Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- We all like to think we are in control of our own destinies and easily feel resentment when things happen that we see as thwarting our plans. Our Bible readings remind us that whether we are believers or not, all too often we are not the controllers of our futures. After all, five years ago Syria was a prosperous westernised state with many educated city dwellers working as part of their economy. Now thousands are dead or refugees living in terrible conditions. It was the same for many in Europe in 1939-45, and history shows us that this is an all too familiar pattern of events. Add to this the problems of disease and infirmity and sheer accident and we begin to perceive just how fragile our lives really are.
The Book of Amos (7:12-15) was written in the 8th century BC during a period when Assyria was weak, and Israel had seized the opportunity to war on their neighbouring states like Syria. They thought they were in control of events and powerful. But Amos, a seemingly insignificant prophet of Judah, the southern kingdom, wrote to warn the northern state, Israel, that things were about to change, as indeed they did with the rise of the new king Tiglath-Pelizer and his warrior clan who, as Amos predicted, would sweep over the lands south west of Assyria and enslave them all. Clearly this was not the message the priests of Bethel or the court of the Israelite King Jeroboam wanted to hear. It was not a message Amos was keen to deliver either, but he was compelled by God to obey his command.
The writer of Ephesians (1:3-14), probably Paul or someone close to his theological thinking, had recognised that we are all under the control and foresight of the God who creates and sustains us. Indeed, so great is his reliance on God that he suggests that the plan was in God’s mind even before the creation of the world. What unfolds subsequently in this great praise song in Ephesians is not however the suggestion that we have no freedom at all in our lives, but rather helps to show how each one of us is deeply loved by God, and therefore that within the restraints of our human existence we can live as children of God, creatures so deeply loved that God himself wants to share his life with us.
The writer expresses this in terms highly significant to the people of the time, especially Gentile Christian converts living in the Eastern Imperial city Ephesus, where status, class and wealth would have been all important. He presents the Christian message of redemption and salvation in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ as a mystery of adoption. Now in the ancient world, where death was a frequent and feared occurrence, one could easily find that ones legitimate heirs died prematurely leaving a person without an heir. In these circumstances it was common for wealthy men to adopt others to become their heirs. Sometimes these were already wealthy, but they could also be high status families down on their wealth, or even ex slaves whose masters took a great shine to them. Greco-Roman histories are full of such tales, and it would have been the dream of thousands of poor that such a ‘mystery’ might unfold for them, altering their lives irrevocably. Our writer wants his readers/hearers to appreciate that this is not just a dream for this life, but part of the real and eternal plan of the one true God of Jesus Christ. This greatest of all gifts; life in Christ Jesus is not for this so short temporal life, but that “In him we were claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning under the predetermined plan of the one who guides all things.” Think for a moment just how magnificent and reassuring such a message would have been – indeed is for us too amidst all the uncertainties of life.
This certainty of living under the seal and grace of the Holy Spirit is also the mark of our Gospel (Mark 6:7-13) in which we see Our Lord instructing his disciples as to how to plan for their missionary journeys. They go out ill equipped in worldly terms, dependent on the support they can find locally, emphasising that this is not their work and mission but God’s, and that they live and die under his grace. The end of our passage indicates quite remarkable success, “They cast out many devils and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.” Like them, we too need to learn to trust more, believing that God will be with us in our every need.