Sunday, January 25, 2015


 The Prophet - Zao Wou Ki (1920-2013)

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. So says St Paul in this week’s Epistle. He thereby seems to endorse a widely held belief that feelings are much more important than theological doctrines when it comes to Christian faith, or even more generally (as in the well known song) that ‘All you need is Love!’  Yet, in the very next paragraph Paul emphasizes the importance of not mistaking idols for the one true God. This is knowledge not everyone has, he says, and it can make a crucial difference. So is love enough or not? Or do we need real knowledge of what we ought to love

The other two readings throw some light on this important issue. The Old Testament passage from Deuteronomy could not make it plainer that God uses prophets -- people of special insight who will reveal his Word -- and that one such prophet will stand out from all the rest.  The Gospel passage casts Jesus in this light -- as someone who teaches, but with an authority greater than all the other prophets. The heart of this short episode is to be found in the opening paragraph, in fact, because the extraordinary power to heal demented people that he subsequently demonstrates, is taken as awesome evidence of this special prophetic authority.

Fallen Demon - Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)
Theological speculation can indeed be a kind of knowledge that puffs up. It is possible to attain impressive expertise in a highly sophisticated intellectual enterprise that, in reality, has very little to do with knowing how to live a life of faith.  At the same time, this is no license for anti-intellectualism, the kind of Christianity that abandons reason in favor of emotion. John’s Gospel explicitly describes Jesus as ‘the Truth’, and elsewhere Paul tells us that ‘the Truth’ will set us free. It can only do so if we know what the truth is – precisely the task that we have, literally, God-given  minds to work on.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


    Calling Disciples He Qi

This week’s readings are remarkably short. The Gospel continues the story of Jesus’ early ministry. The times were turbulent, and dangerous ones for Jewish prophets and teachers, who were easily branded political rebels or dissidents. John the Baptist’s arrest is the signal for Jesus to leave his home in Nazareth and establish himself on the shores of Galilee, the familiar location of so many Gospel stories. It is here that he finds and calls the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John who were to be his ‘core’ disciples and, after his death and resurrection, his apostles.

The Prophet Jonah -- Tissot
Mark’s account of this episode is rather briefer than the one given by Matthew, who links the Galilean context to the prophecies of Isaiah. The lectionary, however, establishes another important Biblical resonance that underlines the connection with John the Baptist.  Jonah is sent to call Nineveh to repentance, and does so successfully.  

Interspersed between the readings from Jonah and Mark, though, is one of those awkward passages that seem inextricably tied to a belief that the world will end very soon. Paul tells the Corinthians to abandon their normal way of life completely, even to the point of ignoring familial obligations to both the living and the dead. We know, of course, that ‘the appointed time’ had not ‘grown short’, since the world is still here almost two thousand years later. Paul’s apocalyptic tone, however, is not without purpose even yet. Repentance does require us to see our normal life in a quite different light, and to radically review our priorities. Without that, discipleship loses its spiritual edge, and degenerates into conventional piety -- just going through the familiar motions.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


The Calling of Samuel -- Joshua Reynolds

Vocation, and what it implies, is the unmistakable theme that unifies this week’s readings. The Old Testament lesson tells the compelling story of the boy Samuel wakened in the night by a voice. Understandably, he takes it to be his aging master Eli calling for assistance. What else could it be? God is unlikely to call a mere boy in preference to a priest of wisdom and experience. Rather poignantly, it is Eli himself who helps Samuel to understand that this truly is God’s voice, even though by calling Samuel to be the priest and prophet of the Chosen People, God is thereby signaling the end of Eli's own religious role.

In the Gospel passage from John, Jesus calls two disciples, Phillip and his friend Nathanael. Phillip’s call is brief and to the point, Nathanael’s rather less so, though both accept the call. The New Testament has very little more to tell us about Nathanael, but the question he asks in this brief episode is deeply resonant with meaning -- “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Such immediate skepticism makes him an unlikely candidate for discipleship. Yet the fact that Jesus sees it and overcomes it, is the evidence that he is truly called.
Philip the Apostle -- Duccio

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The answer, strangely, is 'Yes'. The redemption of the world came from this undistinguished village, and not from a great cultural center like Athens, an imperial capital like Rome, or a place of religious pilgrimage like Jerusalem. The story of Samuel and the insignificance of Nazareth are both reminders of this truth: the first step to discipleship is openness to the possibility of God's preferring places and people that from a human point of view seem very unlikely or unpromising. It is a truth that the beautiful Psalm for this Sunday underlines. ‘LORD, you have searched me out and known me . . . you discern my thoughts from afar”. Divine vocation is not a matter of chance, but based on God's intimate knowledge of us, a ‘knowledge  . . . so high that I cannot attain to it’.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


John Baptizes Jesus -- MAFA (Cameroon)
As we move from the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan 6th) to the Baptism of Christ (Jan 11th) we fast forward through the life of Christ by nearly three decades. Yet, though they are separated by quite a stretch of historical time, both celebrations fall into the same liturgical season -- 'Epiphany'. This is because the visit of the Magi to the stable and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, along with the wedding at Cana, are ‘epiphanic moments’, which is to say, occasions which make manifest the fact tha those who encounter the person of the historical Jesus are encountering the eternal Christ. 
Leonardo da Vinci's Baptism of Christ
Only Matthew's Gospel has the story of the Magi. Only John's Gospel has the wedding at Cana. But all four Gospels relate the one time that Jesus and John the Baptist encounter each other -- when John baptizes Jesus. This year the Lectionary uses Mark’s version, and in it John makes it plain that while he offers a ‘washing away of sin’, the coming of Jesus will complete this, with a spiritual transformation.The reading from Acts shows that John's placing himself in a secondary, preparatory position to Jesus, was one that the early Christians believed and affirmed.
There is a theological puzzle here, however. If baptism is 'washing away of sin', the sinless Jesus cannot need it. Why then does he submit to it? By this action, however, Jesus declares his identification with humanity, and shows repentance to be a precondition of a transformation that is possible even for sinful human beings. The descending of the dove is the ‘epiphany’ of this story. Quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance is revealed to us -- that divinity  can perfect humanity.