Wind and sea obey him?


The fierce storms that are affecting both the United Kingdom and parts of continental Europe this week provide an intriguing backdrop to this week’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 8.22-25 which recounts Jesus stilling the storm. The other lectionary passages selected for this week (Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25; Psalm 65; Revelation 4) also ‘comment’ implicitly on the relationships between humanity, divinity and creation. The painting of the stilling of the storm by Eularia Clarke, stunningly conveys the terror of the people in the boat with Jesus. The boat itself is almost being swamped. Clarke’s painting forms part of the Methodist Church in Britain’s collection of modern art which can be accessed here Browse the Collection (methodist.org.uk) and it is reproduced in accordance with the generous rules offered by the Methodist Church.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Eularia Clarke, Storm over the Lake from the Methodist Modern Art Collection © TMCP, The Methodist Church in Britain, used with permission. http://www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection

Most of the time I enjoy thunder storms and find them exhilarating. I can remember however a terrifying experience once when Alan (my husband) and I were with friends in the Syrian desert north-east of Damascus exploring the then deserted site of Mar Mousa al-Habashi. A storm blew up quickly (as it can do in those parts) while we were out in the open walking across flat rocky ground with no bolt holes for cover. Fierce shards of lightning began to strike the ground. As the highest objects in the vicinity (even if we crouched down) we were the obvious targets at which the lightning would direct itself. It was a fearful few minutes before we reached the safety of our car.

In such contexts it is easy to see how the mythology of the Canaanites developed, in which the god Baal Haddad (‘Haddad’ means ‘blacksmith’) was venerated and feared, and how thunder was understood as the clang of Baal’s blacksmith irons and lightning the sparks as he worked the metal. Indeed where we were that late afternoon in Syria was exactly part of the heart-land of the Canaanite world. In the Canaanite religious tradition Baal showed his power by his ability to control both such storms and the unruly waters, whether seas whipped up by the winds, or waters bucketed down from the clouds into wadis that could turn into torrents in minutes. Since the 1930s we know considerably more about the religion of the Canaanites, Israel’s precursor and continuing neighbour. Discoveries of texts at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) – which is only about 150 miles from where I was that day in Syria – have provided us with a detailed description of the story of Baal’s conflict with the stormy waters, which ends, of course, in Baal’s eventual victory.

It is fascinating to see how vestiges of this mythology have survived, though been transformed, in the Old Testament. The big difference of course is that it is ‘God’ (the deity the Bible names as YHWH) rather than ‘Baal’ who is the victor over the winds and the waters. But also what in the Canaanite myths is a real and fearsome battle, that it is far from certain Baal will eventually win, becomes in the Old Testament a literal ‘no contest’ in which God’s victory is absolutely assured. One of my favourite examples of how this transformation has been worked out comes in Psalm 104.26, ‘There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.’ In the Canaanite myths Leviathan (Lotan) is a mighty monster who really gives Baal a run for his money, and at one point seems to be the likely victor of their fight. In the Old Testament Leviathan has been domesticated into God’s giant bath-toy!

The creation narrative of Genesis 1 contains just hints of some of these ancient ideas. Once again there is no battle – but there is the vestige of an understanding that for creation to flourish the deep waters need to be controlled and boundaried.

To understand the sea miracles of the Gospels, one of which, Luke 8.22-25,  is offered as our lectionary Gospel for this week, we need to be aware of this ancient symbolic background. The sea was the great unknown, the great hostile uncontrollable (at least by mortals). Divinity demonstrated its power by its ability to control the waters – and of course in Old Testament history such a demonstration had been made by God at the time of the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea. It is telling that the verb used to describe how Jesus spoke to the wind and the waves is ‘rebuke’ – a word used elsewhere in the Gospel to describe Jesus’ speech to demonic spirits (and significantly on one occasion to Peter as well, Mark 8.33). It was entirely reasonable for the disciples with Jesus in the boat to express their bewilderment with the question, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ (Luke 8.25), for the Old Testament had indeed taught them that it was God alone who could control the sea.  The implication about Jesus is clear – even though it is not spelled out explicitly by the Gospel writer. That is, on the whole, how the Synoptic Gospels offer us their ‘Christology’, their understanding of who Jesus was and what he did. Not by spelling it out directly (as the Gospel of John does) but by leaving it up to us to draw our own conclusions from what Jesus did and said.

I have explored the ‘nature miracles’ of the Gospels in this way over many years, but it is only much more recently that I have also come to see that these fascinating episodes can also be a resource for looking at the relationship between humanity and creation. The question ‘Who is this, that wind and sea obey him?’ can also constitute an implicit rebuke to human beings who think that the glories and the wildness of creation should be subservient to human needs and control.

So it is interesting that this Gospel story is paired in the lectionary this week with what I refer to as the ‘second creation story’ of the Book of Genesis, Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25. This is the account in which humanity is created ‘from the dust of the ground’ (Genesis 2.7) like a potter moulds shapes out of clay, even though God’s special care for this creature that has been formed then becomes apparent.  The association between human beings (adam), with the earth (adamah) is made clear by the vocabulary used to tell the story. The comment that before the human beings was fashioned ‘there was no one to till the ground’ (Genesis 2.5) carries with it the implication that that will be the primary task of this soon-to-be-made creature. But it is interesting that the word that the NSRV translates as ‘till’ could equally mean to ‘serve’ or even to ‘worship’ the ground. The choice of the word that we use in our translation says quite a lot about our understanding of the relationship between human beings and the earth.

At any rate there is a rather different ‘feel’ to this passage compared with the description offered by Genesis 1.26-28, in which human beings are created as ‘the image of God’ and with ‘dominion’ over other elements of creation. I believe that it is no accident that Genesis includes both accounts with their different ‘feel’ within its pages in close proximity. The glory and tragedy of human beings is that we are both ‘image of God’ and ‘dust of the earth’, and it is our vocation to work this reality out in fear and trembling, both in our relationship with God, and our relationship with the rest of creation. The wellbeing of our world may well depend upon this.

