Thoughts on Joshua and The Promised Land: text of a sermon preached at the Convent of St Mary, Sewanee, on Sunday 12th November 2017

For the Old Testament Reading: Joshua 4:1-3a, 14-25.

Joshua leads Israel into The Promised Land

I’d like to spend a few minutes with you this morning looking at our Old Testament lesson. It’s a dramatic and memorable scene—even somewhat iconic. It begins with Joshua gathering together the elders, heads, judges and officers of Israel—all the movers and shakers, so to speak—and reminding them of what God has done for them. He does this at some length, and the compilers of our Lectionary, perhaps fearing our attention span is less than the Israelites’ (as indeed it probably is) have omitted quite a lot of it—ten and a half verses, to be exact—as you’ll notice if you check the story in your Bibles after Mass. Anyway, Joshua reminds them how God has delivered them from bondage and given into their hand the Promised Land, the land of the Amorites and six other nations.

“So,” he says at the end of it all, “worship the Lord, and serve him! Put away the gods of your ancestors!… choose this day whom you will serve! As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

It is stirring stuff. The chap who used to come and do my plumbing even had those last words painted on the side of his van.

But wait a minute!

“Choose this day whom you will serve… Put away the gods of your ancestors” ?

Now that’s a bit odd, isn’t it? Can it really be that after all God has done for this people they still have their old gods with them? Apparently, it can. Still, they do seem to have got the right idea now: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods!” they say. “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

Joshua, however, doesn’t seem very impressed. “You can’t serve the Lord!” he says.


“Because the Lord is a holy God, a jealous God” – el qana in Hebrew, which means “a passionate God, a lover who will brook no rival.” “If you forsake the Lord,” Joshua continues, “and serve strange gods, then the Lord will turn and do you evil, and consume you!”

Perhaps Joshua is relying on counter-suggestibility? If so, it works, for the people now insist that they’ll be faithful.

“No, we will serve the Lord.”

Even then Joshua’s response isn’t exactly dripping with enthusiasm.

“You are witnesses against yourselves,” he says, “that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.”

You are witnesses against yourselves! Joshua still seems virtually to assume that they’re going to fail. And they for their part seem to accept it, for their reply, “We are witnesses,” is terse and ambiguous. Actually it’s even more terse and ambiguous in Hebrew than it is in our English Bibles, for it consists of a single word. It’s as if they just nod their heads and say resignedly: “Edim – witnesses.”

Still, it seems to be enough. Joshua again says they must put away their foreign gods and serve the Lord, the people answer that they will serve and obey the Lord, Joshua makes a covenant with them, and the scene ends happily.

Or does it? Even then it isn’t without ambiguity. If you were listening carefully to the reading you may have noticed that though the people say they’ll accept Joshua’s second demand and serve the LORD, they don’t actually say they’ll accept the first, and put away the foreign gods. Nor does the narrative say that they did.

Now we might argue that their putting away foreign gods was implicit in their pledge to serve the Lord and in Joshua’s making a covenant with them. Yes, we might. But then, what’s implicit is only implicit. It has to be inferred. And isn’t it strange that the narrator should have left the resolution of this key issue to be inferred? That the possibility should be left open that Israel might still turn to some God other than the LORD who’d redeemed her from Egypt? That she might still serve other gods?

But that’s not the only thing that’s strange about this passage. I have quite a different problem with it, and it’s this: what about those Amorites?

I ran over that part of the story quickly just now, just as our lectionary does by leaving most of it out – but it’s in the Bible all right. Joshua reminds the Israelites how God brought them out of Egypt where they were being oppressed by the Egyptians, and led them into the Promised Land so that… so that… so that what? So that they could then oppress the Amorites! And indeed oppress them rather worse than the Egyptians had oppressed them—exterminate them, to be exact, and then live in their houses and use their vineyards. What an irony is here!

I read somewhere some years ago – to my irritation I can’t remember where – about someone visiting an archaeological museum where there were lots of things on display that had belonged to the ancient Amorites – pretty combs that girls probably used for combing their hair, and children’s toys. I wonder what they were like? Who were those girls who used those combs, and the children who played with those toys? Were the children sometimes affectionate and sometimes horrid – like most of us? Were the girls sometimes nice and sometimes nasty – like most of us?

But then, it really doesn’t matter, does it? For whatever they were like, the message to the people of God is clear: “you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” That’s what Moses had commanded Israel apropos the Amorites and those six other nations way back in the Book of Deuteronomy (7:2). So as for Joshua this morning, he was just obeying orders. Who cares what the Amorites were like?

Now even granted the Scriptures’ premise, that Israel is the chosen of God – which, indeed, I do grant heartily – still this sounds horrific. Israel the chosen is to be a source of utter destruction to the nations round her. Is this then the good news of God? Is this what Israel, and later also the Church, is to teach the world about God’s justice and mercy?

My first move, since I’m one of those pesky academics, is naturally to point out that this is theological fiction, designed to show the strength and depth of the Lord’s commitment to Israel. There were never really seven such nations as Deuteronomy names existing at one time for Israel to exterminate, and Israel didn’t really behave as badly as Moses seems to have said she should.

Well, maybe so. But does that solve the problem? Actually, it does not. In fact I think it makes it worse. After all, if this were simply history, one might reasonably say, “Well that was then but this is now.” But if this is theological fiction, then it’s a sort of symbol, a myth, if you will, of God’s dealing with God’s chosen. And the trouble with symbols is that they are transferable. You have only to decide that in the present situation you are God’s chosen and hey presto! – You can be perfectly clear and comfortable with knowing that God allows you behave toward people who aren’t like you or don’t have the same faith as you or don’t think like you or even happen to live in a country that you want to live in, in ways that in any other context you’d call cruel, dishonourable, and disgraceful. Ethnic cleansing, slaughter of non-combatants, murdering their children—what’s the problem? Jon D. Levenson, a Jewish biblical scholar whom I greatly admire, has suggested there’s a parallel between the Jews’ rapacious negation of the nations who had preceded them and the way in which Christians later rapaciously superseded the Jews.[1] Alas, I think Levenson is right. And throughout the next two thousand or so years we can see this theological fiction in one version or another being taken to provide biblical warrant, directly or indirectly, for all sorts of abominable nonsense:

Christian anti-semitism,

the burning of heretics,

the Christian rape of lands from their previous inhabitants (including, of course, those lands that we now call “the United States”),

babble about “master races”, “manifest destiny” and “exceptional nations”

modern Israel’s right to oppress Palestinians on the grounds that “God gave us this land,”

and by bitterest irony, the only too evident involvement of Christians in the Nazi holocaust, wherein Israel herself became the Amorite to be exterminated, while in German society at large Jewish wives of Aryan men became the “foreign women” who must be put away lest the purity of the race be compromised (cf. Ezra 10.1-12).

No, I’m afraid just saying, “Israel’s call to exterminate the Amorites is theological fiction,” won’t fix it.

As always when this kind of problem arises in Scripture, we must go further into Scripture itself. There are many voices in Scripture, and they don’t all say the same thing. Indeed, the Bible has a habit of giving us what Walter Brueggemann calls “testimony and counter-testimony”–one set of ideas and possibilities seeming to be presented in opposition to another, so that there is in effect an argument going on! Now I must be careful here. I’m not saying that everything in Scripture is up for grabs. Quite the contrary! There are some things—indeed, some fundamental things—that are quite clear and consistent and unambiguous throughout Scirpture, such as the proclamation of God’s faithfulness to Israel, and God’s grace and call to us in Jesus Christ. But there are other issues, important issues, where we seem to be listening to a debate.

So with the matters we are considering now. If we listen carefully to the Bible as a whole, we soon hear other voices telling us a story quite different from that implied by Joshua in our reading this morning– a story, moreover, that on Scripture’s own testimony is far older and deeper than Joshua’s, for it begins with the creation of the world wherein the Creator sees all that is made as very good (Gen. 1:31).

This story comes to fuller bloom in Genesis 9, where we discover that God’s primary covenant is not with God’s chosen people, nor even with humanity, but with “every living creature of all flesh”(9:9, 15). What’s more, this primary covenant is an everlasting covenant – beryt olam – it cannot be done away (9:16).

As for Israel as God’s chosen, Abraham is told what that means. Far from meaning that Israel is to destroy other nations, God tells Abraham that Israel being God’s chosen means the very opposite of that: “in your seed, all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; cf. 22:18). This idea is wonderfully developed in the Second Isaiah’s words to God’s servant— “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6)—and these words are in turn said of the infant Christ by the aged Simeon in the Temple at Jerusalem–Simeon’s song that we recite every evening at the evening office: the Nunc dimittis. Jesus himself is the light to enlighten the nations, and also the glory of his people (Luke 2:29-32).

In investigating our scriptural passage this morning it seems then that we have noticed not one but two pairs of conflicting stories reflected in it about the world in which we live. One pair opposes a story in which God is our only saviour and Lord to a story in which we may worship many gods and many lords. The other opposes a story in which God cares for all that God has made to a story in which God cares only for those who have been named as God’s elect, the chosen people.

Of course, in neither case are the two stories simply set side by side as of equal merit. It’s perfectly clear in both Old and New Testaments that to accept the God of Israel as Lord is the only true path; to live by that other narrative, the narrative involving other gods, is to walk a path to destruction.

And as we have just noticed, there is good reason to argue that Scripture privileges the story of God’s universal generosity and good will over the story of God’s violence. Not only is it, as we’ve just seen, the original story, the story of creation: it’s also the final story – in the rabbinic canon of scripture the last word, quite literally. The closing word of the rabbinic canon – in our Christian Bibles the last word of 2 Chronicles – is ve-ya’al – “let him go up.” It is a word of grace, hope, and encouragement uttered to Israel, under God, by a pagan emperor who will with pagan funds rebuild the Lord’s Temple at Jerusalem: in other words, it speaks of nothing but good will between Israel and the other nations. And of course that aliyah – that “going up” to Jerusalem is the same aliyah, the same going up, that is promised in the prophets and the psalms to all the nations (Isa 2:2-4; Micah 4:2; Ps 72).

