Conversion is a long journey

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I suppose the search for perfection, for the ideal, for a life not continually messed up by our own and others inadequacies and the problems of the world, is something which in some shape or form occupies most of us during our lives. Certainly it seems to be a prominent feature of most religions, as it was the occupation of so many ancient philosophers. We now accept that such absolute perfection is impossible this side of the grave, but nonetheless its pursuit to some extent shapes our lives as Christians: in the search for God; in our moral life; and indeed in many of our human undertakings, whether that be in parenting our children, in our studies in the academic field, in artistry, or what you will.

 

This is certainly the vision of the writer of the Apocalypse (Apoc 21:10-14.22-25) with his picture of the new and heavenly Jerusalem. It is a description of perfect symmetry in complete contrast to his description of the failures of the seven churches of the Province of Asia, which he clearly knew so well, and his harrowing account of the world as he saw it and its catastrophic destruction. The writer saw the Christian message as one of great battle between the powers of God and the good, and those of evil, here represented by the human city and the opportunities they gave for the corruption and exploitation of the human being. For him, things are seen in very black and white terms, and there seems to be little room for leeway between the two.

 

With Luke-Acts (Acts 15:1-2.22-29) however, we are hearing the story of the spread of Christianity by Paul and Barnabas in the decade after the crucifixion i.e. in the 40’s AD. According to this account, the disciples began their work from within Judaism and with its following of pagan sympathisers. Their search therefore for the God of Jesus Christ was to follow in the Jewish tradition, but with radical and significant differences. The first, as we see in our reading, was the renunciation of the need for male converts from paganism to be circumcised. This was a significant issue holding back ‘Godfearers’, that is pagan sympathisers with Judaism, from full conversion. We know that some in ancient cities were attracted to the high moral life of Jews and their ethical teachings, but that they rarely converted precisely because circumcision would have made them highly visible at the public baths and in the gymnasia, and could have courted trouble. Moreover, full adherence to Judaism, with its call to rigid separatism from pagans would have made the lives of converts near impossible.

 

Our account of what we call the Council of Jerusalem, around 49AD demonstrates a remarkable convergence of views in the Early Church, as they lay down quite limited parameters for convert practices. In Leviticus 17 in the Old Testament, we find a set of instructions about the slaughter and eating of meat, and the early church was at pains, as were the Jews, to separate themselves from pagan worship, in which the drinking of animal blood may have been significant. Strangled animals of course are those not drained of blood, indeed we know from all those now pristine and white Greek edifices that originally they would have run red with blood from the slaughter of animals. The temple of Zeus at Agrigento in Sicily had 100 altars for the slaughter of bulls. The other rule was against what the Jerusalem Bible calls ‘fornication’, in Greek, porneia, and a much wider term than we understand it today. In the first and second centuries AD, well before the development of extreme Christian ascetic practices, porneia had a wide meaning, from prohibiting abortions and infanticide, to guidance given to the thoughtful on the correct attitudes of mind and body required in the procreation of children. Naturally it also included teaching on the appropriate attitudes men and women should adopt generally towards their bodies, and this did include moderate and careful approaches to sex. What we witness here then, is the gentle teaching of the early church as it tried to aid its new converts in their growth in the faith, and as they went about their daily lives. Conversion, and the search for perfection, is a process, a long journey, and clearly not to be accomplished fully in this life.

 

Not long after Luke wrote his great opus, St John was at work on the Fourth Gospel, sharing with us his memories and reflections of the life of Jesus. It is significant that he too presents a gradualist understanding of our growth in God, of our journey to perfection, which I presume also reflects the values of Jesus himself. In our portion of the Gospel (John 14:23-29) he says that subsequent to his (Jesus’) departure, the Father will send the Holy Spirit who ‘Will teach you everything’ (and that this teaching will be in accord with Jesus’ own teaching whilst he was with them).  The real appreciation of who Jesus is, and of what he stands for, therefore appears to be something we both already have, and which will be illumined by his departure, that is both his death and resurrection and his ascension to the Father. Significantly, he promises them his peace; “A peace the world cannot give”, reminding them that there is perfection only achievable beyond the grave, beyond his and by implication our own death. For we live, as always, in very uncertain times, and in the frailty of the human condition. It appears then, that the Gospel writers, unlike the writer of the Apocalypse, do not get hung up over the issue of our human perfection, and are comfortable with seeing it as within God’s remit, and can approach it with the gentleness of our Saviour.

