Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 8:27-38

In our reading of St Mark’s Gospel, we have, in our Gospel reading for this week, reached a turning point. St Mark has been describing Jesus’ ministry. He has selected incidents and encounters of Jesus with people to illustrate it. Whatever else, Jesus has made an impact.

The reaction of the ordinary people to Jesus has been positive. The crowds have responded enthusiastically both to Jesus’ teaching and to his ability to heal and cast out demons. Everywhere Jesus goes the crowds rush to see him. In our Gospel reading for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, we read how Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute (Mark 7:31-37). St Mark describes the reaction of those who saw it in a way that sums up popular opinion of Jesus. St Mark writes:

‘They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”’ (Mark 7:37)

The reaction of the Pharisees and scribes, however, has been anything but positive. They have already had several serious arguments with Jesus: over his claim to have authority to forgive sins and to interpret God’s Law; over his breaking, as they see it, of the sabbath commandment; and over his rejection of the ‘tradition of the elders’. They can’t deny that Jesus has done some amazing things: they have themselves seen him do them. They have tried instead to explain them away as Jesus working in collaboration with Satan (Mark 3:19-30).

The reaction of the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus is not just about a difference of opinions. The Pharisees and scribes see him as a dangerous threat to what they genuinely believe in. St Mark has told us that they are so opposed to what Jesus is teaching that they have entered into an alliance with the ‘Herodians’ in order to ‘destroy him’ (Mark 3:6).

The Herodians are those who are loyal to King Herod, who is the Roman appointed ruler of Galilee. King Herod has been responsible for the arrest and death of John the Baptist. King Herod himself thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt him, and he is not the only one to think that this is who Jesus is (Mark 6:14-16). Given Jesus’ close association with John the Baptist, the threat to Jesus is both clear and real.

It is important to see Jesus in this context if we are to appreciate where Jesus is at this point in his ministry. Jesus is popular, but the threat to him is very real. Seeing how real the threat is to Jesus helps us to understand the disciples a bit more.

Unfortunately, we have allowed ourselves to get the impression that Peter and his fellow disciples were weak people, even cowards, who had deserted Jesus because they were frightened of dying. This might fit well in sermons in which preachers want to encourage us to be brave and faithful, but it is not the picture of the disciples that emerges in the Gospels.

The disciples have left all to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28), something which Jesus himself acknowledges (Mark 10:29-31). They have been willing to make real sacrifices to follow Jesus out of a hope that he was the Messiah. As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection put it:

‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ (Luke 24:21)

In the disciples’ minds, Israel wasn't going to be ‘redeemed’, that is, freed from pagan rule, without a fight and this, as Israel’s history showed all too clearly, would mean martyrs and death. If King Herod had not allowed John to go free, why would his attitude to John’s close associate be any different? The Pharisees and scribes know they have a powerful ally in the supporters of King Herod. Jesus’ disciples probably didn't want to die any more than we do, but it is important for us to see that in committing themselves to Jesus, given the hopes they had of him, they must have known there was a strong possibility that they were in real danger.

It is against this background, then, that St Mark tells us in our Gospel reading that Jesus has taken his disciples to the district of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi itself was a prominent city in the far north of Israel, 25 miles from the Sea of Galilee. Previously, it had been called Paneas, after the Greek god, Pan. King Herod had built a temple there in honour of the Emperor. After Herod’s death, his son, Philip the Tetrarch, was appointed ruler of the Greek-speaking territories to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee. Philip had enlarged the temple dedicated to Augustus, rebuilt and beautified the city, and re-named it Caesarea. It was also a centre of pagan worship. It is against this background, then, that Jesus asks his disciples:

‘Who do people say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29)

As Jesus’ name has become known, there has been much speculation as to his identity (Mark 6:14-16). As St Mark has already told us, some think Jesus is John the Baptist who has somehow returned; others see him as Elijah; still others, as one of the prophets. The disciples report these various opinions of him to Jesus. Jesus then asks them directly:

‘But who do you [in Greek it is plural] say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29)

Peter answers him:

‘You are the Messiah.’ (Mark 8:29)

St Matthew, in his Gospel, records that Jesus told Peter that ‘flesh and blood’ had not revealed this to Peter but Jesus’ ‘Father in heaven’ (Matthew 16:17). St Peter’s statement of recognition, therefore, is a massively important moment.

What, though, did Peter himself mean by it? Peter was saying that Jesus was the One who would free Israel from the pagans whose leader’s temple they could perhaps see, even as Peter spoke. Jesus, Peter believed, was the One who would rid Israel of pagan worship and the Roman rulers who brought it with them, evidence of which was all around them. Jesus would be the One who would turn the pagans instead to worship the God of Israel. The disciples were looking forward to the day when God’s promises to Israel through the prophets would be fulfilled and their oppression would come to an end.

A passage from the Psalms of Solomon, which were written in the first century BC just before the time of Christ, gives an indication of what many people were hoping for:

‘See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth …’ (Psalms of Solomon 17:23-26)

‘You are the Messiah’, we have got so used to the words that we miss the sense of excitement that the disciples must have felt. They were going to be the ones who, by following the Messiah, would help set Israel free and get rid of the pagan gods. They were getting ready for the conflict and to fight for their faith, their freedom, and their God. This was why they had first joined John the Baptist and had become his disciples; this is why they were now Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus’ disciples saw themselves in their day much as the Taliban have seen themselves in ours. Rome was the America of its day. Rome had great power. The disciples were just a small group of potential freedom fighters, but they believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed. In the past, the Jews, under the Maccabees, had fought and defeated one great Empire. Imagine what they could do with God’s Anointed leading them!

Jesus taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi is like a leader taking his generals and showing them the enemy’s headquarters and pointing out graphically how their enemy is occupying their land. It is against this background, with emotions running high, that Jesus asks them, ‘Who do you think I am?’. When Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, he is saying, ‘You are the One to lead us against all this and who will rid us of it’.

And in believing that Jesus was the Messiah, Peter was both right and wrong at the same time.

Jesus has himself invited Peter’s answer, and it is obviously the right one. Jesus’ next words, then, come as something of a surprise:

‘And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.’ (Mark 8:30)

‘Not telling anyone about him’ has been a theme in St Mark’s Gospel so far. Of course, it could all be about strategy: Jesus could be waiting for the right moment to reveal who he actually is and so take the Romans by surprise. Jesus, however, does not only order them to keep quiet about who he is. Immediately after they have recognized Jesus for who he is, while the disciples are still on an emotional high, Jesus goes on to say something truly shocking. St Mark writes:

‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mark 8:31)

In other words, Jesus knows he won’t be recognized as the Messiah by those who lead Israel. This is bad news, but, worse still, not only will Jesus not be recognized and experience great suffering, he will be killed. Jesus also says he will rise again, but they probably have stopped listening by this point. How could he, the Messiah, suffer and be killed? It is a contradiction in terms.

St Mark tells us that Jesus says all this quite openly. Peter is shocked, and so he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter wants to put an end to this sort of defeatist talk. Jesus needs to know that this can’t happen. There was no doubt in Peter and his fellow disciples’ minds who the enemy was. Here, in the region of Caesarea Philippi, they could see the enemy all too clearly. The Messiah was the One who was going to free them from all this.

Jesus, however, shows how strongly he feels about it by rebuking Peter in front of his disciples. Jesus sees the suggestion that he should not suffer as coming from Satan himself. Peter’s words are not just the well-meaning, albeit misguided, words of an over-zealous disciple, but an attempt by Satan to stop him doing what he came to do. It is the way humans think, not God. But Satan knows only too well how humans think and how to get them to do his will.

It is not Pan and the pagan gods or Caesar and the Romans who are the real enemy, the real enemy is far more dangerous, and, at this moment, Peter has become his representative and he, the chief apostle, is leading the attack on Jesus on his behalf.

Having first rebuked Peter, Jesus acts decisively. He calls, not only his disciples, but also the crowds to him. Now is the moment for Jesus to make absolutely clear what following him means and where it will lead. Anyone wanting to become his follower, Jesus tells them, must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34).

What would the phrase ‘take up your cross’ have meant to anyone who heard it? The answer is that it would have struck terror into their hearts. We have grown used to hearing about crucifixion, and crosses are everywhere. We even wear them as jewellery! The image of the Cross itself has little emotional impact on us. This is not how it was in the time of Jesus.

Crucifixion was a terrible way to die. It was used by the Romans to punish and put fear into people. It was an excruciatingly painful way to die. It was also completely humiliating. It was meant to demonstrate Roman power. Not only did the person to be crucified get nailed to a cross, they also had to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. Anyone carrying a cross was someone condemned and as good as dead.

Jesus is telling anyone who wants to be his follower: ‘Yes, there is going to be death’, it is not, however, the pagan Romans who must die, but Jesus’ followers, and Jesus himself is going to lead the way to the place of death.