As for the New Testament, let it suffice for now to note that in it our Lord himself declares that when he is lifted up he will draw all people to himself, and the Letter to the Colossians declares that God wills to reconcile all things in His Son, bringing peace by the blood of his cross (John 12:32, Col. 1:20; cf. also Rom. 11:32, Eph. 1:10, 1 Tim. 2:3-4).

All that granted, it remains that our scriptures do not dismiss this story of God’s meanness nearly so clearly or straightforwardly as they dismiss the story that there are many gods whom we might worship. And the clearest evidence of that is that there remain to this day Christians in certain traditions who will claim that only those who are members of God’s people—and often that membership is defined by them quite narrowly—can have any hope of salvation. And such Christians can claim, not without reason, that they are following the Holy Scriptures, or at least a part of them.

This is not, of course, the only issue where it must be admitted that well-meaning people seem able to extract from the Bible entirely opposite stories. Another such has been slavery, where until late in the nineteenth century there were still those who would claim from the pulpit that God had ordained slavery, pointing to texts such as “Slaves obey your masters!” as justification for their view. Of course there were those who took the opposing view, pointing out that God had also said, “Let my people go!” It remains, however, that those who defended slavery were not totally without Scriptures to which they could appeal.

And still other issues remain hot button topics for some until this very day. Relationship between the sexes—patriarchy versus equality between the sexes—is one such issue, and same sex marriage another. Here, too, both sides find texts of Scripture to which they can appeal.

Why then do the Scriptures leave us with such confusion? Why, in the particular matters we have been considering this morning, do they leave us two narratives, so that we have to choose between them? Why did synagogue and church not simply expunge the narrative of God’s meanness and leave the only the narrative of God’s generosity – as, indeed, our Lectionary devisers may have been attempting to do by their omissions this morning?

The answer, I suspect, is quite simple. The people of God, now as in the past, are a work in progress. Those who created our Scriptures—those who wrote them and those, under God, who in the centuries following selected them to form the church’s canon—they themselves were a part of that work in progress. Our Lord promises in the gospel that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13 cf. 14:26). He does not promise instant awareness of all truth! Guidance is a process. So is teaching. Even St Paul admitted that he did not always know what to pray, or what to pray for[2]—which is as much as to say, he admitted that he did not always know what was right nor what was the will of God. Nor, of course is this process of becoming by any means confined to the people of God, however much we may rejoice in our chosen-ness. As the Apostle points out, God cares for all that God has made and desires that all shall come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3).[3]

As always, then, we must be patient with those who came before us, with those who wrote our Scriptures and those who gathered them together, as well as with ourselves, with each other and with the church. And especially we must be patient over questions where persons of faith and goodwill have disagreed and may continue to do so. Even when we are broadly in the right over a particular issue, let us never forget that the chances are there is still more to be said, and that there are some things that we have not yet thought of and in this life perhaps never will! God has not finished with us yet–and that is not bad news, but good! In that hope and confidence, let us then confess our faith, as the church has taught us: We believe in One God…

[1] Jon D. Levenson, “Is There a Counterpart in the Hebrew Bible to New Testament Anti-Semetism?” Journal of Ecumentical Studies 22 (1985) 242-60.

[2] Romans 8:26. With St Jerome, the KJV and Douey-Rheims, I here translate Paul’s τί correctly, as opposed to the NRSV and other modern versions.

[3] I am reminded of Charles Kingsley saying all this rather nicely for young children back in the middle of the nineteenth century when he wrote of the ancient Greek myths:

Now, while they [the Greeks] were young and simple they loved fairy tales, as you do now. All nations do so when they are young: our old forefathers did, and called their stories ‘Sagas.’ I will read you some of them some day–some of the Eddas, and the Voluspa, and Beowulf, and the noble old Romances. The old Arabs, again, had their tales, which we now call the ‘Arabian Nights.’ The old Romans had theirs, and they called them ‘Fabulæ,’ from which our word ‘fable’ comes; but the old Hellenes called theirs ‘Muthoi,’ from which our new word ‘myth’ is taken. But next to those old Romances, which were written in the Christian middle age, there are no fairy tales like these old Greek ones, for beauty, and wisdom, and truth, and for making children love noble deeds, and trust in God to help them through.

Now, why have I called this book The Heroes? Because that was the name which the Hellenes gave to men who were brave and skilful, and dare do more than other men. At first, I think, that was all it meant: but after a time it came to mean something more; it came to mean men who helped their country; men in those old times, when the country was half-wild, who killed fierce beasts and evil men, and drained swamps, and founded towns, and therefore after they were dead, were honoured, because they had left their country better than they found it. And we call such a man a hero in English to this day, and call it a ‘heroic’ thing to suffer pain and grief, that we may do good to our fellow-men. We may all do that, my children, boys and girls alike; and we ought to do it, for it is easier now than ever, and safer, and the path more clear. But you shall hear how the Hellenes said their heroes worked, three thousand years ago. The stories are not all true, of course, nor half of them; you are not simple enough to fancy that; but the meaning of them is true, and true for ever, and that is—“Do right, and God will help you.” (Charles Kingsley, Preface to The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales for My Children [London: William Clowes, 1856]).

It may be worth my saying, incidentally, that I absolutely adored Kingsley’s The Heroes when I was about nine, and if anyone wants to introduce their children to the ancient Greek myths in a way that is not confusing for children who are being brought up as Christians, I can only say that The Heroes seemed to work for me (not, of course, that I thought about that at the time!).  Kingsley was himself a devout Anglican priest, as well as a classical scholar, so this was an issue that mattered to him.

James Theodore Holly, Bishop of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Text of a Sermon preached by Professor Cynthia Crysdale in the Chapel of the Apostles on the 8th November 2017

         If this sermon were to have a title it would sound a bit like a Dr. Seuss book: “Oh the Stories we tell!” I want to talk about three sets of stories today. The stories themselves are fascinating but my main focus is on just how these stories came to be, the meaning makers who generated them and the reasons they were crafted.

James Theodore Holly was born a free African American in Washington DC in 1829. Baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church, Holly severed his ties when that denomination refused to ordain him because of his race. He joined the Protestant Episcopal Church while living in Windsor, Ontario, and after returning to the U.S. was ordained a priest in New Haven Connecticut. In 1874 he was consecrated as a missionary bishop of Haiti, becoming the first African American bishop in the Episcopal Church. In 1878 he attended the Lambeth Conference, the first Black to do so.

These are the facts. But within Holly’s story lies his passion for finding a voice for the voiceless. While he was living in Canada, he spent four years helping former slave Henry Bibb edit his newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive. In the same year that he was ordained he co-founded the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People, a precursor to the Union of Black Episcopalians. He was determined to find a place, both literally and figuratively, for African Americans to thrive. Holly was a delegate to the first National Emigration Convention in 1851. He saw Haiti, a country where slaves had led a successful revolt and founded their own nation, as a place where Blacks could bind together. He believed that bringing Anglicanism to Haiti would contribute to its development. In spite of rebuffs from both Congressmen and the Board of Missions—several times over — in 1861 Holly took 110 men, women, and children from New Haven to Haiti.

The first year went badly. Forty-three of his emigrants died of infectious diseases, including his mother, his wife and his two children. He persevered nonetheless, becoming a Haitian citizen and eventually convincing the Board of Missions to sponsor his work. As Bishop he continued to live and work in Haiti, returning rarely to the U.S. He remarried and with his new wife Sarah, had nine children. He died in Port-au-Prince in 1911 and is buried there.

Holly worked to make a visible minority less invisible, in both church and society. But his story itself illustrates the way the Church has told its history. I learned about Holly by reading The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice, a website of the Archives of the Episcopal Church.[1] This website was created in 1993 in response to the 1991 General Convention’s call to address institutional racism and its pattern of forgetting. Ironically, this pattern of forgetting arose as a post-civil rights era phenomenon. Having made structural and policy changes, the conscience of the Church seemed to be relieved of the need to remember the “historic harm of three centuries of racism.” The Archives mined its resources to recover what were otherwise lost memories. The stories they tell are as disturbing as they are enlightening: holy women and men such as Holly are brought to light, but the recalcitrance of embedded prejudice in the church is most visible. Sewanee plays its part here, and we have much to do still to repent, retrieve and renew our history.

The second example of storytelling comes from our Old Testament lesson today. The Book of Deuteronomy stands as a bridge between Sinai and the Promised Land. Set in the moments just before Israel moves to cross the Jordan, its theme is obedience and loyalty. The future dangers that are highlighted are not so much from warfare but from success: the dangers of adopting foreign gods and worshipping at local shrines. A second telling of the law (deuteros nomos—hence “deutero – nomy”) is a necessary reminder to establish again the covenant relationship between God and God’s people.

But while law and rules and obedience are the main threads, they are woven with narrative wool. How many of you have children who complain about rules: “Who does which chores? Why do I have to wash my hands? Brush my teeth? Go to church?” Deuteronomy tells us that the way to respond to such questions is to tell a story. When your children ask you, “What is the meaning of these decrees and statutes?” you must tell them, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household” (Deut. 6:21-22). This narrative context is repeated at the end of Deuteronomy. “When you bring the first fruits of the harvest as a thank offering to the priest, you shall say: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey’” (Deut. 26:5-9).

