The beloved physician

A depiction of the seal of the Anglican mission agency USPG, quoting words from Acts 16.9

The first ‘biblical novel’ that I ever read – as a teenager of about 15 – was Taylor Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician. It was sub-titled, ‘A mighty novel of St Luke’. I still have my copy. I continue to think the book is one of the best examples of the genre of ‘biblical novel’. It set me off on the trail of a few others of the genre, such as The Robe, but though The Robe depicts the central Christian story of Christ’s crucifixion, I don’t think, in literary terms it is actually as good as Caldwell’s tale of Luke. Indeed reading Caldwell’s book for a while fired my ambition to write my own ‘biblical novel’. It was going to be on Hosea and his errant wife Gomer, and I even had a title in mind for it, ‘For I desire steadfast love’. I think it was some of my university friends who convinced me that it was perhaps a bit of a hostage to fortune. At any rate that particular book has never ultimately seen the light of day!

In Caldwell’s book Luke comes across as a sensitive, complex character who loves deeply and sometimes very painfully. He also echoes in his life-story the complexities of life in the Mediterranean world of the first century, in which the civilisations of Rome, Greece, and the semitic East, including the world of Judaism, interface and interact with each other in ways that are sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Luke is presented as deeply cultured, as I think the writer of the Gospel of Luke certainly was. He cares deeply about the poor, but perhaps from the perspective of never having been really poor himself. He is a bit of an outsider looking in, albeit with great compassion, when it comes to responding to the grinding poverty that was the lot of the majority of those who lived in those places and those times. In that respect I sometimes think (perhaps a bit wryly and self-critically) that he was quite ‘Anglican’. In many parts of the world Anglican churches may well be churches that care for the poor – but they are perhaps not always churches of the poor. There are of course exceptions – I was profoundly moved when I met Christians of the Anglican tradition at Peshawar in Pakistan, who lived in abject poverty and were at the bottom of the social heap. But the link between Anglicanism and the British Empire has, in a number of countries, meant that there is often a relationship between being Anglican and being middle class.

There is a challenge I sometimes throw at people which is to ask them what Christian denomination each of the Gospel writers would be if they were alive today. It is fun to see what people come up with. Personally, though, I am fairly convinced that if he were around now Luke would be an Anglican! It’s linked to his appreciation of history, of the beauty of language, of order and dignity, especially in worship, appreciation of ‘place’ and his interest in the complexities of the political world in which he was situated. He is I think the evangelist that most requires us to explore the relationship between church and state, which is certainly an issue that the Church of England has had to engage with over the years – and is likely to continue to be revisited.

It is interesting but actually the thought of Luke as a medical doctor is not normally the first thing that springs to my mind when I reflect on Luke. Perhaps though this year, in which so many of us feel awed by the commitment that doctors and nurses have shown through the months of COVID, it is especially good to be reminded of his medical profession. I hope and expect that churches will draw the connection between celebrating St Luke and the sacrificial work of so many in the medical profession in recent months. In fact the link between Luke and medicine is fairly tenuous in the two New Testament books linked to the name of Luke – his Gospel and Acts. His identification as a physician comes primarily from the reference in Colossians 4.14, when Paul describes Luke, apparently one of his companions during his time in prison as ‘the beloved physician’. Then on the basis of this reference it has been noted that in the account of the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage, Luke (Luke 8.43-48)  does not include the note given by Mark’s Gospel that the woman ‘had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse’. (Mark 5.26) It has often been suggested that Luke omits this because of the disparaging way it refers to doctors.

The Gospel reading for St Luke’s Day – naturally from the Gospel of Luke – is presumably chosen because it mentions Jesus sending seventy (or seventy-two) disciples on a mission. The number 70/72 is suggestively looking forward to the spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles that Luke in Acts will later tell us of (In Genesis 10 the list of the nations adds up to 70). It also significantly suggests that as well as preaching, those sent out on this mission were commissioned for a ministry of healing. In fact the biblical reading for today which speaks to me most powerfully is that from Acts 16.6-12a. It is the first moment in Acts when Luke’s account uses the word ‘we’ to suggest that Luke himself had joined the group of travellers accompanying Paul. I particularly appreciate the fact that this is literally the moment when the path of the Gospel ‘jumps’ from Asia to Europe. ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’ (Acts 16.9). I think that this verse feels almost like a foundation document for us as Christians in Europe.  We need to be aware of this passage and celebrate it much more than we do. One important note it suggests to me is that authentic mission needs to be multi-vocal, and involve a conversation between two (or more) parties – which must involve the one who ‘receives’ as well as the one who is ‘sent’. The Anglican mission agency USPG for which I worked for a number of years, has the words ‘Come over and help us’ on its historic seal and, certainly in recent decades, has taken very seriously the priority of the receiving partner in its understanding of its role in mission. Perhaps in the Diocese in Europe this verse would be an interesting starting point for an exploration of our own mission and vocation. (There is much more to say than I have space for here – including its fascinating references to the Holy Spirit in this short passage).

Clare Amos

The God I do not want: a mangled parable

When I first looked at the lectionary Gospel for this week (Matthew 22.1-14) – my immediate reaction was to reflect that , underlying it, was a very similar issue to that which seemed to be reflected in the lectionary Gospel for last week: namely the puzzle in the early Christian church – and certainly in the part of the church which provided the Gospel of Matthew’s own immediate context – over why so many of those from Matthew’s original Jewish religious tradition had failed to become disciples of Jesus Christ. I was (for a brief moment!) tempted simply to write for this week’s blog ‘See last week!’ So I am grateful to my husband Alan Amos for taking up the challenge of exploring this passage for us. I am also grateful to Canon John Newsome for sending me a photo he took some years ago of a plaque at the cathedral in Magdeburg which depicts sorrow and repentance for the widespread hostility towards Judaism in many places and times over the last 2000 years. We use this photo as an illustration below.

As Alan suggests, our ‘joy’ this week is prompted not by the Gospel, but by the other readings, especially Philippians 4.1-9. One of my personal ongoing theological quests is to explore ‘What is Joy’. So after Alan’s reflection I offer a number of ‘definitions’ of joy. (Though in truth I suspect joy may be undefinable!).

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Spurned sister synagogue, forgive our blindness which has brought so much death. God’s promises remain valid for you in all eternity as they do for us’ (Plaque placed at Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany, near to traditional Ecclesia/Synagoga statues)

Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of the US have won the Nobel Physics Prize for their research into black holes.  (Ghez, it’s worth noting, is only the fourth woman to receive the honour in nearly 120 years of Nobel history.)

Despite sometimes describing himself as an atheist,   in the 1991 film A Brief History of Time Roger Penrose said, ‘I think I would say that the universe has a purpose, it’s not somehow just there by chance … some people, I think, take the view that the universe is just there and it runs along – it’s a bit like it just sort of computes, and we happen somehow by accident to find ourselves in this thing. But I don’t think that’s a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it.’

‘Something much deeper about it’:  this phrase can draw us into a conversation where human awareness of beauty  and harmony in creation and in music open up questions about the purpose of our existence,  and as Christians this phrase reminds us that wonder is an essential part of our response to the divine.  

I not only regret that so many of our scientists are atheists,   but that our churches have been so unsuccessful in pointing towards  ‘a God who is believable.’   Sometimes I think that a slavish and uncritical use of Scripture plays its part in this.   I do wish that this Sunday’s Gospel reading was a help,  but in my view it is not.   This mangled parable probably is linked to the one we find in Luke 14. 16 – 24,  the invitation to a great feast.   Unfortunately the version we find in Matthew   can most easily be interpreted in terms which portray the God that none of us wants (It is interesting to compare and contrast the different feel of the parable in the two Gospels).  The parable seems to have been reshaped by the intense pressures on the Gospel writer’s home community and the divisions between church and synagogue that Clare referred to in last week’s blog.    A writer whom I much admire,  Debie Thomas,  has made a brave effort to turn the parable upside down,  and her attempt is well worth a read :  https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2777

I cannot travel with her to her conclusion,  but it was a journey worth taking!

