Chaplain’s Page 2024


Revd Canon Tony Dickinson

Holy Ghost, Genova – Lenten Address 2 (28.2.2024)

The second of this year’s Lenten Addresses focuses on the crucifix in the chaplain’s study.

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Last week, in our reflection on the cross of the Son of God, we focused our thoughts on the cross above the altar and what it tells us about the physical processes of crucifixion. Today we are moving away from the sanctuary, and indeed right out of the church, as we turning our attention not to a cross in this building but to one of the crucifixes in the chaplain’s flat.

That crucifix is very different from the cast brass figure at which we were looking last week. It is a copy of a mediaeval painted crucifix from Umbria, which is probably, as we shall see, the most famous painted crucifix in history. The Christ on that crucifix is very different from the more or less realistic figure on the altar cross which was our focus a week ago. There we were aware of the human Jesus exhausted by the agony of his struggle against death, the Jesus of St Mark’s Gospel, perhaps, or of St Paul’s preaching.

The figure on this cross is more stylised, like the Byzantine icons from which this style of painting is derived. His expression, and his posture, are anything but agonised. This Jesus is peaceful, almost serene, looking out open-eyed to the world he came to save. This is more like the Jesus of St Luke’s Gospel, the Jesus who prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners and who promised paradise to the penitent thief, the Jesus whose last recorded utterance is not a wordless cry of anguish, but words from Psalm 31, part of the evening prayer of devout Jews even today, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” – a prayer that was taken up by the Church early on and is still used by contemporary Christians if they end the day with the saying of Night Prayer (Compline).

This is the Christ whose cross is the place of reconciliation between God and humanity. The struggle is over. There is peace. The arms of this Jesus are not stretched taut in agony, but opened wide in welcome, to embrace the entire world and all who live in it, irrespective of human divisions.

This is the Christ of the Letter to the Colossians, through whom “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross”, the Christ whose death mends broken relationships, whose cross is a sledge-hammer smashing the barriers that divide race from race, rich from poor, men and women, young and old. This is the Christ who breaks down the barriers between people of different faiths and heals the divisions within his Church.

This is also the Christ of St Francis. For this cross is a reproduction of the crucifix that hung eight centuries ago in what was then the semi-derelict church of San Damiano outside Assisi, and which now hangs in the basilica of St Clare within the city’s walls. It’s the crucifix from which Francis heard, in the early days of his conversion, the command, “Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”

And now we hear that message addressed to us. In our day, too, Christ’s house is in need of repair. In our day, many fear that the Church is falling into ruin – and I don’t just mean our problems with the roof and the stonework and the plaster. But that repair can happen only when the cross of Christ is central to the life of the Church, and when his reconciling, healing love is the source of our fellowship.

On that cross Jesus is not alone. His arms are spread protectively over (on the one side) Mary his mother and the beloved disciple and (on the other side) the other Maries and Joseph of Arimathea. And at the head and the foot of his cross, and at the end of the arms, are much smaller pictures of other saints and of angels.

Now, this isn’t just the painter filling up empty space on the panel. This is a serious theological point being made. In his dying, Jesus brings to birth a new community. In St John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus handed Mary over to the care of the beloved disciple, to create a new family, a new community. Jesus is the centre of that family, and of the wider community which his self-offering has created. The Church is not a religious club – not even a fan club for clergy! The Church is not an activist pressure-group, nor an organisation with, as people sometimes say, “an agenda”.

The Church is the community of people who have been drawn together, entrusted to one another as Mary and the beloved disciple were entrusted to one another, by the love of God revealed in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

That love, as we were reminded last week, extends to the outcast, the despised, the dispossessed and the excluded. It embraces the agony of the world, the humiliation and degradation which human beings inflict on one another. But the death of Jesus says infinitely more to human beings than “Life’s a bitch, then you die”. The death of Jesus has consequences for the living. In his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth, St Paul wrote of the love of Christ which “urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”

Jesus bears our pain, and the pain of the whole world. He bears the pain of the Ukrainian refugees who have been reluctant guests in this city and in many other parts of Europe. He bears equally the pain of Palestinian refugees with no safe place to which they can flee from the indiscriminate violence of the IDF and the pain of Israeli families; those coming to terms with the brutally violent death last October of a parent, a sibling, a child; and those living through the continuing agony of not knowing the fate of a kidnapped loved one. But Jesus, through his acceptance of death – a painful, humiliating death, “the slaves’ death”, as we saw last week – Jesus’s acceptance of death gives meaning and value to every other death, because his death, bearing that pain, reveals the healing, reconciling love of the Father. The love that says, as Julian of Norwich understood more than six centuries ago, “If I could possibly have suffered more for you, I would have done so”, is a love that is, to quote Julian again, “as much greater than [our Lord’s] pain as heaven is greater than earth” (and just think, for a moment what that is saying, in the light of what was said about crucifixion last Wednesday). That love, that depth and strength of love, makes it possible for us to believe with Julian that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”, even in the present gloom.

Where the Church, where any group of Christians (however large or small), has taken that on board, then a number of consequences follow:

  • First, the awareness that such a depth and strength of love cannot, in the end, be thwarted in its purpose of bringing about the reconciliation of the universe.
  • Second, the recognition that the love for the world expressed in this dying is love for me, in all my failure and inadequacy, just as much as for the holiest saint who ever lived.
  • Third, the understanding that suffering is no longer to be feared, death is no longer to be feared. While we may, like Henry Scott Holland a century ago, be critical of the view that “Death is nothing at all” because (as Buddhists would tell us) it is illusion, nevertheless Christ is in it alongside us and nothing can pluck us from his hand.
  • And finally, the realisation that all of this is good news to be shared, not kept to ourselves. “The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all.”

As the Church roots its common life – as we root our life together – in the cross of Jesus Christ, we respond to the call to live in his healing love and we offer our lives in the service of his kingdom, to be the agents of his peace and his justice in the world, and to care for that world for which he gave his life.


Gospel reading for 28th February (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.’

Reflection:

There is a style of Christian preaching and writing which talks about Jesus as if he is basically Superman on steroids. It is a style which is profoundly unevangelical, in the sense that it is almost entirely detached from the Jesus made known to us in the text of the Gospels. Yes, he is a teacher and a healer. Yes, he performs amazing signs. But while these things reveal that God is with him, and point those who have eyes to see in the direction of God’s kingdom, they are not central to his mission. That is something which he sums up for the disciples in the opening words of today’s Gospel: ‘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.’

Those words shouldn’t have come as a great shock, because Jesus has warned his disciples twice before that their journey to Jerusalem will end not in triumph but in apparent disaster. “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.” As we were reminded on Sunday, this is not what Peter and the others signed up for. Nor the sons of Zebedee neither, to judge by their mother’s intervention on their behalf. ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ They are still thinking, like many Christians, in terms of the power and the glory – their share of the cake, if you like.

Now, Jesus realises who is behind this request. He doesn’t respond to Mrs Zebedee. His retort ‘You do not know what you are asking’, and his follow-up question are both, as the Greek text makes clear, directed at the brothers. If they are serious about holding positions of honour in Christ’s kingdom, they will have to endure the same dishonour, the same suffering, which he has foretold for himself. Then, when they have committed themselves to that, he tells them that what they have asked for isn’t his to grant. ‘It is for those for whom it has been prepared by [the] Father.’ Oh dear. James and John rather set themselves up for that, didn’t they? And there’s worse to come. The other ten were not best pleased by the brothers’ brass cheek. ‘They were angry’ – though it’s not entirely certain whether their anger is triggered by that cheek, or by their attempt to pull a fast one. Others, no doubt, would have had their eyes on the same positions of honour.

So, Jesus gathers them all together and gives them a pep-talk. He points out, quite sharply, the gulf that exists between the rulers of this world and the rules of the kingdom of God. In that kingdom being great is not about power and glory. Greatness in God’s kingdom is measured by the standard of servant-hood. That standard is not set by the commanders of powerful armies, those “big battalions” which were mentioned in last week’s Lent talk. Nor is it established by those who have immense wealth at their disposal. It is instead set by the Son of Man, who ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’


21st February, 2024

This is the first of this year’s Lenten Addresses, which discuss interpretations of the cross, focusing each week on one of the crucifixes in and around the Church of the Holy Ghost. Today we consider…

The Crucifix above the Altar

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I think it was one of G.K. Chesterton’s short stories which featured a man with such an obsessive hostility to Christianity that whenever he found a cross he tried to destroy it. In the end this obsession led him not only to destroy religious images and artefacts, but to wreck his home, his neighbourhood and his work-place as he tried to remove the crosses from chair-backs, from doors and window-frames, fencing, shop-fronts, telegraph poles. He understood the meaning of the cross and he tried desperately to obliterate every trace of it from his surroundings.

In an Italy which continues to be culturally Catholic even if the statistics for active religious participation are heading south as steeply as they are in other regions of Europe such hostility still, I think, makes some sort of sense. The Crucified Christ of Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories is still present in churches and other public spaces in a way in which the cross no longer is in, for example, post-Christian Britain. There the lack of understanding of the cross is sharply illustrated by a story about the assistant in the jeweller’s shop who asked a godparent buying a cross for her godchild whether she wanted “one with a little man or one without”. But even in the UK, paradoxically, there are still crosses to be seen, in public places, and on human beings. Many civic war memorials are topped by a cross and the cross is a popular item of personal jewellery, as a brooch, as earrings, or as a pendant. Even today no one thinks it odd to wear a cross. Most people would think it very bizarre (to say the least) if they saw someone wearing a brooch in the shape of an electric chair or a pendant that looked like a gibbet.

In these four Lent talks we shall be focusing on the cross and its meaning. Today, and on three of the next four Wednesdays, we shall look at three of the crosses in this building – and one from the chaplain’s flat – and reflect on what they tell us about the events which we shall commemorate in Holy Week and their meaning for us, more than twenty centuries on.

Today we focus on the cross that is probably the most prominent – certainly the most immediately visible to anyone entering the building, the cross on the gradine above the altar. We see it every Sunday, but we probably don’t notice too much about it. It is fairly conventional – and a lot simpler than some, even if it is made up of two components. There’s the large altar cross which came originally, I think, as a gift from All Saints in Rome when this church was restored as a place of worship in 1949. And there’s a smaller pendant crucifix attached by a loop of string. Both parts are plain metal with no enamel and no polished stones to adorn them. The whole thing, like the candles which flank it, is made of brass.

The crucifix itself has been prettified to some degree. It certainly isn’t a practical instrument of torture. The figure of the crucified Christ is displayed on a heraldic cross, a “cross cleché”. That’s a style, Byzantine in origin, which became very well known in southern France, in the Middle Ages as the blazon of the Counts of Toulouse, and today as the symbol of Occitanie. The arms, like the upright, flare out towards their end, and then taper back to a point. And it has a kind of metallic shadow, wider and shorter – not smooth brass, but incised in a chevron pattern: a brass-polisher’s nightmare. However, when we look at it more closely, we see that the figure of Jesus has been moulded with a much greater degree of realism than we might have expected. The figure is small, but quite detailed – a miniaturised version of the mediaeval crucifixes to be found in some of Genoa’s older churches: Santa Maria in Castello, for example, or out at Molassana – and the detail tells us a great deal about the facts of crucifixion.

On those crucifixes we can see a man writhing in agony. The sinews of the arms are well-defined, taut as they strain against the fatal forward sag of the body. The rib-cage is starkly visible and the spine arched to stave off the self-strangulation that is the way in which crucifixion kills. You can see that in our crucifix, or the one in the church of la Maddalena or in San Donato, where the torso is either flat against the upright or sagging forward in death and the head has sunk onto the chest. This crucifix, for all that it presents itself as a piece of stylised religious art, reminds us of the stark horror that made the preaching of a crucified God “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”.

Crucifixion appears first (so far as we know) in the Middle East. The Persians used it five centuries before Christ. The Greeks, on the whole, didn’t. They regarded crucifixion as a barbaric punishment unfit for use by civilised nations. The Romans seem to have taken it over from their north African enemies, the Carthaginians, in the third century before Christ, keeping it as a punishment for the lowest criminals, rebels, traitors, runaway slaves, the lower orders, the excluded and the outcast. Crucifixion was known in the ancient world as “the slaves’ punishment” and a modern scholar has described it as an instrument of “class justice”. Rome very rarely used it to punish her own – one of the most serious charges against the notoriously corrupt governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, at his trial in 70BC was that he had ordered the crucifixion of a Roman citizen. Subject peoples, on the other hand, were used to seeing crosses lining the verge of the main highways after a rebellion or other disturbance of the peace. The historian Josephus tells some horrific tales about the later stages of the great Jewish rebellion of AD66-74, when mass crucifixion became the normal Roman treatment for prisoners of war.

In the lands subject to Roman rule, crucifixion was the ultimate penalty – an ideal method of reinforcing Roman power. It served the purpose of the pillory, the torture chamber, the gallows and the gibbet, all rolled into one – and all, conveniently, costing no more than two pieces of wood (any old wood) and a few nails. As a punishment it inflicted maximum pain (hence the offering to Jesus of a cup of wine laced with pain-killer) combined with maximum humiliation and maximum deterrence. It was a very cruel, very public death, extremely painful and usually long-drawn out. People sometimes remained alive on the cross, tormented by flies, losing control of their bodily functions, struggling against the inevitability of death, for several days – although the alleged record of ten days is probably an exaggeration.

Crucifixion was also a very undignified death. The realism of the figure on our altar crucifix does not extend to the fact that those who were condemned to crucifixion were, as all four Gospels remind us, stripped of their clothing before being nailed to the cross. Here a loin-cloth preserves the Lord’s modesty. For a Jew, in particular, this stripping added insult to injury. In Jewish culture, unlike in the widespread Hellenistic culture, to be seen naked was shameful.

For a Jew, also, crucifixion carried a special stigma. The law of Moses laid down that “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”, anyone killed in this way “defiled the land”. That thought did not stop Jewish factions from using it to punish traitors (and sometimes to settle old scores) in the turbulent times half a century before the birth of Jesus. But from the time of Herod the Great onward crucifixion was too closely associated with Roman methods of punishment to be acceptable. There was, in effect, a political and religious taboo against its use by Jews.

So when the first Christians preached a crucified God, they were preaching something that was, quite simply, obscene madness to the societies in which they lived. The old myths told stories of heroes and gods who died – but never in degradation like this.

To proclaim that God had submitted to crucifixion is to say something about God which was blasphemous to most religious sensibilities in those days, and which makes us (or ought to make us) uncomfortable even now.

It was a cynical French military man, wit and all-round bounder who first made the claim, three and a half centuries ago, that “God is on the side of the big battalions”. However, he was wrong. The God of Israel is on the side of the poor, the outcast, the marginalised, the people who don’t count in the calculations of the powerful. His chosen people, after all, were in origin a rabble of runaway slaves led by a renegade Egyptian princeling of uncertain origins – a fact which they themselves recognised in their own holy writings. “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you – for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery”. God is not (emphatically not) on the side of the big battalions. God is alongside the poor and the despised, the desperate and the dispossessed, be they Palestinians, or Congolese Banyamulenge or Burmese Rohingya – or single-parent families living lives of quiet desperation in the vicoli and in the outer comuni of our own city. The cross which God’s Son bore to the place of execution and on which he died is the mark of his identification with the excluded. The cross of Jesus is a challenge to every power except the power of love.


Gospel reading for 21st February (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!’

Reflection:

After several weeks of Mark, we’re spending lunchtime with St Luke for a change. It’s a passage that he shares with Matthew, though the two of them place it, and handle it, rather differently. Matthew, for example, is clear that “the sign of Jonah” is those three days in the belly of the big fish, prefiguring the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Luke, obviously, is much less specific.

What they are both clear about is that those who ask Jesus for a sign are getting things badly wrong. It’s “an evil generation” which “asks for a sign”, which wants Jesus to authenticate his ministry in some spectacular way. That’s a request to which Luke returns later in his Gospel, when Jesus is interrogated by king Herod, “who was”, Luke tells us, “very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign”.

But Jesus is not in the business of beating people over the head with the power of God. Not here. Not even when he is on trial for his life. He lets his words and his actions speak for themselves. As Jonah did when he preached to the people of Nineveh. And as Solomon did when he was grilled by the queen of the South (the queen of Sheba). The “signs” are there for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. So the question arises: what is preventing people from recognising God at work in this life, in these words, these actions? What is it that leaves Jesus’ contemporaries (and later generations, like ours) open to the condemnation of the queen of the South and of the Ninevites?

For some, I suspect, it’s an unwillingness to let ourselves be disturbed by ideas and actions which cut across our preconceptions. I’ve come across that in recent days, as I and many others in the UK and elsewhere have been sharing our grief at the death of Bishop Alan Wilson. There have been many appreciative tributes – many of them from survivors of abuse, for whom he was an impassioned advocate, and from LGBTQIA+ people, to whom he gave unstinting support. But there have also been some snarky comments – usually from a certain kind of Evangelical Christian for whom maintaining “the party line” seems to be rather more important than sharing the good news of Jesus: something which Alan did very effectively, and with humour, intelligence, pastoral wisdom, and compassion.

In some ways he and Bishop David were very similar. At the time of the last Lambeth Conference I noticed ithat they were the only two bishops in the Church of England among the 170 bishops from around the world who signed a letter protesting against an egregious attempt at agenda manipulation. They were ready to speak out for a more inclusive Church and I wondered how much that was due to their own background: Bishop David with his mixed-race, transatlantic heritage; Alan whose parentage was Scottish and Hungarian. His mother’s family were on the losing side in the bloody struggles in Hungary at the end of the First World War, and in the 1930s she and her sister were stateless refugees, earning a precarious living as dancers in cabaret across Europe. Inclusion was perhaps genetically wired in.

That brings us back to this morning’s Gospel, where condemnation “at the judgement” is handed, not to the religious authorities of Israel, but to those ultimate outsiders, the queen of the South and of the Ninevites. They had recognised God’s presence in the preaching of Jonah and the wisdom of Solomon, whereas those who regarded themselves as God’s people were failing to recognise “something greater” than either Jonah or Solomon: that is to say, God’s presence in God’s Son.


Gospel reading for 7th 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.’

Reflection:

One of the themes running all the way through Mark’s Gospel is the conflict between Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem. And the long first section of chapter seven, taking up two-thirds of the chapter, tells how yet another group of “Pharisees and some of the scribes from Jerusalem” have lain in wait to catch him out. Earlier in the Gospel the arguments have focused on the Sabbath and healing. This time, the focus is food, which is not entirely surprising, given that the previous chapter included Mark’s version of that foretaste of the messianic banquet, the feeding of the five thousand. “Why”, the opponents of Jesus demand, “why do your disciples eat… with defiled hands?” – hands, in other words, that have not been ritually washed.

Now, as Mark makes clear in the section immediately before Jesus’ formal response to their question – a response directed not to them but to the crowd – as Mark makes clear, this dispute has little to do with food hygiene. This is primarily a debate about the relationship between ritual purity and real purity. It is also about maintaining the power of the professionally religious, the men who had the authority to decide what was, or was not, “pure” – in other words, who was entitled to be in relationship with God. That is the source of their quarrel with Jesus, whose words and actions were opening up the disconcerting idea that anyone, tax-collectors, prostitutes, even non-Jews, could have their lives touched by God and live in relationship with God. There’s an echo of this in the debates which are currently dividing the Church of England – and the world-wide Anglican Communion – about blessing same-sex relationships, conversion therapy, the whole idea that LGBTQIA+ people might have a place among the people of God. They, too, are part of a power-struggle centred on questions of authority and who has it.

So, how does Jesus reply? First he responds to the question asked by the Pharisees. And he does it in what Mark calls a “parable”, but I think that here the word “παραβολη” (parabolé) keeps something of its original meaning, “a comparison” – in this case a comparison between what goes into a person (which doesn’t – and indeed can’t – defile) and what comes out of a person (which can, and does). That is the public teaching, given to the crowd. The disciples, in private, ask Jesus what his comparison meant and he spells it out – not entirely patiently. Their failure to understand is a recurring theme in Mark’s Gospel, and (to a lesser extent) in Luke’s, which is comforting in a way, because it means that we can get things wrong, and not understand, and still be counted among those who follow Jesus.

But the punch-line, the pay-off, of this section of Mark’s Gospel is a reminder of something that Matthew spells out at much greater length over the three chapters which make up the Sermon on the Mount. What matters is not outward observance – scrupulously maintaining ritual purity. What matters is the inner disposition of the heart. Is it oriented towards God? Or is it oriented toward self-gratification? That list of sins, as the commentators point out, is a mash-up of the Ten Commandments and God’s complaints against Israel and Judah: and it is wholly focused on “me”: either me indulging my appetite, for food, for possessions, for sex; or me satisfying my desire for dominance over other people and being resentful and vindictive if I don’t achieve it. Jesus invites us, his uncomprehending disciples, to take our noses out of the rule book and focus our attention on the demands of God’s love.


Gospel reading for 31st January – St John Bosco (Mark 6:1-6a)

Jesus left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Reflection:

At first reading, today’s gospel seems a very poor fit with the saint we remember today. Mark’s account of how Jesus was rejected at Nazareth doesn’t appear to have much to do with Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco, Don Bosco, the revered founder of one of the great teaching orders, the man who revolutionised education in 19th-century Italy – and in many other parts of the world – by putting into practice the realisation that people, and especially young people, respond more positively to being treated with respect and love than they do to threats and violence, the man who had an enormous heart for the disadvantaged young, the misfits and the outcast, a man with a gift for friendship which broke down the barriers between belief and unbelief.

And then I looked more closely at Don Bosco’s biography and realised that this may be how later generations have seen him, but that it was not always the case. His early life was a record of constant struggle: born into a family of peasant farm-workers in Piemonte, fatherless at the age of two, brought up by his mother and older brothers, his education patchy, to say the least, earning a little pocket-money by watching street-performers, conjurers and clowns, noting how they did their tricks, and then reproducing them for his friends and neighbours, and trying to fulfil the vocation which had been laid upon him from the age of nine: the call of God to be a priest, and to work with boys and young men, especially those who were exploited or on the margins.

And that wasn’t easy. Giovanni’s older brothers, especially Antonio, the eldest, were opposed to him moving away to study for ordination. “You’re just a farmer like us,” he told him. Even when he had succeeded in following his call to ordination, he found more opposition, both in church and state. Traditionalist clergy were envious of his success and distrustful of his methods. In a society in which the tag “spare the rod and spoil the child” was often taken to extremes, his way of prevention rather than repression, uncovering and dealing with the roots of rebellion and destructive behaviour rather than simply punishing it, were suspect. In one Turin parish where he had set up in the church a centre for boys the neighbours demanded that he move on, because the noise from the boys at play was a public nuisance. At one stage the Piemontese secret police had him on their watch list, partly for his revolutionary educational views and the number of young men who followed him, and partly for his support for papal authority at a time when politicians were trying to minimise the pope’s temporal power. And secularist, anti-clerical politicians saw him as a prime target – although one of his closest collaborators in the 1850s was the anti-clerical politician Urbano Rattazzi, who even while he was pushing legislation to suppress religious orders through the Sardinian parliament was advising Don Bosco how to get round it.

Don Bosco persisted. The work continued to grow, despite the anxiety caused in many quarters by his combination of progressive social attitudes and conservative political and theological views. But he had grasped the same truth which we found last week in the life and teaching of Francis de Sales, the saint after whom Don Bosco named his organisation, the Salesians: that preaching, or any work, to be done effectively has to be done in love. In that dream which set the course of young Giovanni’s life, he was watching a crowd of rowdy, foul-mouthed boys when a man appeared who told him “You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful.” Today, then, we give thanks that Giovanni Bosco followed that dream, despite every dismissal and discouragement, to reveal in his generation the love of Christ.


The final act of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Genoa was the three-way “testimony” given by myself, Itala Ricaldone of SAE and Ghiorghios Karalis of the Greek Orthodox community to a life lived ecumenically. A fuller version of my contribution can be read, in the original Italian, here. However, that was not the final act of the Week of Prayer in Liguria. That came at the Romanian Orthodox Church in San Remo on Saturday, 27th January. Like all the major services during the Week of Prayer, it focused on the parable of the Good Samaritan as recorded in St Luke’s Gospel. Here is my brief reflection, which picks up some of the themes from my contribution to the shared sermon in the Cathedral at Lucca the preceding Sunday. An English translation follows after the end of the Italian original.

Il maestro della legge vuole che tutti i suoi rapporti, sia con la legge, sia con il prossimo, sia con Dio, siano chiaramente definiti. Invece, più e più volte nei Vangeli, Gesù ha espresso questo messaggio: chi è seriamente intenzionato a seguire la sua via deve amare incondizionatamente. Se siamo seriamente intenzionati a seguire Gesù, allora dobbiamo amare persone con cui il nostro rapporto non è chiaro, persone che non hanno diritto al nostro amore, che sono al di fuori della nostra cerchia di parentela o di amicizia, che appartengono a un altro gruppo etnico o religioso, un gruppo con cui potremmo persino essere nemici.
Dobbiamo amare così, perché Dio ama così. Gesù rivela questo amore in ogni aspetto del suo ministero. Nelle sue guarigioni, nella sua vita sociale, nelle sue amicizie, accoglie sia l’élite religiosa che la spazzatura umana.
Questo tipo di inclusione nell’amore è difficile per noi. Quando ci troviamo di fronte a persone ferite nel corpo o nella mente, quando siamo messi alla prova da persone di fedi diverse, è più facile seguire il sacerdote e il levita nel tempio di fronte. Ma ciò che Gesù ci chiede è pazienza e attenzione per gli altri, soprattutto se questi altri sono diversi da noi. Chi è sicuro di essere amato e perdonato sarà pronto a offrire amore e perdono agli altri. Nel lavoro ecumenico, l’incontro con gli altri spesso va meglio se noi stessi siamo sicuramente radicati nella nostra tradizione.
Mentre sentiamo i giochi di colpa che si svolgono intorno a noi, come a Gerusalemme e a Gaza, nella stampa e nei media, compresi soprattutto i social media, Gesù ci sfida a includere tutti nell’ambito del nostro amore, anche le persone che, in termini umani, troviamo difficili o (nel senso più ampio del termine) estranee, e a vivere più profondamente nell’amore del nostro prossimo e nell’amore di Dio.

The teacher of the law wants all his relationships, whether with the law, with his neighbour, or with God, to be clearly defined. Instead, over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus expresses this message: anyone who is serious about following his way must love unconditionally. If we are serious about following Jesus, then we must love people with whom our relationship is not clear, people who are not entitled to our love, who are outside our circle of kinship or friendship, who belong to another ethnic or religious group, a group with which we might even be at enmity.

We must love like this, because God loves like this. Jesus reveals this love in every aspect of his ministry. In his healings, in his social life, in his friendships, he welcomes both the religious elite and the human garbage.

This kind of inclusion in love is difficult for us. When we are faced with people wounded in body or mind, when we are challenged by people of different faiths, it is easier to follow the priest and Levite from the temple and cross the road. But what Jesus asks of us is patience and care for others, especially if those others are different from us. Those who are sure of being loved and forgiven will be ready to offer love and forgiveness to others. In ecumenical work, encounters with others often go better if we ourselves are securely rooted in our own tradition.

As we hear the blame games going on around us, as in Jerusalem and Gaza, in the press and media, including especially social media, Jesus challenges us to include everyone within the scope of our love, even people who, in human terms, we find difficult or (in the broadest sense of the word) alien, and to live more deeply in the love of our neighbour and in the love of God.


Gospel reading for 25th January – Conversion of St Paul (Matthew 19:27-30)

Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘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.’

Reflection:

In his poem “The Second Coming”, written in the tumultuous aftermath of the First World War, W.B. Yeats lamented that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” As anyone who trawls through social media will sadly tell you, those words seem to resonate with the tumults of the present.

They certainly resonate with many who observe the religious scene and who note the presence of zealots and ideologues of all faiths. By “zealots and ideologues” I mean those whose primary concern in talking about God is not God, but the supremacy of their own tribe or faction. They are the people who have to be right in any dispute. They are the people who are, as the saying is, “in it to win it”, and among them we may include both Christian nationalists, in European countries and in the USA, and their Muslim mirror-image, the militant jihadis of Isis and Hamas. And, indeed, the present governments of Israel and India and their supporters.

Today, as we celebrate the Conversion of St Paul, it is worth remembering that what we are celebrating is not his conversion from “Judaism” to “Christianity”.

Paul never stopped being conscious of his Jewishness. His letters, especially those to the Churches in Rome and Galatia, make that clear. What we are celebrating today is Paul’s conversion from the ranks of the ideologues, the people who must be right, to the ranks of those who have experienced a life-changing encounter with God. Saul the Pharisee, “zealous for the traditions of his ancestors”, as he described himself in later life, and “violently persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it” is, quite literally, stopped in his tracks by an encounter with the risen Jesus. He is not only stopped in his tracks; he is turned round and opened up to share the good news of a God who is for all humankind – not just for those who share a particular culture (even a particular way of interpreting the Bible), and who see the universe in a particular way. When Saul of Tarsus, to quote Peter’s words in the Gospel passage for today, “left everything and followed [Jesus]”, he didn’t just leave “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields”. He left a whole way of looking at the world, a way of exclusion, a way that was widely shared then as it is now.

Today we rejoice that Paul’s “passionate intensity” was converted from that way of exclusion leading to destruction and turned to a conviction that the Christ who was revealed to him on the road to Damascus calls all peoples into the way of inclusivity and hope – as he calls us to join him on the way to eternal life.


Gospel reading for 24th January – Francis de Sales (John 13:17-21)

Jesus said to Nicodemus: ‘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.’

Reflection:

It is very appropriate that on this penultimate day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we should be remembering a man who lived at a time of great religious conflict but who never let let himself be dragged into the violence and sheer hatred which is characteristic of so much of that time, as it is of our own time. Reformation-era pamphlets may not have had as wide a circulation as social media but they could be just as virulently judgemental as any troll on Reddit or what used to be Twitter – and there were always people ready to respond in kind. But Francis, or François, de Sales managed to keep clear of the bitterness and aggression. He didn’t run away from the controversies of his day. Far from it. As the conscientious bishop of a diocese whose see city (though he couldn’t reside there) was John Calvin’s Geneva, there was no way he could do that.

However, from his base in Annecy, 30 Kilometres away, he succeeded in reaching out across the deep divisions which still scar the “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” in the West, debating with Protestant opponents, certainly, but doing so in honesty, moderation and love. “A model” it has been said, “of good manners” in a bad-tempered and ill-mannered age. As a priest, and later as a bishop, he embodied his own advice that to preach effectively a preacher must preach with love. He was mindful of those words which began today’s passage from St John’s Gospel: “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.” He would, I suspect, have had little sympathy with those who argue that Church leaders should “understand rather less and condemn rather more”. His refusal to take that particular bait won him many friends on both sides the religious divides of those days. Indeed, one Calvinist pastor remarked, “If we honoured any man as a saint, I know no one since the days of the apostles more worthy of it than this man.”

In his preaching, and in his writings (many of which are still in print and still worth reading), Francis’ purpose was to reveal the attractiveness of Jesus and to help people to understand that in order to live a devout life it was not necessary to flee from the world, to cut oneself off from normal human contact; that a person could still find holiness in everyday life. “It is a mistake,” he wrote, “a heresy, to want to exclude devoutness of life from among soldiers, from shops and offices, from royal courts, from the homes of the married.” They, too, in other words, could “do what is true” and “come to the light”, and much of Francis’s ministry, both as priest and bishop, was to help people do just that. His primary audience, his primary readership, may have been the wealthy leisured classes in the France of the first Bourbon kings, but his writings, especially his “Introduction to the Devout life”, were admired by King James I and VI among others and they were (in English translation) on the list of recommended reading about the Christian life which John Wesley prepared for the people called Methodists a century and a half after Francis’ death.

So today, as we remember Francis de Sales, let us give thanks for his refusal to rush to judgement, his patient wisdom, and his commitment to the way of peace which made him a loved and trusted adviser on the spiritual life, encouraging women and men at all levels of society to bask in God’s love and come to the light “that it may be clearly seen that their deeds are done in God.”


On Sunday 21st January the Churches in Italy held the first ever national celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It took place in the cathedral church of St Martin in Lucca, Tuscany, in recognition of the work done by the pioneering Italian ecumenist Giuliano Agresti, Archbishop of Lucca from 1973 to his death in 1990. Bishop David Hamid was invited to represent the Church of England at this service, but during these days he is co-chairing the meeting of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) which is currently meeting in Rome before moving to Canterbury later this week. His obvious substitute, Canon Vickie Sims, was unfortunately also unavailable, so I was asked to stand in. The following is the text of my contribution to the sermon at the celebration, which was shared between eight Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant church leaders. First the original Italian, then a translation into English.

Potremmo semplicemente tradurre la storia che abbiamo ascoltato stasera nel contesto socio-politico contemporaneo della Terra Santa, sostituendo la parola “samaritano” con la parola “palestinese”. In questi giorni di conflitto feroce sarebbe una lettura potente del testo. Tuttavia, una tale interpretazione della parabola farebbe sì che la storia del samaritano rimanga per noi in Medio Oriente, lasciandoci nella più completa sicurezza, cosa che Gesù non intende affatto fare. Questa parabola è rivolta tanto a noi quanto al dottore della legge.

Ora, mi sembra che la maggior parte di noi, quando ascoltiamo la parabola del samaritano, normalmente si identifichi con il samaritano. Siamo, dopo tutto, membri di una comunità attenta, una comunità aperta e responsabile. Però, come osservavano i primi padri della Chiesa, abbiamo veramente molto di più in comune con il ferito che giace per strada.

Questa parabola riguarda il bisogno di ricevere e di rispondere. La storia che Gesù racconta è la sua risposta alla domanda: Chi è il prossimo che la Legge mi obbliga ad amare? Ed il prossimo si rivela essere l’estraneo disprezzato, che mette noi in una posizione di inferiorità, salvandoci quando siamo in difficoltà o in pericolo. Accettare questa posizione non è facile. Dare può essere meglio che ricevere. È certamente meno difficile. Il nostro lavoro a favore degli altri è generalmente migliore per la nostra autostima rispetto al lavoro degli altri a nostro favore. Cercare di lavorare per entrare in paradiso è meno impegnativo che cercare di vivere una vita basata sulla fiducia radicale in Dio che chiamiamo fede.

Tuttavia, è questa fede, basata sulla nostra capacità di ricevere, di accettare di diventare oggetto delle cure altrui, che caratterizza la vita autenticamente cristiana, perché ci permette un’apertura nell’amore a Dio che ci ama tanto e che si avvicina a noi in forme diverse e spesso improbabili. Se cerchiamo l’autosufficienza, come individui, come congregazioni, come confessioni, se vogliamo fare tutto da soli, ci rendiamo colpevoli di quell’orgoglio che è la radice di ogni peccato. Non possiamo essere totalmente autosufficienti. Tutto viene da Dio. Come diceva San Francesco d’Assisi, non abbiamo nulla da chiamare nostro se non i nostri peccati.

Quindi, se vogliamo davvero seguire Gesù, dobbiamo amare persone che non hanno alcuna pretesa sul nostro amore, che sono al di fuori dei rapporti di famiglia, di amicizia, che appartengono a un altro gruppo etnico o religioso, persino a un gruppo da cui soffriamo, o abbiamo sofferto, ostilità. Dobbiamo amare così perché è così che Dio ama.

We could simply translate the story we have heard this evening into the contemporary socio-political context of the Holy Land, by replacing the word “Samaritan” with the word “Palestinian”. In these days of fierce conflict it would be a powerful reading of the text. However, such an interpretation of the parable would make sure that the story of the Samaritan remains safely in the Middle East, leaving us untouched, which is not at all what Jesus intends. This parable is addressed to us as well as to the doctor of the law.

Now, it seems to me that most of us, when we listen to the parable of the Samaritan, normally identify with the Samaritan. We are, after all, members of an caring community, an open, responsible community. However, as the early Church Fathers observed, we really have much more in common with the wounded man lying in the street.

This parable is about the need to receive and respond. The story that Jesus tells is his answer to the question: who is the neighbour that the law obliges me to love? And the neighbour proves to be the despised outsider, who puts us in a position of inferiority, saving us when we are in difficulty or in danger. Accepting this position is not easy. To give may be better than to receive. It is certainly less difficult. Our work for others is generally better for our self -esteem than the work of others for us. Trying to work our way into paradise is less demanding than trying to live a life based on the radical trust in God that we call faith.

However, it is this faith, based on our ability to receive, to accept becoming the object of other people’s care, which characterizes the authentically Christian life, because it allows us an opening in love to the God who loves us so much and who approaches us in different and often unlikely ways. If we seek self-sufficiency, as individuals, as congregations, as confessions, if we want to do everything on our own, we make ourselves guilty of that pride which is the root of every sin. We cannot be totally self-sufficient. Everything comes from God. As Saint Francis of Assisi said, we have nothing to call our own except our sins.

So, if we really want to follow Jesus, we must love people who have no claim on our love, who are outside the relationships of family and of friendship, who belong to another ethnic or religious group, even to a group at whose hands we suffer, or have suffered, hostility. We have to love like this because this is how God loves.


Gospel reading for 17th January – St Antony of Egypt, Charles Gore (Matthew 19:16-26)

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

Reflection:

Today the Church remembers two men who, in very different ages and in very different ways, did not duck the challenge issued by Jesus in his conversation with the rich young man. Charles Gore, who died ninety-two years ago, gave up an academic career focused on Oxford, where he was a leading light in the Anglo-Catholic movement, in order to found a religious community and, on his appointment as a bishop in the Church of England, to split his diocese in two and transfer his own episcopal responsibilities from wealthy rural Worcester to industrial Birmingham, proclaiming the Gospel to the urban poor. Gore was a controversial figure in the church of his day, a Christian Socialist who believed firmly that Christian faith should embrace the new discoveries both of the natural sciences and of biblical criticism, rather than seeking to defend itself from them.

Antony, on the other hand, was the son of a well-off peasant farmer in Egypt. He was born around the middle of the third century of our era to Christian parents, at a time when being Christian could be very risky. In about his twentieth year, not long after his parents’ death, Antony was worshipping in church when he heard the words of today’s gospel and realised that they were being addressed to him as a direct call from God. He made arrangements for the support of his sister, gave away some of his property to neighbours, sold the rest, distributing the proceeds among the poor, and moved out into the Egyptian desert, where he remained for the rest of his long life.

There had been solitaries living “in the wild” before Antony, but many of them had been eccentrics, holy fools or misanthropes unable to live in the settled communities of rural Egypt. Antony was different. Within a few years his holiness and the simplicity of his life had begun to attract disciples eager to follow his way of prayer, self-discipline and hard work. At first Antony tried to resist, moving deeper into the desert, but he began to realise that this was also part of God’s calling, and he organised his followers into communities with a simple rule of life based on his own experience, becoming, so to speak, the father of monasticism.

Unlike Charles Gore, who was a considerable preacher, biblical scholar and theologian, Antony made no pretensions to learning. His calling was to live simply and to live close to God. Others, notably the great bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, who wrote a biography of Antony, used his life as material for their theologising. Where his own words survive they are in letters of advice, dictated in his native Coptic, to the leaders and members of other communities, or in the diverse collection of “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” which later generations treasured as a guide for living in God’s love. They are remarkable for their wisdom and sanity. Unlike the rich young man who wanted to know “what good deed” he must do to have eternal life, Antony realised that the “treasure in heaven” of which Jesus spoke was acquired not by a one-off action but in a life-long process of stripping away what modern writers call the false self. As he said to Abba Poemen, another of the early pioneers, “This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.” Indeed, in Antony’s view, “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of heaven.” The important thing for Antony was no longer to fear God, but to love him. For love casts out fear.


Gospel reading for 3rd January – (John 1:29-34)

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

Reflection:

There are very few events in the life of Jesus before its final week which are recorded in all four Gospels. Mark and John make no mention of his birth. Only one of his miracles, the feeding of five thousand men – and accompanying women and children – is recorded by all four evangelists. John, for the most part, goes his own way in the story he tells and the episodes he includes. So, to a lesser extent, do Matthew and Luke, though Mark provides their framework. Which means that it is significant that all four of the gospels include the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus.

However, each of the four tackles this episode very differently. Mark’s account is the most straightforward. Matthew recognises that there is a problem over status – surely the person baptising is superior to the one who is baptised? So his account includes an awkward little dialogue between Jesus and John before Jesus goes into the water. Luke gets round the problem by recording the baptism of Jesus but saying nothing about how he was baptised. And John in this passage tells the story of the descent of the dove while saying nothing about the baptism.

But then, as we noted last Wednesday, John is not so much concerned with what Jesus does as with who Jesus is. In this passage he offers us two “takes” on that. First, in the Baptist’s initial comment on seeing Jesus coming towards him, he tells us that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, a sacrificial offering like the scapegoat of Leviticus 16, sent off into the wilderness loaded with the sins of the people of Israel, but also the passover lamb, whose death signals the people’s imminent liberation from slavery. The Evangelist returns to this aspect of the Baptist’s comment near the end of his account of the suffering and death of Jesus, when he tweaks the timing given in the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke so that the crucifixion coincides with the slaughter of the passover lamb.

The second take is the one which John’s Gospel shares with the other three: that Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and that John the Baptist is the fore-runner, the one who bears witness to the “man who ranks ahead of [John] because he was before [him].” In fact, from the very beginning of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist is portrayed as the witness par excellence, not himself the light, but sent to bear witness to the light, the first to testify that “this is the Son of God”, the first to prompt others to encounter the unknown Jesus. So, while the opening of John’s Gospel puts John the Baptist firmly in his proper place, as the witness to Jesus, the rest of the Gospel’s first chapter explores the consequence of his various witness statements, through Andrew and Peter and Philip, reaching its climax in the previously sceptical Nathanael ’s exclamation, echoing the Baptist, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

That pattern, of witness to Jesus leading others to encounter with Jesus, is the pattern for the church, the basis for all evangelisation. Not efficient management. Not whizzy programmes and gimmicks. As a colleague in Oxford diocese once remarked “Evangelisation is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” It is as simple, and as profound, as that: to share our experience of God’s love, that we too “have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”


Gospel for 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.

Reflection:

For millennia in Europe the first day of January has been a day of new beginnings, but it has not always been the first day of the year. In many European countries a date in December or March – sometimes even April – marked the beginning of a New year until the 16th or 17th centuries. In Britain and Ireland the New Year began on 25th March until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 – about two centuries after most of mainland Europe had made the switch. In ancient Rome, however, 1st January was the date when the previous year’s consuls set out for the provinces which they were to govern in order to arrive at the beginning of the new year on 1st March. So, naturally, it also became the date when their successors were inaugurated.

