‘Whoever is not against us is for us’ (Mark 9.40)

Rock salt deposits on the shore of the Dead Sea (‘the Salt Sea’). Our link to ‘salt’ will become apparent at the end of the text.

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the lectionary Gospel reading, Mark 9.38-50, and also looks briefly at Numbers 11.4-6,10-16,24-29.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

It is an interesting challenge, which those of you who regularly have to preach must also have in a slightly different form, to reflect each week taking one’s starting point from the lectionary readings, however perplexing or difficult they may be. It has actually been quite a good discipline for me over the past year or so fairly regularly to engage with difficult texts (especially some in the latter part of Matthew’s Gospel) that normally I would try and steer well clear of. All the same I somewhat heaved a sigh when, last Advent, the Sunday lectionary shifted from a focus on the Gospel of Matthew to one on the Gospel of Mark. Any of my friends who know anything about my theological passions know a) Clare cherishes especially the Gospel of Mark b) if Clare can get a reference to the biblical motif of transfiguration in anything she writes – she will do so.

 

So it was a bit of a shock to me to feel initially so daunted by this week’s lectionary Gospel Mark 9.38-50, that my initial reaction was to make use on this occasion of my theological ‘Get out of jail free card’. I am referring to the fact that I think it is legitimate to focus in this blog once in September or October on themes of harvest and creation and use the ‘harvest’ readings instead of the ‘X Sunday after Trinity’ set.  Indeed I do enjoy reflecting on creation themes, and consider them vitally important in and for our world today. I am very grateful to the Gibraltar Archdeaconry Synod who, by inviting me in January 2020 to lead their Bible studies on the theme of creation, ‘forced’ me to do some serious biblical reflection in this area, which in fact I have drawn on from time to time in the blog,  exploring also the wonderful image in Peter Baelz’s hymn ‘Source and fount of all creation’ which speaks of Christ as ‘nature’s poet, nature’s priest’. You can find the hymn here Source and Fount of All Creation | St. James Music Press (sjmp.com)  (if you don’t know the hymn, it is itself a glorious and beautiful theological treasury to quarry into).

 

As a result until last Saturday evening a focus on ‘creation’ was the plan for this week. But on Saturday I went to the Swiss Archdeaconry Synod in Berne, and a conversation afterwards with the husband of one of the Anglican chaplains in Switzerland enabled me to ‘see’ things in the verses from Mark’s Gospel that I had never quite spotted before. (A ‘thread’ running through this blog seems to be the benefit of going to Archdeaconry Synods!). So with thanks to that person – though still feeling a bit daunted – here goes.

 

I think that the reason that I found the reading so difficult is that, certainly at first sight, it does not feel quite like a part of Mark’s Gospel. And I think my perception is correct. It doesn’t feel like much else in the Gospel. I see Mark as presenting us with the life and ministry of Jesus as a journey in which, certainly from chapter 8 onwards, he seems to be striding intentionally and single-mindedly towards his suffering and death in Jerusalem. On this journey he is ‘followed’ – at least until the Garden of Gethsemane – by a small group of close disciples, who are being taught by him the many dimensions of ‘following’. ‘Follow’ is a key word for the Gospel of Mark: it both has a literal meaning, speaking of the disciples walking behind Jesus in the roads and paths of New Testament Palestine, but also clearly is intended to mark out those who were considered (or considered themselves) the inner circle of Jesus’ companions. The Gospel of Mark is aware of – and plays on the interaction between – both senses. One of my ‘favourite’ passages in the Gospel of Mark comes in the next chapter, chapter 10, where there is that powerfully numinous short comment, ‘They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.’ (Mark 10.32) I find it quite strange that this particular verse does not seem to appear anywhere in the Revised Common Lectionary/Common Worship Sunday lectionary.

 

Yet here in Mark 9.38 we read of Jesus apparently commending someone who ‘does not follow us’. The original words of course are in the mouth of John (presumably the son of Zebedee) rather than Jesus himself. It is of course made even more strange, at least in our ‘modern’ eyes because it is linked to the practice of casting out demons, which is not part of the regular thought-world or religious practice of most ‘modern’ western Christians. Jesus’ commendation of this ‘non-follower’ is perhaps even more striking when we remember that in the next chapter, though Jesus ‘loves’ the rich young man, the man’s unwillingness to give up his riches and ‘follow’ Jesus seems to be understood as a defining mark of failure (Mark 10.17-22).