Icon of the Parable of the Wedding Feast – which includes the portrayal of the man without the wedding garment.

So this Sunday I shall turn for spiritual refreshment to our other readings.   However,  I feel sorry for the members of our congregations if the Gospel is read to them without any further comment on it.   I leave you to think out what comment you might make !  

By contrast,  the reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 25.1 -9) is a refreshment to the soul.   The feast is a universal one provided for all people,  and  salvation is proclaimed to all the nations;  the tears on all faces will be wiped away,  and the love of God for Israel is set within the context of the love of God for all humanity.  

And then,  turning to  the reading from Philippians (Philippians 4.1 -9),  we find the words  we treasure :  ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,  and again I say rejoice!’   and  the reference to the peace of God that passes all understanding.  

It is that holy nugget of scripture that I rest in from this Sunday’s readings.  I might rephrase it,  “’he peace of God which by-passes my understanding.’  In other words,  in a wonderful way the presence and peace of God is known beyond our inner arguments and strivings,   beyond even our wrestlings over the meaning of scripture …. having thought both our best and our worst,  we are invited to lay aside the strivings of our minds,   and rest in the God who loves and cares for us,  yes and for all people,   all those whom he invites to the great feast of love.

Some definitions of joy

  • There is no aspect of human life and emotion where God is not present. Yet God’s way of being present often confounds our expectations and our preconceived notions. Moments of joy, of intimacy, of confusion and despair can be the opportunity for a deeper awareness of God’s presence. (Gemma Simmonds)
  • Joy comes when faith is alive, curiosity is inflamed and the mind is stretched (Nick Baines)
  • Gratitude transforms the torment of memory of good things now gone into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
  • Joy is not a requirement of Christian discipleship, it is a consequence. (Eugene Peterson)
  • Joy is the great enemy of narcissism. (Stanley Hauerwas)

The contested vineyard

This week’s blog explores a very difficult issue, but one dear to my own heart that I have wrestled with – probably in fact for all my adult life! The thoughts are prompted by the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday: Isaiah 5.1-7 ; Philippians 3.4b-14 ; Matthew 21.33-46. I am grateful to my husband, Canon Alan Amos, the most gracious (yet challenging!) of theological conversation partners, for being prompted to compose a poem/prayer which sums up what I have tried to express in prose.

Clare Amos, Director for Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Ecclesia, ‘Church’ and blinded Synagoga, ‘Synagogue’ depicted at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris c. 1240

I suspect that quite a few churches may be choosing to keep the coming Sunday (4 October) as either the Feast of St Francis, or Harvest Festival. The two naturally work well together of course. In fact the ‘normal’ lectionary readings for this Sunday (described in the lectionary as the Sunday between 2 and 8 October) are sufficiently perplexing to address that they perhaps encourage a shift in the creation-tide direction! However having in fact explored a creationtide motif in last week’s blog (via a short exploration of the Epistle Philippians 2.4-9) I have decided to accept the challenge and engage with the ‘Sunday’ readings. For I think they do force us to address an issue that Christians in Europe simply cannot duck, namely the relationship, both theologically and practically, between Christianity and Judaism. In fact at the present time we are in the most significant part of the Jewish year, what are called the ‘High Holy Days’, in which our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate first Rosh ha-shana (New Year), then Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and culminating in Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles).

The lectionary Gospel (Matthew 21.33-46) is Matthew’s version of what is generally called ‘the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard’. It also appears in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, but if anything the version in Matthew feels harsher, in particular because of the comment, ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom’ (Matthew 21.43) which does not appear in either of the other Gospels. The ‘you’, in that sentence appears to be the chief priests and Pharisees, in other words, key representatives of the institutional Judaism of Jesus’ day.

You cannot read the New Testament without realising that a key ‘puzzle’ in the minds of many Christian disciples in the half century following on the earthly life of Jesus was the question as to why many, indeed most, of Jesus’ fellow Jews had not also seen him as their Messiah and Saviour. The earliest disciples were themselves Jews of course, and for them that ‘puzzle’ was mixed up with their own loyalty and love for their Jewish heritage. Paul, in fact, seems to be wrestling with this issue, in the passage from Philippians selected for this week (Philippians 3.4b-14) – seeking to hold together his Jewish identity, of which he was clearly proud, alongside his knowledge of Jesus Christ. In Romans 9 – 11 he addresses the issue more extensively. Even though, fairly quickly, the majority of the Christian church became people of Gentile origin that fundamental question did not go away, though perhaps that earliest sense of acute personal wrestling and angst became less pronounced among Gentile Christians.

By the end of the first century AD what is often called ‘the parting of the ways’ between Christianity and Judaism was well in train. After the war between the Jews of Palestine and the Romans c 70 AD which led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Judaism too was seeking a renewed sense of self-understanding. The dating of the various Gospels is a matter of (considered) conjecture, but at least some of them probably date from the period after 70 AD when the attitudes of both the Jewish and Christianity communities towards each other seemed to be hardening.

The parable of the tenants in the vineyard, at least as it is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, seems to reflect this context.  It is easy to read it, and it may well be that the author of the Gospel intends us to, as suggesting that the role that ‘official’ Judaism had had in God’s purposes had been taken away from it, or ‘superseded’. Perhaps it was sometimes too easily forgotten that, as is implied in Isaiah 5.1-7, ‘the Song of the Vineyard’, one of the Old Testament selections for this Sunday, God most chastises those whom God most loves.   But the idea that Christianity had replaced Judaism, formally known as ‘supersessionism’ or sometimes ‘replacement theology’ became very wide-spread in Christian history, especially after the establishment of the Christian Empire under Constantine. For many – perhaps most – Christians until very recently, their affirmation that God had chosen the ‘Church’ for his purposes, became one side of a coin of which the other side was the assertion that the ‘Synagogue’ and the Jewish faith had no longer any part to play – it had been ‘superseded’.

In medieval Europe this was sometimes depicted in art by contrasting pictures or statues of a triumphant Ecclesia (Church) and a downcast Synagoga (Synagogue).  Such depictions hint at the dangerous practical consequence of this teaching of ‘supersessionism’, which proactively encouraged discrimination, mistreatment and all too often violence against individual Jews and particular Jewish communities. In many of our lands of Europe there are notorious examples of such attacks in the Middle Ages. But of course, as we know only too well, anti-Judaism and antisemitism in Europe did not die out several centuries ago. It deeply and horrifically scarred the twentieth century. In fact it still continues today. There have recently been examples of antisemitic lies on social media which suggest that Jews bear some responsibility for the spread of COVID-19. https://cst.org.uk/data/file/d/9/Coronavirus%20and%20the%20plague%20of%20antisemitism.1586276450.pdf

Over the last 20 years the focus of my own professional work has been in the area of interreligious engagement. I have enjoyed engaging with Jewish friends and colleagues both professionally and personally. I have been privileged to be part of the working group that produced a recent Church of England report ‘God’s Unfailing Word’ on Christian relations with Jews and Judaism https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-11/godsunfailingwordweb.pdf and I have been consulted about other reports, some still in the pipeline. I know that many Jews with whom I engage in dialogue believe that it is vital that the Christians disown ‘supersessionism’, and indeed some churches have formally done so, although I suspect the ‘official’ view at the top may not always filter down all throughout all the membership.

I have to say that I find myself torn. I am very aware that the question of Christian ‘supersessionism’ isn’t just an ‘academic’ one, either for Jews or for Christians. It does have practical consequences for how Christians behave towards their Jewish neighbours and fellow citizens.  But equally I think that Jews need to acknowledge that asking Christians to disown supersessionism is a ‘big ask’. It is not easy because it is written very deeply into the DNA of our Christian theological structure and it has been the default Christian position for nearly 2000 years. So I react against a glib assumption that ‘ordinary’ Christians can easily jettison such attitudes towards Judaism, partly because I doubt that many of them really have. I see it for example whenever a congregation unthinkingly chooses ‘Lord of the Dance’ as a regular Sunday hymn! (Think about some of its words…!)

