Gospel for 10th August – St Laurence (Matthew 6:19-24)
Jesus told his disciples, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Laurence, who was killed on this day 1764 years ago, is one of the most popular of the Roman saints. He has his fans in Genoa, too. The Cathedral here bears his name – and above the great west door you can see him lying calmly on his grid-iron, hands clasped in prayer, as two little bellows-men do their best to fan the flames underneath on the orders of an angry and implacable magistrate. In fact, you will find churches dedicated in Laurence’s honour around the world, from Australia to Canada, where he also has a gulf, a river and a range of mountains named after him.
Why is he such a popular saint? My friend Andrew, who used to be Rector of St Laurence’s Church in Winslow in England, still keeps his devotion to the saint despite having jumped ship to become one of the canons of a Cathedral in the Church in Wales. Andrew reckons that Laurence was loved because he stood up for the poor and the outcast and spoke truth to power. He was a man who, in accordance with Jesus’ advice, stored up treasure in heaven and, according to legend, was not above teasing those who stored up treasures on earth, even though it cost him his life.
Laurence met his death during one of those occasional purges of Christians which took place during the great third-century crisis in the Roman Empire. He was a prominent Christian in Rome, one of the seven deacons who ran the church’s social welfare arm there. Add together our food and clothing banks, the work that UES and Sant’ Egidio do, the San Giuseppe sisters’ panini, and the Baptists’ “meals on the street” and you might have some idea of the scale of the operation. The Roman authorities thought “they must have money to finance this”, so they ordered Laurence to produce the treasures of the Church, with a view to confiscating them. That didn’t turn out well. According to Leo the Great, preaching on this day a couple of centuries after Laurence’s death, instead of producing sacks of gold and silver, Laurence showed the magistrate a crowd of poor people, “in the feeding and clothing of whom, he said, was to be found a treasury of riches which could never be lost.” Leo tells the story with a very straight face, but I have a feeling that Laurence was laughing, even though he knew that what he had done would cost probably him his life.
By all accounts, the magistrate was furious. He ordered Laurence to be tortured and put to death. Hence the grid-iron, which gave rise, in later legend, to another grim joke. It is said that after Laurence had been grilled for a while he called out to the executioners that he was done on that side, so could they please turn him over. After reflecting on this story, my friend in Wales added, “I can’t help but feel that his life and witness are particularly relevant today. Like Laurence the church needs to be ‘bold in action and outspoken in concern’”, as the former British Prime Minister John Major said in a recent speech to cathedral clergy.
I think Andrew may be right when he adds, “We need to undertake the unglamorous and dirty work of holiness whilst speaking truth to power. Perhaps what’s needed is an authentic Laurentian spirituality; a spirituality that is humble (he was “only” a deacon), generous, and prophetic.” And I think that’s going to be especially true in this country after next month’s election. If the polls have got their figures right, Christians will need to have that healthy eye of which Jesus spoke, filling the body not with propaganda but with the light of God’s universal justice and love.
Gospel for 3rd August (Matthew 15:21-28)
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
News from the Lambeth conference, both in the mainstream media and on social media, seems to be focused mainly on the shenanigans over the Churches’ divergent approaches to sexuality and the related questions of “Who’s in?” and “Who’s out?”, “Who’s acceptable?” and “Who isn’t?” A number of the bishops present seem to have made their decision – and have moved on to include anyone who disagrees with their decision among the out group.
In today’s gospel we find Jesus wrestling with a very similar problem, but one focused in terms of ethnicity rather than sexual orientation. What is to be done about that persistent Canaanite woman? The disciples, like those bishops, are pretty confident that they know. “send her away…”, they tell Jesus. Jesus is confident, too. The “target group for his mission is “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and he is pretty blunt about that when he finally speaks to the woman.
But the woman turns Jesus’ own words back on him, and Jesus has the wisdom and the humility to recognise the force of her argument. He gives way in the face of her need, her persistence and her faith, and he heals her daughter, even though she was in Matthew’s eyes, the ultimate outsider. Strictly she seems to have been, as Mark tells us, a Greek-speaking Syrian. Canaanites had long died out, but Matthew calls her a Canaanite because historically the Canaanites had been the people with whom, according to the books of the Law, the descendants of Israel were to have absolutely no dealings. Nevertheless this ultimate outsider, like so many others, is brought into the circle of Jesus’ compassion and her daughter is healed.
There might, I think, be a message there for the Bishops gathered in Canterbury, and especially for those who are busy cutting themselves off from communion with their fellow-bishops and shutting out from fellowship with the Church as they define it anyone who does not share their hard line on human sexuality.
As we have seen, such exclusivity is not the way of Jesus, who recognised that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” and who healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman. Let us pray that they, and we, and all of God’s people, may reflect in our lives and our attitudes the same compassionate acceptance shown by our Lord.
Gospel for 25th July, St James the Apostle – (Matthew 20.20-28
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
When you’re picking fruit for jam-making – especially if the fruit is blackberries or gooseberries – you realise that very often you can’t have the good things without being prepared to be hurt.
In this passage Jesus is saying something very similar to James and John. In his Gospel Mark tells us that they came to Jesus themselves to ask a favour. Here Matthew says they put their mum up to do it for them. Either way, it’s clear that they wanted the goodies of God’s kingdom, without necessarily realising what that meant in practical terms. They wanted the glory. They probably hadn’t thought about the pain – even though immediately before Matthew describes how the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to ask Jesus that favour he tells us that Jesus had been warning his disciples (not for the first time) about all that was going to happen to him when they got to Jerusalem. He told them that he would be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, who would condemn him to death and hand him over to the Roman authorities to be mocked and flogged and crucified.
Somehow, James and John had edited out that bit. They might possibly have remembered the promise that on the third day he would be raised.
So Jesus took time to remind James and John (and the other ten) what it means to be his disciples. It doesn’t mean having a short-cut to glory. It doesn’t mean throwing your weight about. It does mean following Jesus wherever he may lead us and being at the disposal of other people, even when those other people wish us harm. However, if that is the way to God’s kingdom, if that is the way to life with him for ever, then that’s the way it is. We need to know that following Jesus won’t always be easy, otherwise we might be discouraged and turn back when we stumble into the rough and thorny places on the way.
Three hundred years ago, not far from my last parish, lived a man called William Penn. He was a wise and good man and a committed follower of Jesus Christ, who longed to live at peace with all people. Sadly for him, he lived in an age of conflict and violent division, which led, at one stage, to his being locked up in the Tower of London. While he was in prison, he wrote down some reflections about the way he tried to live. Those reflections included these words: “No pain, no palm: no thorns, no throne: no gall, no glory: no cross, no crown.” William Penn knew something that James and John had missed, although James, St Luke tells us, learned it the hard way at the end of his life. William Penn knew that the things that discourage us from following Jesus, the things that we fear, are the very things that make us ready for his kingdom.
You can’t make gooseberry jelly or bramble jelly without accepting the scratches of the thorns. You can’t make it to God’s kingdom without being involved in the pain of the world. You can’t have the good things without being prepared to be hurt. But in our journey to God’s kingdom let us pray that, every step along the way, we may know the presence of Jesus our Lord, to heal the wounds, to strengthen us when weary, to sustain us until we enter the unutterable joy which he promises to all who follow him. For in him is all the joy and the sweetness of heaven.
Gospel for 22nd July – Mary Magdalene (John 20.1-2,11-18)
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Like other people mentioned in the Gospels, Mary of Magdala has the barest of back-stories. What matters to the gospel-writers is not her past, but her role at the very end of Jesus’s life. She was one of the women who watched Jesus’s death from a distance, one of the women who took note of where his corpse was laid, one of the women who went to complete the burial rites cut short by the start of the Sabbath. And she was the first to encounter the risen Lord.
That is why we honour Mary of Magdala today. We commemorate her as the Apostle to the Apostles. But Mary is more than just a person with a significant part to play in the Gospel story. In a sense, Mary is us. Our readings this morning speak of loss and recovery, death and resurrection. Those experiences are part of the human condition.
For some it’s the loss of childhood innocence. For others it is the experience of loss in later life: the loss of love, of a parent, a partner, a child, of freedom, of status, of hope. For others it is the loss of comforting certainties, familiar markers in life’s routine.
Such experiences are inevitable. They are part of the reality of being human. But change, loss, failure are never the end of the story. Through the experience of loss, through suffering and failure, God is at work, bringing life out of darkness. The young woman in the Song of Solomon unexpectedly found her lover as she wandered the city streets by night. Mary discovered that the man she took to be the gardener was the Lord.
Every change, every loss, can disclose to us something of God’s presence. In him there are new discoveries to be made, even in the midst of darkness, new life opening up, and new possibilities of love. As we encounter the living Christ as living reality we may have to discard what we thought were cherished certainties. The Lord warned Mary “Do not hold me”. As we encounter the risen Christ we may have to adopt a new perspective, a new way of looking at the world, a new understanding. But we can move forward from our comfort zone in confidence and joy that the risen Christ calls us by name as he did Mary.
Occasionally I try to offer a reflection which isn’t related to the gospel reading on saints’ days and at midweek. This is one of them. It’s based on my “few words” at a recent funeral in Taggia: a reflection on death in general, and particularly on a sudden death.
When somebody we love dies suddenly and unexpectedly, there is often no opportunity to say the things we’d always meant to say: not even the simplest words: “Goodbye”, “Thank you”, “I’m sorry”, “I love you”. And when that unexpected death comes at the beginning of what should have been a new chapter in a life lived in partnership, the sense of seriously unfinished business twists the knife in the wound of bereavement, leaving a sense of sharp, aching loss that may be almost overwhelming.
Coping with loss is an important aspect of the funeral service. The words from Scripture and the prayers give us permission to grieve, to weep, to be angry, to ask “Why?”, why should people be parted in this way from those they love, just as they were moving into a new stage of their life together?
But a funeral service is not only about the recognition of loss and heartache. It is also about the celebration of memories. So that while we mourn the loss of one we love, we rejoice in the legacy that they have left behind them.
Memory plays an important part in the healing process during the weeks and months after a bereavement, as those who mourn realise that while they may no longer have the physical presence of their loved one, that loved one has not vanished from their thoughts, or from their hearts. Their life continues in the memories of those who knew and loved them.
Their life continues, too, in the love of God, the love which makes all things new, and which has prepared for human beings a destiny which is not limited by the bounds of our life on this earth. A Christian funeral goes beyond grief and memory. It speaks of hope, of the wiping away of tears, of the renewal of the whole of creation in God’s love, so that we can, with the Psalmist, “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and fear no evil. We can walk through the valley of the shadow, confident that God is with us, that “Christ leads us through no darker rooms than he went through before.”
So we look forward in hope to a world renewed, to life restored, to the wedding-banquet which is so often an image of the joy of the kingdom of heaven. And it is to that joy, to a love and a peace beyond the power of human words to express, that we entrust those whom we love but see no longer with our thoughts and our memories and our prayers.
Gospel for 13th July (Matthew 11:25-27)
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
After a run of nearly two months in which we have been celebrating the holy ones of God at our midweek Eucharists in a sequence that has taken us from Palestine just BC to wartime London, via apostolic Cyprus, first- and second-century Rome and then Britain from the third (probably) century to the seventeenth, we come back to Galilee with a bump, following the steps of Jesus and listening to his words without those later disciples to distract us.
But it’s not quite Galilee as we are used to it. The words of today’s Gospel are, as somebody once said, “a Johannine thunderbolt out of a clear synoptic sky.” Jesus has been talking to the crowds about John the Baptist. He has been mocking the “cancel culture” of his day: the people who won’t listen to John because he is too much the ascetic loner, but who won’t listen to Jesus because he enjoys company – and isn’t too fussed about the “suitability” of that company. And he has been having a crack at the cities who heard his preaching, who saw his miracles, and who carried on their own sweet way regardless. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.’
And then this.
The kind of language in this passage you would expect to find in John’s Gospel – or even in the letters of St Paul. He had a few things to say about the way in which God hides things from the wise and the intelligent and reveals them to infants. But it is John who stresses that all Jesus has is given him by the Father, and that we can come to knowledge of God as Father only through the Son, who reveals in word and action what God is like: the Son who is the fulfilment of the Baptist’s preaching; who heals and restores those who are sick in body or spirit; who is the friend of tax-collectors and sinners; who proclaims repentance because the kingdom of heaven is near. You don’t need a first-class degree in theology to “get” that. You need, instead, the attitude of a child.
Some years ago the Iona community produced a collection of two-person sketches under the general title “Eh… Jesus? Yes, Peter?” (because those were the words with which most of the sketches began). In one of them, Peter asks Jesus what he meant when he told the disciples that they wouldn’t get into the Kingdom unless they became like little children. Jesus answers by asking Peter how he thinks of children. “Naive… innocent… harmless”, is the reply. “Hmm”, says Jesus, ”They’re not innocent, naive or harmless. Anyone who thinks that has never been in a nursery.”
So between them Jesus and Peter think back to some of the children they have met on their travels and tot up their characteristics: the enthusiasm of the children in the temple, the trust of Jairus’s daughter, the generosity of the boy with the loaves and fishes, and finally, they remember a little girl with jam on her face who interrupted a crowd of men asking Jesus some “serious” questions* – and what her mother said when she came to fetch her back. “I’m sorry, mister, she’s awful curious.” So Peter asks, “Is curiosity one of the things we should learn from children?” “Yes”, says Jesus. “And in that department, Peter, you get ten out of ten.”
*NB Unlike the other children, this little girl does not feature in the pages of Scripture!
Gospel for 6th July – John Fisher and Thomas More (Matthew 10:1-7)
Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The list of the twelve which forms the heart of this gospel reading includes the names of the two men we remember today, a John and a Thomas. The John is John Fisher, the richly gifted scholar, administrator and pastor who led the University of Cambridge and then the Diocese of Rochester through some of the most troubled times in their history. The Thomas is Thomas More, Robert Bolt’s “Man for All Seasons”, lawyer, politician, and a man who could count among his friends some of the great names of English and European scholarship, including Dean Colet of St Paul’s, and Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Both More and Fisher were men of immense ability, immense distinction and immense integrity. Both paid the price of that integrity with their lives. Both had close connections with the newly-established Tudor dynasty. Fisher preached at the funeral of both King Henry VII and King Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. More was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. Both were undone by their opposition to “the King’s great matter”, his repudiation of Katharine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, and by their refusal to swear the oath required by the 1534 Act of Succession, which acknowledged the King, and not the Pope, as “supreme head” of the English Church.
Before that both men had been high in the king’s favour. Fisher was rumoured to have at least co-authored the “Assertio Septem Sacramentorum”, Henry VIII’s reply to Martin Luther’s sacramental teaching – the pamphlet which won Henry the papal title of “Defender of the Faith”. More had written (under a pseudonym) a reply to Luther’s reply to Henry. But although both favoured reform of the Church neither would go beyond traditional Church teaching. They would not, in a sense “go among the Gentiles” – at least, not if those Gentiles followed the new teachings being imported from Germany. And both of them were convinced that their way to the kingdom of heaven lay in faithfulness to what they had been taught. It was, as John Fisher wrote, “Not that I condemn any other men’s conscience; their conscience may save them, and mine must save me.”
Neither Fisher’s manifest holiness, which preferred prayer and example before controversy, nor More’s wit and intelligence could save them from the king’s wrath – and the king’s wrath, in the words of the old Latin tag, is death. Fisher met his on 22nd June, 1535. More a fortnight later, on this day, four hundred and eighty-seven years ago; “the King’s good servant,” as he told the crowd on Tower Hill, “but God’s first.”
Would it have surprised Thomas More and John Fisher that they should be publicly acknowledged among the holy ones of God by the Church whose existence independent of Rome was brought about by the same law which brought about their death? Possibly: but both were, in their different ways, aware that the kingdom of Heaven was not a reflection of earthly politics. As More told his judges, “I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation.”
Gospel for 29th June – St Peter and St Paul (Matthew 16:13-19)
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’
Among the three Gospels which tell of what happened at Caesarea Philippi, Matthew’s has the longest and most detailed account. However, this morning we have been given only two-thirds of it. What we haven’t been given is what follows in all three Gospels: the warning that Jesus will be rejected, and that he will suffer and die. Nor have we been given the detail that Matthew and Mark share, but Luke doesn’t: Peter’s attempt to divert Jesus from the path that will lead to Jerusalem and death; and the ferocious rebuke with which Jesus responds.
Why, then, is it edited out? To make Peter look more like a saintly superhero? Maybe. It’s a temptation to which all of us are prone. Our heroes must be entirely noble and heroic and our villains wholly villainous. The great fourth-century preacher John Chrysostom provides a classic example of this in one of his sermons expounding Paul’s letter to the Galatians. When Paul describes (Galatians 2: 11-14) his row with Peter at Antioch about Peter’s hypocrisy in the matter of eating with non-Jews, the natural reading of Paul’s “I opposed him to his face” is that they had a serious difference of opinion. But when Chrysostom tackles the passage in question he doesn’t adopt that interpretation, but indulges in some expository acrobatics to suggest that the whole argument was a kind of role-play to bring home to the church in Antioch and, more importantly, to their visitors from Jerusalem the importance of an open table, with Jews and Gentiles sharing meals together.
But we do ourselves, and we do the saints, no favours by editing out or smoothing away the difficult parts of the story. As the Palestinian theologian Naim Ateek has written, “It is part of the genius of the Bible that it preserved a record both of the good and of the bad.”The evangelists seem to have recognised this when they include stories about the disciples’ failures. Even Luke, who has a predisposition towards viewing the life of the first Christians through rose-coloured spectacles, doesn’t minimise the extent of Peter’s failure after the arrest of Jesus. And Paul’s letters bear witness that, even after his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ, he remained “work in progress” – and that being “work in progress” brought him from time to time into conflict with other Church leaders, Peter among them.
So today, as we give thanks for Peter and Paul, we give thanks not for superhuman figures, but for people like us, whose lives were transformed by their encounter with Christ but who remained “work in progress” to the end of their days. In her 1938 play, “The Zeal of thy House”, Dorothy L. Sayers has one of her characters remark
“God founded his church not upon John, The loved disciple that lay so close to his heart And knew his mind – not upon John, but Peter; Peter the liar, Peter the coward, Peter The rock, the common man.” We, in our ordinariness, are part of that church and as it was in Peter and Paul, so Christ’s transforming power is at work in us, ordinary people called to do extraordinary things for God.
Gospel for 22nd June – St Alban (John 12:24-26)
Jesus said, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.’
Nobody is quite sure when Christian faith arrived in the Roman province of Britannia. Around the beginning of the third century, two North African writers, Tertullian in Carthage and Origen in Egypt, both mention that Christianity had reached the shores of Britain. But, since both had started life as professional orators, it’s difficult to be certain whether they are stating a fact or using an established image – almost a cliché – meaning “the ends of the earth”.
What we do know is that by the time of the Council of Arles early in the fourth century, the Church in Britain was sufficiently large, and sufficiently organised, to send three bishops and that some time in the century before that council the British Church had produced its first martyr, Alban, a Roman soldier stationed in Verulamium, the second largest town in Roman Britain. We don’t know for certain when. Bede dates Alban’s death to the reign of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century, during the last great persecution of Christians, but there are reasons to doubt this. Some scholars have suggested that he died under the emperor Septimius Severus at the beginning of the third century; others think that the reign of Decius, fifty years later, is more likely.
However, despite such uncertainties, the story of Alban’s martyrdom is straightforward. He was a Roman soldier serving in Britain. He was a pagan, but gave shelter to a Christian priest on the run from the authorities. Impressed by the priest’s prayerfulness, he asked for instruction in the Christian faith. A few days later the authorities came knocking at Alban’s door. Alban sent the priest out through the back door and presented himself at the front door, wearing his guest’s distinctive cloak. He was arrested and brought before the town’s chief magistrate, who was furious that the real priest had got away – and even more furious when he realised that the man before him was a soldier. He ordered Alban to sacrifice to the official gods of the state in accordance with the military oath. Alban refused, although he had been warned that failure to obey this order meant death.
