‘The disciples gathered around Jesus and they told him all that they had done.’
The disciples had been out on mission, and what an exciting experience they must have had! Jesus had sent them out two by two, with no provisions, just sandals on their feet and a staff in their hand. They preached, cast out demons, anointed the sick, and healed many people of their sickness. They must have been so excited. In our Gospel today, they have just come back from the mission, and they are telling Jesus all about it.
I have a really vivid picture in my mind of what that must have been like: all talking excitedly together; ‘Jesus, guess what happened! I anointed this man with oil and immediately he was made well. There were so many sick people coming to us, and we laid our hands upon them and prayed, and they were all made well. It was amazing. God be praised! Yes, but we two went into this town and they wanted nothing to do with us, told us to clear off! They refused to listen to our teaching. We were really disappointed, but we did as you said, and we left the town, shaking off the dust on our feet.’ It must have been very moving for Jesus to hear his spiritual children recounting their experiences. They had clearly grown and learned so much through the experience, and it is now that Mark’s Gospel for the first time calls them ‘apostles’ – they had kind of ‘graduated’! But Jesus could tell that they were also really exhausted. Ministry is hard work. So, with the kindness and gentleness of a good shepherd or a good parent, he says to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.’
Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis is one of the most fascinating and mysterious stories in all of Scripture. Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing from his brother Esau and ran away with his family. But Esau has come looking for him full of fury, he imagines, and the meeting is to take place the following day. So, Jacob sends his whole family across the river to safety, and as night comes we read, “Jacob was left alone.” In those simple words we can sense Jacob’s fear, his anguished imaginings before meeting Esau. But in the middle of the night a mysterious man appears to Jacob, and this man starts to wrestle with him. They wrestle all night until daybreak. This was no ordinary man. In the Fogg art museum here in Cambridge there is a wonderful painting of Jacob wrestling with this mysterious stranger. The painting is by the French nineteenth century artist Gustave Moreau, and I go back often to look at it. For Moreau the man Jacob is fighting is clearly an angel, a magnificent figure dazzling bright. The fight is very uneven. Jacob is fighting with all his strength, but the angel uses just one arm to effortlessly hold him down. For of course the angel is infinitely more powerful than Jacob. Nevertheless, the angel clearly wants to fight, and Jacob never gives up.
Every time I stand in front of this painting and reflect on this story, I seem to understand more and more spiritual truths about our relationship with God. Jacob fights with God and never gives up. This man who knows that he has cheated his brother out of his blessing, brings all this anguish to the fight. He wrestles with everything he knows about himself, his past actions, his present situation. He comes to God in openness and honesty, with all that he is, good and bad, and wrestles with God, and will not let go until God blesses him. And God honors his struggle, and indeed blesses him. God blesses him with the gifts he will need to enter into the vocation which has always been his. Now you are ready. “You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel “For you have striven with God and prevailed”.
“A great deal of our politics, our ecclesiastical life, often our personal life as well, is dominated by the assumption that everything would be all right, if only some people would go away.” – Rowan Williams, The Way of Benedict
Of course, other people are not going to “go away”! But there has been, throughout history, this continual assumption, at least in politics, that if you gain enough power, you can effectively make these other people whom you dislike or fear, disappear, through systematically disempowering them, disenfranchising them, or at the most extreme, ethnically cleansing them. For the Christian, all such attempts to make other people “go away,” are essentially sinful and a gross abuse of power. For the Christian, every single person is a beloved child of God “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). For the Christian, power and authority are given to us by God in trust, for the building of God’s Kingdom on earth. In God’s Kingdom everyone is important, because our faith teaches us to see the face of Jesus in the face of every person, however unlike me they are. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
If you right now, like me, have had enough of lockdown, but are feeling a new sense of hope that life might just be starting to open up again; if you are looking for new energy and joy in your life, today’s Gospel comes as a real gift. As I prayed with the passage, two words, two verbs, leapt off the page, and seem to be offering us the promise of new life. The first verb is ‘to prune’: ‘Every branch that bears fruit the Father prunes to make it bear more fruit.’ The second verb is to ‘abide’: ‘Abide in me and I in you.’