But let us notice that this narrative also has its dark side. Just after the passage in Deuteronomy 6, chapter 7 continues with instructions about how to treat the neighbours in the Israelites’ new home. Once God has cleared away seven mighty nations from the land, “when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. . . . this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, burn their idols with fire” (Deut. 7: 2, 5). Yes, the theme is that God alone must garner the loyalty of Israel. But there is no avoiding the fact that God is ordering genocide. Our Biblical tradition – the stories we have told of God’s gracious work – are filled with prejudice that our generation must acknowledge. While we cannot change history, we can face the dark side in our heritage with honesty. We need to be attentive: we must read between the lines and, while not excusing the past, at the very least take care not to hand on embedded intolerance.

My third example of story telling is about making meaning in the present as events unfold in the midst of confusion. When the twin towers were attacked on 9/11 U.S. airspace was quickly closed and all planes in the air ordered to land. A number of commercial flights were over the Atlantic – too far along to return home. The closest airfield was in Gander, in Newfoundland: an airfield very much in use during World War II but rarely used in recent decades. One by one planes from London, Dublin, Frankfurt, and Moscow, among others, were ordered out of the sky, most pilots still ignorant of the reason why. In all, 38 jumbo jets landed in the space of a few hours, carrying 6500 passengers and crew, 17 dogs and cats and 2 rare bonobo chimps. The population of Gander is itself just under 10,000. But it became clear as this drama unfolded that those planes were not going to take off again anytime soon.

The people of Gander and surrounding fishing villages did not see potential terrorists or imminent danger. They saw people in need and set out to help them. The people who disembarked – some after 28 hours on a plane – came from 100 different countries with thousands of different reasons for traveling that day. There were refugees from Moldova on the way to a new life in the U.S.; several couples coming home with newly adopted children from Russia; a high-profile executive from the elite fashion designer, Hugo Boss, en route to New York for fashion week; Lenny O’Driscoll, who had grown up in Newfoundland but hadn’t been back for decades. There were Muslims, Christians and Jews, gay couples, young and old, single and married. One couple who met that day fell in love and were eventually married.

All were welcomed. The school bus drivers, who were on strike, left their picket lines to ferry the “Plane People” to a host of school gyms, church basements, and a Salvation Army camp in the woods. Bakeries went into overdrive, pharmacies cleared their shelves of toiletries, and casseroles came out of ovens by the dozens. What will live in memory as a day of terror and grief, became at the same time a day of comfort and healing. The stories abound and have been collected into a book called The Day the World Came to Town,[2] now made into a Tony awarding winning Broadway musical – Come from Away.[3]

Of all the stories, one has had an especially compelling ring for me. During the second day at the Elementary school in Glenwood, one of the volunteers noticed that a man and two women had not eaten any of the food put before them. When she enquired about this, it turned out that they were Orthodox Jews. The Jewish population of Newfoundland is miniscule but the hosts helped Rabbi Levi Sudak set up a Kosher kitchen in the faculty lounge of the school. The Rabbi had been en route to New York, where the founder of his particular Jewish sect is buried. His intention was to visit the grave and return home to London where he works with disenfranchised youth. Now he wondered what God had in store for him. Why deposit him on this rock in the Atlantic with no fellow Jews in sight? As the week moved on his question intensified. By the time his plane was released to fly again it was Friday evening – neither he nor the two other Orthodox women would travel on the Sabbath. As his plane took off for New York without him, he wondered again why he had come to this isolated Gentile island.

The next day a man called Eddie Brake came to visit him. Eddie Brake was over 70 years old. He was born to a Jewish mother and father in Poland in 1930. He did not know what name his parents had given him or even their family name. He only knew that just prior to WWII his parents had arranged to have him smuggled out of Poland to England. He was adopted by an English couple, who then moved to Cornerbrook, Newfoundland. He was told never to let anyone know that he was Jewish. If he mentioned it at all his parents beat him. Even as an adult, when he decided to tell his wife and grown children of his identity, they scorned him and hushed him up. Now, here he was after all these years, sitting in front of a Rabbi. He told him that all these years he had never stopped thinking of himself as a Jew. His walking stick had engraved on it a small star of David. Sometimes at night he would wake up singing the religious music he had learned as a child. Eddie and the Rabbi talked for over two hours. When they were done, Eddie returned home and the Rabbi made plans to return to London. He never got to New York, but he now knew why he had made this journey.

The story of that week in Gander Newfoundland is a story of having to create meaning in the midst of tragedy, with people who had never intended to come together. There was tension for sure – the narrative unfolded in a context in which it was not clear whether these planes themselves were intended as weapons, or whether some of the passengers were terrorists on a mission. But those who lived on that particular rock in the Atlantic reacted as if those who descended on them were their own mothers, fathers, children, grandchildren, neighbours. No hatred, no anger, no fear of those who come from away.

We cannot avoid the terror of memories that haunt us. As a community, we have the task of owning the dark places of our past and living in the midst of current grief and sorrow. Each of us has secrets we don’t tell, sins we avoid recalling, resentments or fears that linger in deep places. But as disciples of Christ it is our job to tell stories – to find the gospel and preach the gospel ever anew. What if we lived AS IF resurrection could illumine the very darkest places of our past? What if we lived AS IF the Lord ruled even the tragic present? AS IF nothing could separate us from the love of God? AS IF we could meet everyone without fear? AS IF those who come from away are in fact our dearest neighbours?















[1] Go to

[2] Jim DeFede, The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland (New York: Harper Collins, 2002).

[3] Come from Away, book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.


Thoughts on Proper 24A: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Text of a Sermon preached in All Saints’ Chapel, Sewanee

Roman denarius from the time of Jesus

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matt. 22:15-46)

The Pharisees and the Herodians (a strange combination of opposites indeed,[i] but let’s not go there today)—the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

The “taxes” to which they refer (as Matthew’s Greek, following Mark, makes quite clear) aren’t a matter of taxation in general, but tributum capitis, the poll- or head-tax, a form of levy that was particularly offensive to Jewish sensibilities because it involved “numbering” God’s people—something that, if you know your Bible, you may remember King David had tried to do, and got into very hot water over it (2 Samuel 24 cf. 1 Chron. 21). So—is it “lawful” (the Greek means “permitted”, that is, “permitted to a faithful Israelite”) to pay Caesar’s head tax or not? That’s the question, and in the politics of Our Lord’s day it was a hot button issue, a very hot potato. There were groups around him who took both sides of the question, and who, moreover, got pretty angry with those who didn’t agree with them. There certainly wasn’t much “dialogue across the aisle” going on here. More precisely:

  • If Jesus’ says, “it is permitted”, then he aligns himself with the Sadducees, who were perfectly willing to co-operate with the pagan Roman Empire of which Israel was then a part, provided the empire left them free to worship as they chose. He’d also be aligning himself with biblical heroes like Joseph, who’d served the pharaoh of Egypt, with Daniel, who held a top job in pagan imperial civil service, with Esther, who was queen to a pagan emperor, with Ezra the Scribe, who among other things oversaw the rebuilding of the Temple with funds provided by the pagan emperor Cyrus (Ezra 3.7), and of course with the prophet Jeremiah, who told Jewish exiles in Babylon to “pray for the good” of the pagan city where they now found themselves (Jer. 29:7).
  • If Jesus says, “it is not permitted,” then he aligns himself with the zealot rebels of his own day, which included many among the Pharisees. He also aligns himself with heroes like Judas Maccabeus and his family who rebelled against the pagan ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, and with freedom fighters like Judas the Galilean, who, according the historian Josephus, only decades before Our Lord’s lifetime had “incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters after having God for their lord” (War 2.118).

All of which is to say, Jesus’ questioners are putting him on the spot!

Our Lord responds with what is formally a request for clarification and information. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says, and then when they do so, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” But of course the request for information is really a rhetorical trap. “The emperor’s,” they say. Indeed, they can say nothing else. That, after all, was precisely what many of them disliked about the coin. What then? Disliked or not, the emperor’s head and inscription meant that it was the emperor’s coin, and according to ancient understanding a ruler’s coinage was his property. The trap springs. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.”

Jesus’ words are in their context quite unequivocal. However much the inhabitants of Judaea may dislike it, if they are using Caesar’s coinage, as they clearly are, then they can’t escape Caesar’s authority and the obligations that entails.

Had Jesus ended his answer at this point, he would simply have been aligning himself with the examples of Queen Esther, with the prophet Jeremiah, with Daniel and with Ezra the Scribe—the examples to which I just referred. But Jesus doesn’t end his answer there. He adds, “and to God, the things that are God’s.”

The form of Our Lord’s expression evidently implies a degree of analogy. We are to pay Caesar what Caesar is owed, and we are also to pay God what God is owed. Unlike Judas the Galilean, Jesus does not, apparently, see a contradiction here, and that in itself is important. According to Jesus, it’s possible to be a good citizen of the pagan empire and a faithful servant of God.

But there is surely more. The basis on which Our Lord has said that “the coin used for the tax” is owed to Caesar is that it bears Caesar’s image. What then bears God’s image, so that it should be owed to God? No Jew who knew anything at all about his or her religion—certainly no Pharisee and surely even no Herodian—could possibly not know the answer to that question. As it said in Genesis, they themselves bore God’s “image” (1.26)—not, be it noted, by virtue of being Israelites, but by virtue of being human.

In other words, they owed tribute coin to Caesar, because the coinage belonged to Caesar. But they owed themselves to God, because they themselves belonged to God.

So—they have asked Jesus a question about their relation to the Roman Empire and are doubtless all set not only for an argument about that but also, and more importantly, to complain about him to whichever group his answer seems most likely to offend. And he has indeed answered their question. But in so doing so he has used its form to challenge them with an altogether deeper and more dangerous question of his own, a question about their relationship to God. No wonder, “when they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away”!

Our Lord’s response to the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ question has been subjected over the course of Christian history to various interpretations.

