Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Rather unusually, on this Sunday one of the lectionary readings can be repeated. ‘The Magnificat’ is a rapturous song of praise that Mary offers to God when she realizes she is to be the Mother of Jesus – ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord’. It can be used in place of the Psalm, and then heard for a second time as the centerpiece of the Gospel reading.
The Visitation -- Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1556)
Mary has walked to a distant village to visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It is from Elizabeth that she receives final confirmation of how remarkable her position is: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Like the Magnificat itself, these words have also become a widely used and long established prayer in the worship of the Church.
The Magnificat, which is unique to Luke’s Gospel, has been said and sung innumerably many times over many centuries. This is powerful testimony to its deep spiritual significance for Christian believers in every time and place.

Oddly, though, sheer familiarity can actually deafen us to the mysterious story it reflects. God’s mighty work of redemption, the point and purpose of the whole created cosmos, begins in a remote part of the Roman Empire with the unexpected pregnancy of a teenage girl from a tiny village. It is Mary’s acceptance of what might well bring her shame and degradation that inaugurates the spiritual transformation of human kind through the life and death of Jesus.
Roman ruins
‘From now on all generations will call me blessed’. This is such an unlikely scenario that Mary’s words seem absurd. The world in which she lived was a man's world dominated by one of the greatest and most enduring empires in human history. And yet she was right. The Roman Empire has vanished so completely, only a few archeological traces remain, while at Christmas billions of people, to whom Caesar and Herod are literally ancient history, will nevertheless give thanks for Mary’s role in their redemption, and call her ‘blessed’. What plainer evidence could there be that God has indeed ‘brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’?

Monday, December 7, 2015


'Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees'

In this week’s readings the Advent theme of judgment rises to a crescendo. In the Old Testament lesson, the prophet Zephaniah tells Israel to rejoice because God has ended the terrible catalogue of acts of judgment that have befallen his Chosen People. The defeat of their enemies is at hand because God Himself will come amongst them. A Canticle from Isaiah (in the place of the usual Psalm) repeats the theme and tells the inhabitants of Zion to ‘Cry aloud, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel’. The brief lesson from Philippians provides a New Testament echo – rejoice because ‘the Lord is near’.
The Gospel, however, has a rather different tone. This is John the Baptist at his sternest. No mention of rejoicing, just a dreadful warning. John addresses those same inhabitants of Zion, as ‘You brood of vipers’ – no better than snakes squirming across the sand to avoid the flames that will destroy them. No good saying, ‘But we are the Chosen People!’ This gives neither right nor privilege, because God could just as easily choose stones to be his servants. True repentance, John declares, will indeed make a difference, but only if it includes giving up all the little conventional sins that everyone expects householders, soldiers and tax collectors to commit.
The Mystical Nativity - Botticelli (1500)
Will they then see the Messiah, the mighty warrior whose coming Zephaniah and Isaiah herald? Could the ferocious John be Him? No, someone even more powerful is coming. This true Messiah will come amongst us in order to separate the wheat and burn the chaff ‘with unquenchable fire’.
Somewhat strangely, the passage ends by saying that John proclaimed ‘good news’ to the people. How could exhortations of such ferocity be good news?  Here we get the first inkling that true ‘salvation’ will be quite different to what the Israelites supposed would happen, and to the things that we in our time might long for.  The ‘warrior in your midst who gives victory’ will be born in a stable, not a palace, and die on a Cross. That revelation truly was, and is, a mystery, the mystery of the Incarnation that millions of Christians across the world are about to celebrate.

