Thursday, September 08, 2016

Searching and sweeping until the thing is found.

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19 - Year C
Luke 15:1-10

At the outset of this week’s Gospel reading, the scribes and the Pharisees expressed unhappiness about all the "low-life" to be found among the followers of Jesus:

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.

Listen to what Jesus says at the end of the reading:   

“I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels
of God over one sinner who repents.”

If all we had were these two ends – the opening and the conclusion – we might conclude that some sinners work hard at this whole business of repentance and can overcome the stigma of their past behavior with a rigourous and athletic turnaround.  These “deserving sinners” get cheered on by angels in heaven as they cross the finish line and join the righteous on the other side. 

In fact, the intervening two mini-parables (the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin) are no testament whatsoever to the ability of the lost sheep to climb out of a deep chasm and work its way out of the heather and return to the sheepfold or of a coin to hoist its own shiny edge up between the floorboards and catch the woman’s attention in order to get itself found. 

God, says Jesus, is a shepherd.   He will go to great lengths to find the one who is well and truly lost. 

God, says Jesus, is a poor widow.  She will sweep the lengths of her house repeatedly until she finds the thing she has set out to find. 

The nature of the Good News that Jesus preaches is not that there now exists a novel way for men and women to work their way along the narrow path into the favor of heaven.  The Good News is that God is at work looking for his children, energetically and relentlessly.  The redeemed sinner is the handiwork of God and the fruits of God’s labour.

We need to agree to be found.  
We need to rejoice with the angels when others are found as well.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

The neighbour: Proximity or Affinity?

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10  
Year C
Luke 10:25-37

Jesus asks a lawyer to summarize the Law and the man obliges: We are to love God and we are to love our neighbour, he says.

Jesus commends the lawyer for having come up with the right answer.  The man then asks Jesus: “So who is my neighbour?”

Our lawyer is not merely being difficult.  This matters rather a lot.  Luke tells us the story of their exchange in the Greek language and the word used for neighbour (plesios) merely describes “One who is near”.  In a similar fashion, when St Jerome translated the Bible into Latin from Greek the word he chose to use here in this passage was proximus (“the one beside me”).  Luther’s German New Testament uses the word nächster (as in “the nearest") Our inclination, however, is to love those who are attached to us by blood, affection, background or common purpose.  We will go out of our way to find some biblical warrant for it.  So when the Greek Old Testament uses the word neighbour (plesios) to translate a Hebrew word, the word is most often a Hebrew word (re’a) best translated as “compatriot”.  That’s better.   Instead of referring to whoever happens to be standing next to me or living in the house next door the earlier word seems to refer to “One with whom one has something to do”

You shall not take vengeance or bear any 
grudge against  the sons of your own people 
but you shall love your neighbour (re’a) 
as yourself.
                                                                           Leviticus 19:18 
We might conclude that the Greek language here is the odd man out and ill equipped to express the natural loyalty I feel towards those who are like me - towards the sons and daughters of my own people.  This might have been the case except that Jesus then proceeds to tell a story which indicates that natural loyalty itself is the problem he wants to address.

A Jewish man was set upon by thieves. Those with a natural kinship to him gave him a wide berth and left him lying wounded in the road while an ethnic enemy – the Samaritan for whom the parable is named – dressed the man’s wounds and paid for his lodging.  Who then, asks Jesus, was neighbour to this man?

I don’t need to tell anybody reading this that the events dominating our news media for the past few weeks in Britain, America and around the world are all wrapped up with the very question which the lawyer poses to Jesus:  Who is my neighbour?  Who am I connected to?  Who can live in the place where I live?  To whom do I owe love, protection and the assurance of their wellbeing.  While I would not presume to oversimplify questions of migration, national identity or religious pluralism as they apply to the countries of our birth, I can’t help pointing out that Jesus goes out of his way to say that this natural inclination towards those who are most like us is wholly insufficient. 

True neighbourliness will extend to the stranger too.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A man in his right mind.