Synagoga and Ecclesia in our time – as equal and loving sisters, modern sculpture at St Joseph’s University, PA, USA

I believe that there are ways forward, and Jewish dialogue partners can help Christians discover a changed theological attitude towards Judaism, but they are not easy and they cannot be facile. One way that I myself am still exploring is to ask the question whether ‘fulfil’ means the same as ‘supersede’: I don’t actually think that it does.  That has implications for the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The motif of siblings wrestling is also one that I have often ‘wrestled’ with myself. Based on the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33 it encourages me to say that we can only discover our own identity, our truest self, when we are willing and able to see the face of God in the other.

The parable of the tenants in the vineyard is not an easy Gospel to read!

*****

Lord,  you are our gracious landlord
we the tenants of your land-holding the earth
there is room for all of us as those
who care for your creation.
We like to think we own the plot,
as Christians we can dispense your salvation
to the world
and yet we cannot;
we can point in your direction
and then to our surprise
see many others,  from here and there
showing us their signs of faith;
The vineyard is yours, and ever shall be;
you have not turfed out others to bring us in;
for you are the generous host
and at the end of the day
the feast of plenty will provide for all
who wish to come. (Alan Amos)

‘Let the same mind be among you that was in Christ Jesus’

This week’s blog reflects on the lectionary Epistle, Philippians 2.1-13, from an ecological perspective. The reflection is prefaced by a prayer recently written by my husband, Canon Alan Amos for these days of Zoom.

Clare Amos

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

Holy Spirit, you cannot be isolated or confined;
by nature you are the Go-between-God.
Let us then feel your presence,
living and life-giving,
in Zoom meetings and in worship.
For you are the source of all connectivity
as you fashion and shape us in communion,
who lives and reigns with the Father and the Son
our loving God forever and ever.   Amen

*****

 

Inscription in a Byzantine church in Philippi which includes the name of Paul

There must have been something very special about the relationship of Paul with the Christians at Philippi – at least we can assume that from reading his Letter to the Philippians. It is notable how often the theme of ‘joy’ appears in this letter. Written to the church at Philippi while Paul was in prison, their faithfulness  and their care for him is clearly a source of deep joy,  with him also referring at several points to their abundant generosity. There feels a special appropriateness that it is in this letter we find the famous verses of chapter 2.6-11, in which Paul may be drawing on an early Christian hymn,  setting out his fundamental vision of the life and death of Jesus Christ as providing a core model for what it means to be a human being.

The verses are included as a canticle in the Offices of Common Worship, with the title ‘The Song of Christ’s Glory’.  It reinforces our sense that they are a ‘purple passage’ bit of scripture – not simply to be read, but also to be prayed, and celebrated and sung. It is good to have them as our lectionary Epistle this week, especially surrounded by verses 1-5 and 12-13 that help to set them in context.

This ‘Song of Christ’s Glory’ is a resource for many different questions that we might want to explore. However in this blog I am briefly going to look at how it can provide perhaps slightly unexpected assistance for reflection on our role as Christians in the care of creation. Given that we are in the ‘Creationtide’ season of the church which runs up till October 4 this is appropriate to focus on today.

I have had the privilege during the course of 2020 of speaking to a number of different groups on ‘Creation and the Bible’. It began when I was invited to lead Bible Studies on this theme for the Archdeaconry Synod of Gibraltar Archdeaconry. It was an engagement that was fulfilled physically in person in January. (Does anyone still remember those long ago days when things like that happened?!)

It forced me to do some serious personal reflection on what the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, does suggest on this topic, and pull it together in a coherent whole in a way that could be presented to a sizeable group. Having offered it ‘physically’ in Spain in January, and then in Dorset in early March, I was then invited to offer it via Zoom as a Bible study for Holy Trinity Geneva in April, and Christchurch Vienna just a week ago in September. It became my baptism of fire for ‘online teaching’ – which I actually discovered was less difficult than I feared it might be.

It would be a mistake to try and condense all I said in those presentations into this ‘blog’. But to introduce what comes below, relating to ‘the Song of Christ’s Glory’ I need to mention that my Old Testament starting point for the discussion was the affirmation in Genesis 1.26-28 that human beings have been created in the ‘image of God’, and that it is as bearers of the divine image that we have been given responsibility (the word ‘stewardship’ is often used) for creation. Having then explored the topic fairly widely in other parts of the Old Testament, I turned in the second half of the presentation to the New. I began by offering people two comments – both of which I think are true:

  • ‘To a surprising degree, exegetical discussion of Christianity’s relationship to environmental ethics and practice has been confined within a narrow band of Old Testament texts. In fact the scriptural site of this debate rarely extends beyond the creation stories and ‘dominion over the earth’ language clustered in those first two chapters of Genesis. Even fewer New Testament passages have attracted serious reflection on the topic.’ (John Gatta, The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation)
  • The Christian account of creation is set within the context of the economy of salvation. There is thus a presupposition of interconnectedness between creation, redemption and consummation, which places a theological interdiction against seeing creation as an isolated action or event, complete in itself. In particular, the Christian concept of creation is linked to that of incarnation. (A.McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Wisdom for Natural Theology)

And eventually in my exploration of various New Testament texts we found our way to the Song of Christ’s Glory in Philippians. A key insight is that Paul is alluding here to the Genesis account of creation. That is widely accepted. For example when Paul commends Christ for not ‘regarding equality with God as something to be exploited’, (NRSV) (actually ‘grasped at’ is probably a better translation of the Greek) he is most likely alluding to God’s concern of Genesis 3.22, that human beings ‘become like one of us’. Although the word ‘image’ does not actually appear in these verses in Philippians, the comparable word ‘form’ – which seems to be almost a synonym – does appear twice, and the link with Genesis’ understanding of the relationship of humanity to God and the rest of creation is implied.  Christ therefore is portrayed as showing what it means ‘ideally’ for human beings to be made in the image of God.

Yet as the Philippians hymn makes clear Christ however did not take the path followed by the first Adam… instead he chose the path of self-emptying, (kenosis) obedience and death on a cross. So the implication from an exploration of this ‘Song’ is that once we begin to think of Christ as representing the ideal understanding of humanity as created in the image of God it must affect also how we understand humanity’s dominion over creation. It is a ‘dominion’ that is shaped by the cross!

I am grateful to an article by Román Guridi:  Imago Dei as Kenosis: Re-imagining Humanity in an Ecological Era which helped me to draw some key ideas together. “… kenosis must come to the fore in theological reflection on humanity before the current ecological crisis. It is a meaningful, sound, and timely interpretation of the imago Dei… It is Jesus’ own kenosis that reveals the true face of divine power – power in love – which decidedly aims at the wellbeing and fulfillment of creation. This twofold movement of self-limitation and self-giving love can certainly inspire the desirable renovation in theological anthropology.” (https://www.academia.edu/36327707/Imago_Dei_as_Kenosis_Re_imagining_Humanity_in_an_Ecological_Era)

The German theologian Dorothee Solle is quite blunt about the implications of ‘reading’ Genesis’ ‘image of God’ language, in the light of the role of Christ: “The desire to be in God’s image without attaining Christ’s image is a desire for immediacy, which wants everything without detour and without self-actualization, a narcissistic desire of the ego to settle down in God, immortal and almighty, that doesn’t find it necessary ‘to let its life be crucified’ and to experience the night of pain.” (Dorothee Solle, Suffering)

The ecological implications of this are also spelled out by the Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware:

“Without sacrifice and kenosis (self-emptying) after the example of Jesus Christ crucified, there can be no ecological renewal. … this needs to be applied to our ecological work, whether for our own or for future generations. There can be no transformation of the environment without self-denial, no fundamental renewal of the cosmos without voluntary sacrifice. In Christ’s words, “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Gain comes through loss, life through death, transfiguration through cross-bearing. (http://www.orth-transfiguration.org/safeguarding-the-creation-for-future-generations/)

Creation in my garden in Shroton, Dorset

I hope to return to further exploration of creation at some point in the coming weeks.

(For interest a video of part of the presentation – including my reflection on this Philippians text – given recently in Vienna is available online at www.ccv-web.org/media/clareamos-andgodsaw-part2.mp4)

The ‘Mission’ of Reconciliation

 

This week’s blog posting takes its starting point from the lectionary Gospel reading, Matthew 18.21-35.

