Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Me, me, please pick me, I want the glory

The King of Kings and Great High Priest ... an icon from Mount Athos on the wall of my study

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 21 October 2009, 5 p.m.: The Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Collect and Readings for the 19th Sunday after Trinity: Job 38: 1-7; Psalm 104: 1-10, 26, 37c; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45.


May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have five or six icons on the wall of my study above my desk. They have been hung in random fashion without any particular order. But they represent different phases and aspects of my ministry.

There is a treasured copy of Andrei Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham, the Old Testament Trinity, which was given to me by one of my former lecturers … There the Trinity is prefigured or represented by the angels, with Christ seated at the table, with the Father and the Holy Spirit on each side of him.

There is an icon of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of the institute in Cambridge where I have studied over the last two years … and of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, where I stayed while working on a project on Christian-Muslim dialogue.

And so on.

And then there is an icon from Mount Athos of Christ, the King of Kings and the Great High Priest, who I hope sets my pattern – who should set the pattern for each and every one of us – in our ordained ministry.

In this icon, Christ is wearing the robes, the crown or mitre, and the stole (ὠμοφόριον, omophorion) decorated with crosses of a bishop vested for the Divine Liturgy. Christ, the Great High Priest of his Church on earth, holds an open New Testament in his left hand and his right hand is raised in blessing.

We are told in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the verses immediately before this evening’s reading: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4: 14-16).

Christ comes into the world as the King of Kings and as the Great High Priest.
But he comes not as the sort of king that we would expect a king to be, nor as a great high priest full of pomp and self-importance.

When you have been ordained as priests for a few years, when you have served your first curacy and come to move to your first or second parish as rector, you will be in danger of slipping into habits that you do not realise have been formed slowly and invisibly.

You will be the centre of attention. Nominators who want to attract you to their parish will tell you how wonderful and how talented you are; people will praise your sermons and how well you perform at Christmas and Easter, at baptisms, weddings and funerals.

You may delight in being at the centre of attention; your photographs will appear in the Church of Ireland Gazette beside bishops and in the local newspaper beside mayors and celebrities. You may be interviewed on television and write books that received critical acclaim.

And all in a very good cause, no doubt.

But once you are on a career path, you will be in danger of forgetting that priesthood is not a professional option, you will be in danger of forgetting the first reasons why you started to explore the idea of ordained ministry.

I hope at least one of you, if not more, will become a bishop in my lifetime … but a bishop who will serve the Church, and not a bishop for the reasons some mothers would like their son or daughter to be a bishop.

There is an apocryphal story in this diocese of a new curate in a parish who was asked by the rector’s wife to go around the table at a pensioners’ coffee morning and make sure that people had their cups topped up.

“But,” he protested, “I’m here to talk to people. I’m not here to wait on tables. What do you think I was ordained for?”

What indeed did he think he was ordained for, if not to wait on tables? The Greek word for deacon (διάκονος) means precisely that: someone who waits on tables, and not the head waiter or master of ceremonies either.

The foundation of all ordained ministry is our diaconate. We are called first and foremost to serve. And when we serve the people, when in obedience we meet them in their suffering, then we can hear their cries and their prayers and truly serve them in the services of the Church and in the Divine Liturgy (see Hebrews 5: 1-10).

It was in humbling himself as a servant that Christ truly became the role model for all deacons, priests and bishops.

Did James and John think opting to follow Jesus, becoming disciples, was a good career move?

Whenever I read this evening’s Gospel story (Mark 10: 35-45), I think back to my childhood days. I remember all those preparations for football matches, as we lined up to pick sides. And how we all wanted to be among the first to be picked for a team.

Everyone wanted to be picked first, everyone wanted to line up there beside one of the two captains, no-one wanted to be picked last, even when there were enough places for everyone to get a game.

I can still see them: 9- or 10-year-old boys, jumping up and down on the grass, waving our hands or pointing at our chests, and pleading: “Me, me, please pick me, I’m your friend.”

Me, me, please pick me. And then when we were picked how we wanted the glory. Slow at passing the ball, in case I might not score the goal. Better to lose that ball in a tackle than to pass it to someone else and risk someone else scoring the winning goal.

And that’s who James and John remind me of: wanting to be picked first, wanting to be the first to line up beside the team captain, being glory seekers rather than tram players.

No wonder the other ten were upset when they heard this. But they were upset, not because they wanted to take on the servant model of priesthood and ministry. They were upset not because James and John hadn’t yet grasped the point of it all. They were upset because they might have been counted out, because they might have missed out being on the first team, on the first XI.

And their upset actually turns to anger. Not the sort of candidates you’d like to meet at a selection conference.

And what did James and John want in reality? They wanted that one would sit on Christ’s right hand and the other on his left.

