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Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Three   Leave a comment

Part Three: The Third Missionary Journey, Jerusalem & Rome.

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Chronology:

The chronology of Paul’s career cannot be fixed precisely, but fortunately, we have one precise date to start from. The proconsul before whom Paul was cited at Corinth on his first visit there was Junius Annaeus Gallio, who was known to have held the appointment from July AD 51 to June AD 52. Based on the reports of this visit in Acts, Paul was in Corinth from early in 50 to late 51. From this fixed point, we can then calculate backwards and forwards, using the indications of time supplied in Paul’s own letters or in Acts. If Paul reached Corinth early in 50, then his ‘Second Missionary Journey’ must have begun in 49, and the visit to Jerusalem which preceded it, when he came to an agreement with the leaders of the church there, would presumably have taken place in AD 48. Paul dates his earlier visit to Jerusalem fourteen years before, pointing to AD 35, three years after his conversion, which has therefore been tentatively dated to AD 33. When exactly Paul arrived at Ephesus is a matter of conjecture, but we know that he established himself there for a full three years. His stay there seems to fall between 54 and 57 AD, rather than any earlier, and it was between these years that he undertook his ‘Third Missionary Journey’.

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Ephesus & Corinth:

The ‘Third Missionary Journey’, through the interior of Asia Minor, is given the most cursory treatment in Luke’s diary which constitutes much of the Acts of the Apostles. He seems to be in a hurry, as Paul himself probably was, to reach Ephesus (Acts 18: 23; 19: 1). It is evident that he had formed definitive ideas about the most effective way of conducting his mission. He decided not to cover ground by moving rapidly from place to place, but to settle, as he had done at Corinth, in a suitable centre from which he could reach a whole province. Ephesus was to prove to be such a centre as one of the principal cities of the province of Asia, with excellent communications by land and sea. Settled by Greeks in antiquity, but always with something oriental about it, it had been a meeting place of East and West long before the conquests of Alexander had inaugurated the Hellenistic age. Its world-famous temple was dedicated to the native Anatolian fertility-goddess, Artemis, or Diana to the Romans (Acts 19: 27; 34 f.), though she had little in common with the virgin huntress of the classical pantheon. From ancient times a seat of Greek philosophical thought, Ephesus was also hospitable to all manners of superstitions, and in Paul’s time it was notorious as a centre of the ‘black arts’ of magic (Acts 19: 18 f.). This was the place which for the next three years or so was to be Paul’s headquarters (Acts 20: 31). There are evident signs that this was a planned strategy on his part. Ephesus was another meeting point of trade routes and cultures, and therefore an excellent place from which to disseminate the gospel.

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Paul arrived in Ephesus and began as always in the synagogue, this time for three months. Opposition grew, however, as the disturbing implications of Paul’s way of reading the familiar stories dawned upon the puzzled hearers. Resistance hardened, and this may have been one of the occasions when submitting to synagogue discipline, Paul received the official Jewish beating of forty lashes. He tells us that he had received this five times, which in itself indicates his steady commitment to working with the synagogue congregations as long as he could since he could easily have avoided the punishment by simply not turning up. Some of the Jewish community in Ephesus had begun to spread rumours about what this “Messiah cult” was doing. From later writings, we can guess at the sneering comments about what these ‘Jesus-worshippers’ were up to behind closed doors, with men and women meeting together and talking about a new kind of “love,” not to mention the disturbing gossip about eating someone’s body and drinking their blood. So Paul realised, as he had done in Corinth, that he could no longer treat the synagogue as his base. It was time to move elsewhere. He formally ‘withdrew his converts’ and established himself on neutral territory in a lecture hall in the city, which he rented. For the next two years, he divided his time between his tent-making business and the public exposition of the faith. He held daily conferences at the hall, open to all comers, which attracted numbers of residents to the city (Acts 19: 8-10). People came from far and wide, spent time in the city, and then went on their way. They chatted about anything strange or new that they had come across in their travels. The group of early Christians who met in the lecture hall was one of these.

By this time, Paul had built up an efficient ‘staff’, whose names keep recurring in his letters – Timothy (Rom. 16: 21; 1 Cor. 4: 17; 16: 10; Phil. 2: 19-23 etc.), Luke, Tychicus (Eph. 6: 21; Col. 4: 7; II Tim. 4: 12; Titus 3: 12) and several others, though Silas had, by this time, faded out of the narrative. They were available either to work by his side at the headquarters or to be sent where they could be useful in keeping in touch with churches already founded, or in breaking new ground. It was in this way that Paul’s mission in the province spread. We happen to learn from his letters the names of the three up-country towns where churches were founded without any visit from the apostle himself – Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 1: 7; 2: 1; 4: 13-16) – and there were certainly others. The author of Acts says, perhaps with some exaggeration, that…

…the whole population of the province of Asia, both Jews and pagans, heard the word of the Lord.

(Acts 19: 10)

Meanwhile, however, trouble was brewing. There was furious opposition from the Jews (Acts 20:19), and some from pagan quarters (Acts 19: 23-27), though we hear also of some of the dignitaries of the province who were friendly towards him (Acts 19: 31). We have some record both in Acts and in the letters (I Cor. 15: 32; II Cor 1: 8). From the letters to the Corinthians we also learn something that the author of Acts does not tell us, that Paul was, at this time, driven almost to distraction by disorder in the church in Corinth. In a climactic passage of his letter to the Galatians, he had pointed out that the Messiah’s people had ‘died’; they had left behind their old identities as Jews or Gentiles and had come into a new identity (Galatians 2: 19-21). That was, in part, why the gospel was “a scandal to Jews,” but, at the same time, only makes sense within a deeply Jewish, messianic view of the world. Charged with his specific responsibility, Paul was able, without compromising that messianic identity, to live alongside people of all sorts, sharing their customs while he was with them. When he had dinner with Jewish friends, they would have eaten ‘kosher’ food together, and when he went to dinner with non-Jewish friends, he would have eaten whatever they put in front of him (I Cor. 10: 27). What would then have made the difference was ‘conscience’, not Paul’s, but that of anyone else who might have been offended or who might be led back into idolatry.

