Thomas and Thaddeus, Jonah and Mosul

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Thomas is remembered as the doubting apostle, which always seems a little unfair, given that he went on to take the gospel to India, Iran and Turkey. A community of Christians in Kerala still bears his name.

Thaddeus, however, doesn’t have a defining moment like that. He’s something of a mystery, a man of many names, the other Judas who became known as Jude (for obvious reasons). Maybe he’s best know as the patron saint of hopeless causes, or the Patron Saint of the Impossible.

In the period after the gospels, a hazy time of history, tradition and legend, it’s said that Thomas and Thaddeus brought Christianity to Iraq and, in doing so, founded one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Over the centuries, Christians lived alongside their Muslim neighbours, the ebbs and flows of history bring times of peace and times of persecution; despite this, the Christian presence in Iraq, particularly Mosul, has remained for over 2,000 years.

Until this weekend.

The biblical connection to Mosul doesn’t begin there. The city is located near to somewhere best known as part of the story of Jonah. Because this is where Ninevah was founded, where the prophet was sent prior to, and after, his encounter with the whale, where he’s now buried. And yes, okay, he’s also buried in Israel and Lebanon, but tradition remains a powerful thing.

Until this weekend.

Because this weekend the Tomb of Jonah was destroyed. Because this weekend, the Christians of Mosul were given an ultimatum: leave, pay a protection ‘tax’ or die. Mass wasn’t said this weekend; congregants have been murdered or raped or driven to suicide instead.

It’s difficult to reconcile the two situation – 2,000 years or more of history vs a flurry of tweets. No time to take a step back to appreciate context or perspective. And maybe that’s a good thing – the people fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs don’t have that luxury.

But there’s still a shared heritage here, a common tradition and iconography, a brother and sisterhood based on being followers of Jesus. Christians in the west have it easy, but that should never blind us to the pain and persecution experienced by our family elsewhere. We need to recognise that unity, that membership in the one body of Christ, and when one heart breaks, all should break in response as we say the same prayers, sing the same songs. We remember the Christians of Mosul. We remember the Christians of Nigeria. We remember the Christians of Gaza. They are our family.

And of course that’s not to say we ignore everyone else. We are not called to celebrate the deaths of Arab children, we are not called to promote anti-semitism, we are not called to shame our neighbours or despise immigrants. We are called to respond to suffering as the hands and feet and voice of Christ and any other response is just our own politics and prejudice. We stand up for our family so our family can stand up for others. The cities we read of in the Bible are often still inhabited today, individuals walking among the Scriptures. And so often they need our prayers.

(Information on an Open Doors appeal to support refugees from Mosul can be found here.)

Shelter from the Storm (Mark 4:35-41; Psalm 107:23-32; Jonah 1)

I’ve written before about some parts of the Bible are illuminated by references to other parts of the Bible that aren’t immediately obvious. In honour of the second week of the Big Read, here’s another one.

Mark 4: Jesus and the disciples are travelling across the Sea of Galilee when a violent storm blows up. The disciples are terrified which, considering a bunch of them were fishermen, is cause for concern. Jesus, meanwhile, is asleep.

Unsurprisingly, this does not fill them with confidence. “Wake up! Don ‘t you care that we’re all about to drown?!” they shout, but as he stirs, something far more disturbing is about to happen. Because with a couple of words, Jesus tells the storm to stop.

And it does.

And the disciples are terrified.

Part of it is down to the fact that, well, human beings just don’t command storms. In the thinking of the time, the sea was associated with a sort of primordial chaos, something for The gods (or, of course, God) to tame – which is presumably why, in Genesis 1, the Spirit of God hovers “over the waters”. The effortless nature of God’s commands here just serve to emphasise his sheer power.

So we’ve got Jesus commanding a storm. Now, when the Bible talks about storms, it’s normally as a metaphor for God’s power. Wind, rain and thunder is used to demonstrate the overwhelming strength that God can bring to bear. However, there are a couple of moments in which God is said to calm storms rather than unleash them.

