Archive for the ‘God’ Tag

ARMISTICE DAY: Christ in No Man’s Land   1 comment

ARMISTICE DAY Christ in No Man‘s Land 

Now that the last of the veterans of the First World War have died, we are left with black-and-white movies, sepia photos, and a wide variety of art-work. Then we have the literature, especially the poetry, and this remains perhaps the most poignant testimony both to the nature and the impact of the conflict on the western front, if not elsewhere. And yet, it wasn’t until the era of the Cold War and Vietnam that the work of the soldier-poets of the trenches was fully recognised. Fifty years after a premature death in Flanders which prevented him from becoming the greatest poet in the English language since John Keats, a third generation, myself among them, discovered the power of Wilfred Owen‘s poetry as a ‘weapon’ against the warmongers of the late twentieth century. I still use my anthology of  ‘1914-18 in Poetry’ from which I learnt, by heart, many of his poems. They are anthems which still reverberate in my head, have shaped my adult values and formed the essential documents in my teaching about the Great War over the past thirty years.

The Poetry and the Pity

Owen was born in Oswestry in 1893 and from 1911 to 1913 he was a lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire. His strongly Christian parents had always hoped he would enter the Anglican priesthood, and his Biblical upbringing had an obvious influence on his poetry in both its phraseology and theology of the justification of war.  In October 1915 he returned to England from his role as a tutor in France, in order to enlist as an officer in the Manchester Regiment.  Very early in 1917 he was on the front line of the Somme with the Lancashire Fusiliers. His letters to his mother reveal how shocked he was to discover the horror and muddle of war at the front in wintertime. In May he was invalided home with neurasthenia and sent to Craiglockart Hospital in Scotland. There, on 17 August 1917 he met Siegfried Sassoon, a much-published poet, who encouraged Owen to continue writing his war poetry. Although both poets came close to accept the principle of pacifism, both insisted on returning to the front to remain as leaders and spokesmen for the ordinary men in the trenches.

Just before the Shropshire lad left England to rejoin his company at the front, on 31 August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish. He thought of it as a kind of counter-propaganda, as his scribbled preface to it reveals:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true poets must be truthful.

Doomed Youth

Owen’s best and most typical poetry is in harmony with this Preface. He stresses the tragic waste of war, and his characteristic attitude is one of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonizing and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, whether British, German or French, could have achieved if only they had lived. Pity, in Owen’s use of the word, was not self-pity. The sacrifice of the Cross represents the crossing-out of the capital ‘I’. Owen pitied others, not himself; his revisions of his poems gradually rid them of all mention of himself; his poems, like ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘, present universal pictures of typical scenes of the Western Front, like the horror of soldiers suffering a gas attack.  He is concerned with the plight of individual soldiers when they are typical of the plight of doomed soldiers as a whole. Unlike Sassoon’s ‘young man with a meagre wife and two small children in a Midland town’, Owen’s men are unknown, unidentified, like the dead young man in ‘Futility’. This poem arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts are held in balance. Two types of tension give his poems their cutting edge. He seems unsure about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to war. He carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning; the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Just as the rural poverty he experienced in helping the Oxfordshire vicar before the war made him doubt conventional Christianity, so his terrible experiences in France made him doubt any form of Christianity. Even ‘Exposure’, written during his first tour of duty in Flanders, admits that ‘love of God seems to be dying’. In ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘, his subconscious debate rises less respectfully to the surface, when he asks ‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?’ The bells represent the strong religious associations, while the phrase ‘die as cattle’ summons up the contrasting atmosphere of an abattoir.   ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo‘, written in November 1917, still professes a belief in God:

I, too, saw God through mud –

The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.

Other poems also profess a belief in an afterlife in which the the dead soldier is ‘high pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making’ and a shared conviction with ‘some’ who ‘say God caught them even before they fell’.  However, his poem ‘Greater Love’ expresses doubt as to whether it is possible for a good god to exist while such torturing agonies continue. It describes the dead as:

Rolling and rolling there

Where God seems not to care.

A similarly uncertain debate about pacifism is hinted at by his best poetry but rarely expressed directly. ‘Exposure’ briefly states the case against pacifism:

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn:

Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.

Dulce et Decorum Est has often been misquoted by the ‘white poppy brigade’ as evidence of his pacifism, but the ‘old lie’ that he refers to is not that soldiers should be prepared to die for their country, but that in doing so they were doing something ‘sweet’ or ‘decorous’. War, as he observed it in the face of a gassed comrade, was anything but…

Christ in no-man’s land

However, in his letters, Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill…

Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear his voice. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend. Is it spoken in English only and in French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

Other poets, both civilians and soldiers, were moved to similar expressions of pity or protest based on Christian principles. Sassoon’s simple prayer of protest, ‘O Jesus make it stop’  echoed millions of cries from the trenches, while Kipling, his attitude to the ‘Great War’ changed by his son Jack’s death at the Front, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane.  Like Jesus, the soldier in his poem prays that the cup of suffering might pass, but it doesn’t, and the soldier drinks it sacrificially in a gas attack ‘beyond Gethsemane’.

Ultimately, Wilfred Owen does not blame God for the suffering of the soldiers he seeks to represent in his poetry. In July 1918 he wrote to his mother from the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough, that he wished ‘the Boche’ would ‘make a clean sweep of ….all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading John Bull on Scarborough sands’. Owen condemns ‘the old’ in ‘the Parable of the Old Men and the Young’ in which he rewrites the story of Abraham and Isaac, envisaging the old man killing his son rather than obeying God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Another special target for  Owen’s satire was the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of the Church. In ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’ Owen attacks the militarist chaplains:

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

On October 4th, 1918, after most of his company had been killed, Owen and his corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners. He was awarded the Military Cross for this feat. However, just one week before the Armistice, on 4 November 1918, he was killed when trying to construct a make-shift bridge to lead his company over a canal in the face of heavy machine-gun fire. His mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day at home in Oswestry, with the church bells ringing out in celebration of the cease-fire.

Above:

‘Goodbye to the Mobilised’ , by the official French war photographer Jacques Moreau. Between 8.5 and 9 million servicemen and women from all warring nations were killed in action during the first world war

True and Just?

The recent poet Laureate, Andrew Motion,  believes Owen’s maxim about the ‘pity of war’ and the ‘truthfulness of true poets’ has held firm throughout the years, even in such wars, such as the Second World War, which are generally considered ‘just’. Poems about the Holocaust, or Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or the Bosnian War of 1993, also contain these essential ingredients, as those in the anthology for which Motion writes his afterword, show. This is especially important when the language of war is changed in order to disguise its realities. In the age of modern media transmission, euphemisms such as ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage’ need to be challenged by the poet’s scribble, just as much as in the trenches of 1914-18, if not more so. Images can be used to mislead; poets must not do so, not if they wish to remain true to their art. They have a higher moral, human calling, if not a divine one. As Motion points out, poetry ‘shows us, whatever our faith, we compromise, betray or wreck ourselves when we take up arms against one another’.

Poppies for commemoration

That’s probably why Owen’s poems are not among the most memorable of the first world war. The ones which are used for the purpose of remembering nevertheless contain ageless truths. That is why they form essential parts of our Acts of Remembrance, our collective commemorations. John McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ also reminds us that the ‘Great War’ was an imperial conflict, involving what were then known as ‘the dominions’, including Canada, where McRae was born. He went to Europe in 1914 as a gunner, but was transferred to medical service and served at the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres.  His poem first appeared in Punch in December 1915. McRae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died. When the flowers were the only plants which grew in profusion in Flanders in the spring of 1919, they became the symbol of remembrance for the British Legion, collecting funds for the injured ex-servicemen and war widows:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place, and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly,

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We  shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Left: Armistice Day in Toronto. Oil on canvas by Joseph Ernest Sampson

All her paths are peace…

Another poem we associate with Armistice Day ceremonies, especially the Royal Festival of Remembrance on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, held at the Royal Albert Hall, is Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’. However, like McRae’s poem, it was actually written in the early part of the war and published in The Times on September 21st 1914.  It is based on the words and rhythm of the Authorised Version of the Bible in II Samuel, i, 23, 25:

….in death they were  not divided…How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!

Born in 1869, Binyon was typical of the older generation of civilian poets who wrote about the war. He wrote the poem while working at the British Museum, which he did for forty years, becoming Professor of Poetry at Harvard on retirement. In 1916 he went to the Front as a Red Cross orderly. The poem’s fourth verse is used today all over the world during services of remembrance, and is inscribed on countless war memorials and monuments:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them. 

One poem which is better known as a hymn, and not especially associated with the First World War, is ‘I vow to thee my country’, often sung to the tune ‘Thaxted’ by Gustav Holst, part of ‘Jupiter’ in his ‘Planets Suite’.  The words, written by Cecil Spring-Rice (1859-1918), have been criticised as overly patriotic, especially the phrase in the first verse which pledges ‘the love which asks no question’ to the earthly country. This suggests a blind, uncritical, ‘my country, right or wrong, kind of patriotism. When he wrote it in Stockholm, between 1908-12, he was thinking of the notion of sacrifice, as he pointed out in a speech in Ottowa, on completing his revision of the poem in 1918:

The Cross is a sign of patience under suffering, but not patience under wrong. The cross is the banner under which we fight – the Cross of St George, the Cross of St Andrew, the Cross of St Patrick; different in form, in colour, in history, yes, but the same spirit, the spirit of sacrifice.’

His rewritten poem now became hymn, now set to Holst’s tune, published in 1925. The second verse about the heavenly kingdom was kept much as it was, but the first was altered significantly. The original poem had been belligerently patriotic, glorifying war. Leaving his role as British ambassador to Washington in January 1918, having encouraged Woodrow Wilson, the US President, to enter the war, Spring-Rice sent the new verses to an American friend with an accompanying note that read; ‘the greatest object of all – at the most terrific cost and most tremendous sacrifice – will, I hope, at last be permanently established, Peace.’ He died suddenly in Ottowa a month later.

Although England does not, yet, have a national anthem of its own, many people would like this hymn to be adopted in that role, both because of the tune and the second verse, which reminds us that, as Christians, and people of faith, we are subjects of two kingdoms, and that there are only ‘paths of peace’ in the heavenly one:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffereing;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.

Sources:

Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: Transatlantic Press.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War: Faber & Faber

E L Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry: University of London Press

 

Raise the song of harvest-home!   1 comment

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My last blog was about the secular folklore of harvest. For me, as for many Christians, harvest festivals are not primarily about these ancient country customs, but about giving praise for our gifts from God. One hymn which appears in almost every hymnbook is Come Ye Thankful People, Come. It’s probably the most popular hymn with congregations, though We Plough the Fields and Scatter is perhaps best known for most people in Britain, from their schooldays singing in assemblies.

