A reflection for Sunday 27th August 2023 by Canon Dean Fostekew

“Who do you say, I am?”

That was some question for Jesus to ask Peter and his disciples. Can you imagine what your response might have been should it have been you that Jesus asked that question of?

In actual fact Jesus has already asked you that question. You might not be able to answer it, as I suspect that like many of us, you might still be trying to fathom out who Jesus actually is for you. It is easy to give a quick, impulse response to his question; ‘Who do you say I am?’ by simply saying; ‘the Son of God’ but what does that response really mean?

Personally, I do not think that we can give one single, definitive answer to the question because Jesus and ultimately God are revealed to each of us individually. We all get to meet God in our own way. For me if I try to answer Jesus’ question as to who he is I have to approach my answer from an exploration of his human nature, for it is Jesus’ humanity that speaks most strongly to me. For you it might be his divinity or through his miracles, or whatever.

As a human male, I approach Jesus from a point of masculinity and my human male experience. I relate very strongly to Jesus the man, in the ways he is shown to interact with his friends and disciples; in the way he uses words to explain things; and through his emotions of compassion, laughter, joy and anger. These are things I know about and understand within myself and I am therefore more able to translate my personal experience of Jesus through them. I come to Jesus via my own personal experience but I also have to acknowledge that because I do this my understanding of Jesus will be different to yours and that I can never fully understand who he actually is because I am not Jesus and he is not me. For me it is from the similarities I share with him that I come closer to an understanding of who he is.

But what if I was really pushed to say who Jesus is? What would I say?

I think I would have to say that for me, he is the being who is the human personification of our Creator God. A flesh and blood being that showed both his humanity and his divinity in how he lived his life. A man who through his human attributes was able to show us what God is like, perhaps not what God is but what it is like to be of God.

To be truthful I do not think that I could ever know what God is because only God can know that and I am far from being God. Yet, saying this because we are told that we share in the image of God, I also believe that we have within our knowledge of who we are an inkling of who God is and thus who Jesus is; but it is only an inkling.

This does not confuse or disappoint me, rather on the contrary, it excites me and spurs me on to further explore, think about and pray through who I think God is from the ways I believe he is revealed to me and when I say God I also take it to mean Jesus as well. This act of mental and spiritual exploration is basically ‘doing theology’ for theology means ‘thinking about God’. We are all, even if we do not acknowledge it, theologians because we all think about God, whether or not we decide to believe in him or not. As theologians our thinking will lead all of us to different conclusions and understandings and will cause us to ask different questions and that I find exciting and fascinating. I also strongly and passionately believe that it is when we interact with each other and share our thought that we gain glimpses of God and who he is.

To be honest, I can’t definitely answer Jesus’ questions as to who he is but what I really want to do is to keep on asking my own questions as I explore an answer to him. And, the best way to ask those questions? Well, it is to ask them in the company of others.

Isn’t theology great?

A reflection for Sunday 20th August 2023 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

But she came and knelt before Jesus, saying “Lord, help me” (Luke 15:25)

How many times have we been in a situation when someone – perhaps a stranger or a person who appears to be “different” comes towards us.  Our automatic response is to think “please do not come any further” or “please do not speak to me”. We may even turn our back on them or pretend that they are not there.

Occasionally if I am waiting for a bus on Lothian Road early evening a stranger will come towards me. I have seen them before. I know that they will be asking for money. I know that they will go from person to person to see how they will respond. I know that they will not have much success.  Sometimes I will say “I am sorry. I don’t have any money on me”. At other times, having encountered them previously, I will say “No, go away”. That could be seen as being unkind or uncharitable. On the other hand, their actions could be seen as being a nuisance or disingenuous.

In the second part of our gospel we have a strange and awkward encounter. Jesus has just gone north through Galilee until he came to the land of Tyre and Sidon where the Phoenicians dwelt. There for a while he could hopefully be safe from the hostility of the scribes and Pharisees. But even in this place he was not to be free from the demands of human need which cried out to him.

The encounter which we have is the only occasion in which Jesus was ever outside Jewish territory. The significance of the passage is that it foreshadows the transmission of the gospel to the whole world. It shows us the beginning of the end of all barriers.

The woman had a daughter who was seriously ill. She must have heard somehow of the wonderful things which Jesus could do; and she followed him. At first Jesus seemed to pay no attention to her. The disciples were embarrassed.

