Tuesday, May 28, 2013


We are now in that long period following Pentecost that Anglicans used to call ‘Trinity’, but which the modern Christian calendar refers to as ‘Ordinary Time’. The first period of Ordinary Time runs from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. This second period begins with Trinity Sunday and ends with Christ the King (which will fall on November 24 this year). In “Ordinary Time”, the Revised Common Lectionary offers a choice between two ‘tracks’. These two tracks are not so very different, because the Epistle and Gospel are always the same. It is only the Old Testament lesson and Psalm that differ, and it is a few weeks into Ordinary Time before the Old Testament readings diverge significantly.

Solomon's Wall -- Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904)
The ‘continuous’ track takes congregations through some of the great Old Testament narratives over several Sundays. The ‘thematic’ track, on the other hand, aims to connect the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel in such a way that the first can be seen to foreshadow the second. This foreshadowing is easier to spot on some Sundays than on others, but in the readings for this Sunday the connection is not so hard to see.

At vast expense and with great labor over many years, Solomon has completed the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews now possess a truly fitting place in which to worship the Most High God, a spectacular testament to the superiority of their religion. Yet, standing before the altar, Solomon explicitly prays that the Temple may be a place of prayer for non-Jews also. ‘When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes and prays toward this house, then', he asks God, 'hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name’.

The Centurion's Servant -- Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
It is not hard to hear the resonance with the Gospel. The centurion whose slave is very ill is a generous friend to the Jews, but he is himself a foreigner, beyond their ethnic circle. Seeking to repay him for his generosity, the Jewish elders ask Jesus to effect a cure. This is certainly a kind gesture, but, in words that Christian liturgies have used for centuries, the centurion expresses his hesitation in accepting such help. ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof’ he says. For Jesus, though, the humble faith that this sentence expresses transcends all ethnic divisions. The centurion’s faith is the kind that really counts; ‘not even in Israel have I found such faith’, he declares. The moral is this: what the Book of Common Prayer calls ‘true religion’ is sometimes to be found far beyond the circles in which we normally expect to find it.

Monday, May 20, 2013


El Greco's Trinity

The Sunday after Pentecost is unique in the Church’s year. Whereas every other holy day celebrates an event or a person, Trinity Sunday celebrates a theological doctrine!  And what a perplexing doctrine it is – The One God in whom Christians believe is Three Persons.  It seems to defy even the most basic principles of arithmetic. How can anything be both three things and only one thing? Yet that is what the doctrine obliges Christians to hold. What is more, this is not some optional extra that we may or may not choose to go along with. Since the fourth century, when the Creeds were finalized, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been central to all the major branches of the Christian Church – Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed. There are Unitarian churches who deny it, of course, but these have always been in a small minority.

Polish wood carving of the Trinity
Why has Trinitarianism been thought so crucial? The answer is revealed in part by this week’s readings. The Epistle and the Gospel comprise two short and familiar passages. The first comes from Paul’s most important letter – his Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote this several centuries before the theologians' carefully formulated doctrines, and over a thousand years before Trinity Sunday became a fixture in the Calendar. So here, Paul is simply trying to capture, and convey, his own profound experience of what it means to be a Christian. The problem arises because in doing so, he simply cannot avoid talking of God, about Jesus and about the Holy Spirit in equal measure.

In this respect, the Epistle does no more than the Gospel passage itself. Like Paul, John wrote these words of Jesus a very long time before theologians set to work on them. Yet here too we find that if Jesus is to describe his mission properly, and convey his promise to those who believe in him, a threefold reference is inescapable. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is certainly perplexing, but this is because it reflects a great mystery to which we are necessarily compelled, whenever we try to affirm the truth about Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Pentecost -- El Greco

In ordinary speech, the English word ‘enthusiasm’ does not have religious overtones. But in fact it comes from Greek words meaning a special kind of zeal that results from divine inspiration. This is exactly what the disciples display in this week’s passage from Acts. Overwhelmed by the Spirit of God, they showed such enthusiasm that passersby stopped to stare, and concluded that they must be drunk.

The Feast of Pentecost, which is observed six weeks after Easter, commemorates this event. Though it no longer attracts anything like the same attention as Christmas and Easter, it is in fact a third, and equally major festival of the Christian year. Why is it so important? The answer lies in today’s Gospel which begins with a request – ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’. Everyone who has any feel for religion can hear the deep longing that Philip expresses. But Christ’s answer  -- 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’ – contains a salutary reminder. We can fail to be satisfied with the truth.
St Philip -- James Tissot

 The Spirit which took possession of the disciples, John tells us, was expressly sent by Jesus – ‘The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. It is in Truth, Peace and Love that this Holy Spirit is to be found. Yet the gift of this Spirit is not ‘as the world gives’. A spirit of truth, love and peace does not lay any great store by affirmation, vindication or accomplishment – all of them things on which both societies and individuals tend to fix. That is why we are prone to reject the Holy Spirit and keep on looking.

So if this truly Holy Spirit is to ‘abide in us’, we must not' let our hearts be troubled 'by worldly desires, or 'be afraid' of worldly failure.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Just who was Jesus? This is the question that the disciples had to grapple with following the Resurrection, and that we too are left to grapple with on our own account. Up to the first Easter morning they knew him to be a highly charismatic preacher, a teacher with a radical interpretation of the Jewish law, and a person possessing remarkable gifts of healing. These aspects to his personality made him the kind of person who could either attract intense loyalty, or generate envy and hatred.  If this is what he was, then Jesus’ life repeated a pattern found in the lives of many other prophets.

When he met a painful and humiliating death, it seemed that for all his charisma, Jesus had been a failure. 

The Resurrection dramatically altered this estimate. Now he was special to the point of being unique. But how special, and in what way? John’s Gospel is far more centered on this issue than the other three. Most especially, it records long speeches where Jesus talks at length about who he is, and what his relationship to God is. It is plausible to think that these speeches in the first person – “I am” --  look back on the historical Jesus with the benefit of Resurrection hindsight. They record the profound theological insights that a follower of Jesus was compelled to come to in his struggle to understand th
e full significance of Christ.

Resurrection Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)
This week’s readings include two of these ‘first person’ passages, one from John’s Gospel and the other from Revelation, a book that tradition attributes to the same writer. They record what might be called the final verdict on the question ‘Who was Jesus?’ and they affirm a truth central to the Christian faith.  Jesus is the “the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” who has brought the faith of David to a perfection that no other human being ever has. To express this truth, John has Jesus declare “You, Father, are in me and I am in you’. Christ is fully human and God filled, so that despite all their imperfections, human beings now have the chance to “become completely one” with the God who made them, who loves them and who will be their judge.