Bread of Life

This  week’s blog draws on the Common Worship lectionary Gospel, John 6.1-21, and links to it a brief reflection about Holy Communion, especially in relation to our learning in these COVID times. I would like to get a discussion going in response to my question posed below. Please do respond either via a comment to post on the blog or via an email to me. The blog is now taking a summer break for a month. It will return on 1st September and I am seeking a wider range of contributors for the autumn.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Pottery plate, depicting the miracle of the loaves and fishes

This illustration above is of a decorated Palestinian pottery plate. It reflects the mosaic of the Loaves and Fishes which is at Tabgha in Galilee, where Christian tradition has long commemorated this miracle. (You can see the actual mosaic depicted further down the blog). This particular plate, which is a treasured possession of the Amos family and was bought in the Holy Land, has been used week by week over the past year, as Alan has presided at celebrations of Holy Communion in our dining room, which have been shared via Zoom with friends in Geneva and in many other locations.

These days, which steadily turned into weeks, then months, and now years, in which the COVID pandemic spread its tentacles across the world, have impacted on our lives in ways that previously we probably never would have anticipated.  I suspect that ‘COVID studies’ will shortly become an academic discipline in universities. I cannot begin in this brief reflection to explore its connection to such issues as what human ‘wellbeing’ means, nor indeed its connection to the tricky relationship between our ‘national’ and ‘international’ loyalties – though personally I am dismayed at the one-up-man-ship that, in Europe, now seems to be a factor in various countries’ responses.

As we are all aware, for Christian communities, the inability to hold ‘in person’ worship for substantial periods of time over the last year, has deeply impacted upon our worshipping and common life in ways that previously we would have thought inconceivable. There was a ‘mass’ migration to ‘Zoom’ (or other such digital platforms). Actually that journey to the digital has not been completely negative. Certainly in our Diocese in Europe, in which physical distance is often a factor in making it difficult for people to travel weekly to a particular church building, the availability of Zoom worship has facilitated participation for some people.

It is also interesting how it has enabled church communities to sustain or renew links with former members, who have now moved away. At Holy Trinity, Geneva, the chaplaincy with which I personally am most associated, the Zoom services over the past year have been attended by a number of people who have now retired and moved away from Geneva. It has been a joy for them, and for their old friends, to meet in this way. I am, however, also quite conscious, that it is the well resourced churches such as Holy Trinity who have been able to cope so positively with these developments. We are fortunate to have the human and financial means to provide digital worship which has often been of an exceptional quality. It has been far more of a struggle for others – including many small Anglican churches in England.

Of course one question that arose very early in these developments was what being ‘virtual’ implied for our understanding of the nature of Holy Communion, and also its place within the spectrum of Anglican communal worship. To re-use my phrase above, can there indeed be a ‘Mass migration’ to Zoom? Indeed in the first few weeks of ‘Zoom services’ there was considerable deliberation as to what was or would be permitted in Anglican dioceses and churches. Eventually permission was given for a celebration of Holy Communion by a priest, which could, via Zoom, be viewed and in some way participated in by those who were sharing in the service from their own homes. The phrase making one’s ‘Spiritual Communion’, previously unknown to many, became increasingly used, and in fact, Alan, my husband, wrote a prayer for this purpose, to replace the rather Latinate ‘Prayer of St Alphonse Liguori’ which had been drawn on for the first few weeks of our practice. Alan’s prayer is still being regularly used during Zoom services at Holy Trinity Geneva. You can find it below.

One of the questions, however, that all these developments pose for me is ‘What exactly is the role of Holy Communion as an expression of Anglican public worship?’  At this point I am going to share something of my own view on this subject. I do not expect all the readers of this blog to agree with me, indeed I rather hope they won’t, because I would like to get a discussion going on this topic.

To put my cards on the table: personally, I actually find it unhelpful that Holy Communion has largely become the only public expression of Anglican liturgical worship in many of our churches. It is increasingly rare (except perhaps in historic cathedrals) to find regular public use of either Morning or Evening Prayer in Anglican contexts where many or any laity are expected to be present. It is not that I don’t think Holy Communion is vitally important – but that the way it has often become the ‘only’ expression of public liturgical worship, perhaps means that we don’t explore in depth the fullness of its meaning. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (drawing on much earlier texts) describes the Eucharist as ‘the source and summit’ of the whole of Christian life. As an Anglican, I am very happy to affirm that as my understanding too, but precisely because it is the ‘summit’ I don’t want to reach it too quickly. I want to, need to, spend some time in the foot hills, exploring how they can point me higher and beyond themselves. For me, those ‘foothills’ include non-Eucharistic liturgical worship – including a copious dose of psalmody (which is typically not well represented in the liturgy of the Eucharist). One of the other live issues in the Church of England at the moment is the question of the complementary roles of clergy and laity, including the role of licensed lay ministers. In my view an over-emphasis on Holy Communion or the Eucharist as effectively the ‘only’ form of public Anglican worship skews this question as well. Enough said by me: what is your view?

Byzantine mosaic of the Loaves and Fishes in the Church of Tabgha, Galilee

It is interesting to raise this in this week’s blog for which the lectionary Gospel is John 6.1-21.  This is John’s account of Jesus feeding the multitude, followed by his walking on the water. This miracle of feeding is, I believe, the only miracle of Jesus to be recounted in all four Gospels. It is interesting that the lectionary compilers jump at this point from following a series of stories in Mark’s Gospel, into the John’s telling of the episode.  If we had ‘continued’ on through Mark, the next passage we would have come across is Mark’s account of the same story. Clearly the lectionary has opted for John’s version at this point, because the compilers want also to explore John’s lengthy discussion about ‘the Bread of Life’ which takes up most of the rest of chapter 6. This later part of the chapter will form the lectionary Gospel passages selected for the four following Sundays.

One of the well-known features of the Gospel of John is that, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, it does not contain an explicit passage set at the Last Supper in which Jesus breaks bread, proclaims ‘This is my body’ and then commands ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. There is no single moment of ‘institution of Holy Communion’. In some ways this is strange for this Gospel, which begins with the triumphant acclamation, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory’, is profoundly sacramental in its vision. For those who have eyes to see material realities again and again act as a sign of the spiritual and the divine. And it is also obvious, on even a cursory reading, that allusions to the sacramental body of Jesus – which his listeners are commanded to ‘gnaw’ (John 6.56) – are threaded through these later parts of chapter 6. So why is it that there is no account of the actual ‘institution’?

It is I think true that all the Gospel writers see a link between Jesus’ miraculous feeding of a multitude and the Eucharist or Holy Communion, important in Christian life from apostolic times. But John, by not having a separate ‘institution’ at the Last Supper, somehow makes this link run even more deeply.  And looking at the Eucharist in the context of this miraculous feeding can perhaps open our eyes to gaze at things with new vision.  It has been said that John’s Gospel was written at a time when the Eucharist ran the danger of being devalued because in some quarters of the Christian Church it was being separated from the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus – turned almost into ‘a magic pep-pill’ (that is a description I have read – though it would probably not be my own first choice of words). So the author of this Gospel sought to challenge such attitudes by rooting – as he does here – Jesus’ offering of the bread of life in the Eucharist in his wider ministry. Of course there are also the hints – such as the fact that we are explicitly told this happened at Passovertide (John 6.4) – that remind us of the connections to that ‘Last Supper’. Yet exploring the Eucharist firstly through this miracle of feeding can offer us some wider – and valuable – insights. As indeed has, I believe, our experience of celebrating Communion online in these days of COVID.

*****

Here are a few resources that might be useful: either this week – or for the following weeks, when verses from John 6 will be the lectionary Gospel, but your blog writer is taking a break, though I do intend to add a few additional resources linked to  the Eucharist/Communion from time to time.

*****

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99FEyfdLikM ‘I am the Bread of Life’ sung by the virtual choir of Emmanuel Church, Geneva and first shared on Easter Sunday 2020.  It is of course in John 6 that Jesus uses these words of himself.  I enjoy this video for its vibrant strength and the participation of the whole congregation in the final two verses.

*****

A prayer that my husband, Alan Amos, wrote for those who are about to receive Spiritual Communion in an online act of worship, and which is regularly used by Holy Trinity Church Geneva, and in a number of other churches:

Prayer for an Act of Spiritual Communion

We offer and present to you, Lord our heavenly Father, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a holy and living sacrifice; grant that being present together in heart and mind at this holy communion we may now be filled with your heavenly blessing through the redeeming grace of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.
… [ short pause ] Lord Jesus Christ, in outward signs of bread and wine you have made known your presence among us; as we unite with one another from the places where we are, may your communion be fulfilled in us now through the work of the life-giving Holy Spirit. Amen.