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7)
Year C
Luke 8:26-39

We’ve all seen the advertisements - for diet or beauty products, exercises or fitness machines - which present the reader with two photographs, generally marked “before” and “after”.  In a similar “before and after” story in Luke’s Gospel, a young man sits calmly at the feet of Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind”.  At the beginning of the story, the man was raving, naked and self-isolating.  I did a reflection on this passage yesterday morning at a meeting of the local protestant clergy here in Clermont-Ferrand.   I think I prefer the French translations in the TOB and the Louis Segond (making reference to "reason" and "good sense") to the English translation we’re going to read on Sunday.

...habillé, et revenu à la raison (TOB)
...vêtu, et dans son bon sens (LS)

I mean what is, after all, your right mind?   In what way “right”?  

Is the young man’s mental map now what it ought to be, or what the village thinks it should be or even what Jesus has told him it should be?  What is clear is that the young man was formerly unable to be a part of village life.  He caused chaos when he was there and had even been physically restrained.  If he escaped those chains or was allowed to flee, he would wander in the wilderness with beasts as his only companions.  This is no longer the case.  We are now presented with the “after” photograph.  The crisis is over.  The Greek word used by the evangelist for this young man’s latest state speaks of a restored capacity for discernment and most importantly judgement.  In the second photograph he can now choose where before he was a victim of forces he could not control: Reason and good sense have returned.

At the end of our story this Sunday Jesus convinces the man that his mission is to enjoy his restoration to the life of his village and to testify to what God has done for him.  This dockside exchange of words gives us an indication of what a recovered mind might look like:  The two of them "have words" there by the boat.  Jesus has restored and not replaced this young man’s mind.  It is the negative forces which Jesus overpowers and not the man himself.  Let’s keep in mind that Jesus interacts with the minds of the people he speaks to in his parables and pronouncements.  Jesus is involved in a persuasive process with people who have the power of choice - who can say yes or no.  The parables are directed to people who normally make the right decisions about their own best interests and are able to discern truth from among other options.  While they may not be the sort of people rich enough to keep pearls or even to liquidate real estate holdings to purchase an additional field, they nonetheless have sold and bought goods and can appreciate the right mindedness of an individual who would trade several modest pearls for a pearl of great price and who would sell ordinary plots of land to purchase one which contained a treasure. 

Reason and good sense allows you to to change your mind in a conversation with Jesus -  to discover and affirm new and better ways of thinking about God, the world and yourself. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The unfolding story of God in small spaces.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke 7:11-17                   

Two sons are clutched from death and restored to their mothers.  In much of the Christian world these readings will be heard on Sunday by contemporary mothers sitting in church pews who would cut off their right arms in order to see their sons thrive, prevail, succeed, recover or even to continue to live.   We owe these contemporary women a debt of thought:  In no way is it assured that the good things in our Sunday readings which took place for those boys and their mothers will happen to them, who have muttered endless prayers to God and Jesus about their sons.  

They are good boys who don’t deserve the things which have landed on them from outside.   Nor should their sons be defined by (or blamed for) every impulse welling up within them and causing them and others grief.  These women know the habits and all the warm human smells of their boys.  They have picked up cast-off garments and even clutched them for a moment – counting themselves lucky to be in contact with an aimless bit of the lad which he has thrown aside.  Some administrative marvel out there will have done the maths and pointed out the unfairness of Elijah landing in the house of one poor widow with an ailing son in a land filled with sickness and deprivation (cf. Luke 4:25-26?).   What about any hypothetical funeral procession held earlier in the day in Capernaum – a procession which Jesus and his disciples did not happen to encounter?  What about that mother?

At coffee time the preacher sees the woman coming over to speak - her lips already pursing with the anticipatory “Wh” of the word “Why” or perhaps more correctly “Why not….”

