Jonah 3: Jonah in perspective

This month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship.

6979159895_8a8f4be133_bThis year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:

  • week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
  • week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
  • week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)

 

After studying the text of Jonah in some detail, this week we are examining the over-arching themes and message of Jonah, as well as its impact upon the New Testament.

Key themes: what we learn from Jonah …

… about God

The most important things we learn from Jonah are really about the character and nature of God. There are a number of lessons that the reluctant prophet has to learn but we might highlight four of them:

jonah_mapFirst, you cannot run away from God! “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” writes the psalmist (Psalm 139:7). Jonah has to learn this lesson for himself as he attempts to flee from God by taking a ship headed for the end of the world, or so it was thought (Tarshish). Yet, Jonah discovered what so many others have learned over the millennia: there is nowhere we can go – not even the realm of death itself – where God cannot find us.

Second, God is Lord and Maker of all creation. As we read through our Old Testament in chronological order (i.e. the order in which we believe it was written, not the canonical order in our modern Bibles), we can see a developing understanding of this fact amongst God’s people. When the author of psalm 86 writes, “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,” (Psalm 86:8) we are left wondering a little about their theology! Monotheism actually developed gradually over time, as the Israelites slowly realised that their God was not just a local or national god, but the sole God of all time and space.

We can see this developing understanding in Jonah, in the wonderful conversation on the boat between the mariners and Jonah. The captain exhorts Jonah to “Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” (Jonah 1:6). Note, “your god”. Eventually, both these mariners and the inhabitants of Nineveh, seemingly, will realise that Yahweh is their God too. Crucially, Jonah must come to realise that Nineveh is a city belonging to God too (Jonah 3:3): he is the God of the Assyrians as well.

Kennicott_Bible_305r.lThird, God continually holds justice and mercy in balance. The story of Jonah arguably rests upon this “theological crux” as one commentator puts it (Youngblood, 153). For God to be God he must be just. God cannot be arbitrary or vindictive, and God is not. In this story, both Jonah and the inhabitants of Nineveh act in ways that defy God and his commandments (although the exact sins of the Ninevhites are unclear); both deserve to be punished. Yet in both cases, God also shows them mercy. He does not carry out the sentence of divine judgement by drowning Jonah or destroying Nineveh. Instead, he offers them a second chance. One of Jonah’s chief complaints, and the central irony of the book, is that he does not believe that God should show the same mercy to Nineveh as God has done to himself!

Fourth, in a related point, God seemingly is capable of changing his mind. This idea is very shocking to many Christians and many would argue that this is a mis-reading of the text. As good students of our Bible, though, we cannot deny the fact that we repeatedly read of God seemingly changing his mind throughout the Old Testament: in fact, he does so about 27 times (Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, 1 Sam. 15:11, etc.). How are we to understand such divine indecisiveness?

There are a number of facts to remember here, of course. We believe that God is omniscient, i.e. all-knowing, and so, it could be argued, God knows exactly what his creation is going to do before they do it. In this case, therefore, he already knew that the people of Nineveh were going to demonstrate true repentance, therefore they would be spared. We also believe that God is eternal, something that we find almost impossible to comprehend. God operates outside our notions of time and space, and cannot be confined to simplistic linear notions of causality. What the people of God understood as a divine change of mind, therefore, was simply their mis-perception of the divine nature, arguably.

Perhaps more significantly, though, it demonstrates that everyone has the opportunity to change their future. We often read in fiction about the power of ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’, and how people are trapped into a particular way of acting, or a pre-determined end to their lives. The story of Jonah – along with many others – demonstrates that that is a fallacy. With God, and most importantly with Jesus Christ, we all have the ability to change our destinies. There is always the opportunity to repent, to seek forgiveness for things we have done wrong, to escape from the evil situations in which we find ourselves. Everyone gets another chance with God.

… about insiders and outsiders

schlanger_jonah_prison_090913_820pxAs we have already noted, Jonah is very upset that God seems to be treating other nations with the same mercy that he extends to Israel. When we appreciate something of Assyrian history and the violence they meted out to their enemies (including Israel), then we may have some sympathy with the prophet’s perspective! The Assyrian kings conquered a huge empire with fire and the sword, and they showed little mercy to their own enemies. Yet the message of Jonah is that even these bloodthirsty warriors were somehow part of God’s creation and as worthy of his attention as Israel.

We have to be very careful how we interpret this point, though. There is absolute no denying that Israel has a special purpose and role in God’s divine plans for humanity in the Bible. To take but three examples at random:

  • Genesis 12:1-3 – “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
  • 7:6 – “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
  • Psalm 135:4 – “For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His own possession.”

There is no Biblical basis for denying the unique role that Israel had, and arguably has, in God’s purposes. To do so risks an anti-Jewish, even anti-Semitic, interpretation of scripture.

However, it is also clear that in the Old Testament we see a developing role for Israel as a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) among the gentiles:

‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’

How Israelites should treat and regard gentiles, and the nations round about them, is often a controversial topic in the Old Testament. After the return from Exile in Babylon, some in Israel argued that they should be completely separate from all gentiles, including the foreign wives that some people had married:

The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites …. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.’ When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled.” (Ezra 9:1-4)

As we said in the first session, we are not completely sure when Jonah was written but it may well have been during this period. It may have been an attempt to present a contradictory opinion to such views, arguing that God had a role for gentiles and Jews. The book of Ruth may have had a similar purpose.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes repeatedly of the need to recognise that God has plans for both Jews and Gentiles in his Kingdom. Writing about his fellow Jews, he writes: “as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:28-29). We must always recall that Jesus and all the apostles were faithful Jews, and that the history of the Church has too often been stained with the blood of persecution and anti-Semitism. The message of Jonah, though, is a reminder to everyone – Jew, Christian or whoever  – that no one has a monopoly of God’s truth and love!

… about creation

1280px-Pieter_Lastman_-_Jonah_and_the_Whale_-_Google_Art_ProjectFinally, it is worth noting what a crucial role the animal kingdom plays in the book of Jonah. Fish, worms and plants all are central characters! God shows his concern not only for the people of Nineveh, but also its animal inhabitants. They even get the last word in the book (Jonah 4:11)!

This reminds us how inter-dependent humanity and the rest of creation are. Jonah’s fellow ‘minor’ prophet Joel writes movingly of how the animals of Israel share the nation’s suffering, when disaster falls upon Israel (Joel 1:18):

How the animals groan!
   The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
   even the flocks of sheep are dazed.

This is something that, again, Paul picks up in his letter to the Romans:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)

Jonah in the New Testament

For such a short book, Jonah seems to have had a surprisingly big impact on the New Testament and its world. It seems to have affected how the gospel writers record the story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, which Jesus calmed (Mark 4:37-41). There are several similarities between this episode and that of Jonah: a terrible storm; the danger of death; and someone sleeping in the bottom of the ship, who is rudely awakened:

  • The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ (Jonah 1:6)
  • …they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:38)

Crucially, though, Jesus displays the faith and confidence in God that Jonah so disappointingly lacked. We may also see parallels with Paul’s nautical misadventures in Acts 27.

IMG_3876

Jonah depicted on an early Christian sarcophagus (Vatican Museum, Rome)

In Matthew’s gospel, Peter is described as “Simon son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17). This may be a misunderstanding of ‘John’ (see John 21:15) but it is tempting to see some parallels and contrasts between the faith of Jonah and Peter.

Most importantly, though, is the ‘sign of Jonah’, to which Jesus referred to on at least two occasions:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!” (Matthew 12:38-41)

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away.” (Matthew 16:1-4)

Jonah - Roman fresco

Jonah depicted in early Christian wall painting

(See also Luke 11:29-32.) The interpretation of these passages is not entirely clear-cut and deserves a whole post in its own right. Jesus repeatedly declined to perform signs – like a travelling wonder worker or fairground sideshow. Instead, he seemingly alludes to Jonah 1:17: “Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights”. Jonah, who seemed to be dead, was rescued by the hand of God and returned to life. In the same way, Christ foretells that he would spend three days enclosed in the darkness of the tomb, actually dead, but would return to life on Easter Sunday. This was the ‘sign of Jonah’, greater than all other signs and miracles. It was the only one people needed to witness and comprehend in order to understand who Jesus truly was.

This is certainly how early Christians understood it, and we find repeated allusions to the prophet’s story in early Christian arts, particularly in the decoration of sarcophagi. For them, this Old Testament story about a prophet who refused to do God’s will pointed the way to the much greater truth that God was going to reveal to his people in Jesus Christ. A true prophet who would show, once and for all, the depths of God’s love and power – and his determination to save all creation.

Suggested commentaries

I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:

The following are also available:

  • Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
  • Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
  • Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
  • Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).

Jonah - Ketos

Jonah 2: “The quality of mercy is not strained”

This month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship.

schlanger_jonah_prison_090913_820pxThis year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:

  • week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
  • week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
  • week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)

After considering Jonah’s attempts to run away from God last week in Jonah chapters 1 and 2, today we are considering what Jonah 3-4 has to say to us today.