The first word then, ‘to prune’. I was ordained in the south west of England in the diocese of Salisbury My first job was in Weymouth and Portland. I had a little house with a fantastic view over Portland Harbour, which is the place from which the ships sailed across to France on D Day. But the loveliest thing about my house was the garden. It was beautiful, and full of roses. They loved the soil and the southern English climate: damp and never extremely hot or extremely cold. I still remember especially in the evenings, the sweet scent of the roses mixed with the salty sea air, was incredible. But what my roses really loved was Harry. He was an elderly member of my church who loved gardening, and helped me in mine. I remember him saying to me, if you want your roses to thrive, get your worst enemy to prune them, because he will be ruthless, and cut them right down, which is what Harry did. And the following year they produced these fantastic flowers. Jesus said, ‘My father prunes every branch to make it bear more fruit.’ And of course, we are the vine, or the rose bush, that God wants to prune. As I look back over this past year of pandemic, I think my life has become a bit like a rambling rose that hasn’t been pruned. Perhaps you know something of that in your own life. Lockdown is a disorienting experience. Things we long to do and which give us huge satisfaction, people we long to visit and hug, many of our hopes and dreams, have not been possible. So, it’s easy to lose direction and to feel lost, or to head off in ways which are not life giving, or develop habits to soothe or numb us, but which ultimately make us feel worse. Like an unkept rose, we might feel like we have branches going off in every direction, but not really heading anywhere. When that happens with roses, the energy, the life force has been so dissipated, that when it comes to flowering season the fruit, the flowers, are small and stunted. We too can feel tired and listless, and unhappy. And if we are honest, not bearing much fruit.
We often imagine what it must have been like for those disciples to be living with Jesus during those years of ministry together in Galilee. Particularly in the Synoptic Gospels we come to know a Jesus in all his humanity: his kindness, his gentleness, his anger, his sadness, his love. There are times, especially in Jesus’ healing miracles and perhaps above all at the Transfiguration, when the disciples glimpse something of his divinity, but so often Jesus tells them not to tell anyone of this. More often, Jesus is portrayed as a very human, who draws close to us in his humanity.
But when we move to the Gospel of John, we breathe a very different atmosphere. Here, in this gospel, it is as if Jesus can barely conceal his divinity at all. At any moment his glory is likely to ‘flame out like shining from shook foil.’ In our Gospel today, we have such a moment. Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, and they are terrified. On seeing Jesus, the disciples were experiencing what Rudolph Otto in his book ‘The Idea of the Holy’ described as the numinous. The experience of the numinous, he says, underlies all genuine religious experience. Scripture is packed with such experiences, and perhaps the first famous one is in the account of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. The experience of the numinous has three components, which Otto calls ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ First is ‘mysterium’. The numinous experience is wholly other; entirely different to anything we experience in ordinary life, and it evokes a reaction of wonder. So, the disciples in the boat stare in awe and wonder at a man walking on water. Secondly the numinous is ‘tremendum’. It provokes terror, because it presents itself as an overwhelming power and majesty. And the poor disciples were terrified! But thirdly, the numinous is ‘fascinans’. We are attracted and drawn to it, as something merciful and gracious. The disciples longed for this terrifying figure on the water to come closer to them, and into the boat.
Today, on this Wednesday in Holy Week, we have just heard read one of the most emotionally charged passages in all the Gospels. In an act of intimate, self-giving love, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. But he then turns from love, to betrayal. We are told, laconically that Jesus is ‘troubled in spirit’; perhaps an understatement. For he has just washed Judas’ feet. Jesus loved Judas, as he did all his disciples. Jesus’ heart likely burned with a deep sorrow at what Judas was about to do.