Accordingly he was condemned to be beheaded and was led out of the town to the hill across the river Ver where executions took place. Bede records various miracles that took place along the way, including the conversion of the soldier initially assigned to execute Alban, who was then beheaded alongside him. But the real miracle is the one described by Jesus in the gospel passage when he spoke of the grain which dies, yet bears much fruit. The place of Alban’s death became a place of pilgrimage for Christians: St Germanus of Auxerre visited it early in the fifth century and by Bede’s day, three centuries after Germanus, there was a church and a shrine, and a growing town, on the site of Alban’s execution. Later still, the great abbey church of St Alban was founded, using bricks from the long-deserted Roman city as the main building material.
But the most important fruit of Alban’s martyrdom is not to be found in the bricks and mortar but in the thousands of people who still make the pilgrimage to Alban’s shrine each year, to pray, to rejoice and to give thanks for Alban’s steadfastness in his new-found faith, and to ponder the meaning for them of those words which Bede records as Alban’s answer to the magistrate’s demand for the third-century equivalent of name, rank and number: “My name is Alban and I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.”
Gospel for 15th June – Evelyn Underhill (Matthew 6:1-6,16-18)
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’
In the cemetery at Staglieno, among the elaborate memorials to members of Genoa’s English community, there is a more modest monument: a cross on top of a truncated pyramid bearing the words “In loving memory of Annie Frances Rowe Harvey, widow of the Rev. T.W. Harvey, Vicar of St Agnes Bristol and Bosbury Herefordshire, who entered into rest 22nd April, 1934 aged 72 years.” Whether the wording was Annie Harvey’s own choice, or that of her family, it singularly fails to do justice to the life of a woman who played a significant role in English church life between the World Wars of the last century, in partnership with the woman whom we commemorate today.
Annie Harvey, recently widowed, was appointed as the first Warden of Pleshey, the Chelmsford Diocesan House of Retreat in 1919, after the end of the First World War. It was the first diocesan retreat house in the Church of England. From the beginning she tried to keep a balance among the retreat givers between “secular” clergy and religious and from 1924 she included women – one woman in particular, whose name was to become closely associated with Pleshey over the next decade.
Evelyn Underhill, the daughter of a Wolverhampton-based lawyer and sailing enthusiast, had been married to the barrister Hubert Stuart Moore (another sea-faring lawyer) for seventeen years when she led her first retreat at Pleshey. For the next decade and a half, until failing health set serious limits to her activity, she led retreats there, usually turning each year’s addresses and meditations into a book. Unusually, she came from a family with little or no religious commitment. Even more unusually for a spiritual teacher, writer and director, she came to the Church though an interest in mystical prayer, rather than coming to mystical prayer through the Church.
As a young woman she had flirted with atheism and with membership of the “Order of the Golden Dawn”, to which W,B, Yeats and several other literary figures of the period, including Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Williams, belonged. The Order’s interest in magic and the occult seems to have led her to investigate the world of pagan mysticism and from there to move into a study of Christian mysticism and the beginnings of her own practice of contemplative prayer under the direction of the Catholic contemplative Friedrich von Hügel, who encouraged her to develop a spiritual life that was more centred on Christ.
Her style as a retreat leader, and as a spiritual director, might be described as “brisk”, down-to-earth and immensely practical. Like Jesus in the gospel passage, she had little patience with displays of piety. What mattered was not the outward appearance but the inner reality of a life that was centred on God in Christ – and that was not something to be forced. What mattered, too, was the corporate nature of that life. Through her relationship with von Hügel, Evelyn Underhill came to realise that religion is not about “the flight of the alone to the Alone”, but participation in the living Body of Christ and her writings on Christian worship are still worth reading.
Evelyn Underhill died in on this day in 1941. What she had written in her tribute to Annie Harvey in the Church Times seven years earlier could equally well be applied to her: “With [her] death, there passes away one of those rare personalities who possess and are able to communicate to others something of the radiant delight of Christianity.” As we give thanks for their partnership, we pray, in words which Evelyn Underhill used of the faithful departed: “Grant to us, Lord, in our pilgrimage, the help of their prayers. Grant us the assurance of the Communion of Saints and the joy of their community, that they and we may be forever one in you”.
Gospel for 11th June – St Barnabas (John 15:12-17)
Jesus told his disciples, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’
“I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” There are few disciples of whom those words could be said more truly than Barnabas: which might seem a bit odd, because Barnabas is not mentioned at all in the Gospels. But in the Acts of the Apostles, and in Paul’s letters, he leaves abundant evidence of “fruit that will last”, not least – despite their painful bust-up in Antioch – in St Paul’s own ministry. It was Barnabas who was the first to vouch for the genuineness of Paul’s conversion to the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem. It was Barnabas who recognised Paul as the man needed in Antioch to beef up the team working with the earliest gentile Christians. It was Barnabas who was Paul’s partner in the first movement of the Holy Spirit to take the good news of Jesus beyond the borders of Palestine and Syria. It was Barnabas whom Paul cited as an example of unselfish service when he wrote to the Christians of Corinth.
Now it’s important to remember that Barnabas isn’t just a co-worker of Paul, someone like Silas, or Titus, or Timothy. Barnabas has a presence of his own and a ministry of his own. Like Paul, he is something of an outsider, while at the same time being part of the “establishment”. Barnabas was a Levite, someone with a significant role to play in Jewish worship. At the same time, he was a native of Cyprus, not Palestine, so that the culture in which he was raised would have been largely Greek-speaking, and similar to Paul’s in Tarsus. Luke describes him as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” and notes that Barnabas (“son of encouragement”) was the disciples’ nickname for him. His given name was Joseph.
Barnabas was a good man, a generous man. To support the poorest members of the first Christian community in Jerusalem he sold some land (which suggests that he wasn’t short of a bob or two) and handed over the proceeds to the church leadership. He was also seen as a “safe pair of hands”, someone who could be entrusted with the delicate mission of finding out what the disciples in Antioch were up to and reporting back. That’s when we discover that Barnabas was not only generous with his property. He was generous in his judgements. He accepted the new developments in Antioch. Luke says “When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced.” In a culture where boundaries were important, indicating who was “in” and who was “out”, that was a very significant step – and such generosity of spirit is a gift that the Church in our day too often seems to be lacking.
Questions about who’s in and who’s out seem to be high on the agenda of the General Synod in York next month, LGBTQ+ people will be under the microscope (again), so will disabled people. The same questions will probably be even higher on the agenda of the Lambeth Conference in August, not least because a few provinces and dioceses, mainly in Africa, have decided to boycott the Conference. And that brings us back to the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel: not the words which opened this reflection, but the words which opened that passage: “‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Barnabas, I think, had internalised that. The Bishops gathering for Lambeth 2022? Let’s wait and see.
Gospel for 8th June – Thomas Ken (Matthew 24:42-46)
Jesus told his disciples, ‘Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
‘Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.’
The oak panelling behind the High Table in the hall of my Oxford College is dotted with portraits. As you’d expect, there’s one of The Founder, Bishop William of Wykeham, in the middle; and on either side of him there are portraits of heads of the college, from William Spooner, early in the last century to Alan Ryan, whose time in the Warden’s lodgings spanned the change of millennium. Between them and William of Wykeham there is a group of four bishops, two from the age of Wykeham – and, like him, founders of Oxford Colleges – and two from the turmoil of the 17th-century. It’s one of those 17th-century bishops, Thomas Ken, that we remember today.
“Goodness has an inseparable splendour which can never suffer total eclipse, and when it is most reviled and persecuted, it then shines brightest out of cloud.” Those words were written by Thomas Ken for the funeral of his friend, Margaret Maynard, the wife of his first patron. They might just as easily have been written about him, especially in the last years of his life after the Revolution of 1688 which deposed James II and brought William of Orange to the throne of England.
The integrity of Ken’s life would have remarkable in any age. In Restoration England his gentle but firm refusal to compromise with the way of the world marked him out as someone very special indeed. Charles II acknowledged it. So did the crowds in London and elsewhere who thronged to hear him preach. So did the boys of Winchester College for whom he wrote those hymns for which he is still remembered, among them “Awake, my soul, and with the sun” and “Glory to Thee, my God, this night”. So did the parishes in Essex and Hampshire where he ministered – and the clergy and people of the Diocese of Bath and Wells where he was for six years a diligent and pastoral bishop, truly “a faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time.”
Integrity can come across as an uncomfortable quality, hard and uncompromising. Ken could be uncompromising. He famously refused to have Nell Gwynne lodge under his roof in Winchester on the grounds that he was the King’s chaplain, not his pimp; Samuel Pepys records him rebuking bad behaviour on a naval expedition to Tangier in 1683: and he was one of the seven bishops who opposed James II’s religious policy. Ultimately, his integrity cost him his bishopric, because, despite his differences with James, he could not in conscience swear the oath of allegiance to William and Mary while James was still alive.
But Thomas Ken’s integrity was always softened by compassion; for the poor, for refugees, for those caught up in the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion. Like St Paul, he did not proclaim himself, but Jesus Christ as Lord and himself as a slave for Jesus’ sake. Preaching to Charles II’s court in Lent 1685, on a verse from Daniel 10, Ken offers an agenda for anyone called, then or now, to a life of public service. “Be loyal to those whom you serve, seek the good of those over whom you have authority, but above all things love God and seek God’s glory”.
4th June 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the church’s consecration in 1872 by Bishop Charles Harris of Gibraltar. A number of former locum chaplains have sent us anniversary greetings.
You can find greetings from Fr David Emmott and Fr Clifford Owen on our Facebook page here.
Fr Michael Bullock OGS shares some memories:
THE CHAPLAINCY OF LIGURIA 1999-2000
On Easter Monday 1999 I put myself and my belongings into a hired car in Naples and drove to Sanremo to take up the post of Chaplain of Liguria. I had been Chaplain of Naples for almost ten years, and was excited at the prospect of bringing together the elements of Anglican activity in that part of Italy into a new Chaplaincy of Liguria. I lived in a very agreeable flat up the hill from the then station in Sanremo. There were worshipping communities at the Church of All Saints in Sanremo and the Church of the Holy Ghost (we weren’t quite sure whether it should be Holy Spirit, but I hope we sought his guidance), Genoa. Funding, as far as I remember, came from the Diocese, the historical resources of both churches, and the cemetery in Bordighera. The fine Tractarian church in Sanremo, where I used to go to say my offices, was used by a non-parochial Roman Catholic religious society, who had agreed to allow Anglicans to use it on Sundays as long as we could provide a priest, whose accommodation they would also underwrite.
For Sunday worship a quart could not be put into a pint pot, and we settled into a routine of alternating between the two churches. Perhaps we could have been more imaginative. There was one day in the week, I think Wednesday, when I always travelled by train to Genoa, leaving Sanremo just after seven and arriving in Genoa some two hours later. I went into the “office” in the church, the room on the right at the west entrance, and went through the post: I was not to venture into emails until the very end of my time in Liguria. There was a computer of its time in the office and I may have used it for sermon-writing, and general administrative chores, until a celebration of the Eucharist at mid-day. In the afternoon after lunch there were pastoral visits and contacts to make in Genoa, there was at least one joint church council meeting in a language school. For recreation I explored the city and visited bookshops. When I travelled back in the evening I tried to get on the Swiss train.
Of course there were other times I had to be in Genoa, and the room on the left at the west entrance had been rigged up as a bedroom, with a bathroom at the opposite corner of the building. A night-time visit to the bathroom required genuflection to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the church, and the same more comfortably on the way back. I was given a short-wave radio on which I could receive the BBC Overseas Service, the latest in information technology in those far-off days. But sleeping in the church was not entirely satisfactory. Members of the congregation found me a flat at the top of a high building in the old city, and I made some unsuccessful approaches to the Diocese that they might help to buy it.
There were pastoral visits to make throughout the area, generally to the west of Genoa. I had no car, but after nearly ten years of negotiating the traffic of Naples, I did not for the most part regret the lack. I made an attempt to cycle from Sanremo to Genoa: I failed, but at least I tried; I was younger then. It was important to make connections with people who had had links with the Anglican church in the past. I recall visiting some Protestant church leaders in Turin, who congregations contained Anglicans, some from Sri Lanka. I did feel supported by the Diocese as I tried to discern the viability of the Chaplaincy of Liguria.
There were contacts with long-established English-speaking organisations, with the British honorary consul, the library in the old (1929, I think) Anglican church in Alassio, and with groups who met for morning coffee and afternoon tea, but we were all dimly ware that the nature of expatriate life was changing, with easier electronic communications, cheaper flights and different patterns of work and family. We were aware of the effects of both Italy and the UK being in the EU. We were beginning, just beginning, to be aware of the valued presence of English-speaking Anglicans from outside Europe, whose stories were very different from those of previous waves of expatriates.
There were enough Roman Catholic priests around who had been inspired by the Second Vatican Council to a passion for ecumenism, and I had to mark off in my diary the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January. Perhaps by the turn of the millennium the content of the services had become a little tired, but it was a vision worth holding to. I realised that the winds of secularism were blowing, but perhaps not quite how strong and cold and persistent they were going to be.
As one brought up on islands, Britain and Singapore, I never lost the sense of novelty that I lived so near to an international frontier. Often on my day off (Monday) I went on the train to Nice. I can still remember my first sight of the skyscrapers of Monte Carlo. Menton was looked after by a non-stipendiary priest, Nice and Monaco were stipendiary posts with a full parish life. All of those priests gave me great support and friendship. One of my last ventures in May 2000 was to take part in a pilgrimage to the island of Lérins, with its links to the founding of western monasticism and with the visit of St Augustine of Canterbury the conversion of my ancestors.
I left Liguria and was instituted as Chaplain of Lisbon on Pentecost Sunday 2000. I remember how different the flat in Sanremo looked after members of the congregation stripped it of its furniture, as we were required to do by the landlord. I was of course sad that I had not been able to achieve what I had wanted to achieve, but it was good to come back twenty years later to see what the Chaplaincy has achieved without me. At the very least you no longer get a mild electric shock when you turn on in the light switch in the vestry after it has been raining in Genoa.
People were enormously kind to me. I have deliberately mentioned no names, because when I start putting names in, I start leaving names out. I have to mention the late Peter Jones, the Reader at Genoa, who maintained a strong commitment to the church through a time of serious personal sickness. Peter really was one of the great characters the Diocese in Europe fosters. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. I came back to Genoa as locum tenens in the summer of 2017, and it was good to see so many people from almost two decades earlier, looking in most cases well and remarkably unchanged, with a very definite sense of renewed purpose in the Chaplaincy.
Michael Bullock OGS
Gospel for 1st June – Justin Martyr (John 15:18-21)
Jesus told his disciples, ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.’
“The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws.”
If that account of the martyrdom of Justin and his companions reads like a court report, that’s because most of it is. It’s taken from the record of the proceedings of Quintus Junius Rusticus, a Stoic philosopher and former tutor of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was Prefect of Rome between AD 162 and 168. That he should have condemned Justin and his companions has a certain grim irony, because it was among the Stoics that Justin had started his lifelong search for meaning and truth.
But the Stoics’ teaching could not satisfy the young Justin, neither could the Peripatetics, the intellectual heirs of Aristotle. The followers of Plato came closer, but in his early thirties Justin, who came from a pagan family settled in Palestine, had an encounter with an old man beside the sea, probably somewhere near Ephesus, the great seaport on the west coast of Asia Minor. The old man convinced Justin that the truth that he was so earnestly seeking could be found in the message of the Hebrew prophets and, above all, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and from that point the course of Justin’s life was set.
He adopted the dress of a teacher of philosophy and became a travelling evangelist, pioneering use of the tools and the methods he had learned in his study of philosophy in order to commend the Christian faith, engaging in dialogue with pagan philosophers and people of other faiths, most famously the Jewish Trypho during his time in Ephesus. From there he moved to Rome, where he set up a Christian school and where his pupils included some of the next generation of Christian leaders and scholars. During his time in Rome he wrote his “First Apology”, a carefully argued defence of Christian faith addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius and his sons, as a plea for decriminalising Christianity. In it Justin brought together reason and revelation, recognising the elements of truth to be found in the pagan thinkers, but always emphasising that ultimate truth is to be found in God’s living Word, Jesus the Christ. His writings, including a second defence of Christian faith which he addressed to the members of the Roman Senate, are an important source for Christian life and worship in the second century of our era – and for the kinds of accusation that were brought against them, particularly the charge of “atheism”, which meant in those days failing to worship the gods recognised by the state.
Eventually, Justin was denounced to the authorities in Rome by the Cynic philosopher Crescens, and he and six of his disciples made their appearance before the Prefect Rusticus, fulfilling those words of Jesus in the gospel reading: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.” And so, to end with words from the account of their trial with which we began, “The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour.”
Gospel for 31st May – Visit of the BV Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-49)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
We began the journey nine weeks ago. We still have another seven months (all but a week) before we reach the climax of the story St Luke tells in the first two chapters of his Gospel. This is the point at which the second strand of that story, which began with Gabriel’s visit to Nazareth, is woven together with the first strand, which began with his appearance to Zechariah in the Temple at the time of the incense-offering.
These strands are woven into St Luke’s account of the events surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus. They look forward to John’s birth toward the end of chapter 1, and to the birth and childhood of Jesus, from Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem to his disappearance, aged twelve, after Passover in Jerusalem.
They are also woven into the whole pattern of Luke’s Gospel. They present John the Baptist, even in the womb, bearing witness to Jesus. They present the Holy Spirit, revealing to Elizabeth the significance of Mary’s visit when there is no earthly means by which she could have known it. And they present a world in which God looks with favour, not on the proud and the powerful, but on the lowly, the hungry, the poor.
Luke’s Gospel, despite all its urbanity, its sense of being written by an educated man for people of a similar background, native Greek-speakers with a feeling for literary style, citizens of the great cities of the eastern Roman empire – despite all of that, Luke’s Gospel is a radical document. It may not be as “in-your face” as Mark’s, but it is just as challenging. It challenges ideas about social status. It challenges the patriarchal assumptions of first-century Palestine. Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view. He is the one who acts, usually after angelic promptings. Luke emphasises the role of women in that story, as he does here. Mary sets out from Galilee to visit Elizabeth in her home-town in the Judean hill country. Elizabeth blesses Mary and the child she is carrying. Mary opens her mouth and praises God.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel we hear women’s voices: Anna in the temple; a disgruntled Martha, slaving over a hot stove; the unnamed woman who cries out a blessing from the crowd; the ritually unclean woman who finds healing when she touches Jesus’s robe; the women who reported the news of Jesus’ resurrection. And we see women taking independent action: the woman who burst into the dinner-party at Simon’s; Martha’s sister, Mary, behaving like a disciple; Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna and the others who funded the travels of Jesus and the twelve; the women who followed the procession to Golgotha; the women who watched and waited at the cross and who followed Joseph of Arimathea to the rock-cut tomb in which Jesus’ corpse was laid.
Among them all we find Mary, the mother of Jesus, treasuring and pondering the strange events and sayings surrounding her son’s birth, scolding him when he bunks off in Jerusalem, kept at a distance by the crowd of fans surrounding him as he teaches, part of the core community in Jerusalem in the first weeks after his resurrection. Still aware that “the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Gospel for 25th May – Bede and Aldhelm (John 21.20-25)
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Sister Benedicta Ward died on Monday. She had been moving toward death for a few weeks, held in our prayers, and those of many others around the world. So today we have an opportunity to reflect on her life. Actually, there’s not a lot you can say about her life, despite her having reached the ripe age of eighty-nine. She spent most of it in a community of contemplative nuns in Oxford. Her entry in Wikipedia tells you when she was born and where (February 1933 in Durham) and that’s about it.
