Third Sunday in Lent: Fecundity of Repentance

Revd Dr Robert S. Kinney reflects on Luke 13.1-9, the challenging lectionary Gospel set for this week, drawing in the Old Testament reading, Isaiah 55.1-9.

Fecundity is an uncommon term. In human demography, it generally refers to the ability of a population to replenish itself and it is currently an important subject in Europe. For many years, according to Eurostat (the EU’s statistical office), the fecundity rate in each European nation has fallen below what is needed to keep the population even. This means that, apart from immigration, the population of each European nation is declining. Of course, that brings with it a multitude of sensitive topics, from the tragedy of infertility in individuals to national migration policies and the preservation of national culture.

In the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (a tough passage!), Jesus tells a parable centred on the fecundity of a fig tree in order to explain a concept that is no less sensitive.

In Luke 13.1-5, Jesus is addressed by some unknown audience members. Having heard Jesus talk about the coming eschatological judgment—even chastising them for not seeing it coming—the audience introduces additional information to Jesus. They tell him that some Galilean Jews had been slaughtered by Pilate in the course of making sacrifices (a horrific act that is sadly consistent with what is known about Pilate). It is as if they are asking if these murdered Jews deserved the specific judgment that came upon them.

But Jesus quickly rejects the notion. He even cites another event (the tower of Siloam falling) to suggest that these people were not killed because they were worse sinners than anyone else. But then his logic takes a delicate turn. Like the lengthy discussion throughout the book of Job, Jesus challenges the notion that disaster comes only to those who deserve it. That is, disaster is not only for those who did something in particular. Instead, disaster – m judgment really – is universal. This universality is emphasised in the repeated use of all (in verses 2, 3, 4, and 5). Judgment is universal—except for those who repent: unless you repent, you will all perish as they did(v.3 and v.5).

In Luke 13.6-9, then, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. Like this apparently unrepentant audience, the fig tree is bearing no fruit. In an act of universal judgment, it is time to cut it down once and for all. But the gardener prevails upon the fig tree’s owner to let it have one more chance. And so, Jesus’s audience has one more chance to repent and begin bearing fruit—an echo of something John the Baptist had said earlier in the Gospel: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3.8).

The final judgment of perishing that Jesus promises will be worse than the grave consequences of population decline in Europe. And so, the fecundity that matters foremost is not that of population stability, but of spiritual growth. We are in need of the spiritual fecundity that comes with repentance. The Isaiah reading paints a glorious picture of what abundant life in God looks like, and then similarly exhorts the reader to seek it:

‘Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.’ (Isaiah 55.6-7)

Abundant life comes through repentance and God’s mercy. If we hope to come into that life and be spared the judgment that is to come, we must repent. Jesus, just like the gardener in the parable, intercedes for those who do so. Indeed, he gave his life in order that we might have time to bear fruit. And so, in this season of Lent, we do well to consider the examples Paul gives in the 1 Corinthians reading—the example of the Israelites in the wilderness and the sins from which to repent. We do well to consider the invitation of the Isaiah reading, so that we may “eat what is good” (55.2). We do well to consider the warning of Jesus, for the time to bear fruit is short.

Robert S. Kinney serves as a priest (with PTO) at Christ Church in Vienna, Austria. He is the Director of Ministries for the Charles Simeon Trust. He acts as an educational mentor for the Diocese in Europe Ministry Experience Scheme.

Second Sunday in Lent: True Identity

Archdeacon Meurig Williams, archdeacon of France and Monaco, draws on all three of this week’s lectionary readings (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35) to explore the nature of our true identity – especially at this time of turmoil in Europe.

meurig

Europe is currently awash with confusion about identity and belonging. As many people fleeing danger arrive on our shores, we glimpse a mirror-image of their insecurity in those who are championing so-called ‘identity politics.’ An ever-widening chasm is creating distance – and conflict – between those who have more than they need and those who have nothing. The Gilets Jaunes protests in France have shown us that what people are being told does not match what they see and experience. Our capacity to understand the needs of those from different cultures, who speak different languages, and who see life differently, is becoming more shallow and superficial. In the minds of many, home and a sense of belonging is not so much a gift to be cherished, celebrated and shared but a silo to be defended against others with different identities.