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This must have been a much harder path to tread than that sketched in the apostolic letter issued after the Jerusalem Conference in which simple abstinence from all relevant foods was enjoined. Paul not only thought that this was unnecessary, but that it violated the fundamental principles of Jewish belief itself. His own pragmatic solution must have seemed not just paradoxical, but also perverse to some. For instance, a Jewish family who had shared a meal with Paul and watched him keep all the Jewish customs must have found it strange that the same week he had dined with a Gentile family and eaten what they were eating, though a Gentile family would have seen little harm in it. But, once again, Paul is teaching in his letter to the Corinthians that they should think like the people of the Messiah, building on the foundation of Israel’s scriptures, interpreting them afresh in the light of the crucified and risen Messiah himself. So in Chapter eleven of his epistle, he deals with the problems of the family meal, the Lord’s Supper or ‘Eucharist’. Then in Chapter twelve, he addresses the question of unity in the fellowship and the way in which the Spirit gives to each member of ‘the Messiah’s body’ different gifts to be used for the benefit of all. In Chapter fourteen, Paul applies this to the corporate worship of the church, following his exquisite poem about divine love, agape, in chapter thirteen. In this, Paul is not just teaching them ‘ethics’, but also to think eschatologically:

We know, you see, in part;

We prophesy in part; but, with perfection,

The partial is abolished. As a child

I spoke, and thought, and reasoned like a child;

When I grew up, I threw off childish ways.

For at the moment all that we can see

Are puzzling reflections in a mirror;

But then I’ll know completely, through and through,

Even as I’m completely known. So, now,

Faith, hope and love remain, these three; and, of them

Love is the greatest.

(I Cor. 13: 9-13).

Love is not just a duty. Paul’s point is that love is the believer’s destiny. It is the reality that belongs to God’s future, glimpsed in the present like a puzzling reflection, but waiting there in full reality for the face-to-face future. And the point is that this future has come forward to the present time in the events involving Jesus and in the power of the spirit. That is why love matters for Paul even more than faith, which many have seen as his central theme. Love is the present virtue in which believers anticipate and practice the life of the ultimate life to come. That’s why the final theological chapter, fifteen, dealing with the resurrection of the body, is the centre of the gospel. It is also the beginning of a study I have made elsewhere on this website in a series of articles examining the role of eschatology in Christian thought from Paul onwards. Paul’s main point in relation to the fulfilment of Israel’s hope is about messianic eschatology. He is not saying, “We Jesus-followers have found a better sort of religion than the old Jewish one.” But if Israel’s Messiah has come and has been raised from the dead, then those who follow him are the true people of God. This is blunt but consistent and precisely what the followers of the other first-century Jewish leaders would have said. It was not disloyalty to Israel’s God, but the contested messianic loyalty that characterised Paul’s missionary thought and journeys throughout.

Jesus had described himself at his trial by the Sanhedrin as the ‘Son of Man’, which was the Hebrew and Aramaic way of saying ‘man’ and could even be used to describe the Jewish people themselves who believed themselves to be ‘God’s People’. Jesus used the words not just to describe his own ministry, but about himself and his friends, the new ‘People of God’. The word ‘Christ, the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’, meaning ‘the one who is anointed’, was a word Jesus seemed not to like and was more wary of using, including of himself. When Peter had used the word of him, he rebuked him for doing so. It was a word with a long history. Kings had been ‘anointed’ and prophets had been spoken of as ‘anointed’. The word was even used of a foreign emperor, Cyrus. In the years before Jesus began his ministry, the word had come to represent God’s ‘Chosen Leader’ whom the Jewish people expected God to send as their deliverer. But this ‘Chosen Leader’ was thought of in many different ways – sometimes as a supernatural figure, sometimes as a soldier. Yet although he did not like the word and did not use it of himself, Pilate had had him executed as a ‘messiah’, a claimant to the leadership of the Jewish people – ‘the Jewish King’, as he had put it on the official death-notice on the cross.

It seemed to Jewish Christians that no word described him better – he was ‘God’s Chosen Leader’. They began to talk about him as ‘Jesus the Messiah’, where ‘Messiah’ is a simple descriptive name. When ‘Messiah’, however, was translated into Greek as ‘Christ’, it began to change its meaning. Greek-speaking ‘foreigners’ didn’t understand it and simply used it as Jesus’ second name. Paul, of course, knew the Jewish world from the inside and used the word ‘Christ’ in his letters to describe the whole influence of Jesus – his life in Palestine and the new experience of God which he made possible, so that he could use the words ‘Spirit’, ‘Spirit of God’ and ‘Spirit of Christ’, as we have seen, to describe this new experience. Paul was struggling with an almost impossible task, and he was aware of how difficult it was. But to talk about Jesus as though he was not just a good man who had died was to be false to what he felt in his heart the new divine experience to be. His meeting with the Messiah on the Damascus Road fulfilled everything and thereby changed everything, as the following statement made clear:

Whatever I had written in on the profit side, I calculated it instead as a loss – because of the Messiah. Yes, I know that’s weird, but there’s more: I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, not having my own covenant status defined by the Torah, but the status which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness: the covenant status from God which is given to faith. This means knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. It means sharing the form and pattern of his death, so that somehow I may arrive at the final resurrection from the dead.

(Phil. 3: 7-11).

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The Messiah regarded his status, “equality with God”, not as something to exploit, but as committing him instead to the life of the ‘servant’ and the shameful death of the ‘slave’. That is why he was now exalted as Lord over all. ‘Lord’ was another word the early Christians used as a common way of identifying Jesus; he was ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. The word ‘Lord’ had been used for God in the Old Testament; God was ‘Lord’. It was also used to describe the Roman Emperors and some of the pagan gods. As Paul once wrote, There are many gods and many lords. So it came to be used of Jesus; to say that “Jesus is Lord” became the simplest way for believers to proclaim their Christian faith. It carried a sense of his presence, his love and his forgiveness, of the power to live in his way, which He gave to all who accepted his love. This is what lay at the back of the struggle to find words that really described what Jesus meant to his followers. The passage above is focused not just on a belief or theory about the Messiah, but on personal knowledge. Paul wrote of knowing King Jesus as my Lord, of knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. Paul knew the theory thoroughly, but it meant nothing without the awareness of the person and presence of Jesus himself. His personal ‘knowledge’ of the Messiah found intimate expression in suffering. He speaks of this as a ‘partnership’, which is a translation of the Greek word koinonia, giving us synonyms such as ‘fellowship’ or ‘sharing’. It expressed a mutual belonging for which modern English does not provide exact words.

Paul had come to the point where he was content to share the Messiah’s death in order that he might arrive with him at the ultimate hope of Israel, ‘the resurrection from the dead’.  The ancient story of Israel had been fulfilled in the Messiah, and all Paul’s previous zeal for God and the Torah had to be counted as “trash” by contrast. That’s why he ‘forgot’ about his past and, like an athlete with his eye on the finishing line, aims to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead. Then comes the point of all this for the Philippians: they must learn to imitate him, as he is imitating the Messiah (Phil. 3: 13-19). But how could the Gentile Christians do this? They had not been zealous Jews, eager for the Torah, but they all had their own status, personal and civic pride. Even if they lacked status, because they were poor, or slaves, or women (though some women, like Lydia, were independent and free), they all had the standing temptation to lapse back into pagan lifestyles. So whether they were Romans reverting to proud colonial ways or simply people who found themselves lured back into sensual indulgence, they must instead resist and find instead the way of holiness and wholeness shaped by the Messiah himself, by his choice of the way of the cross, by his status as the truly human one, the true embodiment of the One God (Tom Wright).