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

‘Chancing one’s arm’, tapestry by Pamela Pavitt, in

Textures of Tomorrow, Words and Images on the Theme of Reconciliation


As I mentioned in the blog last week there are five significant ‘teaching speeches’ of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. The number five is unlikely to be accidental – it probably deliberately echoes the five-fold structure of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). The five teaching moments are the Sermon on the Mount (5-7); the mission discourse (10); the chapter of parables (13); this chapter reflecting on the internal life of the church (18); and finally Jesus’ teaching about the future (23-25).

What is also interesting is the way that four of these speeches seem designed to relate to another as a contrasting pair. So for example the first and fifth speech reflect respectively on an ideal vision for the present and a vision of the future in which judgement will be based on our response to this present.  The second and the fourth speeches, look apparently ‘outward’ (the mission speech) and ‘inwards’ (the church speech). The third speech (chapter 13, parables) acts as a middle focal point holding the others together in a kind of tension.

But the point I want to explore further at the moment is the relationship between the second and fourth speech – because they raise in an interesting way the relationship between mission and the life of the church. On the surface it would suggest that ‘mission’ is one pole, and ‘church life’ offers a contrast to that. But I don’t think that is all that can be said about either!

There’s a book on mission that I have found very useful over the years by two Roman Catholic scholars, The Biblical Foundations for Mission, by Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller. Among their interesting observations is that it is wrong to think of mission as one-directional, only ‘centri-fugal’ –  with missionaries moving out from the centre to bring ‘good news’ to those far away. Rather there are points in Scripture, where mission is clearly also centri-petal – with people potentially being attracted to a centre, which could be identified as the visible church. It seems that this may well have been the perception of the author of the Gospel of Matthew. The church is intended to be like ‘a city set on a hill, whose light cannot be hid’ (Matthew 5.14). Just as a warming and illuminating light draws people towards it, so also the vocation of the church is to draw them to itself. So the church is called to be profoundly missionary . Mission and church belong together.

But, and it is sometimes a big ‘but’, the church can only exercise this missionary vocation if it is a warm and attractive light which it sheds around it. There is nothing more offputting than the ‘glare’ of a community riven by internal strife and controversy. I think it can be a particular challenge for us in the Diocese in Europe, with the chaplaincies under a different kind of pressure to that of many English parishes, partly because of the financial responsibility that comes from directly paying one’s own clergy, and partly because they often act as the focal point for a disparate expatriate group. These tensions can sometimes exacerbate internal dissension.

So it is significant that the discussion about the life of the church in Matthew 18 focuses specifically on the areas of reconciliation and forgiveness. They are a point when the demands of ‘church life’ and ‘mission’ meet each other. Forgiveness was clearly important for the Gospel of Matthew. It is interesting, for example, to note that the Lord’s Prayer with its central injunction to forgiveness lies at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 6.9-13) and that immediately after the prayer the demand to forgive others is then repeated (Matthew 6.14). Matthew 18.21-35 needs I think to be read in the light of these earlier injunctions.

It is of course interesting to note that the ‘famous’ Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion[1] have fairly recently been extended to incorporate a note about reconciliation into the Fourth Mark which states that the mission of the church involves ‘To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.’ Other recent thinking about Christian mission, such as by the well known Roman Catholic missiologist Steve Bevans also suggests that ‘reconciliation’ is central to an understanding of Christian mission in the 21st century[2].

Our own diocesan strategy statement ‘Walking Together in Faith’ notes ‘To work for reconciliation’ as being one element of the diocesan strategy:
‘ “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2.14) Challenging violence of every kind in our world, pursuing peace and working to facilitate reconciliation are all important aspects of the Church’s mission. The Diocese maintains a wide range of ecumenical partnerships and links to governmental, NGO and charitable organisations. Our aim as a Diocese and as individual chaplaincies is to work for reconciliation in a variety of situations, at a local level and more widely across Europe.’

In turn though, I feel that I need to acknowledge that some Christians, especially from Africa and Asia, can get quite uneasy when words like ‘reconciliation’ and ‘forgiveness’ are bantered around too glibly. They feel, perhaps rightly, that it can become a cloak and a ‘let out’ for not really grappling with hard questions of injustice. That would have been the view, I think, of some of my former colleagues in the World Council of Churches. I myself once wrote, when I was reflecting on the situation in Israel and Palestine, that ‘reconciliation does not come when wounds are superficially sutured or ignored.’

My instinct is that in reflecting in this area we are beginning to touch on issues close to the challenge that is currently being presented by Black Lives Matter. Real change can only come about when issues of pain and injustice are really acknowledged. Some days ago I came across this video of the song by the US satirical songwriter Roy Zimmerman ‘Driving while black’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhk0nKCGe34

Some of Zimmerman’s songs can be immensely funny – as well as sharply barbed. This one is certainly barbed and satirical, but it isn’t remotely funny. It is however exquisitely painful and powerful. Its power is accentuated by the beauty of the sound of the cello duetting with Zimmerman’s dialogue. Do take a look. It could well provide the starting-point for a discussion in church to explore this concern.

*****

I wrote the following prayer a number of years ago, and have used it on a number of occasions. But I think its final plea, that God will help us to make the church ‘a pattern for a new world, rather than a pale reflection of this one’ expresses the heart of which I believe is the missionary vocation of the Church.

Lord of the Church,
Teacher of disciples,
You loved your friends to the end,
And gave them the example of leadership through service.
May we who follow you today
accept the radical challenge you still offer
to your companions on the way throughout all time.
Stop us short if our values go astray,
and enable us to discover in obedience a perfect freedom.
Above all, help us to make your church a pattern for a new world
Rather than a pale reflection of this one. Amen.

 

[1] https://anglicancommunion.org/mission/marks-of-mission.aspx

[2] https://www.academia.edu/446654/Unraveling_a_Complex_Reality_Six_Elements_of_Mission  For Bevans, reconciliation is the 6th and final element of mission.

‘Where two or three are gathered in my name’ (Matthew 18.20)

This week’s blog offers some thoughts on the lectionary Gospel, Matthew 18.15-20 and Epistle, Romans 13.8-14.

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

vestibule-mosaic-in-hagia-sophia-1024x683

Vestibule mosaic, Hagia Sophia: The Emperor Justinian presents the ‘church’
to Mary, the Mother of God.

This week’s Gospel reading, Matthew 18.15-20, in which Matthew explores how to deal with conflict in the life of the church, has significance for me in terms of my personal history in relation to the Diocese in Europe. I moved to Geneva at the beginning of September 2011 to work at the World Council of Churches, and it was a sermon on this biblical text that I heard preached during my first Sunday in the city when I attended Sunday worship at Holy Trinity, Geneva. The choice of that text was following the provision of the Common Worship lectionary, which repeats itself every three years.

The sermon was preached by the then chaplain and it was a good sermon in which he sought to mine the Gospel text for its wisdom on the topic of conflict in church life. In my innocence as a ‘newbie’ I didn’t realise that there was in fact quite a lot of conflict going on at that point in time in Holy Trinity itself and that the sermon was intended to speak into that situation. Happily, the church has moved on since those days, and that in itself has been a learning experience.

Matthew’s Gospel is of course the one among the four that gives most attention to the internal life of the institutional church. Indeed the very word for church – ‘ekklesia’ in Greek – does not appear in any of the other three Gospels. It comes however four times in Matthew, three of those instances being here in chapter 18. The lectionary Gospel for both this week and next week draws on this chapter in which aspects of internal church life and discipline are explored.

One of the interesting features of the Gospel of Matthew is its structure. Embedded within its 28 chapters are five significant ‘teaching speeches’ of Jesus. The number five is unlikely to be accidental – it probably deliberately echoes the five-fold structure of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). The five teaching moments are the Sermon on the Mount (5-7); the mission discourse (10); the chapter of parables (13); this chapter reflecting on the internal life of the church (18); and finally Jesus’ teaching about the future (23-25). I intend to explore more about this structure next week, but for the moment what I want to highlight is that Matthew’s interest in church life does seem to be part of his wider interest in structure and order.

