RSS Feed

Bishop Stephen's Lent 2 Reflection

Here is Bishop Stephen’s second personal reflection on discipleship, as revealed in Mark’s Gospel, recorded for Lent 2.


Lent 2 Reflection on Discipleship

I am sorry that the reflection is posted late. I had my first Covid jab on Thursday. I feel so much safer to have had it; so the side effects have been worth it.

My reflection ranges this week across chapters 2, 3, 4 and 6 of Mark’s Gospel. I shall give clear references which I hope will enable you to follow my thinking about what Mark is revealing about Jesus’s actions and intentions as he calls and sends his disciples.

We begin at verse 13 of Chapter 2, where Jesus calls Levi, the tax collector, whom he sees at his booth as he passes by. Although neither Mark or Luke make this explicit, tradition has it that Levi and Matthew the Apostle and evangelist are the same person. It doesn’t matter if it is the case or not, except that I can describe a painting to you, entitled The Call of Matthew by Caravaggio. It is to be found in the French church in Rome, called San Luigi. I have been to see it often. Jesus is painted to be reminiscent of the New Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in the way that his hand reaches for the person of Matthew/Levi. Light shines from a window onto Matthew who points to himself as Jesus beckons as if to say, ‘Who, Me?!’ Of the other four people at the table, two ignore Jesus altogether and two appear actually to recoil from Jesus so that Peter raises a calming hand. There is an important point here. People still are indifferent to or recoil from the challenging love of Jesus. Maybe this was us in the past, by which we know in our own hearts that he never gives up, and neither should we.

For Jesus to call a tax collector was outrageous so far as the religious authorities were concerned. No matter the state of his personal life, his occupation automatically excluded him from cleanness and righteousness. He was a sinner. Jesus had already broken the barrier of clean and unclean by healing a leper in Chapter 1. He reinforces this, not only by making Levi his disciple but also by actually contaminating his disciples in the eyes of the Pharisees by taking them to feast at Levi’s house with other tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees question this; but Jesus faces down their opposition. It was a common saying among itinerant philosophers of Jesus’s day that physicians teach where the sick are. Jesus is not just calling people to repentance; he is making an open invitation to join the community of the Kingdom. He starts as a physician with the most marginal because they are most in danger of being lost. However, when he says that he has come to call not the righteous, but sinners, this is still in fact a universal call since no one is completely righteous. As in so many other meals which Jesus participates, dinner at Levi’s is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet from which people depart forgiven, healed and at peace with God and one another. I wonder whether we can ask ourselves if that is our experience as we go home after receiving the Holy Communion or after we have had a meal with homeless people or after a supper with people outside our social circle? The early Christians were very concerned about the impact of sin committed after baptism. There were long controversies about it. We are called to turn to Christ again and again. Have you thought about how you are held accountable to be penitent? Do you have a prayer circle or a regular confessor? Ask your vicar or a wise Christian friend if you want to discover more.

I ask that question as we move to Chapter 3, verse 13 where Jesus commissions the Twelve. Jesus ascending the mountain is suggestive of Moses going to Mount Sinai preparatory to the completion of the covenant with Israel. In the Bible, mountains are places where one expects God’s revelation. Jesus’s choice of twelve apostles is a striking connection with the 12 sons of Jacob who symbolise the 12 tribes of Israel. Like the Israel of old, the new Israel constituted by Jesus has to be liberated from all forms of captivity. These twelve apostles are not going to be sitting about as symbols of this newly-formed community of the Kingdom, they are to share actively in Jesus’s ministry of liberation. This is not about creating a mini-band of Christians but a sending out of the apostles to call everyone in, slaves and free, women and men. In verse 14 it says that he appointed the apostles ‘to be with him’. Of course, they will preach the good news powerfully and winningly because they are with Jesus and in tune with him. Only because they are with him in their new identity, even when they are apart from him physically are they given a share in his power to reclaim minds and bodies for the Kingdom. We hear very little about most of the Twelve individually except Peter, the Sons of Zebedee and Judas, of course. Interestingly, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas is already trailed. These men are by no means a perfect bunch and are open to infiltration by evil.

There is irony in Simon becoming ‘the rock’ as Peter. He is the first, but also foolish and weak. The meaning of the ‘sons of thunder’ nickname for James and John is no longer clear, but it may have to do either with the power of their preaching or their being noisy in their self-promotion later in the gospel. I’ve come across at least one noisy, self-promoting disciple who has denied being a friend of Jesus. I was passing a mirror at the time. When any of us is waving a disapproving finger, we need to remember that there are at least three fingers pointing back at us. Nonetheless, like the Twelve, we are known by name. I say as I anoint people at their Confirmation, ‘God has called you by name and made you his own’, words taken from Isaiah. There is power in our name. Nicknames can say a lot about us. I had a parishioner known to all as ‘Bodie’ when she was actually Helena Mary. When she was 93 I dared to ask her where the nickname came from. She said that she was a bossy child and was nicknamed ‘Boudicea’ by her mother and ‘Bodie’ stuck. The word ‘Christian’ was used first as a nickname to mock believers as ‘little Christs’. Actually, it is a big name to live, even by faith and God’s grace and mercy. What would you like to be known as and for?

