Call and response (Matthew 4:12-23)

‘Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.’

This week we hear again Jesus’ call to his first followers, his first disciples, and their response, which was to follow Him, not knowing where that road would take them: Jesus’ death in brutal circumstances, their scattering, their persecution, and in many cases their own deaths at the hands of their enemies.

Today is also the day in the church calendar when we remember the call to and response of – we call it conversion – the man who would come to be known as St Paul.  Previously one who had been persecuting Christians, Paul was to become the foremost of all the disciples, bringing the message of Jesus to a wide audience of both Jews and non-Jews.

The response of both the first disciples and St Paul is reported as being dramatic and immediate.  If only it was that way for us, without what-ifs, ands, ors or buts!

I love the poetry of John Betjeman, and his poem “The Conversion of St Paul” puts into words what many of us Christians must feel about our belief, our “conversion” but are perhaps too scared to admit.  No blinding light, occasional glimmers, frequent darkness, slowly turning to Jesus and continuing on upheld only by hope, not knowing what might await us like those very first followers.  He finishes the poem like this:

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging into doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish church -and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St Paul.

The Lamb of God (John 1:29-42)

* For an explanation of my weekly Bible blogging see the page on the right hand side.  This is only the second of what I hope will be many “responses” to passages of the gospel.*

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”  I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’  And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”  And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’  They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’  He said to them, ‘Come and see.’  They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.  It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.  One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed).  He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

At the Greenbelt festival in 2012 I took part in a guided meditation on the second half of this passage from John’s gospel.  It was led, I’m pretty sure, by the Salesians of Don Bosco (I may be wrong…).  The meditation began by setting the scene with John the Baptist and his followers, probably down by the Jordan river; the warm breeze rustling through our hair; the sound of the washerwomen slapping out clothes in the shallows.  And then we see Jesus the Lamb of God approaching and we follow him.  Perhaps we follow him to a house and settle down to listen to what He has to say.  Perhaps it is our house and we pay host to Jesus, bringing him something to drink or eat.

Importantly, we were to go to the Lord with a question, a question to which we wanted an answer.  We did not need to hear an answer, the meditation was not a failure if we didn’t hear an answer.  One of those leading the meditation said that someone had gone to the Lord with a question and Jesus had looked at this person for a tenth of a second, and that was the answer.

I went with the question “How should I serve you?” and the answer I got was “Well, you chose to follow me”.  Helpful?  It didn’t feel like it at the time.  Unexpected?  Probably not.  For this is the Jesus who says to those who follow him “What are you looking for?”

Some of us have chosen to follow Jesus.  What are we looking for from Him?  It’s a question worth asking.  What are our motives?  What do we look to Christ for?  Who is He to us?  What do we go to him for?

If we ask ourselves this question, the answer we get might not be one we expect.

The Last Temptation of Christ

The Last Temptation of Christ

Is this an appropriate film to show in a Cathedral?  Does it have anything to speak to us as Christians?

My thoughts on the matter from a while ago:

Mark 8.27-38

“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ “

The Last Temptation of Christ is not a film I have ever seen. It’s not one I particularly want to see – not for any reason of considering it blasphemous or anything like that, it’s just not on my list to watch! It’s more famous for the furore it caused than its plot: depictions of Christ having sex were never going to go down well with some people. But the plot is quite interesting. The film depicts a very human Christ who struggles with everyday temptations – fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust.

Along with many other departures from the version of Christ’s life depicted in the gospels, the film concludes with Christ on the cross from which he is rescued by a guardian angel. He marries Mary Magdalen and settles down to a comfortable family life. After Mary Magdalen’s death He marries Mary and Martha (both?! Lord, have mercy…). There is even a bewildering encounter with the Apostle Paul along the way. Finally on his death bed as an old man, and in the midst of a Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem, Jesus is visited by the twelve. His last visitor is Judas who reveals that the “guardian angel” who rescued Him was in fact satan . Jesus ends up begging God to let him fulfil his purpose and to let Him be God’s Son.

At that point, Jesus finds himself back on the cross, crying out “It is accomplished” with His dying breath. Fade to white.

Had it all been a dream? It had all been a temptation.

It might sound faintly ridiculous to us – of course Jesus would never have been tempted in this way! But this passage from Mark’s gospel could well be called “The Last Temptation of Christ”. Or possibly “The ongoing woes of Peter”!

At the beginning of this passage Jesus takes the time to ask his disciples for the lowdown on what people are saying about him. He has performed powerful miracles – healing, resuscitations, miraculous feedings, walking on water; he has taught with an arresting authority; he has defied the most powerful religious authorities of his day. But who does this make Him? John the baptist…Elijah…another of the prophets? No, he lets them go on…
Peter chimes in… “You are…the Messiah”. Got it. The Messiah, the chosen one of God, the long awaited one, the one the prophets were talking about, the one who would finally redeem Israel, who would finally end the exile. Physically the Israelites had returned from the exile in Babylon, but they were still under the heel of a foreign oppressor. The Romans occupied their promised land. The Herods were puppet Kings at the mercy of the imperial overlords – a far cry from the high days of King David. The temple, once destroyed, had been rebuilt but the shekinah glory – the sign of the presence of God – had not returned. The ark of the covenant had been lost. The temple was empty. Where was God? Had he abandoned Israel for good?

The Messiah, the Messiah, finally the Messiah had arrived. They had got who He was. Well, almost.

But only now would he tell them who He really was and what he must do. Only now would they really understand his mission. When they thought they knew who he was he would take their breath away once again.