Colossae & Corinth (again):

Paul’s later letters to both the Ephesians and Colossians are both deeply Jewish in their orientation, only making sense within that worldview. Nineteenth-century Protestantism didn’t favour Jewish thought, and didn’t want Paul to be too Jewish and, more recently, some scholars have tended to demote the two epistles as anathema to the more ‘liberal’ agenda they find in Galatians and Corinthians. Tom Wright claims that this is a mistake, resulting from contemporary ideology and moralising which seeks to ‘pigeon-hole’ Paul. Colossians was written, it appears, to a young church. Paul had been informed of its existence by Epaphus, himself from Colossae, who seems to have been converted by Paul in Ephesus and to have returned home to spread the word. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians was written at Rome, when he was in prison in Rome, shortly before his martyrdom, in about AD 63. Colossae had been a great city, but had very much declined, and was now the smallest of the three neighbouring cities in the valley of the Lycus. Laodicea and Hierapolis were still prosperous by comparison. Its church was the most insignificant of the churches which received a letter from Paul, and it was scarcely mentioned in later times. Neither in this epistle nor in the Acts is there any evidence that the apostle ever visited the Colossians. But he had “heard of their faith” (I: 4, 9) and states that they “had not seen his face in the flesh (2: 1). Nevertheless, Paul was praying for the church to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding and to be able to draw on the “power” of Jesus in living and working to his glory (Col. 1: 9-11). In particular, Paul longed for them to develop and enrich the practice of giving thanks. To that end he supplies them with a poem, like that written to the Philippians (chapter two, above), celebrating the universal lordship of Jesus over all the powers of the world. Part of the meaning of this poem was that it was written by someone in prison. According to Tom Wright, it invites…

… those who read it or pray it to imagine a different world from the one they see around them – a world with a different ‘Lord’ in which the One God rules and rescues, a world in which a new sort of wisdom is unveiled, a world in which there is a different way to be human.   

‘Wisdom’ was the key theme of much of Colossians. As always, Paul wanted people to think, not simply to imbibe rules and principles to learn by heart, but to be able to grow up to full maturity as human beings, experiencing that “Christ is all and in all,” and coming to “the knowledge of God’s mystery.” (Col. 2: 2). All this will happen when they realise that it is Jesus himself who reveals that ‘mystery’ and the means of finding all the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Paul is here drawing deeply upon two important strands of Jewish thought. First, he knows very well the traditions of prayerful meditation through which devout Jews hoped for a vision of the heavenly realm. These traditions seemed to have been developed at a time when with pagans still ruling Palestine even after the end of the Babylonian exile had ended, there was a sense that the greatest prophetic promises, particularly those concerning the visible and powerful return of Israel’s God to the Temple of Zion had not been realised. Second, there was the belief that the whole creation was made by the One God through his wisdom (Proverbs 8). To speak of “Lady Wisdom” as God’s handmaid in creation was a poetic way of saying that when God made the world, his work was neither random nor muddled, but wise – coherent and well-ordered; it made sense. To reflect God’s image, mankind needed to be wise as well.

The “mystery” tradition and the “wisdom” tradition were both focused by some writers of the period on the Temple. That was where the One God had promised to dwell. If there was to be a display of the ultimate mystery, the writers expected that it would be in the Temple. This expectation got bound together in yet another strand of Jewish thinking: David’s son Solomon, the ultimate ‘wise man’ in the Bible, was also the king who built the Temple. When Solomon consecrated the newly built shrine, the divine glory came to fill the house in such blazing brilliance that the priests could not stand there to do their work (I Kings 8). For us, living in a radically different culture, all this feels like an odd combination of disparate ideas. In Paul’s world, and especially for a well-educated Jew, all these apparently separate notions belonged like a single well-oiled machine. Here is the secret of creation, of wisdom, of mystery, of the Temple. This is how it all fits together. N T Wright challenges us to imagine all the complex but coherent Jewish thought…

… pondered and prayed by Paul as he travels, as he works in his hot little shop, as he stays in a wayside inn, as he teaches young Timothy the vast world of scripture, which is his natural habitat. Imagine him praying all that in the Temple itself as he visits Jerusalem after watching the gospel at work in Turkey and Greece. Imagine, particularly, Paul finding here fresh insight into the way in which, as the focal point of creation, of wisdom and mystery, and of the deep meaning of humanness itself, Jesus is now enthroned as Lord over all possible powers. And now imagine Paul in his moment of crisis, of despair, feeling that the “powers” had overcome him after all, reaching down into the depths of this fathomless well of truth to find, in a fresh way, what it might mean to trust in the God who raises the dead. This is what he comes up with:

“He  is the image of God, the invisible one;

The firstborn of  all creation.

For in him all things were created,

In the heavens and the earth.

Things we can see and things we cannot –

Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers –

All things were created both through him and for him.

And he is ahead, prior to all else

And in him all things hold together;

And he himself is supreme, the head

Over the body, the church.

 

He is the start of it all,

Firstborn from realms of the dead;

So in all things he might be the chief,

For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell

And through him to reconcile all to himself,

Making peace through the blood of his cross,

Through him – yes, things on the earth,

And also the things in the heavens.

(Col. 1: 15-20.).

If this poem were less elegant, one might suggest that Paul was shaking his fist at the powers on earth and in the dark realms beyond the earth, the powers which had put him in prison in Rome and crushed his spirit to the breaking point. But he was not doing so, but rather invoking and celebrating a world in which Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, is now the one through whom, by means of his crucifixion, all things are reconciled. This is not the world that he and his friends can see with the naked eye since that is one in which allegiance is given to Caesar and there are bullying magistrates and threatening officers, with prisons and torture in their weaponry of oppression. But they are invited to see the world with the eye of faith, the eye that has learned to look through the lens of scripture and see Jesus. The Messiah is living with the Colossians, just as Paul had written to the Galatians. The ancient Jewish hope that the glory of the One God would return and fill the world is thus starting to come true.  It may not look like it in Colossae, as ten or twenty oddly assorted people crowd int Philemon’s house to pray, to invoke Jesus as they worship the One God, to break bread together, and to intercede for one another and the world; but actually, the Messiah, there in their midst, is “the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27).