Monday, November 30, 2015


Zecharias and Elizabeth -- Stanley Spenser

This is one of those relatively rare Sundays when the Psalm is replaced by a Canticle – a Bible passage whose beauty and power makes it the equivalent of poetry. The three most famous and widely used canticles all come from Luke’s Gospel, and they occur in the first two chapters, just before and after the birth of Jesus. The Magnificat -- the song of the Virgin Mary as she realizes the significance of the burden that God has given her – is the most famous, but the Benedictus which is assigned for this Sunday is no less powerful.
The context is dramatic. Zechariah is taking his turn as a priest in the temple when he is struck dumb by a powerful vision. It tells him that the son that is about to be born to him should have a name – John -- that marks him out from the family into which he will be born. When the child arrives, Zechariah’s speech returns and he breaks into this wonderful hymn of praise – a canticle that many prayer books use every day.
John the Baptist -- Alexander Ivanov
Zechariah’s insight is that he is living at a time when the historic promises God made to Israel are about to be fulfilled, and he sees the child that has been born to him in old age as having a key role in it. But the third of Luke’s canticles –– Simeon’s praise in the temple, the Nunc Dimittis -- corrects a misunderstanding. Although this is Zechariah's hymn of praise, it is not his son John, but Jesus, yet to be born, in whom ‘the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’.
Both the lesson from Malachi and the accompanying Gospel make clear, however, that Zechariah is right to think that his son has a key role in the plan of salvation. John is Malachi's 'messenger who will prepare the way', truly a ‘prophet of the Most High’. His appointed task is to proclaim, in his fiery way, that an essential first step is repentance. We cannot be rescued from ‘darkness and the shadow of death’ unless first we recognize our need to be, and deeply long for light.

Monday, November 23, 2015


Last Judgment Mural - Ivan Bilibin
Advent I is the start of a new Christian year. The readings are always powerfully apocalyptic – passages from Jeremiah and Luke (this year) or Isaiah and Matthew (last year) that focus on the end of time, and the Second Coming of Christ. Why do we begin the year by thinking about the Second Coming, and not the First – the birth of Jesus? The answer is that the Incarnation is NOT the start of the story of our salvation, but rather a crucial moment within it. At the start of a new spiritual year it is essential that we bring to mind the great cosmic sweep of time within which God acts – from Creation to Redemption – and thereby renew our sense of the immeasurable ‘power, might and majesty’ of the God we worship, a sense easily, and comfortably, submerged in the more homely images of Bethlehem.
At the same time, this is not simply a matter of cosmic theology. The task is to shape our own lives around the very same story, and to grasp this truth -- that for each one of us Birth is the moment of creation and Death the end of time, and that at some point in our journey from the cradle to the grave, God comes to us in Christ as our salvation.
The Last Judgment -- Limbourg Brothers (1400)
Advent I is also the Sunday on which Anglicans throughout the world use Thomas Cranmer’s most enduring Collect, a prayer that he specially composed for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It is powerful testimony to Crammer’s spiritual gifts that this prayer has served its purpose for more than 460 years, and even now has been retained in all the newest versions of the Prayerbook. This is because of the incomparable way in which Cranmer uses Biblical phrases to weave together the cosmic and the personal aspects of Advent. Arguably the most beautiful of all his Collects, its words gives us the means to articulate a deep understanding of the human condition within which we must pursue our lives.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