*****

Before we can begin to understand the symbolism of the eucharist or try to fathom the message it conveys, we need to remember, we need to remember hunger. Perhaps the older discipline in which the Catholic church imposed certain fasts on its adult members should have been adjusted to modern conditions rather than simply be allowed to be set aside without much thought. It is very important to remember hunger, and the fundamental way to know what hunger means is to be hungry. To understand very well what it means is to be hungry over a long period of time. (Monica Hellwig)

*****

When Jesus took bread and wine or a few fish and blessed God for them and shared them with his disciples, creation found its purpose once again. (Mark Searle)

Come away … and rest a while

I am very grateful to Revd Julia Lacey, formerly an ordinand of the Diocese in Europe, ordained priest on Saturday 26 June and now serving as a curate in the Diocese of Chelmsford for writing this week’s reflection – accompanied appropriately by a painting produced in Geneva (half a millennium ago) which is a glorious example of artistic contextualization.  Julia’s reflection focuses on this week’s lectionary Gospel, Mark 6.30-34, 53-end, and the suggested Sunday psalm, the beloved Psalm 23.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Konrad Witz, La pêche miraculeuse – The miraculous draft of fishes, Geneva 1444

‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while’ (Mark 6.31).

The summer holiday season is upon us, at least for quite a few of us. And so as well for the disciples it seems. Jesus is whisking them away on a cruise to give them a well-deserved time of rest and restoration after a frantic time of healing and preaching – ‘For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat’. On top of it all they had just heard of (and seen?) the death of their friend John the Baptist.

The disciples are running back to Jesus to tell him all about their work, I imagine also all about their feelings, their – most likely not always welcoming – reception in the towns and villages, and about the events surrounding John’s death. In my mind’s eye I see them variedly trudging wearily on their way to Jesus, worn out by this first time ministering to the people on their own; or skipping excitedly towards him amazed by the power and authority that Jesus has granted them; or maybe running in alarm to find Jesus and warn him about the violence perpetrated against John.

Whatever their experiences and feelings, I can only assume that they were quite high on adrenaline.

I somewhat know how they felt. Three years ago, in June 2018, I went to a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, an intense 3-day probing into my and my fellow candidates’ vocation to ministry in the Church of God. When a couple of weeks later Rev Canon William Gulliford (Diocese in Europe’s Director of Ordinands) called me to let me know that I had been recommended for training, I was at once excited, overjoyed, yet also anxious. And then the motorway hit! Having to study again while working full-time, travelling to residential weekends to the remotest part of East-Anglia, learning ‘on the ground’ from Rev Canon Alexander Gordon (the then chaplain of Holy Trinity Geneva), fitting in some form of family life as well – and oh yes, playing catch-up with my mixed emotions; then a move from France to the UK in the midst of COVID, ordination as deacon last September, learning a new role in a new place, then ordination to the priesthood two weeks ago – – – I really am in need of a holiday now, I think.

How fortuitous it is then that I get to reflect on these passages from the Gospel of Mark. Admittedly, they are cobbled together and often overshadowed by the part of the story that we don’t get to read this week. But I think this somewhat artificial way of putting the two passages together was a stroke of genius by the commission responsible for the common lectionary which the Church of England follows here. In a gospel that is characterized by its hectic, almost breathless account of Jesus’ ministry, these snapshots of something different could easily be overlooked.

We all know of course that overlooking our need for rest and quietness regularly wreaks havoc in our lives. A Sabbath rest is good not only for us individually but also to find the time to come together as communities, to re-focus and to encourage one another. For many of us Sunday worship offers that opportunity – but how many people in our wider communities go for long periods of time without a rest?

Our Gospel reading today reminds us then of the importance of rest – not only for our physical and mental well-being but also to fulfill our deepest spiritual need. Just as Psalm 23 promises us: ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides quiet waters, he refreshes my soul’.

Discipleship is a continuous movement of being sent out into the world by Jesus and coming back to Jesus to re-fuel, only to be sent out again… After every Sunday there is a whole week of disciple-work before it is Sunday again. And, as we see in the second part of the reading, Jesus doesn’t reserve rest just for his disciples. He extends the invitation to be restored and healed to everyone.

However, when I first started to reflect on this passage, something else jumped out at me: the mentioning of the journey to an isolated place on the Sea of Galilee, or ‘the lake’ as it is often called in Mark’s Gospel.

‘The’ lake – albeit a different one – played a large role of my previous life in the Geneva area. And I was reminded of a famous painting by 15th century artist Konrad Witz that is exhibited at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva. You will find a copy of the painting at the top of this reflection.

Konrad Witz is famous for being the first artist who depicts realistic rather than stylized landscapes – and this panel from the ‘St Peter’s altar’ shows a scene very familiar to those living in Geneva: the view over the lake towards the Alps with (from right to left) the Salève, Môle and Voirons mountains in the foreground.

The title only mentions the miraculous draft of fish but if you look closely, you can see that there are several different events described that all happened on or at the Sea of Galilee.

In fact, the disciples’ relationship with Jesus is intrinsically linked with this body of water: here they were first called, here they listened to Jesus teach, it was on this lake that Jesus so dramatically stilled the storm and where they found him walking on the water. Incidentally, have you noticed that Peter is twice in the painting? Once in the boat trying to haul in that miraculous catch, and then again floundering while walking towards Jesus on the water? I wonder whether the big clouds in the sky point to the storm that has just passed?

I would like to think that this multi-scene painting gives us an indication of the kind of rest that Jesus offers us: a Rest with a big R.

As Clare said on this blog a couple of weeks back, the sea or other large bodies of water were a source of great suspicion in the Hebrew culture, the former seat of other gods, the embodiment of chaos and death, cause for fear and dread. It is striking how often Mark mentions that Jesus and the disciples cross over the Sea of Galilee and that Jesus is preaching on the seashore. As a matter of fact, today’s passage combines two different journeys on the Sea.

I don’t think that this is an accident or simply a factual description. I suspect Mark is making an important point: in Jesus God has reconciled his creation to himself. There is no room left for those pockets of dominions belonging to other powers. Even the dreaded sea, the last bastion of demonic power, can be navigated without any risk. Now the waters are indeed still – as Psalm 23 promised. Jesus has brought healing and wholeness to all of creation, not just temporarily or superficially. His Rest is eternal and eternity starts now, another word that Mark likes to use often.

So let’s take our holidays seriously – after all the word comes from ‘holy days’ with ‘holy’ having the same root as ‘wholeness’.

And let us imagine a world where our Christian communities radiate out that Rest with a big R, offering healing and wholeness and a life without fear to everyone – unconditionally.

Julia Lacey

Prophets and Kings

This week’s reflection poses a question at the end to which I would welcome your response – either via the comment facility of the blog or in an email to me. (I would especially welcome comment from my ‘republican’ readers!)  The reflection draws on this week’s lectionary Gospel Mark 6.14-29, as well as the Old Testament reading Amos 7.7-15 and briefly alludes to the lectionary Epistle Ephesians 1.3-14.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

The site of Machaerus, the place of John’s imprisonment and execution, in modern Jordan

John the Baptist is not only an important figure in the pages of the New Testament – but interestingly also appears in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, who mentions him quite positively in his work, ‘The Wars of the Jews’, stating that he was a ‘good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.’ Josephus also gives more interesting detail about the marital misdeeds of Herod, which John the Baptist had denounced. Josephus on John the Baptist – Livius

It is Josephus who tells us that the place where Herod held John in prison, and where he was eventually executed, was the desolate fortress of Machaerus, to the east of the Dead Sea (see picture above) in modern day Jordan. The Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem, where I did my own post-graduate studies, is currently excavating at Machaerus, so I have taken a special interest in the place. Like other fortresses in and to the east of the Jordan valley (such as Masada) it was built by Jewish kings between c.150BC – 30AD partly to secure the defence of the eastern borders of their kingdom.

The New Testament views John the Baptist as standing in the line of the Old Testament prophets. That is implied in this week’s lectionary Gospel, Mark 6.14-29, which implicitly describes John in terms of Elijah (Mark  6.15). This ‘Elijah’ connection is made crystal clear in Jesus’ words of Mark 9.11-13. One of the distinctive features of the stories of Old Testament prophets is the way that they stood up against, and where necessary strongly criticised kings. So Nathan the prophet rebuked King David for his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12.1-15), Elijah (with whom as we have seen John is somehow identified) critiqued King Ahab on several occasions (I Kings 17-21), and in this week’s Old Testament lectionary reading, Amos 7.7-15 criticises King Jeroboam. John’s criticism of Herod for his adultery therefore locates him firmly in the line of these Old Testament prophetic forerunners.

Anonymous Russian icon of the ‘Great Deesis’ – in the upper line there are several Old Testament prophets; surrounding Mary and the infant Jesus; in the lower line the adult Christ is framed by Mary on his right and John the Baptist on his left.

Back in 1979 the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote an influential article, ‘Trajectories in Old Testament literature and the sociology of Ancient Israel’ Trajectories in Old Testament Literature and the Sociology of Ancient Israel on JSTOR   It considerably influenced how many people, including myself, viewed biblical literature. Brueggemann’s suggestion was that there were two main threads or trajectories running through the Old Testament, what he initially referred to as the ‘royal’ trajectory and the ‘liberation’ trajectory.  Briefly (I have written about this in more detail elsewhere) the royal trajectory was associated with royal and priestly circles, especially in Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Temple. It valued conservation rather than change: it considered the pivotal role of kings and Temple as fundamental to the welfare of society and gave particular importance to the Davidic covenant tradition.