Our readings from Scripture, today, invite us to think and act differently.

Abraham and Sarah had every right to feel insecure (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18). The obedient pilgrims, who left the security of their settled home in an act of reckless trust, believing the promises of God about giving them many descendants, are still childless. Abraham also makes no secret of his uncertainty about God’s promise of a new home in a new location. There are worse trials and torments to come. We are catching a glimpse of the Israel of God in the long process of becoming a settled nation, so crucial to Jewish self-understanding. At one level, the Jewish scriptures tell a juxtaposing story of what it means to be a nation under God, living in a land that confirms their unique identity, on the one hand; and the unbearable strain of defeat and deportation, and of long years of exile far from home, on the other.

Perhaps the sense of doubt in our reading, (which took its final form during an extended period of exile, long after the events it records) is an all-too-faithful reflection of the Jewish experience over many millennia. It is also a theme that speaks to the basic human longing for a place on this earth where we most truly belong. As the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, acknowledged, ‘the anxiety of our era has fundamentally to do with place.’

However, this is only one side of the coin, and our Gospel today (Luke 13.31-35) reveals the disenchantment that surfaces when we sense that a particular place is not what it once was – or was meant to be; when we feel hemmed-in and smothered by being at home. The poetry of Dylan Thomas, for example, rejoices in his Welsh roots; but also voices the urge to ‘explode out of a frustrated sense of belonging.’ We can hear that expressed in Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem. He is feeling the rejection which the prophets before him had known.

The city whose name means ‘peace’ has become a danger zone (amplified by the sinister warning that Herod is out to get Jesus). The place where God had promised to dwell among his people has become the arena of injustice and self-interest. Roman occupation of the city, which accentuates a sense of tension and insecurity, is not the cause of the Temple’s God-forsakenness. Rather, what the prophets had once described as the gathering place of all nations has become a self-serving ghetto of exclusion and exploitation. There is no salvation in pursuing ethnic purity at a time of national crisis.

From inside this conflict-ridden melting pot, we need to hear the unequivocal affirmation from the Epistle (Philippians 3. 17-4.1) that our true identity is found in the crucified and risen body of Christ. Whatever human and earthly solidarities we may cherish will be transfigured by the promise that our true home is in heaven, where God gathers all identities and allegiances, to enable us to become a new humanity in Christ. This is both a promise for the future and a challenge for the way we live today. The priest and poet, R.S. Thomas, pondering the cross in the light of our longing for security, once wrote:

You have answered us

with the image of yourself

on a hewn tree, suffering

injustice, pardoning it.

Pointing as though in either

direction, horrifying us

with the possibility of dislocation.

Might it be that, at that moment of horrific recognition, finding ourselves dislocated from the uncertain and anxious solidarities of this world, we find ourselves at home where the crucified Christ is at home? Then we are truly liberated to see how all races, languages and cultures have a home deep within the heart of the God.

Archdeacon Meurig’s reflection is brilliantly illustrated by ‘The Crucified Tree Form’ by Theyre Lee-Elliott, in the Methodist Modern Art Collection. For copyright reasons it is not included here, but it can be found at https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/reflecting-on-faith/the-methodist-modern-art-collection/index-of-works/crucified-tree-form-the-agony-theyre-lee-elliott/

 

 

 

 

First Sunday in Lent: An opportune time

Dr Clare Amos explores the particular insights into the temptation of Jesus that are offered by this week’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 4.1-13. She also wants to draw attention to a series of paintings on ‘the wilderness’ created by Revd Adam Boulter, chaplain in Poitou-Charentes – more details at the end of Clare’s reflection.

Jesus is tempted - Matthew 4:1-11

The picture comes from a set of paintings called ‘The life of Jesus Mafa’ which depicts episodes in the life of Christ from an African, Cameroonian, perspective. The very ordinariness of the tempter in this picture makes him particularly insidious – and powerful.