From his base in Ephesus, Paul sent different members of his staff to deal with the quarrelling Corinthians (II Cor. 12: 17 f.), but he then found it necessary to interrupt his work and cross the Aegean himself (II Cor. 12: 14). There are two letters to the Corinthians in the New Testament, but these contain clear indications that the correspondence they represent was more extensive. They illustrate vividly the problems that arose when people of widely different ethnic origins, religious backgrounds, levels of education and positions in the social hierarchy were being welded into a community by the power of a common faith, while at the same time they had come to terms with the secular society to which they also owed allegiance. These problems were threatening to split the church into fragments. It may have been about the same time that the very serious trouble broke out which provoked Paul to write his fiercely controversial letter to the Galatians. If the Second Letter to the Corinthians was written at about this time, this would explain Paul’s cri de cour in it: There is the responsibility that weighs on me every day, my anxious concern for all our congregations (II Cor. 11: 28). The difficulties at Corinth were eventually resolved, and Paul, having wound up his work at Ephesus, was able to visit a church now fully reconciled.

Rome & Jerusalem:

It was at this point that he wrote his the longest and most weighty of all his surviving letters, that addressed to the Romans. In this letter, he looked back briefly on the work that lay behind him and sketched a plan for the future. He had covered the eastern provinces of the empire, from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum. He added that he had no further scope in these parts and that it was now his ambition to bring the gospel places where the very name of Christ has not been heard. Accordingly, he was planning to open up work in the west, with Spain as his objective. On the way, he would visit Rome, and hoped to find support there for his enterprise (Rom. 15: 19-29). Paul had not yet visited Rome, but from the greetings, at the end of his letter he obviously had several friends there, and he knew quite a lot about the what was going on in both the church and the wider society. His intention to round off his work in the eastern end of the Mediterranean world and to move on to the West was a more focused ambition than simply finding more people to preach to, more “souls” to “save”. He wanted to plant the flag of the messianic gospel in key points where the “gospel” of Caesar and the ‘Pax Romana’ was being flaunted. Rome itself was, therefore, the obvious target; but beyond that, Spain, the western edge of the known world, was also a major centre of Roman culture and influence. Paul’s great contemporary Seneca had come from there. Galba, soon to be emperor, had been governor there, based in the port of Tarragona, which would presumably be Paul’s initial target. It boasted a large temple to Caesar. As in Ephesus and Corinth, Paul would have longed to announce that Jesus was the true Kyrios right under Caesar’s nose.

He knew he would have to tread somewhat warily in Rome, as the church there was not of his founding, nor was it within his ‘sphere of influence’ originally laid down by the church in Antioch. He also knew that there was some prejudice against him among the Roman Christians, who had all sorts of rumours about him. Some might distrust him, either because he was too Jewish or because he was not Jewish enough and had treated elements of Jewish practice too loosely. Some kind of outline of his teaching was a basic necessity. Before presenting himself there he sent his letter, a considered and comprehensive statement of his theological position, designed to establish his standing as a Christian teacher. There was also a more pressing need. Something had happened in the recent past in Rome that had put the Roman Christians in a new and complex position. Claudius, who had become emperor in AD 41, had banished the Jews from Rome after riots in the community sometime in the late forties. Despite the decimation of the community, not all the Jews had actually left, and those that remained had ‘gone to ground’ to hide their identity. Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila were among those who had left, which was why they were in Corinth when Paul first arrived there, probably in AD 49. But with Claudius’ death in 54 and Nero’s accession to the throne, Claudius’ edict was revoked. Jews could once again be permitted back in the imperial city, though they were not exactly welcomed back with open arms.

At this time, there was more than a streak of anti-Jewish sentiment in Rome. The term “anti-Jewish” is more appropriate than “anti-Semitic,” because the latter implies some kind of racial theory unknown until the second half of the nineteenth century. Also, in the first century, all Jews were identified by their Judaistic religious practises. There was no such thing as a ‘secular Jew’, as is evidenced by the fact that Jews were exempted from making sacrifices to Caesar and the Roman gods. The danger posed by Paul and Silas in Philippi was that, as Jews, they were teaching non-Jews things that it was illegal for Roman citizens and subjects to practice. In the amphitheatre at Ephesus, when Alexander, a Jew, stood up to preach, there were angry whispers. The same antagonism can be sensed on the edge of remarks by poets like Juvenal or sneering historians like Tacitus. Underneath the ethnic and cultural prejudice there was always a ‘theological’ belief that since the Jews did not worship the gods, they could, therefore, be blamed for disastrous events. This blame was subsequently transferred to the Christians in subsequent decades and centuries. Even in Corinth, Gallio’s refusal to make a judgment about Paul caused the mob to beat up the synagogue president, getting away with it. Going after the Jews was a default mode for many, right across the Roman Empire. Besides their exemption from religious observances that would compromise their beliefs, the Jews were allowed freedom of worship and the right to collect taxes for the Temple in Jerusalem, but that didn’t mean that they were integrated into wider society. For the most part, they were ostracised.

Paul’s message ran completely contrary to this social reality. Among the churches he had founded in Asia Minor and Greece this had not been so clear-cut, since he had always started in the synagogue first and made it clear that the gospel was “to the Jew first, but also, equally, to the Greek.” (Rom. 1: 16). He had given no opportunity for the creation of a Gentile-only Christian community. In most of the cities where he had preached, with the possible exception of the large metropolis of Ephesus, the probability is that the followers of Jesus were never large in number, perhaps only ever a few dozen, or in Corinth, conceivably, a few hundred. It would have been difficult for significantly different theological positions to have emerged once these communities had been established, at least not in the early decades of their communal life.

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But in Rome things were different. The message of Jesus had evidently arrived there sometime in the forties, perhaps with the apostle Peter, though this is only a tradition. This places Peter as having arrived in Rome in the year AD 44, whereas Paul did not arrive there until after AD 56, a date given by St. Jerome. There were followers of ‘The Way’ present in Rome perhaps even before Peter’s visit (if it took place), but the scriptural references to ‘the Church’ should not be taken too literally, as referring to a material institution. If it existed in any united form, it was a spiritual body in Christ. The more likely case is that the followers of Jesus at Rome were unorganised, treading in fear, meeting secretly in small groups at the homes of various converts in order to worship, often quite literally ‘underground’.

The imperial capital was, in any case, a city where different cultural and ethnic groups from all over the empire would cluster together for protection in their own districts. It is therefore highly likely that there were many scattered and disparate ‘house-churches’, as is shown by the greetings given in Romans 16, all worshipping Jesus but not really in direct contact with one another, and almost certainly with differing customs and practices based on their cultures of origin. The bands of converts met in grottoes, but mostly in the catacombs among the dead. The Roman law had recognised these underground cemeteries with the decree of sanctuary. However, when the persecution of the Jesus-followers was at its worst, the Roman soldiery would waylay the worshippers on entering or leaving the catacombs. To avoid capture they would make secret entrances and outlets, often through the houses of believers. The Tiberian and Claudian ban that promised to inflict death on all who openly professed the new faith was still in place when Paul was planning his sojourn in the Imperial City. When writing to the followers in Rome, he was aware that one of the ‘churches’ met at the home of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16: 5) and that as well as this Jewish ‘church of circumcision’ there were also Gentile Christian meetings elsewhere in the city. Paul’s visit to Rome, however, was not pending immediately, and probably didn’t take place until AD 58 at the earliest. First, he had to go to Jerusalem, and he implored the Roman Christians to pray for him,

… that I may be served from unbelievers in Judaea and that my errand to Jerusalem may find acceptance with God’s people.