Plain Speaking

This week’s blog draws on the Gospel, ‘the Sermon on the Plain’, Luke 6.17-26, as well as the set Old Testament reading Jeremiah 17.5-10 and Psalm 1. Tellingly it is not easy to find a picture of Jesus preaching ‘on the plain’. The equivalent sermon offered in Matthew, ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ is far more frequently illustrated! However this picture – one of the Jesus Mafa series, portraying the Gospels in the context of village life in West Africa, comes fairly close! Formally it is described as illustrating Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount – but Jesus does seem to be on the same level as his listeners.

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

One way of looking at the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ which Luke offers us, which is both similar – and different – from Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is to see it as Mary’s Magnificat now being worded into life by her son Jesus.

The promised reversals of the Magnificat e.g. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,’ (Luke 1.52-53) are echoed in the Beatitudes and Woes that Jesus now proclaims in this ‘level place’ – the older translations referred to ‘a plain’, which has given this talk its traditional name.

The fact that Jesus speaks on ‘a plain’ rather than on the ‘mountain’ – the location of Matthew’s rather better known Beatitudes – is surely significant. Location is important (as we know from various TV programmes which try to seduce us into wanting a new home, insisting on location… location… location!).

The Magnificat itself speaks explicitly of ‘bringing down’ the powerful, and ‘lifting up’ the lowly. Given that precursor it is no accident that the Gospel of Luke sets this sermon of Jesus Christ on the plain – level ground – rather than on a mountain-top. Luke is well aware of the importance of mountains. Just before this sermon Jesus has gone up a mountain to pray, and while there has chosen ‘the twelve’. Mountains – and their symbolic meaning – appear frequently in all the Gospels. By contrast the Greek word translated as ‘plain’ or ‘level place’ only appears here in the entirety of the New Testament. I suspect that Luke used it to reinforce the sense that Jesus did not choose to place himself ‘above’ others – but deliberately brought himself down to their ‘level’. This  insight is reinforced by the way that Jesus, before speaking to the disciples, ‘looked up’ (Luke 6.20) at them. Looking up is the right posture for Jesus to adopt to present his vision of the inversion of the normal rules of reality.

In the Book of Acts, when Paul is in Thessalonica, the hostile mob that is provoked by his preaching drags Paul’s supporters before the city authorities complaining that that they have offered hospitality to people like Paul who ‘have been turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17.6). Such an ‘upside down’ world is exactly the challenge that Jesus himself has offered to the disciples and to the crowd as he speaks to them on the plain.

Luke’s pairing of ‘blessings’ with ‘woes’ gives a different ‘feel’ to Jesus’ words, when compared with the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.  This difference is perhaps reinforced by the choice of verses from Jeremiah 17.5-10 and Psalm 1 as complementary readings for this week.

Psalm 1 is not, I have to confess, my favourite psalm. Its ‘certainties’ about the respective fates of the righteous and the wicked rather stick in my gullet!  I am very willing to accept, what is often suggested, that it was added to the Book of Psalms at quite a late stage in the development of the book, in order to set in context, or even perhaps ‘tame’ the challenges thrown out by many of the other psalms in the book, especially the psalms of lament – which are all too willing to acknowledge that there is no automatic correlation between righteousness and prosperity.

It is interesting to see this argument also being carried on within the pages of the Book of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 17.7 we have what seems to be almost a quote from Psalm 1. There is however a subtle difference. In Psalm 1 it is those whose ‘delight is in the law of the Lord’ who will be like ‘trees planted by water’. In Jeremiah 17 it is those ‘who trust in the Lord’. For Jeremiah that personal relationship with God would seem to be paramount.  But the fascination of the Book of Jeremiah is precisely that the prophet is elsewhere quite prepared to argue with any theology that simplistically links faith and success, based on his own personal experience. ‘Why does the way of the guilty prosper, why do all those who are treacherous thrive? You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruit.’ (Jeremiah 12.1-2)

For me, one of the glories of the Old Testament, which is the part of the Bible in which I have the most professional expertise, is precisely this internal argument and debate that it conducts within its pages about the relationship between our faith in God, the righteousness of our behaviour and our ‘rewards’. It refuses to give us an easy answer, and that is a glory of this part of our Scripture. If God is, as Exodus 3.14-15 suggests, to be known as ‘the I am who I am’, then perhaps indeed we should not expect to be able to pin God down – though throughout history human beings have so often tried to do so.

To return to Luke’s blessings and woes. There are several ways in which we might read them, but perhaps one thought is to suggest that they are continuing that Old Testament debate about the relationship between righteousness and success, and in the process inviting significant questions as to what we mean by both.

Over the last two years, during the pandemic, many of us have found ourselves turning quite often to ‘wrestle’ with the ‘problem’ of evil and suffering, reward and punishment and what our biblical and Christian faith has to teach us in relation to this. It is hardly surprising, given the intensity of what we have been living through. In the Diocese in Europe a number of our chaplaincies have sought to help the people explore such questions. I am grateful to Revd Canon Medhat Sabry, chaplain in Madrid, for organising a theological ‘salon’ on this topic in which I was invited to participate. The number of people who tuned in for this Zoom event suggested that Canon Sabry had touched upon an important chord.

It is interesting to reflect, with Luke’s blessings and woes in mind, that one of the blessings that is offered will be to wipe away the tears from those who are weeping. I do think, and I am speaking to myself at least as much as anyone else, that sometimes our greatest need is to learn how to weep. Tears are not very British, and perhaps they are not a typical part of Anglican spirituality!  Indeed the need to carry on (as now) in difficult times, can mean that tears can seem a luxury we cannot allow ourselves. Yet St James of Saroug in the 6th century reflected in a way that resonates with Jesus’  ‘upside down’ words in Luke’s Gospel, ‘“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.”[i]  .

We are all invited to be on the same level! Perhaps this tells us just why Jesus preached this sermon on the plain.


[i] Quoted in Alan W. Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985),.104.

