Monday, August 25, 2014


St Peter -- Durer

In the Epistle for this Sunday, Paul sets a very high standard for Christian conduct: ‘Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit . . .Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer . . . Bless those who persecute you . . . Live in harmony with one another . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.’ These are all admirable injunctions, of course. Yet they are also counsels of perfection. How many Christian lives actually model this ideal? How many ever have? Very, very few, is the only honest answer. 
Happily, if this seems a depressing conclusion, the Gospel for this week offsets it to a considerable degree. The passage brings to the fore the strange relationship that Simon Peter had with Jesus. In part this was a result of his impulsive and vacillating character. Peter was the sort of person who could be inspired to leap over the side of a boat one moment, only to be crying out in fear the next. In terms of the whole Gospel story one vacillation is especially well known  -- his behavior at ‘the time of trial’. When danger looms -- in the unlikely form of a servant girl! -- Peter's emphatic assurance of love and loyalty to Jesus is  rapidly displaced by three equally emphatic denials -- 'I never knew him'.

Jesus too seems to vacillate in his attitude to Peter. Last week's Gospel recorded how, early in their relationship, Jesus declares Peter to be the ‘rock’ on which the church is to be founded. Now, in this week's passage that same rock is declared ‘a stumbling block’, someone who has to be told, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’  -- a dramatic reversal indeed.

Christ Saves Peter -- Alexander Ivanov
Yet this fact remains. Jesus chose Peter. He made him a witness of the Transfiguration. He granted him the largest number of post-Resurrection encounters. Why? An important clue to the puzzle lies in this rebuke: ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’. It is precisely Peter’s inconsistent character that equips him for the role he has been assigned. In his weakness, he is a true representative of our common humanity.  In his devotion to Jesus, however faltering, he exhibits a spiritual hope of which we are all capable. Paul’s counsel of perfection is a description of that hope, but its ultimate realization is not in Peter or in us, but in Jesus. That is why he is to be hailed as true man and true God.

Monday, August 11, 2014


Blind Men Sergey Ivanov (1883)
The relation between Judaism and Christianity has long been highly problematic. On the one hand, anti-Semitism greatly marred European Christianity in medieval and early modern times, though of course, hatred of the Jews attained its most monstrous manifestation in the secular, post-Christian ideologies of Nazism and Communism. On the other hand, and perhaps by way of compensation for the excesses of anti-Semitism, contemporary Protestants, both liberal and evangelical, tend to regard Judaism and Christianity as deeply consonant faiths rooted for the most part in the same Scriptures.

The Epistle and the Gospel for this Sunday reveal that the question of how the relation between 'old' and 'new' testaments to God's work in the world should be understood, surfaced at a very early stage. It confronted not only Paul, but even Jesus. Both faced the charge that embracing the Gospel meant abandoning the ‘faith of their fathers’, and by implication rejecting the God of Israel.

Their response makes it plain that the Christian Gospel is not about propagating a new religion and displacing the old, but about renewing faith in God’s promises to his Chosen People. ‘I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham’, Paul declares. ‘God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’.

The Canaanite Woman  Bazzi Rahib (1684)
This is wholly in keeping with the remark that Jesus makes in his encounter with the Canaanite woman. His principal mission, he tells her, is ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, and the first part of the Gospel passage shows that his target is not Judaism, but ‘Pharaseeism’. Contrary to their own self-assurance, the Pharisees are lost in a complex of ritualistic practices and conventional norms. Their guidance is now useless to anyone who would walk in the ways of God, tantamount to the blind leading the blind.

The Canaanite woman, though, extracts from Jesus a hugely important concession. While the fresh ‘bread’ he offers is intended first and foremost for the ‘children’s’ table, the spiritual nourishment it offers is available far more widely, to anyone who has the faith to ask even for some crumbs. Here we see the ultimate answer to the question. God’s promises to his ancient Chosen People are also the promises he makes to all humanity through the Body of Christ. Ethnicity no longer matters. It is this crucial truth that makes both anti-Semitism and uncritical support for the modern state of Israel problematic from a properly Christian point of view.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Christ walking on the water -- Alexander Ivanov (1855)
To the modern mind, powerfully influenced by the success of natural science, the miracles recorded in the Bible present difficulties that previous eras did not experience. Can we honestly believe that such supernatural events really happened? The difficulty is especially acute when the events involve Jesus, because the Gospel writers clearly think that his miraculous powers were strong evidence of his divinity. The Gospel passage for this Sunday contains just such an incident, and a very puzzling one. The disciples encounter Jesus at dawn walking towards them across the surface of a wild and stormy sea. Peter tries to do likewise but unsurprisingly sinks into the water until Jesus reaches out to save him. Then, wonderfully, the fierce wind dies down. Awestruck, the disciples hail Jesus as truly divine.

Could this be the record of something that actually happened? Yes, is the simple answer. If we believe, as the Church teaches, that Jesus was truly God incarnate, then compared to the creation of the cosmos out of nothing, even the most amazing  miracle is child’s play.  At the same time,  for Christians miracles have to be more than a conjuring trick, because Jesus is far more significant than any magician, however impressive. The difference lies in meaning. Often, actions speak louder than words. So miracles are not just wonders that we are expected to marvel at; they are signs from which there is something important to be learnt.
Jesus walks on water - Ivan Aivazovsky, (1888)

To grasp the meaning of Jesus’ miracles it is essential to see in them what devout and faithful Jews witnessing them would have seen –  the connection they forge between Christ's mission and the one true God revealed in the Old Testament. Since this is the God who ‘trampled the waves of the sea’ (Job 9:80), and whose 'path was through great waters, though his footsteps were unseen’ (Ps 7:19), it is hardly surprising  that Christ's action causes the disciples to declare ‘Truly you are the son of God’. Since the connection is plain, the meaning is clear.

In the light of this truth, the episode with Peter incorporated within this Gospel passage is especially instructive. Peter believes that his deep devotion to Jesus will carry him across the water. The fact that he starts to sink shows how mistaken it is to make the strength of our own belief the ultimate test of our faith.  Our will for good, and for God, may be both determined and powerful. Yet the deep and uncomfortable truth is that however sincere and committed, we cannot make ourselves the means of our own salvation. Relying on our personal resources, we are likely when things turn out badly to sink beneath life’s waves. It is only the presence of Christ within our lives that can save us.