Author Archives: willturnstone

November 20: The King IV, Over to Pilate.

 

Nigerian carvings sourced by Rupert Greville: a question of power.

Do you ask this of your own accord or have others told you about me? This is the first question Jesus puts to Pilate (John 18:33), in answer to Pilate’s question, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ In the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, as we said yesterday, the two men are motivated by completely opposing preoccupations. For Jesus, the dialogue is about truth and freedom. For Pilate, power is the only thing he cares about. But, the question Jesus asks places Pilate at a disadvantage already. If we are looking at power, Pilate has already lost some. He is suddenly the one who must answer a difficult question, not Jesus.

And Pilate is not prepared for it. At this stage, if Pilate had been an entirely different kind of man, he might have used Jesus’ question as a springboard to ask himself: “Do I ask this of my own accord? Do I want to understand this man and his message?” In our text, Jesus pays Pilate the compliment of suggesting that such questions might be important to Pilate. But Pilate does not budge from his habitual mind-set. Rather, he exposes his superficiality by retorting testily, ‘Am I a Jew?’ Here, Pilate implies that it should be obvious to Jesus that he has no spiritual leanings towards Judaism or any of its tenets. He goes on to attempt to regain the upper hand in the conversation by declaring, ‘It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me.’

Pilate is feeling the loss of control that comes when a situation does not make sense. He is flummoxed. Jesus has been handed over by members of his own religious group. Why? Like a sniffer dog looking for drugs, Pilate gets a whiff of a level of power in Jesus that he cannot quite identify. Clearly, Jesus has some power or he would not be so threatening to the chief priests. He demands that Jesus explain: ‘What have you done?’ he asks.

Jesus cuts to the only thing Pilate could possibly care about. He doesn’t answer Pilate’s question by talking about his actions, as Pilate seems to want, but about his authority. He talks about his ‘kingdom’. He says: ‘Mine is not a kingdom of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. As it is, my kingdom does not belong here.’ Jesus uses the word ‘kingdom’ three times in this brief passage. I imagine Jesus pronounced the word with that emphasis one gives to an expression being employed in a way that differs from its common usage. This subtlety was lost on Pilate. ‘My kingdom’ is a phrase Pilate understands in one way only: worldly power, riches, domination, influence, kudos. He takes note, and questions Jesus again, and surely with a sharp edge of incredulity: ‘So then! You are a king???’ [emphasis mine].

Pilate is not listening. Jesus is trying to say the exact opposite, that he is not a king in Pilate’s sense of the word, that the word ‘kingdom,’ in Pilate’s sense, does not apply to him, for he has no wealth, no soldiers, no public support of any kind. He is trying to say to Pilate that his ‘kingdom’, if the word must be used, does not operate according to the standards of this world, and it is no threat to Pilate.

But something else is being said, also. While Jesus wants Pilate to know that he desires nothing that Pilate has, Jesus is not afraid to imply that he is lord of a realm, a ‘kingdom’. It exists on a deeper level than the stage of worldly success and domination. But Pilate is out of his depth and doesn’t get it at all. Jesus is too subtle for him, too deep – and too brilliant. This world, this stage of success and domination, is the only world Pilate knows. Pilate is, again, feeling a loss of control over the whole dialogue.

He is trying to cover his confusion now, I suspect. He has no wish to appear ridiculous and precipitate to the public in his handling of this awkward situation. It is still not clear to him what the real issues are. His reputation will not be enhanced by the passing of an unjust sentence – he knows this. So, the question of Jesus’ identity needs to be answered. Is Jesus really the usurper that the Jews are making him out to be?

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19 November: The King III, Over to Jesus.

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We are looking at the Jesus-Pilate dialogue occurring towards the end of the Gospel of John (John 18:28f.) in order to explore what it may tell us about Jesus’ kingship. Pilate is clueless about Jesus and his teaching, but as the situation progresses, some important aspects of Jesus’ person and identity gradually, if incompletely, come home to Pilate. Perhaps by watching this process, we may discover something new about Jesus, also.

