Monday, September 24, 2012


Esther with King Ahasuerus -- late 15th century Swedis

At this time of year the Revised Common Lectionary offers quite a few options. These relate chiefly to the Old Testament lessons and the Psalm. Sometimes there is a choice with respect to the Epistle, but the Gospel is always fixed. This week one OT lesson relates the final episode in the story of Esther, the beautiful Queen who relied on her royal husband’s love to subvert the malicious scheme by which the King’s adviser Haman planned the destruction of her people, the Jews. The words of the Psalm appointed to be sung with it (Ps 124) reflect the outcome – ‘Let Israel now say; If the LORD had not been on our side, when enemies rose up against us; Then would they have swallowed us up alive in their fierce anger toward us’.

The alternative OT lesson comes from the Book of Numbers and connects more directly with the Epistle and Gospel. It too recounts a very human episode, one of those many occasions when, in the course of their wilderness wanderings, the Children of Israel complain about living conditions (this time the lack of fresh meat) and accuse Moses of having led them to disaster rather than liberation. Moses expresses to God the kind of exasperation that many clergy have felt about the congregations committed to their charge – Why have you given me sole spiritual responsibility for these people? In response to Moses’ complaint, God appears directly to seventy elders who might assist him. But the impact is short lived. Only two take up the task of prophet. And yet Joshua complains about them! They are threatening Moses’ special position.

The Antichrist as an itinerant preacher from a German block-book of 1472
The words with which Moses rebukes Joshua are very similar to those of Jesus in the Gospel reading. When John complains to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us’,  Jesus replies, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us’. One lesson to be learnt is this. The task of maintaining and spreading the Christian faith is so big and so important, it needs far more than just a few people. But by the very same token, it is a task that those already at work on it have to be willing to share.

Of course, some who take up the message will indeed get it wrong, or do it badly. But the Epistle (from James) wants us to see this, not as a threat, but as an opportunity –‘if anyone among you wanders from the truth’ then ‘whoever brings back a sinner from wandering . . . will cover a multitude of sins’.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


The words ‘childish’ and ‘childlike’ are very similar, yet there is a huge and important difference in their meaning. It is a difference that takes on special significance in the context of this week’s readings. Both the Old Testament and the Epistle continue the theme of previous weeks – the nature of wisdom, its importance and its elusiveness. How easy it is to mistake what is truly wise, for what is ‘worldly wise’ – ‘wisdom' as James puts it, that 'does not come down from above’.

Christ Blessing the Children, Nicolaes Maes (1652-53)
The Gospel for this week also takes up an earlier theme – the inability of the disciples to fathom Jesus’ warning that the ‘prophet’ they have followed for three years, and to whom they have more or less given over their daily lives, is going to be betrayed and killed like a criminal. That much, perhaps, they could have grasped, albeit with the deepest reluctance, but that this was necessary was more than they could understand.

This conversation about violence and death, oddly, provides the background to the touching moment when Jesus takes a child in his arms. How are the two things connected? The answer is that real spiritual understanding has a childlike quality about it.

In First Corinthians St Paul contrasts wisdom with childishness. Here, in this passage from Mark, Jesus makes a certain kind of childlike innocence a pre-requisite for understanding God’s purpose of salvation. Now, centuries later, we are in a position to see and to understand what the disciples at this stage in the Gospel story could not. But it is no less difficult for us than for them to strip away all the assumptions and presuppositions that we bring to hearing the Word of God. Children in their innocence often (though not always) have a kind of honesty and simplicity that makes them open to the wonder of things. Rightly, the process of growing up requires us to put away childish things. But it also brings with it the risk that we will lose the childlike openness to wonder which is a condition of wisdom, and become 'worldly wise' instead.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


CloistersCross 12th century Museum of Art, New York
Legend has it that in 326 AD, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem, Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered  the True Cross of Jesus . She ordered a church to be built at the site of the discovery. On Sept 14 635 AD a portion of the Cross was carried into the newly consecrated 'Church of the Holy Sepulchre'. Since that time Sept 14  has been a red letter day in the Christian Calendar. Holy Cross Day invites us to meditate on the deeply mysterious fact that God chose an instrument of tortured death to be the means of salvation. 
The Cross provided Isaac Watts with the central image of possibly the most famous of all Christian hymns
  • When I survey the wondrous cross
    On which the Prince of glory died,
    My richest gain I count but loss,

    And pour contempt on all my pride.

    Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
    Save in the death of Christ my God!
    All the vain things that charm me most,
    I sacrifice them to His blood.

    See from His head, His hands, His feet,
    Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
    Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
    Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

    His dying crimson, like a robe,
    Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
    Then I am dead to all the globe,
    And all the globe is dead to me.

    Were the whole realm of nature mine,
    That were a present far too small;
    Love so amazing, so divine,

    Demands my soul, my life, my all.
    Isaac Watts (1674-1748)


Lamp of Wisdom -- statue in Waterperry Gardens, Oxford UK

This week’s three readings are linked by an unmistakable purpose; they all issue stern warnings. The Gospel even expressly describes Jesus as ‘sternly’ ordering  the disciples not to tell people that he is the Messiah. This is somewhat strange, though. Has he not just invited them to name him in this way, and aren’t they supposed to be spreading the Good News of his Messiahship?  So why the stern warning? The answer becomes almost immediately apparent. Jesus does not want the disciples proclaiming him to be the Messiah until they fully understand what that means, and Peter’s response to the prospect of Christ’s sufferings and death shows very clearly that they do NOT understand. The famous instruction about Christian discipleship -- ‘To save your life, you have to lose it’ -- is given partly to correct this deep misunderstanding.

‘Losing your life to save it’ is a paradox that lies at the very center of the Gospel. There is no saying of Jesus that warrants closer attention. In the context of this week’s other warnings, however, our attention is being directed to a more general lesson. The Old Testament lesson warns us about the costs of seeking wisdom only after our own foolishness has led us into disaster, while the Epistle of James warns us about the special danger attached to setting ourselves up as teachers -- that we 'will be judged with greater strictness'. The talents that are most effective in imparting wisdom and teaching the truth are the very same talents by which we convince ourselves, as well as others, of things that are in fact false and foolish.

Taken together, the message is this. Be sure you really know what the Christian Gospel truly teaches, especially if you set yourself up to teach it. Being sincere and well intentioned in what you believe and what you tell others is not enough. Sincerity and error often go together.

This is a message that runs strongly counter to contemporary opinion. Nowadays the ideas of truth and wisdom have generally abandoned in favor of personal sincerity and good intentions -- a doctrine that contemporary Christians sign up to as readily as non-Christians. But today’s lessons say to all of us – You have been warned! This is not enough.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Icon of the Syrophoenician woman

The Gospel for this week includes a very puzzling exchange between Jesus and a Gentile woman. Having heard of his fame, she asks him to heal her daughter. He replies – oddly – that bread for children shouldn’t be given to dogs. She responds by saying that even dogs get crumbs. This appears to be the right answer, because Jesus commends her, and her daughter is healed. But what is it all about? The answer is this: an indispensible context for Jesus’ ministry is the faith handed down from Abraham. And the principal audience are the people who share that faith -- the Jews. They are the ‘children’ who are to be fed first. The Gentile woman understands this, and accepts her ‘underdog’ status, but nevertheless she sees that she, and her daughter, need God’s blessing too – and she has the courage to ask for it. This combination of insight, humility and longing is what commends her to Jesus.

It is something of the same attitude that James is advocating in the Epistle. This Sunday’s passage contains the much quoted line ‘faith without works is dead’. It is a thought that modern Christians who feel more comfortable with ethics than theology readily endorse. Yet it was this very same line that made Martin Luther loath the Epistle of James, because it so easily leads to faith in God being replaced by faith in human good deeds. Set alongside the Gospel passage, however, we can interpret it a little differently. Between what we say and what we do, a gap can open up. So our actions and attitudes are the most convincing evidence of what we truly believe.

The reading from Proverbs for this Sunday says: ‘The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all’. If we believe that every human being – Gentile as well as Jew -- stands in need of God’s redeeming grace, and that without it everyone is pretty much a broken vessel, then the distinctions of wealth, social status, ethnic origin and education will be things we hold in relatively little regard. Holding this belief, however, is not simply a matter of saying so when asked. What James in another passage calls ‘true religion’ must embody this belief in actions as much as in words.