Jesus is saying that his followers don’t just have to accept death as one possible outcome. If they want to follow him, they have actively to embrace it. They have to take up their cross willingly and deny themselves deliberately. Their goal in life isn’t to be success and glory. Jesus, by using the image of the cross, is telling them that they must live as people who have accepted that there is to be no hope of success and glory in this world, only shame and death. If they are killed physically, it is only the confirmation of a state that already exists.

Some of you may remember the 1995 film, ‘Dead Man Walking’, or have read the book on which it was based. The title itself comes from what was once a traditional phrase used in American prisons to designate men who had been sentenced to death. In the eyes of the law, the condemned prisoner was dead already. When Jesus says we are to take up our cross, he is telling us that we too are a ‘Dead Man (or Woman) Walking’.

It is, however, Jesus tells them, those who seek life, who desire success and glory, and who want to find fulfilment in this world, who are the ones who will lose their lives. Whereas it is those who, for Jesus’ sake, abandon seeking what they want in this life who will gain their life. The disciples must have found this hard to take in and to accept. For the avoidance of doubt, Jesus makes it clear that it is not negotiable. Jesus continues:

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8:38)

Jesus tells them that they must not be ashamed of either him or his words. Peter is ashamed. It was not how the Messiah was expected to think and speak. And to his shame, Peter has spoken for the enemy. Jesus, however, has now named the real enemies and exposed them: the real enemies are self and Satan.

Satan does indeed know how humans think and throughout the history of the human race, nothing has changed. Satan’s strategy has been the same from the beginning. In the book of Genesis, we read how, in the Garden of Eden, Satan sought to persuade Adam and Eve to turn from God and to turn instead to themselves and to what they wanted. He told them they should not listen to what God had said, but to pursue what they found pleasing and fulfilling.

In paganism, Satan gave humans gods that were a projection of themselves and of their own drives and desires. People worshipped these gods recognizing themselves in them. Satan’s most audacious move, however, is now being played out all around us. Tragically, we have either not seen it or have fallen for it, because, as with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we find it hard to resist what Satan is offering us. It appeals to our pride, our conceit, and our desire to be free from constraint. In the past, we were offered gods who mirrored our desires and who promised to satisfy them, now we are encouraged to worship ourselves and to follow our feelings.

Recently, I have been reading St Catherine of Siena. Saint Catherine is a 14th century saint. (I will say more about her another time.) St Catherine’s most famous work is her book, The Dialogue. This is a series of conversations between St Catherine and God.

During these conversations, God says to St Catherine, ‘I am he who is; you are she who is not’. When I first came across these words, I was shocked. It seemed as if God was denying that St Catherine had any value or worth as a human being. It was as if God really was the egotistical tyrant that many accuse

our God of being. If I were to say to you, ‘You are nothing’, you would be hurt and insulted. You would hear in my words contempt and rejection. But St Catherine herself heard in God’s words to her the exact opposite.

As St Catherine explains in The Dialogue, what God is saying is that he is our Creator, who has given us life and who is the One on whom we depend for our being. This is not about what we choose; it is something that simply is. As St Paul puts it, God is the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). We only have life as we have it in him. We have no life of ourselves. Whether we believe in him or not, like him or not, obey him or not, we cannot exist without him. Even as we are denying his existence, we are dependent on him for ours.

The lie that Satan wants us to believe is that we can have life without God. Satan only cares that we turn away from God. Once we have done that he doesn't need us to believe in him or consciously to worship him, he has already achieved his aim. By turning from ‘He who is’ to ourselves ‘who are not’, we are turning from him who alone can give meaning and fulfilment to our lives. We are, quite literally, turning to nothing.

By seeking the answers to life in ourselves, by believing that we can find meaning and fulfilment in ourselves and our own efforts, by thinking that we have in ourselves the resources we need to be able to pursue our goals and to satisfy our desires, we are putting our trust in he or she who is nothing. A society built on such self-belief is a society built on nothing; it is a society that has chosen death, not life.

Sadly, the Church’s message has become little more than a religious version of this Gospel of self; one that simply tells people what they want to hear. By setting our minds on human rather than divine things, the Church, like Peter, is speaking for Satan and not for God. Jesus doesn’t offer to accompany us on a journey of experience and self-discovery as we follow our dreams, rather he calls on us to follow him on his way of obedience and self-denial as we carry our cross. Jesus warns us not to be ashamed of him and his words. We need as his followers to have the courage to be honest in telling people what Jesus requires of anyone who is interested in becoming his follower.

If God was other than who He is, what Jesus is asking of us would be both frightening and beyond us. St Catherine, however, shows us there is no need to fear. St Catherine writes that not only did God create us and give us life, but that when he created us, he fell in love with us. If God were not love, the trust and obedience that Jesus asks of us would be terrible and terrifying. The One we are being asked to trust and obey, however, is not only the One who created us and sustains us in being, he is the One who loves us and longs for us to turn to him. St Catherine describes God as the ‘mad lover’. He loves us madly and completely, and he has demonstrated that love for us in Christ.

St Catherine is overwhelmed by God’s love for us. How can he love us creatures who are so wretched and sinful?

As I come into his light, I see all too clearly my sin, my failure, my weakness, and my inability to do even the good I want to do. Looking to myself, I am driven to despair for in myself I have nothing, can do nothing, and am nothing. But my hope is not in myself, my hope and trust is in my ‘mad lover’ who loves me despite who I am and what I have done, and who, in Christ, not only offers me love, but also the possibility of becoming who he created me to be.

When we see ourselves as we really are, we find it hard to believe anyone could love us. God, however, loves us despite how unlovable we are. Even though he sees us as we are, sees us better than anyone including ourselves sees us, because he loves us, he has mercy on us, and offers us in Christ forgiveness and salvation. God’s salvation is not only from our sin, but from ourselves.

Jesus said:

‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ (Mark 8:35)

May we, like St Catherine, lose our life for him and in losing it find our life in him.

Amen.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 7:24-37

For our Gospel reading this year, year B in the lectionary, we have been reading through St Mark’s Gospel. We paused our reading of St Mark’s Gospel when we got to the feeding of the 5,000. For five weeks over the Summer, we read instead the account of the feeding and of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum following it in St John’s Gospel, chapter 6. We have now returned to St Marks Gospel, and last week picked up St Mark’s narrative in chapter 7.

At the end of chapter 6 St Mark’s Gospel, immediately after St Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, St Mark tells us that Jesus is attracting considerable attention (Mark 6:54-56). Everywhere he goes people rush to see him. The reason for their interest in him is that they want to bring the sick to him for him to heal them. This reason for their interest in Jesus is understandable but it is limited. The crowds are not so much interested in Jesus as in what he can do for them and what they can get out of him. Jesus still meets their needs, but this is not what he wants from them. Our Gospel reading this week shows us the response Jesus is looking for.

In chapter 7, St Mark tells us that as well as becoming popular as a healer, Jesus is causing controversy and making enemies. Ironically, the opposition to Jesus comes principally from the religious leaders and those in authority. Here, in chapter 7, the opposition is from the Pharisees and scribes. They were people who placed a great deal of emphasis on God's Law and on keeping God’s commandments. St Mark, earlier in his Gospel, has described how Jesus has already had arguments with them over the sabbath commandment and over who has the authority to forgive sins. Jesus has claimed for himself the authority to interpret God’s Law and to forgive sins. In chapter 7, we see how Jesus uses this authority in a way that may not seem such a big deal to us, but which was both revolutionary and shocking in Jesus’ own day.

The argument between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes begins with the Pharisees and scribes asking Jesus why his disciples do not observe the ‘tradition of the elders’ (Mark 7:5). Nowadays, when we hear the word ‘tradition’, we tend to react negatively to it. We see tradition as being about binding us to the past and limiting what we can do in the present. This is not how tradition has always been seen, and it certainly was not how the Pharisees and scribes saw it.

Tradition, for the Pharisees and scribes, contained guidance and teaching on how God’s Law was to be interpreted and observed. Tradition had authority and was to be respected. Tradition not only contained guidance on, for example, how to keep the Sabbath, but on every aspect of everyday life. It included rules and rituals that needed to be followed. These applied to everything from eating a meal to going to the Temple to pray.

The argument, in chapter 7, centres on what rules and rituals should be followed when preparing and eating food. St Mark writes that the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly. We know all about washing our hands ‘properly’ at the moment because of the pandemic. Properly for the Pharisees and scribes, however, doesn't mean in the right way hygienically, but in the right way religiously. There was a religious way of washing hands before meals, and not only hands, but also the pots and pans the meal was prepared in and the places where it was eaten.

Now this was all done sincerely and out of a desire to keep God's Law. The desire to get the rituals right came out of a desire to demonstrate obedience to God’s Law. It often led, however, to a focus on external acts and what people did outwardly at the expense of the inner motivation and obedience that the rituals were meant to reflect.

By focusing on the rules and rituals, the Pharisees and scribes had forgotten that the whole point of the rules and rituals was to lead people to a greater obedience to God and to his Law. The point of the ritual was not the ritual itself, but what it expressed. Unfortunately, all too often with ritual, the original meaning of the ritual is lost in the desire to make sure the ritual is observed. Hence, the phrase ‘empty ritual’. The rituals that the Pharisees and scribes observed were originally intended as a way for the people of Israel to worship and express their faithfulness to God. These rituals had, however, been elevated to the same status as the commandments of God.

