‘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.

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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

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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
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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’. 

Bom Pastor – Good Shepherd

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the Gospel reading John 10.11-18, though it also refers to Psalm 23 and very briefly Acts 4.5-12. The images used below have been reproduced under fair use criteria for educational purposes.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org


A 3rd century statue of Christ as the Good Shepherd

Christ as the Shepherd is an image or symbol that is embedded deeply and widely within the New Testament. It is also probably the earliest way that Christ was represented in Christian art – predating the visual portrayal of him on a crucifix. There are statues and frescoes of a figure who probably represents Christ, dressed as a young man, and carrying a sheep on his shoulder, which date back to the 3rd century AD. We have used two examples, one above and one below as some of the illustrations for this week.  In the years when persecution of Christians was still rife – to depict Christ in this way was not as risky as using the overt Christian symbol of a cross. Indeed there was an ambiguity to the image, because it was not dissimilar to the way that Greek gods, especially Hermes, could be portrayed.Within the New Testament the image of Christ as ‘shepherd’ is either stated, or implied, in all four Gospels, in the Letter to the Hebrews, I Peter, and the Book of Revelation. It is interesting that it does not figure in Paul’s letters; perhaps it is a telling example that Paul’s own social world was urban rather than rural. The images and metaphors that Paul used were rather drawn from Graeco-Roman city culture.

Christ as Good Shepherd in art from the catacombs of Rome

I am particularly fascinated by the use of the image in Revelation 7.17, in which Christ is described both as Shepherd and as Lamb. Such use of ‘paradox’ would later widely be drawn on, especially in the Syriac Christian tradition, for example, ‘Blessed to the Shepherd Who became a Lamb for our reconciliation!’ (St Ephraem the Syrian). A careful read of Revelation 7.17 suggests that it alludes to the imagery of the beloved Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. It is probably the only direct allusion to Psalm 23 in the New Testament itself – although understandably for most of Christian history this psalm has often been drawn on to explore what it may mean to call Christ, or God, one’s shepherd.

There are of course many other Old Testament resonances and allusions to the shepherd motif – the most extensive reflection is found in Ezekiel 34.1-24 which circles round to explore the motif of the worthless shepherds, the political and religious leaders that had neglected the welfare of the people, and contrasts this with both the role of David as shepherd (Ezekiel 34.23) and the fact that God himself would shepherd his people (Ezekiel 34.11ff). It is, I feel, highly likely that Ezekiel’s verses were in the mind’s eye of the Gospel writer as he explored the image of Christ both a ‘door’ to the sheepfold, and then as shepherd (John 10). Part of this chapter is selected by the lectionary for use on Easter 4 in each lectionary year – this year it is John 10.11-18. Somehow the fact that Ezekiel can refer both to God and to David as being ‘shepherd’ of the people enables the way that John ‘slides’ into identifying Jesus both with the Messiah,(John 10.24)  and also with God himself (John 10.30).

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Christ as Good Shepherd, Solomon Ray, India

It is interesting, and probably significant, that this discussion appears to be taking place in the Temple during the season of Hanukkah. Hanukkah commemorates the reconsecration of the Temple at the times of the Maccabees, (c.164 BC) after its desecration by the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. However along with the restoration of the Temple the events at that time led to the family of Judas Maccabeus gradually assuming both political and religious control – including taking over the Highpriestly role. We know that caused a great deal of controversy – it is what led to the founding of the religious community at Qumran, who were responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which make their implacable hostility to the current religious leadership in Jerusalem, very clear. So there may be a strong hint in our Gospel reading that the current religious leadership in the Temple are to be equated with the ‘hirelings’ of whom Jesus speaks.

There are two points that I want to note in relation to this passage. One short, one rather longer.

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The Mandala of the Good Shepherd, Jyoti Sahi

The short one.  Jesus describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’. But the word used in Greek for ‘good’ is not agathos (the usual word for ‘good’). It is the adjective kalos, which has a wider sense and can also mean ‘beautiful’. Earlier in the Gospel when Jesus turns the water into wine, and those who drink it comment, ‘You have kept the good wine up till now!’ it is a form of kalos rather than agathos that is also used at this point. What does it mean that Jesus describes his role as that of ‘beautiful’ shepherd?

The longer issue, which probably reflects my own particular interests and pre-occupations. I have taught biblical studies in universities and other tertiary contexts. I have also worked professionally in the field of interreligious dialogue for most of the last 20 years. I am therefore, not surprisingly, deeply interested in what insights our Scriptures can offer in relation to interreligious engagement by Christians such as myself, perhaps particularly taking account of the wisdom of Christians from parts of the non-western world.

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The good shepherd in search of the sheep, Alfred D. Thomas, India

In John 10.16 Jesus speaks of having, ‘Other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.’  What I find fascinating is the way that this comment is enclosed by two references to Jesus ‘laying down his life’ for his sheep (John 10.15, 17), one immediately before, and one immediately after. Given the literary conventions of the New Testament period this suggests to me that we are intended to ‘read’ the comment about ‘one flock, one shepherd’ in the light of Jesus laying down his life. How are the two connected? I think we are intended to link these verses with the incident that will shortly take place in John 12.20-36 when the arrival of some ‘Greeks’ who want to meet Jesus somehow seems to propel him into his passion. I think it is something like this: that the uniting of people into ‘one’ requires the breaking down of the walls and barriers, between ethnicities, languages and even potentially religions. And on the whole people feel more secure with walls, and they resent those, like Jesus, who insisted on challenging them. So the good shepherd finds himself ‘laying down his life-force’ (literal translation) to enable this unity that breaches barriers.