Where ‘the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom’ (2 Corinthians 3.17) may well epitomise our vision of the ‘ideal’ for the disciples of Jesus, but fairly quickly during the apostolic age it was discovered that to build a healthy Christian community – a ‘church’ – required give and take, constructive agreement and concessions – even, if you want to use the word, ‘laws’. In a sense this is the fundamental story of Christian history over the last 2000 years – how to marry up the glorious liberty of the sons and daughters of God with the need to create some sort of structure that could hold together the followers of Jesus in a way that enabled them to witness to their role as ‘the Body of Christ’. One of the principles to enable this, which Paul sets out in this week’s lectionary Epistle, Romans 13.8-14, where he clearly seems to be drawing on the words of Jesus himself, is for all to be bound by the law of love: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (compare Matthew 22.34-40)

Different Christian traditions have, over the centuries, sought to offer different answers to this conundrum, of holding together the freedom of individual faith alongside the compromises that Christian community requires. I would suggest that it is characteristic of the Anglican tradition to seek to honour and hold together both ‘freedom’ and ‘structure’. It is actually quite a difficult balancing act to get right, and I suspect that we Anglicans have often failed – but I still believe that there is a glory in accepting the challenge of this via media.

There is of course one additional feature that is seen as characteristic of Anglicanism, or at least of the Church of England. That is the relationship between church and state. Here, of course, we in the Diocese in Europe may have a different perception to those parts of the Church of England on ‘the offshore island’. But even so in many of the countries of Europe we are used to one or other church having a particular relationship with the state in which we live. It adds another dimension to those questions of structure and order.

Which makes it in fact interesting and important to comment on what is not selected as the lectionary Epistle for this Sunday. Over the last couple of months we have been steadily making our way through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I initially assumed that since we reached the end of chapter 12 last week, the beginning of chapter 13 would be the lectionary Epistle for 6 September. Not so. For the choice of the compilers is to omit the start of chapter 13 and to begin with verse 8. The first seven verses of the chapter, which are omitted, focus on the relationship between Christians and the political state in which they live, in Paul’s case, of course, the Roman Empire. The chapter begins with the injunction, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities: for there is no authority except from God…’ (Romans 13.1). This verse was used in the past to justify evils like apartheid, so perhaps it is understandable that the lectionary compilers chose to omit it. Personally however I feel that was the wrong decision and that this passage needs to be read. There are various competing perceptions expressed in the New Testament about the relationship between church and state. In my view, we need to wrestle with them all, even if ultimately we want to disagree with what they say. To leave out this ‘difficult’ passage – which actually has been very influential in the course of Anglican history – feels rather a ‘cop out’. We cannot understand the history of the Church of England, or indeed the universal Church, without acknowledging the influence of Romans 13.1-7.

Two interesting pictorial examples of this. Two floor mosaics have been discovered at Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of Palestine in New Testament times, and which remained important into the Byzantine period. The text of both inscriptions is Romans 13.4, exhorting the reader to honour the political authority as ‘God’s servant for your good’. It was once suggested to me that the location of the inscriptions might originally have been the library of Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, the influential bishop and church historian, who was a great supporter of the Emperor Constantine and his policies.

caesarea romans inscription

Floor mosaic in Caesarea Maritima, with the text of Romans 13.4

The other picture is a vestibule mosaic in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (see above at beginning of blog). It comes from the 6th century and depicts the Emperor Justinian presenting ‘the church’ to Mary and Jesus. It makes transparently visible the understanding of the relationship between Empire and Church in the Byzantine period. There is of course a bitter-sweet irony in reflecting on this mosaic at the present time, when it might well be regularly covered over to respond to the new sensitivities associated with Hagia Sophia reverting to its former status of being a mosque. For the very fact that this action has been taken by the Turkish government is in itself a clear mark that the question of the relationship between religion and state is one that will not go away, and which affects many of the religions in our world today.

 

Today (Thursday 3 September) is the feast of St Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome in the late 6th century, who sent Augustine on the mission to England, and who was influential in shaping the spiritual and political power of the later papacy. At the Eucharist this morning we used a collect honouring Gregory, which speaks into the issues explored above:

Almighty Father, who made thy servant Gregory a bastion of faith in an age of turmoil: Grant that your Church, built upon the sure foundation of the saving work of your Son, may ever be a beacon of hope to the nations, and an instrument of your peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Take up your cross?

This week’s lectionary blog takes its starting point from the challenging comments in the lectionary Gospel ‘If any want to become my followers.. let them take up their cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16.21-28) and lectionary Epistle ‘Bless those who persecute you’ (Romans 12.9-21).

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

Chorachrist

Mosaic, ‘Christ, the Land of the Living’, Chora Church/Kariye Mosque, Istanbul

Back in April 1979 my husband Alan and I made a memorable visit to the far south-eastern corner of the Diocese in Europe. I have to confess however that the diocesan connection wasn’t particularly in our mind as we made that journey!

We had travelled to the Tur Abdin region of South Eastern Turkey, from Beirut where we were then living, via Damascus (where Alan took a service on Easter Sunday afternoon), and Aleppo (where we stayed with our friends the owners of the famous Baron Hotel and took another Easter service). From there we took a surreal journey by train along the banks of the river Euphrates via Deir-ez-Zor and Hassake to Qamishli where we stayed with a family of Syrian Orthodox Christians. The son of the family, who would years later become the Syrian Orthodox bishop of Hassake had been a pupil of Alan’s at the Syrian Orthodox seminary in Lebanon. Qamishli is on the Syrian-Turkish border, and after staying with them for a few days with their assistance we crossed into Turkey, into the ‘Tur Abdin’.

‘Tur Abdin’ is an Aramaic (Syriac) name which means ‘the mountain of the worshippers (or ‘servants’) – of God – Abdin is Aramaic for both ‘worship’ and ‘serve’.  It is the historic heartland of the Syrian Orthodox Church: until the massacres during the First World War it was where the Patriarch of the Church had his seat. Over the previous 50 years or so many of the Christians of the Tur Abdin had left the area, migrating either to Istanbul or eventually to a variety of western countries. However we were told that there were about 5000 Syrian Orthodox still remaining there, with the town of Mardin as their main settlement. There were also two monasteries which (among the many which had once existed in the region) still functioned as monasteries each with a very small but living religious community.

Life was very difficult for these Syrian Orthodox people of the Tur Abdin; not only did they encounter hostility from the Turkish government, but also they were frequently physically attacked by militant Kurdish groups. Because of our Syrian Orthodox friends we had been invited to stay as guests at the two monasteries, first at Deir Zafaran and then at Deir Mor Gabriel. It was an unforgettable few days. But in terms of the focus of this week’s blog what was most remarkable was the different ‘take’ on the situation of their co-religionists by the two different leaders of the two monasteries. The monk in charge of Deir Zarafan felt that his role was to help his fellow Syrian Orthodox Christians escape the very real difficulties they had to live with, by migrating if possible. The monastic leader of Deir Mor Gabriel by contrast explained to us passionately and at considerable length that it was important that they should stay, for the task of disciples of Christ was to be prepared to face difficult situations and to be ready to ‘carry their cross’. There was an honour and a glory to persecution.

augen 1

Our host at the monastery of Deir Zafaran

Whenever those remarks about ‘carrying your cross’ appear in the lectionary I remember that experience and still puzzle over which of our two Syrian Orthodox friends was ‘right’. A readiness to suffer on the part of Jesus’ followers – especially for their faith – is an imperative which has been profoundly embedded in Christian theology for the last 2000 years. And yet we also affirm that Jesus came to bring life, and that God desires good and well being for all people.  We are not being called to deliberate masochism.