This was certainly how Jesus saw these rituals about ‘washing’ that the Pharisees and scribes were so concerned about. What originally had been meant to express love and devotion to God had become something that was done without much thought being given to it.

Imagine for a moment a couple falling in love. Every month they go to a certain restaurant for a meal together. He always buys her a flower. This ‘lovers’ ritual’ continues long after they have met. After several years, though, it becomes just a routine that they go through. This is how Jesus saw the rituals his disciples were criticized for not keeping, but which the Pharisees and scribes saw as so important. Quoting the prophet Isaiah to describe the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus says:

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ (Mark 7:6-7; see Isaiah 29:13)

The Pharisees and scribes believed that failure to keep these rituals defiled a person, that is, made them unfit to come into the presence of God. It excluded them. Jesus tackles this head on. It is not failure to observe outward rituals that defile a person, Jesus tells them, nor even what a person eats. Nothing, says Jesus, going into a person from outside them can defile a person. The issue is what comes from within. And Jesus gives quite a comprehensive list of the unclean things that come from within, and which defile a person. The list includes theft, murder, and sexual sin, but it also includes evil thoughts, envy, and pride. Dealing with these unclean things, says Jesus, is far more important than how you wash your hands ritually.

Somewhat buried away in all this, is what, in English, is a six word comment by St Mark on what Jesus’ words mean. St Mark writes:

‘Thus he declared all foods clean.’ (Mark 7:19)

For many of St Mark’s original audience, these words would have come as something of a verbal bombshell. This idea of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ food is one we find hard to understand today. We understand the idea of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food. And we know that some people, for various reasons, prefer not to eat meat at all. ‘Clean’ and ‘unclean’, however, is a religious concept. The Jews divided food into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ categories – they still do – and unclean food was, and is, not to be eaten. We are all familiar with the concept of ‘kosher’. Kosher refers to the right food prepared the right way.

Jesus’ implied abolition of this concept was revolutionary. Again, we don't get today just how emotionally shocking was the idea that it did not matter what you ate. Jews, during the period of the Maccabees, for example, had been prepared to die rather than eat pork. Indeed, this was an issue that was to cause a great deal of controversy in the Early Church itself.

The question for believers in the Early Church was, ‘Should Gentiles who became believers be required to keep the rules about food in God's Law?’ St Mark clearly was on the side of those who thought they shouldn't. St Paul took a remarkably liberal view for someone who had been a strict Jew. St Paul taught that it was up to the individual to decide for themselves before God whether they observed them or not (Romans 14:1-9). St Paul himself agreed with St Mark that all foods were clean, but, as believers, he felt that we should respect each other’s choice in the matter. At the same time, St Paul believed this was a two-way process. Those who thought some foods unclean should respect those who believed that all foods were clean. But equally, those who thought that all foods were clean should respect those who believed that some were unclean.

But does it matter? Well, it did and it does. It is only a small move from thinking that some food is unclean to thinking that the people who eat it are also unclean. What follows next is the belief that not only should you yourself not eat unclean food, but that you shouldn't meet or associate with those who eat it either.

St Paul bluntly tells believers in Rome, who were dividing into groups based on whether they only ate clean food or ate all food, that they were to ‘welcome one another’ (Romans 15:7). What they believed about the food they ate was not to be a defining issue. What counts, St Paul writes, is glorifying God and loving each other.

This was something that the Pharisees and scribes found difficult to understand. For them, not eating unclean food was about obeying God. It was a lesson that even St Peter himself had to learn, and it wasn’t an easy one for him to learn. It took a vision from God, repeated three times, to get the message across to him, and this was after he had been with Jesus for three years.

The story is a well-known one. It is told by St Luke in Acts, chapter 10.

St Peter, St Luke tells us, is on the roof of a house in Joppa, praying at midday. He feels hungry and falls into a trance. While in the trance, Peter receives a vison of a sheet being let down from heaven with all kinds of animals on it. A voice tells him to get up, kill, and eat. Peter refuses, responding that he has never eaten anything unclean. The voice replies:

‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 10:15)

This happens three times.

Peter is puzzled by the vision and doesn’t quite know what to make of it. At that moment, some men come from Caesarea who have been sent by a Roman Centurion, a Gentile called Cornelius. Cornelius has himself been told in a vision to send for Peter and has been given the directions for finding him. The Holy Spirit tells Peter that he must not hesitate to go with the men for the Holy Spirit has sent them. What Peter says to Cornelius and his household when he arrives at Caesarea is particularly interesting. Peter’s words are:

‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’ (Acts 10:28)

Peter understands that his vision was not simply about which food he should find acceptable, but also which people. If a person is acceptable to God, they must also be acceptable to Peter and to the Church. Not only is Peter not to call any food unclean and, therefore, not fit to eat, Peter must not see anyone whom God has called to himself as unclean and unacceptable to God either. God goes on to show Peter how people Peter previously thought to be unclean are now called by God to faith in Christ. As Peter is telling Cornelius and his household about Jesus, God baptizes Cornelius and his household there and then with the Holy Spirit in the same way as Peter and his fellow believers were themselves baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Which brings us at long last to our Gospel reading this week. Jesus is in Tyre, a port on the Mediterranean Sea, northwest of Galilee. A Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin approaches him. The woman has a little daughter who has an ‘unclean’ spirit. She begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus’ response to her request is somewhat shocking: he refuses. Jesus says to her:

‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ (Mark 7:27)

Jesus effectively tells the woman she is a bitch who doesn’t deserve to be fed. Preachers often try to soften Jesus’ words by arguing that Jesus is trying to test her or lead her to faith. We respond like this to Jesus’ words because we don't take seriously the fact that the Jews were and are God's people and that Jesus originally ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11). It is only after Jesus’ death and resurrection that salvation will be offered to the Gentiles as well. This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘Let the children be fed first’.

The woman in her reply doesn't dispute this. But even though it is the children's time to be fed, the ‘dogs’ can still eat the ‘children’s crumbs’. The time is coming, however, when those who are regarded as no better than dogs will themselves become children and eat at the same table as those who were originally God’s children. But that time is not yet. Jesus, however, by effectively announcing that all food is clean, also points to the day, which is coming soon, when all people will be clean.

We must not minimise the historical significance of this. Jesus came to God’s people the Jews. He came for the world, but he didn’t come to the world; he ‘came to his own’. God sent him first to those he had himself chosen and had separated from all other people. The laws the Pharisees and scribes sought to keep were God’s laws given by God himself, and while the Pharisees and scribes had wrongly interpreted them, and had missed the point of many of them, they were still God's laws.

What God has done in Christ, however, is to end his own Law, and, in ending it, has welcomed all people who trust in his Son into his family. This was both huge and controversial then and it still is today. Only recently, Pope Francis, no less, got into a lot of trouble for saying something similar. Can you imagine how much more trouble St Peter and St Paul got into for saying it? Indeed, St Peter after his visit to Cornelius’ household is called to give an account of his actions to the Church in Jerusalem. Believers there are shocked that St Peter has met with Gentiles and has eaten with them (Acts 11:1-18).

St Luke tells us that those who heard St Peter’s explanation ‘glorified God’ when they heard it (Acts 11:18), but we know that it took them a lot longer to accept and come to terms with it. We learn from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians that even St Peter himself took time to understand its implications completely. What to us today now seems obvious was to be a major source of controversy and division in the Early Church. We see this controversy and division reflected in some of St Paul’s letters.

While today we don’t decide whether someone is acceptable to God based on whether they are a Jew or Gentile. We do still, mentally at least, divide people into clean and unclean groups, that is, into groups composed of those who are welcome to join us and those who are not. We know only too well, for example, that racism in the Church has led to people of certain races being discriminated against and excluded from the Church.

I think the Church today has recognized this, in theory at least. Most churches now go out of their way to be seen to be inclusive and welcoming. However, in their enthusiasm to be inclusive and welcoming, they often end up distorting the message of the Gospel. The Gospel tells us that all are included in the Gospel invitation and that all are welcome to respond. But while we are invited to come as we are, we are not welcome to stay as we are. St Peter, when speaking to Cornelius and his household, puts it this way:

‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’ (Acts 10:34-35)

But how are we to do what is right in order to be acceptable to him? Our problem is the problem that Jesus describes in St Mark, chapter 7. It is not external things that defile us; it is not about where we are born, our social background, and all the other things that are used to exclude people. It is what we are in ourselves that is the problem. ‘Out of the heart’ of each one of us comes what it is that defiles and excludes us. We come to Jesus as people who are defiled by who we are and by what is in us, and Jesus invites us as defiled sinners. But if we want to go on with Jesus, we need to be cleansed from our defilement.

This is a message that the Church, in its understandable desire to be inclusive, has, both consciously and unconsciously, decided to ignore. The Pharisees and scribes were too exclusive in their approach; we have become too inclusive in ours. It's not that we should exclude anyone from coming, but that anyone who does not respond to the Gospel in the way Jesus says they must, excludes themself. In Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), one of the many who were invited did not wear the right clothes and was thrown out.