Conversely the liberation trajectory was associated with peasants and prophets. It was egalitarian and sought change and transformation in society. It was critical of many aspects of Israel’s life and worship, including often the lived behaviour of the kings. God’s relationship was direct and with all the people, rather than requiring a royal or priestly mediator, and it gave particular importance to the Mosaic/Sinai covenant tradition.

In this article Brueggemann gave several examples of these two ‘trajectories’ ‘clashing’ with each other. He included the examples of the clashes between prophets and kings that I mentioned above. Brueggemann almost, but not quite, thinks in terms of ‘liberation trajectory good, royal trajectory bad.’  Because what is also interesting is that Brueggemann briefly explores parts of the Old Testament where the two trajectories are in a creative dialogue with each other, and their interaction means that something new and fresh is born. The part of the Old Testament which illustrates this most strongly is Isaiah 40-55, often referred to as Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah if you want to be posh!). I don’t think it is an accident that it is precisely these chapters which are deeply cherished by Christians.

What has all this got to do with this week’s lectionary reading? First it seems to me that in the story of the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist we do have something virtually identical to those Old Testament ‘clashes’ between the royal and the liberation trajectories.  John stands firmly in the prophetic liberation stream.

But what does this say to us about Jesus himself? I find this intriguing – and not an easy question to answer. In spite of my reading of liberation theologians, I don’t think that Jesus simplistically sits within that liberation trajectory that Brueggemann describes. Unlike John the Baptist who is so clearly identified as a prophet, the way that Jesus is portrayed within the New Testament has shades of royal and priestly colours as well as prophetic ones. That is even true within the Gospel of Mark itself. Jesus dies with the words ‘King of the Jews’ inscribed above him, and though they may have been intended as mockery by those who placed them there, they contain for us a deep truth. Interestingly the very next episode to the execution of John the Baptist viz the Feeding of the 5000, itself contains a likely allusion to Jesus’ kingly status, for the words ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6.34) probably point us to the role of kings as the shepherds of their people (see for example Ezekiel 34.1). Anyone who knows me well, knows that I will refer to the transfiguration  if I possibly can!  But I actually do think that the way Jesus is portrayed in the transfiguration account (Mark 9.2-8), highlights his royal and priestly roles (to complement the ‘prophetic’ roles of Elijah and Moses who also appear in the story). I don’t want to deny that Jesus himself is also viewed as a ‘prophet’ in the New Testament, but I think he is seen too as ‘more than a prophet’.

So in the figure and story of Jesus himself once again we have those two ‘trajectories’ – royal and liberation – in a creative dialogue with each other. Jesus ‘pulls them together’ in his own person. Indeed I think that sense of holding together such opposites in a creative and reconciling tension is part of what is being said to us in this week’s lectionary Epistle Ephesians 1.3-14 which speaks of gathering up in Christ ‘all… things in heaven and things on earth’ (Ephesians 1.10).

As I was beginning to think about this week’s blog, I happened to come across a wonderful picture by the German Roman Catholic artist Sieger Koder. It is called ‘Magnificat’. For copyright reasons I include a link to it rather than use it as a direct illustration. (You can find an example of it with some reflective commentary at (4) Facebook). In the foreground we have the old Elizabeth embracing the young Mary, with both women clad in earthly browns, while in the mysterious blue background we can also make out the shapes of their respective sons, John and Jesus, embracing each other in a similar way. The picture itself made me think about the ‘pulling together’ of the liberation and royal trajectories, and the reconciliation of the roles of prophet, priest and king. For the prophetic John was in fact the son of a Temple priest, and the mother of the kingly and priestly Jesus sang the Magnificat, a prophetic song of joy which has been the inspiration of many liberation theologians.

One final thought to leave you with, which is something that perplexes me, rather than an issue to which I have an easy answer. I sometimes wonder how easy it is to ‘translate’ the royal and kingly imagery of the Bible, and the way it is used to describe Jesus in the New Testament, into the context of our modern world, in particular in lands, such as many in our Diocese in Europe, where monarchy, even in its constitutional form, no longer exists. There is a bit of me that feels that much traditional Christian imagery perhaps ‘works’ most readily in lands where kings (or queens) still have a place. I think there is an exercise in ‘translation’ that may need to be done for ‘republican’ lands which is often forgotten about. I don’t know what the readers of this blog may think?… but I would be interested to hear your views.

Apostolic faith

‘Faith’ a window in Holy Trinity Geneva. Thank you to Canon Daphne Green for this photograph. (The window is one of a set of three which depict Faith, Hope and Charity)

I am grateful to my colleague in the diocesan Ministry Team, Canon William Gulliford, for (perhaps inadvertently) pointing me in the direction this week’s blog has taken, which is, I hope, appropriate for this season of ordinations. The pictures below were taken at two recent ordinations, one in the diocese, the other of an ordinand from our diocese now serving as a priest in the Diocese of Chelmsford.  We focus mainly on the Gospel lectionary text for this coming Sunday, Mark 6.1-13, though also draw attention  to the Epistle, 2 Corinthians 12.1-10.

This is the time of year when most ordinations happen in the Church of England.  Our ordinations in the Diocese in Europe are taking place in these days. Given that, as Anglicans, our understanding of ministry and ordination is linked to the role of the ‘apostles’ in the New Testament, it is interesting that this week’s lectionary Gospel (Mark 6.1-13) refers to Jesus sending out ‘the twelve’ in mission and ministry (The particular verses that do so are verses 6 to 13).

As often with episodes in the Gospel of Mark – it is interesting to see what comes immediately before – and immediately after – the passage. This may well offer a hint as to what Mark is wanting to say to us.

The focus of the previous chapter of Mark’s Gospel (and indeed the verses at the end of chapter 4) is ‘faith’. The faith of the woman with a haemorrhage is specifically noted (5.34), while Jesus reassures Jairus when he learns of the apparent death of his daughter with the words, ‘Do not fear, only believe (i.e. ‘have faith) (5.36).

These interwoven stories therefore present a sharp contrast to what greets Jesus when he returns to his home town (which we assume to be Nazareth).  The brief account (6.1-6), which forms the first half of the coming Sunday lectionary Gospel, remarks on the lack of faith Jesus encounters in this place, ‘He was amazed at their unbelief’ (6.6).

And then we move directly into the sending out of ‘the twelve’ on a mission of teaching and healing, which is also a story about faith. The mission seems to go very well. The ‘faith’ which is implicit in this story is both the ‘faith’ of the twelve who were willing to go out in the way that Jesus has asked of them, and the faith of the people that these twelve encountered and whose lives were changed as a result.

But… and this is where the issue gets slightly problematic yet also very interesting… what exactly was the faith of the twelve at this point in Mark’s Gospel? For we still have more than two chapters to travel before in 8.29 Peter finally manages to blurt out ‘You are the Messiah!’  And intriguingly the last direct (before 6.10) words of Jesus to his disciples had commented specifically on their lack of faith, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (4.40) So whatever ‘faith’ the twelve managed to muster, it was certainly focused on what Jesus had been teaching and enacting in relation to the kingdom of God, rather than any clear understanding of who Jesus was in his own person.

The ordination to the diaconate of Solomon Ike in Madrid, 30 May 2021 by Bishop David Hamid

There are two practical outcomes that I want to refer to in exploring the implications of this. One is very specific, the other more general.

Currently I am working, along with a working group of interesting, interested and committed people from around our diocese on a Christian educational course for lay people. We hope to have something prepared that we can ‘launch’ in September 2022. It is intended to be the sort of course that in some other dioceses is referred to as a ‘Bishop’s certificate’. The course will be structured around four modules, with their titles and foci taken in turn from the four ‘pillars’ of the Rule of Life presented to the Diocesan Synod in 2019:

  • Knowing God
  • Growing in Christ
  • Building Community
  • Living beyond ourselves

We have already done a lot of work on the first module ‘Knowing God’ and hope to finalise a complete first draft of this over the summer. The thread that runs through the five ‘units’ that make up this module is the Lord’s Prayer, and each of the units explores a phrase from this central Prayer of our Christian faith – which, as a book I was reading yesterday reminded me, is ‘older than the church’!

But of course one thing that it is interesting to realise is that the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t tell us directly anything about Jesus at all. It doesn’t even end with the classic phrase used at the end of many Christian prayers, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’.  The Lord’s Prayer is called the Lord’s Prayer because it is the prayer that Jesus taught, rather than a prayer about him.

So in consequence in our first module we are not focusing directly on Jesus, although the Gospel passages we are drawing on include several of his great parables, such as the story of the Prodigal Son. Rather in this first module, we are thinking about drawing closer to God, especially God the Father, through prayer, through the psalms, through our need to be forgiven and to forgive, through reflection on the nature of God’s Kingdom and its coming, through wrestling with our perplexities about pain and suffering.  We will certainly be focusing  in the second module ‘Growing in Christ’ on who Jesus was and is, and what he as accomplished for us, but we deliberately haven’t quite got there yet. So it is interesting to see such a similar pattern being expressed in our Gospel, and in the lives of ‘the twelve’. The starting-point for their mission at this point is what Jesus had taught, rather than who Jesus was.