(Rom. 15: 31)

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Paul not only apprehended danger from Jewish opposition but also felt some doubt how far he would be welcome to his fellow Christians at Jerusalem. To understand this we need to look at the situation which had developed as a result of his startling success in the building, all over the eastern empire, of a close-knit network of Christian communities which was supra-national, multi-racial, and ‘egalitarian’. As he was to write to the Colossians, that there was to be no distinction between…

Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free man.

(Col. 3: 11).

This inevitably antagonised those who adhered to a stiff, nationally orientated type of Judaism – those, in fact, who stood where Paul himself had stood before his conversion. He had ‘ratted’ on them, and that could not be forgiven or forgotten. In his letter to the Romans, Paul argued, as he had done in Galatians, that the church could not be allowed to become a ‘purely’ Jewish institution with Gentile Christians tolerated as second-class citizens. “There is no distinction,” he repeated (Rom. 3: 22; 10: 12). If he had been finally defeated over this, the Christian church might have had as little impact on the great world as any other of the of the numerous Jewish sects. Although he was not defeated, neither could he be said to have gained a decisive victory in his lifetime. Advocates of the narrower view dogged his steps to the end and sought to win over his converts. No doubt they were honest and conscientious men, who stood obstinately by their principles, as did he. Quite simply, as far as he was concerned, they were in the wrong, and in his letter to the Galatians, he had written of these opponents in harsh terms and with passionate indignation. His tone in Romans was softer than that of Galatians, as he also set out his mission to Jerusalem as one of reconciliation. Nevertheless, the opening passages of his letter read like a ‘manifesto’ for a religious revolution, demonstrating how vital the issue was for him:

God has shown us clearly what he is like in a new way – how he stands for what is right, overthrows what is wrong and helps men to live in his Way.

This is not altogether a new Way, as we have seen – the Men of God of the Jewish people had begun to see how God puts wrongs right. But Jesus has made it quite plain. If we are to live in God’s Way, we must trust God; this means trusting in Jesus who has made God real to us.

This is true for everybody everywhere; for God … has no favourites. We have all done wrong; none of us has lived as splendidly as God intended him to live, though we were all created to live in his Way and be like him. But God treats us as if we had learned to live splendidly; his love is given to us freely. And it is Jesus who has won this freedom for us. 

There is nothing in all this to make us proud of ourselves. Keeping all the rules wouldn’t have stopped us being proud of ourselves. We have simply taken him at his word, and that leaves no room for boasting.

I am sure of this: everybody can really live as God wants him to live simply by trusting him, not by trying to keep all the rules. I mean everybody. Is God only the God of the Jewish people? Isn’t he God of all people everywhere? Of course he is, for there is only one God. So he puts Jewish people right – if they trust him; and he puts the people of other countries right if they trust him. 

When the original Jerusalem concordat was made, the leaders of the church had stipulated that the ‘Gentile’ churches should take some responsibility for the support of the poverty-stricken Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. But for Paul, it was an opportunity to demonstrate the true fraternal unity of Christians, bridging any divisions that arose among them. He set up a large-scale relief fund, to be raised by voluntary subscription from members of the churches he had founded; he recommended a system of regular weekly contributions (Rom. 15: 25-28; 1 Cor. 16: 1-4; II Cor. 8: 1-9, 15). The raising of the fund had gone on for some considerable time and there was now a substantial sum in hand to be conveyed to Jerusalem. He was to be accompanied by a deputation carefully composed, it appears, so as to represent the several provinces (I Cor. 16: 3 f.; Acts 20: 4).  The handing over of the relief fund was to be both an act of true Christian charity and also a formal embassy from the ‘Diaspora’ churches affirming their fellowship with the Judaean Christians in the one church. However, the goodwill mission miscarried. Paul’s reception by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, if not unfriendly, was certainly not entirely welcoming. James was genuinely frightened of the effect of Paul’s presence in the city on both Christian and non-Christian Jews, in view of his reputation as a critic of Jewish ‘legalism’. James urged Paul to prove his personal loyalty to the Torah by carrying out certain ceremonies in the Temple (Acts 21: 20-24). Paul was quite willing to accept James’ guidance. As he had already written to the Corinthians,

To Jews, I became like a Jew, to win Jews; as they are subject to the law of Moses, I put myself under that law… 

(I Cor. 9:20).

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Unfortunately, however, he was recognised in the Temple by some of his arch-enemies, the Jews of Asia, who raised a cry that he was introducing Gentiles into the Holy Precincts  (Acts 21: 27-29). There ran across the temple court a barrier with an inscription threatening with death any ‘foreigner’ who trespassed beyond it. There was no truth in the charge against Paul, but it was enough to rouse the rabble, and Paul was in danger of being lynched. He was rescued by the Roman security forces and put under arrest. Having identified himself as a Roman citizen, he came under the protection of the imperial authorities (Acts 21: 30-39) and was ultimately transferred for safekeeping to the headquarters at Caesarea (Acts 23: 23-33). After wearisome wrangles between the Sanhedrin and two successive Roman governors, and fearing that he might be sent back into the hands of his accusers in Jerusalem, Paul decided to exercise his right of appeal to the emperor (Acts 25: 1-12). Accordingly, he was put on board a ship bound for Rome, leading to the famous ship-wreck off Malta (Acts 27: 1 – 28: 15).

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Paul in Rome:

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So Paul fulfilled his cherished plan of a visit to Rome in person but as a prisoner. He was placed under something like house-arrest, occupying his own private lodging, with liberty to receive visitors, but with a soldier constantly on guard (Acts 28: 16). He was awaiting trial there, a trial which was continually delayed.  It is probable, though not certain, that the Letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, as well as to Philemon, all of which refer to their author(s) being in prison at the time of writing, belong to this period of confinement. This period of house-arrest lasted, we are informed, for two years (Acts 28: 30). Scholars presume that the case eventually came up before the imperial tribunal, but whether it resulted in acquittal and a further period of freedom to travel, or ended in condemnation and execution, we have no means of knowing. The Letters to Timothy and Titus have been thought to refer to a further period of imprisonment in Rome, but the evidence is at best ambiguous, and it is unlikely that these letters, in the form in which we have them, come from Paul’s own hand. We know that Paul’s original plan before he went to Jerusalem, was to travel on to Spain, but we have no evidence that this goal was fulfilled. He was associated with Rome for ten years in all, and some have suggested that in addition to visiting Spain, he also travelled to Gaul and Britain. However, there is little if any hard contemporary evidence to support these assertions, which are based mainly on tradition and fanciful conjecture.