Overflowing holiness

This week’s lectionary blog draws on all three of the suggested readings for the coming Sunday: Luke 5.1-11; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11 ; Isaiah 6.1-8 [9-13] but particularly focuses on the numinous call vision of Isaiah. It was partly prompted by the beauty of Salisbury Cathedral and its modern font, pictured above.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

I find it a visceral experience whenever I walk into Salisbury Cathedral and see its modern font, designed and created by William Pye and placed in the nave near to the main entrance door in 2008. It is quite literally a visceral experience – it gets me in the gut, it is so beautiful and so ‘right’. It is a combination of its cruciform shape, the continuing ‘overflowing’ of the water from each of its corners, yet an apparent wonderful stillness on the water’s surface which allows stained glass windows to be reflected in it. Appropriately, the worship at the Cathedral at certain seasons of the year – Epiphany and the post-Easter period – incorporates the font into the beginning or conclusion of the Sunday eucharistic liturgy.

It was Salisbury Cathedral and its font that came to mind as I was reflecting on the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, the Gospel being Luke 5.1-11 (Luke’s account of the call of Peter and his friends), complemented by 1 Corinthians 15.1-11 (in which Paul lists the witnesses to the resurrection – including even himself) and Isaiah 6.1-8 [9-13] (the call vision of the prophet Isaiah).

It is fairly easy to see the common thread that must have been in the minds of the lectionary compilers as they grouped these readings together. In each case it is a call to God’s service – of Peter and his companions, of Paul, of Isaiah. Each recipient of the call also feels themselves deeply unworthy of it (‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man’/ ‘I am unfit to be called an apostle’/ ‘Woe is me… I am a man of unclean lips’). But it is important to notice another thread that they have in common – that in each case the call is preceded by a divine revelation, and the willingness to accept the call is a response to this revelation. In the case of the Gospel reading the ‘revelation’  is something very practical and concrete – a great shoal of fish which was presumably very welcome to men who earned their living in this way. In the case of Paul it is the privilege he has been given of seeing the resurrected Jesus, in spite of having been initially a persecutor of the early church. In the case of Isaiah it is his vision of God seated upon his throne, and the song of the seraphim that accompanies it.

The pattern in each case is that human response depends on divine initiative. And I don’t think it is wrong to describe such divine initiative as a divine ‘overflowing’. (Which was partly the link in my mind with the font at Salisbury Cathedral.) God is not static – and neither are God’s relationships with human beings, and indeed our world. There is a wonderful comment by John Piper that ‘mission is the overflow of God’s delight in being God’.  A year or so ago I explored the expression used for ‘overflowing’ in the New Testament. I was interested to discover that when we read in our English translations the word ‘abundant’ – as for example in John 10.10 ‘I have come that they may have abundant life’, the Greek original for ‘abundant’ comes from the same verbal stem as words translated elsewhere (especially in 2 Corinthians) as ‘overflowing’.  The implication is that God’s abundance is never static: it overflows and changes whatever it encounters.

As we reflect on this we are coming close to the paradox that is at the core of biblical – and Christian – faith. It is a paradox that we proclaim each Sunday when we say or sing the ‘Sanctus’ as a key part of our eucharistic prayer. Yet perhaps our very familiarity has dulled the breath-taking nature of the paradox, so that we are lulled rather than challenged to our ‘gut’.  For the words, which come of course from the call vision of Isaiah 6, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory’ contain what is in some ways an unresolvable contradiction. The sentence begins by proclaiming the holiness of God, with the three-fold repetition of the word ‘holy’ suggesting a superlative – the absolute, extraordinary holiness of God. In the world of the Bible, and the culture of the Temple, the core understanding of ‘holiness’ was the idea of separation, linked to divine transcendence or otherness. It is no accident that the Hebrew word for ‘holy’ qdsh contains within it the sound of something being ‘cut’ – something being separated. Holiness was dangerous, if ‘ordinary’ ‘unclean’ human beings got too close to the ‘holy’ – unless they had previously taken elaborate precautions – they put themselves in mortal danger. Hence Isaiah’s cry ‘Woe is me…’.  

And yet that Sanctus, that proclamation of God’s ultimate otherness, goes on to affirm, ‘The whole earth is full of his glory’. ‘Glory’ in the biblical idiom, is a way of describing the visible presence of God.  In one sense this statement is totally illogical. For divine holiness and created earthliness do not belong together – they are poles apart. To speak of God’s visible presence throughout the whole earth ‘transgressed’ the normal bounds of both humanity and divinity. Indeed it could put what was earthly in dire danger. Unless… the ‘earthly’ is willing to allow itself to be changed and ‘made holy’, so that it can become a receptacle in which the divine can truly dwell.  

Yet do we really realise that when we sing the Sanctus week by week in the comfort and familiarity of our Anglican worship we are asking to be transformed in this way and pledging ourselves to share in the transformation of the world in which we dwell? To allow God’s grace to continue to overflow into us, as the water of that baptismal font overflows in the numinous beauty of Salisbury Cathedral? And if we did realise it, how many of us would be willing to continue to sing the song?

Jesus, image of humanity: Grace, daughter of the face of God

John Corbidge, A woman of Cyprus (painted c 1974)

The Gospel story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 2.22-40, is wonderfully rich. We could it explore it as ‘the Feast of Meeting’ (its name in the Orthodox Church), or pick up insights it offers us about ‘remembering’, or indeed about Jewish-Christian relations (especially given that we are close to Holocaust Memorial Day and Interfaith Harmony week is arriving very soon). Sometime it would be good to look at it in these ways. But this week somehow the blog wanted to go off in a different direction… (which was not perhaps what I was originally intending!)… but here it is!

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

*****

I am sometimes asked by people if I can recommend to them a particular biblical commentary series. On the whole it is not something that I find easy to do. Most commentary series tend to be a mix of volumes that are good, and with a couple of volumes on particular books outstanding, but also include a few other volumes that can range from the not so good to the downright bizarre.

One of the problems in commentary series is that sometimes authors get asked to write on a biblical book that is needed for the series, but is not a book for which the author him or her self has a real passion. I think (and I say this on the basis of having written a couple of commentaries myself) that to write a biblical commentary you really do need to have a special love for the particular book that you are exploring.

I am much happier if I am asked to recommend what I think is the ‘best’ commentary (or similar) on a particular biblical book. I generally have at least one candidate in view. Of course it depends what one is looking for, whether serious academic exegesis with attention to the Greek or Hebrew text, or a volume that builds a bridge between the biblical book under discussion and the needs of clergy and laypeople who want to explore the text as a tool to deepen their encounter with God.