The text: Jonah 3

As with last week, this is not an attempt to provide an exhaustive commentary on the book of Jonah. There are numerous such books out there, some of which are listed below. Here are just a few points that we might wish to note when examining this part of the text:

  • repeating ourselves – readers with a good memory will note many similarities between the language, structure and contents of chapters 1-2 and chapters 3-4: gentiles respond favourably to God’s word, three days, role of animals, God’s mercy, etc. Both halves of the book begin with the same words: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah…”. Repetition and parallels are important tools in good story-telling, and we often find examples of their use in the Bible. In such cases, the narrator is emphasising the minor changes in the story, which we are meant to notice. In this case, the key change is that Jonah actually does what God asks him to do this time! (Although in both cases, Jonah seemingly makes no reply to God.)
  • 78be3df7e0b83f7b8aea79f28479a3c7belonging to God – “Nineveh was a great metropolis belonging to God” (3:3 – Youngblood translation). This statement, which Kevin Youngblood brings out in his translation of the original Hebrew text, is a vitally important one. It asserts unequivocally that all of creation belongs to God; YHWH is not just God of Jerusalem, but God of Nineveh, and all of the other cities on the face of the earth. This is a revolutionary statement and one which Jonah seemed unprepared to accept.
  • a good prophet? – we really have to question how committed Jonah is to his role as prophet! As we noted last week, some scholars even question whether Jonah really belongs to the Biblical genre of ‘prophecy’. We only have half a sentence of actual prophetic utterance from him (3:4) and then he relies on word of mouth for his message to reach the king (3:6). How unlike those great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who boldly confronted their monarchs with the word of God. We have to question whether Jonah really wished his message to be heard.
  • IMG_0392

    Assyrian king, as depicted on the walls of the palace at Nineveh (British Museum)

    40 days – 40 days is always an important timescale in the Bible but here it reflects two other significant periods when God’s mercy and justice are in the balance: the 40 days of the Flood in Genesis 6-9 (a part of the Bible to which Jonah frequently alludes); and the forty days that Moses interceded with God, after the people had turned to worshipping the Golden Calf (Exodus 34:28). In this case, this is the opportunity for the people of Nineveh to turn from their sinful ways and return to God.

  • a city overthrown – linguistically, the word used to describe the ‘overthrow’ of the city is related to the word used to describe the fate of Sodom in Genesis 19:21. What it actually leads to, interestingly, is an over-turning of its hierarchy, with the proud and mighty Assyrian king brought down to the dust.
  • “all creation groans” – one of the most striking features of this passage is the role that the animals of the city have in displaying the true repentance of the people. It may seem rather far-fetched to our eyes (a “fairy story” as someone at the Bible study observed!) but it demonstrates a truth that we find in the opening chapters in Genesis, and which we are re-learning now: the inter-dependence of God’s creation. All creation suffers from the sinfulness of one of its parts. The animals will suffer too from the destruction of the city (Jonah 4:11). In the nearby book of Joel, the prophet records how all creation suffered from the destruction and de-population wrought by the invading Babylonians (Joel 1:18):

How the animals groan!
   The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
   even the flocks of sheep are dazed.

  • 1024px-Rembrandt_Harmenszoon_van_Rijn_-_The_Prophet_Jonah_before_the_Walls_of_Nineveh,_c._1655_-_Google_Art_Project

    Jonah before the walls of Nineveh (Rembrandt)

    crying out / relenting – here is another parallel between the two halves of the text. Once again, it is the supposedly faithless gentiles who urge people to ‘cry out’ to God (1:6 / 3:8), while Jonah is silent, and in both they retain the hope that God may relent (1:6 / 3:9).

  • changing your mind – shockingly, in 3:10 God seems to change his mind! He relents about the destruction he had foretold to Jonah. Interestingly, this is not the first or last time this seems to happen in the Bible:
    • Genesis 6:6 – “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
    • Exodus 32:14 – “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
    • Judges 2:18 – “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them.”
    • 1 Samuel 15:11, 35 – “‘I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.’ Samuel was angry; and he cried out to the Lord all night. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.”

In fact, there are 27 examples in the Old Testament of God apparently changing his mind. But there are also nine where God does not change for example: “Moreover, the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.’” (1 Samuel 15:29)

What are to make of such examples? One option is to say that this cannot possibly be what the Bible means, because we know that God never changes his mind, and ignore them. Another – and my preferred option – would be to recognise the need for us to wrestle with such passages and to recognise the inability of confining God to the pages of even so holy a book as the Bible. We shall return to this vital question later. 

The text: Jonah 4

  • angry with God – many of us may have found ourselves being angry with God, for any number of reasons. Jonah’s excuse seems somewhat flimsy, though: he is furious with God for being too merciful! In 4:2 he even uses the divine characteristics expressed in Exodus as an insult: “The Lord passed before him [Moses], and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
  • IMG_0390

    Assyrian soldiers collecting the decapitated heads of their enemies after battle (British Museum)

    justice and mercy – as Youngblood observes, we now reach the theological crux of book: “this conflict was about Jonah’s perception of an imbalance in the divine character. Divine justice was eclipsed by an indiscriminate mercy.” (Youngblood, 153) Jonah is angry that God extends same mercy to Assyria as he has done, and will do, to Israel. This is really the crucial theme of this book, and one that will be explored further: how do you properly balance the demands of justice and the call of mercy?

  • prophetic contrasts – there are numerous allusions to other prophets in the book of Jonah. In 4:3, we might contrast Moses’ behaviour in Exodus 32:32, where Moses offers his life to save his people, while Jonah offers his life to ensure the destruction of the people of Nineveh! At 4:5, we could note the parallels to Elijah under the broom tree in 1 Kings 19:3-18. Again, though, Jonah comes off badly by comparison because Elijah is complaining because people failed to relent!
  • moving away from God – at 4:5, Jonah symbolically moves east of the city. In the Old Testament, eastward movement often indicates moving away from God and his word, most famously of course Cain in Genesis 4:16, who headed “east of Eden”.
  • a lesson in humility – in 4:6-4:8, God provides Jonah with an object lesson in humility, in a parable-like episode (compare with Nathan’s story about the lamb before David, 2 Sam. 11:27-12:15). When God extends mercy to Jonah, he is pleased, but not when offered to other people. The plant is a symbol of mercy and the worm of God’s judgement (see Deut. 28:36-39, Job 25:4-6, etc.).
  • bible-month-2018-4-jonah-in-shadesymbolic numbers – 120,000 (4:11) is a number used elsewhere in the Bible to signify a large number of people (e.g. Judges 8:10).
  • right and left – again this is Biblical shorthand for ignorance of Torah (e.g. Deut. 5:32, 17:11, 20; 28:14). In this case, God reminds Jonah that, unlike his people, the Assyrians have apparently not enjoyed the blessings of God’s guidance in the past.
  • and the animals… – note that the final word in this intriguing book is reserved to record God’s concern for the animals of Nineveh, recalling, again, the inter-dependence of creation.

 

For reflection

For such a short book, Jonah raises a huge number of deep theological questions! Next week, we shall reflect on the book as a whole, and its key themes and concerns. In the meantime, here are a few questions upon which we might wish to reflect:

  1. Is Jonah a here or an anti-hero?
  2. What does Jonah teach us about Israel’s role in God’s plan of salvation?
  3. How should we understand the concept of God seemingly changing his mind in this text?
  4. How do we strike the right balance between mercy and justice? In our own life, in the life of our church, and the life of our nation?

s1018007

Suggested commentaries

I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:

The following are also available:

  • Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
  • Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
  • Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
  • Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).

Jonah 1: Running away from God

1280px-Pieter_Lastman_-_Jonah_and_the_Whale_-_Google_Art_ProjectThis month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship. Last year, we looked at the fascinating letter of James in the New Testament.

This year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:

  • week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
  • week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
  • week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)

Inevitably, it is hard completely to separate out all these different aspects but at least it gives us a starting point!

Background

(n.b. There are lots of excellent commentaries out there about Jonah – a few recommended ones are listed below – so this is not intended to be an exhaustive introduction to every aspect of the book’s contents and history.)

Kennicott_Bible_305r.lIn the Jewish scriptures, Jonah is one of the ‘Minor Prophets’. This is not indicative of the book’s importance rather the fact that it is one of much shorter books of prophecy in the Bible, compared to, say, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Theses twelve short prophetic books are sometimes collectively referred to as the ‘Book of the Twelve’ and contains material written from 8th C BCE to c. 450 BCE. Whether or not Jonah should truly be treated as a book of prophecy is open to debate, since he barely produces a single sentence (Jonah 3:4) of what most people would consider true prophecy! In many respects, it reads much more like the life of the prophet Elijah, which we find in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

The question of when Jonah was written is also controversial. The short biographical information we gain in Jonah 1:1, tells us that this prophet Jonah was the same one we encounter in 2 Kings 14:23-27: “Jonah son of Amittai”. He was active during the reign of Jeroboam II, King of Israel, whom we can date accurately to around 786-746 BCE. Despite the bad press he receives in 2 Kings, he seems to have been quite a successful monarch, re-establishing Israel’s borders and security at a time when the major Asian superpower, Assyria, was experiencing a period of internal unrest.

However, most scholars would argue that the text we have in our Bibles was actually written down (or at least re-edited) later than this – certainly after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon (c. 539 BCE). They believe this for several reasons. Jonah is written in Hebrew, but just as English has changed over the years, so did ancient Hebrew, and the language here is much like later Hebrew. It contains Aramaic expressions, reflecting the popular language of the Middle East that many people actually spoke day to day (and in which Jesus and his contemporaries would later converse). The text makes mistakes about certain things that we would expect a person writing in the 8th Century BCE to have got right, notably that Nineveh was not a capital city at this time. It also seems to have been written from much more of a (southern) Judean perspective, rather than a (northern) Israeli one: for example, we would not have expected Jonah to have travelled south to have boarded a ship at Joppa, if he were travelling from Israel (1:3). Finally, the text makes a number of allusions to other Old Testament texts, especially Genesis 1-11, Exodus and the stories about Elijah, that we do not think reached their final form until later.

Taking all this into account, it seems sensible to suggest that the book we possess today may well have had its origins (perhaps an oral tradition) in the time of King Jeroboam II but that it was not finally written down until much later. This actually makes the text more interesting, arguably, as it means it should very much be read as a ‘dialogue’ with other books in our Old Testament that its final author / editor already knew about. Inspired by God, he perhaps wished to challenge some of his contemporaries’ perceptions of, and prejudices about, a number of things, not least the nature of God and the divine relationship between God, Israel and the other nations of the earth. We shall explore more of this as we go along.

