Time… and… time

‘Welcome the wild one’: John the Baptist

This week’s lectionary blog reflects first on ‘time’ and then draws attention to the way that John the Baptist offers a ‘timely word’ in the season of Advent. The focal Gospel reading is Luke 3.1-6

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

One day,  fifty years ago,  I shall never forget.  It was when I was sitting my university entrance exam,  a General Paper where questions ranged widely.  One of the choice of subjects listed for the day was ‘Time.’  I felt as if all my Christmases must have come at once: for I had just received at school a good grade for an essay on ‘Time’ where I had drawn upon John Robinson’s (then) recently published book In the End God which reflected on the difference between time as chronos (a period of time) and time as kairos (a moment in time). Occasionally I wonder if my life would have taken a different trajectory if the topic of ‘Time’ had not come up on that particular day.

I am still fascinated by ‘Time’. And in particular the question of the relationship between chronos and kairos. When we use phrases like ‘Time lags’ or ‘Time passes’ we are thinking of time in terms of chronos. When we say ‘It’s time’, we are thinking of time as kairos. It has often been said, and I think there is certainly a degree of truth in it, that the biblical understanding of time is much more closely allied to kairos than it is to chronos. That was (as I remember it) the basic thesis of In the End God. These days I would probably put it slightly differently however – namely that the Bible encourages us to take seriously the jarring dissonance between chronos and kairos, these two different aspects of time. Somehow the Bible is encouraging us to be prepared to live in and with this dissonance.

And if we are thinking about the uncomfortable nature of biblical time the season of Advent is surely a prime exemplar of it. Karl Barth once strikingly said, ‘Whatever time or season can the church ever have but that of Advent?’  For Advent seeks to hold together three ‘times’, which are both deeply separated in chronos terms, but are intricately bound together as all part of one immense kairos moment. Christian tradition has spoken of the distinct three ‘comings’ of Advent. The challenge for us is to appreciate how they belong together. This is what the writer Guerric of Igny said in the 12th century:

              As our bodies will rise up rejoicing at his final coming, so our hearts must run joyfully to greet his first… between these two comings of his, the Lord often visits each one of us in accordance with our merits and desires, forming us to the likeness of his first coming in the flesh, and preparing us for his return at the end of time.’  

Perhaps with more of a sense of poetry is also this note found in Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures,

There is a birth from God before the ages and a birth from a virgin at the fulness of time. There is a hidden coming, like that of rain on fleece, and a coming before all eyes, still in the future.’

Advent requires us to live in the uncomfortable ‘time’ of preparing for Christmas while being also acutely aware that Christmas is not the story’s end.

This week’s lectionary Gospel reading is Luke 3.1-6 in which the ministry of John the Baptist is announced. (Next week’s lectionary Gospel will be Luke 3.7-18 in which more detail will be given to fill out John’s call to repentance in practical terms.) It is interesting that in the current Common Worship/Revised Common Lectionary John the Baptist features in the Gospel readings for both Advent 2 and Advent 3 in all three lectionary years. The Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge comments slightly caustically that John the Baptist is the ‘foremost figure of Advent’ – but that she has never seen a picture of John on any Advent calendar. It is a valid point she makes. She also notes ‘Like John the Baptist, Advent is out of phase with its time, with our time. It encroaches uncomfortably upon us, making us feel some degree of dissonance…’

There’s a striking Advent song about John the Baptist by the hymn writer Brian Wren that reflects on this deep uncomfortableness Welcome the Wild One – Hope Publishing Company, ‘Welcome the wild one, the desert declaimer… camel hair coated, unkempt and unbending… outspoken, uncensored’. The song then continues by ‘welcoming God’s love-child’ (Jesus Christ) but makes it clear that this second welcome cannot take place until we have ‘welcomed’ John first.

If we look carefully at the six verses of this week’s lectionary Gospel we can note Luke’s distinctive touches – which also offer clues about the dissonance between different understandings of ‘time’.

It is interesting to note the time-frame in which the episode is set, ranging from the global to the local, and the secular to the ‘religious’. As Luke does also when referring to the birth of Jesus (Luke 2.1-2), he mentions first of all the Roman emperor of the day, ‘The fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius’ (Luke 3.1). Luke then goes on to refer to the local client rulers of the Romans , and finally the Jewish high priests. All these details are part of the world of chronos.   But then Luke sets alongside then the kairos moment in which John is summoned to preach and baptise. Uniquely to Luke it is introduced by the remark, ‘The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’ (Luke 3.2) That phrase ‘The word of God/the Lord came to…’ appears again and again in the Old Testament to describe the call of a prophet (e.g. Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah) and its use here places John the Baptist firmly in the line of such as these (probably especially Elijah).

John is not living by the timescale of chronos but, like his prophetic forbears, by the time of God’s kairos. Past, present and future are (as is the case with Advent itself) somehow held together in the person and message of John. It is interesting that the quotation from Isaiah 40 here in Luke’s Gospel extends for extra verses (beyond what appear in the other Gospels) and ends with the assertion ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God’ (Luke 3.6).  With these words John himself seems to be being pulled into the future – to be the herald of that kairos moment when finally, in the Acts of the Apostles, God’s salvation will be offered well beyond traditional boundaries of time or space or religious tradition – to all people and for all times.

Kingship… not from this world

Rylands Papyrus 52 recto
Rylands Papyrus 52 verso.