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The Good Shepherd caring for a sheep, Sadao Watanabe, Japan

Now I cannot pretend that this passage in the Gospel of John offers us a fully fledged theology for interreligious relations. Far from it, and in fact the understanding of ‘religion’ in New Testament times was not exactly what we mean by the word today. However I do think that it is possible to read these verses as allowing for at least an ‘inclusivist’ attitude to other faiths, and a willingness to explore links and connections. It is intriguing that the representation of Christ as Good Shepherd is a particularly popular motif among Christians from Asia who live as minorities among other religious traditions. Some examples of this Asian Christian art have been incorporated into the blog.  You can see more fascinating illustrations at

Global Christian Worship – ‘Jesus as Good Shepherd’ in Asian Art (tumblr.com)

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Christ the Bom Pastor

However the picture that I want to finish with I find extraordinary and fascinating. I had not been aware of it until I began to prepare this blog. It is a carved ivory from Goa dating from about 1700 which shows the Christ Child as the Bom Pastor (Good Shepherd). Apparently  from 1600AD onwards this form of depiction of the Good Shepherd was very popular, with many similar examples exported to Christians in Europe, presumably particularly Portugal. At the top of the carving which represents a sacred mountain is the Christchild dressed in wool as a shepherd and holding a sheep. He is making a gesture of peace with his hand, and is shown in a way that is deliberately reminiscent of both Krishna and the Buddha. Below him the water of life flows, and there are other sheep under his care. And at the bottom of the ‘mountain’ in a sacred cave Mary Magdalene is studying scripture. So the care of the Good Shepherd extends to all people and all places.  For more on this listen to:

Christ Child as the “Bom Pastor,” or Good Shepherd by The Met (soundcloud.com)

Let him easter

Appearing to disciples at table, Duccio 1308-11

This coming Sunday’s lectionary readings include Acts 3.12-19; 1 John 3.1-7 and Luke 24.36b-48. I am grateful to Canon Alan Amos for writing this reflection  which focuses on the Gospel reading, and also draws in words from I John.  

Clare Amos

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

*****

As I approach the Gospel for the coming Sunday, first of all I remember that Easter is not over. It is a season, yes –  but it is also an experience. I think of the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.’

I love that phrase ‘the dimness of us.’ How accurate it seems at times! I think perhaps after the energy we have put into the actual liturgical celebration of Easter, a little ‘dimness’ may be what we are feeling. Not cheered up perhaps by a Sunday reading coming along where the focus seems to be on the risen Lord eating a piece of fish. Difficult to avoid a certain bathos seeming to set in, after the radiant account of the Emmaus experience. So to come to terms with that piece of fish,

In order to do this, I ask myself two questions: what is the evangelist seeking to say to us? And then what is the risen Christ seeking to say to us through the evangelist?

First Luke. He wants us to see the reality of the risen Jesus, and to rejoice with him. He wants us to join him an in experience of resurrection-life, of which the focus is Jesus in all his bodily actuality.

Luke will not let us get away with a kind of spiritualised belief in a bloodless resurrection. Jesus is fully present in the upper room. As present as you and me are in our immediate physical surroundings, handling the objects of our daily existence. He is not a ghost wafted in from outside. He is with us. The first followers of Jesus were astounded by this experience. They were shaken to the core by it. Luke expects us to be shaken by his account as well. It is not ‘normal’; and yet the paradox is that it is normal, because it is the life of the Jesus who walks and talks and eats fish that is present among them.

What about Jesus himself. What is the risen Lord seeking to say to us through the evangelist?

First of all, I think Jesus does not want us to be so glum and serious about things. There is a life-giving joy, even a light-heartedness, about Resurrection. OK, if I have to eat a piece of fish in order to get you to believe, just hand it over! The picture that we often have of Jesus takes him away from the truly human, and the truly human has to include a sense of humour and light-heartedness, as a counterpart to the agony which also belongs to being human. There are those awful wounds recalling the agony – and then there is the piece of fish. All the depths and the inconsequentiality of life are here in a bundle. Life transcending this life, radiant beyond this life, and the mundanity of the here and now. For the piece of fish, read ‘bread and wine.’ Presence, life-giving, mysterious, grace-full. God in ordinary. We are being shown that we do not live in a mechanistic universe where everything is pre-determined. We live in a universe where signs are as real as concrete. And love is as real as crucifixion.

Palestinian (Armenian) pottery plate depicting the mosaic at the Church of Tabgha, Galilee

The mystery of Jesus in human form will shortly leave the company of his friends. Luke moves on almost immediately to tell us about that. What remains is the love which is both indestructible and transformative, transfiguring. The reading appointed from St John’s first epistle points us towards this. Having talked about the love which the Father has towards us as his children, the writer continues, ‘We are God’s children now, what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’

What was disclosed in the upper room, in its human form was to pass beyond sight. But the power of love which was part of the same disclosure experience will never pass away, and we travel on in our lives drawing on the strength that this gives us, towards a destination which is both beyond ourselves and the knowledge we have of ourselves. In God, we are more than we know ourselves to be.

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Walls. Jesus travels through walls, does not bother to acknowledge them. We are in a time when we also experience that Jesus travels through all kinds of walls and barriers, even those erected by the virus. This is a special time, and it is worth pausing to reflect on it.

It is also a time, sadly, when in Europe we see walls being erected where they had been removed; a time when ‘each to his own’ seems to rule the day. Perhaps the virus will be the means of restoring a global vision and concern; for the virus surely defeats an ‘each to his own’ way of dealing with human problems. If all are not safeguarded against the virus, ultimately none will be safeguarded.

Just at this time when we are being shown so clearly the value of science and its application, the sharing of scientific expertise and knowledge across Europe is being made much more difficult as a consequence of political actions reflecting an upsurge in populism. And the sharing of joys of life in art and music are also being constrained by new boundaries and processes.

Easter is a time when we celebrate the gifts of Christ to us all, and among those gifts is the will to live in freedom as human beings restored by grace, rejoicing, and caring for all in the world around us without discrimination.

The Gospel of the third and fourth generations

The West Window, Holy Trinity Church Geneva

This week’s blog looks at a Gospel text that appears in the lectionary every year – Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ, and its consequences. I also include (with permission) a hymn linked to Thomas by the Episcopal hymnwriter Professor Thomas Troeger. I especially enjoy Troeger hymns because of their theological perceptiveness as well as literary qualities. The illustration depicts the West Window of Holy Trinity Church Geneva, which effectively conveys the sense of Christ of as Lord of all time and space. It was photographed by Emma Charles.

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

Over my years of studying and teaching the Bible there have been a number of books which at one time or another I have thought to write but which have not, so far at least, seen the light of day. In some cases that was probably a wise decision.

I started early. My first aspiration in this area came when I was studying A Level Religious Studies. Our Old Testament paper focused on the Prophets and I was fascinated (I still am) by the Book of Hosea, and the ‘story’ of his life (and marriage) which was constructed out of the biblical book given his name. It was also around the time that I had discovered ‘religious historical novels’ in a big way – having read Taylor Caldwell’s, Dear and Glorious Physician (subtitled ‘a mighty novel of St Luke’) and Lloyd Douglas The Robe (about the centurion who receives the garment of the crucified Christ). I would still say that the first of these two is definitely worth reading: I am less sure about the literary qualities of the other. But they had prompted me to think of writing my own potential contribution in this field – which I intended to focus on the marriage of Hosea and his wife Gomer and was going to be called, ‘For I desire steadfast love’, a quote from Hosea 6.6. By the time I got to university my friends had convinced me that the title at least was a bit of a hostage to fortune, and I cooled on the concept. I have never quite warmed up on it again.