It is of course an issue that these days has international implications. The Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, who has deep personal connections with the Diocese in Europe, produced a report on the issue of the global persecution of Christians which was commissioned by the UK Foreign Office.https://christianpersecutionreview.org.uk/

There is also a thoughtful response offered by the Anglican mission agency USPG, (an organisation which itself has close links with the Diocese in Europe). While accepting much of what the ‘Mounstephen Report’ suggests it does make clear that there is still more work to do in the area, and that a conversation with global counterparts from other faiths needs to be part of the discussion.

https://www.uspg.org.uk/about/policy-/policy-.php

I myself am certainly aware, not least from my years of living in Lebanon, that Christians can be instigators of violence as well as the recipients of it.  Indeed there was an example of it on that surreal train journey across North Syria back in 1979. We shared our compartment with an Assyrian Christian (the ‘Assyrian’ Church is a different church to that of our Syrian Orthodox friends). On discovering that Alan was a Christian priest he told us something of his family story. His sister, he said, had married a Muslim, so ‘of course’ he had taken his gun and shot them both. He was worried that another sister of his might do likewise and he would have to shoot her too! What was most remarkable about the tale was the way that he assumed that all right-thinking Christians, such as Alan, would agree with his perceptions on this topic.

Over the last few years however I have often remembered that train journey which took us across precisely those tracts of Northern Syria where for 5 years or so ISIS terrorised the inhabitants. The Christian population of the area has been decimated, either by murder or migration. Deir ez-Zor became an ISIS stronghold. The family that we stayed with in Qamishli is now living in Sweden.

I suspect too that the Christian population of the Tur Abdin is now considerably further diminished from the days of our visit. Both the insecurities of the wider Middle East and the current political climate in Turkey have hardly acted as an inducement to remain. I grieve for several reasons over the recent ‘change’ in status of the Kariye Museum  (Chora Church) from museum back into a mosque in Istanbul. Perhaps the deepest reason for my concern however is the negative ‘signal’ it (like the change in the status of Hagia Sophia) seems intended to give to the tiny, but historic, Christian community in Turkey, including the Tur Abdin. Turkey is of course not a far away country of which we know nothing. As I said when I began, geographically speaking it is a corner of our Diocese in Europe.

Jesus, fellow traveller and friend,
you step out boldly on your journey,
chiding our fickleness and fear.
As you mark out the road ahead,
consecrate us as your companions,
so that we keep you in our sight,
as our pattern and guide.
Teach us to tread your path of service,
granting us courage to follow you,
even to the foot of the cross,
to the place where, in pain,
the glory of your way is revealed. Amen

‘Therefore…’

This blog posting, which draws on two of the lectionary readings for Sunday 23 August, explores the ‘therefore’ at the heart of Christian scripture and theology.

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

peter icon sinai 1

Icon of St Peter, St Catherine’s monastery, Sinai

As some in the diocese know, although I am a biblical scholar by ‘background’, over the last couple of decades the main focus of my professional work has been in the area of interreligious dialogue. On the whole it has been an enjoyable experience, though with one or two very difficult moments. I have visited some interesting places and had the privilege of encountering fascinating people. There are of course different forms of interreligious dialogue – over the past half century a fourfold schema, initially developed by the Roman Catholic Church, has been widely accepted. It describes interreligious dialogue in the following ways: The dialogue of life; The dialogue of action; The dialogue of religious experience; The dialogue of theological exchange.

I have therefore no illusions that the so-called ‘high level dialogues’ in which I have been involved in recent years are the only or even the most important forms of dialogue. But they do have a place in the pattern.

However one of the features of at least some of these dialogues has been a refusal to engage with theological concerns, certainly on the part of dialogue partners from other faiths, but sometimes by the leadership of the Christian teams as well. I can remember the view being stated from time to time by significant religious leaders, ‘Our dialogue is just about ethical, social and practical concerns, it does not relate to theological matters.’  I can also remember well such a meeting at the National Cathedral, Washington USA, at which I politely challenged the Sunni Muslim leader who had just said that – rather, I suspect, to his shock and irritation, not least because I was a woman (highlevel interreligious dialogue is a field in which full gender equality is not yet assured!).

Why did I make such a challenge? Well the answer is implied in this week’s lectionary Epistle Romans 12.1-8 which I probably half quoted in my comments that afternoon in Washington. It is that word ‘therefore’ – a fairly insignificant little Greek word oun, which is the second word of this chapter. But on that word, I believe, hangs the edifice of Christian ethics. It is a pattern which is reflected in several of Paul’s letters, but which is probably expressed most clearly in the Letter to the Romans. Ethics is always underpinned by theology. The two cannot be separated. Our ethical practice, both within the Christian community and in the wider world, is consequent on our theological beliefs. We believe this, ‘therefore’ the implications are that we do that!

So, for example, in the Letter to the Romans in chapters 1 to 8 Paul sets out in considerable detail his core theological beliefs about the work that God has accomplished in Jesus Christ concluding with the stunning affirmation that nothing ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.39). Chapters 9 to 11, in which Paul explores what we would call today the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, feel a bit like an excursus. And then we come to the ‘therefore’ of chapter 12 – which leads into the following chapters, 12 to 15, in which Paul sets out the ethical consequences of those earlier theological expositions. As I tried (not altogether successfully I think!) to explain to that dialogue partner in Washington, for me, since my ethical positions as a Christian ultimately depended on my understanding of the central mysteries of the Christian faith, it was difficult, or even impossible, for me ‘just’ to discuss ‘social’ matters without also at least some reference to their theological underpinning. It wasn’t that I wanted to engage in arid debates about the person of Christ or the nature of God as Trinity, but that theology and ethics are interwoven. I still feel that strongly. Interestingly I was cheered that day in Washington when some of the Shia Muslim delegates came up to me afterwards and privately said that they agreed with me.

Our lectionary Gospel for the coming Sunday is Matthew 16.13-20, which is Matthew’s version of Peter’s confession of faith, in which of course his understanding is rewarded with the pledge, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’ (Matthew 16.18). As it happens there too, theology and ethics are interwoven. The realization by Peter and the other disciples that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ leads, a few verses further down, to the challenge to them to ‘take up their cross’ (Matthew 16.24).

This week’s lectionary portion from Matthew has of course had fundamental practical implications for the life and history of the Christian Church. Those of us in the Anglican Diocese in Europe are only too aware of the dominance in western Europe of the Roman Catholic Church, which could be said to take its founding charter from these verses. Whether we like it or not, and personally and professionally my own relationships with Roman Catholic structures and colleagues have been very warm and good, being an Anglican in continental Europe inevitably means reacting or relating to the presence of Roman Catholicism.  We are, I think, entitled politely to ask some quizzical questions at times, and perhaps encourage the church to show the human face of Peter.  There is a wonderful icon of St Peter (see above at the top of the page) that is held at the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai. It is one of the oldest Christian icons, dating back to at least the 6th century. It survived the iconoclastic controversy because St Catherine’s was by then under the jurisdiction of Muslim rulers rather than Byzantine emperors.  What I love about the Peter icon is that it is far less stylized than is typical with later icons. Peter shows a very human face!

peter and andrew icon

Icon of Peter and Andrew embracing, Pontifical Church for Promoting Christian Unity

There is another icon that depicts Peter which I also cherish. It is on the wall of the main meeting room of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome and it shows Peter and his brother Andrew in an embrace. It was a gift made to Pope Paul VI by the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople when he visited Rome in 1964. It speaks visually of ecumenical hopes for closer relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches after the split and schism which dates back almost 1000 years. Andrew is of course the putative founder of the church in Constantinople. Interestingly, in terms of the thread with which this week’s blog began, I do think that the different theological understandings of the church in Western and Eastern Europe have impacted upon the social and political fabrics of these countries. The relationship between theology and practical ethics is a topic for intra-Christian dialogue, as well as for discussion between Christians and people of other faiths.

*****

My husband Alan Amos wrote the following brief poem in response to my reflection above:

Walking the walk of faith,
day by day, we give our consciences an airing
in the presence of God;
walking the walk that brings together
what we do
with who we are
and even who we shall be.

*****

Lord of the church,
Teacher of disciples,
You loved your friends to the end,
And gave them the example of leadership through service.
May we who follow you today
accept the radical challenge you still offer
to your companions on the way throughout all time.
Stop us short if our values go astray,
and enable us to discover in obedience a perfect freedom.
Above all, help us to make your church a pattern for a new world
Rather than a pale reflection of this one.

