Monday, April 29, 2013


Gate and Tower of the New Jerusalem

In a profound way, the readings for this Sunday summarize and connect the origins, work and goal of the Church. In the Gospel, Jesus gives his followers an early indication of what will happen when he is no longer an earthly presence among them. He promises them a ‘Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name’ and who ‘will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. Here, of course, we find the basic elements of the Trinitarian theology that has been, and remains, the truly distinguishing mark of the Christian faith. Its principal importance, though, lies in the assurance that we, who never experienced the historic Jesus, can nevertheless encounter him in a Spirit of life that remains accessible to people in every age and place.

It is this same Spirit that prompts, and enables, Paul’s response to the famous dream in which someone in far off Macedonia calls to him to share a Gospel whose power and relevance must break all geographical and ethnic boundaries, and speak to the human soul that lies within everyone.
St Paul -- Giotto (1300)

Between the Gospel promise and the missionary Acts of Paul the Apostle, lies Revelation’s compellingly beautiful statement of the ultimate goal in which the work of the Spirit will culminate. What is striking about it, is just how God centered it is. The picture of the ‘heavenly’ Jerusalem that it paints, is not a paradise in which all our desires and needs are met, but one in which they are transformed and transcended within the Person of God. We now no longer need sunlight, or clean water, or political security, or even places of worship, because God’s presence will be so immediate that everyone ‘will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads’. This vision is no promise, of course, for those whose hearts are set on wealth and power as the world understands these. But to those who long for a full realization of the spiritual nature that God has planted in them, no more wonderful prospect could be imagined.

Monday, April 22, 2013


The Gospel for this Sunday is very short, but of great importance. When people are asked to summarize the Christian faith, they often say that there are two great commandments – to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself, because Jesus is recorded as saying this in three Gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, to think that this summarizes the Christian faith, is an important mistake. That is not what is going on.

Churches in the New Jerusalem  Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943)
Jewish scribes asked Jesus to pinpoint the crucial commandments among all those that were to be found in their scriptures – several hundred in fact. He picks just two – one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus – and declares that everything else in the Jewish law and prophets hangs on these two commandments. He does not say that they summarize his own faith. In contrast to the other three, John’s Gospel does not record this episode. Rather, he tells us that Jesus offered his own disciples a third, and new, great commandment – ‘that you love one another’. As faithful Jews, their love of God and neighbor should be something that could be taken for granted. What marks them out as followers of Christ is that they show a special love for each other.

Given the divisions, persecutions and mutual contempt that have so often marred the Church – and still do – it is this third, distinctively Christian commandment that has proved very much harder to live by, virtually impossible in fact. That might seem to make the Christian faith a hopeless undertaking. But the reading from Revelation reminds us to place our hopes in a future world that God has promised, not a world that human beings, however well intentioned, will make. It is God who makes all things new -- in ways that we find hard to discern no doubt – so that we must wait until ‘the home of God is among mortals’ before we can expect ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.

Monday, April 15, 2013


Shepherd and Sheep -- Camille Pisarro (1888)

The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday. It gets this name from the fact that the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ -- and the Gospel for the day is a passage from John in which Jesus applies the metaphor of shepherd to himself. In many churches, it is customary to have “shepherd” hymns and anthems (often versions of the 23rd Psalm) in order to underline the Good Shepherd theme.

Partly thanks to the enduring popularity of the 23rd Psalm, the language of sheep and shepherd is both familiar and comforting to most church people. And yet, the world in which we live – even in rural areas – is so far removed from the world in which the biblical shepherd was a familiar sight that we might wonder whether, despite its familiarity, the image can still speak to us, or convey anything at all to those who are not already church goers. Indeed, for a modern audience, describing faithful Christians as ‘sheep’ can be expected to have negative overtones – a docile inability to think for themselves.
The Good Shepherd 

To make the metaphor speak afresh, we have to understand that shepherds in biblical times had two crucial tasks. First, they had to lead the sheep to sources of water that they couldn’t find for themselves. Second, they had to protect their sheep from wild animals against which they were powerless. Sheep needed the superior strength, wisdom and care of the shepherd to survive and flourish. Without it they would “go astray, each to his own way” as Isaiah famously puts it (Is.56:3).

The message for us is this. However earnest our seeking, searching, questing and questioning, it is God who finds us, not we who find God. Our task is to be able to recognize His call, and to follow the divine Word in preference to establishing paths through life of our own devising.

3rd/4th century mosaic from the Roman Catacomb of  Priscilla, courtesy of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt Divinity School

Monday, April 8, 2013


Petrus and Paulus --  Luke Tuymens (1998)

This week’s readings record two of the most important events in the history of the Christian church – Christ’s post-Resurrection commissions to the apostles Paul and Peter. Together these two figures tower over all others in the Acts of the Apostles, and even now, two thousand years later, they remain compelling models of what really it means to be an ‘evangelist’ – a preacher of the news that humanity’s salvation is to be found in the life and death of Jesus.

The contrast between them is instructive. Christ’s appearance on the road to Damascus is probably the most famous conversion experience in human history. Saul, renowned for his strength of will and motivated by a profound hatred of Jesus, is first reduced to being led by the hand, and then transformed into Paul, Christ’s most passionate and theologically articulate servant. Peter is a simpler and a softer character. In his case, the risen Christ transforms an almost dog-like faithfulness into inspirational leadership that quickly wins him the deepest respect of the earliest Christians.

Calling of St Paul He Qi (2001)
Peter and Paul were both good Jews, and as Christians they remained so. When they finally met it was their attitudes to Judaism that caused their disagreements. Paul heard in Christ a call to transcend traditional boundaries that Peter was reluctant to abandon. It was a dispute they found ways of negotiating, and like the other differences between them, it reveals something very important. Right from the outset, the Bible tells us, Christ chooses to entrust his ‘flock’ to shepherds with a wide variety of gifts and sharply contrasting styles.

Monday, April 1, 2013


Head of the Apostle Peter  Fyodor Bronnikov (1827-1903)

In the six weeks of Easter, the Lectionary fills the place normally occupied by an Old Testament lesson with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  This gives special prominence to the dramatic difference the Resurrection made to the lives of the disciples, and gives us a feel for the radical change they underwent. Life with the historical Jesus had itself been powerfully transforming, yet it now turns out that this was only a pale reflection of what life in the spirit of the Risen Christ was to be.

Today’s short passage from Acts reveals that a marked feature of this ‘new life in Christ’ is a special kind of fearlessness. Peter is in conflict with the Temple police and the High Priest once more. But how very different is this Peter from the one who denied Jesus out of fear, and then burst into tears as he acknowledged his own wretched fearfulness. Now he speaks out boldly, even though he knows the risks he runs by doing so. The important point for us is that the Resurrection has not put an end to persecution and oppression. These things continue, and intensify even; tradition has it that Peter himself was crucified in the end. But the Resurrection gave him, as it gives us, the Spirit with which to overcome fear.

By taking us back to the theme of Advent, the lesson from Revelation makes the same point. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”. This is the passage that provided Charles Wesley with the words of his great Advent hymn. In the light of the Resurrection, we can now read them differently. It is God, not human institutions like the Roman Empire or the Temple police, who will be our ultimate Judge. It is faith in the risen Christ that sets us free from the need to fear it.