However my next idea for a so-far unwritten book was one that I still think would be worth pursuing, and one day, when other books (that are currently in the pipeline) have been written, and I am less busy with my various retirement honorary roles including in this Diocese, I might like to take it forward. It came out of my experience of teaching at St George’s College in Jerusalem in the 1970s, and once again I already have a title for it, The Third and Fourth Generations In this case I think I would definitely want to stick with my chosen name. Though the wisdom of years mean I appreciate the complexities and pitfalls of the topic in a way that I didn’t in my mid-20s, I still think this would address a key question that both the Church and individual Christians need to engage with.

The theme I would hope to explore in this book is linked to the Gospel reading which the Common Worship lectionary suggests for the coming Sunday, John 20.19-31. Checking the lectionary I have recently realised that this Gospel is suggested for the Sunday after Easter Sunday in each of the three lectionary years. In one sense that feels a bit strange and repetitive, on the other hand it does suggest that the questions raised in these verses are seen as fundamental to the life of the Christian community. And I think they are. 

There are three interconnected elements. First the story of Thomas’ initial scepticism and eventual faith in Jesus, expressed in his words ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20.28). Secondly the short comment that Jesus makes in response to Thomas, especially the concluding sentence, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!’ (John 20.29) And finally the following two verses in which the purpose of this Gospel is clearly set out, ‘These [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20.31) Whateverthe precise history of the literary relationship between chapter 21 and the rest of the Gospel these verses at the end of chapter 20 have the feel of being intended to function as a conclusion for the Gospel of John.

Chapter 21 however does make more explicit something that is lurking in the rest of the Gospel. The discussion about the potential death of the beloved disciple (John 21.23) suggests strongly that the Gospel (at least the version that included chapter 21) was written as the original apostolic eyewitnesses to the life and resurrection of Jesus were themselves ageing and dying. No longer would direct apostolic testimony therefore be possible. Those who came to faith in Jesus would no longer be able to draw on this as a channel to faith. I think that the story of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas is also reflecting these concerns, as Jesus specifically blesses those who will not (unlike Thomas) ever be able to see him bodily in the flesh. My so-far unwritten book would suggest that the Gospel of John was deliberately written (to a degree far more than the three Synoptic Gospels) to respond to the needs of this constituency who had (to paraphrase Jesus’ words) ‘to believe without seeing’. If the ‘first generation’ consisted of the apostolic eyewitnesses, and the ‘second generation’ those who physically met these eyewitnesses, the ‘third and fourth generation’ are those whose faith in Jesus as life-giver had to discover other starting-points from which it could develop.

Hence the proposed title for the book.  There would be several linked threads I would want to explore. The first would be that we, even in the twenty-first century, are still part of this third and fourth generation. The second that part of the reason that this Gospel is so beloved and so important in the life of the Church is precisely because it was overtly written to meet the needs and challenges of later generations. Indeed one can argue that the lectionary is right to repeat John 20.19-31 in all three lectionary years because this is exactly the point in John’s Gospel when the question of how the story of Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection, can speak to us today is being explored.

The third thread – which also relates to the other two – would then go on to engage with the question, ‘What does this mean for John’s – and our – understanding of the nature of Scripture?’ This would probably constitute the bulk of the book. I think it is a vital question both for the interpretation of the Gospel of John and for our contemporary understanding of the role of scripture in the life of the church. For once you reach the third and fourth generation and the testimony of eyewitnesses is no longer available to link you to the risen Christ, then we increasingly need to rely on written texts to create a link to the ‘earthly’ Jesus.

It is clear that the Gospel of John itself has some hesitations about ‘scriptures’ – whatever John may mean by this word. ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…’ (John 5.39).  I find it telling that the first and fundamental title that is given to Jesus in this Gospel is that of ‘Word’ (John 1.1). Any early reader of the Gospel who read this ‘word’ would undoubtedly be drawn to think about a comparison and contrast with the written ‘Word’ of scripture of his or her day – what we today would call the Old Testament, which interestingly had probably just itself been canonised (at the Jewish Council of Yavneh/Jamnia) shortly before John’s Gospel appeared.  

It might be convenient for us at this point if we could think that John’s strictures about ‘Scripture’ applied only to the Old Testament, to what Christians sometimes disparagingly refer to as ‘the Jewish Law’. But I think there are clues within the Gospel of John that suggest that one of the evangelist’s concerns was precisely to ensure that in this ‘third and fourth generation’ the necessary written records of Jesus’ life (and the records of the story of the early Church) did not themselves become a ‘new Law’.  I believe that the evangelist’s great assertion that ‘the Word became flesh’ has implications for his understanding of the role that New Testament, as well as Old Testament, Scripture has in the life of the Church. What does it therefore mean to read scripture in the light of the incarnation? Part of the answer this Gospel offers us is its rich appreciation of symbolism and sacramentality. Another part of the answer must surely be the role of the Paraclete (Counsellor/Advocate) as the Spirit of truth who leads the disciples into ‘all truth’ (John 15.12). There is one further pointer that I will offer in my concluding sentences.

I am glad that I did not actually write that book 40 years ago. One of my learnings over the years has been of the richness of Jewish interpretations of scripture , and of ways of allowing scripture and context to converse with each other. Writing it now I would want to be considerably more nuanced about Jewish scriptural interpretation than I was when I was living in Jerusalem.  In fact the concerns of both Christianity and Judaism in this respect are not dissimilar. But I do think that the Gospel of John – as well as highlighting the issue for us, offers us some vital tools to engage with the challenge.

Underlying so many of the concerns and perplexities that the contemporary Christian community is presented with is the issue of the authority of Christian scripture. It is often said that we all work with a ‘hermeneutical’ starting point for our biblical interpretation. It is clear what is the starting point  of the Gospel of John. It is ‘life’. ‘These things are written … that you may have life in his name’ (John 20.31). Intriguingly the great Anglican Reformation divine Richard Hooker came to exactly that conclusion four centuries or so ago, ‘The main drift of the whole New Testament is that which St John setteth down as the purpose of his own history. ‘These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing have life in his name. (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 1.xiv.4)

*****

“These things did Thomas count as real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
The last frail twitch of flesh and bone.