What makes the preacher’s knees weak at this point as the distance between them narrows?  Who has been let down, and by whom?  Is an apology in order?  On whose behalf would one apologize?  On God’s behalf?  In the sermon which has just been preached the unfolding story of God touched down twice in small spaces in Israel.  A rivulet nourishes the modest patch of land which it waters.  The voice is heard as far as a voice might carry through the air.  Elijah will lodge in the small northern hut where he’s been commanded by God to take refuge.  The itinerary of the Son of man will connect with a limited number of folk in the villages of the Galilee.  If you must apologize, then do so on your own behalf who are part of a body which is worldwide and universal and which, in many places, still has the ear of legislators.  Do so on behalf of the church which has lost touch with the Acts of the Apostles and with the Great Commission and will not take current account of the miracles and acts of love of her saints over the centuries. 

We will not unravel the mystery of innocent suffering in a few words.  Nor, however, can we excuse our default position which would seem to be that there exists a great Wheel of Fortune which crushes as it will unless Jesus or Elijah declares a holiday by his very presence. 

There’s nothing we can do.  
The coin will land head or tails.
The market will have its way.
It has always been thus.   

We do not accept that the baton has been handed to us to work for the healing of small spaces.   The evangelical logic of Jesus and Elijah taking the unfolding story of God into small spaces is that it is the desire of God to heal and to restore, to forgive and to build up and that the Church as Christ's body will do the same.  Would that same logic not propel men and women to take their place in the ongoing work of health care (including mental health care), of education, in the forming of just societies and the reform of criminal justice - ultimately in the relief and restoration of sons and daughters who are at risk?

And, while I'm on the subject, have we even been to this woman's house?

Friday, May 27, 2016

The faith of an expat: Jesus and the Centurion

The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Year C
Luke 7:1-10

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, 
and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, 
"I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."


The Galilee wasn’t physically occupied by the Romans until A.D. 44.  It wasn’t until Herod Antipas fell from grace with the Romans and got himself exiled with his wife to Lyon just down the road from us in Clermont-Ferrand, that the Roman army finally set up camp north of the border.  At the time of our story, then, there was no Roman army in the Galilee.  They were in the south – in Judea.  So what was a Roman centurion doing in Capernaum?  Well Herod, as a Roman client ruler, yearned for a Roman style soldiery of his own and no doubt needed a Roman centurion to help him achieve that.  The centurion in our story was, plausibly, on loan from the Roman army as a military advisor.  This suggests not only that he was far from home.   He was also outside of his familiar patterns and environment - only tangentially still working for the Company.  A man, well-suited for a particular life, had shelved it and found (almost accidentally) amongst God’s historic people, the Jews – in their community structures, their worship, their Sabbath and their ethics and above all in their ancient story of God encountering his people - something which appealed to him and which he wanted to be part of. 

Who are you when you are not at home?  Are you half the man or woman you would be in your habitual surroundings?  Does travelling light far from home mean for you your essential toolbox is elsewhere - at home - under lock and key?  This centurion’s disassociation from his well-worn paths, on the other hand, had given him a measure of holy freedom.  You can still see the lower floor of the synagogue he built for the Jews of Capernaum.  It’s underneath the ruins of the somewhat grander sixth-century synagogue, made of white marble, which took its place.    It was made of the same sort of black basalt as our cathedral here in Clermont is built from or, for that matter, our own little chapel in Royat.

And what has our centurion learned in these new surroundings and among these new associates?  According to Jesus, anyway, this man's understanding is substantial.  His words of faith are fresh and matter-of-fact.  When Jesus receives his request to have his beloved servant healed and offers to come to the centurion’s house the man replies that there is no need:  All Jesus needs to do is say the word and it will be done.  

"I’m a man under authority", he says.  I know how these things take place.  The Lieutenant-Colonel speaks to the Adjutant who then speaks to the junior officers who then speak to me and the other NCO’s.  We speak to the men.  If we encounter resistance, it’s not for nothing that the symbol of my centurion’s office is a stout stick of vine wood which can be applied to a soldier’s back.  The job gets done. 

Here, says Jesus, do we find a man of faith such as may not even be found in most of Israel.  As evidence that he has understood he has come up with an analogy from his own world which tells me he has understood.  Here is a man who would understand that God loves the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and will give them the good things that they require because it's in the Standing Orders.  Here is one who, when told not to worry, will not worry, because matters must be in hand.  He has understood.  

