Apostolic faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Touching God

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

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

Painting by Elena Cherkasova

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

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

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

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

‘Noli te tangere’, Alexander Ivanov

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

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

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

The first verse goes:

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

And the repeated chorus is:

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Questions! Questions!

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is hope for a tree

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

Clare Amos

Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

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

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

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

The man replied, Seventy years.’

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

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

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

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

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

Our olive tree come to life again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking and Entering

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

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Ruins of houses from New Testament times in Capernaum, Galilee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A deep but dazzling darkness: God’s generous love

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

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

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

There is in God, some say,

A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

             See not all clear.

    O for that night! where I in Him

    Might live invisible and dim! (Henry Vaughan)

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Amos

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Earth from space

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

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

MF Peck postcard of Dorset

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

Mappa Mundi, with Jerusalem at the centre of the world

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

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

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

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

‘Go Forth House’, Waterloo, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Heather Pencavel)

‘Risen, Ascended, Glorified’: A reflection for Ascensiontide

The Church of the Ascension Cadenabbia, Italy,
the only Anglican church in the Diocese in Europe dedicated to the Ascension.

T

I am grateful to Canon William Gulliford, Diocesan Director of Ordinands, and my colleague on the diocesan Ministry Team, not only for offering his thoughts and challenges on the Feast of the Ascension for this week’s lectionary blog, but also drawing my attention to the beautiful Anglican church in Cadenabbia that is dedicated to the Ascension. For more about the church go to Church on Lake Como. William explores the lectionary readings for Ascension Day, Acts 1. 1-11; Ephesians 1. 15-end; Luke 24. 44-end

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

*****

It is something of a deprivation not to be able to sing in church at the moment. With the perceptible reduction in infections the day may just be in sight when congregations can sing in services once again. In England we have been allowed to sing outside since Easter and in our church we have taken every opportunity in our church garden either at the start or finish of a service to sing when possible. It has been particularly moving at the end of funerals recently, to follow the coffin and as it is loaded into the hearse to sing together an Easter hymn. Ascensiontide has a host of full-throttle wonders, one of which is a Eucharistic hymn Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour. It has kept coming to me as I have been revisiting the various New Testament accounts of the Ascension.

On Easter morning a parishioner emerged from church, clearly troubled by the readings. ‘Where is He?’ my perplexed friend asked? ‘Where is he, when Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, ‘I am not yet ascended to the Father.’

I had not addressed this in any way in my sermon that morning, nor thought of this exchange as the cause for post resurrection puzzle. But this question has remained with me in lead up to Ascensiontide.

The Ascension has always signified for me the assimilation of the incarnate Christ into the fullness of God. I had seen in the Ascension a sacrament somehow of our becoming, or becoming again, what Christ is, because he had become what we are. In the context of the many sadnesses and losses of this pandemic, there is comfort in this, that the disjointedness of our human frailty is tended by the possibility of healing and transformation in Christ’s movement to the Father. But the question about Christ’s state between resurrection and ascension needled me, simply because I had not pondered it before. It has caused me to think once again about the Ascension within the divine the economy of salvation.

It might have plugged into a bewilderment I think I have always felt about the Ascension, with its inference of ascending, going up,as ifto defined place. Having been born a matter of days before the Moon landing, my whole lifetime has been overshadowed by the demystification of space travel, and a general acceptance of the infinite character of time and space.

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy this year, in celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, the imagination is stretched by the mediaeval world’s mapping of hell, purgatory and heaven. Implied within the Comedy is a spatial sense of the locations of all three realms. The pilgrim, Dante, descends to the earthly depths of hell, climbs the Mountain of Purgatory before taking a space flight through our known universe. Dante is speaking in metaphors too, but the furthest reaches of space were metaphorical for him in the way that it cannot be for the modern mind, and he was only advancing what the Church of his day took for granted.

I have needed to remind myself of what the New Testament’s accounts say took place at the Ascension.

The key readings for Ascension Day present another potential conundrum. They are both from the pen of St Luke.