But there was a problem. Not only was the woman a Gentile but she belonged to the old Canaanite stock who were ancestral enemies of the Jews. Jesus began his ministry with a mission to his own people; but here was a Gentile crying for help.

But let us turn to the woman herself.

She had love. It was love which made her approach this stranger; it was love which made her accept his silence and yet still persisted; it was love which made her suffer the apparent rebuffs; it was love which made her able to see the compassion beyond and behind the words of Jesus.

She had faith. It was a faith which grew from contact with Jesus. She began by calling Jesus, “Son of David”. She ended the encounter by calling Jesus, “Lord” and her daughter healed.

She had great tenacity. This woman came because Jesus was not just a possible helper; he was her only hope. She came with a passionate hope; a burning sense of need and a refusal to be discouraged.

May we hear afresh those compassionate words of Jesus, “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish”.

As we take this bread, we remember that you are the bread of life. You feed our souls. You nourish our hearts and give us sustenance. As we break the bread, we feel the softness of Your love for us and smell the fragrance of the grace You release afresh each day.

A reflection for Sunday 13th August 2023 by the Rev'd David Warnes

One of the saddest situations I had to deal with as a teacher was trying to comfort and support a boy whose mother had died of cancer. That his prayers for her recovery had not been answered was difficult enough for him. What made it far worse was that another pupil told him that his prayers had not been answered because his faith wasn’t strong enough. That is a view of the nature of faith which I think is profoundly unhelpful and it’s based in part on a misreading of the moment in today’s Gospel when Jesus says to Peter, whom he has just rescued:

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Our three readings today have a common thread. They are all about faith. In our reading from the 1st Book of Kings, Elijah is feeling very sorry for himself and questioning God’s providence. It’s almost as though he is challenging God to put things right. God’s response is unexpected - not an instant solution to what is troubling Elijah but the promise of a close encounter with the divine. The encounter takes a form very different from what Elijah expected, for God is not manifested in the wind, in the earthquake or in the fire but in

“a sound of sheer silence”

And it is after that silence that God finally speaks to Elijah. There’s something important here about listening, and about how important listening is in the life of prayer.

Many sermons on today’s Gospel locate Peter’s lack of faith at the point in the story where he has begun to walk on water but notices the strong wind and begins to go under. In fact, his lack of faith is apparent before he steps out of the boat. Jesus has told the frightened disciples who he is.

“Take heart, it is I…”

And in saying that has said much more than you or I might mean when we say: “It’s me”. The Greek words that the Gospel writer uses,  Ego Eimi, are the very same words that God speaks to Moses in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. You’ll remember the story – Moses is tending his father-in-law’s sheep when he encounters a burning bush and hears the voice of God. He’s told to go back to Egypt and lead his people to freedom, and he isn’t convinced that they will listen to him, so he asks God what God’s name is and is told “I am that I am”.

So when Jesus says

“Take heart, it is I…”

He is proclaiming his divine nature. And Peter’s response isn’t the response of faith, but rather:

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

By using the word “if”, he’s putting Jesus to the test. And it isn’t Jesus who fails the test, it’s Peter.

St Paul offers us a far better understanding of faith than the schoolboy who believed that if you have enough of it, then you’ll get what you want. God is not like a slot machine, dispensing favours if you insert a pound coin but unwilling to respond to a fifty pence piece.

In today’s passage from Romans Paul reminds his readers that faith is not mainly about believing that God will make things right for us in the here and now, but rather the belief that the God can bring all things, including us, to perfection. That kind of faith is best cultivated by prayerful listening.

In emphasising the value of prayerful listening, I’m not questioning the value of petitionary prayer – the kind of prayer in which we bring people and situations before God, as we will shortly in our prayers of Intercession. The prayer of listening and the prayer of asking are of equal importance.