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That he ultimately suffered martyrdom may be taken as certain, and there is no good reason to doubt the Roman tradition that he was beheaded at a spot on the road to Ostia known as ‘the Three Fountains’, and buried on the site now occupied by the noble church of St Paul-without-the-Walls. According to the chronology given at the beginning of this article, Paul could hardly have arrived in Jerusalem before AD 59. His period in prison in Caesarea could not, therefore, have ended until AD 61, therefore. At that point the governor Antonius Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, based on evidence from non-Biblical sources. Accordingly, Paul would have sailed to Rome in the autumn of 61, arriving there in early 62. His period of house arrest would have continued until AD 64 and Tom Wright dates Paul’s death to this year or later. Beyond that, we cannot go, but it may be significant that it was in the winter of 64/ 65 that the emperor Nero made his savage attack on the Christians of Rome, following the Fire which was blamed on them. The Roman-Jewish War followed in AD 66-70, during which Nero died in AD 68, and the War ended with the Fall of Jerusalem…

… (to be continued).

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Fourth Sunday in Advent: Immanuel   1 comment

Prophet Isaiah, Russian icon from first quarte...

Prophet Isaiah, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th cen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Isaiah, 7: 10-14:

‘And the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying, “Ask ye a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.”  And he said, “Hear ye now, O house of David; is it a small thing for you to weary men, that ye will weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel…” ‘

The Advent hymn, ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel‘ is based on these verses, and was one of the Latin ‘antiphons’ which were sung in the Early Church during the week leading up to Christmas, dating from as early as the sixth century. There were seven of them, one sung on each of the days from the 17th to the 24th. However, some time in twelfth century five of them were put together into one hymn. Each described Christ in a different way, as Emmanuel, ‘God with us‘, ‘the Root of Jesse’ (Isaiah, 11:10), ‘the Dayspring’ (Malachi 4:2), ‘the Key of David’ (Isaiah 22:22) and ‘the Lord of Might’ (Exodus 3:15). In 1851-4, J M Neale translated these five verses into a hymn in English, which has always been accompanied by the tune ‘Veni Immanuel’, a French adaptation of a plainsong ‘Kyrie’, arranged by Thomas Helmore, an Anglican clergyman who led the revival of Gregorian chant in Britain. The five verses are still sung in Advent, and the hymn remains very popular. The third verse is very poignant at present, as at many other times in history:

‘O come thou Dayspring, come and cheer

Our spirits by thine advent here;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

And death’s dark shadows put to flight:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Posted December 21, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

The Incredulous Twin: Finding Faith: The Second Sunday of Easter   1 comment

Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.jpg

The Incredulity of St Thomas by Caravaggio

John 20 vv 24-29:

One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the twin), was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

A week later the disciples were together again indoors, and Thomas was  with them. The doors were locked, but Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look a my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”

(Good News for Modern Man)

Who was Thomas the Apostle?

In the gospels, Thomas is also named as ‘the twin’, Didymus,  in Latin to reinforce his Aramaic name, Tau’ma, from the word t’oma, which also means ‘twin’. In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (v 13) his name is coupled with that of Philip, which suggests he might have been, with Andrew, the other unnamed disciple of John the Baptist who followed ‘the lamb of God‘  from a village called ‘Bethany’ (not the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha) where John had baptised Jesus the previous day, on the eastern bank of the Jordan. In the story in John’s gospel (chapter 1 vv 35-42), the two spend the day with Jesus until twilight, and are close enough to the town of Bethsaida, on the northern shore of Lake Gaililee, for Andrew to fetch his brother Peter to meet ‘the Messiah’. The next day Jesus leaves Bethsaida early to walk the twenty miles to join his mother at Nazareth before going on with her for a wedding in Cana two days later. He arrives at the feast with his growing band of disciples, including Philip and, no doubt, Thomas, Andrew and Peter, plus Nathanael (known later as Thaddeus), who is from Cana himself. After their thirsty walk from Nazareth, they find plenty of water, but no wine with which to toast the bride and bridegroom.

Therefore, it’s more than possible that Thomas was one of Jesus’ first pairs, or ‘twins’ of disciples, his partner being Philip, whom he introduced to Jesus, just as Andrew had introduced Peter the previous night. By the end of that third day, following Jesus’ first miracle, John tells us that all five had put their faith in him, two in their home town of Bethsaida and two in Cana. Despite Nathanael’s rather rude joke about Nazareth, Jesus describes him as ‘a true Israelite’, sitting under a fig tree early on a hot day. Although Israel had ceased to exist since  Maccabean rule had been ended by the Roman conquest of 63 AD, when it had become part of the Province of Syria, Nathanael identifies Jesus not only as ‘the son of God’, but also ‘the King of Israel.’ This would have been heard as a direct challenge to Roman authority in northern Palestine, identifying Jesus with the local freedom-fighters, the nationalistic Zealots who wanted to free the whole country from Roman rule and reunite with Judea, as had happened briefly from 142-63 AD. If Thomas was one of these first disciples, although he himself is silent in the gospels at this stage, he was surrounded by certainty and infectious enthusiasm about who Jesus was among his relatives and friends, and there was little doubting the miraculous signs in which the Galilean himself ‘revealed his glory’ (v 11).

Some have seen in the Acts of Thomas (written in east Syria in the early 3rd century, or perhaps as early as the first half of the 2nd century) an identification of Saint Thomas with the apostle Judas brother of James, better known in English as Jude. However, the first verse of the Acts follows the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles by distinguishing the apostle Thomas and the apostle Judas son of James. The Nag Hammadi copy of the Gospel of Thomas begins: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” Of course, Judas was a popular name in first century Palestine, so it’s entirely possible that, as a Galilean, he would have been known by his Aramaic name to distinguish him from the other two disciples by the name of Judas. Syrian tradition also states that the apostle’s name was Thomas. Few texts identify Thomas’ other twin, though in the Book of Thomas the Contender, part of the Nag Hammadi library, it is said to be Jesus himself, who himself is recorded as telling Thomas: “Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself…” Again, it’s possible that Thomas, or ‘Twin’ was the nickname given to the disciple to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot and Judas, son of James, because he bore a physical resemblance to Jesus, and/or, as the quote above shows, kept very close to him.

How can we know The Way?