 

One of the recent themes in academic exploration of the context, life and ministry of Jesus has been to look at Jesus’ links to the ‘wisdom tradition’ in the Old Testament and in Judaism of the New Testament period. There is an excellent article on this in the latest issue of Transforming Ministry (the journal that used to be called The Reader).

 

‘Recent scholarship has identified Jesus as an itinerant wisdom teacher as distinct from a rabbi or priest. Though this archetype has a long history, Jesus does not entirely fit the designation. As healer, exorcist and miracle worker, he had strong affinities too with the figure of the magician, as enemies often pointed out. Whether highbrow Magi from the Eastern Courts or crafty street tricksters, magicians had their own kind of wisdom. Its ambivalent face accompanied Jesus everywhere.’ (Diana Basham, ‘The Wisdom Tradition in the teaching of Jesus’, Transforming Ministry, Autumn 2021, Vol 121.3)

 

As Basham suggests the presentation of Jesus as a ‘wisdom teacher’ is more obvious in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke than it is in Mark. But these verses in Mark’s Gospel are indeed one of the comparatively few occasions in Mark when Jesus speaks in the idioms used by such teachers: sharp sayings, contrasts, common sense. So my perception that this passage does not feel very ‘Marcan’ is I think fair. But it is here in this Gospel, and so what in this context does it have to say to us?

 

Back to those words, ‘does not follow us’ in the mouth of John. It is telling that it is ‘us’ rather than ‘you’. John was nominating himself as Jesus’ ‘minder’ and ‘heavy’. To speak about ‘following us’ is claiming the right to be making the decisions about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. To be able to exercise that judgement was clearly a form of power. It is probably no accident that in the next chapter of Mark’s Gospel it is John, along with his brother James, who seeks to claim the best seats in heaven, described in such terms as indicate that he was also wanting to share in Jesus’ ministry of final judgement (Mark 10.35-40)  The lectionary compilers did a good job when they linked this week’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, with the story in Numbers 11, about Joshua, who seems to have appointed himself as Moses ‘heavy’ wanting to stop two men, Eldad and Medad, who were prophesying ‘in the camp’ rather than where they were apparently supposed to be. In turn Joshua is implicitly rebuked by Moses with the memorable phrase, ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets?’ (Numbers 11.26-30).

 

The key insight that I take away from the Gospel is the comment by Jesus quoted in verse 40 as part of his response to John. ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’.  It is a vital touchstone for the church to bear in mind in several areas of its life. Should the followers of Jesus, ‘the Church’, seek sharply to separate itself from ‘the world’, or those of other faiths or religious traditions who do not consider themselves ‘members’ of the Church? Or should it seek to build bridges with such people for ‘the common good’ of wider society? In Christian history the answer has veered between the response of those such as the Catharists (who tried to keep themselves ‘pure’) to some modern expressions of what we might call ‘religionless Christianity’ (though this term which comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer is sometimes misused or misunderstood). But I certainly believe that our task as Christians is not to self-appoint ourselves as Jesus’ ‘heavies’.

 

For one of the charisms of the Anglican tradition to which I belong is its willingness to work with others – in government, in secular society, people of other faiths – who might not be fully paid up members of the Christian community for the greater good of our wider world. It is of course also one of the assumptions of those like myself, who are committed to working in the area of interreligious dialogue. We make our stand on the basis, ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’, rather than has sometimes felt like the case, ‘Whoever is not for us is against us’.

 

I am interested that this slightly strange collection of sayings of Jesus ends with a salty comment about salt, ‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another’ (Mark 9.50). Inevitably it reminded me of Jesus’ remark in Matthew’s Gospel ‘You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5.13)’.  I have many friends among Middle Eastern Christians, and I know a considerable number of them wrestle with the question of what is the role of Christians in Middle Eastern countries and societies where their minority status makes them quite vulnerable. I respect the answer that some of them give – to see their role as ‘salt’ in their societies, seeking to ‘flavour’ communal life with some of the values with which the Christian tradition, at its best, has over the centuries, almost imperceptibly inculcated in processes and institutions. Not for most of them, ‘He who is not for us is against us’, but rather how can we work for the good of those who are not fully ‘part’ of us, to enable them, like us, to become also people of salt, more fully human, more truly what God would have us be?.