The Gospel invitation and welcome is to all people, but it is an invitation and welcome, not only to come, but also to change. St John writes:

‘If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 John 1:6-7)

No one is unclean in the sense of being excluded from the invitation that God offers in Christ. But we are all defiled, and in need of the cleansing blood of Christ, so that we can become acceptable in his sight. We need to be washed, cleansed by his blood, and set free from the things that defile us, so that we can begin a new life in the power of his Spirit. This is the message that we have been thinking about over the Summer as we looked at Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. It is only Christ’s body and blood that makes it possible for us to come into God's presence and which enables us to stay there.

The message that Jesus invites us to come to him and to be changed by him because all of us are not acceptable to God as we are and are incapable of doing anything about it, is not a message we welcome. We want both to come as we are and to stay as we are. And even if some change is needed, we want some say in how we change and to be given credit for doing so.

This is why, like the Pharisees and scribes, we like rules and rituals. They give us a feeling of control and of superiority. Control, because we get to do something worthy of praise; superiority, because we feel we are better than those who don't keep the rules and rituals. Rules and rituals give us something to boast about. More than that, our rules and rituals also let us take control of who is and who is not acceptable. Even when the rules and rituals are God’s, we want to be the ones who enforce and interpret them. Often our interpretations are just that: our interpretations.

In her desperation and need, the Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus with an open heart and on Jesus’ terms. The Pharisees and scribes insisted that he come to them on theirs. She accepted that she had no right to Jesus’ help, but, relying on his generosity, was grateful for his mercy. The Pharisees and scribes thought they needed no help, but, relying on their rules and rituals, trusted their own judgement. Jesus came unto his own, but his own received him not.

Jesus told those who were gathered in the synagogue in Capernaum that he was the ‘bread of life’ (John 6:35). Unwilling to admit their need, God’s own children rejected all that he offered them. The Syrophoenician woman, knowing her need, was happy to receive any crumbs that fell from the children's table.

Today, Christ doesn’t offer us crumbs, but his very self. To all who now receive him, who eat his flesh and drink his blood, he gives the power to become children of God.

May we, then, by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, receive the eternal life he promises to all who believe in him and may we welcome as bothers and sisters all those who also believe – whoever they are.

Amen.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

In this week’s church service, we commissioned our Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo teachers for the year ahead. This week, schools are officially starting back after a somewhat unusual summer vacation. The new academic year will begin, although, in the Vicarage, it doesn't feel as though the old one ever ended. I imagine it has been like that for many parents. As the new school year begins, however, no matter what disagreements we may have, one thing I think that we can all agree on is the importance of education.

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, famously said in a speech in 1996 that his three highest priorities in government were ‘education, education, education’. It was a memorable, if somewhat meaningless, sound bite, but it was one that he could utter without too much fear of being contradicted. Education is universally seen as the key to prosperity and success both for children individually and for society as a whole.

It is this universal recognition of the importance of education that has made it such a focus of political attention. Here in Hong Kong, the National Security Law has led to an increased emphasis on the importance of National Education. Schools are under instruction to teach their students about what it means for Hong Kong to be a part of China and to give greater emphasis in the curriculum to Chinese history and culture.

Whatever we may think of this, the Central Government is only recognising what philosophers first said long ago. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher in the 4th century BC, said, ‘Give me a child until 7 and I will show you the man’. As is well-known, the Jesuits also said something similar.

There are those who think that education should be exclusively about children being taught the academic subjects of the curriculum, this and nothing else. The reality is that education never has been just about academic learning and, what is more, it never can be. Educationalists speak of the ‘hidden curriculum’. As well as the formal subjects that all schools say they teach, they also teach beliefs, values, and attitudes, whether they intend to or not.

Some schools are entirely upfront about this. They make it part of their mission to impart more than academic learning and they give thought and attention to what they are trying to achieve. Others don't make much of what they teach outside of the formal curriculum, deliberately or otherwise, but they do it, nevertheless. What the Central Government realises is something that political and religious groups have always realised, namely, that what you teach a child, intentionally or unintentionally, will inevitably affect the person they become and how they think as an adult.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of children being taught politics or religion in school. But children do need to learn beliefs, values, and attitudes, and these have to come from somewhere. The question is not whether children are taught at school what to believe and how to behave, but what they are taught about both.

What, then, should be our attitude as followers of Christ and as a church to what and how our children are taught? Frankly, as a church, we have rather shot ourselves in the foot over this. We are very sensitive in the church to the accusation that we are indoctrinating children by our involvement in schools. Consequently, we do what we can to show that we are not like some of the religious cults we read about, and we go out of our way not to force anyone to believe anything.

We think that it is OK to teach children Bible stories in special Scripture lessons, and we don't think that anyone will complain if we tell children that they should be nice to people. After all, isn't that what all good people believe anyway, whether they are religious or not? However, we go very easy on God and on what we believe, so that we will not be accused of being bigoted and dogmatic or of trying to brainwash children.

The result is that church schools are often little different to their secular counterparts. Certainly, the academic curriculum in most church schools is the same as that in their secular equivalents. Children are taught the same things in the same way by teachers trained in the same places. The main contribution of the church lies in providing people to serve on school management committees.

I am not, as a school manager myself, suggesting that this is unimportant, but, again, what we do as church managers is often not all that different to what non-church managers do.

This is not the time or place to talk about what a church school should be doing or about the way it should be doing it, although it is a temptation I'm having to work hard to resist! I would just say, however, that while we may be determined, as the church, to be seen to be impartial and not to be using schools as places to spread our faith, others are not so shy about using them to spread theirs. While secular society may not like religious dogma being taught in schools, it is not so reticent about secular beliefs, values, and attitudes being taught in them. And the teaching of secular beliefs, values, and attitudes in schools goes a lot further than simply encouraging children to be nice.

At the moment, many people in Hong Kong are worried about the effect the introduction of National Education will have. I have to say that there is a lot more about what our children are being taught for parents to worry over than National Education and their children learning about China and Chinese history and culture.

In Hong Kong, we remain heavily influenced by and dependent on western ideas about education. Many schools go so far as to boast that they are following a British or American curriculum. Certainly, in teacher training, many of the ideas and literature upon which teacher training is based come from western universities and faculties of education. What I don't think many people realise is the extent to which the ideas coming from these institutions, and which are finding their way into what is taught in school, are not only not sympathetic to faith in Christ but, I would argue, diametrically opposed to it. Not only is talk of God frowned upon, there is often open hostility to very idea of God. Indeed, many would see education as being a tool for liberating people from what they see as superstitious and harmful beliefs.

Many of those who value a western style of education are simply unaware of what western education has become. A recent appointment at Harvard University serves as a parable for what is happening in western education in general.

Harvard University was founded by the Puritans in 1636. It was named after Pastor John Howard who endowed it. Its original purpose was for the education and training of the clergy. For some 70 years, all its Presidents were pastors. In 1692, it adopted the motto, ‘Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae’, which translated from Latin means, ‘Truth for Christ and the Church.’ This became simply, ‘Truth’; Harvard’s motto today.

Harvard has some 40 chaplains responsible for the spiritual care of its students. They are drawn from a variety of religious traditions. In 1974, a humanist and atheist chaplain was appointed for those who wanted to be spiritual without believing in God. Last week, the present humanist and atheist chaplain, Greg Epstein, was appointed the Chief Chaplain. He is the author of a book entitled, ‘Good without God’. His appointment was endorsed by all the chaplains.

Who the chaplains choose as their Chief Chaplain is, of course, up to them, but the story of Harvard serves as a parable about western society in general. What originally began out of faith in God, first became secular, and has now become its opposite.

The chaplains may all have been agreed on the appointment of an atheist as their Chief Chaplain, but they don’t all agree about God or even about whether there is a God. So, presumably, in making this appointment, they don’t think belief in God is all that important for those they care for. God, it seems, has become an optional extra even for those responsible for people’s spiritual well-being.

This is one reason why many in the West itself are now taking their children out of state schools and are teaching them at home themselves. Some 11% of children in the United States are now being homeschooled. We can expect there to be a backlash against this from those who are ideologically opposed to religious ideas and to giving parents the freedom to decide how their children are brought up. Indeed, a Harvard law professor, Elizabeth Bartholet, has called for an outright ban on homeschooling in the United States.

One thing many activists who are not religious can't stand is being denied the opportunity to teach their own ideology and beliefs to your child. They not only see the problem as being that children are being taught their parents’ beliefs, but that they are being denied the opportunity to teach the children theirs.

Regardless of what we think about homeschooling and parental rights in the matter, there is not that much that we can do about it here in Hong Kong. Homeschooling in Hong Kong is effectively not allowed, and the system is not going to change any time soon.

This makes what we're doing in Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo so important. It’s just a given that children are not going to be told, in school, the whole truth about the world and how it came into being. They are not, in school, going to be introduced to faith in Christ. And they are not, in school, going to be taught in any depth about what it means to live for Christ. If we leave educating our children to the educationalists, our children will be deprived of what is most important in their education.