  • The early church focused on the fact that our whole duty is owed to God, and that our duty to the state is an entirely proper though nonetheless subordinate part of that.
  • Protestants at the time of the Reformation, however—and notably Martin Luther—saw it as conveying the message that God rules the world through two realms or kingdoms: the secular or political authority that is to rule over us as regards physical, external things, and the spiritual authority that is to rule over us in matters of the spirit and the heart.
  • And most recently a number of biblical scholars have seen Jesus’ words as a thinly veiled invitation to rebellion, wherein he makes common cause with those who would throw off the yoke of imperial Rome. “Give to the emperor what you owe to the emperor!” means, “Fight him with fire and sword! That’s what you owe him! Home rule for the Judeans!”

Briefly, and by way of conclusion, let me say that I regard the ancient catholic view as right. Our Lord is very clearly saying that there is no part of our lives that is not owed to God, and that our proper duty to the state is a part, albeit a subordinate part, of that debt. We are, as St Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans, to pay “taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due” (13:7).

That does not, of course, mean that Our Lord or St Paul or the prophets of Israel in whose line they stand, have no critique of the power of the state, or place no limits on its right to be obeyed. Quite the contrary! They certainly have such a critique. Its basis is the prophetic claim, “the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our ruler, the LORD is our king; he will save us” (Isa. 33.22), “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1.14). On that basis, they challenge all human power structures.

They do not, however, challenge them by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other human power structures (“Home rule for Judaea!”) but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose. Their origin is that God permits them. Their purpose is to serve God’s glory by promoting God’s peace and God’s justice. They must not therefore pretend to worship and serve the biblical God, the God of Israel, unless they are concerned about justice (including international justice) here and now. For so long as they attempt such concern, they may do well. As soon as they forget it, they stand condemned and their days are numbered, not because human wisdom or courage will put an end to them, but because God will do so. To put it another way, the prophetic tradition subverts the “powers that be” by insisting at every point that they do their job. This is its burden, and consistently emerges at every point where we examine it.

As for the Reformation view that there are “two realms” or “two kingdoms”, I think it simply mistaken. Our Lord is NOT saying that one part of me belongs to the State (that is, the material or cultural or external part of me that deals with the kingdoms of this world) and the other part to God (that is, my spiritual, personal, and inner life). Such a view is no doubt very convenient to states and governments that wish, in the affairs of the world, to be obeyed by their citizens without question. But it is hardly the view of Scripture.

As for those modern exegetes who claim that Our Lord is here advocating rebellion against Rome, “home rule for Judaea!”—those who see him invoking the very war that would in A.D. 70 lead to devastation for the Jewish people and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple—they too, I believe, are quite wrong. To treat Our Lord’s words as a call to replace one human power structure with another human power structure is entirely to miss their point. Which means, more importantly, that it is also to miss the way in which, as critique, those words continue to challenge those who live under structures of government vastly different from anything that could have been envisaged or imagined by those who wrote the books of our New Testament. For if the Lord is truly king, then even twenty-first century presidents and prime ministers elected (at least in theory) by western processes of post-Enlightenment democracy still need to remember that they govern only by God’s will, and that the purpose of their governing is to promote God’s peace, God’s justice and God’s gifts of well-being and life for all their subjects. If they forget those things, then they too stand condemned and will fall, as surely as did any arrogant King or Caesar of antiquity. For God is not mocked.

[i] For discussion of these and other details about this narrative in the gospels, see further Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar (Oxford University Press, 2005) especially pages 43-46.


Out of Africa: Reflections on the Story of Christian Mission by the Right Reverend Dr James Tengatenga, for the Feast of St Philip the Deacon, 2017. Text of a sermon preached in the Chapel of the Apostles.

For the Epistle: Acts 8:26-40 For the Gospel: Matthew 28:18-20

St Philip the Deacon and the Ethiopian

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.

 In 1996, Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, gave a poetic opening to his speech during the inauguration of South Africa’s new constitution. It is such a gem! It is Ubuntu, a mea culpa and an embrace of the gospel imperative all in one, such that I cannot help but share a heavily abridged but lengthy excerpt. I quote:

I am an African. I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land. At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito. A human presence among all of these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say – I am an African!

 I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape… I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still part of me. In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.

 I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom. My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as Ashanti of Ghana, as Berbers of the desert.

 I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Vrouemonument, who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins. I am the child of Nongqawuse. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which our stomachs yearn.

 I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence. Being part of all of these people, and in the knowledge that none dares contest that assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.

 I have experience of the situation in which race and colour is used to enrich some and impoverish the rest. I have seen the corruption of minds and souls as a result of the pursuit of an ignoble effort to perpetrate a veritable crime against humanity. Among us prowl the products of our immoral and amoral past – killers who have no sense of the worth of human life, rapists who have absolute disdain for the women of our country, animals who would seek to benefit from the vulnerability of the children, the disabled, and the old, the rapacious who brook no obstacle in their quest for self-enrichment. All this I know and know to be true because I am an African! …Today it feels good to be an African!

Today, there are many who see Africa as the epicentre of Christianity. They point to the phenomenal growth and fervour of Christianity on that continent. There is a sense of novelty and even surprise about it. This surprise and sense of novelty stem largely from the fact that talk about African Christianity has tended tofocus on nineteenth-century missionary activity, its fruit in sub-Saharan Africa and still more recent movements. Little cognizance has been given to the fact that early North African Christianity was part of the wider history of Christianity. Thomas Oden begins his study of early Libyan Christianity by reminding us that

Libyan Christianity was founded in a nexus of cultures bordering on Egypt, Ethiopia and ancient Nubia, modern Sudan, ancient Darfur (part of Cush), Chad, and Roman Byzacena (southern Tunisia). Ancient Libyan Christianity had close affinities with Coptic Egypt and Ethiopia, and with the Meroe kingdom in Nubia (Sudan). They belonged intentionally to the community of worldwide believers who held to orthodox, apostolic, classical teaching.

The story of Christianity in Africa cannot properly be told or understood until we begin to appreciate that the first thousand years of Christianity in that continent are part of the story of the first thousand years of Christianity in the world. In the eleventh century, perhaps one-tenth of all Christians on the planet lived in Africa, a proportion not reached again until the 1960s. Africa’s relatively small contribution to today’s worldwide theological discourse belies the very significant contribution of African theologians to the early church. The story of theological education as we know it cannot be fully appreciated if one does not take into account the school at Alexandria and the fine theologians it produced. Christian spirituality in its monastic form has its roots in the African soil.

We hear of Africa and Africans from the very beginning. In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene is made to carry his cross (Mark 20b-21; Matt. 27:31b-32; Luke 23:26-32). In Acts, people from Africa are among those present to hear the first preaching and be baptized on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). Christian tradition credits Mark the Evangelist with introducing Christianity to Egypt and establishing Christian churches at Alexandria before his martyrdom there in A.D. 68 (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II.16.1). The earliest extant records of Christianity in the region are documents describing persecutions in A.D. 180 (Passio Sanctorum Scillitanorum[1]). This is the church of Clement of Alexandria (150-215), of Origen (185-254), Dionysius (d. 264), Athanasius (296-373), Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and Anthony the father of asceticism and monasticism (c. 251-356). The Egyptian church was a key player in the formulation of Christological and Trinitarian theology. It is the church of three African popes: Victor I (189-198), Melchiades (310/11-314), and Gelasius (492-496). It is the church of Tertullian (160-225), Cyprian (c. 200-258) and Augustine (354-430), whose influence on Christianity and Christian thinking is undoubtedly as great as that of any writer outside the New Testament itself. As Oden observes,

What was first firmly established in the Nile valley and the Maghreb became later widely confirmed as classic consensual Christian teaching. The seeds for the scriptural interpretations that became common Christian teaching were first woven on the African continent. The major movement of intellectual history in the second and third centuries was South to North, Africa to Europe, Africa to Asia. This is markedly counterintuitive to the modern mind….  African Christians today have an opportunity to see their present religion from the perspective of two thousand uninterrupted years of classic Christian teaching.

Echoing this sentiment, C. E. Lincoln says of St Philip the Deacon’s conversion of the Ethiopian official described in our reading today,

For persons of black African lineage, the eunuch’s conversion means the inclusion of black Africans among the charter members of the faith . . . all of which symbolizes from the beginning the African involvement in the new faith that spread throughout the world. (C. E. Lincoln [1984] 24)

In the wider scheme of things, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian might seem to be a very small account of an encounter between a faithful evangelist and an inquisitive man. Almost whimsical! A spur of the moment type of thing! But this is what the Holy Spirit in God’s economy does with seemingly insignificant encounters. I am sure that Philip himself, as part of the cloud of witnesses to the explosion of Christianity in Africa, can hardly believe what that encounter has produced. Certainly not all of the spread of Christianity in Africa can be attributed to this encounter, but I have no doubt that it is a significant part of the story.

The passage is not just describing a serendipitous encounter. In it, Luke the evangelist is linking that encounter to obedience to Jesus’ command at the beginning of Acts to “be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1.8). As you may notice, this looks and sounds like a version of the “Great Commission” that we heard in today’s gospel reading:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, … I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

No surprise here! As one commentator observes of the story of the Ethiopian’s conversion,

This scene is a fitting climax to the Grecian Jewish Christians’ mission thrust, for here they complete the geographical aspects of the Acts 1:8 commission: Jerusalem (6:8-8:3), Judea and Samaria (8:4-25) and the ends of the earth (8:26-40). Further, it is a harbinger of the full-fledged Gentile mission to come (Acts 13-28).

The early church historian Eusebius certainly saw Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian as the beginning of the Gentile mission. He wrote of the Ethiopian that,

this man, who was the first Gentile to partake of the sacred rites of the divine Word at the hands of Philip… thus becoming a first fruits of the faithful throughout the world, on returning to his native land was the first to preach the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life-giving sojourn of our Savior among men, so that by him was actually fulfilled the prophecy which says, Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand to God” (Ecclesiastical History II.1.13, citing Ps. 67:32).