The half dozen dislocations which occur in our own lives are not given the credit they are due. We might see them as a step down from the ordered trajectory we should expect in a perfect world.   In fact, each one is an opportunity -  to provoke our faith and to claim a space wherein we offer our unique gift to the world around us.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

How much can you bear?

Trinity Sunday
Year C 
John 16:12-15

“I still have many things to say to you,
but you cannot bear them now.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he
will guide you into all the truth.....”

The three leaf clover, the Fleur-de-Lys and the other visual representations of the Trinity of God are traditionally used to show the faithful who (or more usually, what) the Holy Trinity is.  In practice the diagrams and patterns declare something unmoving and eternal.  Jesus' words, in the small snippet of his farewell discourse chosen for this Sunday’s Gospel reading, tell quite a different story and describe what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit actually do.  Jesus says there is a wellspring of love and information in the Trinity of God. 

The Father has given all to the Son 
The Spirit takes what belongs to the Son 
and declares it to us on the world’s behalf.       
We might be forgiven for believing that the Spirit merely reinforces what is already in the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels.  Is the Holy Spirit a sort of active, living index which points the Church back to what she already knows but has perhaps forgotten or failed to apply?   Does the Holy Spirit have a Bible in its hand?  That was what I was always led to believe, anyway. 

Maybe we should expect to hear timeless truths in Church.  We have a Communion Service based on very old antecedents.   The Mass is the Mass is the Mass.  It warms our hearts to hear the Bible read sometimes in traditional translation.  We refer to our hymns sometimes as the Old One Hundredth, we even sing about being asking to be told “…the old, old story” but Jesus promises his disciples here that the Holy Spirit will shepherd them into novel territory.  Frankly, I can see little in the passage to indicate that the content of what the Spirit will proclaim will limit itself slavishly to what is already there in the parables, the controversies, the public discourses of Jesus or the private teaching between the Master and his disciples.  The disciples had heard all of that and had profited from the private teaching during his ministry and in the days between Easter and Pentecost to clear up what they had not yet understood.  In our reading this Sunday at the end of a longer passage Jesus says explicitly that he has other things to tell them which, at that moment, they could not bear to hear.  “The Spirit of truth…will guide you”

We should at least be curious about what he meant.

There is enough material in the Acts of the Apostles to give us a hint of how the Jerusalem Church, Peter and the other Apostles along with the newcomers Paul and Barnabas and a small army of deacon/evangelists sent to the Samaritan and Greek cities were privileged to express in new and changing times and places not only what the Gospel said but what it meant as well.   In so doing they disagreed which each other – sometimes quite vociferously.  Following the Spirit of God into truths which a previous generation or even our younger self could not possibly bear courts a certain degree of risk. 

It sails very close to the wind.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The best things in life are invisible

Pentecost Sunday
Year C                                                                                            
Acts 2:1-21

Ignatius of Antioch once said (Ignatius' Epistle to the Romans III:3) that:

"nothing visible is good" (οὐδὲν φαινόμενον καλόν) 

which I have no hesitation flipping on its back and taking Ignatius to mean that:

"the best things in life are invisible".

It is a lesson often learned too late:  We will not ultimately regret missing out on the houses, cars and the substantive preferments of this life.   We will, however, bitterly regret having been passed over by honour, verity, friendship, purpose, love and the myriad connections we have to the souls of other people and to the Kingdom of God in our midst.  It won't do to protest that people are quite visible, thank you very much, and while we're at it so are church buildings and halls.  Truth can be researched in universities; honour and verity in courts of law.  All of these have mailing addresses.  Our attachment to these visible things, however like all relationships, is an invisible connection.  They direct the orientation of our souls or they do not.