In announcing our service this week on Facebook, I posted a picture of a child with the caption: ‘If we don't teach our children to follow Christ, the world will teach them not to’. Many parents, however, often for the best of motives, will sometimes question whether it is right to teach our children to follow Christ. They ask, ‘But shouldn't I leave it for my child to decide for themself and wait until they are old enough to make their own decision?’ I don't doubt the sincerity of many who take this attitude, but just think about it for a moment.

As a parent, you decide where your child is born, grows up, and goes to school. You decide what food they eat, what clothes they wear, and even who their friends are. Every important decision affecting your child’s life and upbringing is taken by you. Why is your child’s faith so unimportant that you feel it is OK to leave it out? Is it because we ourselves have believed the lie that faith in Christ is not really that important? Is this the reason we allow other things to come before sending them to church on a Sunday?

The baptism service has these words in it:

‘Children who are too young to profess the Christian faith are baptized on the understanding that they are brought up as Christians within the family of the Church. As they grow up, they need the help and encouragement of that family, so that they learn to be faithful in public worship and private prayer, to live by trust in God, and come to confirmation.’

There will come a time when your child will indeed have to decide for themselves. The time will come when they will get the chance, formally or informally, to confirm their faith. But we need to give them exposure to that faith now, as they are growing up, so that they at least have the opportunity to confirm it - or not, if that is their choice - when they are older.

If we don’t give them this exposure, then, when the time comes, there will be nothing for them to confirm. Make no mistake, the number of young people leaving school describing themselves as ‘nones’, that is, as having no religious affiliation of any kind, is high and growing all the time.

Faith in Christ is not an optional extra for those who have come to know him. Jesus spoke about the wise and foolish men and how they built their houses (Matthew 7:24-27). One built it on the sand, and, when storms came, it fell down. The wise man built his house on the rock, and it stood fast. Jesus said that those who were wise built their life on his teaching. As those entrusted with the education and upbringing of children, we should want to give them the opportunity to build their lives on the Lord Jesus Christ and on his teaching.

What, then, we are committed ourselves to in our work with children is something that will have long lasting consequences for our children. Faith in Christ is not just about our children's life here and now in this world, but also about their life hereafter in the world to come. Here and now, they will only be properly educated if they learn about the God who made them and who cares for them. They will only be able to live happy and fulfilled lives if they grow up knowing the One who gave them life. They will only have lives that make a difference and are of benefit to others if they are taught the values and attitudes they need for them to make a difference and to be of benefit to others.

St Ambrose, in the fourth century, said:

‘When we speak of wisdom, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking about Christ. When we are speaking about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking about Christ.’ (Explanation on Psalm 36, 65-66: CSEL, 123-125)

Faith in Christ is not a separate subject that can be included or left out of our children’s education at will. It can’t be confined to an occasional Scripture lesson or a weekly religious assembly. Faith in Christ needs to be central to everything they learn and an essential part of their education.

The responsibility for ensuring that they get this education lies, not with the school, but with their family: both their biological family and their spiritual family. As the family of God, we have a God-given responsibility to support our families as they raise their children and a God-given responsibility to children as members of our family the church.

Our work with children is a fundamental and vital part of what we do as a church, and it makes what we are entrusting our Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo teachers to do, so important. It is no good leaving it until the children are older and hoping it will all turn out alright. By the time they are older, it may be too late.

Yes, we want our children to decide for themselves to follow Christ and to confirm their faith in him when the time comes, but they need to be told and taught about that faith, and they deserve to be given the chance to grow up knowing Christ for themselves. Jesus told his disciples off for turning away children. He took the children in his arms and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16). What we are attempting to do at Christ Church is to follow our Lord’s example. Our children are not the church of tomorrow; they are very much a part of our church today.

And so today, let us commit ourselves to educating our children and bringing them up in the faith of Christ to know Christ, so that they can decide to follow Christ and, we hope and pray, one day to confirm for themselves their faith in him.

Amen.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Reading: Luke 1:46-55

In the Anglican Church Calendar, August 15 is called quite simply, ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary.’ The calendar thus does what Anglicans do best, it ducks a difficult question. For the majority of Christians in the world, however, it is more commonly known as, ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ Orthodox Christians refer to it as, ‘The Dormition of the Mother of God’, that is, the ‘falling asleep’.

August 15, then, marks the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or, to put it more accurately, what many believe happened to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the end of her earthly life.

Most Protestants, of course, don’t believe anything happened to the Blessed Virgin Mary that doesn’t also happen to every other believer at the time of their death. The Blessed Virgin Mary, they believe, is no different to us, and so the day will pass without so much of a mention of her by most Protestant churches and believers. The Anglican Church mentions her, but leaves it at that.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has only relatively recently acquired the status of being the official teaching of the Church. It was before that a ‘pious belief’; something that many believed and which it was OK to believe, but not something that was the official teaching of the Church.

That changed in 1950, when Pope Pius XII, in the apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus promulgated the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma of the Church. This was only the second time in the modern era that a Pope had proclaimed a doctrine to be infallible. The first was the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854, another doctrine that concerns the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Assumption in this way:

‘The Immaculate Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of death.’ (Paragraph 966)

It needs to be stressed that although the promulgation of the doctrine is recent, the feast itself is very old, perhaps even, as many Roman Catholics claim, the oldest feast celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary. What Pope Pius XII did was to make it obligatory for Roman Catholics to observe it and to believe in what it celebrates.

It is fair to say that this is one of Protestants’ worst nightmares. Not only do they reject utterly the idea of the Blessed Virgin Mary as ‘Queen of Heaven’, the idea that a Pope can decide the matter goes against the doctrinal anarchy that Protestantism celebrates above all else. The cry, ‘It is not for the Pope to tell me what to believe!’ is at the heart of the Protestant protest. Whether the Pope gets it right or wrong is, for Protestants, somewhat beside the point.

Well, I am perhaps being a bit naughty here, and to be completely honest, I personally would have preferred it if the doctrine had remained a ‘pious belief’. But we are where we are. Leaving aside, then, questions of authority and who gets to decide who believes what, what can we say about the doctrine itself?

The last we hear of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Scripture itself is in the book of Acts after the Ascension of our Lord and before the Day of Pentecost. The disciples are gathered in an Upper Room where, St Luke tells us:

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1:14)

The assumption in Acts being that the Blessed Virgin Mary was herself baptized in the Holy Spirit. But, after that, we hear no more of her. We do, however, hear quite a lot about her family. As we have just heard, St Luke makes reference to our Lord’s brothers as being amongst those praying in the Upper Room. One of them, St James, went on to become the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. The others were well-known preachers of the Gospel. St Paul can make mention of the ‘brothers of the Lord’ in a letter to the believers in the Church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 9:5) and expect them to know who he is talking about.

But what of our Lady herself? We sort of know where she lived after Pentecost. We are told that on the Cross our Lord entrusted his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple and that, from that moment, St John tells us, he took her into his home (John 19:26-27). The most probable identification of the Beloved Disciple is the Apostle John. We know from St Paul that the Apostle John was one of the pillars of the Church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). His brother, the Apostle James was killed there (Acts 12:2). We could have guessed the Apostle John’s importance from the central role he had in the earthly ministry of our Lord, being closely associated, as he was, along with his brother, with the Apostle Peter. The three apostles in the Gospels form something of an inner core amongst Jesus’ disciples.

But we know literally nothing else for certain about what happened to her after Pentecost. Church tradition is itself divided. One tradition says that the Blessed Virgin Mary died in Jerusalem in the 40s of the first century. There is a Church to commemorate the place of her death by the Garden of Gethsemane. Another tradition says that she went to Ephesus with the Apostle John and died there. It’s impossible to know for sure, although I personally tend to the Ephesus tradition.

There have been those who have thought that the Blessed Virgin Mary did not die, but when, as Pope Pius XII put it, the ‘earthly course of her life was finished’ that she was ‘assumed’, while still alive, to heaven. Although his words could be interpreted this way, this doesn’t seem to be what Pope Pius XII intended. No less a figure than Pope St John Paul II, in a general audience in 1997, made that clear, adding:

‘Could Mary of Nazareth have experienced the drama of death in her own flesh? Reflecting on Mary’s destiny and her relationship with her divine Son, it seems legitimate to answer in the affirmative: since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother.’ (General Audience, Wednesday, 25 June 1997)

What seems certain, then, and not in dispute today, is that ‘Mary of Nazareth’ did die, although many prefer to refer to it as ‘falling asleep’ or ‘dormition’. It is what happened next that causes all the argument. For Protestants, her body would have been buried, and it would, like all other human bodies, have decomposed, while the Blessed Virgin Mary, like all the dead in Christ, waited for the resurrection of the dead.

For Roman Catholics, and those who believe like them, however, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s body did not decompose but was ‘assumed’, that is, taken up into heaven, without suffering the decay that is common to all mortal bodies. It is important to note that Roman Catholics believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary was ‘assumed’, that is, this was not something she did herself, but something God did for her. Now, in heaven next to her Son, they believe, she reigns as the ‘Queen of Heaven’.

