Surprising people with the Gospel

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- All too often we have a tendency to button-hole people. It can easily become racist: “All Blacks are stupid and dirty”, or ‘All Islamic people are fanatics”. More locally, as Jesus experienced, (Mark 6:1-6) it is about people thinking that as they know your family and origins, they have got you taped, and the very idea that a person ‘known’ to the community could achieve surprising, nay even miraculous things, is simply unthinkable. Jesus was the local carpenter and had brothers and sisters and it followed therefore that he could not possibly do or be anything special. Indeed, as the Greek puts it, his community were ‘scandalised’ by his actions. This is completely lost by the Jerusalem Bible translation which simply states “They would not accept him”. Yet the Greek original surely captures far more powerfully the enormity of the shift in thinking required by those who knew Jesus, or thought that they knew him, for to be a source of scandal does suggest someone or something that rocks society to the core. What we have to remember is that everyone comes from a local group and that the things they achieve, both for good or evil come from a known community, a society which on the surface appears completely normal.

The whole point of the incarnation, of God’s becoming human in Jesus for our salvation, lies precisely in the very ordinariness of his life. The problem for Judaism was that it thought in such stereotypical terms that it could only think of the Messiah as one from a line of existing powerful men, and as one who would be capable of gathering an army to throw the Romans out of Palestine. They had forgotten the fact that their earlier leaders, like Moses a slave, or even David a shepherd, and indeed those their scriptures recognised as the great prophets, came from unexpected and humble beginnings. What they failed to see was that their history taught them to look to ordinary men and women as saviours of their nation, not to the great and the good whom they mistakenly placed all their reliance upon.

When we lived in Newbury some 30 years ago who would have thought that the two blokes who made electronics in their back shed would become Vodaphone, or in Hull earlier, that the rather eccentric librarian at Hull University, Philip Larkin, would rise to international status as a poet? We need to value the ordinary, really scrutinising it for its true potential. Perhaps too, this is why Pope Francis is causing such a stir. Many think they know what a Pope should be like, and he just refuses to play ball. We are however coming to realise that this man, for all his sense of fun and his very rootedness in the real world, has the steely determination to reform the Church and attempt to get it back on track, even if that track is sadly lacking in tiaras and pomp.

Corinth was a city of the nouveaux riche, the upwardly mobile in the first century AD, and in common with much of the ancient world was given to extravagant boasting. Throughout the ancient world there were statues and inscriptions lauding the famous, often for their great achievements and their building projects and donations to the public life. Anyone who was anyone would record their accomplishments in stone or bronze for posterity to see and admire. When St Paul was dealing with this loved but intransigent community in Corinth, (2 Cor 12:7-10) he realised that to get through to them he too had to boast of his achievements in order to make any impression upon them. But instead of lauding his successes Paul turned the tables on them by ‘boasting’ of the history of his persecution in the cause of Jesus Christ. Indeed, he does it so well in chapter 11 that he begins to think that the Christians there will simply focus on his ‘achievements’, and be in danger of simply thinking his sufferings rather like their own achievements. This being the case he wrote, “In view of the extraordinary nature of these revelations, to stop me from getting too proud I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud.”

Paul wanted his converts to understand that all his great work as a missionary had its origin in the grace of God and came entirely from God. Proud as he undoubtedly was of his work for the Gospel, Paul knew that none of it could ever have come about without divine prompting, that is, it was never something he had dreamed-up for his self aggrandisement, but was entirely the work of God in him. It was God who took this respectable young Jew, well on the road to success as a Pharisee, and turned his life upside down in his service. God took this unlikely man, this persecutor of the Christian sect, and made him the great apostle of the Gentiles. Paul knows to his cost just how easily he could have turned all this to his own advantage, and so he recognised God’s authority over his life as he learnt humbly to accept the thorn in his flesh, something that continually acted to level him and keep him on the right track, a true follower of the humble and insignificant Jesus.

A similar story is located around Ezekiel, prophet of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. Like Paul, he came from a prosperous and well educated family, in his case in Jerusalem, and was from the elite of the first deportation in 593. Once away from home and all that was familiar and secure, he devoted his attention to those left behind in Jerusalem, instructing them and warning them against further rebellion against the Babylonians. Like Paul, his cosy life was thrown into turmoil by historical and political events, and he who previously had every reason for self-congratulation and confidence found himself in a very uncomfortable position, one in which he would frequently stand against the ruling classes and the elite from which he had come. Ezekiel, like Paul, recognised the voice of the Lord God calling him to act in ways unfamiliar and unprecedented for one of his family and priestly origins, and yet he knew he could not refuse. Like these people, we too must be alert, listening for God’s call to us, and be willing to respond when that call comes. Great or small, it will come and we must pray that we shall have the grace to respond when it comes.

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