Jesus is enacting a different way to be family. I am a bit suspicious when I see ‘Family Service’ on a church noticeboard. This is firstly because it can be unintentionally exclusive of people who are not part of a nuclear family, such as single people like me, or like people who have been abused in families, or those forming households which some of us don’t recognise as families. On the other hand, the actual service is not exactly what has been advertised because it’s just the usual middle-aged to elderly congregation enjoying less formal worship than usual. Now, that’s a family service which I like, especially as I get older. Of course, we would love to have more children in all our churches; but we are still celebrating as the family of God. At the end of Chapter 3, from verse 31, Jesus makes this very clear. His natural family has concern for him and some claim to authority over him in his culture. What mother would not be worried about a son already at odds with the other rabbis? However, Jesus now says that his close family are those who do the will of God. Don’t look to Mark’s Gospel for a theology of ordinary family life. The urgency is to follow Jesus to the end as the only way to see him as he truly is – our Saviour. No human or material ties are allowed to hold us back. I have known few families happy about a loved one entering a monastery or convent. How many mission partners have unhappy or frightened families at home? When I was a curate I ran a youth group on the toughest council estate in the parish. It was even poorer than the estate I grew up on. I loved working with those kids and I still have contact with a few of them, now in their forties, who still toast Big Stephen, the Vicar. I only cried with them once when they revealed to me that one of their number every time he came to church or confirmation classes was beaten when he got home. He never missed. Jesus makes a family out of those who do God’s will. How does your church embrace diversity, or would like to more? Have you ever been held back by family ties from what you felt called to be or do?

And doing or understanding God’s will isn’t always straightforward as we are drawn into the mystery of Jesus and his sovereign power. In Chapter 4, beginning at verse 35, the little flotilla of Jesus is on the sea and Jesus is asleep in the boat. High winds and storms are a common feature on the Sea of Galilee. I was on pilgrimage and on a boat on the said sea and a storm arose and someone immediately said, ‘Bishop, what are you going to do about it?!’ I said that I was not the Lord, only a poor representative – as I clung to the mast and prayed. The storm did not abate and even the most settled stomachs were challenged. The disciples were understandably frightened in the situation and irritated, perhaps, that Jesus was sleeping like a baby through it. Sometimes faith demands that we live in trust even if God appears to be asleep or absent; but Jesus has such trust in the presence of his Father that he wakes and rebukes the sea and the wind with the authority of the Creator. This is a microcosm of every force of evil which rages against and around the in-breaking of the Kingdom. The disciples are right to be in awe because this is a foretelling of the power of Jesus to destroy sin and death when enters the sleep of death, slumped on the cross. As God’s Kingdom grows in our midst now, we are all too aware of the roiling forces of greed and violence at work. I feel conflicted about being safe with the vaccine while so many in the Global World will see no vaccine until the West has taken all it wants. I am hopeful that we can work with Tear Fund to express our thanksgiving for the protection of the vaccine by giving money to get more vaccinations for our sisters and brothers in Kigali, Rwanda.

Finally, for this week, I turn to Chapter 6, verse 7 and the mission of the Twelve. Jesus sends the disciples out with his authority, not their own. Its is not a franchise. They exorcise the possessed, they heal the sick by anointing them with oil. They did what Jesus did. Buddhist monks in the East are sent out from their monastery with only the robes they are wearing and a begging bowl, so radical is the call to physical poverty. It is not always what it seems because people are obliged by their religion to feed the monks. There have been fierce debates down the centuries about holy poverty and we have our own friars and sisters who still demonstrate this, this power of poverty, like Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity or the Little Brothers of Jesus. I wonder what you are like when you pack to go away? Personally, I have never understood the purpose of a small suitcase. A big man has big clothes and battlestar sized shoes, of course. Because I was hungry sometimes as a child, I can’t bear under-provision. My housekeeper wasn’t at all surprised that teabags were found in the pantry only recently which were out of date in 2003 – three years before I became a bishop. One of my Lenten disciplines is to have hardly anything in the fridge at any one time. I am also in the process of stripping out books which have become unnecessary except as heat insulation. None of us can speak with authority about fasting as disciples unless we are disciples who fast. If we pack for every eventuality, how are we like the flowers in the field or the birds of the air? As the Church of England, we mostly operate as if we were always expecting to be the host, and yet the Twelve are sent out to be guests. We are aware that when we call upon people to turn to Christ we are doing so in their context which may not be of our choosing. Our strength in tough situations where we face rejection or misunderstanding comes from the protection of Jesus and the company of other disciples. We accomplish our mission at least in pairs. We are not solitary voices and we are called to use all the resources of the church, including the resources of oil, water, bread and wine in our sacramental life. In verse 30, the Twelve return to gather around Jesus to tell him all they have done and taught. He invites them to rest a while in a deserted place. Many of us are desperately missing being on retreat or on quiet days during the pandemic; but those times will return. In the meantime, thank the God of the Sabbath who leads you to places of rest and refreshment with his Son.  Walter Brueggemann writes: “Sabbath is the celebration of life beyond and outside productivity”. The Sabbath rest is part of the distinctive calling of Israel to reflect God’s holiness. Brueggemann also asserts that the sabbath “is an act of trust in the God who is confident enough to rest”. Lent is a time for stripping out what is not of God; but it is also a time of prayer and rest, a time to make ourselves ready to be part of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and the re-living of the event of our salvation.

Have a holy and blessed week with the Lord.

Page last updated: Saturday 27th February 2021 9:29 PM
First published on: 27th February 2021
Powered by Church Edit