Basically, then, what it comes down to is whether there is any on-going role for the Blessed Virgin Mary after her ‘dormition’, that is, after her death. Protestants are increasingly willing to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary as an example of discipleship and to acknowledge her obedience to God’s Word in bearing Jesus. But that and no more. Many believers, however, want to go further and see her assumption into heaven as the beginning for her of a new ministry of intercession and care for believers.

Does it matter? It does if you are a Roman Catholic, as it is the official teaching of the Church. It does if you are a Protestant who sees any mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the first step to idolatry. For others, it remains more of the ‘pious belief’ it was before Pope Pius XII’s intervention.

Personally, I am sure that our Lady herself won’t lose any sleep over us not believing in her assumption, not, of course, that she does sleep if the doctrine is true. And I am also sure that our Lord won’t mind us honouring his mother in this way, even if we are hesitant about some of the details of the way it is expressed.

But before it seems like I have fallen into the typical Anglican position of ‘believe what you like as long as you are nice to everyone’, let me say that even if we don’t think the details of the way the assumption is often thought of are quite right, and are not happy with language describing Mary as the ‘Queen of Heaven’, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss an ongoing role for the Blessed Virgin Mary in the ministry of the Church.

I don’t know if any of you watched the video Megan Markle made for her 40th birthday. In it, she describes her ‘40x40 initiative’. She is encouraging 40 of her friends to give 40 minutes of their time to help and support women getting back into the workforce after the pandemic.

At about the same time last year, at the Private Asset Manager’s awards, the event’s founder, James Anderson talked about how well working from home because of the pandemic was going. He said that it should help firms re-engage ‘with a highly competent, skilled workforce that currently has been sitting at home twiddling its thumbs and looking after the next generation’ meaning mothers.

It is interesting to compare the different reactions to what they both said. Megan’s words were seen as a feminist statement, while James’ words were condemned as unbelievably sexist. In fact, although they expressed themselves somewhat differently, they were both saying exactly the same thing. Both were working on the assumption that a woman’s place should not be in the home raising children, but in the workforce competing alongside men.

Now where women see their place is, in my opinion at least, entirely up to them, and it not up to either Megan or James to tell them. Indeed, the reality is that many women simply don’t have a choice; they have to work outside the home in paid employment every hour there is just to survive and put food on the table. However, what is somewhat more sinister is not just the issue of geography, but the negative implication of both Megan and James’ remarks concerning motherhood.

Heaven forbid, according to James, that women should find looking after the next generation more fulfilling than looking after rich clients most of whom just happen to be men. And heaven forbid, according to Megan, that women should prefer to stay at home with their children rather than pursuing the dream of becoming a celebrity princess.

But what is it that has led to two such disparate figures feeling the need, by implication at least, to denigrate motherhood? And they are by no means alone in the way they think. If you think that is extreme, ask yourself what would be said to a girl at school if, when asked what she wanted to do with her life, she said she wanted to have children and be a mother. ‘Yes’, but what do you want to do?’ would most likely be the reply.

How then have we got to where we are in how we see motherhood and where does feminism fit into this? It is customary for social commentators to talk about feminism in terms of waves. Each of these waves has dramatically changed the position of women in society. Over the past hundred years or so, for example, women have achieved access to education and right to vote. The availability of contraception and the legalization of abortion has made it possible for women to have the sexual freedom that men have always had. Equal pay and increased opportunities have allowed women to pursue careers once only open to men. As a consequence, instead of a woman’s place being seen as in the home raising children, it is now seen as being outside the home competing with men on equal terms.

However, despite all the legislation and newly found sexual freedom, women still struggle to reach the same levels of pay and positions in the workforce as men. In secular society, the glass ceiling may be cracked, but it is still in place. The problem, then, is now seen by many feminists as being about male power and institutionalized violence against women, which exists in patriarchal structures deeply embedded in society.

The result of all this is that no matter how much we may talk about how important children are, motherhood itself is seen as a problem to be solved rather than a calling to be embraced. For a woman, having children is viewed as a disability that they have to find ways to overcome if they are to be taken seriously.

How, though, have these social and political developments in secular society affected the Church?

Essentially, the Church has mirrored what has been happening in society. Feminists in and out of the Church have criticized the Church for being both sexist and misogynist. The feminist critique of the Church has often been justified. When I was lecturing at College in the UK, I taught a course on Women and Christianity. One of my aims with my students was to show that the Church has not valued women as part of the body of Christ in the way it should. It wasn’t difficult. The Church has all too often in the past both justified and been responsible for the abuse of women.

On the positive side, the Church has begun to realize this. On the negative side, however, is that the Church’s response to past failure has been simply to adopt the approach of society around us. This is to be seen, for example, in the campaign for the ordination of women, the demand for women to be promoted to positions of authority in the Church, and the calls for an end to what is seen as sexism in our liturgy and language about God.

The Blessed Virgin Mary herself has not come out of this well. Amongst theologians of both sexes, there has been a questioning of the part the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary has played in the oppression of women. The figure of Mary is seen as passive, submissive, and subservient. Mary, it is argued, didn’t choose her role, but was given it, accepted it, and limited herself to it. The accusation is that the Church for its part has used this image of the Blessed Virgin Mary to ensure that women behave like her.

As a result, people have turned away from the Blessed Virgin Mary as a role model and have turned instead to another Mary, St Mary Magdalene. St Mary Magdalene is portrayed in feminist iconography as a woman who is active, independent, and assertive. She is seen as someone whose image and example is challenging, liberating, and empowering. The modern image of St Mary Magdalene, in the way it presented, is, of course, a false image and not a true representation of the historical Mary Magdalene, but, no matter, it is one that has gripped people’s imagination at both a popular and scholarly level.

There is much more that could and should be said, but as we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, I simply want to make a plea for us to reclaim the image of our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as an icon for both women and men. ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman’ (Galatians 4:4), and the Blessed Virgin Mary, rather than seeing her role as limiting, saw it as the highest promotion possible: far higher than becoming an asset manager for the rich or a media princess.

The Blessed Virgin Mary said that God demonstrated in his choice of her that he was the God who puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek (Luke 1:52). We think on the Feast of the Assumption of God’s exaltation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and how, in his choice and exaltation of her to be the ‘mother of God’, God has also exalted the role of mother that she accepted for herself. In Mary’s fiat - her words, ‘Let it be unto me according to your word’ - the Blessed Virgin Mary, for those who follow her, not only broke, but smashed in pieces the glass ceiling of human oppression.

So, to women who are mothers or who are contemplating becoming one, the Blessed Virgin Mary would say to pursue whatever career you feel God is calling you to, but not to be afraid to value motherhood over it. And to the men, the Blessed Virgin Mary would say to stop seeing motherhood as a handicap that holds women back and makes them less valuable either in the home or in workplace.

As believers, we need to stop seeing motherhood as a disability to be overcome, but as a calling to be valued and affirmed. This doesn’t mean going back to seeing a woman’s place as being in the home, unless, that is, the woman herself sees it as being there. It does mean that the Church, at least, should affirm the dignity of women as women and that includes a woman’s capacity to give birth and to be a mother.

Our Lord said to the Beloved Disciple, who in St John’s Gospel is both a historical person and a symbolic figure, ‘Behold your mother.’ In the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church convened Vatican II, a Council of the Church to renew its life and teaching. At the end of the Council, it was another Pope, Pope Saint Paul VI, who commended to the Church as a whole the title, ‘Mother of the Church’, for Mary.

For those of us who see an ongoing role for our Lady in the present, this description is a good way to see her. And she is not only the Mother of the Church, but our Mother too. One who prays for us ‘now and at the hour of our death’.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, in her acceptance of the angel’s announcement to her, provides us with a model of obedience. What she said concerning her Son to the servants at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, she says now to us all, ‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it’ (John 2:5). The Blessed Virgin Mary always directs our attention and obedience to her Son.

We honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, then, not out of desire to worship her or because we assume something about her that’s not true, but because we value her and value her prayers for us as a mother, our mother, as together we seek to follow her Son.

May she, who is ‘full of grace’ and who all generations call blessed, pray for us.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

Amen.

Monday, August 09, 2021

St John’s Gospel and the Eucharist – Part Two

This is the second part of my podcast on St John's Gospel Chapter 6 and the Eucharist.

St John’s Gospel and the Eucharist – Part Two

At the end of part one of this podcast, I said that there are two different questions that we need to answer as we think about chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel: firstly, is Jesus talking here in chapter 6 about the Eucharist, and secondly, is Jesus really present in the Eucharist? I suggested that in looking at this chapter, we need to begin with the first question and that only when we have answered it should we address the second and discuss the relevance, if any, of chapter 6 to our understanding of the celebration of the Eucharist today. It is to these two questions, then, that I now turn in part two.

