Monday, June 23, 2014


Sacrifice of Isaac -- Caravaggio
On this Sunday the continuous reading brings the story of Abraham to the unnerving episode of his setting out to sacrifice Isaac. It is such an extraordinary episode that it has long prompted debate, and deep perplexity. God grants the aging, childless Abraham an only son—Isaac. It is on Isaac that Abraham pours out all his love, and pins all his hopes. So how could he possibly be willing to kill the being he most loves, and thereby destroy all the hopes he has longed for? Even if we could leave the difficult issue of the boy’s own well being aside, it is exceptionally hard to understand Abraham's state of mind, still less sympathize with it.  We can say what it seems we are  supposed to say -- that Abraham’s willingness to kill the child he adores reveals his even greater devotion to God. But isn't this one step too far. Doesn't such devotion turn his 'faith' into fanaticism? And anyway, what does it say about the God who would demand such a sacrifice?

Christ on the Cross -- Odilon Redon
There is no easy answer to these questions. One thing worth noting, though, is that the story constitutes the essential Jewish background for understanding the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christian liturgies describe this as a ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice’, meaning thereby to underline the futility of human sacrifice. Even a sacrifice as overwhelmingly demanding as Abraham seems willing to make, will never bridge the great gulf between God’s divine holiness and our imperfect humanity. Only action in the opposite direction -- from God to human beings -- can ever do this. As things turn out, of course, Abraham is not actually required to sacrifice Isaac. God provides a ram, and the boy survives to perpetuate his father’s lineage. This motif too, is reflected in the Christian narrative. It is only God who can provide the sacrifice.

Though he is writing in  a different context and to a different purpose, in the Epistle Paul has a similar thought in mind when he asks "So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death." "Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God", he adds, "the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life." As he says elsewhere, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Of course, we have to see that this is so, and accept it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Jeremiah thrown in prison -- Marc Chagall

On the Sundays that follow Trinity the Revised Common Lectionary offers alternative Old Testament readings and Psalms. The first is a ‘Continuous’ reading that takes us through major sections of the Hebrew Scriptures week by week and may bear little direct relation to the Epistle and Gospel. The ‘Thematic’ alternative is a passage chosen for its relation to the other two readings (though the connection is not always easy to see).

On this Sunday the continuous reading begins the story of Abraham and Isaac. The climax, about which there is much to be said, is not reached until next week. The alternative OT reading for this week comes from Jeremiah, and it does resonate with the Gospel passage. For, although this section of Matthew reads like a list of only loosely connected sayings, it has a recurring theme – the cost of discipleship. Perhaps the passage reflects the experience of the fledgling Church whose early experience of joyful unity in the proclamation of Gospel was rather speedily followed by cultural rejection, internal divisions, and eventually vicious persecution. But even if Matthew has the benefit of hindsight here, it is still plausible to suppose that Jesus warned his followers about the potential cost of the of committing to his cause, the cost of crucifixion in his own case.

Jesus carrying the cross -- Salvador Dali
Of course, as the extract from Jeremiah clearly reveals, there was nothing new about this in the historical experience of faithful and prophetic Jews. Jesus tells his disciples to expect violent opposition even in their own families, and Jeremiah laments that he has become a laughing stock amongst his own people. Both see, certainly, that this is not pointless persecution. Rather, as Jeremiah remarks, in such persecution and ridicule, “O LORD of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind”

There is though, this notable difference. Whereas Jeremiah prays that he will “see your retribution upon” his enemies, and hence a vindication of his “cause”, Jesus does not ask or offer any such vindication. Rather, he says,Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. Christians in the modern world are still being persecuted in large numbers. Those who are mercifully spared such persecution, however, often forget about the more insidious threats to the soul that the requirements of social conformity and the pursuit of economic prosperity can bring.

Monday, June 9, 2014


The Trinity Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)

This Sunday is the only day in the whole Christian Calendar that is dedicated to a theological doctrine rather than a person, event or sacred symbol. Compared to other occasions, the Feast of the Holy Trinity came to be observed rather late in the Church’s history and was not made official until 1334. The intention was to conclude the liturgical commemorations of the life of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit by focusing on the whole nature of God. Trinity was taken up with particular enthusiasm by the church in England, and so came to be specially identified with the Anglican Church that resulted from Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 16th century.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity  -- that there are Three Persons in One God -- is  central to orthodox Christianity, and figures in confessions of faith both at baptism and confirmation. At the same time, though we are asked to affirm it, the doctrine is immensely difficult – perhaps impossible -- to understand completely. How did Christians end up in the position of having to believe what they can hardly understand?

'Mission to the World' JESUS MAFA
The answer is that as early Christians struggled to hold on to the essentials of the Jewish belief in One God and acknowledge the full significance of Jesus’ Resurrection, and explain their sense of spiritual empowerment at Pentecost when the Risen Christ was no longer present to them, they effectively stumbled on a formula. We owe its most familiar version – in the form of a blessing – to St Paul, who ends his Epistle for this Sunday with these words  --“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all”. But this blessing simply reflects the “great commission” that Jesus gives his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

These two very short lessons follow a much longer one, the first thirty five verses of the Old Testament in which the creative acts of the sovereign God to whom we owe our very existence are recounted. The heart of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity lies in this thought: the awesome majesty of the God who made us is the very same reality that we encounter in the humanity of Jesus and that we experience in the spirit that graces  our daily lives. We may not know exactly how to integrate them theologically, but all three ‘Persons’ are indispensable to the ways in which Christians come to know and to love the one true God.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


El Greco - Pentecost

The Gospel for this Sunday, which ever alternative is chosen, is unusually brief. That is because our attention has to focus on the reading from Acts if we are to celebrate the powerful experience that the disciples underwent on Shavuot, a Jewish festival that occurs in late spring and commemorates God’s gift of the Ten Commandments.
The Christian festival which arose from that 1st century Shavout takes place fifty days after the Resurrection, hence the name ‘Pentecost’. Commonly regarded as ‘the Birthday of the Church’ it marks the moment at which, following Christ's Ascension the first Christians were inspired by the Holy Spirit in a way that  transformed them into His  Body on Earth. So to celebrate Pentecost is to claim this extraordinary privilege – to be the incarnation and enduring presence of Christ for all humanity. It is also an awesome responsibility, however, since with the privilege come spiritual dangers. Chief among these is the possibility that the way we exercise that privilege makes Jesus Christ an object of the world’s contempt or indifference rather than a figure of hope and veneration.
Descent of the Holy Spirit Icon (Ukraine)
Unhappily, this has often been the reality. Christians have so often been so divided, at odds with each other to the point of mutual persecution and slaughter, that the glorious commission given to the Apostles has very lain hidden behind a screen of intolerance, bigotry and narrow mindedness. And yet, it is this same fractured Church that God continues to entrust with the Gospel. Pentecost, accordingly, should be seen as an annual opportunity for real spiritual renewal. The image of wind invite us to spread our sails to a Holy Spirit that will blow us out of the doldrums into which we have fallen, while the Pentecostal fire is an invitation to burn much more brightly as the ‘lights of the world’.

In an alternative reading for this Sunday from the Book of Numbers, Moses laments the spiritual lethargy of the Israelites and cries “Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!". There could hardly be a more appropriate prayer for Pentecost.