The Symbolism of the Evangelists

the murals

First of all I would like to express my gratitude to the Rev. Rob, vestry, and to the whole of the St. Mark’s community for allowing me to do this project. It’s been a dream of mine for quite a while to do a big project like this.

When I first came here two and a half years ago, I saw the bare panels and immediately thought to myself, “Oh, they need painting!” I suggested to Rev. Rob, whom I knew already from teaching at Queen’s, to paint all six of them, but he suggested only these four, leaving the centre panels bare, and I immediately thought that it must be the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

But why did I paint these symbols? Of course, the man, the lion, the ox, and the eagle are the traditional symbols of the evangelists which have appeared in Christian art since the 5th century, and in Christian writing since the 2nd century. They are based in two scriptural texts – a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, and one from the Book of Revelation.

The passage in Ezekiel describes the prophet’s vision of the four “living creatures” drawing a sort of “throne-chariot” of God out of a fiery cloud. In that vision, each of the living creatures has four wings and four faces – the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. This image in Greek is referred to as the “tetramorph”, the creature with “four forms” or “four shapes”.

In the Book of Revelation, the four “living creatures” are now seen surrounding the throne of God in heaven. In that vision, they have six wings each, as do the seraphim who surround the throne, and they are covered in eyes front and back, but they have only one face each – one of a man, one a lion, one an ox, and one an eagle. So here, the tetramorph has been divided, but whenever the four appear together, they are still referred to collectively as the tetramorph. In Christian iconography, the image of Christ Pantocrator, Christ Ruler of the World, especially when shown enthroned, is often depicted with the divided tetramorph surrounding him.

But where do these symbols come from? Why did the prophets envision these very odd “living creatures” to begin with? One scholarly explanation that has been given is that the prophet Ezekiel lived in the 6th century among those who had been exiled during the Babylonian Exile. At that time, the mythology of the surrounding Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, with which he would have become familiar, was rife with images of wild creatures associated with various powers of nature – the ox with the earth, the roaring lion with fire, the eagle with the air and the sun (it was believed that eagles, for example, could look directly into the sun without blinking). To that extent, the vision of Ezekiel, far from denying the existence of such nature deities, would rather have suggested that any nature deities there were would be themselves in the service of the mighty God of Israel, pulling his throne-chariot.

It was not until the late 2nd century, however, that the four living creatures were associated with the four evangelists of the gospels. Irenaeus was the first to make this connection, although he associated the lion with John and the eagle with Mark. In fact, since Irenaeus’ time, there have been numerous interpretations of the tetramorph which link the creatures up in all different combinations with the evangelists. The combination which in time developed into the most widely accepted and today standard system was first proposed in the 4th century by Victorinus, and later supported by the highly influential figure Jerome. After that, towering figures such as Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas supported this same standard combination. Although Augustine curiously interchanged the symbols for Mark and Matthew, and there have even been alternate combinations proposed, though always with these four symbols, right into the mid-20th century.

In any case, what you see here is the most widely-accepted combination in the tradition. Christian art beginning in the 5th century started to depict the evangelists, at first merely accompanied by each their own associated living creature (with the creature shown instructing and divinely inspiring the evangelist in his activity of writing his gospel), and then later as merged with, wholly symbolized by his associated creature. But what do these symbols mean? What has the traditional interpretation of the tetramorph-evangelist connection been?

In fact, over the centuries, even those who accepted this standard combination of the connection have given a wide variety of explanations for it. The most enduring ones have related to six basic considerations: 1) how each gospel begins; 2) Christ’s main quality as emphasized in each gospel; 3) the key qualities of the creature associated with each gospel; 4)the natural element associated with each creature; 5) the virtues necessary for salvation which are displayed by Christ in each gospel; and 6) the specific Christian doctrine as suggested in each gospel by all these other factors.

panels talk

Now obviously I couldn’t incorporate all of this symbolism into the murals when I painted them. But I did get some reference to the natural elements into them, in the attempt to evoke some of the natural scenery of the Newfoundland landscape (coast, mountainous west coast, rolling fields, the sun). Reverend Rob said, for example, that the eagle reminds him of the Torngat Mountains. I was telling this to Cheryl Faseruk, and she said that if I really wanted it to be about Newfoundland, then I should have portrayed the eagle as a seagull, the ox as a moose, the lion as a big Newfoundland dog, and the man as a mummer. Now I wouldn’t so much necessarily think of mummering as the ideal of human perfection. But when you think about it, mummers are disguised, and people must guess their true identities. Well, in the same sort of way, our true identities as perfect, loving, welcoming, creative, immortal children of God lie still deep within us, and these outer identities are only symbols and must, as well as they can, be transformed, and help us make our way through to our true perfection within.