King  David  - Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall King David
This is the closing Sunday of the Christian year, and celebrates Christ as King. In the modern lectionary the traditional description 'Feast of Christ the King' has been replaced by 'The Reign of Christ' no doubt because the image of ‘king’ does not have much resonance in the modern world where ‘democracy’ is the prevailing political ideal.  In this respect, the United States can be thought to have led the way. It was founded on the outright rejection of royalty, and an affirmation of the equality of rich and poor. We are given a choice of Old Testament readings. Choosing the passage from 2 Samuel allows us focus on David, the greatest of all Israel’s kings, rather on a more general image of kingship, and since the focus on David brings to the fore the theme that Jesus is ‘of David’s line’, something that is emphasized at Christmas, we seem on more obviously religious or theological ground with that.
Christ in Judgement c.1100
But in fact, the difference is merely one of emphasis. It is David’s kingship that matters. His status in first century Judaism was like George Washington’s in American political culture – uniquely important, and in no way diminished, in either case, by any human failings they may have had. In the time of Jesus, Israel’s hopes, by and large, were still pinned on the thought that a new David would arise, and return the Jewish nation to its rightful place as a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’. As history turned out, it was not to be. What Christians believe is that, against this background, God acted to reveal a quite different kind of kingship – ‘not of this world’ – as Jesus expressly says in the Gospel passage for this Sunday, a ‘kingship’ revealed, strangely, in a ‘crown of thorns’. The fundamental message runs counter to the hopes people pin on all political programs, and not just those of old fashioned royalists.
So, to celebrate the Reign of Christ properly, we must be sure to avoid all hints of triumphalism, any implied suggestion that ‘our man’ won out over his enemies in the end. Rather, we need, in a spirit of wondering humility, to find a way of accepting that, as Isaiah says, God’s ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. And yet, it is His ways that will and should prevail. The incarnation of God in the journey of Jesus from manger to cross makes it possible for us to do that. Celebrating Christ as King is our acknowledgment of this fundamental truth.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Destruction of the Temple -- Hayez (1867)
It is almost impossible for us to imagine the skyscrapers of New York or Capitol Hill in Washington DC lying in ruins in just a few years time, never to be rebuilt. If anyone predicted it, we could not take him seriously. The prediction that Jesus makes in the Gospel for this Sunday must have struck his hearers in just this way -- quite unbelievable to everyone except his fanatical disciples. Such 'large buildings' couldn't just disappear. Yet he was right. Within forty years, the massive Temple at Jerusalem, a symbol for the Jews of the enduring stability of their faith, was destroyed by Rome, the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. But, Jesus adds, the destruction of the Temple and the wars that will follow it are just the start. There is much worse to follow.

These apocalyptic passages from the Gospels are often thought to be embarrassing. They seem to put Jesus in the same class as those eccentric people who walk the streets with a billboard declaring ‘The End of the World is Nigh”. Still, it has to be remembered that the Roman Empire did indeed collapse. The Jewish Temple was ruined in 70 AD and never rebuilt. The imperial Capitol eventually went the same way, and by the 4th century the culture of Greece and Rome that had shaped the world for centuries came to an end.  In time, of course, other 'powers and dominions' arose to take its place -- up to and including our international ‘global village’ and the internet by which it is connected. It is both unimaginable and certain that our world too will come to an end.

Hannah Praying in the Temple - Marc Chagall
The ‘triumph’ of Jesus over sin and death stands in sharp contrast to the dominance of the Temple and the might of Rome. Jesus was a Prince of a quite different kind. Since he was executed as a criminal, his mission must have been declared a spectacular failure had he aimed at establishing more powerful and enduring political and military institutions.  Yet “by this single offering” the passage from Hebrews tells us, “he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”. It all seems highly implausible. Nevertheless, and contrary to every expectation, “the bows of the mighty are broken, while the feeble gird on strength”, as Hannah reminds us in the Book of Samuel. When the mighty Roman Empire began to crumble, a truly different kind of institution took root  in an obscure corner of the Empire. A few humble people formed the kernal of the Church. That mystical Body is now one in which billions of people, both living and dead, are united as in Christ Jesus. Build as we might, it is here, and only here, the Gospel tells us, that we can expect to find ‘an abiding city’.

