Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Baptism of the Eunuch -- Rembrandt 1626
This week three much loved passages make up the readings. The first tells the arresting story of an encounter between a spiritually curious Ethiopian, and Philip the Evangelist, one of seven ‘deacons’ the early church appointed, not to be confused with Philip the Apostle, one of the Twelve. The deacons’ special  role was to take responsibility for help and assistance to poor Christians, and thus free others to be preachers -- though as this episode, and Philip’s title ‘Evangelist’  shows, deacons could also be very effective in spreading the Gospel.

The second reading is taken from the first Letter of John. This letter, the most frequently quoted Epistle not authored by Paul, boldly and unqualifiedly asserts that ‘God is love’. It is the very affirmation, of course, that underlay the creation of deacons as visible  agents of that love. On the surface, the Gospel passage seems to have a different tone. Jesus develops the metaphor of the True Vine in a way that ends with a warning. Like the metaphor of the Good Shepherd (from last week), however, this image is drawn from a world very different to ours, and so needs a little interpretative work to ‘get the message’.
Icon of 'The True Vine'
The message, contrary to appearance perhaps, does explain the connection between this Gospel and the readings that precede it. Together they reflect three fundamental truths about Jesus that lie at the heart of the Christian faith. First, Jesus is the suffering servant to whom Isaiah, the greatest of all the Jewish prophets, looked for Israel’s salvation. Second, God and love are so deeply intertwined that even a ‘sheep led to the slaughter’ is a far more adequate means, and expression, of God’s saving power than any ‘conquering hero’ would be. Third we will only be transformed into the image of the God of love if we allow our lives to become wholly dependent for their vitality on life in Christ.

Apart from Christ we ‘can do nothing’, and may as well be withered branches, at most worth throwing on a fire. God is love, but the price of divine love (in human terms) is high. That is what Jesus showed on the Cross, and what human beings often struggle to acknowledge.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Henry Ossawa Tanner The Good Shepherd (1903)
The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday. It gets this name partly from the fact that the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ – but chiefly because, in each of the three years of the lectionary, the Gospel for the day is taken from John Chapter 10, in which Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself.

The three passages all have a slightly different emphasis. Verses 11-18 provide the reading in Year B (this year). In these verses Jesus dwells on the contrast between a shepherd tending his own sheep, and a hired hand who is merely looking after some else’s. When danger threatens the flock, the hired hand flees; the true shepherd stays to defend them – even to the point of ‘laying down his life’.

Good Shepherd mosaic
This is certainly an exaggeration. Even the most devoted shepherds are  unlikely to die in defense of their sheep? Hyperbole of this kind is characteristic of Middle Eastern story telling, but it serves to make a powerful point. Applied to Jesus, the image of the 'good shepherd' most importantly draws our attention not just to the Crucifixion, but to the Resurrection. On the cross, Jesus hangs in complete isolation, abandoned by his followers. Fear and faithlessness has led every one of his 'sheep' to scatter. He is left alone, crushed by pain and surrounded by hatred.

Yet, amazingly, it is for these very 'sheep' that he has given his life, and accordingly, it is his feeble followers that the Risen Christ first seeks out. His love for those he has made ‘his own’ transcends an impossibly testing time. Sheep they may be, but they are his, and as we now know, this love transforms them. 

The Epistle draws the obvious moral lesson – ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us . . . How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’. The love embodied in the Risen Christ returning to gather his sheep together again both demands and inspires this response.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


St Peter Preaching -- Massacio

If there is a single idea that unites the readings for this Sunday it is ‘astonishment’. Astonishment has two sides. While we often describe something that astonishes us as ‘unbelievable’, we also explain the fact that some things fail to astonish us by saying that they are not 'believable'. That's how the Resurrection is for many modern people; they aren’t astonished by it, precisely because it's unbelievable.

Luke's Gospel shows that, despite our modern self-image, in this respect the disciples were not so very different from people today. They too were skeptical, and they thought that the Jesus who seemed to appear among them was more likely to be a ghost than a resurrected person – hence the physical touching and eating that Jesus uses to convince them otherwise. Since there is no body for us to 'touch', we can either accept the written record of their testimony, or we can say that the disciples must have been subject to some strange delusion or imaginative flight of fancy. Still, even if a 'bodily' resurrection were proven, this would not be sufficient to prove other ‘astonishing’ elements that, spiritually speaking, are in many ways far more important.

Dali -- Christ St John of the Cross
First, the Gospels proclaim that a crucified non-entity turns out be the Messiah the Children of Israel had long yearned for. This is no less 'unbelievable'. Equally, it is hard to believe that Jesus’ 'victory' meant forgiveness, not vengeance, for the very people who had demanded his death and preferred the release of a proven murderer. And can it also be (as the Epistle holds) that the most ordinary people -- like them and us -- can look forward to a Christ-like future? These are among the no less truly astonishing claims that the passage from Acts tells us Peter made when he preached in the market place.

There is a preconceived idea, widely held, that people in past times were able to believe things that a modern, scientific culture like ours cannot. The Gospel passage for this Sunday shows that Christians have good reason to combat this assumption. Despite enormous economic, cultural and technological changes, people then were not so radically different to people now. We should be open to their having truly witnessed a bodily Resurrection. At the same time, it would be a mistake to lose sight of the fact that it is the religiously, and not merely the scientifically astonishing that it is essential for our world to recover.

Monday, April 6, 2015


Jesus appears to the Disciples -- National Cathedral mosaic
The Gospel readings for the ‘octave’ of Easter -- the eight days immediately following Easter Day -- recount the post-Resurrection appearances of a bodily Jesus. They conclude with the story of ‘doubting’ Thomas, which provides the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter in all three years of the Lectionary. Shortly thereafter, though, the readings return to pre-Resurrection episodes, and even to occasions when Jesus is anticipating his crucifixion.

This pattern might suggest that as Easter recedes, so does the message of resurrection. Obviously that is not right, but the return to pre-Resurrection episodes does serve as a helpful reminder that the bodily appearances of Jesus proved to be a special gift, to a very few disciples, for a very short time. Moreover, it was only after these appearances ceased, that the strange fact of the Resurrection, and the significance of its redeeming power, really took hold on the followers of Jesus. It was following Christ's Ascension that they were led to start proclaiming (in the words of the Epistle) that “what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” has a far wider implication than a miraculous event. The Resurrection is “the word of life” – which is to say, it is about how we should live.  

Christ and nails
One aspect of the way that early Christians revolutionized their lives is especially striking. They abandoned “private ownership of any possessions”, Acts tells us, sharing their material possessions so that “there was not a needy person among them”. Something like this admirable arrangement is extolled in the very short Psalm that follows. But it did not persist, and given human beings as they are, it could not have been expected to last. The heady days of the early Church, as Paul's letters confirm, were soon displaced by the emergence of a 'human, all too human' institution. Yet, the fragility of the kind of life that the first Christians embraced, does not render the Gospel they proclaimed empty. On the contrary, it points to its vital double sidedness  -- reality constantly renewed by hope. However mundane the Church temporal, Christians cannot relinquish the hope of the Church triumphant -- that deep unity waiting to be discovered in the Risen and Ascended Christ. And when, again and again, they fail to realize it, their task is to turn repeatedly to the reality that grounds it --  “Jesus Christ the righteous”, since is he is “. . . the atoning sacrifice for sins”.