Monday, September 18, 2017

PENTECOST XVI (Proper 20) 2017

Camille Pisarro -- Workers in the Fields
The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard. Unlike many other Gospel parables, this one has a beginning, a middle, an end, and  a punch line, all of which makes it easy to understand -- at one level. The problem, though, is not simply to understand it, but to see just what its message is.

Occasionally people have thought that this parable has direct application to the workplace, and implies that Christian bosses ought to pay their workers equally. Or they have found warrant in it for a even wider  principle of Christian ethics -- one that supports equal pay for company workers. Yet, Jesus makes it plain that he is talking about ‘the Kingdom of heaven’. That is to say, his parable concerns the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other. Even if this is what the parable aims to illuminate, however, there still seems be a problem of interpretation. The vineyard owner says to the laborer who complains that he has worked all day. ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. Perhaps so, but is this a good enough answer? How can it be just to give the same reward to radically different amounts of work? Don’t the laborers who worked longer deserve more?

These questions have familiar religious parallels. If the redemption of the world is universal and includes everyone who repents, this means that repentance wipes out past sins. However wicked anyone has been, it doesn't matter in the end. But can it be just for God to treat cheats, child abusers, serial killers and terrorists in the same way as those who have been decent Christians -- or just decent citizens -- all their lives, so long as they express repentance on their death beds? What is the point of lifelong faithfulness if it makes no difference in the end?

Feast of the Redeemer - Maurice Prendergast
To this recurrent, and heartfelt question, the Epistle from Philippians suggests an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is ‘inestimable’ (as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). That is to say, unlike payment, the value of
knowing the love of God in Christ can't be measured in any meaningful way. Just as time does not determine the value of love between people, so living in the knowledge of God's is supremely valuable regardless of how early or late in life we have come to it. Nothing can improve upon it because there simply is no greater benefit that lifelong laborers could hope for, or deserve. And this remains true, quite irrespective of how God treats other sinners.

Knowledge of our own salvation, then, should dispel any envious glances we might be tempted to cast at those who ‘got away with it’. Are the years they lived in selfishness, dishonesty or cruelty a way of life we would have chosen, if only we had known that we could be forgiven just before death? What kind of life could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, and to do so for as much of our lives as possible?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

PENTECOST XV 2017 (Proper 19)

    Blake -- God Judges Adam
    In one way or another, the readings for this Sunday are about judgment, tolerance and forgiveness. In the contemporary liberal democratic world,  being 'judgmental' is among the worst of sins, and that explains why most mainline Christian denominations have been anxious to cast off the Church’s historical reputation as ‘judgmental’, and embrace instead a non-judgmental inclusiveness that reflects what they see to be God's unconditional love in Christ -- God loves you whoever, and whatever, you are.

    Conservative Christians sometimes condemn this as a willingness to abandon a Gospel that preaches sin and salvation, in the interests of appeasing the secular world. Yet, the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that serves as this week's epistle, does provide biblical support for non-judgmentalism. The disagreement Paul writes about – whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols -- is not one that concerns us today. But the advice he bases upon it has much wider application. Though we ought to be firm in our own convictions, we ought not to pass judgment on, still less despise, those who disagree with us. The Gospel passage puts the same thought in the wider context of those who harm us. Forgiveness is ‘seventy times seven’ more important than retribution, however natural the desire for this may be. Here we have a truth that everyone has reason to welcome, if we are not to fall into the rank hypocrisy of the indebted slave.

    To this extent then, biblical teaching coincides with contemporary liberal opinion. At the same time, the wholesale rejection of ‘judgmentalism’ conflicts with a key element in these readings -- that human beings are indeed under judgment, both for what they believe and for what they do. 

    Old Slave -- Anatol Petrytsky
    No one really thinks otherwise. Racist beliefs, for instance, are almost always rooted in falsehoods, and their fruits, especially when sincerely held, are inevitably evil. Paul's point, though, is that Christians – even in this kind of case -- ought to be very careful that they are not trying to preempt God’s judgment. ‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he cautions his readers. So he takes his stand against human judgmentalism, and yet immediately places it in a larger theological context : “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”. 

    The Gospel story of the hypocritical slave, let it be noted, ends with his being “tortured” as an act of justice. In the past Christians have been very ready to usurp God’s justice and do the torturing themselves. Nowadays, perhaps, they are more likely to make the opposite mistake -- presuming upon God’s mercy. The difficult thing is both to witness to the solemn truth that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and to do so in a spirit of love rather than loathing.

