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.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

PENTECOST VIII 2017 (Proper 12)

Rembrandt -- St Paul
St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the most theological book of the Bible, is an intriguing mixture. It alternates between dense, often convoluted reasoning, and poetry of quite extraordinary power.  The Epistle for this Sunday falls into the second category, and it constitutes one of the finest, most insightful and most inspiring passages in all of Scripture – “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In this single, admittedly lengthy sentence, Paul perfectly captures and expresses the meaning of the Gospel in the lives of ordinary Christians, both past and present, and the assurance that it gives.

But he also thereby brilliantly illuminates the Gospel for today. The Lectionary has omitted some verses from the 13th Chapter of Matthew and in this way intensifies its rapid listing of short parables about the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses the different analogies he employs to impress upon his hearers – and upon us – this thought: when we sign up to Christian faith we are making a choice of the greatest significance. Initially it may seem a little thing, just as yeast makes up a very small part of the ingredients of a loaf of bread. Even so, it transforms all the rest. Faith that, despite so many contrary appearances and experiences, the world is under the control of a personal and loving God, and faith that the humblest and most marginalized can be valued participants in God's kingdom, transforms life from the inside. That is the point of the parable about finding a treasure so priceless that is to be preferred to everything else we possess.

The Hidden Treasure - James Tissot
Of course, to many people the Gospel these parables articulate is not new. They have grown up in the faith, and been “trained for the kingdom of heaven” to the point where sheer familiarity dulls the sense of its significance. Consequently, their task is to bring out of the treasure they have been given both “what is new and what is old”.

To gain or regain the gift of faith, however, is not to be given guaranteed protection against sickness and injury. Faith is not a kind of cosmic insurance. Rather, Paul tells us, it is to know that, whatever injustices, illnesses, and temptations befall us, “in all these things we are more than conquerors" provided we view them all "through him who loved us” -- and demonstrated it by dying for us.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

PENTECOST VII 2017 (Proper 11)

Jacob's Ladder - Marc Chagall
The Old Testament lesson for this Sunday recounts one of the most compelling and significant episodes in the history of Israel’s relationship with God – Jacob’s dream as he sleeps in a remote spot, his head resting on a stone. When he awakens from the dream he declares "Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!"  The possibility that we should be standing at “the gate of heaven” and yet be unaware of the fact, is the underlying motif of Jesus’ parables of the sower. The first of these, which provided the Gospel for last week, alerts us to the spiritual dangers of indifference, passing enthusiasm and worldly projects. This week's rather different application of the image, shows the ‘good seed’ of the Gospel confronting not merely human weakness, but the active agency of Satan.

The Sower and the Devil --Albin Egger-Lienz
'Satan' sounds like one of those 'pre-modern' ideas that modern ways of thinking have  abandoned.  Yet our news media are filled with actions and events that regularly seem to show forces of evil taking possession of human hearts and minds, and driving them to levels of wickedness and cruelty far beyond mere selfishness or indifference. The most problematic instances are those in which truly evil systems of religious persecution, racial discrimination and mass incarceration are staffed and sustained by people who are neither terrorists nor gangsters, but ordinary citizens educating their children, caring about friends and family, and maintaining the pattern of everyday life. Here, we might say, we find the decent and the devilish living side by side -- precisely the phenomenon that Jesus' parable depicts.

So whether we use the language of Satan or not, the world in which we find ourselves does indeed seem to have evil ‘tares’ growing alongside divinely planted ‘wheat’. An important part of the parable, though, is that these are inextricably intertwined, and will remain so until God brings the harvest in. This alerts us to another danger. One of Satan’s favored strategies lies in exploiting our inclination to leap to judgment and sort out the world ourselves, often by strengthening the powers of police and judiciary, or by employing advanced technology and military might. But, Paul, who in this week’s Epistle is also addressing a world that is  waiting "to be set free from its bondage", tells the Romans that Christians must "hope for what we do not see”, and consequently “wait for it with patience”. Waiting of this kind is the real test of faith in God.

Monday, July 10, 2017

PENTECOST V 2017 (Proper 10)

The Sower - Grigory Myasoyedov (1888)
‘A sower went out to sow’. In this week's Gospel, Jesus employs one of the most famous allegories ever used. This simple story is made homely for most of us by its familiarity. Yet it has a meaning we can miss altogether, just because it is so easy, and so tempting, to think of the sower as scattering seed on virgin land. Perhaps this is partly what Jesus had in mind, though his image of sowing seed, as his Jewish audience would have known, picks up on a passage from Isaiah which provides the thematic Old Testament lesson for this Sunday. At any rate, in the modern world the Gospel is not being preached and heard for the first time. On the contrary it is 'old' news, because the soil on which it must be scattered, we might say, has been cultivated farmland for a very long time.