So I finish again with gratitude to St. Mark’s for being a church and a family which so dearly values the creative contributions made by its members, and which supports all of us in, little by little, discovering and revealing to one another always a little bit more of our own true, creative identities. May we always carve out, with God’s help, that welcoming space within our hearts to make room for what others have to offer of themselves to us. For sometimes the greatest gift that you can give to another person is an empty space within yourself to receive that which the other has to give of him- or herself to you.



Creation Care in a Throwaway Culture

seven rs

“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth…once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

– Pope Francis, Laudato Si

These rather harsh words from Laudato Si come to mind every time I go for a walk in my neighbourhood. Actually, wherever I’ve travelled in this province I’ve always been taken aback by the incredible amount of litter I see. Much of it is a result of inadequately-secured trashcans and dumpsters or uncovered garbage bags. Much of it has simply been tossed by individuals with no moral qualms about treating our land as a trash heap. Regardless of its source, litter is more than a thoughtless desecration of the earth entrusted to our care. It is an outward and visible sign of a deeper brokenness that afflicts much of the human family – our unwillingness to accept full and personal responsibility for the waste we create. This brokenness goes much deeper than failing to ensure the waste we create winds up in our municipal landfill and not in our soil, forests and waterways. Indeed, addressing it requires an intentional decision to create the smallest amount of waste possible and finding tangible ways to live out that decision.

We have become much more intentional about recycling as a means of reducing the waste we create. While this is a step in the right direction, it should be seen as a least-worst option. First of all, just because something is “recyclable” doesn’t mean it will be accepted by municipal recycling programs. Often, there is no viable market for a particular “recyclable”; consequently, such items wind up in the landfill. There are also times when recycling is actually down-cycling. This is especially true of plastics. While glass, steel and aluminum can be recycled repeatedly, plastics can only be recycled a few times, and even then as a lower-value product. That plastic water bottle you recycled does not become a new water bottle. So, there are times when recycling simply delays waste entering the waste stream.

A better way to reduce waste is to reuse items, finding new uses for items that no longer serve their original purpose and repairing items that can still serve their original purpose. We can also re-gift items we no longer need by giving them to someone else who can use them (Home Again Furniture Bank comes to mind). As long as there is a use for something it shouldn’t wind up in the waste stream. However, much of what we consume today is disposable, difficult to use in another way, and cost-prohibitive to repair (intentionally so, to get us to consume more). Taking creation care seriously demands that we become thoughtful – indeed, reluctant – consumers.

When it comes down to it, the most effective way to care for creation is to reduce the waste we create in the first place. If we refuse to buy, accept or otherwise consume something we really don’t need, that something will not enter the waste stream. If we gave as much consideration to the impact a purchase will have on our planet as to the impact it will have on our wallet, a lot less would enter our waste stream. “Reduce” is the first of the three R’s for good reason.

Quite frankly, our planet cannot sustain the debauchery of unbridled consumerism that plagues our society. In this province we produce more than sixteen hundred pounds of waste per person annually. If there ever was a time to accept full and personal responsibility for the waste we create, it is now. This requires that we walk a path of counter-cultural intentionality. So, too, does our baptismal covenant.

Father Mark Nichols is the Associate Priest of St. Mark’s.

Originally published in the January 2019 issue of Anglican Life.

How the Light Gets In: A Sermon for The Feast of Epiphany

epiphany fireworks

It’s a safe bet that you spent New Year’s Eve staring up into the night sky, mouth gaping open, oohing and aweing over some type of fireworks display. Maybe it was in a friend’s backyard or at a municipal display like we do here at Quidi Vidi Lake. Perhaps you looked at fireworks on television in the comfort of your own home. One of my favourite memories of growing up in rural Newfoundland, where there was nary a firework to be seen, was sitting and watching fireworks on NTV waiting for the name of my hometown to scroll across the bottom of the screen. When it did I was filled with a sense of jubilation equal to the jubilation felt at the stroke of midnight that launches the New Year.