To have been so close to Jesus, Thomas must at least have been among the very first disciples. Jesus later comments on the questioning of the ‘Way’ by both Thomas and Philip in a way which must have stung the pair of them, since he points out that, despite being with him from the first, neither shows a very deep understanding of who he is in relation to ‘the Father’. In John’s gospel, the fact that this criticism comes immediately after Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial during the Last Supper, underlines its significance. Thomas is sceptical, but unlike Peter, he does not make grand gestures or promises he knows he cannot live up to, nor, like Philip, does he ask for further proofs. Judas Iscariot has already left to betray his master by this stage, so Thomas’ incomprehension seems an insignificant sin by comparison with the other three. But Jesus expects better of his earliest converts. Where is the certainty which Andrew and Nathanael revealed in Bethsaida, and in the miracles which they testified to, beginning in Cana? (John 14 vv 5-12).

A Reluctant Martyr?

In John Chapter 11 Thomas is the disciple who suggests to the rest of the disciples that they should all return to Jerusalem with Jesus, so that they could all be martyred with him. There are two ways of reading this. We can regard it as a somewhat cynical remark, fitting in with Thomas’ sceptical character, as revealed in connection with the Resurrection appearances, or we can take it at face value, as a declaration of loyalty from one close enough to Jesus to be called his twin. Of course, even then, the line could have been delivered with an air of resigned stoicism, rather than with the enthusiasm of a disciple looking for martyrdom.

Thomas’ name is also linked to Thaddeus’ early mission to Syria, but more importantly to the mission to the Jewish diaspora in India, which he undertook himself in 52 AD. From there he is recorded, in a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, to have returned to Jerusalem in time to be the only witness the Assumption of Mary, which, in a strange inversion of the resurrection stories, was disbelieved by the other apostles until they themselves saw Mary’s tomb.

The Value of Scepticism to Faith

Perhaps most significantly, however, in the early church Thomas was not stigmatised as a ‘doubter’ so much as being the apostle who, having seen Jesus’ wounds at close quarters, was able to proclaim the two natures of Christ, that he was both fully human and fully divine. The vivid drama of his very personal testimony would have been difficult to dispute by the Greek Gnostics in the early church who argued that Christ was, throughout his time on earth, an ethereal presence, a vision of the Divine, rather than real flesh and blood. That’s why, although his feast day is celebrated on different days in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars, his ‘doubting’ is commemorated on the second Sunday, a week after the first appearances of Jesus to his disciples. By itself, the empty tomb proved nothing, and even the sudden appearances to Mary and the disciples, in the open air and through locked doors, might have given support to the Gnostic view of an ethereal body. It is the graphic detail of Thomas’ account, a man who knew Jesus well enough to have been his twin, that remain the most difficult to disbelieve, reinforced by the way in which Thomas’ scepticism is immediately transformed in his proclamation “My Lord and My God”. Jesus immediately responds with a beatitude, ‘Blessed are they…’ which remains as a promise to his followers down the centuries that follow. Thomas is not excluded from his Lord’s blessing by his original disbelief or scepticism, call it what you will. His Resurrection experience is total – he believes with all his senses and emotions, transcended by the Lord in that by believing he, and we, may have life in his name (John 20 vv 30-31). The ‘Drama of Thomas’ is well re-told in the following extract from a book used in schools:

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

‘Heavy cloud made the night even darker. Shadowy figures cautiously climbed the outside stairs to the large room on the roof. When the door opened to admit them the merest glow of light showed and the door was immediately shut. Finally it was barred with a huge wooden beam.

‘On one side of the room two men were arguing. “I tell you Peter, I don’t want to listen.”

‘ “But, Thomas, you must. The Lord is not dead. He’s alive. It’s a fact and you have to realise it.”

‘Aggressively, Thomas burst out, “If Jesus is alive why are we all coming here furtively and hiding behind locked doors? Are we scared that the Jewish leaders are going to arrest us for body-snatching? If He’s alive why doesn’t he show himself to the world” Even in the feeble light of the small lamp they could see his face going red. “Why doesn’t he show himself to the authorities before they break that door down and throw us all into prison? If he’s alive why doesn’t he go and see Caiaphas and the Council? That would prove his claims.”

“So far, he’s only appeared to people who love him,” said John quietly.

“I loved him and he hasn’t appeared to me…” Thomas turned away. There was a break in his voice. John moved across the room towards him. “It wasn’t Jesus’ fault you weren’t here last week when he first came among us.”

‘Thomas broke in, “But..”

“Surely, man, you remember He told us what was going to happen that day on the road from Caesarea Philippi. Not only then but on two occasions He made it clear. He said He would be handed over to the Gentiles and mocked, insulted, flogged and crucified.” John spoke with deliberation, “He said, ‘Three days later I will rise to life.’ “

‘Impulsively, Peter broke in, “John’s right. He said it again and again; we all heard him.”

“Heard him, maybe, growled Thomas, “but did you believe him?”

“Believe him?” Peter put his hands to his head. “I didn’t even know what he was talking about! That’s why I said, ‘God forbid, it must never happen to you, Lord.’ I’ll never forget the look on his face when he said to me, ‘Out of my way, Satan. You stand right in my path, Peter, when you look at things from man’s point of view and not from God’s.’ To me he was the Lord of life. I saw him heal sick people and bring the dead back to life; it was incredible to me that he should die, let alone come back to life as he promised. But he did. And Thomas, you must believe it. He has come back from death.” Peter’s voice shook with emotion.

‘Thomas started to walk away. Peter gripped his friend by the shoulder and swung him round and said tensely, “Don’t turn away from me when I speak to you. Do you think we’re all imagining this? Do you think we’re lying?”

Andrew stepped between them. “Simon, let him be. Were you in a hurry to believe when you first heard the news but hadn’t seen the Lord?”

“Anyway,” said Peter gruffly, “when Mary broke the news that his body was gone John and I ran all the way to the tomb. Right, John?”

“Right,” said John, smiling, “but I arrived there quite some distance ahead of you.”

‘Peter was beginning to relax. There was a hint of a smile in his voice, “But you weren’t game enough to go into the tomb till I arrived.”

‘John almost shouted, “Up to that moment I didn’t realise that I was seeing, before my own eyes, what the scriptures foretold. Now Thomas, get this straight. We’re not saying that He’s alive merely because the tomb was empty. We’ve seen him outside the tomb. We’ve heard him and touched him; we’ve seen him eat food here in this room.”

“But not me.” There was a hard note in Thomas’ voice.

‘ Thomas stepped back and lifted his voice so that everyone in the room could hear, “Think what you like. But unless I see the scars the nails made in His hands and unless I put my fingers where those nails were and my hand into his side I will never believe.”

‘Peter groaned, “I give up.”

‘Andrew spoke again, “Simon, be fair. We all found it hard to believe at first.”

‘Peter ran his fingers through his hair. “But it’s not the same with square-chinned, stubborn character here. I’ve told him, John’s told him, Mary’s told him, Cleopas told him – we’ve all told him.”