This year is the lectionary Year C, in which the Gospel of Luke gets particular attention. So it seems appropriate to mention two books on Luke’s Gospel which I particularly cherish and which I am very happy to recommend to others.  The first is Jesus, The Image of Humanity by Anselm Grun who is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Münsterschwarzach in Germany (so I suppose he could be described as an honorary member of the Diocese in Europe!).  

This is not really a complete commentary on the whole of Luke but Grun offers thoughtful exposition of most of the key passages in the Gospel.

My second recommendation would be The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel by Brendan Byrne, who is an Australian Jesuit. Both authors clearly have a deep love for Gospel of Luke which illuminates their writing.  It is interesting that the authors of both books are Roman Catholic: perhaps this is somehow linked to my own appreciation of Roman Catholic biblical scholarship – I did my post-graduate biblical studies at the French Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. At its very best, Roman Catholic biblical scholarship has a way of holding together serious wrestling with academic questions and the need for Scripture to be able to speak to and among the community of faith.

I will come back to some of these issues again in future weeks, but now I want to reflect briefly on this coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 2.22-40, which recounts the story of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, and includes the much-cherished song of Simeon, proclaiming Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’. In this story Luke displays his exquisite literary gifts: in my view Luke intends to pair this encounter in the Temple near the beginning of his Gospel with the experience of the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus near the Gospel’s end, and encourage us to interpret each in the light of the other. Both episodes are excellent examples of Luke’s inspired talent as a writer and an evangelist.  One of the reasons that I appreciate Anselm Grun’s book, is the way that he acknowledges this aspect of Luke’s Gospel. In his own introduction Grun comments:

In Luke’s stories the face of God shines out on us in the man Jesus. If we look at this picture we will be changed by it. Redemption comes about by reading the story. If I read it with all my senses, if – as Martin Luther puts it  – I creep into the text, I will emerge from the text transformed. I have encountered the figure of Jesus, and this now shapes my figure.’ (Anselm Grun).

Grun is quite correct – somehow the image of ‘face’ is a recurring and powerful one in Luke’s Gospel – whether we are thinking of the face of Jesus or the ‘face’ of others. Just think for a moment about the way that Luke (alone) tells us that after Peter’s denial of him, ‘the Lord turned and looked at Peter’, or how the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, stood still, ‘looking sad’, or indeed how (in last week’s Gospel reading, ‘the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed’ on Jesus (Luke 4.20).

In some ways of course ‘the Presentation of Christ in the Temple’ is not the most obvious passage to show how ‘the face of God shines out to us in the man Jesus’, even though Simeon proclaims him, ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. Jesus is at the centre of the story, but here he is the ‘still unspeaking and unspoken word’ to quote TS Eliot’s poem, ‘A Song for Simeon.’

Yet the face of God is in this story – in a place that is perhaps unexpected. For after Simeon sings his song, Anna takes up the strain. She is called ‘Anna the daughter of Phanuel’. If we ‘translate’ these originally Hebrew names into their English equivalents her name would read as ‘Grace, daughter of the face of God’. What a wonderful description! It is of course interesting that she had lived for so many years in the Temple – as that was traditionally the place to which people came to ‘see the face of God’. She had lived in this holy place long enough to become her own prayer.  Anna’s words of praise and acclamation for the child can genuinely be seen as words of ‘grace, the face of God’.

The picture that illustrates this week’s blog – of an old Greek Cypriot woman – speaks to me of Anna daughter of Phanuel. It is a picture which belongs to my husband Alan and myself, which was painted by the artist John Corbidge in northern Cyprus and bought at Bellapais Abbey by Alan in 1974 just before the Turkish invasion in July that year. A few weeks after Alan bought the painting many Greek Cypriot people were killed nearby: we simply don’t know the fate of the old woman who was the subject of Corbidge’s painting. But we have treasured it over the years, and perhaps through the face of this old woman who probably had seen and experienced quite a lot of suffering during her lifetime, we may be able to glimpse something of the face of God, in the humanity that Jesus came to redeem.

*****

In last week’s blog we explored the importance that Luke gives to the word ‘Today’. (In fact the ‘Now’ of the Song of Simeon… ’Now, Lord you are dismissing your servant in peace’ resonates also with Luke’s interest in ‘Today’). One of the blog readers, who preached on the text of Luke 4.14-21 last Sunday, picked up this theme of ‘Today’ and wrote a poem which he used as part of his sermon, and was kind enough to share it with me . The reader’s poem follows:

“Today. This is the time we are given, 

the precious gift we have to use; 

Treasure these passing moments. 

But don’t bank them : 

turn them into life for others. 

Let them go, with grace let them flow. 

Today; this is the time of human suffering; 

This is the time of human need 

This is the time not 

to walk by on the other side 

But to turn, look, see and act. 

Let not today pass you by. 

Today, this is the day when water becomes wine 

When love overflows 

When the impossible becomes possible; 

When the unforgiven get forgiven 

When rich and poor sit down together; 

The day when we see the world with fresh eyes 

The day when hope is born again to us. 

Today.” 

 

 

 

 

Today… this scripture has been fulfilled…

Icon of Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the speech that, according to Luke 4.14-21, Jesus gave in his home town of Nazareth. It has sometimes been described as the ‘mission statement’ or ‘manifesto’ for Jesus’ ministry. This reflection draws on material I offered for a Bible study at a meeting of the Anglican Primates a number of years ago. It also includes two prayers that were written based on this Gospel passage.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

In the Gospel of Luke we find the word ‘Today’ used far more frequently than in any of the other Gospels. It is a characteristic of Luke’s presentation of the ministry of Jesus, which Luke believes lies at the centre of human history. An especially powerful example of Luke’s ‘Today’ occurs as a key part of Jesus’ words at the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth.

In this ‘Today’ (Luke 4.21) we hear potentially both a word of grace and word of judgement which draws into itself both yesterday and tomorrow, the past and the future.