When I had kids of my own it became our tradition to pile into the car on New Year’s Eve and head down to park on the side of the road on Signal Hill overlooking the lake where the city’s fireworks would be set off. This vantage point gave us a panoramic view not only of the fireworks but the entire city. One year there must have been some kind of malfunction in the pyrotechnics because only one firework illuminated the sky that night at midnight. But as we sat there waiting for the show to continue our attention turned to the city laid out before us. The whole city, actually as far as the eye could see, from town out to Mount Pearl, and towards the Northeast in Torbay and beyond, had erupted in fireworks. We sat there in silence just watching. It was a truly beautiful sight.

But why do we do this? Why fireworks on New Year’s Eve? Our ancestors have been using noise and light to welcome the New Year for millennia. The beating of drums, firing of canons and guns, the ringing of bells, the lighting of candles and fires were all meant to chase away evil spirits and give rise to a prosperous and healthy beginning to the New Year. Around 2000 years ago the Chinese invented fireworks and used them as part of New Year’s celebrations to do just that, to scare away evil spirits and to dispel the darkness. The tradition quickly spread to the West from the wise people of the Far East.

Actually, light overcoming darkness is one of the primal stories of the human experience. It’s no accident, then, that this light shining in the darkness gets adopted by the early church. It was already there in the Judaism and Paganism of the day. What we now celebrate as Christmas came to be some 300 years after the death of Christ and took the place of Pagan winter solstice celebrations. Celebrations of the dispelling of darkness at the rebirth of the sun at the solstice now became worship of the Son and the dispelling of the darkness that engulfs our hearts and the world.

Our gospel reading today has a lot to do with that tradition. It is the reading associated with the Feast of Epiphany, the showing or shining forth, of Jesus to the Gentiles. In this story we are told how the Magi, the scholars, priests and scientists of their day, came from their home in modern day Iraq or Iran to worship the newborn Jesus. They were led by a star, or a comet, or some other celestial phenomenon. These foreign stargazers were overcome with joy when they found the birthplace of Jesus and offered their now famous gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. Except for the gold these are not the most practical gifts for a newborn baby. The scene is the stuff of Christmas cards and songs, the stuff of classic art and the stuff of children’s pageants the world over.

But the details of the story are scant. Why come all this way for Jesus? What is about him that had drawn them here to this nowhere town to the birth of just another peasant baby? Why worship him? The text doesn’t really say why, but the visit of the Magi to Jesus does fit with the bigger themes of Matthew and the New Testament. Jesus is the light coming into the darkness of this world. The Magi, the Gentile Magi, are drawn to this light, just as the Hebrew Scriptures said that the Gentile nations would be drawn to the true messiah. Jesus is the light of the world, beyond religious, national and cultural borders. And as much as the darkness tries to extinguish this light, the light still shines.

In common, everyday language what we are talking about here is hope. Hope that things will be better. That this unlikely baby king messiah, born to parents of low station, could be the kind of king that could make the world right, could make us right, make us better. It is a hope that what they are witnessing is a turning point for the human family. That maybe, just maybe, we will get our act together and be the kind of people that countless prophets and sages through the ages have told us we could be. Hope that we will be able to overcome the darkness of fear that gives rise to the divisions that separate us from each other in hatred, violence and oppression. All of this in a baby born in light, the pure possibility of new life, of new hope.

Which takes me back to our fireworks. That night on the side of Signal Hill and again this New Year’s Eve while looking out my living room window across Airport Heights toward Signal Hill, I was struck by the sight of a city erupting in fiery celebration. I couldn’t help but think of the people setting off those fireworks and those looking on. What was going through their minds? People who are struggling to make ends meet. People whose prospects look bleak. People whose relationships are falling apart. People for whom the darkness is not just the absence of sunlight but the lack of any hope. I imagine that their thoughts were not that different than that of their ancient ancestors. That the fireworks were an offering of sound and light, not to ward off evil spirits, but as a spark of hope that maybe this year will be better, that they will be better.