 

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God’s love overcomes our human weaknesses

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Tertullian opinioned that people could tell who the Christians were by the love they bore for one another. In an age such as ours which either eroticises or sentimentalises that over worked word ‘love’, in Greek, ‘agape’, it is worth our while to explore what it meant to early Christians and indeed, why in our Gospel (John 12:31-35) Jesus should issue his disciples a command to love.

The idea of a care and compassion, a love for one’s fellow men and women, was not universal in the ancient world. These were societies built on slavery, on the ownership of hundreds of thousands of individuals who were socially dead; they had no rights, and could be bought or sold and used and abused with impunity. When they were freed at the behest of a master they become citizens of the Roman Empire, yet they remained clients, with restrictions and obligations to their former masters. Masters, indeed, could inherit a substantial part of their estates on the death of freedmen. There was no state support for the poor and needy, even when they were free born. The wealthy might decide to give gifts to the populace of their cities, (euergetism); and these were often lavish gifts, which could include the construction of public amenities like baths. When it came to cash handouts, typically the richer and less needy were given more than the poor and needy. Gifts such as these were frequently given to secure votes at elections in which powerful men competed for jobs as magistrates – and the opportunities that gave to accrue more wealth. True, people might give a few coins of low denomination to beggars, but many lived in dire poverty, with all the problems that implied for poor diet, disease and an early death. The idea of any equality of help across the social spectrum in any community was very unusual. This was what Christianity called for.

We witness this throughout Paul’s letters, with the collections in Greece, in the Letters to the Corinthians,  for famine racked Judaea; with the letter of recommendation in Romans for Phoebe from Cenchreae; not to mention his harangues over the sharing of the Eucharistic agape meal in First Corinthians. Loving one another as Christ had loved them did not come naturally to the disciples; it was a radical call and a difficult concept in the heavily stratified societies in which they lived. Jesus too told stories illustrating the need for such demanding and different action, with parables like the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel. The real sign of how radical and different this commandment was is to be seen above all in its context in John’s gospel, since it follows immediately on the exit of Judas ‘in the dark’, with his intention of betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities which instigated the entire passion story of Jesus’ great saving gift of himself for a fallen world. Jesus did not discriminate between the good and the bad, for his followers deserted him to a man, His resurrection message was precisely that God’s love transcends our behaviour and our human weaknesses. It demonstrates that much of the Christian message of love and care will be born out of struggle and suffering.

This is precisely the picture we see in our reading from Acts (Acts 14:21-27). Missing from our brief bit is the account of how Paul was nearly murdered at Lystra, and the opposition from Jews as the faith in Jesus spread throughout the pagan world. Our story focuses on the establishment of structures –ministries – to enable the communities to develop and carry on with the Christian mission once Paul and Barnabas has left to return to Palestine. Quite clearly difficulties and persecution were foreseen by Paul and Barnabas, for as they said, “We all have to experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God.” Learning to love, as Christ commanded, is a radical option, and something that does not and did not just come naturally. The notion of a universal brotherhood and sisterhood, stretching across the boundaries of race, class and status was as difficult for them as for us, and no less relevant today when we are debating issues of our European identity and that of the plight of millions of refugees.

In our reading from the Apocalypse, (21:1-5) we see this story taken to its ultimate conclusion as John the Divine writes of the new heaven and the new earth, of the new Jerusalem in which God is finally at home with his creation, his people. It comes from the penultimate chapter (for modern readers) of this astonishing work, so riddled with appalling violence and destruction, when God’s will is finally achieved and his creation is as it was made to be. It is the story of a humanity fit to live with and be with God, a creation which is truly God-like in its love. Those of us familiar with the story will know that among its most terrifying and impressive features is the description of the destruction (Apoc 18) of Babylon, a euphemism for evil, and clearly modelled on the destruction by volcanic eruption of Pompeii and the other cities in the Bay of Naples in 79.AD. John writes of the dramatic and radical transformation of the world as a metaphor for the journey each and every one of us must make as we take on Jesus’ commandment to love as he has loved us, his recipe for making us his new creation.