There is a great solemnity about Jesus’ reading in the synagogue of the scripture passage which comes from Isaiah. Jesus stands, receives the scroll, unrolls it, reads, rolls it up again, hands it back and then sits down. And in the middle – the focus point – there is the actual reading. The reading is from the Book of Isaiah. That certainly can be said. But that is the point when the complexities start. At first sight it looks as though it is a straight reading from Isaiah 61.1-2. Yet there is one addition and one subtraction which means that the sum ends up being completely different.

The addition is the line ‘to let the oppressed go free’, at the end of Luke 4.18. If you look carefully at Isaiah 61.1-2 you will see that it simply isn’t there. So where do these words actually come? The answer is another passage of Isaiah – 58.6 – a passage often used in Lent. God is speaking through the mouth of the prophet: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.’

And the subtraction? It is a missing line. Jesus’ final words as he quotes from Isaiah are: ‘To proclaim the accepting or acceptable year of the Lord’ – a sentence which contains the significant Greek word dektos, ‘acceptable’ in it. (The NRSV puts it ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’.) But in Isaiah the message continues with the threatening line, ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.’ There is little doubt that Jesus and Luke deliberately omitted these. And in doing so Jesus changes the thrust of the Old Testament prophet that he is quoting from. It does indeed mean that, as his audience will approvingly remark in verse 22, he is speaking ‘gracious words’ – or as Luke quite literally puts it when you read the Greek, ‘words of grace’ – alluding surely to the theme of God’s welcoming grace which underlies the whole passage. In the Greek the last word that Jesus quotes from Isaiah is actually dektos ‘accepting’ – a word which expresses at its heart God’s generosity.

Intriguingly the world dektos is also present as the story of Jesus that day in Nazareth develops (although this falls outside the part of the passage selected for the lectionary this week). For just as the mood of the congregation begin to turn from approval into hostility, Jesus himself comments, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted / acceptable’ – once again dektos – in his own home town.(Luke 4.24) ’ And from that point on the hostility bubbles up into fury at Jesus as he sets about giving practical examples of God’s accepting grace to those ‘outside’: firstly a Canaanite widow and then a Syrian army captain. The story captures therefore a wonderful and powerful irony – that it is precisely by offering God’s accepting generosity – dektos – that Jesus makes himself unacceptable – again dektos. And the people that initially were pleased to listen to Jesus ‘gracious words’ turn hostile when he gives examples of God’s grace in action.

Yet perhaps the most threatening word that Jesus uses in this passage is actually ‘Today’. The fact that Jesus quotes scripture and then boldly states that has come true ‘today’ left his audience with no escape route. A meditation by the Reformed minister Edmund Banyard brilliantly points out the problem. Is it our problem too?

‘Today, he said, ‘in your hearing this scripture has come true’.
For those who waited without expectancy
This was too much,
Altogether too much.
God would break into life
In some distant future,
Of course he would;
But not now!
Not in the middle of morning worship!
There was no place in the liturgy for that!’
(Edmund Banyard, ‘Turn but a Stone’)

*****

Mission Statement

Fulfilling God
When we become so used to the old words
when the stories no longer startle us
when the parables cease to challenge us,
and the gospel has slipped into the background of life
may the words take flesh and blood
so that the text comes true today.

May these words take flesh:
Good news to the poor! –
poverty is not God’s purpose,
destined to last forever.

May this come true today:
release for prisoners,
caught in the trap of cruel regimes
or bound by unjust laws.

May this come true today:
recovery of sight to the blind –
eyes closed by prejudice or history,
eyes shut to simple joys.

May this come true today:
the broken victims go free.
Ready to start building life again.

May this come true today:
the year of the Lord’s favour,
when feuds and debts are cancelled.

Fulfilling God, may we know,
in our lives and in our world,
that these words come true today.
(Bernard Thorogood, ‘A Restless Hope’)

*****

Today…

Jesus, living Word of God,
Your Nazareth promise of good news is timeless,
Still you offer it to renew our world today:
You offer release for those imprisoned by debt and poverty,
Life for those who know only death and despair.
Provoke us by your Spirit, so we no longer linger and delay,
Quicken us with the vision of a world transformed,
Challenge us to make hope real for all,
So that God’s kingdom may be celebrated in our time,
And poverty be turned to history. Amen.

This beginning of signs…

This first lectionary blog for 2022 appropriately draws attention to the word ‘beginning’ which appears in the Sunday Gospel reading John 2.1-11.

Clare Amos, clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

One of a pair of two tiles originally in the Armenian Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem, depicting the wedding feast at Cana.

I have become increasingly drawn to the way how ‘Epiphany’ is a season which has several aspects to it, rather than ‘just’ Matthew’s account of the visit of the wise men to Jesus (if you are a western Christian) or the Baptism of Christ (if you are a Christian of the Orthodox tradition). In church tradition the story of Jesus turning water into wine at Cana in Galilee has been seen as one of the mysteries of Epiphany, ‘Jesus did this… and revealed his glory’ (John 2.11). It is good that (for example) the Common Worship Extended Eucharistic preface for the Epiphany season now includes the sign of water become wine. Ultimately Epiphany leads us towards Jesus’ passion and crucifixion which is, certainly in John’s Gospel, the moment when his glory was most fully revealed.

Two words sum up Epiphany for me: ‘shining’ and ‘surprise’ – and along with the visit of the magi and Christ’s baptism, ‘shining’ and ‘surprise’ seem aptly to describe this episode, which is deliberately placed by John as opening the public ministry of Jesus.

There is a prayer written by the United Reformed Church minister and poet, Kate McIlhagga, who I was proud to call a friend, that somehow catches the light of Epiphany:

Epiphany is a jewel,

multi-faceted,

flashing colour and light.

Epiphany embraces

the nations of the world,

kneeling on a bare floor

before a child.

Epiphany shows

a man

kneeling in the waters of baptism.

Epiphany reveals

the best is kept for last,

as water becomes wine

at the wedding feast.

O Holy One

to whom was given

the gifts of power and prayer,

the gift of suffering;

help us to use 

these same gifts

in your way 

and in your name.