Now, even that might not have been too bad an ambition. The man who stood at the right hand of the Emperor in the Byzantine court was the Emperor’s voice. What he said was the emperor’s word. And so, in the creed, when we declare our belief that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, we mean not that there is some heavenly couch on which all three are seated, comfy and cosy, as if waiting to watch their favourite television sit-com.

When we say that Christ “is seated at the right hand of the Father,” we mean that Christ is the Word of God. In some way, I suppose, this is what Andrei Rublev was trying to convey in his icon of the Visitation of Abraham, his icon of the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament.

In Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, the Christ-figure is wearing a simple deacon’s stole, and is seated with the Father and the Holy Spirit to his lifet and to his right

In that icon, the Father and the Spirit are seated to the right and left of the Son. Indeed, in that icon, Christ is wearing not the elaborate high-priestly stole of a bishop, but the simple stole of a deacon at the table.

For James and John to want to be seated at the right and left of Christ in his glory – not when they were sitting down to a snack, or travelling on the bus, or even at the Last Supper, but in his glory (see verse 37) – they were was expressing an ambition to take the place of, to replace God.

But to be like God means to take on Christ’s humility, as we are reminded in our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews this evening.

We are made in the image and likeness of God, and then God asks us, invites us to return to that image and likeness when Christ comes in our image and likeness – not as a Byzantine emperor or Roman tyrant, but just as one of us.

Are we willing to be like him in our ministry?

Christ asks us that this evening. Are we willing to drink the cup that he drinks, or to be baptised with his baptism (see verses 38 and 40)?

Of course James and John were. See how this hot-headed pair, the sons of Zebedee, went on to serve the community of the baptised and the community that shared in the one bread and the one cup, the community that is the Church, the community that in baptism and in the shared meal is the Body of Christ.

James – not James the Brother of the Lord, whom we remember on Friday next – but James the Great was executed by the sword and became one of the first Christian martyrs (see Acts 12: 1-12).

John too lived a life of service to the Church: he was exiled on Patmos, and although he died in old age in Ephesus, there were numerous attempts to make him a martyr. And, of course, he gave his name to in the Johannine writings in the New Testament.

Martyrdom comes in many forms. In essence the word means witness. But the first step in martyrdom is dying to self, to self-ambition, to self-seeking, to self-serving. Your life must be a life that is testimony to your most cherished beliefs, testimony to Christ himself.

We love our titles in Anglicanism – canon, archdeacon, prebendary, dean – and stand firmly on our dignity, and even on our dignitaries if they get in our way. But you are not entering a career with good prospects. There is nothing wrong with any one of you wanting to be a bishop. There is something wrong if you are here seeing that as a career goal.

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 45).

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the Glory of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the community Eucharist in the institute chapel on Wednesday, 21 October 2009
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Saint John’s Gospel (3): John 2: 1-12



Patrick Comerford

1 Καὶ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ γάμος ἐγένετο ἐν Κανὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ ἦν ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐκεῖ: 2 ἐκλήθη δὲ καὶ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν γάμον. 3καὶ ὑστερήσαντος οἴνου λέγει ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πρὸς αὐτόν, Οἶνον οὐκ ἔχουσιν. 4 [καὶ] λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; οὔπω ἥκει ἡ ὥρα μου. 5 λέγει ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ τοῖς διακόνοις, Ο τι ἂν λέγῃ ὑμῖν ποιήσατε. 6 ἦσαν δὲ ἐκεῖ λίθιναι ὑδρίαι ἓξ κατὰ τὸν καθαρισμὸν τῶν Ἰουδαίων κείμεναι, χωροῦσαι ἀνὰ μετρητὰς δύο ἢ τρεῖς. 7 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Γεμίσατε τὰς ὑδρίας ὕδατος. καὶ ἐγέμισαν αὐτὰς ἕως ἄνω. 8 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἀντλήσατε νῦν καὶ φέρετε τῷ ἀρχιτρικλίνῳ: οἱ δὲ ἤνεγκαν. 9 ὡς δὲ ἐγεύσατο ὁ ἀρχιτρίκλινος τὸ ὕδωρ οἶνον γεγενημένον, καὶ οὐκ ᾔδει πόθεν ἐστίν, οἱ δὲ διάκονοι ᾔδεισαν οἱ ἠντληκότες τὸ ὕδωρ, φωνεῖ τὸν νυμφίον ὁ ἀρχιτρίκλινος 10 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Πᾶς ἄνθρωπος πρῶτον τὸν καλὸν οἶνον τίθησιν, καὶ ὅταν μεθυσθῶσιν τὸν ἐλάσσω: σὺ τετήρηκας τὸν καλὸν οἶνον ἕως ἄρτι. 11 Ταύτην ἐποίησεν ἀρχὴν τῶν σημείων ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν Κανὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἐφανέρωσεν τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ.

