Belonging to the Church

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :-

What does belonging to the Church mean? This is a particularly vexed question in our present society which values detached individualism and our readings today offer some profound teaching on the nature of Christian belonging. The prophet Ezekiel (Ez 33:7-9) wrote from exile in Babylonin the 6th century BC when the question of Jewish identity was particularly important to those uprooted from their homeland. The Babylonians had destroyed the temple and with it its sacrifices; all that was left was the Torah, the Law of Moses and the people’s practice of it. Ezekiel realised that it was his divinely appointed mission to act as linkman for the exiled people and lead them in maintaining their identity. They were to have a responsibility for each other and to act as guides and mentors one to another, not in an earthly, domineering, busy-body way, or with the unpleasant connotations of the spy infested tell-tale world of Calvin’s Geneva in the 16th century; but because fidelity to God was the most important thing they had left; indeed, their very lives and identities as believing Jews depended upon it, their entire identity was tied to the continuity of their race, that of the House of Israel.

St Paul also pondered on this question in his Letter to the Romans. (Romans 13:8-10). The people he wrote to were most likely converts from paganism and lived at the heart of the Empire and were deeply embedded in its ways. When therefore Paul raised the issue of avoiding getting into debt he was not simply talking about cash, but about a much more important issue in which money may or may not have been involved. Patronage was the system of support which dominated pre-industrial society and which was at the very heart of Roman civilization. Citizen and slave alike were dependent upon the support and influence of men of superior wealth and status, whose say enabled others to get jobs, promotion, election to civic office and in Rome itself to rise up the political system eventually even becoming consul. True, such great men, and even their lessers might lend you hard cash to pay your taxes or run for political office, as happened to Julius Caesar; and in the case of freedmen, former, now freed slaves to set you up in business; but fundamentally it was a system around which the whole society turned and to avoid its influence, or to lose the approbation of one’s patron could have fatal consequences, as many a man in exile would tell you. Patronage was all important and all invasive and made demands in daily living requiring you to turn out each morning to greet your patron or get the dole he handed out, or demonstrations of loyalty such as voting for him at elections which took a heavy toll on individual independence and conscience.

How then was the Christian to cope in such a society? St Paulnever attempted to reject the system for it would have been useless and revolutionary. Instead he suggests, as we see in our reading, that patronage should be rooted in mutual love and care for each other. He speaks accordingly of the debt of ‘mutual love’. You must love your neighbour as yourself. Love is the only thing that cannot hurt your neighbour. Christian society then must be based not in obligations which left one man in the thrall of another, be they debts of money or influence. We see this lived out in the Early Church in the provision of House Churches, larger family homes made available for the Christian community for the celebration of the Eucharist and teaching. We find it too in the development of Christian alms-giving through the ministrations of the clergy so that the power of the patron was lessened; and by the late 1st century we see it in the election of Pope St Clement the First, a former slave of Flavius Clement and whose admirable teaching on life in Christ remains a gem of the Early Church, found in his letter to the Christians of Corinth. Obviously we at 2,000 years remove do not live in the same circumstances, yet Paul’s advice is still very relevant today.

This teaching is etched out too in our gospel (Matthew 18:15-20) where Jesus is at pains to stress the Christians mutual responsibilities for one another. He makes clear that this is an absolute obligation, not simply one possible option, by repeating the binding authority given to Peter in chapter 16. This makes clear our duty to each other in pleasant and unpleasant circumstances, but, as we see, his intention is to make sure that his listeners realise that he is not simply interested in the smooth running of the organization but something of far greater significance. The actions we take here on earth are intimately linked with the life of heaven, as a group’s requests for things here link us to the Father and “where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” The life of our Christian community, our lives, are open and transparent to Father and Son, and our life as the new Israel is meant to be corporate and concerned not simply with our own and our family’s needs but those of our fellow worshippers and even of those far away whom we may never meet. We have an absolute obligation to heed the teaching of the Church and to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters in the community and to refuse to do so could result in our being treated like outsiders, pagan non believers or tax gatherers; people who never belonged to God at all and were reckoned outside the community of Israel.

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