Monday, November 2, 2015


Boaz wakes to find Ruth at his feet -- Marc Chagall
It is hard to avoid the sense that this week’s combination of readings – whether in the continuous track or the thematic track – are somewhat random. Both the Old Testament lessons are about women in need of protection and support who have to make striking accommodations with the world in which they live. The Epistle continues the Hebrews theme of Christ’s priesthood, while the Gospel from Mark recounts the episode known as ‘the widow’s mite’. This is the occasion when Jesus praises a widow woman who has given a tiny sum of money to the synagogue in preference to the wealthy people he had seen give far larger sums.
All of these are interesting passages, and in three of them women figure notably. But it is hard to find any one 'message' around which they seem to coalesce.  
There is, however, an obvious lesson we can draw from the brief Gospel episode. Generosity is relative to the resources of the giver. This obvious truth makes it odd that human beings should be so impressed by ‘big bucks’. We always hear about huge philanthropic gifts – from Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bill Gates and so on – and even though we know that these have cost them very little, if anything, by way of personal sacrifice, we’re still impressed. In sharp contrast, we don’t hear much about small philanthropic gestures that constitute a real sacrifice on the part of the givers, who for the sake of something, or someone, other than themselves, have forgone things they wanted, or even needed. It is the size of a gift that always captures the headlines. And yet this never measures its generosity. 

However obvious this truth may be, it is worth repeating again and again.Yet it does not take us to the heart of the Gospel message. This impoverished woman is giving the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem all that she has to live on. Her tiny ‘mite’ demonstrates the personal depths to which faith in God can go far more powerfully than the ‘showy’ religion on which Jesus comments in the preceding verses. At the same, there is no denying that it is the hypocrites he condemns who get worldly acclaim, while the poor widow remains in her poverty. In this way her case presented Jesus’ hearer, with a real counter-cultural challenge. And so it does for us and our world also. Which, in all honesty, do we prefer – the kind of success that contemporary society undoubtedly favors (and which, sometimes, conventional church going can help along), or the spiritual sincerity and simplicity that brings us closer to God?
picture: MAFA Widows Mite

Thursday, October 29, 2015


All Saints picture - Albrecht Durer
All Saints - Durer
All Saints' Day is a 'principal feast' of the Church. So when it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, it takes precedence over the usual sequence of Sundays in Pentecost. The readings differ over the three years of the lectionary, and in interestingly different ways they reflect on themes associated with 'the 'Communion of Saints' -- death, heaven, martyrdom, glory, and life in the presence of God. The readings for this year include Psalm 24 which asks a key question: "Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?" The same Psalm supplies an answer: "Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false. . . They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation." It is natural to ask, however, just how inclusive the company of saints is and will be.

In times past, and in many places still, there is a separate 'Commemoration of All Souls' one day later, on November 2nd. Thus, traditionally a distinction has been drawn between 'exceptional' Christians, and others of a more ordinary 'wayfaring' sort.

All Souls' Night - Bradley Walker Tomlin
All Souls Night -- Bradley Walker Tomlin (1947)
In recent times, especially in the United States, the practice has arisen of effectively converging the two days, and making All Saints Day an occasion for commemorating all the 'faithful departed' as well. There are a number of explanations for this change. Some are historical and have to do with Protestant anxieties about masses for the dead. But in some minds there is also a spirit of egalitarianism at work -- the idea being that our prayers and celebration ought to be inclusive, of everyone, regardless. There is something to be said for this, of course. Yet it is a loss too. Not only does it diminish the extraordinary and inspiring faithfulness that only some Christians have shown in the face of difficulty, adversity and persecution, it also leaves the ordinary wayfarer with nothing to aspire to.