 

God’s gift of eternal life now

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :-  It is very difficult to understand how the Christian message gradually took off and became such a dominant feature in the Greco-Roman world. The fact that under Constantine the Great it would become the official religion of the state is near incredible, given its almost insignificant beginnings. What was it that proved so attractive and so compelling that it eventually surpassed the powers of the ancient Roman gods and became in its turn so powerful?

Was there, is there, something supremely attractive  about the Easter story of the resurrection of Jesus to eternal life and thereby of his gift of this to all of his followers which turned so many ancient men and women in the direction of Christianity, even making martyrs, witnesses to the faith, of some of them? If we think of present day life as insecure and uncertain, and indeed it is – despite all the benefits of improved health care, insurances against theft, house fires and other disasters – then life for the citizens of the ancient world was much more precarious.

Greco-Romans lived with appallingly high mortality rates and about two thirds of the children would not live to see their fifth birthdays. Most adults died by about 45. Ancient cities were perilous places, with frequent fires and building collapse which killed the occupants. Famine and food riots would have been common and the threat of wars and invasions were fairly frequent if you lived in what we call Eastern Turkey. Illness and disease was rife, as there was no knowledge of cleanliness in the fight against infections and of course no antibiotics. Taxes were ruthlessly extracted from the poorest by armed taxmen and hundreds could be sold into slavery, often by their families, to pay their dues. If this mortal life was very tough, death for pagans meant obliteration. Jews believed in eternal life, but only as a continuation of this life with the military triumph of the Messiah and good times for Israel. The Christian message was different, it taught that even now we live eternally in the presence of God, of Jesus the Son, who died and rose so that we all might live eternally with God. Death for the Christian is never the end, merely the beginning of a transformed and glorified existence with God.

This of course is the vision of the writer of the Apocalypse (7:9:14-17). John wrote this glorious picture of the millions of the redeemed praising God and significantly mentions their rescue from hunger and the heat of the sun which so relentlessly dried everything up, their crops included. He spoke of the sacrificed Lamb who would lead them to streams of living water, no small gift in lands perpetually short of water and used to surviving on brackish and polluted supplies, and of the end to tears of mourning and the constant loss, and the funerals which blighted their lives.

Indeed, when we hear from Acts (Acts 13:14.43-52) of part of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey to the southern and central parts of Turkey, we find a remarkably similar picture. They had come from Cyprus under the instruction of the Proconsul Serguis Paulus who had given them a sympathetic hearing and who owned estates and had influence in the area. Our account includes the details of conflict between Paul’s Christian mission and that of the Jews who seemed to have been able to attract converts from paganism to their beliefs. Archaeology has shown us the extent of Roman infiltration into this area in the many Greek inscriptions which have been discovered both on public buildings and tombstones, and we know that pagans were increasingly looking for something more than the impersonal relationship accorded them by the Roman gods. Many had become adherents of Isis or Mithras, both eastern gods with a moral imperative attached to their worship and in competition with Christianity. Pagans of status attracted to Judaism could not convert to that faith because of its ritual requirements and separatism, so we can see the attractiveness of the Christian call. Luke makes very clear that it was the promise of eternal life in Christ which was very attractive to the new believers who, the Greek tells us “Rejoiced and glorified the Lord” (rather than the Jerusalem Bible ‘Were happy and thanked the Lord’) a phrase so in tune with the Apocalypse’s sense of eternal life embracing this mortal life and the next.

In our Gospel, (John 10:27-30) we find Jesus in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple. This is part of John’s very lengthy portrayal of the many disputes Jesus has with those in authority in Judaism, most especially surrounding the claims he made to having a special relationship with God, the one he called his Father and to whom he claimed complete unity and identity. Significantly Jesus promises his followers ‘eternal life’. Now this is not for some future date when they will have proved their worth, he deliberately uses the present tense. “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice, I know them and they follow me, I give them eternal life and they will never be lost.” Followers of the Lord are already living here and now the life of heaven by God’s gift. They will live it eternally with God post mortem, but even now this is something the believer is already initiated into. We live in a changed reality. Jesus goes on to make clear that this gift of eternal life, so different from that of the Jewish promise, is not simply his gift alone, but that of the Father; “The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone, and no one can steal from the Father.” For Jews and their sympathisers such a claim would have completely upset and altered hundreds of years of teaching and belief and Jesus goes on to press home precisely the nature of the seismic shift in his understanding of the God-Man relationship, with his ultimate claim “The Father and I are one.” This means that all of us, and all of his original hearers, so used to a colossal void between God and humanity, are brought close in Jesus, and all those terrors to which we are all constantly a prey are defeated.