Who is The Greatest?

This week’s reflection, on the lectionary Gospel reading Mark 9.30-37, is offered by The Reverend Augustine Nwaekwe, Chaplain of Ostend-Bruges and Knokke and Bishop’s BAME Advisor & Vocations Adviser.

If you would like to contribute to this lectionary blog, please contact Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org 

 

 This tender image of ‘Our Lady of Regla’, painted by Harmonia Rosales, implicitly illustrates the importance that Jesus himself gave to welcoming and cherishing children referred to in this week’s lectionary Gospel.* (Mark 9.35-37)

The human aspiration to be great is not in itself evil. We live in a world where competition is a common phenomenon. From local to international markets, to sports, jobs, education, social media, even to the practice of religion where there is often intolerance, behind it lies the desire to outdo the other: competition. Competition is not itself something bad either. For example, competition in sports can promote friendship. However, to know where to draw the line between healthy and unhealthy competition is a matter of personal judgement and discipline. I have seen opposing fans of two notable football teams clash violently at a football stadium. As we well know, history is littered with many wars between nations and ethnic groups seeking to wield power over others in a show of greatness.

 

In our lectionary text from St Mark (Mark 9.30-37), the disciples argue (and I will add ‘contest or compete’) over the question of who was the greatest. Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had approached Jesus with a special request. ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom’ (Matthew 20.21). James and John’s mother was expressing a desire many of us have for recognition and promotion, not only for ourselves but also for members of our family. Sometimes, people try to cut corners to attain the top position, and people at times use bonds of family or friendship, or even bribery, to get positions they aspire to.

The Gospels do not first present the disciples of Jesus Christ as people of faith. They were not invited to discipleship because of their solid faith in Jesus. They were ordinary men who also had human aspirations. It would be fair to say that many of them did not know what they were getting into when they accepted the invitation to join the Jesus Movement. Their ignorance as to the nature and meaning of the mission of Jesus resulted in serious doubt and discord at moments in their apprenticeship. This was largely the case until after the resurrection of Jesus and their experience of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

The Gospels do not shed light on the identities of the followers who left the group as a result of uncertainty surrounding the identity of Jesus. However, while following John’s gospel in mid-summer, and particularly for the twelfth Sunday after Trinity (John 6.59-69), we read that some of his disciples complained of his teaching as being too hard to understand. Jesus had spoken of himself as the bread of life, and his blood as drink for the human satisfaction of hunger and thirst. ‘When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ At the end of the discussion, ‘… many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.’ Jesus asked the rest of the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Peter (as always, the first to respond, and to speak for others (ironically, including Judas Iscariot), ‘Lord, to whom can we go to? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

Jesus’ revolutionary teachings and modus operandi were challenging for many wanting to be part of the Jesus Movement. St Mark points to the clear lack of understanding among the disciples when Jesus spoke about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection. He had earlier given this prediction in the previous chapter for which Peter rebuked him, and he in turn rebuked Peter, referring to him as Satan, for putting his mind on human things rather than divine things (8.31-33). In his second prediction, the disciples were afraid to ask any questions even though they did not understand (9.31-32). What is there that was too hard to comprehend? This was nothing like a parable anymore! But in the light of Jewish messianic expectation, a messiah is not expected to be killed or to die in the hands of those he has come liberate and to save. For this reason, Peter needed to rebuke him. Peter needed to remind him of the need to live up to the expectation and standard of a messiah ‘the anointed saviour’.

As churchgoers or private Bible readers, we have learned the stories and parables such that we can make meaning out of them, but the disciples as the first listeners and learners of these events struggled to grasp and deal with them. How could they have made sense of associating greatness with humility and servanthood? Could that be the reason Jesus could not associate himself with the title ‘Messiah’ and would always warm his disciples not to tell anyone? Earlier in Mark’s story, Jesus also warned the demons to shut up, and forbade them from identifying him in public (Mark 3. 11-12). He preferred to lay low, choosing the way of humility and service in place of royalty and heroism.