A group of people bitterly divided over a task can be said to be missing "Team Spirit".  A young person who has struggled with a series of exams or facing the end of a relationship can be said to be "Dispirited".  All the bits and pieces of success and forward progress are there but for want of a certain je ne sais quoi the group or the individual is pinned to in place..  The magic ingredient is missing from the recipe - the insubstantial substantial necessary to make the whole thing work.  In the absence of fundamental direction we may agonize about our forward progress.  The visible marks of success - our pay grade, our grade point average, our place on the ladder - seem a relentless upward or forward slog.

The invisible gift of the Spirit of God is as necessary as the animating spirit that has kept you and me walking around lo these many years.  Luke makes a point of using the related words for Spirit and rushing wind to show a clear connection between the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the very creation of the Human Being in the Garden.  Without the animating gift we are merely clay.  It's an extraordinary gift of God to us from the time of our conception yet it is something utterly ordinary to us now.  We no longer think about breathing.  There is grief and sorrow when the gift is removed.   Peter's sermon (which carries on beyond the reading chosen for this Sunday) puts the matter of this second gift of breath plainly.  Yes these events are extraordinary.  This invisible gift is, nonetheless, the ordinary equipment of the Christian.  If this gift been taken from you (or more properly feels taken from you) - by virtue of anger over personal reversals, bitter experience or the sin that has divided you from God and from your brothers and sisters then you will need to ask for it back.

Retreating into your visible achievements will not do.
That's the sort of thing you would do instead of living.              


Thursday, May 05, 2016

What does your faith cost the rest of the world?

The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Year C
Acts 16:16-34

…as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.

You’ve probably heard a sermon or two asking whether your Christian faith has ever cost you anything.  This Sunday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles opens the door to another question, though:  What has your faith cost the society around you? 

The Romans expressed everything from mild irritation to outright persecution of non-Roman religions.  They could not countenance the Jews with their Sabbath, for example.  To what end is it worth having a slave, an indentured servant or even a business partner of the “Hebrew Persuasion” who insisted on taking one perfectly good day out of the week and refusing to work on it?  A slave you could always beat but some would gladly endure a beating for the sake of their Sabbath.  And these Christians with their refusal to do their patriotic duty by sacrificing a pinch of incense to the Genius of Caesar on the small altars set up in front of public buildings!  Religious fanatics all of them and not to be trusted.  A drain upon public solidarity.  Roman society was, in the main, conservative, pragmatic and mercantile.  Nothing wrong with peace, order and good government and at the same time making a little dough in the ordered space that a well-managed society offered you.

Saint Paul cast out a “spirit of divination” from a little slave girl who was following him and his associates throughout the city of Philippi.  It’s what you would expect a follower of Jesus to do.  In this case, however, the little girl’s fortune telling was a source of considerable income to her owners.  Her healing cost them something and the enduring presence of Paul and his associates in Philippi and even more so later in Ephesus (chapter 19) promised to threaten the local economy by freeing men and women from their magical practices and their idols.  It undermined their loyalty.

Not many of you have a “spirit of divination” which might cause alarm and concern to your pastor or to the members of this parish.  But as men and women redeemed by Christ and called from the world into the family of God you have a competing loyalty which might, could, should or even must cause you to consider how you make and spend your money, how violently you climb the ladder of success, how you relate to your employer and your employee. 

Your school, your business and your political party need to be put on notice.  God has his claws in you.  You are no longer a company man.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Naming the Saints of God

The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Year C
Acts 16:9-15

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace,
the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi

When the train arrives at the station here in Clermont Ferrand the crowds pour out of the up escalator at the Gare. Crowds at rush hour are pretty anonymous – a nameless mass of moving humanity. You can quickly ascertain who has somewhere to go immediately and who doesn't. The ones with a determined look and a quick pace disappear quickly while the others stop for coffee or stand on the corner talking with their friends. Grab one of the quick ones in your imagination. “Where are you going?”you ask.

I have a class at 8 o'clock at the university.”
I have a sales call in fifteen minutes”.
My appointment at the hospital is this morning and I want to be early in line.”