But we know that it will take more than some bright fireworks to make things better, to do anything to improve the human condition. We need a brighter light, something or someone to illuminate the way. In the Christian tradition that’s just what Jesus is: the light of the world. Just as Jesus was the spark of hope for the Magi, the early Christians and countless number of people who have followed him ever since, so he is for our world today. The light that Jesus shines into the world is the light of humility, forgiveness, and selfless, sacrificial love. We trust that his way is the right way and strive to live it out. That’s called faith.

Today on the Feast of the Epiphany we celebrate baptism, as do Christians around the world. We welcome Amy Susan to the Christian family. We acknowledge her identity as Christ’s own, forever. We give her the light of Christ that will guide, nourish and sustain her growth into the full stature of Jesus. In doing so we acknowledge that the light of Christ only really comes into the world through us. It comes as we lovingly and gently pass on the light that was lovingly and gently passed to us. It comes through people, faith communities that strive to care for each and the world, who work for justice and peace, who love their neighbours as themselves. So may we do this for Amy Susan and for the whole world. May we be a sign of hope, a beacon of light, in a dark and scary world. And may we do this together.

In the name of God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer of all life. Amen.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s in St. John’s, NL.






We Wish You A Fearless Christmas: A Sermon for Christmas Eve/Day

Shepherds and Angels
The Angels Appearing to the Shepherds – William Blake

First off, it’s so great to have you all hear. You really do look beautiful!. It’s great to have this opportunity for us to be together to chat. That’s one of the things that I love about Christmas. It’s a time of coming together. A time of coming together with those who are nearest and dearest to us and maybe some who we are iffy about (You know what I’m talking about!). But you know what, I believe that good things happen when people get together whether it’s around the Christmas tree, the dinner table or the communion table. So again, I’m so glad you’re here.

But we have some important business to get to, so I’m just going to get right down to it. What the heck is going on out there? The whole world seems to have lost its mind. These are scary days indeed. He who shall not be named is wreaking havoc south of the border. There’s a renewed threat of global nuclear war. Europe is falling apart. The economy, and capitalism along with it, seem to be disintegrating before our very eyes. It’s open season for racism, xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia. We can’t seem to talk to each other anymore without it descending into a black hole of insults and ugliness. Don’t get me started on climate change and our seeming unwillingness to collectively do something, anything, about it. It’s hard not to think that we are heading for a crisis. Yes it’s a scary world that we live in.

We live in an age of fear. Maybe we always did but it seems in our technological, mass communications, global civilization fear is a little more palpable. Fear of the other, the refugee, the unknown leads to hate, closing us off from each other. Fear of missing out, of changing our way of living to avert climate catastrophe leads us to continue down our path of consumerism and materialism. Fear of appearing weak leads to posturing and name calling, which is the path to conflict, violence and war. Fear is at the root of so much of what threatens us as the human family.

Fear is not just out there either. Fear is in here too. In this room, in our hearts. We all come here, gather here, haunted by fear. Fear of being alone. Fear of not making ends meet. Fear of starting over from scratch. Fear that all of this is pointless, meaningless. Fear that you are not enough, no matter how hard you try. Fear of the uncertainty of life. It’s all rather anxiety inducing. If our ancestors were consumed by a fear of death, perhaps we have evolved to now be consumed by a fear of living.

So I think it’s only natural that our ears perk up when we hear the Angels say to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.” Actually this is a recurring theme in Luke’s birth narrative. Angelic visitors repeat this phrase in their appearances to Zechariah and Mary. In Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus he too uses this phrase. The angel says to Joseph, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Matthew also tells us that King Herod is overtaken by fear at the news of the birth of Jesus, which causes him to react in violence toward the innocent children of Galilee. Jesus eight times in the Gospels admonishes hearers to not be afraid, which is just a fraction of the 365 total references to “Fear not.” The scripture writers get the power of fear.

What strikes me about these angelic visitations, though, is just how easily the hearers take to heart the admonishing to not be afraid. The angels say don’t be afraid and they seem to not be afraid anymore. Zechariah prophecies, Mary accepts the role of god-bearer and the shepherds head off into the night to find the baby messiah. What kind of beings are these angels that they hold such persuasive powers? Is it their radiant appearance? Is it their booming, commanding voices? Do they possess some hypnotic power that subdues their hearers, invoking robotic submission?

