Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Raphael St Michael
Durer St Michael fights the Dragon
Michaelmas is the traditional name for the feast of St Michael and All Angels which occurs on September 29th, transferred this year (2013) to September 30th.  Though the nature and existence of angels is a topic that barely features in contemporary theology, the world of angels is long established in the Christian religion, and has an enduring place within it. It is not just that Michaelmas has survived in modern calendars, or the fact that a surprisingly large number of churches have Michael and All Angels as their dedication. In almost every modern version of the Eucharistic liturgy the ancient profession is repeated. "Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels  and with all the whole company of heaven who forever sing this hymn -- Holy! Holy ! Holy!"
How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?          
Salvador Dali -- Angelic Landscape

Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I Thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluias be.
Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.       
John Mason (1646?–94) Anglican priest and poet

Monday, September 23, 2013


Lazarus and the Rich Man Eduard von Gebhardt (1838 - 1925)

The readings for this Sunday have a greater thematic unity than is often the case. They all have to do with the possession and use of wealth. The Old Testament reading from Amos contains a prophetic denunciation of the rich, the Epistle contains the famous line ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’, and in the Gospel Jesus tells the story of the rich man who dies suddenly in the night.

The message to be learned from these passages is really very simple. The Epistle underlines the truth that the avid pursuit of wealth can easily ‘plunge people into ruin and destruction’, while the rich man in the Gospel learns a complementary lesson: that all the wealth in the world will not make us any less vulnerable to death or to Divine judgment. Between those who put their trust in material well-being and those who put their trust in God, ‘a great chasm has been fixed’.

Eternity Mikalojus Ciurlionis (1875-1911)
The choice with which we are confronted is plain enough. The difficulty does not lie in understanding it, or even making it, but sticking with it. It is easy to say that the love of wealth not wealth itself endangers us. It is hard be wealthy without trusting more and more to the things wealth brings. This is true even for those whose wealth is modest by contemporary standards.

One aspect of the Epistle is worth emphasizing. Contrary to any impression the Gospel story might give, this is not just about what happens after you die. The author of Timothy (probably not Paul himself) tells members of the fledgling Christian church to ‘take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called’. This is an instruction for the present, not the future. ‘Eternal life’ is not a post-mortem state. It is a mode of living now -- a way of life that death cannot destroy because, through the Cross, Jesus has enabled us to participate in the life of ‘he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light’. It is this ‘prize’ that even modest wealth can put at risk, though only if leads us to forget just how incomparable the two are.

Monday, September 16, 2013


This week’s Gospel parable,commonly known as the Parable of the Unjust Steward, is unique to Luke and one of the most puzzling passages in the New Testament, There is no consensus among Biblical scholars as to just how it should be interpreted.

To save his own skin, a manager under suspicion fraudulently changes the amounts owed to his master in the hope that he can call in a few favors after he is fired. The problem of interpretation arises because Jesus appears to commend, even to praise, the manager’s dishonesty – “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth”. The difficulty of understanding what he means is increased by what follows. How does the broader lesson– “You cannot serve God and wealth” (or in traditional language, God and Mammon) -- flow from the parable that precedes it?

Mammon G F Watts (1817-1904)
Here is one way of looking at this difficult passage. People often think that they can be worldly wise while remaining true to a noble purpose, that with enough determination they can successfully use material means to spiritual ends. Jesus warns us against this easy assumption. Worldly wisdom has a dynamic of its own, one requiring us to follow a path that, almost without our noticing, quickly becomes a downward spiral. To pursue material benefits energetically and effectively may well mean that we have to embrace purposes and values deeply at odds with the spiritual well being of both ourselves and others.

The truth of this does not necessarily carry the implication that only self-imposed poverty is spiritually safe. As St Paul says elsewhere, it is not money, but the love of money, that is the root of evil. What it does imply is that a time may come when we face a real choice between love of God and love Mammon -- only to find that unwittingly we have already made it.

Something similar can be said about political power. Its pursuit for godly purposes – justice and peace, say -- is not as simple as many Christians have believed. That is why the unfashionable political ‘quietism’ that Paul advocates in this week’s Epistle – just praying for ‘all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life’ deserves more of a hearing than Christian activists usually give it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Lost Coin  Domenico Fetti (1588-1633)

In the Gospel for this Sunday, the Pharisees and scribes complain that Jesus is regularly found in the company of sinners. When Christians read this, they rather too readily assume a position of moral superiority over the benighted Pharisees, and rather too complacently identify themselves with what they perceive to be the non-judgmental attitude that they think Jesus exemplifies. In reality, of course, they are themselves necessarily ‘judgmental’ of ‘sinners’. And rightly so. Who wants to rub along with child abusers, wife beaters, racists, rapists or people who exploit the weak and vulnerable, and overlook the kind of lives they lead? To understand this passage properly, we need to call the right kind of sinner to mind.

These examples make the denunciations of Jeremiah and the Psalmists in the Old Testament lessons more understandable. They addressed the ancient world, of course, but there are plenty of modern contexts to which their words apply –  ‘foolish’ adults who act like ‘stupid children’ and have no real understanding, or people have simply ‘gone astray’, and are ‘perverse’, or worse, people who are ‘skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good’.

Mount Sinai  El Greco
While Moses is up on Mount Sinai, his people go badly off the rails. ‘Go down at once!’ God tells him. ‘Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely’. And so it proves to be. Yet Moses, though offered the chance to abandon the evildoers and find his own way to glory, pleads with God to be merciful. Appropriately, the reading that follows this passage is Psalm 51, a powerful expression of repentance. It helpfully alerts us to the Gospel’s emphasis on the essential role of penitence. Jesus is not motivated by a preference for sinners, or an indifference to their sin, as perhaps the complaints of the Pharisees imply. Full acknowledgement of their sinfulness, however, does not diminish his hope for them – ‘there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


 Jesus Carrying the Cross (1967) Salvador Dali

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” This line from the Gospel for Sunday has traditionally been included in the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus – sayings that, on the surface at any rate, seem impossible to accept.  Who could commend, still less require, that we hate our parents?  To understand the message, though, we have to allow for a level of exaggeration characteristic of the time and place in which Jesus spoke. It is not the emotion of hatred that is being commended, but a willingness to give even the deepest attachments of family life second place to Christian discipleship.

For many people, however, this is still a step too far, and smacks uncomfortably of religious fanaticism. Indeed, if we take at face value, only the life of monk, nun or hermit could accord with this requirement.

There is no getting round the fact that we confront a real choice here, and a difficult one. Yet ordinary lives can still be ones of faithful discipleship. The key lies in the way we order our priorities. Happily, we are very rarely confronted with a straightforward clash between the claims of Christ and family life, but at much more mundane levels, it is easy to put Christ in second place. When we accept God on our terms rather than on His, we effectively relinquish our discipleship.

The Slave Market (1880) Gustave Boulanger
To be a Christian is to believe that putting God before everything else does not mean we have to abandon the people and things we love so much. Rather we accept their radical imperfection, and look for their transformation within the life of God. This week’s Epistle illustrates the point. Paul’s touching letter to the owner of the runaway slave boy Onesimus expresses the faith that even such a problematic relationship as slavery can be transformed – 'Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while' Paul writes, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother --especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord'.