The first is Psalm 107. This talks of Jewish merchants out on the seas, caught up in storms and crying out to God for help, whereupon God “stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Sound familiar?

So when the disciples, terrified, ask “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”, the answer is implicit – God.

That realisation should lead to one main reaction, and we also see this in the story of Jonah. Jonah, running away from God, is on a ship that gets caught up in a violent storm. Realising that his disobedience is responsible for this, Jonah offers to be thrown overboard and, after some reluctance, the crew agree to this. Jonah is saved by a whale and the storm is stilled.

Here’s what’s interesting – the sailors, who have no real knowledge of Jonah’s God, see the storm calmed and are immediately awed by the power on display, so much so that they start worshipping God on the spot. You’ve got to wonder if some of that attitude is getting through to the disciples, especially as this story leads in to a bunch of episodes that show that Jesus has power over a range of forces, not just the natural world.

In short, this story is all about showing how Jesus has access to immense power. And yes, that’s awe-inspiring, but it should also be comforting. “Why are you so afraid?” he asks his terrified disciples, “Do you still have no faith?” Didn’t they realise that, not only was he in possession of power enough to calm a storm, but that he’d also use that power to help and save them?

For not only is God powerful enough to command wind and waves, he also loves his people enough to get rained upon with us.

 

(This post was inspired by the week’s reading for the Big Read 2012 – ‘Echoes’. More on this can be found at their website.)

 

 

It’s Not About The Whale (The Book of Jonah)

My last post was on the Prodigal Son, so obviously this one is going to be about Jonah. I never said this blog was going to make any chronological sense.

But there is a connection between the two. In my last post I looked at how the Prodigal Son’s brother was angry and bitter about his sibling’s return to the family home. And who can blame him? The elder son was the faithful one, the prodigal was nothing but trouble. The family was better off without him, right?

Well, no, but that was the attitude that Jesus was confronting through his parable. That judgementalism is nothing new, and it’s the key driving force behind events that took place centuries before Jesus started his storytelling career. Cue Jonah and a certain aquatic mammal.

Only it’s not really about the whale.

The story: Jonah is a prophet who receives message from God – Go tell Ninevah to turn from its brutal, expansionist ways before it met with some serious divine retribution. Now, Ninevah, now in modern Iraq, was the capital of the Assyrian empire, the biggest baddest superpower of the time and a clear and present danger to the kingdom of Israel.

That’s why Jonah runs away from doing God’s will. It’s not so much out of fear or lazy disobedience, it’s because Jonah wants Ninevah to get wiped out. God should be calling down the fire and brimstone. Jonah’s not going to give the Assyrians the chance to repent – after all, they might take it.

And so he runs in the opposite direction, heading towards Europe rather than towards Iraq. His ship runs into a storm, Jonah gets thrown overboard, is swallowed by a whale and is taken… Where?

See, I always got the impression that the whale took Jonah to Ninevah.

The whale didn’t.

Ninevah is landlocked.

Yes, I know this is an epic geography fail on my part. I can only apologise to Miss Oakley, my old teacher.

The whale deposits Jonah back on dry land, presumably where he started from. And there, smelling of whale puke, he receives the same command from God – Go tell Ninevah to change its ways. This time Jonah goes (although he sounds pretty grouchy from now on) the inhabitants of the city repent and God relents from sending judgement.

And yet, like the story of the Prodigal Son, it ends on an ambiguous note that’s more about challenging the attitudes of those hearing the story. “Why shouldn’t I be concerned about the thousands of people who live in Ninevah?” God asks a furious Jonah.

And it’s a fair question. After all, we all fall short of the glory. Why do people like Jonah and the elder son get to be forgiven while the prodigal and the entire population of Ninevah deserve to be damned? Maybe we think it’s fair because they are worse than us, but we don’t get to draw that line – that’s God’s job, and he errs on the side of mercy and forgiveness. That’s the central story of Jonah.

Not the whale.