The dialogue has barely begun, but Pilate has already exposed his impatience with the entire affair – a fact which in itself was insulting, and must have registered as such with Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus bluntly, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

We have noted above that Pilate, as governor of Judea, acted as a supreme judge in his district. Therefore he alone had the authority to impose the death sentence, which is what the Jewish leaders who handed Jesus over want Pilate to do. Jesus’ arrest and trial so far have gone on all night and it is now morning. Jesus must be exhausted, but his response to Pilate’s question is not in the least expressive of the mental derangement which Pilate probably hoped to find in him and which might have made his task so much easier. Jesus, in answer to Pilate, asks a question of his own: ‘Do you ask this of your own accord, or have others said it to you about me?’

Astonishing question. What can Jesus mean by it? Jesus knows his hour had come. His question cannot have been an attempt to gain time in order to plot his escape. It can only have come from his awareness of Pilate as a human being in need of salvation. Although Jesus has already been insulted by Pilate’s manner, it is never his way to return insult for insult. As always, Jesus is reaching for the deepest level of the person to whom he is speaking: he wants Pilate to question Pilate, if not now, then perhaps later. Jesus’ thirst for souls is never quenched, never shelved, forgotten, or given up. To his last breath he is offering salvation to all. Jesus sees clearly that Pilate, on one level, is a man to be pitied. He is a puppet of higher political powers. History suggests that probably most of Judea regarded Pilate as an inept governor, always acting with one eye turned towards those who might be watching him, and rarely, if ever, acting, or even thinking, without being jerked into position by those puppet strings. Jesus, however, seems to pay Pilate the compliment of taking him seriously as an independent thinker, able to lay claim to his own actions and respond to him from within his own centre of freedom.

But, this compliment is lost on Pilate, seemingly. He knows that others are pulling his strings, and although he hates it, he thinks that getting more power for himself will solve his problems. He will allow himself to be a puppet to any degree if this seems to be the most effective way of eventually obtaining more power. Power is what everything is about for Pilate; it is the mental ‘lens’ through which he views everything he does. Naturally, his conversation with Jesus is coloured by these preoccupations.

But, as far as Jesus is concerned, the preoccupations are entirely other. The conversation with Pilate, in Jesus’ view, is about truth and freedom. What will Pilate make of this man?

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18 November: The King II, Pilate and Jesus Meet.

cobblestones

We are preparing to look at the relationship between Jesus and Pontius Pilate with a view to exploring the theme of power as it emerges in the relevant texts of the Gospel of John (18:1 – 19:22). I would like first to summarise the passage immediately preceding the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. In John 18: 1-11we are told that Jesus had been arrested in the evening by a cohort from the Roman garrison, and a group of guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees, all with weapons and torches – essentially, a lynch-mob. Jesus handles the mob with courtesy, cooperation and courage. Nonetheless, they bind him and, no doubt, shove and frog-march him to the palace of Annas, the high priest. Annas, probably realising after a short exchange with Jesus that he was out of his depth and could not possibly win in a dialogue with him, sends Jesus on to the next questioner. This will be Pontius Pilate and Jesus is sent to the Praetorium – his palace.

Pilate does not meet with Jesus until he meets Jesus’ captors – a rather unsatisfying encounter, I suspect, as far as Pilate is concerned. Jews were not allowed to go into the inner court of the Praetorium on pain of incurring ritual impurity, so Pilate must meet Jesus’ captors outside – a concession which must have rankled. But he complies, and questions them about the reasons for Jesus’ arrest. According to the text, they claim at this point simply that Jesus is a criminal and deserves death, and that they are not allowed by their religion to pass the death sentence. They do not specify what Jesus has done to deserve it (see Jn. 18:28-32). Pilate, none the wiser for this exchange, must now question Jesus about the reasons for his arrest.

Pilate leaves them, returns to the inner court of the Praetorium, summons Jesus and begins a highly revealing exchange with him. We see here two men who could not possibly have been more different. Pilate, with an abruptness suggesting that he is an important, busy man, asks Jesus the only question that could have any real interest to him, or any bearing on his judgement of Jesus: ‘Are you the king of the Jews?