It’s appropriate, then, that 1st January is the date on which Christians celebrate another set of new beginnings. In the final verse of the passage from Luke’s Gospel, we are told that “After eight days had passed [from his birth], 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.” That ritual wounding marks the inauguration of every male descendant of Abraham as a member of the people with whom God has made a covenant. It’s the beginning of Jesus’ entry into membership of God’s covenant people. It’s also the beginning of a new age and of a new covenant, which will be sealed, as God’s covenant with Moses was sealed, with the blood of a sacrificial offering – as we are reminded every time we celebrate the Eucharist and the presiding minister proclaims that “this is the new covenant in [Jesus’] blood, which is shed for you and for many…”. In past ages, indeed, the blood shed by the mohel with his flint knife was seen as an anticipation of the blood shed by the Roman soldiers, a trailer, if you like, for the crucifixion.

So the child born of Mary enters the covenant made with Abraham. He is, as St Paul wrote to the Galatians, “born of a woman, born under the law.” Incarnation is specific. God made human flesh does not proclaim “the brotherhood of man” as a lofty universal principle from a centre of power and authority. He comes in humility to a particular people, and to particular members of that particular people, at a particular point in history and a particular place in a troublesome backwater of the Roman Empire. But the name he is given, Jesus, suggests something more, a new beginning building on this past.

Jesus (or Ιησους) is the attempt of Greek-speakers to get their tongues around the Hebrew name Yeshua or Yehoshua, a name which means “the LORD delivers” or “the LORD rescues”. In the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, the “Septuagint”, it is the name given to the man who led the people of Israel after the death of Moses, and led them into the land which God had promised to Abraham. It is also the name of the high priest who ministered in the restored temple after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. This child will also bring people out of slavery into the land of God’s promise. Out of a rabble of individuals he will bring into being a new people. He will be the high priest who offers himself as a sacrifice. He will be the deliverance, the salvation of God at work among mortals.


28th December – Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:13-18)

After the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

Reflection:

One of the realities of the world into which Jesus was born is that the innocent suffer, that children suffer at the hands of the cruel, the frightened, the greedy. The same is true of our world. Children are seen as somehow “expendable” in the pursuit of wealth and the exercise of power. Think of children groomed or trafficked so that adults can pursue their own gratification. Think of children kidnapped and turned into soldiers or suicide bombers. Think of street children treated as vermin by police and paramilitaries in Latin American cities. Think of the children killed in the Hamas assault on southern Israel in October. Think of the thousands of children suffering and dying in Gaza in order to keep Binyamin Netanyahu in power and out of gaol. The story we have heard this morning may be two thousand years old, but it is horribly relevant to the present day.

People often fear change and they try to protect themselves against change – sometimes violently, as Herod tried to protect himself from the child who was the object of the wise men’s search, “the child who had been born king of the Jews”. Herod, as he was only too well aware, had a dubiously legitimate claim on that title. He wasn’t Jewish-born. He was Idumaean, a member of the tribe that traced its ancestry back to Jacob’s brother Esau – the hungry hunter with no business sense, you may recall. The stories about Jesus’s birth may include angels in their cast of characters, but they are rooted firmly in the realities of first-century politics in the Eastern Mediterranean.

To the eyes of the historian, the “Holy Innocents” are collateral damage caused by an ageing ruler’s paranoia and his desperation to cling to power. To the eye of faith, their cries and the lamentation of their weeping parents are heard in heaven. Human ruthlessness cannot thwart God’s purposes nor human cruelty outweigh God’s compassion. The words of Jeremiah which end today’s Gospel reflect the reality of defeat, occupation and exile, but they are not the prophet’s last word in that situation. He continues, not with Rachel’s lamentation, but with God’s promise: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, says the Lord.”

There is another reality than the reality of trafficking, kidnap, exile and murder. There is the reality of God’s infinite care and concern for the least of these. “There is hope for your future, says the Lord.” For us, as we hear Jeremiah’s words in the light of Christmas, there is hope in Jesus. His birth in poverty rebukes the rich. His powerlessness casts down the mighty from their thrones. His death brings life and immortality to light for all people.


The Gospel for 27th December – St John the Evangelist (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.

Reflection:

When John the Evangelist wrote the Gospel that bears his name. He did it in a rather different way from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Like them he wrote down the good news about Jesus, but where the other three told their readers about what Jesus did, and about what he said, and about what was done to him. John told his readers about who Jesus is.

When John tells his readers the good news about Jesus, he tells us that Jesus is “the light of the world”, “the good shepherd”, “the bread of life” and “the true vine” and so on. That’s powerful picture-language. It helps us to understand that Jesus shows us the truth about God and the right way to live; that he looks after us; that he gives us the food we need in order to grow, spiritually as well as physically: and that we grow best when we are rooted in his love. John tells us other things, too, about the things that Jesus did and said, but for John what matters is how those things are signs showing us who Jesus is, and who God is, not just two thousand years ago in Galilee and Jerusalem, but here in Genoa, in the first half of the twenty-first century.

What matters for John is what is at the heart of our faith: how do we live in God’s love? How is God’s love shown by the way we live?

Before Christmas, the church’s online Advent Calendar suggested ways of using each day of the season to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Some years ago I was sent a list of suggestions for things to do during these twelve days of Christmas, things that will show God’s love to others, or open up space for you to grow in his love. They are, if you like, practical and local ways of carrying out the Lord’s instruction to Peter in today’s Gospel. See what you think:

Today: Go visiting! And take home-made cakes or biscuits as a small gift.

Tomorrow (the Feast of the Holy Innocents): Hold a candlelight vigil for children who suffer the cruelty of adults – or come to the service here, when we shall be praying for children.

On Friday: Send Christmas cards or e-messages to prisoners. Amnesty International will suggest some names and addresses of prisoners of conscience.

On Saturday: Take a pot-plant to someone who is ill or house-bound.

On New Year’s Eve: Celebrate the end of the year with music and dancing.

On New Year’s Day: Work on a family history project. Tell family stories.

On Tuesday: Go and sing Christmas carols in a place that needs a song.

A week today: Plan time for rest and renewal in 2024 – retreats, holiday, meetings with friends.

Tomorrow week: Read poetry and play with watercolours.

Friday week: Look for the Christmas star. What are your dreams for the coming year?

Finally, a week on Saturday, the twelfth day of Christmas: Open your home to guests. Share the “kings’ cake”, the special cake which marks this day, especially in France. There are recipes on the internet if you can’t find one in a shop.

And be aware of God in all of these activities. Today’s Gospel reading reminds us that at the Last Supper St John was so close to Jesus that he could hear his heart beat. During this Christmastide may all of us sense God’s heartbeat in our celebrations!


Gospel for 26th December – St Stephen (Matthew 10:17-22)

Jesus warned his disciples: “Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 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.”

Reflection:

The main colour in church this morning has changed from gold to red because today we’re celebrating the feast of Stephen. Red is the colour of fire and the Holy Spirit. It’s also the colour of blood, reminding us that Stephen was lynched by a group of people who, like him, were Greek-speaking Jews born outside Palestine. Like Stephen, they had moved from their birth-place to Jerusalem. They wanted to be near their holiest place. They found comfort in the solidity of its walls and in the daily round of worship in the temple. And they were not prepared to let anyone threaten what they held so precious – even if the threat was no more than words of criticism.

So they did something that would be all too familiar to our fellow-Christians today in some parts of the world. They brought a charge of blasphemy against Stephen. They took him to court – and then pre-empted the court’s decision by taking the law into their own hands, dragging him outside and killing him. Their weapons were stones. Their spiritual descendants today would be more likely to use a Kalashnikov or a hand-grenade.

Now, that isn’t a very comfortable thought for us on Boxing Day. Our major concern is probably how we’re going to get through the left-overs from yesterday. In other parts of the world concerns at Christmas are rather different. A couple of weeks ago we prayed for the victims of an attack on a congregation at a Mass in the Philippines. A few days ago we remembered the mother and daughter shot dead as they took refuge in a church in Gaza. When we hear those stories, we begin to realise how inflated are claims of anti-Christian bias which are sometimes made in Europe.

That is not to say that Christians in European countries never suffer negative discrimination or mockery because of their faith. It happens. But to try to gain media attention as if what is happening in, say, Italy were somehow on the same level as what is happening in Israel and Palestine, or Nigeria, or in parts of South and South-East Asia is “me-tooism” of the worst kind. It makes Christian believers look like pompous, self-obsessed fruit-cakes. And it totally obscures the good things that are being done in the name of Jesus Christ to serve the homeless, the powerless, the voiceless; to bring about healing and hope; to open up a glimpse of God’s kingdom of love and justice across this nation – and not least in this city. We only have to think of the work of the Comunità di Sant’Egidio, or Non Solo Parole, ministering all year round to those who find themselves, for whatever reason, in difficult circumstances.

Part of Stephen’s role in the first Christian community in Jerusalem was to organise care for the poorest and weakest members of that community. Part of Stephen’s powerful critique of the authorities in Jerusalem was an attack on the way in which they had allowed their concern for God’s temple to become a kind of idolatry which distracted them from the task of keeping the Jewish Law, with its concern for the poor, the outsider, the oppressed. These are the people among whom Jesus was born and in whose company he spent his earthly life. These are the people who use our food bank and clothing bank. Our task is not to serve a building to the exclusion of all else, nor to whinge that people are being horrid to us. Our task is to get on with proclaiming the good news of Jesus in word and action – as Stephen did – whatever the cost, and to enable people to find hope and encouragement and a new depth of living in the name of Jesus our Lord.


Gospel for 20th December – (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.

The angel Gabriel is being kept busy this week, so far as the lectionary is concerned. On Monday those of a pre-critical turn of mind might have wanted to identify him as the angel who appears to Joseph in the various dreams which accompany the birth of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Yesterday he was in Jerusalem depriving a doubting Zechariah of the power of speech. Today he is in Nazareth, bringing a startlingly double-edged message to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And on Sunday he will be back in Nazareth, with a repeat of this morning’s Gospel reading – so I shall have to be careful what I say now.

Gabriel is, with Michael, the best-known of the angels named in the Bible – and in terms of the first rank of canonical books the two of them stand alone (unless you count Abaddon, the angel of the bottomless pit). Both Garbiel and Michael are mentioned in the book of Daniel. Gabriel has his two appearances in Luke’s Gospel, and Michael turns up in the letter of Jude and the Revelation of John. The other named angels, Uriel and Raphael, appear only in books which are usually described as “deuterocanonical”, the books which, according to St Jerome, “the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet it doth not apply them to establish any doctrine.” So we ought not, perhaps, to get too excited about them, though people have – and indeed still do. One of my mother-in-lkaw’s favourite songs was “Bless you for being an angel”, which she could be heard singing around the house well into her nineties.

People who get excited about angels tend to think of them in terms of protection, as “guardian angels” who look after human beings in much the same way that Raphael does Tobias during his adventure-filled journey to Babylon. That is not, though, their primary function. The word “angel” comes from the Greek word which means “a messenger” and which was used to translate the Hebrew word “malak” – in neither case necessarily referring to a supernatural being, but anyone who brings news or instructions or a warning. They are go-betweens – and in Jewish and Christian, and Muslim thought they inhabit the space between humankind and God. In the Hebrew Scriptures angels appear to announce God’s intervention in the world. In islam it is Jibril – that’s Gabriel in Arabic – who reveals the Qur’an to Mohammed. Here it is Gabriel who announces to Mary God’s decisive intervention in human history, an annunciation depicted by poets, musicians, painters and sculptors through twenty Christian centuries. In W.H. Auden’s long sequence “For the Time Being”, the libretto of a projected Christmas oratorio for which the music was never composed, Gabriel greets mary with these words:

Mary in a dream of love
Playing as all children play.
For unsuspecting children may
Express in comic make-believe
The wish that they will later know
Is tragic and impossible;
Hear, child, what I am sent to tell:
Love wills your dream to happen, so
Love's will on earth may be, through you,
No longer a pretend but true.

And so all creation waits. To quote Auden again:
Today the Unknown seeks the known;
What I am willed to asked, your own
Will has to answer; child it lies
Within your power of choosing to
Conceive the Child who chooses you.

Gospel for 13th December – St Lucy (Luke 11:33-36)

Jesus told the crowds, ‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.’

Reflection:

In the good old days, when the New Year didn’t begin until 25th March and the official calendar was more than a week adrift from solar time, 13th December was the shortest day of the year. “The year’s midnight” a poet called it – and for those who live in the far north of Europe it is quite literally that. On Svalbard in the Arctic the sun doesn’t rise at all from late November until the middle of February. Even 2,500 Km away in the far south of Sweden, in Skåne and Småland, there are fewer than seven hours of daylight. It’s a bleak time of year.

Into this darkness walks a teenager from Syracuse in Sicily, a young girl crowned with light. Her name is Lucia – in English, Lucy. She died seventeen centuries ago, during the last great attack by the Roman authorities on those who, like Lucy, recognised Jesus and not the Roman emperor as their true Lord. Today, throughout Sweden and in every place to which Swedes have migrated, Lucy is honoured as the one who brings light into the winter darkness. The light that crowns her is a reflection of her name (Lucia is linked with the Latin word for light). The light that crowns her is also one ray of that light about which Jesus spoke to the crowd, the light whose coming into the world we are preparing to celebrate.

The light that crowns Lucy is the light of a life so blazingly lived in the love of God that the death of her body couldn’t put it out. That life is open to all who live by a radical trust in Jesus Christ. He is true light at the year’s midnight, the light to which our Advent candles bear witness. He is the light of God’s love, piercing with its rays the darkness and confusion of our world, showing us what God is like. The light that crowns Lucy is a ray of his light.

Jesus invites us to make everything ready so that the light of his love can inhabit our life as fully as it inhabited Lucy’s. That’s a message for all of us as we prepare for Christmas. How do we do it? We do it, first of all, by loving, by reflecting the light of love which crowns Lucy, the light which Lucy found as she cared for the sick, the hungry and the homeless poor in Sicily. Her light continues to shine not only because of the courage she showed in the face of death, but also because of the kindness she showed in life. She showed her love in practical ways, by giving her time and by providing whatever help was needed, food, or medicine, or money. It’s said that she was denounced as a Christian by the young man her parents wanted her to marry, and that one of the reasons for his doing that was that she was spending money on the people she cared for – money that would have become his if they had married. Today in Sweden, children remember her by doing acts of kindness to their parents, baking special cakes and bringing them breakfast in bed.

Today, as we remember Lucy, we thank God for all the people in whom the light of Jesus shines through their acts of kindness and their courage in difficult and dangerous situations. By the way we love each other we reveal something of the light of God’s boundless, unconditional love. That love is freely given. It isn’t switched on and off, depending on good behaviour. It enfolds us all as sunlight enfolds the earth – even when our eye can’t see it through the shadows cast by our pride and foolishness. It sets our hearts on fire with love, thanksgiving and joy.


Last month I attended a diocesan conference on racial justice in the German city of Freiburg im Breisgau. On my return, and after my discharge from hospital, I shared some reflections about one or two of the things that had happened there [see the entry for 17th November below]. I was preparing to share more, when I received an interim report from the conference in the shape of the daily news briefings and the conference statement, drafted in the light of input from the discussion groups which met each afternoon to mull over the day’s input. You can find the three briefings and the conference statement in downloadable form immediately below. There will be a final report coming out in the New Year, but the work begun by the Racial Justice Working Group will continue and a “concrete plan of action” has been promised.


Gospel for 6th December – St Nicholas (Mark 4:13-16)

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Reflection:

To understand the thinking of the people who chose today’s Gospel, we might need to imagine ourselves not in the crowds pressing in on Jesus but in a household in the Low Countries, or in parts of Germany. If there are young children in that household, today, not Christmas Day, is the day when they will be buzzing with excitement. Because today is the day when St Nicholas arrives in town with a sack full of presents for children who have been good, accompanied by an attendant brandishing a bundle of twigs with which to beat children who have been naughty. St Nicholas, even in his debased Anglo-American identity as “Santa Claus”, blesses young people, as Jesus does in today’s Gospel.

That’s a thread that runs through the stories that we find in “lives” of St Nicholas, stories about how he saved the three daughters of a poor man from being sold as what the British tabloids call “sex slaves” because he couldn’t raise the money to give each of them a dowry when they reached marriageable age, and about how he brought three boys back to life when they had been murdered by a wicked inn-keeper in a time of famine and their bodies pickled for use in pies. The trouble is that none of those stories can be traced further than about 500 years after the time when Nicholas lived. All we know about him for certain is that he was a bishop and that he lived in Myra, a city in Lycia (what is now southern Turkey) at the beginning of the fourth century of our era. It is said that he, or at least a selection of his bones, is buried in Bari, in the great church which bears his name, thanks to a body-snatch by merchants from the city in the turbulent years following Myra’s capture by the Seljuk Turks. Some Venetians collected the remaining bones a few years later and carried them off to their new church of St Nicolo al Lido.

Nevertheless, Nicholas was, and still is, one of the most popular saints – and not only among children. The church in Bari is a magnet for pilgrims, especially from Eastern Europe. He’s the patron of sailors and merchants, pawnbrokers and the unmarried, as well as children. Albania, Russia and Greece are also among his responsibilities, as is my home city, where the mediaeval parish church by the quayside is dedicated to Our Lady and St Nicholas. The reason for this popularity, I think, is that in an age when bishops were increasingly the powerful advisers and ministers of kings and emperors, wealthy absentees who spent most of their time far away from their dioceses, Nicholas was remembered as a hands-on bishop, a true pastor and father in God, someone who had a special concern for the poor and the exploited – people who had the same sort of status as children in first-century Palestine.

People remembered that about Nicholas, and they loved him for it. They loved him for his concern for all who were in danger. The stories told about him reflect that – and they weren’t all about children. Others tell how he rescued sailors in danger of shipwreck and prisoners at risk of execution – on one occasion appearing in a dream to the emperor and warning him not to carry out the sentence. They saw in Nicholas someone who was genuinely Christlike in his readiness to break down barriers, to speak truth to power, to protect the poor and the powerless and give them access to God’s blessing. Let us pray that whoever replaces Bishop David is blessed with the same qualities of compassion and courage.


Gospel for 30th November – St Andrew (Matthew 4:18-22)

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Reflection:

Yesterday we marked the day of thanksgiving and intercession for the missionary work of the church, a commemoration which falls each year on the Eve of St Andrew’s day. Today, we caught a glimpse of why mission is linked to St Andrew, in the words of Jesus, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’

But those words are addressed to Simon Peter, too. So why don’t we keep the 28th of June, the Eve of St Peter’s day, in the same way? Partly, I suspect, because in the Anglican tradition Petertide is now associated with ordinations. More, though, because, while he may only have a walk-on part in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and a cameo in Mark’s, Andrew is for St John the missionary disciple, a role which he shares with Philip. Indeed, according to John, it is Andrew who enables Peter’s becoming a disciple, as he brings him to Jesus, with whom he has spent the previous afternoon. On the occasions later in John’s Gospel when Andrew appears, he is always on the edge of things, patrolling the boundaries, open to encounters and drawing people in, as he drew in his brother at the very beginning. He does that with the boy who had five barley loaves and two fish at that miraculous lakeside picnic in Galilee and later with the Greek-speaking pilgrims in Jerusalem.

Now what is central to Andrew’s practice as the missionary disciple is that he leads people to encounter Jesus, as he has encountered Jesus. Andrew enables them to spend time with Jesus, as he spent time with Jesus that first afternoon, the day when he realised, as he told his brother, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ Andrew encourages them to offer what they have to Jesus, however inadequate that may seem. Five barley loaves and two small fish, to feed a crowd five thousand strong? Even Andrew pauses there. ‘What are they among so many people?’ But, despite the apparent inadequacy of the resources available, he still trusts that Jesus will be able to use them.

So often Christian missions have been based on a “programme”, on saying the right words, playing the right music, dishing out the right hand-outs, or playing videos, getting the ducks in a row, having all the answers. That isn’t how Andrew (or indeed Philip) operates. They take each situation as they face it. They ask the questions. They search for answers – both to the questions which they are being asked and to those that they are asking – and they focus on enabling an encounter with Jesus, on making it possible for others to find in him the one in whom, to quote one of the Eucharistic prayers in Common Worship, “all our hungers are satisfied”.

‘Follow me’, says Jesus, ‘and I will make you fish for people.’ That was his invitation to Andrew and his brother. It is his invitation to us. To draw other people into the net of his love in the way that best suits our situations and their longings, whether for healing and wholeness, for meaning and purpose, for forgiveness and peace of heart, for hope. That doesn’t mean taking a trawler up a trout-stream or trailing a shrimping-net along a salmon river. It means casting a line, or lowering a net, in the place where we are, modelling, as Rowan Williams has said, “the attractiveness of Jesus” and enabling others to say with Andrew, ‘We have found the Messiah.’


Gospel for 29th November – Day of intercession/thanksgiving for Mission (Matthew 5:13-16)

Jesus told his disciples, ‘‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

Reflection:

When St Andrew’s Eve was first established as a day of intercession and thanksgiving for the missionary work of the Church it was clear to most people what “the missionary work of the Church” was. It was something done “out there” by missionary societies to people whose skins were darker than those of Northern Europeans. And though the mission agencies (now, there’s a significant change of title!) are still the patrons and the main focus of today, there’s a lot less clarity about what it is, to whom and by whom it is done. During the years when I attended the Diocese of Oxford’s Council for Partnership in World Mission, I saw many changes. The mission agencies became smaller. Where once each diocese had its own “rep” from the biggest agencies, increasingly they were grouped together, while the smaller agencies sent reps who covered whole regions of England. We also saw the tide of mission reversing. Missionaries from Africa and Asia started coming to the UK to evangelise the godless Brits. Mission stopped being from “us” to “them” and was increasingly understood as “from everywhere to everywhere”, so that the diocese of Oxford became, formally, a partner in mission with the diocese of Kimberley and Kuruman in South Africa, with Växjö in southern Sweden, and with Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh.

Now that can only be good. It’s through such partnerships that the saltiness of the Church can be renewed. I was heavily involved in the partnership with Växjö, and learned a lot from my experience of working with the Church of Sweden – about wealth and poverty, about darkness and light, about hospitality to strangers – and they learned from us. But what all four dioceses had to learn from one another was how to become salt and light in their own setting – whether it was defined by the wealth of the Church of Sweden, or the poverty of Kimberley and Kuruman, or the minority status of Christians in Nandyal, or the perceived irrelevance of much of the Church of England. Here in Italy, and in the Diocese at large, we have to grapple with some of the same issues, particularly with being a cash-strapped minority! We also have to grapple with challenges particular to our own setting and inhibiting us from being salt and light to the people of Genova.

That is what we are here for. And in these days we have a particular responsibility to be salt and light, to let that light shine before others, “so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” We have a particular responsibility because in so many places the institutional Church is failing. We can see that in the divisions and defensivenesses laid bare when the Church’s General Synod met in London last week. We can see it in the divisions in the Catholic Church, especially in America, where Pope Francis has taken the extraordinary step of sacking a bishop, and now a senior cardinal, because of their reckless sowing of dissension. We can see it in the Moscow Patriarchate’s sell-out to Russian ultra-nationalism. We can see it in American Evangelicals’ surrender to Donald Trump. These have become a huge bushel basket, preventing the light of the Gospel from being seen.

Some commentators are more or less gleefully predicting the demise of Christianity. Others, more perceptive, are noting the ways in which people of firm faith are abandoning existing structures and creating their own. A wise American commentator who died a few years ago, noted that every half-millennium or so God has a great “garage sale”, in which everything is put on display and the “junk” which has been accumulated over the centuries is cleared out, and only what is of permanent value is left. And what is left is, usually, love, expressed in care for the suffering, the marginalised, the outsiders. In caring for them, as we were reminded on Sunday, we are caring for Christ, our light.


Gospel for 22nd November – Cecilia (Luke 19:11-28)

As the crowds were listening to this, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us.” When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. The first came forward and said, “Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.” He said to him, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” Then the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” He said to him, “And you, rule over five cities.” Then the other came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” He said to him, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” ’

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

Reflection:

If you think the words of this passage seem familiar, you are right. This is St Luke’s version of the parable which Vickie Sims expounded on Sunday. In some ways it’s more realistic than the version we find in Matthew’s Gospel. The slaves are each given a mina (the word translated as “pound”), rather than a talent, so about six months’ wages for an agricultural worker, rather than the huge sum represented by five talents, or two or even one. That single talent alone would have been somewhere in the region of 25-30 Kg of silver; more money than most men could earn in a life-time. But there’s a nasty sting in the tale as Luke tells it, one that he sets up when he gives the reason for the nobleman’s departure to a distant country, “to get royal power for himself and then return“. Some scholars have linked this to a series of real historical events around the time of Jesus’ birth, when Archelaus, one of the surviving sons of King Herod, left his kingdom in the hands of trusted officials and set out to Rome, to ask the Emperor Augustus to confirm him in his father’s kingdom.

Now, Archelaus, like his father, was not popular among his subjects and the leading citizens of Judaea sent a delegation after him to plead with Augustus not to make him king. So Archelaus received only part of what he wanted. He was confirmed as ruler of Judaea, but “on probation”, so to speak, with the promise of kingship to come – if he ruled well and wisely. Archelaus was furious and, being his father’s son, took a savage vengeance on those who had thwarted his ambitions. His enemies “who did not want [him] to be king over them”, were brought to the palace and slaughtered in his presence.

Which makes the traditional reading of this parable, where the king is God and the “good” slaves are those who prosper by making a profit from carrying on the king’s business, slightly awkward. Is God really being compared with a psychopathic and exploitative ruler, “a harsh man, taking what [he] did not deposit and reaping what [he] did not sow”, and redistributing wealth upwards to the one who already has the equivalent of five years’ wages? Or is this parable another warning against becoming sucked into “the system” of exploitation and oppression? Is the model disciple, in fact, the one who refuses to play by the ruler’s rules at the expense of others? That would align more closely with Jesus’ other teaching in Luke’s Gospel about wealth and its dangers.

It would also enable us to align it more closely with the woman we commemorate today. We don’t know much about Cecilia, except that she was wealthy (she lived in Trastevere), that she was well-connected (she belonged to the clan of the Caecilii, who had been serious players in Roman politics for three centuries before the birth of Jesus), and that she was a Christian. She opened her grand house in Trastevere to the local Christian community and was such a gracious hostess that when she died (tradition says as a martyr who refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods) they laid her to rest in the Catacomb of Callixtus, where many of Rome’s early bishops were buried, and turned her home into a church, dedicated in her memory.

Like the third slave in the story Jesus told, Cecilia was expected to be part of the system but opted out. And like those citizens slaughtered in the king’s presence she died because of her rejection of the system, returning her spirit, unpolluted, to God who created her.


17th November, 2023

I was discharged from Ospedale Galliera on 15th November, following a successful cardiological procedure. This week I am under doctors’ (and churchwardens’) orders to take things easy, so Canon Vickie Sims will preside at the Eucharist on Sunday, 19th. All being well, I should be back in action next Wednesday. In the meantime, here is a brief reflection on events during the fortnight before my admission to Galliera.

Whatever our views may be on the conduct of the current government of Israel as it seeks revenge on Hamas for the brutality of the incursion on 7th October (see the homily for St Simon and St Jude below [28th October]), it is impossible to forget the suffering of Jewish people across Europe in the middle years of the last century. During the past fortnight I have taken part in two acts of commemoration.

Here in Genova we marked the 80th anniversary of the deportation on 3rd November 1943 of members of the city’s Jewish community on the orders of the Nazi-backed regime which took over northern Italy after Marshal Badoglio made peace with the invading Allied forces. In that operation 261 Jews were rounded up and sent to the death camps. Only twenty returned. The commemoration was held a day early, on 2nd November, because holding it on the evening of 3rd November would have caused problems for Jewish participants keeping the Sabbath. This year we gathered at the Synagogue, filling both the main body of the building and the gallery, for speeches from community leaders, including Archbishop Marco Tasca OFM (Conv.), and Rabbi Momigliano set the deportations in context and led the gathering in prayer. Following that, we were led out of the Synagogue and formed a procession of witness down Via Assarotti and Via Roma as far as the Teatro Carlo Felice.

A week later I was in Freiburg im Breisgau (Germany), attending a conference on racial justice organised by the Diocese in Europe. More information about that will, I hope, follow in the next few days. The first evening of the conference coincided with the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht (now increasingly known in Germany as Reichspogromnacht), when Jewish homes, businesses and places of worship across Germany were attacked by Nazi-led mobs. Many of the conference participants attended a commemoration of these events at the site of Freiburg’s old Synagogue, which was burned down during the violence and looting which marked that night. There were speeches from the mayor and from representatives of the Jewish Community, klezmer music, contributions from young people, and Hebrew prayers, including the Mourners’ Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim. A large crowd (I would guess around 1,000) stood silently in the cold and damp of a November evening to listen and reflect.


Gospel for 8th November – Saints and Martyrs of England (John 17:18-23)

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Reflection:

I did wonder whether, since we’re in Genova, we really ought to be keeping this Octave of All Saints’ Day in honour of the Saints and Martyrs of Italy, or even Liguria. Heaven knows there are enough of them! However, because we are an Anglican congregation our year follows the calendar of the Church of England. So, Saints and Martyrs of England it is!

What, then, do we mean by today’s celebration? Who, precisely, are we remembering? Well, today is clearly not a sort of “omnium gatherum” of those English Saints who have their own special day, whether as a lesser festival or as a commemoration: the Cuthberts, the Julians, the Richard Hookers, the Bunyans, the Kebles, the Evelyn Underhills and all the rest. They’re included, of course, but they are far from being the whole story. The people we remember today are all those English men and women who were sent out into the world and sanctified in the truth of Christ. It’s a company of people which begins with those earliest, unknown disciples who, according to the second-century African writer Tertullian, tended the first flames of faith in “the haunts of the Britons–inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ, and which extends to people we have known and whose closeness to God we have recognised, people whose indwelling in the Father and Son, by the power of the Spirit, has influenced us on our Christian journey.

It includes those Romanized Celts who kept the rumour of God alive in the south-west and in Cumbria when the pagan Saxons came and turned southern Britain into England. It includes those Saxons who responded to the preaching of Aidan in the north or of Augustine’s monks in the south-east and who spread the Word in their communities and among their kinsfolk. It includes men like the thirteenth-century Buckinghamshire vicar, John Schorne, and women like the twelfth-century needlewoman and visionary, Christina of Markyate. It includes those who suffered for their faith on all sides of the great religious divisions in England during the 16th and 17th centuries and those who gave their lives for the sake of the Gospel in the huge expansion of Christian missions which accompanied the expansion of the British Empire during the 18th and 19th. It includes poets like Caedmon and Coleridge, scientists like Robert Boyle and John Polkinghorne, ladies of the court like Margaret Blagge and Dorothy Howard, who led lives marked by holiness and integrity amid the licentiousness of Restoration London, and ordinary people doing ordinary jobs, or running ordinary households with a living faith that revealed the attractiveness of Jesus.

The people we commemorate today were not necessarily great brains, or eloquent speakers, but in their lives they reflected something of the glory of the Son of God, so that through their word, however faltering or inarticulate it may have been, others came to believe and, through their believing, found themselves enfolded in the love which unites the Father and the Son and draws us ever closer to the Godhead.


Gospel for 1st November – All Saints (Matthew 5:1-12)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Reflection:

Although the opening of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel includes some of the best-known words in the whole Bible, when we read them we tend to miss both the lead-in and the context. We miss them because, thanks to Archbishop Langton of Canterbury in the first decade of the 13th century, the lead-in and context for those words form the end of chapter 4 rather than the beginning of chapter 5. But they set the scene for the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew tells us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people… and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” It was the sight of these crowds which caused Jesus to take refuge up the mountain. They are the reason why he begins teaching the disciples in the words which open chapter 5, so that they don’t get swept away in a tsunami of popular approval. That is not what building the kingdom is about.

Quite the opposite, in fact. When we look at the list of the people Jesus calls “blessed”, they aren’t exactly movers and shakers. They aren’t wealthy, or successful, or famous. Most of them are are what some movers and shakers would probably call “losers”. Where’s the career progression in being poor in spirit, or a mourner, or meek? Hungering and thirsting for righteousness suggests that the person concerned has been on the receiving end of injustice. Mercy is for wimps, purity of heart suggests prudishness, peacemakers – well, we can see every day what sort of treatment they are getting in the media at present – and where’s the fun in being persecuted?

But those are the people whom Jesus calls “blessed”. Those are the people on whom Jesus wants his disciples to model themselves. How does he expect that sort of behaviour to bring in the kingdom of heaven? Nearly forty years ago, Charles Elliott, a former director of the British charity Christian Aid, wrote a book with the title “Praying the Kingdom”. One of the chapters was a commentary on this passage and it included a definition of blessedness which has stayed with me ever since I first read it back in the 1980s. He suggests that whenever we see the word “blessed” we substitute the phrase “in the right place” – by which he meant physically and spiritually.

The “blessed” are the people who are “in the right place”, who have put themselves at God’s disposal, laying aside the noisy demands of their ego for status, success and all the rest – even the feel-good factor of being part of a flourishing mass movement. That is what the saints whom we celebrate today did. That is what makes them saints, even though they may never have been recognised as such either in their life-time or beyond. They were ordinary people living extraordinary, and usually hidden, lives, “saints… made”, as the saintly Bishop King of Lincoln wrote, “in the old way by suffering and labour and diligence in little things, and the exercise of unselfish, untiring love; quiet lives lived away in holes and corners and not known to the public while alive.” As we celebrate those hidden lives today, let us ponder Jesus’ words and reorient our own lives under his guidance as he leads us to our journey’s end in God’s kingdom.


Gospel for 28th October – St Simon and St Jude (Luke 12:39-48)

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

‘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. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It was to fulfil the word that is written in their law, “They hated me without a cause.”

‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.’

Reflection:

There could hardly be a more appropriate pair of saints than Simon and Jude to commemorate as the conflict in the Holy Land enters its fourth week, with no end to the anxiety and the horror in sight: one for largely negative reasons, the other for a slightly more hopeful reason.

The negatively appropriate saint is Simon, described by Mark and Matthew as “the Cananaean”, which is a bit obscure, and by Luke as “the Zealot”, which isn’t at all obscure. Zealots of any kind are never comfortable people to be around at the best of times. Zealots in first-century Palestine even less so. The political and religious movement to which Simon belonged had much the same objectives, and methods, as Hamas today. The Zealots were the Jewish nationalist group (so it isn’t a perfect parallel) which wanted all occupying forces out of Palestine NOW! – and they were prepared to use terror and extreme violence to achieve that aim.

The more hopefully appropriate saint is Jude, “Judas the son of James” in Luke’s Gospel or, as St John describes him, “Judas (not Iscariot)”. Jude is famously “the patron saint of lost causes”, the saint whom the desperate ask for his prayers when all other avenues have failed. Some suggest that that is because those who pray are worried that invoking St Jude might be misunderstood as invoking Judas Iscariot – and there does seem to have been some embarrassment about his name. Mark and Matthew refer to him in their Gospels by the name Thaddaeus (or, in some manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel, Lebbaeus) rather than confuse their readers with two Judases.

There’s another reason why Judas is an appropriate saint for this time of conflict and uncertainty. St John tells us that it was a question from him towards the end of the Last Supper that sparked what is sometimes known as the “Farewell Discourse”, the long monologue, stretching from chapter 14 of John’s Gospel to Chapter 16, in which Jesus sets out what is going to happen. It includes the promise of the Holy Spirit, the image of Jesus the true vine, the warning of coming conflict and, as we heard just now, the commandment to love in the face of a world full of hatred.

In these fevered times it is all too easy to take sides, to behave like the sheep in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” continually chanting “four legs good, two legs baaad”, behaving, as one Jewish journalist in the UK has written, as though what is going on in Israel and Palestine were a football match, “a binary contest in which you can root for only one team, and where any losses suffered by your opponent – your enemy – feel like a win”: and where any suggestion that the other side might have a case, or even share a basic humanity, feel like a betrayal. Given the depth of hurt on both sides, it is noteworthy that some of the most humane reflection comes from people on the front line – and both sides of the front line. In the British parliament there are two MPs, from different parties, whose parents grew up in Israel and Palestine: one Jewish, the other Christian. They have written a joint appeal for urgent action to build a peaceful future for both nations and for empathy. As they write: “Showing sympathy for what Israelis have experienced does not equal supporting Israel’s government, and standing in solidarity with Palestinians does not signal support of Hamas. It must be possible to show empathy with both peoples, so that we can find a way through this darkness.”

Simon, the Zealot, found in following Jesus a better way than the way of violence. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, still gives hope to those who are desperate. Together they offer us a way through the darkness, a path of prayer for the peace of Jerusalem – and of Gaza.


On the evening of 24th October I was one of a panel talking about interfaith dialogue. The other participants were mainly discussing the philosophical underpinnings of such dialogue. You can find a recording of the whole discussion here. In my contribution I shared some of the practical issues that I have encountered over the past four decades. Here is the English translation of what I said:

Peace Between Religions: an Anglican Perspective

Many years ago, when he was still the Prince of Wales, King Charles scandalised some of the more conservative of his future subjects by saying that he would rather be a defender of faith than a defender of the faith. The title Fidei defensor, which can have both meanings, is the title given by Pope Leo X to King Henry VIII five hundred years ago, before the English church’s break with Rome. The words of the future king were all the more disconcerting in that the British monarch must take a most solemn oath during the coronation ceremony: to maintain in the United Kingdom, so far as within his power, the Protestant Reformed religion established by law, and to maintain and preserve “inviolably the establishment of the Church of England and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as established by law in England.” Established also by the presence of twenty-six bishops in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament.

Well, on 6th May, King Charles indeed took that oath. At the same time, he invited the leaders of every religion represented in his kingdom to attend the ceremony. The Christian churches of many traditions, from the four countries of the kingdom, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist, Evangelical, and representatives of the other faiths, Baha’i, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam (Sunni and Shia) and Judaism. These led the procession into Westminster Abbey at the beginning of the ceremony, and greeted the king at the end. They said together ‘Your Majesty, as neighbours in faith, we recognise the value of public service. We join people of all faiths and creeds in thanksgiving and service with you for the common good.”

This salutation seems to me central to interreligious and multicultural dialogue, Neither the United Kingdom nor Italy are characterised by a single culture as they were at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation seventy years ago, and in the era of Pius XII. ‘Foreigners’, often arriving from former overseas colonies, have become citizens, or at least long-term residents. They have retained their own culture and faith, whether Christian (of many traditions), Hindu, Jain, Muslim, or Buddhist. We are indeed ‘close in faith’, but we are not always united ‘in service for the common good’. The forces that divide people on the basis of perceived differences of race, culture, language, religion still exist. But it remains true, as an English poet wrote in September 1939, that “We must love one another or die.” More recently, the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng, who died two years ago, said, “There will be no peace between civilisations without peace between religions! And there will be no peace between religions without a dialogue between religions.” The terrible events unfolding in Israel and Palestine in recent days highlight the truth of his words.

That is why I applaud this initiative of the ‘Religions for Peace’ organisation and the Baha’i and other communities in Genoa. But I remind you that dialogue can be very difficult and that it can be costly. When I was a parish priest in England, I served in two parishes where minorities of other religions are present to a considerable extent. In the first parish, in Slough, an industrial town near London, I was a member of the Board of Governors at a secondary school, founded by the Church of England eighty years ago, where the vast majority of students were Sikhs or Muslims. The school’s board of governors was made up of representatives of all faiths. The Christian ‘foundation governors’, like myself, were appointed by the church. The Muslim and Sikh councillors were elected by the students’ parents. Normally everything was fine. We were colleagues. We were friendly towards each other. But there was one incident, insignificant for the English governors, which was very disturbing for the governors of Asian origin. Cultural and religious differences resulted in conflict between the two groups. Friendships were broken. The school’s administration began to crumble. Outside groups took an interest, neither positively nor usefully, but with very manipulative intent. The media got involved. The headmaster resigned. Shortly afterwards he died. How to appoint a successor in such circumstances? We initially tried to appoint as if everything was normal. The result was deadlock. We could not agree on a preferred candidate. It was very difficult to keep talking to others, but we all knew that it was very important to talk, to listen to their concerns, and not to give the media the story they wanted to share with their readers or viewers, the story of an attack by Muslims on a Christian school – despite the fact that the majority of Asian councillors were of the Sikh faith. There was a great need for patience and discipline, to keep the way for dialogue open, not to say anything that would have a destructive effect on the process.

And then the nomination process was resumed. And this time we found a candidate of Sikh heritage, but not practising, who was acceptable to all the councillors. However, the school statute states that the headmaster must be a practising Anglican – and this preferred candidate was not Christian, let alone Anglican. What were we to do? The diocesan director of education, the person responsible for all 280-plus Anglican schools in the region, was wise and flexible. He allowed us to appoint him. After that everything went well. The new headmaster was very sensitive to the needs of the school’s interfaith situation. For example, a year later, the Christian fast of Lent took place at the same time as the Muslim fast of Ramadan. So the headmaster invited me and the imam of the mosque to talk with the students about the importance of fasting in Christianity and Islam. Just as important, he listened and responded to the concerns of governors, students, and parents. Everything that had been broken was renewed, so that shortly afterwards, when I was about to move to another parish, all the governors could share a celebratory meal together at an Indian restaurant near the school.

When I arrived at my new parish in High Wycombe, which is halfway between London and Oxford, I found that almost one in five of the inhabitants was Muslim, the majority of them migrants from the disputed territory of Kashmir. These belonged to the Sunni Barelvi tradition, but Deobandi and Salafist traditions were growing. The two communities normally lived parallel lives. We used to meet outside the schools, especially the primary schools. Sometimes there were incidents, normally towards the end of the fast, but otherwise everything was peaceful. Then came the events of 9 September 2001.

There was no change in external behaviour, except that some women started to wear the abaya and hijab, even the niqab. The newspapers, however, especially the popular press, began to group all Muslims together without distinction. So I decided, with the agreement of the church council, to organise a course of five lectures during Lent 2002. The lectures were shared between myself and two Muslims who were important in the life of the Muslim community and in the life of the town: one was a professor and colleague of a church councillor, the other was a former mayor of the town. Since the church is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, we began by telling the story of St Francis and the Sultan of Egypt, as an example of interreligious dialogue at a time of great conflict between Christians and Muslims. I then placed this intervention in the context of the history of Islam and the variety of Islamic sects, not only the Sunna and Shia but also the minority groups. The Muslims then explained the importance of the five pillars of Islam and how they lived as faithful Muslims in British culture.