Christian success

Frances writes on the readings for this Sunday :-  This week seem to be all about number crunching. They present situations at various times in the life of the early church in which it was, for various reasons vital to demonstrate the vitality of the Christian movement. Whilst we may sometimes be sceptical of such accounts and events, it is significant that our Christian world too is equally concerned with numbers and the rise of members in the Far East still heartens us as any supposed decline in the West is a cause for anxiety and sadness. The vast numbers of Catholics in the world, especially those turning out for papal visits can be very heartening and of lasting significance, especially amongst the youthful members of the Church. Just like the first Christians, numbers help to assure us that we are on the right track and in the light of the Easter resurrection this is still as significant as it was originally. So what are we to make of the readings today?

 

In our Gospel (John 21:1-19) we begin our story with a picture of the disheartened disciples back in Galilee after the crucifixion. It appears that the ‘Christian thing’ is over, they have returned to what they were before Jesus originally attracted them away from their nets; fishermen. They catch nothing all night, a metaphor for their loss and emptiness without Christ, and one of John’s great themes of darkness – sin and evil and light – truth and grace. Once it is daylight Jesus, ‘the light of the world’, appears on the shore, significantly unrecognised by them. Our Jerusalem Bible rendering then typically alters the wording and loses its significance. Jesus, in Greek, does not call out ‘Have you caught anything, friends?’ but, in gentle chastisement, “Have you caught anything, children?” – indicating their ignorance and lack of faith. Immediately, following his command they try again and draw up a huge catch, the sign of God’s abundance and blessing. At this point the Beloved Disciple realises whose presence they are in and the significance of everything, and naturally, they will share a meal, the pre-eminent sign of God’s blessing and love.

 

Yet, at this point in the account, the near-naked Peter clothes himself to jump into the water and get to Jesus. Now, as most of us strip off for a dip, this can only be a revisiting of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve clothing themselves in shame after the Fall. But how very different the situation turns out to be! Far from being thrown out of the garden, Peter is three times rehabilitated in a great undoing of the Fall and his own betrayal of Christ. Numbers, it seems are highly significant in this story, speaking volumes of the victory and glory of God who overcomes evil and sin.

 

Just a few years before John was writing, Luke wrote his gospel and Acts; and in the second part of his story, Acts, he deals with the growth of the Church. He begins in the very earliest days, in Jerusalem, after the resurrection and paints a picture of the growing animosity between the Jerusalem Jewish elite in the temple and the followers of Jesus. Luke paints a picture of the success of the Christian movement and the opposition and persecution it provoked by its preaching and miracles. Our compilers of the lectionary have deliberately omitted the account of the flogging of the apostles, due precisely because of the challenge they presented to traditional temple Judaism. Yet it is this that gives them their hearing in the Sanhedrin, and their opportunity to preach the resurrection of Jesus by God’s power to the very heart of the system they were challenging. Luke quite deliberately sets up this scenario, of Christian success and of numerous converts, at a time when his Gospel was going out to Gentiles, and when in fact Judaism was struggling in the aftermath of the disastrous failure of the Jewish Revolt. His message is loud and clear, ‘receive the benefits of those things which were so attractive in Judaism within the more open Christian movement and find salvation here as never offered before to pagans’. Ultimately, as we know, it was converts from paganism who would make up the bulk of the Church, so that we can see the success of his and others missions, and the power of their propaganda.

