Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Thoughts on Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus

I’ve talked and thought and heard a lot lately about Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, but never actually seen the real picture. As I’m in London for a meeting, I thought I’d make a trip to the National Gallery where it hangs, and take a look. Here are my thoughts while I was in front of it. (I've deliberately not looked at any art history websites to see how they compare to others' views.)

It’s a very physical picture. The light and the shadows behind Jesus are often remarked upon, and they’re stunning, but equally obvious is the food on the table – chicken and fruit and water, portrayed in great detail, as well as bread and wine. This is not a ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper with cubes of white sliced bread or tasteless little wafers. This is real food, a real meal.

Then there’s the people. They are not picture postcard people. They are not symbols or abstractions. They’re real, grounded people.

There’s Jesus. He’s strikingly pretty, a young girlish face. Composed yet tender, flowing locks. Yet he’s not the tender-Jesus-meek-and-mild of Victoriana. There’s power in him, and a really strong sense of sadness.
The two disciples are much older than him, a whole generation older. The gospel names one as Cleopas, and while modern biblical scholarship suggests that the other might be Cleopas’ wife, both figures are male in this picture, both with ample beards (Jesus is clean-shaven).

One has arms stretched wide, a gesture which the National Gallery interpretation sign suggests is astonishment, but is also an echo of Christ’s arms outstretched on the cross. He’s wearing a scallop shell, later the symbol of pilgrims. He could be about to pronounce a blessing himself, or to emulate Christ’s sacrifice (as so many of the disciples did). Flippantly, his gesture also reminds of the fisherman showing how big was his fish that got away – though of course Jesus’ disciples knew a thing or two about fish.

The other disciple has his back to us, and is rising from his chair. Not so much to say about him. He looks more dishevelled than his friend – his clothes are slightly torn, he has a sense of disorder about him. The troubles of the past few days must weigh heavy on him.

And then there’s a third man, standing behind Jesus. He’s younger, wears a cap, with just a small beard. He’s listening just as intently as the other two, though gives the impression of not being so much part of the meal, if only because he’s not sitting at the table. Perhaps he is the innkeeper, a sudden extra witness to the teaching and the blessing and the revelation?

I don’t know which of the three figures are actually intended to be the two disciples mentioned in the gospel story, and why Caravaggio portrayed three figures. But the gospel story is never complete. There were always things going on not discussed in the story. Why should there not be a third figure?

Caravaggio shows us an ordinary scene, with ordinary food being eaten by ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. Emmaus was a revelation, but it was a revelation within the everyday, that happened to people who had other lives and other stories. Life continues, and the amazing things happen in its midst.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Jonah and the Whale song - an extended version

The song "Jonah and the Whale" is much beloved at Sunday Schools. It's jolly but (like lots of Sunday School versions of the Jonah story) ends when Jonah came out of the fish, and misses out most of the interesting parts of the book of Jonah. In particular, there's no mention of the tree that Jonah shades under and is subsequently eaten by a worm, a strange little parable wrapped inside the whole strange parable that is the book of Jonah.

Here's the original song (written by Hugh Mitchell in 1957 - it's often uncredited but is listed by the Churches Copyright Licensing Authority). The tune can be found in various places online and in an organ version by Canon Quentin Bellamy:
Come listen to my tale
Of Jonah and the whale
Way down in the middle of the ocean.
Now how did he get there
Whatever did he wear
Way down in the middle of the ocean
A-preaching he should be
At Nineveh, you see -
To disobeys a very foolish notion.
But God forgave his sin
Salvation entered in
Way down in the middle of the ocean.
And here's our second verse (written by myself and my daughter):
God sent Jonah a tree
He said hip-hip-hooree
He sheltered neath its broad and shady branches.
But God sent down a worm
It wriggled and it squirmed
Deep down in the middle of the desert.
The worm ate up the tree
Near Nineveh you see
And Jonah got all hot and tired and bothered.
But God said to Jonah,
Dont you be a moaner,
Deep down in the middle of the desert. 
Original - copyright Hugh Mitchell, 1957; second verse copyright Magnus Ramage & Alice Calcraft, 2014. (Images: Jonah Journal by Rabbi David Paskin)