The answer might be found in another part of the New Testament written some thirty years later. The writer of the first letter of John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Along with Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, I believe that whatever these angelic beings are, whatever they look like, they are first and foremost beings of love with a message of love that drives out fear. Perhaps their words are less command or spell and more invitation. An invitation that there is more to the world than what we see and know. An invitation to a world where we are not paralyzed by fear but inspired by love. A world where God uses an old married couple, a teenaged mom, some smelly shepherds, and a carpenter step-dad to pave the way for salvation. A world where tyrants shake in their boots at the news of the birth of a baby and the upending of their long held oppressive regimes. A world where vulnerability not power, peace not violence, and forgiveness not retribution bring healing, salvation and liberation.

Come to think of it isn’t that the whole point of the Christmas story. Jesus, the word made flesh, the son of God, God in the flesh, coming among us in humility, vulnerability and humanity. Come to show us God, show us what God is like. Come to show us what true humanity looks like. And what God is and what humanity is called to is love. God is love and Jesus is the embodiment of that love. Jesus shows us an alternative way of living together as the human family. And that way is the way of love.

In love is our beginning and our end. In love we live and move and have our being. Love is the antidote to the fear that plagues our world, plagues our hearts. Not because it commands but because it invites, cajoles, coaxes and calls us to embrace the possibility of what seems impossible. That impossibility is that the world could ever be any different than it has always been. During the Advent Season we lit the candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Yes we do this as an act of preparation but I think we also do this as an act of participation. We light these candles to acknowledge our own role in dispelling the darkness of fear in our world. It is in our love, kindled in Jesus, that hope, peace and joy come into the world; that God’s kingdom comes into the world.

The great American theologian Bruce “the Boss” Springsteen in his song Cautious Man, tells a story of a man who has the word love tattooed on one hand and fear on the other. He sings that the man was never really sure of which one controlled his destiny. His life marked by a constant struggle between choosing fear and choosing love. As we leave this place may we choose love over fear. And may the words of the angels resonate in our hearts: “Don’t be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” May we live fearlessly, may we love fearlessly. May we not only imagine a better, more loving world, but may we love a new world into being. And may we do this together …

+In the name of God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of life. Amen

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s.


Jesus, Pilate and the How of Truth: A Sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday

Jesus Before PilateChrist Before Pilate, early 20th Century – Jacek Malczewski

They say it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. Well, to start off this sermon, I have to do both.

First of all, I know it’s Reign of Christ Sunday, but is it ok with everyone if I don’t deal specifically with that theme? I find the conversation around Jesus as king kind of uncomfortable anyway. What does it mean for us to name Jesus king? What does that even mean in our 21st Century, democratic-minded world? And besides…I think there is a more important unanswered question in our Gospel text today. So, can we put aside our talk of Jesus as king for right now? Ok? We’re good? Good!

Now the forgiveness part. The unanswered question “what is truth?” is not actually part of the assigned gospel passage today, which is John 18:33-37. I added verse 38. The passage is supposed to end with Jesus saying he has come to testify to the truth, and that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. No disrespect to the Lectionary folks, but I think it’s a mistake to end the passage there. For sheer dramatic effect and to understand what’s going on in this scene we need to hear Pilate’s response: “What is Truth?” It’s a great question and it is still a very relevant question.

But first, a little context on what’s taking place between Jesus and Pilate. Jesus had just spent the night before with his disciple friends. They ate supper together. He gave them an object lesson in servant-love by taking on the role of a slave and washing their feet. He prayed for their continued unity and love. They went out to a garden in the Kidron Valley where they were confronted by Judas and the Temple Police. The police attempted to arrest Jesus. Peter lunged at one of the arresting officers cutting off his ear. Jesus chastised Peter and healed the wound. Jesus was taken to the High Priest, questioned and roughed up by the police. Then they took him to Pilate who really couldn’t be bothered with this Jesus, but the religious leaders insisted that he was Pilate’s problem because Jesus deserved to die.

What followed was a sarcastic, if not passive aggressive, back and forth between Pilate and Jesus.

“Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?”

“Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you this about me?”

“Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?”

“My kingdom doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.”

“So, are you a king or not?”

“You tell me. I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth recognizes my voice.”

“What is truth?”