And then you turn to the list of her writings – and that goes on, and on, and on. Sr Benedicta, you see, was one of the most learned and fruitful scholars of the last century, She was a historian and a theologian, with a particular interest in the development of the spiritual life. She wrote books, and articles for learned journals, and slim volumes of “popular” theology for the press run by her community. She wrote about the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers, including a study of those rather racy ladies, the “harlots of the desert”, women like Pelagia the former dancing girl, who gave up their life in the fast lane and devoted themselves to penitence and prayer. Benedicta also wrote about mediaeval prayer and piety. She translated the prayers and meditations of Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury. And, being a Durham girl and a religious, she wrote about Bede, whom we remember today. She wrote about Bede as a thinker, Bede the theologian, Bede and the Psalter, even “Bede and the educated woman”. One scholar with wide-ranging interests and a deep Christian faith sharing her appreciation of another, despite the centuries the separated them.
She wrote more widely, too, about the Church in Anglo-Saxon England, though I don’t think she ever wrote, except perhaps in passing, about the other Anglo-Saxon saint we commemorate today. Aldhelm was another scholar, the first great scholar of the English Church, a generation before Bede, fluent in Latin as well as in his mother tongue. Bede describes him as “a man of wide learning, with a polished style and… extremely well-read both in ecclesiastical and general literature.”
Like Bede and Benedicta, Aldhelm was a religious, a monk and later abbot of Malmesbury. Unlike them, he spent much of his life in the world outside the school-room and the monastery. Bede, sop far as we know, never travelled further than York. Aldhelm travelled on Church business as far as Rome, and in his late sixties he became Bishop of Sherborne. He was bishop for only four years, but in that time, it has been said, he “completed the conquest of Wessex by his preaching”. He toured his diocese, often dressed as a travelling entertainer, with a harp slung across his shoulders. When he arrived in a town or village he would often give the church a miss and go straight to the market-place where the people were, grab their attention with a song, or a few jokes and a bit of clowning, and then turn their attention to the things of God.
Which brings us back to the end of today’s Gospel and Peter’s question about the disciple whom Jesus loved: “Lord, what about him?” When we look at the lives of Aldhelm, and Bede, and Sr Benedicta, we see three people whose life was spent in response to Jesus’ answer: ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ Each of them fulfilled God’s will, not by looking round at others, but by following Jesus faithfully on the way he had set out for them.
Gospel for 18th May – (John 15.1-8)
Jesus said: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’
When I was a child in Liverpool, I used to love visiting Arthur and Ethel Scott, my father’s old boss and his wife, in their retirement. Being experienced grandparents, they kept their house supplied with toys, books and children’s comics, and they had a back garden which put to shame our square of lawn surrounded by flower-beds. They had a summerhouse, and a pergola, and on that pergola there was a vine, a long, straggly vine which provided shade every summer – and occasionally produced a bunch or two of rather acid grapes.
So it came as something of a shock when, twenty years later, I took my first holiday in a wine-growing district of France and discovered that the vines there were not long and straggly but pruned within the proverbial “inch of their life” in order to maximise the amount of energy that went into producing grapes and minimise the amount that went into lengthening and strengthening the stem of the vine. Each vine was allowed fifty, occasionally eighty centimetres, of woody stem: and then the vine-grower went to work with his, or her, secateurs.
That, rather than the Scotts’ leafy pergola, is the kind of vine that Jesus has in mind when he speaks to the disciples. He doesn’t want decorative foliage. He wants fruit! And to obtain that fruit two things are needed: first a relationship between the branches and the stem; then a willingness to cut out all the things that produce growth but not fruit. In other words, a living relationship between Jesus and those who claim to follow him and a readiness to give up everything that distracts us from that relationship, everything that strengthens self at the expense of service.
The monks who spread across the Egyptian desert seventeen centuries ago understood this. The whole of their life was based on strengthening what built up relationship with God and submitting to the discipline which enabled them to do that. We may not be monks, but we can follow a pattern of life that is similar to theirs, a pattern rooted in prayer and marked by self-discipline – which doesn’t necessarily mean being a total kill-joy. The great Abba Moses the Black, an escaped Sudanese slave who before his conversion had been a violent criminal, was one of the holiest of the “Desert Fathers”. He was also one of those who was the most fun to be with.
The story is told of a young brother who set out to learn from two of the Desert Fathers. The first was Abba Arsenius, once an important member of the court of the Roman emperor, who sat with the young man in complete silence. Not a word was said. Soon the young man felt quite ill at ease and left. The other was Abba Moses, who welcomed the young man warmly, sharing food and drink and talking freely about the life of the Spirit. The story ends with a vision of two large boats floating on a river. In one of them sat Abba Arsenius and the Holy Spirit of God in utter peace. And in the other boat was Abba Moses, with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes.
Jesus, in other words, calls us to bear fruit as the people we are. But we won’t unless we abide in him.
Gospel for 11th May – (John 12.44-end)
Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’
Considering how many times Jesus protests that he “came not to judge the world but to save the world”, it’s amazing how many of those who claim to follow him have been eager to say – and do – the exact opposite. They don’t seem to realise that by their readiness to, in the words of a former British Prime Minister, “condemn a little more and understand a little less” (and sometimes a lot less) they are crucifying the Son of God afresh.
The other thing that amazes me is how selective their condemnation can be. Men and women who fall in love with members of their own sex are, it seems, more deserving targets for a Church leader’s denunciation than national leaders who order their armed forces to invade a neighbouring state. Pastors who offer support to a colleague at the centre of a witch-hunt are ostracised by those who should also be offering support. Women for whom pregnancy represents a serious threat to their physical or mental well-being, rather than the promise of a new life to be cherished, are criminalised by mainly male law-makers who will never experience their anguish. Poor black teenagers attending a loud party find themselves with a criminal record. Privileged white youths trashing a restaurant suffer no punishment and their parents foot the bill for repairs.
Judgement is selective. People are happier to remain in the darkness, because it allows them not to see quite how selective their judgement is – and how often what they judge most severely is actually the reflection of an aspect of their own self which they try to keep hidden. “Not remaining in the darkness” means bringing those hidden aspects of the self into the light of Christ, acknowledging them and finding that they are, to our amazement, forgiven by the Father who sent Jesus “not to judge the world, but to save the world”.
Gospel for 4th May, Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era – (John 12.20-26)
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.’
We’re retracing our steps slightly from Monday’s commemoration, but staying with Philip, this time partnered again with Andrew – and pondering why this passage should be assigned to the day when we remember those who suffered and died in an age when Christians closed their borders, not only against outsiders, but against Christians who believed differently. On the face of it, it is a curious choice, beginning as it does with John’s second account of Jesus stepping outside the borders of Palestinian Judaism (the first account being the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4).
Perhaps the answer, at least in part, lies in that very beginning, and in the request from the Greek-speaking pilgrims, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ What sparked much of the debate, and much of the struggle, during the time of the Reformation was a desire to “see Jesus”. On the Reformers’ side, that meant a desire to cut through the accumulated clutter of a millennium of popular devotion, and to demolish the various walls which those in authority in the Church had built to protect their own privilege and prestige. On the other side, there was an anger that the Reformers not only did not acknowledge the ways in which traditional devotions, traditional ways of “being church”, had enabled the flourishing of lives of genuine holiness, but that they denigrated and insulted the memory of lives in which the love of Christ was clearly shown. There were, of course, less worthy motives in play on both sides. The power games played by popes and secular rulers had a devastatingly destructive impact on the lives of individuals, and on whole nations, across the length and breadth of Europe.
Which brings us to the second point of contact between this passage and today’s commemoration, the words of Jesus: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” On either side of divisions created by the Reformation there were women and men who suffered and died for the truth which they had seen in Jesus and which no power on earth could compel them to deny, even if to stand firm cost them their life. They had grasped that “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
So we see, not only the Church leaders, the bishops, the abbots, the members of religious orders and lower clergy, but the ordinary women and men listed among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales or painstakingly catalogued by John Foxe. We see the depth of their faith, their courage, and their steadfastness in the face of torture and death. We see, too, the integrity which led Thomas More to choose execution, rather than betray the truth as he understood it, and Margaret Clitherow to refuse to enter a plea when on trial for her life, accused of sheltering fugitive Catholic priests. We see, too, Bernard Gilpin, “Apostle of the North”, “feeding his flock” in Houghton-le-Spring literally as well as spiritually, and covering huge distances to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who lived in the remotest parts of Northumbria and Cumbria.
And we rejoice that those who on earth suffered and died to maintain the truth as they saw it now rejoice together in heaven in the light of that greater truth of which those truths are a part, as they see Jesus in one another, and know themselves to be held together in the healing, reconciling love of the risen Christ.
Gospel for 2nd May, SS Philip and James – (John 14.1-14)
Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’
In the drama of Matthew’s Gospel, as in Mark’s and Luke’s, Philip and James both have walk-on parts. They are named as members of the Twelve, and that’s about it. We know that James’s father was named Alphaeus and it’s possible that he may be the James whose mother Mary went to Jesus’ tomb on the first Easter morning. We know nothing more about Philip. In John’s Gospel things are rather different. James son of Alphaeus isn’t mentioned at all, but Philip, like Thomas, is one of those disciples whom John really brings to life. Normally, as we shall be reminded on Wednesday, he appears patrolling the borders, picking up people and bringing them to Jesus. But on this occasion, unusually, he is at the heart of things, at the last supper, and sharing his moment in the spotlight with Thomas, for once, rather than Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.
Also unusually, he is making a request, rather than trying to find an answer. ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ It’s a request which takes up the request of those Greek-speaking pilgrims in Jerusalem which we shall hear on Wednesday, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ That was easily sorted. “Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.” His request at the supper? On the face of it, that’s more difficult. ‘Lord, show us the Father.’ But in a sense, as Jesus points out, the answer is the same. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus has been “showing the Father” to Philip – and his fellow-disciples – ever since that first encounter in Judaea which John records in the opening chapter of his Gospel. Jesus has been showing healing, life-giving, unjudgemental love all the way through his ministry.
So, in a way, Philip is continuing to patrol the boundaries, but this time it is the boundary which limits our understanding of God, and this time instead of bringing others across, he comes to cross it himself. His request receives the answer that Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus, “glorified in the Son” in whom the indwelling Father does his works.
But where does this leave James? His presence in the other gospels is shadowy enough. Here it has vanished completely. That, I think, is understandable. John’s interest is in the ways Jesus expands our understanding of God and how he breaks down boundaries and upends our preconceptions. Philip with his Greek name, and his origins in Bethsaida, on the northern shore of lake Galilee, fits into that scheme of things. What little we know about James son of Alphaeus suggests that he wouldn’t. His name, in Greek Ιακωβος, Jacob, puts him literally at the heart of Israel. His father’s name, Alphaeus, is the Greek version of the Aramaic Hilfai, a name which was borne three centuries later by an eminent rabbi. So the odds are that James was part of that tradition in Palestinian Christianity which kept closely in touch with its Jewish roots.
Which actually makes him a good partner for Philip. Because if a tree or a bush is to bear blossom and fruit it needs the stem to convey nourishment from the roots to the new growth. In the same way a Christian congregation needs both those who maintain the tradition and those who patrol the boundaries. Without the one it easily loses its rootedness. Without the other it produces no new growth and bears no fruit. So that Philip and James are both necessary to the health of the Church and today we give thanks for them both.
Gospel for 27th April, Christina Rossetti – (John 3.16-21)
Jesus said, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
At yesterday’s festival for St George it was hard to find words, because there is so little information about him. At today’s commemoration for Christina Rossetti it is also hard to find words but, paradoxically, that is because there is so much information about her.
To begin with there are her poems and her prose writings, not least on the spiritual life; then the letters and diaries and notebooks, her own, and those of family and friends; then the writings of the scholars and critics. from contemporaries such as John Ruskin to the feminist scholars of our own day, celebrating an original and multi-layered poet and a theologian whose outward conservatism (she thought that women should not be granted the vote) often hid a radical core (she thought that women should be members of parliament). We know about her role in the Rossetti family, her care for her parents, for her brother Dante Gabriel, as he slipped into addiction. We know that she loved and was loved, and three times turned down offers of marriage, that she suffered a breakdown in her teens and a serious illness in her early forties which dramatically altered her life and her appearance. And we know that through all this she was sustained by a profound Christian faith, which drew nourishment from the Catholic revival in the Church of England, and by a concern to “do what is true”, both in her writing and in her everyday life.
As a poet, her themes are love and loss, mutability and mortality, death and resurrection, all marked by a close, and often contemplative, attention to detail. As a writer on the spiritual life, her concern is more focused on individual questions of sin and salvation – a fact she acknowledged in a letter to her brother, “It is not in me, and therefore it will never come out of me, to turn to politics or philanthropy with Mrs Browning: such many-sidedness I leave to a greater than I, and having said my say may well sit silent.”
But let us allow Christina Rossetti to have her say. One of her poems “A Better Resurrection”, has been posted on the church’s Facebook page today. Here is another, “Passing away”, a poem which picks up many of her recurring themes, and which finds resolution in words from the “Song of Songs”:
Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Chances, beauty and youth, sapp’d day by day:
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answer’d: Yea.
Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
With its burden of fear and hope, of labour and play,
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo, the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay:
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answer’d: Yea.
Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay:
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven’s May.
Though I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray.
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answer’d: Yea.
In the course of my researches into the history of the Church of the Holy Ghost, I found this prayer, included in the annual report for the year to 31st December, 1913. It needs slight adaptation, since the community from which the congregation of the Church of the Holy Ghost is drawn is no longer entirely “British” (and I’m not sure it was even then, judging by the names of some of the church’s “subscribers”): however, I encourage members of the congregation, and others who read these posts, to include it regularly in their prayers:
“Almighty and Everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth; mercifully hear our prayers, and grant to the British Community and Chaplain at Genoa all things that are needful for their spiritual welfare. Strengthen and confirm the faithful; visit and relieve the sick; turn and soften the wicked; arouse the careless; recover the fallen; restore the penitent; remove all hindrances to the advancement of Thy truth; and bring all to be of one heart and mind within the fold of Thy Holy Church; to the honour and glory of Thy ever-blessed Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Gospel for 26th April, Saint George (transferred) – (John 15.18-21)
Jesus told the disciples, ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.‘
Considering how widely and how quickly the veneration of him spread, we know little, if anything, certain about St George. He was almost certainly a soldier, possibly from Asia Minor, executed for being a Christian, probably during the last great persecution of Christians in the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian, almost certainly in Lydda in Palestine, where a large church was built in his memory within a century or so of his death. Otherwise he remains, as Pope Gelasius I wisely said, one of those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”
But George stands as a warning and an encouragement. A warning to Christians who become too cosily close to the powers of this world, and an encouragement to those who find themselves suffering because they place their loyalty to Christ above all earthly loyalties. He embodies those words in today’s gospel reading: “Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” Autocratic rulers from Diocletian 1700 years ago to Xi Jinping in our own day have found Christians’ ultimate loyalty to Christ, rather than to them and the system they represent, a cause for alarm and a motive for persecution and punishment.
One Sunday in August, half a century ago, when I was one of a group of students travelling in Iran with Bishop (as he then wasn’t) Geoffrey Rowell, we attended liturgy at St George’s Church in New Julfa, the suburb of Isfahan where Shah Abbas had settled the Armenian craftsmen he imported to beautify his new capital. On this particular Sunday the Bishop was preaching: Karekin Sarkissian, who had been a lecturer in theology in Oxford some years before. His sermon was focused on George as a model for those who had to live with divided loyalties – like Christians of Armenian descent living in Shi’a Muslim Iran during the time of the Shahs. He told the congregation that they had a responsibility to be loyal citizens, but that, like George, their ultimate loyalty must be to Christ, and that if the state demanded something that ran contrary to their Christian profession, then they, like George, must refuse.
The following Sunday, we had moved on to Tehran, where we celebrated communion with the Anglican Bishop in Iran, Hassan Dehqani Tafti and his family, including his teen-aged son, Bahram, and his five-year-old daughter Guli. After the Shah’s regime was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979, an attempt was made on the life of Bishop Hassan (the first ethnic Iranian for thirteen centuries to become a bishop), and in a separate incident Bahram, then aged 24, was murdered. The rest of the family left for exile in the UK, where Guli has followed her father, and her English grandfather, in becoming a bishop of the Church of England (I’m not sure what Bishop Geoffrey would have made of that!).
Their story is a powerful reminder of the cost of discipleship, of what it means to live out and, as George did, to die by that saying of Jesus: “Servants are not greater than their master.”
Gospel for 25th April, Saint Mark – (Mark 13:5-13)
Jesus began to say to the disciples, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’
Today’s reading shows Mark at his most typical – and reminds us why the rediscovery of Mark’s Gospel has been one of the great gifts of the past century. I can’t remember who it was who said that Mark’s is the Gospel for a persecuted Church: but they hit the nail on the head. It makes sense of the traditional link between Mark and Peter and the dating of this Gospel at the time of the first great persecution during the reign of the emperor Nero. He, you may recall, was searching for scapegoats to blame for the disastrous fire which destroyed two-thirds of Rome in AD 64 and decided that the Christians, for whom nobody (at least, nobody who mattered) had a good word, would fit that role perfectly. Hadn’t their leader been condemned to crucifixion, the death reserved for slaves and rebels, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea? Clearly a very “iffy” crowd, subversives and common as muck, most of them.
So Mark was writing for a church under the lash, a church whose original leaders were fast disappearing as the authorities tracked them down, tried them and put them to death. He was not providing them with a life of Jesus, but with a set of stories which would enable the next generation – and it now looked as if there would be a “next generation” – to hand on the good news. The end of the present system was not going to happen immediately. God’s kingdom remained over the horizon for the foreseeable future. And that is why, once the Church became respectable, once Christians were promoted to high office in the state, rather then sent off to an early death in the galleys or the Sardinian lead mines, Mark’s Gospel was forgotten. He is just too hard-edged and “political” for a newly “established” Church to be quite comfortable with him. The Jesus he portrays is on the side of the rural poor, people who were despised and exploited by both the religious and the political establishment of his day. That’s why, in Mark’s account, the religious and political establishment wanted rid of him.
And that’s why the newly liberated and increasingly prominent leaders of the Church after Constantine were happy to forget Mark, to write him off, as Augustine of Hippo did, as “Matthew’s abridger and running footman”, not recognising – perhaps not wanting to recognise – his particular strengths and insights as an evangelist. In fact, Mark was buried so deep by the Church when it came out of the catacombs that his gospel was almost totally ignored by the compilers of lectionaries for over a thousand years. Even on his own feast day, until recently, the gospel reading at the Eucharist came from John, as it still does in Anglican parishes which use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
But in recent times, as persecution of the Church has been renewed in many places around the world, the strengths of Mark’s Gospel, and the power of his portrait of Jesus, have been recognised. Scholars like Martin Hengel in Germany, Morna Hooker in Britain, and Ched Myers in the USA have enabled us to set Mark’s Gospel in its historical context and to apply its insights to our own time. And for that we give thanks. As we hear of “wars and rumours of wars”, as we face the spread of wildfire, flooding and famine, as we learn about the persecution of fellow-Christians, from Latin America to China, we can recognise them as the birth-pangs of God’s coming kingdom, and hold on tight, however bumpy the journey to that kingdom may be.
Gospel for 23rd April, Saturday in Easter Week – (Mark 16:9-15)
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.’