For better or worse, however, Acts’ account of the spread of the gospel then goes on to focus on Asia Minor and its progress westward. Later telling of the history of Christianity also ignores the African story and talks about the spread east and northeast from Jerusalem. The African part of Christian history is not picked up again until the period of the so-called “Voyages of Discovery” from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries (i.e. the period during which European culture was powerfully affected by extensive overseas exploration). In critique of this narrative Cain H. Felder says that the story of the Ethiopian is a corrective, a “parallel and rival” to the Cornelius story in Acts 10.[2] It is one more testimony to the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy, “Out of Egypt”—which is to say, out of Africa—“have I called my son” (Hos. 11:1, cited Matt. 2:15). This surely goes beyond the messianic message and should be heard as a proleptic reference to the future carriers of the Gospel. As Harvey Kwinyani, talking about Reverse Mission, says:

it is important to note that the continent of Africa has been evangelized by Africans. Any faithful writing of the history of Christianity in Africa will have to account for the agency of Africans in its growth. … Naturally, this fact will be of great importance to any understanding of African missionary work since it shapes the African understanding of missions.[3]

Obviously, this begs the question “So what?” Or put differently, “Why does God send people to evangelize others? Once evangelized, what? Is it evangelization for its own sake?” I believe that the aim is to spread the Gospel even farther, so that those prophecies come to pass which say that God will write the Law in human hearts, and that knowledge of the Lord shall fill the world as the waters cover the sea (Jer. 31:33; Hab. 4:14). What that may look like may be what Anglican understanding of mission calls, “by everyone, from everywhere to everywhere”. I believe that this understanding dislodges the privilege of the West and calls for humility from the West to accept evangelization from others. As has been demonstrated, this won’t be the first time the Gospel has moved northward and westward. There was a purpose in the Lord’s choosing to sow the Gospel in Africa even at the very earliest of times.

Will the West stop its condescending attitude to listening and hearing the Gospel and heed the prophecy that says, “Out of Africa have I called my Son”? This is the word to which St Matthew’s infancy narrative points. The African missionary at your doorstep is not the peddler of some exotic and strange message but a bearer of the good news of Christ. Pay attention and receive the Gospel!

Likewise we must ask, will Africa for its part obey, and evangelize the world as it received the commission at the Eunuch’s baptism and in the early history of the Church? Can Africa tell the story of its encounter with the Gospel not merely as if it were a Johnny-come-lately but claiming its proper place in the history of the faith? As such, Africa exemplifies not just the example and heritage of the Ethiopian Eunuch but also the example of Philip the Evangelist, who obeyed the risen Lord’s call to go and encounter foreigners everywhere at the bidding of the Holy Spirit. There is yet more of the Gospel to share with the world! That which we all, African and Westerner, have received we must share. And we must do this not as those who linger to savour the success or fruit of our mission and to gloat, but as those who declare to you,

what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life – this was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify to it, and we declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

The fruit that comes from this will blow our minds. But alas!—this is also where the challenge will come, if we are so lax as to obey only the first part of the Great Commission (to preach the gospel) and forget the second (to teach what Jesus has commanded us). Here are three voices from across the Anglican Communion:

    1. The former Primate of the Anglican Church in Melanesia, Archbishop David Vunagi said, “We have no problem filling our churches with people, but they need to know what it means to be Christians, that is where we need help.”
    2. In his installation Charge, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit of Kenya asked, “If Christians form 80% of Kenya’s population, why are our elections often violence-prone? Why is our society riddled with corruption, nepotism and a great level of social stratification? Why are environmental degradation, poverty and disease still ever-present realities?”
    3. Bishop Steven Croft of the Diocese of Sheffield in England has pointed out that “the Vatican Synod of Bishops (called by Pope Francis in 2014) revealed that the church throughout the world has same struggles to communicate faith, and it’s not just Europe and America (or the West) but even where the Church is growing [read Africa]. There is need to listen and learn from each other within the Body of Christ.”

All this calls our attention to the second part of the Great Commission, which enjoins us to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Evangelization does not end with preaching/witnessing and baptizing. The depth comes with teaching: and the history of Christianity in Africa has demonstrated that to us all.

Philip obeyed and went. His encounter with the stranger led to the Ethiopian Eunuch’s conversion and baptism and beyond that to the spread of the gospel into Africa, so that from Africa the gospel, theology and spirituality then spread to the north. The example of both Philip and the Eunuch should teach us to obey the bidding of the Holy Spirit. Making disciples is about both proclamation and teaching and thus grounding in the faith “by everyone from everywhere to everywhere”.  Jesus Christ, of whom the prophet said that he had been called by God “out of Africa”, still says to you and to me:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.

[1] Text and translation in Herbert Musurillo S.J., The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972).

[2] Cain H. Felder, “The Bible and Re-contextualization” in Gayraud S. Wilmore, ed. African American Religious Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (1989) 164.

[3] Harvey Kwinyani, Go Forth, 51-52.



Saint Francis of Assisi: text of a Sermon preached in the Chapel of the Apostles by Mother Julia Gatta

“For I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (Galatians 6:17)

I must confess I have long enjoyed a rather acerbic comment that goes all the way back to the earliest editions of Lesser Feasts and Fasts: “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated; few have attained to his total identification with the poverty and suffering of Christ.” “Probably the least imitated”! Well, Francis wouldn’t have cared one bit. He wasn’t at all interested in having anybody imitate him. He just wanted to imitate Christ. And few of us would wantor even should—imitate Francis in every respect. But we can let ourselves be inspired by him—by his single-minded, passionate and joyful devotion to Christ. That devotion led him to embrace poverty, to embrace lepers, to embrace the cultural and religious enemy—he did, in fact, cross behind the battle lines of the Fifth Crusade to preach the gospel to the sultan of Egypt. But what Francis embraced above all was the cross of Christ because Christ had embraced him. Francis could have said with St Paul, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” But how did Francis become so configured to Christ? How did this son of a prosperous Assisi cloth merchant—a pampered young bon vivant—move beyond himself to see and love Jesus?

Francis’ conversion seems to have come by stages. In his autobiographical Testament he writes very briefly about how it began: “When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.” It seems that Francis’ conversion begins when he confronts his most visceral revulsion and fear, and Francis says that the Lord led him to that—how, we do not know. And typically, Francis discovers that imitating Christ by touching lepers—“performing the gospel life,” as one recent biographer puts it—leads to joy. What was previously bitter turns to sweetness for soul and body.

Crocifisso di San Damiano

The next turn comes when Francis is praying before the large painted crucifix in the Church of San Damiano (which I have seen). As he prayed, the crucifix seemed to speak to him: “Rebuild my church.” Francis obeys to the letter. So besides caring for lepers, he now starts to collect stones to repair the crumbling edifice of San Damiano and other churches in the vicinity. Francis’s family, already alarmed at his eccentric behaviour, feels disgraced. People of their social class simply did not work with their hands. His outraged father insists on a showdown in the public square before the bishop of Assisi. But Francis surprises everyone by stripping himself naked, including even his underclothes, and hands them back to his indignant father, while the bishop covers him with his mantle. Francis’ break with his family and its mercantile values could not have been more dramatically enacted. As he steps out of his clothes, Francis puts on the naked innocence of Eden, but even more, the nakedness of Christ on the cross.

Two years later, on the Feast of St. Matthias, Francis hears the priest read the passage in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus sends the Twelve on a mission of preaching and healing, instructing them to take but a single tunic with no money, belt, sandals, or staff. Not having the benefit of higher criticism, Francis again takes the words literally and, we might observe, out of context. But it somehow was the word of the Lord that Francis was waiting for: it gave him the direction he needed. He removed his shoes, discarded his staff, took off his belt and replaced it with a cord with which he tied his rough tunic. He would never again accept money, not even from begging. He began to preach a message of repentance. His lifelong love affair with Lady Poverty had begun.

It is important to realize that Francis was not the first person of his day to embrace a life of gospel simplicity and evangelical zeal. There were many movements of reform then at work in the church, especially since the late eleventh century, and numerous ordinary Christians as well as scholars pondered what “gospel living” or the “apostolic life” really entailed. Yet Francis embarked upon what he saw as obedience to Christ with such unreserved passion and infectious joy that he quickly drew others to his way of life. At first there were a few companions, then dozens, then the women with St Clare at their head, then devout lay people, and finally thousands of friars minor or “little brothers” across the span of Europe. St Seraphim of Sarov, a nineteenth-century Russian saint often compared to St Francis, once said, “Be at peace and thousands will find salvation all around you.” Not a bad mission strategy, when you think about it. Francis embodied such ardent love for Christ and Him crucified, such tender, practical love for the least of Christ’s brethren, all the while radiating a peace such as this world cannot give, that thousands simply wanted to be in on it—no matter the cost. And it cost a lot.

That cost came home to Francis with dramatic force during a period of retreat on Mount LaVerna, a place of solitude to which he would withdraw for weeks or months at a time. On the Feast of the Holy Cross in 1224, two years before his death, Francis saw a vision of a man with six wings like a seraph, but unlike the seraph in the prophet Isaiah’s vision, this one was crucified. Francis found the apparition both frightening and consoling. Shortly after this strange vision, Francis developed growths on his hands and feet that resembled nails, both front and back, and a wound in his side that bled. His closest companions who tended him in his illness could not help but notice, and scores of people saw these marks on his body after his death. For this reason, most modern historians accept the “stigmata of St Francis” as true, whatever their ultimate cause. Francis meditated on the passion of Christ daily, and lived into that cross by a life of severe penance and sacrificial service. If he carried on his body the marks of Jesus, the wounds of Christ had first been branded into his soul.