The text: Jonah 1-2

As we read the text of the first half of Jonah, there is so much to explore and so much to interest the reader, that it is hard to know where to begin! Here are a few of the major points that we might wish to note:

  • irony in the text. Sadly, there can be a tendency to read the Bible in a rather ‘po-faced’ manner, thinking that it is never acceptable to smile or even raise an eyebrow at the text. This is completely wrong. There is a lot to laugh at in our Bible, not least in the Old Testament, where its writers wanted us to catch their deeper meanings. The text of Jonah is often deeply ironic and full of pathos, not least its opening sentences. We are used to hearing the “word of the Lord” come to other great prophets, like Samuel, Isaiah and Elijah (1 Kings 17), all of whom promptly obey. Instead, Jonah promptly heads off in the other direction! Throughout the book, look out for places where the author wants us to roll our eyebrows in exasperation at this poor prophetic role model!
  • a unique mission. Jonah is the only prophet in the entire Old Testament sent to a gentile town, city or nation. No other prophet is called upon to travel voluntarily across borders to proclaim God’s Word. No wonder perhaps then that he seems so unwilling to go. Elsewhere in the Bible, though, we read the solemn responsibility that prophets were given by God, and the consequences of not warning those in peril:

But if the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any of them, they are taken away in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.

 So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. (Ezekiel 33:6-8)

  • Nineveh, Joppa and Tarshish. The map opposite indicates the approximate locations of these places. Nineveh was one of the oldest and greatest cities of the ancient world, and part of numerous empires. Joppa was an important port on the coast. We are not exactly sure where Tarshish was but it may have been in southern Spain (2 Chron. 9:21). In the Bible, it often symbolised somewhere impossibly far away – the way that ‘Timbuktu’ or ‘Outer Mongolia’ sometimes functions in British speech or literature.

jonah_map

  • ups and downs. This can be hard for us to see in some modern versions of the Bible, but Kevin Youngblood’s excellent, more literal, translation of the Hebrew text allows us to see the number of ‘ups and downs’ in these chapters and their importance:
    • “Up! Go to Nineveh…” (1:1)
    • “He descended to Joppa.” (1:3)
    • “he descended into it” (1:3)
    • “he had descended into the bowels of the ship” (1:5)
    • “Up! Cry out to your god!” (1:6)
    • “You had cast me down to the deep” (2:4)
    • “the deep had enveloped me” (2:6)

‘Up’ is symbolic of God, and following God’s purposes. ‘Down’ is a rejection of God and his mission. Jonah’s disobedience leads him further and further down, and away from his maker. This will become synonymous with ‘Sheol’ – the land of the dead – in the psalm that Jonah prays in chapter 2.

  • faithful gentiles. In this opening chapter, and throughout the book, we come across gentiles who seem to know and fear the Lord more than a faithful prophet like Jonah! The helmsman’s words in 1:6 seem deliberately to echo those of God in 1:1. The mariners even do their best to save Jonah from the disaster that he has brought about (1:13-14).
  • casting lots. The Old Testament is full of prohibitions against sorcery of all sorts but intriguingly lot casting was one of very few acceptable forms of divination in ancient Israel (Prov. 16:33).
  • bible-month-2018-1-jonah-fishone god or many? The discussion on board ship during the storm accurately reflects something of what we know about ancient belief systems. It was usual for people – especially a multi-national ship’s crew – to each have their own gods, and at a time of disaster to try to find out the most powerful one who needed to be placated or worshipped. Note how Jonah has to be very specific about the exact god whom he is worshipping to identify him properly: in Hebrew, he uses the divine name revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14) – YHWH (often written Yahweh, or in English ‘Jehovah’).
  • digging in. In the Hebrew text, the author does not use the usual word ‘to row’ in 1:13. Instead, a better translation is that the sailors “dug in”. Again, the implication being that they were digging their way to Sheol! (Amos 9:2)
  • crying out. Note that in 1:14 it is still the gentile sailors who are doing all the praying. Jonah has not spoken to God once so far, it seems!
  • a fish not a whale! While we often talk about ‘Jonah and the whale’, please note that it’s actually a fish that swallows him whole (2:1).
  • three days and nights. The time of ‘three days and nights’ is a significant one in the Old Testament, as the time it was traditionally thought it took for a soul to descend to Sheol (Hosea 6:1-2). It would of course assume an even more important resonance after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
  • a strange psalm. In 2:3, Jonah begins to pray a psalm. This is like many of the psalms that we encounter elsewhere in the Old Testament, in structure and form. It seems quite an odd break from the narrative in some respects and some commentators have wondered if it was a later addition. There is no real evidence for this, however. It also seems odd that this is a psalm of thanksgiving, rather than one of lament or a plea for forgiveness, but it clearly is meant to reflect Jonah’s relief at not drowning.
  • Sheol. From the Hebrew ‘to extinguish’ / ‘to have misfortune’, Sheol is often synonymous with death itself in the Old Testament (1 Kgs 2:6,9). It is a place of shadows and gloomy half existence in the depths of the earth (Job 11:8). Only much later in the post-Exilic and inter-testamental period would Sheol really come to mean something akin to later understandings of ‘hell’.
  • deeps and mountains. Much of Jonah’s prayer reflects ancient Israeli understandings of cosmology and the natural world: subterranean mountains, rivers flowing under the sea, etc. What is important for us to understand is that Jonah recognises how far he had gone from God: if God dwells in the Temple on the mountain of Zion, then his disobedience took him to the very depths of the sea, metaphorically.

bible-month-2018-2-jonah-ashore

  • more irony. Note the irony of 2:9-10, where Jonah boasts of his superiority over idol worshippers. Idol worshippers like the sailors from chapter one, no doubt, who prayed to God long before the prophet did! One is reminded somewhat of the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke’s gospel (Luke 18:9-14).
  • the final insult. As a final symbol of Jonah’s humiliation, we are told that the fish vomited him back onto dry land (see Jeremiah 48:26).

 

Reflection

Personally, I believe that the Bible is worth studying for its own sake and I love the treasures you can unearth by digging a little deeper into the text. It’s important to recognise, though, that all of our knowledge needs to be applied to make it worthwhile. We will be able to do this more thoroughly when we have finished studying the text, as many of the book’s most important themes only really emerge when we can consider the story as a whole. It might be worth reflecting on some of the following questions now, though:

  1. Who comes out well of the opening chapters of Jonah? What may this teach us about those who believe they have a particular status or special knowledge in God’s creation?
  2. What does this story teach us about God’s mission for us, as individuals and as a church?
  3. If we feel separated, or distant, from God, is it entirely God’s fault?
  4. Do we sometimes need to journey to ‘rock bottom’ to find ourselves?

We will continue to reflect on many of these questions in the coming weeks.

 

Suggested commentaries

I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:

The following are also available:

  • Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
  • Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
  • Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
  • Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).

schlanger_jonah_prison_090913_820px

“Join the hands of age and youth”

Lectionary:       MHA Sunday

Date:                  10th June, 2018

Place:                 Barnes Methodist Church

Text(s):             

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Barnes Methodist Church. Today we were marking Methodist Homes for the Aged (MHA) Sunday, when we celebrate the wonderful work of that organisation and its work with older people – both in residential homes and in the community. We used this as an opportunity to reflect on the role of older people in our society more generally. The text was Luke 2:25-40, which tells of the infant Jesus’ encounter with two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna, at the Temple in Jerusalem when he was brought there by his parents. 

Join the hand of friend and stranger;
join the hands of age and youth;
join the faithful and the doubter
in their common search for truth.

Those lines come from one of my favourite new hymns: Jesus calls us here to meet him. Like many in our new hymn book, it comes from two of the Iona Community’s leading musicians, John Bell and Graham Maule. I love the way that those words remind us of how diverse the followers of Jesus are – worshipping today in every language under the sun – but how we have all something so fundamental in common. Our common search for the truth in Christ.

On this MHA Sunday, as we reflect on the work of that wonderful organisation, and the role of older people in our church and society more generally, I would like us to reflect particularly on the challenge of that second line: “join the hands of age and youth”.

rembrandt_lofzang_simeon_1669This deceptively simple statement presents us, as God’s church and people, with an enormous challenge. How to bring young and old together, “in their common search for truth”. This is, of course, exactly what we see happening in the reading we have just heard from Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:25-40). An incident depicted by many great artists, including Rembrandt. The elderly prophets, Anna and Simeon, come together with the young, innocent parents, Mary and Joseph, to point the way to the ultimate revelation of God’s truth in the world: the infant Christ child. Age and youth truly joining hands to demonstrate the unending story of God’s desire for a relationship with his creation.

Sadly, God’s creation has struggled over the years to emulate this excellent example and, as in so many other fields, has too often preferred discord to accord. We cannot even seem to bring the hands of age and youth together in the praise and service of the same Jesus Christ whom Anna and Simeon welcomed into the Temple so long ago. For as long as I can recall in church life, we have been wrestling with the challenge of how we manage the different demands, needs and desires of young and old in worship. I can remember – and I am sure you can too – seemingly endless running battles and open arguments in church meetings about different preferences for music and the style of worship. The word ‘chorus’ – referring to a certain type of praise music – was tantamount to a swear word in many churches. One of my colleagues even recounted how – happily some years ago now – an unfortunate young preacher had a copy of the new hymn book, Mission Praise, physically hurled at him in the pulpit, for daring to choose a chorus from its pages! In return, many cherished and much-loved hymns, rich in theological depth and meaning, were ignored or dismissed wholesale because they were ‘old’ or ‘fuddy-duddy’. And that is only music in worship. We have not got time to discuss the arguments about style of worship, times of service, the challenges of having young children in church, pews vs. chairs, etc., etc.