St Paul, in a famous metaphor, describes the task of  Christians as 'running the race set before us'. In the actual world of athletics, we don't expect everyone to be a winner, and we admire the exceptional accomplishments of a few. Perhaps we should preserve this aspect of Paul's metaphor. Saints, we are told, are those who have been 'the lights in their generations'. To describe everyone in this way unhelpfully disguises the fact that the vast majority of Christians who are trying to be faithful need a few such lights along the way.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Kneeling Beggar  Vasily Surikov (1886)
This week's readings continue a pattern they have followed for several weeks past --  passages from the Epistle to the Hebrews are set alongside passages from the Gospel of Mark. It is an interesting, but also slightly puzzling combination. For the most part Mark relates episodes in which Jesus figures as a teacher, a prophet, a leader and a healer. The extracts from Hebrews, on the other hand, insist again and again that we should see Jesus as priest. This is a label Mark never employs. The readings for this week follow the same pattern. Mark tells the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar whose persistence finally wins him the attention of Jesus. His request is plain and simple – ‘I want to see again’ and his sight is indeed restored. How does this healing ministry fit with the description of Jesus in Hebrews as ‘high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled’?
Jesus’ ‘healing ministry’ is not as straightforward as it may appear. First, in many of the examples Mark gives us – the crazy man by the lakeside, the woman with the hemorrhage, the centurion -- Jesus does not seek out the sufferers in order to heal them. Rather, they push themselves forward. Second, he makes no claim to healing powers, but says ‘Your faith has made you well’. Third, when healing takes place – to the astonishment of lookers – the disciples are told not to spread the word, to keep it secret. All these are clues that however much their new found health  means to the individuals concerned, in the context of Jesus' ministry, physical healing must not be the main focus. We will, in fact, have lost its true meaning, if we do not see it pointing beyond the physical to things spiritual.

Christ Blessing -- Messina (1495)
‘Actions speak louder than words’. When say this we are generally thinking of cases in which deeds communicate a message with a force that mere words would lack. This is how it is with the actions of Jesus. Often, the healing miracles should be interpreted as spiritual ‘signs’ rather than medical ‘wonders’. Bartimaeous embodies both the sort of deep longing that has the strength to persist, and a faith founded on absolute trust. His physical blindness, and the restoration of his sight, provide Jesus with an occasion that he can use to prompt the onlookers, and Bartimaeous, and us, to a new awareness of spiritual blindness. The dark and narrow minded  paths in which our lives so often go is the  blindness from which Christ continues to free us, if only we sincerely long for him to do so. He does this, Hebrews tells us, because on the Cross he makes a sacrifice that renders every other sacrifice redundant. Priest and healer, it seems, are not so far apart after all.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


At the Icon of the Savior - Boris Kustodiev (1910)

This week, somewhat unusually, the Continuous and Thematic lectionary readings have a common resonance. Both culminate in a Gospel passage from Mark, and the thread that runs through all of them is the relation between personal suffering and faith in God. The Book of Job poses the question – why do good people suffer terrible things? It is in this third extract (rather than in next week’s ‘happy ending’) that we find the answer. In response to Job’s cries, and in contrast to all the possible explanations that his human comforters have offered him, God finally answers him. The 'answer' turns out to be a series of questions in fact: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!” Though the phrase ‘surely you know’ seems to have an element of ridicule about it, it underlines something important. We owe to God our ‘creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life’ (as the General Thanksgiving expresses it), so when the Lord takes away what He has given, he does us no wrong. Still, in our pain and loss we can curse Him, or we can continue to bless Him. That is the very hard choice we face, as Job does. The Psalm that accompanies this reading expressly invites us to choose the second option – ‘Bless the Lord O my soul!’

The Apostles James and John,
 Museum of Santiago Compostela

But the New Testament does not leave the matter there. The Epistle echoes Isaiah’s powerful description (in the Thematic OT reading) of the ‘suffering servant’ ‘wounded for our transgressions’. Building on the idea that we are healed by his bruises, it points to the crucial importance of God’s suffering in Jesus. ‘Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’. The Gospel recounts that somewhat embarrassing occasion when James and John push themselves forward for special treatment in heaven, and thereby reveal how drastically they misunderstand what discipleship means. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ Jesus asks, and to do so without any special promise of glory. ‘We are’ they proudly reply. And so indeed James ultimately proved to be since (Acts tells us) he became the first Apostle to be killed, in a brutal persecution. But by that time, of course, he had a different assurance – Christ’s Resurrection.