The vision of his skeptic mind
Was keen enough to make him blind
To any unexpected act
Too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
Until his fingers read like Braille
The marking of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe
And thus the risen Christ receive,
Whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

(Thomas Troeger, copyright Oxford University Press, 1994, permission pending)

Not an idle tale!

I have pulled together the blog for this week, linking my two roles of Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship and Coordinator of the Diocesan Ministry Experience Scheme. There are some rich treasures to discover below. Do explore!

Clare Amos

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

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‘An Idle Tale’, Michael R Cook, reproduced with kind permission of the artist. Michael’s website is http://www.hallowed-art.co.uk

‘An Idle Tale’ (Luke 24.11) is the initial response of the apostles to the news of Jesus’ resurrection brought to them by the women after their visit to the tomb.  History since suggests that was ‘not such an idle tale’.

‘Not such an idle tale’ is also not a bad description for the ‘story’ of this year’s (September 2020-June 2021) Ministry Experience Scheme. Against all the hurdles that COVID has presented us with, we have been working with seven young women, currently situated in various locations in the diocese and beyond, who have in the course of the year been exploring what their longer-term Christian vocation might be. I am perhaps slightly biased (I am the honorary coordinator of the Scheme!) but our experience as a Scheme over the last year feels much more like a ‘good news story’ than an ‘idle tale’.

Those on the Scheme keep in contact in a variety of ways. One of them is a regular Wednesday afternoon Zoom meeting which provides an opportunity for both educational input and sharing of insights. In our meeting yesterday afternoon (31 March) participants and mentors were invited to share something related to Holy Week and Easter that spoke to them. What was offered turned into a rich feast – and I am taking the opportunity of sharing at least some of these insights in this week’s blog. (I apologise to those who contributed that in a couple of cases I have not been able to include ALL they shared.)

*****

First – An Idle Tale. That is actually the title of a vivid, fascinating and challenging painting, the creation of the Derby artist Michael R Cook. It is used as the ‘heading picture’ for this week’s blog and reproduced with Michael’s permission. I am grateful to Anna Richardson, a participant in the Scheme who has been working with the chaplaincy in Lyon, though COVID restrictions mean she is currently in Cornwall, for drawing it to our attention.

*****

Mary Kilikidi, working currently in Moscow, and herself a Russian national, shared with us in words and pictures, ‘How Russians prepare for Easter and celebrate it in small towns as exemplified by my family’. Mary says:

 My mother and I lived in a small town near Ukrainian boarder with a population of 17 thousand. We had only one church, which was almost full every Sunday and overcrowded during big celebrations. I still remember how we used to prepare for celebrating Easter. The beginning of the preparation starts with Maslenitsa – a whole week of celebration commonly associated with making and eating pancakes. We ate all types of pancakes – the Russian word blini – with jam and condensed milk.

The figure of Maslenitsa which is usually burnt during the festival

After Maslenitsa is over it is forbidden to eat anything with meat or milk. Even fish is allowed only on particular dates…. During the first week of Lent, we went to church every day in the evening. It is the time when, in semi-darkness with a faint glow of candles, the words of St. Andrew of Crete acquire a special meaning.

The Canon of St Andrew of Crete

On the fifth week of Lent, also in the evening, an unusual service is conducted. It is called “The Standing of St. Mary” and it unites the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete with a story of St. Mary of Egypt. It lasts from five to seven hours with people kneeling. I had a lot of time to think during the service and I imagined myself praying alone in the wilderness, like Mary did, fighting with hunger, heat and many-many sins. Contrary to St. Mary, I had hearty dinner afterwards. My family was not rich but we had a particular ritual on Lazarus Saturday – the day before Palm Sunday. We went to the food store and bought a can of red caviar. It is allowed to eat fish and fish products on that day and we made it our tradition to celebrate it.

  The Holy week – the last week before Easter – was truly special for us. We were preparing for the celebration, painting eggs in red, buying Easter cakes – kulich – and cleaning the house. I was a member of the Sunday school and every Easter we would prepare a big skit with costumes, music and poetry. We met regularly to rehearse and the main rehearsal was usually during the Holy week too. Maundy Thursday is called Sheer Thursday in Russia and it is usually a day for cleaning the house, washing clothes and bathing. In the evening, people gather in church, carrying lanterns with candles. Twelve Gospels are read to remind people about the Passion of Christ. During each Gospel reading, people hold burning candles. By the end of the service, they put them in the lanterns and take them home. The candles are required to make a sign of the cross over the window holes and doorways. The soot cross remains until next Sheer Thursday and serves as protection from demonic attacks. For a long time I thought that all the Russian Orthodox were doing it but it turned out to be a local tradition probably with Pagan roots.

 On Good Friday, people come to church in afternoon. In Orthodox churches there is a shroud with the image of Christ embroidered on it….

The shroud of Christ in the centre of the Church

 The Easter service usually starts at 11 pm and finishes at 4 or 5 in the morning. In fact, there are two of them and the evening service smoothly flows into the morning service. At the beginning of the morning service, people go around the church one last time and then everyone stands in front of the closed church doors. The priest says special Easter prayers with the words ‘Christ is risen’ in between. Every time people respond with the words of affirmation. Then the doors which represent the entrance to the tomb, are opened. Christ is no longer there. He is risen indeed!

*****

Daleen Bakker, from the Netherlands and currently working with the church in Barcelona, has shared this personal story about a Holy week in the Netherlands: Locked up in a church on Good Friday.

Three years ago, I found myself to be locked up in a church on what is my most memorable Good Friday. To go a bit back to explain how it happened. I was invited to spend Holy Week in a Monastery and arrived on Thursday evening into a beautiful vigil. The next day we went on a walk going through the Stations of the Cross in the forest, ended with another beautiful service. It was the eve of what in Dutch we call ‘Silent Saturday’ and the entire Monastery had gone into an intriguing silence, mourning over our Lord and anticipating His glorious rising. I had discovered a door that led into the cloisters around the monastery garden and gave access to the parish church in which I was baptised not so long before. Keen to have some worship there, I went through the door and put something in between the door and the wall to prevent it from closing. And so it happened that after a great time, I tried to go back and found myself to be locked up! Someone had closed the door. ‘Well there are worse places to be locked up!’ – went through my mind. I looked around in the kitchen of the church for a key and when I didn’t find one, went through the options: spending the night in the church, escaping by climbing on the roof to ring the front door, or to check if someone left a window open when outside… In the end I decided to try my luck by sitting in the garden hoping that someone would pass in the late hours who could open the door. And yes! After a while I saw a small light and a sister hurrying past. I knocked on the window. ‘Sister, Sister!’ – feeling ashamed to break the silence. Immediately she looked up to the ceiling. I knocked again. She looked around, astonished, until she saw me which made her face shout of disappointment. (Which I understand if you think to see Jesus but then it’s me). She led me in and also broke the silence by whispering: ‘What were you doing there! …