This week’s lectionary reflection is based on the Gospel, John 18.33-37, which is read on this coming Sunday, the commemoration of Christ the King

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship,

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Though I very much appreciate Bishop Tom Wright as a biblical theologian, I don’t always agree with all his views in detail. I do however think that his critique of the recent adoption of the Feast of Christ the King into the Anglican calendar on the Sunday before Advent has some justification. Bishop Tom argues that there was and is already a Feast of the kingship of Christ in the Christian church – namely the Ascension – and that to focus on Christ’s kingship in this additional way, at this particular time, detracts from the kingly focus of the Feast of the Ascension. And on the whole I think Bishop Tom is right. Just think about the hymns sung at Ascensiontide: ‘Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne’  etc. 

And, as I have commented myself in this blog a year ago (though it doesn’t seem that long!) in a piece titled ‘Stirring it up! The challenging kingship of Christ’ (which can still be viewed if you cycle back through the blog) I am uneasy at gut level about the way that the Feast was introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  My point was that even though the Feast was apparently introduced to counter-act some of the problematic political movements developing at that time in Europe, the ’theme’ of Christ as King, whether intentionally or not, (certainly in the terms in which it was understood at that time) had itself shades of a Christian quasi-fascism about it. This is reflected for me in the monumental statues of ‘Christ the King’ that were erected in those years, both in Europe and Latin America. A good example of what I mean is the statue at Les Houches near Chamonix below. As I reflect on this, it is perhaps partly my own experience of living in Lebanon during a period in which the Christian Phalangist movement (which has its roots in political movements in 1920s and 1930s Europe) was powerful that makes me so uncomfortable.

Christ Roi statue near Chamonix in France

However if one is going to keep this Feast, then I heartily applaud the choice of this year’s lectionary Gospel from John as the key text for grappling with its meaning. For a primary feature of the Gospel of John (compared with the Synoptic Gospels) is its use of irony and paradox. That is certainly true in this brief discussion in John 18.33-37 about the kingship of Christ. Jesus Christ is King, but he gives a new meaning to the concept of kingship which challenges rather than reflects the ‘kingdoms of this world’ (John 18.36). Indeed in this Gospel Christ actually turns the meaning of kingship upside down.

One of the most powerful verbal motifs which runs through the Gospel of John is the description of Christ being ‘lifted up’. It comes e.g. at John 3.14; 8.28; 12.32; 12.34. There is a deliberate double entendre in the words. They are intended to speak of physical ‘lifting up’, but the verb also means metaphorically ‘to exalt’ – to be given the kind of position that a king would expect to have. Of course the moment when Christ is ‘lifted up’ is precisely when he is raised from the ground to hang on the Cross.  So in the vision of the Gospel of John there is a profound interrelationship between Christ’s kingship and that moment of supreme powerlessness, which turns conventional motions of kingship upside down. Kingship and Cross are inseparable.  The paradox is reinforced by John’s description of the time of Christ’s death as his moment of ‘glorification’. ‘Glory’ was also a word associated with kings – and indeed the divine presence.  So once again there is an ironic paradox that Jesus reveals his divinity most clearly when appearances seem to indicate the complete opposite. That is the ultimate ‘truth’ that Christ came to bring, yet those with apparent earthly power, like Pilate himself, can only fumble around asking ‘What is truth?’ To return to Tom Wright’s comments about the kingship of Christ and the Ascension – perhaps the challenge of the Feast of Christ the King requires us to hold on to paradox and irony in a way that is not really an aspect of Christ’s Ascension and that might be the distinction between the two feasts?

The picture at the head of the blog this week is Rylands Papyrus 52. It can be seen in the John Rylands library in Manchester. It is a fragment of John 18.34-38 (i.e. part of this week’s lectionary Gospel). It comes originally from Egypt and it probably dates from the second century AD. It used to be suggested that it came from the first half of that century – now there is less certainty about this, and it may have been copied in the latter part of the century. However it is still either the oldest or one of the oldest fragments of a Gospel in existence today. Is there something quite ‘powerful’ about the fact that this tiny and vulnerable scrap of material is sharing with us the meaning of the kingship of Christ?

What mean these stones?

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the lectionary Gospel reading for the Second Sunday before Advent, Mark 13.1-8 though it also draws attention to the fact that many churches will keep this coming Sunday as Remembrance Sunday.

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

*****

Whenever I think of Jerusalem, a city in which I was privileged to live for five years,  in my mind’s eye I find myself thinking of rocks and stones. Stones and Jerusalem somehow belong together. There are the hard rocky outcrops on which the city itself is built or of the Mount of Olives just to its east. The aridity of the terrain – in a land in which rainfall is hardly adequate and there is only one natural spring (the Gihon) in the proximity – means that the bare stony ground is little covered by vegetation.  Walking around in the rough ground outside the city this is very obvious – and hard on one’s feet.

Then there are the buildings in the city. Traditionally, and now I believe also legally, all buildings are erected with ‘Jerusalem stone’ – which has the capacity to glow golden in the light of the Jerusalem sun.

There are the stone walls of the city themselves – the present day walls dating back to the early 16th century but which in many places have been built on the foundations of earlier ones. Sometimes that continuity is obvious – as for example in the vestiges of the Golden Gate of the city, which can be seen in its eastern wall.

There is of course the Rock that sits there embedded in the present day eponymous Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock. This seems also to have played a role also in the Jewish holy places that have been built on that site before it – Solomon’s Temple, the post-exilic Temple and Herod’s Temple – and perhaps also to have encouraged the description of God as ‘my Rock’ e.g. Psalm 18.2 ‘The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer’.

So it is not surprising, that in reading the lectionary for this week, Mark 13.1-8, the opening section of what is called Mark’s ‘Little Apocalypse’ ,  it is the note about rocks and stones that ‘shouts out’ to me.

Jesus has previously been teaching in the Temple, in a series of episodes that tellingly end with the story of a widow ‘offering her all’ to help the support of this building (Mark 12.41-44).