Even so, the parable still has radical application. Week by week in the course of an ordinary Sunday service, the Gospel goes on being ‘sown’ among regular as well as occasional church goers, and the different ways in which it can be received – carelessly, half heartedly, seriously – are not confined to the ever expanding secular world outside the Church, but are possibilities in the heart of the sanctuary itself. Indeed, for the faithful there is an additional danger; the story’s sheer familiarity easily sustains an unspoken assumption that the Gospel has already found fertile ground in their hearts. But has it? We can set ourselves a simple test. On Monday, without recourse to the weekly bulletin, try to recall the Bible readings from the day before, and especially the Gospel reading. This simple test is not so easy to pass as one might hope. Professedly Christian minds, it may turn out, often lack any depth of soil.
Descent of the Holy Spirit -- Jean Fouquet (1472)
In a wonderful phrase the section of Psalm 119 set for this Sunday, says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ thereby beautifully capturing one way in which Christian faith can accompany us through life. But it applies only if casualness, complacency, daily distractions, or worries and anxieties have not prevented the 'seed' of God’s word from properly taking root in our minds and souls. The real purpose of regular worship is to stop them doing so, and thus allow us to hear the Gospel afresh. If it can be properly rooted and regularly nourished, there is hope for life of a quite different order. As Paul says in this week’s reading from Romans “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” The task of the Christian is to make worship and liturgy the avenue to be this Spirit's dwelling place.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

PENTECOST IV 2017 (Proper 8)

The Sacrifice of Isaac - God Restrains Abraham's Hand.
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God Restrains Abraham's Hand -- 12th century mosaic

On this Sunday the continuous reading brings the story of Abraham to the unnerving episode of his setting out to sacrifice Isaac. It is such an extraordinary story that it has long prompted debate, and deep perplexity. God grants the aging, childless Abraham an only son-- Isaac. It is on Isaac that Abraham pours out all his love, and pins all his hopes. So how could he possibly be willing to kill the being he most loves, and thereby destroy all the hopes he has longed for? Even if we could leave the difficult issue of the boy’s own well being aside, it is exceptionally hard to understand Abraham's state of mind, still less sympathize with it.  We can say what it seems we are supposed to say -- that Abraham’s willingness to kill the child he adores reveals just how great his devotion to God is. But isn't this one step too far? Doesn't such devotion turn his 'faith' into fanaticism? And anyway, what does it say about the God who would demand such a sacrifice?

Abraham and Isaac return to Sarah.
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Abraham and Isaac Return to Sarah - 20th century mural
There is no easy answer to these questions. One thing worth noting, though, is that the story constitutes the essential Jewish background for understanding the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christian liturgies describe this as a ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice’, meaning thereby to underline the futility of human sacrifice. Even a sacrifice as overwhelmingly demanding as the one Abraham seems willing to make, will never bridge the great gulf between God’s divine holiness and our imperfect humanity. It is only an action in the opposite direction -- from God to human beings – that can ever do this. As things turn out, of course, Abraham is not in the end required to sacrifice Isaac. God provides a ram, and the boy survives to perpetuate his father’s lineage. This motif too, is reflected in the Christian narrative. It is only God who can provide the sacrifice.

Though he is writing in a different context and to a different purpose, in the Epistle Paul has a similar thought in mind when he asks, "So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death." "Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God", he adds, "the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life." As he says elsewhere, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Of course, though in sharp contrast to the demand laid on Abraham, the gift is free, we have to see that this is so, and accept it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

PENTECOST II 2017 (Proper 6)

James Tissot - Sarah Hears and Laughs

On the Sundays that follow Trinity the Revised Common Lectionary offers alternative Old Testament readings and Psalms. The first is a ‘Continuous’ reading that takes us through major sections of the Hebrew Scriptures week by week and may bear little direct relation to the Epistle and Gospel. The ‘Thematic’ alternative is a passage chosen for its relation to the other two readings (though the connection is not always easy to see). On this Sunday there is even more choice, because the Gospel can be read in a long or short version. 

The continuous reading for the Old Testament begins the story of Abraham and Isaac --from before Isaac's birth in fact. The whole story will unfold as the weeks proceed, but this first episode contains an especially intriguing element. The LORD himself visits Abraham to promise him that, though both he and Sarah are very old, she will nevertheless become pregnant and give birth. Sarah laughs at the very idea. Laughing at what God promises is profoundly mistaken on several levels, and when she realizes that the LORD has heard her laugh at him, Sarah denies it. But neither her laughter nor her lie angers God. She still has the promised baby, and at this point she laughs again. Now, though, it is no longer the laughter of ridicule, but of joy, a laughter in which everyone can be expected to join her.

Augustus John - Two Disciples
We can read this little episode as a compelling illustration of the transformative nature of divine love. The human impulse to laugh is changes from mockery to delight. In the Epistle Paul picks up on something of the same theme when he says "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us". In the Gospel Jesus urges a similar sort of transformation on his disciples, at a yet deeper level.  "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." Being "as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove" means taking a quite different view of the customary values of a world in which cunning is the opposite of innocence.

The reward for cunning, the world supposes, is success, while the price of innocence is failure. Believing in a providential order in which love ultimately governs all things, means that in our encounters with a fallen world we can use our God-given practical intelligence to good effect, without thereby sacrificing our integrity. When Christian disciples keep the faith on this score, the passage tells us, they are by no means offered an easy ride. That is not the way God works. But they have this profound assurance -- "it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you". Their human weakness and vulnerability have not gone away, but they have been transformed.