*****

Ksenia Smykova, from Russia, currently working with the church in Copenhagen, (though at this moment in Estonia, due to a combination of visa and COVID reasons!) shared with us some fascinating pictures, depicting Passion related themes in an unusual way. The easiest way of sharing this is to offer the slides Ksenia showed to us:

*****

Janet Sayers, a pastoral mentor on the Scheme who is based in Brussels, and who has been involved with the diocesan Scheme since its outset, movingly spoke about George Herbert’s poem ‘Easter Wings’ and why it spoke so powerfully to her:

I first heard words by George Herbert a very long time ago when singing hymns at school. Much later in life I discovered some more of his poems, including ‘Easter Wings’ which I heard recited by Canon Theologian Jack McDonald, during a service at Holy Trinity Brussels. This poem intrigued me.   Only recently did I learn that it was originally written in a pattern on the page representing two sets of wings. 

‘Easter WIngs’ as set out in the original 1633 edition of The Temple

To be honest, in the past I have often found the triumphalism of Easter Sunday perplexing rather than exhilarating.  I can more readily identify with Christ’s suffering than with his resurrection.  I find the crucifixion more credible than the mystery of the resurrection. 

I understand that the content of the poem is a meditation focusing on the atonement of Jesus Christ drawing its theme from I Corinthians 15.51-56. Reflecting more deeply on this poem has opened things up and broadened my understanding.  I find it amazing that so few words can mean so much.  It is fascinating that the shape in which the words were originally written imitates the meaning of the words, and that the varying length of the poem’s lines creates a visual pattern or shape making it becomes a picture or representation of the poem’s theme, rather than simply seeing it as a poem on the page.

So why did this poem become so meaningful to me? 

I am the mother of two children – a daughter Eleanor and a son Jonathan, two years her junior.  Sadly, Eleanor died at the age of 23 – in the springtime of her life – from an aggressive kind of cancer.  My struggle to understand and take on board the Easter message became greater and my questions more urgent.  How could I possibly make any sense of this?  Only by submitting my narrative to the light of God’s Gospel narrative.  In my immediate grief, consolation in my desolation came from listening over and over again to a particularly beautiful rendition of Handel’s Messiah. The questions it sings from 1 Corinthians 15.55-56 became my own. 

‘Where O death is your victory?  Where O death is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God.  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’

The sublime music carried me as the words challenged and inspired me.

As I further contemplated Herbert’s poem the word ‘imp’ in the next to last line intrigued me, until I learned that it was associated with the reparation of an injured bird’s wing by way of grafting a new feather onto the damaged wing, thus enabling the bird to rise and fly again.

Thinking more about the imagery in this poem during Lent has taken me on to further stepping out and living more fully into this great mystery of Christ’s resurrection and what it really means. For, and I quote the last two lines of the poem:

‘If I imp my wing on thine,

Affliction shall advance the flight in me.’

I am looking forward to a happier and more joyful Easter this year. Thanks be to God.

*****

For myself (Clare Amos) I shared with the group something about reflecting on the events of Holy Week in the context of the Holy Land past and present. I won’t take space to include here exactly what I said yesterday – but they overlap with some biblical reflections for Holy Week which I was honoured to be invited to write by the World Council of Churches which are available here: WCC-EAPPI Easter Initiative 2021 | World Council of Churches (oikoumene.org) (You will find my bible studies near the bottom of the page.)

Christ is risen!

Truly he is risen!

The Palm Sunday puzzle

The ‘Golden Gate’, now sealed, in the east city wall of Jerusalem

There’s a story that goes as follows: In the early 7th century Persian armies attacked Jerusalem and stole part of the True Cross. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered the fragment of the Cross and was proudly riding into Jerusalem on his warhorse to replace it in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But each time he approached the city gate it shut firmly in his face and he could not get through. Eventually he ‘twigged’ – if Jesus had entered Jerusalem seated merely on a donkey, it was not appropriate for him, Heraclius, to seek to enter on a horse. So he dismounted and walked through the gate. But ever since that gate (the ‘Golden Gate’) has remained sealed, as a visible reminder of the need for humility, even on the part of human kings and emperors.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

I have never quite got used to the tradition, which in my experience has become much more prevalent in Anglican Churches during the last 30 years, of having two Gospel readings on Palm Sunday. The first of course is the story of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, told in one of the four Gospels; the second is the account of his Passion, told through the lens of whichever of the  Synoptic Gospels is the lectionary Gospel for the year. (The Gospel of John is normally ‘saved up’ for Good Friday).

I know the good practical reasons for the custom: it is sometimes said that at least it ensures that people who do not attend church on Good Friday hear the complete reading of the passion narrative. But I still find it jarring – not least as a biblical scholar. Somehow having the two Gospel readings in such proximity and during the same service seems to elide the account of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life – after he had entered Jerusalem. It also means that if, as here, one is trying to write a blog on the lectionary Gospel for the day, it is not immediately obvious where we should focus!

I wonder if the tradition will happen this year, certainly in services which are ‘on line’?  In my experience the need for online worship to be shorter and simpler than worship in ‘normal’ times, might encourage some churches this year to opt for either the palms or the passion.

All the same, the tradition of the ‘two’ Gospels got me thinking. What is it that they specifically have in common? Other than both being about Jesus of course!  The answer (or one of them) seems to be that both the Palm Sunday Gospels and the accounts of Jesus’ passion explicitly focus on the meaning of kingship. Both in ways that may be quite subversive.

Although the four Gospels differ slightly in their wording, in each case the Palm Sunday reading alludes to Jesus’ kingship:

  • Tell the daughter of Zion,
  • Look your king is coming to you (Matthew 21.5)
  • Hosanna to the Son of David (Matthew 21.9)
  • Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David (Mark 11.10)
  • Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord (Luke 19.38)
  • Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel (John 12-13)
  • Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt! (John 12-15)

In three of the Gospels the word ‘king’ is used; Mark refers to ‘Son of David’, but this is a clear allusion to the tradition of a coming king from the royal line of David. Explicitly in the Gospels of Matthew and John, and implicitly in the other two there is an allusion to the text of Zechariah 9.9-10, which foretells the coming of a king who will bring ‘peace to the nations’.