The other implication that I want also to touch on briefly relates to this ordination season. Those who are ordained deacon or priest at this time, are, if they follow in the apostolic pattern of ‘the twelve’, people still with much to learn, both about Jesus and the nature of ministry. We might be entitled to hope that ordinands have at least some idea what the Christian church has affirmed about Jesus (!), but all the same ordination is not a finishing line, but a ‘staging post’ on their way. The ‘faith’ that sustains newly ordained clergy must have an element of wondering yet perplexed excitement. The much more that they have to discover will come in considerable part as the result of the practical lived experience of exercising their ministry, as, we can assume, was also the case for those first ‘twelve’.

It was a stroke of serendipity or an instance of inspiration on the part of the lectionary compilers to link this Gospel passage with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12.1-10, in which Paul reflects on the importance of his own weakness, culminating in his powerful affirmation that the Lord had proclaimed to him ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made known in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12.9). Once again the ‘apostolic’ pattern of ministry is not one of omniscience or omnipotence, but rather the reverse.

The ordination to the priesthood of Julia Lacey in Chelmsford, 26 June 2021. Julia is on the left in the picture. The ordaining bishop is Rt Revd John Perumbalath, Bishop of Bradwell

And one more thing. Also salutary to remember during this ordination season. I said that it is always interesting, especially in the Gospel of Mark, to discover what comes immediately before or immediately after a particular passage. In this case this first mission of ‘the twelve’ is followed by the account of the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist (Mark 6.14-29). At the beginning of this Gospel the pattern has been established of a journey ‘on the way’, with Jesus himself as the centre of this pilgrim party, with those he calls literally ‘following’ him on this path (e.g. Mark 1.17) and with John the Baptist his ‘forerunner’ on the way. It is no accident, I am sure, that this first mission of the twelve, on which they report back to Jesus only after we have heard of the Baptist’s death (Mark 6.30), is so closely associated with the account of the fate of the forerunner, who will foreshadow not only Jesus’ own later passion, but also the suffering of ‘his followers’.  Christian ministry in the apostolic tradition most assuredly requires faith which even if it may not be complete, may well prove to be costly.

*****

‘I have sometimes wondered if we might be surprised and disappointed by what it means that our faith is ‘built on the faith of the apostles’ as we have so proudly sung and proclaimed. They barely ever got the point, and seem as thoroughly foolish as we are; but God still used them, because like all of us they were little children too. I indeed share in this very faith. We are all and forever beginners in the journey toward God and truth. (Richard Rohr, ‘Falling Upward’)

Touching God

This week’s blog explores briefly the theme of touch, which is one of the key elements which links together the two sections of the lectionary Gospel reading, Mark 5.21-43

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Painting by Elena Cherkasova

I think that the picture by the Russian artist Elena Cherkasova which I have used at the head of this week’s lectionary blog is fascinating and moving. (You can see more examples of her work  at Helena Cherkasova – Godot (godotartgallery.com) I am particularly struck by the way her picture rightly links together the two stories that together make up the lectionary Gospel – the account of Jesus’ healing of a woman with a vaginal haemorrhage, and the restoration to life of Jairus’ daughter. Mark clearly intends us to interpret both episodes together. He has hinted at this by his use of the technique that appears at several ley moments in his story – when one episode appears enfolded within another.  In this case the healing of the woman is enfolded within an account which relates to Jairus and his daughter.

As soon as Jesus has returned in a boat to Galilee from the other (Gentile) side of the lake he is accosted by a crowd which includes Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, who fervently beseeches him to come and heal his daughter who is very ill. It is then when he is on the way to Jesus’ house that the woman with the haemorrhage dares to approach him, and touch his cloak which results in her healing. It is hinted – but not explicitly spelled out – that this in turn delays Jesus, so that by the time he reaches Jairus’ house his daughter has apparently already died. Nonetheless Jesus enters the house, and raises Jairus’ daughter, with the words he uses one of the very few instances that Aramaic (‘Talitha cum’) appears in the actual biblical text.

As we read the two parts of the story together we are clearly intended to see both similarities and contrasts. Both of the sufferers are female; the number twelve is significant in both accounts; a gesture of touch is the means of healing; there is in each case an explicit link made between the healing and faith; the word ‘daughter’ appears in relation to each within the story. Conversely one of the sufferers seems to be old and the other is young; the woman is outside in the crowd, the girl secluded in her home; one is poor, the other privileged; one is assertive, the other passive; the one touches Jesus, the other is touched by him.

I find the thread of ‘touch’ which appears central to both parts of the story very powerful. Indeed it is clear that ‘touch’ was an important aspect of the ministry of Jesus. ‘Touch’ was particularly significant in that context, as it crossed the boundaries that the honour/shame; holy/unclean; culture imposed upon people and which Jesus’ ministry seems to have challenged. One of the things that can make me get very irritated – both as a student of the Bible and as a woman – is the ‘misinterpretation’ of the text of John 20.17. Jesus’ words here clearly mean, ‘Do not hold on to me’ – implying that Mary had indeed already touched him. Often in Christian history and art they have been wrongly translated as ‘Don’t touch me!’. I particularly dislike the representation by Alexander Ivanov (reproduced below) – which somehow shouts at me a vision of Jesus saying, ‘Keep this woman away from me!’.

‘Noli te tangere’, Alexander Ivanov

The deeply thoughtful leading hospital chaplain Norman Autton wrote, ‘God sent his Son that we may touch God and that God may touch us. In all the miracles of Christ we see the link between touch and the Word. He touches the eyes of the blind man, and he touches the leper, and says that they are clean. It is touch and the Word: the body and the Word – the realisation of a new form of touch. When we touch people, particularly those who are sick or handicapped, we want that touch to be a touch that is life-giving: a touch that gives security and peace. When we are consciously touching people or holding people in order to give them security, in order that they might discover that they are loved, that touch, as the Word, can become – and does become – an instrument of grace.’ (Norman Autton: ‘Touch: An Exploration’).

Autton goes on to explore the important role touch played in his own hospital ministry.

Do you know the Iona (Wild Goose) Song, ‘A Touching Place’? I find both its words and melody very beautiful? You can watch a sung recording at Joanne Hogg & David Fitzgerald: A Touching Place – BBC Songs Of Praise/Northumberland – YouTube

The first verse goes:

Christ’s is the world in which we move;
Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;
Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,
and Christ is the one who meets us here.

And the repeated chorus is:

To the lost Christ shows his face,
to the unloved he gives his embrace,
to those who cry in pain or disgrace
Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place.

I think I first listened to it in 1991 via a tape as I was in hospital for several weeks before my son was born. I listened to it many times and I think it helped to keep me (more or less) sane during those difficult days. We sang it at my son’s baptism a few months later.

However it was only a few years later in the mid-1990s when I was working for the Methodist Church of Britain that the sensitivities and ambiguities of the line ‘Christ makes with his friends a touching place’ became increasingly apparent in the context of our deep commitment in the Methodist Church to safeguarding concerns*. These days I am very careful about places and occasions when I suggest the song is sung, though I still love listening to it. I have to admit that I personally do find it quite sad that our rightful commitment to safeguarding in the life of the Church means that so much now has inevitably to be viewed in a different and darker light. I also understand that those who have suffered in their lives from inappropriate touch must find this subject almost unbearably painful.

One of the realities of the last 15 months has been the lack of touch and physical contact due to necessary social distancing. When the post-COVID era finally arrives we are going to need to reflect once again on what it may mean to touch and be touched by God in one another.

*****

* It feels appropriate here to mention with affection and respect the colleagues I worked most closely with in the Methodist Church, David Gamble and Judy Jarvis, who were influential in encouraging other British churches – as well as Methodism – to take ‘safeguarding’ concerns far more seriously than had previously been done. I believe that it was Judy who first suggested the use of the term ‘safeguarding’.

Questions! Questions!

This week’s lectionary blog draws on both the lectionary Gospel, Mark 4.35-41 and the suggested Old Testament reading Job 38.1-11.

Dr Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe, clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

The illustration below comes from the Gospel Book of Echternach in Luxembourg. It is good to be able to include an illustration from that country in our Diocese. I do however also cherish the painting by the 20th century artist Eularia Clarke, ‘Storm over the Lake’, which forms part of the modern art collection of the Methodist Church of Britain. For copyright reasons I have not incorporated it into this blog – but you can view it at Storm over the lake – Eularia Clarke (methodist.org.uk)

There’s a fascinating quote by Frederick Buechner that I remembered after I finished the first draft of this blog. Worth remembering – and reading what I offer below in the light of this: ‘Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives.  Start by listening for the questions it asks.’ When you hear the question that is your question, then you have already begun to hear much.  Whether you can accept the Bible’s answer or not, you have reached the point where at least you can begin to hear it, too.