In response to his disciples’ comment about the ‘large stones’ in the Temple Jesus  responds ‘not one stone will be left upon another: all will be thrown down.’ It seems to refer to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which happened in 70 AD in the war between the Romans and the Jews. Although there was a brief attempt to reuse and even possibly rebuild the Temple during what is known as the Second Jewish Revolt (132-35AD), the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD really marked the end of Judaism as a temple based religion, but also its birth as a religion in which the rabbinic writings would become increasingly influential.

The disciples’ awe at the size of the stones is appropriate. One of the features of the Herodian Temple (newly built in Jesus’ lifetime) was the enormous stones used in its construction, distinctly edged with a margin. Some of them can still be seen to this day – in the western wall of the Haram esh Sherif (Temple Mount). These have long been visible to the naked eye: many more can now be seen due to the recent excavations in the area, which have created a series of tunnels in which visitors can walk. (In parenthesis I am very ambiguous about these excavations which are illegal under international law.)

A stone in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount/Haram esh Sherif

In fact of course, ironically, Jesus’ words were not fully fulfilled. The stones were so large, and therefore so difficult to move, that though the Temple building itself may have been destroyed, many of the stones that made up the outer retaining walls of the complex have been left in place for over 2000 years. One stone has been left upon another.

Jerusalem’s stones though, for me, symbolise something telling about the city. Jerusalem is a hard place, like stones are hard. It is a hard place to live and a hard place in which to build peace, partly in fact because of the possessiveness with which people cling to its stones. Its stones can be dangerous. It is also symptomatic that the capital punishment which seems to be referred to most frequently in our scriptures involves putting people to death by throwing stones at them.

Stones are often linked to memory. This is true in many cultures, where for example a ‘cairn’ of stones marks an event or an achievement. The title I have used his week ‘what mean these stones’ is taken from the Book of Joshua (Joshua 4.21), where after the people have crossed the river Jordan Joshua commands the setting up of a circle of 12 stones in Gilgal, to remind future generations of God’s care for and protection of the people as he led them from Egypt through the wilderness into the desert.

Memory itself however can be difficult and dangerous. The story of the Holy Land is that its history has been plagued by the competing memories of different people, each jostling for their place in the strange mosaic of that ‘wall’ of stones. Somehow we need to help each other to smooth the rough edges off each other’s stones so that we can build a wall of shared peace. It is at least a wonderful vision to aspire for!

I do have an instinct that there is a contribution that Christianity ought to be able to make to all this due to the understanding of ‘memory’ that is a vital part of our scripture. Memory – yet also its power to be transformed and to transform human life is at the heart of our story of faith, it is also profoundly symbolised in the central sacrament of the Christian Church. I say we ‘ought’ to be able to make: I am of course well aware, at least as a person who has worked in the field of interreligious relations, that we have all too often failed to do so, frequently abjectly.

It is of course interesting to be writing about this in a week in which we in Europe (and in many other parts of the world) focus on remembering both those who died in the great wars of the last century, and the wars themselves. Memory – and its dangerous features –  has all too often contributed to the history and the lack of peace in Europe. I believe that it has played a negative role in shaping recent developments in the continent.

It would be interesting to further reflect on the link between ‘stones’ and the genre of apocalyptic (in which this week’s Gospel is couched). I have an instinct that apocalyptic is itself a rather dangerous and ‘stony’ biblical genre. Time and space does not allow for further comment here – but I invite anyone interested in taking forward the discussion to drop me a note…

So I conclude by returning in mind and heart even unto the Holy Land, and sharing with you the beautiful and evocative prayer of Gerald Butt, which I am sure, at least at the sub-conscious level, influenced what I have written this week:

O Lord soften the stone hearts

of those who preach and practise

intolerance and bigotry;

as the sun’s setting glow

softens the stone walls

of your Holy City, Jerusalem.

Lord, the rocky hills, the valleys,

the deserts and the sea shores

are filled with the echoes of centuries of pain.

Lord, bring peace to house and village.

Comfort the mothers who fret

and those who mourn.

Lord, keep strong the twisted old root

of the olive tree,

and protect the young vine.

Lord of water and stone,

of bread and wine,

Lord of the resurrection,

feed hope, and bring peace

to the wracked but beautiful holy land.

(Gerald Butt)

Over… and over again

Jonah , the great fish and the city of Ninevah. Herrad of Landsberg  c. 1180.

This week’s lectionary blog looks at the meaning of repentance, with a focus both on Jonah 3.1-5,10 and Mark 1.14-20

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

I appreciate the physicality of the Hebrew language. The way, for example that when you want to speak about someone standing ‘before’ you, you literally say that they are standing ‘to your face’. Or the fact that the word for ‘glory’ ultimately derives from a verbal root that means ‘heavy’.

The way that the Hebrew language speaks of ‘repentance’ is another example. The most common Hebrew word for ‘repentance’ is teshuvah.  This derives from the verb shuv  whose basic meaning is ‘return’. So ‘repentance’ is not about fixing a mathematical puzzle that has gone wrong, or making up something that has fallen short. It is rather about returning to a relationship with God that had been fractured or grown tired. It is about going on a journey, long or short, to find God again.

There’s a lovely chant by the Roman Catholic Benedictine monks of Weston Priory that exactly captures this – even though the chant is linked to the Book of Hosea rather than the Book of Jonah!

Hosea (Come Back To Me) – YouTube

One of the questions that the book of Jonah poses to me is ‘who needs repentance’? Is it the inhabitants of Ninevah, a city renowned in the ancient world both for its size and its cruelty, or is it Jonah himself because he is so oblivious to God’s grace? Or is it both? It has been astutely pointed out by Trevor Dennis that the equivalent of God sending Jonah to Ninevah would be a Jewish rabbi being sent to Berlin to preach publicly during the Nazi era.