All the same, unlike the magi and the baptism, the wedding at Cana does not get into the Sunday lectionary in Epiphanytide every year – it manages it one in three. I reckon that means that when, as this year, it does show up, it deserves a bit of attention.  When it last appeared three years ago, the reflection on this Gospel passage for this blog was written by Venerable Colin Williams, then an Archdeacon in the Diocese in Europe. Colin wrote about how the account, which speaks so powerfully about the generosity of God, should act as a prompt to us (especially as Christians in Europe) to seek to reflect such divine generosity. It was a brilliant reflection, as relevant in our context now as it was then, and I would encourage you to take a look at it. You can find it in the back pages of this blog here: https://faithineurope.net/2019/01/16/epiphany-3-the-generosity-of-god/

The other in the set of two tiles originally in the Armenian Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem, depicting the wedding feast at Cana.

For myself, on this occasion I would fairly briefly like to add two additional threads. The first is a theme that has long intrigued me. The Gospel of John is, I believe, intending to present the ministry of Jesus as a new Genesis, a new creation. Given the way that the Gospel opens ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1.1)  – that is hardly rocket science. But I believe that the motif of new creation, new world, new humanity, is profoundly embedded in John’s retelling of the whole story of Jesus, including his death and resurrection. And as a key part of this new creation John is wanting to suggest to us that in this ‘new creation’ the imbalance in the relationship between men and women which had marked human relationships since the ‘Fall’ (Genesis 3.16) is going to be revisited and redeemed.  The story of a wedding feast in John 2.1-11 is the first in the series of narratives in which this thread will be explored until it culminates in the meeting of Jesus with Mary in the garden (John 20.1-18), in terms that also are intended to remind us of Eden’s garden. In which case of course it is intriguing that neither groom nor bride explicitly appear in the wedding story of John 2. It is however telling that in the following chapter, John the Baptist, speaking about Jesus, explicitly describes him as the ‘bridegroom’ (John 3.29). But where is the bride?  I have written more extensively on this in other places – the most immediately accessible location is Love’s Labour Unlost https://www.theway.org.uk/back/s072Amos.pdf

It is interesting that the story concludes by referring to this as ‘the first of [Jesus’] signs’ (John 2.11). Actually the NRSV translation here is not quite precise. In Greek the word translated as ‘first’ is arche. The word basically means ‘beginning’ and by extension ‘ruling principle of’. So what we are beginning told is that this sign is the beginning of a process and establishes the principle for the process. In other words the sheer overflowing life-giving creativity of this sign at the wedding feast marks out the pattern of Jesus’ later signs in this Gospel. Arche, of course, is also the first word of John’s Gospel. ‘in the beginning’… so it also reinforces the link between this sign at the wedding and that theme of new creation which is so clear in the Prologue to the Gospel.

The other comment relates to something that I have much more recently become aware of. The wedding at Cana (John 2.1-11) comes directly after Jesus’ call of Nathanael and discussion with him (John 1.45-51). In John 1 it nowhere spells out where Nathanael is from. However in the only other point in the Gospel where Nathanael is named (John 21.2) he is explicitly described as ‘Nathanael of Cana in Galilee’. Which then raises some intriguing questions. What exactly was Nathanael’s role at this wedding? And is the sign that Jesus offers during it the fulfilment of Jesus’ words to Nathanael in 1.50 ‘You will see greater things than these’?  And is it also telling that John 21 – that other point in the Gospel where Nathanael is named is also a story about Jesus’ miraculous – almost excessive – provision: in that case a feast of fish.

It is fascinating that the historic Armenian pottery tiles in Jerusalem that depict the wedding are a pair – with one showing the vessels of wine, and the other the banquet of fish! Reproductions of the original tiles are used to illustrate this blog. See above. The groom at the wedding is portrayed in one of them – but where is the bride?

Renewed in the Likeness of Christ

I apologise for the fact that due to other pressures of work there was no blog last week. I would be very grateful if anyone is willing to write for this in future… please drop me an email.

It felt important that there was a blog posting this week. Perhaps counter-intuitively however – it will focus on the theme for the coming Sunday rather than for Christmas Day. December 26, St Stephen’s Day is of course an important festival in the Diocese in Europe, for we know that in the lands that have become the Czech Republic King Wenceslaus once looked out upon it.  So some hopefully helpful (and slightly subversive) thoughts on St Stephen, which originally formed part of a Compline address which I first preached at Westcott House, Cambridge (so it is rather longer than a blog should ideally be).  The suggested Common Worship lectionary readings for St Stephen’s Day are 2 Chronicles 24.20-22; Acts 7.51-60; Matthew 10.17-22. Perhaps it will be of use to those of you who have to ‘gird your loins’ to preach again on Sunday after the previous day’s festivities!

The statue of St Stephen in the courtyard of the Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem
(see underneath the blog for further comment)

Dr Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

There are some saints who seem to have as hard a time of it in death as in life. Take poor St. Stephen: not only was he the first martyr, but he has the continuing misfortune to have his feast fall on the 26 December. The result is that by and large people only remember that Good King Wenceslaus looked out upon it. That however was not the case in the place where I did my biblical studies: for I had the good fortune to study in Jerusalem at the very place where according to tradition Stephen met his martyrdom. It was called ‘the Ecole Biblique’, a place where learned French Dominicans who had dedicated their lives to the study of the history and geography of the Holy Land lived and taught. I am grateful to this day for the many insights they gave me.

At the Ecole Biblique we celebrated St. Stephen’s Day in style, with the cook working overtime. No sooner had he finished serving 50 or more hungry people on Christmas Day, than he had to turn his hand to producing an even more sumptuous repast in honour of our patron saint, St. Stephen. It was the gastronomic highlight of our year. Ever since those days the figure of Stephen has been one that has intrigued me, even though I sometimes now wonder whether Stephen was a particularly appropriate patron saint for my Dominicans. They were dedicated to the archaeological and historical study of Jerusalem, because it was a holy city, Stephen, on the other hand, was more than a little critical of such things as temples and holy places and paid for it with his life.

Why is it that Stephen is commemorated on December 26? Well, I think I know or can guess the answer- and as you read on perhaps you will too …. and you may find it helpful to have the Acts of the Apostles chapters 6 and 7 open in front of you.