English: Henry Alford (1810-1871)

English: Henry Alford (1810-1871) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Henry Alford (1810-1871), who wrote the words above, was born in Bloomsbury, London, the son of an Anglican clergyman and himself became Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1857, where he remained till his death. A Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, he was a distinguished scholar and wrote many books, including a commentary on the Greek New Testament. A strong evangelical, he wrote several hymns, still popular today,  Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand, a processional for saints’ days, was completed and published just in time to be sung at his funeral in January 1871, with startling imagery from the Book of Revelation. The opening lines and the title are suggested by the reference in chapter 5 v 11 to St John the Divine’s vision of a mighty throng of angels around the throne of God, and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand. Similarly, the ringing of a thousand harps in the second verse is taken from chapter 14 v 2. 

Come Ye Thankful People, Come was first published in Alford’s own collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1844. He revised it for his poetical works in 1865, the version which is also included in his Year of Praise, published in 1867. This authentic version is the one given above rather than the one which appeared in Hymns Ancient and Modern. The fourth verse, as it appears in  a third version, appearing in The New English Hymnal, is worth quoting, especially since it is reminiscent of his writing on Revelation:

001

The tune associated with this hymn, St George, by Sir George Elvey (1861-93), was actually written for another hymn, Hark the Song of Jubilee, and was published in 1858. Elvey was organist and choirmaster at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Two of Christ’s parables are echoed in the hymn: the story of the wheat and the tares (Mt 13: vv 24-30) and that of the seed which springs up without the sower knowing about it (Mk 4: vv 26-29), including the line, paraphrased in Alford’s second verse: For the earth bringeth forth of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. The graphic depiction of the growth of the ear and the corn is one which we discussed with interest in Hungary recently. Although a far more agricultural country than Britain today, many of us still struggled with the metaphor, and found Alford’s popularisation of it useful, as we had done while singing it as children in church in England and Wales (it also appears in the Church of Scotland Hymnary). In order to be harvested as pure and wholesome grain, we need to grow faithfully in the field through the natural stages until ripe. In the third verse, the full-grown weeds can be torn up, bundled and burnt, to allow the crop to be harvested. In the fourth verse, as pure grain, we can then be ‘garnered in’ into God’s granary. Here are the full texts, beginning with Mark:

The Parable of the Growing Seed

Jesus went on to say, “The Kingdom of God is like this. A man scatters seed in his field. He sleeps at night, is up and about during the day, and all the while the seeds are sprouting and growing. Yet he does not know how it happens. The soil itself makes the plants grow and bear fruit; first the tender stalk appears, then the head, and finally the head full of grain. When the grain is ripe, the man starts cutting it with his sickle, because harvest time has come.

001

The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds

Jesus told them another parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man sowed good seed in his field. One night, when everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. When the plants grew and the heads of grain began to form, then the weeds showed up. The man’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, it was good seed you sowed in your field; where did the weeds come from?’ ‘It was some enemy who did this,’ he answered. ‘Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?’ they asked him. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them. Let the weeds and the wheat both grow together until harvest. Then I will tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first, tie them in bundles and burn them, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn.

Adapted from a Prayer of Confession:

If we have forgotten you in our day-to-day living,

or have not lived according to your laws of love,

Lord, have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us.

We claim the promise of your Word to all who are truly sorry for having lived wrongly:

As for our transgressions, we ask you to purge them away…

Purge us, Lord, from selfishness, greed and pride,

Purify our hearts from all that blinds us to thy presence,

so that we may indeed see thy hand at work in the world about us,

and rejoice in thy goodness.

AMEN

Adapted from Prayers of Intercession:

We pray for all who work on farms and crofts, in gardens and forests,

For those who gather the harvest of the seas and lakes,

For those who work in mines and quarries,

And for all the scientists, engineers and technicians who serve and help them.  

Through the toil of all these men and women:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

Inspire us, and thy Church all over the world, to demonstrate

How to live in love for all people, that your kingdom of justice may be furthered,

And all may see what is the Father’s will for His children.

Through the work of your Church, O Lord:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

We pray for the governments of the world,

For the work of the United Nations, especially its Food and Agricultural Programme,

For the work of international charitable organisations,

May the powers of this world be more and more conformed to the power and glory of your kingdom,

Where all care for each other in brotherhood and sisterhood,

as the Father wills.

Through the work of all peace-makers,

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

Now, blessed be your glorious name for ever,

Let the whole earth be filled with the glory of the love of our Father, in whom we are one,

Of the Son, who shares our sorrows and griefs,

Of the Holy Spirit of love and power,

One God for ever.

AMEN.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns. London: Continuum.

David Cairns, et.al.  (1972), Worship Now. Edinburgh: The St Andrew Press.

Good News for Modern Man

Pentecost to Paraclete: The Coming of the Holy Spirit   1 comment

English: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Dove of the Ho...

English: Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Dove of the Holy Spirit (ca. 1660, stained glass, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sentences:

Jesus said: I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.

God‘s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God are sons and daughters of God. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

The Story:

A few weeks after Jesus went back up to heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts. Jesus’ friends were all together. Suddenly they saw little flames on each other’s heads. Then the people began talking in other languages they hadn’t learned (Acts 2)

Prayers:

A Children’s Prayer for Whitsun

We remember today how the coming of God’s Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost changed the lives of the disciples.

Loving Lord God,

Thank for the joy of the disciples.

We need the gift of joy;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the courage of the disciples.

We need the gift of courage;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the goodness and unselfishness of the disciples.

We need these gifts;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the way the disciples spread the good news of your love.

We need to be your messengers;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the disciples’ certainty that Jesus would always be with them.

We need his friendship and help;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Lord, help us feel your living Spirit present with us as we worship and at all times. Amen.

(John D Smith)

Luke 4. 18-19:

May the spirit of the Lord be upon us that we may be announce good news to the poor, proclaim release for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind; that we may let the broken victim go free, and proclaim the year of our Lord’s favour; according to the example of Christ and by his grace. Amen.

Galatians 5. 22-24:

Grant to us Lord the fruit of the Spirit: and may your life in ours fulfil itself in love, joy, peace; patience, kindness, goodness; faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. May our lower nature, with its passions and desires, be crucified with Christ, that true life may come. And may the Holy Spirit, the source of that new life, direct its course to your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymn:

The Breath of the Spirit

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Fill me with life anew.

That I may love what thou dost love,

And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Until my heart is pure,

Until with thee I will one will,

To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Blend all my soul with thine,

Until this eartly part of me

Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, Breath of God;

So shall I never die,

But live with thee the perfect life

Of thine eternity.

Notes:

The idea of breath has always had a central role in Christian theology. The Greek word for this, and for the Spirit is ‘pneuma’, as in pneumonia, pneumatic, etc.. The Latin word ‘spiritus’ also refers to breath. The creative function of God has often been thought of as the action of breathing life into mankind, following the description in Genesis 2:7: ‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’

Whereas to a physicist pneumatology means the science of air and gases, to a theologian it means the doctrine and study of the Holy Spirit. It is this notion of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God breathed into his creatures that Edwin Hatch (1835-89) develops in this simple devotional hymn. It first appeared in 1878 in a privately printed pamphlet, Between Doubt and Prayer. Hatch was born into a nonconformist family in Birmingham, educated at the King Edward VI School and Pembroke College, Oxford, where he met and befriended several members of the future Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of artists, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Although contributing articles to magazines and artistic reviews, he didn’t follow his friends into a literary or artistic career, but chose instead to become a Church of England minister in the East End of London. Later, he became Professor of Classics at Trinity College, Toronto and then returned to Oxford, ending his academic career as a Reader in Church History. Despite his academic abilities, his faith was said to be as simple as a child’s, and deep.

Breathe on Me Breath of God’ is sung to a number of tunes, the most effective of which is ‘Wirksworth’, named after the Derbyshire village with traditions of well-dressing at Whitsun, and found in a Book of Psalmody of 1718, harmonised by S S Wesley (1810-76). The use of some less lively tunes has been criticised as suggesting ‘that the breath of God was an anaesthetic, not a “Giver of Life”.’ So perhaps we should stick to Wirksworth or, even more appropriately perhaps, to Carlisle,  by Charles Lockhart (1745-1815), who , despite being blind from infancy, was a notable church organist in London, well known for his training of children’s choirs.

Thanksgiving:

O God, who art father of our spirits, the lover of our souls, and the Lord of our lives: we offer thee our worship and our praise. With thy whole Church in heaven and on earth we adore thee for thy wondrous mercy in the work of our redemption through Jesus Christ thy Son. We thank thee for the grace of thy Holy Spirit, who did brood upon the waters when darkness was upon the face of the deep, speak in the prophets to foretell the coming of thy Christ, and descend as in tongues of living fire upon thy Church at Pentecost. We bless thee that thou hast never taken or withheld thy Holy Spirit from us, but that he abides with us for ever to rebuke us for our sin, to comfort us in our tribulations, to help our infirmities and teach us how to pray, and to witness with our spirits that we are thy children and joint-heirs with Christ. To thee, O god, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all praise and glory, for ever and ever. AMEN.

Benediction: 

Grace, Mercy and Peace from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always. AMEN.

Shovuos (Pentecost – Jewish Festival)   2 comments

Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall ye number fifty days. (Leviticus 23: 16) Judaism‘s  festival of weeks comes seven weeks, or fifty days (‘Pentecost’) after the Passover Festival. This festival was originally celebrated as the gathering of the barley harvest, seven weeks after the harvesting of the wheat crop. It was, therefore, the a thanksgiving festival and was first observed after the Hebrews had settled in Palestine as a farming community. It gained greater importance as the festival of ‘the Torah’, the Hebrew Law given by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. According to the Bible story, the Hebrews entered the Sinai desert in the third month of their exodus from Egypt. Much later, in the nineteenth century, the festival acquired even greater significance when it was recognised as the day of confirmation, on which thirteen year-olds were confirmed in the faith through a special ceremony. Previously, only boys were allowed to go through this ‘Bar Mitzvah’, but now both boys and girls are confirmed at this age. The festival also has a Christian significance, for it was at Pentecost that Jesus’ disciples suddenly found the courage to go out and tell the whole world about their belief, so that the festival became ‘Whitsun’ in the Christian calendar, a popular day for baptisms and confirmations, with the weekend popular for white weddings!  I was baptised on Whit Sunday, forty years ago, fifteen years after being born at a Nottinghamshire Baptist manse on a Whit Monday! Shovuos is a summer festival and Jewish homes are decorated in green, while the food is largely composed of dairy dishes. A popular dish is ‘blintzes’, which is cheese rolled in dough. In Jewish schools children are taught the story of Ruth, which reminds them of their agricultural heritage and also turns their thoughts to David and Bethlehem, his home town. The story begins in a time of hardship and famine, when a farmer named Elimelech, together with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, decided to move to another country, Moab, to find better pastures there. Sadly, Emilelech died, leaving the two boys to look after their mother. In time, the boys married, the elder to a Moabite woman, Ruth. Naomi found happiness with her two daughters-in-law and her sons, and they prospered for a decade. Then, tragically, the two sons were killed in an accident and Naomi, now very lonely, decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth asked to go with her, with the words:

Cover of
Cover of The Story of Ruth

Wherever you go, I will go, Wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. (Ruth 1:16)

English: House of the People is a multi-purpos...
English: House of the People is a multi-purpose hall. Here, Bar Mitzvah boy called to the Torah עברית: בית העם הוא אולם רב תכליתי. כאן, נער בר מצוה עולה לתורה. באולם קיימת הפרדה בין הגברים לנשים., Original Image Name:בר מצוה בבית העם, Location:בית העם במושב צופית (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They went back to Bethlehem together, to find the situation very different to how it had been a decade previously. The famine was over and the harvests were good. However, the two women remained poor and at the barley harvest time Ruth went into the fields to ‘glean’ among the sheaves left by the reapers. The owner, Boaz, saw her, fell in love with her, and gave her six measures of barley to take home to her mother-in-law. They were married and their son, Obed, was Jesse’s father, who was father to David, hence the significance of the story to Christians, since Jesus was David’s descendant, born in his home town of Bethlehem. However, although the Christian festival of Whitsun is a popular time for baptisms and confirmations, like ‘Bar Mitzvah’ celebrations, the basis of the festival is the New Testament story of what happened to the apostles on the morning after the seventh sabbath.

Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah
Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ‘Bar Mitzvah’ (boys) and ‘Bat Mitzvah‘ (girls) ceremonies mark the occasion when the young Jew reaches religious and legal maturity. There are celebrations both in the synagogue and at home. The young boy is taught to read the Torah scroll, and a great extended family party follows. The young person gives a speech in which s/he expresses their thanks to their parents for all their love and concern in bringing them up.

New Testament Marriage, Blessings & Covenants   4 comments

Lent is a time for reflection, and this year I thought hard about the ‘Gay Marriage‘ controversy which has been hitting the headlines. Since then, I’ve received many unsolicited posts on the issue, many hurling abuse at the Christian churches and most showing a lack of understanding of the Christian view of marriage and the way in which it is framed within the law in the United Kingdom, as a result of centuries of conflict and compromise between church and state. I’m deeply concerned by the strength of the language used by both advocates and opponents of this proposal. I’ve been drawn into using some of this myself, I have to admit, and repent of some of the comments I’ve made myself.

I promised some of those I’ve engaged with that I would publish ‘a blog’ on these matters, which are not as simple as we may at first think in Britain, because of its complicated history of the entanglements of church and state. Perhaps the time has come to disentangle the Christian marriage service from the secular registration of marriages and civil partnerships, but I know this would be bitterly opposed in England, at least, and, in the meantime, there are many homosexual Christians who do not seem to feel sufficiently welcomed in the churches through the affirmation of their relationships, either formally or informally. As someone who has grappled with these issues of sexuality and the Christian faith over forty years now, has been challenged by the differences in marriage laws in the UK and Hungary in arranging our own ceremonies and has, as a wedding ‘MC’ had to carefully choreograph the intertwining of the diverse religious and humanist traditions which are part of the lives of many friends, I am concerned that the needs of Gay Christian couples, and those of other faiths, are being drowned out by the chorus of church-bashing which appears to be part of a rising tide of aggressive atheism.

Of course, my own ‘national church’, the Religious Society of Friends, has long been ‘permitted’ to marry heterosexual couples, without any formal litany, at its meeting houses, under UK law. It  also came to a new view of sexuality in 1963, publishing Towards a Quaker View of Sex. I found this extremely helpful as a university student in 1975-6, confused about issues of sexuality, and began to attend meetings for worship, though I didn’t become a member of the Society until 1989, when I was working for it in the West Midlands. In 2009, following an internal ‘discernments’ culminating in a minute at London Yearly Meeting, the Society published ‘We are but Witnesses’ which put forward a case for a departure from the traditional view of Christian marriage and argued for a change in the law to permit same-sex marriages to be ‘solemnised’ in places of worship throughout the UK. I cannot support this for three reasons:

1. The Dissenting tradition in the United Kingdom has always sought to separate it practices from the interference of the state in religious matters and, since ‘we are but witnesses’ commitments which take place in the sight of God, we have no need to enlist the support of the state. Indeed, marriages can be made without human witnesses, in so-called ‘common law’ relationships. Marriage is a religious matter, not a legal one, and whilst governments, which come and go, may wish to support it, we do not seek privilege from it as Christians, but regard it as a solemn duty. The gospel calls us to support equality in society and for that reason many of us have supported the move towards equity in legal matters which the introduction of ‘civil partnerships’ has enabled. These could be made available to heterosexual couples, and, if there are remaining inequalities between marriages and civil partnerships, these are surely matters requiring the attention of the state, not the churches. Whilst the Church has social responsibilities as part of its witness, its role is to hold to the eternal truths of Christ’s kingdom on earth, which is separate from secular society.

2. The Bible, and, more particularly the New Testament and, even more particularly, the words of Jesus Christ, our fonder, are quite clear both in defining marriage and in stating that homosexual men are excluded from the obligation to marry. Nothing is said about lesbian relationships, not because they did not exist in the ancient world, but because they were not seen as preventing women from marrying men. We need look no further than Jesus’ words for guidance, since they fulfil the teachings of the Torah, and the apostles were writing at a time when they believed that the ‘third dispensation’, the second coming of Christ, would pre-date many of their deaths. Therefore, marriage was only seen as a way of  controlling sexual relations on a temporary basis. I have not found any outright condemnation of homosexuality, or homosexual relations in the New Testament, merely condemnation of promiscuity.

3. Marriage, as public declaration of a heterosexual relationship where two people become one family, is fundamentally different from the formalisation of a ‘partnership’, and I have characterised this as ‘two into one’ compared with ‘one plus one’. As Christians, we celebrate diversity in human relations; we don’t insist on everyone doing things the same way. If we didn’t believe this, we would still have one undivided, catholic church. Rather than insisting on everyone being ‘married’, we should be finding ways of ensuring that commitments and ‘covenants’ between all loving couples can be affirmed and recognised in a variety of acts of public worship. This is what I have tried to show below.

A glance at the following sentences (from Orders and Prayers for Church Worship, the Baptist Manual for Ministers) and scriptures will, I believe, reveal three truths:

1. That Christian marriage, as an institution, cannot be extended to same-sex unions, if the Church is to remain true to Christ‘s teachings and actions in defining the nature of that institution throughout the centuries;

2. That the current ‘equity’ (‘equality’ is not a precise enough term) given to same-sex relations through the change in the law allowing ‘civil partnerships’ does not prevent local congregations and church governments from listening to what Gay Christian couples would themselves like, and making very simple adjustments to existing sentences to include blessings and covenants for these brothers and sisters in Christ.

3. In doing so, no judgement of same-sex relationships in general is required and the special nature of Christian marriage need not be compromised, neither would the liberty of conscience of the ministers who would be asked to conduct such services.

This is why I have set out the sentences and scriptures below, as a way of looking at where the churches are at present, and how some may feel prompted to go further in including their Gay members and attenders.

1. Ordinances of the Church: The solemnization of Marriage:

‘Marriage is a holy estate instituted by God and commended in Scripture as honourable to all who enter it lawfully and in true affection. It was confirmed by Christ’s solemn words and hallowed by his gracious presence at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee; and it is set forth by the Apostle as signifying the mystical union between Christ and his church…

‘Therefore it ought not to be entered upon lightly or unadvisedly, but thoughtfully and reverently, duly considering the causes for which it was ordained…

  • ‘It was ordained for the hallowing of the union between man and woman so that, the natural instincts and affections being directed aright, they should live in purity and honour…
  • ‘It was ordained for the increase of mankind, and that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord…
  • ‘It was ordained for the companionship, help, and comfort which husband and wife ought to have of each other…
  • ‘It was ordained for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where the marriage bond is held in honour…

2. Selections from the New Testament dealing with marriage:

  • The Words of Jesus:

‘Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’. (Matthew 19: 4-6; See also Mark 10: 2-12)..

‘There are many reasons why men cannot marry: some, because they were born that way; others, because men made them that way; and others do not marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 19: 12).

‘Every man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband. A man should fulfill his duty, as a wife, and each should satisfy the other’s needs. A wife is not the master of her own body, but the husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is. Do not deny yourselves to each other unless you first agree to do so for a while…I tell you this not as an order, but simply as a permission’ (1 Corinthians 7: 2-6).

‘Every husband must love his wife as himself, and every wife must respect her husband’ (Ephesians 5: 31).

3. The Blessing of a Civil Partnership, or ‘Union’ (based on ‘The Blessing of a Civil Marriage‘):

The order is for use only when a civil ceremony has already taken place in the Registry Office, or another place authorised by the Registrar. The Minister should not perform this ceremony until he has seen the Certificate of Registration of the Civil Partnership, or ‘Union’. All standing, the minister shall say:

‘Dearly beloved: we are gathered here in the presence of God to seek this blessing on the union into which these two persons here entered. This blessing should be sought only by those who are willing to fulfil the obligations which a Christian relationship demands.

‘The hallowing of the union between two persons is…

‘…so that, the natural instincts and affections being directed aright, they should live in purity and honour..

‘…to honour the companionship, help, and comfort which partners ought to have for each other..

‘…for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where its bonds are held in honour.’

Then the minister shall say to the Couple:

‘In token of your covenant with one another, you may exchange rings. Do you promise before God to love each other, comfort, honour and keep each other in sickness and in health, so long as you both shall live?’

The partners answer in unison:

‘We do’.

If the rings have not already been given, the rings shall be placed on the book, exchanged and delivered by the Minister. Each partner shall repeat after the minister the following words:

‘ I give thee this ring as a token of the covenant made between us this day and as a pledge of our mutual love: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

The Minister will then add this blessing:

‘The Lord Bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.  The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’

A psalm or a hymn may then be sung, followed by selections from Holy Scripture, an address, prayers, closing hymn, and the blessing, as in ‘the Order for the Solemnization of Marriage’ and by agreement with the Minister. The following readings from scripture are among those that may be chosen:

‘Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends’. (I Corinthians 13: 4-8)

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”. (John 15 : 9-12)

The Orders and Prayers for Church Worship makes it clear that while we base everything we believe as Christians on the immutable Word of God, the nature of the sacraments and liturgy of worship have evolved over the centuries, and are part of a continuing ‘conversation’ between God and men, which is two-way. We don’t need to wait for God to speak first, we can have something to say to Him, based on the changing needs of human society in the twenty-first century. The PM has lit the blue touch-paper by announcing his ‘consultation’. The churches could surely go one better by opening up a dialogue with God and a discourse with each other on these issues, and especially with Gay Christians, rather than each denomination taking its own position in relation to the desire for a change in the secular law.