One result of those discussions has been that in many cases, efforts to “join the hands of age and youth” in worship have simply ceased. Many new churches were and continue to be founded effectively for young people alone, with a particular style of worship and music, leaving other churches – many of them Methodist chapels – to become effectively bastions of older people’s worship. One District Chair indeed described ministry in parts of East Anglia as being ‘chaplain to the over 60s’!

In recent months, there have been an increasing number of news reports and studies that have highlighted a seemingly similar phenomenon in our wider society. An increasing divide between young and old, that is in danger of becoming – if it has not already become – as severe as that between different genders and ethnicities. We have seen articles about the increasing gap in wealth and prosperity between some older people and some younger people (often described as ‘millennials’); sharp differences between age groups in relation to the chance of owing their own home, their age of retirement and even their life expectancy. In turn, this has led to expressions of anger and resentment about a status quo that seems to advantage one age group over another. Resentment that has provoked intemperate name-calling and angry exchanges from both sides.

On the other side of the coin, there is real fear among many older people to whom I speak about what is often called the ‘digital divide’. Despite the prodigious number of ‘silver surfers’, many older people feel increasingly cut off from the unceasing pace of technological development, which is permanently changing the way we work and live. Cherished ways of life and institutions are being replaced daily and many older people are effectively being driven out of work by their lack of skills and their inability to match the pace of change.

Cls7vB7WkAATVNIWe see this divide too in matters of belief and outlook. This was perhaps demonstrated most palpably by the recent Brexit debate. Now, I must confess that I mention this subject with extreme hesitation because, as we all know, this particular topic is so toxic and so divisive that many of us would rather run a mile than even mention it! Whatever our personal views, though, it cannot be denied that age seemed to be an incredibly important determiner in how people voted. There were many other influences as well – where people lived in the country, gender, political background, and so on – but age seemed to be a remarkably significant factor, as this chart demonstrates.

Whatever our views on this issue – and we all are lucky enough to possess the democratic right to vote for whom or what we wish – I am sure that we all share the concern about this age-based schism within our society. From numerous conversations I have had during the campaign and since, I know the damage that this debate has done to inter-generational relations. Children and grandchildren at war with parents and grandparents over the dinner table. Families engaging in shouting matches at what were meant to be convivial gatherings. Claims and counter-claims of intolerance, arrogance and prejudice. Two years after the result, the inter-generational scars are still present in too many families.

I had a very interesting experience of this at my old church in Watford, a part of the country that voted almost exactly 50:50 in the referendum. On the Sunday after the vote, I chatted to many members of my, generally, older congregation before and after the service, who expressed a variety of views to me – fear about the future, confidence in the future, regret, and unashamed triumphalism, to name but a few. Meanwhile, I later discovered, the Sunday School teachers had had a virtual riot on their hands in the back hall, with the teenagers in particular venting genuine anger at what “those old people in there” had done to their future. There was precious little prospect of joining the hands of age and youth that day!

Sadly, there seems to have been very little work done, or even interest in, this demographic divide from our politicians – or any real sense that this is a problem at all. Yet I believe it is. It is not God’s will that his church – or indeed his creation – should be divided from one another by age. It is not God’s will that one age group should believe that it has a monopoly on the truth. It is not God’s will that differences in age should be used as yet another insult to hurl at one another, as we have so long used gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Instead, it is the example of Anna and Simeon in the Temple so long ago that is the desire of God’s heart for his creation: young and old coming together to seek a common truth, so that all may grow and flourish.

As God’s church, we need to witness to that truth, and I believe we have two particular roles to play as God’s Church on earth. First, we are meant to be a place of encounter. The aged Simeon and Anna met the infant Christ child at God’s Temple, and we need to ensure that we fulfil the same role. Like many people who grew up in church, I really enjoyed that mixture of ages around me as I grew into adulthood – it always felt like having lots of aunts and uncles, especially as we did not live near our extended family. I grew up being able to chat to people of all ages and backgrounds, and knowing that older people were genuinely interested in my life and development. There are actually precious few places in our society where that happens nowadays, and many children grow up not knowing any older people beyond their own family. This helps perpetuate the divisions in our societies, where we only meet and spend time with those of our own class, background and age: all of us living in our own, separate silos too often.

There have been numerous reports recently about successful experiments that have deliberately created places of multi-generational encounter. Nurseries in old peoples’ homes. After school clubs for teenagers run by older people. Young people who are struggling to find accommodation choosing to live with older people who have spare rooms but no company. MHA is part of some of these initiatives and is keen to bring younger people into their homes, and to create opportunities for those older people who are being supported in their own homes to have meaningful encounters with different generations.

What these schemes demonstrate is that ALL ages benefit from living regularly engaging with one another, if they are open to genuine encounter. Younger people can gain a sense of perspective and wise counsel; older folks can often gain a broadening of their horizons and a renewed interest in life. As a church here in Barnes, we are pondering our future mission and I would very much like us to consider whether this is an area in which we might like to engage: providing opportunities for different ages to come together for their mutual benefit, and to help break down some of the barriers that we have helped to create in our society.

The second thing that we can do, as God’s Church, is to be clear about how such mutual flourishing can happen and how such barriers can be broken down. And that is by pointing to the Christ child, as Simeon and Anna did, and specifically his example of sacrifice.

What makes Simeon’s encounter with Mary and Joseph in the Temple so poignant, of course, is his all-too accurate prediction of what the future holds for this tiny infant. This child is undoubtedly the salvation which God has prepared: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32). But he is also “a sign that will be opposed” (2:34) and his work of redemption will not be complete until his mother’s heart is broken by witnessing the death of her own son. The work of God cannot be completed without sacrifice and loss.

So it is for us, for our church and our society, if we wish genuinely to “join the hands of age and youth”. Healing and understanding can only come about through sacrifice and loss. By being willing to set aside some of our own pre-conceptions, our own prejudices, our own certainty in how things ‘should be done’. In church life, as in all life, if we say “it’s my way or the highway” then genuine encounter is impossible. If we create meeting places for young and old, and both groups see it as an opportunity merely to re-create the other in their own likeness, then there is no hope of reconciliation. True encounter can never be about domination and control.

age_and_youth_by_williamdaros-d658ymjIn the sacrament of holy communion, we are recalling God’s desire for genuine encounter with his most cherished creation, humanity. We are remembering how God wished to engage with his people, to break down the barriers that we had built up, and God’s desire that we should be reconciled one to another. But we recall too that that reconciliation only came about through sacrifice, by God giving up his divinity in the person of that vulnerable child from Bethlehem; of God giving up his immortality to dwell amongst us. Communion is a symbol of our desire to break down the barriers between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and one another. It is a symbol of our desire to emulate that example of sacrifice: our desire to live in harmony with all God’s creation.

In our worship as a church, in what we say and in how we treat one another, and in every aspect of our lives let us bear witness to God’s desire for a world free from division. Through encounter and sacrifice, let us strive to “join the hand of friend and stranger; join the hands of age and youth; join the faithful and the doubter” in our common search for truth. Amen.

 

 Hymn words: John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 28. Words: From Love From Below © 1989, WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH Scotland. <www.wgrg.co.uk>

 

No longer servants but friends

This is the sermon I delivered this morning at Putney Methodist Church (and indeed this afternoon at Minstead Gardens Methodist Church!). The text was John 15:9-17.

We started today with the opening credits and theme song to the very popular American television series, ‘Friends’:

So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A.
It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear
When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, but

I’ll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I’ll be there for you
(Like I’ve been there before)
I’ll be there for you
(‘Cause you’re there for me too)

What does it mean to be a ‘friend’? The immensely popular American television series, Friends, which ran from 1994 to 2004, and its very catchy theme tune give us a few ideas. In particular, perhaps, that friendship is about being there for others in good times and bad – when “your love life’s DOA” – and that it involves a level of reciprocity – “I’ll be there for you (‘Cause you’re there for me too)”. Given that the series finale of Friends was one of the most watched television programmes in global history, perhaps we should treat its views as authoritative!

Friendship may be a subject, though, upon which we simply do not often reflect in our everyday lives. It may be that we consider it something more relevant to the playground. One of the questions we will often ask young children at a new school is, “Have you made any nice friends yet?”. However, we are arguably living through a time when the very concept of friendship is changing. The internet and social media have arguably helped transform what it means to be a friend. As many of you know, Facebook has given us a new transitive verb: “to friend” someone. That is, to ask someone via the application to become your ‘friend’, allowing you to view one another’s personal details and exchange information. Importantly, one person makes the request to be a ‘friend’ and the other person has to accept it. This in turn has led to a complicated new field of ethics and etiquette. When is it acceptable not to accept someone’s friend request? Should you accept such requests from colleagues, old classmates, or even ex-boyfriends? This, in turn, has given us another new verb – to ‘un-friend’ someone; the ultimate mark of social rejection and the end of a relationship.

This development has in turn shaped, and been shaped by, other developments in the phenomenon of friendship, as detailed by a number of social scientists. Some of these have argued that friendships are becoming ‘thinner’ in the internet era, with less substance to them (Digby Anderson, Losing Friends, 2001). Many people would indeed make a clear distinction between friends in real life and friends on Facebook. Others have argued that friendship, in the West at least, has come to replace more traditional ties of kinship, family, tribe, guild, even nationality (Ray Pahl, On Friendship, 2000), to become the cement that holds society together. One danger of such a change is, of course, the implication that we divide the world effectively into ‘friends’, whom we are willing to trust, believe and help, and ‘non-friends’, or even ‘enemies’, whom we are not.

antonio_ciseri_ecce_homoIn the light of all this, what do those intriguing words of Jesus from our lesson mean to us today? “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:14-15). We get a little clue of the significance of what Jesus is saying a few chapters later in John. Here the authorities in Jerusalem are using every means possible to make Pontius Pilate submit to their will and crucify Jesus, and threaten him with the ominous words: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor” (John 19:12). Friendship in the ancient world, in this context, meant someone who held a particular status with a ruler. They were his closest confidants, his most trusted advisers. In the Roman emperors’ case, they were described as his amici, and people – including client kings like Herod – would expend a great deal of time and effort to secure that status. It was the ultimate access to wealth and power. No wonder that Pilate was so afraid of the high priest’s threat: he was risking being ‘un-friended’ by the emperor, they were effectively saying, if he refused to execute this trouble-maker, with all sorts of terrible consequences for himself and his career.