The traditional site of the Ascension on the Mt of Olives, now governed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf

Luke’s Gospel gives Jesus a busy Easter Day evening. First, Jesus meets Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. As Cleopas and his companion are recounting their experiences back in Jerusalem, Jesus then appears to the assembled disciples. Jesus preaches again, and then takes them up towards Bethany, on the eastern side of the Mt of Olives, and ‘was taken from them into heaven.’ No indication of what time of day, but it seems it was the early hours of Easter Monday by then! The same author, at the start of Volume 2 says in verse 3 of chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles, ‘To them he presented himself after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the Kingdom of God.’ This time, without being precise about where the gathering has taken place, Jesus promises them the outpouring of power from on high. A cloud then envelopes him, and as he is taken from their sight. Two angels confirm that he has been taken up into heaven and he will come in the same way as they saw him go. The stage is set for the Feast of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit.

St Matthew’s account is quite different. The women, on their way back from the tomb on Easter Day, are told by the angel to tell the disciples to hasten to Galilee. But the women catch a glimpse of Jesus, whom they fall down and worship. He repeats the command for the disciples to proceed to Galilee. Once there, on an unnamed mountain, Jesus charges his followers to ‘make disciples of all nations…and lo, I am with you to the close of the age.’ It does not say he then ascended, but it seems it is the culmination of his teaching and earthly presence with them.

Shall we bypass detailed discussion of St Mark? Many scholars regard verses 9-20 of his Gospel as a much later patchwork of all the other Gospels, and so not original. However, whoever exactly wrote verse 19 the author still speaks of Jesus being taken up into heaven and adds that Jesus ‘sat down at the right hand of God.’

So, to the Gospel of John. In the Fourth Gospel we find the most intense accounts of Jesus’s presence with the disciples in those post-resurrection days. The meeting with Mary Magdalene in the garden by the tomb is perhaps one of the most moving in a Gospel which has especially beautiful encounters of Jesus with different individuals, and notably women. He meets with the ten on Easter Day evening and then the following Sunday with Thomas and the brethren. The addendum in chapter 21 with the rehabilitation of Peter is charged with the poignancy of forgiveness and release. As in Matthew, and again at odds with Luke, in that final account, we are in Galilee. Twice the Fourth Evangelist tells us of the many other things which Jesus did. The second time he underlines how uncontainable this would all be in a life-time’s library of books. But not a word about the Ascension.

There is an account we must not overlook, even if it opens up broader horizons still. Indeed, St Paul, who does not tell us what happened at the Ascension, or indeed when, in the sequence of resurrection narratives, has the Ascension in sight in much of his writing. (Colossians 3.1-4; Ephesians 1.15-20; 4.9-15; Romans 8.5, 6, 34; Philippians 3.19-21; 2 Corinthians 12.1-10). His own resurrection experience, on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.1-99; 22.4-16; 26.9-18; 1 Corinthians 9.1; 1 Cor 15.8: Galatians 1.16) extends the period of these encounters to the time of his own conversion after 34 AD.

For the sceptics, it could be said, having looked at different post-Resurrection accounts, that the Ascension is handled more differently by the four evangelists than the Eucharist, Jesus’s healing miracles, the Passion or even the Resurrection. Luke even seems to confound his own sequencing of it with two separate narratives. Certainly, Luke is the only Evangelist to imply, and only once, that the Ascension took place on the Mount of Olives and forty days after the Resurrection. Sceptics and non-sceptics would agree that Paul’s Theology is laden with a presumption of Our Lord’s Ascension. But despite being closer in time to those events, Paul gives us no clue of what it was like and when it happened as a distinct event.

Is there a way to harmonise these dissonant testimonies to Our Lord’s departure?

You will have got there before me, like John outrunning Peter to the tomb. The concluding line of the hymn I spoke of that the start, Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour spells the answer in just three words – Risen, ascended, glorified. The difference between these narratives need not be a cause for scepticism if we concede that it is but a trick of the post-resurrection light. Our Lord’s resurrection is a single and divine mystery from the moment the tomb is empty. Actually, St Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 15.