Gone Fishing! The Tale of Simon Peter.   1 comment

 

Unmistakable Identity:

English: Jesus, followed by Simon Peter and Andrew

English: Jesus, followed by Simon Peter and Andrew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike with Thomas the Twin and Judas Iscariot, we know exactly who Simon Peter is, even though Jesus changes his name. His character and personality never changes. He is practical, loyal and humble. He’s a son of Jonas, a native of Bethsaida, a fisherman and Andrew’s brother, working out of the port of Capernaum, where they had their home, according to Mark (1: 29-31). He was married, as Jesus healed his mother-in-law of her fever.  He becomes the third of Jesus’ disciples, introduced to the Galilean rabbi by his brother. Unlike his brother and Nathaniel, however, he makes no early declaration of Jesus’ identity as Messiah, despite being himself identified as ‘a rock’ (‘Cephas‘) by the teacher. Jonas’ sons were in a fishing partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who also joined Jesus’ growing band of disciples soon after (Mt 4: 18-22). The Gospel of  John tells us below that eight of the twelve went fishing, though they may not all have done it for a living. Peter, James and John become, and remain, the closest of the Twelve to Jesus, a sort of ‘inner triangle’, or trinity.

Jesus and Saint Peter, Gospel of Matthew 4.18-...
Jesus and Saint Peter, Gospel of Matthew

According to Luke (5: 1-11), Jesus began his ministry by using their boats as a pulpit, perhaps because he thought he and the disciples might need to make a quick getaway if a Roman patrol came along, or the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem sent out its men to apprehend him. Or perhaps it was just a way of controlling the crowds who came to hear him and be healed by him.

By this time, he had done the rounds of the synagogues in the area and news of his words and deeds was spreading far beyond Galilee. On one occasion, Peter and his crew had been out fishing all the previous night, catching nothing, so he was naturally somewhat sceptical when Jesus told him to go out into deep water again and put down his nets for a catch. However, he reluctantly agreed, leaving Zebedee’s boat anchored inshore, however. The catch was so great that they had to call the other boat out to help them, or they would certainly have sunk under its weight. Peter fell to his knees, partly in awe of his ‘Lord’ and partly in shame that he doubted Jesus’ word even for a minute. Of course, never missing an opportunity for an acted parable, Jesus promises them an even greater catch, of souls.

DSC09714

Sworn to Secrecy:


Despite Peter’s humility, or perhaps because of it, he is one of only three disciples, the others being the more ambitious Zebedee brothers, to witness two major incidents. The first incident is when they accompany Jesus to the house of one of the leaders of a local synagogue, Jairus, after he learns of the death of his daughter as he is on his way to heal her. When they arrived at the house, the women mourners had already gathered outside, making their traditional wailing sounds. This shows that the girl had been dead for some time, and Jesus knew too well that, in bringing her back to life, he would be crossing a line which could only lead him into direct confrontation with the Sanhedrin. So, he orders Peter, James and John not to tell anyone what they have seen. His selection of these three reveals the trust he placed in them both to believe what they had seen, and to keep it to themselves. His words to the mourners outside, which at first they ridicule, were probably intended to conceal the miracle further, leaving it open for people to believe what they wanted to believe, rather than bringing the wrath of the religious authorities down on him at this stage. By keeping the number of witnesses to an absolute minimum, he seeks to protect his other disciples from such wrath. He chooses the strongest among his fishermen friends, including Peter.

The Transfiguration Lodovico Carracci 1594
The Transfiguration Lodovico Carracci 1594 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second incident involves a mountain climb. Here is Mark’s account of what happened:

Jesus took his three friends, Peter, James and John, and led them up into a high mountain. They were alone.

High up in the mountains, Jesus was changed. 

His friends were still with him. His clothes were gleaming white; no bleacher on earth could make them whiter. His friends saw two other men talking with Jesus: Moses, who had led the people out of slavery, and Elijah, who had stood up to a king in God‘s name. 

Peter didn’t know what to say, so he began to talk like this:

‘Sir’, he said. ‘It’s grand for us to be up here. Do you want us to make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?’

Peter and James and John were terrified.

A cloud rolled around them. God’s words came into their minds.

‘This is my only son. You must do as he says.’

 The three men looked around. There was nobody there but Jesus.

As the went down the mountainside, Jesus told them not to talk about what they had seen to anybody, ‘until I have risen from the dead.’

It was this saying they could not forget. They talked again and again among themselves about what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.

001

We don’t know  exactly what happened on the mountain, but the three friends shared a tremendous experience, one which transcended even that of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Perhaps it helped them to understand that first incident. Since then, Peter had argued with Jesus, only a week before his transfiguration, and it had been clear how little he, and they, had understood him or listened to his words. Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, but failed to grasp the need for him to be the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah, let alone what he meant by being ‘raised to life’.

002

On the road to Jerusalem from Caesaria Philippi, he had taken Jesus aside and rebuked him, because he couldn’t get out of his head the widespread Jewish conviction that God’s chosen leader would establish a national kingdom, with a king and government. James and John were already applying to become his chief ministers. How could the Messiah suffer in any way or die in the hands of foreigners? Until now, it hadn’t made sense. Now their understanding had been transformed by this mountain top experience, but they were still puzzled by the idea of  ‘rising from the dead’. That’s why Jesus told them not to speak about his Resurrection until after it had happened.

The Armed Man in the Garden:

In an echo of the incident at Caesaria Philippi, Mark tells of how, after their Passover Supper, the disciples went outside, singing a hymn. They walked through the olive groves towards Bethany, where they were staying:

‘You will all let me down,’ said Jesus, as they walked along. ‘The Bible says:

‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will run away.

‘But after I am raised I will go to Galilee before you.’

‘Everybody else may let you down, said Peter, ‘but I won’t.’

‘I tell you, Peter,’ said Jesus, ‘that this very night, before dawn, you will say more than once that you’re no friend of mine.’

‘Say I’m no friend of yours?’ said Peter hotly. ‘I’d die with you first!’

Andrea Mantegna's Agony in the Garden, circa 1...
Andrea Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden, circa 1460, depicts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big man could hardly speak any more, but now he resolved on letting his sword do the talking, if he needed it to. No one had noticed when Peter had picked up the sword in the upper room, pushed it through his belt and arranged his cloak so it couldn’t be seen. As they climbed the Mount of Olives into the Garden of Gethsemane, they felt a chill wind that whispered cheerlessly through the olive branches as they fell silent. They had all echoed Peter’s words, but the master said nothing more until he told them to sit down and wait for him while he went to pray. Again, he called his inner circle of friends, Peter, James and John to go with him. He told them to wait, still at some distance from where he would pray alone, but within sight of him. They were to keep watch for him. He told them, his voice breaking with deep distress, that his heart was nearly breaking as well. They watched him go on a short distance and then fall to his knees. In the moonlight, they could tell from his posture in prayer that his mind was in anguish and, as he had said, his soul was overcome with grief to the point of death. Peter put his head into his hands, knowing that there was nothing he could do to help. Exhausted, in the darkness, he drifted into sleep.

He awoke with a start to a gentle touch on his shoulder. It was Jesus, and as the other two sat up rubbing their eyes, he said in a voice tinged with disappointment, “Couldn’t you three keep awake with me for a single hour?” Choking back his emotion, he added, quietly, “Watch, and pray that you may not have to face temptation; your spirit is willing, but human nature is weak.” He sat silently with them for a while and then returned to his solitary prayers. A second time Peter awoke to find Jesus standing over him, this time more composed. Peter tried to rouse himself as Jesus went back to pray alone. After a short time, Peter felt a firmer hand shaking his shoulder. “Wake up,” said Jesus, “the hour has come. In a moment you will see the Son of Man betrayed.”

Dazed, Peter jumped to his feet. Flaring torches dazzled him. In what seemed like another dream, he saw Judas step forward and kiss Jesus, and heard Jesus say, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you betray the Son of Man?” On the word, ‘betray’, Peter gripped his sword.

The capture of Christ (detail)
The capture of Christ (detail) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Who are you looking for?” Jesus asked the Temple Guards. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he” said Jesus calmly, turning around to point at the disciples, ” so, since you have found me, let these others go.” Peter shouted, “Don’t worry, Lord, we can take care of ourselves.” In the glare of the torches came the flash of a blade and the cry, “watch out, the big fellow has a sword!” Peter struck out wildly at Malchus, the Temple Servant, as he moved forwards to oversee the arrest of Jesus. “My head!” Malchus shouted, “he’s hacked my ear off!” He was covered with blood and dazed from the blow. The Guard rushed forwards and there was a lot of shouting and scuffling, then calm returned as the Galilean spoke quietly, telling Peter to put his sword away, that “those that lived by the sword, died by it.” Someone put a bandage around Malchus’ head, holding the almost severed ear back in place. Then Jesus put his hands over Malchus’ head and healed the ear instantly. The Captain of the Guard inspected it, but, despite the blood, found no wound. Then he carried out the arrest, and the other disciples slipped away into the night, throwing away anything that might incriminate them, including the short-swords that one or two others, besides Peter, had been carrying. The Sanhedrin wasn’t interested in the Twelve. Having captured the shepherd of the flock, they knew the sheep would scatter, just as Jesus himself had predicted.

Treachery in the Courtyard:

As Peter crouched in the darkness of an olive grove, he was stunned by a mix of feelings: Fatigue, fear, uncertainty and, above all, a sense of guilt. He was acutely aware of failing his master, of having fallen asleep three times and failed to keep watch. How many times, on Galilee, had he been fishing at night and returned to the shore to accompany Jesus in his ministry the next day? The arrest had all happened so quickly, and yet he had seen the lights in the distance and fallen back asleep. In that moment, if he had managed to rouse himself and stand guard, as Jesus had asked, he could have woken ‘Thunder and Lightning’, the sons of Zebedee, they would have had time to draw the swords Jesus had told them to bring with them, and the three of them, surrounding Jesus,  might at least have put up a better fight and even shepherded Jesus away to Bethany, to the safety of locked doors. Now his solitary, futile sword-play had landed him and his master in even more trouble. Now, in the distance, he could see the torches of the Temple Guard and Roman soldiery taking an unresisting Jesus to trial. Why had Jesus told them to bring swords in the first place, if he didn’t intend them to use them? Where was the Legion of Angels Jesus had said he could call out of Heaven to protect him? Why hadn’t he done this?