Four years later, a jihadist plot to commit a terrorist attack was uncovered. Most of the conspirators lived in London, but five lived in High Wycombe, some in the neighbourhood where I was parish priest. There was a lot of media interest, a lot of activity from the police and security forces. Some of the conspirators used to pray at the Deobandi centre in the parish. This became a centre of attention for the police and anti-terrorist services. There was a large police camp in a local park where a cache of weapons and explosives was found. There was great tension and fear in the community. As soon as the story broke, we quickly decided to organise a meeting open to all those who were concerned about the consequences for the community as a whole and for relations between Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith groups, even those who profess no faith. An invitation was delivered to every home in the most affected streets. Almost fifty people came to the meeting, Christians and Muslims and people of no faith, men and women, some elders from the mosque, some town councillors. Many spoke of their concerns, their fears, their hopes. Only political speeches and attacks on other faiths were forbidden. A few days after this meeting, a young Muslim woman whose children attended the same school as our children said to my wife, “Thank you for giving me back my faith and for not defining me by the ideas of jihadi extremists.”

At the same time, and independently, the Rector of the historic church in the town centre contacted the imam of the main mosque and proposed to him a council of Christians and Muslims, which could identify problematic issues for both faiths, discuss them, and hopefully also resolve them. This initiative succeeded. The town’s university generously sponsored it. The council of Muslims and Christians continues to this day – not without problems, of course, but it continues. And when the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, visited High Wycombe twelve years ago, he had breakfast with the members in recognition of their contribution to interreligious harmony.

So, we must understand that the purpose of dialogue is harmony, not unison. Harmony depends on the knowledge that there are not many gods, competitors and rivals, but that there is only one God, “creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”, as the main Christian profession of faith says. Therefore, the faithful of each religion must respect the different manifestations of relationship with God, and must understand the different questions that religions address to God. We therefore need to cultivate ‘good religion’ and reject ‘bad religion’. As an influential Muslim cleric told an Anglican bishop twenty years ago, “I do not like the current use of the word ‘fundamentalist’. You and I are fundamentalists, because we cling to the fundamentals of faith. These people are fanatics.”

Therefore, if as neighbours in faith we truly recognise the value of public service, and if we want to unite in service for the common good, as the faith representatives committed themselves on the sixth of May, we will need patience, openness, and humility. We will also need the willingness to question all basic assumptions, both religious and cultural, without abandoning the fundamentals of faith. It seems to me that the vocation to interreligious dialogue is very close to the contemplative vocation, especially if we use the definition that Father Gilbert Shaw, on his deathbed, shared with the Anglican Sisters of the Love of God :

“The Holy Spirit will never give you stuff on a plate – you’ve got to work for it.

“Your work is listening – taking the situation you’re in and holding it in courage, not being beaten down by it.

“Your work is standing – holding things without being deflected by your own desires or the desires of other people round you. Then things work out just through patience. How things alter we don’t know, but the situation alters.

“There must be dialogue in patience and charity – then something seems to turn up that wasn’t there before.

“We must take people as they are and where they are – not going too far ahead or too fast for them, but listening to their needs and supporting them in their following…

“Seek for points of unity and stand on those rather than on principles.

“Have the patience that refuses to be pushed out; the patience that refuses to be disillusioned.

“There must be dialogue – or there will be no development.”

“Fr Gilbert’s Last Sermon”

Gospel for 25th October – Crispin and Crispinian (Luke 12:39-48)

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

Peter said, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?’ And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, “My master is delayed in coming”, and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

Reflection:

In all the Gospels we discover that, while much of the teaching of Jesus is aimed at all who follow him, or who are thinking about following him, there are some lessons that are directed first and foremost at the twelve. Today’s passage from Luke seems to be a bit of both, although Peter’s question suggests that the first part might be taken as applying only to the apostles.

That first section, about the householder knowing what time the burglar will turn up, echoes ideas which we find in the other Gospels, as well as in several of the letters – and not only Paul’s. This is teaching about being ready for the coming of the Son of Man, who represents God’s people at the judgement. It’s a refrain we will hear more than once in the coming weeks as we prepare for the coming of Jesus, not only as the Babe of Bethlehem, but also as the one to whom God has entrusted judgement. So it probably is aimed at everyone.

The second, longer, parable though is definitely aimed at the twelve. “The faithful and prudent manager” is anyone in a position of leadership in the Church, anyone responsible for “feeding” their fellow-servants, their fellow-believers. And it is, what used to be called “an awful warning”, even if the nature of the threatened punishment for misbehaviour while on duty is not entirely clear. If the misbehaving manager is indeed “cut in pieces” there won’t be a great deal left to be “put with the unfaithful”. However, the overall message is clear enough. Those who use positions of responsibility or leadership in the church for their own profit or their own gratification, can expect to be held sternly to account by the Master when he returns, even if the institutional church (in our day at least) seems inclined to turn a blind eye.

Today, though, the Church remembers two men who rejected the opportunity to enrich themselves, or to gratify their appetites, at her members’ expense. We don’t know much about Crispin and Crispinian, and the little we do know is based on late and unreliable sources – and, in the case of English-speakers, a certain play by William Shakespeare, which reminds us that one of the great feats of Anglo-Welsh arms took place on this day 608 years ago. However, tradition records that Crispin and Crispinian were missionaries, possibly from Rome, who shared the good news of Jesus in third-century Gaul, and that they supported their ministry by working as shoemakers so that, like St Paul in Corinth and elsewhere, they did not become a financial burden on the congregations which they planted. They are said to have met their death toward the end of the third century, during the great persecution in Diocletian’s reign. Today we give thanks for their example of unselfish service to the Gospel as “faithful and prudent managers”, and we give thanks for all those who, in our own day, bear witness to Christ as they carry on their everyday occupation, waiting expectantly for their Lord’s return.


Gospel for 18th October – St Luke (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.”

Reflection:

In recent weeks at the midweek Eucharist we’ve been working our way through Luke’s Gospel. Today, though, being the feast of St Luke the Evangelist, we are looking at the man himself – or, rather, looking where we might find him. Like the other evangelists, he has a habit of fading away when we try to picture him in close-up. Is Luke to be identified with Paul’s “beloved physician” mentioned in the letter to Colossae? Is he the imprisoned Paul’s sole support, as described in the second letter to Timothy? Is he the “fellow-worker” mentioned alongside Mark, Aristarchus and Demas in Paul’s brief note to Philemon? Scholars raise a warning flag over those first two mentions. There is much debate about whether Colossians came from Paul’s pen and little doubt (except among the conservative) that 2 Timothy didn’t. And what about the so-called “we-passages” in Acts? Was Luke, whoever he was, an eyewitness of the events he describes so vividly in the book’s later chapters, or was he following an ancient literary convention – one that goes back at least to the time of Homer – that sea voyages are described in first-person narratives?

We aren’t even sure whether Luke was Jewish or not. Clearly, he had a wide knowledge and deep love of the Hebrew Scriptures. The first two chapters of his Gospel are largely modelled on stories from the books of the Torah, from Judges and Samuel. His quotations from and allusions to the prophets and the psalms are always apt and neatly dovetailed into the story he is telling. They are never forced or clunky, as some of Matthew’s are. On the other hand he writes probably the best Greek in the New Testament. When he shares material with Mark and Matthew, his version carefully avoids words and turns of phrase which shout “Jewish!” at the reader. The scholarly consensus used to be that he was a gentile (probably a “God-fearer”, like a number of people mentioned in Acts), and that he was writing to commend his new faith to other gentiles, people who lived, like him, in the great cities of the eastern Roman Empire. Now, though, scholars are more inclined to think of him as a Jew, brought up, as Paul was, in the Greek-speaking culture of the eastern provinces, and writing with a view to countering official hostility to this new “way”. Paul’s speeches to various Roman magistrates, and to the Jewish puppet king Herod Agrippa II, are Luke’s way of defending Christianity to the authorities who had crucified its Lord.

But what’s important about Luke isn’t the biographical detail. What is important is the story he tells in his two books, a story marked by God’s concern for the outcast and marginalised and by the amazing reality that twelve, and then, as we heard this morning, seventy, wandering Jewish preachers and healers, sent out by the Lord, start by spreading the message of Jesus across first-century Palestine. Then, in his second book, Luke tells how this new “Jesus movement” burst out of the conservative, pious Jewish culture which he celebrates in the opening chapters of his Gospel into the wider world of the eastern Empire, the towns and cities of Asia Minor, the ports and other commercial centres around the Aegean, until it finally landed in Rome. What matters to Luke is the simplicity of the messengers’ life (“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals””), the urgency of their message (“Greet no one on the road”), and their power to bring healing and peace, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, to a broken world. Last night in Piazza San Lorenzo, and in the cathedral, we experienced something of that power, as a crowded church listened and prayed and sang to God, for the peace of Israel and Palestine in our day, and for the healing of many nations.


Gospel for 11th October – (Ethelburga of Barking, James the Deacon): (Luke 11:1-4)

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
   Give us each day our daily bread.
   And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

Reflection:

There are all sorts of interesting scholarly debates about the Lord’s Prayer. Is Matthew’s version (the one everybody knows) the original prayer taught by Jesus, which St Luke pared down? Or is Luke’s much shorter and starker version the original, which St Matthew expanded for use in worship? There are similar questions to be asked about the two evangelists’ versions of the Beatitudes where, again, Luke’s version is brief and spare when compared with Matthew’s. Some have suggested that each of the evangelists used the version of the Lord’s Prayer that was current in his own community – in the same way that some churches use Archbishop Cranmer’s version, while others use the contemporary language of “Common Worship”, as we do in Genova.

Then there are the odd words and phrases which tie scholars and theologians up in knots. What is the bread we are told to pray for? The word which is translated “daily” appears also in Matthew’s version of the prayer, but nowhere else in ancient literature. Even the great third-century teacher and scholar Origen admitted that he was baffled. And what does it mean to ask God not to “bring us to the time of trial”? Almost certainly not “temptation” as traditionally understood, but the time of severe testing, the “tribulation”, which the earliest Christians believed would be experienced immediately before the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.

But whether we go with Matthew or with Luke, whether we use the Prayer Book or Common Worship, this short prayer, fifty-seven words in the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, thirty-eight in the Greek text of St Luke – this short prayer has been the touchstone for all Christian prayer during the past twenty centuries, prayed by Christians in every language in which the gospel has been preached. It acknowledges God’s holiness. It seeks the fulfilment of God’s purposes. It asks God to meet our deepest needs: for food, forgiveness, and safety.

Praying this prayer has brought strength to the weak, courage to the fearful, serenity to the suffering, comfort to the sick and the dying. A friend told me many years ago about a pastoral visit he had made to a senior colleague who was on his deathbed, drifting in and out of consciousness. After sitting in silence by the bed for a while my friend began praying out loud, but he obtained no response of any kind until he said the Lord’s Prayer, at the end of which there was a very clear “amen” from the dying man.

Praying this prayer also unites us with the two holy ones of the English Church whom we commemorate today. Ethelburga, sister of Bishop Erkenwald of London, was one of those tough Anglo-Saxon noblewomen who founded and led a mixed monastic community in the seventh century. James, probably an Italian, was one of the second wave of missionaries sent from Rome to England a generation earlier. He was the deacon who accompanied Bishop Paulinus in his work among the people of Northumbria and remained in the north when Northumbria’s Christian king Edwin was killed in battle against the pagan Penda of Mercia and Paulinus had to flee for his life, with the king’s widow and her children, to the safety of Christian Kent. For the next two decades James ministered to a church which had gone underground, emerging after Penda’s death in battle as a venerable, and venerated, Church leader. He outlived Paulinus by at least twenty years, taking part in the Synod of Whitby in 664. A skilled musician, he began, so Bede tells us, “to teach many people to sing the music of the Church after the uses of Rome and Canterbury” to the glory and praise of God.


The Place of Creation in The Revelation to John

From 26th to 19th September the Italy and Malta Archdeaconry Synod met in one of the leafier suburbs of Rome, at the Seraphicum, a Franciscan-run retreat house, conference centre and higher education establishment (with a school attached). Appropriately the “headline” for the conference was taken from a text written by St Francis, his “Canticle of the Creatures”, sometimes known as the “Canticle of Brother Sun”, and the main items of input all focused on the theme of creation. This is the text of the Bible study which took place on the second day.

In a previous existence I spent almost a quarter of a century in the company of St Francis of Assisi. During those years I said and wrote quite a lot about him – and I read even more: from the “Fioretti” and Thomas of Celano’s “Vita Prima” to contemporary Franciscan writers such as Murray Bodo, Richard Rohr, and Br Ramon. I have even, for my sins, dipped into the writings of Jacques de Vitry. One of my favourite sources for stories about the saint is the “authorised biography” written for the Order of Friars Minor by St Bonaventure, one of the two great Franciscan theologians. Bonaventure is also very good on analysis, and I’m going to begin this Bible study by reading a short passage from the 9th chapter of his “Legenda Maior”, which focuses on “the fervour of [the Saint’s] charity and his desire for martyrdom.”

After describing how “like a glowing coal, [Francis] seemed totally absorbed in the flame of divine love”, Bonaventure continues, “Aroused by all things to the love of God, he rejoiced in all the works of the Lord’s hands and from these joy-producing manifestations he rose to their life-giving principle and cause. In beautiful things he saw Beauty itself and through his vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace him who is utterly desirable… And he perceived a heavenly harmony in the consonance of powers and activities God has given them, and like the prophet David sweetly exhorted them to praise the Lord.”

Now, when it comes to the created order as a ladder between God and humankind, you might be hard-pressed to find anything in the New Testament which strikes a similar note, unlike the Psalms through which we were led yesterday. There are some of the parables of Jesus. There’s the great cosmological, pneumatological and Christological set-piece in the eighth chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Christian communities in Rome (8:21-25), a certain amount about “the cosmic Christ” in the letters to Ephesus and Colossae, and that’s about it. Until you come to the last book in the collection, the Revelation to John, “The Apocalypse”.

After the first three chapters which include John’s encounter with the risen Lord among the lampstands, and the letters to the seven churches of Asia, the scene changes at the beginning of chapter 4 to heaven and to the praises of the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures, culminating in a hymn of praise to God for the work of creation.

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,
   to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
   and by your will they existed and were created.’

Revelation 4:9-11

And after that we are off, into what has been described as “the most political book in the New Testament”, one whose politics, and theology, draw their inspiration from the sacred writings of Israel. The seven seals on the scroll (Revelation 6), the seven angels with trumpets (Revelation 8), and the seven bowls of God’s wrath (Revelation 16) provide John the Seer with a huge range of material, spiritual, political, and environmental, which he weaves together – not into a picture of creation as a ladder to God, but into a warning of the cosmic disorder which is coming over creation as a result of what the letter to the Ephesians describes as “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). In our situation it is not difficult to read John’s vision of the seals, the trumpets and the bowls as foreshadowing the environmental catastrophe which human greed and short-sightedness are inflicting on the earth in our own age.

But perhaps we ought to begin with a little background.

For many people doorstep encounters with the members of fringe Christian sects, have given the Revelation to John a bad name. It is a book that is open to misuse and misunderstanding. And it is disturbing. It seems, somehow, to plug effortlessly into the worst nightmares of humankind. The word “apocalyptic”, which originally meant “revelatory”, has become shorthand for “unspeakably horrific and disastrous”. Even in this allegedly scientific age, our worst fears find their place in John’s twenty-two chapters. Economic meltdown, environmental degradation, military disaster, prisoners of conscience, power worship, ideological enslavement to false gods and false prophets – all are there. Perhaps it is no wonder that this book was one of the last to find acceptance in the New Testament canon.

In most places Revelation was accepted on the basis of its supposed authorship by John son of Zebedee, who was also assumed to be the John who wrote the fourth Gospel. But as early as the third century, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria was pointing out the differences in style, language and thought between Revelation and other writings originating with John the Evangelist or his circle. Revelation appears to have been written by someone whose first language was not Greek but Aramaic. It is full of ideas and images taken from the Hebrew Scriptures – above all from the writings of the prophets. There are echoes of, or allusions to, Isaiah, Daniel, Amos, Ezekiel (especially Ezekiel), and Zechariah referenced in the margin of many study Bibles, and multiple hat-tips to the Psalms, and the books of the Law.

They are the key to how to read Revelation. They set it firmly within the framework of a first-century Jewish thought-world, warning us that we need to read the book in the light of the prophets’ proclamation of God’s judgement against his sinful people and in the light of other writings from those years “between the Testaments” in which the Book of Daniel took shape; and it’s from Daniel in particular, as well as from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, that John picks up the idea of a prophet “sealing” words for the future – or, in John’s case, the idea of the Lamb opening the seals because the future is now.

Now the seven seals and the four horsemen who are released by their opening don’t actually play a central part in John’s vision, for all that they have caught the popular imagination, thanks to the movies, particularly the silent film that turned Rudolph Valentino into a star 100 years ago and the remake by Vincente Minelli forty years later. Those “four horsemen of the apocalypse”, war, famine, disease and death (Revelation 6:1-8), were a reality for John and for the people for whom he was writing, just as they are in many parts of the world today, as pandemic and climate crisis are exacerbating existing conflicts and the consequent movements of people. The famous Pax Romana did not preclude the possibility of disasters. In the second half of the first century of our era the Roman empire experienced military defeats, volcanic eruptions, fire, plague and famines. This was the world which John knew and in which, despite everything, he proclaimed the ultimate victory of God and his Messiah. The horsemen, like the events which follow the opening of the remaining three seals, simply usher in what Jesus in the Gospels describes as “the birth-pangs”. Prices rise in some, but not all, staple foods. There is war, famine and pandemic. These are, so to speak, the curtain-raiser for the main event, but they remind us that the world, as it is, is under threat, and that the threat comes not from God, but from governments, which continue to use armed force, bloodshed and hunger to establish and enforce their rule.

For John the Seer, the natural and political disasters of the contemporary world are on one level God’s agents for the vindication of his people, but they are also a reflection of the principle that actions have consequences. That they reflect “the wrath of the Lamb” is the perception of “the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful” and, at the end of the list, “everyone, slave and free”. On the other hand, as the American scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza points out in her commentary on Revelation, the sense of “wrath” targeted at the powerful, the despoiler and oppressor, is what makes the book popular with “disadvantaged and alienated minority groups”, whether “Bible-believing” Christians in the poor rural areas of the USA or exploited and disadvantaged Christians in Latin America and southern Africa.

After the horsemen come the sealing of the saints, the “great multitude which no one could number” of those set aside for salvation, for well-being and peace. And after the sealing of the saints comes “silence in heaven for half an hour”, a silence which is broken by the blast of the seven trumpets blown in succession by the seven angels who, in Jewish tradition, present to God the prayers of the saints.

Here we have more than just “birth-pangs”. When the first four trumpets are blown, we find the beginnings of full-on ecological collapse – contemporary parallels are, I think, obvious from the news bulletins, so I won’t labour them. But for the time being it is only partial collapse:

A third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up [But note that “all green grass” was burned up, making it difficult, perhaps, to provide fodder for war-horses and even for the sheep and cattle on which Jewish and pagan sacrificial systems depended?].

Revelation 8.7

A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

Revelation 8.8-9

A third of the rivers and on the springs of water… became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.

Revelation 8.10-11

A third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light was darkened; a third of the day was kept from shining, and likewise the night.

Revelation 8.12

This is a warning, again picking up themes from the Hebrew Scriptures: in this case from Exodus and the plagues of Egypt. And, as with the plagues of Egypt, the purpose of these plagues is to lead people to repentance, to change hearts and minds, to transform the way in which they look at the world – and at its Creator. It is, as those first four trumpets signify, an alarm call, a warning. “This is where you are. Look out! Change direction.” But people don’t. They continue along the same path, even in the face of the eagle’s cries of “Woe!”. As a result they find themselves at the mercy of powers which are no longer merely natural, albeit catastrophic, but demonic, inflicting pain and distress directly on human beings rather than on the natural sources of their well-being. The woes which follow the blowing of the fifth and sixth trumpets represent, perhaps, a destructive power corresponding to the protective power represented by the sealing of the saints at the opening of the fifth and sixth seals.

And then the seventh angel blows.

The opening of the seventh seal was followed in heaven by silence. The blowing of the seventh trumpet is followed in heaven by loud voices, uttering words which (in slightly more archaic language) have been part of the soundtrack for many English-speaking lives from youth, if not from childhood, courtesy of a certain George Frideric Handel.

‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
   and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever.’

Revelation 11.15

Here, at the mid-point of the book, we are approaching the crisis of John’s vision, and the twenty-four elders add their song to the heavenly chorus. It begins conventionally enough. Commentators link its imagery with that of Psalm 2, the Psalm which celebrated the king’s enthronement as God’s anointed and which is used in the Gospels and Acts, and in the Letter to the Hebrews, in relation to Jesus, primarily in the account of his baptism in the Jordan and at the Transfiguration. However, after that “conventional” opening, the elders end by announcing that this is

the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name,
   both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

Revelation 11.18

The last half-dozen words there ought, I think, to worry those ultra-conservative Christians, mainly in North America, who reportedly take a delight in any government measure or personal practice which opens the way to more extreme climate change and more environmental degradation on the grounds that this will hasten the coming of the Lord – as if God can be manipulated. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, those ultra-Orthodox (for which read “Russian nationalists”) who give the impression that they would be happy to see the whole world disappear in a nuclear holocaust rather than Russia lose face through the failure of the attack on Ukraine. “Why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?” asked TV presenter Dimitry Kiselyov a few days after the invasion, echoing Vladimir Putin’s words from four years earlier. Such “ultras” somehow manage to miss the small print and the realisation that the destroyers have been given their head so that the earth can be purified and remade and redeemed from its captivity to the demonic powers – and this is, I think, the point of the reference to the ark of God’s covenant, the symbol of deliverance visible in the temple, which ends this section and opens the way to the cosmic conflicts of chapters 12-15.

After those conflicts, as Chapter 16 begins, John hears “a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, ‘Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.’”

And this is it. This is where biblical imagery and environmental science come together as what the scientists have begun calling “the Anthropocene era” meets its end, in scenes again reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt.

“A foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshipped its image.

Revelation 16.2

“The sea… became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died.

Revelation 16.3

“The rivers and the springs of water… became blood.” (In recompense for shedding the blood of saints and prophets). And the angel of the waters effectively says to God, “They had it coming!”
“The sun… was allowed to scorch people with fire; John adds ‘they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God… and they did not repent and give him glory.’

Revelation 16.4-6, 8-9

“The…kingdom [of the beast] was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and [again] they did not repent of their deeds.

Revelation 16.10-11

“The great river Euphrates… was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east… [and the climactic battle of Harmagedon].”

Revelation 16.12, 16

And at the end of this sequence, as the seventh bowl is poured out, “a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’” And the finale is spectacular, with “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake… The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people.” The Tokyo sequence in the 2004 film “The Day After Tomorrow” shows what that would look like.

So where have we got to? We began with the elders and the four living creatures acclaiming the God-given and God-revealing worth of creation, in an echo of the first chapter of Genesis: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good”. We saw how, step by step, human sinfulness led to the degradation and ultimately to the destruction of the world as it is, so that it was no longer that Franciscan ladder which Bonaventure described, leading human beings up to God. Instead it became a plaything for the kings of the earth and the merchants, who thronged into “Babylon the great” and made their home there, not to mention “shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea”. And now, in the chapters that follow the pouring out of that final bowl, John shares his vision first of the overthrow of the wicked city, the home of all greed, oppression and exploitation, then of the decisive battle and the final defeat of the powers of evil and of death. “And after death comes judgement” – but not a great deal is made of that in comparison with the imaginings of later writers and artists.

However, that is far from being the end of the story. John’s vision ends not with destruction and judgement, but with “a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” And at that point John sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

That city is not a place of exploitation, greed and the flaunting of obscene wealth, but a place of renewal and healing, a place where people are made whole. Even the kings of the earth who gathered for the slaughter at Harmagedon will bring their glory into it. The nations will walk by its light. “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” Furthermore, “its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.” And as the pouring out of the seven bowls focused on the deadly pollution of the seas, springs and rivers, so the description of the heavenly Jerusalem ends with this beautiful image

the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Revelation 22.1-2

Creation is renewed. Relationship with God is restored. “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [the city], and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

Now, I would hate you to go away from this Bible study, imagining that I am suggesting that John’s vision provides a detailed time-line for the end of the world and that we are now well on the way to Harmagedon. I am not – and John certainly isn’t. His narrative zig-zags back and forth between anticipation and event. He picks up themes from one part of the book and weaves them into a later section. This warns us to beware of those who think that they can turn the book into a sort of detailed “long-range forecast” and calendar of the “end time”. The fall of Babylon, and all that that means, is foreshadowed in chapter 14, then again, as we saw, in chapters 16 and 17 before it is described in detail in chapter 18. On each occasion we are reminded that the name is primarily symbolic and that “Babylon” is not simply “Rome”, or indeed “Milan” or “London”. “Babylon” is “the wicked city”, “Vanity Fair” in all its pomp, the home of shameless wealth extraction and of every exploitative human-centred attitude to the earth and its resources.

I would also hate you to go away thinking that John the Seer was an eco-warrior in anything like the modern sense, a Greta Thunberg born out of time. John was writing in the tradition of the Torah and the prophets, who saw environmental breakdown as a symbol of spiritual and moral breakdown. An important clue to the understanding of his teaching is to look at it in the light of Jesus’ teaching about the last days, the so-called “Synoptic Apocalypse”. Indeed, some scholars have seen Revelation as an up-date of that teaching in the light of the events that followed the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. History had moved on, the kingdom had not come, and the people of God needed reassurance that God was still at work in this new situation.

This is one factor that makes Revelation more than simply a tract for its own times. It speaks for the “Church from below” in every age and every place: for the marginalised and dispossessed who joined millenarian movements in the Middle Ages; or who flocked to the banners of the radical Reformation; and for revolutionary utopian movements in our own day. These are people for whom the world as it is, far from being a comfortable place, is as monstrous as the Hellenistic world appeared to devout Jews in the time of the Maccabees. It also goes some way to explaining the suspicion with which “established” and more hierarchical Churches handle it. There is, for example, no place for it in the lectionary of the Greek Orthodox Church. In a text in which political power is seen as a devouring monster which crushes all before it (Revelation 13:4ff), and in which global commerce is depicted as “the great whore.. with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk’, (Revelation 17:1f), locked in an ultimately destructive relationship with the beast and the ten kings (Revelation 17:16-18), there is little room for the advocates of pragmatic, liberal compromise.

Indeed there are times and places where such compromise is not appropriate, or indeed possible. During the past century we have seen leaders and states which have claimed a status for themselves which is not compatible with the Christian and Jewish insistence that there is one God, the maker of heaven and earth and all that is in them, and that God alone is Lord. John holds out for the truth of the Christian claim. He makes it clear that there are areas – not only with regard to Church-state relations – where it is not possible to compromise with the spirit of the age, even if that resistance means martyrdom. There are some truths that it is worth suffering and, if need be, dying for, as Christ himself suffered and died… and conquered. That is the message of the letters. It is the message of the seals and the trumpets and the bowls. It is a message of warning and of encouragement from a pastor to the congregations that made up his flock. Much of what John is saying about the evils and the plagues is not threatening God’s judgement so much as describing the world in which John lives. They are, so to speak, the “facts of life” about the first century of our era – and, as we are coming increasingly to realise, about our own century, too. The themes of Revelation are echoed in ecumenical documents with input from the “Global South”, such as the Document presented to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches at Accra in 2004, or the so-called AGAPE document produced the following year for the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Brazil.

John’s vision encodes an increasingly urgent warning. The climate catastrophe which he depicts is intended to lead to repentance. It is a call to human beings to change their ways and their outlook before it is too late, as the other disasters which John describes are intended to bring home the consequences of worshipping evil and not God. And this is one point where we might find points of comparison with the message of contemporary eco-warriors. It is unnerving to realise that the reaction of the greedy and short-sighted humans whose consumption has contributed to the growing catastrophe – our own generation, in other words – has in many cases not been significantly different from John’s description of the human reaction to the pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath in Revelation 16. Despite the increasingly visible consequences of climate change, people who can afford to use aircraft in order to travel to destinations which are accessible by rail still do so. Governments still privilege the use of the motor-car over the means of public transport when deciding their spending priorities and, encouraged by the international financial system, they hand out licences to those who wish to exploit the earth’s remaining reserves of fossil fuels. Sea cruises remain a popular form of holiday-making. Massive container ships glide between the world’s ports. Both types of craft release massive amounts of carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. People who in their private lives are caring and responsible, both as family members and citizens, appear to lose sight of their need to care and to be responsible in their working environment. They have become Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society” made flesh for the 21st century.

Revelation may have been written by a pastor to encourage and warn his flock in a particular situation of crisis rather than as a work of systematic theology, but there are themes and perspectives which can help us to assess what John is saying and to apply it to our own age. For every condemnation of supernatural wickedness there is an affirmation of the openness of the heavenly city and of the temple. The outlook of the closing chapters is cosmic and positive. This puts Revelation in line with the rest of the New Testament. Its vision of the end of the world as it is chimes with the teaching of Jesus, and its view of salvation as past, achieved in the sacrifice of the Lamb; present, in the work of the Spirit in the Churches; and future, when God brings into being a new heaven and a new earth, is one that is reflected elsewhere in the New Testament. It shares the conviction of the Gospels that the “second coming”, the parousia, of Jesus is not subject to human calculation (Matthew 24.36). It shares Paul’s view that “you reap whatever you sow” (Galatians 6:7f), and its understanding of the wrath of God has a lot in common with Paul’s account of “the wrath” as an impersonal force like the Eastern concept of karma.

The foundation and governing concept of the entire book is the self-sacrificing, suffering Lamb, the present and future Christ, alpha and omega.

One final point: all the judgmental language in Revelation is to be found in the middle of the book, as the struggle between the forces of God and the forces of evil represented by the dragon and the beasts is played out against the background of a creation destroyed, and then renewed. The positive message comes at the beginning and the end – in Jewish thought the most significant positions. And the beginning and the end of Revelation, like the teaching of Jesus and the letters of Paul, are about hope, and endurance, and the promise of Christ’s coming to renew and to make whole.


Gospel for 4th October – St Francis of Assisi: (Luke 12:22-34)

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

‘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.’

Reflection:

If you think you have been here before, you are right. The first part of today’s Gospel is a rerun of the second part of Sunday’s, a reminder of God’s providential care for all his creatures and a warning that the human anxiety to be always in control is, shall we say, misplaced. But today it has a slightly different focus. We’ve moved on, from the global concerns of our Harvest thanksgiving, to a little man in a rough garment made of sacking, scraping two twigs together like a fiddle as he dances joyfully down a country road singing, in his Provençal mother-tongue, love-songs to God.

Giovanni Bernardone of Assisi, better known to the world as Francesco, is probably the one male saint, outside the Twelve and St Paul, of whom most people know, even if all that they know is a distorted picture framed by the mistaken belief that he was, as the English are supposed to be, loopy about animals. He wasn’t. However, he did recognise them as being, like humans, part of creation and, also like humans, infinitely loved by their Creator, so he talked to them and valued them for who they were, wolves and sheep and songbirds and cicadas, even the rodents who tormented him in his final illness.

But what’s important about Francis isn’t his rapport with all creatures, but his determination to follow Christ, to do all those things which Jesus lists in both parts of the Gospel reading – and to do them joyfully because, notwithstanding his love for all creatures, he had placed his treasure, and his heart, in heaven. It’s that joy which makes him such an attractive saint today. It’s that joy which captivated popes and bishops and rich people and poor people and turned him from being a laughing-stock who was the despair of his father and a target for the missiles of street urchins into the founder of a mass movement which revived the Western Church eight centuries ago and still reverberates around the world with the rumour of God. Even the relatively small Anglican Society of St Francis has houses in North America, South Korea, Australia, Sri Lanka, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea as well as in Britain.

And Francis did all this without ever becoming a “plaster saint”. However hard Thomas of Celano, or Bonaventure, or Julian von Speyer tried, when they wrote their lives of St Francis they could not fit him into the conventional mediaeval mould for sainthood. They had a conventional pattern: a roistering, hedonistic youth – he gave the best parties in Assisi and had the best contact list of musicians and entertainers: a crisis of conscience – he had a nervous breakdown when he was a prisoner-of-war in Perugia: and a visionary conversion experience – he heard Christ speak to him from the cross in the semi-derelict church of San Damiano, telling him “Francis, Go and rebuild my church which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” But in spite of all that there are bits of his life which cannot be tamed or smoothed over by a hagiographer. Like the time he tried to finance the rebuilding of San Damiano, by nicking a bolt of cloth from his father’s warehouse and flogging it in Perugia. Like the time he sent Brother Rufino, a member of one of the most distinguished families in Assisi, to preach in the cathedral in his boxer shorts. Like the time he decided which way to take at a crossroads by twirling round and round and round until he collapsed with dizziness, then getting up and going along the road he was facing when he fell. Even on his deathbed he refused to conform. He said profound things, certainly. He put the final touches to his “Canticle of the Creatures”. But he also sent a message to a noblewoman in Rome asking her, as a last favour, to send him some of the honey cakes which she made and which he had particularly liked.

So we give thanks today for the irrepressible joy of St Francis and for that closeness to Christ which was reflected in the marks of crucifixion which his body bore for the last two years of his life, “The marks of Jesus branded on his body”, as they were on Paul’s. And with him we praise God for everything that there is and for the wonder and beauty of all creation.


Also for St Francis’ Day, a hymn which I wrote for my previous parish of St Francis of Assisi in High Wycombe 25 years ago. It summarises the story of the saint’s life and should be sung to the tune “Orientis Partibus”, which is sometimes known as “The Song of the Ass”. It’s an appropriate choice because “Brother Ass” was the name Francis gave to his body.

Francis, minstrel of the Lord,
preaching Christ in deed and word,
answering the Master’s call,
serving him in serving all,
Alleluia!

Finding God in everything,
chirping crickets, larks that sing,
taught all creatures in new ways
how to tell their Maker’s praise.
Alleluia!

Burning with the Spirit’s flame,
he made wolf and brigand tame;
through his song did quarrels cease,
bitter feuds were soothed to peace.
Alleluia!

In rejection and distress
Francis found true happiness;
at his prayer, the Crucified
scarred his hands, his feet, his side.
Alleluia!

Wounded, blinded, as at birth
naked, laid on Mother Earth,
Francis with his failing breath
welcomed gentle Sister Death.
Alleluia!

Grant us, Lord, such holy joy
hearts and thoughts and lips to employ
that, like Francis, we may prove
faithful heralds of your love.
Alleluia!

Copyright © Tony Dickinson 1998


Gospel for 21st September – St Matthew: (Matthew 9:9-13)

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Reflection:

If Matthew the evangelist is indeed the same person as the Matthew who appears in this episode, it’s a useful reminder that God has dreadful taste in people. The man was a crook. He had to be, otherwise he would never have survived in the Roman empire’s tax system, even as a low-level official in a tax-booth in Roman-occupied Syria. When thinking about taxes in the time of Jesus, don’t base your ideas on dealings with the Agenzia delle Entrate. The Roman tax system was like nothing quite so much as the bastard offspring of a Ponzi scheme and a mafia protection racket. The big financiers in Rome bid for the right to collect the taxes in a province, or group of provinces, and the successful had to deliver the sum they had bid, one way or another. They hired locals to bring in the cash – and it was largely up to them how they did it. No questions asked. And no wonder being a tax man was high on the rabbis’ lists of “despised trades”.

Yet here is Jesus, not only calling such a villain to discipleship, but even sharing a meal with him and his equally disreputable mates. Which, for anyone with pretensions to being a teacher of righteousness, was very much not the thing to do. So of course the Pharisees have a word with the disciples: ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Interestingly, they don’t challenge Jesus directly on this occasion for his lax attitude to the rules. Deliberately keeping things low-profile, perhaps? There haven’t been any confrontations with this new movement so far. They come later – and with increasing frequency and bitterness.

But despite the Pharisees’ attempts to keep things low-key, Jesus overhears them and responds – also in a rather more restrained way than he will do later. But he makes his point firmly. He has come to heal – and it isn’t only physical ailments that are awaiting his care. Like the Pharisees, Jesus recognises sin as a disorder. Unlike the Pharisees, he does not propose to deal with it through a regime of isolation and exclusion. Throughout his ministry Jesus goes into situations which the conventional religion of the Pharisees regarded as polluting and brings good news. He touches corpses and lepers. He is touched by a haemorrhaging woman. And not only is he unaffected by the outward flow of defilement; the healing power of God in him reverses it. So the corpses are raised, the lepers are cleansed and the woman’s haemorrhage is dried up.

That being so, why should not the healing power, the holiness, in him reverse the corrupting flow of sin – even in such notorious wrong ‘uns as tax-collectors? Jesus, the physician of souls, has the skill and the power to bring about their healing, too. As he has the power to bring about our healing, to free us from the dis-eases which afflict the human condition. And the key to finding that freedom, as Matthew the evangelist realised, is to grasp the truth of those words of the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, which Jesus told the Pharisees to ‘Go and learn’. It’s a phrase which Matthew records on Jesus’ lips more than once, so it was clearly important to him as a key to authentic Christian living, based not on keeping the rules in a spirit of self-righteous exclusivity but on living a life that reflects the transforming mercy of God. God does not wait for us to become “righteous”. In Jesus God calls us, as Matthew was called, to follow and to share his meal. And that has to be good news for us all.


Gospel for 20th September – John Coleridge Patteson: (Mark 8:31-35)

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. ’

Reflection:

Like Peter, most people find it hard to cope with the idea that the way up is down. Excelsior! “Onwards and upwards” is the motto. So Peter tries to stop Jesus from putting the dampers on everything, especially not now. Immediately before this passage Mark records Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah – a title which Jesus does not repudiate, but which he does not take up. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering.” And the Son of Man, in contemporary Jewish thought, was not the victorious successor to King David, but the one who stood for God’s suffering, but ultimately vindicated, people.

Peter tries to turn Jesus aside from his God-given path, but Jesus rejects him and remains steadfast. He lays it on the line for the crowd and the other disciples, too. “It’s an adventure following Jesus”, as my children used to sing at their Christian holiday club twenty summers ago. And adventures are risky, sometimes fatally. As for the man whom we commemorate today.

John Coleridge Patteson was born into a high-flying family. His father was an eminent judge. His mother’s uncle was a famous poet and significant lay theologian. His own academic career, while less illustrious than his father’s, was solid enough to win him election to an Oxford fellowship in his mid-twenties, and he was already showing the gift for languages which was to bear important fruit in his later career.

Then, at the age of 25 his life changed direction completely. Patteson gave up his fellowship and was ordained by the Bishop of Exeter, to serve as curate in the village of Alphington, now one of Exeter’s western suburbs. His curacy, though, was a short one, because in the summer of 1854 an old friend and mentor, George Selwyn, the pioneering missionary Bishop of New Zealand, paid a visit which ended with Patteson resigning his curacy and setting off for the other side of the world.

For five years he served under Selwyn, sailing between the scattered Pacific Islands of Melanesia, learning the peoples’ languages, engaged in the formation of both lay Christians and church leaders among the islanders. At the end of that time he was consecrated as the first Bishop of Melanesia. He continued his travels, funding much of the work from his own resources. He translated parts of the Bible, and parts of the English Prayer Book, into one of the most widely-spoken languages. When approaching an island where he was not known, and where the reception might not be friendly, he followed Bishop Selwyn’s practice of swimming ashore wearing a top hat packed with small gifts for the people. It usually worked. As he wrote to a cousin, “I know of twenty or thirty or perhaps forty places where a year ago, no white man could land without some little uncertainty as to his reception, but where I can feel confident now of meeting with friends.”

And then, on 20th September 1871, he and four others went ashore on the island of Nu Kapu. They received a very hostile reception. The islanders had been visited not long before by a group of “blackbirders”, men who kidnapped islanders to work on plantations in Fiji or Australia – so somewhere on the spectrum between slave traders and people traffickers, and generally feared and hated. Several islanders had been killed, and the bishop and his companions were clubbed to death, either in reprisal or in a case of mistaken identity.

John Coleridge Patteson and his companions paid the price of their faithfulness to Jesus, the suffering Son of Man. Today we honour them among those who those who have lost their life for the sake of Christ, and of the gospel.


Gospel for 14th September – Holy Cross Day: (John 3:13-17)

Jesus said to Nicodemus: ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For 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.’

Reflection:

Today’s celebration of the exaltation of the holy and life-giving cross is the end result of a tangled mass of history and legend, involving kings, and emperors, and a queen mother. It draws its name from two historical events, one of them immortalized in some of the finest artwork in Italy (Piero della Francesca’s frescoes for the church of San Francesco in Arezzo), and its date from a third. And out of this mixture of myth and history it produces a signpost pointing us to the events at the heart of our faith and to their meaning.

The emperors are Constantine and Heraclius, ruling the Roman Empire in the early years of the fourth century and the first half of the seventh. The queen mother is Helena, the Christian mother of Constantine. She had been discarded by her husband, Constantius Chlorus, so that he could make a more advantageous marriage, opening the way to higher status in the military-political complex of the late third-century empire, but when their son attained supreme power in 312 with, he firmly believed, the support of the Christian God, Helena received great honour and dignity.

The events which give today its special focus are Helena’s reputed discovery in a Jerusalem rubbish-tip of the cross on which Jesus had been crucified three centuries before, and Heraclius’s recovery of that cross from the Persian king Khosrow three centuries later, after it had been pillaged when Khosrow’s armies captured Jerusalem in 614. Both those events, however, are linked to the spring. The “Invention (in orther words, “finding”) of the Cross” appears in the Prayer Book calendar on 3rd May, and the return of the cross to Jerusalem by Heraclius took place in March. This September date actually marks the anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 335.

But despite all this “churn” of history and legend, today’s commemoration points us firmly to the cross at the heart of our faith. In the Eastern Churches, although it is listed as one of the “twelve great feasts”, it is treated almost as a second Good Friday, with church buildings stripped of ornament and the people fasting from meat, dairy and fish. Icons are removed and a cross, surrounded by basil leaves, is set out for veneration by the people, to remind them that “the Son of Man [was] lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

The kings and emperors, in the end, have very little to do with this. Rulers cannot save the world – as Heraclius discovered at the end of his reign when the armies of Islam burst out of Arabia to overrun the Middle East and North Africa. It is God’s gift of his Son which gives us hope, and I mean hope, not the easy optimism which tells itself that “It will be all right on the night”. Our hope, for ourselves and for the world, depends not on the powerful but on the apparently powerless, Jesus of Nazareth, crucified dead and buried. Our hope depends on the self-giving of the God who does not condemn, but who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Jesus, lifted up on the cross “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”, is the only source of our healing and our peace.