In one sense Jonah is the most successful biblical prophet of all time. He only says a short sentence (in Hebrew just five words) ‘Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown’ (Jonah 3.4) and the whole of the city – including its animal population – repented. Had Jeremiah been around at the time we could imagine that he might have been very envious of Jonah’s remarkable  success! Like many other readers I do think that the mention of the repentant cattle with their sackcloth (and the fishy story in chapters 1 and 2) is intended as a hint that we are not supposed to take the Book of Jonah as literal history. Jonah is often thought to have been a book written in the post-exilic period to challenge the hardening of attitudes to the Gentile world which was a development in Judah at this time.

Pope Benedict XVI has written on this (his words date to 2003 before he was elected as Pope):

The book of Jonah is not narrating events that took place in the distant past; it is a parable. In the mirror of this parable-story both the future and the present become visible. The present is explained over and over again to different generations, and it is only the light of the future – ultimately in that light that comes from God – that the present can be understood and lived correctly. This parable is consequently a prophecy. It sheds God’s light on time and thereby clarifies for us the direction we must take so that the present may unfold into the future and not go to ruin.

I think Pope Benedict’s description of Jonah as a parable ‘shedding God’s light on time’ is astute. Encouraging all manner and sorts of people to ‘return’ to him is just what God does. He always has and he always will.  It is an essential part of his job description. One of the intriguing features of the section of the Book of Jonah is that it ends with the comment, ‘God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them and did not do it’. (Jonah 3.10) Older translations often used the expression ‘God repented about the calamity…’ which was, and is, a challenging idea for some. But can we really speak of God himself ‘repenting’? it is certainly true that the Hebrew word here is not shuv – but a form of the verbal root nhm. (A word which also appears to describe God’s ultimate graciousness after the episode with the golden calf in Exodus 32.14).The root nhm however has a wide and intriguing range of meanings – for example it lies behind the evocative call of Isaiah 40.1 ‘Comfort (nhmu), O comfort (nhmu) my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…’ There is I think something profoundly significant in this link between God as comforter and God as the one who is ready to change his own mind when he receives a people’s repentance.

‘Repent’ is of course also one of the key words in this week’s short Gospel reading which begins by Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel’ and then moves into his call of his disciples (Mark 1.14-15).

There is just one thing that I want to draw to your attention, that for me offers a further insight into the meaning of ‘repentance’. In Mark’s Gospel (and the other synoptic Gospels) Peter is summoned ‘Follow me’ here at the beginning of his encounter with Jesus.  But in John’s Gospel this call to ‘Follow me’ is not addressed to Peter till near the very end of the story, when in John 21 Peter is once again fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and once again he meets Jesus on the lake shore. John 21 is a story both about Peter’s repentance for his denial and his enduring relationship with and love for Jesus, and how the two belong together. And in light of our brief exploration of the Book of Jonah it is intriguing to realise just how Peter is addressed, ‘Simon son of Jonah, do you love me?’ (John 21.15).  

Sowing in tears

Daniel Bonnell, “Jesus Wept.” Oil on canvas, 34 x 46 in. Tags: Lazarus

This week’s lectionary blog relates to the readings for All Saints’ Day which this year is likely to be celebrated in many churches on this coming Sunday, October 31st. We explore the suggested Gospel, John 11.32-44 and give briefer attention to the New Testament reading Revelation 21.1-6.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Traditionally (and certainly etched into my own mind) the Gospel reading for All Saints is the Beatitudes – the stellar opening of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.1-12 in the Gospel of Matthew.  I certainly feel that in some form or other the Beatitudes rightfully have a place in the worship on All Saints Day. I especially cherish their setting as the so-called Russian Beatitudes, in which as a refrain between each couplet is inserted ‘Amen! Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in paradise’. There is an excellent recording of this by St David’s Church, Exeter at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaZozkVRiHI . (In parenthesis it is worth saying that St David’s choir has done youtube recordings of quite a wide range of interesting songs, hymns, chants, and that their choirmaster is generously willing to allow other churches to make use of their recordings.)

Since our use of the Common Worship (Revised Common) lectionary there have however been three different sets of readings suggested for All Saints, depending on whether one is in Year A, B or C. Year A (‘the year of Matthew’) makes use of the traditional reading of Matthew’s Beatitudes. Year C (‘the year of Luke’) draws on Luke’s equivalent passage of beatitudes and woes, Luke 6.20ff. Year B, the current year, normally draws on Mark’s Gospel as much as possible. But there are no beatitudes in Mark! So, for whatever reason, the decision was taken by the lectionary compilers to suggest that in this Year B, the suggested Gospel for All Saints should be John 11.32-44. This is part of the account of Jesus’ raising from the dead, Lazarus of Bethany. It feels quite a ‘jarring’ biblical text to link with All Saints, very different in focus and style from the ‘beatitudes’ in Matthew and Luke which appear in the other years. One of the notable features of the story is that unlike ‘all’ the saints who are described as ‘blessed’ in Matthew and Luke, the raising of Lazarus from the dead as described in the Gospel of John is clearly presented as an exceptional and unique experience which happened to one particular individual. There is a link from the story of Lazarus to a wider picture – but it goes in perhaps another direction. Namely in the Gospel of John we can see a clear and intentional link between Jesus’ giving of life to Lazarus and the way that Jesus’ own death is a direct result of these life-giving actions. The picture (below) by Caravaggio actually depicts the raising of Lazarus, but it would also (deliberately) be possible to view it as the taking down of the body of Jesus from the cross.