003John and James joined him in the olive grove next to the Bethany Road and they decided to split up. James would take the other, remaining disciples to Bethany and hide out in Lazarus’ house with the women. They would bar all the doors. Peter and John would run down through the olive groves, overtake the arrest party, and try to find out what was happening to Jesus. Nicodemus was near the gate to the High Priest’s House, having been summoned in the middle of the night to attend ‘a hearing’, just as Jesus was led through. John spotted him, and Nicodemus passed him off as his servant to get him through the gate and into the judgement hall. Peter stayed in the Temple courtyard outside the gate and watched the members of the Sanhedrin arriving. There were quite a few people in the centre of the courtyard, but Peter hung back in the shadows, conscious of the blood staining his fisherman’s tunic. However, someone had lit a fire, so he removed it. hid it behind an olive stump and moved closer to the fire. As he did so, he suddenly saw Judas emerging from the High Priest’s House by torchlight. He found himself muttering and cursing “that traitor” out loud, unintentionally drawing attention to himself.

Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is sh...
Peter’s Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the serving girls sitting by the fire heard his thick Galilean accent and asked him if he was one of the followers of Jesus. She had heard the man from Nazareth preach many times and the Twelve were always with him, and he recognised him as the big man, a sort of bodyguard, who was always at his side. Peter denied even knowing Jesus. A member of the Temple Guard who had been in the arrest party also came over. He looked carefully at Peter, thinking he might be the big man who hit Malchus with his sword. “You are one of that man’s followers, aren’t you?” he said, pointing to the house where Jesus was being interrogated by Sanhedrin. Peter denied it with such a protest that the officer of the Guard grew even more suspicious.  However, there was no blood on his clothes and it had been dark in the garden. There had been a lot of confusion.

The officer went inside the House for a short time, and about an hour later Malchus himself came out to where Peter was sitting and asked him to stand. More than a head taller than Malchus, Peter was able to look down at the bloody bandages on the Temple servants’ head. Malchus asked him officiously for his name, trade and address. Peter answered that he was Simon-bar-Jonas, a fisherman from Capernaum. “I thought so,” said Malchus, “you’re a Galilean, the prisoner’s armed bodyguard who did this to me earlier when we went to arrest him in Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. Come on, speak up! I’m in no pain, no thanks to you, but I can’t hear so well, just now,” Peter answered that he rarely went to the other side of Galilee, let alone to Nazareth. He had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, but had never seen him and the man meant nothing to him. He had come on his own to the City for the Passover, together with his friend John, who was in the Temple, praying. He was waiting for him.

Brooklyn Museum - The Third Denial of Peter. J...At that moment, Jesus was brought out of the High Priest’s House. He stood on the steps and looked straight over at Peter: a sad look, but nothing to prove he knew him. John was with Nicodemus, not far behind. Near at hand, a rooster crowed as the sky grew lighter. In the half-light Malchus could see tears rolling down the big man’s face. He tried to speak, twice, then turned and broke into a run across the courtyard and out of the gate, weeping bitterly. John left Nicodemus and ran after Peter.

Behind them, the Temple Guards had blindfolded Jesus and began playing games with him by the fire, beating him and asking him to guess who had hit him, and hurling worse insults at him. Nicodemus tried to stop them, but was ushered away, and Malchus turned away and went back inside. The guards were far too preoccupied with their prisoner, whom they had been told to hold until the full Sanhedrin could be assembled in daylight, to bother about chasing after his Galilean fishermen friends. They could run all the way back to Capernaum, as far as they were concerned, and the Romans or Herod’s men could deal with them there, like they dealt with all the other troublesome northerners. Not their problem. They had their man.

From Bethany to Galilee: 

004But John and Peter did not return to Galilee. They ran to Bethany and joined the other disciples, who had decided to stay together, close to Jerusalem, at least until the worst was over. They kept the door locked, except for the women coming and going with other relatives, escorted by John and Joseph of Arimathea. Two days later, when Mary Magdalene brought news of the empty tomb. Fearing that the body had been stolen, Peter and John set off on one of their runs again, to Joseph’s garden cave, where Jesus had been placed after his crucifixion.

John got their first and waited for Peter, and when they saw the linen clothes lying there, they began to believe, John better than Peter, that the scriptures really had come true. But they didn’t really understand was resurrection was until Peter met the risen Jesus in person on the road near Jerusalem later that same afternoon. Two other disciples also met him on the road to Emmaus in the evening and when they returned to Bethany to tell the others, Jesus suddenly appeared to all of them, except Thomas.  A week after that, he had appeared to all of them again, this time including Thomas. After this, they followed the instructions of the angel and Jesus himself, who had first appeared to Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany outside the tomb, to return to Galilee to meet him there.

However, nothing had happened for weeks now, so Peter decided to go back to doing what he knew best….

John 21, 1-19:

After this, Jesus appeared once more to his disciples at Lake Tiberias. This is how it happened. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the twin), Nathanael (the one from Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee, and the two other disciples of Jesus were all together. Simon Peter said to the others, “I am going fishing.” “We will come with you,” they told him. So they went out in a boat, but all that night they did not catch a thing.

As the sun was rising, Jesus stood at the water’s edge, but the disciples did not know it was Jesus….

….A third time Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter became sad because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” and so he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep…..”….Then Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” 

The Drama of Jesus, by Paul White & Clifford Warne:

The late afternoon breeze was rippling the water of the Lake of Galilee. John and six of the disciples were walking along the shore. “Where’s Peter?” asked John.

“Whenever he wanted to think something over,” said Andrew, “he’d go down to the boats and mend the nets.”

“But we agreed we’d stay together while we waited for the Lord to arrive.”

Andrew shrugged. “An impatient man is our Peter.”

“Come on. Let’s find him,” said John….They found Peter sitting morosely on a pile of nets, looking over the lake. Gruffly he greeted them and said, “I’m going fishing”.

“Jesus told us to wait on the hillside,” answered John. Peter pulled irritably at his beard. “You can wait there. I’m going to the boats and nets and the lake, to work.”

“But what about His work?” asked John. “I’m sure the Lord has plans for our future.”

Without looking up, Peter muttered, “You can also be sure that He wants reliable men to carry it out. Not weaklings; not those who panic and are afraid. He called me the Rock and I turned out to be this….” He picked up a piece of rotten driftwood and broke it over his knee.

“You told me that He forgave you.”

“Forgave, yes,” Peter sighed. “But trust me – depend on me in the future – that’s different. Would you put your work in the hands of a person who openly denied he even knew you?”

“Is that all you remember of that terrible night? A night when we were all bewildered and afraid. We all failed him.”

“That may be,” said Peter, “but I gave him my word that I would never let him down.” He thumped his palm with his fist. “I said I’d die for him.”

“True,” agreed John, “we all said we’d die for him.”

“You didn’t swear you’d never seen him before and that anyhow he meant nothing to you.”

“So you feel ashamed and guilty,” said John gently. “It shocked you to catch a glimpse of the real Simon – weak, scared and unreliable. The truth took you by surprise, shook you and bruised your pride.” He put his hands on Peter’s shoulders. “Tell me, you miserable, short-memoried fisherman, did it take Him by surprise?” John spoke slowly and forcibly. “Did the truth about you shock him?” He turned to the others. “Andrew, do you remember what the Lord said to this bag-of-self-pity you call a brother, when he told us that Satan would sift us all like wheat?”

Andrew nodded. “He said, ‘Simon, Simon, I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you come to yourself you must lend strength to your brothers.’ “

Peter turned away. What John said was true. Jesus had known the worst even before it happened. He knew Peter better than Peter knew himself and he still loved him, cared about him and prayed for him.

Peter kept looking towards the lake. He didn’t want them to see his tears. He strode down towards the water, muttering, “I’m still going fishing.”

They sat in silence and watched him check the fishing gear. Then he put his shoulder to the boat and slowly pushed it into the water. Once aboard, he set about hoisting the sails. The disciples jumped to their feet and ran after him, shouting, “wait for us.”

They cast their nets all night and caught nothing. Slowly, they rowed back in the dawn mist…

A voice called from the shore, “Fellows, have you caught anything?”

Peter shouted back, “No.”

“Shoot the net to starboard and you will make a catch.”…

…They cast the net. In a second their tiredness turned into excited action. The boat jerked to starboard, the water had sudden turbulence. Peter took immediate control. He shouted orders. “Pull – watch it – carefully now – don’t tear the net…John, what are you doing?”

John had no thought for fish. He was staring through the mist. “The man on the shore He….”

“Never mind him, help with the catch!” But John was still looking shoreward. “Peter,” he breathed, “it’s the Lord!”

“Remember how he told us to cast the net on the other side of the boat?” Peter wasn’t listening. The moment he realised who it was, he grabbed his tunic, hauled it on, dived overboard and swam to the shore.

Andrew’s face was a study. “Oh-um-then what do we do with all these fish?”

“He helped us to catch them,” said John decisively. “We bring them in.” He grasped the net calling, “Keep rowing!”

The boat was soon in the shallows. The six disciples landed and started dragging the net up the beach.  They were at once aware of the smell of fish cooking and the warmth of a fire in the chill dawn. As John dragged in the net his mind was a whirl. What could he say to Jesus?  “I’m sorry, Lord. We waited and waited on the hillside. We had to do something so we went back to the nets.” But his dilemma disappeared when Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you caught.”…

“Come and have breakfast,” said Jesus, and began serving them.

Apart from murmurs of thanks no one spoke during the meal. John looked at Jesus but looked away again. He was unwilling to meet his Lord’s eyes. He asked himself, …”What has He said to Peter? What are his plans for the future?” Peter sat there moodily looking at the fish. Then Jesus spoke using Peter’s old name. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” came the husky reply. “You know I’m your friend.”

Jesus looked directly at him. “Take care of my lambs.”

Then realisation gripped him. “He still wants me,” Peter thought, “that’s the end of the fishing business.”

There was a long silence. The disciples barely stirred.  Jesus spoke again.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” 

Peter still sat there, his hands cupping his chin. Again he said, “Yes, Lord. You know I’m your friend.”

Jesus looked at him. Peter’s eyes met his. There was love and confidence in the order. “Then tend my sheep.”

The wind stirred the water. Small waves splashed on the sand. Peter was barely aware of the familiar smells of fish and nets.

Insistently Jesus’ voice came again. “Simon, son of John, are you my friend?”

Peter flinched. There were tears in his eyes. The words wounded him deeply. He blurted out, “Lord, you know everything. You know everything. You know I’m your friend”. His wet clothing stuck to his body. He shivered.

Again came the order, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus paused and then went on, “Peter, I’m telling you the truth. When you were young you used to get ready and go where you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will take you where you don’t want to go.”

Peter’s gaze was focused on the Lord’s wounded feet. Slowly the words he had heard took shape in his mind. He looked at his own feet and realised that one day, when Jesus’ words came true, he too would have similar wounds…Jesus looked into his troubled face and said, “Follow me.” Then he stood up and walked away. At once Peter followed him…..