Gospel for 13th September (John Chrysostom) – (Matthew 5:13-19)

Jesus told his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘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.’

Reflection:

Salt and light are things that make a difference – to what we consume and to what we see. In the same way good teachers also make a difference. They give savour to our learning. They make us see the world, or at least the aspect of it that is covered by their subject, in a new way. Today we remember a man who was among the greatest teachers of Christian faith in his, or any, age.

John Chrysostom, “John of the golden mouth”, was born around the middle of the fourth century in the great city of Syrian Antioch, the modern Antakya in south-eastern Turkey, dreadfully damaged in the earthquake earlier this year. The son of a senior army officer, John was intended for the law and studied rhetoric under the greatest orator of the age, the pagan Libanius. However, he had a strong sense of calling to the monastic life, which he fulfilled by living under rule at home while he cared for his widowed mother and then, after her death, as a hermit for some years.

In his mid-thirties John was ordained deacon, and, five years later, priest. His bishop, who recognised his great gifts, commissioned John to preach, setting him, so to speak, upon an Antiochene lampstand to give light to the city – and preach John did, setting out to instruct the nominally Christian people of the city in the understanding of scripture and to encourage them in living a more authentically Christian life. Seventeen centuries on, his sermons, which gained him the nickname “golden mouth”, are still worth reading, for the clarity of their exposition and the power of their impact. Many of them were preached as part of a sustained programme of Christian education, taking books as diverse as Genesis, the Gospels and assorted letters of St Paul and going through each one, verse by verse, extracting the essence of its meaning and applying it to his hearers’ lives. He also preached in response to particular events. His series of homilies “On the Statues”, for example, were a reaction to an outbreak of civil disorder in the city.

Then, after twelve years, he was taken away from this fruitful ministry and, very much against his will, elected bishop of Constantinople. If the life of the people of Antioch had needed amendment, the people of Constantinople, by then the imperial capital, needed it even more. Extravagant wealth, much of it in the hands of members of the Emperor’s court, sat alongside abject poverty. Workers were exploited. Their masters (and mistresses) indulged in conspicuous consumption of a particularly blatant kind.

John went on the attack. “Mules bear fortunes” he said, “and Christ dies of hunger at your gates.” He spoke truth to power and power, particularly the Empress Eudoxia, didn’t like it. She decided to get rid of this turbulent priest and, abetted by one of the disappointed candidates in the election in which John had been chosen, she arranged for him to be deposed and sent into exile. The uproar which resulted led to John being recalled and reinstated, but he declined to change his ways. His attacks on the arrogance of wealth continued. Eudoxia arranged another rigged tribunal. And this time, despite the support of the people of Constantinople and Pope Innocent I and other bishops from both East and West, he was sent into exile again, with the firm intention that he should die. In the three years after his condemnation he was moved further and further east into the mountainous region at the eastern end of the Black Sea. And there, on 14th September 407, he died, on the road to his next place of detention, with the words “Glory be to God for everything” on his lips.


Gospel for 8th September – Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary: (Matthew 1:18-23)

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.

Reflection:

One of the gifts given to my mother when she married my father, was a copy of the King James Bible. Being a conscientious young woman, and a regular church-goer, she thought that she probably ought to start reading it systematically. So, she began at the beginning of Genesis, reading one chapter a night. She lasted about a week and a half. “It was all those ‘begats’ that finished me off,” she confessed many years later. And you can understand why. The first four chapters include some cracking stories, the creation of the universe, the Garden of Eden, temptation and fall, Cain and Abel. And then in chapter five you hit the first of “all those ‘begats’”, the genealogy of the human race from Adam to Noah. Then comes the story of Noah and the Ark and what happened after the flood, and then, in chapter ten we’re back to the “begats” – and this time they go on (with a short break for Babel) to the end of chapter 11. And that was the point at which my mother gave up.

Now, there are two versions of the gospel reading for the birth of the Blessed Virgin, both taken from the “account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah” which begins the Gospel according to St Matthew. But as the longer version is almost entirely made up of “begats”, I thought it might be safer to keep things short. Which is a pity, because hidden in the twisted and intertwined branches of Jesus’ family tree, there are four very interesting shoots, involving women who were not, it has to be said, archetypical “nice Jewish girls” but who lead up to Mary (the fifth woman named in the genealogy) as living reminders of the way in which God lets matters go beyond his own rules when occasion demands it: not bending them; not breaking them: just cheerfully ignoring them.

Now there’s something of that in Joseph’s plan for dealing with his apparently errant fiancée. He is prepared to go beyond the rules. He is making plans for a quiet dismissal, rather than a public shaming – or worse. But God, as the angel in Joseph’s dream makes clear, wants him to go even further. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” She has a part, a vitally important part, to play in the story of God’s relationship with Israel. Her role will be more important than that of Tamar, or Rahab, or Ruth, or the wife of Uriah, because the child she is carrying will not be just one link in the chain of Israel’s history, not even a powerful king. “He will save his people from their sins.” He will be the child prophesied by Isaiah and given the significant name “Emmanuel” (God is with us).

About six weeks ago, at the end of July, when we remembered Mary’s parents under their traditional names of Joachim and Anna, we thought about the way in which Matthew emphasises that, on the one hand, something entirely new is happening and that, at the same time, that new thing is both in continuity with and, to some extent, foreshadowed by the experience of God’s people. Mary’s has a place in Matthew’s “account of the genealogy” of Jesus the Messiah as part of the story which begins with Abraham but, as Matthew makes clear, she stands at the beginning of an astounding change in God’s relationship with this tiny portion of the creation, “a speck of cosmic dust”, as someone called it, circling round an insignificant star near one end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy. Mary’s birth, which we celebrate today, makes possible her son’s birth, and that makes possible the rebirth of all humankind to new life in God’s love.


Gospel for 6th September – Allen Gardiner: (Luke 4:38-end)

After leaving the synagogue Jesus entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them.

As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them. Demons also came out of many, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah.

At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.

Reflection:

The sequence of events in today’s gospel offers a sense of the nature of Jesus’ mission. It is sparked by an illness, reported to Jesus after he leaves the synagogue in Capernaum, which Jesus heals with a word of power. It continues with his healing of many physical and mental illnesses. And it ends with a description of his leaving the places where he is known and moving out into the wider world of first-century Palestine, represented by the other cities of Galilee and the synagogues of Judea.

All of which makes it an appropriate reading for this day, when we commemorate the tragic end of Allen Gardiner and his six companions, dead of starvation in 1851 at Spaniard Harbour in Tierra del Fuego, the group of islands at the southernmost tip of South America. They had sailed from Liverpool a year before in the ship “Ocean Queen” and landed, with their two launches and provisions for six months, on Picton Island. It was the high point of the project, which Allen Gardiner had cherished for nearly twenty years, of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the indigenous peoples of Patagonia.

Allen Gardiner had been a career naval officer, serving in the War of 1812 against the USA and voyaging to many different parts of the world, from the South Pacific to the North Atlantic. When he resigned his commission in 1826 in his early thirties his firm Christian faith, and what he had seen on his travels, had filled him with the desire to share that faith with unevangelised peoples in Southern Africa and later, when the situation in what is now Natal prevented effective evangelisation, in South America.

At first he worked in the newly-liberated Latin American states, but he was faced with opposition from the governments of those countries, and from the Catholic Church which regarded Spain’s former colonies as its own territory. It was then that he returned his attention to Patagonia. Attempts to interest British missionary societies in supporting this project foundered on questions of distance and expense. Then a generous woman benefactor gave £700 (more than €90,000 in today’s terms) and an expedition was sent out, consisting of Gardiner himself, a surgeon, a ship’s carpenter, a catechist and three Cornish fishermen to handle the launches.

They arrived safely at Picton Island in December 1850, but after that things started to go downhill very rapidly. The indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego were hostile to these European strangers. The climate was severe and the land barren. And, to cap it all, they discovered that not all their gear was unloaded from the Ocean Queen – in particular, almost all the shot with which they had planned to ensure a supply of fresh meat had been left behind. Arrangements had been made for them to be resupplied at the end of six months, but the supplies were held up in the Falkland Islands by the unavailability of shipping. Cold and hunger took them, one by one, with Gardiner the last to die, the final entry in his meticulously kept diary dated 5th September, 1851.

The relief ship finally reached Spaniard Harbour six weeks later to find their corpses and it was to be another ten weeks before they were buried, by a party of seamen from the corvette HMS Dido. So, total failure? By no means. The story of Allen Gardiner and his companions, and their faithfulness to death in the service of the Gospel, inspired other Christians in Britain to take up the work which they had begun. The “Patagonian Missionary Society” established by Gardiner and a few friends in the mid-1840s was relaunched in 1864 as the “South American Missionary Society” (SAMS, for short). For nearly 150 years, until its merger with CMS in 2009, SAMS sent out men and women to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God across Latin America, sowing seeds which have borne fruit as the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. And as we reflect on Allen Gardner and his companions we remember a saying of Jesus in St John’s Gospel: “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.”


Gospel for 24th August – St Bartholomew: (Luke 22:24-30)

A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’

Reflection:

In the Papal basilica of St John Lateran in Rome, in the arcading on either side of the nave, there are twelve larger-than-life-size statues of the twelve apostles, but with St Paul, curiously, rather than St Matthias taking the place of Judas Iscariot. One of the statues is holding what looks at first glance like an overcoat in a fold of his robe. Then, as you come nearer, you realise that the figure is holding a butcher’s knife in his right hand and that the “overcoat” is actually his skin. It’s Saint Bartholomew whom we celebrate today and who was, according to ancient tradition, flayed alive in Armenia. So, of course, he is regarded as the patron saint of butchers, tanners and glove makers.

He is also associated closely with both comedy and tragedy. The tragedy we remembered last year, on the 450th anniversary of the St Bartholomew’s day massacre, one of the bloodiest events in that chain of assassinations, mass murders, pitched battles and general butchery in the name of God which make up the French Wars of Religion. It is, as the French Protestant pastor Pierre-Olivier Léchot noted in a reflection on last year’s anniversary, a sharp reminder that when such massacres take place, they are usually carried out by the victims’ neighbours, as they were within recent memory in Rwanda and in Bosnia, a reminder of the seeds of murder which exist in very person. “The image of the wicked Catholic outsider barging in on a Huguenot family is a romantic interpretation: it is neighbours, members of the same family, people from the same neighbourhood who kill each other in the streets of Paris or who turn to accredited assassins, denouncing someone they know.”

The comedy dates from forty years after that horror, just as the battle-lines were beginning to be drawn for the religious conflicts which were to tear Britain apart in the 1640s. It is set in Smithfield, in London, a place also notorious for religiously-motivated killings in the 16th century, but it takes its title from the great celebration, originally a cloth fair, which used to begin on this day and go on for the rest of the week – and at some periods during its 700-year history for rather longer. By the time that Ben Jonson came to write “Barthol’mew Fair” in 1614, it was an event which attracted people from all over London, and beyond, and from every station in life, and Jonson took his satirical scalpel to most of them, stripping away their covering of respectability as effectively as the butcher’s knife has removed the saint’s skin on that statue of St Bartholomew in Rome.

As Ben Jonson’s characters work their way through the many strands of his plot, we find echoes of the critique of status-seeking which Jesus offers in today’s gospel. Those who seek to lord it over others are cut down to size, one way or another. Authority figures find just how far their authority runs – or doesn’t. Those who endure through all the turbulence are rewarded. And the play ends with an invitation to a meal at which all are reconciled. As we celebrate today the tragedy and the comedy of St Bartholomew, let us focus on the wise words of Pierre-Olivier Léchot: “All of us, men and women, are always liable to commit “little Saint Bartholomews”, to neglect the other person, to look away from their suffering, or even to think that their presence or even their existence disturbs us. But all of us, women and men, are also capable, in faith, of loving and of allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the call of life that God addresses to us at every moment.”


Gospel for 23rd August: (Matthew 20:1-16)

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Reflection:

It’s not fair! That’s the cry of the child – and of many adults, too – when they find themselves in a situation where feel that they have not got “their rights”, be they real or imagined. It’s the grumble of the workers in the vineyard who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” when they realise that those who had worked for only the last hour of the day were also being paid “the usual daily wage”, a Roman denarius. But is it really? What’s “not fair” when we’re talking about the kingdom of God and the gift of God’s own self, which is what that “usual daily wage” signifies? So the grumbling of the workers who had been hired in the early morning was misplaced and mean-minded. In the economy of God’s kingdom there are no “winners” and “losers”. That’s the point which Jesus is reinforcing in this parable, which Matthew places here as the follow-up to his teaching about wealth and discipleship in the previous chapter. That teaching arises from his encounter with the rich young man – and from Peter’s follow-up question ‘We have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’

When Jesus answers that question, he does so in terms of the rewards the Twelve will receive “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory“, but he ends with the enigmatic statement: ‘But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’ – a statement which he turns on its head at the end of this parable, as the disgruntled first-comers head off home with the usual daily wage, complaining not that they have been hard done-by, but that others have done better than they feel they should have.

It is a stark reminder of the difference between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms – or even the republics – of this world. Political leaders in many of them in recent years have been all too ready to create hostility between “workers and shirkers” or “strivers and skivers”, usually in order to gain electoral advantage for their party. Voters, it seems, are encouraged to be envious if the state shows the slightest sign of being “generous” to those at the bottom of the heap, although strangely that doesn’t seem apply to those at the top!

But the hallmark of God’s kingdom is the kind of wild (by human standards) generosity which is based on a sense that every human being is infinitely precious in God’s sight and therefore to be infinitely valued, irrespective of wealth, race, gender, orientation. When we envy others, we are in effect despising God, as the landowner pointedly asks one of those complaining “Friend… Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The choice of that word “friend” is an interesting one. It isn’t the usual Greek word for a friend, it’s a word which in ancient Greek usually means a comrade-in-arms, or perhaps a drinking buddy. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus uses it four times – three of them toward the end of the Gospel – and each time it is addressed to someone who is clearly in the wrong. The first time in the story about the children playing in the market-place, the second time here, addressed to the ungrateful and ungracious worker. Then in the parable of the wedding feast, where it’s addressed to the wedding guest who turned up improperly dressed. And the last time it’s used is not in a parable, but in the passion narrative: in Gethsemane, when the posse arrives to arrest Jesus. It’s the word with which Jesus addresses Judas. ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ And Judas, we remember, is strongly disapproving of the wild generosity of God.


Gospel for 16th August: (Matthew 18:15-20)

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Reflection:

One of the striking things about the New Testament communities is how unhierarchical they are, leaving aside the special role of the Apostles. The decisive authority in this teaching from Jesus isn’t the bishop, or even the vicar. It’s “the church”, in other words the assembly of believers, who have the ultimate authority, derived from God and acknowledged by God – that’s what underlies the saying about things being “bound” and “loosed” in heaven. And the church is brought in only as a last resort, when other attempts at mediation have failed, whether directly between the parties, or with the help of “one or two others”. And if the mediation of the church fails, then there is no other option but to exclude the person who has wronged their fellow-believer and refuses either to admit the wrong or to make restitution. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” Let them be placed, in other words, outside the community of the people of God.

It’s the failure exercise that role properly which has been one of the reasons why the Church of England’s safeguarding and its governance generally, are in such a mess at present, leading to calls for the involvement of outside authorities. Such a process was not unknown in the past and St Paul has a few rude words to say about it in his letters to the church at Corinth. It’s possible, however, to see why it might be attractive. Outsiders are free of any suspicion of “an agenda”, a prejudice in favour of, or against, one of the parties which might make “the church” a less than unbiased arbiter – and it has to be confessed that the Church of England in recent years has failed miserably when it has handled complaints “in-house”. Too many “big names” have not been held to account when they should have been. Sometimes this has been due to friendship, sometimes to the fear of consequences, sometimes to a failure to believe that this or that leading figure could possibly have behaved so abominably.

And so the scandals involving the Iwerne Camps, or “Soul Survivor”, or Sheffield’s “Nine O’Clock Service”, not to mention several high-profile individuals, including a few bishops, have not been resolved satisfactorily – certainly not as far as the survivors are concerned. They are more likely to feel that the Church’s processes have been used against them and that they, rather than their abusers, have been put in the position of “a Gentile and a tax collector”. More than one has committed suicide under the strain. But then, the Church twenty centuries on is not the unhierarchical model which appears in Jesus’ teaching. The existence of a culture of deference means that senior clergy – and laymen (and it is usually men) – manipulate the system and escape the consequences of their actions.

People simply look away, or shut down discussion when it becomes uncomfortable or too close to home. We saw that happening at the General Synod meeting in York last month, during which process was quite blatantly and shamelessly manipulated to protect those at the centre from having to answer hard questions, even though there were considerably more than two or three who had come along as witnesses. Deference to the powerful exists in the Church as in secular societies, so that it has become more and more difficult to see the Synod as a gathering in the name of Jesus. But if the Church loses its sense of being the community where Jesus, not process or self-preservation, is in the midst, it is surely under the judgement of God.


Gospel for 9th August – Mary Sumner: (Luke 11:9-13)

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

Reflection:

Jesus says a lot in this passage about giving and receiving. One of my cherished gifts is the copy of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church which I received from colleagues at the OU as a leaving present 40-odd years ago. In it there are short articles about two members of the Sumner family, Charles, Bishop of Winchester from 1827 to 1869, and his elder brother John, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1848 to his death in 1862. They were able and conscientious, but neither of them has left anything like the mark on world Christianity that was left by Charles’s daughter-in-law Mary, about whose gifts my Dictionary, sadly, has very little to say.

But Mary founded an organisation which still thrives not only in England, but around the world – and not least in Africa. She didn’t mean to. Nearly 150 years ago, Mary Sumner gathered a group of women in the Rectory in Old Alresford, where her husband George was the long-serving rector, searching for a way to encourage them to provide the kind of mutual support which she had missed when she first became a mother in the 1850s. She aimed to open doors and enable the women of Old Alresford to give and receive good gifts, in terms of mutual help and encouragement, in a way that the social hierarchies of Victorian England rarely, if ever, allowed. It wasn’t just nice middle-class mums who were invited to the Rectory. Working-class wives and mothers were also welcomed. And it nearly didn’t happen. Mary was stricken with a bad attack of stage fright on the day, so that George had to read out the address which she had written. But the women came back the next week, and the Mothers’ Union was born – at this stage, just as a parish organisation; a mothers’ meeting like the ones her own mother had organised in Herefordshire years before.

The next stage in opening the door came nine years later, in 1885, when a cousin of her husband, Ernest Wilberforce, the first Bishop of Newcastle, decided that he had nothing helpful to say to a women’s gathering in Portsmouth and invited Mary to speak in his place. Again she was afflicted by stage fright, but this time she overcame it and spoke passionately about the role of women in building a better, more caring society, mentioning what was happening in Old Alresford. Her ideas were picked up eagerly and introduced in other parishes in Winchester diocese, where bishop Harold Browne took the MU under his wing as a diocesan organisation. It began to spread to other dioceses, too. Bishop Wilberforce realised its potential as a force for mission in his new diocese. Older dioceses followed suit, among them Exeter, Ely, Hereford and Lichfield, until by 1897 there were nearly 170,000 members spread across 28 dioceses of the Church of England. And in that year Queen Victoria, celebrating her diamond jubilee, became the movement’s patron. That helped push the MU out into the Empire, first to New Zealand, then Canada, then India, which now provides nearly half of the MU’s worldwide membership of four million. Today Africa also makes up a large proportion, with well over a million members, about half of them in Tanzania.

The Mother’s Union still works to create a more caring society, through promoting literacy and development, good parenting, micro finance and through campaigning against violence against women and the trafficking of women. Internationally it speaks out on issues of gender equality through its representative status at the United Nations. And it all began with a fearful, tongue-tied clergy wife gathering a mixed bag of mothers in her husband’s rectory. As we remember Mary Sumner, we give thanks for the gifts she was given, the allies she found, and the doors that were opened, as she responded to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in a society in which mothers and children were too often given “a snake instead of a fish” or a scorpion where they asked for an egg.


Gospel for 2nd August: (Matthew 13:44-46)

Jesus said to the disciples, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Reflection:

Lord Harries of Pentregarth, otherwise Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford from 1987 until his retirement in 2006, has been a great writer of books. They have been about many different subjects, including prayer, art, politics, literature, bioethics, inter-faith dialogue, collections of his radio “thoughts for the day”, and, most recently, an autobiography – all of them exploring the issue under discussion in relation to Christian faith. One of his more “political” books has the intriguing title “Is there a Gospel for the Rich?” Judging by today’s gospel reading, the answer is “Yes – but…”.

Now, Jesus has many challenging things to say about, and to, the rich. Remember the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the Luke’s Gospel, the story of the rich land-owner, and the answer Jesus gave the rich young man who wanted to inherit eternal life, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

On the other hand, there were the women of substance, some of them very highly placed, who supported Jesus and the twelve. There was Zacchaeus, the tax-collector from Jericho, and Joseph, the rich man from Arimathea. None of them were, as the saying is, short of a bob or two. All were drawn to the promise of the kingdom. And there’s the man in the second of those two parables which make up the Gospel for today, the merchant in search of fine pearls. Pearls were prized in the ancient world. They were a symbol of wealth and luxury. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra is said to have dissolved a beautiful and hugely expensive pearl in a bowl of vinegar and drunk a toast to her lover Mark Antony in the resulting liquor. Pearls were prized, for their beauty and for their rarity, each one the product of a long and painful process as an oyster secretes a protective covering to stop an intrusive piece of seabed grit from hurting quite so much.

So the merchant in search of fine pearls must have been as wealthy as the man who found treasure in a field was poor. Where the merchant could buy on the open market, the treasure-finder has to pull a fast one on the current owner of the field. But both of them had to do more or less exactly what Jesus told the rich young man to do. “Go, sell what you own… and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” is not very far from “He went and sold all that he had and bought it.” So the qualifications for entry into the kingdom of heaven are the same, for both rich and poor. Those qualifications are determination – even ruthlessness – and a willingness to give up everything else, for the sake of this hidden treasure, the one pearl of great value.

Now it’s that last bit that causes problems for the rich. They have more. So they have more to lose when they follow the Lord’s instruction “Go, sell what you own…” That’s why he tells the disciples ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ And that’s why oil company executives – and some politicians – find it so hard to accept the need to cut down on the use of fossil fuels. They are too attached to their bonuses, their holiday homes, their private aircraft, and all the other trappings of modern wealth to pay attention to the reality that parts of this earth are on fire while other parts are drowning. And if they cannot see the reality which their behaviour is inflicting on the kingdoms of this world, how can they understand the promise of the kingdom of heaven? So it’s a very big “but” when we answer Bishop Richard’s question – and a challenge to us, who, in global terms, are rich.


Thoughts on marriage

On Saturday, 29th July two Nigerian members of the congregation at the Church of the Holy Ghost came to ask God’s blessing on the civil marriage which they had contracted at the Sala Cerimonie in Corso Torino earlier in the week. The reflection which follows was inspired by their choice of reading: Ephesians 5:21-end.

Those words from the letter to the Ephesians are often used by conservative Christians to justify what is sometimes called a “complementarian” view of marriage, which gives all the power in the relationship to the man and leaves the woman with the tasks of housekeeping and childbearing – not necessarily in that order.

That is a view of marriage which was very common in the ancient world – and it still is in parts of the world. But it is not the view expressed in the letter to the Ephesians, nor in most of the rest of the New Testament. In a world where women were normally treated as property, available, disposable, exploited, with no rights, the earliest Christians asserted the worth and dignity of women, as Jesus their Lord did – and as the writer to the Ephesians does. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.”

This was radical, revolutionary stuff – almost fighting talk! In a world where pagan philosophers wondered whether women had souls, these words are a clear affirmation that women are capable of holiness, as the Church is capable of holiness – and that it is the man’s task to help his wife to grow in holiness, as, elsewhere in the New Testament (including the letters of St Paul), we learn that it is a woman’s task to do the same for her husband. And it is a powerful reinterpretation, on the domestic level, of the second great commandment: “love your neighbour as yourself.”

That is the challenge which our couple have taken on. They have done the contractual bit. On Monday in Corso Torino they became a legal entity, “one flesh” (we might say) in the eyes of the Italian state. Today they have come to seek the strength, the courage and the humility which each of them will need in the years that lie ahead: strength to cope with the demands made on them as parents, courage to cope with the challenges of living as strangers in a strange land, humility to cope with the obligations imposed by the stark realities of life together.

A marriage, after all, has to be able to cope not just with the major crises of life, birth and death and all that lies between, but with the shock of discovering that your life partner squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube or insists on sleeping with the bedroom window open even in the depths of winter. And don’t get me started on hairs in the bathroom sink – but that’s only envy!

The love and respect which are the last words of today’s reading are key to all of this, though I wouldn’t entirely agree that the love should be all one way, from husband to wife, or the respect all one way, from wife to husband. To maintain a marriage through all the challenges of modern life requires a two-way exchange between the partners, a mutuality, in both respect and love. But, again, we need to think back to the culture in which those words were written, a culture in which love, and particularly the kind of love in action which first-century Christians talked about, played little or no part in the relationship between men and women. In that culture women were generally exploited by men for their labour and for sex and men were seen by women as a necessary evil, providing protection (maybe) and making babies.

The letter to the Ephesians rejects those ways of looking at relationships between men and women. Instead, it relates them to Christ, to that self-giving love in action which Jesus modelled in his dealings with both women and men and which finds its fullest expression in his death on the cross. And it reminds those who read, or heard, the letter that the Church, as Christ’s body, is called to practice that same self-giving, that same love in action, in relationships between its members, as well as with the wider world. We are, as has been said, the eyes and ears and hands and feet of Christ, serving him in the world, and in one another. So pray, in the days and weeks and months to come, for those who marry, that they may see and serve Christ in one another, growing in a mutual love which is more than just “warm fuzzies” until their love is taken up into the love of the cosmic Christ, the “love which moves the sun and the other stars”.


Gospel for 26th July: Anna and Joachim – (Matthew 13:16-17)

Jesus said to the disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

Reflection:

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel there is a particular sense that, on the one hand, something entirely new is happening and that ,at the same time, that new thing is both in continuity with and, to some extent, foreshadowed by the experience of God’s people. That’s very clear in these words from near the mid-point of the Gospel. What the disciples are hearing and seeing is new. It is God breaking into God’s creation in an entirely new way. But at the same time what they are seeing and hearing is something whose coming the prophets and saints of Israel had “longed to see.”

That sense of a continuity which is also discontinuity takes on an added dimension on this day when we celebrate Anna and Joachim, the names traditionally given to the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Their story, as it has come down to us, is a kind of theological “retro-fit”. We go back into the patterns of the distant past to find a model for the present – the present, in this case, being some time around the middle of the second century of our era. That’s when someone, probably in Syria, borrowed the name of James – not the son of Zebedee whom we celebrated yesterday, but James the Lord’s brother – and used it to give added heft to a book which tidied up various loose ends in the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and of Luke’s, and attempted to quash some of the wilder speculation which had become attached to Mary and Joseph. Most of this back-story is fairly clearly drawn from the beginning of the first Book of Samuel and the story of Hannah (the Hebrew name which becomes Anna in Greek), another account of a loving, but childless couple.

Now, such a borrowing fits very snugly into the thought-world of the Hebrew Scriptures. At many points in the story of Israel, from Abraham and Sarah right up to Elizabeth and Zechariah, when God is about to start something new, that “something new” begins with a blessing of the barren – who are often the old. The story of Anna and Joachim fits neatly into that pattern, as a kind of imaginative commentary on the nativity stories, reflecting the ways in which God brings blessings to and through those who are advanced in years.

Later today in St George’s church in Norwich, family and friends will gather to say their farewells to Jean Devenport, who died a fortnight ago full of years and faith, and I suspect that many older members of the Anglican congregations in Italy will be with them in Spirit. It’s nearly eleven years since Bishop Eric died, thirty years since he retired as a bishop, and a quarter of a century since he retired as Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, but both of them are still fondly remembered both for their time in Florence and for the years from 2002 to 2010 when Bishop Eric, by then in his mid-seventies, was very active as one of the locum chaplains here in Genova. Jean came with him, but not as “the bishop’s wife” after the manner of Trollope’s Mrs Proudie. On Sunday after the Eucharist the wardens and I had our usual session of reflection on the morning and the previous week, and the conversation turned to Jean. Mary and Lis were both adamant that she had no “side”. If a job needed doing, or if someone needed a helping hand with the cleaning or the washing up, she was in there. Bishop’s wife be blowed! She was “family” to the people of Holy Ghost Genoa, as she was to those gathering in St George’s, Tombland, this afternoon. With them we give thanks for the life of a faithful Christian and entrust her to the love and mercy of God.


Jean Devenport’s family has suggested that those who wish to remember Jean make a donation to their local food bank. We will be happy to accept any such donations in Genova. Gifts can be made either through the “Just Giving” page on the diocesan website (specifying that the gift is to Genova in memory of Jean) or direct to the church’s account:

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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.’

Reflection:

It has to be admitted that when the two sons of Zebedee, James and his brother John, appear in the Gospels they do not always distinguish themselves. They respond, like Peter and Andrew, to Jesus’ call. With Peter they make up the inner circle of disciples who are witnesses at key points in Jesus ministry, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the transfiguration. They are party, with Peter and Andrew, to Jesus’ thoughts about the coming tribulation and the birth pangs of the new age. Then we come to the down side, at which Jesus, perhaps, hints when he gives them the nickname “Boanerges”, “sons of thunder”. Is he hinting that they are, to quote the Scottish play, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

They are certainly inclined to make a lot of fuss. St Mark tells how John tries to stop a man outside the circle of disciples from healing people in Jesus’s name, “because he was not following us”. In the New Testament reading at morning prayer on St James’s day, we learn that the two brothers asked permission to call down fire from heaven and consume a Samaritan village which had refused to welcome Jesus and the Twelve because they were heading for Jerusalem. Finally, when Jesus asks them, with Peter, to watch and pray with him in Gethsemane, they doze off, only waking to run away when Jesus is arrested. And before that, there’s the episode which Matthew describes in today’s Gospel, when their mother comes to ask a favour on behalf of her boys.

The initial reaction is “How can they get it so wrong?” Especially when Jesus has just spent time while they were on the road explaining to the disciples that ‘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.’ But that raises a further question: how do we – who have the advantage of hindsight, of knowing what happened and all that has flowed from in in the twenty centuries since – how do we get it so wrong? When the Church, of whatever denomination or tradition, cosies up to power, when the Church seeks privileges for herself, or exemptions from the normal application of the law of the land, isn’t it asking the same sort of favour as the mother of the sons of Zebedee?

Following Jesus isn’t about power and privilege, either then or now. Following Jesus is, as James was to learn soon afterwards, about drinking the cup which Jesus was about to drink. Following Jesus is about learning to be a servant, even a slave; at the disposal of others, not “lording it over them”, not avoiding responsibility, or seeking to please the crowd like King Herod Agrippa when “he had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.“ Following Jesus is about “making tough choices”, but not in the sense that politicians normally use that phrase. When they talk about “making tough choices” they mean choices that will cause suffering for other people – but not for them. “Tough choices” for Christians are choices which take them in the footsteps of Jesus, choices which may lead, as the choices of Jesus did, to the cross.


Gospel for 5th July – (Matthew 8:28-end)

When Jesus came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’ Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.’ And he said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighbourhood.

Reflection:

In the ancient world, tombs were thought to be the dwelling of demons. Some of the scarier stories about the Desert Fathers are about them spending the night in pagan burial-places and fighting off the spiritual assaults of demonic powers who were outraged that their space had been invaded. That is part of the background to Matthew’s telling of the story of the Gadarene demoniacs.

Another part of the background is the passage which comes immediately before it: Matthew’s version of the stilling of the storm. That is the demonstration of Jesus’ authority over the hostile forces of nature, as today’s gospel is the demonstration of his authority over the hostile forces of supernature. It also, in a sense, answers the question which the disciples asked one another as the storm on the lake ceased: ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’ The demons answer it for them when they greet Jesus with the words, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God?’ The demons in the Gospels are always truth-tellers – albeit reluctant ones – when they are confronted by Jesus.

It’s the authority of Jesus which seems to be Matthew’s overriding interest in telling this story. His version is very much shorter than either Mark’s or Luke’s (seven verses as opposed to twenty in Mark or fourteen in Luke), and what he cuts is what we would call the “human interest” element. The men have no “back story”. He omits any mention of what happened to them when the demons had come out of them. He says nothing about the reaction of the wider populace, those in nearby towns and villages who weren’t affected by the loss of valuable livestock.

What interests Matthew is the authority of Jesus – and perhaps the fact that it is displayed in a Gentile setting. Gadara is on the “other” side of lake Galilee, the eastern side. It was one of the ten Greek-speaking cities which formed the league of the Decapolis – and were not part of the territory of Herod the Great’s son, Philip. After Herod the Great’s death they were taken into the Roman province of Syria. There may have been a Jewish element in the population, but it wasn’t dominant. The fact that the locals kept pigs, and valued them, is proof of that. For a Jewish evangelist, trained as a scribe, as Matthew apparently was, and writing for a largely Jewish readership, the reaction of the people of Gadara would have seemed strange. The unclean beings, the demons, were allowed to enter the unclean creatures, the pigs, and both perished. So what? It’s only profit-conscious goyim and, in later times, sentimental Anglo-Saxons, their attitudes toward such animals formed in childhood by Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland and Alison Utley’s Sam Pig, not to mention Wilbur from “Charlotte’s Web”, and Babe the sheep-pig, who would worry.

But the townspeople’s rejection of Jesus seems to have a spin-off for Matthew. When, two chapters later, Jesus commissions the Twelve and sends them out to preach and heal and cast out demons, he warns them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Was that, perhaps, one outcome of the events in Gadara? That the good news of God’s coming kingdom, proclaimed in word and action, should be limited, for now at any rate, to those best prepared to hear it? And that if they, too, refused to listen, they should be treated like the dust wiped from a pair of travel-stained sandals? In Matthew’s eyes the rejection of God’s healing power would seem to be as self-destructive as the decision of the demons to enter the herd of pigs. But why, unlike Mark or Luke, does he not make the corresponding affirmation?


Gospel for 3rd July – St Thomas (John 20:24-29)

Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Reflection:

One of the questions which is rarely asked when people consider the story of “doubting Thomas” is the question what Thomas was doing on that first Easter Day while the rest of the twelve were hiding themselves away behind locked doors? He was out and about while they were all “in the bunker”, so to speak, shattered by the events of the previous three days and fearful that they too would be arrested by the Jewish authorities. That absence suggests that Thomas had not lost his streak of stubborn courage, that he was prepared to venture into the city, which was now hostile territory, when others did not dare.

During the debate about Jesus’ possible return to Judea at the time of Lazarus’ death that courage had led Thomas to say ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ At the last supper the same courage led him to challenge Jesus when he told the disciples that they knew the way to the place where he was going. Thomas replied: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Thomas has the courage to say what others are probably thinking. He also has the courage to resist the easy charms of group-think, to resist the temptation to go along with the others for the sake of a quiet life – even when it’s ten voices repeating excitedly ‘We have seen the Lord.’ John’s Greek suggests that they didn’t just tell Thomas once. The word that John uses suggests that they kept on telling him.

Now, each time he appears in John’s Gospel the stubborn courage of Thomas leads to a deeper revelation. His intervention in the discussion about Lazarus leads to the display of Jesus’ power over death. His challenge to Jesus’ words at the last supper leads to Jesus making himself known as “the way, the truth and the life”. Here his initial mistrust of what the others were telling him leads to a decisive encounter with the risen Jesus and the fullest confession in John’s Gospel that Jesus is Lord and God, a confession that draws down a blessing on those who, unlike Thomas, “have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

But it’s Thomas’s stubborn courage, his unwillingness to “go with the flow”, which makes these revelations possible. Because he doesn’t go along with the group-think, he is able to see more clearly and speak more decisively. But, while he may reject the group-think, he does not reject the group. He stays in touch with them and they, to their credit, remain in touch with him. As the great Reformer Martin Bucer of Strasbourg (and later Cambridge) wrote fifteen centuries later, possibly with Thomas in mind, “Flee formulae: bear with the weak. While all faith is placed in Christ the thing is safe. It is not given for all to see the same thing at the same time.” Sadly, many churches today seem to have lost sight of that wisdom. Those who see differently are, all too often, “out”.

The Church today needs Thomas. Not the “doubting Thomas” of popular myth, but the stubborn, brave Thomas of John’s Gospel, facing the reality of what it means to follow Jesus, unafraid to ask questions or to suspend judgement, out and about amid the dangers of the city when the other disciples are sheltering fearfully behind locked doors. A Church which has no room for Thomas or, even worse, deliberately excludes Thomas because the questions he asks make others feel uncomfortable, or because it puts self-protection ahead of truth and honesty – such a Church is doomed, however often and however loudly it repeats ‘We have seen the Lord’, unless it finds the courage to face the living Christ, who still bears in his risen body the marks of the human hatred and rejection which brought him to the cross.


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.’

Reflection:

In my previous diocese the joint dedication of churches to St Peter and St Paul is quite common. Some of them are ordinary village churches, like Wingrave and Shiplake. Others are rather grand town churches: Newport Pagnell and Olney, for example. One of them is a former abbey church and the original mother church of St Birinus’ diocese of Dorchester, out of whose ruins the Diocese of Oxford was created several centuries later.

In some ways that’s quite surprising given the rather prickly way in which Peter and Paul interacted in the three decades between Paul’s dramatic coming to Christian faith and his and Peter’s death during the persecution under Nero. They were very different people from very different cultures: Peter the Aramaic-speaking Galilean fisherman, born and brought up in first-century Palestinian Judaism. Paul the energetic, some might say fanatical, young Pharisee from one of the Greek-speaking Jewish communities in what is now southern Turkey, trained as a rabbi in Jerusalem. They are Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple”, taken back in time nineteen and a half centuries.

In another way it isn’t at all surprising. Peter and Paul are linked together by the place and the date of their death. They are linked, whether they liked it or not, by their leadership roles in the earliest Christian communities. They are also linked by their readiness to take the good news of Jesus the Messiah beyond the synagogues of Eastern Mediterranean Jewry. In fact, that shared readiness was in some ways the cause of their pricklier interactions. Nevertheless, if it weren’t for the seeds sown by Peter and Paul you and I would probably not be sitting here now, and the history of the world would have been hugely different.

Now, as is so often the case in difficult relationships, what unites this “odd couple” is, to unbiased eyes, much greater than what divides them. Despite Paul’s occasional kvetching about Peter’s behaviour in Antioch and that of his fan club in Corinth, and despite the rather “snippy” comments about Paul’s teaching which appear in the second of the letters attributed to Peter, they share a firm belief in the life-transforming, world-transforming impact of Jesus of Nazareth. Peter instinctively and Paul perhaps more analytically both affirm the unity of Jesus with God and proclaim his power to bring healing and wholeness not only to Israel – which was the expected role of any Messiah – but to the entire universe, that “whole creation” which “has been groaning in labour pains until now” as it “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God“.

In his out-of-the-blue declaration that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ and in his visit to the gentile household of Cornelius, Peter creates the first gaps in the defensive walls around first-century Judaism while Paul makes the breach wider, at the same time working out the implications of such a step for the whole community and what it tells us about Jesus in relation to God, using the tools provided by his rabbinical training to come to some very un-rabbinical conclusions. So on this day we celebrate the work of both Peter and Paul as apostles, agents sent out with full powers to speak in the name of the Master they serve. And we pray that we may find in ourselves the capacity to act in ways that take us beyond our own defensive walls and to reflect on what that action teaches us about the nature and being of God.


Gospel for 28th June – Irenaeus (Luke 11:33-36)

Jesus told the crowds, ‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.’

Reflection:

Jesus talks a lot about the need for clear vision – and parables like the one in this Gospel reading have a particular force in a “post-truth” world. People sometimes appear to think that such a world is modern and that blame for “post-truth” can be laid at the door of Messrs Trump and Johnson, working on a foundation laid by the late Signor Berlusconi. But in fact “post-truth” goes back a long way before that, beyond Josef Goebbels, beyond the propagandists of Soviet Russia. It goes back at least to the days of the Roman Empire and to the time of the saint we celebrate today.

Irenaeus was probably born round about the year 130 in the great Aegean seaport of Smyrna, the modern-day Turkish city of Izmir. He certainly knew the saintly bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, writing in later life that he kept Polycarp’s teachings “not on paper, but in my heart, for the things that are learned in childhood are part of our soul.” Like Polycarp, who had known John and others who had seen the Lord, Irenaeus became a key figure in the post-apostolic Church, handing on Christian faith from one generation to the next. Unlike Polycarp, he did not remain in Asia Minor. He moved out of the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire, first to Rome where he spent some time studying, and then to the great Gaulish city of Lugdunum, modern-day Lyon, where he was ordained and where in 177 he was chosen to succeed Pothinus, the Bishop of Lyon, who had died, with four dozen other Christians, in a vicious local persecution.

Irenaeus’ task was to rebuild the Church in Lyon, to protect it not only from hostile forces on the outside but also from subversion within. In particular his task was to defend mainstream Christian faith against an attempted take-over by various sects who claimed a secret knowledge, in Greek “gnosis”, which enabled those who acquired it to progress in the spiritual life. In some respects this “gnosis” operated much as conspiracy theories do today and the “Gnostics”, as they were called, can be seen as distant ancestors of the people who sign up to Q-Anon and similar networks. They lit their lamp and placed it firmly in the cellar. And they invited others to join them there, to share their secret knowledge while the rest of the world was shut out.

Irenaeus was having none of it. His name, in Greek, means “peaceable”, and even before he became a bishop he had something of a reputation as a Church diplomat, using his experience of both the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West to help resolve difficulties that arose between congregations in the different parts of the Roman Empire. When it came to dealing with the Gnostics, however, he was uncompromising. He rejected their claims to secret knowledge. Instead he set out what has since become the accepted foundation of faith, expressed authoritatively in the Scriptures, which by Irenaeus’ time included many of the writings which make up the New Testament as well as the Hebrew Scriptures, and guaranteed by the succession of Church leaders in each place, as Irenaeus had learned from Polycarp, who had learned from John, who had known the Lord. All was open and above board, and clearly handed on from one generation to the next. The light of the Gospel was set on the lampstand, so that all could see it and respond.

The care and insight with which Irenaeus worked these things out make him one of the most important Christian thinkers in the period that followed the age of the apostles. His two great works, “Against the Heresies” and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching”, are still worth reading. He calls the Church now, as he did then, to a clear-sighted focus on God as the source of life and on Jesus, who is one with the Father and who brings light and healing to the world.


Gospel for 31st May – The Visit of the Blessed Virgin 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.