Friday, 23 May 2014

Living the Way of Jesus

Sermon preached on 18 May 2014 at Duston URC. Text: John 14:1-14. See also my blog post from 2013 on John 14:6.
So I began talking with the children about what it means to walk along with Jesus, and I want to go into that a bit more – about what it means to live in the way of Jesus. This is a long and quite complex passage, rich with imagery and ideas. There’s material for a whole series of sermons in these 14 verses. So as I did earlier, I’m going to mostly focus on one single verse – though drawing on ideas from the rest of the passage.


Now there are probably bits of the Bible you like more than others. Some parts really hit the spot for you, other parts make you much more uncomfortable. And for me, verse 6 of this passage – “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the father except through me” – puts me straight into the discomfort zone. I’ve carried this verse with me for perhaps twenty years, looked at it again and again from different angles. I find it really fascinating but also quite disquieting, with this sense of exclusivity in the second half. It’s a verse beloved of tracts and those posters you used to see at railway stations. It could be seen as closed-minded, creating an in-group and an out-group, rather self-satisfied. Does that mean all the Muslims and the Hindus and Jews, not to mention the atheists, have no chance of finding their way to God? Some Christians would say yes, that’s exactly what it means; others would want to interpret it differently and point to the fact that Jesus said that there are many dwelling places in his father’s house. I’m not sure what I think about this subject, but I think the verse as a whole and indeed the passage as a whole is so rich and interesting that it’s worth working with it for a while to see where it takes us.

Let’s step back a moment. This passage is part of John’s gospel in what’s sometimes called the farewell discourses. It happens at the Last Supper, soon after Judas leaves the others to go and betray Jesus. Before the events of the Passion unfold, Jesus gives his disciples a long set of final teachings, interspersed with dialogue from the disciples. They begin with Peter’s declaration that he would lay down his life for Jesus, and Jesus’ prophecy that Peter will betray him three times. And immediately follows the passage we’ve just heard. Jesus says he’s going to his Father, that there’s plenty of space for the disciples to come too, and that they should put their trust in him.

And then comes Thomas, the original TomTom. Good old Thomas, just as much of a believer and a follower of Jesus as the other disciples, but who was always keen to have things nailed down and certain. The man who’s become known in history as Doubting Thomas, but really was just a bit too keen on clear evidence. Here he’d like a satnav please, telling him the way and when he’ll reach his destination. And in response, Jesus speaks two words, which for a Jewish ear are incredibly resonant.


What Jesus says is “I AM”. John’s gospel has several of these I AM sayings – I AM the light of the world, I AM the bread of life and so on. In Greek, the phrase is particularly emphatic, a strong way of saying who you are; but for Jews it’s dynamite, because it’s exactly God said to Moses from the burning bush in the book of Exodus. When Moses asked God his name, God said “I am who I am” and to tell the Israelites that “I AM has sent you”. It’s the basis for the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh, so holy that to this day devout Jews won’t say it aloud. So in using this phrase, Jesus was making a really strong claim about himself, and his connection to God.

And then he goes into more detail about what he’s saying about himself, in these three words. He says that he is the way, that he is the truth, and that he is the life. I’m not entirely convinced these are separate ideas, or even that they’re meant to be. But they’re individually very interesting, and so I want to look at each in turn and what they can tell us about being a follower of Jesus.

So the first thing he calls himself is the Way – the path, the road. He doesn’t say he’ll tell people the way to where he’s going, he doesn’t say he’ll show it to them. He says that he himself is the way. The first Christians were known as the people of the way, and the idea of the ‘way’ was a familiar one in Jewish thought; Moses used it, as did the prophet Jeremiah when he said “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it,  and find rest for your souls”. As I said to the kids, choosing the right path is very important. But these are all about the way as something external, something physical. By saying that he himself is the way, Jesus makes the idea very personal. We will know the way to the Father by following his example, by living our lives as he did. It’s not about what you believe, or pious statements of faith. It’s about how you live your life.