Caravaggio, The raising of Lazarus

It would be very interesting to see into the minds of the lectionary compilers and discover why this passage from the Gospel of John was chosen as a reading for All Saints!  But since that is beyond my immediate capabilities let me share some thoughts that I hope may provide useful directions for preachers and others.

This is one of the comparatively few passages in the Gospel of John where Jesus shows what we might call deep human emotions.

The words used in these verses are fascinating. Verse 33 says of Jesus that ‘he was greatly disturbed (enebrimesato) in spirit and deeply moved (etaraxen)’. Verse 38 repeats a form of the Greek word enebrimesato when it says ‘Jesus, again greatly disturbed’ (embrimomenos)

Both Greek verbs referred to here are quite rare – especially embrimaomai . Other than the two occurrences of the verb in this passage in the Gospel of John, it only appears (in the New Testament) twice in the Gospel of Mark and once in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew’s example, and in one of the passages in Mark it is translated ‘sternly charged’ and it is used when Jesus tells two recipients of miraculous healings to make sure they don’t tell anyone about what has happened to them! (Although they then disobey these instructions). The other instance in Mark’s Gospel comes in Mark 14.5 when the disciples ‘scold’ the woman who has poured expensive ointment over Jesus. I remember reading (though I haven’t immediately double checked this) that the verb embrimaomai is linked ultimately to the snorting sound a war-horse makes as it is gearing up for battle!  But it is fascinating to ponder what is the link between these three examples in which people are speaking fiercely to others, and to those two instances in the Gospel of John  when it is used about Jesus himself. It gives me the sense, which I don’t think is entirely mistaken, that Jesus is having an internal battle  with himself – is speaking fiercely to himself – about what he is going to do and its consequences  for himself.  The battle lies ahead!  

Tarasso is slightly more common in the New Testament. But it is intriguing to notice the other examples of this verb in the Gospel of John . With the sole exception of ‘disturbing’ or ‘troubling’  the waters of the Pool of Bethzatha in John 5.7 they come in chapters 12, 13 and 14 – and I don’t think it is accidental that this cluster of uses falls fairly closely together. It is I believe a signal that we are intended to read the instances of this word as a sequence, with one leading to the other.

So we get:

  • Jesus was… deeply moved/troubled (11.33)
  • Now is my soul troubled (12.27)
  • After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit (13.21)
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled … in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places (14.1)
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (14.27)

I think the connections we are intended to make are that the ‘troubling’ that Jesus himself felt over the death of his friend, led in turn to the deep troubling that John’s Gospel allows us to see here in chapters 12 and 13, that Jesus, humanly speaking, experienced as his own passion approaches. Yet his own ‘troubling’ in this way means that in turn he can promise and assure his disciples ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ for  this passion leads in turn to hospitality for humanity in ‘his father’s house’, to the gift of the Holy Spirit  and  of peace (the antithesis of ‘troubling’).

The emotional depth of both these verbs embrimaomai and tarasso in turn draw us close to that profoundly ‘gut’ word compassion. Compassion does indeed seem to be the primary emotion of Jesus in John 11.

[Compassion expresses] ‘such a deep and central emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God. When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of love broke open, and the abyss of God’s inexhaustible and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself’ (Donald McNeill et al, Compassion, DLT, 1982)

And the visible and physical expression of that compassion comes as, in the shortest verse in the New Testament we are told, ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11.35).

One of the great treasures offered to us by the Orthodox Christian East is the importance given to the spiritual value of tears and weeping.  The seventh century St Jacob of Sarug (a city in southern Turkey ) powerfully reflected:

‘You have no tears? Buy tears from the poor. You have no sadness? Call the poor man to moan with you. If your heart is hard and has neither sadness nor tears, with alms invite the needy to weep with you…provide yourself with the water of tears, and may the poor come to help you put out the fire in which you are perishing.’

So tears become an essential element of our call to become more fully human, more truly how God would have us be.

Throughout the Bible tears are the seeds of transformation – and perhaps even resurrection. The Old Testament tells us that ‘those who sow in tears shall reap in joy’ (Psalm 126.5). In the New Testament that link also holds true,  here in John 11 where there seems to be a close link between the tears of the crowd, the tears of Mary, Jesus’ own tears and the resurrection of Lazarus. It is intriguing that in John 20 there also seems to be a similar connection being made between the weeping of Mary and the presence of the risen Jesus who stands before her. Jesus himself gives us permission to weep about the ‘tears of things’ (lacrimae rerum) and models such weeping on our behalf.

What though has weeping and tears to do with All Saints? Perhaps the Gospel is a powerful reminder that it is Jesus’ ability both to share and to transform the depths of human emotions and human grief which has enabled the wonderful vision of the new creation, the new earth, the new heaven, populated by the saints of the Most High. It is indeed appropriate that this year the lectionary ‘matches’ John 11.32-44 with Revelation 21.1-6.    One of the promises offered to these citizens of the ‘holy city’ is that God ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes’ (Revelation 21.4). But have you realised that that is a promise that even God himself cannot keep unless people have first learned how to weep?

Casting off the cloak

The powerful sculpture by Gurdon Brewster dramatically indicates how Bartimaeus casts off his coak. http://www.gurdonbrewster.com/gbbartimaeus.html

This week’s blog explores the lectionary Gospel Mark 10.46-52

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

There’s a real appropriateness that Mark 10.46-52 – the giving of sight to Bartimaeus – should be the lectionary Gospel reading for the last Sunday in the church’s year before there is a shift in direction as the lectionary reorientates itself and turns to prepare for Advent. For these verses mark the final culmination of Jesus’ public ministry before he enters Jerusalem (which happens at the beginning of chapter 11), and they are clearly presented as something of a ‘finale’.