But love and betrayal exist side by side. And there is a very close parallel between what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet, and what Judas was about to do. That parallel is made very clear by one word in the text, and that is the word betrayal. But that is only one translation of the word used by John. In the Greek of the original text, the word translated as ‘betrayal’, is ‘paradidomai’. This literally means ‘to hand over or give over power to another, or to hand over another into the power of another’. Here, that verb is translated as ‘to betray’ because this ‘handing over’ of Jesus by Judas is done treacherously. But elsewhere in the New Testament this very same word is used in a beautiful and loving way. In the letter to the Ephesians for example, we read that Jesus ‘has loved us and given himself for us.’ The same verb, paradidomai. Jesus so loves us that he freely gives himself over to the power of another. And this is what Jesus was expressing so beautifully when he laid aside his robe and washed his disciples’ feet. So great is his love for us that he laid down his divine power and became as a servant; became vulnerable and ‘woundable’. Through love he exposed himself to the power of Judas, he gave himself over to the power of the darkness in men’s hearts, ‘and it was night.’
The story of the Raising of Lazarus is one of the great miracles, the signs in the Gospel of John. It is a wonderful story, but unlike the other signs, it seems to have a shadow cast over it. For, in full tragic irony, Jesus giving life to Lazarus results directly in the decision to put Jesus to death. The shadow cast over the story is the shadow of the Cross.
For immediately after Jesus has raised Lazarus, we read: ‘Some of those who had come with Mary went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.’ And the Pharisees were filled with fear. At once, they and the chief priests called a meeting of the council and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ the council was no less than the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish court and governing body. That’s how serious the threat of this man Jesus was to them. The meeting was highly charged, and the most powerful emotion was fear. ‘What are we going to do?’, said one. ‘We can’t let him carry on like this’, said another. ‘Everyone will believe in him, and then what? The Romans will come and destroy our Temple and our whole nation.’ Next, Caiaphas the high priest joined in: ‘You know nothing at all.’ In Greek it is stronger, rather like, ‘You are talking rubbish!’ The tension was rising. Fear was everywhere. They all felt it. And what they feared most from Jesus is what they thought they would lose. If this man was allowed to carry on they would lose everything; their status, their position in society, their power – everything. They risked losing their very selves.
Welcome everyone to this act of worship. Whether you are here in person or joining us on line, we are all drawn to this place to worship God. It is good to be here. What is it that is so powerful, so compelling, about worship? What draws us, from far and wide, to be here today?
I was reflecting on this question as I prayed with this evening’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is comparing our outward acts with the secret thoughts of our hearts. And I would say that for me, worship is so compelling because it is the one place I can come and be completely open and honest, before God. Here we do not need to pretend. Here, at worship, before God, I can be who I most truly AM. As we pray at the start of every Eucharist, ‘To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.’ At worship there’s no need to pretend, no need to keep up appearances. You may know that British comedy series, ‘Keeping Up Appearances’. There is Hyacinth, played brilliantly by Patricia Routledge, who insists that her surname ‘Bucket’ be pronounced ‘Bouquet.’ She is a rather eccentric, social climbing snob, in constant fear of being embarrassed by her relatives, Onslow, Daisy and Rose.
It’s all very silly, but there’s enough truth in it to make us laugh, because we all know a little of how we too like to keep up appearances! Little distortions of the truth, little embellishments of the facts, to show ourselves in more positive light. Ways we try to impress, name-dropping, ways we try to enhance our image. You could say that the reading from Mark’s Gospel today is all about ‘keeping up appearances!’ The Pharisees and scribes were complaining that Jesus’ disciples were not observing some of the external traditions of the elders regarding the ritual washing of hands, cups, pots and bronze kettles. Jesus actually became very angry with them. They were more concerned with the externals, the appearance of things, than with what is actually going on within their hearts. Unclean hands, pots and pans do not matter. What defiles, what damages a person, is an ‘unclean heart’.