There’s a wonderful poem by a Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, who wrote: “Traveller, there is no road. We make the road by walking.” Paths are fragile, like the one across these sand-dunes I saw once in California. And Jesus tells us that the only path that matters is one that we can’t see, that we make ourselves by the way we lead our lives. So how do we live our lives? Another quote from a traveller, this time the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, a travelling preacher who did a lot of walking, and told said that we should: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”

And then we move on to Jesus’ second word. He says he is the Truth. Now we live in a postmodern world where truth is a slippery concept, where my version of the truth is just as good as your version of the truth. We have more information than ever before in history, and that information sometimes clouds what is the truth. But in the past, uncovering the truth about something has always been important. And again Jesus doesn’t say he’s going to show us the truth, or bring us the truth, or lead us to the truth. He says he is the truth. Many people proclaim that they have a message of some sort which is true for the world, and yet they live quite a life which shows that is not true within their own lives. It’s something we’re all guilty of at times. But Jesus proclaimed that he was the truth, and he lived a life of truth and integrity. And he said something else amazing about truth: “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. So much that goes wrong in the world comes from half-truths, rumours and outright lies that people tell each other or we tell ourselves. But truth brings freedom in it, and by following the one who embodies truth, we find freedom.

The third of Jesus’ words is my favourite of all. He says he is the Life. Again, not that he shows us life, or tells us about life, but that he himself is Life. The word ‘life’ is absolutely central to John’s gospel. It opens with the statement that “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. Jesus tells us that he is the bread of life, that those who follow him will have the light of life, that those who believe in him will have eternal life. And it’s in what to me is perhaps the most important verse of the whole Bible [slide 12], also in John’s gospel, where Jesus says “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. Jesus didn’t come to bring us rules, he hasn’t come to convince us of our sin, to rub our unworthiness in our faces. He has come to bring us LIFE.

But this is not just any old life. This is not the boring and mundane life, the grey life of the 9-5 drudge with little sense of life. This is life in abundance, life lived to the full. Nor is it about greed or excess. It’s not about taking from others. It’s about living a life that is full of joy, that is suffused with an awareness of God’s love. The American preacher and author John Ortberg talks about becoming the people God created us to be. He asks the question: “what do you do that makes you feel fully alive?” This isn’t about momentary pleasure, the sort of kick you get from eating chocolate or drinking your favourite tipple or watching a mindless but fun television programme. It’s about deep satisfaction. What makes us feel fully alive differs for each of us, but I believe that Jesus came to show us that this kind of life, and richer and deeper, is possible right here and right now.

So Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth and the life. He is the one who in his own person embodies the generosity, abundance and integrity that he promises to the disciples and to any who are prepared to follow him. Because he asks us at the start of the passage to put our trust in him. Sometimes that verse is translated as “believe in me”, but really it’s better seen as putting our trust in Jesus, like one of those trust exercises where you lean backwards and let go and trust that someone will catch you.

So how can we live like this? How can we put our trust in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life? How can we really be followers of Jesus? Isn’t it rather presumptuous of us? Well, I think we need to start by remembering who we are. We are creatures who are made in the image of God. George Fox talked about answering that of God in everyone, which to me means loving each person we encounter and working for their good, as well as for the good of all others around the world. But it also means seeing that of God in ourselves, of recognising the image of God inside ourselves, of being prepared to be called into that abundant life which awaits all of us who choose it.

The Protestant reformers talked about the priesthood of all believers. They believed passionately that we don’t need intermediaries between us and God, that every Christian is able to find their way to the father through following the way of Jesus and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. We started the service with the words of Peter that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. This is an amazing promise, but it’s also a bit scary and I think we often dodge around it and don’t take it quite seriously. If we are made in the image of God, if we are followers of the way of Jesus, then we really can trust that it is possible for us all to be priests. And Jesus promises us that if that happens, then we will do the works that he did, and even more.

To follow Jesus is to be in relationship with the one who in himself personified the way, and the truth, and the life; and who calls us to have those things now with him and for ever more.

Amen.