 

By the time we come to the writer of the Apocalypse (Apoc 5:11-14) we are into rather different territory. Our passage omits the crucial recalling of the seven churches to whom the letter was originally written. Anyone who has ever taken the time to read the seven letters at the start of this work will be aware that John the Divine has a pretty poor opinion of them, and this and the rest of the book is in fact his stern pep talk to a set of flagging followers. Quite clearly John viewed the seven churches of Asia in a very poor light and thought they needed a radical shake up. The picture of the rest of the book certainly does that! Here, however, he begins his pep talk in militant terms, loading Jesus, the risen Christ and the sacrificial Lamb with imperial titles. “The lamb that was sacrificed is worthy to be given power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing.” This is stuff we just take for granted and ignore; but in the ancient world, the world of the Roman Empire only one man at a time ever held such exalted titles, the Emperor, and those only for the period of his reign, which might be for only a few years. Here, in our picture, the scene takes place in heaven, and Christ is offered this worship and acclaim by millions – and for ever. John is quite clear. Do the seven want to be part of this or not? It is time to choose. The impact of such a letter to those tiny, beleaguered Christian communities, of those struggling to survive amidst persecution and hostility, would have been magnetic. Suddenly, they knew they were not alone, and that their defeatism or slackness was not good enough; and, surrounded by this heavenly acclaim of the sacrificed and risen Christ, they too could be strong. We know that they did, by the remains of the Churches we have found and continue to find throughout Turkey. We are their heirs in Christ.

 

The real apocalypse is good news

Frances writes on nex Sunday’s readings :- All the way through written history literate people, artists, writers and so on have used different media in which to make comment upon the conditions of their time; to record it, to warn, to alert and prepare their nations for change. Later inheritors of this complex of ideas have to be very careful that they do not completely misread such things, always thinking they describe actual events or things which will happen in the future. Apocalyptic literature is particularly susceptible to such mess ups, and the way in which American films have abused apocalyptic makes it particularly important that Christians understand it in its original context. Far from being about pictures of terrible violence and chaos and the end of the world, as modern apocalyptic movies suggest, true apocalyptic is always good news for Christians, since it is an affirmation of the goodness of God and the ultimate triumph of his way for his creation. Violence may precede his triumph, but it is never of his making, indeed, will always be brought about by misguided members of his creation. God loves his creation and always intends good for it.

 

By the time the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 10:11-14.18) was written, in the late first century AD, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was merely a pile of blackened ruins. After the disastrous Jewish Revolt, Palestine was in lockdown, very harshly controlled by the Romans. Indeed, Jews were forbidden entry into Jerusalem, and the temple mount would become dedicated to the chief Roman god, Capitoline Jupiter. Certainly there would have been those who entertained the hope that the temple would be rebuilt and its high priesthood restored; but as they had died to a man in the final battle for the temple mount in 70 AD, that was somewhat wishful thinking. Our writer deliberately focussed on the complete inadequacy of the temple cult and its high priests in an effort to persuade Christians who were still committed to following a Jewish way of life that it was finished, irrelevant.  With this in mind he continually bangs home that the new and eternal temple is the person of Christ, whose single sacrifice on the cross has dealt with our sin. “When all sins have been forgiven, there can be no more sin offerings.” The whole purpose of the Jewish sacrificial temple cult was redundant. It is Christ alone who matters.

 

By the time all four gospels were written this was also the situation. It does seem likely that Jesus may well have predicted the demise of the temple (Mark 13:24-32), but we need to beware of thinking that this was due to clairvoyance or visionary behaviour on his part. Any wise person, living as he did in the Palestine of his time, which positively crackled with potential revolt as it awaited its Messiah (invariably a warrior leader who would lead the nation to independence and throw out the Romans), would have been aware that the likely outcome of such a revolt would be the sack of Jerusalem and the downing of its temple, which was always such a focus for unrest. But then the entire ministry of Jesus in Mark’s account seems to have been hostile to Jerusalem and its religious authorities who would conspire at his death. Mark will show us a Jesus who consistently flouted the Sabbath laws to heal the sick; who performed miracles away from Jerusalem and mixed with foreigners, pagans and those who did not keep the Mosaic law, tax gatherers and harlots being his prime example. Whilst Jesus died in Jerusalem during Passover, this was to show that he was infinitely superior to the Jewish law and practices and that as God the Son his outreach to the world was what was supremely important. Mark’s tiny parable of the fig tree was surely a call to continual vigilance, alertness on the part of converts, rather that any warning of imminent catastrophe, and certainly not one brought by God, who is always in control of events. “As for that day or hour, nobody knows it; no one but the Father.” Mark’s gospel remember, was written in Rome for convert pagans, and he would have wanted his hearers to empathise with its message rather than events in Palestine.