 It is often suggested that by choosing to ride on a ‘donkey’ rather than a ‘horse’ – an animal used frequently in warfare – Jesus is unexpectedly subverting earlier conventions about the arrival of a messianic king. However the subversion of referring to a donkey is found also in the text of Zechariah, and even in the Blessing of Judah in Genesis 49.8-11 to which the text of Zechariah itself may allude.

The other clear Old Testament reference in the Gospels is to Psalm 118.26, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’. It is not quite clear who the psalm intends to refer to by this ‘one’ though it is possible it is a royal figure: it is however interesting to note that the following line in the psalm is ‘We bless you from the house of the Lord’ (Psalm 118.26) which  make the implications of  Jesus’ actions after his entry to the city – his ‘cleansing of the Temple’ even more telling.

A homemade ‘palm cross’ from bamboo in our garden, for Palm Sunday 2020

In all four Gospels the passion narratives refer to Jesus as ‘king’. In Luke one of the charges brought against him before Pilate states in detail, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ (Luke 23.2). In all the Gospels the charge ‘King of the Jews’ is placed as a mocking inscription on his cross (Matthew 27.29; Mark 15.18; Luke 23.38; John 19.19). For all the Gospel writers these words, though intended as a mocking parody, are ultimately and ironically correct. This perhaps comes out most strongly in the Gospel of John; in this Gospel the cross itself is pictured as a throne, ‘lifting up’ the King it bears.

So in the Gospels, both at the time of the palms and the passion, Jesus’ kingship is important. Albeit kingship with a twist.

What however does this mean for us today? How can the biblical language of kingship speak into our context? It is interesting to reflect on it in light of our situation in Europe. Most of the countries in our continent and our diocese no longer have a king or monarch as head of state. Even those that do, such as the United Kingdom, understand ‘kingship’ in a very different way to how it was perceived in ‘biblical’ times. Autocratic monarchy, in which life or death could depend on the whim of a royal personage, has gone out of fashion in Europe, certainly after the first couple of decades of the 20th century.  There are still a few corners of the world where it can be found – but they are hardly places that I would want to emulate.

How far does biblical imagery and theology depend on an understanding of ‘kingship’? It is certainly true that ‘President’ or ‘Prime Minister’ does not have the same kind of ring! What are we seeking to say when we describe Jesus as ‘king’? What is it important not to lose? There is also the question that a number of Christian theologians and writers are unhappy with the hierarchical overtones of Christian ‘kingship’ language and argue that it is not appropriate to use in our time. The hymnwriter Brian Wren, for example, challenges what he calls KINGAFAP (King, Almighty Father, All Powerful) images in theology and hymnody. (See Brian Wren, ‘What language shall we borrow?’) I myself have something of an internal battle each year when we get near the Feast of Christ the King.

I would genuinely be interested to hear what readers of this blog might want to say on this. It is not an issue where I have a worked-out theological position of my own. I do however think it is a challenge that Christian theology in our day needs to engage with. There are two strands of the biblical understanding of kingship that I think are intrinsic and essential to our Christian faith.

The first is the deep understanding of the king as the mediator between the divine and human realms. Linked to the ‘Davidic covenant’ tradition, and alluded to frequently in the psalms, this role is two- directional – mediating the blessings of God to the wider nation, and interceding before God for the well-being of the people. This may, and often does, involve the king in a sacrificial role.

The second is closely linked to it – the sense of the king as a corporate personality, so that the boundaries between king and people, king and nation, begin to blur. The life of the one, and the life of the many are interwoven.

Both these aspects can be found in Psalm 22, certainly if understood as a ‘Psalm of David’. I do not think it is an accident that this particular psalm has been so influential in our interpretation of Jesus’ passion.

We wish to see Jesus… (John 12.20-21)

This week’s lectionary reflection draws on the Gospel reading of John 12.20-33 to take us on a journey that includes both the Temple in Jerusalem and Canterbury Cathedral.

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

I have grown to appreciate Canterbury Cathedral over the years. In fact when my husband Alan and I lived in Canterbury for five years I didn’t particularly enjoy the atmosphere of the Cathedral. There was a starchiness and a stuffiness about the place then, and I often felt rather fraught when I went to services there, caught between the expectation that as the wife of the Principal of the Canterbury School of Ministry there were certain events I needed to attend, and the fact that I also had  a baby who became a lively toddler in tow.  In those days children were expected by some of the Cathedral staff not to be heard, and perhaps not even to be seen. It was definitely stress making.

The Compass Rose symbol of the Anglican Communion engraved into the floor of the Cathedral. The Greek words in the inscription read ‘The truth will set you free.’

But as I have visited there over more recent years I have begun to treasure much of what it has to offer. When I was working for the Anglican Communion Office in London I came to realise how much the Cathedral  is loved by Anglicans from so many parts of the world, and what it meant to them to visit Canterbury as pilgrims. There’s the great symbol of the Anglican Communion, the Compass Rose, engraved into the floor in the centre of the building, with its wonderful motto, ‘The truth will set you free’ that speaks powerfully to me, and of which the Anglican Communion should be proud, even though I am not sure it always quite lives up to the vision.

But the unforgettable spine chilling moment above all for me came at the end of the  last Lambeth Conference in 2008 in which I was privileged to participate as a member of staff of the Anglican Communion Office. At the end of the final service of the conference held in semi darkness in the Cathedral, representatives of the Anglican Church of Melanesia carried a canoe in procession through the cathedral, singing a haunting traditional south pacific lament as they did so.  They – and we – were remembering the members of the Anglican Melanesian religious brotherhood who had been murdered five years earlier as they had sought to mediate and make peace in one of the Solomon Islands intermittent civil or tribal wars.  They have become known as the Melanesian Martyrs. Ever since whenever I think about Canterbury Cathedral that is what comes to my mind – as a place where modern martyrs, as well as medieval ones, are remembered.

Icon of the Melanesian Martyrs in Canterbury Cathedral

I am quite sure that one of the reasons that the Cathedral has become more welcoming over the years is due to the current Dean, Robert Willis. He is the personification of a diffident, yet competent graciousness that is a mark of the Anglican tradition at its very best. One of the things that Robert wanted to do when he became Dean, about 20 years ago was to create a mission statement for the Cathedral. As he told me the story once, there were discussions about it in cathedral chapter, and sub-groups set up to decide what should be in the statement – which was apparently potentially getting longer and more complicated by the week. And then one day during the daily worship, part of the biblical passage that is this coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel was read, and suddenly Robert saw what was needed.