Reflection:

In the days when I had a regular confessor, I would sometimes complain that I was fed up with always bringing him an account of the same boring faults and failings. Original sins they weren’t. Bill would look at me, and smile, and remind me gently “There are only seven, you know.” Dante uses those seven in his Comedia as the framework of the central section, Purgatorio. Once he and Virgil have clambered out of the terraces of Ante-Purgatory, they start the steep ascent of the mountain where those sins are purged away, starting with pride and ending, just below the summit, with lust. At each level they encounter sinners on their way to heaven. The first three levels are devoted to love perverted, or, if you prefer it, the love of neighbours’ harm (through pride, envy or anger); the final three to love excessive, whether of money and power, pleasure, or people. And in the middle, halfway up like the Grand Old Duke of York, are the slothful, the people “neither up nor down” in whom the dynamic power of love had been lacking in their life on earth, a life that had been lived in the state of mind that my children’s generation calls “CBA”.

On each level those who are on their way to heaven have short motivational slogans to shout, or chant, or sing, as they make their slow progress up the mountain. Some of them are awful warnings against backsliding. Others are encouragements to press onwards and upwards. One of those encouragements for the slothful to repeat is the first verse of today’s Gospel: “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” It’s certainly an example of vigorous – and risk-taking – activity. Remember that Mary has only just found out that she is pregnant. It’s also an example of activity undertaken in response to love. At the human level, it’s Mary’s love for her kinswoman Elizabeth, despised for years because of her childlessness, which sends her on that risky journey south from Nazareth. But it is also, perhaps, Mary’s sense that both she and Elizabeth have been caught up into God’s loving purposes for humankind in ways which are, to put it mildly, unconventional, if not downright shocking: with one mother-to-be post-menopausal with an aged husband, and the other probably no more than a teenager, betrothed to a man but carrying a child which is not his. They have a solidarity in their scandalous chosen-ness.

“Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” In a world which avoids action, or despises it and labels it “activism”, Mary’s energy is a rebuke to those who can’t be bothered. It is not only a rebuke to those half-way up the mountain whose penance is to engage in ceaseless activity, unlike all the others who rest at sunset and begin the work of purgation again next morning. It is also a rebuke to those in our age who are infected with menefreghismo, who have given up on life, who refuse to engage in the great struggles for justice of our age: justice for the poor, for refugees and asylum-seekers, for the other created beings with whom we share this planet. For them the solidarity of Mary and Elisabeth and their mutual joy, embodied in John’s embryonic feet leaping in delight at the sound of Mary’s voice, are meaningless, or foolish, or both. But in writing off ideas of solidarity and commitment, in ruling out the possibility of hope or justice, they are writing off their own potential to become alive with what were described on Sunday as “hearts which beat with the longings of God.” They cut themselves off from that life-giving love which caused Mary and Elizabeth to overflow with the joy and hope which we celebrate today.


Gospel for 24th May – John and Charles Wesley (Mark 6:34-13)

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Reflection:

“In the evening” John Wesley wrote in his journal for 24th May, 1738, “I went very unwillingly to a Society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ; Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” That experience, which paralleled a similar event in his brother Charles’s life a few days earlier, is the reason why we remember the Wesleys on this day, rather than in March, the month in which both of them died, Charles in 1788 and John in 1791.

The events of May 1738 were the culmination of more than a decade of anxious searching after God and the assurance of God’s grace. That search, which began when they were undergraduates at Oxford, had taken the brothers across the Atlantic to the newly-established colony of Georgia. There John, not for the first time nor the last, made a fool of himself over a woman, with the result that both he and Charles had to leave in a hurry and in secret, in order to avoid arrest.

Back in England, they continued their search, guided by the pastor of the Moravian congregation in London, Frankfurt-born Peter Bohler, who gave John the advice to “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” Bohler continued to be a wise mentor to the brothers until his own departure for the Americas in autumn 1738. By then the outlines of a new mission for the brothers were becoming clear. Both continued to preach, sometimes in the face of violent opposition, untrammelled by the needs of a parish, and sitting, in John’s case, increasingly lightly to the structures and discipline of the Church of England. His claim that “The world is my parish” does not sit easily with traditional Anglican thinking – and his journal records some bruising encounters with more conventional colleagues, and one or two bishops, including the great Samuel Butler of Bristol, and later Durham. Despite this, both Charles and John remained priests of the Church of England until their death and encouraged the members of the societies they founded, “the people called Methodists”, to be faithful communicants at their parish church.

Charles discovered a God-given gift for hymn-writing. John’s gifts for organisation and popularisation were unleashed. He became one of the most effective educators of the age, through his books, some of them “abridgements” of classic works of spirituality, but also a one-volume commentary on the New Testament and handbooks on housekeeping. Between them they drew to Christ thousands of people whom the parish system had failed to reach, particularly in the emerging industrial areas of England, and who were as much “sheep without a shepherd” as the rural poor of first-century Galilee. Like the disciples in the Gospel passage, the Wesleys travelled widely by land and sea, John until almost the day of his death at the age of 87. John early recognised the need for trained men and women who could proclaim the good news of Christ and set up the travelling ministry of local preachers, which survives in British Methodism to this day, to support those Anglican clergy who were well-disposed to John’s way of doing things. Again, like the disciples in today’s Gospel, they were gathered from time to time, in conference, to share “all that they had done and taught” and to learn. That practice, too, continues to this day.

But the image with which I end is of John Wesley on his deathbed, singing, until his voice failed, Isaac Watts’ hymn “I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” and repeating, “The best of all is, God is with us.”


Gospel for 17th May – Rogation Day (Luke 11:5-13)

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

Reflection:

In the late fifth century the city of Vienne in Gaul was much troubled by seismic activity in the surrounding regions. They are still subject to earthquakes (usually very minor), but the nearby volcanoes whose activity reportedly caused the greatest alarm in those days are now either long-term dormant or extinct. It was as a response to that activity, and the resulting damage to buildings and crops, that the then Bishop of Vienne established a short season of processions around the towns and villages of his diocese on the three days before Ascension Day, the Rogation Days, with a focus on asking God to preserve the crops and the people. Rogation means “asking”. Other people heard about this and thought that praying for the crops was a good thing to do, even if they weren’t troubled by either volcanoes or earthquakes, and the practice or processing prayerfully round the fields spread across Gaul and then into neighbouring lands, including Italy and Britain.

In country areas in Britain the practice still continues – and not only in the country. My last parish, which is on the edge of town, did it within living memory. And when I sang in the choir of the university church in Oxford forty-odd years ago, we would go out at this time of year to “beat the bounds” of our city-centre parish, and pray for the well-being of the people who lived and worked there – and the crops of the colleges’ kitchen gardens. Sadly, the boundaries of our pastoral responsibility here spread rather too widely to make a procession remotely feasible, but the focus on asking God to bless the people and their activities, be they agricultural, maritime, mercantile or whatever, is still something worth pursuing.

So this morning’s gospel takes us through part of Jesus’ teaching on prayer as it is collected in St Luke’s Gospel. It’s his response to a request from one of the disciples, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John [the Baptist] taught his disciples.’ Jesus responds by giving the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, in Luke’s heavily condensed version. He continues with this encouragement to persist in prayer, even when the initial response appears to be negative or non-existent, and to pray with the confidence that whatever answer comes in response to our prayer will be ultimately for our good. Sinful human beings give good gifts to their children. How can our heavenly Father not do the same?

That’s why we pray today for the harvest of land and sea, for the well-being of this city and its people; and tomorrow for the concerns raised by the prayer initiative “Thy Kingdom Come”, which is another initiative which, like the bishop’s processions round the fields, started in one small part of the Church and spread far beyond its borders. It began seven years ago as an invitation to the Church of England. Its umbrella now covers thousands of events worldwide, from the Arctic Circle to the Antipodes and from the Far East, across Asia and Europe, to the West Coast of the USA. We shall be opening the church tomorrow for an “Ascension Day of Prayer”, but we are invited to pray during the whole ten days, from Ascension to Pentecost, our Patronal Festival. So, I invite each of you to ask, and search, and knock during these coming days – not only for yourselves, but also for those neighbours who are safely tucked up in bed with the door locked – and to pray that the gifts of the Holy Spirit may so abound among us that we bear a rich crop for salvation.


Gospel for 15th May – St Matthias (John 15:9-17)

Jesus said to the 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.’

Reflection:

There is a shadow that hangs over this passage, as it does over St Luke’s account of the choice of Matthias to complete the number of the Twelve. It’s the shadow of Judas Iscariot. In John’s Gospel the long speeches of Jesus which scholars call the “farewell discourses”, and in which he speaks, as he does here, about friendship and love, are all delivered after Judas has accepted the morsel of bread and left the upper room, with John’s chilling note of time: “And it was night.”

Matthew and Luke both describe the death of Judas: by suicide in Matthew’s Gospel, as a footnote to his account of Jesus’ suffering and death; by divine punishment in Acts, as an aside to the main narrative thread of the book’s first chapter. Luke sometimes gives the impression of being rather keen on divine punishment, in contrast to his reputation as the urbane and sophisticated advocate of the Christian way to the kind of people whom a Biblical scholar of the romantic era was to describe eighteen centuries later as “the cultured despisers of religion.”

But some people ask why Judas should be punished for an act that was necessary to the completion of humanity’s salvation; an act which, as John reminds his readers, was carried out with Jesus’ permission. ‘Do quickly,’ Jesus tells him, ‘what you are going to do.’

It’s noticeable, too, that while English-language versions of the Gospels always describe Judas as “betraying” Jesus, the normal Greek word meaning “betray” is never used in the Gospels – not even by John, who seems to have a particular animus against Judas, describing him as a thief and embezzler. The word which is used to describe what Judas does has as its primary meaning the much more neutral “hand over”. It’s the same word which Mark and Matthew use when they describe what happened to John the Baptist.

What the motive of Judas was remains a mystery. In this year’s Holy Week addresses I suggested one possible reason for his action, building on the intriguing suggestion made by Dorothy L. Sayers in her cycle of radio plays “The Man Born to be King”. In which case, the punishment of Judas (as in Acts 1) would have been for his attempt to manipulate Jesus, or his suicide (as in Matthew) the working out of his despair and his failure to turn and repent as Peter did. Peter’s language in Acts 1, incidentally, like that of the whole community when it prays for the choice of the right replacement, is very restrained. Like the words of Jesus in the gospel passage, they focus on friendship and on closeness to Jesus. Matthias had been such a friend, accompanying the Twelve, as Peter says, “throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” and listening to Jesus as he has “made known… everything that [he has] heard from [the] Father”.

Today we give thanks for Matthias’s friendship and faithfulness – and as we lament the necessary action of Judas, we are, I think, allowed to wonder if he has, somehow, found mercy at the hands of God, whose agent he was in the work of our salvation. The 17th-century French thinker Blaise Pascal certainly seems to have thought so, writing in his Pensées, “Jesus does not regard in Judas his enmity, but the order of God, which he loves and admits, since he calls him friend.”


Gospel for 10th May (John 15:1-8)

Jesus said to the 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. ’

Reflection:

Right at the beginning of John’s Gospel Andrew, with another (unnamed) disciple of John the Baptist, approached Jesus and asked him, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’. His answer was ‘Come and see.’ Today, we learn the deeper meaning of that answer, because the Greek word translated as “stay” in John chapter 1 is the same word that is translated here as “abide”. Where is Jesus staying? He is staying, or abiding, in the disciples. And he invites them to abide, to stay, in him, as a fruit-bearing branch abides in the vine.

It’s a powerful image. In the study of our house in Devon there is an icon, a souvenir from a pilgrimage I led to Greece not quite 20 years ago. It’s an icon of “Christ the True Vine”, with Jesus appearing out of the main stem and the disciples emerging on sub-branches like twelve bunches of grapes, reminding us that their life – and our life – depends totally on his life.

That applies even when our life is not going well, or comfortably; when we are faced with situations of loss or diminishment; when the dream job goes to someone else; when a relationship breaks down; when advancing years confront us with our frailty. In all of those situations there are two options open to us. They are complaint or acceptance. We can moan about our loss, or we can take it on board. The Franciscan teacher and writer, Richard Rohr, has written about what he calls “falling upward”, about the times when he has been faced with such situations, including a serious health scare a few years ago. The key, he discovered, was accepting his own powerlessness, accepting that he was in other hands – whether the doctors’ or God’s.

That, I think, is part of what Jesus means when he talks about the Father “pruning” the branches. As Fr Richard writes, ‘Any talk of growth, achievement, climbing, improving, and progress highly appeals to the ego. But the only way we stay on the path with any authenticity is to constantly experience our incapacity to do it, our failure at doing it. That’s what makes us, to use my language, fall upward. Otherwise, we’re really not climbing; we’re just thinking we’re climbing by saying to ourselves, “Look, I’m better today. Look, I’m holier than I was last week. Look, my prayer is improving.” That really doesn’t teach us anything or lead us anywhere new.’ We might even go so far as saying that talk of growth and achievement, and those other “positive mental attitudes” that Fr Richard lists are the things that actually cause us to wither as branches of Christ the vine, because we imagine that we can do it all in our own strength.

Jesus makes very clear that that is not an option. He tells the disciples, ‘Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.’ And, just in case they didn’t get it the first time, he adds, ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ So the way to growth and fruitfulness, the way to abide in Jesus, is to recognise that we aren’t terribly good at doing the things he calls us to do; that we aren’t very good at following his way; that we need to stop patting ourselves on the back because “our relationship with Jesus is deepening” and admit that we have not yet begun to love, or to serve, the Lord who calls us. But that doesn’t matter. It’s when we have the courage to face our failure, to face our need, it’s then that we learn and grow and “bear much fruit” for God.


Gospel for 3rd May (John 12:44-end)

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.’

Reflection:

The twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel is something of a roller-coaster ride. It begins at the meal during which Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume, filling the house with its fragrance. It continues with the entry into the city at which Jesus is received like a king, through the encounter with the Greek-speaking pilgrims who approach Philip with the request “Sir, we want to see Jesus”, and the voice from heaven which follows it. That is followed by Jesus’ disappearance from view and John’s assessment of the crowd’s unbelief, backed up by two quotations from the prophecies of Isaiah.

First, a well-known verse from the last of the “Servant Songs”: ‘Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ Then some words adapted from the prophet’s account of his vision in the temple “in the year King Uzziah died”: ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.’

At each point a moment of exaltation is followed by a sudden dip downwards: into Judas Iscariot’s monetisation of Mary’s gesture of love; into the Pharisees’ continuing opposition; into the crowd’s inability to understand; into the fear of those in leadership roles who had come to faith that public expression of support for Jesus would destroy their status.

Now we have reached the end of the ride and the end of the chapter. They conclude with the last words which Jesus speaks to the crowd. From this point onward everything that he says will be for the disciples’ ears only – or, after his arrest, for the Jewish and Roman authorities.

This is, if you like, Jesus “signing off” from his public mission. As he does so, he speaks of belief and judgement and of God’s commandment, the commandment which is eternal life. And Jesus emphasises, for the last time in the public square, that he has come “as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in [him] should not remain in the darkness;” and that he “came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” His words point us once again to the Father and they remind us that if we want to know the Father we must read him off from the Son. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey insisted, “God is Christlike and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.” And what is Christlike is endlessly self-giving, reconciling, creative love which suffers death for the sake of a broken world and brings life out of that apparently impenetrable shadow.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


Gospel for 1st May – St Philip and St James (John 14:1-14)

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘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.’

Reflection:

Philip and James are an “odd couple” worthy to be ranked with Felix and Oscar in the classic 1968 Neil Simon comedy of that name. However, they owe their closeness not to a shared experience of marital breakdown, but to the dedication by Pope Pelagius I of a church in Rome to house their relics. That happened on 1st May, 560, and that is why we celebrate them together and on this May day.

Both Philip and James are listed among the Twelve. In Matthew’s Gospel, as in Mark’s and Luke’s, that is almost all the information we have about either of them. For Philip there is no more than his name. James is named as “son of Alphaeus”, to distinguish him from the other James, the son of Zebedee. He may also be the James (Mark calls him “James the little”) whose mother Mary was one of the women who watched from a distance when Jesus was crucified and who is named by Luke as one of the women who brought news of the resurrection to the apostles. On the basis of this scanty evidence, we might deduce that Philip’s Greek name reflected roots in the culturally mixed setting of the Jewish and Gentile lands surrounding the Sea of Galilee, and that James (the anglicised version of the Hebrew “Jacob”) was the son of a family who named their son after the patriarch because they held fast to the traditions of Israel.

John never mentions James. He does, however, give Philip quite a back story. We are told that he is “from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter”, confirming those intercultural origins. We find him bringing others to Jesus and patrolling the boundaries of the group of disciples – not to keep people out, but to bring them in, like the Greek-speaking pilgrims in Jerusalem who ask him “Sir, we want to see Jesus”. Here at the last supper he makes the unutterably daring request, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ And, as on the previous occasions when he has appeared in the story, Philip finds that here is something greater than he expected: Nathanael’s half-joking, half-serious confession of Jesus as “Son of God” and “King of Israel”; the loaves and fishes which become a meal for thousands; the voice from heaven glorifying God’s name.

Here, in the upper room, Jesus tells his disciples – and tells us – that we do not need the unclouded vision of God’s glory. We can see that glory as we look to Jesus. As he says, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ We can see the confirmation of Nathanael’s confession in the charge-sheet nailed to the cross. There, too, we can see God’s glory in the self-giving, suffering love which submits to mockery, torture and death for our sake. And we can share in the bread of life as we gather, not at the lakeside but around this table, to receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet at the place that Christ has prepared for us in the Father’s house.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


Gospel for 26th April (John 6:35-40)

Jesus said to the crowd, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’

Reflection:

Back in the last century there used to be two main routes to ordination for non-Evangelicals. One was via time spent as an altar-server. The other was through the church choir. I’m in the second group. One of the consequences of that is that there are some Bible readings which are linked inescapably with music. The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer are probably the worst. On that Sunday the readings are “Rejoice in the Lord always” and “This is the record (in more modern translations “testimony”) of John”. So Purcell and Orlando Gibbons are mandatory. In the Common Worship Lectionary they have been moved forward a week, to Advent 3, and split up, like naughty school-children giggling over a private joke at the back of the class, so that you hear “This is the record of John” in Year B and “Rejoice in the Lord” in Year C. Ascension Day’s pretty bad, too. If the Psalm at the Eucharist is Psalm 47, you have a choice between Gibbons again, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Rutter.

Then there’s today’s Gospel. Did anyone else hear the opening words of Jesus not as “I am the bread of life” [said], but “I am the bread of life” [sung]? Not, admittedly, music from the English Cathedral tradition, but a worship-song from the 1960s which has worked its way into many of the hymn-books published during the past six decades. Written by Suzanne Toolan, a Catholic nun from the Mid-Western USA, it turns up in Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist and non-denominational books – and it has been translated into two dozen languages. It’s a very simple piece, somewhere between folksong and plainchant in the way it squeezes extra syllables into a simple line of music, but it speaks to people, as Jesus’ words have spoken to people.

They speak to people because they speak of Jesus as the one who gives himself to feed the hunger of the world, its hunger for hope and its thirst for holiness. They speak of him as the one who will never drive away anyone who comes to him, but will raise them up on the last day. They also hint at the resistances which Jesus faces, the hostility and unbelief which close down the possibility of eternal life, but they are not a major theme here. The overwhelming mood is one of acceptance by a loving God, of satisfaction, of obedience and protection. “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

The words of Jesus in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel point us towards the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian worship and in the spiritual life. They also point forward to the words of Ignatius of Antioch writing to the church in Ephesus while on his way to martyrdom in Rome a generation or so after John wrote his Gospel. Ignatius called the bread of the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality, the antidote which prevents us from dying, and a cleansing remedy driving away evil so that we should live in God through Jesus Christ.” Clearly, given the circumstances in which he wrote those words, on his way to a date with the wild beasts in the arena, Ignatius did not intend to be taken literally, but he saw his sharing in the body and blood of Christ as a down-payment, so to speak, on his sharing in the resurrection of Jesus and a foretaste for all Christians of the eternal banquet of heaven.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


Gospel for 25th April – St Mark (Mark 13:5-13)

Jesus began to say to Peter, James, John and Andrew: ‘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.

Reflection:

There’s a potted biography of St Mark which runs something like this: He was the son of Mary, a Jerusalem-based supporter of Jesus who belonged to the same Levitical family as Barnabas. His Jewish name was John. Barnabas and Saul took him on their missionary journey to Cyprus and Pamphylia, where he left them and returned to Jerusalem. When Saul (by now using the gentile name Paul) and Barnabas were planning a return visit to the congregations they had planted, Barnabas wanted to take Mark with them. Paul felt that Mark couldn’t be relied on after his behaviour in Pamphylia and said no. There was an almighty row and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus, leaving Paul to continue his journey with another companion, Silas. At some point there was a reconciliation and Mark rejoined Paul’s team, but he later became attached to Peter, acting as his interpreter and noting down all that Peter said about Jesus. When Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome some time in the 60s, and the first generation of Christian leaders, the people who had known Jesus, was dying out, Mark, still in Rome, wrote up his notes into what we know as Mark’s Gospel. He then moved to Alexandria in Egypt, where he became the leader of the Christian community. Mark died there and was buried – but several hundred years later a group of unscrupulous Venetian merchants stole his body and smuggled it out of the country in a barrel of salted pork – haram to Muslims and therefore untouchable by devout customs officers.

It’s an interesting story, but there is no guarantee that any of it is true. Mark was a very common Roman forename. There is no evidence that John Mark was the same person as the other Marks mentioned in The Acts of the Apostles and assorted letters attributed to St Paul and St Peter. Equally there is no evidence that John Mark, or any of those other Marks, was the author of the Gospel that bears his name. So, as with St George yesterday, we’re rather grasping at thin air.

But we do have Mark’s Gospel – and, whoever Mark may have been, that’s important. Mark’s is the earliest surviving collection of memories of Jesus. His work provided the framework, and a great deal of material, for Matthew and Luke when they sat down later to unpack the meaning of Jesus for their own generation and different cultural settings.

The story that Mark tells is one of proclamation and betrayal. John the Baptist comes proclaiming a baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming of “one who is more powerful than [John]” and is handed over to imprisonment and death. Jesus comes proclaiming “the good news of God” and the imminent coming of God’s kingdom and he too is handed over to torture and death. And in the passage which forms the Gospel for St Mark’s day, the implication is clearly that those who follow Jesus will also proclaim the good news and can expect to be handed over to suffering and death, sometimes by their nearest and dearest.

It’s not a comfortable message, but it is one which resonates with our age. And it is not without hope. On a personal level, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” On a global level, in these chaotic and violent times, we are seeing that “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” But, as Jesus reminds Peter, James, John and Andrew, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs”, the birth pangs of God’s kingdom and the final overcoming of sin and death.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


Gospel for 24th April – St George (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.’

Reflection:

Betty Parnaby was a remarkable woman. From the time when I first met her in the 1970s until her death thirty years later she was a pillar of St Mary’s, Northolt, in West London. Before her marriage to Joe Parnaby twenty years earlier, she had been a rising star in the congregation of Holy Cross, Greenford, a few miles down the A4, which was one of the flagship parishes of the post-war Church of England. Among her other gifts, Betty was a singer, an actress, a dancer, and a writer with a wicked sense of humour. She had a regular column in the parish magazine which chronicled parish life at the Church of St George and All Dragons, focusing on their parish priest, Fr Aloysius Twitte, who kept neat gin in the preacher’s water-glass, a midget camera in his cassock pocket, and a hidden tape-recorder in the confessional. The last two often proved very useful when Fr Aloysius needed money for repairs to the church building or for other good causes (which included the occasional Caribbean holiday).

What, I wonder, would Fr Aloysius have made of this year’s displacement of his church’s patronal festival? I suspect that he might have stuck with the traditional date of St George’s day and dared his bishop to sanction him. It’s a poor show when a dragon-slayer is pushed off his regular pitch. Except, of course, that the legend linking St George with dragon-slaying has no basis in fact. It’s the product of a confusion between the military saint, George, and the militant archangel, Michael, the leader of the hosts of heaven against the dragon and his angels. When I was “duty canon” at the cathedral in Oxford, I regularly had to explain to visitors that the stained-glass window which dominates the cathedral’s north transept is a depiction of the episode described in Revelation 12, rather than a tribute to England’s patron saint.

In part people cling to the story of St George and the Dragon because there’s not much else to which they can cling. There’s some evidence that George was a soldier and that he was martyred at Lydda (modern-day Lod) during the last great Roman persecution of Christians, which took place at the beginning of the fourth century, but that’s about it. As early as the sixth century a writer was reduced to describing him as “a good man, whose deeds are known only to God”. What mattered then – and what matters now – is that George embodies those words from today’s gospel: ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you…If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.”

That is potentially the fate of any disciple of Jesus, not least in the past hundred and twenty years, which have seen more Christians killed simply because they were Christians who lived by their faith than all of the centuries up to 1900 taken together. And indeed, as Jesus warns the disciples, ‘[T]hey will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.’ But the one who sent Jesus is the one who raised Jesus, the one whose creative, life-giving love is a power stronger than any power of evil. The fragmentary nature of people’s memory of St George didn’t prevent that memory from being venerated very quickly after his death nor from spreading more and more widely across the Middle East and across Europe (including this city) until it reached even the far-off isles of Britain three centuries before the Normans came. George’s fearless witness to Christ, sealed by his death, became a living pointer to the resurrection as the red cross of the martyr on his banner stands out against the white of Eastertide.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


Gospel for 15th April – Saturday in Easter Week (Mark 16:1-15)

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.

Reflection:

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested at his parents’ home in Charlottenburg in early April 1943, he left unfinished the book on ethics which had occupied much of his time since the enforced closure of the “collective pastorate” in Pomerania three years before. Some scholars have wondered if a similar fate overtook St Mark. His gospel, according to two of the oldest and best manuscripts, ends at verse 8, with the women running away from the tomb in terror and amazement; “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. And at that point, it is suggested, the cohortes urbanae, ancient Rome’s police force, knocked on Mark’s door and carted him off to prison, and eventual martyrdom, much as the Gestapo were to deal with Bonhoeffer nineteen centuries later.

That’s not the only possibility, though. Other scholars have suggested that the original of Mark’s gospel was written on a codex, a document stitched together like a modern book, and much easier to hide in times of persecution than a big and unwieldy scroll. According to this theory that codex lost its last page, or pages, containing Mark’s account of the resurrection appearances. Others again have suggested that Mark intended the ending of his Gospel to be as abrupt as its beginning. He wasn’t offering his readers a “happy ending” but challenging them – and that is probably the majority view at the present time.

So the passage we have just read, with its summaries of episodes that are recorded in John’s Gospel, and Luke’s and Matthew’s, followed by five verses which aren’t part of today’s reading and which are mainly based on the Acts of the Apostles, was probably not part of Mark’s original intention. It is most likely to have been the well-meaning project of a Christian a century or so later, who couldn’t bear the open-ended way in which Mark’s Gospel finished and decided to tidy it up.

But, as we have been discovering during this Easter Week, none of the Gospels ends with a conventional “happy ever after”. Matthew ends his with what is sometimes called “the Great Commission”, Jesus’s instruction to “Make disciples of all nations” – but that, too, is a sending not an ending. Luke leaves the disciples in a kind of limbo, as they head back from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem in obedience to Jesus’s order to “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”. And John, who also has problems with his ending, leaves his readers with the invitation either to come to the kind of faith which gives life in the name of Jesus or to consider the “many other things that Jesus did.“

In each case the message is that the good news about Jesus flows off the page and into people’s lives. It doesn’t need to be tidied up or rounded off. Indeed it can’t be. As Ched Myers puts it in his landmark study of Mark’s Gospel, “Binding the Strong Man”, we discover the presence of Jesus ‘“not by standing gazing up into heaven” (Acts 1:11), but by discipleship practice in the world.’ It is as we learn to cope with the questions and shun the pat answers that we find ourselves enabled to say with conviction

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


The Gospel for 14th 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.

Reflection:

There are, it is said, four things that even God doesn’t know: how many religious orders there are in France; how much money a Benedictine has; what a Jesuit is really thinking; and what a Dominican is going to say next. That was brought home to me a few years ago when I was reading one of Timothy Radcliffe’s books. It contained a summary of a carefully argued paper by one of his fellow-Dominicans which proposed that the final chapter of John’s Gospel, from which today’s gospel reading was taken, is not, as it is usually thought to be, an add-on vouching for the authenticity of the previous twenty chapters, but an integral part of John’s retelling of the good news about Jesus.

But it’s difficult to see how that thesis can be defended, for all sorts of reasons. To begin with, John 20:30-31 are an almost perfect pay-off line to end a 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.” Then there are the differences in Greek vocabulary; the differences in the cast of characters – where else do the sons of Zebedee appear in John’s Gospel? Nowhere. And there’s the sudden and unexplained change of location. John’s Gospel is the most Jerusalem-centred of the four. Most of the action takes place there, usually at one of the great Jewish festivals. Chapter 21 takes us beck to Galilee, for the first time since chapter 7. “Nothing strange about that, you may be thinking. “In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus sends the disciples off to Galilee after the resurrection.” But this isn’t the Galilee of Matthew 28, where the disciples have a pre-arranged rendezvous with Jesus. This is Galilee as the place from which the first disciples had set out, the Galilee where Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee are still fishermen. It’s almost as if Jesus had never been.

So we are in strange territory, as we usually are with the resurrection appearances. We’re also in a story full of echoes from that period which Peter and the others seem to have erased from their memory: a failed fishing expedition which turns into a net-busting success; Peter jumping into the water to meet Jesus, although this time he doesn’t need rescuing – and providing a moment of comedy. When did you last put on street clothes to go swimming? There’s a meal of loaves and fishes by the lakeside, though one with many fewer guests; and, perhaps pointedly in view of what happens later, a charcoal fire – like the one by which Peter had warmed himself on that night. And again, there’s the strangeness of the mysterious figure on the shore. Only the disciple whom Jesus loved puts two and two together, and then everything comes into focus.

Is there, perhaps, a message there for us? That apparently random, unconnected events do in fact connect and lead us to the risen Christ, who comes to us now, as he came to the disciples then, in the unrecognised stranger, in the midst of our failure and desire to forget, and comes to renew our hope and to strengthen us for what lies ahead. Today as we gather round his table, as guests at the meal which he provides today for those who follow him, let us pray for the insight of the beloved disciple who recognises the mysterious Christ in our midst and shares with us the good news of his presence.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


The Gospel for 13th April – Thursday in Easter Week (Luke 24:35-48)

The two disciples told 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.’

Reflection:

All human beings are inescapably connected to the glory of God. And there is nothing, nothing either internal or external to our lives which can change that. The risen Christ comes to us, as he came to the disciples nearly two thousand years ago, and he says to us “Peace be with you.” Think for a moment what that means. The risen Christ comes to the men who had failed him, who had nodded off when he needed their presence and support, who had run away when the authorities came to arrest him, who had, in one case, sworn blind that they didn’t know him. He shows them his hands and his feet, the wounds of crucifixion, the wounds that were the direct result of their failure, but he says “Peace be with you.” It’s there, despite everything. Just receive it. Just accept it.

Each of us, every human being, is embraced in the peace of the risen Christ. Not a ghost. Not a mass hallucination. Not a waking dream. It is Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, bearing the marks of the nails in his hands and his feet, a physical, flesh-and-blood Jesus who comes to his friends. It is Jesus, crucified and risen, who shares his peace with them and who commissions them to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins”.

It is the risen Jesus who shares his peace with us, who commissions us, who nourishes us with his own life under tokens of bread and wine. It is the risen Jesus who, as we shall say in our final prayer, sends us out “in the power of the Spirit to live and work to [God’s] praise and glory”. That’s what it means to “be witnesses”. Not to be a particular kind of “super-Christian”, boring for Jesus, but to be the best we can be for God, channels for God’s peace, lenses focusing his love for the people among whom we live and work, enabling them to ask the questions that matter and us to sketch out the answers that make sense for us.

Now, that doesn’t mean flogging ourselves into lives of “heroic virtue”. It does mean making effective and (dare I say it) disciplined use of the means by which God opens our lives to his love. We deepen our discipleship by setting aside time each day for prayer and for careful reading of God’s word to us in Scripture. It means making time each week to feed on Christ as he gives himself to us in the Holy Communion. It means letting what we receive from those activities flow into our daily life, both as individual disciples and as part of the people of God here in Genoa, so that the whole of our life is lived in God’s love – not just an hour on Sunday morning as and when.

God still loves us despite the thousand and one ways we find to foul things up. The sorrows and stupidities of the human condition cannot overwhelm us, when once we realise what we all are. We can live in that peace which Jesus shared with his disciples. We can experience that joy which comes from knowing we are members of the race in which God Himself became incarnate. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


The Gospel for 12th 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.

Reflection:

It cannot be said too often that the resurrection is NOT a conventional “happy ending” to the Gospel story. It is a call to re-discover forgotten truths, to reorient lives, and to get out there and tell people. The Gospel accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ are strange, because the appearance of the risen Christ is strange. Luke, here, and John, in his account of the risen Lord’s appearance to Mary Magdalene, both emphasise that he is not instantly recognisable as Jesus. Mary thought he was the gardener. The eyes of Cleopas and his partner, possibly the woman named in John’s Gospel as “one of those standing near the cross of Jesus” three days earlier, are “kept from recognising him”.

Despite the testimony of the women, they still can’t believe the reality of the resurrection. When the stranger asks them ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stop, and the look they give him is more than “sad”. The primary meaning of the Greek word is “dark-visaged”, so “sullen” or “angry”. They give him, as we might say, “a black look”. Who is this stranger intruding on private grief? They can’t believe. And they aren’t alone. Earlier in the same chapter Luke explains that “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them… told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Women, you may remember, couldn’t be witnesses in first-century Palestine. Their evidence is still discounted in some Middle Eastern countries twenty centuries on.

But the stranger doesn’t discount the women’s evidence. He goes back beyond the events of the past few days and takes Cleopas and his partner through the ways in which what has happened reflects patterns embedded deep in Israel’s sacred writings. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” What he tells them apparently makes them want to hear more. When they get to Emmaus, they stop the stranger from continuing his journey – and again our translation is too genteel. The Greek word Luke uses suggests a degree of force, implying that they practically bundled him into the house.

That is where the light finally breaks through. “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.” Preaching on Easter morning 1620, bishop Lancelot Andrewes interpreted this as reinforcing the value of both word and sacrament as means of knowing the risen Christ, present in the midst of his people, “the means to raise our souls here, the pledges of the raising up of our bodies hereafter”: but that presence cannot be caged or controlled. St Luke tells us “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

So what do they do? Not perhaps what you might expect. They don’t mope, or berate each other for not recognising Jesus. Nor do they sit down in a warm glow of holiness. “That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.” The story they had to tell was too important to wait until the next day. But it was getting late when they arrived in Emmaus. It must have been around nightfall when they turned round and headed back to Jerusalem. Seven miles along unlit roads, unpaved, uneven, like some of the tracks in the Parco delle Mura, and about as far as from here to Nervi – or the park in Pegli. But they have to share their news. As do we. Alleluia! Christ is risen!


The Gospel for 11th 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.

Reflection:

Yesterday’s Gospel, continuing where Sunday’s left off, reminded us of the role of the women as witnesses to the resurrection. Today’s focuses firmly on one woman in particular. In the other gospels the names and the number of the women vary. There are two in Matthew, both named Mary; three in Mark, who identifies Matthew’s “other Mary” more clearly as “the mother of James” and adds Salome: and there are an unspecified number in Luke, although he names three, with Joanna replacing Salome. He adds that there were “other women with them”. Presumably these were the same “women who had come with [Jesus] from Galilee”, who were present on Golgotha, albeit “at a distance”, when he died, and who followed the sad little group led by Joseph of Arimathea which took down the corpse of Jesus and laid it in the tomb.

But despite all these variations, there is one name which is a constant: Mary Magdalene. Matthew and Mark and John mention her only in connection with the crucifixion and the resurrection. Luke offers, quite early in his Gospel, the slightest of back-stories: that she was one of the women who had been “cured of evil spirits and infirmities” and who supported Jesus and the Twelve “out of their resources”. Luke also notes that “seven demons” had gone out of her, which suggests that hers might have been one of the more serious – and possibly more spectacular – healings. If so, she would have had more reason than many to be emotionally attached to Jesus and to mourn him, as her namesake from Bethany had mourned her brother Lazarus, by visiting his tomb to weep there.

But the tomb was empty. The body wasn’t there. Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved could vouch for that. Mary had called on them and they had come and seen and left – to testify to the emptiness of the tomb, but nothing more (although John adds the cryptic note that the beloved disciple went into the tomb “and he saw and believed”). It was Mary of Magdala, poor, lost Mary, mourning the death of the man to whom, according to Luke, she owed her life – it was Mary who stayed behind, weeping over this cruelly redoubled absence. And it is to Mary that the risen Lord appears, to reassure her and to liberate her once again with the warning “Do not hold on to me,” In other words, “Do not cling to the past; do not tie me to a time and a place.” The risen Jesus is no longer bound by what cosmologists used to call “the space-time continuum”. Instead, as he tells Mary to tell the disciples: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” From now on Jesus is where God is, and God is everywhere. And so the risen Christ calls us, too, by name, not to cling to him, but to share the good news of his resurrection: the good news of his living presence here, with us, now.


The Gospel for 10th 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.

Reflection:

The story of Jesus’ suffering and death has been the subject of many films. That’s hardly surprising because the Gospel accounts of what happened often have the feel of a screenplay. The evangelists cut, sometimes inter-cut, from one scene to another, or they end one section of the story with a slow fade. There are close-ups and tracking shots as the action progresses. The camera pans round the table at the last supper as Jesus predicts his betrayal. The accounts of the resurrection have something of the same feel. The Gospel for Monday in Easter Week, which overlaps with the end of yesterday’s Gospel, shows the women meeting Jesus, and being sent by him with a message for the disciples, then leaves them while they are still on their way, cutting from their excitement to the misery of the guards and the plotting of the chief priests as they try to minimise the, for them, disastrous news.

The first scene is a reminder of the role of the women in sharing the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s a reminder, too, of the way they have often been airbrushed out of the picture. The Maries, with one or two more who are named and others who are not, watch on Golgotha until the end. They follow the burial party to the tomb. They return as soon as the Sabbath is over to complete the funeral rites. And they are, in every Gospel, the first witnesses to the Resurrection, whether through the revelation of the empty tomb, as in Mark’s Gospel, or through a one-to-one interview with the risen Lord as in John’s. The first words of today’s Gospel seem about to take up Mark’s description of the women running from the tomb in terror and amazement, but then they are sent skidding in another direction by their encounter with the risen Christ which, as John Fenton pointed out many years ago in his commentary on Matthew, takes the good news about Jesus almost full circle. There are others who encounter Jesus with great joy, who fall down and worship – the magi at the beginning of chapter two. They also encounter the Christ, not as they expected. They also are obedient to angelic messengers.

They also encounter a ruling class in Jerusalem hostile to this “new” authority which threatens their violent power with the power of love. So Matthew takes us back to the guard, and the chief priests in the city, seeking a way to counter this threat to their power and status. Some have seen this account of the Jewish authorities, bribing the guards and squaring the Roman governor, as yet more evidence of Christian antisemitism, but that is mistaken. It is clear from the rest of this Gospel that Matthew is a Jewish Christian writing primarily for other Jewish Christians. The primary purpose of this story is not to vilify the chief priests, but to explain to that audience why so many of their co-religionists had not taken the same step of faith in Jesus as Messiah. That’s not to say that Matthew exonerates the authorities. Like many of his Jewish contemporaries, not least the Qumran community which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, he saw the Jerusalem establishment as largely, if not totally, corrupt, serving their own power and status, and ignoring the demands of the living God.


What did they think they were doing? (3) Wednesday of Holy Week

Today we come to the third and last of those individuals and groups whose decisions and actions made Jesus’s death inevitable. We move away from the High Priest’s house and the Governor’s palatial quarters to the warren of back-streets in the old city, not far from the Temple. Here, in a house totally indistinguishable from any of those around it, a dozen or so men are sitting round a wooden table in an upstairs room, waiting. Although this is the last in our series of Holy Week addresses, its setting is some hours earlier than the events which lay behind the first. It is, we might say, a flash-back to the middle of Thursday evening, round about the end of supper-time – and in fact there are empty plates and cups on the table. Outside in the street, someone is knocking on the door of the house. One of the group at the table signals to another, who goes out and down the stairs. We hear the street door open and a whispered exchange of words. Then the door closes again and two sets of feet are heard climbing the stair to the upper room where the others wait.

The man who had gone out returns to his place at the table. He is followed by another man, who is clearly known to the rest of the group. His face is flushed, and he is breathing heavily, as if he has been engaged in strenuous activity. He is obviously very excited. The leader of the group motions him to a seat and the others in the room turn to him expectantly. The new-comer recovers his breath and begins to speak:

“My brothers of the Resistance, fellow-workers in the struggle for the liberation of Israel, tonight I bring you good news. Tonight I am able to report that we may confidently expect to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression from the necks of our people within a very short time, perhaps even before the end of this Passover festival.

“Events have been set in motion which must inevitably lead to a great popular uprising in this city. We wait only for the signal to be given – and it will be given later tonight when I shall lead a detachment of the Temple police to arrest Jesus of Nazareth in a private estate on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. This arrest will, of course, be resisted by those of Jesus’s followers who are with him and the attempt may well fail. But I can assure you that, whatever the outcome, the fact that such an attempt has been made at all will be enough to spark off a blaze of popular protest in Jerusalem which the Roman governor and his troops will not be able to extinguish – not even with the support of the legions from Syria.

“Those of you who were in the city earlier in the week will remember the great excitement and enthusiasm which were shown by the pilgrims when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. That demonstration may not have achieved all that some of us might have hoped, but it enabled us to test the waters. All of those pilgrims who cheered Jesus every step of the way into the city will still be here until after the Passover Sabbath. With the help of our many sympathizers we cannot fail to rouse them into a popular movement fuelled by a great anger against the Romans. When once we have put Jesus of Nazareth at the head of this movement, it will spread more and more widely until it becomes a national uprising and the Roman oppressors will be driven into the sea.

“The arrest of Jesus has been set up with the co-operation of the Temple authorities. But they have their own agenda and they know nothing of ours. So far as they are concerned, I am a disaffected disciple, who has become concerned at the radical attitudes which Jesus has taken to the traditions of our fathers and increasingly disillusioned by his behaviour. They genuinely desire to see Jesus out of the way. They rightly see him as hostile to the way in which they have cosied up to the Romans in order to preserve their own power against movements like ours which speak for the great mass of people.