Each year we come to the Saturday of Easter Week and I ask myself the same question: Why on earth did the people who put together the readings for this week choose this passage to round things off? It doesn’t appear in the oldest and best manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel. It doesn’t match the rest of the Gospel in language and tone. Even more than the beginning of John 21 which we heard yesterday, it reads like the scriptural equivalent of a “greatest hits” compilation album, or a DJ’s mash-up, with snippets from John and Matthew and Luke remixed to form a coherent story.
And that, I suppose, is the reason for the inclusion of these verses from what scholars call “the longer ending” of Mark’s Gospel. They draw together the threads of the different accounts of what followed Jesus’ resurrection that we have heard during the past six days, and using them enables the Church to finish the Easter jigsaw without having to reuse one of the Gospel readings set for Easter Day. So that’s a positive.
But using this passage ducks the challenge set by Mark’s original ending – and Matthew’s and Luke’s and John’s. It turns the call to commitment into a demand for obedience, pushing those who follow Jesus from “belief in” to “belief that”, and making faith a matter of assenting to a series of statements rather than trusting in a person. One result of that is the loss of any sense that Christian faith is something open-ended. It becomes a closed system, turned in on itself. And that is a serious loss, because the resurrection, as the first Christians discovered, opens up all sorts of possibilities in a world marked by fear, conflict and oppression. When Jesus rose on the first day of the week, it was not the completion of a jigsaw, but rather the beginning of a new creation which he invites us to enter.
Gospel for 22nd April, Friday in Easter Week – (John 21:1-14)
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
Today’s Gospel reading is a strange one. Not half as strange as tomorrow’s, perhaps, but that, as they say, is another story. It’s strange for a number of reasons.
First, because the ending of the previous chapter reads very much as if it was intended to be the ending of the whole Gospel: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It sends the reader out, as Matthew and Mark (and arguably Luke), in their very different ways, send the reader out to become part of the story which they have told.
Second, because in John’s original Greek there is a significant number of words in this one chapter which aren’t found anywhere in the other twenty. Kingsley Barrett’s commentary counts 28.
Third, because it mixes together half a dozen disciples who don’t otherwise appear together – and two of whom (the sons of Zebedee) are never named elsewhere in John’s Gospel.
And finally (for our purposes, anyway) this passage picks up a number of themes from other passages in the Gospels. There’s the failure to catch anything during a whole night’s work, followed by an abundant haul when they follow instructions from the shore. That’s in Luke 5. Then there’s Simon Peter jumping into the sea to reach the Lord. Not quite the attempted walk on water in Matthew 14, but close enough. That’s followed by the slightly wince-making reference to a charcoal fire. Remember the one John describes in the courtyard of the high priest’s house? The one where Peter was trying to warm himself on the night of Jesus’ arrest? And there’s another lakeside meal involving Jesus sharing out bread and fish. That one is mentioned in all four of the Gospels.
So what are we to make of this passage? As it stands there doesn’t seem to be any real point to it – although there is to the verses which follow; verses which we won’t hear until we get to St Peter and St Paul at the end of June, or St John the Evangelist a couple of days after Christmas. But perhaps it’s that link between Peter and John – or, more accurately, Peter and the Beloved Disciple – which shows, as other episodes in John’s Gospel do, the way in which Peter’s readiness to act and the Beloved Disciple’s quickness and depth of perception work together to complement each other. The Church needs its actives and its contemplatives working together, not fighting one another. But perhaps the key point is the need to recognise Jesus when he comes to us, apparently as a stranger, to challenge us, and to set us on a new path, when we, like those seven disciples, are quite happy to return to the way of life we led before we first encountered him.
Gospel for 21st April, Thursday in Easter Week – (Luke 24:35-46)
Cleopas and his companion told the eleven and their companions what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’
A great deal of ink – and, sadly, a lot of blood – has been spilt over the question of the real presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist. Transubstantiation, consubstantiation, receptionism, even “mere memorial” have all been put forward as explanations by different branches of the Western Church. The Eastern Church, more wisely, has simply declared that it is a mystery, which doesn’t mean a puzzle to be worked out à la Hercule Poirot or Nancy Drew, but a secret hidden in the depths of God’s being. In the words of the English priest, school-master and hymn-writer G.H. Bourne, “Thou art here, we ask not how.”
What is clear from St Luke’s account of the resurrection appearances of Jesus is that he links them closely with meals. At Emmaus yesterday, and in Jerusalem today, we read how the risen Lord is manifested to the disciples as they prepare to eat (Emmaus), or just as they have eaten (Jerusalem). In a pre-refrigerator world it is unlikely that “a piece of broiled fish” would have been left around for long.
However, in this passage from his Gospel Luke’s purpose is not to defend a particular Eucharistic doctrine. It is to affirm the reality of the resurrection against those who suggested (then as now) that what the disciples experienced was a mass hallucination, or an encounter with a ghost or other “spirit manifestation”. People in the ancient world, even the educated classes, were very aware of “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night.” But none of those “spirit manifestations” were able to consume food, so when Jesus takes that piece of broiled fish and eats it in the disciples’ presence he is proving conclusively to Luke’s first readers that he is not a spook, making them witnesses to the reality of the resurrection.
They are witnesses. We, too, are witnesses: not to the physical presence of Christ in the upper room, but to his presence with us now. Increasingly Christians have begun to understand that the real presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist is not limited to the “Eucharistic Elements”, the bread and wine which become the sacramental signs of his body and blood. There has been a growing realisation across the Churches that Christ the living Word is also present in the written words of Scripture, and in the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the community of believers. It is in that power, to whose honour this church is dedicated, that we are enabled to show in our daily lives the transforming reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
Gospel for 20th April, Wednesday in Easter Week – (Luke 24:13-35)
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
In the early 1980s, when I was a pale, not-so-young curate, I preached an Easter sermon pointing out some differences between European and Antipodean celebrations of Easter. “Had you realised”, I asked the congregation, “that Easter in Australia takes place in the autumn, and not the in the spring?” That, I went on to explain, makes quite a difference to the imagery used in proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection. In the northern hemisphere we keep the feast against a backdrop of new life bursting naturally out of the earth. “Down under” the resurrection is celebrated as the natural world prepares for its winter sleep, so that chicks and spring flowers don’t figure in the same way and preachers focus on the power of God overturning the natural order in Jesus’ resurrection.
The following day, a group from the parish took part in the annual Easter pilgrimage to St Albans Abbey, about five miles away across the fields – and a couple of motorways. We had not long set out when one of the other pilgrims, Pat, the leader of our young people’s drama group, pitched up alongside me. “Why,“ she asked, “does the Church have to keep changing things? Why can’t they leave Easter in the spring where it has always been?” The early 1980s, you may remember, was the time when the Alternative Service Book and worship in contemporary language was bringing about massive change in the Church’s life, and I think she had found the process a bit disorienting.
Anyway, as we walked along, I tried to explain that it was not the Church but the realities of geography and astronomy which were responsible for the difference in the season at which Easter is celebrated in Australia and New Zealand, their winter months being our summer months as the tilt of the earth’s axis brought the other hemisphere nearer to, or further from, the sun. Of course, Pat knew all of that. She just hadn’t realised that it made a difference to the life of the Church. I think there’s something of that in the reaction of Cleopas and his companion (probably his wife), as the stranger walking alongside them explained “all that the prophets have declared” about the necessity “that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory”. They knew the theory, but hadn’t worked out its practical implications. And it wasn’t until they reached their destination and the stranger said grace before the evening meal that the lightbulb finally clicked on and they realised that they person to whom they had been talking was the person about whom they had been talking, and that someone whose cruel death they were grieving was very much alive – and sharing a meal in their home.
So, as we gather in these days of Easter to share the meal which Jesus left to those who follow him, we pray that we, like Cleopas and his companion, may recognise Jesus our risen Lord in the breaking of the bread and go from here to share the good news of his resurrection with those who share our daily life.
Gospel for 19th April, Tuesday in Easter Week – (John 20:11-18)
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Mary of Magdala wasn’t expecting to find Jesus alive. She had watched him die and she had looked on as he was buried. So it’s hardly surprising that she didn’t recognise him until he called her by name. Then immediately she knew who it was who was talking to her. She reconnected.
But things were different. We can grasp that from the way St John tells us what happened. Mary was so happy; she wanted to hold on to Jesus. But he wouldn’t let her. Things weren’t quite the same as they had been before. Death couldn’t hold him prisoner, but neither could his former life. He was on his way back to where he had come from. This is what he meant when he told her to tell his disciples, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Things had changed for Jesus: and because they had changed for Jesus they had changed for everyone, for his friends, his followers, those who loved him.
Because he had loved his friends right to the end, because he had loved them so much that he gave up his life for them, even though they had abandoned him, even though one of them had betrayed him and one had denied that he knew him – because of all that, and despite all of that, they could now draw near to God in the same way that he had. God was now “their Father” as well as his Father. God was now “their God”, as well as his God.
That’s true for us as well. Because Jesus died and was raised, we can approach God with the same confident trust that Jesus had. We can approach him knowing that he loves us – and that he loves us enough to die for us, to give up his life, so that we might have life, and have it richly, abundantly. He loves us even when we are foolish, or frightened, or cruel, or downright nasty.
God doesn’t love us because we are good, but because he is good, because he sees in each one of us the person he made us to be, the sister, the brother for whom his Son died, all the children whom God our Father calls by name as Jesus called Mary by name.
Now when Jesus called Mary by name, he told her not to do one thing, “Do not hold on to me”: but he told her to do two things “Go to my brothers… and say to them…” Go and tell them what has happened. That’s his message to each one of us today. Jesus calls us by name and invites us to go to our families, our friends, our neighbours, and to share with them the same truth that Mary did:
“Alleluia. Christ is risen!”
Gospel for 18th April, Monday in Easter Week – (Matthew 28:8-15)
The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. Perhaps that’s why Matthew’s account of the resurrection is so much fuller than Mark’s, which ends (in what most scholars think is its original form) with the women running away from the tomb in terror and telling nobody what they had seen. Matthew’s account, like Luke’s which we heard yesterday, portrays the women obeying the angel’s command. Unlike Luke, who describes no appearance of the risen Jesus before the evening of the first Easter Day, Matthew describes how the women met the risen Jesus as they were hurrying away to tell the disciples but, like Luke (albeit less elaborately), he stresses the physicality of the resurrection. “They came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” This is no ghost, no vision, not even the kind of encounter between the living and the dead which the Roman poet Virgil pictures in his description of Aeneas, in the realm of the dead, vainly attempting to embrace the insubstantial shade of his father Anchises. Matthew’s account of the resurrection links it firmly to first-century realities.
He also links it to 21st-century realities, with his depiction of the temple authorities’ sordid attempts at what we would call “news management” or, perhaps more accurately, “manipulation”. In his study of “The Matthew Passion”, John Fenton notes that this is the second time that their careful planning has back-fired. After failing to meet their original objective of arresting Jesus outside the heightened tensions of the Passover festival, the chief priests again find their plans going badly awry, as the soldiers from the Roman garrison whom they have borrowed to guard the tomb fail to carry out their allotted task – and instead become additional witnesses to the reality of the resurrection. And, like Judas, the soldiers end up costing the authorities “a large sum of money”. They would certainly have needed a serious inducement to tell a story that would incriminate themselves on a charge of gross dereliction of duty. Falling asleep while on watch was likely to result in a death sentence, so the Jewish authorities’ promise to “keep [them] out of trouble” with the Governor was essential.
But Matthew’s main interest is not in the fate of a squad of soldiers from the army of occupation. Matthew’s interest is in affirming the reality of Jesus’ resurrection against those who denied it, but who couldn’t produce the ultimate evidence against it – a body bearing the marks of crucifixion. Matthew’s concern is to counter the stories which members of his community might hear and which might weaken their faith. A woman’s evidence, in first-century Palestine, counted for nothing. The word of the soldiers would carry much more weight. So, perhaps the mystery is not so much why so many refused to believe as why so many believed what the women told them. But then, if God has vindicated a crucified man, despite the provision of the divine Law that “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”, why should God not give greater credibility to those whose evidence was, and in many cultures still is, discounted under human law?
Gospel for 13th April, Wednesday in Holy Week – (John 13:21-32)
Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
We need, I think, to be clear about one thing in relation to Judas Iscariot. In none of the Gospels is he described as betraying Jesus. Greek has a word for betrayal, and it’s not the one John uses here. Nor is it used by any of the other Evangelists to describe what Judas did. The Greek word which all of them use means to “hand over” or “hand on”. It’s the same word which St Paul uses when he writes to the Corinthians about the teaching he handed on to them, teaching about the Lord’s Supper, teaching about the appearances of the risen Christ.
What Judas did is also part of a pattern. John the Baptiser appeared, and preached, and was handed over to imprisonment and death. Jesus has appeared, and preached and is about to be handed over to suffering and death. Those who follow Jesus can expect the same to happen to them.
Now this is not to say that what Judas did was, humanly speaking, a good, or even a neutral, thing. It was a colossal betrayal of friendship. But it was part of a pattern, part even, some might say, of a divine plan. Some theologians, especially in the Franciscan tradition, have long put forward the view that “incarnation is already redemption”; that the cross, in a sense, wasn’t necessary because by coming among us as a human being, God had sanctified the whole of human life from birth to death, in all its mess and incoherence. But in another sense, it is the messiness and incoherence of human life which means that the cross was inevitable. It’s only when human beings show the worst depths of which they are capable that God can show the infinite glory of his love.
That, I think, is why the first words of Jesus after Judas has gone out into the night speak of God’s glory. In yesterday’s gospel, we heard how Jesus overcame that moment of doubt which Matthew Mark and Luke locate in his agonised prayer in Gethsemane by praying “Father, glorify your name”. Here, in a sense, is the answer to that prayer. Judas’s departure means that the stage has been set for the revelation of God’s glory in the obedience of Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God”.
Gospel for 12th April, Tuesday in Holy Week – (John 12:20-36)
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’
After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
This isn’t the first time in John’s Gospel that Philip and Andrew have worked together to bring people on the edge of things to Jesus, but a group of Greek-speaking pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover might seem a bit more significant than a Galilean lad with five barley loaves and two fish – though probably not if you were part of the hungry crowd by the lakeside. There’s some debate whether the “Greeks” were gentiles or Jews from the diaspora – people like Saul of Tarsus, in other words – but it doesn’t really matter. In either case they come from outside the society and culture in which Jesus’ ministry has been spent. And they want to see him. Why, we don’t know. They vanish from the story immediately, but they provide the starting point for a further revelation of who Jesus is, a revelation which echoes another revelation at the beginning of his ministry when a voice came from heaven.
But this episode doesn’t only look back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It also looks forward to the end, picking up a saying which appears in the other gospels about losing one’s life to save it, and echoing other sayings about the relationship between serving and following, and about the seed from which abundant new life springs.
And then we come to the strange moment which seems to be John’s version of the agony in the garden, as Jesus says: ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ When John’s version of events reaches Gethsemane there is no time between Jesus’ arrival and that of Judas and the snatch squad sent by the authorities. So here, uniquely, is that moment of doubt – and the same resolution which we find in the other gospels, even if it is expressed in terms of the Father glorifying his name, rather than the divine will being done.
And now, now – the word is repeated for emphasis – Jesus pronounces God’s judgement on the world, and announces the expulsion of the ruler of this world, taking us back to that cosmic dimension of the struggle which was noted in passing yesterday. Once again we are taken back to an earlier point in John’s Gospel, and the double-edged assertion that when Jesus is lifted up all will look to him, be drawn to him, and find in him their life. It’s double-edged, because it refers at the same time to Jesus’ exaltation and to his crucifixion, reminding us that for St John “the cross is a throne”.
The crowd, of course, is baffled. So Jesus takes them, and us, right back to the beginning of the Gospel, right to the beginning of creation, with this reminder that the Son of man is the light who gives light to everyone, and inviting them, and us, to walk in his light, to become light. And with those words he ends his public ministry and is hidden from them. From this point onward Jesus’ teaching will be shared only with the disciples, as we shall see tomorrow.
Gospel for 11th April, Monday in Holy Week – (John 12:1-11)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
The struggle that goes on in Holy Week is often portrayed as the cosmic struggle between good and evil, a struggle in which ordinary human beings are in danger of being trampled underfoot, like the grass in the African proverb. But that cosmic struggle is also the human struggle reflected in this passage from John’s Gospel, where Mary’s extravagantly fragrant gesture of love runs into the profit-and-loss mentality of Judas, who calculates that this “perfume made of pure nard” is worth nearly a year’s wages, so somewhere around €25,000-30,000 in terms of Italy today. We might say that it’s the struggle between “good religion” and “bad religion”, with Mary’s willingness not to count the cost set against Judas’s certainty about the price of the perfume and total inability to understand its value in the setting in which Mary uses it. It’s the struggle between the mind-set which asks “How much can I give?” and the attitude which asks “How little can I get away with?”
There’s another example of that struggle between “good religion” and “bad religion” in the contrast between the opening and closing sentences. We begin with the reminder that Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. We end with the chief priests, who are already plotting Jesus’s death, planning to put Lazarus to death as well, “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” The contrast is between, on the one hand, an action which is, quite literally, liberating and life-giving, bringing hope and joy out of a situation of grief and hopelessness, and, on the other hand, an attitude ruled by fear, the fear of someone who is seen as a rival, the fear of losing control.
We recognise that fear, that struggle to maintain control, lying behind many of the actions and decisions of the Jerusalem authorities which are recorded in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles. We recognise it today, in many different Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions. We recognise it in the history of the Church, from the time of the early Fathers, through the Reformation, to the various scandals and conflicts besetting the Churches in our day. We can see it now, with a horrific clarity, in the conflict in Ukraine, which is not just about the power of the Russian state attempting to assert itself against a smaller, less powerful neighbour. It’s also about the power of the Patriarch of Moscow, attempting to assert his right to control all Orthodox Christians in Ukraine and therefore colluding in many thousands of deaths, including the deaths of Russian soldiers as well as Ukrainian civilians, rather than condemn the slaughter and abandon his claim to that control.
But the Christ whose footsteps we follow in this Holy Week does not seek such control, although many have tried to do so in his name. Even as the hour of his death approaches, he shares the hospitality of those whom he has blessed by his presence, accepting them, and freeing them to be who they are in him.
Gospel for Wednesday, 6th April – (John 8:31-42)
Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’
Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.’
They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.’
Who is a descendant of Abraham? That was a question which clearly bothered St Paul. He tackles it in his letter to Rome, and in the letter to the Galatians. Judging by this passage, it was a question which bothered St John, too. The Jews in this passage are adamant that they are descendants of Abraham. Jesus challenges them to prove it by “doing what Abraham did”. And what Abraham did, both in Jewish tradition and according to St Paul, was this: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’
In fact, the whole of this passage is very close, in some ways, to ideas which St Paul explores, and it suggests that John knew at least some of Paul’s letters. There are echoes of Paul’s thinking about slavery to sin, the difference between a slave and a son, the nature of freedom – and all this is focused on the person of Jesus. Jesus is the one who sets free: and the freedom which Jesus gives is for those who continue, or remain or abide, in his word. One translation says ‘make my word your home”. Those who do will indeed be his disciples, knowing the truth.
Now, that raises the same question raised by Pontius Pilate in the Passion Gospel we shall hear on Good Friday: “What is truth?” The response of Jesus to the comments of his critics shows us that the truth which he is talking about is a truth discovered not in statements of fact but in relationship – and supremely in relationship to the Father through him. His Jewish critics focus on their DNA, if you like; on the verifiability of their genealogy. Jesus keeps pushing back at this attitude in order to take them deeper – and “deeper”, in this context, means into that relationship of love and trust with the God Jesus calls Father”.