Generally, the way we perceive life and the things around us has a way of either liberating or enslaving us. It could lead us to deeper faith, to great confusion or into deeper unbelief — when we can see things only in our own eyes. However, to perceive life in the way of the gospel enables us to give priority and true allegiance to God’s will and purposes rather than seeking to satisfy our human egos and desires. Only God’s will — as we pray in the Lord’s prayer: ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ — has the power to enrich our humanity, to heal the wounds inflicted on God’s creation, and to restore our broken and divided world.

The gospel invites us to the learning and understanding of God’s will in the most radical and humble way through a life of service and sacrifice. Our pioneer is Jesus — the master, the son of God, the creator of heaven and earth, who himself was a servant. It is in the ‘self-emptying of our life’ that we are truly able to offer life to each other in the most humble and transformative way. This explains why St Mark refers to the life and ministry of Jesus at the very beginning of  his story as ‘good news’ of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. The radical nature of the gospel is redemptive and life-transforming for those who welcome it and accept to be guided by it.

Our response to the gospel requires both faith and action; in other words, to believe and to behave, our faith therefore must be accompanied with humility and service (action). As Jesus says, the greatest is the one who serves. This means that we may choose to compete and aspire to ‘outdo’ each other in humble service. It is through loving and humble service to others that we can truly align our aspirations to God’s will. To be transformed by the gospel requires us to constantly set aside our self-centered wills and perspectives, with the knowledge that ‘we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ (Ephesians 2.10).

Yes, greatness is something we all aspire to in both personal and professional life. How does one become great? In the business world, you perhaps need a good education, or great talent to secure a well-paid job. Others have created jobs. Some of the world’s great companies have been created by individuals who today are regarded as great people. They ‘serve’ people through what they have created. But there are others who do not belong to the business world, and have also been acclaimed as great or influential people because of their service to others — Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, for example. They served their nations with distinction and inspired the wider world. One particular feature these individuals have in common is their radical understanding of leadership as offering of self to others in service.

Below are seven quotes I like to refer to in relation to servant-leadership, with that of Jesus at the top.

1 ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’  Jesus Christ.

  1. ‘A great man is always willing to be little.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  2. ‘Nothing liberates our greatness like the desire to help, the desire to serve.’ Marianne Williamson.
  3. ‘Whoever renders service to many puts himself in line for greatness — great wealth, great return, great satisfaction, great reputation, and great joy.’ Jim Rohn.
  4. ‘No one who has come to true greatness has not felt in some degree that his life belongs to the people, and what God has given them he gives it for mankind.’ Phillips Brooks.
  5. ‘There is no great path to greatness than true service. He who knows how to serve from a true heart and spirit knows what it takes to be truly great.’ Ernest Agyemang Yeboah.
  6. ‘The measure of a man’s greatness is not the number of servants he has, but the number of people he serves’. John Hagee.

In going through this lectionary text, among many other songs of worship, we may wish to reflect again on the lyrics of Graham Kendrick’s song ‘From Heaven You Came Helpless Babe.’ May the sound and power of its music continue to re-echo in our hearts.

 

So let us learn how to serve

And in our lives enthrone Him

Each other’s needs to prefer

For it is Christ we’re serving.

 

In the words of Mother Teresa, ‘a life not lived for others is not a life.’

*****

  • The picture used above is the image of the Virgin Mary known today as ‘Our Lady of Regla’ which dates from the earliest times of Christianity. Among her devotees was prominent St. Augustine (+430 A.D.); father and doctor of the faith, Bishop of Hippo and defender of the Orthodox Christian faith.
     
    St Augustine had an image of the Black Virgin in his oratory, and it was the Mother of God who gave him the ‘rule’ (‘regla’ in Spanish) to direct his monastic community. This explains the ancient title of ‘Our Lady of the Rule of St. Augustine’ that was later given to the image in Spain.
     
    After the death of St. Augustine, a persecution against Christians arose in the African church. This caused Deacon Cyprian, and other disciples of the Blessed Augustine, to flee to the coasts of southern Spain; bringing with them the venerated image whose devotion spread under the name of Libyan Virgin or ‘Beautiful African’. From there the devotion later spread to very distant lands like Belgium, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Venezuela and the United States.
     

Who do you say that I am?