“So it is possible that they will provide me with sufficient force to effect an arrest despite the expected resistance from my fellow-disciples. Simon Peter, one of the inner circle from Capernaum, and at least one other, will be carrying a weapon. So I would suggest that you send someone to keep an eye on how the situation develops and to report back. We can then change our plans to cope with any contingency and, if anything goes wrong, we can take appropriate counter-measures.

“I am aware that a number of you are doubtful about the wisdom of placing our reliance on Jesus of Nazareth as the figurehead for a movement against Rome. And I know that on more than one occasion during the past year he has failed to give the unambiguous lead for which we were hoping. He has given tacit approval to contributions to the Resistance from his disciples’ common fund. But he dodged our attempts last year to set him at the head of a popular uprising in Galilee. Earlier this week, he failed to give the complete endorsement that we might have expected to the poll tax boycott, although equally, he did not give his support to those who argue that we must pay this unjust levy. And, of course, he did not make the fullest use of the opportunity which was provided by his entry into the city – it can only be described as triumphal – to rouse the people against the forces of Roman oppression.

“But Jesus continues to be very popular with all sections of the people – except for those who have economic or political power. To them he is an object of the greatest suspicion. All those among the leaders of our people who have been contaminated by their association with Rome would love to see him safely out of the way. Now, it is true that he has himself had dealings with representatives of the army of occupation and with the governing classes, but these have been insignificant and purely humanitarian in their concern. The people involved have always been in subordinate positions – junior officers in the army of occupation, minor government officials in the customs and the revenue service. And don’t forget that on more than one occasion Jesus has been instrumental in causing such people to leave government service in order to become his disciples. On the other hand, his attitude to those in high positions of authority has always been consistently and sharply critical, both in public and in private. Some of you have heard the sort of thing that he has been saying to the crowds. I have heard what he has said – even more sharply – to those closest to him.

“Which brings me to my next point. Previous attempts to raise the mass of the people against Rome have usually failed because the leaders of the revolt have been identified with one particular class or region or sectional interest. Jesus of Nazareth draws support from all sections of the Jewish people both here in Judaea and in Galilee. He has some supporters in positions of very great influence, including one or two who are members of the high Council of the Sanhedrin, though I’m sorry to say that these people have not yet felt in a strong enough position to go public with their support. Jesus also has a tremendous moral authority, and our movement of national renewal is a moral and spiritual movement or it is nothing.

“It cannot be in accordance with the will of God that his people are ground into the dirt by the heel of gentile oppression. Our Scriptures say as much over and over again. It is the sins of our leaders – the high-priestly clique, the Sadducees, Herod’s supporters – it is their sins which have brought us to this state of subjection and demoralisation. Jesus of Nazareth, on the other hand, has consistently proclaimed the coming of God’s Kingdom of justice and freedom. This message is at one with our call for the renewal of our nation.

“So we must somehow bring Jesus of Nazareth on board with us. Open attempts to persuade him or cajole him into supporting our cause have so far failed, but I am convinced that if he should be put in peril of his life by those who are his natural enemies just much as they are ours, he will finally be compelled to recognise that he and we are on the same side. And then he must inevitably lend his support to our uprising against Rome.

“If his only alternative is death at the hands of his enemies and ours, I do not think that there can be much doubt about the choice that he will make. By staging his arrest in this way, we are offering him tonight the opportunity to be the great liberator of his people. I do not think that he is likely to refuse it.”


What did they think they were doing? (2) Tuesday of Holy Week

We have moved, since yesterday, a few hundred yards to the north-west. It is no great distance from the house of the High Priest to the palace of King Herod, butting up against the western wall of the city. Not that the royal family had a great deal of use of it these days. The Roman Governor tended to stay there, in preference to the grim fortress of Antonia, his official residence, when he was in Jerusalem on important business, as he usually was for the duration of major festivals. As he always was for Passover week. By comparison with some recent Passovers, this has been one of the less eventful festivals. There have been no major disturbances to public order. And so, this year, on the night of the Passover Sabbath, the members of the Governor’s staff are relaxing. However, a light is still burning in the Governor’s private quarters. The Prefect himself is not yet able to relax. He is pacing up and down the room, pausing for thought from time to time, as he dictates the following report to his private secretary:

“From Pontius Pilate, Prefect of the Province of Judaea

“To Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the deified Augustus, grandson of the deified Julius (and all the other honours and titles which are currently approved) greeting.

“I am writing this report on the day after the Jewish feast of Passover, and it is with pleasure and satisfaction that I can report to Caesar on a quiet Passover season in Judea this year. Those who have first-hand knowledge of the Jewish people and their outlandish customs will be aware that this is the season when Jews remember the time when their God is supposed to have freed them from slavery to a foreign power and brought them to settle in this land. It is therefore a season when relations between the Jews and representatives of Roman authority are even more than usually sensitive, particularly here in Jerusalem, their holy city. In previous years I have had to report more than once on the robust response of our forces to an upsurge of nationalist agitation and violent demonstrations against the power of Rome.

“This year, I am happy to report that no such severe measures were necessary. Military force in Jerusalem was kept to the bare minimum required to maintain the honour and dignity of the Governor. Nor was it necessary to authorise covert operations against terrorists or other subversive groups.

“It was however necessary for me to take resolute action on one occasion towards the end of the festival in order to prevent a situation from getting out of hand and blowing up into a full-scale crisis. The source of the trouble was one of the Jews’ so-called holy men, a wandering Galilean preacher who has something of a reputation in this province as a healer and exorcist. He has been kept under surveillance in the past but intelligence reports reaching me did not suggest that he posed any serious danger to the interests of Rome. In some respects he has been, if anything, positive towards the army of occupation, encouraging his followers not to refuse the legitimate demands of our troops and rejecting an invitation to incite non-payment of taxes. Indeed, he has (unlike many religious leaders in Palestine) welcomed those who have collaborated with Roman power among his followers. The man’s name is Jesus. He is a carpenter by trade and comes from the village of Nazareth, which lies within the Galilean jurisdiction of Prince Herod.

“Caesar may rest assured that I have taken care to see that the Prince has been kept fully informed at all stages of our investigations. In preparation for the formal trial before my tribunal, the man Jesus was in fact referred to him for interrogation on matters relating to his activities in Galilee.

“Jesus of Nazareth was arrested by the Temple Police and transferred to me for trial and sentence after a preliminary hearing before the appropriate Jewish authorities. This represents a gratifying change in their position. The Jews have tended to be extremely touchy about any action on our part which might be interpreted as infringing what they regard as their “rights” under the terms of our occupation. Willing co-operation of this kind shows how much progress has been made since the various unfortunate misunderstandings which occurred earlier in my term of office as Governor.

“However, this is not to say that the case of Jesus of Nazareth was straightforward. Far from it. Initially I was uncertain How far it was proper for me to be involved.

“In this country religious and political matters are so closely intertwined that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish one from the other. Speaking for myself, I have always considered that the gods are to be paid the honour due to them in order to ensure the safety and security of Caesar and of the Senate and People of Rome. However, neither I nor my staff can pretend to understand why the more educated Jews argue with such seriousness (not to say ferocity) over the smallest matters relating to their God and to the code of law which they claim he handed down to them in a distant past – earlier even than the foundation of Rome.

“My initial inclination, given the demeanour of the prisoner and the intelligence reports on his activities, was to release him, after administering minor chastisement in the shape of a flogging, partly as a gesture to the Jewish authorities (who were out in force to support the charges against him) and partly as a token of my displeasure at the inconvenience and waste of government time. However, in the course of questioning it became apparent that the case raised issues of importance for the security of the province. There was a religious status allegedly claimed by the prisoner which might also be construed as a claim to some kind of kingship. When pressed on this the prisoner gave evasive answers and from time to time he would retreat into long periods of silence.

“At this stage I had no firm evidence on which to base the death sentence which was being demanded by the Jewish authorities and the crowd which (notwithstanding the early hour) had accompanied them to Government House. Intelligence reports, as I have said, were not unfavourable. Nor, despite his evasions and silences, did the prisoner give me any serious reason to doubt their essential accuracy.

“I attempted to convey this to the Jewish leaders and their supporters. The intensity of their reaction and the depth of their hostility to the prisoner took me (I must confess) by surprise. It is, to say the least, unusual for a Roman magistrate to be urging clemency in such a case, and neither I nor my subordinates have a reputation for softness in our dealings with the native population, as Caesar will be well aware.

“At one stage I attempted to win them round by offering freedom for a prisoner as a mark of respect for the festival. I regret that this manoeuvre was less than totally successful. The prisoner on whose release the crowd insisted was not Jesus of Nazareth, as I had hoped, but a notorious nationalist agitator and terrorist. However, this man’s associates are well known to us and I have every confidence that he will very swiftly be returned to custody.

“I must add that by this stage the mood of the crowd was increasingly ugly and it was clear that, unless decisive action was taken by me to regain control of the situation, a serious disturbance of the peace was likely to ensue. Caesar will, no doubt, recollect that in a previous report I outlined the extreme difficulty of using armed military force to over-awe the people of Jerusalem in any matter where their religion is concerned. In anything that reflects on the honour and worship of their God Jews will suffer indignity, torture and even death rather than compromise their beliefs. It is this which makes Judaea a particularly difficult province to govern effectively.

“Short of ordering the Jerusalem garrison, and my own bodyguard, into the crowd with drawn swords, I had few options open to me. I therefore took the difficult decision to condemn Jesus of Nazareth to the extreme punishment. The sentence of crucifixion was duly carried out by a detachment of our troops later that day, 25th March, at the execution ground known locally as “Skull Hill” which lies to the north-west side of the city.

“In the charge-sheet affixed to the gallows, it was made clear to all the considerable crowd of spectators that the prisoner was condemned as a political criminal and not because of any offence against Jewish law. That would not have been a matter for Rome’s concern. This message was reinforced by crucifying him with two known nationalist agents, associates of the man whom I had released. I cannot say that their reported conduct towards their companion in misery either reinforced or removed any doubts about the correctness of the sentence.

“I trust that the contents of this report will be sufficient to counter any accusations of disloyalty to Caesar which may have reached Rome from hostile sources in Jerusalem.

“I have always sought strenuously to deserve the title of “Caesar’s friend” which was so graciously awarded on my appointment to Judaea, by upholding the dignity of Caesar and the interests of the Senate and People of Rome to the best of my ability. Caesar may rest assured that I will continue to do so for as long as I hold office.

“Which brings me to my final point: the governorship of Judaea is a sensitive and demanding post even in peaceful times. I have served Caesar as Prefect of this province for a number of years now in difficult times. It is not an easy posting – the need to divide my time between the Governor’s residence in Caesarea and the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem is a considerable drain on time and energy. Furthermore because of the nature of the country and the people, the usual compensations of a provincial governorship are not easily to be found. One consequence of the difficulties which we have experienced during these years has been a marked deterioration in my wife’s state of health. These past days have been particularly stressful for us both and I am anxious that she may be in danger of suffering a complete breakdown. I would therefore humbly request Caesar to consider my application for transfer to an alternative posting (or even early relief and retirement) as a matter of some urgency.”


What did they think they were doing? (1) – Monday in Holy Week

The introduction to this year’s Holy Week Addresses, which will be addressing the question: “What did they think they were doing?”, with the text of the first address.

In all the Gospels there is a change of mood between the events leading up to Palm Sunday and the days that follow. Up to his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus has been in control. He has organised. He has taken decisions. He has acted. Suddenly all that has changed. From Palm Sunday onwards, with the single exception of the cleansing of the Temple (in Matthew, Mark and Luke) the Gospel record is the record of Jesus waiting, not of Jesus acting. It’s no longer about a man who makes things happen. It’s about a man to whom other people make things happen – someone to whom things are done rather than someone who does things. Jesus is – or appears to be – a passive victim of the Jewish authorities, the Roman Governor – even Judas his betrayer. He waits on their decisions. He has to. They are for him, quite literally, a matter of life and death. But what did those people, who held Jesus’s fate in their hands – what did they think? What factors influenced the arguments they put forward, the decisions they took?

What did they think they were doing?

In these Holy Week addresses, we shall try to enter into the mind of the Jewish authorities, and Pontius Pilate, and Judas Iscariot. I’m going to put into their mouth words that they might have said, arguments that they might have put forward, as they discussed what to do about this disturbing figure, Jesus of Nazareth, so powerful in his very powerlessness – even in relation to those who claim to have the power of life and death over him.

Today, we begin in the south-western corner of Jerusalem, in the courtyard of the house of Joseph Caiaphas, High Priest now for more than ten years. It is late at night – or rather, early in the morning – but the house is a blaze of light, and the courtyard is full of people. Many of them belong to the High Priestly household, or one of the other great families of the Jerusalem aristocracy, or else they are attached to the Temple. Others are local residents from this quarter of the city, drawn by the hubbub, and by rumours about the events of the previous evening.

A door opens, and a figure emerges at the top of the steps down into the courtyard. He is recognised as a member of the Council, the highest authority in religious and Jewish civil matters in Jerusalem. The crowd falls silent, expectant. The man begins to speak. And this is what he has to say:

“I have been instructed by the Court of the Sanhedrin, sitting in its capacity as the supreme court of justice of our people, under the presidency of High Priest Joseph Caiaphas, to explain to you the action which we have taken in the case of Jesus bar-Joseph of Nazareth.

“You will probably know by now that, acting on information received, our agents arrested him late last night during a secret rendezvous with some of his followers at a location just outside the city.

“He is at present being held in the High Priest’s house and later this morning he will be transferred, under guard, to the Governor’s residence. There he will be tried under Roman law, on charges of a political nature which have arisen from our preliminary investigations and from statements which Jesus bar-Joseph has made to the Council while under interrogation.

“The action which we have taken so far has, I should add, the support of the overwhelming majority of the Council, and by that I mean the overwhelming majority of both the main parties. The decision to arrest Jesus was not taken without serious consideration on the part of the authorities. Both lay and religious leaders have been fully consulted at all stages of this investigation, and they have given us, I am happy to say, their whole-hearted cooperation.

“The initial reason for our interest in Jesus of Nazareth was the increasing anxiety which his teaching and activities have aroused among those who are concerned for the survival of our religious and cultural traditions – traditions for which, as I hardly need to remind you, our fathers, and their fathers, were not ashamed to lay down their lives.

“It is doubtful whether a man like Jesus of Nazareth can appreciate the spirit which motivates such self-sacrifice. He has made it clear, during the three years since he first emerged as the leader of this new Galilean ‘cult’, that there is scarcely any aspect of our way of life which he regards as in any way sacred.

“He has no time for the ties of natural affection. Family life in particular has been one of his main targets. It seems to be a condition of following him that men and women should abandon their families – often without any means of support. His treatment of his own widowed mother is, of course, notorious.

“His attitude to our religion has been just as scandalous. His “interpretation” of the Scriptures has been an affront to the piety of many devout Jews. In the writings of Moses and the prophets there are the most clear guidelines for living an upright and respectable life. Jesus of Nazareth’s method of “explaining away” the clear teaching of Scripture has not only opened the door of our synagogues to all sorts of undesirables, it has also caused some misguided people to lose all sense of right and wrong.

“And we have, on many occasions during the past months, heard his wild attacks on the worship of this temple. Many of you were witnesses of the disgraceful incident a few days ago when he physically assaulted those who provide the very necessary service of welcome for pilgrims to Jerusalem. Not only do these people help strangers to the city in overcoming currency problems and enable them to offer the correct sacrifices, they also make a small, but none the less vital, contribution to the upkeep of this magnificent building, whose sole purpose is to declare the glory of God.

“These, of course, are primarily matters within our own jurisdiction. What has led the council to refer this case to the Governor is the unacceptable political implications of some of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. As you know, our leaders, and especially the High Priests, are continually involved in the most difficult and delicate negotiations with the occupying power. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the survival of our religious and cultural heritage depends on the success of these negotiations. Several of Jesus of Nazareth’s sayings, not to mention his known association with members of extremist militant organisations, have made the task of negotiating with the Romans doubly difficult. I need hardly remind you of what might have happened if the ridiculous attempt at a triumphal entry into Jerusalem which his followers stage-managed last week had led to a confrontation between the crowd and the Roman garrison. Any encouragement of extreme political views can have only one outcome – the total destruction of our people and nation.

“There is one final point, which I hesitate to mention because it emerged in the course of interrogation, and is therefore strictly speaking sub judice (if I may use the Roman expression) until after the hearing before the Governor. However, you ought, I think, to know that under examination before the High Priest, Jesus of Nazareth admitted what many of us have long suspected: namely that he believes himself to be above the Law, greater than Abraham our father, greater than Moses who gave us the Law, and indeed – and I shudder to say it – that he considers himself on a level with almighty God, the Holy One of Israel, blessed be He.

“I do not need to emphasise the sheer appalling grossness of this blasphemy.

“It is for this reason that representatives of the Council will be pressing for the severest penalty – by which I mean nothing less than crucifixion – when we meet the Governor later this morning.
In the circumstances that I have outlined, the Council has authorised me to tell you how vital it is that you, and everyone else who is concerned to preserve our faith and our heritage – our very national identity, indeed – should be present to support our leaders at this meeting with the Roman authorities.”


Bonhoeffer’s Way of the Cross

Further reading for anyone who would like to learn more about Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment or to follow up issues raised by this year’s Lent talks:

Bethge, Eberhard, Bonhoeffer, Exile and Martyr, London, 1975

Bethge, Eberhard, Friendship and Resistance, Geneva and Grand Rapids, 1995

Bethge, Eberhard and Renate and Gremmels, Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a Life in Pictures, London, 1986

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Life Together, London, 1954

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, London, 1959

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible, Oxford, 1982

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Voices in the Night, Trowbridge, 2003

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Letters and Papers from Prison, London, 1953

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged edition), London, 1971

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich and von Wedemeyer, Maria, Love Letters from Cell 92, London, 1994

Clements, Keith, Bonhoeffer and Britain, London, 2006

Clements, Keith, The SPCK Introduction to Bonhoeffer, London, 2010

de Gruchy, John W. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cambridge, 1999

Robertson, Edwin, Bonhoeffer’s Heritage, London, 1989

Zimmermann, Wolf-Dieter and Gregor Smith, Ronald, I knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London, 1973


The Gospel for 22nd March (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.’

Reflection:

Today we find Jesus, once again, in debate with what we might loosely describe as “the Jerusalem Establishment”. St John depicts them wrestling with some of the issues which also exercise St Paul in his letters to Christian communities in Galatia and Rome, twenty years or so after the events described in this passage. What does it mean to be a descendant of Abraham? Who is a descendant of Abraham? What is freedom? What is truth? That’s a question that will be asked again on Good Friday, and by no less a person than the Roman governor. But for now it’s the Jewish residents in Jerusalem, and particularly those who are favourably inclined toward Jesus, who are asking the questions.

However, Jesus is not telling them what they want to hear. It seems that they want to have their egos stroked and they soon become very prickly when they realise that Jesus is actually questioning rather than affirming their status as descendants of Abraham, like Paul, whose letters replace physical descent from Abraham with the spiritual descent which results from sharing Abraham’s faith, his radical and complete trust in God – those who, as Jesus puts it in John’s Gospel, “continue in [Jesus’] word”. That seems to be what the antagonists of Jesus are missing. They have no place in them for his word, the word which sets them free from slavery to sin – and not least from the sin of pride in their Abrahamic inheritance. Step by step in chapter 8 they move away from that inheritance into a much darker one, as children of a father whose identity will be revealed later in the chapter.

For now, though they quibble. They try to ward Jesus off with words and ideas which protect their status. “We are descendants of Abraham… We are children of God. We have never been slaves… We are not illegitimate.” Jesus, on the other hand, puts out ideas which gently – or not so gently – undermine that status, pointing out the murderous intent which lurks beneath their pious phrases about Abraham and God. He suggests that they need to measure their relationship to both God and Abraham in the light of their relationship with him. ‘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.’ That is the test. It’s not far removed from Dorothy Day’s sobering comment, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

Those words of Jesus are a challenge to us, too – and to all the churches. When his words threaten our status, how do we react? With humility and acceptance? Or with the prickly defensiveness of those Jews who believed in Jesus – or at least who believed that they believed, until they were challenged. Do we have a place in us for his word, the word that makes us free, and free indeed.


We have now reached the end of our exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s journey along the Way of the Cross, This final talk takes as its starting point Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem “Stations on the Road to Freedom”:

Bonhoeffer wrote this poem, in the days immediately following the failure of the July Plot, as a birthday present for Eberhard Bethge serving with an Abwehr intelligence unit in Northern Italy. Each stanza focuses on one of those “stations on the road to freedom”, which are, in order: Discipline, Action, Suffering and Death. In the covering note which Bonhoeffer sent with the poem he tells Bethge, “I wrote these lines in a few hours this evening. They are quite unpolished, but they may perhaps please you and be something of a birthday present for you.” in a PS, written the following morning, he mentions the need for a complete revision – but it never happened. Here is the original, the lines (in Bonhoeffer’s words) “as they are, in the rough”.

If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things

to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions

and longing may lead you away from the path you should follow.

Chaste be your mind and your body, and both in subjection,

obediently steadfastly seeking the aim set before them;

only through discipline may a man learn to be free.

Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you,

valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting –

freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing.

Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action,

trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow;

freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.

A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active,

are bound; in helplessness now you see your action

is ended; you sigh in relief, your cause committing

to stronger hands, so now you may rest contented.

Only for one blissful moment could you draw near to touch freedom,

then, that it might be perfected in glory, you gave it to God.

Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal;

death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish

the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded,

so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden.

Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering;

dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.

Let’s look at each of those stanzas in turn. First, Discipline:

If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things

to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions

and longing may lead you away from the path you should follow.

Chaste be your mind and your body, and both in subjection,

obediently steadfastly seeking the aim set before them;

only through discipline may a man learn to be free.

Those lines express an understanding of Christian asceticism which reflects the teaching of St Paul and those who wrote in his name, and the experience of ascetics from the Desert Fathers to Thomas Merton. The fourteenth-century English spiritual teacher Walter Hilton, who is commemorated in the Church’s calendar on 24 March, was a canon of Thurgarton priory in Nottinghamshire. In his book, “The Ladder of Perfection” Hilton, like Bonhoeffer, presents the Christian life as a journey: in his case a spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Hilton advises his readers “If you want to make swift and substantial progress along this road, you must constantly bear in mind two things, humility and love. That is, I am nothing, and I want only one thing… Humility says, ‘I am nothing, I have nothing.’ Love says, ‘I desire one thing only, which is Jesus.’” Later he adds “A real pilgrim going to Jerusalem leaves his house and land, wife and children; he divests himself of all he possesses in order to travel light and without encumbrances… Recognise your own poverty so that you will not place any confidence in your own work; instead, be always desiring the grace of deeper love, and seeking the spiritual presence of Jesus.”

One of Bonhoeffer’s key encounters during his time in England in the mid-1930s took place not far from Thurgarton. Kelham, about eight miles away, was the home of the Society of the Sacred Mission, a religious order which trained young men from non-academic backgrounds for ministry in the Church of England. It was among the communities which Bonhoeffer visited after being approached to run one of the seminaries which the Confessing Church was setting up to train pastors, away from the contamination of the Reich Church and the German Christians. This experience influenced Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the importance of the Psalms, his encouragement of mutual confession among the students at Finkenwalde and his own choice of Eberhard Bethge as what we might describe as his “soul friend”, the colleague with whom he examined his life and to whom he made his confession. Kelham and the headquarters of the Cowley Fathers in Oxford were among the places where Bonhoeffer sought ideas and inspiration for his work at Finkenwalde, but it was the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, another community which trained clergy in a monastic setting, which had the greatest impact, with its emphasis on a praying community centred on the daily office and the celebration of the Eucharist, and a community whose members were committed to combatting the worst social problems, at home and abroad.

That connection leads us, perhaps inevitably, to the next section, “Action”:

Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you,

valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting –

freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing.

Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action,

trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow;

freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy

There were close links in Bonhoeffer’s thought between what Eberhard Bethge has described as “prayer and praxis”. Prayer was not an escape from an unpleasant and threatening situation, but a way of drawing on the spiritual resources to cope with it. Forty-odd years ago, when Charismatic renewal hit the Church of England, it brought with it a popular hymn from the American evangelical tradition whose refrain ran:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

That was not (and still is not!) the Mirfield approach – and it certainly wasn’t Bonhoeffer’s. When he “turned his eyes upon Jesus”, it was not to escape harsh reality but to seek strength for the daily struggle, first at Finkenwalde and later during imprisonment in Berlin. His whole experience of monastic life reflected this, both in England and in Germany. Towards the end of 1940, after he had been banned by the Nazis from preaching or publishing, Bonhoeffer spent three months in the Benedictine monastery at Ettal in Bavaria, taking stock and pondering the way ahead. Members of the community were also involved in the anti-Nazi resistance – and at the time of Bonhoeffer’s stay several of them had been studying his book “Life Together”. Bonhoeffer’s decision to commit to the conspiracy and to join the Abwehr date from around this period. This was Bonhoeffer “Daring to do what is right,… valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting.” As Eberhard Bethge pointed out in a talk in Düsseldorf in 1985, for Bonhoeffer “prayer and action were held together in truth”. This meant risk-taking. Otherwise truth was negated by the defensiveness of the Churches in Germany in the face of the Hitler regime. It was negated by the Churches’ encouragement of pietistic individualism focused on personal sin and their failure to address the real issues of faith – this is at the heart of his advocacy of “religionless Christianity”. “Religion”, after all, need not necessarily connect with the Christian Gospel. It might equally be provided by the pageantry of a Nazi rally. For Bonhoeffer the task of Christian communities was not to draw people into the Church, but to incarnate the Gospel of Christ in the world and, like Christ, to speak of God in terms that could be understood by all, even those who lived in a world where, scientifically and technologically, “man had come of age”.

The third section of the poem, “Suffering”, reflects the change in Bonhoeffer’s situation after the beginning of April, 1943.

A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active,

are bound; in helplessness now you see your action

is ended; you sigh in relief, your cause committing

to stronger hands, so now you may rest contented.

Only for one blissful moment could you draw near to touch freedom,

then, that it might be perfected in glory, you gave it to God.

In the course of Albrecht Schönherr’s contribution to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death in June 1995, he reminded his hearers that, “for Bonhoeffer there is no Christianity which is simply for self alone: the individual Christian needs the community, the community needs the universal Church – all are there for one another, and responsible for one another.” It was this sense of connectedness, and a deepening awareness of God’s involvement in the world, and in the suffering of the world as much as in its joys, that had led Bonhoeffer to join the resistance against Hitler. For the last two years of his life, from his arrest in April 1943, it was his sense of “throwing himself completely into the arms of God” which sustained him through the months of interrogation and the disappointment of his hopes for himself and for his country in July 1944. In this “self-abandonment to divine providence”, there are echoes of the teaching of the 18th-century French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and of strands in Eastern Orthodox spirituality. Bonhoeffer’s words, “you sigh in relief, your cause committing to stronger hands”, are in spirit not far from a prayer by the 19th-century Russian Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow: “I offer myself as a sacrifice to thee. I put all my trust in thee. I have no other desire than to fulfil thy will. Teach me how to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.”

When Bonhoeffer wrote “Stations on the Road to Freedom” in the summer of 1944 he was aware that he was in now greater danger, but there was still an outside chance that he and his fellow-conspirators would survive. That chance vanished in September 1944, when a search of the Wehrmacht headquarters at Zossen, 30 Km south of Berlin, provided the Gestapo with detailed information about those involved in the conspiracy. From that point, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s fate, like that of his brother Klaus, his brothers-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher and Hans von Dohnanyi, and the other leading figures in the Resistance, was sealed. So “Death”, the final stanza of “Stations on the Road to Freedom”, is strangely prescient:

Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal;

death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish

the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded,

so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden.

Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering;

dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.

Those words of Bonhoeffer are reminiscent of another pastor-poet under sentence of death, albeit from pulmonary illness rather than because of his resistance to a murderous tyranny. The first stanza of George Herbert’s poem “Repentance”, ends with the reminder that

Life still pressing

Is one undressing,

A steadie aiming at a tomb,

while its last looks forward to God’s renewing grace, destroying sin and grief

“That so the broken bones may joy

And tune together in a well-set song,

Full of his praises

Who dead men raises…”

For Bonhoeffer this is the ultimate paradox of Christian faith, that true freedom is found in the loss of all things, not just “all the burdensome chains”, but even “the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded”. It is liberation from the personal and particular into the universal and eternal, “so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden.” It is a striking affirmation that God’s last word to his creation is not suffering and death, but eternal life in Christ. That is the ultimate freedom, previously sought, as Bonhoeffer recognised, “in discipline, action, and suffering”; now recognised as both horror and hope. It was the recognition of that paradox which enabled Bonhoeffer on Low Sunday 1945, as he was led away to condemnation and death, to say to his English fellow-prisoner, Payne Best, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”


The Gospel for 22nd March (John 5:17-30)

Jesus answered the Jewish authorities, ‘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.’

Reflection:

In this passage Jesus repeats many of the catchwords which occur again and again in John’s Gospel. Life, judgement, honour, hearing, believing – those are words which turn up time and again, woven into the sayings and discourses of Jesus and into the narrative framework of the story that John tells. Life is God’s gift and God’s essence. Judgement is the task God has handed to the Son, but that judgement is the judgement of love, and results in honour being given to the Son and to the Father. Hearing the words of Jesus, “the voice of the Son of God”, leads to life, even for those who are already in their grave. Despite all the horrors which uncontrolled human activity inflicts on it, God’s creation is good.

But on top of these catchwords, so familiar from other parts of this Gospel, we find something which is almost unheard of in John. We find a parable. John is notoriously parable-averse, unlike Mark or, even more so, Matthew and Luke, whose chapters are full of stories, similitudes, riddles, even full-blown allegory. John, in their place, offers only the sheep- and shepherd-related parables of chapter ten: and the parable of the father and son which Jesus sets before the hostile Jewish authorities here, in the middle of chapter five.

They are furious because in calling God his Father, Jesus was blasphemously “making himself equal to God.” Jesus responds with this parable, which builds on the idea of fatherhood, but puts his own relationship with God into a slightly different perspective. Starting from the premise that “the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing”, he takes us into the world of a craftsman passing his skills down to the next generation. On Monday we talked about the possibility that Jesus might have learned his ideas about fatherhood by observing Joseph. Today there’s a hint that Joseph’s workshop, too, may have helped Jesus in his self-understanding, providing an example of the way in which “The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.” Where there are no instruction manuals and no power-point presentations or whiteboards, a boy would learn by observing how his father worked and imitating him, under supervision. The same applied to girls and mothers in a world without cookery-books, dress patterns or gardening manuals. As a Chinese sage summed up the process of learning, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

So, Jesus does what he sees the Father doing. He “gives life to whomsoever he wishes”, continuing the Father’s creative, healing work. And he invites human beings, with increasing urgency in these days of climate crisis, to share in that work as he shows us what is happening in his world, summoning us out of the tombs of greed and exploitation to share his work of giving life and hope and healing.


We continue our exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s journey along the Way of the Cross, picking the story up from the failure of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 20th July, 1944. Here is the text of today’s talk:

Last week we focused on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letter of 21st July 1944 to his friend Eberhard Bethge, on active service in Italy. As that letter hints, Bonhoeffer was becoming increasingly aware of the reality of the suffering God. I mentioned last week how Edwin Robertson, in his book “Bonhoeffer’s Heritage”, makes a telling comparison with the episode in Helen Waddell’s novel “Peter Abelard” where Abelard and Thibault, his companion in exile, come across a rabbit which has been mortally injured by a snare, and find a sudden understanding of what the cross means in terms of Christ’s suffering with his creatures now. Adrian Plass, in one of his books, reminds his readers that in accepting the cross Jesus offers the clearest demonstration that “he’s in it with us”. This awareness of God’s participation in human suffering is developed further, albeit rather sketchily, in his “Outline for a Book” and in the poem “Christians and Pagans”.

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead,
And both alike forgiving.

There is a self-emptying in God (we might compare the Christological hymn in Philippians 2 – or Charles Wesley’s hymn “And can it be?”), which Bonhoeffer saw as speaking more powerfully to contemporary humanity than the traditional appeal of the Churches to a “God of the gaps”.

By contrast, Bonhoeffer saw the Church in Germany in the 1940s, even the Confessing Church, as too much concerned with self-preservation, with hacking out a “religious” space from everyday life and maintaining its existence, “entrenching ourselves”, Bonhoeffer wrote, “behind the ‘faith of the church’”. The result of that preoccupation, even then, was a Church whose appeal was mainly to “the upper and lower middle classes” with “no effect on the masses”. That is something which Bonhoeffer had discovered for himself in 1932, not long after his ordination as a pastor. In those early months he was working in Berlin as a chaplain to students at the University, where he also lectured in the Theology Faculty, when he accepted an additional assignment from the local Church authorities. They instructed him to take over a confirmation group of working-class boys which had “got out of control” at Zion Church in Wedding, known since the turn of the 19th century as “Red Wedding”, because of its radical politics. As Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend “It’s about the worst area of Berlin with the most difficult social and political conditions.” On May Day three years before it had been the scene of a violent police operation against traditional left-wing celebrations which left more than 30 people dead and 250 injured. Despite Bonhoeffer’s privileged background, his rapport with the young people living in such desperate conditions was immediate, helped by the fact that when he took on the task he rented a flat nearby, and those he had prepared for confirmation were still talking sixty years later about Pastor Bonhoeffer’s impact on their lives.

“The decisive factor”, in the Church’s withdrawal from engagement with the major challenges facing Germany – and the wider world – as Bonhoeffer identified it in his outline for a book, was “the church on the defensive. No taking risks for others.” Its faith had become the kind of faith described in the first stanza of the poem, one in which “Men go to God when they are sore bestead”: in other words when they want something, “Praying for succour, for his peace, for bread, For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead.” That’s part of the human condition. As Bonhoeffer says, “All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.” They want the “deus ex machina” of Greek and Roman tragedy, the problem-solving god swung onto the stage at the critical point in the drama. But that, as Bonhoeffer makes clear, is not the true and living God.

In the second stanza of the poem Bonhoeffer’s answer to such a superficial “this-worldly” view of God as no more than the provider of answers, the one who meets our needs, is to reaffirm God’s self-emptying in Jesus, “poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead.” A pre-echo of Adrian Plass’s words, “he’s in it with us”. Instead of men “going to God when they are sore bestead”, Christians “go to God when he is sore bestead” and “stand by God in his hour of grieving.” This isn’t “pie in the sky when you die”. This is, as Eberhard Bethge said in a comment on this poem, “a total transformation of human existence…given in the fact that Jesus is there for others.”

That definition of Jesus as “the man for others” is central to Bonhoeffer’s thinking during this final stage of his life. In his “Outline for a Book”, he explains that “It is only this ‘being there for others’, maintained till death, that is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Faith is participation in this being of Jesus.” Bonhoeffer summarises “this being” as “incarnation, cross and resurrection”. He goes on to say that “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbour who is within reach in any given situation.” That “neighbour” includes, as we saw last week, both Bonhoeffer’s guards and his fellow-prisoners.

Then, after setting out the argument, in the first stanza of this poem, and the counter-argument, in the second, Bonhoeffer offers resolution in the third. And he does so by putting the direction of travel into sharp reverse. The first two stanzas begin with men going to God. This stanza begins with God going to “every man when sore bestead”; but unlike the preceding stanzas, which depict human need “for succour, for [God’s] peace, for bread, For mercy” on man’s part and the divine reality of being “poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead”, here Bonhoeffer offers no analysis but the bald statement:

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead,
And both alike forgiving.

Jesus, the man for others, reveals God as the God for others, for every “man” – and the word that Bonhoeffer uses throughout this poem is “Mensch” or “Menschen”, which mean human beings irrespective of gender, so that his words do not have the sexist overtones (to modern ears) which they are given by the English translation. The consequence of this change of direction is a need to rethink the nature of faith as a personal connection to Jesus the man for others and to reassess the role of the church. Bonhoeffer spells this out in some detail in his précis of the conclusions of that projected “book of not more than 100 pages” which he was destined never to write. In the light of our context and our history here in Genova, it’s worth quoting at length:

The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example… it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.

That is how “God goes to every man when sore bestead”. It is not in slick evangelistic campaigns, or slogans, but in presence and in the provision of physical and spiritual comfort and nourishment. God “feeds body and spirit with his bread”, and “his bread” is not only the “daily bread” for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, nor the sacramental bread of the Eucharist, but also the bread of God’s Word in Scripture.

I have talked at some length about the importance of the Bible to Bonhoeffer and about his vision of the good life as a life lived “under God’s Word”. Theologically he stands firmly in the tradition of the Reformation, however congenial he may have found the liturgy and ecclesiology of the Catholic and Anglican traditions. He respected (though he did not always agree with) the great Protestant biblical scholars of the preceding generation, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. His view of the centrality of Scripture informed his emphasis on biblical meditation. The lectio divina which he practised himself and in which he encouraged his students at the Preachers’ Seminary was a listening to God in order to speak to God.

Both in his reflection on life at Finkenwalde and what it meant as a model for the coming Church, which he published in 1939 as “Life Together”, and in his little book on the Psalms (the last work of his to be published before the Gestapo banned his writings) Bonhoeffer writes of “the need to repeat the words of God to God”. He emphasises the Psalms as the core “prayerbook of the Bible”, the prayerbook of Christ. Psalm 119, with its twenty-two variations on a theme, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, was a particular favourite, but he insisted on using the whole Psalter, as he did on reading the whole of Scripture – not just edited highlights. We have to pray through the laments, the songs of suffering, the cursing Psalms, and pray them through the understanding of Christ, who took into himself all the hostility and hatred of the world and nailed it to the cross.

“For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead, And both alike forgiving.”


The Gospel for 20th March – St Joseph of Nazareth [transferred] (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.

Reflection:

Poor Joseph! Once again he gets the short straw. His feast day should have been yesterday, but Sundays in Lent outrank every other celebration. So we keep his feast today. Unless, that is, you are living in the north of England and your church is dedicated to St Cuthbert, who died on this day in AD 687; in which case you are probably keeping today as your patronal festival and turning Joseph, for this year at least, into an unperson. But then, Joseph has been something of an unperson for much of the past two millennia, mostly for reasons of theological dogma. The sheer attractiveness of Luke’s account of the circumstances leading up to the birth of Jesus has led to the devaluing of Matthew’s account, and the prominence of Mary in Luke’s account has led to a corresponding devaluation of Joseph.

Now at this point, I probably ought to declare an interest, in that nearly seventy years ago I was cast as Joseph in the school nativity play; but it seems to me that eagerness to preserve the perpetual virginity of Mary has had some unfortunate consequences for our understanding of Joseph’s role. The commentators who accounted for the various references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters in the Gospels by turning Joseph into a widower with an existing family have not helped our understanding of what Matthew is trying to say in today’s Gospel. Joseph becomes, instead, the clichéd figure of an older husband portrayed in, to take one example, the “Cherry Tree Carol”; a grumpy old curmudgeon, distant cousin to Chaucer’s “January” in the “Merchant’s Tale”.

If we stop fixating on Joseph’s age, and Mary’s virginity, and instead reflect on Matthew’s words, we notice first that Joseph is “a righteous man”, in other words someone who was scrupulous in his keeping of the Law of Moses. Second, we notice that he is a dreamer. In those first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, from the end of the genealogy with which the Gospel opens to the account of the Holy Family’s return from Egypt, every time Joseph is mentioned we are told that he had a dream in which God’s messengers passed on instructions. On each of those occasions Joseph acts on his dream, and the vulnerable are protected and lives are saved.

So Joseph is a righteous man, a dreamer and a man of action. He knows the rules, but he is not afraid to override them when occasion demands. He knows the demands of the Law but he also realises that being attentive to the demands of the Divine compassion comes first, and with that comes an attentiveness to the safety and well-being of those in his care which we find also in Jesus. For some New Testament scholars that has raised an interesting question: did Joseph model human fatherhood for Jesus in a way that enabled him to relate that model to his understanding of God’s fatherhood? For God’s fatherhood is also a balance between justice, or judgement, and compassion, or mercy. On this St Joseph’s day, let us pray for that balance in our own lives also – and let us be unafraid to act in accordance with the dreams that God sends us.


The Gospel for 15th March (Matthew 5:17-19)

‘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.‘

Reflection:

When I was on study leave in Romania fourteen years ago, I became very aware of the tensions within the Romanian Orthodox Church between the liberal “westernisers” and the conservative “Athonite tendency”, as they were known after the ultra-traditionalist monks on that Holy Mountain. You could tell immediately which clergy belonged to which group. The “westernisers” wore ordinary street clothes and had their beards neatly trimmed – or even went clean-shaven. The “Athonites” wore black cassocks, stovepipe hats, and let their hair grow.

There’s a similar tension in the Gospels. It doesn’t show itself in clothing and hairstyle, but in the sayings of Jesus. This passage from Matthew’s Gospel, near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, with its emphasis on keeping the Jewish Law down to the last letter and stroke of a letter “until all is accomplished”, sets the evangelist among the “Athonites”. Mark, when he reports the attitude of Jesus towards the laws regulating ritual cleanliness and keeping the Sabbath, is locating himself very much among the liberals – or rather, the radicals.

So why the difference? And does it matter? Well, yes, it does, because the tensions which surfaced in the first century are still visible today – and not only in Romania.

In the first place it’s important to get the context right. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was speaking as a Jew to Jews. Jewish identity was – and for Orthodox Jewry still is – defined by keeping the Law of Moses faithfully. Matthew was writing his Gospel as a Jewish Christian, probably writing in Syria or Palestine, writing for a community which contained a high proportion of Jewish Christians, and writing at about the time of the great catastrophe of the Jewish revolt against Rome, when Jewish Christians were increasingly seen by other Jews as a kind of “fifth column”. In that context Matthew needed to affirm the solidarity of Christian Jews with the rest of the Jewish people in Syria and Palestine, and that entailed emphasising their Jewish credentials, their adherence to the Law. So he highlighted those sayings of Jesus about the Law which were positive.

In the second place, it’s important to recognise that Matthew leaves it an open question whether those sayings are also meant to apply to Gentile Christians. The evidence of much of the rest of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, the other Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, is that they aren’t. Paul’s letters, in particular, express firm opposition to the idea that Gentile Christians have to be tied into the kind of Jewish nationalism which would impose observance of the Law on those Christians who are not part of “Israel after the flesh”. So, too, does the story that Luke tells in the Acts of the Apostles.