There is more insight than is immediately apparent as the Risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene. The understandable desire of the Magdalene to keep holding on to Jesus matched by his gentle separation from her, with the words ‘I am not yet ascended to the Father’, suggests that Jesus is not in an in-between or non-place. The emphasis is that Jesus’s departure is vital. It is not that he has not yet ascended, but Mary cannot see that his rising from the dead marked his Ascension too: the start of a new way of relating to the one she has loved so much. It’s as if John is playing out what St Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5.16-17 ‘From now on we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has passed away the new has come.’

Mary’s re-creation, in the early light of the first Easter morning, hints at what will happen to all believers, once Jesus has gone to his Father. His departure is the fulfilment of what he promises in Matthew’s Gospel ‘lo, I am with you to the close of the age.’

Mary’s experience of wanting and even needing to hold on to a dear departed loved one after their death is the most authentic experience of grief. Jesus indeed is gentle with her, not forbidding her touch, just gently stopping it, for his resurrection was his Ascension too.

William Temple in his readings in John’s Gospel says:

In the days of His (Jesus’) earthly ministry, only those could speak to him who came where He was. If He was in Galilee, men could not find Him in Jerusalem; if He was in Jerusalem, men could not find Him in Galilee. But His Ascension means that He is perfectly united with God; we are with Him wherever we are present to God; and that is everywhere and always. Because He is ‘in Heaven’ He is everywhere on earth: because He is ascended, He is here now. Our devotion is not to hold us by the empty tomb; it must lift up our hearts to heaven so that we too ‘in heart and mind thither ascend and with Him continually dwell;’  it must also send us forth into the world to do His will; and these are not two things, but one.

The interior of the Church of the Ascension, Cadenabbia

‘They invited him to stay for several days…’ (Acts 10.48)

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the reading from the Book of Acts, 10.44-48, that is set for this Sunday, Easter 6.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Sixth century icon of Peter at St Katharine’s monastery, Sinai

This week’s lectionary reading from Acts 10.44-48 gives us the conclusion to the story of the coming to faith of Cornelius and his household which is the subject of the entire tenth chapter of Acts. It begins with Cornelius’ vision in Caesarea, then Peter’s corresponding vision in Joppa, which leads to Peter accepting the invitation from Cornelius’ messengers and travelling with them back to Caesarea. An account offered by Cornelius of why he has asked Peter to come is next, followed by Peter’s retelling of the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection and promise of forgiveness of sins.

At this point the current lectionary reading picks up the story, as the Holy Spirit ‘fell upon all who heard the word’, and Cornelius and his household are baptised. And the chapter ends with what seems a lowkey, almost throwaway line, ‘They invited him to stay for several days’ (Acts 10.48).

However apparently throwaway lines are sometimes the most important and interesting in scripture. One of my favourites comes in the story of Joseph in Genesis 39.6, ‘Now Joseph was handsome and goodlooking’. With a sentence like that one can be sure that there is going to be trouble ahead!

What we have here in Acts though is a throwaway line that takes us to the very heart of the Christian story.

It is traditional (indeed officially ‘required’) to read extracts from Acts in Sundays throughout the Easter season, up till Pentecost. I am not quite sure of the logic of that – why before, rather than after, Pentecost? But given that this is the part of the church’s year when we seem to read Acts most systematically, it is probably appropriate that for at least one week this lectionary blog focuses on Acts, using the set reading as our starting point.

To return to our throwaway line, ‘They invited him to stay for several days’.

One of the insights of Luke, the writer both of the Gospel and Acts, is that hospitality, offered and received, is not an optional extra – but the very key to Christian mission. God is the great party-giver, and one of the most powerful images of the Kingdom in the New Testament is the ‘Great Feast’ to which all are invited – even the most unlikely. There is a delicious comment by the biblical scholar Robert Karris that picks this up: ‘In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. A slight exaggeration – but it also contains a deep truth.

As regards Acts, the sequel to this Gospel, it is interesting to discover how often the motif of the sharing of food as well as wider hospitality also appears in this biblical book. It is certainly a key motif in this episode with Cornelius, who was of course a Gentile, a Roman officer and living in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine in New Testament times. First Peter’s vision in Joppa so clearly focuses on ‘food’, and in particular the different foods that were considered clean or unclean under Jewish dietary laws (Acts 10.11-15). Next there is a brief note (another throwaway!) that Peter offered the messengers of Cornelius overnight lodging (Acts 10. 23). It is also interesting that Peter’s presentation in front of Cornelius of the story of Jesus specifically mentions that the resurrected Jesus ‘ate and drank’ with his disciples after his resurrection from the dead (Acts 10.41). And then finally we have this concluding line which suggests that Peter accepted Cornelius’ hospitality.

