Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Rembrandt - St Paul in Prison
The Epistle for this Sunday is hard to understand, because it appears out of context. It is an excerpt from Paul’s second Letter to the Corinthians, part of a longer passage in which he is arguing against making personal religious experience the basis of spiritual authority. By speaking of himself in the third person, he discounts his own profound religious experience, despite ‘the exceptional character of the revelation’ that was given to him on the road to Damascus.

This is not because he underestimates its important in any way, but because he does not want ‘boasting’ about it to make anyone ‘think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me’. It is not his one-off encounter on the road to Damascus, but his whole way of life as a living instance of the grace of God, that must prove his faith in Jesus. Indeed, to keep him from ‘being too elated’ he draws explicit attention to ‘a thorn in the flesh’ that constantly reminds him of his real life.

We do not know what this ‘thorn’ was, but its role was to keep Paul mindful of this fact: the discipleship to which he was called was not a matter of elevated mystical elation, but ‘weaknesses, insults, hardships’ borne for the sake of Christ. Paradoxically, it is only when we fully acknowledge our own weakness that we are properly aware of the strength of God’s grace within us.
Gustave Dore -- Christ in the Synagogue

The Gospel passage from Mark resonates with this important truth. Even Jesus, in whom the grace of God is brought to perfection, must confront ‘insults’ in his ‘own country’. Those who knew him as a boy dismissively discount his message to them in the synagogue. They cannot look beyond their own assumptions, and see the prophetic voice the boy they knew is now revealed to be. This rejection is a prelude to instructions about discipleship. At the heart of discipleship, we might say, is a balancing act. True Christians must avoid the temptation to seek self-affirmation either in persecution or in popularity. That is because both turn spotlights unto ourselves, and away from Christ.

Monday, June 15, 2015


Rembrandt Christ in the Storm on Galilee
The brief but striking episode recorded in Mark’s Gospel for this Sunday -- in which Jesus appears to control a storm at sea with a simple command -- is usually referred to as a ‘nature’ miracle. But, as so often in the Gospels, this ‘miracle’ should be understood as a ‘sign’ rather than a ‘wonder’. What matters is what it says, not what it accomplishes.

Storms are natural metaphors. They easily transfer from the world of nature to human life, and can thus be used to signify, and communicate, a climax in the strains and stresses human beings experience. This use of the image is common in the Bible – in the Psalms – for example -- and sometimes the metaphor and the literal event are inextricably interwoven – as in the story of Jonah.

In either case, the natural event of the storm is to be read as a symbol. It reveals something about Jesus and his relationship to God. The punch line, of course, is the stilling of the storm, at which point the terror of the disciples is changed, not into grateful relief as we might expect, but into ‘awe’ at the person of Jesus – "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?". Their allusion to divine power is made even more evident by the thematic Old Testament reading from Job in which God's awesome power includes 'stopping the proud waves'.

Seascape, the Poplar - Gustave Courbet
Seascape Gustave Courbet
But in a way, the key moment in the Gospel episode is to be found a few verses earlier, when Jesus lies sleeping on a cushion. It is in response to their frightened accusation "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" that he stills the storm. The enormous gap between his relationship to God and theirs is thus revealed not only by his extraordinary power over the storm, but by his ability to sleep in the midst of it.
This is where we find an important resonance with the accompanying Epistle. The 'hardships and calamities' that Paul recounts to the wayward church at Corinth, include the storms he experienced as he sailed on his missionary journeys. While the disciples, though they had Jesus with them, were fearful, Paul having encountered the Risen Christ, could declare that even when calamity left him with nothing, his faith in Jesus Christ meant he had everything.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


In this week’s Gospel reading there is a parable unique to Mark. The chapter in which it appears begins with the familiar story of the sower that Matthew and Luke also record. At the end, though, Mark uses the same image of seed planted in the ground to turn our thoughts in a different direction. ‘The kingdom of God is like this', Jesus says, and invites us to dwell on something both utterly familiar and deeply mysterious. We plant seeds, and after a time we harvest the crop they produce. Sprouting and growing are essential to our success, of course, and yet, wholly reliant as we are on these processes, they happen quite independently of our labor.

The sower in Mark's parable is anonymous and represents everyone and anyone. What matters is the seed, and its mysterious power to produce grain. The message is clear. Christians believe that in humanity's age-old struggle with ignorance, evil and death, truth and goodness will finally be victorious in the Kingdom of God. The life, death and Resurrection of Jesus guarantee this. In the ‘present dispensation’, however, we have to await that final triumph, and while we do, our task is primarily to witness to that hope by being content to ‘sow the seed’ wherever there is opportunity in our own time and place, relying on spiritual germination and growth that we cannot control.

Harvest -- Van Gogh (1888)
In our spiritual ‘labors’, as in all our other endeavors, it is hard not to look for solid evidence that our efforts are bearing fruit. Mark’s parable aims to stop us thinking in just this way. We should be content to be sowers who can ‘sleep and rise night and day’ confident that the ways of God, which we cannot fathom, are always at work in bringing our witness to fruition. In a time of declining church membership in Europe and America, this can be especially testing. The temptation is to turn to recruitment and leadership techniques drawn from the worlds of business and politics.  But St Paul tells the Corinthians in the Epistle -- ‘Walk by faith and not by sight’. ‘From now on’, he says, ‘regard no one from a human point of view’ as regards success and failure, because ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’. Unlike a business strategy, that is to say, the Spirit's efficacy is not to be assessed from a human point of view.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


The Prophet Samuel -- Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

At this point in the year the Lectionary offers a choice between ‘continuous’ and ‘thematic’ readings from the Old Testament. The thematic readings are intended to fit better with the New Testament readings, while the continuous readings allow us to follow a rather longer story over a number of weeks.

In Year B the continuous readings take up the long story of the Israelites' problematic relationship with their political rulers, beginning with the celebrated 8th chapter of the first book of Samuel. Up to this point in their history, the Israelites have been guided and governed collectively by judges. But the elders now ask Samuel to find them a king so that they can be ‘like other nations’. He warns them about the dangers of kingship, and the consuming vanity that is likely to fill someone holding a monopoly on power. But they persist, since above all they want victories over their enemies. Reluctantly, Samuel concedes, and in this way the stage is set for a long and turbulent saga. The reigns of Saul, David, Solomon and many of their successors begin in hope but always end in disaster until, by the time of Jesus, the Israelites have long been a people subject to imperial powers.

The lectionary passage leaves out the verses in which the Israelites' demand for a King is interpreted as a rejection of God. Yet this conflict between divine and human sources of hope lies at the heart of the whole story, and it provides the background against which Jesus’ messiahship has to be understood. Jesus emphatically rejects ‘the nation’ as a focus of hope and salvation. 
Jesus in the Portico of Solomon -- James Tissot
But the Gospel passage implies a still more radical claim -- that faith in God requires us to reject not only political loyalties, but family loyalties also. Jesus seems to show a startling heartlessness in disowning his ‘mother and brothers’, leaving them to stand outside, though Mark's version is not as harsh as Luke's, in which true disciples are told to 'hate' their father and motherEven allowing for the exaggeration typical of middle eastern rhetoric, this is unquestionably one of the hardest of the 'hard sayings of Jesus', and very difficult to interpret. The core message, though is this. God demands, and requires, and rewards, a devotion far deeper than any human being – king or parent -- can properly ask or warrant.