 

Some 200 years before the time of Jesus, Palestine was under the rule of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes iv – he who in the historical books of the Maccabees forced Israelites to convert to paganism along with the rest of his vast kingdom. The Book of Daniel, (Dan 12:1-3) also a piece of apocalyptic literature, stems from this time. Ostensibly set during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC, it uses that situation of oppression to speak of current events during the persecution of Epiphanes and encourages the people of Israel in their faith and absolute conviction that, contrary to events, God will triumph in the end. It speaks of the resurrection to eternal life with God of the faithful, as does Maccabees, so that even those who lose their lives for the faith can know that their struggle would not be in vain. For some of the ‘sleepers in the dust’ will live with God and those ‘learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven’. It was an intoxicating and subversive picture for the downtrodden and oppressed; for those who resisted and died for their beliefs just as we still hero-worship members of the French Resistance who died for their loyalty to France during the Second World War.

 

So apocalyptic is about a covert language, one of resistance, and we have to remember that we can find it in many shapes and forms. For Christians, as it was for an earlier generation of Jews, it would be stirring, subversive and powerful. It was a form of speech Jesus himself would adopt as he approached his passion, death and resurrection. It is a language every Christian should become familiar with as we enter into the life of Christ, and are prepared to follow him faithfully, whatever the nature of the crosses we are called to bear.

Apocalypse means opening up the glory of heaven

The other day I was trying to encourage some young people to offer to pray for their friends, and was a little startled when they told me that if they did so, some of their friends would just laugh at them. I suppose I was startled, because I had the naive idea that even if people don’t believe, they quite like the idea of being prayed for. It certainly works for some people, but clearly not all. Sometimes all we get is mockery and scorn!

 

We don’t like being laughed at by people do we? Especially if they’re our friends! Deep within us we have a strong desire to be liked and accepted by those around us. Indeed it is why many people give up practising the faith publicly. Some may continue to believe in the privacy of their own home, but others will give up even that, just accepting and absorbing the common view around them – that faith is just a fairy tale from the past!

 

So what sprung out at me from all our readings today (Rev 7:2-14. 1 John 3:1-3. Matt 5:1-12) was that putting one’s faith in God, far from being a modern problem, has always been a struggle for believers. Some atheists and sceptics have the idea that they are “modern”, but this is just nonsense, for persecution and mockery of those with faith has occurred all through history.  This is particularly the case for those that we call saints. The first official saints of the Church were those who were prepared to face not just persecution but actual death for their faith. We heard about them today in our 1st Reading where John, in his vision of the glory of heaven, asks who the people dressed in white robes are, and is told, “These are the people who have been through the great persecution..”

 

Of course this vision of heaven is just that, a vision, for remember there is no space or time with God. So we are given images to evoke something that is beyond our imagining. Sadly some people have taken such images literally, so that “Apocalypse” instead of meaning the opening up of heaven, the revealing of the full glory of God, an image of beauty beyond words, has become some cataclysmic event on earth. Likewise, John, in order to show that the land and sea are material things that will one day be no more, uses the image of 4 angels destroying them. Again we must not take this literally and think of God as a puppet master sending out destruction when he feels like it. These are images given to those facing dreadful fear, and John hypes up these images to show such people that the in the end it is only spiritual things that will last, the things of God – whilst all that is physical, material, will one day be no more.

 

He goes on to say that the saints are a “huge number, impossible to count”. This was important for those facing persecution then, but is also important to us, precisely because we are part of that great number. They, like us, were ordinary people who tried to be faithful to Jesus, and found that what they did made them unpopular with others ; ordinary people who were given the grace to stand out against the mockery of the world.  No wonder we ask them to pray for us! But, don’t think that they all succeeded easily. St Peter ran away from Rome when death threatened him, and only turned back when he had a vision of Jesus on the road asking him where he was going. Others crumbled in the face of persecution and, like many today, gave up practising the faith publicly, even if they maintained it privately.