Yet the joy never ceased. Racked with pain and close to dying, he composed his ecstatic “Canticle of Brother Sun” within the next year, the first great poem in Italian. Its scriptural models should be evident to us, since we sing the psalms in the daily office that call upon creation to praise God as well as the exuberant canticle, the “Song of Creation” (Benedicite, opera omnia Domini) with its cosmic sweep. Yet Francis’ poem is no pale imitation of these antecedents as he addresses the heavenly bodies and the four elements of classical antiquity—earth, air, fire, and water. But what is he asking them to do? Our translation renders the Italian word “per” as “by”—and that is a legitimate option. In that case, we rejoice that all these creatures give praise to God by their very existence. But “per” can also mean “for.” And with that, we would be thanking God for all these blessings. Finally, “per” can mean “through,” conveying the profound sacramental vision of a world shot through with the divine presence. Poet that he was, Francis probably intended all three layers of meaning. Such a capacity for mystical joy in creation—for which Francis is justly famous—is of a piece with his devotion to the cross and his radical poverty. For it is only by self-emptying, after all, that we can see the world truly as creation, and its elements as kindred creatures—as “brother” and “sister.” By contrast, the nascent capitalism of his day, epitomized by the business mentality of Francis’ own family, sees water, air, animals, and minerals merely as “stuff”—resources that are there solely for our taking.

My sisters and brothers, we cannot—and probably should not—imitate Francis in every respect. He wouldn’t want us to. Like him, however, we are committed by our baptism to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord. We have been baptized into his death and resurrection. And by baptism we also carry on our bodies the sign of cross (our own version of stigmata) when we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever—marked with the sign of the cross invisibly and yet indelibly traced on our forehead with chrism. That cross marks us as Christ’s own, and it makes all the difference.

Sister Constance and Her Companions, the “Martyrs of Memphis”: text of a sermon preached at Saint Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

For the gospel: John 12:24-28

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24)

Sister Constance CSM.
Painting in Sister Constance Chapel in St Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

I rather imagine that most of you know better than I and in more detail the story of the group of young women who in 1865, with the support of Bishop Potter of New York and some clergy, were constituted as the first formal Anglican religious order in the Americas—the Community of Saint Mary; and the story of Sister Constance who, after consultation between Bishop Quintard of Tennessee and the Community of Saint Mary, was sent to Memphis in 1873 to establish and be in charge of a full-scale foundation of the Community and an orphan’s home, together with Sisters Amelia and Thecla, and the novice Sister Hughetta. Sister Constance was then aged 28. The sisters worked in Memphis for a number of years and when there was an outbreak of Yellow Fever there in 1873 they nursed many through the sickness or supported them as they died.

In 1878, after four years of hard and faithful work and service in Memphis, Sister Constance and her companions were sent for rest and retreat to the motherhouse in Peekskill north of New York. It was then, while they were at Peekskill, that Memphis was again struck by an epidemic of yellow fever, much more virulent than the first. Sister Constance and the others immediately went back to nurse and care for the sick and dying. In the weeks that followed most of them were killed by the fever, together with Roman Catholic sisters who were also in Memphis and some Anglican and Roman Catholic priests. The first to die, on 9th September 1878, was Sister Constance. Her last words were, “Alleluia. Hosanna.”

These are the people whom we call, “the Martyrs of Memphis.”

What is a martyr? The word means, of course, “witness.” And in the tradition of the church we have come to call those people “martyrs” in a special sense who “witness” even to the giving up of their lives—whose lives and deaths bear witness therefore to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the continuing grace and power of God through Christ in the world.

A true martyrdom, as T. S. Eliot points out to us in Archbishop Thomas’ Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral, is never a human design: for true martyrs are those who have become instruments of God, who have lost their will in the will of God, and who no longer desire anything for themselves, not even the glory of being martyrs. Our Lord says at one point in the gospel, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18). In their smaller way, true martyrs may say the same. Always remember, Constance and her Companions did not have to return to Memphis in 1878. They had already nursed people through one epidemic. No one would have thought less of them if they had now stayed where they were. They had surely paid their dues! Indeed, many no doubt thought Constance was mad for going back to Memphis and taking others with her, even as many in the 1870s thought her and her companions mad or mendacious for wanting to be nuns at all. Let us never forget the degree of abuse those Anglican women went through in the nineteenth century for feeling called to be part of a religious order. Still others, when the women died at their posts, perhaps shook their heads and said, “What a waste! They could have done so much good in their lives if only they’d been more sensible.” And yet, as Our Lord says in this morning’s gospel, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Our Lord continues, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). The language of “love” and “hate” at this point is, of course, Semitic hyperbole: but the meaning is clear. If our life consists in gathering to ourselves things perishable—power and possessions—we perish with them. Insofar as we divest ourselves of those and commit to things eternal—to the Pauline trio of “faith, hope and love”—we prepare ourselves for eternity. Our Lord adds, “Whoever serves me, the Father will honour” (John 12:26). Of Sister Constance and those other faithful sisters of the Order of Saint Mary who died with her, Morgan Dix wrote, “Before the memorable year 1878, many spoke against these faithful and devoted women; but after that year, the tongue of calumny was silent, while men looked on with beating hearts, and eyes dim with tears.”

We give thanks to God for blessed Constance and Her Companions.

And now let us confess the faith, her faith and ours, as the church has taught us.



“Prin”: A Reminiscence of the Reverend Canon Harold Wilson, D.D., Principal of Salisbury Theological College in England from 1965 to 1973.

It’s more or less forty years since the death of Canon Harold Wilson, who was one the two most important mentors in my life—the other being Fr John Crisp, about whom I have written and spoken elsewhere, and in whose memory stands the statue of Our Lady in the School of Theology Chapel of the University of the South. But I have never written anything about Harold Wilson. So here are some of my memories of this remarkable priest, whose influence for good on clergy training in the Church of England and through the C of E to the wider church has never, I believe, received the recognition that it deserves.

I first came to know Canon Harold Wilson—“Prin” as everyone called him—when he arrived in Salisbury to take over as Principal of Salisbury Theological College in the Autumn of 1965. I‘d been there for a year as tutor in New Testament under Canon Freddie Tindall, the previous principal. I dare say regime change took place with the usual testimonials, speechmaking and rituals of passage, but to tell you the truth, I remember very little about any of that.

Salisbury Theological College faculty, 1965. Principal Harold Wilson with outgoing Principal Canon Frederick Tindall. Back row, left to right, Keith Dennerly, Gareth Lewis, and Christopher Bryan

The first thing about Harold’s presence that I do remember came a few days later. In those days “ordinands” (as seminarians are called in the Church of England) used to make much use of a very sensible little study of The Four Great Heresies by J. W. C. Wand. I was standing beside Harold in the corridor as one the students rushed past us saying, “I’ve lost my Wand. Has anyone seen my Wand?”

Harold turned and looked at me with that wonderful, lugubrious expression that I came to know so well over the next five years.

“Dear God,” he said in a soft West Riding accent, “I thought I’d come here to train priests, not magicians.”

Some days later he passed me again when I was standing in the same corridor looking at Karl Jaspers’s book, On Becoming Human.

“Oh,” he said peering at it, “are you thinking of trying?”

Harold Wilson in army uniform (RAMC) circa 1940. Portrait by W. Furnett.

So one should surely begin by saying that Harold was, and always remained, a very funny man. Which was one of the many apparent contradictions about him, because he was also in many ways a very sad man, grieved by tragedy in his own life and the life of his family, and grieved by sorrows of the world to which he was acutely sensitive. It was surely typical of him that when World War II broke out in September 1939, Harold at once registered as a Conscientious Objector—on the ground that he did indeed conscientiously object to the whole notion of people settling their disputes by war—and at the same time volunteered for immediate call up to the army, on the ground that his personal scruples gave him no moral basis for not “doing his bit” (as we British used to put it) in the defence of his country, or for presuming to separate himself from the dangers and turmoil that the war was imposing on all young people of his age.

Harold would sometimes pretend to be arrogant and self-confident. I remember him sitting at a new electric typewriter (he loved new gadgets!) displaying its wonders, which included a gizmo so that you could correct mistakes.

“But I don’t use it,” he added.

“Why not?” I said.

“Because I never make any,” he replied, and then begun to shake with laughter, the overlong ash from his cigarette drifting down onto the keyboard.

In Salisbury Cathedral: left to right, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, Canon Harold Wilson, Christopher Bryan and Gareth Lewis

And indeed, as I also came to know, he was really a humble man, often unsure of himself, willing to listen to suggestions from others. “Whenever you begin to say something to me and start off with the words, ‘With the greatest respect, sir,’” he said to me on one occasion, “I know I’m in trouble.”

Of course he transformed the School of Theology, introducing us to ideas and concepts such as the importance of feelings and relationships in decision making, and the workings and dynamics of groups, some of which are commonplace in theological education today, all of which were revolutionary then. He was blunt about the situation of the church, pointing out to us truths that many of us did not want to hear.

“The only numbers going up in the Church of England are burials,” he would say.

Yet he loved the church—her liturgy, her faith, and her hope—and only longed for the church to be what she can be when she is true to what she professes: faithful, vibrant, and holy.

“Let’s tart it up a bit,” he would say of a boring service—and did. At a time—the 1960s—when the church as a whole had scarcely begun even to think about liturgical reform and renewal, under Harold’s leadership we were soon using forms of worship in the college chapel not dissimilar from the Church of England’s present Rite B or the Episcopal Church’s Rite 1.

Salisbury Cathedral choristers in Harold Wilson’s “cathedral green”

As well as being a priest and pastor, Harold was also (and by training) an artist. So the liturgy and its setting was also always beautiful. He saw to that and would allow nothing less. No kind of sloppiness was tolerated in the sanctuary or at the altar. Apropos which, on a visit to Salisbury Cathedral for Evening Prayer last month, I was delighted to see the priests wearing cassocks of a particularly interesting shade of green. That colour for cassocks is, I believe, unique to Salisbury, and I happen to know that it was Harold’s idea and inspiration. He felt that it was the right colour with which to respond to the cathedral’s architecture and light. I dare say he is as delighted to have made such a mark as that in Salisbury Cathedral as in any other of his achievements.