It’s a brief and fascinating exchange. The scene plays an important part in the dramatic story that John is telling about Jesus. A story we know well, maybe a little too well, and I think this familiarity makes us want to rush on to the end of the story. And no doubt there is a lot to unpack in this scene and the wider story of which it is a part. But for our purposes I want to focus on Pilate’s unanswered question: what is truth?

It’s always been an important question, but one best left for tweed-jacket-wearing philosophy professors or over-eager theology students. But in the post-truth, fake news, alternative facts world in which we live this question is more relevant than ever. When all sense of truth is being eroded, there is now an urgency to this question.

So, what is truth?

Is truth just what can be replicated with experiment or reasoned with our brains? Like the stone-faced Joe Friday from Dragnet, is it “Just the facts, Ma’am?”

Or is truth just something subjective and left open to interpretation? Is it just a matter of finding our own truth?

Maybe truth should be left to the religious world, but then so often what gets passed off as religious truth is just someone’s opinion dressed up as truth.

I can’t help but wonder that maybe, just maybe, like poor Pilate, we’re asking the wrong question. Let’s flashback to earlier that night. Jesus at supper with his friends says something that raises eyebrows even today: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus has already answered Pilate’s question. Jesus is the truth. The entire New Testament is clear that the answer to the truth dilemma is not a what, but a who…a living breathing person. Huh?

That’s not how we think of truth. We want truth to be strong, undeniable, obvious. That’s why some people interpret Jesus’ words as an exclusive claim. Jesus is the only truth and only certain ways of understanding him are appropriate. Usually this is code for ‘my way’. But Jesus will have none of it. Jesus embodies truth, embodies love, embodies God. He does this in what he says and does, how he loves. That very night he left an example of servant-love for all of us disciples to follow. Jesus shows us that the answer to the truth is not a what, but a how. Truth does not come at the end of a sword. You can’t reason your way to truth. Truth is something we do and it can only come through love.

This is what makes Jesus such an unlikely king, and his kingdom unlike any other earthly kingdom. You cannot legislate it or impose it. You can only live it. It doesn’t come through overthrowing the powers of this world, or by coercion or force. It only comes through love. Put away your sword and pick up your cross. Is this a truth we can live and a King we can follow?

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s




At Table, Together: An Advent Reflection

Advent Cover 2018

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more”                                ~St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

What’s the most important piece of furniture in your house? Is it your bed? Maybe that recliner where you do all your binge watching? Or is it your table? I hope you say it’s your table. The table is important. It is there we gather, not only for physical nourishment, but also the emotional sustenance of human contact. Around the table we break bread and we open ourselves to others. We let down our guard and let others in. The table is the most important purchase your family will ever make.

Sadly, research shows that we don’t eat together nearly as much as we used to. We spend less time cooking and even less time actually sitting together and eating. In our fast-paced world we have sought ways to make the table more efficient, quicker. Meals are now ready-made by your local grocer, delivered to your door via an app or brought to you at your favourite restaurant. The table has become wherever you can find a place to sit down. The results show in our bodies and in our relationships, both of which are just not as healthy as they should be.

Jesus understood the importance of the table. He never passed up the chance to eat and drink with others. That earned him a reputation as a gluttonous drunkard. He also ate with everyone regardless of status, gender, nationality or religion. That probably got him killed. The early church carried on his practice of table fellowship. Still today the central act of the majority of Christians is the Eucharistic meal. Although it often gets lost in all the pomp and ceremony, at the heart of the Eucharist is a simple meal shared among friends.

Everything we do as a church flows from our gathering around the table. This is the essence of what Paul is saying to the Philippian Christians when he prays that their love would overflow (1:9). From the abundance of God’s love overflowing into the Eucharistic meal, may that same love overflow from their table to the community and world around them.

We know, too, that Advent is a time of looking ahead and getting ready. Yes, we are preparing for the coming of God in human flesh in Jesus Christ, but we also look ahead to a time when all things are made new. Even this is envisioned as a great gathering together of the human family to feast at God’s table (Rev. 19:9). Our table fellowship now is a sign of that great gathering. On a regular basis we pray, “That we, with all your people, of every language, race, and nation, may share the banquet you have promised.”

So this Advent and Christmas season, as we gather around the church table, and as we gather around the tables of our homes, may we be mindful of the needs of those around us. As we are blessed with the nourishment of God’s presence and the fellowship of those we love, may we share those blessings of food, comfort and presence with a hungry, hurting world. And may we do this together.