 

…..The guards grasped Peter and John and pushed them down the steps from the judgement hall. “Clear out,” said the captain. “And mind you do what you’re told.”…Hurrying towards them came Matthew. “Thank God you’re free. I have splendid news. Yesterday that big crowd heard you tell that Jesus is alive, Peter. …They believed, hundreds of them.”

“So things have been happening while we were in prison and in court,” said John.

“We’ve been busy telling people about Him and what He said. Scores of us were at it till late last night, and we started again early this morning.”

“Hundreds you say?” questioned Peter.

Matthew nodded. “You know how I like figures. Since he gave us his Holy Spirit and told us to go tell the good news, five thousand have believed.”

Peter whistled softly. “Fishers of men, that’s what he promised. Shoals of them!”

 

Follow Me!

Alan T Dale has pointed out that no story can simply be a record resulting from a historical enquiry. Whilst it must be subject to the proper analysis of the sources, texts and contexts it is set in, we are not merely asking historical questions. The whole story faces us with three questions which stem from Jesus’ thrice-asked question to Peter about brotherly love:

  • Isn’t love the real human adventure? The Story of Jesus puts a question mark against all our chosen ideals and ambitions…challenges us to look for the real source of fulfilment…
  • Isn’t love the clue? Jesus was never dogmatic, but crafted his convictions the hard way, struggling, as mankind always has, with the business of making sense of the tangled human experience…all he said and did was a product of this process…
  • Isn’t love the end? Men and women have always dreamed dreams and seen visions of a future common society in a common world. In Economics, in Science, and in Education, we seek the clue to this world. The Story of Jesus and his Disciples forces us to ask what kind of world we really want and how we expect to make it. He continues to make us scrutinise our common assumptions and encourages us to make a bolder enquiry. Isn’t love the clue to history, its meaning and its end?

Jesus’ ‘craft’ is summed up by those final words to Peter, ‘Follow Me!’ – the answers are to be found not only by thinking critically but by living boldly, experimentally and adventurously.  What if Peter, instead of breaking the driftwood and casting it away, had cut away the rotten wood and shaped the remaining soft wood into something useful or ornamental? The fishermen moved their nets to starboard even before they knew who was directing them, and that it would be as successful a catch as it had been before. ‘Tough Love’ isn’t a blueprint, it’s a ‘Rough Guide’! It’s true meaning can only be found experimentally. God’s world is a world in the making – to be explored, lived in, shared and enjoyed together. How this can be done can only be found in the doing, in following Jesus. Love is the greatest human experience, and friendship is the way we improve it. It is the attitude and emotion which forms the precondition to finding real answers to human questions. Jesus was the pioneer, and we often fall a long way behind, but He never lets us fall so far behind that we cannot see or hear him. We are his friends because we do what he commands; we love him and one another. We follow him to the ends of the earth, and from this world to the next where Love, his Love, is perfect. Easter is not just for one Sunday, or a week or two after, it’s for ever!

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John’s ‘Epilogue’ is not the only Galilean appearance of the risen Jesus recorded in the gospels. In Matthew’s gospel, the eleven disciples meet him on a hill. Matthew tells us that even now, some of them doubted what they were seeing, but Jesus drew near and told them to go out and make disciples of  ‘all peoples, everywhere’. He left them in no doubt that they were no longer fishing in a small inland sea in northern Palestine, but in the wide open seas beyond, and for a catch which none of them could number.

Prayers:

Simon

What have we done to deserve your appearing? Like Simon, we have denied you in the inmost secrets of our hearts. We have denied you with our lips, and yet you have marked our tears and read our thoughts. We thank you for that love which always comes to us. Help us never to forget your mercy and keep us, like Simon, faithful to the end. Amen.

(Ian D Bunting)

Make a Catch

Sometimes, Lord, you seem to us as a stranger on the shore. Then you remind us of our calling. You challenge us with hard commandments. You draw out our trust. And then, when we obey you, you reveal yourself – not as a stranger but as a friend! Help us to discover you again today, as we do what you tell us. For your name’s sake. Amen

(Ian D Bunting)

Alan T Dale, Portrait of Jesus. Oxford University Press, 1979.

Paul White & Clifford Warne, The Drama of Jesus. Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.

David Kossoff, The Book of Witnesses. Glasgow: Collins, 1971.

The New Job: To the Ends of the Earth   1 comment

Thanksgiving for Resurrection Power:

Risen Lord, we thank you for the varied and vivid accounts given to us by those who actually talked with you and ate with you and touched you. We thank you for this visible, physical evidence of your power over death. And we thank you, too, for the invisible spiritual evidence which each of us can experience in our heart, which declares to us that Jesus Christ is still alive. May we, like the first disciples, be brave enough to tell what we have seen and heard so that everyone may enjoy the friendship which we have with you and which is our great blessing; for your dear name’s sake. Amen

(Patricia Mitchell) 

Do not hold on to me … But go to my brothers and tell them…’

These are the simple first words with which the risen Jesus sends Mary Magdalene away from the garden at sunrise on the third day. So, Mary became the first apostle. Simon Peter and John were the first to enter the tomb, finding it empty, but they returned home feeling confused, because they still didn’t understand the scriptural prophecy about Jesus rising from the dead. Mary, according to the Hebrew custom, is left there to mourn, crying out. These were not low sobs, but full renditions of grief such as we see at Palestinian funerals of martyrs today. As now, this was the traditional role that women took up, together with many others. Her tears were also shed because of the disappearance of the body, of course. Whereas Peter and John run back to the other men, her instincts are to stay and to enter the tomb herself, still crying, until she recognises and holds on to the Lord. This is a very real, physical encounter, not a hallucinatory experience, as the male disciples may have condescendingly thought at first. Mary also knows this is no ghost, and Jesus’ words confirm this. Later that evening, he also appears to the eleven, showing them the physical signs of his crucifixion, so that they would believe that he was flesh and blood. Remember, Cleopas and his friend, after Peter the next to see him, had not recognised him until he broke bread at Emmaus earlier that evening. He consecrates the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit so that they may continue his mission, and begin theirs, making them apostles. (John 20 vv 1-18)

Mary Magdalene and the other women surrounding Jesus pass out of Biblical history and into Church history from the exodus of 36 A.D. It is an indication of how much these ‘Holy Women’ were valued among early Christians, and even by some in the later Roman Church, that they preserved and published manuscripts referring to the women’s subsequent missions to the gentiles. Though it must have been difficult for the Papacy to admit the pre-existence of older forms of Christianity in western Europe, Baronius, the Vatican historian, records in his Ecclesiastical Annals that, in that year, a group of Christian men and women was ‘exposed to the sea in a vessel without sails or oars’. He quotes the Acts of Magdalen and ‘other manuscripts’ to suggest that, along with Mary Magdalene, Martha, Salome, the hand-maiden Marcella, Lazarus, Philip, James, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary (the wife of Cleopas, the disciple who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus), and Jesus’ mother, Mary (to whom John the Divine had appointed Joseph as ‘paranymphos’, or companion), were among the occupants of the boat. The manuscripts all refer to Joseph being accompanied by twelve companions. They drifted as far as the coast of Gaul, the modern-day south of France, from where, the legend has it, ‘Joseph and his company’ went on to Britain, where he had substantial tin and lead mining interests in the west of the country, and that they preached the gospel there, remaining there until they died. This is confirmed by Greek and Roman sources, including the Jewish Encyclopaedia. We may choose to treat these stories as legends or ‘tradition’, but they do have meaning. They remind us of the centrality to the Christian faith of those who were present at the drama of the cross, and who were the last witnesses to the crucified Christ and the first to give testimony of the risen Christ, including the suffering mother whom John led away from the final agony, the women who discovered the empty tomb and the woman who first witnessed the risen body of the saviour. To any Roman the word ‘cross’ or ‘crucifix’ would have sounded a savage word, like ‘gallows’ or ‘guillotine’ to the English or French. Perhaps that’s why the early Roman Church didn’t use it, but preferred to mark the fish symbol as they worshipped secretly in the catacombs. It remained the way the Romans executed foreign criminals or rebels or slaves, but for these women, as well as for all the apostles, it became the symbol of God’s ‘amazing love’. Paul later wrote that he could ‘boast’ about it.  How much more could those who had overcome witnessing its destructive power do so?  The Celtic Church wisely turned it into a much more ‘feminine’ symbol of the intertwining of God’s grace with the nurturing of the natural world to make it a thing of great beauty set against the landscapes and seascapes of the western highlands and islands.

The expulsion of Joseph and his companions in an oarless boat without sails would be in keeping with the Sanhedrin’s methods. They dared not openly destroy him and, instead, conceived a treachery that they hoped would confine him to a watery grave. Their survival was not unique in Mediterranean waters if we consider Paul’s litany of trials and tribulation. We don’t know if Saul had anything to do with the castaway Christians, but we do know that it was soon after this that he had his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, and became Paul. This news stunned the Sanhedrin, infuriating them beyond measure. They ordered an all-out drive to seize him and kill him on sight. In a complete reversal of circumstances, the hunter became the hunted. Paul went into hiding himself, appealing for aid from Christ’s disciples. Not unnaturally, they feared this might be a ploy by a man they knew to be clever, cruel and unscrupulous to uncover their secret network of survivors of his own terror, but they finally complied, lowering him over the wall of the city with a rope (Acts 9: 25). We know well what happened to him after this escape with the disciples, as St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. However, the story of his visit to Athens is worth the re-telling, because it highlights the clash of cultures in the ancient world which the missionaries had to contend with, not only in converting Gentiles but also within the Church itself:

Paul came to Athens by boat, and he was waiting there for Silas and Timothy. He wandered through the streets; everywhere there were temples and images to Greek gods. This made Paul very unhappy. He had to talk to somebody about it. He went to the Jewish Meeting House and argued there; he went to the market place and argued with anybody who happened to be there. There were many lecturers in the city, for its university was very famous; some of them met Paul, and he argued with them. “What’s this chatterer talking about?” sneared some. “It’s sme foreign fellow talking about his gods, it seems,” said others. The City Council was called ‘Mars Hill’, after the name of the hill where it used to meet in earlier times….The Lecturers got hold of Paul and took him before the Council. “Tell us, if you please, something more about this ‘news’ of yours,” they said. “What you’ve been talking about seems very strange to us. We’d like to know what it’s all about.”

‘Paul stood before the Council. “Citizens of Athens,” he said, “by just wandering around your streets, I can see that religion matters to you very much. I had a good look at your temples and the images of your gods. And I noticed one altar that had these words on it “To the Unknown God”. You do not know him; I will tell you about him.