12 Μετὰ τοῦτο κατέβη εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ αὐτὸς καὶ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ [αὐτοῦ] καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐκεῖ ἔμειναν οὐ πολλὰς ἡμέρας.

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4 And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5 His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6 Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there for a few days.

The Seventh Day

During the past two weeks, we have been looking at how Chapter 1 of Saint John’s Gospel is introducing us to a new creation, a new creation that is in Christ. After looking at the Prologue, we turned last week to the first six days in the new creation, and now we have come to Day Seven.

What did God do on the Seventh Day in the account of creation in the Book Genesis? God rested. And now that we have arrived at Day Seven in the opening week of Saint John’s Gospel, we come to the Day that Christ rests with his disciples, and to a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, which is the completion of God’s creation. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19: 9).

Seven has a symbolic meaning or significance in this Gospel. This is the first of the seven miraculous signs by which John attests to Christ’s divine status. This Gospel is structured around these signs, and the word used by John is unique. He uses the Greek word σημεῖον (semeion, “sign” or ἔργον meaning “work”), instead of the term the Synoptic writers normally use for miracle, δύναμις (dynamis, meaning act of power).

This is the first of the Seven Signs, which are:

1. Turning water into wine (2: 1-12);
2. Healing the royal official’s son (4: 46-54), also at Cana;
3. Healing the paralysed man at Bethesda (5: 1-9);
4. Feeding the 5,000 (6: 1-14);
5. Walking on water (6: 15-24);
6. Healing the blind man (9: 1-7);
7. The raising of Lazarus (11: 17-45).

These are completed then by the Greatest Sign, the Resurrection (see 2:18-22).

The seven signs are interspersed with long dialogues and discourses, including the seven “I AM” sayings. In these discourses, Jesus identifies himself with symbols of major significance. There are seven “I AM” statements:

1. I AM the Bread of Life (6: 35);
2. I AM the Light of the World (8: 12);
3. I AM the door of the sheep (10: 7);
4. I AM the Good Shepherd (10: 11);
5. I AM the Resurrection and the Life (11: 25);
6. I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14: 6);
7. I AM the True Vine (15: 1).

In addition, there are Seven Witnesses:

1. John the Baptist (1: 34);
2. Nathaniel (1: 49);
3. Peter (6: 69);
4. Christ (10: 36) – the Central and Greatest witness;
5. Martha (11: 27);
6. Thomas (20: 28);
7. John the Beloved Disciple (20: 31).

And so the first of the seven signs comes on the seventh of the seven days that introduce the Gospel.

The significance of Cana

Last week, we saw how Christ promised the new disciples that he would show them his glory … this morning we see that promise fulfilled in the first sign, at the wedding in Cana.

Last week I also said that the image of the Lamb of God in this Gospel was like a triptych, with the two Johns – John the Baptist at the beginning of the Gospel, and John the Beloved Disciple at the end – as witnesses to who the Lamb of God is. In a similar way, Galilee acts as a geographical enclosure for Christ’s disclosure: Galilee is the first place to behold Christ’s glory, as we see in this story; and Galilee will be the last place to behold his glory, as we will see with the post-Resurrection stories in Chapter 21, and there too we also come across Cana and Nathanael.

Summary of story

While Christ is attending the wedding in Cana with his disciples, the hosts run out of wine. The mother of Jesus tells him: “They have no more wine.” And Jesus replies: “Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.”

His mother then says to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (2: 5).

Jesus orders the servants to fill the empty containers with water and to draw out some and take it to the chief waiter. After tasting the water that had become wine, and not knowing what Christ has done, he remarks to the bridegroom that he has departed from the custom of serving the best wine first by serving it last (verses 6-10). John then tells us: “This was the first miracle of Jesus and it was performed to reveal his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (verse 11).

This miracle is not mentioned in any of the other three Gospels, although it has parallels with the parable of the New Wine and Old Wineskins.

In the Old Testament, we read promises that there will be an abundance of wine in the time of the Messiah (Genesis 27: 27-28; 49: 10-12; Amos 9: 13-14), especially at the wedding feasts (see Isaiah 62: 4-5). The wine in this story represents the overflowing and abundant blessings of God coming to fruition.


Verse 1:

On the third day: this is not to distract us from the significance of this being the seventh day, but remember that Christ rose on the Third Day. We are to read this story with the benefit of the hindsight of Resurrection faith.

I had a cousin-by-marriage who delighted in the spoiling prank of going down the queues outside the cinemas in Oxford when Love Story with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw was first showing in 1970 and saying to each person in turn: “She dies in the end.” But you cannot spoil the reader of the Fourth Gospel by telling him or her: “He dies in the end.” That is not the end, and this first sign prepares us, in a way, for the greatest of all signs, beyond the seventh sign.