Jesus the Parable of God

 

I am very grateful to Revd Paul Wignall, Diocesan Director of Reader Ministry and colleague in the Diocesan Ministry Team, for exploring this week’s lectionary Gospel (Matthew 15.21-28) which focuses on the meeting between Jesus and a Canaanite woman.

Further offers from both clergy and laity to write for this weekly lectionary blog would be very welcome. Please contact me, Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship.  clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

One of the things we know for sure about Jesus of Nazareth is that he told stories. His stories could intrigue and shock, delight and challenge, give hope and comfort. I’m sure they entertained as well. His followers remembered those stories and told them often when they gathered in their little grief-filled circles of healing and hope after his crucifixion. Of course, human nature being what it is Jesus’ stories shifted in shape and emphasis depending on the person retelling it. And there were new stories, in Jesus’ style, continually being slipped in as bread and wine and fish were shared in the name of their risen Lord. We call these stories parables: deceptively simple tales of ordinary people in easily recognisable situations, given a twist to make you think, a little jolt to make you sit up and look at the world in new ways.

Gradually, Jesus himself and the things he did became the subject of the stories too. As has been well said, parables about Jesus were added to the treasure trove of parables by Jesus. The four gospels are carefully and beautifully assembled mixtures of these two kinds of stories. Jesus himself becomes the parable: what he said, what he did, what happened to him; to make us think, be surprised and shocked, intrigued, angry (perhaps), hopeful, above all challenged to live as he lived.

I think that one of the most challenging parables about Jesus is today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel (15.21-28) about an encounter, not in Jerusalem or Galilee, but out on the margins – the region of Tyre and Sidon – and with, for a Jew, one of the most marginal of people: a Greek woman. It’s not the only telling, of course: Mark gives us an earlier version (7.24-30).

1280px-SubmergedEgyptianHarbour_TyreSour_Lebanon_RomanDeckert04112019Submerged columns in the ancient harbour of Tyre, south Lebanon, with the modern city of Tyre (Sur)  in the background. (Creative Commons)

Parables, whether by Jesus or about him are meant to be told; performed if you like. A storyteller uses all her skill to create mood and place and character, to puncture expectations and raise questions. Try it yourself: read the stories out loud, alone or in a group. Change the mood. Change how the characters speak, shift their emotions around. See what happens. Bring them alive.

This pair of retellings of a story give you plenty of clues. Mark’s marginal woman comes quietly, cautiously, to Jesus. Matthew’s woman arrives noisily, even a bit aggressively (try performing it that way, you’ll see what I mean). Mark’s Jesus responds in kind: softly, with the delicious play on the word ‘children’ – the Jewish people / the marginal ones. Matthew’s Jesus responds in different kind, giving as good as he’s getting: you’re not my problem, I’ve other priorities. The disciples don’t help: “Send her away; it’s so embarrassing!” But she moves in closer, demanding he pays attention. His push back is harder still: you expect me to throw what I bring to the dogs whining around our feet (people like you)? She won’t let go: even the scavenging pack of dogs are allowed the crumbs. Only then does Jesus change tack, shifts mood, responds, offers mercy, peace and healing.

At first sight, Matthew’s Jesus seems uncharacteristically unpleasant towards the woman. But again, set this story in Matthew’s own context. It follows a group of sayings about ritual purity and impurity, part of a thread that runs through the whole gospel, an ongoing debate with pharisaic Judaism seen (as sadly christians were beginning to do by the 80s AD) in the worst possible light (15:10-20). Despite what he says there, it looks as though Jesus wants to play the purity card  himself, refusing to throw things of value to the dogs (the impure gentiles). But the woman turns the tables on him and, in his name, turns aside all questions of what is pure and impure. In God’s eyes there can only be mercy, grace, and healing. The next part of the gospel speaks of healing for everyone (15.29-31).

We can put it another way too. Mark’s way of telling the story creates a conversation between Jesus and the woman. They talk to one another, listening and speaking carefully (look at the words, read them out loud, feel one reaching out to the other). In a conversation we conspire together (heart touches heart, breath intertwines) to find a way forward, towards concord. Matthew appears rather different. Jesus and the woman begin at a distance. This isn’t so much a conversation as a discussion from entrenched positions. A discussion. Never forget how close that word is to others: percussion, as we beat one another into a concussion from which are likely to flow only bad repercussions. But notice too how the woman (and ask, perhaps, just why Matthew lets it be the woman) lowers the temperature, shifting the attack into a challenge, and the discussion into a conversation. Is Matthew inviting the church too, so hung up at times on questions of purity, of who is inside and who outside, to shift from the attacking mode of discussion into the challenge of conversation, to listen?

 

*****

Jesus our Way,
Strange story teller who has become for us the story,
Living word through whom the eternal God shines out,
Meet us face to face in our time.
Stay with us and open for us the scriptures,
Illumine our eyes and set our hearts on fire,
So that with you as companion on our journey,
With joy we will be enabled to discover
That the key to unlock this mysterious library is always love.
Amen.
(adapted from a prayer included in CTBI Lent resource, ‘Opening the Scriptures’)

Pity the Nation: a time for transfiguration

Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship reflects in this week in which the Feast of the Transfiguration falls. You can contact Clare at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

theophanes transfiguration good version 1

Theophanes the Greek: Icon of the Transfiguration

A couple of months ago meeting  via Zoom (as one does!) with some diocesan colleagues, one of the group commented that our experiences over the last few months were the most difficult times any of us had had to live through, or were likely to have to do so. I had to demur. For it is not the case for my husband and myself.

I am very conscious that Alan and I are comparatively ‘privileged’ for these Coronavirus times. We live in a lovely house, with a large garden, in glorious Dorset countryside in a village with a great esprit de corps. If you have to experience lockdown it is a good place to do so. What is more, since both of us are formally retired from paid work (though we do seem to be busier than ever at the moment!) we are spared the threat of redundancy that is understandably creating anxiety for a great many people.

But for us, there is really no comparison between the ‘hardships’ of the present, and the fear and challenges we lived through on many occasions in Beirut, during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, including the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  Alan became chaplain to All Saints Anglican congregation, Beirut, in 1975 just as the civil war was beginning. He had arrived in Lebanon a couple of years earlier to teach at the Orthodox seminaries, and found himself asked to take responsibility for the chaplaincy. Alan and I met in Jerusalem in mid-1977 when I was lecturing at St George’s College, deciding to get married 5 days after we met, and I moved to Beirut in January 1978 – for an ‘interesting’ first few years of marriage. We of course contravened all the sage advice designed to facilitate and lead to an enduring relationship. All I will say is that we are still married 42 years later.

We left Lebanon in August 1982, towards the end of the Israeli siege of West Beirut, having lived under siege for the previous couple of months, with little electricity, water – and certainly very little security. I can still hear the scream of the Israeli jets dive-bombing parts of the city, and wondering if our apartment building would be their next target, not least because in the car park outside the Palestinian Red Crescent had set up a mobile communications centre which seemed to be doubling as a broadcasting station for the ‘Voice of Palestine’. In spite of all this, it was a profound wrench to leave that country that meant so much to both of us. In fact it wasn’t the war that caused us to leave. It was due largely to the embedded sexism of the missionary organisation which we were associated with, which had led us to apply for lecturing positions at Westcott House Cambridge, to which we had been appointed in March 1982. We felt we needed to honour these new roles, even though when we applied for them we had not expected what was to come in the summer of 1982. In retrospect I am glad that we left then. Dangerous though it was, up to 1982 life in Beirut was not more hazardous if you were a foreigner. That was to change within a year or so, when the deliberate targeting of foreigners for hostage-taking began. If we had continued to live in the country we would either have had to leave very quickly after a warning – or if we had left it too long Alan would probably have spent a few years enjoying the hospitality of Hezbollah.