The Hadrianic aqueduct of Caesarea Maritima, Israel FOLLOWING HADRIAN
Roman aqueduct in Caesarea, dating from the second century AD

To understand the radical nature of what is happening we need to be aware of the strict social protocols that separated Jews and Gentiles in New Testament times. They were partly linked to Jewish dietary laws, which meant that it was very difficult for both groups to eat together. Peter’s comment to Cornelius, ‘You yourself know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile’ (Acts 10.28) accurately sets out the situation. It was also telling that Peter’s vision precisely focused on ‘unclean foods’, even though in the context of the vision they are intended as a metaphor for his then perception of Gentiles.

So the giving and receiving of such hospitality was a visible ‘symbol’ of the breaking down of division and of Christ’s work of reconciliation. Hospitality is not an optional add-on to the work of the Gospel, it is the work of the Gospel. I cherish and often come back to the ‘throwaway’ remark made once by Professor David Ford, ‘Christian mission is offering the hospitality of the face of Christ.’ (David Ford)

What is the practical expression of such Gospel hospitality in our context, our place and time?

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Quite a few years ago I edited Partners in Learning, an ecumenical all-age worship publication (now morphed into Roots). For several weeks one year we looked at key themes in the Book of Acts – which of course included an exploration of how hospitality is a theme that is so central to the book. I wrote a number of imaginary ‘invitations’ – all in fact linked to specific moments in Acts when hospitality was offered and received. The invitations were intended to be used in an all-age worship service, or possibly study group, with people being invited to reflect on the invitation and write their response. The series of imaginary invitation letters was intended to get people thinking – and comments we received back suggested that some people certainly did!

I set out some of these invitations below – I am particularly proud of my effort on behalf of the people of Malta! Please do feel free to make use of them if it would be helpful to you.

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1. To Sextus, Septimus and Octavius, servants of Cornelius.

I gather you have had to travel from Caesarea to Joppa, because your master wants to meet me. You must be hungry. Do come in, have a meal with me and stay the night.  Shalom, Peter. (Acts 10.17-23)

2. To Peter.

Many thanks for sharing the wonderful news with me about Jesus. Before you have to return to Joppa it would be marvellous if you would stay with me a few days, even though I am a Gentile.

Gratefully yours, Cornelius. (Acts 10.44-48)

3. To Paul.

You wonderful man! I do so love listening to you. Come on, make the leap, come and stay with me while you are in Philippi even though I’m a Gentile. It will be one small step for Paul, one giant leap for Christianity.  Ever yours, Lydia. (Acts 16.13-15)

4. To the Jewish inhabitants of Rome.

Please come and have a meal with me at my house and listen to what I have to say to you. It’s important. Grace be to you, Paul. (Acts 28.23-31)

5. To Peter.

Can you stand the smell? If so I would be chuffed if you could stay at my house. I know a tanner isn’t considered quite OK in the best Jewish circles, but then as you told me yourself your friend Jesus used to accept some odd invitations as well. Hopefully yours, Simon the Tanner (Acts 9.43-10.16)

6. To Arete and Hermione, widows.

I am sorry that you took umbrage the other day when there wasn’t enough to go round. You are quite right – the Hebrew speaking widows were taking more than their fair share of the food. But I hope we’ve sorted that out now. My friends and I have just been officially appointed as’ deacons’ with a special responsibility for you Greek speaking ladies. Do come to the next common meal. Stephen (on behalf of ‘The Seven’) (Acts 6. 1-6)

7. To Paul and his companions.

How cold and wet you all look!  Do come in and let us warm you up. We have a lot of experience of welcoming holiday-makers and travellers, even though they don’t normally arrive as dramatically as you. Swimmingly yours, the inhabitants of Malta.