Once again (as with the Gospel for Transfiguration Sunday) it is the small differences between the gospel writers, that can help make the narrative so interesting – and so telling.

Of course in this case it is Matthew with which we need to compare Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus. Mark is quite different – and much shorter. But the accounts of Jesus’ temptation in Luke and Matthew are very similar – so what do the small differences tell us about the particular concerns of Luke?

It is of course symptomatic that Luke begins his account by reminding us that Jesus returned from his baptism and went out into the wilderness ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (4.1) As his inaugural speech at the synagogue in Nazareth will make clear, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ (4.18), his ministry will be lived in the life of the Spirit from this moment, its very beginning, until his death in 23.46 when he commits his/the Spirit back to the Father.

It is also interesting to note that typically – and I must confess that I had not spotted this until writing these reflections – Luke’s words, ‘he ate nothing at all during those days’ (4.2) seem to be more emphatic than Matthew’s bare ‘he fasted’ (Matthew 4.2). Meals and food are very important in Luke: Robert Karris deliciously comments, ‘In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal or coming from a meal’. Though this may be a slight exaggeration it does express an intrinsic reality about the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps the most powerful biblical image for the Kingdom is that of a feast – so Jesus’ feasting with his disciples and others is intended as a visible sign of the Kingdom of God coming into reality. Somehow these days of fasting before feasting is an appropriate time and way of preparation.

Yet the most significant special feature of the temptation in this Gospel comes at its end, ‘When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time’ (4.13). For Luke, Jesus’ defeat of the devil’s wiles during these initial 40 days is not going to be the end of the time of trial. Jesus will be ‘tested’ again at several points later in the Gospel, up to and including Gethsemane. It is notable how Luke seems to emphasise – even more than the other evangelists – Jesus’ agony in the garden. One other, possibly linked, feature of Luke’s account of the temptation is the different order of the trials, when compared with Matthew. There may be several reasons for this, but one result of Luke’s ordering is that the word ‘test’ appears in the final temptation, immediately before being repeated in the brooding final remark that this time in the wilderness was not the testing’s end.

It is interesting to ‘translate’ the specific elements of Jesus’ temptations and ask what they might mean for us today. One of the best reflections on the temptations that I have ever heard was preached to a group of ordinands. The preacher suggested that in some ways Jesus’ temptations were those experienced most acutely by people in ministry: the temptation to believe that everything depends on us – that we should and can meet all the physical needs of everyone; the desire to be put up on an infallible pedestal by the Christian community; the irresponsible belief that God will protect us from our own risky behaviour. I can indeed see these as being real challenges for those who exercise ordained Anglican ministry, and indeed for others such as myself, who, though not ordained, have a public role in the life of the church.

But there is one other key point – that links to Luke’s stress on the ongoing nature of Jesus’ trials. Perhaps the most insidious temptation of all is to believe that temptation is a one off. Been there, done that! Once we have ‘sorted’ a particular issue or concern we won’t have anything similar to worry about in the future! Indeed I can see elements of this attitude in the current view in some British circles that the UK’s basic problems are linked to being in the EU, and that once the UK has left that body we will move seamlessly into a blissful future. The temptation that temptation and difficulties are temporary or finite is a challenge on both the macro-scale, and for individuals. Certainly we may hope to grow in wisdom and the spirit of Christ, but Luke reminds us to stay watchful; that the time of trial has not yet come to an end. Yet Luke also tells us of a resource we have been given in order to respond: for it is no accident that it is also Luke who emphasises how at key moments in his ministry Jesus spent so much time in prayer.

In 2015 Revd Adam Boulter created a series of paintings entitled ‘The Wilderness’ which depicts significant biblical stories (including the account of the temptation of Christ) which are set in the wilderness. The paintings accompany sonnets composed by the Anglican priest-poet Revd Malcolm Guite. The set can be viewed at https://www.cantab.net/users/adamboulter/adamboulter/15_02.html

 

Sunday next before Lent: Seeing the face of God

Dr Clare Amos, a laywoman who is Honorary Director for Lay Discipleship in the Diocese in Europe, (and the administrator of this blog) draws on the lectionary Gospel (Luke 9.28-36) and Epistle (2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2) to explore some implications of the transfiguration.