Pantocrator in Black and Brown by Brian Behm, from the exhibition De-colonizing Christ being held at St Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg USA.

http://www.ststep.org/de-colonizing-christ-art-exhibit-considers-racial-justice/ 

 

This week’s blog takes its starting-point from the lectionary Gospel reading for the coming Sunday,

Mark 8.27-38.

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

*****

At heart I think I am an educationalist. I very much enjoy teaching, and I am grateful to one of the trainee Readers in our Diocese, who ‘interviewed’ me recently and invited me to think about the difference between teaching and preaching. They are, I think, not quite the same.

Perhaps that is why I particularly appreciate reflecting on Jesus as a teacher. He may have been – indeed Christians believe that he was – many other things as well. However he was also a stellar teacher. It wasn’t simply the content. It was also the methodology. Often he taught by asking people questions – rather than giving them ready answers. It is what I think of as an inductive rather than deductive method of education. Such a methodology is profoundly incarnational and deeply respectful of our humanity.

This week’s lectionary Gospel reading Mark 8.27-38 takes us to the central core of the Gospel of Mark, when the disciples, and especially Peter, realise something about Jesus’ key identity (that he is the Messiah) which they don’t seem to have quite understood previously – though there have been enough clues scattered through the pages of the Gospel, at least from chapter 4. By now Jesus must have got rather fed up with their obtuseness; certainly that is implied by the questions asked by Jesus himself during the sea-crossing of Mark 8.14-20.

It is I think really important however that the disciples discover who Jesus is ultimately through him asking them questions, rather than offering a ready made answer. They work it out for themselves in response to his questions:

  • Who do people say that I am?
  • Who do YOU say that I am?

Reflecting on this started me thinking. I was interested to discover how many other questions Jesus asks those he meets. So taking the Gospel of Mark as the focus for this exercise I went through the Gospel and made a list. Almost all of Jesus’ questions in Mark are therefore listed below (I have omitted one or two when Jesus asks a very similar second question almost immediately after a first. If anyone spots a question that I accidentally left out I would be grateful to hear!)

 

  • Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier to say…? (Mark 2.8-9)
  • Have you never read what David did? (Mark 2.25)
  • Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the Sabbath? (Mark 3.4)
  • How can Satan cast out Satan? (Mark 3.23)
  • Who are my mother and my brothers? (Mark 3.33)
  • Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all parables? (Mark 4.13)
  • With what can we compare the Kingdom of God or what parable shall we use for it? (Mark 4.30)
  • Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? (Mark 4.40)
  • What is your name? (Mark 5.9)
  • Who touched my clothes? (Mark 5.30)
  • Why do you make such a commotion and weep? (Mark 5.39)
  • How many loaves have you? (Mark 6.38)
  • Do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that what goes into a person from outside cannot defile? (Mark 7.18)
  • How many loaves do you have? (Mark 8.5)
  • And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’ (Mark 8.17-21)
  • Can you see anything? (Mark 8.23)
  • Who do people say that I am? (Mark 8.28)
  • Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8.29)
  • What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8.36)
  • What can they give in return for their life? (Mark 8.37)
  • How then is it written about the Son of Man that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? (Mark 9.13)
  • What are you arguing about with them? (Mark 9.16)
  • You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? (Mark 9.19)
  • What were you arguing about on the way? (Mark 9.33)
  • What did Moses command you? (Mark 10.3)
  • Why do you call me good? (Mark 10.18)
  • What is it you want me to do for you? (Mark 10.36)
  • Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with? (Mark 10.38)
  • What do you want me to do for you? (Mark 10.51)
  • ‘I will ask you one question?…Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? (Mark 11.29)
  • What then will the owner of the vineyard do? … Have you not read this scripture? (Mark 12.9)
  • Why are you putting me to the test? …Whose head is this and whose title? (Mark 12.15-16)
  • Is not the reason that you are wrong that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? (Mark 12.24)
  • Have you not read in the Book of Moses… how God said I am the God of the living? (Mark 12.26)
  • How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the Son of David? (Mark 12.35)
  • Do you see these great buildings? (Mark 13.2)
  • Why do you trouble her? (Mark 14.6)
  • The Teacher asks, where is my guest room? (Mark 14.14)
  • Could you not keep awake one hour? …Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? (Mark 14.37, 41)
  • Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? (Mark 14.48)
  • My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15.34)

Sometime I would like to repeat the exercise using the Gospels of Matthew and Luke – though my instinct is that ‘questions’ are somehow particularly characteristic of the style and theology of the Gospel of Mark.