In the context of our passage today, there is something of that sense of meaning in Jesus’ words. His disciples were indeed his amici – his closest confidants and advisers; the people with whom he spent most time and whom he trusted thoroughly. There is more to it than that, though, and there are things we need to learn about what it means to be a friend of Jesus.

Apostles - Eight apostles (Raphael, c.1516)First, true friends know what is really going on in a person’s life. Many people nowadays, as I have said, make the distinction between ‘Facebook friends’ and real friends, and one of the key differences is the information one shares with these two categories. I know myself that there is a temptation to put a positive spin on your life on Facebook, only recording happy incidents, or things that cast you and your life in a positive light. It’s often an air-brushed version of reality that in turn can actually make others feel worse about their own life. (“Why’s everyone else out partying, and I’m sat at home doing the ironing?”, etc., etc.) Of course, you don’t need to be on Facebook for this to happen. There have always been people to whom we feel it necessary to put on a front and say “everything’s fine”, when it is very clearly not.

A true mark of friendship as Christ described it, though, was someone with whom we have no secrets. It is a relationship where we can know someone fully and in turn be fully known. Just as Jesus and the Father knew each intimately. We know what they have been through in life, positive and negative; we know their joys and their sorrows; we have been present at some of the most important events in their life. In the gospels, we are repeatedly told that Jesus made the effort to share everything he could with his disciples. When they failed to understand the parables, he would patiently sit down and try to help them understand (e.g. Mark 4:33-34). When they had questions, he would answer them. In this final discourse in John’s gospel, we hear him trying to tell them everything they needed to know about himself, in order to face the future without him. And this offer of friendship is open to us, if we choose to accept it. In prayer, we are given the opportunity to share all that we are with Christ Jesus: not to put on a brave face and deceive ourselves and him, but to come to him, as the hymn says, “Just as I am”. In scripture, Christ offers us the same in return. The ability to know him truly, to understand who he is and what his mission on earth was. If we choose to read and study our scriptures, then that knowledge, that privileged relationship, can be ours as well.

the_calling_of_saint_matthew-caravaggo_281599-160029The second point is that friendship, in Jesus’ terms involves choice, and choice on both sides. Many commentators note the difference between how Jesus’ disciples behaved and how those of other contemporary rabbis did. In the latter case, disciples would usually shop around and find the rabbi whom they most liked and admired. Not so with Jesus. Instead, as we read in the opening chapters of the gospels, Jesus actively goes out and chooses his disciples. As he reminds them in today’s passage: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (15:16). There is a stunning painting by Caravaggio of The Calling of St Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13), with Jesus, bathed in a shaft of sunlight, standing at the doorway of a tavern pointing directly at the unsuspecting tax collector, and clearly saying “It’s you I want.”. There is a direct contrast here with that terrible experience in school playgrounds, where teams are picked based on how good you are at football, or how tall and strong you are, or indeed where relationships are formed based solely on looks and appearance. Here the offer of friendship goes to the most unusual people, to the unloved and unlovely as well as to the popular and handsome.

In the scriptures, we read how Christ invites all sorts of people – men and women, Jew and gentile, kind and unkind – into a relationship of friendship with him. And they in turn are invited to respond: to accept the obligations and responsibilities of friendship. Responsibilities that we all understand well, especially if sadly we have ever been let down by someone we thought a friend. The invitation to friendship with Christ, and ultimately with God our creator himself, is one that is offered to us all, just as to Peter and John, and one we are invited to accept. It is not a relationship that we deserve or have earned, it is one that is freely given by a God who seeks out his people in every corner of the world – like a shepherd with a lost sheep. But we cannot say that we are a friend of Christ, if we ignore his teachings, neglect his words and reject those who have been made in his image. True friendship with Christ is both an inestimable blessing and a solemn commitment.

Washing feet - DuccioFinally, we should note that our reading today makes clear that being a friend of Jesus also involves being a servant for Jesus. Many of us may worry about the language of friendship in relation to Jesus. We find it in many of our hymns. We may worry that all this talk of friendship makes us too ‘chummy’ with Christ, and fails to acknowledge his holiness and power. Yet, as with so much of our scriptures, context is crucial here. We need to ask ourselves what has gone on before? We turn back a few pages and find Jesus, the Lord and Saviour of all the World, on the floor, washing the feet of his disciples. We skip a few pages ahead and find Christ on his cross, bearing the sins of humanity upon his broad shoulders. As we read in Stainer’s Crucifixion:

Then on to the end my god and my friend
to suffer, endure and die.

Being a true friend to someone will always involve a level of servanthood. It will involve listening to the same stories and jokes again and again. It will involve helping to look after them when they’re sick or ill one day. It will involve helping them to put together a garden shed, a wedding or even a broken life. True friendship involves cost and sacrifice, and that is why we value – or should value – real friends so highly.

The friendship that Christ offer us in these verses is not a ‘thin’ one: a Facebook friend, a nodding acquaintanceship. It is the most perfect and life-giving of relationships; the genuine desire to know another person wholly, and in turn to be fully known by them. It is a relationship that is freely offered by one who has done everything he can to seek us out, wherever we are. It is a friendship built not on the desire for gain or control, but on the loving sacrifice of one who calls us to follow his example of selfless love. It is ultimately the offer to us all that, “my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (15:11) Amen.

Walking with others

This is the sermon I preached today at Barnes Methodist Church. The text was Acts 8:26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch).

 

86544522“Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’” (Acts 8:29)

All of us walk at a particular pace. Some of us stride boldly along, swinging out our arms and leg. Others prefer to take life a little more easily, and amble along at a gentler pace. Whichever we prefer, we know that if we wish to walk with another person – and even more so with a group of people – then we probably need to change our speed to suit theirs.

After ten years of living in Brighton and working in London, I developed something of a ‘commuter’s walk’: head down, speeding along, determined not to let anything get in my way. (It’s the kind of walk you can see every morning and evening in central London!) By the time I finished commuting, I knew that it took me exactly twelve minutes to get to the station in the morning and, on good days, I would reach my chosen spot on the platform just as my train pulled in. This was fine on Mondays to Fridays but it did mean that I found it hard to moderate my pace at other times, and was unaware of how fast I was walking. Often, when I was out with her, my mother would simply stop and state clearly: “I cannot walk at that speed!”. I needed to learn to change my pace to suit others.

The  baptism of the eunich, by RembrandtIn the story that we have just heard read from the Acts of the Apostles, that is precisely what Philip is called to do. Philip is one of the seven deacons ordained by the apostle to serve the Early Church (Acts 6:1-7), and is not to be confused with the apostle Philip. Previously, he has been preaching the good news in Samaria (Acts 8:4-13). Now, though, he is called by the Lord, essentially, to stand beside an ‘A’ road and wait for an important person to pass by.

We do not know a huge amount about the Ethiopian eunuch is person beside what the scriptures tell us. He is an important official at the court of an African monarch, perhaps in Ethiopia or modern-day Sudan. He is wealthy and a man of influence, travelling in his own “chariot”. He is also clearly attracted to the Jewish faith, travelling a long way to visit the Temple and Jerusalem and knowing his scriptures well, notably Isaiah. There is a tradition that this man helped bring Christianity to Africa but we cannot know this for certain.

What we do know is that Philip is called to accompany this man on both his physical journey, along the road to Gaza, and on his journey of faith. To do this, he needs to change his pace to suit the Ethiopian’s. God calls him to join the chariot (8:29); to run to catch it up (8:30) and, presumably, to keep his pace up, so that he can engage the eunuch in conversation. The Ethiopian is doing what many people did in the ancient world to while along the long, dull journeys: reading. And Philip matches not only the speed of the Ethiopian’s physical journey but also his journey of discovery. He does not demand that the eunuch slows down to match his desired speed; he does not insist that he start with a preconceived discipleship course. Instead, as instructed by God, he starts where the Ethiopian is – in this case, with the prophet Isaiah – and acts as his guide and companion on the road of revelation that lies ahead. In this case, a road that leads to enlightenment and baptism.

1292-1-doop-kamerlingThis story, like so many others in the book of Acts, speaks directly to my experience as a minister and my reflections on the future of our churches. Like many commentators, I believe that the climate in which our churches operate today is increasingly similar to the world of Acts. Far more similar indeed than it is to the world of, say, the Georgian or Victorian Church. Some of those similarities are obvious. Like the apostles, we operate in a multi-faith / multi-ethnic / multi-religious context. (Although before we feel too sorry for ourselves, we should note that Christianity still occupies an extremely privileged position in our nation.) Like them, we work as ‘pockets’ of Christianity – individual, often small, churches working as a network – rather than as ‘Christendom’.

Crucially, like the Early Church, we encounter people who are at very different stages of their Christian journey and who are walking at very different paces along ‘the Way’. Some – like the Ethiopian eunuch – already have a lot of information about the scriptures and are striding along the journey of faith; they need to have their detailed questions answered. Others are walking at a snail’s pace, and have only just begin to discover Jesus for themselves. Still others, have no knowledge whatsoever and seem to be on a completely different road altogether!