 

Jesus knew that this would happen, just as he knew that eventually he too would be killed. We know this from the very end of our Gospel today when he says, “Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of false and evil things against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven.”

 

So All Saints Day is not really about those saints we can name. The named saints each have their special day throughout the year, whereas today’s Festival is principally about the unknown saints. The ones who are just like you and me, ordinary people who were never famous but were faithful Christians. Many, long before our time, have names that now only God and his angels know; but there are others we may know. People who helped us and are now with God?  Priests?  Teachers?  Family members? Today is the day to give thanks for them as well, and to try as best we can, aided by the grace of God, to live the same kind of life they lived… quietly but persistently – despite the mockery of some around us – to love for the glory of God and for the good of our fellow men and women, whether they appreciate us or not!

Saints not status

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Our reading from the Johannine Letters (1 John 3:1-3) in its Jerusalem Bible translation gives the impression, by its speaking of God’s lavish love for us, that we are thinking about a question of sentiment. But the Greek original is something rather different, it goes like this, “Consider the manner of the love that the Father has given us that we can be called God’s children”. In this form we are invited to consider or ponder upon the implications of such love, both for ourselves and for God. This indeed fits in much better with the later part of our reading which looks to our future in God. Most of us barely even stop to think about our relationship with God at all, let alone our ultimate futures in Him, but our readings for All Saints do provide some pointers to this issue.

Our reading from Apocalypse (Revelation 7:2-4.9-14) offers to us, as it did for the struggling early Christians of Asia Minor for whom it was written, a wake-up call and the promise of a firm conviction and encouragement to those, not unlike ourselves, who found the faith rather less than exciting, and in the writer’s view were not pulling their weight. It is his vision of our ultimate destiny in and with the Father that is so compelling. Rather like the description of the Pentecost experience of Acts 2, with its geography lesson of the spread of the faith around the known world, our writer speaks of the solidarity of the faithful from “Every nation, race, tribe and language” who are offered equal status among the redeemed, and can stand in the presence of the risen Christ (the Lamb). In the status conscious world from which they all came, when differences of citizenship in the Roman empire really mattered and affected your legal rights, and what you could receive by way of corn doles or help during famines, when your status was marked out in the very clothing you could wear or the accent as you spoke, when your very bodily stance would have differentiated the wealthy few from the others in an increasing lessening of significance; just imagine for a moment how stunning it would be to be told that your earthly status now, and more importantly your eternal status, had been won by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and that this cast all earthly divisions into the shade, nay into oblivion! For the hearers of this piece of Biblical writing who lived in an environment completely dominated by class and the different status it gave, such a message would have been utterly stunning in its implications. Even today, it is a difficult concept to grasp for all we bang on about equality and think that we don’t discriminate between those important – ourselves, and those of lesser status, such as the poor and those handicapped in some way, let alone those of different colour and creed. Those of us who post on Facebook can frequently find ourselves alternately uplifted by the generosity of others towards the refugees flooding into Europe, and appalled by the racism and crass inhumanity of others.

The Apocalypse reminds us that in the end, those called to be included among the saved, the saints, will share in the adoration and service of God, as we worship him continually. What we will all share in equally, as the redeemed, is this great privilege of acknowledging God for what he is and for what he has done in us. This is the “Manner of the love that the Father has given us”, a status in which we will all delight as equal sharers, worshippers, adoring the One who has given us everything.

In our Gospel (Matthew 5:1-12) we get an insight from Jesus as to how that destiny might pan out in present day living. The Beatitudes have, sadly been mistranslated and, I suspect totally misunderstood by the translators. These attributes are not a recipe for ‘happiness’, but rather, as the Greek says, “Blessedness”, our becoming God-like.  If they are anything, they are surely a model for divine behaviour, schooling us in the ways of living which emulate God himself in his grace and compassion for his creation. If and when we can begin to see the Beatitudes in this light they will no longer be a boring and rather sanctimonious list for the do-gooder, to be dismissed as impossibly unachievable anyway, but a vision of hope for the creation the Father and Son willed into being, to share with the humanity they believe have it in them to live with a truly God-like capacity and grace.