What are my reflections having gathered together this list?  First that there really are a lot of questions – it does seem to have been a characteristic method of engagement on the part of Jesus with both his disciples and his opponents.

Second, that his use of questions draws into the discussion those he is questioning and helps to make them participants in their own learning.  It makes them think! It is also interesting to see the range of contexts in which Jesus uses questions: for challenge, for confrontation, for care, for compassion and for concern. One thing that this ‘questioning’ methodology seems to do quite frequently is to encourage people to ‘question’ what they have accepted as received wisdom, sometimes from scripture, or from tradition, or from society’s norms.

I was fascinated to be reminded of the way that Jesus asks the identical question ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ first of James and John in Mark 10.31 and then fifteen verses later of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10.46. It throws into sharp relief their very different responses (prime seats in heaven versus sight to follow Jesus on the way). I was also interested to be reminded of how Jesus’ sense of frustration with the obtuseness of his disciples in Mark 8.17-21 is framed in a series of questions – several of which allude back to earlier incidents in the Gospel.

But perhaps above all I realised more acutely than I had done previously the striking way that, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus dies with a question on his lips. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ There have in fact been no questions from Jesus in the passion narrative between the moment of his arrest and this question as he hangs on the cross. I had a powerful sense of realisation of the deep link between the question that is at the heart of this week’s lectionary reading ‘Who do you say that I am?’  and that question on the cross. One had led almost inexorably to the other. Did Jesus realise as he asked that earlier question where the answer would ultimately lead to? And if so, would it not have been so much more comfortable for him not to have asked it?

One more thing. Some of you are aware that I have a particular passion for the book of Genesis. So I could not resist interrogating Genesis in a similar way and discovering the questions that God (or a divine/angelic messenger) asks in the Book of Genesis. I think they are as follows (though I might not have spotted one or two)

  • Where are you? (Genesis 3.9)
  • Who told you that you were naked? (Genesis 3.11)
  • What is this that you have done (Genesis 3.13)
  • Why are you angry? (Genesis 4.6)
  • Where is your brother Abel? (Genesis 4.9)
  • Where have you come from and where are you going? (Genesis 16.8)
  • Why did Sarah laugh? (Genesis 18.13)
  • Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? (Genesis 18.17)
  • What troubles you Hagar? (Genesis 21.17)
  • What is your name? (Genesis 32.27)
  • Why is it that you ask my name? (Genesis 32.29)

Again there are several things to notice. Not least of course the powerful link between God’s first question of all – to Adam – ‘Where are you?’ and the question in the following chapter to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’

But I was also intrigued to realise that the last ‘divine’ question in the Book of Genesis – asked of Jacob by his divine assailant at the fords of Penuel in Genesis 32.29, is ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’. Given the importance of the divine name in the Bible, and especially the Old Testament that is surely significant. There is of course a deep Old Testament tradition of reticence about the name. in Genesis it is withheld from Jacob, and in Exodus it will only be revealed to Moses with caveats about its misuse. It is intriguing therefore that the question that Jesus asks of his disciples in Mark 8. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ is in a deep sense a response to that earlier question of Genesis, as he prompts his disciples to discover for themselves his nature and his name.

Charles Wesley wrote a powerful hymn, ‘Come thou traveller unknown’ about Jacob’s experience at the fords of Penuel. It is not often sung these days. But its final line pulls together the experience of wrestling Jacob and that of Jesus’ disciples as they seek to wrestle with the question of his identity. The answer is simple: ‘Thy nature and Thy name is Love’.

A Syrophoenician sandwich

Icon, ‘Christ is our reconciliation’

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the first half of this week’s lectionary Gospel, Mark 7.24-37

Given the subject matter that I touch on below, it is perhaps important to make the disclaimer that the views expressed below are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Diocese in Europe.

.Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

It is a treat (at least for me!) that for the week in which this lectionary blog resumes after the summer that the set Gospel reading should include Jesus’ meeting with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7.24-37.

It is a passage that some people find difficult – but which I cherish. I also think it is a fundamental building block in the Gospel of Mark, and marks an important point of transition upon which vital developments in the ministry of Jesus are based.