Like all ministers, I am continually challenged by this need to match the pace at which others are walking. The young teenager who is preparing for confirmation at Pentecost is walking at one speed. The folk who came to our Lenten Bible study, taking a detailed look at Mark’s gospel, were bowling along at another. And the people who read the weekly Bible notes that I am writing for the Methodist Church’s national website are at yet another.

I was brought face to face with this challenge most acutely a few months ago. A woman whom I did not know came to one of our evening services at Putney. Unfortunately, it was the second in a series on the letter of James in the New Testament that I was leading. I knew that most of the folks who come to that service are life-long Christians, who need to be challenged, and so we were looking in detail at a few verses. Afterwards, she confessed that this was the first time that she had ever entered a church to worship, and that she had, in fact, received no formal Christian education since the age of seven! She had had a personal crisis, which had led her to our doors. However, the speed at which we were moving was light years ahead of where she needed to be – and she confessed that she almost ran out, because we seemed to speaking another language! Luckily, she gave me another chance and we were able to engage in individual conversation on a number of occasions. I was able to lead her to some more suitable material that we could discuss together, looking at the most basic (and most important) elements of Christianity. I needed to slow my pace right down, though, to walk with her on those first, tentative steps along the path to faith. The whole experience felt rather like speeding along at 70 mph in the fast lane on the M4 and then suddenly putting the car into first gear!

menologion_of_basil_006.jpgThis is the challenge that both the Early Church and our modern churches face. How to accompany people at the right pace for them? How do we walk alongside the chariot both of young children and life-long Christians? Of those educated to a postgraduate level, with deep questions about evolution, artificial intelligence and scriptural authority, and those who are simply uninterested in such issues. Of those who have been listening to sermons for forty-odd years and have ‘heard it all before’ and those who have come for a baptism of their friend’s child and have not stepped into a church since they were a child themselves?

The challenge can leave many of us gasping for breath, desperately trying to change our pace to suit the needs of our listeners. More often, sadly, it leads us simply to adopt a ‘one pace fits all’ attitude. To settle for some sort of average that suits the majority of our members, and leaves the rest to take care of themselves. To produce sermons and worship that neither help those new to faith, nor truly challenge those whose faith has grown old and staid. As the alternative words to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ appositely bemoan:

Like a mighty tortoise
moves the Church of God.
Brothers, we are treading,
where we’ve always trod.

We are not adapting our pace – as Philip did – to suit that of the people we are trying to help. Instead, we are expecting them to match our own.

The challenge for us a church is to determine how we follow Philip’s example and walk alongside those in our community whom we are called to serve, and who want to engage with our faith. Of course, we cannot be ‘all things to all people’ and we need to recognise the limitations of our resources. But we need to be conscious of our calling and to be deliberate about our pace. We need to be sacrificial in our life as a church, perhaps moving at a pace that we personally find uncomfortable, in order that we can walk alongside others. Who is the Ethiopian eunuch of our own day whom God is calling us to accompany?

In doing this, we are seeking to follow the example that not only Philip, but God has set us. For that is precisely what we celebrate in the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is God choosing to walk alongside us, at our pace, in order that we might have life in all its fullness. As Brian Wren’s Easter hymn puts it so eloquently:

Not throned above, remotely high,
untouched, unmoved by human pains
but daily, in the midst of life,
our Saviour, with the Father reigns.

Jesus walked at the pace of all those he met: encouraging, cajoling, leading them on. And he continues to walk beside us all, every day of our lives, matching his pace to suit our own: sometimes striding ahead in the full confidence of faith; at others, patiently waiting at the roadside for us as we are overcome by doubt and sin. Without that accompanying presence, without that selfless act of love and grace on God’s part, we would all be lost. It is a selfless, sacrificial example that we are called to follow. I pray that – as a church and as individuals – we might not only know that presence in our lives always but be inspired to walk along others that they might the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

Writing the next chapter

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Putney Methodist Church. It was the day of our Annual Church Meeting, where we considered the past and future of our congregation. The text was Acts 6:1-7

probably_valentin_de_boulogne_-_saint_paul_writing_his_epistles_-_google_art_projectThe Acts of the Apostles is one of those books of the Bible that we often over-look, sadly. We all know the stories from Luke’s gospel very well and many of them are the most popular in our scriptures: the shepherds and the angels at Christ’s birth, the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Supper at Emmaus, to name but a few. When we come to the second half of Luke’s gospel, though – and we should always remember that that is precisely what the book of Acts is – our knowledge tends to peter out a little.

We almost certainly know the story of Christ’s Ascension and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost from its opening chapters. We also know, I am sure, at least some of the details of the conversion of St Paul and some of St Peter’s experiences. There is so much more to the book, though. So many more of the first disciples’ fascinating adventures – and there is no other way of describing them – as they begin to tell all sorts of people the good news of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps most importantly, in these 28 chapters of scripture we see more clearly than anywhere else the beginnings of what will become Christ’s Church on earth. As so often in life, they do not start with a clear blueprint of what they are seeking to create; they did not begin by saying, “We want something that looks a bit like that Putney Methodist Church”! They knew what they wanted to do – tell people the story of Jesus, and especially his death and resurrection – but how to do that remained the key question. In the book of Acts, we see them proceeding by that ancient method of trial and error. We read of people like Paul and Barnabas, going from place to place, sometimes being heard and accepted and sometimes being driven out of town. We read about early congregations being established across the eastern Mediterranean, and facing challenges both from within, and without, as they established a pattern of worship, prayer and evangelism that worked for them. We hear of councils and controversies, as they sought to discern what it truly meant to follow Christ, often taking incredibly hard and brave decisions. It is an incredible story of people faithfully building God’s Church up from nothing, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Apostles church RomeWhy I have chosen this particular passage today, and why I am speaking about this subject at all, is, of course, because today is our Annual Church Meeting. This is the occasion when we, as a congregation, have the opportunity to look back at all that God has done for us in the past, and to renew our trust in him for the year that is to come. It is also traditionally an opportunity for us to undertake some necessary business and to engage in that traditional pre-occupation of church navel-gazing!

From long experience, I know that many of us cannot stand such meetings and will make a bolt for the door as soon as the notes of the last hymn die away! If you possibly can stay, though, I would strongly urge you so to do. Why? Because just as Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is a continuation of the story he began in his gospel, so is our Annual Church Meeting merely another chapter in that glorious story. It may not feel like it is, and it is certainly not as adventurous as Paul’s shipwreck off Malta (Acts 27), say, but it is unquestionably part of the same narrative. It is the same story of God’s people trying to serve him in this time and place. The same story of people from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities coming together to glorify Christ’s name. Working out, through the same method of trial and error, how we can best worship him, serve him and his people, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with all who will hear it. The same story of God’s Holy Spirit at work amongst his people, if we but look for it.

seven-deaconsCrucially, the passage that we just heard read – like so many others in Acts – reminds us that that story belongs to us all. The church of Acts was struggling to cope with its mission both to preach the Word of God and to serve those in need, in this particular case the widows of the two communities. The apostles were learning that vital lesson, which all pastors have to learn, that no one can do everything that needs to be done. That while individuals like Paul and Peter might, rightly, hog the limelight, their work is ultimately in vain, if it is not taken up and championed by the entire community. It reminds us of so many other passages in the New Testament, perhaps particularly 1 Corinthians (12:12-31), where churches realised the Spirit moved among them all, and that all had vital gifts and graces with which to bless the community and one another. That God called, and calls, all kinds of people to bring about his Kingdom on earth.

Today is not just about ‘keeping the show on the road’ or the usual call for people to ‘fill the jobs’. This is about us recognising our part in God’s story of salvation. Then as now, this is a counter-cultural message that we often struggle to hear. Today we live in what is often described as a consumerist society, where we have a huge variety of goods and services at our disposal. When we go to a shop, we expect it to have what we want immediately, in the colour, size and at the price we desire. If it does not, then we will go elsewhere. Often, we feel very little loyalty to those providing the goods or services, and will now happily shop around online until we find the best deal for us. To some extent, this was just as true of the marketplaces of ancient Jerusalem and Antioch as it is of Westfield today. The difference is that many people today have come to apply the same philosophy to nearly all their dealings, even seemingly to the field of friendship. On Facebook, and other social media, we can simply delete someone from our lives, if we no longer believe we are getting good ‘value for money’ from our friendship. Relationships are in real danger of becoming solely consumerist transactions: “What do I get out of this? What’s in it for me?”.

A macro detail of the book of Acts in the Christian New TestamentSadly, many people are applying the same philosophy to churches. We encounter that attitude occasionally here, with people shopping around, trying to find the ‘perfect church’. The one that does things exactly the way they like; that provides the services they need; and the one that makes no demands on them, apart from occasional attendance on Sunday mornings. If it fails so to do, then they will simply go elsewhere. In many respects, I fully understand that attitude. All of lead busy lives today, with enormous pressures on our time and resources – people simply do not have the leisure time to devote to church life that once they had. I also feel that some pressure of this kind is useful to churches: it makes us reflect on whether we are simply pleasing ourselves with the way we worship and function, or are actually meeting the genuine need for people to encounter God in the most appropriate way for them.

There is a real barrier to cross here, though. Because the church – our little church here and all congregations everywhere – simply cannot operate in that manner. We cannot be ‘all things to all people’ without a responding commitment from those who attend. On one of my first Sundays here at Putney, I encountered a couple with a young family, who were clearly disappointed by what they had found here. They had come from a large, thriving church in the USA, with a flourishing choir, children’s work, etc. Typically, they had come on a Sunday when there were very few people here – as periodically happens – and at the door the woman effectively told me off because the church had not met her expectations. As always, I humbly accepted the criticism and I had a lot of sympathy for her critique. But part of me also wanted to say, “Well, why not join us and be the change? You can see the need and the potential here. Why not make a commitment to help us become the church you want us to be?”

