Familiarity with God

Frances writes about next weekend’s readings :-

Many of us imagine that any relationship we have with God will be one in which the differences separating us from divinity will be drawn in bold letters. God or gods will be what they are and puny man will be revealed in all his naked inferiority, utterly different and very far removed from the divine. Greeks and Romans recognised this divergence to such an extent that they met the divine in dreams, safely removed and far off while the Jews kept God’s presence safely within the temple in Jerusalem or to be met only in strange phenomena like a burning bush which was not destroyed or in fleeting presences granted only to major prophets like Elijah on the mountain. What shocked the Jews rigid was Jesus’ insistence that God could be present to everyone who sought him and in amongst the most prosaic and ordinary events and experiences of daily life. Here in our gospel (Lk 11:1-13) Jesus simply commands his hearers to ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. There is then in Jesus a familiarity with the divine and an insistence that God is easily and frequently to be engaged with by those in need. His domestic examples of someone knocking up a neighbour to borrow bread to feed an unexpected visitor or pointing to the care even thoroughly wicked people expend on their own family members gets right to the heart of the matter. All we have to do is ask God and he will respond. Jesus knows that God is the continual creator and sustainer of all that is and that failure on his part to listen to the needs of the creation ‘made in his image’ is unthinkable; His Spirit is there for the asking!

The opinion was that God and man were divided by a huge gulf – the view of religious elites within Judaism such as those purists like the Pharisees, Sadducees and even Essene groups of Jesus own day. They decreed that the Poor of the Land, the anawim or am ha arêtes, the religiously defiled and defiling whose jobs or life style cut them off from religious purity; people like undertakers who continually dealt with the dead; shepherds, in contact with dung, birth and so on or fullers, leather workers and others whose trade required them to use urine in their work and were contaminated could never properly approach God. Yet this was not the earlier view of things, as represented in our OT reading (Gen 18:20-32). Here we see God and Abraham, the father of the Jewish race in easy conversation. In the immediately preceding passage we see that God quite deliberately sets up the following dialogue as a test and opportunity for the patriarch to develop precisely that easy access to his creator by following the ways of ‘righteousness and justice’. In other words, God does not move off into exalted and distant mode but allows Abraham to use his God-given natural reason and understanding of fairness to draw him nearer to God. Nature and grace work together in this encounter with the divine to allow Abraham both to argue for justice and mercy for the Sodomites and to deepen his own understanding and meeting with God. As we see, the passage is very far from any sense of an elevated moral encounter on an ethereal plane, for Abraham is down here with his feet firmly on the ground literally haggling with Almighty God for the lives of a people who were a by-word for depravity on the principle that not all the inhabitants were evil and indeed, that a small minority might be just and good men. Abraham we note argues that God would be unjust to destroy just and sinner alike and implies that the very lives of the just require God to be merciful to all alike, the just as it were standing surety for the evil. God’s mercy, Abraham recognises is far superior to his wrath and the point of this humorous haggling down from 50 to 10 just men gives an object lesson in divine magnanimity. True, an immense gap separates God and man, but, as the patriarch knew that can only be bridged by God’s generosity and his utter openness to humanity, an openness we see made perfect in Jesus, in the Incarnation. This is precisely what St Paul is talking about in Colossians (2:12-14), where he speaks of Christ ‘overriding the law’. Paul we recall, the one time Pharisee and rigid observer of the Jewish law, had so far renounced his former status as to assume the job of a defiled leather worker, a living object lesson in his belief in the power of the incarnation to unite us to God in Christ. He uses the quite extraordinary language of the converts having been ‘buried’ in baptism with Christ, undergoing so profound a change in our very fleshly bodies as that only brought about by actual death and decay, and nothing could have been more defiling to strict Jews. Our former status, that of sinners, inevitably so in relation to the purity of God has now been cast aside, the Christian is now by baptism a new man, a new creation, a totally new human being in whom Christ has overridden the law and cancelled every record of the debt we had to pay. Paul was writing to lay bare the extent of the change God has wrought in man through Jesus and thus make clear the ease with which we can approach God. The Greco-Roman Paul who knew more than we ever can the extent of indebtedness and the costs it imposed in slavery, the power of the patron over the very flesh of the client, ruling as they did his every waking moment, deliberately took up this metaphor of debt to fine-tune Colossian appreciation of precisely the new relationship the convert now had in relation to God. Quite literally, Paul says Christ has brought you to life, whereas formerly you led a living death. Surely now no one can dispute our easy rapport with God and his utter willingness to relate to us?

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