One of the fascinating features of the Gospel of Mark is the way that the motifs of seed, wheat, bread and eating are so prominent – at least in the first half of the Gospel.  Beginning with the Parable of the sower in chapter 4 (Mark 41-20)., the theme then re-emerges first in the mini-parables of the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed (Mark 4.26-32), we have the feeding with bread of the 5000 (Mark 6.30-44), discussion about Jewish ritual rules related to eating (Mark 7.1-23), the feeding with bread of the 4000 (Mark 8.1-10), and a discussion in a boat about bread in which Jesus gets exasperated with his disciples (Mark 8.14-21) which is clearly intended to link to the earlier miracles.

And in the middle of all this is the account of the Syrophoenician woman and her encounter with Jesus. And ‘bread’ of course is a theme that is prominent in their exchange:

He (Jesus) said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ (Mark 7.27-28)

This exchange had come about because of Jesus’ apparent unwillingness to heal the daughter of this clearly Gentile woman, and it is at least partly due to the woman’s witty riposte about ‘crumbs’ to Jesus’ initial hesitation that her daughter is eventually cured.

With my own attempt at wit I have titled this reflection, ‘the Syrophoenician sandwich’ because her story is ‘sandwiched’ in between the two accounts of the feeding of a multitude in Mark’s Gospel, the 5000 in Mark 6.30-44 and the 4000 in Mark 8.1-10. It is a very ancient perception, almost certainly correct, which dates back at least to the 4th Christian century, that the crowd who were fed in the first of these miracles were Jewish, and the group fed in the second were Gentiles. In other words, between these two stories, Jesus’ ministry has been extended from merely being responsive to his fellow Jews, to reflecting God’s abundant provision for all people, Gentiles as well as Jews.

I have written at greater length on this elsewhere, but my suggestion would be that it is in fact in this encounter between Jesus and the woman that a vital ‘boundary’ is crossed and broken, which then leads on to the feeding by Jesus of the 4000 representatives of the Gentile world a few verses later.

In which case, what is the role of the woman herself in this shift? There is a Japanese Christian woman biblical scholar, Hisako Kinukawa who suggests that the Syrophoenician woman helped Jesus ‘discover’ how to become Jesus. In other words that her exchange with him prompted Jesus to realise and reflect the boundlessness of God’s generosity that had previously perhaps not been so apparent, even to him.

Now I have to say that some Christians would be quite uncomfortable about such a suggestion – since it implies that Jesus might have had something to learn. I can well remember exploring this story in an international interreligious setting, in which the Jewish participants resonated very positively with Kinukawa’s comment, but some, at least of the Christians present were clearly challenged by the idea of Jesus ‘learning’ (perhaps especially from a woman!).

But let’s consider that idea a bit more. Frankly it has been a pretty miserable summer this year. Apart from the ongoing prevalence of COVID, there have been the forest fires and floods in many parts of Europe, and there’s been the recent and ongoing news from Afghanistan. And just as Afghanistan began to hit the international headlines again, there were five people killed in brutal attacks in Plymouth, England, by a gunman who then turned his weapon on himself.

I could not help but draw comparisons in my mind between the behaviour of the victorious Taliban in Afghanistan (especially towards women) and the actions of that murderous ‘incel’ in Plymouth. Both, it seems to me, reflect a kind of toxic masculinity which is scared of this our modern world in which male physical strength is no longer as necessary or as prized as it would have been, even 50 years ago. Modern forms of ‘education’ are to be either feared or despised. They feel that there is no place for them in ‘education’ or they have nothing they should need to learn, and so they lash out against the process and those (especially women) who have benefitted.

Read against such realities, I want to celebrate a Jesus who is willing to learn. I particularly want to celebrate a Jesus who, as in this episode, might be willing to learn something from a woman. I do not see it as a failing on Jesus’ part. Rather it is a sign of the true humanity of the one who came to show to us that it is when we are truly and fully human that we have the privilege of reflecting most brightly the image of God.

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The picture at the top of the blog this week is a representation of the modern icon ‘Christ is our reconciliation’. It was created in a monastery near Jerusalem 20 years ago to mark the millennium. The picture in the bottom right corner shows the encounter of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. As the icon implies it is through such encounters that we are able to proclaim and celebrate the reconciling ministry of God in Christ.

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.