This exchange is not about slogans and slick formulae: “Abraham is our father”, even “we have one father, God.” It is about being real, about continuing in Jesus’ word, reflecting on it, dwelling on it – or even in it. It’s about finding that truth which is love, the love which brought everything that there is into being and which maintains that “everything” in existence, despite human beings’ best efforts to destroy it in order to affirm their own superiority, over the rest of creation, over other human beings. Which raises the question: are those who do such things, however exalted they may be, truly disciples of Jesus? Have those who do such things created an idol, rather than found the living God?
Going against the Crowd (6.4.2022)
We end our survey of the “faces in the crowd” – or rather the crowds – around Jesus by considering one man who is going against the crowd. Simon of Cyrene, “coming in from the country”, as everyone else is on their way out of town, is a classic case of the person caught up in events that are nothing to do with him and forced against his will to play a central part.
Simon appears in just one verse in each of the first three Gospels, and neither Matthew not Luke add anything to what is recorded by Mark: but from that one verse we are able to deduce quite a lot about him.
First, he was from North Africa. Cyrene was one of the old-established Greek cities on the coast of Libya, founded by settlers from the islands and the Peloponnese six centuries before. It was an important centre for trade. There’s a famous picture on a Greek cup in the Louvre of one of the early rulers of Cyrene supervising the loading of a ship with bales of cargo. By the time of Jesus most of the people of Cyrene were of mixed Greek and Berber descent. There was also a sizeable Jewish community there, with members sufficiently well-off to travel to Jerusalem for the great festivals, and to provide at least some kind of resident presence in the city.
Simon’s name suggests strongly that he belonged to that community, although the name “Simon” wasn’t exclusively Jewish. It isn’t impossible that he was a gentile with a snub nose (which is what “Simon” means in Greek). His two sons, Alexander and Rufus, certainly bear non-Jewish names – but then, so did a couple of Jesus’s disciples, and there’s no doubt that they were “kosher”. And at least two Jewish Alexanders are mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, one of them a member of the high-priestly family.
We also know, from the way that Mark mentions Simon’s sons, that they belonged to (or were known to) the Christian community for which he wrote his Gospel. Their names were, perhaps, put forward by Mark as witnesses to the truth of what he was writing. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that, while some of the Cyrenaic community in Jerusalem were violently opposed to the first followers of Jesus, others had become Christians early on. They were, Luke tells us, among the group in Antioch who were the first to take the initiative of telling non-Jews about Jesus.
All that, of course, is a very long way from Simon, coming in from the country, as Jesus was being led out to execution. The wrong man, as he was to discover, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and going in the wrong direction. He was turned round by the soldiers, loaded with Jesus’s cross and made an honorary member of the execution squad.
Scholars don’t know why Simon was press-ganged into carrying the cross. John’s statement that “Jesus went out carrying his own cross” reflects the usual practice – although, as is often the case, it is likely that John says that for theological reasons rather than in the cause of strict historical accuracy. It was, however, normally part of the punishment for a man sentenced to crucifixion that he had to carry his own cross-beam (not the whole cross, despite the traditional depiction of this in Christian art down the centuries). The condemned man would bear the cross-beam on his back to the place of execution, where it (and he) would be fastened to the upright, which was a permanent fixture there – probably one of many. There is the ancient tradition of Jesus’s three falls, which are part of the traditional “Stations of the Cross”. Some have suggested that after his rough handling by the Jewish and Roman authorities, culminating in the flogging ordered by Pilate, Jesus was too weak to bear the weight on his own.
The American commentator, Ched Myers, points out the ironies in this brief episode. Jesus had entered Jerusalem accompanied willingly by joyful crowds of country people from Galilee and Judaea, waving branches and throwing their cloaks in his path. He leaves it in a Roman procession, accompanied by one press-ganged North African who bears the instrument of a painful and humiliating death rather than an emblem of rejoicing. The name, Simon, too, is not without its ironic overtones. Simon of Cyrene takes up the cross and goes with Jesus, however unwillingly, to the place of death. Simon Peter, who had vowed the night before to go with Jesus to prison and to death, becomes a deserter, denying his Lord three times before cockcrow. Simon of Cyrene, the outsider, becomes the model disciple, responding, albeit unwittingly, to the call to discipleship which Jesus had issued in chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel. Simon Peter (like the rest of the twelve) is nowhere to be seen.
Christopher Evans, in his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, notes at this point that the picture of Simon of Cyrene as the “model disciple” is flawed, because Simon is compelled, while the disciple (ideally) acts of his own free will when he answers the call to “take up his cross and deny himself”. But I’m not sure how far that is a valid point. It is by no means unknown for Christians to find their discipleship deepened, or their initial call occurring, in situations where they cannot exercise free will, bereavement, perhaps, or some other major life crisis. How many people have come to a deeper Christian commitment because other doors have been shut and there is no other way out that they can take with integrity? How many people have found (in James Montgomery’s words) “Patience to watch, and wait, and weep, Though mercy long delay, Courage our fainting souls to keep, And trust thee though thou slay,” in circumstances where, like Simon of Cyrene, they had, in truth, no realistic alternative?
So today, as we look at the last of our “Faces in the Crowd”, we recognise, perhaps, our own face in the face of this frustrated, angry, frightened man, forced to turn aside from his chosen path, compelled to take his place in humiliation alongside a man on his way to a shameful, agonising death. And we recognise the power of that condemned man, mocked, tortured, abandoned by his friends, to challenge and to transform those whose lives touch his, in whatever circumstances. We recognise his death as the point from which life truly begins.
Gospel for Wednesday, 30th March – (John 5:17-30)
Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son, so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.
‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
‘I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.’
John’s Gospel is different from the other three in many ways. John tells the stories about Jesus which the first Christians remembered in a different order from Matthew, Mark and Luke. He includes stories not found in their Gospels, and many that are found in their gospels he omits. He gives different dates for the events of Holy Week, adjusting them so that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is crucified at the very time when the Passover lamb is sacrificed.
That applies even more to Jesus’ teaching. In the other Gospels, until that last week in Jerusalem, Jesus wraps up most of his teaching in parables. Think of Matthew’s three parables of judgement in chapter 25, or Luke’s vivid stories about the Samaritan and the lost son. Then there’s the parable of the sower which Mark shares with the other two, and the parables of the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed. How does John wrap up the teaching of Jesus? The answer is, he doesn’t. There are no parables in John’s Gospel – unless you count the teaching in chapter ten. The teaching comes neat, so to speak, in the form of the great discourses, usually linked to one of the seven “I am” sayings or else, as here, to one of the healing miracles, and reaching their climax in the “Farewell Discourses” which fill that last evening in Jerusalem until the time comes for Jesus to meet Judas and the armed snatch squad in Gethsemane.
But if we listen closely to what Jesus tells the Jews in this passage, we find something that sounds very much as if it just might be a parable. ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.’ Think for a minute about how people learn. It isn’t just about sitting and listening. The teachers here probably know the old saying: “I hear and forget: I see and I remember: I do and I understand.” That is the model of learning Jesus is offering here. How did he learn his trade as a carpenter or small builder in Nazareth? How does any apprentice learn? By watching a skilled craftsman (or woman) and then doing. In a small family firm, that usually means the son (or sons) watching the father.
As we are reminded in this passage Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Man. As Son of God, he gives life “to whomsoever he wishes”, continuing the creative work which he has watched the Father do since the beginning of creation. As Son of Man, he is entrusted with that judgement which brings healing to the world, and life to the dead, because he himself (like Joseph, perhaps?) will have passed through death. But because Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Man his acceptance of death empowers him to soak up all human violence and hostility and subject it to the judgement of unbounded, endless love.
The Women in the Crowd (30.3.2022)
Today we continue our reflection on the role of the crowd in the last week of Jesus’s earthly life. By comparison with last three weeks our focus has narrowed quite markedly. Today, we shall consider the women in the crowds.
On the whole, women do not figure prominently in the first part of the Passion story, which is, perhaps, not surprising when we remember that most of what happens after Jesus enters Jerusalem happens within the precincts of the temple. And women were excluded from almost the whole of that area. They were allowed further into the precincts than non-Jews, but not much further. The “Court of the Women” was the outermost courtyard of the temple complex, inside the huge shopping mall and market-place which was the “Court of the Gentiles”. The only woman who is noticed during those first few days in Jerusalem is the poor widow pictured by Mark and Luke dropping her tiny contribution into the temple’s alms-chest and receiving praise from Jesus for the depth of her generosity.
Women, of course, play no part in the events of Maundy Thursday night. The arrest of Jesus is “man’s work”. On the other hand, we see a slave-girl (Matthew says two) play a significant part in the humiliation of Peter as he waits nervously in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. And the governor’s wife has a dramatic off-stage role with her message to her husband, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him,” an intervention that has gained her canonisation in parts of the Eastern Church, but which had no effect on the stand-off, except possibly to increase Pilate’s discomfort. It would take a very strong character to decide a capital case on the strength of his wife’s dreams – particularly when such a decision would probably send what was already a very tense political situation over the edge into a complete breakdown of civil order.
So, the men have their way. Jesus is condemned to death. And from this point women begin to have a higher profile. In his account of the march to the gallows, Luke tells us that “a great crowd of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him”. Perhaps they too had been among the crowds who “listened to him with delight.”
But Jesus has no time for their sympathy. He warns them not to weep for him, but to save their tears for themselves, because disaster is coming on Jerusalem – so great a disaster that the childless will be counted happy, because they will not see their sons and daughters perish. Some scholars have understood his words in terms of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The late Bishop John V. Taylor, giving the Holy Week addresses to an ecumenical audience in Geneva nearly forty years ago, took them to be Jesus saying no to “the easy spontaneous emotion, the quick release of tension”: saying no, because such emotional release “is misdirected and because it is dangerous.” This is not time to “have a good cry”. It is time to weep for our sins, to weep for the love of the Son of God who dies, in St Francis’s words, “for love of our love”. The warning of impending disaster is also a call to repentance.
Perhaps, in this context, we need to reconsider Veronica. She was the daughter of Jerusalem who did not only lament over Jesus as he walked the way of the cross, she took off her head-cloth and applied it to his bruised and bleeding face. And, so the legend goes, she was rewarded by a likeness of the Saviour’s face imprinted miraculously on the cloth. The story, of course, is a mediaeval invention – or rather, the elaboration of an episode found in one of the apocryphal writings.
However, it has some interesting undercurrents. Scholars have long pointed out that the name “Veronica” (which seems originally to have been applied to the cloth rather than the lady) can be interpreted as an anagram of two words, the Latin “vera”, meaning true, and the Greek “icon”, meaning an image. Veronica is, then, the “true image” of Christ, not in the sense that some once claimed for the Turin Shroud, but in the sense that her act of kindness to a condemned man, her daring to get involved in the fate of a man rejected by the leaders of his people and handed over to death, is a true image of Christ’s own concern for the helpless, the voiceless, the despised and marginalised. Her gesture of love and compassion holds the true image of Jesus.
But the grim procession moves on, and we move on, to the final act in the drama of Jesus’s suffering and death. Cheap pity is out. So are the devout ladies who offer the condemned a cup of wine laced with pain-killer (are they, I wonder, Mark’s and Matthew’s version of Luke’s wailing women?). We pass over the mockery of the passers-by, the satirical thrusts of the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, the abuse of the other condemned criminals, the hardened unconcern of the execution squad, and we come to three o’clock in the afternoon.
Jesus breathes his last. Matthew and Mark depict him as utterly abandoned – even, it seems, by God. His last words echo the Psalmist’s cry of desolation, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” The only people near him are the squaddies, dicing for his effects, and their officer.
But beyond the military cordon, there are others. Luke says “crowds had gathered there for this spectacle” – a theme which he will pick up in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew and Mark agree with him that there were “women … looking on from a distance”, women who had come down with him from Galilee. Some of them are named, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome.
These had been Jesus’s support group when he was alive. They are now the witnesses of his death and burial. Some of them will go to his tomb after the Sabbath to pay the final tribute of friendship by anointing his corpse. John locates some of them, with the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple, at the foot of Jesus’s cross – which is, perhaps, unlikely (at least not without heavy bribery or a serious lapse in security). The important thing about the women’s presence, in all four Gospels, is that they were there to bear witness to the reality of Jesus’s death – and that some of their number will be the first witnesses to the reality of the resurrection.
Gospel for Friday, 25th March – The Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-38)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
In 1945 Nürnberg looked rather like Mariupol or Kharkiv do today. Most of the major German cities did, but Nürnberg suffered more than most because of its pre-war association with the Nazi rallies held there and the infamous anti-semitic “Nuremberg Laws”. The two great churches of this staunchly Lutheran city, the Sebalduskirche and the Lorenzkirche, were badly damaged by allied bombing and they suffered in the week of fierce house-to-house fighting which preceded the city’s capture by American forces in April 1945. But miraculously, much of the artwork from the two churches survived, including the exquisite Engelsgruß (Angel’s greeting) by the sculptor Veit Stoß, which hangs in the choir of the Lorenzkirche. Framed by a wreath of rosettes and eight medallions showing scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and from the life of Christ it depicts the larger-than-life-size figures of Gabriel and Mary, surrounded by a crowd of tiny angels with bells and trumpets and other musical instruments, proclaiming the joy that will come to the world through Gabriel’s message and Mary’s acceptance.
Today, as news of continued fighting, death and destruction reaches us from Ukraine, it’s tempting to ask where we can possibly find joy. The sombre penitence of Lent, a deeper awareness of the sins of the world, seems much more appropriate. The answer, I think, comes in the angel’s words to Mary, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Do not be afraid to face the ugly reality of this world. Do not be afraid to face the destruction, the cruelty, the inhumanity, the misery. Do not be afraid because the child to be born of Mary, the child of the angel’s promise, will himself face all those things. He will face hatred, betrayal, cruelty. He will experience suffering and death – and he will conquer. He will overcome them because the power of God’s life in him is infinitely greater than all the powers of death.
God works for our good through the most disastrous situations. The Engelsgruß is a reminder of that. It was put in place in the Lorenzkirche less than a year after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in far-off Wittenberg, setting in motion a century of violent theological – and military – conflict across Europe. What’s more, its exquisite beauty was created by a man who was a crook, a forger and fraudster saved from career-ending punishment only by the intervention of Emperor Maximilian, who knew and admired his work. It survived the horrors of the Nazi era and the destruction of the city to remind every visitor to the Lorenzkirche that in Mary’s womb God became human and to remind us that today marks the beginning of the story which will find its fulfilment in the events of Holy Week, when Mary’s child bore the sin of the world in his suffering on the cross and opened for all the way to everlasting life.
Gospel for Wednesday, 23rd March (Matthew 5:17-19)
Jesus told his disciples, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.‘
This passage is a difficult one for Christian anti-Semites – and for anyone who finds it hard, for whatever reason, to accept that Jesus was a Jew. It forces them into all sorts of linguistic and theological contortions, relating Jesus’ words “until all is accomplished”, not to “until heaven and earth pass away”, but to his death and resurrection; and interpreting “the least of these commandments” as applying to the sayings of Jesus that follow, rather than to the Law of Moses.
This passage is difficult because it is impossible to understand it without accepting that the first and most important thing about it is that the words we have just heard were first spoken by a Jew to Jews and that in their present form they were recorded by a Jew. Matthew wrote his Gospel primarily for Jewish Christians, somewhere in Syria, or possibly in Palestine, writing at a time when all Jews, including those who had come to believe in Jesus as Messiah, were intensely aware of their identity and of the threats against it, from within the community as well as from outside. So Matthew makes much of Jesus as a “teacher of the law”, but depicts him as “one who taught with authority, and not as one of their [meaning the Pharisees’] scribes”.
Now that does not mean that Jesus accepted the Law without criticism. Even Matthew, who is much more conservative than Mark or Luke, recognises that, although he tends to tone down the criticisms of the law – or of its interpretation – that Mark highlights. Again and again in the Gospels we find that Jesus attacks not the Law itself but the way in which the scribes and Pharisees interpreted it, as a means of separation, a way of setting up boundaries between one group of people and another, or as a way of keeping people “in their place”.
So, what Jesus says here is to do with the importance of Jews keeping the Jewish Law. That is a long way from saying that it is impossible for a believer to become a Christian without first becoming a Jew – although, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles and from the letters of St Paul, there were many Jewish Christians, especially those in Palestine, who were very firmly of that opinion and who had a very jaundiced view of Paul’s relaxed attitude to the issue, which seems to have been the attitude of other Jews living outside Palestine. Live as a Christian in the culture into which you were born, or the state of life in which you were called, seems to have been their message. Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 7.
And what is their message to us? What is Jesus’ message in this short passage? I’d suggest a three-fold take-away. First: accept that there is difference and live with that in Christian integrity – authenticity if you prefer. Second: recognise that God’s covenant with Abraham, renewed with Moses, is augmented, not abolished, by the covenant sealed in Jesus’ death. There is no room for “dispensationalism”. Finally, and particularly in these days when synagogues and other Jewish centres are again coming under violent attack: remember and honour the Jewish roots of our faith, and respect and honour those who have kept that faith for three and a half millennia, remembering that when Frederick the Great asked Johann Geog Zimmermann, his personal physician, for one proof of the existence of God, Zimmermann replied, “Your Majesty, the Jews”.
The Jerusalem Crowd (23.3.2022)
When we look at Jerusalem in the last week of Jesus’s life, we see large numbers of people gathered in the city, forming themselves into different groups with very different agendas. In the first of these talks we looked at the crowds of pilgrims, mainly Galilean, who thronged the roadside as Jesus entered the city. Last week we threaded our way through the diverse crowds in the temple, skirting both those who were plotting the death of Jesus and those who were “listening to him with delight” or “astounded at his teaching”. Today we come to the crowds in the darkness, armed with swords and clubs, and the crowds who, when morning broke next day, threatened to turn over the Roman Governor’s residence.
As we saw last week, those whose livelihood and those whose power and status depended on the Temple, either directly or indirectly, would have been either ambivalent about Jesus or, more probably, hostile – especially after he drove out the traders and the money-changers. We also recognised that the occupying forces would have seen Jesus as a potential threat to public order, and therefore someone to be watched. We saw too that, because of the support which Jesus had among the ordinary people, the Jerusalem authorities had no opportunity to arrest him without serious risk of causing causing a riot and provoking Roman intervention at one of the most sensitive times of the year. John catches the mood well when he describes the Council’s anxiety that “if we let him go on like this… the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” It was only when one of the Twelve came forward to the chief priests, offering to hand Jesus over to them, that the authorities finally felt that they were free to take action.
And that is the point at which a very different crowd enters the story. The Jerusalem establishment takes its revenge on Jesus by sending out an armed posse “with swords and clubs”. The gospels differ as to who made up the posse. Matthew and Mark mention a crowd sent by the chief priests and the elders. Luke says that the chief priests, the temple police and the elders actually accompanied them. St John describes “a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests” – language which suggests that it was a military or paramilitary force. If John’s information is correct, the soldiers might possibly have come from the Governor’s garrison, but they are more likely to have been part of King Herod’s entourage. The police were the men who kept order in the temple. They turn up in Luke’s account of Jesus’ arrest, as well as in John’s, and they appear again in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. They arrive at one of Jesus’ regular meeting-places to arrest him by night, after the Passover meal (if we follow the timing of the first three Gospels), or on the evening before Passover (if we follow St John). Either way, it was a time when the great majority of those who might have supported Jesus are scattered and pre-occupied with other things. There are no crowds here to be afraid of – only the disciples, and one of them has been “turned”. Everyone else is on the payroll.