I am sure that many of you will have felt, in times of trouble and at times when prayer was difficult, sustained by the knowledge that others were praying for you. I certainly have. And prayers for healing are sometimes answered though it remains an unfathomable mystery why that is not always the case. The boy who prayed that his mother would be healed of her cancer was right to do so. Had the other boy, who made that hurtful and unhelpful remark, been more accustomed to listening in prayer he might have taken to heart Jesus’ words:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And the importance of listening was emphasised in last week’s Gospel for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

A reflection for Sunday 6th August 2023 the Feast of the Transfiguration

“…while he was praying the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.”                 Luke 9:29

“…at that time, I happened to be receiving the transmission over the wireless. I was in the receiving room and I was facing northwards. I noticed the flashing light. It was not really a big flash but it still drew my attention. in a few seconds the heat wave arrived. Afterwards I noticed the flash white clouds spread over the blue sky. It was amazing. It was as if the blue Morning-Glories had suddenly bloomed in the sky. It was funny, I thought. Then came the heat wave. It was very, very hot. Even though there was a window glass in front of me, I felt really hot. It was as if I ws looking directly into a kitchen oven. I couldn’t bear the heat for a long time. then I heard the crackling sound. I didn’t know what made the sound, but probably it came from the air which suddenly expanded in the room. By that time I realised the bomb had been dropped.”

A witness account of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945 by the 33 year old Isao Kita a weather forecaster.

St.Luke wrote:

“ … a cloud came over and shadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.       Luke 9:34

Isao Kita continues:

“The sound of thunder itself was not so great but i could still see the lightening over the fire. When I looked down on the town from the top of the hill, I could see that the city was completely lost. the city turned into yellow sand. It turned the colour of the yellow desert … the town looked yellowish. the smoke was so thick that it covered the entire town. After about five minutes, fire broke out here and there. The fire gradually grew bigger and there was smoke everywhere and so we could no longer see towards the town … The cloud moved from the ocean towards Hiroshima station. It moved toward the north. The smoke from the fire, it was like a screen dividing the city in two parts. The sun was shining brightly just like it was the middle of Summer over here on this side. And behind the cloud on the other side it was completely dark …”

This year marks the 78th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ on Hiroshima and its companion ‘Fat Man’ over Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August 1945. These bombs effectively ended the Second World War but at the same time led the world into the glare of the atomic age and the threat of nuclear annihilation. I have never failed to be aware of the irony of these events the first falling as it does on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ.

Today’s feast commemorates the day Jesus ascended a mountain (we do not know which one) with Peter, James and John and was seen to be in conversation with Moses and Elijah, the great prophets and leaders of the ancient Hebrews. This was the day when God declared to the world that he was well pleased with his Son and that all people should listen to Jesus as he spoke directly for him. In the act of transfiguration Jesus was shown to be the heir of the Old Testament prophets and the authorised mouthpiece of God.

The transfiguration took place in the cloud and bright light, blinding light and it confused the disciples at first as to what was going on; rather like that account of Isao Kita and the after effects of the dropping of the atomic bomb. It is, as I have already said, ironic that the account of Jesus’ change of appearance (becoming shiny) echoes the initial change in appearance recoded by the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This is not only ironic but uncomfortable and disturbing as well. When an atomic bomb explodes it does so in mid-air; creating a mighty rising wind and searching light. Living tissue is seen to glow bright white before exploding! Devastation then reigns as the familiar mushroom shaped cloud forms. Day is turned into night and all in its path is destroyed.  It is the complete reverse of God’s creation.

When it was first tested and used the full potential for destruction by the bomb was not seen or imagined by either its inventors or the military leaders who authorised its use. I wonder if they would have used the bomb if the full extent of its immediate and long-tern effects had been known? Thank God, since 1945, atomic bombs have not been used in aggression or defence because quite simply they are agents of mass and indiscriminate destruction. ‘Little Boy’ killed 140,000 and ‘Fat Man’  74,000 immediately but another 340,000 were to die in the following five years from the initial effects of the bombs and many more thousands in Japan and of the allied troops first on the scene were to die because of the bombs in the subsequent decades.

The awesome power of the bombs destructive force has haunted the world for the past 8 decades and all efforts to reduce the worlds stock pile of such bombs has been the goal of all right-thinking people since 1945. Today, however, life is more dangerous as nuclear technology is so readily available on the internet that mass destruction is an ever increasing threat to world peace!

Yet, in this feast of the Transfiguration, that we celebrate today, we can draw some hope. Hope in the irony of what this feast commemorates. The fear of mass destruction is counter-balanced by the recognition of who Jesus is. Both the Transfiguration and the dropping of the bomb changed people’s perceptions. Jesus was seen to be God’s chosen one, his messenger of love. The bomb showed us humans the destructive power we have at our hands if we misuse it.

We cannot go back from either event today because quite simply we know more now that we did before. We can accept the knowledge we have gained or reject it but we cannot ignore it. There is, however, one incredibly big difference between today’s feast and today’s anniversary - In Jesus we see life and in the bomb we look death full in the face.

