A deep but dazzling darkness: God’s generous love

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

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

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

There is in God, some say,

A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

             See not all clear.

    O for that night! where I in Him

    Might live invisible and dim! (Henry Vaughan)

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Amos

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Earth from space

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

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

MF Peck postcard of Dorset

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

Mappa Mundi, with Jerusalem at the centre of the world

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

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

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

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

‘Go Forth House’, Waterloo, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Heather Pencavel)

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

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

T

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The interior of the Church of the Ascension, Cadenabbia

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

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

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. To Peter.

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

Gratefully yours, Cornelius. (Acts 10.44-48)

3. To Paul.

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

4. To the Jewish inhabitants of Rome.

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

5. To Peter.

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

6. To Arete and Hermione, widows.

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

7. To Paul and his companions.

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

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

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

8. To Ananias.

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

9. To Paul and Silas.

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

10. To Apollos.

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

11. To Paul.

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

Affectionately yours, Philip (Acts 21.7-14)

12. To Paul.

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

Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21.15-16)

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

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

Clare Amo
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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

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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

Image
‘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.