The terrible sufferings we see in this world, and sometimes experience for ourselves, constitute a human problem that will not go away. For the Christian, though, suffering is not merely something inexplicable, an unfortunate by-product of evolution. There is meaning to be found in it, if we treat it as a spiritual mystery. In Jesus, God chose suffering for Himself as the way to our salvation. This is a mystery, but the Resurrection is not the happy ending that the Book of Job will offer us next week. It signals the power of love to defeat evil, not by eliminating it, or compensating us for it, but by transcending it.

Monday, October 5, 2015


St. Francis - Nicholas Roerich
St Francis Nicholas Roerich (1931)
Christianity has always been somewhat ambivalent about poverty. On the one hand, from the earliest times the relief of poverty has been seen as a sacred Christian duty, and it continues to be an indispensable part of the Church’s work at home and abroad. On the other hand, poverty has also been held out as a Christian ideal. St Francis, whose feast day is celebrated in October, famously made ‘Lady Poverty’ his spiritual companion. But if poverty is such a good thing, why are Christians trying to relieve it? 
The Gospel for this Sunday makes this question even more pressing. In a striking (and original) image Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. That seems to mean that prosperity is a bad thing. If this is the true, then are we wrong to look and work for a world in which economic prosperity puts an end to poverty.  If that truly is the Christian message, it can't expect to receive much of hearing. Of course, it's always possible to fudge the issue by confining the description ‘rich’ to the phenomenally wealthy few --millionaires or billionaires. But that really does not work. By historical standards and in comparison with many other parts of the world today, huge numbers of people in developed countries count as ‘rich’. Compared to us, the 'rich young ruler' who walked sadly away was not so very rich. 
The rich - Remedios Varo
The Rich Remedios Varo (1958)
So what are we to think about wealth and poverty? It’s important to see that in this passage from Mark Jesus is addressing a particular young man, someone with sincere spiritual longings. Jesus doesn’t criticize or condemn him, but ‘looking at him, loved him’. Yet when, out of love, he points to the thing that stands in the way of these longings, the young man is shocked and grieved. In this reaction he reveals that his wealth is a serious spiritual obstacleThis is the perspective from which we need to examine ourselves. Taking faith in Jesus seriously, obliges us to admit that being as wealthy as we are means running a great spiritual risk. The pursuit of worldly goods, even at a relatively modest level can become everything, and our 'spiritual' quest not much more challenging than a personal hobby. At the same time, though, poverty can be an obstacle to grace – a condition of life so grinding that the human spirit cannot rise above the level of mere survival. In reality, then, the two ideals -- eschewing wealth and relieving poverty -- can and should be brought together.  
Jesus, the Epistle to the Hebrews declares, is one 'who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. Christians in the wealthy Western world are often spiritually encumbered by their wealth. Their need is to get rid of that encumbrance. By freely giving it away, they open themselves up again to the things of eternal life. In very same act, these gifts, if thoughtfully directed, can alleviate the needs of others. To free people from grinding poverty is open a door to their spiritual liberty.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


The Evils of Job  William Blake
The aim of the ‘Continuous’ track on the Revised Common Lectionary readings is to take us through a significant portion of the Old Testament over a few Sundays. Accordingly, this is the first of four devoted to the Book of Job, usually classified as part of the Bible’s ‘wisdom literature’. It is one of the most ancient treatments of a recurring question – why does God let terrible things happen to good people? – though the book is almost as perplexing as the question it deals with. As a result, four short extracts are not really enough to enable us understand it, so this is one of those occasions when the Lectionary hopes to encourage us to read the whole book for ourselves over the course of the month.

Towards the end, God finally answers Job ‘out of the whirlwind’ -- with an unapologetic assertion of the inscrutability of His purposes, and a refusal to answer to human judgment!. There is a harshness about this that seems very far from the idea of a loving God. Yet, read alongside Job Chapter 28, one of the most beautiful passages in the whole Bible, it can powerfully bring home to us the immense and mysterious gap between humanity and divinity, and leave us pondering on the awesome majesty of God.