Jesus puts before us the peaceful ways of God and we should use these ways to ensure that our world remains safe from those who would seek to destroy it for their own twisted beliefs and desires. In the irony of today we must pray for those who would seek to terrorise and destroy; and hope that the light of Christ will once again transfigure Creation by exploding in every human heart. Those of us you already recognise this light Must, and I repeat MUST, always work for peace and reconciliation in all we do. We are called to be harbingers of life, not death and we must work to ensure that the life and light of Christ ever shines in the world.

It can never be said of the bomb that it was good to be in its presence, for the bomb brought nothing but pain and death. Being in the presence of Christ is a completely different matter, for Christ is the antithesis of the bomb - for he brings only life!

We humans can play at being God, as the terrorists do, but in the end all that will do is to bring death. We who chose to follow the ways of Christ should always be prepared to stand up for the ways of life and love, to live our lives as peacefully as possible and in fortitude and continue hope; praying that via our gentleness and compassion we may transform even the hardest of hearts.

In Christ and through Christ we can change the world, if we are committed to putting his ways, the ways of God, before our own. This is the challenge the Transfiguration puts before us today and it is a challenge we cannot afford to ignore or to lose.

A reflection on the 125th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Church of the Good Shepherd. Sunday 30th July 2023

I’m grateful to Ian Lawson for pointing out that Friday of last week was the 125th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of this church, an event that it’s fitting that we contemplate and celebrate. The foundation stone was laid by the then Bishop of Edinburgh, the Right Reverend John Dowden, an Irishman from the city of Cork who was consecrated as bishop of this diocese in 1886 and who served in that capacity until his death in 1910, a few months short of his seventieth birthday. Fittingly, the memorial to him in the Cathedral was designed by Robert Lorimer, whom he knew and who was the architect of the Church of the Good Shepherd.

It's a happy coincidence that today’s Gospel includes parables about the nature and growth of the Kingdom of God. The stone that Bishop Dowden laid might be likened to the planting of a mustard seed which then developed into something bigger than its small beginnings suggest, but I’m going to focus instead on the very brief reference that Jesus makes to bread-making.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Jesus is not questioned by his disciples about the meaning of the parable as he was in last week’s Gospel reading about the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The disciples should have understood that in the Hebrew scriptures yeast is used as a metaphor for influence, both good and bad. They were sometimes, however, very slow on the uptake. Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus warns them against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees and they think he’s referring to the fact that they haven’t got any bread with them.

To understand the full force of the parable, we need first to grasp that the quantity of dough that the woman is making is staggeringly large. It would make enough bread to feed at least a hundred people. There’s something here about the extravagant generosity of God, a generosity acted out by Jesus in the feeding of the five thousand. Great things do come from small beginnings, as the ongoing life of this church shows.

I’m also interested in the technique that the woman in the parable would have used. The first thing that I put into the pan of our bread maker when I start to make a loaf is three-quarters of a teaspoon of yeast. It’s a fine, dry powder and it requires water, sugar and warmth to bring it back to life and set it to work. Bread makers in Biblical times used something that was already alive. Their yeast was a lump of dough, reserved from a previous baking day, which had been encouraged to ferment. For that reason, there was a living link between each batch of bread and the previous batches.

There’s a lesson for us here about the value of tradition. Our life as a church, the yeast that enables us to rise and to nourish the world is originally a gift from God, the gift of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. For two thousand years each generation of Christians has handed on the yeast that acts as a starter for those who come after, and each succeeding generation has done the demanding work of discerning how the love of God should serve and shape the present age.

If Bishop John Dowden returned to his diocese in 2023, he would find some things with which he was familiar and comfortable, but other things which might surprise him; a different liturgy, women priests, a more inclusive view of marriage. I say might surprise him, for he was a noted historian of the church and understood that it has always flourished by having the right balance between valuing and handing on tradition and using God’s gift of reason to work out the implications of the Gospel in an ever-changing world. That gift of reason, of  wisdom and discernment is what King Solomon, in today’s first reading, asked God to grant him. It is the gift that can enable us to bring together three things.

Firstly, what we read in the Bible about the life, teaching, death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Church’s one foundation.

Secondly, all that we have inherited from previous generations of Christians.

Thirdly, the wisdom to discern, in the light of scripture and tradition, the way to be the church in the here and now.