Stephen, the first ‘deacon’

Who and what exactly was Stephen? He is called a ‘Hellenist’ probably meaning that he was a Jew whose family originally lived in the Greek Diaspora away from Palestine. Traditionally he has been regarded as one of the first ‘deacons’, though Luke doesn’t actually use the word diakonos  to describe Stephen in this passage. He does however use words that come from the same Greek stem, diakonia and diakoneo, to describe what Stephen was commissioned to do, namely wait at tables. Luke sometimes seems to sit astride a fairly uneasy fence: he is keen on order and hierarchy, on things done properly, with the apostles firmly in command and all other forms of ministry deriving from them. So he would like to fit Stephen into a nice unified pattern of ministry, a ‘deacon’ appointed by and subject to, the apostles. Yet Luke is also honest enough to let us see that this wasn’t altogether how it was in the early church: it was all much more messy, and disorganised, and there was about as much bickering around as any spirit of unity.

In fact it must have been a really good bicker that led to Stephen’s commissioning, because the split between the Hellenists and Hebraists may have been focused on food but was actually about something much deeper – the differing attitudes to the temple held by the two parties. So often an apparently trivial matter can act as a catalyst for more deep-seated feelings. Luke is probably intending to suggest to us that Stephen was a deacon –  yet he then makes it clear that Stephen notably didn’t only deal with the domestic details like deacons were supposed to. Rather he also spent his time preaching and doing signs and wonders – performing the very jobs that the apostles considered their own – only perhaps rather more effectively!.

Stephen, a radical saint?

Stephen then seems to have extended the boundaries of his job as a ‘deacon’, and perhaps he may provide a useful role model for those who wish to work creatively within the boundaries of the roles that the church allots to them. His story suggests the possibility of using the structures of the church responsibly to develop a ministry that is apostolic as well as that traditionally allotted to a deacon. In some sense Stephen might even be described as subversive, but if this is so then for people to be subversive like Stephen is very important – for it seems clear that he was the first to preach the gospel to groups well beyond the small inner circle of the Jerusalem Church. Yet to be subversive is also dangerous: not only can you offend those outside the Christian community, but you risk courting unpopularity from those within. Luke betrays a certain embarrassed reticence as regards the apostolic lack of support for Stephen in his eventual predicament: I really do doubt if Stephen was particularly persona grata to Peter or James.

There is also another hazard in subversion: it can sometimes turn into destruction, not least of the soul of the individual concerned. Bitterness and anger can become a self-consuming fire. But the ultimate pattern for Stephen’s subversiveness is none other than Christ himself. One cannot sound much more subversive of the ordering of traditional society than the words of Jesus: ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them: and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you …. rather the grestest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?’Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves …. (Luke 22.25-26). Once again words from the same Greek stem as diakonos (translated as ‘serve’) appear, in fact three times in this passage. In other words the model for those who would seek to exercise a Christian ministry that does not totally conform to the expected norms is no longer merely Stephen, but Christ himself.

In the image of Christ

But can you really separate the two? One of the intriguing features of Luke’s presentation of the passion of Stephen is that again and again resonances of the passion of Christ appear. Both commit up their spirit, both pray for their persecutors to be forgiven. And the charge brought by false witnesses against Stephen – that he never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law – is almost verbatim the accusation with which Jesus himself is arraigned in Mark and Matthew, though fascinatingly not in Luke. It is as though Luke is saying that the clash of God’s love and forgiveness and passion for justice with the self-seeking and enmity of the world which had been seen in such a sharp focus in the suffering and death of Christ, is now being given a new prism through which it is refracted in the person of Stephen. The injunction to disciples to be imitators of Christ is not just a pious metaphor, but has become a matter of life – and death.

 I use the language of sight and vision quite deliberately, for I have long been intrigued by the final words of chapter 6; ‘And gazing at Stephen all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel’ (Acts 6.15). Surely a very curious thing for such a hostile group to see? Somehow it must belong together with the report that Stephen himself as he was being stoned, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God. It seems that the word ‘gaze’ is a particular favourite of St. Luke: for other than in  Luke’s writings it only appears twice in the New Testament in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians. And Luke likes to use the word to describe situations where the normal boundaries between heaven and earth are breached, and humanity and divinity become strangely intermingled.

The more one studies the Acts of the Apostles, the more one realises how extraordinarily rich the book is in resonances from the Old Testament and the life of Christ: I am sure that Stephen’s angelic face is intended to recall for us both the transfiguration of the face of Christ on the mountain, and through that lead us back towards the famous Old Testament story of the shining light on Moses’ face seen by the Israelites after he had talked with God (Exodus 34.29-35). And if Moses and Christ are indeed the model it has some very important things to say to us about the work and ministry of Stephen.

Reflecting the presence of God

Why was it that Moses’ ‘face shone’? It happened because the Israelites had committed the great sin of the golden calf and God had wanted to destroy them: Moses pleaded for his people, taking on an angry God, even at the threat of his own life. He won a reprieve but then there came the question as to whether God could remain present with such a sinful people: would they not be consumed since humanity cannot easily see God and live. Once again Moses pleads their cause – and the shining on his face as he comes down the mountain is the answer. He has so lost himself in his concern for those to whom he ministers that he is now the answer to his own prayer and has become the means by which God is enabled to be present with them. So with Stephen: in his shining face we experience a ministry in which God is present, a life in which with unveiled face he has gazed upon and begun to reflect the glory of the Lord. The vision of God which he has seen and will see has already begun to renew and transform him into the likeness of Moses and Christ, into a figure who loses himself that he may be refashioned to share in the suffering of the Son of Man. Surely an awesome model for all of us: and yet it is true that unless our glimpse of the vision of God can begin to change us and through us the world it is a vision too dangerous for us to behold. There is  perhaps a certain irony, in the fact that it is Stephen, a mere ‘deacon’, who is presented in the New Testament as the truest reflection of the likeness of Christ. Yet that is clearly how it is.