Newly arrived at Philippi from the dockside at Neapolis long ago Saint Paul lingered with a few of his fellow workers in the high street. He'd been conveyed inland to the right town but hadn't yet been told where he was to present himself. There he stood with his secretary (Luke - carrying the stationary case) and a couple of associates knowing only that God had told him in a vision to come here and be of help to the struggling local church – wherever it was. Together they intended to go where the church would likely meet. They would be shown what to do next. 

Take some time to read through Acts 15-17. God was clearly out and about in the Roman Empire. He was bringing men and women to faith in large centres and in out-of-the-way places. He was bringing strangers together in the towns and cities of the Empire. They were small business people, they were household servants – Jews and Gentiles. The Christian establishment back in Jerusalem was now being called on to be fellow workers with God in the process which he was initiating and with the people who he knew already. All Paul and his friends needed to do was to make themselves available and to weather the uncertainty. They were to “loiter with intent”.

Our story began with a vision from God which St Paul received of an unnamed man in Macedonia pleading for help. It's an imprecise commission but it prompted Paul and his associates “immediately” to get on the next boat. What follows in the rest of chapter 16 and into chapter 17 is a rush of personal names and place names – difficult words which will daunt whoever reads the second lesson this Sunday. Luke goes to length to name these people. The anonymity collapses and personalities emerge. These are the building blocks of the church which God builds.

Do we talk in our churches about Outreach and Mission as if they were projects which began and ended with us? Have we forgotten that the Spirit of God is already abroad in the world? Our role is much more to respond to what he has already begun in hearts of people who we hope to have the honour of being able one day to name and to know.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

They were once like us.

Easter 4

Year C
Revelation 7:9-17

The folks at home eating Chinese take-out on folding TV tables scan the celebrities who come into view as a camera pans the crowd at a royal wedding or some other great national event.

“There's Elton John” 
says mum.
Who's Elton John?” her granddaughter asks her.
There's the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and, oh yes, that other fellow who was always on the news during the Falklands war – what's his name?'

If mum would ever just “stifle” and stop talking over the television she would be told who's who in due course. Nicholas Witchell, the BBC's royal correspondent does yeoman service filling in the blanks for those of us who need our memories jogged at great events. That's his job, after all. He knows. In the vision of John of Patmos (which we know in English as the Book of Revelation and which the rest of the world calls the Apocalypse), a heavenly elder turns to John the viewer and asks:

Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

At first glance these figures dressed in white with their palm branches in hand who have gathered around the throne of God and the Lamb are angels or some other heavenly beings. In which case, they differ from me in their very nature. That they can show up at the west door with invitations to the heavenly event is no surprise, being born to it and all.

John the Revelator” was possibly a prisoner in the island's salt mines when he had his vision. He writes like a Hebrew or Aramaic speaker who's learned a bit of journeyman's Greek along the way. He's nothing special.  So why does the heavenly elder ask him about the identity of the crowd? John appears put-out at this reversal of roles: Sir, you are the one that knows.” he says.

Why ask the question? Might it be that not knowing at the outset is a part of the process and that a question nails that insecurity better? The first part of the elder's question provokes an immediate response: No, I am not one of those saints. The Revelator must feel the rawness of his own life first - the rags which barely cover his nakedness, the banishment and hard labour on the Island of Patmos. 

Try to remember that the emphasis in the elder's question is on the second part:  ...where have they come from?”  The “clearly not me” surrenders a little bit in the elder's explanation that these are ordinary humans who have 

"...come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and 
made them white in the blood of the Lamb." 

My life in the salt mine as an exile for Christ performs some change in my nature. The pain of faithful life is not wasted. I am a prisoner. I am a member of a persecuted religious minority in a Roman outpost. I write in a language in which I have no ease because I am impelled to testify to the victory of God in the presence of my brothers and sisters. I am a member of a tiny church with a difficult demographic and an uncertain future. My faith is pretty well all that I have. I struggle to profess that faith in the midst of colleagues, parents or children who share little of it. 

I now know the answer to both sides of the elder's question:

I am not there right now.
But those who are 
or will be there
were once where I am now.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Simon Peter in the school of love.

Easter 3
Year C                                          
 John 21:1-19

Jesus asks Peter – Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?