Adam and Eve - Francis Picabia
Adam and Eve (1931) Francis Picabia
It is the topic of marriage and family life that links the alternative ‘Thematic’ Old Testament reading with both the Epistle and the Gospel. A well known passage from Genesis, in which Eve is given to Adam because ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’, is matched with the Gospel passage in which Jesus both speaks against divorce, and stresses how much we have to learn from children. The Epistle tells us that God ‘did not subject the coming world . . . to angels’ but to ‘mortals’. Accordingly, it is human relationships --  parent, child, brother, sister – that provide us with the best concepts in which to think about our relationship to God.

At the center of these family relationships lies marriage – and with it, divorce. The church has long grappled with issues of  marriage and divorce, and over the last few decades with a new question - whether marriage is properly confined to a man and a woman. These are difficult questions that are also divisive. But they are not going away, and so, somehow, the Church must struggle to accommodate the conflicting points of view at which equally faithful Christians have arrived. This week’s readings point to the context that makes this struggle so significant and compelling. The Psalm marvels that out of the whole creation God is especially mindful of human beings, setting them ‘little lower than the angels’. The Epistle repeats the Psalmist’s words and underlines their astonishing nature. Part of the marvel lies in this: God has made the human relationships into which we are born central to our deepest insights into His Divine life – itself a communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Human relationships, in other words, are key to our hope of participating in the life of God. That is why the way we regard them matters so much..

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Queen Esther John Everett Millais (1829-96)
At this time of year the Revised Common Lectionary offers quite a few options. These relate chiefly to the Old Testament lessons and the Psalm. Sometimes there is a choice with respect to the Epistle, but the Gospel is always fixed. This week one OT lesson relates the final episode in the story of Esther, the beautiful Queen who relied on her royal husband’s love to subvert the malicious scheme by which the King’s adviser Haman planned the destruction of her people, the Jews. The words of the Psalm appointed to be sung with it (Ps 124) reflect the outcome – ‘Let Israel now say; If the LORD had not been on our side, when enemies rose up against us; Then would they have swallowed us up alive in their fierce anger toward us’.
The alternative OT lesson comes from the Book of Numbers and connects more directly with the Epistle and Gospel. It too recounts a very human episode, one of those many occasions when, in the course of their wilderness wanderings, the Children of Israel complain about living conditions (this time the lack of fresh meat) and accuse Moses of having led them to disaster rather than liberation. Moses expresses to God the kind of exasperation that many clergy have felt about the congregations committed to their charge – Why have you given me sole spiritual responsibility for these people? In response to Moses’ complaint, God appeals directly to seventy elders who might assist him. But the impact is short lived. Only two take up the task of prophet. And yet Joshua complains about them! They are threatening Moses’ special position.

Young John Wesley Preaching -- John Russell (1745-1806)
The words with which Moses rebukes Joshua are very similar to those of Jesus in the Gospel reading. When John complains to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us’,  Jesus replies, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us’. One lesson to be learnt is this. The task of 'the Great Commission' -- spreading and maintaining the Christian faith -- is so significant, it requires far more than just a few people to undertake it. By the very same token, it is a task that those already at work on it have to be willing to share with those who have recently come to the task.

Of course, some, perhaps many, who take up the message will indeed get it wrong, or they will preach it badly. But the Epistle (from James) wants us to see this not as a threat, but as an opportunity –‘if anyone among you wanders from the truth’ then ‘whoever brings back a sinner from wandering . . . will cover a multitude of sins’.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


The Martyr -- Marc Chagall (1970)

When people speak of ‘faith in the goodness of God’, they often mean that God can be expected to resolve the difficulties faced by those who believe in Him. The ‘problem of evil’ arises because, obviously, very often this simply isn’t the case. Bad things happen to good people.