‘The God who made the world and all that’s  in it by that very fact id the Master of the whole world. His home can’t be a temple in the street that you can build with your own hands….We may belong to different nations now, but at the beginning God made us all one people and gave us the whole world for our home. All things are in his hands – the rise and fall of nations and the boundaries of their territories….Yet he is very near to every us. Your own poets have said this very thing – ‘In God we live and move and exist’ and ‘We, too, belong to his family.’

“If, therefore, we belong to God, we can’t possibly think that gold and silver and stone are good enough to show us what he is like. No artist can paint God’s picture, however clever or thoughtful he may be. What, then, has God done? He takes no notice of the past, when we didn’t know what he is like…We can no longer say we do not know; Jesus has made him plain…The proof of this he has given to all men – he has raised him from the dead.”

‘Some of them laughed out loud at Paul when they heard him talk like this – about him “raising Jesus from the dead.” But there were others. “We’ll hear you again about this,”  they said.’

(Acts 17 vv 16-34)

It was out in the world beyond Palestine, in Anatolia, Athens and further west, that what Jesus meant – why he lived as he did, how he died, and how he was ‘raised to life’ – became clearer. It meant nothing less than the vision of a new world, God’s world, and a call to be God’s ‘fellow-workers’ in its making. Nothing could have made this vision sharper than the sight of men and women, of different races and classes and nations, becoming Christians. Here Paul is writing to those who had become Christians in the highlands of Anatolia:

‘Living in God’s Way means that you can’t talk about one another as being ‘white’ or ‘coloured’, ‘working-class’ or ‘upper-class’, ‘men’ or ‘women’ – as though that was the only thing about them that matters. The most important thing is that as Christians you are one company of friends.  And if you are friends of Jesus, you are members of God’s Family as God meant you to be and promised to make you’.  (Galatians 4: 4-7)

For Paul it was the way Jesus died that made real what God’s love was like – a love which was ‘broad and long and high and deep’; and it was the way God had raised him from the dead that showed us how great the power of God’s love is. Death, he once quoted ‘has been totally defeated’. The whole world – this world and whatever may lie beyond it – is God our Father’s world.

To many people today the word ‘resurrection’ is meaningless. They find the idea of resurrection not only difficult but incredible. We need to remember that it was never easy or credible – that’s why Jesus’ friends, with the possible exception of Mary Magdalene, were taken so much by surprise. For Jewish people the whole story of an executed criminal being raised to life was a ‘stumbling block’, an obstacle that prevented them from taking the story of Jesus seriously. For the citizens of Athens and educated people, the world over it was equally ‘laughable’. Those who had become Christians also continued to struggle with what it meant. This is how Paul tried to explain it:

‘The heart of the Good News is that Jesus is not dead but alive. How, then, can some people say, “There’s no such thing as being raised from death?” If that is so, Jesus never conquered death; and if Jesus never conquered death, there is no Good News to tell, and we’ve been living in a fool’s paradise. We’ve even been telling lies about God when we said he raised Jesus from death; for he didn’t – if “there’s no such thing as being raised from death.” …Jesus is just – dead.  If Jesus is just dead and has not been raised to life again, all we’ve lived for as friends of Jesus is just an empty dream, and we’re just where we were, helpless to do anything about the evil in our hearts and in our world….If all we’ve got is a ‘story’ about Jesus inspiring us to live this life better, we of all men are most to be pitied.

‘Of course, the  whole idea of people being raised from death raises many questions. For example, “How are dead people raised to life?”,  “What sort of body do they have then?” But questions like these sound silly when we remember what kind of world God’s world is and what God himself is like. Take the seed a farmer sows – it must die before it can grow. The seed he sows is only bare grain; it is nothing like the plant he’ll see at the harvest-time. This is the way God has created the world of nature; every kind of seed grows up into its own kind of plant – its new body. This is true of the world of animals, too, where there is a great variety of life, men, animals, birds, fish – all different from one another.

This shows us how to think about the matter of being raised from death. There’s the life men live on earth – that has its own splendour; and there’s the life men live when they are ‘raised from death’ and live ‘in heaven’ – and this world beyond our earthly one has its own different splendour. The splendour of the sun and of the moon and of the stars all differ from one another. So it is when men are raised from death. Here the body is a ‘physical’ body; there it is raised a ‘spiritual’ body. Here everything grows old and decays; there it is raised in a form which neither grows old nor decays.  Here the human body can suffer shame and shock; there it is raised in splendour. Here it is weak; there it is full of vigour…

For the fact is that Jesus was raised to life. God be thanked – we can now live victoriously because of what he has done.’  (1 Corinthians 15: 12-56)

So if we accept the ‘wondrous story’ of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, we suddenly become aware, like Mary, of who we are and what our job is. We take our place in the world’s work with everybody else – as engineers, teachers, shopkeepers, secretaries, farmers, nurses, doctors, managers, representatives. But that’s what we do, not who we are. We are members of God’s Family and God’s co-workers in transforming the world around us. And it is not just what happens in this world that matters. Death has been totally defeated so that this world is just an exciting beginning.

Prayer: Faith;

Almighty God, our Father, we have seen you in the evidence of changed lives and in the growth of the Church from the small group of twenty men and women in Jerusalem to a worldwide fellowship which has spread through time and space: but sometimes we still doubt.

We have seen present-day missionaries leave all to follow you: but sometimes we still doubt.

We have seen famous sceptics changed into compassionate, caring Christians: but sometimes we still doubt.

We have seen the burning joy of men and women who have who have undergone great torture and persecution for their faith: but sometimes we still doubt.

Father, each time we doubt use this experience to build up our faith. You do not offer us a blind faith but one we can prove through the help of your Holy Spirit. May we persevere in looking for answers in the right places and from the right people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Patricia Mitchell)

Refreshment Sunday: The Feeding of the Five Thousand   1 comment

 Jesus Feeds Five Thousand Men

(Mt 14, 13-21; Mk 6, 32-44; Lk 9, 10-17; Jn 6, 1-14):

When Jesus heard the news about John, he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself. The people heard about it, and so they left their towns and followed him by land. Jesus got out of the boat, and when he saw the large crowd, his heart filled with pity for them, and he healed their sick.

That evening his disciples came to him and said, “It is already very late, and this is a lonely place. Send the people away and let them go to the village to buy food for themselves.” They don’t have to leave,” answered Jesus. “You yourselves give them something to eat!” “All we have here are five loaves and two fish,” they replied. 

English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves o...
English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Then bring them here to me,” Jesus said. He ordered the people to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God. He broke the loaves and gave them to the people. Everyone ate and had enough. Then the disciples took up twelve baskets full of what was left over. The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children. (Good News for Modern Man)

The Gospel appointed for Refreshment Sunday, marking the half-way point in the forty days of Lent, the break in fasting, is this well-known story of Jesus’ miracle. In Matthew’s gospel it comes as a direct response by Jesus to the death of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod, the ruler of Galilee. Rather than immediately mustering John’s disciples with his own, and leading them in vengeance against the despot, Jesus again finds a quiet place to mourn his cousin’s death alone. However, returning to the Lake for a fishing trip, he finds himself intercepted by a huge crowd of angry men, who have by now heard the news and have followed Jesus by land, hoping that he will now lead them in a holy crusade against Herod. Jesus knows, with the festival of Passover drawing near, he must deal with the unrest caused by John’s death before moving on to Jerusalem, where the Judean authorities were already preparing for a further confrontation with him, even plotting to have him killed too.

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shephe...

This ‘incident in the hills’, as Alan T Dale has described it in his Portrait of Jesus, is reported by all four gospel-writers, and there is a remarkable similarity in their accounts of it, not just between the synoptic gospels, but also with John, who often has a very different spiritual ‘take’ on the material events of Jesus’ life. In this dramatic event we are shown Jesus at his most ‘materialistic’, and Christianity is ‘born’ as the most materialistic of world religions. Jesus, when tempted in the wilderness to turn the stones into bread had quoted the scripture, ‘man shall not live by bread alone’, but here he makes a symbolic statement by his acted parable that ‘neither can man live without it’. It obviously made a profound impact on all of his disciples, and John takes care to count the men, loaves, fishes and even the leftovers. Dale captures the scene vividly in his reworking of the gospel-writers common narrative:

The grass was green. It was a familiar spring day, dry and hot with an east wind blowing and a yellowish haze hiding the hills and washing the colour from sea and field. From early light the streets of the small lakeside fishing port – Capernaum – were crowded with men and loud gossip and argument. The soldiers at the small Roman outpost in the town were wondering what was afoot.

Somebody suddenly noticed a small boat putting out.

‘There he is!’ he called out. ‘There he is!’

The boat was making very heavy weather – an on-shore wind was blowing. The crowd – several thousand men – walking, pushing, running, made their way along the shore. The men in the boat saw what was happening; there would be no escape. They put the boat back to land.

Jesus climbed out. He knew the crowd: farmers from the hill villages, fishermen from the lakeside towns. He had grown up with some of them. They were men of the Resistance Movement – ‘zealots’, nationalists – farmers or fishermen by day, ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came.

As he looked at them, he felt sorry for them, and some words from an old story came into his mind: ‘like sheep without a shepherd to look after them’….That’s what they looked like – a leaderless mob, an army without a general. 

He went with them into the hills, to a lonely spot out of sight and reach of the Roman garrison. The talk went on and on. They wanted him to become their leader – their ‘king’. Jesus would have no part in their plans. 

It was now late in the afternoon. He got everybody to share a common meal together, a meal in which they promised again to live as God‘s People. The men – under command – sat down in companies of fifty and a hundred each, rank by rank.

Jesus had to deal with both his friends and the men. He got his friends to go back to the boat and to sail across the Lake. He had to force them to go – they wanted to stay. He himself, under the darkening sky, climbed the hillside. He wanted to think things out in God’s presence – alone.

Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of ...
Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves und the Fishes at Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret), Israel. According to the pious legend, in this place Jesus fed 5000 pilgrims with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14,13). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to John, Jesus knew that the men were about to seize him and make him king by force. So, according to Matthew, he agrees to another common meal with them again three days later, and sets off alone into the hills. These incidents, first his meal with five thousand in the hills, followed by the feeding of the four thousand a few days later on the sand-dunes down by the Lake, represent the turning-point in Jesus’ public career, after which he ‘sets his face’ to go to Jerusalem, knowing that it will lead to confrontation with the elders, chief priests and scribes, and to his suffering and death.

There must have been something strong and commanding, rather than ‘meek and mild’ which made the freedom-fighters think of him as a military leader and ‘king’. Their mass meetings with him in the hills, puszta and ‘deserts’ around Galilee brought matters to a head.