And this, presumably, is the core of the crowd who make it so difficult for Pilate to retain control of the situation when Jesus is brought before him early the next morning. Presumably, too, the word would have gone around: to the people who made their living from the Temple, the people whose stalls had been trashed by Jesus, the people who had been stung by his criticism of their ostentatious piety and lack of concern for people who didn’t meet their high standards. This isn’t “the crowd” that shouted “Hosanna” outside the city, nor “the crowd” who hung on Jesus’ every word. This is “rent-a-mob”, as genuine an expression of popular feeling as the crowds of government employees who were coerced into providing the backdrop to President Putin’s speech in the Luzhniki Stadium last Friday. Many of them may have been people who would love to see Barabbas, the nationalist bandit, out of jail and Jesus out of the way. Barabbas might have been dangerous, but he was predictable. Mark tells us that he was “in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.” As a nationalist hard man, he would have had his supporters and safe houses, but they would have been a known quantity, to the Jerusalem authorities, if not to the Romans. Once Barabbas was released he could be traced and picked up again if need be. “Crucify Jesus” looks a much more attractive option.
So the high-priestly families and their supporters get their man – at the cost of their integrity, and of their future survival. They play the Romans’ game (John’s Gospel spells out with great clarity why and how they play the Romans’ game) and they bet their future on it. When Pilate asks, “Shall I crucify your king?”, they make a fateful decision. “The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’” And Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified. In Matthew’s Gospel the crowd’s last word to Pilate is, “His blood be on us and on our children!”, a word that was fulfilled nearly forty years later when the high-priestly Sadducees finally lost control of Judaean politics to the heirs of Barabbas and Titus’s vengeful legions stormed and flattened Jerusalem.
By now the sun is getting higher, and the news is spreading. Other crowds are gathering. The crowds who had listened, spell-bound, to Jesus when he preached in the Temple, the crowds who had followed their wonder-working rabbi all the way from Galilee, are out on the streets again – but it’s too late for them to prevent judicial murder. They have nothing that can be opposed to the Romans’ military power. Some of them turn to follow the procession to the place of execution. Some of them turn on Jesus. No one loves a loser – and, besides, the Jerusalemites among them had to carry on living in the city. No point in making enemies unnecessarily. Others follow simply to see the end of hope and to mourn. We shall think about them in rather more detail next Wednesday.
Gospel for Saturday, 19th March –St Joseph of Nazareth (Matthew 1:18-25)
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
“Righteous” is a difficult word in contemporary English usage. If it isn’t being used ironically, as in “righteous indignation”, it tends to be prefixed by the little word “self” as a criticism of those who are too ready, in a former British prime minister’s words, to “condemn a little more and understand a little less”. So, poor Joseph! The King James version calls him “just”, which isn’t much better. There was an Athenian politician five centuries before Christ who was nicknamed “the just” and who was banned from the city for ten years because too many of his fellow-citizens became fed up with hearing him described in that way. But when Matthew calls Joseph “righteous”, or “just”, he doesn’t mean either “judgemental” or “principled”. He means that Joseph was conscientious in keeping the Jewish Law.
Now the Law was quite clear about what was to be done if a married woman – and in first-century Palestine being “engaged“ was taken as seriously as being married – if a married woman was discovered to be “playing away”. The consequences were rather more serious than the “public disgrace” mentioned by Matthew. Deuteronomy lays down that she, and her partner in sin, are to be stoned. So Joseph is being rather more than “righteous” here. In his decision to “dismiss her quietly”, he is being merciful, going beyond the letter of the Law for the sake of the two lives which would otherwise end in violence. But what God wants of Joseph is more than “righteousness” and more, even, than mercy. What God wants of Joseph is courage and acceptance. The message that comes to Joseph in a dream is, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
“Do not be afraid.” Those words run like a thread through the Bible, from the very first book to the very last. They are words which are addressed to human beings in difficult – sometimes apparently impossible – situations. They’re addressed by God to Abram, lamenting the lack of an heir. They’re addressed by Moses to the Israelites, trapped between the sea and an advancing Egyptian army. They’re addressed by Isaiah to the king’s servants as Assyrian armies encircle Jerusalem. They’re addressed by God to the prophets, to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah. They’re addressed by Jesus to the disciples, and by assorted messengers of God to Zechariah, to Mary, to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, to the women at the tomb, to Paul on his way to Rome.
They’re addressed to us, and to our need for courage and acceptance, as we face a range of difficult and dangerous situations which have come together in a way unprecedented in my life-time: the nuclear blackmail of President Putin as he tries to crush the people of Ukraine, the pandemic, the mass extinction, the climate crisis. “Do not be afraid,” because the child born of Mary is Jesus, Yeshua, “God saves” or “God is salvation”. He is Emmanuel, “God with us”, with us not only from his birth in Bethlehem described at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, but with us, as he promises at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “always, to the end of the age”.
Gospel for Wednesday, 16th March (Matthew 20:17-28)
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. He knows it. He tries to make sure that the disciples also know it. The words that open this passage mark the third time that he tells them. Like John the Baptist, like many of the ancient prophets of Israel (according to tradition), like others down the ages who have spoken truth to power, he will be handed over, mocked and tortured and killed.
But the message doesn’t seem to have penetrated the Twelve. James and John, according to Matthew’s version of the story, get their mother to ask Jesus for a favour: to arrange for her sons to have the highest places of honour when Jesus comes into his kingdom. “You do not know what you are asking”, Jesus replies – and the fact that the “you” in Matthew’s original Greek is plural shows that Jesus knows perfectly well where the request comes from. So, too, do the other disciples. “When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers.” And I suspect that their anger doesn’t come from an awareness that the sons of Zebedee are wrong, but that they have, so to speak, tried to grab the best seats at the party.
So Jesus lays out, once again, the meaning of discipleship. It isn’t about power and privilege. It isn’t about status. It’s about service and self-forgetting. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” In saying this, Jesus is picking up an important thread from the episodes which come before that prediction of suffering and death which begins this passage. Immediately before Matthew sets before us the picture of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, he recounts the story of the workers in the vineyard – a parable about the rewards of discipleship.
But immediately before that, Matthew places the story of the rich young man, who could not bear the cost of discipleship and whose sorrowful about-turn prompts Peter’s question about the place of the disciples in the kingdom. ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Perhaps it’s Jesus reply to that question, “‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” – perhaps it’s Jesus reply to that question which plants the seed of their question in the mind of James and John. If Jesus is promising thrones to all of the twelve, why shouldn’t they try to bag the best ones? Jesus asks if they are ready for the severe testing that comes before the full revealing of God’s kingdom.
As many Christians have realised, down the centuries, it’s the dark times that prepare us for the glory to come. It was the 17th-century Quaker William Penn’ imprisonment in the Tower of London which is said to have inspired him to write the often-quoted words: “No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.” The stark simplicity of Lent, the gathering shadows of Holy Week, and the horror of Good Friday are stages on the way to Easter. They symbolise for us each year the ultimate triumph of life over darkness, hope over chaos and despair. They remind us that, however bleak the world may seem, ultimate victory is ours in Christ our Lord.
The Crowd in the Temple (16th March)
When we look at Jerusalem in the last week of Jesus’s life, we see different groups with different agendas – all of them capable of taking to the streets or making their presence felt in other ways. Last week we looked at the crowds by the roadside as Jesus entered the city. This week we are focusing on the crowds in the temple, “listening to him with delight”, or “astounded at his teaching”.
The Passover pilgrims, obviously, were additional to the 25,000 or so people who then lived in Jerusalem. Many of those residents were people whose living depended on the Temple and its worship. At their head came the priests, the Levites, the temple police, those who were learned in the Law. They also included the traders who sold the birds and animals for sacrifice, those who changed money into the right currency for paying the temple tax, the various types of craftsmen (and women) who kept the building and its furnishings in repair, stonemasons, carpenters, carvers in wood and stone, workers in metal, those who made and repaired vestments, those who supplied incense and other spices used in worship, and those who baked the special “bread of the presence”.
On top of these specialised trades, there were the sort of workers who might be found in any city of the period, the first-century equivalent of “the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker”. Documents mention doctors, barbers, traders and merchants of various kinds, workers in cloth and leather, inn-keepers, stable-boys, fullers, even road-sweepers. And, of course, there were the soldiers of the Roman garrison and the members of the Governor’s staff – at least for part of the year – with their dependants, their administrative and secretarial staff and their household slaves.
Those whose livelihood and those whose power and status depended on the Temple, either directly or indirectly, would have been, at best, ambivalent about Jesus or, more probably, hostile – especially after he drove out the traders and the money-changers (an act which suggested a radical challenge to the status quo and the existing authorities). But that would not have been the view of many who worshipped in the Temple, the “people of the land”, the poor, the disabled people who survived by begging from worshippers. Any who felt themselves excluded or who resented the power and privilege of the high-priestly Sadducee families and the self-importance of the scribes and Pharisees, would have been among the crowds who “listened to him with delight”, and whose clear approval of Jesus’s teaching held the authorities back from openly taking action against him.
The occupying forces (like the Jewish authorities) would have seen Jesus as a potential threat to public order, and therefore someone to be watched very carefully. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record how the main religious and political “parties” in the city, establishment, radical, or pro-Roman, tried in turn to lure Jesus into making a rash comment which could be used in evidence against him in a Roman court, or which could be “spun” against him among the people, and all failed.
The nationalists, too, (the Zealots and the Dagger-men) would have been interested in what Jesus said, but for very different reasons. They wanted a figurehead who could be used to raise the people against the Romans and drive them into the sea. They were hard men who wanted a Messiah who could be used as a front. That is why the authorities were panic-stricken when they heard the children shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David”, echoing the cries of the crowds as Jesus had entered the city. David was the emblem of an independent, militarily strong Israel. David was the nationalists’ hero – not a name to mention in the hearing of Rome!
The crowds who listened to Jesus in the Temple would have included members of all these groups, some praying for the kingdom, some waiting for the revolution, some looking for an opportunity to silence him. But because of the eager interest with which Jesus was heard by the crowds who regarded him as a prophet, it was not until one of the Twelve came forward with the offer to hand him over that the authorities could make any headway.
So, what was the teaching that made such an impact on the crowds? John tells us nothing, but Matthew, Mark and Luke offer their varied summaries of what Jesus said during those days in Jerusalem, agreeing that the crowds were spell-bound (Matthew says “astounded”) by his words. They agree, too, that there were confrontations with the temple authorities after Jesus evicted those who were making money out of the pilgrims. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked him. ‘Who gave you this authority to do them?’ Jesus answers them, as he so often does in such situations, with a question of his own. Here it’s a question about the authority of John the Baptist – one which again points up the contrast between the religious leaders and the ordinary people, “the people of the land”, who saw John, and see Jesus, as a prophet – and Jesus follows it up, in all three Gospels, with the parable of the vineyard, a story which puts in question the legitimacy of the temple authorities.
At this point that Matthew inserts the parable of the marriage feast, again aimed at the Jerusalem establishment – and probably revised in the telling to take account of the horrific end to the Jewish Revolt of the late 60s AD. Mark and Luke go straight into the three attempts, by the political and religious elite, the Jerusalem “establishment”, and a religious professional, to trap Jesus into making a statement which can be used against him and Matthew follows them, noting, after Jesus dismisses the Sadducees, that “when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching”.
These encounters with the Jerusalem authorities end with Jesus’ question about the Messiah, which silences their hostile interrogation. “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” At this point Jesus goes on the offensive with, in all three Gospels, some sharp public criticism of the scribes, given to the disciples, but “in the hearing of all the people”. In Mark’s Gospel, as in Luke’s, these are short and to the point. In Matthew’s account they become half a dozen full-blown “woes”, addressed to the Pharisees as well as to the scribes: for locking people out of the kingdom of heaven; for nit-picking interpretations of scripture and tradition; for a lack of personal integrity, play-acting the role of the upright and holy while remaining slaves to their own appetites: and ending with a spectacular denunciation of their complicity in shedding the blood of the righteous. It’s a powerful indictment of religion gone to the bad in its desire to preserve the powerful and to exclude and oppress the powerless.
No wonder “all the people”, so Luke tells us, “would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.” And no wonder the temple authorities were plotting his death. Jesus was putting into words the people’s sense of alienation from “organised religion” and laying the blame for that alienation firmly at the door of the “professionals”. It’s a message which is as relevant today in Genova (and everywhere else, for that matter), as it was two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.
Gospel for Wednesday, 9th March (Luke 11:29-32)
When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!’
What kind of a sign did people want, I wonder? The demand for a sign is a challenge to Jesus which happens in every gospel – even John’s. When it happens, it usually comes from people who claim some sort of authority, and what they are really asking for is that Jesus should provide some knock-down proof of his status and authority. Sometimes it’s the Pharisees, with or without the scribes. Sometimes it’s the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Occasionally, it’s the crowds, as it was earlier in the chapter from which this passage was taken. Always it’s symptomatic of a lack of faith. And never does Jesus give his questioners what they are asking for.
In Mark’s Gospel the answer is a flat “no”, followed immediately by Jesus’ departure across the lake. In Matthew and Luke there’s that blanket refusal with one puzzling exception: “the sign of Jonah”. Even in the early Church people weren’t sure what Jesus meant. In Matthew’s gospel it is explained in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection: “For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” Luke just leaves Jesus’ answer hanging there, as Jesus issues a counter-challenge of his own. “For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.” And then, for good measure he adds in the queen of Sheba: “The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!”
This being Luke, of course, the challenges come in strict chronological order, breaking the sequence of thought between Jonah becoming a sign to the people of Nineveh and the people of Nineveh rising up at the judgement. The message, however, is clear: the queen of the South and the people of Nineveh both recognised a deeper reality when they encountered it or, in the case of the queen, when reports of it reached her. And both the queen and the people acted. The queen came to hear Solomon’s wisdom for herself and establish the truth of those reports. The people repented and saved their city from destruction.
The challenge to the Pharisees, the challenge to us, is to recognise that in Jesus we encounter the ultimate reality which lies at the heart of the universe; that in him we encounter not human wisdom but the holy wisdom of God: and that if this encounter is to bear any fruit it requires a response in action. During these days many thousands, if not millions, of people are travelling in search not of wisdom, but of peace and physical safety, leaving behind cities that have been destroyed, not by the wrath of God, but by one man’s craving for power and status. Perhaps they too will rise up at the judgement, to condemn those of this generation whose concern to preserve their own authority has blinded them to reality and truth.
This is the first talk in our Lenten series: “Faces in the Crowd”, given at midday on Wednesday 9th March.
The Crowds by the Roadside
On Palm Sunday, when we read the Passion Gospel at the Eucharist, members of the congregation will, I hope, threw themselves into the role of the crowd baying for Jesus’s blood outside the Governor’s lodgings in Jerusalem. “Away with this fellow!” we will shout. “Release Barabbas for us!” And, when the governor shows signs of softening, “Crucify, crucify him!”
Today, and throughout Lent, we’re going to reflect on the role of the crowd in the last week of Jesus’s earthly life. In each of the Gospel accounts of the period from his entry into Jerusalem to his arrest and death, the crowd is a significant presence in the drama – and sometimes (as in that dramatic scene at the Governor’s headquarters) a principal actor.
But it isn’t necessarily helpful – or indeed true – to talk of “the crowd” as if it were a single entity. “The crowd” who accompany Jesus as he enters Jerusalem is almost certainly not the same as “the crowd” who threaten a riot on Pilate’s doorstep a few days later, despite the generations of commentators, preachers and hymn-writers who have assumed, down the centuries that they are identical and who have reflected on the fickleness of the mob. So perhaps it might be more accurate to give these talks a slightly different title, not so much “Faces in the Crowd” as “Faces in the Crowds”.
With that in mind, it might be helpful to begin by trying to distinguish who are “the crowd”, or “the crowds”, in Jerusalem at Passover. In doing so, we will have to bear in mind that, in any place where large numbers of people come together, people will not always stay in the same group or groups – and that even those who are in the same group do not always share the same objective, or objectives.
You may remember a massive demonstration that took place in Rome, almost exactly twenty years ago. It drew about three million people into the Circus Maximus and the surrounding area. It had been called by the trades unions in protest against new labour laws proposed by the Berlusconi government. But between the announcement and the event the man who drafted those laws was murdered by terrorists and the unions’ demo turned into a national protest against violent terrorism of every kind. Many of those three million would have been in the Circus Maximus to protest against terrorism. Equally, many would have been there with the demonstration’s original purpose in view, firing a warning shot across their government’s bows.
So, when we look at Jerusalem in the last week of Jesus’s life, we see different groups with different agendas – all of them capable of taking to the streets or making their presence felt in other ways. There are the crowds on the street as Jesus entered the city. There are the crowds in the temple, “listening to him with delight”, or “astounded at his teaching”. There are the crowds in the darkness, armed with swords and clubs; the crowds threatening to turn over the Governor’s residence, and the crowds who were there on Golgotha to witness the execution, the silent watchers, kept at a distance by Roman troops. As we look at each of those crowds, we can see something, at least, of their make-up and, perhaps, something of their mood and their motive, remembering that they will have come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
All of these groups (pilgrims, residents, occupying forces) could, and probably did, provide some of the faces in the crowds who surrounded Jesus during that last week. But each of these groups would have had very different attitudes toward him and today and on the next two Wednesdays we shall look at those in some detail, beginning today with the crowds with their branches, standing along the roadside.
Most of them will have been pilgrims. Pilgrims formed one of the largest groups making up the crowds which thronged Jerusalem at Passover time. They had come to Jerusalem for the festival, in the same way that Roman Catholics might visit Rome for Holy Week and Easter or devout Muslims travel to Mecca at the time of the hajj. Among them, some would be fairly local, arriving after a few days’ journey from other parts of Palestine or Syria. Others would be visitors from further afield.
These would include not only the descendants of those exiled to Babylon or Egypt six centuries before, but also Jews from the communities which had spread across the Mediterranean since the time of Alexander the Great and his successors, establishing themselves in most of the major towns and cities in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, like Saul’s home town of Tarsus. In addition, there were visitors from many other parts of Europe and the Near East. Some of them are listed in Luke’s account of the day of Pentecost in Acts, chapter 2. Others, we know from non-biblical sources, came from far away Germany and Gaul. Though they were less likely to be pilgrims.
Many of the more local pilgrims will have come south from Galilee and would have been well disposed towards Jesus, knowing him as a wonder-working rabbi – or maybe something greater. Most scholars think that the Galilean contingent formed the majority of the crowd which applauded Jesus as he made his entry into the city. Luke’s account, and Matthew’s, in their different ways, suggest this strongly. Matthew tells us that “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” Luke describes the crowd as “the whole multitude of the disciples”. John, writing later, tells us that it was “the great crowd that had come to the festival” – and who were already in Jerusalem – who came out of the city to meet him, so definitely pilgrims but probably not, in his view, Galileans.
But what about Mark? His account, the earliest of the four, offers the image of peasants cutting foliage from the fields as they cheer Jesus into the city with the cry of “Hosanna”, “Save now!” A royal acclamation in 2 Samuel and 2 Kings. A reference back to a psalm used at the pilgrim feasts of Tabernacles and Passover. They seem quite hyped up – but were they expecting a Messiah? Their chant has a future, not a present reference. It’s “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” which excites them, not its present fulfilment.
However, as many New Testament scholars since Albert Schweitzer have pointed out, Jesus seems to set up some kind of expectation, with what one modern scholar has called his “street theatre” using the donkey, with its clear nod to Zechariah 9:9
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
It’s a nod to the messianic prophecies, which Jesus then immediately undercuts it by his action, or rather inaction, when he enters the city. After that theatrical entry he doesn’t proclaim the coming kingdom, or anything like that. He simply goes to the temple, has a look round, and then, “as it was already late”, returns to his lodging in Bethany, as any modern tourist might do. All very anticlimactic. But what happens after that brings him into conflict with another crowd, and we shall look at them next Wednesday.