Too much that is written about the relationship of St John’s Gospel chapter 6 to the Eucharist is based on assumptions already made by the writer without any attempt to understand what St John intends by the way he has reported Jesus’ miracle and Jesus’ teaching after it. We need to try to understand the chapter on its own terms.

Firstly then, whatever we think the chapter’s relevance to the Eucharist may or may not be, we should all be able to agree that Jesus’ words, at the very least, are a call to people to believe in him and not simply to believe in him intellectually. The vivid language challenges us to depend on Jesus in the way we depend on food for our physical existence. In chapter 6, there is the first of Jesus’ famous ‘I am’ sayings. Jesus makes this first ‘I am’ saying the theme of his teaching in the synagogue. Jesus says:

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:35)

Bread represents the food we need to survive. Jesus is saying that for us to survive eternally, we need to be completely dependent on him for life. He explains that the life he gives us comes out of his death.

We need to be clear that Jesus, in his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, makes his sacrificial offering of himself the source of the life he offers to those who come to him. It is on the basis of his death that he gives life to those who believe in him. Without his death for us, there is no life for us; and unless we accept the saving significance of his death for us, we won’t receive his life. This is very important for us to understand as there are many, including many Church leaders and theologians, who want to downplay the importance of Jesus’ death. No matter how we interpret John chapter 6 in relation to the Eucharist, Jesus makes absolutely plain that his sacrificial death is central to what he came to do and to what he offers us now.

Secondly, though, does St John intend us to see in Jesus’ words, in chapter 6, a reference to the Eucharist, and, if he does, how are we to understand the relationship between Jesus’ words and the bread and the wine of the Eucharist?

Personally, I think St John would have to have been very naive if he didn’t realize that his readers would inevitably make a connection. If every time believers met, they ate bread and drank wine because of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper and if, as they did so, they recalled his words over the bread, ‘this is my body’, and over the cup, ‘this is my blood’, surely it would be impossible for them to hear Jesus’ words in chapter 6 and not relate them to the Eucharist?

No matter how much commentators may argue that Jesus’ words don’t have to be understood as referring to the Eucharist, it is hard to see how anyone in the early Church could fail to make such a connection. That being the case, the most likely understanding of chapter 6 is that St John intended for us to make the connection. Furthermore, the way St John portrays the feeding of the 5,000 as itself a Eucharist suggests that he means us to understand the teaching of Jesus that follows as applying in some way to the Eucharist.

Thirdly, the problem, then, is that having accepted that St John must have intended for people to make the connection, what exactly is the connection? Roman Catholics would argue that the plain way of understanding Jesus’ words is to see Jesus as saying that it is literally by eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist that we receive eternal life.

This, though, raises the question of whether we can receive the life of Christ apart from the Eucharist. It is a similar question to asking whether we can experience salvation without being baptized. The answer given by most believers to the question about baptism is that, theoretically, we can be saved without it, but that the New Testament does not envisage any believer not being baptized. It is a question the New Testament writers would not understand because they would never separate the two. Baptism is the God appointed means by which we express our faith and receive forgiveness. It is the same with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the God appointed means by which we feed on Christ and receive his life. The Eucharist is, in this sense, as the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church expresses it, ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’ (CCC 1324).

Fourthly, however, even if we establish a connection between chapter 6 and the Eucharist, there are still many believers who simply cannot accept that Jesus’ words mean that in the Eucharist there is actually anything real and substantive taking place. For them, the Eucharist, although important, is important as a symbol. It is indeed a symbol that points us to Christ and to our need to depend on him. The language is vivid and the symbol a powerful one, but, they would argue, we are not to think that, in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, we are actually eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. Jesus’ language in St John’s Gospel chapter 6, they think, is metaphorical, even if it does connect with Jesus’ words at the Last Supper and with the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist.

It is impossible here to go into the detail needed to deal with this issue properly. However, it would be dodging the question not to ask whether St John intends us to see Jesus’ language as being purely metaphorical or whether there is more to it than that.

Roman Catholics certainly believe that Jesus is not just using a dramatic metaphor. In fact, their understanding is the very opposite. They believe that in the Eucharist there is a literal eating of the body of Christ and a drinking of his blood. It is an approach that has the advantage of being clear and plain. At least you know where you are with it. It is not, however, without its problems. Again, this is not the place to go into all the wider issues, but one issue that is relevant to our consideration of chapter 6 is the question of why eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood in a literal sense would make any difference to us.

This is where the metaphorical approach is at its strongest. The bread and the wine represent the body and blood of Christ given for us and for the forgiveness of our sins. It is not Christ’s flesh and blood in and of themselves that save us, but our Lord’s offering of himself as a sacrifice for our sin: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). It is by participating in his death through faith that we receive his life.

Are, then, the bread and the wine of the Eucharist simply a visual aid to faith? While they may not put it as plainly as this, it is what many, if not most, believers of all church traditions really think. Bishop Robert Barron, who is a Church leader I greatly respect, refers to a survey in the United States that suggested that 69% of Roman Catholics think the bread and the wine of the Eucharist are just symbols of the body and blood of Christ.

So, should we too see the bread and the wine of the Eucharist as symbols and nothing more? In answering this question, the New Testament itself does not give us a lot to go on. However, St Paul is highly suggestive. He writes:

‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.’ (1 Corinthians 11:27)

St Paul continues to tell the Corinthian believers that some of them have got sick and some have died because of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:30).

Now insulting symbols can itself be very serious. We have seen here in Hong Kong, for example, how seriously China takes the abuse of national symbols. Does St Paul understand the Corinthian believers’ behaviour in a similar way, that is, in terms of insulting the symbols of Christ’s death? Or is he speaking about something even more serious still?

Immediately before these words in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, St Paul warns the Corinthian believers against participation in idol worship. What is interesting is the way he dismisses it. He doesn’t say that participation in idol worship is incompatible with being a member of the Church and a follower of Jesus. St Paul instead writes:

‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16)

St Paul tells the Corinthian believers that they cannot ‘drink the cup of the Lord’ or ‘partake of the table of the Lord’ and also take part in ceremonies in a pagan temple (1 Corinthians 10:21). While by no means conclusive, St Paul’s language suggests to me at least that he sees the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper as more than symbols, no matter how important symbols can be, although I should say that many would not agree with me.

What I personally find interesting is how the first believers themselves understood these words and came to understand the Eucharist as a result. From the end of the first century, in the writings that have come down to us, there is a very realistic understanding of the Eucharist that goes way beyond seeing the bread and the wine in purely symbolic terms. St Ignatius, for example, writing at the very beginning of the second century describes the Eucharist as the ‘medicine of immortality’ (Ephesians 20).

If you had asked St John himself how he understood Jesus’ words, I doubt whether he would have had a fully developed theological explanation as to how Christ is present in the Eucharist. As with St Paul in 1 Corinthians though, the language St John uses strongly suggests that he understood Jesus’ words to be more than a metaphor. Certainly, from the very beginning, the Church understood them as being more than just a metaphor.

My own belief is that in the Eucharist, Christ is really and truly present in a special and unique way and that in it and through it we are offered the life of Christ, made possible by the sacrificial offering by Christ of his body and blood.

Again, asking whether this life is available outside the Eucharist is like asking whether you have to be baptized to enter the Church. The answer to the question about baptism is that baptism is the way God has chosen for us to enter the Church and to receive his forgiveness. In a similar way, what is offered to us in the Eucharist is not simply the flesh and blood of Christ in a literal sense, but all of Christ and all that he has made possible by his death for us. Quite simply, in the Eucharist, we receive Christ.

Understanding the relationship between the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the elements of bread and wine is undoubtedly difficult, but as Calvin put it, 'I would rather experience it than understand it' (Institutes IV.17.32).

By describing the bread and the wine as symbols, we risk making them empty symbols, mere visual aids to faith that can be easily dispensed with if we don’t find them to our liking. Bishop Robert quotes the American writer, Flannery O’Connor, who responded to someone who said the Eucharist was a symbol with the words, ‘Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.'

At first, we may find such a statement shocking. But, ironically, this is precisely what has been the attitude of many church members during the pandemic. They wouldn’t express it in these words, but, in practice, this this has been how they have thought. Many have not found it hard not receiving bread and wine in the Eucharist and have been able to switch to online services with little difficulty. We may have missed seeing each other, but the bread and the wine? Not so much.

This is in stark contrast with the constant complaints that we have heard about the restaurants being closed and how hard we have found it to be restricted in other ways. It is perfectly reasonable that people should have been worried about meeting together during a pandemic, but we have been selectively worried. Not being able to receive the bread and the wine of the Eucharist has not been a major concern. After all, we think, it’s only a symbol. The supermarkets remained open and sold the bread that perishes. The churches remained shut and failed to offer the bread that endures to eternal life.

The last thing Jesus did before he was betrayed was to have a Meal with his disciples at which he told them that the bread was his body and the wine his blood. They were to do this, he said, in remembrance of him. It seems an awful lot of trouble to have gone to simply to give his disciples some symbols by which to remember him, however meaningful they may be. This mattered to our Lord; it is tragic that it doesn’t matter to us too.