Harold saw clearly the rightness and necessity of ordaining those women whom God calls to the priesthood—and he saw it at a time when 99% of us, including me, were still umm-ing and ah-ing about the whole question. “If you really believe Christ is present in the sacrament of the altar,” he’d say, “are you seriously asking me to believe He’s going to refuse to come because it’s a devout and sincere woman saying the prayers instead of a devout and sincere man?” He even edited a book about it–Women Priests? Yes, now! (Nutfield, Surrey: Denholm House Press, 1975). In his introduction he pointed out that “an injection of femininity would greatly enrich and enhance the priestly ministry and produce a valuable new dimension in the total life of the Church” (8). That has been precisely my experience in the years since the church began ordaining women to the priesthood, so that I am now sorry for those who cannot yet see it.

Harold never claimed to be a theologian, but he believed deeply in Jesus as his Lord. Some people, of course, confuse being forward-looking with being apostate. One of the few times I remember seeing Harold actually get angry was when a student who had abandoned the faith said to him, “I learnt that from you.”

“You didn’t learn unbelief from me,” Harold replied crisply.

“A prophet,” said Our Lord, “is not without honour save in his own country and in his own house,” and this was certainly true of Harold. To this day, in my opinion, his pioneering work in theological education and the training of priests has not received the recognition it deserves within the Church of England. It was recognized almost at once, however, by a number of people in the United States. More precisely, my Sewanee friends will perhaps be interested to know that it was recognized by the University of the South, which in 1970 awarded him the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. I was in the United States at the time, and so I was the one who got to telephone him—across the Atlantic, a big thing in those days!—to tell him the news.

“They want to know if you can come to Sewanee to receive your degree,” I told him, and named the day.

He was evidently delighted.

“I’ll be there if I have to swim,” he replied.

I think Harold’s supreme gift was his pastoral kindness. A student or a faculty member in trouble or sorrow would invariably receive an invitation to supper, the opportunity to talk, and a listening ear. My wife Wendy pointed out to me, shortly after she came to know him, that for her the greatest thing about him was the way in which, when he was talking to you, he was always paying attention to you—not thinking about where he wanted to be in a few minutes’ time, or someone else he’d rather talk to, but you, at this time, now. He was always fully present—in the moment.

It would be idle to pretend that Harold didn’t make mistakes, and especially toward the end of his time in Salisbury, when he became ill. There were things he did that he wished he had not done—and I know that, because he told me so. Alas, good Bishop Joseph Fison, who understood what Harold was trying to achieve in the Theological College and supported him, had died. Fison’s successor as Bishop of Salisbury seems to have lacked those qualities—so that at just the moment when Harold, who had given so much pastoral kindness to others, needed pastoral kindness himself, he received nothing, or less than nothing.

I was away from Salisbury in the United States during those last years, but then, some months after Harold had moved from Salisbury to London to be a Chancellor of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, I also returned to England. As a result I had the privilege of working with him again for a few years in London. I was diocesan officer for education and community, and Harold was the chairman of my board. In addition to that, Wendy and I had some pleasant evenings with him. I think that overall being at Saint Paul’s was a healing experience for him.

But then, after a year or so, his health failed completely—and to be sure, he was never a man who had taken proper care of himself physically. I’m glad I was with him in the hospital on the day of his death, within a few hours of it. The joyful thing about that is that I know he retained to the end his wit, his delight in life, and his faith and hope in his Lord.

Harold Wilson rests in peace, and he will rise in glory. Amen.

Thoughts for Pentecost

Lesson Acts 2:1-21; Epistle 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; Gospel John 20:19-23

The risen Lord in the upper room said, “Peace be with you” to his disciples, then “he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20.22). Commentators generally, and understandably, are reminded of God breathing into humankind the breath of life Genesis 2.7. That John intended to depict an event of significance parallel to that of the first creation cannot be doubted. The gift of the Spirit is the beginning of the new creation. Here is fulfilled the promise that Our Lord made to his disciples in the farewell discourse, in much the same way as what happens on the day of Pentecost in the story we just heard from Acts fulfills the promises he made earlier. So Pentecost was a happy ending to the gospel story.

But beyond that, what has it to do with us? I would say, everything! In this morning’s epistle St Paul says, “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” In other words, the gift given at Pentecost is a gift to us all.

One must confess that even among orthodox Christians there can at times be a tendency to think of our faith in such a way as to be in effect “binitarian” (if there is such a word) rather than Trinitarian—that’s to say, our faith is all about the Lord Jesus and God the Father, with the Holy Spirit coming in as a kind of afterthought. The very order in which we celebrate the Christian year can perhaps encourage us in that, or at least seem to, with Pentecost appearing as a tail end or afterthought to Easter. But what the Pentecost story should tell us—what Saint Paul spells out—is that our every movement towards God, and certainly our movements towards baptism into Christ and membership of the church, are the work of God’s Spirit within us. So for all of us, far from being last, in the life of faith the Holy Spirit is actually first!

Insofar as we even dare to say the Lord’s prayer, calling God “father”—Abba, the Lord’s own name of trust and affection for his heavenly father—insofar as we even dare enough to attempt to do that, that is the Spirit bearing witness within us that we are children of God. That’s what St Paul says—and he says it more than once, so we may guess that, on the one hand, he felt rather sure about it, and on the other, that he regarded it as rather important (Gal. 4.6; Rom. 8.15-16). And thus it is with all our prayers, as we’re reminded in the wonderful eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans. We mere mortals don’t really know how to pray at all. How can we? So when we pray, it is God’s own self at work in us, the Spirit of God, the Divine breath, breathing life into us. And what a modest Spirit it is, for we think it is all our own work! And so, in a sense, it is—but as Paul points out, it is also God’s Spirit graciously willing to work in and through us, stirring in us our desire for God, making intercession for us with groans too deep for human utterance. And that is true not only of prayer but of whatever gifts, talents or activities we bring to the life of faith—as, again, this morning’s passage to the Corinthians reminds us: “all these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

Let this festival of Pentecost remind us then that our whole life insofar as we seek God’s will is a manifestation of the work and glory of the Divine Trinity, the Holy Spirit working within and through us to draw us into union and conformity with the image of the Son, Who is the revelation of the Father.

To the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we now ascribe as is most justly due all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

Thoughts on Easter 7A: The Ascension and what Follows

For the NT reading: Acts 1:6-14 

The Chapel of the Ascension, Jerusalem

The disciples say, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Jesus replies, “It is not for you the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Thus, according to St Luke, the risen Christ definitively bans all those ludicrous speculations about the exact dating of God’s final judgement—speculations so beloved of a certain kind of quasi-Christian sect, as well as of those awful Left Behind books and films that had something of a vogue a few years ago. But that does not mean that there are to be no gifts or wonders for the disciples in the days that are coming. Quite the contrary! Our Lord continues, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And so the whole great adventure that is the expansion of Christianity is set in motion, that extension of the faith into every corner of the globe over the next two thousand or so years that must surely have seemed so unlikely to anyone who looked merely at the little band of believers with which it began.

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Here Luke deliberately uses the language of Jewish apocalyptic and mystical writing to speak of Jesus’ exaltation, the consummation and completion of his earthly ministry. He is “lifted up”—exalted—and the “cloud” receives him—the “cloud,” speaking, as elsewhere in Luke’s writing and in Scripture as a whole, of the Divine Presence.[1]  But what does all that mean? It means that the destiny toward which Jesus has been moving from the beginning of the gospel, and especially since he set his face to go up to Jerusalem, is now complete. The risen Christ is not merely risen, for his resurrection was but the first stage towards exaltation and divine glory. As the Creed we shall recite in a few minutes makes clear—“he ascended into heaven”—that is an action complete in the past—but he “is seated at the right hand of the Father”—that is present action, now! We have moved from the disciples’ history to our history.

And so what? What is that to us? In the gospel Luke says that the exaltation of Jesus filled the disciples “with great joy” (Luke 24.52). Why? Well, perhaps because they knew that their old friend, their beloved teacher, was all right. God had vindicated him. More to the point then, may be our second question—what is that to us? Why should Jesus’ Ascension be a cause of our joy?

Jesus’ Ascension is and should be a cause of our joy because it is humanity, our humanity, which is in him raised to the right hand of God. It is “flesh”—stuff, sarx, in its weakness and fallibility, that stuff of which the universe is made, and which the Word consented to become, John tells us, at the incarnation (John 1:14)—it is that flesh which is now “is seated at the right hand of the Father”—an expression denoting, of course, not physical location but authority. The Ascension of Jesus is therefore a promise, a sign and a first-fruit of our own destiny and of the universe’s destiny, since it is God’s good pleasure to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ (Col. 1.20 cf. John 12.32 v.l.; Eph. 1.10; Phil 3.21).

To put it another way, Christ’s Ascension reminds us that the risen life, the life of the age to come, is to have a purpose just as this life has a purpose. And that purpose is union with God. We are, as Second Peter puts it, to be “partakers of the divine nature,” perfectly united with the ascended Christ and with each other, beholders of and sharers in the glory which was (according to the Fourth Evangelist) Christ’s before the foundation of the world (John 17.5). Of course we do not yet know what that will mean. Even to speak of it stretches the resources of language to breaking point. We can only hint at it. As St Paul does when he speaks of a coming glory to which the sufferings of this present age are “not worth comparing” (Rom. 8.18). Or St John when he says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3.2)—imagining a vision so glorious that it will transform and transfigure us even as we see it, making us divine. This theosis (divinization) is what many fathers of the church saw as the purpose of the Incarnation: “To make human beings gods,” St Augustine of Hippo said, “He was made man who was God” (Sermons, 192.1.1).