    Monday, September 11, 2017

    HOLY CROSS 2017

    Legend has it that in 326 AD, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem, Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered  the True Cross of Jesus . She ordered a church to be built at the site of the discovery. On Sept 14 635 AD a portion of the Cross was carried into the newly consecrated 'Church of the Holy Sepulchre'. Since that time Sept 14  has been a red letter day in the Christian Calendar. Holy Cross Day invites us to meditate on the deeply mysterious fact that God chose an instrument of tortured death to be the means of salvation.
    Many poems and hymns have taken the Cross as their central image. One of the best known is by the 19th century Scotswoman, Elizabeth Cleophane. She died at the age of 39, having written a number of memorable Christian poems that were published only after her death. The first and last verses of her hymn to the Cross speak to the place of Christian faith in an uneventful life.

    Recognition of the True Cross -- Francesca
    Beneath the cross of Jesus
    I fain would take my stand,
    The shadow of a mighty rock
    Within a weary land;
    A home within the wilderness,
    A rest upon the way,
    From the burning of the noontide heat,
    And the burden of the day.

    I take, O cross, thy shadow
    For my abiding place;
    I ask no other sunshine
    Than the sunshine of His face;
    Content to let the world go by,
    To know no gain or loss,
    My sinful self my only shame,
    My glory all the cross.

    Collect for Holy Cross Day
    Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

    Wednesday, September 6, 2017

    PENTECOST XIV 2017 (Proper 18)

    Jan Steen -- Prayer Before Meal
    The Gospel for this Sunday contains a phrase that has powerfully consoled Christians in difficult circumstances of many sorts –‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. Faced with social isolation, political oppression, cultural indifference or simply declining membership, it is both critically important and deeply reassuring to hold fast to the truth that neither popular success nor numerical majority is relevant to the promise of divine presence. Indeed, perhaps we have less reason to be confident of the presence of Christ when two or three thousand are gathered together, since mass movements have often proved the enemy of true religion.

    At the same time, there is always this risk -- that ‘where two or three are gathered together’ is reduced to a self-justifying mantra. This happens when it is invoked by opinionated minorities in defense of their splits and schisms. It also happens when it is used to exempt complacent churches from their evangelical obligations. In both cases, divine assurance is displaced by human complacency. It is salutary to remember, therefore, that the wonderful assurance this sentence offers is not unconditional.  

    Vision of Divine Love -- Hildegard of Bingen
    The extract from Paul’s Letter to the Romans prescribed for this Sunday, addresses just this issue. Though relatively brief is also remarkably dense. Its central message is that Christ is truly present only to those who have ‘put on Christ’. What does this mean? It means adopting a cast of mind (the mind of Christ) whose key elements are these. First, we need the conviction that ‘now is the time to wake from sleep’ i.e. that the things we often struggle for, such as wealth, power, or personal career, are in an important sense unreal. Second, we need to abandon ‘the works of darkness’ i.e. the devious and destructive ways in which we can so easily pursue our goals, and be willing to have the brightest light shine on the way we conduct our lives. Third, we have to affirm that love best fulfills ‘the law’, which is to say, that living truly in accordance with the laws of God means being motivated chiefly by a love for the world and the people around us.

    Christian conduct down the centuries has shown just how hard it is to follow these prescriptions. Yet the prospect that underlies them is extraordinary – that through Christ mere mortals can participate in the divine love of the one true God.

    Wednesday, August 30, 2017

    PENTECOST XIII 2017 (Proper 17)

    Durer's St Peter

    In the Epistle for this Sunday, Paul sets a very high standard for Christian conduct: ‘Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit . . .Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer . . . Bless those who persecute you . . . Live in harmony with one another . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.’ These are all admirable injunctions, of course. Yet they are also counsels of perfection. How many Christian lives actually model this ideal? How many ever have? Very, very few, is the only honest answer. 
    Happily, if this seems a depressing conclusion, the Gospel for this week offsets it to a considerable degree. The passage brings to the fore the strange relationship that Simon Peter had with Jesus. In part this was a result of his impulsive and vacillating character. Peter was the sort of person who could be inspired to leap over the side of a boat one moment, only to be crying out in fear the next. In terms of the whole Gospel story one vacillation is especially well known  -- his behavior at ‘the time of trial’. When danger looms -- in the unlikely form of a servant girl! -- Peter's emphatic assurance of love and loyalty to Jesus is  rapidly displaced by three equally emphatic denials -- 'I never knew him'.

    Jesus too seems to vacillate in his attitude to Peter. Last week's Gospel recorded how, early in their relationship, Jesus declares Peter to be the ‘rock’ on which the church is to be founded. Now, in this week's passage that same rock is declared ‘a stumbling block’, someone who has to be told, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’  -- a dramatic reversal indeed.

    Ford Madox Brown --Jesus Washing Peter's Feet
    Yet this fact remains. Jesus chose Peter. He made him a witness of the Transfiguration. He granted him the largest number of post-Resurrection encounters. He even washed his feet. Why? An important clue to the puzzle lies in this rebuke: ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’. It is precisely Peter’s inconsistent character that equips him for the role he has been assigned. In his weakness, he is a true representative of our common humanity.  In his devotion to Jesus, however faltering, he exhibits a spiritual hope of which we are all capable. Paul’s counsel of perfection is a description of that hope, but its ultimate realization is not in Peter or in us, but in Jesus. That is why he is to be hailed as true man and true God.