Miniature of the Storm at Sea from the 11th century Gospel Book of Echternach

As I was preparing this week’s reflection I suddenly realised that I had reached a strange – and telling – anniversary for this blog.

Back in March 2020 I was invited by the bishops to use this blog to share thoughts and reflections relating to the COVID pandemic, especially contributions of various sorts from people within our Diocese in Europe. So for the next few months that was the function it performed – duly temporarily renamed ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’. By the time we had reached the middle of June last year, I thought it had probably performed that role for long enough, and with life returning (apparently) to ‘normal’, it was time to for the blog to revert to its usual focus on the lectionary.

In one sense ‘how wrong can you get?’ Although I think it was probably was the right time for the blog to return to its ‘lectionary focus’ in June 2020, I suspect that I was not the only person who mistakenly thought in those days that we had been through the worst of the COVID pandemic (certainly in Europe – I think I had a shrewd idea that Africa still had a very tough time ahead of it). A year on I look back and think about my own, my family’s, Britain’s and Europe’s experiences during the last 12 months.  And it is questions that I have, far more than answers. Questions to my government, to the leadership of other European nations, to the Church, to us all as part of the human race. Questions!

So it is interesting that in this week’s lectionary reading, the storm at sea, Mark 4.35-41, in the short space of the seven verses there are four questions, two on the part of Jesus and two from the disciples who are with him in the boat. There is also one ‘exhortatory’ remark ‘Let us go…’ (Mark 4.35) and one command ‘Peace! Be still’ (Mark 4.39). There is in fact no actual plain simple statement spoken by anyone in this passage at all.

I think this is telling. Mark’s Gospel is one in which the mystery, strangeness  and obliqueness of Jesus and his story is prominent. As I suggested a couple of weeks ago it presents to us a place and time in which the battle between Jesus and the demonic forces, between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, is still apparently being fought out, though (as here) there is little doubt about who will be the eventual victor. The word ‘rebuke’ which describes Jesus’ address to the storm is a word that is elsewhere used to portray his action against the demons of illness or temptation. The command ‘Be still!’ is in Greek the same verb as appears in Mark 1.25, where Jesus commands a demonic spirit ‘Be silent!’.

We cannot fully understand what is really happening however without delving deep into the Old Testament. One of the glories of this part of our scripture is that it both engages with and yet also transforms the mythology and religion of Ancient Israel’s Middle Eastern neighbours. It was a widespread assumption of such mythology that the sea should be personified as a god, variously named Yam, Tiamat, Lotan, Rahab whose unruly nature was symptomatic of his (or her) efforts to defeat the gods who symbolised order and fertility. The mythological stories of Canaan and Mesopotamia describe a great battle between the sea god and the deities of ‘order’, in which eventually the ‘sea’ is defeated. But it is no easy contest and for quite a while the eventual outcome is in doubt.

Vestiges of this mythology remain in the Old Testament. We see it for example whenever we read about the sea-dragon Leviathan, who is clearly closely linked to the Canaanite ‘Lotan’. But the realities of power have now changed.  There is now no contest.  The monotheism of the Old Testament means that the authority of ‘God’, the deity worshipped by the people of Ancient Israel, is absolute. It is in fact what marks him out as God. It is not only the creation and flood stories of the Old Testament where this is apparent, but also Israel’s great historical experience of the Exodus – which was only made possible through God’s control of the sea. For the Bible God demonstrates his ‘Godness’ precisely by his authority over waves and wind.

This then is the context in which the final question is uttered by the disciples, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?’. For those who knew their Old Testament, as did Jesus’ first disciples and Mark’s first readers, the answer to the question was (or ought to be) self-apparent. Mark usually does not have Jesus directly declaring his divinity in the way that Jesus does in the Gospel of John (Mark 6.50 and 14.62 are perhaps exceptions to this). Rather Mark’s Gospel makes sure we know who Jesus by what he does. ‘Who then is this?’. The one and only answer is ‘God’. It is God who has been really present with the disciples in their storm-tossed boat, God who has so dramatically calmed the storm. It is a true instinct that has led Jesus’ later followers – the Church – often to read this Gospel passage for reassurance in days and years and centuries and places wherever storms of any sort have seemed to be overwhelming. It is indeed a passage for the time of COVID.

I think it is a stroke of inspiration for the Common Worship lectionary compilers to suggest that the Old Testament reading to accompany this Gospel should be Job 38.1-11. The beauty of these verses is so powerful it is almost painful and breath-stopping. Like the Old Testament as a whole the Book of Job clearly knows of the ‘ancient’ mythologies, and incorporates allusions to them ‘the heavenly beings shouted for joy’ (John 38.7), though also transforming them. I think it is no accident that the predominant speech form that runs through these verses (and indeed through the whole of Job 38 and 39) is ‘questions’. I counted seven questions in these eleven verses!

The Book of Job, of course, is well known for its wrestling, through most of its 42 chapters, with the question of evil and unjust suffering. As it makes very very clear there is no easy answer. Job is pronounced as being quite right to refuse the ‘friends’ suggestion that his appalling suffering is a punishment for wickedness he has committed.

But Job also indirectly highlights something else. The ‘problem of evil’ is not really a ‘problem’ in a context of polytheism. If you are polytheistic (believe in many gods) then such issues can be ‘explained’ by a jostling for power and control among the deities.

For monotheism however it is a different story. If God is one, and only, and all powerful, then why does God allow unjust suffering? The Book of Job is profoundly monotheistic – God is incomparable – which is why Job’s dilemma is so deep. Monotheism is also part of our Christian heritage – which is why the dilemma remains for us too, perhaps in some sense, especially in these days of COVID. The glory of the Book of Job however is that it allows that question to hang, without full resolution. That is, I believe, the situation we as Christians need to ‘live’ with – though perhaps with one difference. For we believe that God is in the storm-rocked boat with us, and has experienced in God’s very being our suffering.

I wrote this ‘prayer poem’ (clearly linked to Job 38.1-11) about 20 years ago. The answer it offers to Job’s implied ‘Why’ can perhaps be found in its final stanza.

If only we had been there
when the earth was born
perhaps we would have seen more clearly
how precious is our world, how fragile and irreplaceable,
perhaps we might have cherished it better and loved it more
If only we had been there

When the morning stars sang together, and the holy ones shouted for joy.

If only we had been there
when the vast cathedral of the skies first soared aloft
perhaps the music of the stars
would have soothed our spirits,
and played their harmonies into the lyrics of our lives,
perhaps we too might have learned by heart the great psalm of peace
If only we had been there

When the morning stars sang together, and the holy ones shouted for joy.

If only we had been there
when people could meet God face to face, in garden or in whirlwind,
perhaps it would have been easier to live with questions,
knowing God didn’t want us to stop asking them –
perhaps we might have understood they can’t all be answered – at least this side of eternity –
If only we had been there
When the morning stars sang together, and the holy ones shouted for joy.

If only we had been there,
when the lamb of God was offered before the world’s foundation,
perhaps we would have grasped the texture of our universe’s strange fabric,
still being woven through with love and sacrifice,
perhaps we too might have learned obedience, treading the path of the servant Son,
If only we had been there
When the morning stars sang together, and the holy ones shouted for joy.

There is hope for a tree

This week’s blog briefly explores the image of a ‘tree’ in the lectionary Old Testament reading (Ezekiel 17.22-24), Psalm (Psalm 92.1-4, 12-15) and Gospel (Mark 4.26-34), and links it to the metaphor of ‘new creation’ in the Epistle, 2 Corinthians 5.6-10.

Clare Amos

Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

The grove of Cedars of Lebanon, near Bcharre, north Lebanon, surrounded by the wall built to protect them at the instructions of Queen Victoria.

There’s a much loved Jewish story about trees that is worth sharing:

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, ‘How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?’

The man replied, Seventy years.’

Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

Trees have an important role to play in the biblical story. They are there at its beginning and at its end. Along with other plants trees are the first living things created in Genesis 1 (verse 11); then of course the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil play a prominent role in Genesis 2 and 3. And the tree of life appears once again in the glorious final chapter of Scripture, ‘with the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations’ (Revelation 22.2)

The title for this week is taken from a wonderfully evocative verse in the Book of Job:

‘There is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease’ (Job 14.7). I am reminded of that when I look at a very small olive tree planted in a pot in our garden. We bought it about a decade ago – some years back we thought it had perished during a cold Dorset winter, but then, almost like a miracle earlier this year it started to bud and sprout again.

Our olive tree come to life again.

The words from Job in turn act as the title of a fascinating book I came upon a number of years ago by Kirsten Nielsen, which explores the tree as a metaphor for the people of God in the Book of Isaiah. It is a rich image which holds together the different sections of the book, and speaks into the relationship between God and the people. The ‘blindness’ of the people means that the tree is cut down – yet even so ‘the holy seed is its stump’ (Isaiah 6.13).  And so then we discover that ‘a shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’, (Isaiah 11.1) and the metaphor winds its way through the rest of the book until we are promised in Isaiah 61.3 that the people will be named ‘oaks of righteousness’ and in Isaiah 65.22 ‘like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be’

Trees are the images that connect this week’s Gospel with the set Old Testament reading from Ezekiel, and in fact also with the Psalm. Although Mark 4.30-32 speaks of a mustard seed bush and Ezekiel (and the Psalm) of ‘cedars’ – the passages are linked by the way both Mark and Ezekiel speak of how ‘the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’.