We can see how they came to think of him as a guerilla leader. He had great authority as well as charisma. He was indeed acting as if he had been called to lead the Jewish people to liberation, even if he didn’t openly declare this and also charged his disciples not to speak of it. His theme was ‘God’s Rule’ (‘the Kingdom of God‘), the same slogan as the freedom-fighters. However, what had become dramatically clear to him that day in the hills, and after the second meeting to his inner circle of disciples, articulated by Simon the fisherman, his ‘Rock’, was that Jesus and the freedom-fighters were polls apart. He had no use for a ‘Holy War’, even a ‘just’ one, and all the violence that would ensue, as indeed it did a few years later when war broke out between the Jewish people and the Roman legions.

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Neither did Jesus think of the ‘foreigners’ as they did. He didn’t hate them or stereotype them. When what Jesus really stood for dawned on them, they had no further use for him. Indeed, many of those who had called themselves his friends abandoned him. Jesus seems to have spent much of the last months of his life alone, or with his small band of close disciples. And in the last week, very few stood by him. Even the gospel-writer, John, when the soldiers came to arrest his master in the orchard, ran away.

Atrocities and Announcements   1 comment

Luke IV, xvi-xxi:

‘And Jesus came home to Nazareth and on a holiday went as usual into the Assembly and began to read. They gave him the book of the prophet Isaiah; and unrolling it he read. In the book was written: The spirit of the Lord is in me. He has chosen me to announce happiness to the unfortunate and the broken-hearted, to announce freedom to those who are bound, light to the blind, and salvation and rest to the tormented, to announce to all men the day of God’s mercy. He folded the book, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. And all waited to hear what he would say. And he said to them: That writing has now been fulfilled before your eyes.’ (Tolstoy’s ‘Gospel in Brief’)

Auschwitz concentration camp, arrival of Hunga...

Auschwitz concentration camp, arrival of Hungarian Jews, Summer 1944 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sunday 27th January this year is the day on which the victims of the Holocaust are commemorated, together with those who have been more recent victims of genocidal atrocities in Europe, Africa and throughout the world.

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea...

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea Province that I created using Illustrator CS2. I traced this image for the general geographic features. I then manually input data from maps found in a couple of sources. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco: 1998. p. xxiv. Michael Grant. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1977. p. 65-67. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Doubleday: 1991. p. 1:434. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jesus ‘announced’ the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue, he was in the middle of recruiting his disciples in Galilee. He had just returned from staying with John the Baptist, together with Philip and Andrew, the fishermen from Bethsaida. Andrew introduced his brother Simon to Jesus, who renamed him Peter, perhaps because he already had a close friend called Simon in his company. Philip’s brother Nathaniel, also from Bethsaida, was surprised that he of whom the prophets wrote should come from a neighbouring village, joking that it was unlikely that God’s messenger could come out of such a place as Nazareth. Obviously, local rivalry was strong between the relatively prosperous lakeside fishing ports and the poorer hillside villages. However, Nathaniel joined the small band of brothers already following the man from Nazareth. This may already have included the other Simon, a member of the Jewish Resistance hiding out in the hills, Simon the Zealot. He may well have been from Jaffa, the mother town of the Nazareth hamlet, two miles away. It was well-known as a Zealot town, the centre for several thousand men who were farmers or fishermen by day and ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came. Later, Jesus met five thousand of them by the lakeside, looking like a leaderless rabble, a flock of sheep without a shepherd. He went back with them to the hills, out of sight of the Roman garrison at Capernaum, talking and breaking bread with them in companies of fifty, rank by rank, until late into the evening. Simon was probably one of those who wanted Jesus to stay in the hills and become their chief, but Jesus went off alone to think carefully about the different path he had envisaged for himself and his followers. They wanted revenge for the atrocities committed by the Romans, which were all, still within living memory, including that of 63 B.C. when some of the Judeans had barricaded themselves in the temple-fortress of Jerusalem.

Pompey, the Roman general, built a huge ramp on the north side and brought up his battering rams. However, the strong temple walls stood up for three months until one of the towers gave way and the legionaries poured through the breach. In the massacre that followed, twelve thousand people died. Pompey himself broke into the ‘Holiest Room’ of the Temple, where only the Chief Priest was allowed to go. This was an act of sacrilege which the Jews could not forgive. A century later, thirty years after Jesus’ life, the Zealots did gain their revenge when they ‘liberated’ Jerusalem in the war with Rome, destroying all the legal documents which recorded Jewish ‘debts’ to Rome, breaking up the landed estates and setting the slaves free. But Jesus had argued with them that violence was not God’s way, especially the ‘terrorism’ of the Zealots. When he rejected their offer to turn them into a more regular, disciplined ‘guerilla’ army, many of them abandoned him. Simon was one of the few who did not. Even the people of his own village turned against him, whereas he had always been well-liked as a young man. ‘No Man of God is liked by his own kin-folk’ he told them. They were even prepared to throw him off a nearby cliff, and, escaping from their grasp, he was unable ever to return, travelling incognito in the vicinity. It didn’t help that he continued to fraternize with some of the Roman soldiers in Capernaum.

Jesus’ words show us how appalled he was at the suffering and evil that violence, even in a good cause, brought. He quoted some of the prophets’ poems, and his own poems echoed their spirit:

‘…you did not see that God has come to you in love, not war’

‘There will be great distress among men,

and a terrible time for this people.

They will fall at the point of a sword

and be scattered as captives throughout the world.

Foreign soldiers will tramp the city’s streets

until the world is really God’s world’.

Already by the first century, there were more Jews living outside of Palestine than within it. It’s been estimated that there were two million living in Judea and four million elsewhere, so the ‘diaspora’ or dispersal had taken place gradually, before the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D. following the Zealot Uprising. There had been forced deportations to Babylon, where a million Jews still lived, but most of the others were ‘economic’ exiles who traded around the Mediterranean from North Africa to Egypt to Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. They had to preserve their identity in a dominant culture which was predominantly Greek. They were therefore often organised into communities within city states, with a degree of self-government. In this context, the Medieval idea that the Jews as a ‘Nation’ were responsible for the death of Christ, which perhaps developed because Hellenistic Judaism later gave way to Christianity, would have been anathema to first century Palestinians. Even if we take Jesus’ parables, lamentations and prophecies as referring to Judea, they clearly refer to the religious leaders, the lawyer class and the ruling Pharisees in the Sanhedrin, not to the ‘Nation’ as a whole.

nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal during meeting (e...

nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal during meeting (event) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This tendency to make an entire ‘nation’ or people responsible for historical events is what leads to a cycle of vengeance and violence which Jesus came to break. It ends in mass genocide, from the pogroms of the middle ages to Rwanda and Bosnia. But it also repeats itself in making Turkey responsible for actions taken by Ottoman Turks in the First World War, or the German People as a whole responsible for the Holocaust. For some years after the Second World War, American GI’s were given guides to de-Nazification which did just this and urged them see themselves as agents sent to purge the Germans of a deep psychosis of racism and militarism which, of course, had in fact been prevalent in other early twentieth century ‘civilisations’, not least among the British, who ‘invented’ the Science of Eugenics and thus the theories of racial superiority, as well and ‘the instrument of the Concentration Camp’ in which Boer women and children died of disease. As Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, pointed out, the idea of collective guilt is not helpful in achieving justice and reconciliation. Individuals and organisations are responsible for atrocities, not whole peoples and nations. When we accept our individual responsibility for our own actions, we break the cycle of violence and add another link to the peace chain.

A Winter Hymn   Leave a comment

Samuel Longfellow

Samuel Longfellow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With Burns Night coming up next week, I went to ‘kirk’ this morning. Well, the Hungarian equivalent, anyway. The Reformed, or ‘Calvinist’ Church in Kecskemét, whose school is attended by my nine-year-old son. The interior is rather austere compared with the sense of warmth I get when walking into the Baptist Church that we usually attend. This morning the whitewashed walls inside the Church matched the pavements and town square outside, whitewashed with snow. In both churches, I try to interpret the services for myself, without continuous translation. Afterwards, I discuss it with my Hungarian wife, who helps me to summarise the message. As she did not have a Christian upbringing, she often still finds the religious language quite alien, especially when it’s formal and ritualistic. That’s why we prefer the Baptist service, although much longer, because the language is often more spontaneous and sometimes so inspired that it communicates directly, rather as I imagine the first disciples managed to make themselves understood on the first Pentecost to a multilingual audience when, as Palestinian fishermen and craftsman, most spoke only Aramaic fluently, with some able to use Greek. Of course, this ‘total immersion’ approach only really works when I also feel inspired by the message being conveyed, and at other times I prefer to read in English and reflect on the passages from scripture from which the message is meant to spring. This morning, my thoughts turned from the wintry weather outside to the book of Genesis, from which the text was taken (I’m using ‘text’ in this case in its original sense!).  Unfortunately, however, I don’t have a bilingual Old Testament, just Good News for Modern Man‘ in parallel text, English and Hungarian. So I picked up my son’s ‘Storyteller Bible’ which had been given to him as a dedication present by his uncle and Godparent. The passage being read was about the fourth day of the creation, beautifully and poetically paraphrased in the book, with colourful illustrations:

God shouted next.

‘Day-shining sun!’

‘Night-shining moon!’

‘Bright shining stars!’

And there they were, for morning and evening,

summer and winter-time and heat and light!

Then, not really understanding much of the sermon which followed, I turned to my Church of Scotland‘Psalm Book and Hymnary’ (A ‘Revised Edition’ published in Oxford in the 1930’s) which helps me find English language versions of the Psalms being sung, rewritten in metre and paraphrase, as well as containing the creeds and litanies sometimes recited by the congregation. Thinking about creation, I strayed into the hymn-book section, and found a series of hymns in a sub-section for ‘Times and Seasons‘, two of which were about Winter. The first emphasised the freezing, dark, drear and ‘drych’ (to use a British-Scottish word) character of the season. But then I found the following beautiful words penned by Samuel Longfellow (1819-92) which, for me, summed up the nature of most winter days here in central Europe – bright, clear, ‘crisp and even’, (as another poet, a contemporary, once wrote):

‘Tis winter now; the fallen snow

Has left the heavens all coldly clear;

Through leafless boughs the sharp winds blow,

 And all the earth lies dead and drear.

And yet God’s love is not withdrawn;

His life within the keen air breathes;

His beauty paints the crimson dawn,

And clothes the boughs with glittering wreaths.

And though abroad the sharp winds blow,

And skies are chill, and frosts are keen,

Home closer draws her circle now,

And warmer glows her light within.

O God! who giv’st the winter’s cold,

As well as summer’s joyous rays,

Us warmly in thy love enfold,

And keep us through life’s wintry days.

Amen to that!

Listening to the end of the sermon, I felt the preacher’s message somehow matched these reflections. Outside, the snow’s melting here now. Must check the news from Britain soon, to see what it’s doing there, and how people are coping with the icy blast in ‘Foggy Albion’!

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