Wednesday, August 30, 2017

PENTECOST XIII 2017 (Proper 17)

Durer's St Peter

In the Epistle for this Sunday, Paul sets a very high standard for Christian conduct: ‘Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit . . .Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer . . . Bless those who persecute you . . . Live in harmony with one another . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.’ These are all admirable injunctions, of course. Yet they are also counsels of perfection. How many Christian lives actually model this ideal? How many ever have? Very, very few, is the only honest answer. 
Happily, if this seems a depressing conclusion, the Gospel for this week offsets it to a considerable degree. The passage brings to the fore the strange relationship that Simon Peter had with Jesus. In part this was a result of his impulsive and vacillating character. Peter was the sort of person who could be inspired to leap over the side of a boat one moment, only to be crying out in fear the next. In terms of the whole Gospel story one vacillation is especially well known  -- his behavior at ‘the time of trial’. When danger looms -- in the unlikely form of a servant girl! -- Peter's emphatic assurance of love and loyalty to Jesus is  rapidly displaced by three equally emphatic denials -- 'I never knew him'.

Jesus too seems to vacillate in his attitude to Peter. Last week's Gospel recorded how, early in their relationship, Jesus declares Peter to be the ‘rock’ on which the church is to be founded. Now, in this week's passage that same rock is declared ‘a stumbling block’, someone who has to be told, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’  -- a dramatic reversal indeed.

Ford Madox Brown --Jesus Washing Peter's Feet
Yet this fact remains. Jesus chose Peter. He made him a witness of the Transfiguration. He granted him the largest number of post-Resurrection encounters. He even washed his feet. Why? An important clue to the puzzle lies in this rebuke: ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’. It is precisely Peter’s inconsistent character that equips him for the role he has been assigned. In his weakness, he is a true representative of our common humanity.  In his devotion to Jesus, however faltering, he exhibits a spiritual hope of which we are all capable. Paul’s counsel of perfection is a description of that hope, but its ultimate realization is not in Peter or in us, but in Jesus. That is why he is to be hailed as true man and true God.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

PENTECOST X 2017 (Proper 14)

The Disciples See Jesus -- H O Tanner
To the modern mind, powerfully influenced by the success of natural science, the miracles recorded in the Bible present difficulties that previous eras simply did not experience. They easily accepted, it seems, the regular occurrence of unnatural events. Our mentality has changed and left us asking:  Can we honestly believe that such supernatural events really happened? The question is especially acute when the events involve Jesus, because the Gospel writers clearly think that his miraculous powers were strong evidence of his divinity. The Gospel passage for this Sunday contains just such an incident, and it is a very puzzling one. The disciples encounter Jesus at dawn walking towards them across the surface of a stormy sea. Peter tries to do likewise but unsurprisingly sinks into the water -- until Jesus reaches out, and saves him. At that point, wonderfully, the fierce wind dies down. Awestruck, the disciples hail Jesus as truly divine.

Could this be the record of something that actually happened? From one perspective, the simple answer is 'Yes'. The Church teaches that Jesus wasthe true incarnation of the Creator of the cosmos. If so,  even the most amazing  miracle must lie within his power.  At the same time, the Gospels regularly warn against thinking of Jesus as an impressive miracle worker. His miracles, however impressive, are not any sort of conjuring trick. The difference lies in their meaning. 

Jesus Walks on the Water _ Ivan Alvazovsky
It is a commonplace that sometimes actions speak louder than words. Miracles are not just amazing actions that we are expected to marvel at; they are also signs from which there is something important to be learnt. To grasp the meaning of Jesus’ miracles it is essential to see in them what devout and faithful Jews witnessing them would have seen –  the connection they forge between Christ's mission and the one true God revealed in the Old Testament. This is the God who ‘trampled the waves of the sea’ (Job 9:80), and whose 'path was through great waters, though his footsteps were unseen’ (Ps 7:19), so it is hardly surprising that Christ's action causes the disciples to declare ‘Truly you are the son of God’. The connection is unmistakeable.

In the light of this truth, the episode with Peter incorporated within this Gospel passage is especially instructive. Peter believes that his deep devotion to Jesus will carry him across the water. The fact that he starts to sink shows how mistaken it is to make the strength of our own belief the ultimate test of our faith.  Our will for good, and for God, may be both resolute and powerful. Yet the deep and uncomfortable truth is that however sincere and committed, we cannot make ourselves the means of our own salvation. Relying on our personal resources, we are likely, when things turn out badly, to sink beneath life’s waves. It is only the presence of Christ within our lives that can save us.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

PENTECOST IX 2017 (Proper 13)

Feeding the Multitude -- 10th century ivory
The feeding of the five thousand, the subject of this week's Gospel, is a strange episode for modern readers. Are we to believe that bread and fish actually multiplied? Can we visualize how this might have happened? However perplexing these questions may be, we cannot ignore the fact that this miracle is recorded in all four Gospels. It even occurs in Matthew a second time (with four thousand), as it does in Mark. Evidently, 'the feeding of the multitude' was a strikingly important event for the Gospel writers. But what are we to make of it?

As with many other instances, it is crucial to remember that the ancient world (like most people at most times and places, in fact), thought in terms of symbolic meaning rather than explanatory hypotheses. For the Jews, if symbolic meaning was to be truly revelatory, it had to be connected with their Scriptural inheritance. In other words, their understanding of who Jesus really was and what his words and actions meant relied on the parallels they could find with the promises of God recorded in Scripture. This is where we too should seek understanding since, as St Paul emphatically declares in the Epistle, it is the Israelites who were given "the adoption, the glory, the covenants, . . . the law, the worship, and the promises . . .". Furthermore, "from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever".

Duccio -- The Prophet Isaiah
Whatever the actual events that underlie Christ's feeding the multitude, when we look for its symbolic meaning there is one clear analogue in Scriptural history -- the manna that God provided for the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. There is also an echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah in this week's Old Testament lesson: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." Isaiah is not making dietary recommendations, of course. The background to his remark is the Mosaic warning that "man does not live by bread alone".

In John's Gospel Jesus himself dwells on  the significance of the feeding miracles.  He draws a key contrast which we might express as 'bread for life' versus 'the bread of life'. It is the 'bread of life' that he declares himself to be. The essential message is that even the provision of amazing quantities of bread for life is not an adequate substitute for the one True Bread of spiritual life. Viewed from this perspective, the feeding miracles carry an important lesson for a deeply consumerist culture such as our own. The fact that modern technology has an unprecedented capacity to  provide for our material needs can lead us,
mistakenly, to place our ultimate faith in it.