As John’s Gospel puts it, ‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip and said to him, ‘Sir we wish to see Jesus’.  (John 12.20-21) And hearing these words Robert was inspired to suggest that the mission statement of the Cathedral should simply be ‘To show people Jesus’.  And that is exactly what happened and if you go onto Canterbury Cathedral’s website to this day you will find that statement set out at the bottom of the page. What it is trying to say, I think, is that the whole life of the Cathedral, from the beauty of its architecture and worship, to the quality of the intellectual engagement and enquiry it facilitates, to the sense of warmth and hospitality with which visitors are greeted, to the way that it functions for those who work  and live there as a place of authentic Christian community, needs to point people  towards Jesus Christ, to enable them to draw nearer to him and through him to God. If any church ever finds itself looking for a mission statement in the future – it is not a bad one to consider.

Dean Willis inadvertently became an internet sensation during lockdown last year, when his cat interrupted Morning Prayer to steal the milk!

Canterbury Cathedral cat snatches vicar’s milk during morning prayer – YouTube

But back to the Gospel reading. Why were those Greeks wanting to see Jesus? Rowan Williams once asked, ‘Were they, I wonder, like the tourists who turn up in Dharamsala in India saying, I want to see the Dalai Lama? ‘There’s a famous charismatic religious figure around. I’d like to catch a glimpse of him. I might even be interested in listening to what he says, a bit … and then its back to the hotel.’

Perhaps that was indeed what those Greeks were thinking – but for Jesus, and maybe eventually for them too, it turned into so much more. Let’s briefly re-tread our steps through the last couple of chapters of John’s Gospel in which we are being pivoted towards Jesus’ passion. First there was the account of Jesus’ life-giving ministry to his beloved friend Lazarus, putting himself in danger to do so, especially because Lazarus’ recovery from death causes such a stir that Caiaphas, the ultimate example of a pragmatic religious official, worries about its dangerous effect on their Roman political overlords, ‘It is better that one man should die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11.50) That is followed by the account of Jesus’ anointing by Lazarus’ sister, Mary, an act which foreshadows Jesus’ death (John 12.1-7). Although with a double entendre that is characteristic of John, since kings in Israel were anointed in order to inaugurate their rule – the anointing is not just a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death but also a proclamation of Jesus’ messiahship. But then,  there is a sort of double double entendre, or should one say triple entendre, since for John’s Gospel the moment of Jesus’ death and the moment when he is crowned as king are actually one and the same.

And now it seems to be this meeting with the Greeks that edges that destiny ever closer. For Jesus’ initial response to their request, is to speak of the dying of the seed – himself – to lead to a fruitful harvest. At first sight it is not obvious why their request leads him to make such a response. I think it is something like this. One of the great visions of the Old Testament – you find it in the psalms and in the prophets – is of a pilgrimage of the nations that would be made up to Jerusalem which would inaugurate God’s coming kingdom of justice and peace.

Think for example of the great passage from Isaiah, ‘It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains and many people shall come to it…’ (Isaiah 2.2-3) Jerusalem and its Temple was the destiny for this pilgrimage, because it was  seen as the dwelling place of God, a place of squeezing, where God’s glory could be seen and God could be visibly present with human beings. But for the New Testament, that dwelling place of God, that space of God’s glory among human beings is now squeezed into the person of Jesus Christ – so he becomes the goal of such a pilgrimage, and those Greek visitors both foreshadow it and are its first fruits. They are bringing about those ‘latter days’, and just as the mountainous height of Jerusalem facilitated its role as the goal of pilgrims, so also it will mean that Christ himself as pilgrimage’s new goal will need to be lifted up.

It is striking to read John’s account of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane later on in the Gospel. There is there no agony such as you find in the other Gospels. But there is no agony there – because it is here, now earlier in the story that you find it. ‘Now is my soul troubled’ says Jesus at this point (John 12.27). It is now that he needs to decide whether to embrace or to refuse the destiny that the coming of those Greek visitors asking to see him has forced into his present  …to allow his own body to be squeezed into the space  where God and human beings can meet each other. Three of John’s key words which reverberate again and again through his Gospel, make their appearance in this passage, to indicate its crucial role in the story.

Hour: This is the moment that time has been waiting for through the earlier chapters of the gospel when we have been told that Jesus’ hour has not yet come. Now eternity is squeezed into this moment of decision and judgement.

Glory: This is that biblical word that John’s Gospel delights in turning upside down in its meaning. It refers to the ‘visible presence’ of God. In the pages of the Old Testament such visible presence is shown through manifestations of power and splendour. But in the Gospel of John the word ‘glorified’ is used to describe the moment that Jesus hangs on the cross. In a radical inversion the visible presence of God is now to be seen in a moment of apparent supreme weakness and defeat.

Lifted up: One word in Greek. It speaks, and it is intended to speak, at several levels. At one level it refers simply to Jesus being physically ‘lifted up’ on to the beams of the cross. But the word in Greek also carries the metaphorical sense of ‘exalt’  – be raised up in honour.

All three words therefore point us to the cross, which for the Gospel of John is the moment, the hour when the seed that has been sown in the earth, has sprouted into the tree of life, to become the bridge between earth and heaven.

Back finally once again to those Greeks and their request, ‘Sir we would see Jesus’.

As Archbishop Rowan once put it: Jesus’ response to this request seems to be, There is only one way in which you can really see: and that is, when you see the Christ lifted up in the pain and the defeat of the cross, and find the glory of the Father radiating there.’ You can’t just be a tourist. You can’t simply wander around hoping to capture a glimpse of an interesting person if you’re really concerned to see Jesus. You have to go where the cross is because, of course, where Jesus is, there will his friends be also.

That is what those seven Melanesian brothers, who were martyred as they travelled to make peace discovered.

(This is a lightly edited version of an address I gave during Holy Week 2020 for Holy Trinity Church, Geneva)

God so loved…

This week’s blog explores the lectionary Gospel for Lent 4, John 3.14-21

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

‘The Cross is a tree set on fire with invisible flame which illumineth all the world. The flame is love.’ (Thomas Traherne). The picture above is one of the beautiful stained glass windows created in Hereford Cathedral in honour of the 17th century Anglican mystical writer Thomas Traherne. The window was designed and created by Tom Denny. For more examples of Denny’s exquisite work see http://www.thomasdenny.co.uk

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.

Normally, when the Fourth Sunday of Lent arrives our progress through the Lenten season – and the Lenten lectionary – loses out to Mothering Sunday. I wonder if that will be the case in quite the same way this year? – ‘lockdown’ or its lesser equivalents do seem to mean that the traditional rites of ‘saying it with flowers’ probably won’t be able to take place as usual next Sunday.