Sometimes it is the little differences between the writers of the three synoptic Gospels in retelling the same event in the life of Jesus that can lead us down some fascinating trails. So it is this week. The account of Jesus’ transfiguration appears in all three synoptic Gospels. It does not feature in John’s Gospel, but that is partly because John sees transfiguration and glory as permeating the whole story of Jesus, from its beginning to its end.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration is indeed very similar to what appears in Mark and Matthew. But there are several small – yet significant – differences. One of course is that we are told what Jesus is discussing with Moses and Elijah: his ‘departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’ (Luke 9.31). The word here translated as ‘departure’ is, in Greek, exodos – and no early reader of Luke’s Gospel would have failed to recognise the link between the word and the Exodus in which the people of Israel had been liberated and redeemed. It is a hint that we are intended to read the story of Jesus with that earlier Exodus in mind, a hint reinforced by the references to ‘redemption’ at key points at the beginning (Luke 2.38) and the end (Luke 24.21) of this Gospel. Another difference, at least between Luke and Mark, is that Luke focuses what happens to Jesus during the transfiguration specifically on the face of Jesus: ‘the appearance of his face changed’ (Luke 9.29).

Both directly and implicitly the face of Jesus is a significant motif in the Gospel of Luke. It is Luke alone who tells us of a face streaming with tears as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (Luke 19.41-44) and Luke alone who mentions that after Peter had denied Jesus three times, ‘the Lord turned and looked at Peter’ (Luke 22.61).  One of my favourite books on Luke’s Gospel is by the German Benedictine monk, Anselm Grun. It is called Jesus: the Image of Humanity – Luke’s Account. Grun draws attention to the importance of ‘face’ in Luke, ‘In Luke’s stories the face of God shines out on us in the man Jesus. If we look at this picture we will be changed by it. Redemption comes about by reading the story. If I read it with all my senses, if – as Martin Luther puts it – I creep into the text, I will emerge from the text transformed. I have encountered the figure of Jesus, and this now shapes my figure.’[1]

Throughout the Old Testament it was considered dangerous to look on the face of God, ‘no one can see God and live’ (Exodus 33.20). The gift offered in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ is that now we CAN look on the face of God, for it is made visible to us in the face of Christ. The transfiguration is the moment par excellence when this truth is made transparently clear. Yet we are confronted by an alternative danger: that, as Grun suggests, if we really look upon the face of Christ we are going to find ourselves changed, becoming part of a movement of transfiguration which circles out from Christ with the goal of encompassing eventually the whole of creation. This is hinted at also in the Epistle for this week – 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2.  The passage offers us an interesting problem of interpretation: in 3.18 it is not absolutely clear whether the Greek text refers to us ‘beholding’ or ‘reflecting’ the glory of the Lord. Perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate – we can only ‘behold’ if we are willing also to ‘reflect’ and ‘mirror’ to enable the circle of transfiguration to extend ever more widely.

theophanes transfiguration good version 1

Icon of the transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek, early 15th century,  located in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The circle of light emanating from Christ suggests that the goal of transfiguration is to encompass the whole of creation. 

The title of Grun’s book refers to Jesus as ‘the image of humanity’. One other key (though oft forgotten) aspect of the story of the transfiguration is that it visibly reminds us that human beings are created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1.26-28). In his transfiguration Jesus is showing us ‘that our human nature has a destiny of glory’[2]. Perhaps then the implication is that we are called to see the face of God more fully in each other.

One of my enjoyable challenges during the last year or so has been writing a substantial chapter on the Christian understanding of human rights. I came to realise just how foundational the biblical understanding of the dignity of human beings as deriving from their creation in God’s image has been for the international commitment to human rights during the last 70 years or so. That commitment is significant for those of us who live in Europe today. Cities like Geneva and Brussels are places whose history is profoundly linked to the quest for the establishment of human rights, both within Europe and further afield. Yet there are places in Europe – not to mention the world beyond – where increasingly human rights are sat light to, infringed or derided. Populist nationalism tends to view human rights as an archetypal enemy. In these difficult days the transfiguration of Christ can act as a marker holding the dignity of our God-given humanity before our eyes.