The comment reminds us of the importance of trees as gift – gifts that benefit others. Not only of course the birds who find shade there but, as we are increasingly realising in our contemporary world the wellbeing of all of creation. It has recently been suggested that tree planting on a really large scale could be very beneficial in terms of combatting global warming. That may indeed be the case. I appreciate the fact that Jewish tradition allots a particular day ‘ Tu B’shevat (late January or early February) on which it is considered a duty to plant trees. It would be interesting to develop a comparable ‘tree planting’ day for Christians, indeed I suspect some churches have already done so. Trees, in fact, take us to the heart of the Christian message – in more ways than one.

For, to return to the story with which we began, trees help to remind us that we ourselves are not the centre of creation. We are called to plant trees, not for our own personal benefit, but for the wellbeing of future generations. I remember Rowan Williams suggesting years ago that one vital reason for ecological commitment on the part of Christians is because we have a duty towards the welfare of future members of the Body of Christ. In taking actions that will not benefit ourselves personally we are indeed witnessing to the vision of ‘a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5.17) which is characterized by generosity and love.

Fred Kaan’s imaginative hymn ‘Were the world to end tomorrow’ catches something of this. Its final verse offers quite a stark challenge:

Pray that at the end of living,
of philosophies and creeds,
God will find the people busy
planting trees and sowing seeds.

Of course there is another reason why trees are an appropriate metaphor for ‘new creation’. For it is deeply embedded within Christian tradition, theology, music and poetry, to draw a link between trees and the life, ministry and especially the death of Jesus Christ. ‘The tree of shame was made the tree of glory and where life was lost there life has been restored.’ There are a number of exquisitely beautiful songs that reference this image: one of them – ‘Jesus Christ the apple tree’ Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree — Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge – YouTube is quite well known and part of the Anglican choral tradition. However less familiar to many Anglicans is the stunning hymn by Erik Routley – one of my predecessors on the staff of the World Council of Churches, which begins with the verse,

There in God’s garden stands the Tree of wisdom,
whose leaves hold forth the healing of the nations.
Tree of all knowledge, Tree of all compassion,
Tree of all beauty.

Do look up the full text of the hymn at There in God’s Garden – Hope Publishing Company and listen to a stunning rendition of the whole song at There in God’s Garden – YouTube

Breaking and Entering

This week we begin the post-Trinity season and the lectionary returns to the Gospel of Mark, Mark 3.20-35. It is not an easy passage to grapple with.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Ruins of houses from New Testament times in Capernaum, Galilee

It feels a bit like moving from the sublime to the ridiculous. Last Sunday we were reflecting on God as Trinity with the help of the profound cadences of the Gospel of John, this coming Sunday we are uncomfortably dropped one of the less obviously inviting passages of the Gospel of Mark – uncomfortable both because of its cultural and theological assumptions about satanic forces and because we are made privy to the difficult dynamics that seem to have existed within Jesus’ earthly family.

An interesting comparative cross-link between the two passages has occurred to me, though I suspect it is unintentional as far as the lectionary compilers are concerned: the contrast between the loving and giving nature of Jesus’ relationship with his Father, in Trinity Sunday’s Gospel reading of John 3.1-17, and his apparently less ‘warm’ relationship with his mother here in Mark 3.20-35. It is also interesting to observe the link between the expression, ‘binding the strong man’ (the traditional translation of Jesus’ comment about Satan in Mark 3.27) and the great Trinity hymn, ‘I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity’. Though we may be much more comfortable with the second expression rather than first, both reflect a world-view that was prevalent in biblical times in which human beings believed they inhabited a binary world that was also peopled by powerful unseen forces, good or evil, that they needed to control, ‘bind’, and get on side.

One of the debts that we owe to the biblical scholar, Walter Wink, author of the ‘Powers’ trilogy (Naming the Powers, Engaging the Powers, Transforming the Powers), is an understanding that we ignore that world-view at our peril. If we try to do so it has ‘power’ to rise up and bite us. We may need to ‘translate’ it into contemporary idiom, but human beings are very foolish if they think that total ‘power’ in our world rests with conscious humanity. The choices we make gradually nudge us, individually and collectively, into one direction or another, good or evil, so that eventually we wake up and discover which and whose ‘kingdom’ we are now part of. If I am brutally honest I think there are shades of this in what is happening in our continent of Europe at the moment.

I remember how as a young teenager I spent time worrying whether I had accidentally committed the unforgiveable sin of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 3.28-30). Eventually I decided I probably hadn’t! – but ever since then I have been interested to try and pin down what exactly is meant by this phrase, given that I think its misuse could in fact be an example of what is actually unforgiveable.  My current understanding would be of a situation where a person or a group is so dominated by the force of an ideology that they can no longer distinguish between what is good and what is evil.

The Gospel of Mark (perhaps par excellence among the four Gospels) inhabits the world of the ‘powers’. Jesus’ baptism, followed immediately by his temptation, is the time when he defeats the demonic forces, so that the ‘kingdom of Satan’ is vanquished and Jesus’ ministry can begin with his proclamation that ‘the kingdom of God is drawn near’. As Jesus has plunged into the dark river of his baptism it is understood as him taking on a cosmic but victorious struggle with the watery chaos monsters, those ‘powers’ we read of in the Old Testament such as ‘Rahab’ who are both mythological creatures yet also identified with the political empires of the time who oppressed the people of the Old Testament (see e.g.Isaiah 30.7). His ‘victory’ is then visualised by the splitting open of the heavens, so that the power of the Spirit can rest upon him in his role as regent in the Kingdom of God. The Spirit then ‘immediately’ drives Jesus out into the wilderness to challenge Satan, with his sojourn among the ‘wild beasts’ and the ministry of angels both intended as ratification of his victory. As far as the demonic forces go, the rest of Mark’s Gospel is simply a ‘mopping up’ operation making apparent this initial definitive victory.

Icon of the Baptism of Christ showing the mythological demonic spirits in the water, vanquished by Christ through his baptism

This is what an Orthodox priest, Father Stephen Freeman, offers on the topic:

In the Eastern Church, the Baptism of Christ takes up … Old Testament references of struggle with the watery chaos. Christ’s entry into the waters is understood as a foreshadowing of His entrance into Hades. It is a defeat of the hostile powers. The same theme runs throughout the sacrament of Baptism itself. The destruction of the demons is easily the strongest theme within that service. …It is not a hymn of payment, or punishment, but of going into the strongman’s kingdom, binding him and setting free those who are held captive. The heads of the dragons are crushed, the heads of Leviathan are broken in pieces, Rahab has been cut apart.’ (When Chaos Ruled the World – Part I – Glory to God for All Things (ancientfaith.com)

The great Ulster New Testament scholar Ernest Best expounded what was essentially this thesis in a book The Temptation and the Passion. He argued that the definitive victory of Christ was (as far as Mark’s Gospel is concerned) won at the beginning of his ministry, at the baptism and temptation. (It has occurred to me that the title of Best’s book offers a bit of a hostage to fortune, and I have wondered if any purchasers of it were disappointed when they did not get the X-rated novel or movie they might have been expecting!)

But if the kingdom (rule) of God and ‘victory’ of Christ over demonic forces is assured from the beginning – witnessed for example in how ‘easily’ Jesus vanquishes both the demon of the storm and the demons of illness – what is the reason for the sense of conflict which looms large, especially in Mark’s Gospel?

It’s the people, stupid! Human beings. Mark’s Gospel is quite clear that unlike the demonic forces Jesus cannot control or compel human beings, their faith or lack of it and their responses to him. It’s that ancient gift (or curse!) of free will. In fact this can make human beings particularly dangerous to Jesus, as Satan, like a bound and wounded animal now deprived of his usual army, can entice humans to act on his behalf (see e.g. Mark 8.33). It is not the demons that will eventually put Jesus to death – it is human beings.

This I believe is the context of this week’s Gospel passage. It is often noticed how Mark ‘wraps’ one incident inside another, as a clue that we are intended to interpret each in the light of the other. The most often quoted example of this comes in the account of the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig-tree.  We do however have the same feature apparent in these verses, which begin (3.20-21) and conclude (3.31-35) with a reference to Jesus’ family which wraps itself round the verses referring to casting out Satan (3.22-27). It is a signal that we need to read the two together.

Harsh though it may sound to our ears the implication is that Jesus is comparing his family’s efforts to restrain him from his ministry with Satan’s misguided but ultimately ineffective efforts to stop him. Indeed the verb the verb translated here as ‘restrain’ (3.21), which describes Jesus’ family’s attempts to control him is itself sinister. In this form it appears several times later in Mark’s Gospel to speak about the authorities efforts in ‘arresting’ Jesus.