I have mentioned this personal history largely to explain why the explosion in Beirut earlier this week, has moved and saddened me so. As I wrote on my facebook page the morning after the blast I am not sure whether the fact that it seems to have been a terrible accident due to institutional incompetence makes it better or worse. When we lived through the civil war in Lebanon we used to tell ourselves that out of all the horror and bloodshed a ‘new’ Lebanon might emerge, with an end to its sectarianism, fostered by the corrupt political class for their own ends. It has become apparent in recent years that the ‘old’ elite and old attitudes are still very much in control.

all saints beirut

All Saints Church, Beirut

 

Alan was chaplain of All Saints Church in Beirut. Due to its position close to the Green Line it was shut up for much of the civil war (our regular Anglican services during the period took place at borrowed churches in the city). The last service held in it for about 12 years took place on Ash Wednesday 1977 (there was plenty of dust and ashes around!). I myself never went inside the church until a visit to Beirut in 2012 though I was told a lot about it. It had been a building much loved by the church community. It used to be on the seafront, and sometimes members of the congregation would dive in immediately after Sunday service.  In fact the structure of the church survived the civil war fairly much intact, and it was well restored and even extended in the 1990s and more recently. It is no longer on the seafront  however – since the coastline has been changed by a fill of earth and rubble. It is also now surrounded by tall apartment blocks, hotels and shops, definitely a small ‘house of God’ in the middle of mammon. Ironically this week mammon seems to have protected it fairly well, for although it is only about 1 km from the site of the explosion, the surrounding taller buildings shielded it to a considerable extent. Quite a lot of the glass in the church hall shattered, but other than that there was not substantial damage. In fact, the Near East School of Theology where I lectured when we lived in Beirut suffered rather worse. Though it was further from the epicentre of the explosion, the fact that it was a much taller building with a plate glass front meant that the damage there was considerable.

damage at all saints

Damage at All Saints after the explosion of 4 August 2020.

My years living in Lebanon have profoundly influenced my theology, and certainly encouraged my interest in the theme of transfiguration. Parts of Lebanon are still heart-stoppingly beautiful – in spite of the continuing corruption that allows virtually unfettered building to take place. Lebanon encourages me to reflect on what it might mean to transfigure disfigurement. My interest in the theme of religion and violence has also been provoked by my experiences in the Middle East, and there too I think that the language of ‘transfiguration’ has helpful insights to offer. As it happens I was preaching yesterday (6 August) for a Zoom service celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration. I share some of my reflections offered then below – and they are complemented by a powerful series of short poems that my husband Alan wrote after hearing the news of the explosion. Pity the Nation, Pray for Lebanon.

*****

Why the theme of transfiguration is important to me…

  • First some wonderful words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury. In his book, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ Ramsey reflected: ‘The transfiguration ‘stands as a gateway to the saving events of the gospel, and is a mirror in which the Christian mystery is seen in its unity. Here we perceive that the living and the dead are one in Christ, that the old covenant and the new are inseparable, that the Cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in him alone the Father is well pleased. Here the diverse elements in the theology of the New Testament meet.’ As Ramsey suggests, the transfiguration is at the heart, core and centre of the New Testament, holding together the great Christian themes of incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. In fact I would probably go further than Ramsey does in this comment and suggest that the transfiguration really lies at the core of Christian theology and spirituality. Indeed Christian spirituality has itself been described as ‘the art of transfiguration’.
  • Secondly Michael Ramsey and his theology sum up for me what is the best about the Anglican tradition. And I think that it is no accident that Ramsey cherished the transfiguration so deeply because I believe that there is something about the transfiguration which reflects the particular charism of the Anglican way. For Anglicanism at its best seeks to interweave in a creative tension two contrasting trajectories or threads. As Anglicans we value tradition, continuity, hierarchy, worship, our internal life, the role of authority, the importance of unity; but we also acknowledge the need for transformation, for outreach, change, egalitarianism, for subversiveness, diversity and mission. If you unpack the story of Christ’s transfiguration, both in terms of its Old Testament precursors and its place in the Gospels, you find both these threads held together creatively in the story.  And I think our task as Anglicans, is to be a visible expression of the ‘good’ (a word that appears in the transfiguration narrative) of allowing both threads to interface with each other. Because in their meeting and dialectic there is a special transfiguring power which takes us to the heart of the Gospel. It is not easy: most people and places fall off one side or the other. But it is I believe a challenge worth striving for.
  • Thirdly, in the professional work that I have been doing over the years in the field of religion and violence, I have begun to explore how religion as transfiguration can be a vital antidote to religion understood as fundamentalism which I regard as profoundly dangerous. Fundamentalism is intrinsically dualistic, with a sharp dichotomy between good and evil and the blind certainty of its proponents can lead to desire for violent change. Transfiguration on the other hand, at its core affirms the goodness of creation, and of the world which God so loved. It calls us into a conversation which changes us as we seek to change the world by drawing closer to God. Indeed we discover that we cannot change others unless we ourselves are willing to continue to be transfigured as well. Something of this is caught in the icon painted by a 15th century artist Theophanes the Greek (see above). Notice how the light shining from Christ seem to touch, and sink into the forms of the disciples themselves, and invite them to respond so that they – and we too – as  created beings can be illuminated and transfigured by the meeting between the light already within us, and the light which beams from the figure of Christ, and gradually the circle of transfiguration widens out to include others in Christ’s transfiguring light.
  • Finally, until the twentieth century the transfiguration was a neglected feast within the Anglican tradition. It wasn’t until 1928 that the keeping of the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6 was mandated in an Anglican prayerbook. Now in fact the Transfiguration does rather well – for as well as August 6 it is also commemorated either in or just before Lent. Yet the two occasions in which the church calendar encourages us to remember this Gospel story have a rather different feel from each other. Back in or near Lent, we are encouraged particularly to reflect on Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop as being the precursor to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and to the cross.The celebration of the transfiguration at this point in the year in August is not quite the same. Falling as it does towards the end of the liturgical year, and close to the time of harvest in the northern hemisphere, it encourages us to reflect on the eventual destiny of creation, when all in the end will be harvest. Eastern Christians who have seen a profound link between the transfiguration and the need for care of God’s good earth have a sure instinct. The transfiguration of Christ is a foretaste of the time when the whole of creation will hopefully share in the circle of God’s movement of glory and blessing. Something that took place 75 years ago today has sharpened the importance of that meaning. For on 6 August 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated at Hiroshima. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular action and its implications for the end of the Second World War, there is certainly a very bitter congruence that it should have happened on this particular day. There is a challenging prayer which speaks of the fact that now we as humanity have been offered the choice of two ways to walk, towards the radiance of the transfigured Christ or the disfiguring radiance of the bomb, towards the radiance that descends to touch, to heal and to restore, or towards the radiance that descends to defend, to murder and to destroy. We have in fact been offered the choice between life or death.

    Until two days ago that was how I was planning to end my sermon. Then on Tuesday evening there was the dreadful explosion in Beirut. Thankfully it was not a nuclear bomb. But it is telling that people in Lebanon have referred to it as Beirut’s Hiroshima. As most of you probably know Lebanon is very dear to both Alan and myself. When we lived there during the civil war, Alan wrote a prayer that was used regularly in All Saints Anglican Church where he was chaplain. I draw on this to end by praying for the transfiguring of the achingly beautiful land of Lebanon.

God bless Lebanon,
Guard her children,
Guide her leaders,
Give her peace;
May Lebanon become once again a place of unity in diversity,
Where all may learn to honour one another,
And humankind as your creation.
In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.  

*****

Fragments for a Lebanon blown apart…

This country is cursed
shouted the young man
in shattered Beirut

He was right of course
not cursed by Allah
but by religion.
( I use the term Allah because in Arabic it is used both by Christians and Muslims)

Those in the prison of sectarianism
do not see the bars of their cage
they only see the bars of the cage
of their neighbour.

Abraham, Jesus,  Muhammad
all had problems with religion
as they found it
corrupted upon earth

It takes a human being
to turn the best into the worst.

This is the Ottomans’ doing
how they made each sect
a little empire in itself
paying homage to their Sultan.

Alan Amos

*****

‘Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful…

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.’ (Khalil Gibran)