Immediately, we see that the issue for Pilate is power, but he must hope that Jesus’ power is a trumped up affair, threatening to no one. He had probably encountered mad prophets before – they were not unusual in the Judea of Pilate’s day. So, Pilate’s question would, Pilate hopes, set such a prophet up to expose himself as a rant-and-rave religious fanatic. A wild-eyed diatribe on Jesus’ part would be most useful to Pilate and enable him quickly to dismiss Jesus as long-winded but essentially harmless; then Pilate would be free to move on to the more important business of the day. It is easy to imagine the slightly mocking tone of voice in which Pilate asked his question, much as one might use to a rather ill-behaved child, perhaps, or to someone whom one has already mentally pigeon-holed as not worth taking seriously. Pilate feels secure, powerful at this stage. Accordingly, his treatment of Jesus belittles him. We will examine Jesus’ response to this tomorrow.

Pilate went out to the street to meet the Jewish leaders.

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17 November: The King, 1.

 

At the end of the Church’s year we celebrate Christ’s Kingship, and the Gospel reading is either of the last Judgement or the Passion: Luke’s account of the crucifixion or John’s report of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, which Sister Johanna will be talking about this week. A challenging reading, as she states from the start.

Introduction

Toward the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus undergoes a question and answer session with Pontius Pilate that ends with Pilate sentencing Jesus to death (see John 18:1 – 19:30). I must confess that I tend to read this dialogue too quickly because it is always painful. But, I recently read John’s account of the Pilate-Jesus dialogue again, this time more slowly and more prayerfully. I found that the text opened up and some new realisations occurred to me.

I would like to share my findings with you in this week’s posts.

  1. Power

In the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in John’s gospel, an impasse is quickly reached around the central theme of power. Problems around the theme of power were nothing new to Jesus; they had been rumbling along beside nearly every experience of Jesus’ life and they were addressed in many of his teachings. Yet few – if any – of Jesus’ followers were able to grasp Jesus’ teaching on power and powerlessness. Perhaps we cannot blame them; Jesus asks us to absorb a profound paradox here. He would have us lose our life to find it, be great by being truly small, be powerful by being the most powerless servant of all. This seems to go against our instincts, which lead us to seek self-preservation through control and dominance, even if over only a few people. The apostles themselves were forever getting this wrong, arguing often about who was the greatest. To detail the way the theme of power is present in Jesus’ whole life and in his teachings goes far beyond the scope of these posts, but in looking closely at how the two personalities of Jesus and Pontius Pilate are revealed in their dialogue in John’s gospel, I found that one thread in this complex weave-structure can be examined. As we approach the Solemnity of Christ the King next Sunday, I hope these reflections will shed light on the true power of Jesus, our King.

Pontius Pilate is a well-known name to readers of the New Testament, but as a historical figure little is known about him. What is known is very telling, however. He was the Roman Procurator in Judea from about the year 26 to 36. The Procurator’s job combined several offices: governor, judge, tax collector, and commander of a band of soldiers that functioned a bit like a police force. A lot of power was concentrated in the Procurator. Yet, for this reason, the job was an awkward one.

The Procurator was caught in the middle. He needed to garner support from the Jews in order to please his own authorities in the Roman government. At the same time, he needed to be seen to stand for the official line in order to further his own career – a factor that made it more difficult to please the Jewish community in the area he governed. There is historical evidence that he clashed with both sides and pleased no one. Finally, around the year 36, he was deposed as Procurator of Judea and recalled to Rome.

It is tempting to feel a bit sorry for Pilate in the situation that developed with Jesus and the Jews, and to see him as the harassed middle-man caught in a strange and violent drama that he neither caused nor fully understood. There is certainly an element of that in the story. And perhaps Jesus, too, gave him the benefit of that doubt. But we are looking at something much more profound here. We will begin our exploration tomorrow.

SJC.

Not the sort of King that Pilate expected: Shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury.

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16 November: The ruined chapel

ruined chapel

This derelict chapel is lost in the Herefordshire countryside. The church at nearby Richard’s Castle is no longer in regular use for worship. Has God abandoned the Marches (the Welsh/English border country) or have the Marches abandoned God?

It’s more complex than that. People have gone. Farm work is done mechanically; the railways that employed thousands have closed or greatly reduced the number of workers, and so on. But also people have indeed turned away from Sunday worship.

This chapel was built around 1810 by local people who responded to the Methodist Revival led by the Wesleys. They wanted to live the Christian life more fully and when they were cold-shouldered by the established Church of England, they erected chapels that look as much like dwelling places as churches. Other  groups were also building ‘dissenting’ chapels, like the Baptists and Congregationalists. One of my ancestors is believed to have ministered at Bethel Chapel in nearby Evenjobb, across the border in Wales.