These ‘what’ exactly? More than ‘this’ life, represented by the items of a fisherman’s trade scattered around on the beach – these nets, these spools of braided line, these floats?

Or – do you love me more than these other disciples love me?
You, Peter, pre-eminent among my followers:
                      Do you love me more than these others do?

The question arising between a man and a woman or a parent and a child - 'Do you love me?' - might be playful or perhaps it probes at some perceived weakness.

Do you love me? (of course you do)
Do you love me? (I want to hear you say it)
Do you love me? (I suspect that you do not)
Do you love me? (I wonder if you know what that means)

I’ll roll the dice and will hold that:

1. When Jesus asked Peter if he loved him more than these that he was referring to the other disciples gathered with them on the beach.

2. He asks the question three times because Peter has denied him three times and;

3. That when he asked Peter whether or not he loved him he was wondering if Peter knew what that meant.

Because it is not clear that we always know what love means.

You'll have heard of the well-known “tussle” here in the conversation between Jesus and Peter:

Three times Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him and twice he uses the Greek word (agapao) which refers to the type of love which gives and sacrifices, a love which lifts up the beloved.  Peter keeps replying “Yes, Lord I love you” and uses the word (phileo) which is a more ordinary emotional attachment or affection.

You would expect that with the the second  time of asking Peter would have twigged that the repeated question with a particular word was meant to hammer him into shape but, in fact, it is Jesus who draws near to Peter and uses Peter’s inadequate word for love in his final question:  "Peter, do you love me?"

Peter has not yet fathomed the love that Jesus asks about.  Jesus, though, will begin in the place where his disciple stands and use the words that Peter can speak and know here in this School of Love which convenes on a Galilean beach.   It was the same way he encountered Thomas in the School of Faith which met behind locked doors in Jerusalem in last week’s Gospel reading.

Jesus starts where these disciples are but the lesson does not finish there..   The School of Love will carry on.  Peter will come to learn love’s meaning.  Jesus finishes with the words:   “Follow me”.

Friday, April 01, 2016

This open door

A recurring dream I’ve had over the years has a door appearing in the hallway of one of my childhood homes in Winnipeg, Manitoba where no such door ever existed.  Doorways in dreams, I’m told, represent novelty, change and new direction.  Apparently it’s very good news when doors appear in your dreams – well done you!    One of the icons of Easter is the empty tomb with the large stone rolled to one side.  You might see it stitched into church banners and worked into stained glass windows.   An empty tomb is an open door.  It’s an uncompleted story – a marvellously altered trajectory.

Isn’t there something “sadly wearying” about the events of the last few weeks with the airport and metro bombings in Brussels?  Shock comes first, of course, but then we see the true intent of such terrorist attacks as they compel people to harden and reinforce their prejudices.  Ah, we say – here’s the trajectory:  Communities driven in upon themselves and communication across cultural and ethnic boundaries faltering.  Suddenly we hear things from normally good-hearted people which seem shocking and abnormal.  We find ourselves thinking some of these same things.  We mediate the shame of feeling this way by appealing to its normalcy.  That’s what always happens, we say.  It’s the way things go because that’s the way the world is or because that’s the way we are.  Why fight it?  They go that way because powerful people are pushing events along that path.  Who are we to stand up to them?   

The Good Friday opponents of Jesus felt that the trajectory was on their side.  They had settled and ended forever this particular rabbi’s take on the Kingdom of God, clicked shut his open door to restoration for the outcasts amongst the common people he’d met and preached to in the Galilee and Jerusalem.  All those parables, those healings, those glimpses of the kingdom – all these were locked away forever. For their part, Jesus’ scattered disciples knew the trajectory was against them.  The story had no extra chapter.  The Jesus story was sealed in a guarded tomb – the new normal.   

The Easter tomb is not an “ordinary” outcome in any generation.  Within the plot of the New Testament this open door remains God’s extraordinary pledge that the world’s predictable downward spirals are not the last word.  

Stitch that on your banners.   Set it in your church windows. Love will achieve its outcome and hope will have its day.