Frances writes on Sunday’s readings :- In a week which has seen Andrew Mitchell humiliated by the Pleb-Gate row, a message may well have been sent out that we should all be careful to watch our language. When Origen wrote his brilliant biblical commentaries in the 3rd century this was decidedly not the case. Origen was a writer and commentator like many of his contemporaries, and indeed others who would come after him for centuries, who interpreted the scriptures as allegory, a way of interpretation in which the given text was not taken literally but represented something quite different, something which tried to capture the immensity of God. Origen said that only the dimmest of rustic peasants would interpret the bible literally, and that to do so entirely missed the point.
Our problem today is that we all to often act like rustic peasants, and in doing so get the wrong end of the stick and ask the wrong questions about the scriptures, and thereby for instance think that passages like 2 Peter (3:8-14) are a literal description of the end of the world. The writer of the Petrine Letters was dealing with early Christians in North-Eastern Turkey, the Roman Province of Bithynia. Now in the 1st century AD the man who was later to rise to prominence as Governor of the province; the Younger Pliny had witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD and wrote about it. The first eye witness description of a volcanic eruption and one which ended the lives of the people of the Roman Campania in a spectacular pyro-plastic eruption. As an important senator, Pliny published his letters which were widely read, and I imagine the author of our Petrine Letters had seen a copy. 2 Peter is all about the significance of becoming a Christian in a pagan world, and the colossal mind-shift required of those who undertook this great journey to God and their expectations of final life forever in Christ. In order to get them to grasp the magnitude of the shift required of them he clearly ‘borrowed’ heavily from Pliny’s graphic description of the cataclysmic eruption. Rather than get fussed with the details of the ‘end’ then, the Christians of Bithynia, and we too, should pay careful attention to the real import of the letter; the promise of new heavens and earth and the message to “Do your best to live lives without spot or stain so that he will find you at peace.” The Christian is the one who here and now contributes to the new creation, now, in this present time. No one can speak knowledgably about the end, it is in God’s hands.
Much the same point is illustrated by our reading from Second Isaiah, the Prophet of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. (Isa 40:1-5.9-11). The important thing again is not to be seduced into taking Isaiah literally. He was not talking about the building of a huge super highway stretching from Israel to Babylon, one in which mountains and valleys would all be wiped out and communications rendered easy. There were in his day no machines suitable for great engineering projects. The only one available was of course slave labour, such as built pyramids and huge ancient palaces. But Isaiah was most emphatically not referring to conscript labour, which was demeaning and caused the death of hundreds of thousands; quite the opposite in fact. His vision was of all the nations having free and easy access to the God of Israel in Jerusalem and coming to worship there. It was a vision of Israel’s return to religious purity when it would be precisely this which would conquer the world – not force of arms. A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord’. It is God’s great highway to the true faith, a time of unprecedented hope and promise for his nation; a nation at present crushed and enslaved in a far off country; a nation which had to relearn the meaning of their relationship with their God through hardship and the loss of their temple and all it stood for.
This is why when Mark begins his gospel, (Mark 1:1-8) he makes reference to precisely this passage from the Isaiah of the Exile. The advent of Christ is precisely the redemption from slavery, here to sin, which Isaiah spoke of and which John the Baptist recognised was vital, and which he realised was the mission of Jesus. His ministry was a ministry of repentance and baptism for the washing away of sin, metanoia in Greek, the taking on of a new mind-set, one orientated wholly to God.
“I have baptised you with water, but he (Jesus) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” We Christians, both those of the first Christian communities and we of today, 2,000 years on, are people baptised into the Holy Spirit. We are now wholly enwrapped in Christ, ‘made to be a people he could call his very own’. John the Baptist was one of the few it seems who really took on board the awesome significance of this shift which has been brought about in each and every Christian by baptism. For so many of us it is now simply reduced to a ceremony of naming, belonging to a club with the right to education in a Catholic school and the occasion of a big family party.
Yet if we really recognise the significance of what being baptised into the Holy Spirit is about, we will see more clearly the imperative for change in our whole way of life, each and every day and moment, as we recognise that we are enfolded in Christ. This is of course about our willing and joyful entry daily into His life, and the shift in our values and ways of behaving as we become ‘conformed to the divine nature’. And here lies the rub, for none of us lives up to his/her baptismal calling. It is and remains a challenge for each of us every moment until the day of our death, and will be a journey of many stumblings along the rocky highway of life. Change – metanoia – is a difficult and life long event, and most of us will frequently feel that we are simply hanging on by our finger tips. The point of all those extraordinary allegories in the scriptures lies precisely in the encouragement they give.