Finally, it’s important to note what Jesus says about those who are, let us say, less zealous for the Law. They are not to be excluded from the Kingdom of heaven. They may not be counted among those who are “great in the kingdom of heaven”, but they are there. So, too, are we, despite those who take their stand on a rigorist interpretation of the Gospel, particularly in the area of sexual ethics. As we have been reminded sharply during the past couple of weeks, what matters in the end, when heaven and earth have passed away, is our faithfulness to the Lord who tells us that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for him.


21st July, 1944 (Wednesday, 15th March, 2023)

We have now reached the half-way point of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s journey along the Way of the Cross, with the failure of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 20th July, 1944:

Twenty-eight years ago, at the 26th German Protestant Kirchentag in Hamburg, Albrecht Schönherr, whom I mentioned in the first of these talks, took part with Eberhard Bethge in a commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom. Each of them focused his memories on a document from the same climactic period of Bonhoeffer’s life: the letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge, by then serving with the Abwehr in Northern Italy, dated 21st July, 1944, and the poem “Stations on the Road to Freedom”. Both were written in the same period, the days and weeks immediately after the failure of the attempt on Hitler’s life which took place on 20th July that year.

We will look at “Stations on the Road to Freedom” in the last of these talks. Today our focus is on the letter, which was written the day after the assassination plot against Hitler failed, a day when the airwaves and the press (including the Church press) were full of hysterical thanksgiving for the Führer’s deliverance from the “most dreadful crime” attempted by “a handful of despicable officers driven on by ambition”. There is an amazing serenity about it, despite the fact that, as Bethge pointed out in his reflections on the letter, it was written in the full realisation that “all personal hopes for a fulfilled love [with Maria von Wedemeyer, to whom he had become engaged in early 1943] were destroyed, a reunion with his beloved family was ruled out, the renewal of the Church in Germany had receded into the distance, the liberation of Germany was even further away.” In that Hamburg talk, Bethge identified these words as the key sentence in this moving letter: “I’m grateful for the past and present, and content with them.” Fifty years on, Bethge was still amazed that Bonhoeffer should include in his thanksgiving what must have been an utterly disheartening and disastrous time.
What were the inner resources that made such serenity possible? Some of them are mentioned, or hinted at, in the letter which Bonhoeffer wrote on that traumatic day:

Dear Eberhard,

All I want to do today is to send you a short greeting. I expect you are often with us here in your thoughts and are always glad of a sign of life, even if the theological discussion stops for a moment. These theological thoughts are, in fact, always occupying my mind; but there are times when I am just content to live the life of faith without worrying about its problems. At those times I simply take pleasure in the day’s readings – in particular those of yesterday and today; and I’m always glad to go back to Paul Gerhardt’s beautiful hymns.

During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more than profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man – in contrast, shall we say, to John the Baptist. I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterised by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. I think Luther lived a this-worldly life in this sense.
I remember conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realise the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?

I think you see what I mean, even though I put it so briefly. I’m glad to have been able to learn this, and I know I’ve been able to do so only along the road that I’ve travelled. So I’m grateful for the past and present, and content with them.

You may be surprised at such a personal letter; but if for once I want to say this kind of thing, to whom should I say it? Perhaps the time will come one day when I can talk to Maria like this; I very much hope so. But I can’t expect it of her yet.

May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.

I was delighted to hear from you, and am glad you’re not finding it too hot. There must be a good many letters from me on the way. Didn’t we go more or less along that way in 1936?

Goodbye. Keep well, and don’t lose hope that we shall all meet again soon. I always think of you in faithfulness and gratitude.

Your Dietrich

First, the Bible: the day’s readings, by which Bonhoeffer meant “Die Losungen”, published by the Moravians of Herrnhut since 1731 and still going strong. The readings for 20th July 1944 were from Psalm 20 — “Some boast of chariots and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God.” — and Romans 8 – “If God is for us, who can be against us?”. Those for 21st July were the opening verse of Psalm 23 and John 10:14 — “I am the Good Shepherd: I know my own and my own know me.”

The Bible, as we noted last week, was central to Bonhoeffer’s Christian discipleship.

He also drew strength from that network of family and friends of which Eberhard Bethge was such an important part. The “Letters and Papers from Prison” make us aware how much Bonhoeffer was sustained by them and by the other networks of community to which he belonged. Not least among them was the network of ecumenical friendships: with the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, the Anglican bishop George Bell of Chichester, and Jean Lasserre, the “young French pastor” mentioned in the letter. Both Bell and Lasserre had been participants, alongside Bonhoeffer, in the conference of the “World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches” held in Fanö, Denmark, in August, 1934. This was at the height of the Church Struggle between the Confessing Church and the “German Christians” in the mid-1930s, but despite support from such allies Bonhoeffer could never persuade the leadership of the various ecumenical networks which coalesced after 1945 into the World Council of Churches to withdraw recognition from the “official” Nazi-backed churches and to recognise the Confessing Church as the true representative of Protestant Christianity in Germany.

Bonhoeffer also found support, naturally, in the network of former students from the Preachers’ Seminary at Finkenwalde and (after that was shut down by the Gestapo) from the “team curacy” or “collective pastorate” in Pomerania, which I mentioned last week. He was also sustained by the patrons of that enterprise, members of the anti-Nazi aristocratic families in East Prussia, including the widowed Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, Maria von Wedemeyer’s grandmother, who had provided Bonhoeffer with an occasional refuge on her estate at Klein-Krössin.

Undergirding all of these was Bonhoeffer’s profound awareness of the presence of God, the God who, above all, speaks to us in Scripture. Bonhoeffer sought to live a life under God’s Word. As head of the Preacher’s Seminar at Finkenwalde he insisted on a time of daily biblical meditation. This was unheard of among Lutheran pastors in training. Their whole formation to that point, as theological students, had prepared them to engage with the Word of God on the level of words, but they had no experience of letting the Word speak to them out of the silence of lectio divina – and when Bonhoeffer first introduced compulsory silent meditation, sometimes on the same passage every day for a week, it nearly provoked a riot. But through this experience experience at Finkenwalde, with its stress on aloneness in community, he was to some extent preparing himself, albeit unawares, for the experience of aloneness in another community, that of the prison in Tegel. Some have doubted whether he would have survived the pressures of imprisonment and interrogation without the preparation of the Preachers’ Seminary.

It was during his imprisonment that Bonhoeffer also became increasingly aware, as his letter of 21st July 1944 hints, of the reality of the suffering God, and of the importance of “watching with Christ in Gethsemane”. The late Edwin Robertson, in his book “Bonhoeffer’s Heritage”, makes a telling comparison with the episode in Helen Waddell’s novel “Peter Abelard” where Abelard and his companion in exile rescue a rabbit which has been mortally injured by a snare, and suddenly come to understand what the cross means not only in terms of Christ’s historic suffering, but also in terms of God’s eternal participation in the agony of his creatures.

That awareness of the involvement of Christ in the suffering of creation, I think, helps to explain Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany from the USA in 1939 and his commitment to the Resistance. It was part of his commitment to “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities… [throwing himself] completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world.” That commitment was deepened by everything that he experienced during the years of wartime, as his later comment makes plain: “I’m glad to have been able to learn this, and I know I’ve been able to do so only along the road that I’ve travelled.” That road, as we are discovering, is his via dolorosa, his “way of the cross”.


On the evening of the second Sunday of each month (except August) there is a gathering for Taizé-style prayer at San Marco al Molo, one of Genoa’s most interesting and outward-looking churches – and the only one in Genoa (apart from the Church of the Holy Ghost, obviously) where you might find worship offered in English. On 12th March, there were three chants with English words. French, Italian, Latin and liturgical Greek were the other languages used.

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The psalm was Psalm 23 and the scripture reading Genesis 22:1-18:

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’

These are the points for reflection on the reading which were printed on the service-sheet (translated from the original Italian):

This is a complicated episode, in places disturbing, which has gathered many interpretations. The first, and most immediate from a historical point of view, concerns the ban on human sacrifice in favour of animal sacrifices.

Equally remarkable is the way in which here God breaks the ancestral link between fathers and sons. Even today we hold on to cumbersome ethical and social paradigms (father/authority/divinity/power/law) which the Word resoundingly contradicts on several occasions: Jesus himself will suggest leaving “brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children” (Matthew 19). In the father-son link here there is no longer the ownership which was taken for granted: from this moment Isaac belongs to God and he will be able to enter into relationship with God without any more need of Abraham as his intermediary.

Ultimately we arrive at the heart of this episode: the testing of Abraham. For one part of the rabbinic tradition it is up to Satan to convince God to act in order to see whether Abraham will remain faithful to him as he had been in good fortune. For Judaism actually this episode is called “the binding of Isaac” because the sacrifice was not part of God’s real intention. But why put Abraham to the test? And how do we hold together this blood-thirsty God who orders Abraham to kill his own son with the God revealed by Jesus?

Without claiming to find answers, let us try a change of perspective and put at the centre of the story not so much God who puts Abraham to the test, or otherwise, as the experience of Abraham in re-acquainting himself with God. Until that moment, God was for Abraham self-evidently a partner, trustworthy and generous: in such cases there is a risk of entering into an idolatrous approach, where what is at the centre is the direct knowledge of God and his gifts rather than God’s own self. Here, instead, Abraham experiences the presence of a God about whom he understands nothing, a God who is mysterious, unpredictable and distant in his otherness. He will have to wait before understanding that God does not actually want the death of Isaac (so that Isaac indeed does not die!).

The story of Abraham is everyone’s story, when we experience something which puts us to the test: suffering, loneliness, loss of meaning. These dark moments happen, they are part of the mystery of life, even though God does not will the suffering of anyone. And they are situations in which God can seem far off and incomprehensible: even Jesus in Gethsemane began “to feel sadness and anguish” (Matthew 26). In the Christian reading of this passage, indeed, the “binding” of Isaac prefigures the death of Jesus.

In drawing near to the senselessness of Easter, of a God who himself suffers and dies, we too experience letting go of a “God who is reliable, who is available” (C.M. Martini) in order to experience trust in a God whom we cannot contain, measure, measure, explain fully. And who precisely because of this “immeasurability” has gone beyond death, and has overcome it.


The Gospel for 8th March – Edward King (Matthew 5:10-12)

Jesus told his disciples, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.‘

Reflection:

“Do they always send an angel from heaven to confirm you?” was one child’s awed reaction on encountering the saintly Bishop Edward King of Lincoln some time around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. By that stage in his ministry, King, one of the most loveable figures in the history of the English Church, had been through the fire, reviled and persecuted by people who could not see beyond their own prejudices to the holiness of their victim. His crimes?

  • He celebrated the Eucharist facing East, rather than standing on the north side of the Holy Table as prescribed by the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.
  • He had lighted candles on the altar.
  • He mixed water with the wine in the chalice.
  • He allowed the Agnus Dei to be sung after the prayer of consecration.
  • He absolved and blessed the people using the sign of the cross.
  • He took the ablutions of the chalice and paten.

He stood trial before Archbishop Benson of Canterbury and six of his brother-bishops in the Southern Province and proceedings dragged on for four years, from 1888, when the first accusations were made against King, until 1892, when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council rejected an appeal against the Archbishop’s ruling, which was largely in King’s favour. And finally Edward King could breathe again and get back to doing the things to which God had called him: being alongside people, sharing with them something of the love of God and encouraging them on the way of Christian discipleship.

He had done that as a curate in the Oxfordshire village of Wheatley. He had done it as the Chaplain, and then Principal, of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s training college in Cuddesdon. He had done it as Prime Minister Gladstone’s surprise choice for the Regius Professor of Pastoral Theology at Oxford. He was doing it, and doing it superbly, as Bishop of Lincoln, when a Cleethorpes solicitor, Ernest de Lacy Read, took it upon himself, with the backing of the ultra-Protestant Church Association, to bring charges against him under the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874.

The stories about King’s 25 years in Lincoln were still doing the rounds when I trained there in the early 1980s – and there were still one or two very elderly people around with childhood memories of the bishop (he died in 1910). The direct and simple preaching in village churches which caused country folk to exclaim “He’s nowt but an owd Methody!”; the concern for his clergy, which caused him to move from the Bishop’s Palace at Riseholme into the city centre because “It wasn’t every poor parson who had a half-crown for a cab”; the pastoral care for the prisoners on death row in Lincoln Gaol, sparked by his intervention in the case of a young fisherman who had murdered his girl-friend in a lovers’ quarrel and who had been so brutalised that the prison chaplain, not long in post, was unable to cope. King took over, tamed the young man, visited him daily, prepared him for confirmation, celebrated Communion with him in the condemned cell, and stood by him on the gallows until the end.

Today we give thanks for all of that: for King’s wisdom and insight, for his sense of fun, for his love of all the people God sent him, for his courage in adversity, and for his unfailing trust in God.


Who am I? (Wednesday, 8th March)

This is the second of five talks about the Way of the Cross, as illustrated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s arrest, imprisonment and execution by the Nazi regime in 1940s Germany and by some of the writings which make up the collection of his “Letters and Papers from Prison”, first published in English in 1953.

What we are concerned with in these talks is the spiritual resources which sustained Bonhoeffer on his way of the cross from Marienburger-allee in the spring of 1943 to his death on the gallows at Flossenbürg just over two years later. What was it that made him the man who apparently left such a vivid impression on the concentration-camp doctor there? And how do we relate that impression to Bonhoeffer’s thoughts—and doubts—expressed in the poem “Who am I?”?

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

The poem offers us three descriptions of Bonhoeffer. The short eight-syllable lines with which the poem opens describe the outward Bonhoeffer, a member of the Berlin professional haut bourgeoisie with aristocratic connections. Although the rest of Bonhoeffer’s family barely gave a nod to the official Protestant faith of Prussia, his mother Paula von Hase was the daughter and grand-daughter of eminent theologians and preachers. Her father had been, briefly, preacher to the imperial court at Potsdam. The description of Bonhoeffer stepping from his cell “Like a Squire from his country house” reminds us that family members and their acquaintances were senior legal or military figures and that he was connected to land-owners in the German-speaking territories beyond the river Oder, where Bonhoeffer had spent his earliest years. Particularly important in the later 1930s were the landed families in Pomerania who supported Bonhoeffer’s work with the Confessing Church at the seminary at Finkenwalde, near Stettin, until it was closed by the Gestapo in 1937, and later in the “Collective Pastorates” of Köslin and Groß-Schlönwitz. It was in that setting that Bonhoeffer met the girl who was to become his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, the daughter of an officer killed during the battle for Stalingrad.

The first part of the poem also alludes to the impression which Bonhoeffer made on the men guarding him. One guard arranged the 1944 equivalent of a “selfie” with Bonhoeffer and three captured Italian airmen – this was after the Italian state had signed an armistice with the Allies in September 1943. A few others were happy to smuggle letters and other messages out of the prison in Tegel to family members and friends. One of them, Staff-Sergeant Knobloch, even arranged in autumn 1944 to spirit Bonhoeffer out of the prison, disguised as a workman, and to “disappear” with him, but the plan was cancelled after Dietrich’s brother Klaus was arrested on 1st October. Earlier, Bonhoeffer had taken advantage of the fact that his mother’s brother, Lt-General Paul von Hase (another member of the Resistance), was City Commandant of Berlin, to write a report on the ill-treatment of prisoners, high-lighting the brutality of several of the warders, the poor quality of the food, the lack of care during air raids. Bonhoeffer’s time in prison was a steep learning curve. As he wrote: “There remains an experience of incomparable value that we have learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the scorned, the ill-treated, the powerless, the oppressed and despised, in short, those who suffer.” It was in that context that he wrote up the complaints of his fellow-prisoners for onward transmission and arranged, through his father, for psychiatric reports on some to be sent to the lawyers acting in their defence. He also prayed for the prisoners who had been condemned to death as they went to their execution.

The second part of the poem takes us beyond the facade of Bonhoeffer “in command”, into his inner feelings. It abandons the three steady beats per line of the first part for an agitated, sometimes syncopated, dactylic rhythm, and longer lines of verse. It reflects the inner turmoil and self-questioning which Bonhoeffer experienced during his time in Tegel, “Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,” hating the brutality of the guards, appalled by the conditions under which prisoners were kept, isolated from family and friends, fearful of giving way under interrogation or of making a slip in his responses to questioning that would implicate family members and friends, most of whom were active in the Resistance. In the end his brother Klaus and two of his brothers-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher, would also be among those executed by the Nazis in April 1945. His uncle, Paul von Hase, one of the few senior military members of the Resistance who took action on 20th July 1944, on the assumption that Hitler had been killed, was arrested, tried and executed within three weeks of the attempt. Eberhard Bethge, who was Rüdiger Schleicher’s son-in-law as well as Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, was in prison awaiting execution when Berlin fell to the Russians at the beginning of May 1945. In these circumstances,

“Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all,”

Bonhoeffer can find no resolution. The words of self-reproach tumble out: “hypocrite”, “contemptible woebegone weakling”, “like a beaten army Fleeing in disorder”. In accepting Reinhold Niebuhr’s invitation to America in June 1939, he had recognised his own danger, but he quickly decided that to accept this exile would be a mistake and returned after barely a month. As he wrote to Niebuhr, “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christians of Germany. I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.” In joining the Resistance he had abandoned the pacifist principles set out seven years before in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” – unlike the Berlin-based peace activist Hermann Stöhr, who had gone to his death in 1940 rather than swear the oath of allegiance to Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s self-questioning continues until the very last line, when he gives his final answer to the question.”Who am I?”:

“Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”

“Thine” in the sense of accepting the cross. “Thine” in the sense of accepting his complicity in the plot against Hitler and the guilt which that entailed. “Thine” in his readiness to follow his course to the bitter end. “Thine” in an awareness that God’s love, and the demands of that love, stretched far beyond the comfortable pieties which had been so easily distorted and perverted by the Nazi-sponsored German Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood solidly in the Lutheran tradition of serious engagement with Scripture and rejected the German Christians’ rewriting of Christian texts, including the Gospels, in line with Nazi ideology. Lutheran, too, was his awareness of the formative power of hymns. Again and again in his books and his letters he quotes from, or alludes to, the hymns of the Church, with the 17th-century hymn-writer Paul Gerhardt a particular favourite. Gerhardt’s hymns also come out of a time of great testing and tribulation, the Thirty Years War which devastated many of the German states, including his native Saxony. Even that most radiant of all 17th-century Lutheran hymns of praise, “Die güldne Sonne” (the golden sun), parts of which exist in English translation as “The golden sunbeams” and as “Evening and morning”, was written at a time of career disappointment, personal tragedy and national struggle.

However, it was not only engagement with his own tradition which enabled Bonhoeffer to say “I am thine”. His faith was deepened by experience of the wider Christian community. His first visit to Rome as a student had opened his eyes to the universality of the Church and the glory of liturgical worship. His contact with the Anglo-Catholic monastic tradition which he encountered at Kelham, Mirfield and Cowley during the two years when he was pastor of two German congregations in South London was significant in shaping his work at Finkenwalde. The spiritual discipline which he encountered among the Community of the Resurrection and the Cowley Fathers during his time in England was, as he recognised, an essential ingredient in the formation of pastors who would be ministering under a profoundly anti-Christian regime. His experience of African-American Christianity in Harlem in 1930 while he was studying at the Union Theological Seminary in New York was also an important factor, both in the expansion of his understanding of the Church and in opening up a vision of the world from the perspective of those who suffer oppression.

The Bible was central to Bonhoeffer’s Christian discipleship. That is why the daily meditation which he introduced, against much opposition, at Finkenwalde – and especially meditation on the Psalms as the prayer of Christ – was so important to him. He came, in the light of his English experience, to understand silence in the sense not of passivity but of active listening. Bonhoeffer told Bethge in 1936 that his prayer life had deepened so much that he did not regard what he had been doing before as real praying – even though prayer had been important to him from his childhood, when he would bang, at night, on the wall between his bedroom and that of his sisters Sabine (Dietrich’s twin) and Susanne, to remind them to turn to God before they went to sleep.

So it seems appropriate that one of Bonheffer’s last recorded actions was to lead a service on Low Sunday for fellow-prisoners of different traditions in the school at Schönberg where they stopped on the journey to the extermination camp at Flossenbürg in Bavaria. He preached on the passages for the day: Isaiah 53 (“With his stripes we are healed”) and 1 Peter 1 (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”). The act of worship had not long ended when he was summoned to begin the final stage of his journey. Before he set off under escort, Bonhoeffer managed to leave behind a book with his name and address hastily written in it, as a sign that he had passed that way. He was also able to give one of the British prisoners a message for Bishop George Bell: “This is the end – for me the beginning of Life.” They are Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last recorded words.


1st March, 2023

Today is the 390th anniversary of the death of George Herbert and in the light of my recent book on half a dozen of his poems, I was asked to give a talk to half a dozen “Ministry Experience Scheme” interns in the Diocese in Europe. Here’s what I shared:

It was on this day 390 years ago that George Herbert finally succumbed to the pulmonary disease that had haunted most of his adult life. He was a man who “lived and… died like a saint, unspotted of the world. Full of alms-deeds, full of humility, and all the examples of a virtuous life”. That, at least, was the opinion of his first biographer, Izaak Walton, who knew many of George Herbert’s friends and recorded many of their memories of his life as a country parson at Bemerton in Wiltshire.

I’ve been asked to say something about George Herbert’s life and, in particular, about the poetry which was the fruit of that life and which is George Herbert’s memorial – a living memorial – today. That poetry has been a source of inspiration to English-speaking Christians in the four centuries since his death, and it has caused George Herbert to be regarded as one of the chief glories of what many would judge to be the Golden Age of the English Church. So, let us begin with what I think is one of Herbert’s finest poems, “The Agonie”:

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
        But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.

Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
        His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
        If ever he did taste the like.
Love in that liquour sweet and most divine,
 Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

That poem is, in many ways, one that sums up Herbert’s poetry. It weaves together some of the most important strands in his understanding of Christian faith and of the Christian life:

  1. A recognition of the glory and diversity of God’s creation, and of the ingenuity of human beings in their attempts to map and control that creation;
  2. An acute awareness of human frailty and sinfulness, of how far each one of us falls short of the divine glory;
  3. And an awed realisation of the infinite love of God, displayed most fully in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and made freely available to all through the sacrament of the Holy Communion.

These great themes – relevant as much to the 21st century as to the 17th – are expressed in language which appears, for the most part, direct and simple, but whose simplicity often conceals a depth and density of meaning that few writers can match.

George Herbert was born in 1593 and died, a month short of his fortieth birthday, in 1633. He lived at a time of great changes – in religion, in political life, in the human view of the world in which we live. More and more was being discovered about the physical universe.

“Nothing” (he wrote in one poem which he titled “Man”) “hath got so far
but man hath caught and kept it as his prey.
His eyes dismount the highest star:
He is in little all the sphere:
Herbs gladly cure our flesh; because that they
Find their acquaintance there.”

Herbert clearly shared in the excitement of these discoveries. He was as aware as anyone of the pleasures that the world could offer. His family was very well connected, socially and politically. One branch of the family held (and still holds) the Earldom of Pembroke. George had been a courtier, and a prominent figure in the life of the University at Cambridge. He was especially fond of music, and was a skilled performer and composer. Izaak Walton records that “his chiefest recreation was music, in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and did himself compose many divine hymns and anthems, which he set and sung to his lute or viol; and though he was a lover of retiredness, yet his love to music was such, that he went usually twice every week on certain appointed days to the cathedral church in Salisbury; and at his return would say, that his time spent in prayer and cathedral music elevated his soul, and was his heaven upon earth. But before his return thence to Bemerton, he would usually sing and play his part at an appointed private music meeting…”

But all these things – the triumphs of the human mind, the things that delight the intellect and the senses, all were, for him, secondary in the end to the two great facts of Christian experience, Sin and Love – human sin, and God’s love which cancelled that sin through the death of Jesus Christ.

Human frailty and God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness are the subjects which dominate Herbert’s poetry. Indeed towards the end of his life he described his poems as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my master; in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.”

And they were serious conflicts. Walton alludes to the long delays and doubts which went before George Herbert’s decision to take holy orders. Herbert knew himself thoroughly. Few have conveyed so succinctly the sheer tedious repetitiveness of sin as he does in the poem “Sin’s Round”. Our constant cycle of failure is reflected in the structure of the poem where the last line of each stanza is the first line of the next and the very last line of the whole poem is the same as the very first, so that the whole thing appears to be going round and round in circles.

Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am,
That my offences course it in a ring.
My thoughts are working like a busy flame,
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring:
And when they once have perfected their draughts,
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts.
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts,
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill.
They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults,
And by their breathing ventilate the ill.
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions:
My hands do join to finish the inventions.

My hands do join to finish the inventions:
And so my sins ascend three stories high,
As Babel grew, before there were dissensions.
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply
New thoughts of sinning: wherefore, to my shame,
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am.

But there is a way out from this treadmill, or, to use an image in another of Herbert’s poems, “The Pearl”, a way out from this labyrinth.

“Through the labyrinths, not my grovelling wit
But thy silk twist let down from heaven to me
Did both conduct and teach me, how by it
To climb to thee.”

The “silk twist” is God’s self-revelation to us in Jesus Christ. Even in the midst of our most determined efforts to ignore him, God gently but insistently, calls us to love and serve him.

In his poem, “The Collar”, which puns on the word “collar” as a restraint – like a horse-collar (or even a dog-collar) – and “choler” as anger, Herbert pictures himself in furious rebellion against the God whose love makes demands on him that he would rather ignore. The rhythms, the rhyme-scheme, both fling order and regularity to the winds. This is a furious, explosive poem. And yet… and yet…

I struck the board, and cry’d, No more.
I will abroad.
         What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the road,
        Loose as the winde, as large as store.
                Shall I be still in suit?
         Have I no harvest but a thorn
        To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
 Sure there was wine
             Before my sighs did dry it: there was corn
               Before my tears did drown it.
        Is the year only lost to me?
                Have I no bays to crown it?
 No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
All wasted?
        Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
                Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit, and not. Forsake thy cage,
 Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
        Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
        While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
                              Away; take heed:
                              I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s head there: tie up thy fears.
                              He that forbears
               To suit and serve his need,
                              Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild
                              At every word,
        Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child:
                And I replied, My Lord.

“Me thoughts I heard one calling ‘Child’, And I replied ‘My Lord!’”

There is the God whom Herbert serves, not “battering his heart” (like his godfather and mentor John Donne’s), but calling from afar, a still, small voice to which the only response possible is self-surrender in love to Love, as the creature turns from absorption in itself to adore the God who made it. As he lay dying, Herbert reflected that “his life could not be better spent than in the service of his master Jesus, who had done and suffered so much for him.” Jesus was for Herbert, as for us, the most complete, living expression of God’s love. His name is “deeply carved” on the heart of those who respond to that love, love poured out to the uttermost, freely and for all, the love which, as we heard in our first poem, “my God feels as blood, but I as wine.”

In “The Country Parson”, the notes which he wrote for his own guidance as parish priest at Bemerton, and which were published nearly 20 years after his death, George Herbert uses the love of God for his creation as a powerful argument against those who, in the Calvinist-majority Church of England of those times, doubted that they were among the elect and were tempted to despair:

“If he sees [any of his flock] nearer desperation than atheism, not so much doubting a God as that he is theirs, then he dives into the boundless ocean of God’s love, and the unspeakable riches of his loving-kindness. He hath one argument unanswerable. If God hate them, either he doth it as they are creatures, dust and ashes, or as they are sinful. As creatures, he must needs love them; for no perfect artist ever yet hated his own work. As sinful, he must much more love them; because notwithstanding his infinite hate of sin, his love overcame that hate; and with an exceeding great victory, which in the creation needed not, gave them love for love, even the Son of his love out of his bosom of love; so that man, which way soever he turns, hath two pledges of God’s love, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established: the one in his being, the other in his sinful being; and this as the more faulty in him, so the more glorious in God. And all may certainly conclude, that God loves them, till either they despise that love, or despair of his mercy; not any sin else but is within his love; but the despising of love must needs be without it. The thrusting away of his arm makes us only not embraced.”

But Herbert never presumes on God’s love. His poems are both love-poems and prayers. Like any lover, he is conscious of his own unworthiness of the object of his love – only infinitely more so, because the object of his love is God, the God whom every English clergyman of that age knew to be “the one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions: of infinite power, wisdom and goodness: the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible”; for that was how God is described in the first of the XXXIX Articles of Religion to which every clergyman of that age had to subscribe.

But in spite of his unworthiness, in spite of his sin and failure, in spite of the immense distance between the lover and the object of his love, George Herbert knew that he was loved in return, indeed, that his being loved was the only thing that made it possible for him to love. The initiative, the marvellous, mysterious, unutterable initiative, is all on God’s side. God searches us out. He seeks continually to draw us to himself, to welcome us as guests at his own table. We may know our unfitness for such an honour, but that is no obstacle to God. Here, to end, is one of the finest of all Herbert’s poems, one of which a colleague once said to me “That’s my desert island poem”. It’s a poem which expresses George Herbert’s, and our, response to the divine initiative. It is called, quite simply, “Love”.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

The Gospel for 1st March – St David (Matthew 16:24-27)

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.

Reflection:

David has always been something of a Lenten saint. There are only seven years between now and the end of the current half-century in which Ash Wednesday falls after his feast day. His nickname, Glastwr (waterman or “water-drinker”), and his long association with that humble vegetable the leek suggest a simplicity of life. So do his reported links with the Desert Fathers of Egypt, with their emphasis on prayer, hard physical work, abstention from alcohol, and refraining from unnecessary speech. Rhigyfarch the Wise, who wrote the earliest life of David that has come down to us, tells many stories, about a wonderful child, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the foundation of many monasteries, and his choice as primate of the Church in Wales by acclamation when a small earthquake (or was it a very large mole?) raised the flat ground on which he was standing as he preached to a large crowd at the Synod of Brefi, and turned it into a small hill.

The only problem is that Rhigyfarch lived about as far distant in time from David as we are from the Borgias. And Rhigyfarch was a man with an agenda. He wanted to assert the independence of the Welsh Church from the Archbishops of Canterbury, and particularly the independence of the diocese of Mynyw, better known to English-speakers as St David’s. David, after all, had been Archbishop in Wales four decades before Augustine and his monks arrived in Canterbury, and Dyfrig had been Archbishop before him. But the stories which are told in any life of a saint usually reflect folk memories of the person behind them, whatever the author’s motive – and the stories which are told about David reflect a man who lived a gospel life, certainly if we measure a gospel life according to the standard set by Jesus in the passage that we have just heard. He was hard on himself, physically, but gentle and compassionate with others, suggesting perhaps that those reports about links with the monks of Egypt are true.

According to tradition, for the week before David died the monastic buildings and the surrounding valley of Glyn Rhosyn were filled with angels, and on the day appointed for his death the Lord himself came to repay his faithful servant and receive him into heaven. His last recorded words are those he spoke to the faithful in a sermon the previous Sunday: “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.” Those are words for us to ponder as we walk the path which winds through this season of Lent. “Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things” is good advice for all who seek to take up their cross and follow Christ.


Bonhoeffer’s Way of the Cross (Wednesday, 1st March)

This is the first of five talks about the Way of the Cross, as illustrated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s arrest, imprisonment and execution by the Nazi regime in 1940s Germany and by some of the writings which make up the collection of his “Letters and Papers from Prison”, first published in English in 1953.

Almost eighty years ago, on 31st March, 1943, the eminent German neurologist and psychiatrist, Karl Bonhoeffer, celebrated his 75th birthday surrounded by his children and grandchildren. For his pioneering work at Berlin’s university hospital, the Charité, where he had been Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology from 1912 to 1938, he was presented with the Goethe Medal and a testimonial from Adolf Hitler. Five days later, one of the children who had taken part in those celebrations, his 37-year-old son Dietrich, a theologian and pastor, was arrested at his parents’ house and imprisoned on suspicion of anti-regime activity, and for the next two years a complicated game of cat-and-mouse was played out between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the state secret police, the Gestapo, first in the military interrogation prison in Tegel, then in the Gestapo headquarters in Prinz-Albrechtstraße in central Berlin, until it was ended, by express order of Adolf Hitler, on the gallows of the concentration camp at Flossenbürg in Bavaria on 9th April, 1945.

Ten months before his arrest, in mid-June 1942 Bonhoeffer had been in Italy, travelling to Rome in his role as an agent of the Abwehr, the German counter-intelligence agency. This was an unusual role for a Protestant Pastor, but Bonhoeffer had been recruited by the Abwehr, because of his known anti-Nazi views. Many of the agency’s senior officers were active in the anti-Nazi resistance, including its head, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and his deputy General Hans Oster. Membership of the Abwehr also kept Bonhoeffer from being conscripted as a military chaplain. The official reason for Bonhoeffer’s becoming an agent was that his ecumenical contacts across Europe would provide links to potential sources of intelligence from Churches in other countries. A more pressing reason, for the resistance at least, was that those contacts could, and did, provide an important back-channel between the resistance and the Allies. Bonhoeffer, for example, used a visit to neutral Sweden to pass on important information to Bishop George Bell of Chichester.

The trip to Italy was to be Bonhoeffer’s last journey outside Germany. Eighty-one years after that visit, and nearly a century after Bonhoeffer’s first visit to this country as an 18-year-old student of theology in the 1920s, I hope to explore some of the stages in the spiritual journey which links that first visit, and especially his time in Rome, to the circumstances of his second visit and to that further journey to imprisonment in Berlin and ultimately death on the scaffold at Flossenburg in April, 1945, Dietrich Bonoeffer’s own “Way of the Cross”.

The reality of the cross is the toughest thing that Christian spirituality has to cope with. Although we usually try not to think about it in concrete terms, it lies at the heart of Christian faith. We’re happy to talk about the idea of the cross, the theological significance of the cross as the symbol or the “mechanism” of human redemption (however each of us may understand that). We tend to become nervous when faced with its reality in the life of Christians. Preachers often try to skate over those uncomfortable words of Jesus about taking up the cross and following him. Even for the New Testament writers the starkness of this saying seems to have been something of a problem. We find, for example, St Luke toning down the words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (and St Matthew’s which we shall hear later) by somehow spiritualising the cross as a part of our daily discipline.

When we look at the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, however, we find the cross as reality right at the heart of his thinking and his action. The journey from the cultured and comfortable academic setting of his early life in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), and later in Berlin, to the gallows at Flossenbürg is an outstanding example of the imitatio Christi in the last century. He not only wrote about the cost of discipleship, he lived it: in his opposition to the Hitler regime from the very beginning; in his willingness to speak out for the Jews; and, paradoxically, in his abandonment of earlier pacifist convictions in favour of joining the conspiracy against Hitler known as “the July Plot”. And through his later writings, and especially the collection of his “Letters and Papers from Prison”, incomplete though this is, we have the immense privilege of following his development and growth towards that point of final crisis and towards martyrdom: not simply thinking, but doing theology in the light of all that he had experienced as a student in Tübingen and Berlin, as a young pastor in Barcelona, and later in London, as a graduate student in New York, where he discovered the vibrant Christianity of the black churches in Harlem, and as a trainer of pastors for the Confessing Church, which broke away from the Nazi-sponsored “German Christians” in 1934.

In these talks we will consider a few of the most significant writings from Bonhoeffer’s time in the prison at Tegel, the poems, “Who am I?”, “Christians and Pagans”, and “Stations on the Road to Freedom”, and the letter which he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge the day after the failure of the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, a plot in which Bonheoffer and Bethge were deeply implicated. A collection of later material, smuggled out from prison to Bethge while he was was serving with German forces in Italy, had to be burned hastily in October 1944 when Bethge discovered orders for his own arrest and transfer under heavy guard to Berlin for interrogation.

One thing that should, perhaps, be stressed from the outset is that Bonhoeffer did not seek martyrdom. His Christian faith was not life-denying. Albrecht Schönherr was one of Bonhoeffer’s students at the Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde in the mid-1930s and later a distinguished and courageous Protestant bishop in Berlin during the Communist era. In a talk given in Hamburg in June 1995 as part of the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death, Schönherr spoke about his memories of Bonhoeffer. In the course of that talk he remarked that ‘For Bonhoeffer it went without saying that conversation, singing, playing, swimming, and walking were all part of the Christian life”, adding a little later that “Bonhoeffer was no ascetic. He loved life in all its fullness.” Opel cars and asparagus were on his list of God’s blessings.

Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany from the safety of America at the end of summer of 1939 was inspired by an awareness that if he was not among his people, sharing their sufferings in war, he would have no right to share in the reconstruction which he firmly believed would follow. The “Outline for a Book” which he sent to Eberhard Bethge in summer 1944 sketched some of his later thoughts about the way in which that reconstruction should proceed in a world where, as Bonhoeffer saw it, humankind had “come of age” and the Churches’ former policy of coping with the advance of science and technology by turning God into a “stopgap for our embarrassments” had shown its bankruptcy.

In his introduction to a collection of daily readings from Bonhoeffer published some years ago by Darton, Longman and Todd under the title “The Narrow Path”, the late Edwin Robertson, a Baptist minister who was one of Bonhoeffer’s earliest English advocates and interpreters, quoted from the poem “The Death of Moses”, first published in English in 1977 in the collection of Bonhoeffer’s “Prayers from Prison”. Edwin, whom I was privileged to know toward the end of his long life, saw in this a reflection of Bonhoeffer’s own struggle to come to terms with the increasingly strong probability that he would not live to see the liberation of his country and the reconstruction of the Church in Germany for which he had worked so hard and prayed so earnestly, and at such risk to himself, during the preceding decade. I’m going to end with it now:

Upon the mountain’s summit stands at last
Moses, the prophet and the man of God.

Unwavering his eyes look on the view,
survey the promised scene, the holy land.

Now, Lord, thy promises have been fulfilled,
to me thy word has been for ever sure.

Deliverance and salvation are thy gifts,
thy anger chastens, casts away, consumes.

Eternal faithful Lord, thy faithless slave
knows well – at all times righteous is thy will.

So now, today, inflict my punishment,
enfold me in the long dark sleep of death.

Rich grow the vineyards in the holy land;
faith only knows the promise of their wine.

Pour for the doubter, then, his bitter draught,
and let his faith proclaim thy thanks and praise.

Wondrous the works which thou hast done by me,
changing my cup from gall to sweet delight.

Grant me to witness through the veil of death
my people at their high triumphant feast.

I fail, and sink in thine eternity,
but see my people marching forward, free.

God quick to punish sin or to forgive,
thou knowest how this people has my love.

Enough that I have borne its shame and sin
and seen salvation—now I need not live.

Stay, hold my nerveless hands, let fall my staff;
thou faithful God, prepare me for my grave.


The Gospel for 15th February – Sigfrid, Thomas Bray (Mark 8:22-26)

Jesus and his disciples came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him 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.’

Reflection:

Today’s Gospel is something of a one-off. The healing of the blind man is the only one which doesn’t “take”, so to speak, first time. The people the blind man sees when Jesus takes his hands away “look like trees, walking”, blurred and indistinct. So Jesus has to lay hands on him again. It has been suggested that this is a reflection of the conversation which Jesus and the disciples have just had in the boat coming across the lake after the feeding of the four thousand, where it became clear that they, too, were not seeing clearly and had a very blurred idea of what Jesus is about.

Which is a bit of a contrast with the two Englishmen whom we commemorate today. For all that they lived six centuries apart, in worlds that were utterly different, Sigfrid and Thomas Bray did see clearly what Jesus is about. Sigfrid, a monk of YorkMinster, is revered in Scandinavia as the Apostle of Sweden. In a way he represents the second laying on of Jesus’ hands, because he was not the first Christian missionary to proclaim Christ to the peoples of the North. That honour goes to the Frankish monk Anskar two centuries before; but Anskar’s sphere of operations was much broader, covering Denmark, and northern Germany where he was based – and his work more or less stopped with his death. Sigfrid’s ministry was much more geographically focused, mainly in the lakes and forests of Småland and Västergötland in southern Sweden, and operating out of Växjö, today the chief city of Småland and even then a place with good communications, both by road and by water. There Sigfrid and his team are reported to have made their base, building their first wooden church on land given in reparation for the murder of members of his team by a pagan magnate, and there Sigfrid is said to be buried.

Shropshire lad Thomas Bray was born in 1656. After university and ordination he returned to Shropshire, working as a parish priest and as domestic chaplain to one of the county’s leading families. His reputation as a hard-working and organised priest drew him to the attention of Bishop Compton of London, who was faced with reorganising the Church in one of the American colonies and wanted a reliable and diligent man to oversee that work. In 1696 he appointed Thomas Bray as his commissary, although it wasn’t until three years later that Bray finally headed across the Atlantic. In that time, though, he had been able to develop ideas about how best to enable ministry in the colonies – and to try them out. A firm believer in the power of the written word, when he set up new parishes, Bray also set up libraries to resource the ministers and the people. Libraries, however, need books. Bray used his organisational skills, and his formidable list of contacts, to set up the Church of England’s first mission agency, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), to provide books and pamphlets suitable for those libraries, and for wider use – including prisons. He also, on his return to England, set up another society, for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), with the twofold aim of providing ministry to English people living overseas and of preaching the good news of Jesus among non-Christians, including slaves and native peoples. He had spoken out against slavery and the oppression of Native Americans while he was in the colonies and he wanted to see them fully included in the body of Christ. Both SPCK and SPG (now USPG) are still active agents of mission – and later today in London members of both societies will join together on this “Bray Day” to remember the man, and to share their plans for continuing his work of bringing people to Jesus so that they may see the world clearly in the light of the good news of God.

Sigfrid (back to camera) with his three martyred colleagues, Unaman, Vinaman and Sunaman. Outside Växjö Cathedral

The Gospel for 8th February (Mark 7:14-23)

Then 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.’

Reflection:

This passage is the climax of yet another row between Jesus and a group of Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem, presumably in response to reports that had reached them about this strange wonder-working rabbi up north in Galilee. A couple of weeks ago we heard how Jesus was getting into trouble over his attitude to the sabbath. This time it’s the rules about ritual purity. We might have expected that washing hands, and washing food, was to do with food hygiene. It wasn’t. It was another way of defining who kept the Law sufficiently strictly and who didn’t: who was “in”, in other words, and who was “out”.

In an earlier part of this passage Jesus has laid down the reasons for his rejection of these rules. Now, he gathers the crowd and gives them his take on them. And, as so often, he does it in the form of a riddle, a parable. And, as so often, the disciples fail to get the message. You get the impression that if social media had been around in first-century Palestine, Jesus would have been making frequent use of the face-palm emoji. Then he explains: what defiles a person, what makes them ritually impure and sets them outside the community, isn’t what they eat or how they eat it.

