Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Vineyard Harvest  Micaela Eleutheriade (1900-82)
The Gospel for this week is yet another parable set in a vineyard. Strictly, it is an allegory since it is not simply a story with a message, but one in which the participants can be directly correlated with the people to whom, and about whom, the story is told.

On the surface, the parallels are not hard to see. God is the owner of the vineyard. The tenants are those entrusted with witnessing to his lordship. The slaves are the Old Testament prophets sent by God, time and again, to recall his people to faithful obedience. In the face of their repeated rejection the landlord’s own son – Jesus – is sent to the vineyard. His murder at the hands of the tenants brings God’s wrath upon them, and custody of the vineyard is placed in other hands.

Israel Jean David (1908-1993)
Who exactly are these first tenants? It is easy to misidentify them as the Jews, and hence suppose that the new tenants are the Christians. The lesson from Isaiah puts us right on this score: “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not the tenants, but the vineyard itself – God’s fertile ground – that is to be identified with the Chosen People. The first tenants are the leaders of Israel. Forgetting their obligation to God, they claim the headship of Israel for their own nationalistic purposes. It is in order to rescue Israel, not to abandon it, that God sends his Son. This means that the new tenants do not mark a radical break with the past. Rather, they are called to be more faithful stewards of the same God.

Paul’s Epistle for this Sunday can be seen to reflect this interpretation of the allegory. He emphatically underlines his own Jewishness, and neither discounts nor disowns it. But, he says, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss  . . .  because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

The continuity between Jew and Christian is essential to the Gospel message Paul preaches. It carries this implication, however. If the ancient Pharisees forfeited their spiritual inheritance because of arrogance and complacency, a similar attitude can rob modern Christians of theirs.

Monday, September 29, 2014


An Angel -- Marc Chagall
Michaelmas is the traditional name for the feast of St Michael and All Angels which occurs on September 29th. Though the nature and existence of angels is a topic that barely features in contemporary theology, and figures even less in contemporary professions of belief, 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!"
Archangel Michael

But what ought we to think about angels and archangels? Thanks to modern science, we know just how little we know about the created cosmos. Human beings are one of the wonders of this creation -- animals with a spiritual, emotional and intellectual life that far surpasses all the other animals. Yet, it would be the height of presumption to suppose that this puts us at the top of all created beings. God is a spirit. Why should there not be spiritual beings who are not animals?

Psalm 103, set for this festival, describes angels as "mighty ones" who minister to God and do His will. Even so, the Psalmist does not hesitate to instruct them -- "Bless the Lord"  and he tells them to combine their praises with those of "all His works in all places of His dominion". This vision of a vast array of beings -- stretching from the simplest insects to celestial beings far surpassing us -- provides a context for human worship both humbling and inspiring. It is captured magnificently by the 17th century Anglican poet, John Mason.

An Angel -- Edward Burne-Jones

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?

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.

Monday, September 22, 2014


This week’s Epistle includes what is plausibly the most beautiful passage in all of Paul’s letters – his theologically deep and poetically compelling affirmation to the Philippians of the incarnation of God in Jesus, an indissoluble unity of the human and the divine made possible by Christ's perfect obedience. The climax of this magnificent hymn looks to a time when ‘every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’. 

There follows, however, an instruction to the Philippians that seems to conflict both with the Lordship of Christ, and with Paul’s well known insistence on faith before works. 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’, Paul writes. Surely the Good News of the Gospel renders this instruction redundant? Since Christ has saved us by being 'obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross', are we not relieved of the burden of working out our salvation for ourselves? Paul, of course, does not mean to deny this, and so he immediately adds to his instruction this essential qualification – ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. But doesn’t this just compound the problem? Is it God at work, or is it us at work?
Icon of Christ Pantokrator (Ruler of All)

The Gospel throws some light on this issue. In another vineyard parable, two sons react differently to their father's instruction to work in the vineyard. The one who explicitly refuses appears to be rebellious, yet ultimately does as his father asks. The other appears to be dutiful by saying the right thing, but in fact goes his own way. Jesus asks his hearers to decide which of the two sons is the obedient one. It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is obvious. The ‘rebel’ is the obedient son because, in the end, he decides to act as his father instructs. Both decision and instruction have key parts to play. The life of faith for us is communion with God, not Christ's perfect union. That is why the Psalmist prays 'Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation'.

It would be difficult to improve on Paul’s opening advice ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. True discipleship means being of one mind with Jesus. But a crucial part of the sentence is the very first word -- ‘Let . .’.

Monday, September 15, 2014


Red Vineyards at Arles -- Van Gogh (1888)
The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard. Unlike many other Gospel parables, this one has a beginning, a middle, an end, and  a punch line, all of which makes it easy to understand -- at one level. The problem, though, is not simply to understand it, but to see just what its message is.

Occasionally people have thought that this parable has direct application to the workplace, and implies that Christian bosses ought to pay their workers equally. Or they have found warrant in it for a even wider  principle of Christian ethics -- one that supports equal pay for company workers. Yet, Jesus makes it plain that he is talking about ‘the Kingdom of heaven’. That is to say, his parable concerns the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other. Even if this is what the parable aims to illuminate, however, there still seems be a problem of interpretation. The vineyard owner says to the laborer who complains that he has worked all day. ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. Perhaps so, but is this a good enough answer? How can it be just to give the same reward to radically different amounts of work? Don’t the laborers who worked longer deserve more?

Salvation -- Endre Bartos (1979)
These questions have familiar religious parallels. Universal redemption means that past sins are wiped out. Can it be just for God to treat cheats, child abusers and serial killers in the same way as those who have been decent Christians all their lives, so long as they express repentance on their death beds? What is the point of lifelong faithfulness if it makes no difference in the end?