It is telling, and undoubtedly significant that the last word in the passage is a form of the noun odos  = ‘way’.  ‘Way’ is a fundamental word in the Gospel of Mark: it is of course used twice in the biblical quotation with which the Gospel opens, ‘my messenger who shall prepare your way… make ready the way of the Lord’ (Mark 1.2-3). It then reappears in a ‘loaded’ way at some key points in Mark’s story, ‘What were you discussing on the way? But they were silent for on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest?’ (Mark 9.33-34), ‘They were on the way going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going ahead of them, and those who followed were afraid.’ (Mark 10.32).

When ‘way’, therefore appears in Mark 10.52 it may indeed refer to the literal road that Jesus and his disciples would need to take from Jericho to Jerusalem, but it is also clearly loaded with the resonances of discipleship, which will involve those who ‘follow’ Jesus also being prepared to travel on ‘the way of the cross’. It is a deliberate marker of what will await Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Notice the echo of the word ‘David’ in Bartimaeus’s cry, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ (Mark 10.48) in the words with which the crowds greet Jesus at his triumphal entry, ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David’ (Mark 11.10). Yet as Jesus will later point out (Mark 12.35-37) can the Messiah really be described simply as ‘son of David’ – perhaps not least due to all the political resonances of the title? It would be such ambiguities that would lead Jesus on ‘the way’ from Palm Sunday so shortly to Good Friday.

One of the reasons that I especially enjoy the Gospel of Mark is that this Gospel seems to cherish what I call ‘the little people’ – those who demonstrate the antithesis of the ‘biggist’ attitudes of the inner core of Jesus’ disciples, displayed for example in last week’s Gospel reading (Mark 10.35-45). Bartimaeus is an example of these ‘little people’ and it is significant that his encounter with Jesus is given such a pride of place in Mark’s story.

There is a powerful short meditation on Bartimaeus and his encounter with Jesus by Jan Sutch Pickard as one of the six voices she offers in a short reflection ‘Follow me’:

‘Come,’

He said – and I did,

Following his voice

Through the crowd on the edge of town.

I needed wait no longer:

My voice had been heard

Calling for change,

Crying out for a fresh start –

Even though it meant

Casting off old ways,

No longer the needy person everybody knew.

‘Come,’ he said

And I saw what God could do.

‘Your faith has healed you,’

He told me, ‘Now go.’

He never said, ‘Follow me’ –

But, as I could see, there was no other way.

(from Dandelions and Thistles: biblical meditations from the Iona Community,edited by Jan Sutch Pickard, 1999)

One other significant aspect of Bartimaeus’ story is his cast off cloak. In several biblical books clothing, or the lack of it, becomes a vital symbol carrying the story, and visually demonstrating the attitudes of those who are involved. Genesis is certainly an example of this. The Gospel of Mark is another with its references to the garb of John the Baptist (Mark 1.6), Jesus’ own attire on the mountain of transfiguration (Mark 9.3), the young man who runs away naked (Mark 14.51) and then sits clad in a white garment on the right side at the tomb (Mark 16.5).  Indeed it is interesting to explore how the visual symbol of clothing can be used in a number of ways throughout the worship and liturgies of Holy Week.

Bartimaeus’ gesture with his now no-longer needed beggar’s cloak (onto which alms had been  thrown)  is a part of this tale of clothes, and his willingness to cast off his probably sole possession was, for Mark, a visible symbol, and example for others, of the ‘way’ of discipleship.

Cast off the cloaks that cling so heavily upon you,

Open your eyes and look upon the world with new vision,

and follow Jesus in the way of God, rejoicing in faith and hope and love.

Money, money, money!

The oldest surviving image of Francis of Assisi who in the 13th century heard these words of Jeuss in Mark 10.17ff as addressed to him personally. The image is found at the Benedictine Abbey of Subiaco and is thought to have been painted c 1228/9.

Money’ (the excess of it, or the lack of it) is the common thread running through this week’s lectionary blog which has three short sections. It is based on the Gospel passage Mark 10.17-31.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

‘Jesus looked on him and loved him’ (Mark 10.21). I find it absolutely fascinating and immensely powerful that the one and only individual of whom it is recounted in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus loved them, is this person who apparently refuses – albeit regretfully – Jesus’ personal challenge to him. It is I think also important that Jesus does not argue with him, or try to cajole him. An aspect of Jesus’ ‘love’ for this man is the freedom he gives him to make his own decision.

The verb ‘looked at’ (which in its Greek form is actually quite rare in the New Testament) though has itself a certain power. Intriguingly it is repeated a few verses below when Jesus ‘looks at’ his astounded disciples after telling them how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. The same verb  also appears in Luke’s (though not in Mark’s) account of Peter’s denial of Jesus during his trial, ‘The Lord turned and looked at Peter’ (Luke 22.61) after Peter’s third denial. The intensity of Jesus’ gaze could itself be life-changing. It was for Peter on that occasion.

Which brings me to another point (which I admit is speculative but which has been intriguing me since I thought about it). We commonly refer to the man whom Jesus meets in Mark 10.17ff as ‘the rich young ruler’. But in Mark the account of the incident nowhere describes him as ‘young’.  Indeed the fact that he says to Jesus ‘I have kept all these (laws) since my youth (Mark 10.20) rather hints that he is at least middle-aged.  The reason the person is described as ‘young’ is because the corresponding episode in the Gospel of Matthew describes him as so (Matthew 19.16-22).  (The word ‘ruler’ is only found in the parallel episode in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18.18-23).)  The word used for ‘young man’ appears twice in Matthew’s account, in verses 20 and 22. In Greek it is neaniskos.

