All equal in heaven

Perhaps you know the story of people being given a guided tour of heaven and asking St Peter : “So who’s behind that wall?”, and St Peter replied “Shh. That’s the Catholics! (or the Protestants according to who you are telling the joke too )They think they are the only people here.”

Of course it is not true of us Catholics. For though we do say that there is no “assurance” of salvation outside the Catholic Church – by which we mean that the safest and surest way to God is as a member of the Church, we do not thereby exclude the possibility that God does welcome many many other people into heaven when they die.

The Christians of Galatia (Galatians 3:26-29) clearly held the equally wrong idea that some people were more important than others in heaven, and so would be closer to God. So men would be closer to God than women, and free men closer to God than slaves and so on.  St Paul will have none of this. He says firmly that we get to heaven, not by what we have done (as we heard last week) and certainly not by what we are now, but by being “clothed.. in Christ”. “You are, all of you, sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”

This view of us humans proclaimed by St Paul – that all are equal in the sight of God – is at the heart of what we now mean by “human rights”. The free booklet that has been produced on the Pope’s visit to Britain deliberately includes a section on the social teaching of the Church, something this Pope and his predecessor often stress, even if it is rarely reported. It is pretty astonishing that the modern world seems to have forgotten that the claim that all humans have equal rights and must be treated in this way is actually based on the teaching of the Church.

Sadly, the Church as a human institution has often been guilty at times of ignoring this teaching and allowing and even supporting those in power, rich men usually, to oppress and abuse others in one way or another. But regularly throughout history, the teaching that we heard from St Paul, has re-asserted itself, and the Church has renewed and purified its teaching. I recently heard about St Adomnán, (called St Eunan in Ireland) who in 697 caused the Law of the Innocents to be proclaimed by the war-lords of Scotland and Ireland who swore oaths before him to protect and defend innocent people especially women and children who in their wars, as even in wars today, found themselves victimised in horrific ways by brutal men. The Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be the statements we now most often refer to when we argue for justice and peace but it is worth us Catholics reminding the world now and again what the source of such teaching actually is.

This is the reason why Jesus, in today’s Gospel, (Luke 9:18-24) appears almost to reject St Peter’s assertion that Jesus is “the Christ of God” We now take it for granted that Jesus is the Christ, and simply use that word “Christ” as if it were his surname. So why wasn’t Jesus too happy with this name? Because, for most people at the time, the Christ would bring peace and justice –yes – but through war and violence.  So Jesus speaks instead of the “Son of Man” a mysterious figure from the Book of Daniel (7:13) who leads his people to God. But in a radical way he links this to the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah (Ch 53) and also to our Zechariah passage (Zech 12:10-11.13:1) “They will look on the one whom they have pierced”. He says that those who follow him must, like him, take up the cross of sacrificial love, and renounce violence and status and power.

Poor St Paul is often accused of being anti-women. In some of his letters he certainly appears to give them a subservient role, as when he says that they should “submit” to their husbands. But we must remember that he also says that “husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the Church”, and we have just heard that this means taking up the cross. In his world where wives and women were usually treated as property by men, and oppressed and abused, St Paul words would have been quite startling. He begins with the normal idea of submission and then cracks in with a challenge to the existing way of marriage that is, for its time, a quite different way of thinking of marriage! Perhaps this is why he recommends that those who can bear it, should not marry at all!

St Paul is, of course, a man of his time and some of what he says sounds more than a bit odd to us, but when we hear him say “there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus”, we can realise how far ahead of his time God the Holy Spirit had taken him.

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