The transfiguration mosaic at St Katherine’s monastery, Sinai, showing both Christ and Moses

The face of God

Several strands have helped to shape my Christian theology and spirituality: but  a core theme for me is that of the face of God, a face not merely to be seen in a mystical vision, but which we ourselves must seek to reflect and which is elusively present in so many of the human faces that we encounter. And if like Stephen we begin to reflect something of God, we may begin to be amazed by its power to transform not only our own lives, but also those of others. Perhaps the words with which Jesus greeted Paul on the Damascus Road suggest something of this: for Paul, who had never met the earthly Jesus in his lifetime, was questioned: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?’ (Acts 9.4) – and at that moment he must suddenly have realised that in slaying Stephen he, Paul, had shared in the slaying of Christ himself So somehow Stephen’s identification with Christ has become complete, and because it is so Paul is converted and through him ultimately the Gentile world: a deacon has died and so many others will have life.

But perhaps, just perhaps, the most important conversion that Stephen effects is not of the Gentiles, but of the Church itself. Why was it that Stephen and the others were chosen? Because, said the apostles, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait at tables’ (Acts 6.2). Don’t you think that Luke was wryly aware of those earlier words of Jesus: ‘Which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am with you as one who serves.’ Is it not possible that he was telling us that once again Peter was putting his foot in it, once again those apostles had something to learn, something that Stephen and those other deacons had to teach them? Somehow the heavens that Stephen sees open as he dies lead the way to the open heaven that Peter glimpses in his vision at Joppa as he has to fight to overcome his traditional prejudices and meet with Gentiles. One of those, who once could not wait at tables, has now become hungry, and as a result of his hunger finally shares food, eats and drinks, not only with Christ, but also with Cornelius and the family of a Roman soldier. Is it then only as the church learns about humanity and service that it can share the vision of God and become truly apostolic?

*****

When I studied at the Ecole Biblique in the 1970s the column was there – but not the statue. That had been badly damaged in the fighting in Jerusalem in 1947-48, and had been ‘buried’ in the grounds. It has only been in recent years that the statue has been restored and replaced on the column. I believe that the picture may be showing the occasion when it was rededicated.

Justice, Peace… and Joy

The remains of the city centre of ancient Philippi in northern Greece

As we approach the third Sunday in Advent we explore briefly all the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday.

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

I think there must have been something very special about the Church at Philippi. It is clear from Paul’s letter to the Christian community there how generous they were and how much he appreciated them. He quite literally ‘rejoiced’ in them. Given its comparatively short length the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’ appear proportionately more in the Letter to the Philippians than in any other of his epistles.  I think that we in the Diocese in Europe need to give thanks in a special way for the church in Philippi: according to the book of Acts (Acts 16.11-40) it was the first city actually in the continent of Europe where Paul preached the good news.

‘Rejoice’ is the key note offered in this week’s short lectionary reading from Philippians, Philippians 4.4-7 ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. ‘Joy’ and ‘rejoicing’ is also a theme present in this week’s Old Testament reading, Zephaniah 3.14-20, and in fact also in the suggested canticle, the beautiful Isaiah 12.2-6;

  • Sing aloud, O daughter Zion… Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord… will rejoice over you with gladness (Zephaniah 3.14,  17)
  • With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation… Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion (Isaiah 12.3, 6)

Given this, the Gospel lectionary passage, John 3.7-18, seems initially to offer a jarring contrast. It largely comprises John the Baptist’s strong and stark call for repentance – giving detailed examples of what repentance should mean for his listeners in practical terms, and offering grim warnings of what would happen if they failed to do so. In reading it I was reminded again of the comment by Fleming Routledge, that I drew on in the blog last week, that John the Baptist was in many ways the foremost figure of Advent – but she had never seen a picture of him on any Advent calendar.

But there is one fascinating – yet rarely remarked on – note in these verses from Luke 3. The passage ends with verse 18 which reads, ‘So with many other exhortations he proclaimed the good news to the people.’ Good news? A an intriguing, and perhaps rather unexpected, description of what we have just been told about John’s message. I will return to this in a moment.

One of the Taize chants that I have got to know and cherish in recent years is

‘The kingdom of God is justice and peace. And joy in the Holy Spirit.
Come, Lord and open in us the gates of your kingdom’.

You can hear it sung here. The Kingdom Of God (Taize) – YouTube 

It was I think first published in 2001, so it is perhaps not one of the most familiar of Taize chants. It is a marginally adapted quotation of Romans 14.17 – though its completely legitimate choice of the word ‘justice’ rather than ‘righteousness’ for the Greek dikaiosune,  means that it is not always  immediately recognised as such. I remember when I had the privilege of working at the World Council of Churches thinking to myself that the WCC was very good at the ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ aspect of the chant, but perhaps it still had a little way to go with ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’!

But maybe I needed to ask myself what is meant by ‘joy’ – that concept which is present (certainly as a verb) in three of this week’s readings?  It is certainly not about being ‘happy’ in a simplistic sort of way. I think the best short description I have read of ‘joy’ is that offered by Bishop Nick Baines, ‘Joy comes when faith is alive, curiosity is inflamed and the mind is stretched.’

Joy isn’t a facile sense of happiness, but it is being able to see something shining out there – beyond  obvious gloom and despondency and becoming excited and hopeful at the vision which lies before us. Sometimes we are not even sure what that something is, but we trust that it continues to shine.  In that sense  ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’ is exactly the right partner for the Kingdom of God as ‘justice and peace’.

Joy is also exactly the right accompaniment for the weeks of Advent: we don’t need to save up ‘joy’ until Christ is born at Christmas. We can rightly be joyful on this Third Sunday of Advent! Joy is the more intense partly due to the darkness that is still around us which means that the hope of the promise has to shine still more strongly .

Back to the Gospel reading and that ‘good news’ which the Baptist brought. This is the man over whom the ‘good news’ of the Song of Zechariah (the Benedictus) was sung as an infant (Luke 1.68-79), a song which concludes with the pledge that through him our feet will be guided into the way of peace, and who preached a kingdom that demanded justice and integrity (Luke 3.13-14; 7.29). Certainly he did not offer a facile happiness to his listeners, but as he encouraged them to wait expectantly for God to act he stretched their minds, inflamed their curiosity, and challenged them to a living faith. He offered them joy.

The following hymn was written recently for this season of joy by Very Revd Frankie Ward and is reproduced with her permission:

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?