Jesus explained that he must suffer and die. Perhaps he told the twelve about those passages of the Hebrew Scriptures that foretold this; today’s Isaiah passage maybe. Yes, he was the one they had waited for, the Messiah, the Christ. But it was that that meant he had to suffer and die.

A different sort of Messiah: a different sort of God.

Peter again. Peter said “no”. No, you can’t die. The Messiah can’t die. Why had Peter and the other disciples given up everything they had – their jobs, their possessions, their families – to follow someone whose mission was to suffer and die?! The Messiah was supposed to have been the great saviour who would rescue Israel…but how could that be if he was going to die, to leave them? The Messiah should be slaughtering Israel’s enemies, not being killed by them!

No gentle word to Peter. No private put-down to this most outspoken member of the twelve. No enigmatic silence. No parable. No disarming question. No – public, violent, awful to say and hear.

The cold in the room where they were gathered. The rising adrenalin in each disciple’s throat ”Get…behind…me…satan”.

The last temptation…resisted. The way ahead now clear – Jerusalem, the mockery, the beating, a cross, cruel nails, the pain, the agony, and only then death. The Messiah’s way. God’s way.
To hear a loved one tell you they must die must be an awful thing to hear. To hear a loved one tell you they must die, and then to hear them tell you that you must suffer the same fate…what do you do with that? If Jesus had not appalled his disciples already, then surely that must have happened now. Jesus told them that he would die, and horribly, and that they too must walk the way of the cross, walk Christ’s way. It is a wonder the disciples did not up sticks and run that very moment. That was only to come later, only in the very shadow of the cross itself.

But really, haven’t we been running from Jesus’s invitation to walk his way ever since it was made? Take up thy cross, live to die, die to live, deny yourself. There have certainly been examples of those in our christian history who have taken this on board. But now? In what we call the church? As a whole, an institution?

One of the greatest sermons ever preached (I think!) is Fred Cradock’s sermon on this passage from Mark. Look it up on youtube. In it he poses the question that we all need to face: “Why do we act as if the death of Christ was the saving of the world, but as if the death of the Church was the end of the world?” In Cradock’s sermon – delivered to a chapel full of ministry students about to be released into the wider world – he warns them of the constant challenges they will face in churches. Times will always be hard, he says, and you will be told that by cutting back on this church programme here, by reducing your outreach to the poor, vulnerable and needy there, yes the church can go on, it can be maintained, it can survive. At any cost it can be made to survive! No, no, no, he says: get behind me satan. Take up thy cross. For the sake of the gospel, for Christ’s sake, take up the cross. It applied to the disciples then; it applies to us now; it applies to the church now.

What would a church look like, what would a world look like where we did just that? We can only begin to imagine. It is so far from our comprehension, and yet it is what Jesus – that most unlikely suffering and dying Messiah – seems to be calling us to do here.
I’ll finish with a poem by Charles Sandburg that Craddock shares in his sermon:

“Take up your cross and go the thorn way.
If a sponge of vinegar is passed you on the end of a spear,
Take that too.
Souls are woven of endurance – – God knows“

Amen

The Baptism of the Lord (Matthew 3:13-17)

* For an explanation of my weekly Bible blogging see the page on the right hand side.  This is the first of what I hope will be many “responses” to passages of the gospel.*

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

At the allotted point in the service I lead my small congregation and the baptismal family and their friends down to the Thames.  The great river swirls caramel brown around the bottom of my cassock as I step gingerly into the cold water.

“Would you pass me the child?”

“You what?  You’re gonna do her in that?”

“If it was good enough for Our Lord, then I think…”

“Come off it mate.  No wonder they say you lot are out of touch.  Honestly.”

I stand there, the feeble winter sun vainly warming my already frozen knees.  A pigeon takes off from the parapet above and adds to the filth in the already stinking river.

Ringing in The New Year

For anyone not familiar with the wonderful Malcolm Guite and his wonderful poetry, check it out here. I love Tennyson’s “Ring out, wild bells” having encountered it set to music by the contemporary British composer Jonathan Dove. Malcolm’s sonnet on the theme of church bells is beautiful too.

Malcolm Guite

bellsOn New Years Eve a group of us will gather in the mediaeval Bell Tower of St. Edward’s church in Cambridge to pray, and reflect, and to ring in the new year. We will be participating in a long tradition. George Herbert imagined Prayer itself as ‘Church Bells beyond the stars heard’ and the great turning point in In Memoriam, Tennyson’s great exploration of time and eternity, mortality and resurrection, doubt and faith, comes with the ringing of bells for the new year and his famous and beautiful lines beginning ‘Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,’ and concluding:

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be. (For more of this passage and my talks on Tennyson click Here)

I love to hear our bells, the oldest of…

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New Beginnings

Anyone who knows me will know I’m not a great one for New Years’ Resolutions.  There are certainly things I would like to do more of (blog, read, listen to the radio, pray the daily office) and less of (watch TV, eat, drink…).  If those were resolutions I’d already have failed at…well…most of them already.

In an effort to meet at least one of these non-resolutions I’m making a fresh start to blogging on a new WordPress account.  Livejournal just feels so clunky, and looks bad, so it’s time for a fresh start, a new beginning.

My aim is to blog at least once a week on a theme of a religious nature, specifically the gospel text appointed in the common lectionary for that week.  As time is somewhat more *rationed* than it used to be, I’m going to restrict what I write in response to the gospel to a maximum length of the gospel passage itself.  I hope this will be interesting and fruitful…if anyone actually reads this!

More content coming soon!