To this recurrent, and heartfelt question, the Epistle from Philippians suggests an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is ‘inestimable’(as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). Since  knowing the love of God in Christ is supremely beneficial, regardless of how early or late in life we come to it, nothing can improve upon it. There simply is no greater benefit that lifelong laborers could hope for, or deserve. This remains true irrespective of how God treats other sinners.  

Knowledge of salvation, then, should dispel all envious glances at those who ‘got away with it’. How could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, and to do so for as much of our lives as possible?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Legend has it that in 326 AD, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem, Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered  the True Cross of Jesus . She ordered a church to be built at the site of the discovery. On Sept 14 635 AD a portion of the Cross was carried into the newly consecrated 'Church of the Holy Sepulchre'. Since that time Sept 14  has been a red letter day in the Christian Calendar. Holy Cross Day invites us to meditate on the deeply mysterious fact that God chose an instrument of tortured death to be the means of salvation.
Recognition of the True Cross -- Piero della Francesca
Stand Holy Cross, between my God and me,
and cast a shadow
where my heart can hide its frail morality
from God's perspicous light
The Cross of Christ provides the shade I need
to see, with sinless eyes, God's sabbath day.
And, as horizons widen shore to shore,
as light on light enlightens more and more,
this greater vision brings a deeper peace
where sin and sorrow cease.
Stand, Holy Cross, between my God and me.

 Collect for Holy Cross Day
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Monday, September 8, 2014


The Unforgiving Servant JESUSMAFA
In one way or another, the readings for this Sunday are about judgment, tolerance and forgiveness. In the contemporary liberal democratic world,  being 'judgmental' is among the worst of sins, and that explains why most mainline Christian denominations have been anxious to cast off the Church’s historical reputation as ‘judgmental’, and embrace instead a non-judgmental inclusiveness that reflects what they see to be God's unconditional love in Christ -- God loves you whoever, and whatever, you are.

Conservative Christians sometimes condemn this as a willingness to abandon a Gospel that preaches sin and salvation, in the interests of appeasing the secular world. Yet, the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that serves as this week's epistle, does provide biblical support for non-judgmentalism. The disagreement Paul writes about – whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols -- is not one that concerns us today. But the advice he bases upon it has much wider application. Though we ought to be firm in our own convictions, we ought not to pass judgment on, still less despise, those who disagree with us. The Gospel passage puts the same thought in the wider context of those who harm us. Forgiveness is ‘seventy times seven’ more important than retribution, however natural the desire for this may be. Here we have a truth that everyone has reason to welcome, if we are not to fall into the rank hypocrisy of the indebted slave.

The Day of Judgment Viktor Vasnetsov
To this extent then, biblical teaching coincides with contemporary liberal opinion. At the same time, in its wholesale rejection of ‘judgmentalism’ it conflicts with a key element in these readings -- that human beings are indeed under judgment, both for what they believe and for what they do. Who, especially around the anniversary of 9/11, could truly deny that beliefs matter, and cannot be treated as simply personal opinion? Beliefs, even if sincerely held, that warrant the willful slaughter of thousands of human beings are bad, and their fruits are inevitably evil. Paul's point, though, is that Christians – even in this kind of case -- ought to be very careful that they are not trying to preempt God’s judgment. ‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” Paul cautions his readers. To this extent he takes his stand against judgmentalism. Immediately, though, he places it in a larger theological context: “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”. The Gospel story of the hypocritical slave, let it be noted, ends with his being “tortured” as an act of justice.
In the past Christians have been very ready to usurp God’s justice. Nowadays they are more likely to make the error of presuming upon God’s mercy. The difficult thing is both to witness to the solemn truth that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and to do so in a spirit of love rather than loathing.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


The evening prayer -- Gerard Sekoto (1942)
The Gospel for this Sunday contains a phrase that has powerfully consoled Christians in difficult circumstances of many sorts –‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. Faced with social isolation, political oppression, cultural indifference or simply declining membership, it is both critically important and deeply reassuring to hold fast to the truth that neither popular success nor numerical majority is relevant to the promise of divine presence. Indeed, perhaps we have less reason to be confident of the presence of Christ when two or three thousand are gathered together, since mass movements have often proved the enemy of true religion.

At the same time, there is always this risk -- that ‘where two or three are gathered together’ is reduced to a self-justifying mantra. This happens when it is invoked by opinionated minorities in defense of their splits and schisms. It also happens when it is used to exempt complacent churches from their evangelical obligations. In both cases, divine assurance is displaced by human complacency. It is salutary to remember, therefore, that the wonderful assurance this sentence offers is not unconditional.  

Ecce Homo -- Albrecht Durer
The extract from Paul’s Letter to the Romans prescribed for this Sunday, addresses just this issue. Though relatively brief is also remarkably dense. Its central message is that Christ is truly present only to those who have ‘put on Christ’. What does this mean? It means adopting a cast of mind (the mind of Christ) whose key elements are these. First, we need the conviction that ‘now is the time to wake from sleep’ i.e. that the things we often struggle for, such as wealth, power, or personal career, are in an important sense unreal. Second, we need to abandon ‘the works of darkness’ i.e. the devious and destructive ways in which we commonly pursue our goals, and be willing to have the brightest light shine on our lives. Third, we have to affirm that love best fulfills ‘the law’ i.e. that living truly in accordance with the laws of God means being motivated chiefly by a love for the world around us.

Christian conduct down the centuries has shown just how hard it is to follow these prescriptions. Yet the prospect that underlies them is extraordinary – that we mere mortals can live in communion with the one true God.