Tuesday, April 26, 2016


The Vision of St. Paul - Nicolas Poussin
The Vision of St Paul -- Nicholas Poussin (1649)

In a profound way, the readings for this Sunday summarize and connect the origins, work and goal of the Church. In the Gospel, Jesus gives his followers an early indication of what will happen when he is no longer an earthly presence among them. He promises them a ‘Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name’ and who ‘will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. It is here, of course, as Jesus talks about himself, his Father and the coming Holy Spirit, that we find a Gospel basis for the Trinitarian theology that has been, and remains, the truly distinguishing mark of the Christian faith. Its principal importance, though, lies in the assurance that we, who never experienced the historic Jesus, can nevertheless encounter him in a Spirit of life that remains accessible to people in every age and place.

It is this same Spirit that prompts, and enables, Paul’s response to the famous dream in which someone in far off Macedonia calls to him to share a Gospel whose power and relevance must break all geographical and ethnic boundaries, and speak to the human soul that lies within everyone.

The gate with a tower. New Jerusalem - Lentulov Aristarkh
Gate with a Tower: New Jerusalem - Lentulov
Between the Gospel promise and the missionary Acts of Paul the Apostle, lies Revelation’s compellingly beautiful statement of the ultimate goal in which the work of the Spirit will culminate. What is striking about it, is just how God centered it is. The picture of the ‘heavenly’ Jerusalem that it paints, is not a paradise in which all our desires and needs are met, but one in which they are transformed and transcended within the Person of God. We now no longer need sunlight, or clean water, or political security, or even places of worship, because God’s presence will be so immediate that everyone ‘will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads’. This vision is no promise, of course, for those whose hearts are set on wealth and power as the world understands these. But to those who long for a full realization of the spiritual nature that God has planted in them, no more wonderful prospect could be imagined.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


    Prayer in Church - Gerard Sekoto (1947)

    The Gospel for this Sunday is just seven sentences long, but of great importance. Often, when people are asked to summarize the Christian faith, they say that there are two great commandments – to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself, because Jesus is recorded as saying this in three Gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, to think that this summarizes the Christian faith, is an important mistake. That is not what is going on in these passages.

    Jewish scribes asked Jesus to pinpoint the crucial commandments among all those that were to be found in their scriptures – several hundred in fact. He picks just two – one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus – and declares that everything else in the Jewish law and prophets hangs on these two commandments. He declares that he has not come to abolish the law, but he does not actually say that they summarize his own faith. In contrast to the other three, John’s Gospel does not record this episode. Rather, John tells us that Jesus offered his own disciples a third, and new, great commandment – ‘that you love one another’. As faithful Jews, their love of God and neighbor was something that could be taken for granted. What was to mark them out as followers of Christ is their special love for each other.

    Churches in the New Jerusalem  Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943)
    Given the divisions, persecutions and mutual contempt that have so often marred the history of the Church – and still do – it is this third, distinctively Christian commandment that has proved very much harder to live by, virtually impossible in fact. The judgment of history, then, seems to make the Christian faith a hopeless undertaking. But the reading from Revelation reminds us to place our hopes in a future world that God has promised, not a world that human beings, however well intentioned, will make. It is God who makes all things new -- in ways that human beings find hard to discern.  This means we must wait until ‘the home of God is among mortals’ before we can expect ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Good Shepherd Mosaic

Most of the first Christians were Jews, but quite early on they departed from the Jewish prohibition on religious images and started to make pictures. One of the most ancient is Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This decorated the walls of the Roman catacombs, and of course, has deep Jewish roots in the 23rd Psalm. Over the next two millennia, it has proved to be one of the most enduringly attractive subjects for artists of all kinds.

Its contemporary appeal is reflected in the fact that our modern lectionary makes the 4th Sunday of Easter “Good Shepherd” Sunday in all three years, and with unusually little variation between them. The appointed Psalm is always ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and the Gospel for the day, with slightly different selections, is taken from John Chapter 10, where Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself. 

The continuing popularity of the 23rd Psalm has made the language of sheep and shepherd familiar and comforting to most church people. And yet the world in which we live – even in rural areas – is so far removed from the world in which the biblical shepherd was a familiar sight, that we might wonder whether the image can actually speak to us still. For a modern audience, describing faithful Christians as ‘sheep’ can be expected to have negative connotations – suggesting a docile inability to think for themselves.

The Good Shepherd Henry Ossawa Tanner (1903)

To make the metaphor speak afresh, it is essential to understand that shepherds in biblical times had two crucial tasks -- to lead the sheep to sources of water that they couldn’t find for themselves, and to protect them from wild animals. The superior strength, wisdom and care of the shepherd was vital if the sheep were to survive and flourish. Without it, they would “go astray, each to his own way” as Isaiah famously puts it (Is.56:3).

So the message in the image is this. However earnest our spiritual seeking and searching, it is God who finds us, not we who find God. The challenge is to relinquish paths through life of our own devising, and have the wisdom and strength to recognize and follow His call.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Durer's St Peter
This week’s readings record two of the most important events in the history of the Christian church – Christ’s post-Resurrection commissions to the apostles Paul and Peter. Together these two figures tower over all others in the Acts of the Apostles, and even now, two thousand years later, they remain compelling models of what really it means to be an ‘evangelist’ – a preacher of the news that humanity’s salvation is to be found in the life and death of Jesus.

The contrast between them is instructive. Christ’s appearance on the road to Damascus is probably the most famous conversion experience in human history. Saul, renowned for his strength of will and motivated by a profound hatred of Jesus, is first reduced to being led by the hand, and then transformed into Paul, Christ’s most passionate and theologically articulate servant. Peter is a simpler and a softer character. In his case, the risen Christ transforms an almost dog-like faithfulness into inspirational leadership that quickly wins him the deepest respect of the earliest Christians.
Conversion of St Paul -- Benjamin West (1738-1820)
Peter and Paul were both good Jews, and as Christians they remained so. When they finally met it was their attitudes to Judaism that caused their disagreements. Paul heard in Christ a call to transcend traditional boundaries that Peter was reluctant to abandon. It was a dispute they found ways of negotiating, and like the other differences between them, it reveals something very important. Right from the outset, the Bible tells us, Christ chooses to entrust his ‘flock’ to shepherds with a wide variety of gifts and sharply contrasting styles.