In any case, for the coming Sunday, I decided to focus this reflection on the lectionary selection for Lent 4, rather than the Mothering Sunday alternatives, which I have looked at often in the past, and will probably do so again in the future. I will look in particular at the lectionary Gospel John 3.14-21. Interestingly, given that it has displaced a reading for Mothering Sunday, it has however something important to say about the fatherhood of God.

This of course includes the iconic verse, John 3.16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

In my mind this is for ever pigeonholed as ‘the bus verse’. When I went to my secondary school I had to travel there by bus, and I remember that for quite a number of months this verse (accompanied probably by a bit of comment or explanation the detail of which I have long forgotten) had a prime place among the ‘adverts’ with which the inside of the bus was decorated. I would read it every day. My 11 year old self was both fascinated and fearful. I don’t think I was silly to feel fearful, I am sure the general tenor of the ‘advert’ intended to convey the negative impression that only a few select would be ‘saved’, while the destiny of most was to ‘perish’.  It took me a very long time before I could think about John 3.16 in positive terms. Indeed part of my personal purpose in writing the prayer above based on this verse (back c.1998) was to compel myself to dig deeper into its gentle graciousness.

Over the last 25 years or so, I have found myself coming back to explore the Gospel of John many times from different facets: its reflection on the comparative roles of women and men, its glorious sacramentality and symbolism, its sometimes very ‘difficult’ role in terms of Christian-Jewish relations. I have truly found it a biblical book which, to quote St Augustine of Hippo, ‘Is deep enough for a elephant to swim in, and a child not to drown.’

Given that quite a lot of my other biblical exploration during this same period has focused on the Book of Genesis it is perhaps not surprising that I have found myself drawing comparisons between the Gospel of John and Genesis. I see John as ‘A New Genesis’, sharing with us the glory of a new creation, made possible by the ‘Son of Man’ (e.g. John 3.14) who spans the chasm between earth and heaven. Jesus then is fully inaugurated as the ‘new Adam’ at the precise point in the story when he stands before Pilate as a chained prisoner (John 19.5) wearing a crown of thorns and purple robes of mockery and is greeted with the jibe, ‘Behold the Man.’

One intriguing link between John and Genesis that I have only recently explored more deeply is however linked to John 3.16. In the second half of this Gospel we hear a great deal about love. In the first half of the Gospel comparatively little. In fact the first time that the verb ‘love’ is used in this Gospel is here, in John 3.16, ‘God so loved…’ After this ‘love’ only appears on a few more occasions, until we meet it in the account of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). That seems to open the floodgates, and especially in the Farewell speech of Jesus (John 13-17) the Gospel text is then soaked profoundly with ‘love’.

In view of my interest in the relationship between John and Genesis, what however intrigued me is that the first time the verb ‘love’ occurs is in Genesis 22.2, at the beginning of the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go, sacrifice him…’ Though by contrast with John’s Gospel following on this instance the word ‘love’ appears only a few more times in Genesis – largely describing either the love for a parent for a child, or the love of a man for a woman.

However I find it either a powerful coincidence, or perhaps a deliberate intention, that the first time that ‘love’ appears in both books, it is in relation to the ‘giving up’ of an ‘only Son’.  I think there is a connection. It is reinforced by the way that the Greek word monogenes, translated as ‘only’ in the NRSV and ‘one and only’ in the NIV (John 3.16, 18) , is regularly also used in biblical and Christian texts to describe Isaac as Abraham’s ‘only son (see e.g. Hebrews 11.17).

The story of the ‘near sacrifice’ of Isaac became a rich seam which has been extensively mined over the centuries by both Jews and Christians. Indeed our mutual reflection on this theme influenced one another, see e.g. the painting of The Sacrifice of Isaac by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall hinting at Jewish and Christian dialogue on the theme.

Jewish tradition increasingly viewed Isaac as intentionally offering himself as a sacrifice, for the ultimate benefit of his descendants. It was referred to as the Aqedah (the ‘Binding of Isaac’). As far as Christians were concerned, traces of allusions to the ‘theme’ can certainly be found in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 8.32) and were more completely developed in later theology. In Christian reflection on the topic, of course, what happened was that the story of Abraham and Isaac was used as an analogy to describe the Father’s offering of the Son in the passion and death of Jesus Christ.  God the Father ‘plays’ two roles in this analogy: he reflects both the figure of ‘father Abraham’, but also the role of the deity to whom Abraham is offering Isaac. This both transforms the story, and affects our understanding of the very nature of God.

What I think is also interesting is that the object of the Father’s love in John 3.16 is not (at this point) ‘the Son’ – but the ‘world’. If one thinks about the analogy with Genesis, in which Abraham’s love for his son is mentioned, to find the word ‘world’ replacing ‘son’, as John 3.16 does, potentially takes our breath away. Later on in John’s Gospel of course, the mutual love of the Father and the Son is referred to again and again (especially in John 13-17), and their ‘oneness’ is stressed, but perhaps it is telling that the very first time the word is used in the Gospel it is the ‘world’ that is privileged as being its object.

There is quite a lot else I could say on this topic – I have just had published a 6000+ word article on the subject God So Loved the World – Amos – 2020 – The Ecumenical Review – Wiley Online Library! (I think it is available still via this link) One of the insights I explore there is the way that in the Gospel of John words linked to the root agap- (love) seem to lead us in the direction of willing suffering.

But for now, as I draw this reflection to a close, I want to mention briefly a Zoom Bible study session I led on Saturday for about 65 participants. It was called ‘Christ crucified! Why?’ and offered a whistle-stop tour of theories of the atonement. As often when I offer such sessions I am never sure quite where they are going to end up. Frequently, not exactly where I expected – but that can be all to the good! In this case, towards the end I found myself responding to a query about the relationship between the Father and Son in the crucifixion of Christ. Was God the Father presiding juridically and impartially at a distance over Christ’s death? I told the group what is the case, that my own reflection on this topic had been worked out in the furnace of living in Beirut during some years of its civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982. In the context of the human suffering I witnessed during those years I have felt since that it is vital that when we say ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.18) God is profoundly affected by the suffering of this world. To draw a comparison, as I have done here, between the sacrifice of Isaac, and the Father’s giving of his Son, does, I believe make it clear that the ‘wounding of God’s love, and marring of God’s image in us’, and God’s response to it, is a pain which is felt in the very heart of God.