Pretending to be who you are not. Living a lie. This draws from Jesus a terrible rebuke. ‘You hypocrites’, he says. Hypocrisy is right at the top of those things which make Jesus angry. I think, because he knows how very destructive it can be to a person. Keeping up appearances can be gently amusing and pretty harmless. But it can also grow into something corrosive to the soul. When we get used to living a lie, we can slowly become alienated from our true selves. We can allow others to make us into the person that we are not. And one of the greatest challenges of living in relationship, in marriage, partnership, or community, is to allow the other person room to blossom and become the person they truly are. For if we try to live a life of pretense, in order to be accepted or praised, we run the risk of losing our souls.
In Dante’s ‘Inferno’, the hypocrites (and the Greek word literally means ‘actors’) are clothed in huge choir robes, made of solid lead, gilded on the outside with gold. Marc Foley writes about these hypocrites in his book, ‘The Love that keeps us Sane.’ He says, ‘These huge choir robes are so heavy that the hypocrites can hardly move. That’s a graphic image of the desperate need to be recognized by others, and the bone-weary insanity of trying to keep up appearances! Dante describes the garb of the hypocrites as, “O cloak of everlasting weariness!”’
But here, in this place, where the Lord is present, we can shed our heavy cloaks of pretension and appearance. We can stand before the Lord and unburden our souls. We can stand before the One who truly knows us and loves us – ‘just as I am’. But not only does God see us as we truly are, when we worship, not only does he love us and accept us as we are, but he also challenges us to grow, and become more fully that unique person God created us to be. The community of Taizé in France puts it like this in its Rule: ‘In worship we can stop hiding from God, and the light of God can heal and transform even what we are ashamed of.’
So welcome, one and all. Come and worship God, the One to whom all hearts are open, the One who longs to remove our heavy vesture and reclothe us in raiments dazzling white.
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it.”
Now the word of the Lord came to Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as they were casting and mending nets, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
When Jonah heard the Lord’s voice calling him he immediately got up and hightailed off in the opposite direction! When Simon and Andrew, James and John heard the Lord’s voice, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. Two very different responses to the call of God. And as I was reading the two stories set in today’s Scripture readings, I was reflecting on the mystery of vocation, of how God is always calling us to larger life – and our very mixed and not always very impressive or heroic responses!
And certainly, in Scripture, it seems that most people whom God calls, don’t immediately leave their ‘nets’ and follow. Most of them, like me, are more like Jonah. Or like Moses. He tries to wriggle out of it when God calls him to confront Pharaoh: ‘O Lord, I’ve never been eloquent: I’m slow of speech and tongue.’ Or poor Jeremiah. ‘O Lord, truly I don’t know how to speak, for I’m only a boy.’ Or poor Isaiah, in the midst of a stunning vision of heaven – ‘O Lord, woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.’ But after the Lord cleanses him he does manage to say, ‘Here am I Lord, send me.’ We used to joke that he was probably feeling more, ‘Here am I – send HIM!’
The Baptism of Christ
I have a box in my room where I keep all my precious documents. You probably have something similar. These documents, such as passports, birth certificates, ordination papers, for many, marriage certificates, these documents are all very precious because they tell us what we belong to and who we belong to. That’s incredibly important, because belonging gives us our sense of identity. These documents remind me of who I am. Among the most precious of documents for me are my two passports. Whenever I hold these passports I have an enormous sense of gratitude to God that my own life, my very identity, has been formed by the traditions and values of two different nations.
Our core identity is intimately bound up with the values of the country to which we belong; so, when we see these values violated, as we have seen on Capitol Hill during these past days, we feel a visceral shock to our very core.
Belonging and identity are so bound together, that an even worse experience is to actually have your ‘belonging’ taken away. I will never forget a time of ministry some years ago in South Dakota, when I spoke with some elderly native Americans who told me the harrowing story of how they had been made to leave their ancestral lands and at school were forbidden to speak their native language. ‘We don’t belong here anymore’ they said. How terrible to belong nowhere and belong to no one. Those sad and haunted eyes we have seen on the TV of refugees, thrown out of their country, ‘cleansed’ or fled in terror from their homes and from a country where they are told they don’t belong.