The Temple Will Fall: A Sermon for Pentecost 28

broken church

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. Mark 13:18

A young woman dressed in an unassuming hoodie, jeans and canvas shoes stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange and with fist raised in the air calls out “This great building and all of its markets and profit margins will be wiped away. Nothing will be left.”

An old wizened man, with a heavy grey beard stands on a homemade wooden box in front of the Parliament Building in Ottawa. He holds up a sign that reads: “The end is near. All of this will disappear.”

A priest nervously steps into the pulpit. She gulps hard in order to swallow down the rising anxiety of what she will preach. “All of this, all you see, all we do will not last forever. It is coming to an end. What will take its place?” The congregation shifts nervously in their pews.

These modern day examples give you a glimpse of what Jesus was saying in today’s gospel. Jesus has just exited the temple – the religious, cultural, and even political, centre of his own Hebrew people. It is a magnificent building, one that is symbolic of God’s presence among God’s people. In fact, it contains the Holy of Holies, the very residing place of God. It is the liturgical heart of Judaism, where sacrifices are offered up to God. One of the disciples marvels at the architectural grandeur of the temple: “What large stones! What an amazing building.” Jesus’ response is shocking. “Do you see this this building? It will all be cast down, reduced to rubble.” I don’t think Jesus means just the building. I think he means all of it – the institution, the structure, the sacrificial system, the priests, the scribes, the whole religio-economic system will fall.

What’s got Jesus in such a rotten mood? Chapter 12 ends with the story of the widow placing her last coins in the temple coffers. The irony of the scene is stark. The one for whom the temple, the whole religious system, is meant to care, instead props up the system. Jesus sees this and it doesn’t sit well with him. He is also in the final days of his earthly ministry. It seems as though he has something to prove. He repeatedly goes after the religious leaders and their hypocrisy. Chapter 14 marks the beginning of Mark’s passion narrative, the story of the cross, Jesus’ own ending.

Chapter 13 of Mark is what referred to as the little apocalypse. Just one chapter that seems to echo the larger apocalypse of the Book of Revelation. But remember, when Jesus gets apocalyptic he is not talking about the future end of all things, but about the present. He is talking about seeing the present in a different way. Former American Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says that when Jesus uses apocalyptic language he is talking about the “precariousness of the present”. Things are the way they are, but they won’t always be that way. Apocalyptic occupies the space between the fading away of the old and the emerging of the new. That is always a precarious, nerve-racking place to be.

We know this all too well in the church, especially in the Anglican Church and in this diocese. In fact, we just had a synod about it. Anglicans from across our diocese gathered to talk about the future of the church and the church of the future. Much was said about the need to change and adapt, to shift our focus away from buildings to mission, from maintenance to ministry. We know what we have always done is just not working anymore, but we are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to see a different way. We are caught in the precariousness of the present, a present we know cannot last. So Jesus’ words about it all falling down and disappearing are hardly comforting. Isn’t Jesus supposed to comfort us and make us feel better?

When the disciples ask Jesus “when this will happen?” he gives them a list of occurrences that are hardly extraordinary: false prophets, political strife, wars, natural disasters, famines. Life will unfold as always. Life in a world that is always uncertain, always changing, always in flux. But this, Jesus said, is only the beginning of the birth pangs. In this uncertainty, this precariousness, is the seed of the promise of something else. What they see as an ending is only the beginning of something new in the eyes of God. Actually God is pretty good at bringing beginnings out of endings. The central story of the Christian faith is new life from death, a beginning from an ending. Perhaps you could say that in order for God to do something new, something has to die. We all know this to be true in our own lives.

In a new world we need a new church. We have a new world. So what is it that needs to die in the church? What stones must crumble in order for something new to emerge? Can we truly envision a new way to be the church or is the thought of what needs to die just too painful? Can we trust God and the story of life from death, death and rebirth? If we are willing to reimagine a future church, if we truly have faith that there is another way, then there is much work to be done. We must roll up our sleeves and sort through the rubble for signs of new life. We must open our hearts and minds and, yes, our wallets to rebuild a more flesh and blood, less bricks and mortar kind of church. Because what we thought was an ending is really just another beginning.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s