    Tuesday, August 8, 2017

    PENTECOST X 2017 (Proper 14)

    The Disciples See Jesus -- H O Tanner
    To the modern mind, powerfully influenced by the success of natural science, the miracles recorded in the Bible present difficulties that previous eras simply did not experience. They easily accepted, it seems, the regular occurrence of unnatural events. Our mentality has changed and left us asking:  Can we honestly believe that such supernatural events really happened? The question is especially acute when the events involve Jesus, because the Gospel writers clearly think that his miraculous powers were strong evidence of his divinity. The Gospel passage for this Sunday contains just such an incident, and it is a very puzzling one. The disciples encounter Jesus at dawn walking towards them across the surface of a stormy sea. Peter tries to do likewise but unsurprisingly sinks into the water -- until Jesus reaches out, and saves him. At that point, wonderfully, the fierce wind dies down. Awestruck, the disciples hail Jesus as truly divine.

    Could this be the record of something that actually happened? From one perspective, the simple answer is 'Yes'. The Church teaches that Jesus wasthe true incarnation of the Creator of the cosmos. If so,  even the most amazing  miracle must lie within his power.  At the same time, the Gospels regularly warn against thinking of Jesus as an impressive miracle worker. His miracles, however impressive, are not any sort of conjuring trick. The difference lies in their meaning. 

    Jesus Walks on the Water _ Ivan Alvazovsky
    It is a commonplace that sometimes actions speak louder than words. Miracles are not just amazing actions that we are expected to marvel at; they are also signs from which there is something important to be learnt. To grasp the meaning of Jesus’ miracles it is essential to see in them what devout and faithful Jews witnessing them would have seen –  the connection they forge between Christ's mission and the one true God revealed in the Old Testament. This is the God who ‘trampled the waves of the sea’ (Job 9:80), and whose 'path was through great waters, though his footsteps were unseen’ (Ps 7:19), so it is hardly surprising that Christ's action causes the disciples to declare ‘Truly you are the son of God’. The connection is unmistakeable.

    In the light of this truth, the episode with Peter incorporated within this Gospel passage is especially instructive. Peter believes that his deep devotion to Jesus will carry him across the water. The fact that he starts to sink shows how mistaken it is to make the strength of our own belief the ultimate test of our faith.  Our will for good, and for God, may be both resolute and powerful. Yet the deep and uncomfortable truth is that however sincere and committed, we cannot make ourselves the means of our own salvation. Relying on our personal resources, we are likely, when things turn out badly, to sink beneath life’s waves. It is only the presence of Christ within our lives that can save us.

    Tuesday, August 1, 2017

    PENTECOST IX 2017 (Proper 13)

    Feeding the Multitude -- 10th century ivory
    The feeding of the five thousand, the subject of this week's Gospel, is a strange episode for modern readers. Are we to believe that bread and fish actually multiplied? Can we visualize how this might have happened? However perplexing these questions may be, we cannot ignore the fact that this miracle is recorded in all four Gospels. It even occurs in Matthew a second time (with four thousand), as it does in Mark. Evidently, 'the feeding of the multitude' was a strikingly important event for the Gospel writers. But what are we to make of it?

    As with many other instances, it is crucial to remember that the ancient world (like most people at most times and places, in fact), thought in terms of symbolic meaning rather than explanatory hypotheses. For the Jews, if symbolic meaning was to be truly revelatory, it had to be connected with their Scriptural inheritance. In other words, their understanding of who Jesus really was and what his words and actions meant relied on the parallels they could find with the promises of God recorded in Scripture. This is where we too should seek understanding since, as St Paul emphatically declares in the Epistle, it is the Israelites who were given "the adoption, the glory, the covenants, . . . the law, the worship, and the promises . . .". Furthermore, "from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever".

    Duccio -- The Prophet Isaiah
    Whatever the actual events that underlie Christ's feeding the multitude, when we look for its symbolic meaning there is one clear analogue in Scriptural history -- the manna that God provided for the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. There is also an echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah in this week's Old Testament lesson: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." Isaiah is not making dietary recommendations, of course. The background to his remark is the Mosaic warning that "man does not live by bread alone".

    In John's Gospel Jesus himself dwells on  the significance of the feeding miracles.  He draws a key contrast which we might express as 'bread for life' versus 'the bread of life'. It is the 'bread of life' that he declares himself to be. The essential message is that even the provision of amazing quantities of bread for life is not an adequate substitute for the one True Bread of spiritual life. Viewed from this perspective, the feeding miracles carry an important lesson for a deeply consumerist culture such as our own. The fact that modern technology has an unprecedented capacity to  provide for our material needs can lead us,
    mistakenly, to place our ultimate faith in it.