The response to this may be to claim that we in the Church had no choice because it was a government decision to suspend church services. True, perhaps. But other government decisions during the pandemic, even when they have been accepted by people, have been accepted with pain and sadness, and often in protest. Where has been the sadness and pain at being denied the bread and wine of the Eucharist?

Here at Christ Church while services were suspended, the consecrated bread and wine were still offered every Sunday from the ‘reserved sacrament’. I would like to be able to report that we were overwhelmed by people seeking spiritual nourishment during such a worrying time. Sadly, many preferred instead to go shopping.

After Jesus had finished his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum many of his disciples were unhappy with what he had said. ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ was their response on hearing Jesus’ words (John 6:60). Many, St John tells us, stopped following Jesus as a result (John 6:66). Jesus asks the twelve apostles: ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answers for them:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)


At every Eucharist, Jesus’ words of life are spoken again to us; Jesus invites us to eat and drink in remembrance of him and to feed on him, for his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink (John 6:55). Jesus promises that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life and that he will raise them up on the last day. As often as we ‘eat the bread’ and ‘drink the cup’ together, we ‘proclaim his death until he comes’, because it is only by, through, and in Jesus’ death that we have life, and only by feeding on him that we can abide in him.

May we, then, accept his invitation to eat him and so to live because of him.

Amen.

Saturday, August 07, 2021

St John's Gospel Chapter 6 and the Eucharist (Part One)

We are in Year B of the Lectionary that gives us the readings for our services. During the Summer in Year B, the Gospel readings for five consecutive weeks all come from chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel. Rather than do separate podcasts on each of the Gospel readings, I have decided to record one on the whole chapter!  The podcast is in two parts.  This is the transcript of the first part.  I will post the second early next week.

The Eighth to Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: John 6:1-21

One of the most amazing passages in the New Testament is from St Paul’s first letter to Corinthians. In chapter 11, verses 23-26, St Paul writes:

‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

We are so familiar with these words that we rarely pay much attention to them. They are, however, really quite remarkable. They were written by St Paul to a Church he founded in Greece around AD51. The reason why he wrote them was because at the regular meeting of the Church, which centred on a Meal, believers were eating their fill of food and getting drunk with wine without waiting for the poorer members of the Church who could not get there on time.

There are a number of incredible things about what St Paul writes.

First, from this passage, we learn that just twenty years after Jesus held the Last Supper with the apostles in the Upper Room in Jerusalem and told his disciples they were to do this ‘in remembrance’ of him, pagans who had become believers were obeying his command in a Greek city many miles from Jerusalem.

Secondly, we learn that the Meal itself, which St Paul calls the ‘Lord’s Supper’ (1 Corinthians 11:20), was the central focus of the church gathering and provided the context for everything else that took place. To put it another way: the worship of believers in Corinth centred on a Meal modelled on the Last Supper and celebrated in obedience to Jesus’ command.

Thirdly, St Paul writes that Jesus’ words and instruction at the Last Supper, which St Paul had handed on to the Corinthian believers and upon which they based their meeting, had also been given to him. This means that the practice of holding the Meal and the explanation of it was widespread amongst the churches. Jesus’ institution of what we now know as the Eucharist had become an essential part of what people were taught when they became believers.

Fourthly, we only know today how important the Eucharist had become in the early Church because of the way some believers were abusing it. In fact, St Paul only wrote this passage in first Corinthians about the Eucharist in response to the abuse of it that was taking place at Corinth. References to the Eucharist are missing from the rest of St Paul’s letters, despite St Paul telling us how important the Eucharist was both to him and to Church.

So how do we explain this silence in the New Testament about something that was clearly so important? The explanation seems to be that the Eucharist was so well-known and was universally so highly regarded that there was no need to mention it. The need only arose when there was a problem.

Why am I discussing a passage in St Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth when our Gospel reading is from chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel? It is because what we learn about the Eucharist from St Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth helps to explain a puzzle in St John’s Gospel.

Each of the other Gospel writers record what are known as the ‘Words of Institution’. These are Jesus’ words over the bread and the cup and his command to do this in remembrance of him. St John, however, does not record these words in his account of the Last Supper. He records the Last Supper taking place. He describes Jesus’ action in washing the disciples’ feet as they arrived for it and Jesus’ teaching at it in what is now known as the Farewell Discourse. St John does not, however, relate the actual ‘Words of Institution’ themself.

Given how important these words of Jesus were in the early Church, this seems a strange omission by St John. They were so important that St Paul was taught them when he became a believer and was himself so convinced of their importance that he passed them on to his own converts. Why, then, did St John leave them out of his Gospel? It is inconceivable that St John didn’t know of them. After all, even pagans far from Jerusalem knew of them. St John himself, even if we don’t think he was one of those who were physically present at the Last Supper, was clearly familiar with the Gospel traditions contained in the other Gospels. What, then, is the explanation for St John leaving these words of Jesus out of his account of the Last Supper?

Firstly, St John may have felt that given how well-known Jesus’ words were, there was no need to repeat them. St John also clearly knows of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, but he doesn’t directly describe Jesus’ baptism either. St John refers to Jesus’ baptism, but seems to assume that his readers know all about it without him having to go into all the details. St Paul seems to make a similar assumption about the Eucharist when writing to his own churches.

Secondly, however, many commentators feel that St John doesn’t so much leave out Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as report them a different way. Rather than repeating what everyone knew already, St John instead reflects on their meaning, and he does this, many believe, in his account of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum after it.

The feeding of the 5,000 appears in all four Gospels, but each of the Gospel writers have their own approach to it. St John’s approach is particularly distinctive.

Firstly, St John closes chapter 5 by talking about Moses (John 5:45-47). He begins his account of the feeding of the 5,000 by telling us that Jesus went up ‘the mountain’ (John 6:3). Moses, of course, famously went up the mountain to receive the Law. St John also tells us that it was nearly Passover (John 6:4). This was the time of the year when the Jewish people celebrated their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and remembered their time in the wilderness. St John is inviting us to understand what he is about to tell us in the light of the story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness. There are references to this story throughout chapter 6.

After Jesus has fed the people with the loaves and fish, St John writes that the people began to say:

‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ (John 6:14)

The people see Jesus as the prophet that Moses had said God would one day raise up who would be like him (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). Jesus has to withdraw from them to prevent them making him King and starting a rebellion.

Secondly, because of the way St John relates the feeding of the 5,000, it also takes on the character of a Eucharist. St John makes a point of writing that it was nearly Passover (John 6:4). It was at Passover that Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Interestingly, in describing what takes place, St John doesn’t say that the people ‘sat’ on the grass; he writes that they ‘reclined’ on the grass (John 6:10). (The different Bible versions don’t always reflect this in their translation.) St John uses the same Greek word here that he uses to describe the disciples’ posture when eating the Last Supper (John 13:23, 25). St John also tells us that Jesus ‘gave thanks’ over the bread (John 6:11). The word he uses is the same word as that used by St Luke and St Paul to describe Jesus giving thanks over the bread at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24).

Having established both the links with story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness and also the character of the feeding of the 5,000 as a Eucharist, St John relates Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

In his teaching in the synagogue, Jesus refers to God’s provision of manna for his people during their time in the wilderness and he speaks of the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (John 6:33). Many of those in the synagogue were part of the 5,000 who had been fed with the loaves and fish and, not surprisingly, have come seeking Jesus. They ask him to give them this bread always (John 6:34). Jesus then makes a startling claim. He says to them:

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:35)

Jesus explains how he is the living bread come down from heaven. Those who ate manna in the wilderness still died (John 6:49). The bread that Jesus will give is his flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51). Whoever eats this bread will not die (John 6:50, 58). Understandably, those present don’t understand and ask how Jesus can give them his flesh to eat. Jesus replies in the following words:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.’ (John 6:53-58)

These words have divided commentators, especially commentators since the time of the European Reformation in the 16th century.

Firstly, there are those who think that these words are to be understood as a vivid metaphor for believing in Jesus. What Jesus is teaching, they argue, is the importance of believing in him and depending on him if we are to receive eternal life.

Secondly, others, such as those of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, argue that these words refer directly to what we now know as the Eucharist. They see these words as St John’s version of the ‘Words of Institution’. This means, they believe, that Christ is really and truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This is how, they think, we eat his body and drink his blood. On this understanding of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ. What Roman Catholics call ‘transubstantiation’ is a miracle that they believe happens at every celebration of the Mass.

While it is clearly possible to hold both of these views together, many who follow the first interpretation reject out of hand the idea that Jesus is talking in any way about the Meal he commanded his followers to observe.

To complicate the picture, there are those who don’t think Jesus is talking about the Eucharist here in chapter 6, but who, nevertheless, think that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist.

There are, then, two different questions that we need to answer: firstly, is Jesus talking here in chapter 6 about the Eucharist, and secondly, what relevance, if any, does chapter 6 have for understanding the Eucharist? In looking at this chapter, we need to begin with the first question and only when we have answered it should we go on to talk about its relevance, if any, to our understanding of the celebration of the Eucharist today.

It is to these two questions that we will turn in part two.