Now neaniskos does come twice in the Gospel of Mark – but not here. It is used to speak of the young man who runs away naked (Mark 14.51) in the garden of Gethsemane, and the young man who is dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side of the tomb (Mark 16.5). Going back to biblical scholarship in the 1970s, but also building on patristic interpretations, it has been noted that the word neaniskos was sometimes used for those who were catechumens and newly baptised. And the description of the ‘young man’ who is naked in Mark 14 and clothed in white in Mark 16 reflects the sartorial process of early Christian baptism. Does the neaniskos therefore represent in some way  a newly baptised person, baptised into Christ in a process that is only made possible by Jesus’ own death and resurrection?  And if so, is there any chance that (with the help of Matthew’s Gospel) we should make a connection so that this rich man whom Jesus meets in Mark 10.17ff has had his life so turned upside down by Jesus’ gaze and Jesus’ love that he does eventually become a follower of Jesus – symbolised by the neaniskos whom we meet later in Mark’s story? It would be a wonderful conclusion to this encounter if that were so!

*****

I am probably on surer grounds with my comment about the camel and the eye of the needle. As the prayer-poem below I wrote 20 years ago suggests I think that when he spoke about camels going through the eye of a needle Jesus was here using jesting hyperbole. He was actually telling a joke!  I am glad to see that my view is confirmed by most modern commentators, see for example  What Is The Eye Of The Needle (Matthew 19:23-24 / Mark 10:25)? – Dust Off The Bible

I believe that the quest by some of looking for a narrow gate in Jerusalem that camels could only get through if they were off-loaded betrays an unhelpful literalism, and misunderstands Jesus’ words. His point is precisely that it is impossible – yet God (and God alone) can make the impossible possible!

We thank you God that you enjoy the company of your human playmates.
Sometimes the games you play seem a bit one sided and unfair.
It’s that one where ‘The first will be last and the last will be first’ that really gets me.
I’m frightened of it and I don’t want to play it too often.
Yet thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

We thank you God that you delight in games of hide-and-seek.
I do too, just as long as I can be the one who hides.
I know you will search for me wherever I am, but am I as eager to seek for you?
Sometimes it feels all too easy to want to give up the quest.
So thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

We thank you God that you simply have never been any good at Monopoly.
You want to be on our side all the time, rather than play against us.
You would rather bankrupt yourself, and people get annoyed because you don’t want to own Mayfair.
But the extravagance of your love means that there are never any losers.
I will thank you God.  You look upon me and love me.

We have always puzzled at your teasing riddles, God. You know some great posers!
That one about the camel going through the eye of a needle really got the learned scholars going.
They started looking all over Jerusalem for a narrow gate,
The idea that Jesus might be telling a joke. Well, that’s simply awesome!
Wow, thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

But I know your favourite game, God, it’s treasure hunting.
I enjoy it too, but your idea of treasure feels so different to mine.
You tell me of treasure that is going to be stored up for me in heaven.
I will have to solve so many clues before I discover that hoard.
Yet I know you will always look upon me and love me.
Thank you God. You look upon me and love me.

*****

I pity preachers having to preach on this passage to communities of Christians in many places in Europe, including the church where my husband will be preaching on Sunday. How can we listen to and wrestle with the meaning of Jesus’ words about poverty and riches in our contemporary contexts in which many of us are wealthy in a way that would have been unthinkable to those who first listened to Jesus’ words? How can we be faithful followers of Jesus in our time? What does discipleship mean for us today? There are no easy answers.

It is of course interesting that this Gospel reading appears in the lectionary 6 days after the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, who heard Jesus’ challenge to ‘the rich young ruler’ as directly addressed to himself and who turned his own life upside down as a result.  But if we are not all going to respond in the same way as Francis, what do Jesus words mean for us in 21st century Europe? Genuinely it would be interesting to hear from readers how you engage with this question for yourself.

One flesh?

The ‘Water of Life’ statue at Chester Cathedral hints at intimacy yet also distance, unity and duality (see the end of the reflection)

This week’s blog focuses on the lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday, Mark 10.2-16, though also giving attention to the Old Testament reading Genesis 2.18-24 and more briefly to the psalm, Psalm 8, and the Epistle, Hebrews 1.1-4; 2.5-12.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

I chuckled when I spotted where the lectionary passage from Genesis stops – with verse 24. Verse 25 (the last verse of the chapter) which has clearly been deliberately omitted, once nearly led me to end up in a rather embarrassing situation.

In 2004 I wrote the Epworth commentary on the Book of Genesis. In the introduction to the book, in which it is conventional to thank a number of people, it felt appropriate to pay tribute to my husband, Alan. I ended my remarks about him by commenting, ‘Together with Alan I am still in process of discovering what may be the full meaning of Genesis 2.24’.  Genesis 2.24 reads, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh’.  That was certainly the verse that I intended to include, and of course, in some ways I was trying to be ‘clever’ by including the biblical reference rather than the full text.

Only that sentence above was not precisely what I initially wrote. Due either to carelessness or mental aberration on my part the text originally said, ‘Together with Alan I am still in process of discovering what may be the full meaning of Genesis 2.25’.  For several drafts of the manuscript, including those which were checked by the copy-editor and proof-reader, the mistake was not spotted. It was only at the point when we got to the final pre-publication draft that I realised (with horror at the near howler and relief that it had been spotted just in time!) the error, and corrected it. In case you are wondering what the problem was, Genesis 2.25 reads, ‘And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.’ To have begun my great magnum opus on Genesis by proclaiming to the world (or at least to those who read the commentary) my husband’s and my unashamed nakedness was not perhaps the vision that I wanted to convey to people. Ever since I have always been super-careful in double checking any biblical reference in anything I write – even if I think I know it for sure. I have also decided that trying to be ‘clever’ is not usually a good idea.

