God : close and personal

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :In our 1st Reading from Acts, (14:21-27), we move on from the story of last weeks trials of the apostles to the development of ministry in the Church with the making of elders or presbyters. These would become the local bishops and priests that the apostles appointed to serve each of the local churches while they moved on with their itinerant missionary work. Paul and Barnabas realised that the Church needed to develop and continue its teaching about the Lord Jesus and the life belief in him implied. Indeed, the difference between the life of both Jews and their pagan fellow believers – though especially the case with the latter, was immense. In the part of chapter 14 which precedes our reading we get a real feel for the extent of that difference and the new mindset required, a real rebirth and re-creation in Christ. Paul and Barnabas healed a crippled man and were acclaimed as Greek gods come down to earth and the priest of Zeus immediately made preparations to sacrifice to them. Now this leaves most of us quite unimpressed until we realise the extent of the affair. In Sicily, both at Agrigento and Selinunte there are the remains of some of the largest temples to Zeus, the former 113m by 36m and the latter 110m by 50m. St Paul’s London is 158m by 37m and Oxford a mere 73m by 57m. This temple in Lystra would also have completely dwarfed the temple in Jerusalem. At Agrigento the sacrificial area in front of the temple provided places for the simultaneous sacrifice of 100 oxen! Pagan sacrifice then was big business. If pagan converts had to make this great jump then what of us and our pagan friends today for whom the life of the world is ever beckoning with all its lures and attractions. ‘Opening the door of faith to the pagans’ was clearly no mean call!

In our gospel from John, (13:31-35), where we have the scene immediately after the Last Supper; the foot washing and the exit into the dark of Judas to betray Jesus; we have a situation so different from that of the temples of Zeus as almost to beggar belief. Our Lord tells his followers that “Now has the Son of Man been glorified.” Glorified in his betrayal and the death he and we know it will follow. In this act of human treachery lies our salvation, our being restored to the divine embrace lost at the Fall and taken completely into the life of God himself. At this moment Jesus gives a new commandment to his followers. “Love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” Every Christian is called to love with the love which is the life of God in Trinity, to be utterly outgoing in their devotion to others, to receive love in the manner that Father, Son and Spirit receive it of the others, and to throw away our lives for others if needs be. Christ offers us an intimacy and entry into the life of God quite unknown to those earlier followers of the Greek and Roman gods who were known to demand sacrifice, but whose apparent indifference to human need was all too obvious. Pagans did not expect to relate personally to most of their gods who were more objects of fear and control, responsible for the well being of the state, and in which the individual was but a tiny cog in the machine. Here, in Christianity, was the astounding message that every individual mattered, and that they were all capable of reaching out to the divine who wanted to be one with them, indeed his intent is to make each and everyone divine.

At the end of the Book of the Apocalypse, (21:1-5), we see the end; our end in the total vision of God, in which the redeemed and God are completely at home with each other. Just imagine for a moment the power of this vision for the starving and downtrodden masses of the ancient world for whom death had previously been seen as the desperate end of an all too often meaningless existence. Think of the hope Christianity gave them. This hope and future in God is ours too, as we survey the ruin of personal hopes and the terrors of the world, from terrorist bombers to seismic catastrophes. We, along with our earlier sisters and brothers in the faith, have a great and exciting journey of discovery upon which to embark as we get to explore precisely what the love of God is and the meaning of our place in his life. 

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