And there is one other verbal note that draws together the various parts of our Gospel reading, the word ‘house/home’. We begin by reading of Jesus going ‘home’ (verse 20), then we hear four times about Satan’s ‘house’ (verses 25, 27), and finally we learn that his mother and brothers cannot or will not enter the house where Jesus is sitting. It all adds up to a sharp sense of alienation in which Jesus is no longer ‘at home’ with his family.

But it is a question of wheels within wheels, or stories within stories. For this set of wrapped-around verses is itself as a whole inserted within a further layer or wrapping of Mark’s narrative. We are intended to ‘read’ Mark 3.20-35 within the wider context of the earlier verses of chapter 3 and the parables of chapter 4.‘ You need to look back to Mark 3.9 where Jesus asks his disciples to ‘have a boat ready for him because of the crowd.’ At the beginning of chapter 4 that image is picked up again as we hear, ‘Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there’ (Mark 4.1). And then follows the great parable chapter of Mark’s Gospel, which perhaps has been foreshadowed by the first time the word ‘parable’ appears in Mark 3.23. And tellingly, in the cryptic verses Mark 4.11-12 which are intended as the key to the nature of parables, we hear, ‘for those outside, everything comes in parables, to order that they may look, but not perceive… so that they may not turn and be forgiven.’ Those outside’?; back near the end of chapter 3 we had learned that Jesus’ mother and brothers were ‘standing outside the house’. We can make our own links and draw our own conclusions.

Mark is certainly not an easy Gospel for those who seek a comfortable, familial faith. The ‘way’ that Jesus will take his disciples – and us – on in the coming chapters will take us, and Mark’s first readers, far away from any easy notion of ‘home’. It will be a roller-coaster ride. Are we – you – me – willing to take on the challenge? What does it mean in our day? I have quoted these lines from Revd Chris Burdon previously, but they also seem appropriate to use to end this week’s reflection: ‘In the end, there are two ways of dealing with the Gospel according to Mark: either we throw the book away and opt for a gentler religion, or we act on it and attempt to follow this man (Jesus) through glory and through terror.’ (Chris Burdon, ‘Stumbling on God’)

A deep but dazzling darkness: God’s generous love

Drawing on the lectionary Gospel, John 3.1-17, this week’s blog looks at the way our understanding of God as Trinity holds together the threads of God’s generous and loving intimacy and God’s elusiveness.  It then explores how our understanding of God as Trinity can be a resource for Christian engagement with other faiths.  Illustrating this week’s blog has been a challenge! Perhaps by definition it is very difficult to portray the trinitarian nature of God in art. I am afraid that some attempts simply make me laugh!  Though I cherish Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham – for its beauty, its subtlety and its symbolism, it is perhaps overused, but in any case did not exactly link to the focus of this reflection. . I have therefore drawn on a painting by the Indian artist Jyoti Sahi, which echoes the theme of darkness in the Gospel passage. The blog concludes with a prayer I wrote a number of years ago, which takes John 3.1-17 as its starting point.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

Jyoti Sahi, ‘The Trinity in the burning bush’ . For more examples of the depiction of the Trinity by Jyoti Sahi, probably the most influential Indian Christian artist today, see Global Christian Worship – Trinity Art (India, Jyoti Sahi) (tumblr.com)

There is in God, some say,

A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

             See not all clear.

    O for that night! where I in Him

    Might live invisible and dim! (Henry Vaughan)

I have long loved the famous line from Henry Vaughan which speaks of God’s ‘deep but dazzling darkness’, but until I was working on this blog I had not in fact realised that the line comes from a poem by Vaughan, called ‘The Night’ which focuses on the story of Nicodemus. The Night by Henry Vaughan | Poetry Foundation It is interesting, because often the metaphor of ‘night’ in John 3.1-16 is seen in negative terms, as a symbol of Nicodemus’ ignorance and unbelief. Vaughan however catches something important in his suggestion that darkness can lead us into the heart of God. (There’s a lovely hymn by Brian Wren ‘Joyful is the dark’ which conveys much the same idea. Joyful Is the Dark – Hope Publishing Company)

In Year B of the three lectionary years (the year that we are ‘in’ at the moment) there are a number of Sundays where the same or overlapping Gospel reading is used on more than one occasion. This coming Sunday – Trinity Sunday – is one example.  Back on the fourth Sunday of Lent, the selected Gospel reading was John 3.14-21, for the coming Sunday, Trinity Sunday, John 3.1-17 is chosen. I don’t think it is a deliberate ploy to create difficulties for people like me, who blog on the coming Sunday lectionary passages, but it can provide a bit of a challenge! I won’t exactly repeat what I explored back last March, but you might be interested to (re-)read it to complement what I say below. You can find it at God so loved… (faithineurope.net).The thought I shared last March – that John 3.16 is the first time that the word ‘love’ appears in the Gospel of John – is however something that I do feel is explicitly worth repeating. Not least because it is a reminder that ‘love’ is at the heart of the life of the Holy Trinity.

It is fairly obvious why John 3.1-17 has been selected for Trinity Sunday – it is one of the most overtly trinitarian sections of any of the Gospels, with its focus on the Spirit, (3.5-8), as well as the Father and the Son (3.16-17). My reflections this week are offered in this light.

It has been widely noticed that the story of Nicodemus (John 3) is intended to be ‘paired’ and perhaps even contrasted with the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman (John 4). I am sure this is correct. There are a number of obvious contrasts : man/woman; night/middle of the day; Jewish insider/Samaritan outsider. There are also less obvious contrasts such as that between the mention of wind and light in John 3 and water and earth in John 4. But I think there is also another ‘similarity yet contrast’ between the two stories. Both are some of the most overtly trinitarian parts of John’s Gospel, both mentioning both ‘Father’ and ‘Spirit’ as well as, directly or by implication, the ‘Son’. But I would suggest that they offer us also contrasting understandings of what it means to speak of God in this way. In Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus we experience the elusiveness, the unpinnable-downness of God, ‘the wind blows where it wills’ (John 3.8); in his encounter with the Samaritan woman the focus is rather on knowledge (John 4.22), ‘truth’ (John 4.24) and revelation. In technical language John 3 refers to God in ‘apophatic’ terms, and John 4 in ‘kataphatic’ idiom. God as Trinity encompasses both, and our Christian life, worship and mission is grounded in this reality. I want below to explore one aspect of this ‘mission’ in the light of this reality.

*****

Nearly 20 years ago, on 11 September 2001, I was at the first meeting of what was then a ‘new round’ of the membership the Church of England’s Interfaith Consultative Group. The residential meeting at Launde Abbey was organised by Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave, then national Church of England interfaith officer, now (via other stopping points on his life journey) the Bishop of Lichfield. It was before the days when mobile phones became so prevalent, and in any case Launde Abbey is (or used to be) in a ‘blind spot’ for mobile phone coverage. We had been discussing the future agenda and plans for the group through the first half of the afternoon, when about 4.00pm the Warden of the Abbey knocked at the door, saying that he thought we would want to know about what was currently being pictured on the TV news – which was of course the horrific attacks of 9/11 in New York and Washington. It was one of the crux moments that people remember, such as, ‘Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had died?’

I think that all of us at that meeting that day, who were there precisely because we were perceived to be interested in interfaith/interreligious concerns, knew that the theme that had brought us together had entered a new, different and extraordinarily challenging era. And so it has proved to be. There is a fairly direct line that can be drawn between 9/11 and many current difficult realities not only of the Middle East, but of other parts of our world as well.

For myself, one of the consequences was that I was invited to become the Coordinator of the Anglican Communion’s Network for Interfaith Concerns (NIFCON). I held that role for 10 years, and then continued working in interfaith engagement for the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Why am I telling you this now? Because one of the insights I have gained during my years of working intentionally in this field is that the Christian understanding of the trinitarian nature of God can offer a vital resource for Christian engagement with other faiths and religions.  Some previous generations of interfaith specialists would seek to ‘play down’ the Christian distinctives that spoke of incarnation and Trinity, for example. Yet trinitarian reflection on God enables us to explore God’s unity in diversity, to hold together the elusiveness yet also the intimacy of the divine, to celebrate the scandal of particularity interwoven with the generous expansiveness of God’s grace towards the whole of creation.

Drawing on the wisdom and support of a number of those present that day at Launde Abbey NIFCON published, in February 2008, ‘Generous Love: the truth of the Gospel and the call to dialogue – an Anglican theology of inter faith relations’.Generous Love, caught the imagination of many working in this area (I have to say that the title ‘Generous Love’ probably helped!). Its particular insight has been to explore the way that the dynamic life of God the Holy Trinity can offer vital patterns for the life and mission of Anglican churches when they commit themselves to presence among and engagement with other faith communities. The basis that Generous Love sets out for interreligious engagement is threefold:

  • We seek to mirror the Father’s generous love
  • We proclaim Jesus Christ as the one who shows us God’s face
  • We celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit made known through the fruit of the Spirit.