It is in the light of such a hope that we dare open our hearts to the Spirit of God and try to live as Christians—attempting all those lunatic gestures to which the gospel invites us, such as forgiving our enemies, doing good to those who do evil to us, and turning the other cheek. We do not attempt this behaviour because we think it leads to successful lives as the world counts success or because we think it leads to clear consciences. If we did we should be very naïve. Most likely such living leads to a cross if we are good at it; or to a continuing sense of our own guilt and failure if as is more usual we are not: which is, incidentally, one reason why we need the church, that is, a community of fellow-believers who understand what we are trying to do and can help us cope with the daily pain of failing to do it. No, we try to live like this not because it leads to worldly success or peace of mind but because God is like this, forgiving those who do evil and causing gracious rain to fall on just and unjust alike. And we try to be like God because as Christians we know that that is God’s destiny for us and for the universe.

[1] Compare Exod. 24.15-18, Dan. 7.13, Luke 9.34, 21.27-28. The assertion that Jesus was lifted up (epērthē: and similarly Luke 24.51 “he was carried up, anephereto) might be heard as claiming for him a literally physical, upward movement through the heavens, but Luke is using the language and imagery of apocalyptic, as is confirmed by his reference to the “cloud” which, as often in Scripture, signifies the divine presence. It seems Luke expects us to understand this language, just as he evidently expects us to understand it when Peter uses it at much greater length and much more elaborately in his speech at Pentecost – language and imagery which is obviously not intended to be taken literally, since if it were, it would mean that Peter was raving (Acts 2.17-21 citing Joel 3.1-5). If Luke had wanted us to credit the real, physical nature of what he was describing, we can scarcely doubt that he would have spelled it out – just as, in the appearance narratives after the resurrection, he spells out the physicality of the risen Jesus to the point where he has embarrassed commentators from the fathers onwards: the whole point being, however, that in those narratives Luke does want us to take the physicality seriously. Here, however, there is no such elaboration. In contrast to other ascension narratives, both pagan and Jewish, there is not even the mention of an earthly element such as a storm or whirlwind bearing up the exalted one, nor are there other elements of myth, such as horsemen and fiery chariots, nor is there the concern of followers for their master’s fate, such as marked the departure of Elijah (2 Kings 2.16-17). Instead, we have only the simple divine passive – “he was lifted up” – and the apocalyptic “cloud”, the sign of the God’s presence, forming a narrative that Ernst Haenchen in his commentary on Acts understandably characterizes as “almost uncannily austere.”


Thoughts on Easter 6A: The Promise of the Paraclete

For the Gospel: John 14:15-21

Christ, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, Mural from the catacomb of Commodilla, late 4th century.

Jesus said, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”


This morning’s gospel continues from where we left off last week. We are still listening to the Evangelist St John. We are still in the upper room at the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples. Last week, you may remember, Jesus was responding to the disciples’ fear and consternation over the fact that he was about to leave them. By way of both encouragement and comfort, Our Lord spoke of himself as the Way to the Father, and of the grace that would come to his disciples through their relationship to him. This week he goes on to speak more specifically of that grace. 

Loving Jesus

“If you love me,” he says, “and if you keep my commandments”—I know that isn’t exactly what the NRSV says, but I think it’s the better reading[1]—“If you love me and keep my commandments”…  but what does it mean, to “love Jesus”? The Greek word is agapan, the usual New Testament word for “love”, and many scholars and theologians since the 1930s and 40s—and I’m sure you’ve heard preachers doing this too—have insisted on making a pretty hard distinction between that kind of love, the love that the Greek New Testament refers to as agapē, generally defined as “selfless love” or even “Christian love”, and the kind of love which the Greeks in general referred to as erōs, generally associated with need, fondness, ardour and passion, as well, of course, as with sexual attraction.

The interesting thing for me, however, is that the fathers of the church—and I’m here thinking particularly of the Greek fathers who, when reading and commenting on the New Testament were, as I used to remind my students from time to time, reading and commenting on texts in their own language and more or less of their own culture, so surely they understood those texts if anyone did!—the fathers of the church saw no such distinction between the two words agapē and erōs, and seem rather to have regarded them as more or less interchangeable. This, of course, at once brings the “loving” God of the New Testament (John 3.16) a whole lot closer to the “passionate” (Heb. qana’: KJV “jealous”) God of the Old (Exod. 20.5). What is more, such a view of agapē /erōs must also profoundly affect what we mean by “love” of neighbour. But neither of those is the point I wish particularly to make here.

The point I wish particularly to make here is that even when we are talking about our love of God, we are, or ought to be, still talking about what we actually want—about “desire”. Some people seem to think that a good Christian must somehow eliminate desire. But that wasn’t at all the ancient Fathers’ view, nor is it the Bible’s. There’s nothing wrong with our having desires and passions. God created us with desires and passions. Our problem is that our desires and passions are too often disordered—our affections are ‘inordinate’ as the Fathers put it. All of which is to say, our problem isn’t that we have desires, but that we desire the wrong thing.[2] When Our Lord invites his disciples and us to love him, he is not therefore inviting us to do away with desire, but rather to begin to school ourselves to desire what is truly desirable—to desire that one thing wherein alone “true joys are to be found.” And he’s not asking us merely to try to do this with gritted teeth because it’s the right thing to do (although of course it is), but because Jesus, and all that he stands for, is also what we actually do want at the deepest level of our being—if only we will dare to go deep enough.

The Gift of the Spirit

“If you love me,” Jesus says, “and if you keep my commandments”— which is, interestingly enough, exactly the relationship that the Old Testament says Israel should have to her God!—well then, if you will risk going deeper in this way, Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

The Greek word rendered by our NRSV bibles as “advocate” is paraklētos, as I’m sure you’ve been told many times! And it’s a word that was sometimes used in classical and Hellenistic Greek to refer to what we would call an “advocate,” as in a legal trial. So to that extent the NRSV is justified. But Greek paraklētos was associated with a range of meaning far wider and more general than that: “mediator, helper, comforter, intercessor”—those are all ideas associated with paraklētos and its cognates—which is why, since there is no precise equivalent to it in English, I’m not sure the translation tradition isn’t wiser which follows the Latin-speaking Christians of the early church. Their problem was that there wasn’t an equivalent for Greek paraklētos in Latin either. So in the event they simply cut the Gordian knot. They transliterated paraklētos so as to create a new Latin word, “paracletus,” whence the English word “paraclete,” which my old 1959 Oxford English Dictionary recognizes as a perfectly good English word, although my modern Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary doesn’t seem to have heard of it, and wonders if I mean “parakeet”. (The right general idea, but the wrong bird, my friend John Gatta suggests!)

“Mediator, helper, comforter, intercessor”—of course Jesus has been all those things to his disciples, which is why they grieve for his departure. Nevertheless, if they really love him, he says, the Father will send another such “Paraclete” to them, and this Paraclete “will be with you for ever”. This Paraclete, he says, is “the Spirit of truth”

“The Spirit of truth”…what is that? In a writer as biblical in his allusions as the St John, we must surely say that is nothing other than the Spirit that was said to have brooded over the heavens and the earth in the beginning, bringing order out of chaos (Gen. 1:1-2), and which still spills into the world and brings order out of chaos where ever there are hearts and wills open to it. That Spirit, Lord and Giver of life, Who spoke by the prophets—that Spirit, that divine breath, that yearning power, says our Lord, is the One whom God will send to those who love him.

“This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” The world doesn’t receive the Spirit—indeed, can’t receive it—because even though it owes its life and being to the Spirit, still as yet it has no relationship to it and seeks none. Here is fulfilled again the principle that was noted in the Prologue with regard to the Incarnation—“he came to his own, and his own did not receive him” (1:11). But, you may remember the prologue adds, “to those who did receive him, he gave to them authority to become children of God, even to those who believed in his name” (1:12). So likewise the Spirit, being the outpouring of God’s self in love to the world, rejected by many in the world, naturally turns to those who do seek such a relationship, who desire to love back. Their love, though but the pale reflection of God’s love, is a reflection of it nonetheless, a mark of their being created in God’s image, and therefore precious. So Jesus says to his disciples, already, “you know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” They know and will know the divine presence.

 The Presence of Jesus

But even that is not all: in that presence Jesus himself, the teacher whose departure is grieving them, will also be with them. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he says, “I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

Again biblical scholars ask, and have been asking for millennia—does the evangelist understand Our Lord to be speaking of his resurrection appearances? Or to his final appearance in glory? Or perhaps both? Or perhaps to every moment whenever any Christian feels the presence and inspiration of God’s presence in his or her life? Those are questions that we do not need to answer, and perhaps the very fact that we can posit so many different possibilities and remain faithful to our text is evidence enough of the correct answer: we have the promise of Christ’s presence when it matters, and that is all we need to know. It’s as if Jesus says, “Stop fussing and worrying! I’ve got this!” “On that day,” he says, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” And by “that day” we are surely to understand, as Bishop Westcott put it, “each victorious crisis” of “new apprehension of the risen Christ,” every occasion when, amid life’s temptations and trials, we come to new awareness of Christ’s presence. Our Lord concludes, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” Active obedience to the wishes of the beloved is a sure mark of love, as anyone who has even been in love can tell you!


Thus the little snatch of conversation that forms our gospel passage for today comes to an end, more or less where it began: with our love for Christ linked to obedience to his commandments. But then, not quite where it began, because we are now promised that our love for Christ will be matched—and indeed most surely overmatched—by God’s love and self-revelation towards us, in Jesus himself, and through the Spirit, which is the Spirit of Truth—“and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

In that hope, opening our minds and hearts as best we may to the Father’s love, the Spirit’s work, and the Son’s revelation, let us now ascribe to the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and for ever. Amen.

[1] It is supported by both P66 and Sinaiticus.

[2] This is precisely the understanding of desire, and, incidentally, of joy, that undergirds what used to be the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter (Lent 5 in BCP 1979): “O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.