PS Take care not to step on any of the snakes.  (Acts 28.1-10)

A mosaic focusing on Paul’s shipwreck, given to the people of Malta by Pope Benedict XVI

8. To Ananias.

Can you come quickly? There’s someone staying with me that I very much want you to meet. You may be able to help him. Do keep quiet about it, his name begins with S… Please come this afternoon and stay for supper. Judas.  (Acts 9.10-19)

9. To Paul and Silas.

My wife and I would be most honoured if you could spend a few hours at our house. I’m sure you could do with a wash and clean-up after your time in jail. It was all a misunderstanding. Your friendly neighbourhood jailer at Philippi. (Acts 16.25-34)

10. To Apollos.

We have heard about you from our mutual friends Prisca and Aquila. We are longing to meet you. Can we put you up when you come to Corinth? Sorry to be so brief, but we are not as eloquent as you. Best wishes, some Corinthians.  (Acts 18.24-28, 1 Corinthians 16.12)

11. To Paul.

Any chance of seeing you again, Paul my old friend, on your trip to Jerusalem? Do pop in and stay with us if you can. You haven’t met my daughters, have you? I will try to keep them quiet while you are staying with us – they are rather keen on prophesying, and I hear that you think the ladies should keep silent.

Affectionately yours, Philip (Acts 21.7-14)

12. To Paul.

 I’m sure that you could do with somewhere quiet to stay while you are in Jerusalem this time. I would be most honoured if I could put you and Timothy up at my house – it’s conveniently near the temple.

Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21.15-16)

I am the true Vine: the ‘end’ of Easter

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Focusing on the Sunday lectionary Gospel reading, John 15.1-8, this week’s lectionary blog also draws briefly Acts 8.26-40, 1 John 4.7-21 and this week’s selected psalm portion, Psalm 22.25-31

Clare Amo
s

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

The ‘icon’ of the True Vine, at the Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, Geneva, Switzerland

One of the features of the Gospel of John is Jesus’ regular use of the words ‘I am’, in Greek ego eimi, to describe himself. It is widely, and I am sure rightly, assumed, that in using this phrase as a self-description Jesus is claiming some form of identity with the God who, in Exodus 3.14, discloses himself as ‘I am who I am’.

Quite a number of these ‘I am’ sayings in John are linked to what I call a ‘predicate’ – a phrase that ‘explains’ the initial verb. So we get predicates such as ‘Bread of Life’, ‘Resurrection and the Life’, ‘Light of the World’ etc. There are however also in addition quite a number of ‘I am’ sayings in the Gospel that do not have such a predicate, and therefore get half-hidden by the English translation (for example, there are two such instances in John 8.24, 28).

Although it is not the last ‘I am’ saying in the Gospel (which comes during Jesus’ arrest in John 18.5, 6, 8) The last* ‘I am with a predicate’ saying is here in this week’s lectionary Gospel reading, ‘I am the true vine’ (John 15.1). 

(* Challenge to blog readers: which is the first ‘I am’ saying in John’s Gospel? It is a question I often ask people when I am leading Bible study sessions, and rarely does anyone get it right! Do you know? No cheating – but the answer is given at the bottom of this week’s blog post, below.)

I do find it intriguing and important that ‘I am the true vine’ should be the final ‘I am with a predicate’ saying in the Gospel, and therefore in a sense the ‘I am’ statement which all the earlier examples are leading up to.

The reason for this is that it is the one point in the Gospel when the expression ‘I am’ is linked to something that is clearly and intentionally corporate. The Gospel makes this explicit, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ (John 15.5). ‘You’ – we – are ‘the branches’, which are an essential part of the vine. The vine cannot really exist without its branches – certainly it cannot be fruitful without them. Conversely the branches cannot continue to flourish without the central stem which holds them together and roots them in the life of God. None of the earlier instances of ‘I am’ have quite this sense.

So in effect we are being told, by the placing of this ‘I am’ statement as the Gospel’s final ‘predicate’ example – that this is the goal which all those earlier attributes of Jesus and all the parts of his story – his incarnation, his ministry, his death, his resurrection – are pointing us towards. Jesus has offered himself as the bread of life for us, he has shone as the light of the world for us, he is our door and good shepherd, he has pointed us on the way, the truth and the life, and he has pledged us  resurrection and life – all so that, as part of this fruitful vine, we can be intimately related , as he is, to the ‘I am’, the divine life-giver whose overriding promise throughout the whole of the Bible is ‘I am with you’.