It goes on to suggest there are three dynamic patterns at work in such engagement and explores each of these in some detail. The three patterns are:

  • Celebrating the presence of Christ’s body: when we maintain our presence among communities of faiths, perhaps particularly in situations in which Christians are a minority, we are abiding as signs of the body of Christ in each place.
  • Communicating the energy of the Spirit: as we engage our energies with other groups for the transformation of society we are being sent in the power of the Spirit. We also acknowledge that the Spirit may choose to work within the hearts of individuals to bring them to faith in Christ, and when that happens we will rejoice.
  • Practising the embassy and hospitality of God: we believe that there need to be two poles in our relationship with people of other faiths, a movement ‘going out’ and a presence ‘welcoming in’, that these are indivisible and mutually complementary, and that our mission practice must include both.

Generous Love concludes by noting that taken together these three patterns reflect the reality of the God who is Trinity. It suggests both that in our encounters with people of other faiths we are called to mirror the life of the Trinity, and also that through such encounters we find ourselves led deeper into the very heart of God. Such themes are, I believe, hinted at in our Gospel reading, John 3.1-17.

I commend Generous Love to those of you who wish to reflect more deeply on these insights for this coming Trinity Sunday and for the time beyond. You can access it here.

Clare Amos

Prayer of thanksgiving linked to John 3.1-16
Holy One, we hear your music in the roar of the sea,
In the song of a people,
In the quiet breeze rustling through the trees.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we sense your power in the flickering of fire,
In the yearning of our spirits,
In the dispelling of shadows.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Holy One, we feel your caress in the gift of our humanity,
In our desire to be whole,
In the blessing of peace.
We thank you God: that you so love our world.

Mapping our global world – The Pentecost Projection: A challenge for the Diocese in Europe

This week’s blog focuses on the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.1-21, the fundamental lectionary reading for Pentecost each year. It is one of those (fairly few) occasions where I feel the need to include a disclaimer, making it clear that what I say, particularly near the end of the piece, is not necessarily the official policy of the Diocese in Europe.

Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship,; Diocese in Europe. Clare.Amos@europe.anglican.org

The Earth from space

Lord, this is your world,
North and South, East and West.
Beautiful, varied, complete, interdependent, whole.
Humans having seen it from afar,
Turning, hanging in space, a miracle.
Give us a new vision.
Forgive us our pride, our blindness,
Our foolishness.
Lord, we are unfaithful stewards.
Open our eyes.
Give us a new will, a new vision.
Prayer written by an ecumenical group in Strasbourg)

I have always been fascinated by old or illustrated maps. Perhaps it is an enthusiasm that runs in the family, as an older relative of mine (she was my first cousin twice removed) was Marian Fielding Peck, who, using her initials (partly I think to conceal the fact that she was a woman), so named publicly as M.F. Peck, created a much cherished series of map postcards illustrating many of the counties of the United Kingdom Marian Fielding Peck (1897-1974) | Flickr. I am not biased of course (!), but I think that the M.F. Peck map postcards are in a league of their own in this genre. I believe that I was actually named after her (my middle name is Marian), though sadly I have not inherited an iota of her artistic talent.

MF Peck postcard of Dorset

One of the best known traditions in medieval illustrated maps of the then ‘known’ world was to place Jerusalem at its centre. A famous example of this is the Mappa Mundi which you can still (thankfully) find at Hereford Cathedral. Locating Jerusalem in this position was a mark of its fundamental importance in the story of our faith. In one sense this tradition feels a quaint relic – although sadly current news from the Holy Land is certainly a salutary reminder of the way peace and conflict in that Land affects the health and wellbeing of the whole world.

Mappa Mundi, with Jerusalem at the centre of the world

The biblical account of Ascension and Pentecost however draws a new map. It both builds on – yet ultimately challenges – the vision of a world centred upon one particular place, however holy and beloved that place may be. One of the most powerful insights that Pentecost offers us is the affirmation that from its very beginning the church has always been global. This theme draws together both Ascension and Pentecost. It is just before his  Ascension that Jesus speaks to his disciples of their being witnesses to him, ‘in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1.8). Indeed as William Temple put it because, as a result of his Ascension, Jesus is in heaven, he is also ‘everywhere on earth’ (see previous blog by William Gulliford, ‘Risen, Ascended, Glorified’).

As regards the story of Pentecost itself, one of its remarkable features is the emphasis given to the wide variety of geographical locations which those who experienced the events of that day came from. As the biblical text puts it they came from ‘every nation under heaven’. It is interesting and may be significant that the countries listed include not only lands that formed part of the Roman Empire – but also a number of places – Parthia, Media, Elam that were seen as particularly alien because they were part of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s inveterate enemy. Given the fact that, because of their common interest in the motif of language, we are intended to ‘read’ the New Testament account of Pentecost alongside the Old Testament account of the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1-19), it is significant that the story of Babel is clearly set just after a list (Genesis 10.1-32) of all the nations of the then known earth.

Similarly the list of places mentioned in Acts in turn becomes a signal for the fact that Pentecost will shortly be the starting-point for the wind of God’s Spirit to blow Jesus’ disciples from Jerusalem to Judaea, Samaria, Antioch, Europe and eventually ‘to the ends of the earth.’

For a number of years I worked both for USPG and the Anglican Communion Office based at Partnership House, Waterloo, London. The building, which then housed a number of Anglican mission agencies, had engraved over its entrance a quotation from Mark 16.15 that begins with the words ’Go forth to every part of the world…’ Now I have to confess to having problems with that inscription – and it wasn’t only due to that particular verse most likely being a secondary addition to the original Gospel text of Mark. It was also the fact that, perhaps unintentionally, the inscription managed to convey the impression that England, and London, was somehow the real centre of the world – from which the Gospel would travel to reach its farthest extremities. In truth that was part of the ethos of the British Protestant 19th century missionary movement, a movement which needs to be both celebrated but also challenged.

‘Go Forth House’, Waterloo, London

Back to the topic of maps. Many of the Mercator’s projection maps created in the 19th and early 20th century hey-day of the missionary era precisely seem to suggest that ‘Europe’ or ‘Britain’ are to be seen as the ‘centre’ of the world, at least in terms of everything that mattered! However you will also be aware of the ‘Peters Projection’ maps which developed in the early 1970s and aimed to try and correct the distortion of size presented by the Mercator’s maps, which oversized the temperate regions and undersized the equator. But even those early Peters Projection examples still tended to ‘centre’ the world on Europe. More recently efforts have been made to ‘centre’ the world on other regions – one of my own favourite examples places the Pacific Ocean at the centre of a world map. All of this can and should help us to look at our world with different eyes, in ways that most Europeans have not been used to.

World map centred on Pacific (not Peters Projection)
Peters Projection map orientated to the southern hemisphere

Of course the basic problem with all flat maps is that they are seeking to convey, in a two-dimensional form, our ‘globe’ which is a three dimensional body. What does it mean to think of our world as a globe, and what is the connection between that and the birthday of the church at Pentecost? One question that it is salutary to ponder is which point, if any, on the surface of a globe can be seen as its centre? I think the genuine answer must be ‘nowhere’.

We are, or perhaps should be, more conscious these days of the nature of our world as a ‘globe’, because human beings have been granted the privilege, unknown before the 1960s, of seeing the world in all its beauty and fragility from outer space. The prayer quoted above, composed by an ecumenical group in Strasbourg, reflects this.

I want to suggest therefore that our ‘Pentecost Projection’ map of the world, needs to honour its truly global nature. And it seems to me that our Diocese in Europe has an interesting and important role to play in this. Somehow our very existence can and should help to ‘de-centre’ the rest of the Church of England, from looking at the world through a totally English lens. It is perhaps significant that a few months ago we in this Diocese responded to the imperative that the church should work for racial justice even more quickly than the rest of the Church of England to produce our report ‘Breathing Life’ Racial-Justice-Breathing-Life-April2021.pdf (anglican.org). What are the other ways in which we can offer a ‘global’ challenge to the life of our Church?

Of course, in turn, the challenge for those of us who are associated with the Diocese and its life is to ask ourselves some searching questions about what and where we consider OUR own spiritual centre to be, and what we can discover by mapping our world through the ‘Pentecost Projection’? Perhaps the prayer composed by Revd Heather Pencavel, a retired minister of the United Reformed Church, can offer us some inspiration:

God,
You have always seen planet earth as a globe.
You made it that way,
Spherical, on purpose, to dance and spin
To the rhythm of the universe.
It is we who have been flat-earthers
Afraid of falling off the edge,
Afraid to venture far outside
The walls we build
Of colour, race and culture
Help us, God of wisdom and mercy,
To trust your wisdom and believe your Word,
Who made the heavens and the earth to be one universe
Beautiful beyond imagination
Founded on covenant love and justice.
Show us how to build a global community
Redeemed and restored by that same love
Expressed in justice
In fair working practice and just trade
In peaceful government and mutual care.
Through Jesus Christ, whose arms spread wide at Calvary
To express the global nature of unending love.

(Heather Pencavel)