There was no weekly reflection for 2nd March. The day being Ash Wednesday there is instead a full-blown sermon, which you can find here.
Gospel for Wednesday, 24th February – St Matthias* (John 15:9-17)
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’
These words come from the “farewell discourses” of Jesus in St John’s Gospel. They apply to all who follow him. Jesus speaks of joy, love and self-giving as the marks which identify those who are his friends. But there is one sentence which resonates particularly on this day when we keep the feast of St Matthias. It comes toward the end. “You did not choose me but I chose you.”
Those are key words. They remind us, in a general way, that the decision to follow Jesus is always the result of God’s initiative. They remind us, particularly, of Jesus’ call to the Twelve, summoning Andrew, Peter, and the sons of Zebedee from their boats at the lakeside, Matthew from his desk in the customs-house, Nathanael from the shade beneath the fig-tree. That last call, incidentally, also reminds us that God may well call us through other people, as Nathanael was brought to Jesus by Philip. It’s not all blinding lights on the Damascus road.
But how, you may be wondering, do they apply to Matthias? He wasn’t one of the Twelve originally chosen by Jesus. He was added to their number, in place of Judas Iscariot, in the days which followed the end of Jesus’ visible presence with the disciples, after the complicated process described by St Luke in the opening chapter of Acts. That is true. But that process, for all Peter’s convoluted scriptural justification, is aimed at ensuring that whoever does replace Judas is the one who fulfils those words of Jesus: “You did not choose me but I chose you.”
That’s why there are two stages. The first is the sifting of those best qualified in human terms to complete the number of the Twelve, “one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us“. But the second stage, the final choice, is left – not to chance, as we might see it – but to God. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we find important choices, about guilt and innocence, about war and peace, about the allocation of territory, being entrusted to the sacred lot, which removes them from fallible, corruptible human decision-making and places the outcome entirely in God’s hands.
So, when “the lot fell on Matthias“, it wasn’t simply the operation of blind chance. It was the working of divine providence, marking Matthias out as the one chosen by God. What happened to him after that we do not know. He appears nowhere else in the New Testament. Traditions about his life and ministry are late and unreliable. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he, like the Eleven, accepted the calling of God, however it was expressed. And as we remember Matthias we remember, and we give thanks for, all those who have in their own generation found themselves called to responsibilities in the service of God that they had never expected.
*Transferred from 14th May
Gospel for Wednesday, 23rd February – Polycarp of Smyrna (John 15:1-8)
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’
I suspect that those who chose the gospel for the feast of St Polycarp chuckled to themselves when they decided on this passage from John’s Gospel. Hidden by our English translations, the saint’s name, or parts of it, occur several times in those opening verses from John 15. The name “Polycarp”, means in Greek “much fruit” (polys karpos) and there is abundant fruit – or at least abundant mention of it – in Jesus’ parable of the vine and the vine-grower. I counted “fruit” (karpos) on its own four times and “much fruit” (karpos polys or polys karpos) twice – on both occasions at significant points.
It’s an appropriate reading for today in other ways, too. We don’t know a great deal about Polycarp’s long life. We know that he was for many years the revered leader of the Christian community in Smyrna, modern-day Izmir in western Turkey, and that he was put to death for being a Christian around the middle of the second century when he was getting on for ninety. We also know, from St Irenaeus who sat at his feet when he was a young man, that in his younger days Polycarp had known John “and others who had seen the Lord”. And we know, from a first-hand account of his arrest, trial and execution, that he was a man of deep prayer, who made his abode in Christ and let Christ’s words abide in him. When the Roman magistrate, unhappy at the thought of executing such a venerable and respected figure, urged him to swear an oath ‘by the luck of Caesar’ or to curse Christ, he simply replied “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
So the Roman authorities had Polycarp burnt to death – something which he had foreseen in a vision a few days before his arrest. But that savage pruning didn’t stop Polycarp from bearing fruit. A members of the church in Smyrna called Marcion, who had been an eyewitness of most of the events surrounding Polycarp’s death, put together an account of what he, and others, had seen in response to the request of a Christian community in Philomelium, 400 Km away. It is the first account of a Christian martyrdom after St Luke’s description of the death of Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles, and because it was sent with instructions to forward it to other churches it formed the model for many later descriptions of how Christians died for their faith in times of persecution.
It provides a model in other ways as well. After Polycarp’s death, and the cremation of his body, members of the community gathered up his remains and laid them to rest “in a spot suitable for the purpose”. The scribe, Euarestos, who turned Marcion’s memories into writing, tells his fellow-believers in Philomelium: “There we shall assemble, as occasion allows, with glad rejoicings; and with the Lord’s permission we shall celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom”. Which is, if you think about it, what we are doing today, more than eighteen centuries later – and what we do on every saint’s day, each time we celebrate a life lived fruitfully within the love of God.
Gospel for Wednesday, 16th February (Mark 8:22-26)
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’ ’
And so it is with this passage, which begins the second half of Mark’s Gospel. When Jesus and the Twelve come to Bethsaida after their journey back from Gentile territory on the far side of the lake, they are about to leave Galilee behind and set out on the journey that will take Jesus first to the far north, and Caesarea Philippi; then south to Jerusalem and his death. That final sea journey had been fraught. Jesus had rebuked the Twelve harshly for their lack of understanding, their failure to grasp what had been going on. So what confronts them when they reach the shore? A blind man, whose kinsfolk and friends beg Jesus to touch him and restore his sight.
There are two things to notice here: first, that Jesus “led him out of the village”. In fact, Bethsaida wasn’t a village: it had been upgraded by Herod the Great into a shiny Hellenistic city – in much the same way as the Brits who came to Liguria in the 19th century upgraded the fishing villages along the coast into smart holiday destinations for wealthy over-winterers. And Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel at least, prefers to avoid such places, possibly, it has been suggested, because the people who lived in them were doing well out of the status quo and were disturbed and angered by Jesus’ preaching about God’s Kingdom. The second thing to notice is that when Jesus first touches the man’s eyes the healing he experiences is only partial. He can’t see clearly. The people look like trees, walking.” So that Jesus has to lay hands on him again.
There, I think, we have a foretaste of what is to follow. As Jesus and the Twelve draw nearer to Jerusalem, Jesus explains three times what is going to happen when they get there; but the disciples don’t, or won’t, see it clearly. First Peter, then the Twelve as a group, and finally James and John, all reveal that they cannot see what Jesus is plainly telling them about his coming suffering and death. It’s only when they find themselves caught up in the swirling nightmare which is Mark’s account of the Passion and Crucifixion that they finally see clearly the truth of what Jesus has been telling them. So, as we prepare to enter the season of Lent in two weeks’ time, we pray that Jesus will touch our eyes so that we can see everything clearly as we commit ourselves again to following him along the way that leads to the cross.
Gospel for Wednesday, 9th February (Mark 7:14-23)
Jesus called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
A little back-story might help to make sense of this passage: the local Pharisees and a group of scribes from Jerusalem had turned up to check on Jesus and his followers. They were horrified to discover that the disciples were, to put it mildly, a bit lax when it came to keeping the hygiene rules before meals and challenged Jesus. Jesus exploded. This wasn’t the first time the Pharisees and their chums had criticised the disciples’ failure to follow the tradition of the elders – or indeed the Law of Moses – when it came to food. So Jesus gives them a good talking-to about their tendency to give tradition precedence over compassion. It’s after that talking-to that Jesus calls the crowds together and sets out his position in a sort of riddle (which is one of the meanings of “parable”). He tells them, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Mark says nothing about the crowd’s reaction to this, but, as usual, the disciples fail to understand, so Jesus spells it out for them. The Pharisees are keen on maintaining boundaries, including the boundary between what is ritually pure and what is impure. Jesus tells the disciples that what matters is not maintaining ritual purity: “Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile.” What matters is purity of heart – integrity, if you like. “It is from within, from the human heart. That evil intentions come…” And Jesus lists them, sins of the tongue and of the mind, as well as the more obvious sins of the body and crimes against property. “They”, he tells the disciples, “defile a person.” And perhaps it’s a pity that the Church, down the centuries, hasn’t focused more sharply on those sins of tongue and mind and rather less, perhaps, on the sins of the body.
But there’s more to this conflict than Jesus putting one over on those nit-picking scribes and Pharisees. It has been argued that what is at stake here is the very nature of the community. The Pharisees wanted the people of God to be clearly marked out as different from the surrounding culture. That is why they focus so powerfully on the purity laws. Keeping them shows very clearly who belongs and who doesn’t. Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t like these external “markers”. His community is inclusive, not exclusive, a community where the intention of the heart is more important than the keeping of rules, a community whose boundaries are fuzzy.
Sadly, not all those who claim allegiance to Jesus are prepared to live with that fuzziness. Boundaries are still drawn tightly around some Christian communities. Ritual purity for present-day Pharisees can be located in the line people take on politics, or abortion, or sexuality. In the Catholic church, especially in the USA, it seems to be increasingly about devotion to the Latin Mass. In many countries recently it has taken the alarming form of attitudes to the pandemic, especially in relation to mask-wearing and vaccination, where the “tradition of the elders” which Jesus criticised is replaced by social media platforms which promote conspiracy theories. In the face of these new Pharisees, it’s refreshing to remember the words of the American poet and campaigner Edward Markham:
“He drew a circle that shut me out – Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!”
5th February, 2022
Yesterday we launched my slim volume about “Dante’s Spiritual Journey”. Here is a slightly edited version of the talk which accompanied the launch:
For an Anglican from the UK to condense his response to the thirty-three canti of the greatest poem of the greatest Italian poet into an essay of around thirty pages probably appears on the spectrum of chutzpah somewhere between James Boswell’s “great fortitude of mind” and Samuel Johnson’s “stark insensibility”. However, we are where we are, so I had better enter my plea in mitigation now, in the hope that it may encourage at least some of my audience to buy copies!
The poetry of Dante Alighieri has been an enthusiasm of mine since my school-days – mainly in English translation, but more recently in the original Tuscan of the Trecento. Curiously, while the sonnets of Francesco Petrarca’s Canzoniere, and his longer poem I Trionfi, have been circulating in English translation at least since the reign of Henry VIII, and the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli and Baldassare Castiglione had a huge influence on English political and literary life in the Tudor and Stuart eras, Dante was largely ignored by English-speakers. Individual episodes were translated, notably the story of Archbishop Ruggieri and Count Ugolino in Canto XXXIII of “Inferno”, which appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” as part of the “Monk’s Tale” and which was translated four centuries later by Thomas Gray of “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” fame. However, it wasn’t until 1782 that Charles Rogers, better known as an art collector and critic, published, anonymously, a blank verse translation of the whole of “Inferno”; and no English versions of the whole of Dante’s Commedia are known before Henry Boyd’s translation of 1802.
So, why the long gap between Chaucer and Henry Boyd? One factor is the impact of the English Reformation. While Dante’s poem is savagely critical of the Papacy and Pope Boniface VIII in particular, it reflects a strongly Catholic world-view, whereas the world-view of Anglican clergy from the 16th century to the 19th was largely formed by the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the 22nd of which states very firmly that “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” Which undermines somewhat the theological thrust of the central section of Dante’s journey. Then there’s John Milton, whose “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained” pretty well cornered the British market in religious epic poetry, and who articulates that sense of intellectual and spiritual exceptionalism which still lurks in the English sub-conscious when he writes in his pamphlet “Areopagitica” that: “Now once again by all concurrence of signs, and by the generall instinct of holy and devout men, as they daily and solemnly expresse their thoughts, God is decreeing to begin some new and great period in his Church, ev’n to the reforming of Reformation it self: what does he then but reveal Himself to his servants, and as his manner is, first to his English-men…” How can a self-deprecating Florentine exile compete with the assurance of the blind bard of Chalfont St Giles?
However, with the first stirrings of the Romantic movement there came a re-evaluation of the Middle Ages, including the poetry of Dante. Painters and engravers began to mine the text of the Inferno, particularly, for picturesque scenes that would satisfy a taste for “Gothic” horror. Some were drawn to the story of Dante’s unrequited love for Beatrice. Others, like William Blake, found in Dante (who was possibly a Third-Order Franciscan) a contempt for materialism and for the ways in which power warps moral decision-making which resonated, at least in part, with their own critique of the growing industrialisation and imperialism of 19th-century Britain. Blake’s last great project, unfinished at his death in 1827, was a set of illustrations for the Comedy, which you can find online. Following Blake the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and artists as varied as Gustave Doré, Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dalì, also responded to the Comedy in their own way – but that is a subject for a different talk entirely.
In the two centuries following Henry Boyd’s pioneering version of the Divine Comedy, many more translations into English have been published: more, it is said, than into any other language. The classic 19th-century translation is that of the Anglo-Irish clergyman, H.F. Cary, who turned the Comedy into Miltonian-style blank verse, which was often accompanied, in its later editions, by Gustave Doré’s engravings. This translation was first published, one cantica at a time, during the decade from 1805 to 1814 and it was followed by a succession of other versions, some like Cary’s in blank verse, some in imitation of Dante’s own terza rima form, others in a variety of metres.
English interest in the Comedy was further heightened by the Oxford Movement’s desire to reconnect with the English Church’s pre-Reformation roots and to the mainstream of Western Christianity. In 1850 Richard Church, the historian of the Oxford Movement who became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, wrote a substantial essay on Dante which hails the Commedia as “More than a magnificent poem, more than the beginning of a language and the opening of a national literature, more than the inspirer of art, and the glory of a great people.” That essay was reprinted in 1888 alongside essays on William Wordsworth and on Robert Browning’s poem “Sordello” and is nearly three times as long as both of these put together. Church quotes extensively from Dante’s other writings as well as from the Divine Comedy. Helpfully, alongside the original languages, he uses Ichabod Wright’s 1830s translation of the Comedy into English terza rima.
This enthusiasm for Dante crossed the Atlantic, alongside the growing numbers of migrants from Italy, some of whom carried with them the poet’s works and his reputation. One result of this cross-fertilisation was the publication of two distinguished American translations, that of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1867 and the 1891-2 prose version by Charles Eliot Norton, who had the reputation of being the most cultured man in the USA and who sparked a distinguished tradition of American Dante scholarship which has continued until the present day.
In the 20th century the English poet Laurence Binyon (of “For the Fallen” fame) published the whole Commedia translated into terza rima over a ten-year period from 1933. The novelist, playwright and lay theologian Dorothy L. Sayers was reportedly inspired to begin her translation in an air raid shelter during the latter stages of the Second World War. In the essay which she contributed to the collection of “Essays Presented to Charles Williams”, the memorial volume edited by C.S. Lewis and published two years after Williams’s sudden death in 1945, Miss Sayers described that initial encounter in these words:
“Coming to him, as I did, for the first time rather late in life, the impact of Dante on my unprepared mind was not in the least what I had expected… Neither the world, nor the theologians, nor even Charles Williams had told me the one great, obvious, glaring fact about Dante Alighieri of Florence – that he was simply the most incomparable story-teller who ever set pen to paper… [and] I discovered three other things about Dante; first, that his diction was not, as I had imagined, uniformly in the grand manner, but homely, lucid, and fluent; secondly, that he himself was not, as tradition painted him, grim and austere, but sweet and companionable, and, if an archangel in stature, a very “affable archangel”; thirdly, that he was a very great comic writer – which was quite the last thing one would ever have inferred from the things people say in their books.”
The first volume of the Sayers version, Inferno, was published under the new “Penguin Classics” imprint in 1949. Purgatorio followed in 1955 and Paradiso, unfinished at her death in 1957, was completed by her friend and god-daughter, the Dante scholar Barbara Reynolds, in 1962. It is regarded these days as rather dated (I’ve even seen it described as “baroque”) but in his 2003 book “Dire quasi la stessa cosa. Esperienze di traduzione” (translated into English as “Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation”), the late Umberto Eco claimed that, of the various English translations, Sayers “does the best in at least partially preserving the hendecasyllables and the rhyme.”
More recent translations have included those by Mark Musa, a translation into blank verse which replaced the Sayers version in the “Penguin Classics” series and which has itself been replaced by a new blank verse translation by Robert Kirkpatrick, the poet C.H. Sisson, for the OUP “World’s Classics” series, Geoffrey L. Bickersteth’s translation into terza rima, in parallel with the Italian text, and the late Clive James’s version in rhyming quatrains. James, incidentally, takes the bold step of incorporating into the text of his translation background information about the people Dante meets – something that Dorothy L. Sayers and other translators tend to leave in explanatory notes.
I mentioned earlier the poet, publisher and novelist Charles Williams, who was a friend and collaborator of both Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis and from 1939 until his death a member of “the Inklings”, that circle of Oxford-based Christian intellectuals which included Lewis, his brother Warnie, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Williams’s 1943 study entitled “The Figure of Beatrice” is still read and invoked with awe by Dante scholars. Fourteen years earlier T.S. Eliot, whose poetry often contains echoes of or direct quotes from Dante, had offered his response as both a poet and an Anglo-Catholic Christian to a close reading of the Inferno, of the Purgatorio and Paradiso, and of the Vita Nuova, that collection of poems with linking commentary in which Dante first attempted to explore the meaning of his encounter with Beatrice. Eliot’s concern in each of the three chapters is with language, but also with feeling, and with the sheer foreignness of Dante’s world to an early 20th-century understanding. As he points out toward the end of the chapter on La Vita Nuova, “The English reader needs to remember that even had Dante not been a good Catholic, even had he treated Aristotle or Thomas [Aquinas] with sceptical indifference, his mind would still be no easier to understand; the forms of imagination, phantasmagoria, and sensibility would be just as strange to us.”
So who am I to add my centesimo-worth to all these riches? Nobody, of course – which is why I described this book-launch as an exercise in chutzpah: but, as I was led to discover Dante by reading Dorothy L. Sayers, and as she was led to discover Dante by reading, and corresponding with, Charles Williams, it is my hope that someone, somewhere, maybe even someone here this evening, may be led to discover, or re-discover, the treasure-house of history, theology, philosophy, scientific thought, political theory and, above all, poetry which is the Divina Commedia. And beyond that, it is my hope that others will be encouraged, as I was nearly sixty years ago, to embark, with Dante as their guide and companion, on that spiritual journey which is the beating heart of this great poem and which begins in the dark wood and ends in the vision of God.
Gospel for Wednesday, 2nd February – Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 2:22-40)
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
My earliest memories of childhood, going back seven decades now, are those surrounding the birth of my sister. My mother had a difficult pregnancy – and had lost a child between my birth and my sister’s – so that she spent increasing amounts of time in hospital, which meant that life was insecure and dislocated. Various friends and relations were called in by my father to look after me when mum was “away”. So, when she came home a fortnight or so after Christmas 1950, with a healthy baby girl, there was much rejoicing.
In these days that would have been the cue for a service of thanksgiving for the birth of a child, either privately in hospital or publicly in church. Back then, we went to church, mum and my sister and my mother’s older sister (who was also my godmother) and me, and we sat quietly in the side aisle of the huge Victorian barn which was our local church while one of the clergy read out a couple of pages in the Book of Common Prayer headed “The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth: Commonly called The Churching of Women”. There were two Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, a short Litany, and a Collect, all reminding us what a dangerous business childbirth was and giving “humble thanks for that [God had] vouchsafed to deliver this woman [God’s] servant from the great pain and peril of Child-birth“. We then put “the accustomed offerings” (a few silver coins, I think, or possibly a note) in the plate, and went home.