Now, I know the reasons why that was an impracticable suggestion: they were both busy parents, with demanding careers and many calls on their time. It is the same for so many of us here today. But as we read the book of Acts, we see time and time again how one person can make a huge difference to the life of God’s church. We know that from the life of this church. How one person – someone “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) – choosing to make a commitment, to do one thing well, can have such a huge effect on the lives of so many others. The book of Acts tells me that I cannot fill this church with the Holy Spirit by myself, no minister can. That requires the ministry of the whole people of God, working together, bringing their different gifts and graces to serve us all, and enrich the life of our community. As Christians, we are not called to be solely consumers of church: picking the bits we like and which serve our needs, and rejecting the rest. We are called to be integral parts of the one body of the church.

So, I make my appeal today, brothers and sisters. The same appeal that Peter and the apostles made to the church two thousand years ago. Can you be part of the 2,000 year story of God’s church? Can you help shape its next chapter? Is God calling you today to be part of that glorious story and that fascinating future? We have so much work to do here, and I see so many promising signs of hope and growth. Truly, the harvest is great but the workers are few (Matt. 9:37). Can you spare just a few hours each month to serve your church – by committing to prayer, to helping with worship, by working with our young people? Is God calling you today, in the same way that he called the seven in the time of Peter? If so, I believe fervently that our future, by God’s grace, can be as bright as its past. That the word of God can continue to spread and the number of the disciples increase greatly. Together, let us write the next chapter of Christ’s story in this place. Amen.

Peter anointing seven deacons

Section of a fresco in the Niccoline Chapel by Fra Angelico, depicting Saint Peter consecrating the Seven Deacons. Saint Stephen is shown kneeling. Source: Wikimdeia.

Not so Super Jesus

This is the sermon I preached today at Holy Trinity Roehampton. The text for today was John 20:24-29 (Jesus and Thomas), often referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas‘.

unnamedI am sure that all of you here today are completely addicted to superhero movies. No doubt, you are all familiar with the most recent cinematic outings of Superman, Wonderwoman and Spiderman. You know your Captain America from your Thor; your bedrooms are full of Hulk posters; and you are on the edge of your pews in anticipation of the latest Avengers’ film. Well, perhaps not!

Whatever our views, though, it is clear that superhero movies are, once more, all the vogue. Every few months, a new film is released, detailing the exploits of the latest creation from DC Comics or Marvel. These are accompanied by endless comic books, action figures, duvet covers and other merchandising opportunities. And they are all incredibly popular. I, for one, know that, if I wish to have an extended conversation with my godsons, I must have at least a passing knowledge of some of these characters.

For some children, though, we know that this passion for such superheroes goes beyond a mere passing interest. Many commentators have observed that for certain children – and perhaps more than we might think – these characters speak to a deeper psychological need. They provide a beacon of hope in a constantly changing and potentially dangerous world. For children who see their mothers being abused, for example, or who are themselves being bullied at school, it is understandable that some of these characters’ stories would speak deeply to theirs. The sudden acquisition of enormous strength or super powers, like Peter Parker in Spiderman, would be a dream come true for many children, who long to be vindicated and see their own tormentors – and the tormentors of the ones they love – receive their just desserts. No need for a trial, or for the slow process of human justice. Just a quick punch up in a back alley, and ‘Pow!’ – everyone gets what they truly deserve.

f17b5e7157caf51a86acd4d921123e74Unfortunately, many Christian organisations that work with children and young people discover that they hold similar beliefs about Jesus. To some extent, we in the mainstream church are responsible for that through the way we often talk about Christ. ‘Jesus’ is the answer to all questions; he can perform any miracle; he can triumph over any foe, even the arch-nemesis himself, Satan. As the popular children’s song goes: “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that he cannot do.”

This is especially true in the story of the resurrection perhaps. Indeed, the Easter story could, arguably, be an episode straight out of a comic book, in many respects. The misunderstood hero is hated by those he came to serve; his true identity is hidden from even his closest friends and family; and the bad guys have their moment of triumph, when it looks like our hero is down and out for good, unable to use his powers. The cross is his kryptonite. Yet, just when everything looks bad, and it seems that evil has indeed triumphed, the Man of Steel rolls away his own tomb stone and confounds his enemies.

alonso_lc3b3pez_de_herrera_-_the_resurrection_of_christ_-_google_art_projectTraditional depictions of the Resurrection in Christian art arguably aid this interpretation of events. Jesus is usually portrayed as literally bursting out of his tomb, with the previously smirking guards now quivering in fear at his feet, and his grave clothes artistically fluttering in the breeze behind him, much like Superman’s cape. He is ‘Super Jesus’: faster than a speeding bullet; more powerful than a locomotive; able to escape even the most gruesome of deaths in a single bound!

Today’s reading from John’s gospel, though, puts the lie to that interpretation of Jesus and his death and resurrection. While the traditional focus of the passage is poor Thomas and his – arguably understandable – doubts, for me the crucial part of this passage is what Jesus tells us about himself:

Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (John 20:27)

Jesus does not emerge from the experience of Easter unscathed. He is explicitly unlike the superheroes of our comic books and films, because he still bares the scars of his torture and execution. Bullets, or nails in this case, do not bounce off his skin, like Superman’s. His wounds do not miraculously heal themselves, like one of the X-Men. Even after his glorious resurrection, and his triumph over the grave, he is still able to say to Thomas, and the other disciples, ‘Look upon my scars.’.

the_incredulity_of_thomas2c_who_places_his_finger_in_the_wound_28f-_142v29_croppedJesus, as one commentator has observed, is not an ‘Etch a Sketch’ Messiah. His wounds do not disappear but will remain with him, for the rest of his earthly life. And not only the physical scars, but the mental and emotional ones too: the experience of betrayal, loneliness and despair in the days and hours leading up to his crucifixion. They do not vanish overnight, either.

That is what is so important about this story of Thomas for me, and speaks deeply to my own experience. On several occasions, and one in particular, I, as a minister, have been called upon to lead my congregations in Easter praise and joyful celebration. To sing the inspiring, upbeat hymns and to deliver a positive, smiling sermon, to a church full of families and daffodils. Yet, in all honesty my heart has still been in the tomb. I have still been contemplating my own sadness and worries; and I have known that many members of my congregation are there too. The rolling over of the calendar from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday has not changed their lives. It has not taken away their grief, their pain, their anger. They have still been in the Garden of Gethsemane, weeping with Christ, or on the cross of pain, writhing in agony.

The reality is that, even in the face of Easter joy and the good news of death overcome, we still bear the scars of life on our bodies, in our hearts and in our minds. And that is what makes Jesus our true superhero. Because he bears them too. He cannot simply brush aside the crown of thorns and nails; he cannot forget what his best friends did to him on that night, he still bears those wounds now. Yet because of what God did through his supreme sacrifice, he gives all of us the courage to believe that these scars are not the end of the story. That pain, and terror, and loss shall not have the final word. He is not like a false friend telling us to ‘buck up’ or ‘pull yourself together’ – ‘everything’s fine now!’. He is our closet companion, telling us, ‘Yes. I know what it is to hurt, and to suffer, and to fear death. I know the absolute reality of grief, anguish and loss. We can sit down and show one another our scars. But when you are in a place to hear it, I have good news for you: those wounds are not the end of our story.’ Truly, the prophet Isaiah was right when he said: “by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). For it is through the scars of Christ, borne for Thomas and for us all, that we know the true love of God. Not a false superhero, impervious to pain and want, but a true Saviour and friend, who shows us how to live the best life we possibly can, and who waits to welcome us all into eternity. Alleluia. Amen.

caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomas

April Fool?

Happy Easter! This is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. The set reading was the account of the resurrection from Mark’s gospel: Mark 16:1-8.

Today is, as you all know, April Fool’s Day. The day when people traditionally play pranks on one another, and our newspapers drop in a few fake stories to try to fool us into believing that there are such things as spaghetti trees, and the like. It also happens to be Easter Sunday, as I am pretty sure you also all know. Given that Easter can fall on any Sunday between 22nd March and 25th April, that is not terribly shocking, and indeed – according to Wikipedia – it will happen again in 2029. I shall be sure to save this sermon for re-use then!

Resurrection (St John's, Cambridge)This coincidence of dates has already given rise to much comment and some mockery in the media and online. There will no doubt be several commentators today who suggest that the billions of Christians across the globe celebrating Easter with us are, in fact, being taken for April fools. We will be told again that the resurrection story is just an elaborate prank or myth. Nothing more than “a conjuring trick with bones”, as a former Bishop of Durham allegedly said.

This is nothing new, of course. Similar suggestions have been made ever since the time of Jesus and, while untrue, they challenge all of us to reflect upon our own understanding of the Easter story. Many of our hymns today speak of the absolute triumph of faith on this day. As we shall shortly sing:

No more we doubt thee,
glorious prince of life

Yet the truth is that we all have doubts and questions about the Easter story and exactly what happened.

One of the passages of scripture that gives me such faith in the Easter story, though, is that curious ending from Mark’s gospel – or the lack of an ending really – which we have just heard read. Some of us have been studying Mark’s gospel this Lent and I hope that we all found it a very useful and fulfilling experience – I certainly did. We are so used to hearing a conglomeration of the gospel stories, especially in Holy Week, that it is helpful occasionally to focus in on one particular evangelist’s viewpoint and style.

codexaureus_21Mark, as most of you will know, was almost certainly the first gospel to be written, perhaps 30 or 35 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, as one participant in the Lent course observed, it often has the feel of a first draft. This is not to deny its wonderful narrative style and pace, often breathlessly driving the action on, where the other gospels linger awhile. We also highlighted those places where we seem to detect the extra details about a scene that only an eyewitness could have given, and many of us felt that the stories often feel like they were transcribed from someone speaking aloud, rather than an author sitting alone at his desk. Perhaps they come from the apostle Peter himself, who has often been associated with Mark’s gospel, telling and re-telling the stories to the first Christians as he travelled across the Mediterranean. It really is a wonderful and endlessly rewarding text. Yet for all that there is an undeniable rawness and lack of polish to the text. Matthew, when he copied large sections into his own gospel, even had to correct Mark’s grammar and syntax!