Food, Jesus tells the disciples, can’t hurt you in that sense, because it by-passes the heart – which, in the ancient Jewish understanding was the part of the body where thinking, and especially moral decision-making, was centred. Food goes straight into the stomach and then passes out through the bowel into the sewer. Gentiles would have understood that. So what’s your problem? The problem is what comes out of the heart, the thoughts, the evil intentions, that long list of actions – and attitudes – which do harm to others. Jesus, in other words, is telling the disciples that outward observance is neutral and no guide to where the boundaries are. What defines the community is the inward disposition of the heart, the “moral compass”, as people sometimes call it.

Let’s look again at the list of contaminating behaviours: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” Some of them (theft, murder, adultery, for example) come straight from the Ten Commandments. Pretty well all of the others (fornication, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly) you will find in the letters of Paul and other New Testament writers when they’re discussing the sort of behaviour to be avoided by Christians. And some of them are really rather political, looking back to the behaviour of ancient Israel and Judah – and to the behaviour of those who wield power now.

Most of those “evil intentions” which Jesus lists still mark the way that rich and powerful people behave when they regard themselves as entitled and unaccountable. That’s true in the Church as much as in the state, in the family as much as in public and commercial life. This week, as the General Synod of the Church of England meets in Westminster, let us pray for all who, in their sense of entitlement, are tempted to judge others as “defiled”, and let us pray for all those who find themselves classed among the unclean, the outsiders, rejected by the official guardians of that community of believers whose faith they share.


The Gospel for 1st Febuary – Brigid of Kildare (Mark 6:1-6a)

Jesus left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Reflection:

Today the Church remembers the first woman reported to have been ordained as bishop. Bride, or Brigid, the Abbess of a community of women in Kildare, in Ireland fifteen centuries ago, is said to have been consecrated by Bishop Ibor because he saw in her a holiness, a compassion and a joy like that of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and, in fact, Brigid, who is Ireland’s co-patron along with St Patrick, is sometimes known as “the Mary of the Gael”.

So it’s ironic that, on this day when we remember the honour paid to Brigid on account of her resemblance to Mary, we should be confronted by a gospel reading which implies a fairly massive slur. When Jesus is described by the people of Nazareth as “the carpenter, the son of Mary”, with no mention of Joseph, it could mean either that Joseph is dead, or that Jesus was born, as people used to say, “out of wedlock”. Some commentators incline to this view. Others think that Joseph was indeed dead and that the “offence” which the people of Nazareth took against Jesus was that he had abandoned his duty, as the eldest son, to support his widowed mother, leaving her to the care of his four brothers (and, presumably, the unnamed and unnumbered sisters).

In either case, Nazareth as a whole seems to have been suffering from what is sometimes called “tall poppy syndrome”. This man has got above himself: ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” So, he needs to be cut down to size, reminded where he comes from and who his people are, reminded of his family responsibilities. It isn’t quite Monty Python’s “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” But it comes very close.

And so, effectively, they shut themselves out of the kingdom. They can’t hear the message of good news, because they know the messenger “too well”. And, as Mark makes clear in the closing words of the passage, if they can’t hear the good news, then they can’t receive the blessings of the kingdom – except for those “few sick people” on whom Jesus laid hands to cure them. They, perhaps, had that faith which comes from desperation. Otherwise, as Morna Hooker writes in her short study of “The Message of Mark”. “There is clearly a link between the refusal of the people to believe that Jesus is anything but an ordinary local boy risen above himself and his inability to do mighty works.” What they were missing was any sense that the power of God was at work in him.

That’s where they differ from Bishop Ibor in his treatment of Abbess Brigid. Despite her humble origins, he could see the power of God at work in her. Although her story was not written down until two centuries or so after her death at the beginning of the sixth century, the stories that are told about her reflect a similar pattern of intercession, of compassionate care, of closeness to God’s other creatures – even pigs and wildfowl. Brigid modelled the kingdom of God in her own life, and in the life of her community. As one of her early biographers, the monk Cogitosus put it, “she praised God the creator of all living things, to whom all life is subject, and for the service of whom all life is gift.”


27th January, 2023

It was a great privilege to stand in for the British Consul (called away to Milan on official business) at the annual Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in the Palazzo Ducale earlier today. After the official greetings and speeches, including a formal oration from Ariel dello Strologo, a leading figure in Genoa’s Jewish community, there was a prize-giving for schools from across the Region who had produced the best work on the Shoah, and why we must remember. The winning juniors produced a traditional junior-school type frieze, telling the story of a Holocaust survivor and his family. Older groups created a mocked-up newspaper telling the story of the Shoah, a film which focused on a message found in an old violin previously owned by one of the deportees, a Klezmer concert of traditional Yiddish songs, an animation focused on the memories of another survivor, and a silent act of witness, paying tribute to two Italians who survived deportation in 1944-45 and bore testimony in the postwar decades to all that they had experienced. The final, deeply moving act was the distribution of the special “medal of honour” struck by the Italian government to honour those who were deported and interned during the second World War, or (if the intended beneficiaries had died) their families. One survivor was fit enough to collect his own. Most, however, were received by children or grandchildren from the hands of the Prefect, Renato Franceschelli, and the sindaco of their local comune. Tears were shed by a number of the recipients and many moist eyes were visible by the end, including Signor Franceschelli’s (and mine).


26th January, 2023

Today the Waldensian Church sponsored a conference in Genova on climate change and migration. There were some excellent presentations on the theological, technical, and social aspects of these interwoven crises, concluding with an excellent presentation by a young Afghan climate scientist, now resident in Italy. The extracts below reflect the presentation given by Professor Maurizio Ambrosini from Milan, who deftly skewered many of the myths surrounding migration in an Italian context.

The Representation of Immigration and its Reality

Representation:

  • Immigration on the rise dramatically (until the “closure of the ports”)
  • Asylum is the main reason
  • Migrants come from Africa and the Middle East
  • Migrants are mainly male
  • Their religion is Muslim

Statistical Evidence

  • Immigration is stationary (around 5.5 million)
  • Work and family are the main reasons, asylum is marginal (270,000)
  • About half of all migrants are European
  • The majority are women
  • Their religion is Christian
Are Migrations a consequence of Poverty?
  • Migration has to do with inequalities, but:
  • There are around 282 million international migrants, equivalent to 3.6% of the world’s population (in 2000 there were 175 million, but the percentage is more or less constant): poor people are much fewer.
  • Migrants do not come from the poorest countries on the planet, except for a very small proportion. In Italy the main countries are: Romania, Albania, Morocco, China, Ukraine and the Philippines.
  • The migrants are not the poorest people in their country: resources are required.
  • Migrants who arrive from further away are more highly selected than those who arrive from nearby.
  • In many cases, emigration is an extreme strategy of middle class people for defending a life-style.
Are Migrations forced by environmental reasons?
  • There is no institutional definition, nor any established legal category: do they not exist or are they not recognised?
  • Some refugees were admitted following the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Who talks about it and why?
  • Institutions or researchers do in fact meet people who have tell their own stories and explain the motivation which led them to leave.
  • Usually it is students of the natural sciences working on predictive models who talk about migration for environmental reasons.
Three Types of Migration for environmental reasons
  • Government projects which change the living environment of the local population.
  • Natural disasters (flooding, earthquakes)
  • Long-term changes to the natural environment (desertification, thaw, rising sea levels)
Migrations are selective
  • Research in the Sahel reveals that those who migrate have more resources
  • Those who have more resources have a greater choice whether to leave or stay.
  • Migration is a phenomenon with many causes: environmental deterioration can contribute to bringing to a head the decision to leave.
  • Environmental problems can act as a multiplier for pre-existent conflicts.
Environmental causes and internal migration
  • There is more evidence of a connection between problems
  • The last Global Report on Internal Displacement (2021) reckons that 30 million movements are caused by “natural disasters”: 12 million in East Asia and the Pacific , 9.2 million in South Asia, 4.3 million in sub_Saharan Africa, 4.5 million in the Americas, 2 Middle East and North Africa, 85,000 in Europe.
  • The report, from its title, confirms indirectly that environmental migration almost always happens within national borders.
Environmental causes and urbanisation
  • The most relevant phenomenon, in terms of mobility, is the urbanisation of populations, who are moving towards the mega-cities of the Third World.
  • Levels of rural population equivalent to 70-80% would not in any way be sustainable.
  • Even in that case it is necessary to take account of the multiple causes and interweaving of motivations: for example, the introduction of innovations in agriculture, the growth of education, the action of social networks.
Counter-Arguments
  • Even internal migration is migration, and pose social and political problems.
  • Exasperating conflicts, they can cause armed confrontations and provoke the departure of refugees in need of protection.
  • Migration to mega-cities can be the first step in a “career of mobility”, which in a subsequent phase can produce aspirations towards international migration.
Will they cross the frontiers?
  • Developed countries are showing that they will defend themselves resolutely, and without too many qualms, against migration by poor people from the Global South.
  • The category of environmental migration has some success in politics and the media, because it links two commonly felt concerns,
  • It has performative effects, sensitisation and mobilisation, who go beyond their scientific substance. It can be a way of enhancing the opportunities for acceptance.
Conclusions
  • The debate about migration for environmental reasons causes a problem of international social inequality: the stratification of the right to move across borders.
  • Some can move freely, others on certain conditions, others are blocked.
  • Environmental deterioration exacerbates these imbalances
  • The solution is to be sought in the enhancement of possibilities for emigration.

The Gospel for 25th January – Conversion of St Paul (Matthew 19:27-end)

Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘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.

Reflection:

Luke’s blinding light and voice from heaven* have shaped the way Christians understand and interpret the conversion of Saul of Tarsus for nearly two millennia, but it’s this short passage from Matthew’s gospel which does the important job of explaining the consequences of that conversion in the light of the fragments of autobiography which Saul, now Paul, provides in his letters to Corinth, to Galatia, and to Philippi. Psychologists and others can, and often do, have a great deal of fun trying to analyse what happened on the way to Damascus and they make all kinds of more or less educated guesses at the process which led to the house of Judas in Straight Street.

However, what matters is not what led up to that incident, but what followed on: and what followed on was a world turned upside down. Instead of a comfortable, steady professional life centred on Jerusalem, training up disciples “in the sect of the Pharisees” as the great Rabbi Gamaliel had trained him, Paul found himself on the road. Like Peter and the rest of the Twelve he had “left everything and followed [Jesus].” He had left the safety of Pharisaism for the extreme uncertainty and physical danger of what Luke describes as “the Way”. In place of handing on, and perhaps adding to, the accumulated wisdom of the scholars who had preserved an understanding of the Jewish Law through times of crisis and adapted it to the changing circumstances of the Jewish people, Paul’s life was now focused on interpreting the stories about Jesus of Nazareth – especially on making sense of his death and resurrection, and making sense of it not only for fellow-Jews but for the rest of humanity, in places as far apart geographically and culturally as the Anatolian plateau and the seven hills of Rome.

The story of Rabbi Saul’s conversion is a story of loss. He says as much in the third chapter of his letter to the church in Philippi. Everything that gave him status and security, everything that fed his self-image, his sense of worth, was taken away from him once he realised that Jesus of Nazareth had not been a deceiver of the people, but somehow God’s own self revealed in a human life – and dying a human death, a death which, according to the Law, made Jesus an outcast, a man under God’s curse. This is a much more dramatic turn-around (which is what conversion means) than the experience of someone who finds God through, say, an Alpha Course and then goes back to their well-paid job the next day. Paul’s life, after his encounter with the risen Jesus, has rather more in common with the life of someone who has survived the journey from West Africa to Italy than it does with the life of a “born-again” lawyer or hedge-fund manager.

Paul has, like Peter and the others, “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for [Jesus’] sake”. Not in the hope of earthly reward. Like most people with a genuinely profound experience of God, Paul is utterly realistic about the likely spin-offs from such a dramatic “turn-around”. But, as Paul’s letters make plain, all the trouble is worth it. All the insult, the rejection, the hardship, the hostility, are far outweighed by what he calls in his letter to Philippi “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. That has something important to say to us on this day when we both celebrate his “turn-around” and mark the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Paul challenges us, and Christians everywhere, to identify the things in our lives, and in our Christian traditions, which hinder us from a real encounter with Christ and to lay them aside, however painful that may be, for the sake of God’s coming kingdom.

*Acts 9:1-22


21st January, 2023

The main event of this year’s Week of Prayer for Unity in San Remo – or Sanremo if you’re looking for the railway station on a travel website – was held in the Lutheran Church there this afternoon. The congregation is still without a minister, but there are reports that Elisabeth Kruse’s successor, who will also minister to the congregation in Genova, has been appointed and will be arriving in April. Each of the ministers present (Catholic, Valdese, Romanian Orthodox and Anglican) was asked to say a few words on the week’s theme. This is the Anglican contribution, translated from the Italian:

The second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians is one of the classic texts of the Ecumenical Movement. It speaks of peace and reconciliation, of the death of Jesus which breaks down the wall of division between Jew and Gentile as a sledgehammer breaks down the walls of a property “in need of modernisation”, as the estate agents say. Through the cross, this chapter tells us, Jesus creates a single new humanity in which race and culture have become irrelevant. All are reconciled to one another. All are reconciled to God. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, comes to preach peace, peace to those who were far off and to those who were near.

And yet we still have to confess, in the words of the prophet, that our hands are full of blood; that we have not learned to do good; that we have failed to seek justice, to rescue the oppressed, to defend the orphan, to plead for the widow. Too often Christians have lined up alongside the oppressors, and not the oppressed. Too often they have sought power for themselves instead of defending the powerless. Too often we have entrenched division instead of breaking down the walls that divide.

As Churches we have said “Peace, peace” where there is no peace. As Churches we have treated God’s free gifts as if they were our personal possession, to be given or withheld as we decide – even from those who are Christian brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters for whom Christ died as he died for us. Half a century ago a young person taking part in a Christian youth camp in England wrote these despairing words: “We are the body of Christ, but the left hand still hammers nails into the right hand without realising what it is doing.”

Sadly, that remains true fifty years on. The left hand may be Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, or any of the one thousand and one varieties of Evangelical. All traditions do it, at every level, and until they acknowledge that they do it, until they recognise the damage that is done by the need to be the person (or the tradition) wielding power, the need to be right: until they recognise that and repent, there will be no unity, there will be no justice, there will be no peace. And, as St Paul warned, the name of God will be blasphemed among unbelievers because of us.

So, dear brothers and sisters, let us commit ourselves again to be part of Christ’s new people, to recognise those whose skin colour is different, whose sexual orientation is different, whose Church allegiance is different – recognise them as equal with us: once far off, but now brought near and united in Christ’s body through his death on the cross. And alongside them let us learn to do good; to seek justice in the name of God who builds us into his dwelling-place.


The Gospel for 18th January (Mark 3:1-6)

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Reflection:

Much prayer has been going up across the UK during the past couple of days, particularly in the LGBTQI+ community. The object of that prayer has been this week’s meeting of the Bishops of the Church of England, including Bishop Robert and Bishop David, as they have sought to discern a way forward for the Church as the “Living in Love and Faith” process comes to an end. Much of the Church of England, though not this chaplaincy, has been agonising over that process for the past few years. The Bishops are meeting to draw up recommendations to set before General Synod next month. I live in hope that when they break cover at the press conference scheduled for a couple of days from now they might have good news for our LGBT sisters and brothers, but I am not holding my breath – and reports in the media today are not promising.

The reason for my mentioning that process is that it seems to me to have a number of points of contact with St Mark’s account of what Jesus did in the synagogue in Capernaum. As far as LGBT Christians are concerned, the Church is being asked the same question which Jesus asked the synagogue leadership: ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm… to save life or to kill?’ Their hope is that Church leaders will no longer take refuge in the same silence which greeted Jesus, but that they will have the courage to affirm all that is good and life-giving in committed long-term relationships between people of the same sex. Their fear is that those who, like the Pharisees in today’s gospel reading, seek to live according to the letter of Scripture will have blocked any affirmation of same-sex relationships – and especially any hope that the Synod might be encouraged to ask the British Parliament to change the law which bans clergy of the Church of England from solemnising or celebrating any formal commitment between two people of the same sex to “live faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy”.

So, to quote a wristband fashionable among young Christians a few years ago, what would Jesus do? Would he side with the people in the College of Bishops and in General Synod who are prepared to block any change in the name of faithfulness to Scriptural teaching? Or would he look around at them with anger, as he did at those community leaders in Capernaum who saw the healing of a withered arm as yet another transgression of the Sabbath law by Jesus and his disciples? We don’t have much evidence to go on. The Lord’s comments on human relationships are few and sometimes enigmatic. And they were made in a world where same-sex relationships were usually either paid-for or exploitative, with no assumption of a permanent bond, or anything that could be called love existing between the parties. They were about the satisfaction of an appetite, or the fulfilment of a cultic ritual, or an assertion of power. Slaves of either sex were at their owners’ mercy.

So we’re driven back to that question which Jesus asked in the synagogue at Capernaum: ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm… to save life or to kill?’ Linked with that is are two other questions: Is seeking a change to English law a life-giving initiative or a capitulation to the spirit of the age? And what is the point at which faithfulness to tradition, as embodied, sometimes heroically, by the Pharisees, becomes petrified into a destructive hardness of heart? Those are questions with a wider application than human sexuality, not least in relation to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins today. Many of the divisions between Christians have their origin in disputes about worship and tradition and power to enforce “the rules” – and very little to do with the live-giving love of God.


The Gospel for 4th January (John 1.35-42)

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

Reflection:

The first chapter of John’s Gospel is a banquet for the interpreter of Scripture. It’s the gift that, as the saying is, “keeps on giving”. It begins with John’s outrageous pre-empting of the opening of the other three Gospels. Beginning – not with John the Baptist, as Mark does, nor with John’s parentage, like Luke, nor with a pedigree going back to Abraham along the lines of Matthew – but, like Genesis, before the beginning of creation. It continues with a series of vivid vignettes: establishing the place of John the Baptist in the great scheme of salvation; setting out the relationship between John and Jesus; outlining how a community of disciples began to gather around Jesus; and ending with another astounding image: of Jesus as the meeting point where heaven and earthtouch and the angels of God go up and down upon the Son of Man.

Today’s gospel belongs in the middle of that sequence. It marks the transition from John’s appearance and proclamation and baptising to the beginnings of that community gathered around Jesus, and it tells a story rather different from Mark’s and Matthew’s and Luke’s. John does that, I think, for a reason. In Mark’s Gospel, and in Matthew’s, it is the encounter with Jesus which is decisive for discipleship. There the call to discipleship comes almost literally “out of the blue” – the blue in question being the Sea of Galilee. John reminds us that the process of becoming a disciple is not always that direct. The Baptist points to Jesus as “the Lamb of God”. Two of his disciples are intrigued and want to know more. So they follow, out of curiosity, it seems from the way John tells the story – and from the question Jesus asks them. “What are you looking for?” What is any would-be disciple of any guru looking for? Meaning? Direction in life? Reassurance? Hope? Forgiveness?

I suspect they don’t know, because they answer his question with another: “Where are you staying?” And in John’s Gospel that is a question which is heavy with meaning, because the Greek word translated here as “stay” is translated in other parts of John’s Gospel as “abide” – and where Jesus is staying, or abiding is, as we eventually discover, in the Father’s love. So the reply of Jesus, “Come and see”, is rather more than an invitation to tea in his lodgings. It’s an invitation to Andrew and his companion to experience for themselves who Jesus is and where he abides, where he is, as we might say, rooted. It’s an invitation to experience Love in action.

Now, the power of that experience is such that Andrew, at least, wants to share it. “He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’.” And he brought him to Jesus. That’s a reminder that family and friends are the most effective evangelists: not by having all the arguments at their fingertips and knowing all the answers, but by the depth of their experience and the quality of their life – the extent to which they have, like Andrew and his unnamed companion, “remained with [Jesus]”, abiding in his love.


The Gospel for 21st December (Luke 1:39-45)

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.’

Reflection:

Luke’s Gospel is full of touching, warmly human episodes and insights. This is one of them. It moved the sculptors who worked on the figures surrounding the great west door of San Lorenzo. It moved Dante Alighieri. It moved Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal in seventeenth-century France. It has moved feminist scholars and theologians in our own day.

But this isn’t simply a story about “sisterly solidarity”, or a text to spur on the slothful in their ascent of the mountain of purification. Nor is it just an encouragement to women religious. As so often in Luke’s Gospel, the story carries some heavy-duty theology. In this case it performs the dual role of proclaiming the lordship of Jesus and defining the role of John, son of Zechariah, in relation to that lordship.

Even in the womb John’s active response, leaping in the womb at the sound of Mary’s greeting, points to Jesus as the one who is to come, anticipating as a foetus his adult words to the crowds in chapter 3. ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.’ Elizabeth, too, points forward; in her case to chapter 11. Her inspired prophetic blessing of Mary and “the fruit of [her] womb” chimes with the words of that other, unnamed, woman who cries out from the crowd to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ Elizabeth even manages to anticipate Jesus‘ response, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’, in her final words to Mary, the final words of today’s Gospel: ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

So this touching and warmly human episode acts as a trailer for the story that is to follow, the great story of our salvation. Already Mary is portrayed as the archetypal Christian believer, in the late Fr Max Thurian’s telling phrase: “mother of God, figure of the Church”. Already John is revealed in his role as the Christ’s “fore-runner”. And already, above all, Jesus is revealed as Lord: Elizabeth’s Lord, John’s Lord, Mary’s Lord, our Lord: the Lord who has come to his people to set them free, the Lord whose presence, even as an embryo, brings joy and a blessing to all humankind, from the unborn to the post-menopausal.


18th December

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols this evening was introduced by this poem from the pen of Swedish hymn-writer (and former rock-chick) Py Bäckman:

Here there’s stillness and silence;
now the ground is coloured white.
From the safe, old church
the song is still ringing.
I stopped by the road
to rest for a while
and was trapped in the borderland
where night is joined to day;
and a gleam of light
behind the window’s arched frame
has joined together the souls
who are with us here and now.

And I know that those who have left us
understand that we are
like flames that flicker as long as we are here.

There among the twinkling stars
which are fading one by one
life comes very close
like a glimpse of the truth.
We are prisoners of time,
like the imprint of a hand
on an old frosty window
granted mercy by the ravages of time.
For one second I am eternal
and then I know nothing else
bar this: that I am alive
as fully as any other.

I’m here and in the middle of a frozen road
it’s still warm,
though the snow begins to fall and the sky is grey.

Here there’s stillness and silence
now the hymn has died away;
but I carry the old words
in my heart as before.
I am singing to heaven;
maybe someone else is listening;
“Hosanna in the highest”.
Then I begin to walk;
I am going to the others.
I want to feel the peace of Christmas.
I want to believe He was born
and is with us here and now.

It’s Christmas and there’s a child in me
who wants to believe it happened,

and who lights a candle every Sunday in Advent.

It serves as a reminder that all are welcome to join our Christmas services at the Church of the Holy Ghost, Genova’s English-speaking church, 150 years old this year. That welcome is extended to those of firm faith, those of faltering faith, and those who, like Py Bäckman, have come out on a December evening into “the borderland where night is joined to day” because they “want to believe it happened”, want to believe that Christ was born “and is with us here and now” and that the great festival of Christmas is much more than a sticking-plaster for the soul in these cold, dark and difficult days. Wherever the place may be from which we set out, it is possible to come together at Christmas as the family of God, in our Father’s presence, to hear and receive good news, the good news about the birth of the Christ who shares with us in the mess and fragility of being human, flickering momentary flames in the light of eternity, and to offer to God our thanksgiving, our hopes and prayers for the world Christ came to save:

  • for the Church, that it may be enabled in our generation to surrender anew to God’s holy Wisdom, and bear the good news of God’s love to a needy world;
  • for the world, which is already Christ’s, that all its peoples may recognize their responsibility for its future, and may be inspired by the message of Christmas to work together for the establishment of justice, freedom and peace everywhere;
  • for all in special need, the sick, the anxious, the lonely, the fearful and the bereaved, that the peace and light of the Christ-child may bring hope and healing to all who sit in darkness.

On 14th November, I was in Bordighera, leading the annual Service of Remembrance in the CWGC section of the British Cemetery, with Catholic and Waldensian colleagues and representatives of the comune. These reflections led those present from the readings to the prayers:

For nearly a century the days around 11th November have been a time when British people remember the dead of first one, then two World Wars and, in more recent years, of other conflicts since 1945. 11th November 1918 was the day on which the guns fell silent in France and Belgium as the military leaders of France, Britain and Germany signed an armistice in a railway carriage outside Compiègne. The armistice between Italy and the Austrian Empire had been signed a week before – which is why Italy’s commemorations are a week ahead.

The purpose of these commemorations was to remind people in Britain, and in Italy, of the horror of 20th-century war and to repeat the message: “Never again”. Never again must human lives be sacrificed in such numbers to the pride, foolishness and greed for power of their political leaders. And yet here we are again, more than a hundred years after the signing of that armistice, in the midst of another European war, faced again with the destruction and death brought about by the same pride, foolishness and greed for power.

So what are we to do in the face of war? What are we to do when human memory seems so short-lived and politicians so willing to achieve their goals at the cost of countless lives – of their own people as well as of others? What are we to do when, wherever we look, we are faced with betrayal, hostility, violence? Christians might turn to Jesus’ promise of a peace, “not as the world gives”, a peace won at the cost of an agonising and shameful death on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem.

In accepting that cross Jesus identified with the poor and the powerless, with those stranded, wounded and helpless, in no man’s land. He took upon himself the totality of human suffering in every age and bore it up into the Godhead. As we remember his death, we re-affirm that it has power to give meaning and value to all those other deaths which we remember today. We affirm, too, that the God of compassion, made human flesh and bone in Jesus, is still to be found in no man’s land, between Russian and Ukrainian, Arab and Israeli, Hindu, Muslim and Christian, and that his sacrifice is made for all.


21st October, 2022: “Redeemed from Fire”

Canon Tony Dickinson writes about his new history of the Anglican presence in Genoa since the early 19th century. Copies are available from the church at €20,00 [See below].

When I first planned this book, under a certain amount of pressure from the church council, I was thinking rather in terms of one of the short books of mine on spirituality which SLG Press has published recently. Forty pages, perhaps; fifty or sixty if I was lucky. That I would be producing a book 200 pages long never crossed my mind.

But as I started my researches into the story of the church building, and of the community which brought it into being 150 years ago and brought it back to life after the destruction of eighty years ago, I realised that this was a terrific story, that I was in it for the long haul, and that the dead-line of June 2022 which had originally been set for publication would have to be extended. The fact that my research started during the first and most vicious stages of the pandemic, when international travel was impossible and most archives were closed, didn’t make the task any easier. So, here we are, at the end of our anniversary celebrations rather than the beginning, with a book which, I hope, explains to anyone who reads it what (and why) we’re celebrating.

What I want to do here is to draw out some of the threads which became visible when I started looking for “the story”, rather than simply listing all the things I found in my trawl through the archives, on-line at first and then, increasingly, in person. And at this point I would like to say a huge “thank you” to the people who have helped me, wittingly or unwittingly, in the work of research. To Isabella Rhode and Alessandro Bartoli, whose research into the British community in Genova and along the whole of the Italian Riviera, provided essential background reading. To Marco Cazzulo, whose work on key English figures in the early 19th century, whether visitors like Charles Dickens, or residents like the Brown and Granet families, both provided vital information and suggested fruitful leads to follow. To Ed Hanson, who provided enormous help in establishing the list of chaplains from the very beginnings of the community which met in the residence of the British Consul, and who is himself a significant part of the story. Ed also looked through the manuscript at a late stage and pointed out several errors and infelicities which neither I nor the other folk who had looked through the text as it progressed had spotted. But above all, I have to thank the members of the congregation of the church, who shared their memories, and their photographs, and who listened to early drafts as I tried them out.

But to return, as the French say, to these sheep.

Among the threads which became visible in the course of research, I’d like to draw out three in particular.

  1. The Anglican community in Genova has never been an inward-looking community. From the very first days of Thomas Trevor’s ten-month stay in Genova in 1818-19 to the present, the Anglican Church has been engaged with people in poverty and distress, whoever they may be and wherever they may come from – not just a church for British “expats”. Dr Biber, reporting on the situation across the newly created diocese of Gibraltar in the 1840s, noted that in Genova “There are no resident English poor; the Communion Alms are appropriated chiefly to the relief of distressed strangers.” And today we have the “Neighbours in Need” fund, the clothing cupboard, and the food bank, which are open to all.
  2. The church community in Genova has always worked closely with the British Consulate. The first Church of England meetings for worship took place in the residence of James Sterling, who was consul from the year of Waterloo until his death in 1840. Montagu Yeats-Brown’s partnership with the Revd Alfred Strettell was an important factor in the completion of the church building. In the years immediately after the Second World War it was the succession of British Consuls, from Harold Swan to David Balfour who provided the link between the local church, the diocesan headquarters in London, and the chaplain in Milan who had, in theory, pastoral responsibility for the congregation in Genoa at that time. They also chaired the church committee in the absence of a resident chaplain. It came as a major shock in 1960 when David Balfour was replaced by John May, a Catholic, and it took about three years for the church and the consulate to work out how to deal with this unprecedented situation.
  3. The final thread is the chronic shortage of funds. The first chaplain to be appointed officially at Genova left within a year because his stipend was inadequate. Half a century later, Montagu Yeats Brown forwarded to the British Foreign Office an impassioned plea from the Church Committee for the restoration of the FO’s grant to the chaplaincy. Cuts in overseas aid are nothing new! Through the past 150 years the congregation has normally consisted of a core of more or less comfortably-off people surrounded by a broader circle of people with fewer resources, sometimes considerably fewer, and often needing support. 150 years ago they would have been the families of seafarers on ships whose home port was Genova. Today they are more likely to be migrants from Africa. And beyond them come the visitors, staying for a longer or shorter period, but not often contributing much to the church beyond their presence on a Sunday. So, the work which is needed to keep the building safe and weatherproof is postponed and postponed (hence the “150 for 150” Appeal described here).

On a happier note: working on the story of this church has introduced me to a cast of heroes and villains – though, I am glad to say, not many of the latter.

Among the heroes, I would name three of my Victorian predecessors, each greatly gifted in their different ways, John Irvine, Alfred Strettell and Edward Bayly, and the dynamic duo of the 1940s, the Consul-General Harold Swan and Archdeacon Alfred Bailey, whose inspired “scrounging” from churches that did not reopen after 1945 provided many of the furnishings in the church today, including the marble altar, the brass eagle lectern and the oaken pulpit. Swan and Bailey were ably supported by our principal heroine, Nellie Rhode, whose spikily elegant, handwritten correspondence cards reflect the energy which, in the words of one of her children, “relaunched this church on a tide of alcohol.” I ought also to mention the much-loved Church of Scotland minister Alex MacVicar, who provided pastoral care for English-speakers, irrespective of denominational allegiance, through the 1950s and 1960s, and whose gentle diplomacy helped to hold together the Ospedale Evangelico Internazionale during difficult times.

And the villains? Well, principally Air Marshall Arthur Harris, whose Lancaster bombers flattened the Scottish church in 1942 and nearly did the same to the Church of the Holy Ghost; the unidentified burglars who ransacked the church’s Seamen’s Institute in the 1920s: and the German commander whose unfortunately placed demolition charges destroyed the Institute, and most of Via Milano with it, in October 1944.

And finally there are the tragic figures: among them Martin Stow, unhappy in love and dying just as his fortunes seemed to be turning; the Irvines’ little boy, buried in San Benigno; Edward Bayly, burned out by his work among the seafarers; Horace Coles, drowned when the ship in which he was returning home was torpedoed; the nameless Genovesi who were killed in the explosion which demolished the Seamen’s Institute, and the women and men who perished in the wreck of the SS London Valour.

But, as Howard Sanderson was fond of saying, “It’s all in the book!” There are copies on sale from the church at €20,00. Please contact us here to order. You can pay

  • by sterling cheque or bank transfer in favour of the Diocese in Europe at 14 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QZ,
  • by bank transfer in euros direct to the church’s Italian account,
  • or by making a donation through the Diocese in Europe’s “Just Giving” page

If you pay via the Diocese in Europe, either directly or through “Just Giving”, please make sure that you state clearly that your payment is to be credited to the account of the Church of the Holy Ghost Genoa, and that it is for a copy (or copies) of “Redeemed by Fire”.


Each month (unless I forget) the weekly notices contain a plug for the monthly Taizé prayer at San Marco al Molo, one of Genoa’s oldest churches. If you have not heard of the ecumenical Taizé Community, whose base is a tiny hill-top village in Burgundy but whose reach is world-wide, you might be interested in looking up the community’s website here.

Each month the prayer at San Marco contains the same elements:

  • Simple repeated chants, often based on texts from the Bible or the liturgy, with words which may be Latin, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, French, German, or even English.
  • The reading of a Psalm, alternating verses between women and men, and afterwards sharing the words from the Psalm which spoke most deeply (this is optional).
  • The lighting of lamps.
  • the reading of a passage of Scripture, with space for silent reflection, usually with the help of a short commentary.
  • Prayers of intercession, written by members of the congregation and left in the basket at the entrance to be read by one of the worship leaders.
  • The Lord’s Prayer.

The whole thing usually lasts about an hour. The people who take part are of all ages, from late teens/early twenties to people in their seventies, and both sexes. Most wear casual clothes. Occasionally clergy are present (we even had a visit from Archbishop Marco Tasca earlier in the year) and very occasionally brothers from Taizé visit.

At this month’s prayer, those present were invited to reflect on a passage from St Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10-15) in relation to the call to Christian unity and in the light of the following reflection from the Prior of Taizé, Brother Alois, who has led the community ever since the murder of Brother Roger, the founder and first Prior of the community, in August 2005.

“The search for unity is a major challenge for Christians. How can we be a
ferment of brother‐ and sisterhood if we maintain our divisions? In Christ we
find a unique source of unity ﴾John 17:20‐21; Ephesians 2:14﴿. By giving his life
on the cross, he went to the furthest extent of a love that destroys hatred and
the barriers between human beings.

“The Gospel calls us to go beyond divisions and to bear witness that unity is
possible in a great diversity. Is that not a particularly important contribution that
Christians are invited to offer so that the human family may live together as
brothers and sisters? This kind of witness speaks louder than words.

“The Gospel impels us to cultivate the art of creating unity. We can all be creators
of unity by forging links of listening and friendship wherever we are.

“In the dialogue between Christian denominations, the differences that remain
must be taken seriously and theological research is indispensable. But dialogue
by itself does not lead to visible unity.

“To go forward, we should come together more oſten between baptised
members of different Churches, in a common prayer centred on the Word of
God. Who knows? The Holy Spirit could surprise us. We may discover that Jesus
is the one who brings us together and that the love of Christ can shine out far
more clearly when we recognise humbly what we are lacking and when we open
ourselves to what we can receive from others.”

The next Taizé prayer will be at 21:00 on Sunday, 13th November. If you like what you have heard or read here, why not put the date in your diary now?


The Gospel for 5th October (Luke 11:1-4)

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
   Give us each day our daily bread.
   And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

Reflection:

When we use the Lord’s prayer, whether in public worship or in our private prayers and whether the language we use is traditional or contemporary, we invariably use the version set out by St Matthew as part of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the mount. St Luke’s version therefore comes as something of a shock as he offers us a very different context and a very much briefer prayer.

In Luke’s Gospel it comes in the long central section describing Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, the section which scholars call “the travel narrative” and it is introduced, as we heard, as Jesus’ response to a request from one of the disciples, ‘Lord, teach us to pray”. So it provides, so to speak, a template for praying. Which may be why it is so much shorter than Matthew’s version.

Scholars are divided about which version came first. Is Matthew’s text an expansion of Luke’s or is Luke’s an abbreviation of Matthew’s? Are both versions independent “takes” on a form they found in “Q”, the hypothetical source of the material which Luke and Matthew share with one another but not with Mark? Or do Matthew and Luke simply reflect the form of the prayer that they found in their own community of believers, not as a written text but as something learned by repetition and remembered?

We don’t know. What we do know is that this prayer was important to both Matthew and Luke and that Luke’s version focuses on the central bullet points of the prayer, with none of the additions or qualifications we find in Matthew’s. It’s a prayer with a sense of urgency. Jesus tells his disciples, in effect: Praise God, but keep it short. Pray for the coming of the Kingdom, but keep that short, too. Then ask for what you need: food, forgiveness, and faithfulness. The traditional English version talks about “temptation”, which we have turned into something which has to do mainly with sex or chocolate. The Greek, reflecting the thought-world of first century Palestine, is about the time of trial, of testing and tribulation, that was expected before the dawn of the new age in which God’s kingly rule would be made manifest. So the final request is to be spared that testing. Or perhaps, by implication, to withstand it.

So it’s a prayer which has sustained Christians through times of persecution. It’s telling, I think, that the first major commentaries on this prayer came from North Africa, at a time when Christians there regularly found the state bearing down on them with all the power at its disposal, including the power of life and death.

It’s also a prayer which looks forward to the end of the present age. After the address to God, as Jesus’ Father and our Father, the first request is for the coming of God’s kingdom – and the rest, as we have seen, are to do with all that we need in order to get there. It’s very much, then, a prayer for this age, in which the stability and certainty which has been the mark of most of the eight decades since the end of the Second World War have crumbled, in which “post-truth” and self-seeking have become the hallmark of governments around the world, and in which “the time of trial” has overtaken nations which regarded themselves as above the daily struggle for existence.


The Gospel for 28th September (Luke 9:57-end)

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Reflection:

Today is one of those days, the “Ember Days”, when we are asked to pray for “the increase of the sacred ministry” (more vicars, in other words – irrespective of whether the Church can afford to pay them). These days, in fact, this period is usually treated as a time of more general prayer, for those who are about to be ordained as deacons or priests, for those who are in training for ordained ministry in the Church, as well as for those who are exploring whether God might be calling them to minister.

So today’s short passage from Luke’s Gospel is very much to the point as it focuses on the cost of discipleship. Here we have three would-be disciples, two of them volunteers, one summoned by Jesus. All of them are faced with the challenges of discipleship: the lack of any permanent base; the sense that this call trumps every other call, even the most sacred of family duties: and the requirement of a commitment that is total.

We have, of course, toned all of them down over the centuries. Most Church of England clergy, even today, have somewhere to lay their head, even if they don’t have a place they can call their own – not while they are in active ministry, at any rate – and for some of my colleagues that causes real problems when they reach the age of retirement.

Similarly we don’t always give proclaiming the kingdom of God absolute priority. When my mother died, a thoughtful colleague in the parish next door offered to take the next week’s services for me while I came to terms with the immediate shock of bereavement and made arrangements for her funeral in Southampton, which was interesting when one of the chief mourners was a heavily pregnant (indeed overdue) daughter-in-law.

And, as the third decision reminds us, family ties can mean an entanglement with the living, as much as with the dead. Saying “goodbye” can be tricky at the best of times. The sense that God wants someone to follow a particular path doesn’t always match up with their family’s ambitions for them. When I talk to religious in the UK, I am struck by how often their calling has been followed against the wishes of a family who wanted their son or daughter to have a career, get married and have children, rather than “shut themselves away” in a religious community. Two friends of mine were a huge exception to this. When one of their daughters shared with them that she felt called to join a community of contemplative nuns in the depths of rural Monmouthshire, they rejoiced with her, instead of trying to dissuade her; but then as partners in an inter-church marriage, they knew from their own experience how tough following God’s call can be.

But for all that the church has sometimes tried to soften the edges, the sharpness of God’s calling is always there, summoning us out of our comfort zone, challenging us to throw it all away (whatever “it” may be) for the sake of the kingdom of God and to place our lives fully at God’s disposal.


Gospel for 17th August (Matthew 20:1-16)

Jesus told his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Reflection:

This parable is a tricky one. It offends our sense of fairness. Why should those who have “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” receive no more than the workers hired only an hour before sunset? Anyone who believes in “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” ought to be outraged. Or ought they? The landowner agreed with the first group of workers that he hired that he would pay them “the usual daily wage”. And at the end of the day his manager gave them “the usual daily wage.” So what’s the problem? As the Dodo says at the end of the caucus-race in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, `Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’ Or, in the words of the landowner, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

It’s a question which ties many commentators in knots. They want to set this story, like much of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching, in a free-standing moral context, to remove it from its setting as the follow-up to Jesus’ reply to Peter’s question at the end of chapter 19, “‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ A reply which ends with the words “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Even as perceptive a New Testament scholar as the late John Fenton tries to place it in a moralising framework and comes away baffled, because he can’t see how it fits in to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom. He does get that this parable is somehow about grace, but he still seems to want to fit it into a view of Matthew as the great “moraliser” of Jesus’ teaching, so he suggests that it isn’t really about the kingdom at all, but about Jesus arguments with the scribes and the Pharisees.

But Matthew’s Jesus is not always the great moral teacher. Sometimes he is the one who, as in Mark’s gospel, proclaims the kingdom of heaven – the one in whom the kingdom of heaven takes human flesh and blood. And here he is expressing a fundamental truth about the kingdom of heaven in reply to Peter’s question. That the kingdom of heaven is where “the last will be first, and the first will be last”, because the kingdom is where we experience God’s presence in its fullness, and in that there can be, as Dante also realised when he wrote the final section of his “Comedy”, no distinctions and differentials. The gift of God’s self is the reward for labour in God’s vineyard, whether we come to it in the early morning of our life, or whether, for whatever reason, we don’t turn up until an hour before sunset. So, in the end, this parable isn’t about “the usual daily wage”; it’s about the free gift of infinite, unconditional Love, to the last as much as to the first.


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.

Reflection:

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.


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.”

Reflection:

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!


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


As a treat for Ascension Day here are Voces8 singing “O clap your hands together”, Orlando Gibbons’ setting of Psalm 47. You can find the sermon for Ascension Day here.


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.’

Reflection:

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.’

Reflection:

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”.


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 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.’

Reflection:

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.

Reflection:

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.’

Reflection:

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.

Reflection:

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.

Reflection:

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.

Reflection:

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.

Reflection:

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.

Reflection:

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.

Reflection:

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.’

Reflection:

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.’

Reflection:

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 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.‘

Reflection:

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 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.’

Reflection:

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!’

Reflection:

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, 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.’ ’

Reflection:

Mark, said the early form critics, arranges the memories of Jesus that make up his gospel “like pearls on a string”. In saying that they were rehashing a comment of Papias, who was probably born around the time that Nero was putting Peter and Paul to death and who provides the earliest account of how Mark’s Gospel was written. Papias wrote: “[John] the Elder used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord.” When Papias says “not in an ordered form” he probably means not in chronological order. And, as a more recent authority on the New Testament, Morna Hooker has pointed out, “only a man could have used the phrase ‘like pearls on a string’ to suggest a haphazard arrangement of material. Any woman would have spotted at once the flaw in the analogy: pearls need to be carefully selected and graded.”

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.’

Reflection:

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.


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, 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.

Reflection:

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.