This week’s extract from the Wisdom of Solomon bears directly on this issue. Wicked people, the writer tells us, despise righteous people. They think righteousness is foolishness, precisely because it is no protection from suffering and disaster. ‘If the righteous man is God's child’ they say, ‘he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture . . . Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected’.

Now of course, at one level their ‘test’ may seem to confirm their assessment. Yet the writer goes on to tell us that while ‘thus they reasoned, they were led astray, their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls’. What is the 'wage for holiness', the 'prize for blameless souls'? Whatever it is, experience shows that it is not worldly success, or even comfort. Accordingly, faith in the goodness of God cannot be faith that God will be sure to make good things happen; it has to be faith that, whatever happens, God alone is good.

The Gospel for this week reveals, though, that it is a very hard faith to hold on to. The disciples simply cannot fathom Jesus’ warning that the ‘prophet’ they have followed for three years, and to whom they have more or less given over their daily lives, is going to be betrayed and killed like a criminal. To them this must be failure. Jesus, in sharp contrast, sees that the deepest faith in God will probably lead to the 'insult and torture' of the Cross. So the most central belief of the Christian religion is that, however mysterious, on the Cross it is evil, not goodness, that is defeated.

They Brought the Children - Vasely Polenov (1900)
Oddly, this passage about violence and death,  provides the background to a touching moment when Jesus takes a child in his arms. Real spiritual understanding, he seems to say, has a childlike quality about it. All these centuries later, it is easier for us to understand what the disciples at this stage in the Gospel story could not. But it is no less difficult for us than for them to strip away the presuppositions we bring to hearing the Word of God. Children in their innocence often (though not always) have a kind of honesty and simplicity that makes them open to the truth of things. Rightly, the process of growing up requires us to put away childishness. But it also brings with it the risk that in doing so we will lose the childlike openness which is a condition of wisdom, and, as the Epistle of James warns, become 'worldly wise' instead.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


Titian's 'Wisdom' (1560)
This week’s readings are linked by an unmistakable purpose; they all issue stern warnings. The Gospel even expressly describes Jesus as ‘sternly’ ordering  his disciples not to tell people that he is the Messiah. This is somewhat strange, though. Has he not just invited them to name him in precisely this way? And aren’t they supposed to be spreading the Good News of his Messiahship?  So why the stern warning? The answer becomes almost immediately apparent. Jesus does not want the disciples proclaiming him to be the Messiah until they themselves fully understand what that means. Peter’s response to the prospect of Christ’s sufferings and death shows very clearly that they do NOT yet understand. 
The famous instruction about Christian discipleship that follows -- ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’ -- is given partly to correct this deep misunderstanding. It is of course a paradox, but it is one that lies at the very center of the Gospel. No saying of Jesus warrants closer attention. Setting it in the context of this week’s other warnings, however, draws our attention to a more general lesson. The Old Testament lessons from Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon warn us about the importance of thinking and acting wisely, and the risk of being 'wise after the event' when our own foolishness has already led us into disaster. The Epistle of James, in a complementary spirit, warns us about the special danger attached to setting ourselves up as those who can teach others-- that we 'will be judged with greater strictness'. The point is that the talents most effective in imparting wisdom and teaching the truth are the very same talents by which we need convince ourselves, as well as others, that some attractive, even admirable, things are in fact false and foolish.
Rubens St James the Apostle (1612)

In other words, be sure you really know what the Christian Gospel truly teaches, especially if you set yourself up to teach it. Being sincere and well intentioned in what you believe and what you tell others is not enough. Sincerity and error often go together. This important message runs strongly counter to much  contemporary opinion. Nowadays the ideas of truth and wisdom are often given second place to personal sincerity and good intentions -- a belief that contemporary Christians sign up to no less readily than non-Christians. But this Sunday's lessons say very clearly: Be warned! Wisdom and truth have key roles to play in Christian faith and conduct. Sincerity and commitment, however deep, are not enough.