It is a shame to see the building abandoned, the lawn gone to nettles, brambles, and buttercups – we can welcome the buttercups, but the others will soon be preventing people from entering. It is unloved. Perhaps no descendants of the worshippers live nearby, or they don’t know about the chapel, perhaps they don’t care.

So do we Christians pack up and go home? Or do we try to tune ourselves to Christ, live as he would do, in season or out of season?

In a final plug for Rowan WIlliams’s  Luminaries, a few words from his reflection on Archbishop Michael Ramsey.

You’re free to offer God’s love quite independently of your own security or success. Sometimes the world may be in tune and sometimes not; sometimes there is a real symbiosis, sometimes a violent collision. But the labour continues, simply because the rightness of the service does not depend on what the world thinks it wants and whether the world believes it has got what it needs from the Church. (p116).

 

 

 

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15 November: Light on the Christian Way.

Luminaries: Rowan Williams (author)

Luminaries: twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way.

by Rowan Williams

Published by SPCK 2, London 2019

ISBN 10: 0281082952

A review.

 

 

How do you choose just twenty shining saints for a little book like this? Dr Williams offers us four of his predecessors as Archbishop of Canterbury – Augustine, Anselm, Cranmer and Michael Ramsey – in this selection of sermons and other extracts.

Williams is especially compassionate regarding his first predecessor, the reluctant and blundering Augustine in whom fear and humility grind together painfully. He never wanted to come to Kent, he tried to turn back; he was ‘almost endearingly nervous and  anxious’ (p23), but he stuck at it and made a difference. 

Doctor Williams himself is remembered in Canterbury with great affection too: ad multos annos!

An interesting juxtaposition occurs because the subjects are listed in chronological order, William Tyndale, whom we met yesterday, rubs shoulders with Saint Teresa of Avila. a man and a woman from very different backgrounds, both determined to bring about church reform.

it is possible to draw out similarities between them. Here is Tyndale: ‘Look, what thou owest to Christ, that thou owest to thy neighbour’s need. To thy neighbour owest thou thy heart, thyself and al that thou hast and canst do. The love that springest out of Christ, excludeth  no man, neither putteth difference between one and another.’ (p56-57)

Teresa was conscious that her Jewish ancestry put a difference between her and some others, but in the convent where she lived there were differences between sisters due to wealth and social standing of their families. This made her more and more uneasy: it was not true community life! True community life excluded no woman, but was based on friendship in shared poverty, which allowed Jesus to be present in friendship with each one. Friendship with Jesus is a big claim, but that friendship is to be cultivated in prayer; and Williams sketches out Teresa’s experience of the prayer of friendship with Jesus. A chapter to read and re-read.

Every subject is interesting and human, so the whole book is to be read and re-read. And since it is that time of year, a book to buy for a friend, since it may be some time before you get it back if you lend it out. Not that it will be gathering dust and forgotten: it will be read and re-read.

 

 

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14 November: Can a man be profitable to God?

In the Book of Job, 22, his friend, Eliphaz the Temanite says:

“Can a man be profitable to God?
Surely he who is wise is profitable to himself.
Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are in the right,
or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless? “

Job’s comforters have a bad press, indeed Blake, who engraved our image calls them ‘tormentors’. But even if it’s the wrong time and place for it, Eliphaz has a point for us, if not for Job! As Rowan Williams puts it in his discussion on William Tyndale:

Any system of religious activity and thinking that tries to give us some leverage over God – I’ve never denied God a moment of my time, I hope he remembers that – such an attitude is poisonous to our faith. 

And

We create religious institutions that are designed to preserve that divine indebtedness to us, and while we are doing that, we largely ignore the concrete forms of indebtedness toward other human beings to which we should be attending.*

ALL IS GIFT!

Accept the gift of your life, accept that it is a gift, be thankful for every breath! God did not have to bring you into being, and if you suffer, remember that so too did Jesus, his Son. Suffering is shared by God.

Alfred Joyce Kilmer put it this way in his Prayer of a Soldier in France:

My shoulders ache beneath my pack 

(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back). 

Please follow this link to our post from July last year for the whole poem, written shortly before Kilmer’s death in battle. He concludes:

So let me render back again 

This millionth of Thy gift. Amen. 