For me, though, this is a wonderful strength of the book not a weakness. If he had been setting out to deceive, to trick, to make April fools of us all, he simply would have done a better job! He would have spun his ‘fake news’ better – smoothed out the wrinkles, omitted all the embarrassing facts, and provided ready-made answers to some of the contentious issues of his own day. Instead, he provides us with a ‘warts and all’ record of the ministry of Jesus, including a devastating critique of the men who came to hold positions of great importance in the early church, the apostles.

sargis_pitsakThere is no better example of this than the Passion narrative in Mark’s gospel. At our last session, we read through this whole section, from the beginning of chapter 14 to the end of today’s reading, in one go. Despite its familiarity, we were deeply moved by what we read. Mark does nothing to hide the despair and loneliness of Jesus in these last few hours before his death. One by one his friends desert him, starting with Judas and ending with his closest companion, Peter. All those whom he has come to serve and whom he has helped so willingly, turn their backs on him at this hour of need. And finally, even God seems to abandon him. That heartbreaking cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 14:34). A troubling and disturbing cry for one who claimed to be the true Messiah, the Son of God. A verse that a cleverer and more deceitful editor would simply have removed.

Then we have that strange and mystifying ending. Not the glorious vindication of this rejected Christ but merely an empty tomb and a few women running away, seized by “terror and amazement” (16:8). If you were going to start an international deception, that is not how you would record it – and you certainly would not have based your testimony upon that of a few foolish women, whose word counted for very little at that time. Were you seeking to make April fools of a third of the population of the planet, you would have done a much better job of hiding your tracks!

Now the truth is that the ending of Mark’s gospel most likely got lost somehow, as often happened to ancient documents. It almost certainly originally ended with some of the same incidents as Matthew and Luke record. Yet, there is something wonderfully reassuring about these verses, and the fact that they were not suppressed by the early church. They record the genuine human emotions of people encountering something completely beyond their understanding. The terror and fear of the women are real, and Mark seems to have no qualms whatsoever about recording them. He does not seek to edit out their reactions and put them into a ‘stained glass attitude’ instead. He would only need to have done that, if he had had something to hide or if he wished to deceive us. And that was not his purpose in writing.

800px-Fra_Angelico_-_Resurrection_of_Christ_and_Women_at_the_Tomb_(Cell_8)_-_WGA00542He was not seeking to make April fools of us all. Instead, he wished to set down honestly and without omission the record of what his first readers knew to be the truth. The story that they knew so well, and which they had heard from the lips of eyewitnesses for decades, who had become the first preachers of the early church. The story that the tomb was empty. That the women did see something amazing. That Jesus had truly risen from the dead.

Whatever the women and the apostles saw in that tomb – or perhaps more importantly did not see – changed their lives forever. It made them abandon homes and families and careers, and become itinerant preachers, travelling thousands of miles between them and dependent upon the charity of others. It made them give up some of the most central tenets of their faith: their dietary laws, their Sabbath, even their belief that God could never have a son. It made them willing even to put their own lives on the line, so that you and I may hear this good news today.

This is no April fool, brothers and sisters. It is incredible. It is astounding. It is world-changing, and it seems unbelievable. If it had not been, then the women in our story today would have just neatly folded up the grave clothes and calmly walked home. Yet it is the truth. Pure and unvarnished by Mark. That somehow, in a mystery that we shall never fully understand in this life, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead on that first Easter Sunday, and that through that action, the power of sin and death over us all was vanquished forever.

This is no April Fool. This is no ‘fake news’. This is no ‘conjuring trick’. It is the truth; and it is good news for you and for me, and for everyone, forever. Alleluia. Amen.

Rafael_-_ressureicaocristo01

Why, Nicodemus?

This is a reflection based on Jesus’ famous encounter with Nicodemus in John 3, but it also brings in ideas from his other two appearances in the gospel. The readings are: John 3:1-17; John 7:45-52; John 19:38-42.

“Why did you go, Nicodemus?

Why did you go to see this strange character, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you really think that he was a prophet? Search the scriptures you know so well, and you will see for yourself that no prophet comes from Galilee. He does look a bit like a prophet, it’s true. And sounds like one on occasions. He certainly acts like one sometimes, come to think of it. Whipping up that storm in the Temple, driving out the dove sellers and money changers: that was risky. Just the sort of thing that Isaiah or Amos might have done, I suppose. But we have no prophets now and if we did have any, they certainly wouldn’t come from Nazareth.

henry_ossawa_tanner_-_jesus_and_nicodemusPerhaps you went to see a miracle? He certainly has quite a few tricks up his sleeve, doesn’t he? Lepers claiming to be healed, the lame leaping for joy, sight restored – there’ll be no beggars left soon! And there was that strange talk about the wedding he went to in Cana: a good man to have at a party, by the sounds of it! Even that old fox Herod seems intrigued by him, so they say, although apparently he’s just petrified that it’s John come back to haunt him. Like Samuel rising from the witch’s fire!

Did you go on your own account, or because others sent you? You called him ‘rabbi’, I hear; a bad place to start, if I might say so. It gives the man too much credence – and then you said, “we know that you are a teacher”. Who’s this “we” then? Are there others on the Council who feel the same way? I find it hard to believe that a group of such distinguished men could be so gullible. These are hard enough times to be a good Jew, without our leaders losing their heads too. Romans or no Romans, blasphemy is always blasphemy!

Why do did you go by night, Nicodemus?

Night time is a time for sleeping; for lying safe in your bed beside your wife, knowing that all the household and animals are safely locked up. Why, even a group of dis-organised brides searching for lamp oil wouldn’t raise me from my slumbers! What on earth possessed you to go out into the dark streets and seek the company of cutthroats and drunkards? Maybe it was because you did not want to be seen by anyone consorting with this strange Nazarene. He’s certainly not popular with some of your fellow Pharisees, is he? He seems to possess a real knack for getting under their skin: even you lost your cool a bit with him yourself, didn’t you – when he started talking about being born again. His habit of answering a question with another question really is infuriating, isn’t it? No wonder your friends, the chief priests, get so riled: no one else would dare talk to them like that. Or are they your friends, I wonder?

Crijn_HendrickszPerhaps, though, I am thinking of this like some strange gentile might in the frozen north. All their streets – if such barbarian settlements have streets – may be deserted by sunset. We are a warm-blooded people, though. Only fools would sit and talk about important matters in the heat of the day, when sensible folks seek the shade and their beds. Night time is the time to come alive, to ponder the deep things of life in the cool of the evening: just as when God walked with Adam in the Garden, in fact. It is then, with a welcome breeze slowly swaying the branches of the trees – and no, I don’t know where it comes from or goes to, either – it is then that we can think clearly, and talk through the deep things of life.

For this is a very deep thing that you are discussing, is it not? Matters of faith and belief, of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, of life and death. For who is this “Son of Man” of which he speaks? Is he talking about the one that Daniel – a proper prophet, and most definitely not from Galilee – of the one that Daniel said would come at the end times? Or is he – horror of horrors – talking about himself, in that strange elliptical way he has of speaking? If he is, then this is blasphemy pure and simple: to suggest that he has come down from heaven, that he will be lifted up again and, worst of all, that belief in him will lead to eternal life! You should have run away then, Nicodemus; this stuff is too hot to handle! This is the sort of thing that will get him into trouble, and you too, if you’re not careful. Performing a few miracles is one thing but this is blasphemy, and you – a teacher of Israel – know that only too well, don’t you?

Why did you go back, Nicodemus?

That wasn’t very sensible, was it? Going to Pilate, with Joseph of Arimethea and asking to have the body. I mean, really, what were you thinking of? You saw how angry the High Priest was and the rest of your fellow Council members. What a fuss, and all just before Passover as well: Passover of all times, I ask you. With the city full to bursting and the Romans on edge. No wonder it all got out of hand. Did you really have to make a scene with that other old man and get the body? I mean he’s dead now: he won’t mind whether he’s dumped on the heap with all the other felons, will he?

This is not the end of the matter for you; you know that, don’t you. People saw you ask for the body, and Caiaphas and the rest have very long memories. You won’t be trusted again – though perhaps you haven’t been properly trusted since you went the first time. But this. This seemed utterly pointless. “Let the dead bury their dead.” Now, where did I hear that phrase? Never mind.

Entierro_de_Cristo_(Tiziano)What did you hope to achieve by doing this thing, by putting him into that tomb? Poor old Joseph had that specially cut for himself, and now he’s not even going to be the first tenant. Was it out of respect? Of admiration? Or was it out of hope? Did you still believe that he might have been a prophet, or perhaps even more than a prophet? Did you want him to be proved right?

That’s the frustrating thing about faith, isn’t it? Unless it’s tested by doubts and uncertainties then it’s not faith at all: it’s just knowledge. But to have faith – true faith – you must know doubt too. The deep, unsettling doubt that robs us of our sleep, and haunts us during the small hours of the night: perhaps that’s why you went to see him when you did? Did this strange man from Nazareth provoke in you feelings of wonder and awe that you thought had died long ago? Did what he say actually make perfect sense to you – once you had had time to digest it properly? Did you recognise the truth of what he was saying, and what he taught – did you see fulfilled in him the prophecies you know so well of the Messiah who is to come? Did he show you a better, more perfect way of being; did he reveal to you the deepest things of life – things you didn’t even know that you didn’t even know?

Wait, Nicodemus. Have faith, Nicodemus. Come back again in the three days, Nicodemus. Come and see that your faith is not in vain.”