I am beginning to look for potential contributors to the blog for the period May – August 2019. If you would be interested please contact me at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

[1] Grun, p. 14

[2] Michael Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, 1949, p.144

Second Sunday before Lent : Going through storms

 

Rev Canon Elaine Labourel, Director of Reader Ministry in the Diocese in Europe, reflects on this week’s Gospel passage, Luke 8.22-25, asking how we should practise our faith in the storms of today.

Life throughout Europe today is far from easy. We seem to live in a time when many put individual desires before the common good, resulting in violence and a growing and visible hatred of the other. In France, we are living in very troubled times where violence and racism are to the fore. The storms of life unsettle us understandably and when I read the account of the stilling of the storm in the gospels, I am troubled by the fact that Jesus rebukes the disciples for panicking in this life-threatening storm. Yet, there is hope in the story in Luke. How do we practice our faith in the storms?

Faith is fundamental for those who would be followers of Christ. Jesus did not expect them to do anything in the midst of that storm but to trust in Him.

It is by faith that we are saved from our sins (Ephesians 2.8-9; Romans 3.22). We are to live by faith (Habbakuk 2.4; Romans 1.17; Galatians 3.11). It was faith that saved Abraham (Romans 4), as it was faith that sustained all of the heroes of the faith named or alluded to in Hebrews chapter 11. It is faith from which obedience flows (Romans 16.26). It is by faith that we stand (2 Corinthians 1.24).

Faith involves a decision for which we are responsible. Sometimes we are required to take action. Abraham’s faith in God required him to circumcise his son. We might call this the ‘obedience of faith.’ It is doing that which God has commanded, trusting in him to fulfill his purposes and promises as we act in obedience to his command, even though we might not understand. At other times, a decision of faith requires us to wait, at a time when we would be tempted to act on our own to bring about a certain result.

Faith is tested and proven by adversity and trials. The disciples’ lack of faith is exposed in their crisis experience on the Sea of Galilee. The trials of life expose those flaws in our faith which have long been there, but which are only revealed under stress and pressure and yet these crises can be transformative if we let them.

Fear (that is, the kind of frantic, panic, fear that the disciples displayed in the storm) and faith are mutually exclusive. Faith entrusts oneself to God in the midst of danger and is willing to take risks, based on the promises and purposes of God.

Faith focuses on God incarnate, Jesus Christ. The disciples did not grasp the greatness of the One who was with them in the boat, and so they lacked faith in His power, in His presence, in His goodness. Faith in God cannot be mixed with trust in ourselves, or in our own actions. There was nothing which they could do to save themselves.

The Scriptures teach us that we are to walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5.7). Faith is based upon God’s power and upon His promises. Abraham was commanded to leave his family behind and go to an unknown land, where God promised to bless him. From a human perspective, Abraham was leaving certain prosperity behind while flirting with disaster. Abraham was instructed to take the life of his only son, through whom God had promised to bless him and all the earth. Humanly speaking, this would destroy Abraham’s family. But Abraham, by faith, believed that God was able to raise him from the dead (cf. Hebrews 11.17-19).

Faith is trusting the presence, purposes, power, and character of God, founded on the Word of God and is rooted in our awareness of the presence of God in Christ in our midst always and especially in the storms of life.

The love and graciousness you show us throughout our lives will never change, Lord Jesus, because You are faithful and dependable, and we treasure this great promise of your everlasting love and compassion. May we never fear the evils that sometimes afflict us, because you are with us. We take hold of your sure and steadfast promises and praise you forever. AMEN

………………………….…………………………………………………………………………………………………

A powerful representation of the scene of the storm at sea is offered by Eularia Clarke’s picture in the Methodist Art Collection and can be seen at 

https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/reflecting-on-faith/the-methodist-modern-art-collection/index-of-works/storm-over-the-lake-eularia-clarke/

 

Third Sunday before Lent: Everybody Wants to Rule in God’s World …

Damian Thwaites, Bishop Robert Innes’ Attaché to the European Institutions and Diocesan Communications Director, examines curses, woes and blessings in this week’s Lectionary readings from Jeremiah 17.5-10, Luke 6.17-26 and 1 Corinthians 15.12-20.    