The gift is the redemptive suffering of Jesus; allying our suffering to his is to set ourselves in sympathy with Jesus; so if personal suffering is a gift, that is because of how we receive it, endure it, live it: through him, with him and in him. Him being the one who prayed: O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt. (Matthew 26:29)

Image from William Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job, via Wikipedia
* Rowan Williams:  Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian Way, London SPCK 2019. p54

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13 November, Readings from Mary Webb XXIII: The Night Sky (1916)

 

darkevening

Like Edward Thomas, Mary Webb was touched by the Great  War, even at a distance of hundreds of miles across the sea. She knew well that the flashes at the front were not soft lightnings with less stir than a gnat makes, but despite the scarlet wars taking the young men away, she draws our attention to quiet and calm. Our world is small and oftentimes too loud; too lit up by what we might call light noise. But in November, given clear skies, we may see the moon and stars before bedtime!

The moon, beyond her violet bars,
From towering heights of thunder-cloud,
Sheds calm upon our scarlet wars,
To soothe a world so small, so loud.
And little clouds like feathered spray,
Like rounded waves on summer seas,
Or frosted panes on a winter day,
Float in the dark blue silences.
Within their foam, transparent, white,
Like flashing fish the stars go by
Without a sound across the night.
In quietude and secrecy
The white, soft lightnings feel their way
To the boundless dark and back again,
With less stir than a gnat makes
In its little joy, its little pain.

Published out of numerical sequence to appear at Remembrance tide.

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12 November, Readings from Mary Webb XXII: The Lad out there.

 

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I had forgotten this war poem by Mary Webb. ‘So young he is, so dear to me’: this was not just written in sympathy for others, but from her own heart. Her three brothers enlisted, and one was gravely injured. Even so, if we cannot feel with those left behind, there is something wrong with us. Pray for all mothers, wives and families and friends worrying, worrying, at home, as well as the men and women on service.
Oh, Powers of Love, if still you lean
Above a world so black with hate,
Where yet–as it has ever been–
The loving heart is desolate,
Look down upon the lad I love,
(My brave lad, tramping through the mire)–
I cannot light his welcoming fire,
Light Thou the stars for him above!
Now nights are dark and mornings dim,
Let him in his long watching know
That I too count the minutes slow
And light the lamp of love for him.
The sight of death, the sleep forlorn,
The old homesickness vast and dumb–
Amid these things, so bravely borne,
Let my long thoughts about him come.
I see him in the weary file;
So young he is, so dear to me,
With ever-ready sympathy
And wistful eyes and cheerful smile.
However far he travels on,
Thought follows, like the willow-wren
That flies the stormy seas again
To lands where her delight is gone.
Whatever he may be or do
While absent far beyond my call,
Bring him, the long day’s march being through,
Safe home to me some evenfall!

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11 November: Deliver me from men of blood, O God.

john xxiii

Good Pope John XXIII 

Remembrance Day, and there are wars still on God’s earth.

During most of the Second World War, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli,  the future Pope John XXIII was the pope’s representative in Istanbul, serving the Church in Turkey and Greece from a city where representatives of both sides could meet in secret. He had many diplomatic contacts and helped save many Jewish people from the death camps. He deplored the conflict and the currents of thought that engendered it and fed off it.

In his Journal of a Soul1 he reflects: 

The world is poisoned with morbid nationalism, built up on the basis of race and blood, in contradiction to the Gospel. In this matter especially, which is of burning topical interest, ‘deliver me from men of blood, O God.’ … Jesus our Saviour died for all nations, without distinction of race or blood, and became the first brother of the new human family, built on him and his Gospel…

The Holy Church which I represent is the mother of nations, all nations. Everyone with whom I come into contact must admire in the Pope’s representative that respect for the nationality of others, expressed with graciousness and mild judgements, which inspires universal trust. Great caution then, respectful silence, and courtesy on all occasions. It will be wise for me to insist on this line of conduct being followed by all my entourage, at home and outside. We are all more or less tainted with nationalism. The Apostolic Delegate must be, and must be seen to be, free from this contagion. May God help me.

May God help us to show respect and courtesy to all those we meet, and encourage others to do likewise. May he give us the peace the world cannot give!

1 John Paul XXIII (1965), Journal of a Soul, London Geoffrey Chapman.

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