‘Andrew spoke urgently, “Simon, keep your voice down. You’ll have the whole Sanhedrin here in a moment. Let Thomas alone. Isn’t it hard enough for him when he sees our joy, and his doubts fill us with misery? At least try to see his problem, brother.”

‘Peter gazed at Andrew. He saw a look he had often seen on Jesus’ face. Impulsively he put his arm round Thomas’ shoulder. “If you’d seen him, you’d understand how I feel. Forgive me.”

‘Thomas shrugged himself free of Peter’s arm and muttered, “Forget it.”

‘An embarrassed hush settled on the whole room. A deep silence. 

“Peace be unto you.” The voice startled them.

‘They looked up and saw Jesus. In a moment they were all on their feet, their faces glowing. No one spoke. Instinctively they turned towards Thomas who stood there like a statue unable to believe his eyes. He stammered, “Lord, Lord, is it really you?”

Jesus came close to him and held out his hands. His tone was warm and strong, “Thomas, my friend, put your finger here. See my hands. See the nail wounds. And my side; take your hand and put it where the spear entered. Stop doubting and believe!”

Thomas slowly went down on his knees, his hands touching the wounded feet. “My Lord…and my God.”

“Is it because you have seen me that you believe?” Jesus asked him. “How happy are those who believe without seeing.”

‘And as suddenly as He had appeared, he vanished. The disciples stood there amazed. Thomas looked up, overwhelmed. The room was full of excitement and laughter of a sort that comes from profound relief and deep joy.

‘John spoke with infectious enthusiasm, “Jesus is no dead memory. He is our living Lord.” ‘

Prayer:

Our Lord and God, forgive the doubting heart in each of us, which questions your resurrection. We are men of our age and want to see and touch before we believe. And yet we thank you for that blessing, reserved for those who do not see and yet believe. Grant us that faith which looks to Jesus, risen from the dead, our Saviour and our living Lord.  Amen.’

(Ian D. Bunting)

Sunday into Monday – 48 Hours that Changed the World: ‘… He is risen indeed!’   3 comments

A tenth-century manuscript was found in the monastery of St Gall in Switzerland some years ago which contains a dramatisation of the visit of the women to the tomb on Easter morning. It was evidently used in the form of worship, as a dramatic litany. The scene is the tomb with the stone rolled away. An angel guards the place. The women enter and the angel speaks, ‘Quem quaerites?’ he asks, ‘Whom do you seek?’ ‘We seek the Lord’ says Mary Magdalene. ‘He is not here – he is risen and gone before you.’

This short dramatisation marks the beginning of a religious drama. Certainly, Read the rest of this entry »

When did we meet the King? Sheep to the Left, Goats to the Right!   1 comment

Photo

 

Above: An illustration from The Last Battle by C S Lewis

Below: A Picture from The Greatest Gift: The Story of Artaban, The Fourth Wise Man

Matthew 25 v 31 – 26 v 5

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I wrote the following ‘paraphrase’ after listening to a sermon on this passage in my local (Hungarian) Baptist Church on Sunday. It made me reflect on the words of Jesus and the point of this parable in relation to recent news from various countries. The parable is often used to point to the need for each Christian to take action to help the poor and needy in society, but it seems to me that it’s really more concerned with the responsibility of ‘the nations’ for the poor among them, with the need for us to take collective responsibility for the poor, the sick, the immigrants and the prisoners among us. Viewed in this light it has a fresh, revolutionary meaning for me this Christmas, as well as reminding me of the self-sacrifice of Artaban in the story pictured above. The fourth wise man never gets to see either the infant or the adult King, because he stops to help a sick man as he begins his journey to Bethlehem. At the end of the story, though he is a ‘stranger’ with an oriental religion, he is received into heaven by the ‘Shepherd King’ with the words spoken to the righteous sheep.

“All the nations were gathered before the Shepherd King, who sat on his throne with his great crook and separated out the sheep from the goats. He shepherded the sheep to their left, his right, and blessed them, giving them each a share in his inheritance from his father. They became his ‘Righteous’, for, as he told them:

When I was hot and thirsty, at the height of summer, you gave me a free water bottle. When I was hungry, you invited me to the soup kitchen in the town square. When I was a poor immigrant, you helped me find a job and a place to live, and helped me settle in. When I was on my own, sleeping on the street, you invited me to Christmas lunch at your church. When I was freezing cold, because I had no winter coat, you gave me your old sheepskin coat, which you had donated to a charity. When I was so ill in bed that I could not get up, you came to care for me until I recovered. When I was in prison, you organised a Christmas Party for me and the other inmates.

Pleased, yet puzzled, ‘the Righteous’ asked him:

When did we meet you as an immigrant and invite you in, or gave you a coat, or visited you when you were sick or in prison?

The King replied:

I tell you the truth. Though you had little power, whenever you ministered to our poor and destitute brothers and sisters, you ministered to me.

Then he turned to those on his left, who thought they were among the Righteous. They included government ministers and Members of Parliament, including some bishops. He told them:

You always set yourselves above the people you were chosen to minister to, and in so doing you have set yourselves apart from me. You have chosen your own way, which is different from mine, so your can continue on that way forever. For when I was thirsty, you removed the fountains from the public parks, so I would have nothing to drink there. When I was hungry, because of your policies, you refused to support the food banks set up by the charities to help poor families. When I was an immigrant, looking for honest work, you refused to give me a work permit, even though you had agreed in the Assembly of Nations that you would. When I was freezing on the streets in the Bleak Midwinter, you sent the police to caution me for vagrancy and then had me arrested and sent before the magistrate. She sent me to prison, with the murderers and rapists. At least there I was warm and had a roof over my head, but then you threw me back out on the streets, with no place to go, not even a stable. When I was injured, I found you had closed the local accident and emergency unit, so I had to walk five miles to the nearest hospital. I couldn’t make it, and had no money to call an ambulance, so I died of pneumonia on the way. 

They also asked when they had met the King as a thirsty or starving man, or as an immigrant, or as a destitute and injured man, and he answered:

Now I will speak truth to power: You are supposed to be ministers of the state and church, but whenever you failed to minister to the people who gave you power over them, you failed to minister to me.

So the chief minister recalled their Assembly, and they returned to their palace, where they debated how to arrest the King, put him on trial, and execute him without causing a revolution among the growing number of poor their policies had created. They would have to wait until after Christmas was over, so they agreed to meet again in the New Year, and went home to their own mansions for the holiday, determined to ignore the poor in their constituencies.”

English: People eating at a soup kitchen. Mont...

English: People eating at a soup kitchen. Montreal, Canada Français : Personnes mangeant dans une soupe populaire. Montréal, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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!

005

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.

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