Cana was a small village about 12 km north-west of Nazareth.

“… and the mother of Jesus was there.” Mary is never named in this Gospel.

Verse 2:

Jesus and his disciples have been invited, together. We don’t know who the bride and groom were. But at weddings new families are formed. No-one is ever the same again. Brothers become brothers-in-law, sisters become sisters-in-law, mothers become mothers-in-law. New families, new bonds of kinship are created. I wonder who was seated with the groom’s family, and who with the bride’s family. Perhaps they were all related in some distant way.

Christ’s arrival shows us that we are all part of God’s family. As the Caroline Divine Lancelot Andrewes puts it, Jesus became our half brother in his fleshly birth to Mary, and adopted us to the Father, and full brotherhood, in his resurrection!

Verse 3:

Note that Mary does not make a request here – she simply observes or passes comment on a matter of fact in her conversation with her son. They have no wine. She is not asking for a miracle.

Verse 4:

It sounds at first as though Jesus is being dismissive, almost as if he is telling his mother to go away and to not bother him. But when Jesus calls his mother “Woman” it is not a dismissive or derogatory term, but a term of great respect, as it is again at the Crucifixion, when he says: “Woman, here is your son” (see 19: 26).

Nevertheless, the hour of his self-disclosure was determined not by Mary’s desire but by God. And that hour, ultimately, is the only other time when John mentions Mary, when Christ is on the Cross.

As we have been comparing these seven days with the first seven days in Genesis, then we can compare the role of the woman in the garden (Eve), who is the man’s companion, with the role of the woman at the wedding feast. Once again, there is the balance between eating and drinking, between being sent out into the world, and being called back to the fullness of the heavenly banquet.

Verse 5:

There is a resigned tone to Mary’s voice. She accepts whatever her Son may say, even if it is not going to turn out to be what she expected. What did she expect? What did she know at this stage? What did she think her Son could say or would do? Notice the connection made here between saying and doing, just as this Gospel also makes the connection between seeing and believing.

Verse 6:

The six stone jars contained water for rites of purification. These were ceremonial rites, not hygienic rites. But each jar contained 20 or 30 gallons, so we’re talking about 180 gallons of wine – roughly speaking, in today’s terms, 1,091 bottles of wine. And because the wine was so good (see 9-10) in those days it would then have water added to it, and this may have double the amount – so perhaps up to 1,500 or 2,000 bottles of wine by today’s reckoning. It was enough to ensure they partied for days, and weddings in the Eastern Mediterranean do go on for days.

Verse 7:

Jesus says … and they do. Why do you think the servants obeyed Mary and then obeyed Jesus? And why wasn’t the steward in control of what was going on at this stage? Was he hiding in embarrassment? Had he headed off to buy some more wine? Had that been a failed venture, like the disciple failed to come back with food when they were sent to Sychar (see Chapter 4)?

Verse 8:

The steward (ἀρχιτρίκλινος, architriklinos) was the superintendent of the dining room, a table master. He was different from the toast-master, who was one of the guests selected by lot to prescribe to the rest the mode of drinking. The table-master was to place in order the tables and the couches, arrange the courses, taste the food and wine beforehand, and so on.

Notice the role of similar people in other Gospel stories. Here and in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22: 2-14), the attendants have the role of διάκονος (deacon), a waiter, one who executes the commands of another, especially of the master or the architriklinos. The word for the unjust steward (Luke 16: 1-8) is οἰκονόμος (oykonomos), the manager of a household or of household affairs who was free-born or a freed-man who was delegated oversight. We can see here the parallels with the ministry of bishop and priest and of deacon later in the New Testament. Who does the steward at Cana have parallels with?

Verse 9:

As I was preparing these notes, I just thought about those words from the Psalmist: O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him (Psalm 34: 8).

Verse 10:

See how the steward shifts responsibility to the bridegroom. But the truth is that the good wine has been kept until now. Now the best of God’s promises are about to be fulfilled.

Verse 11:

The miracles were not wonders to astound but were signs pointing to Christ’s glory and God’s presence in him. This is the first of the signs. For the second sign see 4: 46-54.

Verse 12:

When the wedding is over, Jesus heads back to Capernaum, which was on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. He goes there with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples. New relationships have been formed. Some of them go back as new brothers-in-law, perhaps one of the them was a new father-in-law. Christ calls us into new relationships, with him, with God the Father, and with one another. And in those new relationships, there are new expectations.

Next: The cleansing of the Temple (John 2: 13-25).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with B.Th. and M.Th. students on 21 October 2009.