost than a resurrected person – hence the physical touching and eating that Jesus uses to convince them. As contemporary readers, we can either accept the written record of this testimony, or we can go on saying that it must have been the result of some strange delusion (or even pure imagination) on the part of the disciples. Yet, even if a physical resurrection were proven, other ‘astonishing’ elements would remain, and in many ways these are much more important, spiritually speaking.

First, could it really be true. as the Gospels proclaim, that a crucified non-entity turns out be the very Messiah  the Children of Israel had long yearned for? Could it really be that Jesus’ resurrection promised immediate forgiveness for the people who demanded his death, and preferred that a proven murderer be released into the community? Can it be (as the Epistle tells us) that they, and we despite our ordinariness, have a Christ-like future ahead of us? These are the truly astonishing claims that the disciples make.

There is a preconceived idea, widely held, that people in past times were able to believe things that a modern, scientific culture like ours cannot. Today’s Gospel shows that Christians have good reason to combat this assumption. Despite enormous economic, cultural and technological changes, people then were not so radically different to people now. Yet while we should be open to their having witnessed a physical Resurrection, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it is the religiously, and not merely the scientifically, astonishing that it is essential for our times to recover.

Monday, April 9, 2012


Christ shows himself to Thomas -- mosaic by M Hildreth Meier,  National Cathedral Washington

The Gospel readings for the ‘octave’ of Easter -- the eight days immediately following Easter Day -- recount the post-Resurrection appearances of a bodily Jesus. They conclude with the story of ‘doubting’ Thomas, which provides the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter in all three years of the Lectionary. Shortly thereafter, however, the readings return to pre-Resurrection episodes, and even to occasions when Jesus is anticipating his crucifixion.

This pattern serves as a helpful reminder that the bodily appearances of Jesus proved to be a special gift to a very few disciples for a very short time. Moreover, it was only after these appearances ceased that the strange fact of the Resurrection, and the significance of its redeeming power, really took hold on the disciples. It was then that they were led to start proclaiming (in the words of the Epistle) that “what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” has a far wider implication than a miraculous event. The Resurrection is “the word of life” – which is to say, it is about how we should live.  

One aspect of the way that early Christians revolutionized their lives is especially striking. They abandoned “private ownership of any possessions”, Acts tells us, sharing their material possessions so that “there was not a needy person among them”. This admirable arrangement did not persist, and given human beings as they are, it could not. Yet, its fragility does not render the gospel they proclaimed empty. Indeed it points to its vital double sidedness. Christians should never relinquish the hope of a deep unity waiting to be found in the Risen and Ascended Christ. And when they fail to realize it, as they will, “Jesus Christ the righteous” remains the place to turn to, since is he is “. . . the atoning sacrifice for sins”.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Christ Carrying the Cross Hieronymous Bosch (?1450-1516)

AND, sitting down, they watched Him there,
The soldiers did;
There, while they played with dice,
He made His Sacrifice, 
And died upon the Cross to rid
God's world of sin.
He was a gambler too, my Christ,
He took His life and threw
It for a world redeemed.
And ere His agony was done,
Before the westering sun went down,
Crowning that day with its crimson crown,
He knew that He had won.

G A Studdert-Kennedy (1883 - 1929)

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, was an Anglican priest and poet. He was a chaplain during World War I and awarded the Military Cross.


G. A. Studdert Kennedy's The Unutterable Beauty.