That, in essence, was the same thing that Mary and Joseph were doing when they arrived at the Temple in Jerusalem with their pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons. As women of my mother’s generation were expected to be “churched” after giving birth, so a devout Jewish family two thousand years ago were expected to do “what was customary under the law” by making an offering to God in thanksgiving for the birth of a child – and to cleanse the child’s mother from the ritual impurity incurred through childbirth. St Luke, as we have heard, depicts this scene as the setting for a further revelation of who Jesus is, through the interventions of Simeon and Anna; but he also takes great care to stress how normal this situation is in every other respect: an ordinary Jewish family doing the ordinary Jewish things that follow the birth of a child.
As he does so, Luke also dials down the divine intervention. There are no angels here: only two senior citizens behaving strangely. There is also no sense that Mary and Joseph are, in any way, separate from the rest of first-century Jewish humanity. Five times in these nineteen verses Luke makes the point that what they are doing is “according to the law of Moses” or “according to the law of the Lord”. Joseph has to buy back his first-born son with an offering to God. Mary has to be purified from the messiness of childbirth so that she can take her place again in the community of God’s people. She may be the God-bearer, but she is also, Luke reminds us, one of us, a servant of the same Lord who dismisses Simeon in peace and who fills her child with divine wisdom and grace.
Gospel for Wednesday, 26th January – Timothy and Titus (Luke 10:1-9)
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’
Sometimes when I’m wave-watching in Nervi, or elsewhere along the coast, I notice a yacht out at sea with a smaller craft, a little motor-boat or inflatable, bobbing in its wake on the end of a tow-rope. In some respects today’s celebration of Timothy and Titus feels a bit like that boat. We sent Paul sailing off majestically into the open sea as we celebrated the feast of his conversion yesterday, with Timothy and Titus today bobbing along behind him. “How strange”, as the old song says, “the change from major to minor”.
But to put the relationship in those terms is to misunderstand the role of Timothy and Titus in relation both to St Paul and to St Paul’s congregations. It’s certainly a mistake to see them as identical twins. In the first place, Timothy was Jewish, born to a Jewish mother and Greek father in one of the cities of Lycaonia in central Asia Minor, though he was brought up in the predominantly Hellenistic culture of that region. Titus was a gentile, Greek, one of the “uncircumcised”, and remaining so even after a visit to Jerusalem where hardline opponents of Paul in the Christian community might have been expected to insist that he play by their rules.
Timothy seems to have been regarded as Paul’s right hand. He figures in the greetings that top or tail the formal letters to the congregations in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Colossae and Thessalonika, and the personal note to Philemon. He was the apostle’s plenipotentiary dealing with the Corinthian church, and with the Philippians and Thessalonians, carrying Paul’s guidance to each congregation and reporting back on how he had found it. Titus also dealt with the church in Corinth, but primarily in relation to Paul’s project of a collection for famine relief in Palestine, and as the “minder” of an unnamed “brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming of the good news“.
In the “Pastoral Epistles”, which probably aren’t by Paul, Timothy and Titus figure as the addressees, in more independent roles, overseeing the Christian communities in Ephesus and Crete respectively, but still under the watchful eye of their senior colleague in ministry.
In all these situations Titus and Timothy exercised a ministry that was laid upon them, certainly, but which they exercised independently, like those seventy in Luke’s Gospel who were sent on ahead of Jesus in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. They had instructions on how to conduct themselves, but not a detailed programme – except to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God. So, to return to our maritime comparison, perhaps we should see them less like dinghies bobbing in the wake of a yacht and rather more like pilot cutters, guiding a freighter into port and preparing the way for a cargo of good news from God’s kingdom to be unloaded.
Gospel for Tuesday, 25th January – Conversion of St Paul (Matthew 19:27-end)
Peter said to Jesus, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. ’
The week of Prayer for Christian unity is about breaking down the barriers that have been erected down the centuries between different groups of those who follow Jesus – and which are still being erected today, not only between Christian traditions, but often within them. The splits that are taking place today within the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the worldwide Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church in the USA offer worrying examples of that. Those barriers, whether historical or contemporary, are erected as a way of defining who is “in” and who is “out” and the work of praying for unity has to be accompanied by the painstaking and sometimes painful work of demolishing those barriers, by patient discussion, like the various bilateral conversations that have been taking place during the past century, by formal agreements, like those of Meissen, Porvoo, and Reuilly, and by symbolic actions, like Pope Paul VI’s gift of his episcopal ring to Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
So, it is appropriate that this Week of Prayer for Unity always ends on the day when Christians of the Western Churches celebrate the event which turned a most vigorous and persistent builder of barriers into the most enthusiastic demolition man.
Exactly what happened to Rabbi Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus we do not, and cannot, know. St Luke offers a slightly different version of the story each time he tells it. Rabbi Saul, now become Paul the Apostle, never describes the event directly in his letters, but he makes very clear what a profound effect was produced in him by his encounter with the risen Christ. The man who had sought to exclude and destroy by every means, including extra-judicial killing, became the man who, more than anyone else in those early years of the Jesus movement, broke down barriers and leaped over borders, leaving the security of the Pharisaic Judaism in which he had been brought up and dragging Peter and the other disciples, not always willingly, behind him. He could do that because he had discovered that in Christ there is no “in” and “out”. All are one in Christ, so that all human divisions based on language, race, class, gender, sexual orientation are meaningless.
For Paul and for us an encounter with the risen Christ turns the world upside down and inside out so that the last become first and the first last. As we come to the end of this Week of Prayer for Unity, let us commit ourselves to living the next fifty-one weeks in the unity that is ours through him.
22nd January, 2022
The chaplain has been busy in this Week of Prayer for Unity. Yesterday he was at the Cathedral here in Genova, reading a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians. Today he was in Sanremo, at the Co-cathedral of San Siro, as the clergy representative of the Anglican Church in Italy. At the end of the service, each of the ministers present was asked to deliver a short message, based on the theme of the Week, the coming of the wise men to Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus. This is his message, in Italian more or less as it was given, with an English translation following:
Novanta cinque anni fa, nel anno mille novecento venti sette, il poeta Americano Thomas Stearns Eliot è battezzato, diventa cittadino britannico, e scrive la poesia “Il viaggio dei Magi”, una meditazione sullo stesso testo del vangelo di Matteo che abbiamo udito stasera. Ispirato da un’omelia dello studioso e vescovo inglese Lancelot Andrewes, T.S. Eliot descrive, dal punto di vista di uno dei magi, la difficoltà del viaggio ed i problemi che hanno confrontato i viaggiatori, “le vie fangose e la stagione rigida, nel cuore dell’inverno”.
Comunque, dice il mago, “arrivati a sera non solo un momento troppo prestotrovammo il posto: cosa soddisfacente (voi direte).”
E poi Eliot scrive queste parole (la traduzione italiana è quella di Roberto Sanesi):
“Tutto questo fu molto tempo fa, ricordo, e lo farei di nuovo, ma considerate questo considerate questo: ci trascinammo per tutta quella strada per una Nascita o una Morte? Vi fu una Nascita, certo, ne avemmo prova e non avemmo dubbio. Avevo visto nascita e morte, ma le avevo pensate differenti; per noi questa Nascita fu come un’aspra ed amara sofferenza, come la Morte, la nostra morte. Tornammo ai nostri luoghi, ai nostri Regni, ma ormai non più tranquilli, nelle antiche leggi, fra un popolo straniero che è rimasto aggrappato ai propri idoli. Io sarei lieto di un’altra morte”.
Per i magi la nascita di Gesù fu la morte delle “antiche leggi” di Zoroastrismo. Per Eliot stesso, nel anno quando ha scritto questa poesia, la morte fu la rinuncia della fede unitariana della sua famiglia e la rinuncia della sua propria cittadinanza americana. Per noi, se cerchiamo veramente l’unità dei cristiani per la quale preghiamo in questa settimana, ci potrebbe essere “un’aspra ed amara sofferenza” nella rinuncia delle “antiche leggi” che ci hanno nutriti ma che fanno inciampare nostri fratelli e nostre sorelle formati e formate da altre tradizioni cristiane.
Però, se cerchiamo veramente l’unità dei cristiani, troveremo che, come il battesimo, ciò che si sente come sofferenza o perfino morte è in realtà una nascita che da vita nuova alla chiesa una, santa, universale e apostolica nella quale tutti abbiamo stasera professato la fede e per la quale preghiamo durante tutta questa settimana.
Ninety-five years ago, in 1927, the American poet Thomas Stearns Eliot was baptised, became a British citizen, and wrote the poem “The Journey of the Magi”, a meditation on the same text from the Gospel of Matthew that we have heard tonight. Inspired by a sermon of the seventeenth-century English scholar and bishop Lancelot Andrewes, T.S. Eliot describes, from the point of view of one of the Magi, the difficulty of the journey and the problems faced by the travellers, ‘The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter ‘.
However, says the magus, "arriving at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory."
And then Eliot writes these words:
"All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death."
For the Magi, the birth of Jesus was the death of the “the old dispensation” of Zoroastrianism. For Eliot himself, in the year when he wrote this poem, death was the renunciation of his family’s Unitarian faith and the renunciation of his own American citizenship. For us, if we truly seek the Christian unity for which we are praying this week, there may be “hard and bitter agony” in the renunciation of the “old dispensation” that has nurtured us but that causes our brothers and sisters formed by other Christian traditions to stumble.
However, if we truly seek Christian unity, we will find that, like baptism, what feels like agony or even death is in reality a birth that gives new life to the one, holy, universal and apostolic church in which we have all professed faith this evening and for which we are praying throughout this week.
Gospel for Wednesday, 19th January – Wulfstan (Matthew 24:42-46)
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
‘Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.’
Keeping awake and aware is very much part of the message of this Week of Prayer for Unity, with its focus on those wise men who were awake to the meaning of the star which they saw at its rising and aware of the promptings of God through their dreams. The need to be awake and aware is also part of the task of our movement towards unity after so many centuries of sometimes bitter division. We need to be awake to the ways in which the use of words and symbols which we take for granted can be hurtful to ecumenical partners. We need to be aware of the gifts which they have to offer us, as well as mindful of those we are ready to share with them.
Today we remember a man who was awake and aware in a time of bitter division and who in the midst of such division and bitterness proved to be a faithful and wise slave in charge of the household of God.
Wulfstan of Worcester was born at the beginning of the 11th century in the English midlands. He was educated by monks, at Evesham and Peterborough, and he became a monk, in the community which served the cathedral in Worcester, rising to the role of prior, a post in which he was noted not only for his organisational skills, very much needed in Worcester at that time, but also for his pastoral concern and his holiness. So when the bishopric of Worcester fell vacant in 1062, he was (in everyone’s eyes but his) the obvious person to fill the gap. Unsurprisingly, despite his misgivings he was as effective as bishop as he had been as prior: pastoral, organised, and an outstanding preacher. William of Malmesbury, the great 12th-century historian, said that in his preaching he “always spoke about Christ, resolutely setting Christ before his hearers so that even the most reluctant might hear his name.”
Then, four years after his consecration, the house which Wulfstan had known for the past quarter-century was broken into with devastating effect. The Norman invasion destroyed the English monarchy and tore apart the English Church, as English bishops were driven out and Normans (and Italians) replaced them. The one exception was Wulfstan, whose holiness was recognised even by the Conqueror – and by his Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, who became Wulfstan’s chief ally in ending the slave trade between Bristol and Ireland. In return, Wulfstan gave the new king and his successors wholehearted support, seeking to reconcile the deep divisions between Saxon and Norman, the Conqueror and the conquered, as in his own life he sought to reconcile his twofold calling, as monk and bishop.
So today, as we remember Wulfstan the reconciler, we pray with our sisters and brothers in the Churches of the Middle East, that they may be equipped for the task of reconciling the deep divisions in that region – including the deep divisions within and between the churches. And we pray for ourselves that we may be awake to the possibilities for fostering unity between Christians divided by race and history here in Genoa, serving the unity of God’s people today as Wulfstan did in his generation.
Gospel for Wednesday, 12th January – Aelred of Rievaulx and Benedict Biscop (Luke 12:32-37)
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.’
This is one of my favourite passages in Luke’s Gospel. In my previous parish we heard it each year as the gospel reading on the first Sunday in October, when we celebrated our Patronal Festival. Our patron being St Francis of Assisi, we tended to concentrate on the first half. That doesn’t fit quite so well for Aelred of Rievaulx, except in the broadest terms. Cistercians didn’t live hand-to-mouth as the first Franciscans did. The ruins of Rievaulx abbey in the Yorkshire Dales are, even today, a rather more impressive space for worship than the carefully preserved Chapel of the Transitus in Assisi.
The second half of the Gospel, however, with its focus on readiness to encounter God, is Aelred to a “T”. He is one of the greatest spiritual writers in an age of great spiritual writers, described by one modern writer as the St Bernard of the North (a title which has nothing to do with large, alcohol-laden dogs), but less terrifyingly austere than Bernard in his pursuit of holiness. It is difficult to imagine Aelred imitating Bernard’s relentless harrying of Peter Abelard. It is impossible to imagine anyone describing Aelred, in the words which Helen Waddell used of Bernard, as “vehementissimus Christi amator [a most ardent lover of Christ], but a good hater of the brethren”. Walter Daniel, who was one of Aelred’s monks at Rievaulx and who wrote his “Life”, recorded that “I lived under his rule for seventeen years, and in that time he did not dismiss anyone from the monastery.”
Aelred shared Bernard’s concern that those who followed Christ should be “dressed for action and have [their] lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet,” but his methods for achieving this were gentler, as you might guess from the fact that his best-known writings are entitled “On Spiritual Friendship” (probably his greatest work) and “The Mirror of Charity” – “charity” being understood in the old sense of that human love which is the closest reflection of God’s love. Friendship, for Aelred, enabled human growth and flourishing. “Medicine”, he wrote, “is not more powerful or efficacious for our wounds in all our temporal needs than the possession of a friend who meets every misfortune joyfully, so that, as the Apostle says, shoulder to shoulder, they “bear one another’s burdens.”
But friendship was more than a source of mutual support and comfort. For Aelred, human friendship was a ladder enabling people, as they drew nearer in affection to other human beings, to draw nearer also to the love of God. Indeed, to quote today’s “thought” on the church’s Facebook page, “Friendship is a stage bordering on that perfection which consists in the knowledge and love of God, so that from being a friend of our neighbours, we become the friend of God, according to the words of the Saviour in the gospel: ‘I will not now call you servants, but my friends.” That friendship lies at the heart of Aelred’s teaching. That friendship made him a compassionate Abbot over the monks at Rievaulx, and before that at Revesby. It gave him, too, the wisdom for which he prayed: “to order all my thoughts and words and deeds and plans according to your will, and to the glory of your name, to further their advance and my salvation.”
Gospel for Wednesday, 5th January (Mark 6:45-52)
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Jesus has just fed five thousand men, plus assorted women and children. He packs the disciples off ahead of him across the lake and sends the crowd home. Then Jesus goes up into the hills, as he often does, to reconnect with the Father in prayer. Meanwhile, the disciples are having, in every sense, a rough time as they try to cross the water, “straining at the oars against an adverse wind”. It’s all rather like the storm-tossed trip to Gerasa in chapter 4 – but on that occasion they had Jesus in the boat with them. This time they’re on their own as they try to battle their way against a strong headwind.
It’s a shame, by the way, that our translation of this passage uses the word “lake” to describe Galilee. The Greek word that Mark uses here is θαλασσα [thalassa], which means “sea”, and in ancient Hebrew thought the sea was the home of chaos, disorder and monsters. No wonder the disciples were terrified. Even the sight of Jesus coming towards them across the water doesn’t reassure them. They think that he is a ghost.
But he isn’t a ghost – and the way Mark tells this story hints at who he is, with a nod towards what happened to Moses and Elijah up the mountain when God passed them by (as Jesus makes as if to pass by the disciples), and with another nod to the divine name when Jesus greets the disciples. The words translated “It is I“ are the words which are used in Greek versions of the Hebrew scriptures to translate the mysterious name of God given to Moses at the burning bush. This is not the appearance of a ghost. It is a manifestation of God, who brings order and peace out of chaos.
Some commentators have suggested that the chaos here is specific. Lake Galilee marked part of the border between Jewish and Gentile territory in northern Palestine, with the western shore being predominantly Jewish and the eastern shore mainly, but not exclusively, gentile in population. So some have argued that the storms against which the disciples find themselves struggling on more than one occasion as they cross the sea is a symbol of powerful pushback against the insight that for Christians the Jew-Gentile divide belongs to the past, because in Christ’s present there is neither Jew nor Greek. Those who live on both shores of the sea are equally part of God’s people.
But to live that vision of integration, whether between Jew and Gentile or between black and white, still requires courage and commitment and there are still stormy passages to be negotiated, especially in places where racial difference is enshrined in institutions and in the wider culture. There are horror stories to be told about the Church of England fifty years ago; in the USA Sunday morning is still reckoned to be the most segregated time of the week: and during his lifetime Desmond Tutu had to endure the hatred of many white Christians in South Africa in his search for justice and reconciliation between the races. But the presence of Jesus to keep those who follow him from being overwhelmed by the storms of social hostility is an encouragement to us as we seek to give flesh and bones to the insight that all are one in Christ Jesus.
Gospel for Saturday, 1st January — Naming and circumcision of Jesus (Luke 2.15-21)
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
There’s a story about two men in a restaurant in New York. One was an American Jew. The other was from the Far East. The Jewish man picked up a plate of noodles and tipped it over the other man. “That”, he said, “is for Pearl Harbour”. “But Pearl Harbour was the Japanese,” said the other man. “I’m Chinese!” “Chinese, Siamese, Japanese, what’s in a name?” said the Jew. As he went to pay his bill, the Chinaman picked up a large jug of iced water and poured it over the Jew. “That,” he said, “is for sinking the Titanic.” “Now hold on,” shouted the Jew. “The Titanic was sunk by an iceberg!” “Greenberg, Goldberg, iceberg,” replied the Chinese. “What’s in a name?”
What is in a name? When the child born to Mary was called Jesus “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb,” what did that naming mean? Well, Ιησους (Jesus) is the Greek attempt at the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means “The Lord saves”. It’s a significant name. It explains what Jesus does. He is the one through whom the Lord saves his people. That is the reason why he came and why we make such a fuss about his birthday.
Jesus saves us by getting stuck into human life with us. He is born, as we are born. He dies, as we will die. No – that’s not quite true. He dies a much more painful, degrading and unpleasant death than most of us are likely to die, even in this time of pandemic. He shares our life in every way, so that we can share his life – God’s life, a life that the death of our physical bodies can’t stop.
Today as we celebrate the beginning of a new year we link that celebration with a double celebration of new life, our new life in Christ, and his new life on earth. We heard the story of the shepherds’ visit to the newborn Jesus – continuing the story that we heard on Christmas Eve. And we heard what happened a week later, when his new life was rooted in the continuing story of God’s people. The Son of God was born for all, but his life was anchored in a particular time and place, among a particular people. Jesus was born to a Jewish family in first-century Palestine. God doesn’t work in vast generalities. God works in particular situations and through particular people, people who live in particular times and places. That’s part of what St Paul means when he writes, in his letter to the Christians of Galatia, about Jesus being “born of a woman, born under the law”.
So far so ordinary, but… Jesus is born “so that we might receive adoption as children”, so that we might learn that we are loved unconditionally, that we don’t have to live up to other people’s image of us, or even our own image – that, rather than a change of year, marksthe real new beginning. That’s when we can get on with being the people God made us to be. That’s when we can get on, like the shepherds in the Gospel, with telling people the good news of what God has done, and is doing, for us and for everybody, in Jesus. That’s when we find that Christian faith is about a relationship – and relationships are particular to the people who are in them.
Christian faith isn’t about learning facts. It isn’t about making resolutions. It’s about getting to know God – and ourselves – better. It’s about being rooted and grounded in God’s love, as Jesus was rooted and grounded in the tradition of God’s people, so that we may be “no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God”.