Frances writes on Sunday’s Readings :- We moan and bewail a lot about things in the Catholic Church of today, but how are we to see it; in defeatist terms or as part of the ordinary progress of the Church? From some of the readings from Acts, including that set for today (Acts 6:1-7) we could easily get the idea that things ran very smoothly in the earliest days of Christianity, with large groups converting and no trouble. But this was not the case, and we know that from earliest times there were problems and even bitter disputes within the Early Church as indeed this reading indicates. Just as opposition from without drove people back to paganism. Here we find disputes between Jewish Christians from Palestine and Gentile Christians from what is now Turkey, only resolved by the introduction of Deacons. The Greek names of those chosen to be Deacons for the Hellenists indicates the deep split and hostility already there in the Church, as even Christians could not be trusted to adopt the universalism so desired by Jesus.
Our Gospel (John 14:1-12) makes clear that even the closest disciples of the Lord continually misunderstood him and his teaching and could be quite blind as to who he was and his meaning. Clearly there were theological divisions as well as practical issues making life difficult in the infant Christian communities. In our reading for today the context of Jesus’ sayings are highly significant. This passage is immediately preceded by the washing of the disciples feet by Jesus and his instruction that they symbolically do the same; his telling them that he would be betrayed, and we see Judas going out into the dark to do precisely that and Peter’s arrogant promise to be there for Jesus, and the latter’s promise that he too would deny and reject him under pressure. Clearly they were pretty clueless to Jesus’ real intention and purpose. In our gospel this is emphasised by Thomas’ complete failure to recognise that Jesus will have an abiding presence among them, just as his teaching had promised; and this in turn is followed by Philip’s clear lack of understanding of all Jesus’ past teaching about his relationship to the Father. Jesus has to spell it out; he is the only way to the Father. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me….it is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work.” Jesus, as he insists, is not just an agent of God the Father; rather the two are identical, one and the same being. To meet Jesus is to meet God, full, entire and absolute, and this is what the Christian is called to recognise and in recognising it will be empowered him/herself by the Holy Spirit. It seems that it took some time for the real impact of Jesus’ identity and meaning to sink in even amongst the post resurrection communities, as they gradually came to terms with precisely how God had acted in his Son for our salvation, and what that actually meant for every believer. I suspect that Jesus was well aware during his earthly life just how difficult and divisive his self-appreciation would be, and of the implications of it for the Church. It can still be a problem for today’s Church.
Perhaps this is why our reading from 1 Peter (2:4-9) embarks on this weird bit of architectural prose. Granted, our writer was borrowing from 1st Isaiah’s words of encouragement for those exiled to Assyria, and his castigating of the nation for its failure to follow the true God. Readers and hearers of 1 Peter were able to use this material during what was also a time of persecution, as we have seen from Pliny’s letter’s to Trajan. However, I just wonder if the author did not in fact deliberately pick on these building images to make an even more contemporary and relevant point. One of Pliny’s letters, clearly from an exasperated Governor written to his Emperor, is about the folly and huge waste of money by pushy up and coming citizens. In ancient times the way to get lasting honour from your community was to emulate the emperor in largesse, spending money on public works and getting your name engraved for eternity on the objects of your benefactions. Pliny complains that the wealthy of Nicomedia had spent a colossal 3.3 million sesterces on an aqueduct which was left unfinished and then, wasted even more on a second failed attempt. Similarly those in Nicaea had started on a very expensive baths and gymnasium, with what Pliny described as very wonky foundations! These details would have been common knowledge to the Christians of Bithynia as they were to everyone else; so perhaps Peter’s reference to the “Precious cornerstone” is a coded way of encouraging believers, whilst “For unbelievers, the stone rejected by the builders has proved to be the keystone, a stone to stumble over, a rock to bring men down.” Surely here we find a message of encouragement to the persecuted and a suggestion that their persecutors will, like the failed builders of Bithynia, come to grief.
It seems that our readings this week are about the ups and downs of Christian life, the failures as well as successes we and the entire Church have to go through on our journey to God in Christ. Perhaps precisely because all these stories and images are so ancient – and yet the Church continues to survive and grow- is witness to the power of the Spirit working sometimes with us; and even sometimes when we make it downright difficult, and should serve as encouragement to us and increase our certainty of God’s goodness, grace and power. What we are called to is belief, even in our darkest hours.