In March 1985 the band Tears for Fears released the song, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule The World’.  I remember listening to it on the school bus … I admit it’s still a favourite among my collection of 80s classics …   It was a popular hit, reaching No 2 in the UK charts.  At the time, there were East-West power struggles for global domination (Mikhail Gorbachev was only just coming to prominence in the Soviet Union).   The lyrics are not just a sharp criticism of leaders’ desire to hold power, and how this can have damaging consequences.  They’re also a plaintive cry about heads and hearts making decisions: ‘all for freedom and for pleasure’, ‘it’s my own desire, my own remorse, help me to decide’, ‘can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision’.  We’re all tempted to run our own individual worlds.  This Septuagesima Sunday, 70 days from Easter, we learn about curses, woes and blessings in our Lectionary from Jeremiah, St Luke’s Gospel and 1 Corinthians.

I like the Book of Jeremiah.  I think it’s because his soul searching when called by God characterises the unexpected, at times deeply reluctant self-doubt when we’re confronted by some of biggest challenges life throws at us, and how our faith should guide us.  In this Jeremiah 17 passage, we learn three key things: man trusting in man alone is cursed (Jeremiah 17.5-6); trusting in Yahweh (God) is blessed (Jeremiah 17.7-8); and the human heart is truly deceitful, and God searches it out and examines the mind (Jeremiah 17.9-10).  And there’s an important link here to Psalm 1 for this Sunday.  We learn in very similar words to Jeremiah 17.8 that those who will trust in our Lord will ‘be like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season; and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.’ (Ps 1.3).

It’s also in Jeremiah (31.31-34) that we find God’s promise of a New Covenant for his people. He delivered them from slavery in Egypt, but they departed from his ways, repented, but reverted to backsliding mode repeatedly.  But for all this, God promises to ‘forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more’ (Jeremiah 31.34). We can read this in connection with Hebrews (8.6-13), where we see it is written that ‘Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.’

Luke’s Gospel account (in Luke 6.17-22) of Jesus’ teaching is one of the two Gospel passages including the Beatitudes; the other is Matthew (5.3-12). Whereas Matthew references nine blessings, Luke recounts four blessings, and four woes.  Jesus is addressing people in economic and social need on the impoverished margins of society.  They have come to hear, be healed, be blessed, and to be inspired.  St Luke’s account goes beyond St Matthew’s to state Christ’s divinely-determined, new order will reverse the fortunes of the rich in favour of the poor.

1 Corinthians affirms the Gospel of Christ’s Resurrection in which St Paul is admonishing those in the early church at Corinth who are expressing doubts about Jesus’ Resurrection. ‘There had been no justification, or salvation, if Christ had not risen. And must not faith in Christ be vain, and of no use, if he is still among the dead?’ (1 Corinthians 15.12). In the context of old and new order, it is clear that the supreme blessing for us can only come through the Resurrection, because it brings with it ‘the first fruits’ promising the ‘newness of life’ which we recite in our Anglican liturgy. The first step in understanding Christ’s eternal Kingdom is to start building it on earth today, transforming it in the likeness of his teachings.

I read in these passages a challenging message here for Europe’s current leadership as an old order; and I hope, emboldening inspiration for its younger generation of future leaders in a renewed one.  In the Brexit context, it takes on those who would make claims about allowing people to ‘take back control’ of their country. They promise a wispy aspiration of a better tomorrow, but do not acknowledge honestly the impact now of a ‘no deal’, above all for the lives of the poor and most vulnerable.  The same message challenges how the people of Greece were allowed to languish in protracted, desperate economic and social poverty, that caused some to question what values of the EU as a cohesive community really are.  And it tackles head on those who play on people’s fears of migration with populistic narratives that ‘other’, marginalise or oppress those fleeing conflict.  None of these approaches blesses others in time of uncertainty and/or adversity across Europe.