I was reminded of that experience when I read the lectionary Gospel this week, Mark 10.2-16, not least because the passage actually quotes Genesis 2.24.  It is not an easy Gospel to preach on – at least not the first half of it. I rather suspect that quite a few preachers will focus on the latter part – in which Jesus welcomes the children. (It is one of those Sundays when a preacher might also be tempted to focus on a nearby saint’s day, in this case the much beloved St Francis, whose ‘feast’, October 4, falls on the following day.)

There are several difficulties with the first half of this week’s Gospel reading. Fundamentally of course a key issue for those of us who are members of the Church of England in the 21st century is that the vision of marriage that it holds up as an ideal has been challenged by the increasing prevalence of divorce in our society, and this has had consequences for church rules on marriage and re-marriage after divorce.

Another ‘difficulty’ however might be that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew do not exactly agree with each other when they present Jesus’ teaching on this topic. Matthew’s equivalent passage comes in Matthew 19.3-9 (or perhaps to verse 12). Mark is starker than Matthew in his absolute prohibition of divorce, while Matthew includes the well-known exception, ‘except for unchastity’ (Matthew 19.9). The other difference between the two Gospels is that Mark allows for the possibility that either the man or the woman might be the instigator of divorce, while in Matthew the assumption is that it would be the man alone who would take such a step.

Yet is it not possible that actually such differences can be helpful in our interpretation of this passage, and also offer a model for our understanding of scripture?

Within the Anglican tradition a range of views about the nature of biblical authority and biblical interpretation are permissible. I believe that my own view, that in the Gospels we hear the voice of the historical person of Jesus Christ and the voices of various early Christian communities and the voices of the individual evangelists who put together in ‘book’ form the documents we now call ‘Gospels’, falls well within the Anglican spectrum.  I do think that it was likely that the historical Jesus made a pronouncement on the ‘ideal’ of marriage, probably drawing on the text of Genesis 2.24. However I also believe that the differences in the versions in Matthew and Mark help to ratify my understanding that the perspectives of Matthew and Mark themselves, and those of the Christian communities among whom they lived, have affected how the text has been transmitted to us.

Matthew, himself a Jew, and writing primarily for Jewish Christians, was reflecting both a Jewish context in which marriage was normally cherished and taken very seriously, but also a context in which (as is still true even today) only a man could initiate a divorce. Mark, on the other hand was probably writing for Gentile Christians, and whether or not he wrote his Gospel in the city of Rome, was probably writing in a context in which the ‘Roman’ understanding of marriage was normative. Marriages were much more ‘easy come and easy go’, and often undertaken for temporary political or strategic reasons. It was however also recognised that women, as well as men, could initiate a divorce. Mark’s absolute prohibition of all divorce is intended as a challenge to the norms of this society.

So we can suggest that in these passages from the Gospels of Mark and Matthew we are indeed hearing both an authentic concern of Jesus, but also the reflection on his words by later Christians who took account of their own contexts. Something of this process is hinted at in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 7.10-12. In this passage, which is actually about marriage and divorce, Paul makes a distinction between the words of ‘the Lord’ and Paul’s own interpretation.

What does this imply for us, in our day, in terms of the varied contexts in which we live out our faith? The answer is not necessarily an easy or obvious one, but I believe that understanding the process of the formation of the Gospels as I have suggested above certainly allows us to take our own context into account as we wrestle with the Bible in our age.

It is interesting – and perhaps telling – that Mark 10.2-12 is one of the biblical passages explored in the resource book created for Living in Love and Faith. LLF Web Version Full Final 5 November.pdf (churchofengland.org) You might want to look at what this has to say.

I want to conclude my reflections by drawing attention to two additional points – perhaps tangential – but which I think worth mentioning.

The first is that I do not think that it is accidental that the verses about marriage and divorce come, in Mark, immediately before Jesus’ words about the well being of children.  There are often no easy answers when marriages are unhappy, and sometime divorce may be the better option for the happiness of a whole family, but the proximity of these two comments of Jesus hint that the welfare of children must be one of the factors taken into account in the making and breaking of the marriages of adults.

My second takes me back to my commentary of Genesis with which I began. The text I intended to quote, and which Jesus quotes in Mark 10.8, ‘and the two shall become one flesh’, hints at the interplay between duality and unity which I believe is a feature deeply embedded in the Book of Genesis. The central ‘thesis’ of my reading of Genesis is that God, God’s acts of creation and God’s interaction with the world involve a profound interplay between unity and duality, and the need to hold them in a creative tension. For example it is interesting to notice how the acts of creation begin with a series of divisions, and so much of the story of Genesis are the tales of competing brothers. Yet biblical, and certainly Jewish, interpretation has always affirmed the unity of God, most powerfully of course in Deuteronomy 6.4, ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one’.

 I have suggested that as the part of creation which is described as being ‘in the image of God’, it is the privilege and task of human beings to live in the tension between this unity and this duality more powerfully and perhaps also more painfully than any other part of creation. It also has implications for our understanding of the position and role of Jesus Christ who in his person holds together this exquisite tension of unity and duality, divinity and humanity more acutely and more painfully still. The reading from Hebrews 1.1-4; 2.5-12 which is our Epistle for this week, and perhaps even Psalm 8 (as read in the Christian tradition) seem to hint at this. Bearing this in mind it is interesting to turn for one last time to Genesis 2.24, ‘and the two shall become one flesh’. Does this perhaps suggest that in its ‘ideal’, marriage is intended to reflect in some deep way this tension between unity and duality which is at the heart of creation?

‘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.