I have titled this week’s reflection: ‘I am the true Vine: the “end” of Easter’. There is a deliberate double-entendre in these words. We are reading this Gospel near the ‘end’ of the Easter season, as first Ascensiontide and then Pentecost draws very close. But to describe Jesus Christ in this way as the ‘vine’ is also the ‘end’ of Easter, in the sense of being the goal and purpose of the Easter story. For, as all the Gospels suggest in their different and varied ways, the death and resurrection of Christ means that now it is the responsibility of the Christian community, individually and corporately, to continue Jesus’ ministry of being ‘I am’ for our own place and time. The one is now become many.

So there is a fundamental relationship between the words of John’s Gospel, ‘I am the true vine’ and the lovely prayer ascribed to St Teresa of Avila, ‘Christ now has no hands but yours…’

I am not sure what was in the minds of the lectionary compilers for this week, but with a certain amount of serendipity the readings from Acts and I John, and the selected portion of the Psalms, all complement the Gospel as they each touch on the relationship between the individual and the community in the purposes of God. The meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8.26-40,centres round the Ethiopian’s attempt to understand the meaning of some verses from one of the Servant Songs found in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 52.13-53.12 – the actual verses quoted are Isaiah 53.7-8).

But one of the fascinating aspects of the Servant Songs is that it is not clear whether the ‘Servant’ is an individual, or a community, perhaps part of the people of Israel. At some points in Isaiah the Servant appears to be one person, at other times a group from within the people of Israel (see and compare for example Isaiah 49.3, 5). Over the years I have reflected on the message of Isaiah 40-55 I have come to believe that perhaps it is not either/or but rather both/and. So the mission of the Servant perhaps may originate in the life and suffering of an individual, but the task is precisely to encourage others to join in and share that ministry of servanthood – enabling the circle to grow wider and wider – until eventually it encompasses the whole world.

Psalm 22.25-31 conveys a similar expanding movement. I find it remarkable to notice how this psalm which begins with a solitary and lonely individual (My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Psalm 22.1), from verses 22 onwards, shift into summoning more and more people to join into a circle of praise, which by verse 31, the end of the psalm, includes not only ‘the ends of the earth’, but also the human community of the past and the future.

From a slightly different perspective the Epistle, I John 4.7-21, explores a closely related issue, namely the relationship between our love for God, and our love for our fellow human brothers and sisters. The intimate relationship between God and our fellow Christians requires us to discover the face of God in these, our brothers and sisters. That is actually the corollary of John’s affirmation that we are the branches of the true vine.

The picture used at the head of this week’s blog is especially dear to me. It is an ‘icon’ of Christ the True Vine which hangs in the entrance salon at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, near Geneva, the residential educational institute of the World Council of Churches, where I was privileged to work for most of the last decade. Traditional icons of Christ the True Vine depict the branches populated with the apostles, or sometimes bishops, and occasionally also the Virgin Mary. The Bossey ‘icon’ though includes a very different selection of people on its branches. As you can see they represent a wide variety of  places, contexts and times – and both male and female. Because of this difference it cannot formally be considered an authorised religious icon. Yet it is a profound witness to the way that the message of Easter assures us how even the most unlikely people have a vital role to play in the ecumenical economy of God.

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*Jesus’ first ‘I am’ statement in the Gospel of John comes in John 4.26, during the course of Jesus’ discussion with the woman at the well of Samaria. Jesus says to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’. I find it immensely powerful that the first time in the Gospel that Jesus discloses this divine identity, he does so to a woman, a foreigner, and someone who was probably an ‘outsider’ even in her own community. Additionally, though not generally recognised as such, it is actually an ‘I am with a predicate’. The predicate here is ‘the one speaking to you’. So just as Jesus elsewhere defines himself as e.g. ‘the light of the world’, so here he defines himself as the one who is in conversation with humanity. This suggests that the fundamental nature of God is as a God who communicates with us. It makes sense really, given that the Gospel of John begins by introducing Christ as ‘the Word’.