pic for damian blog

The time is surely ripe to revive genuinely democratic, inclusive, participatory Christian social unity in Europe, as we look ahead to elections to the European Parliament in May, and onwards in 2020 to the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Plan. This would be a true manifestation marking a Christ-inspired and centred ‘new deal’ for Europe; and it has to be right that those who know the leaders of the past only from their history books get to write this new chapter for our continent.  Christians should not want to rule the world, because God does, and wills us to steward it justly.  Therefore, our Gospel mission is to change the inadequacies and injustices that we ourselves create – social, economic and political – and to do so guided by him.

Fourth Sunday before Lent: Do not be afraid

Rev Canon Dr Jack McDonald, chaplain in Leuven, offers us the challenge, ‘Do not be afraid’, drawing on Luke 5.1-11, the lectionary Gospel for this week.

When I was a child of 13 on a family holiday in Cornwall, I went swimming in the sea with my younger brother Ben, on the grounds that our parents had not specifically forbidden it. Momentarily I got into trouble and I had to fight hard to resurface and swim safely to the beach. All was well, but the memory of being somehow held fast under the surface by a natural force of incredible and unanswerable power was a sobering one. Ben and I agreed never to tell our parents and we never have! – maybe they will read this blog and fret!

Familiarity with this gospel passage makes us deaf to the ways it would have struck its first audience in the 1st century. Yes, it is the occasion in Luke’s Gospel when Simon (listen) is first called Peter (rock); yes, it is the first occasion in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus’ ministry causes real commitment and enthusiasm. But for me the key to understanding the passage is to reflect on the Jews’ understanding of the sea.

The living water of river or sea held three interlocking meanings: it represented birth (think of the first verses of Genesis, when God creates light out of the deep, or of the baby Moses, drawn out of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus 2); it represented cleansing (think of the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5); and anticipating the Cornish swell, it represented danger and death (think of the Flood in Genesis 7). These three meanings are often blended together – think of the Exodus itself, where crossing the Red Sea is healing for the Hebrews, the birth of a new nation, and danger and death for the Egyptians –  think too of how we might describe Christian baptism – a new creation in Christ, sin forgiven, a passage through the death of Good Friday to the new life of Easter.

Our sanitised christening sermons often omit the metaphor for death which the waters of baptism represent. But water is a good image for death because it can be terrifying. One of the very few advantages of living in the UK as compared to the EU is that the new sterling banknotes are prettier than our euros. From next year, the new £20 will bear the portrait of JMW Turner, and his paintings of the force and power of the sea are memorable. Try these two: Stormy Sea with Blazing Wreck (1835) and Rough Sea with Wreckage (1840). To look at these pictures is a timely reminder to naughty boys that the sea is a place of risk and danger.

turner picturner stormy seas

The notion that the sea is not just for swimming in and play but also risky and dangerous helps us read this passage better. Jesus uses a boat as a pulpit: so he sits on top of the very waters to teach, on top of the unknown deep waters. He tells Simon to put out into the deep and let down his nets there, and it is from the deep that the huge catch comes. Here we are being propelled away from safety, away from comfort, and towards a ministry of risk and adventure. It is to the place of risk that Jesus Christ sends us. It is at the place of risk that Jesus Christ gives us not just a measly but a superabundant catch.

And just when our natural reaction is to shy away, Christ gives us the same message which has already been given three times in Luke’s Gospel – by the angel to Zechariah, to Mary and to the shepherds – ‘Do not be afraid.’ It is this reassurance which Luke will fill out in chapter 8, when he describes Jesus calming a storm on the same Sea of Galilee.

The sea can be terrifying and dangerous. It is to the place of risk and danger that Jesus sends us. But Jesus is lord and master of the sea and of danger. In Jesus Christ, the sea is as flat and calm as Raphael depicts it in his 1515 painting of the miraculous catch. Wherever we are sent and whatever the risks, Christ says Do not be afraid.

raphael

Raphael: The Miraculous Catch of Fish