As we look around the world at the suffering that we humans inflict on one another and on the natural world, we may well agree that we are like a Vineyard that only produces sour grapes! (1st Reading Isaiah 5:1-7) Today I want to look at the Christian solution to this problem, and again I will do so by explaining another of our technical terms – ie “salvation – being saved” – that Jesus is our “Saviour”
But the image I want to start with is the image of my mother. For a good parent is one of the best ways we have of thinking about the God that Jesus shows us. I was a very bad-tempered little boy, screaming with rage and breaking or throwing things when I was upset. My mother loved me, but that didn’t mean that she just tolerated such behaviour. I remember being sent to my room in tears on numerous occasions, but always before very long, my mother came to me. Then she would talk me down, listening to why I was so upset, but also helping me see it in a different light, and helping me to work out how to cope without losing my temper in the future. Above all she showed me, that although she was sad that I had behaved like that, she also loved me.
There is little point in trying to be a better person if we are not loved, and that is what Jesus taught us. Instead of trying desperately to please an angry God, Jesus taught us that although God is angry when we humans are bad, he carries on loving us, for he knows we need his love if we are to escape from the mess we often find ourselves in.
Yes, that’s the point. We believe that only God’s love can make trying to be good worthwhile, that without God we are like someone drowning. We need someone to plunge into the water and save us. God therefore plunges into our fallen humanity by becoming a man – Jesus – and offers us a way to be saved. All we need to do is to accept this way out of our mess – to be like St Peter who thought he could walk on the water unaided, but then realised he was sinking. Then he cried out “Lord, save me!” and immediately Jesus reached out his hand and saved him. (Matt 14:29-31)
It is no accident therefore that the first sign – sacrament – that shows that we are being brought within this saving action of God – is Baptism. The water stands both for the chaos and danger of our human life from which we need to be saved – which we call original sin – and the cleansing waters of God’s love – which we call salvation. Of course it doesn’t stop us getting things wrong, but it frees us from being trapped in our failings. Like me in my room after I had lost my temper, we know when we fail that God will be with us to love us and show us a better way.
So the Christian faith is not about being a good person but being a loved person. We come to Mass as people who need God’s love, who have failed in one way or another to live up to that love, who feel trapped in a human world of war and suffering and death, and like someone drowning call out “Lord save me.” The Mass is full of this image, full of words calling out for God’s love.. “Lord have mercy” “Lamb of God have mercy”
That is why Jesus subtly changes the Vineyard image. In the original Vineyard there are only sour grapes, but in Jesus’ story (Matt 21:33-43) there is no problem about the grapes – clearly there are lots of them. The problem is that the people harvesting the grapes – that’s us – fail to acknowledge the owner – that’s God. We think we can do it on our own, that it is all our work. We forget that without God there is nothing, nothing at all. And even when we acknowledge that God is the creative force, we see God as some distant force that started things off, and fail to recognise that without his power working in our minds and hearts now, we would not get anywhere.
This wonderful and ever-present saving love of God is something that we need to recognise and accept every day, not as some nice theory to make us feel good, but as an ever present reality that we need to respond to. Think what it would have been like if when my mother came to my room I turned my back on her, and said “I know you love me but now go away and leave me to work it out all by myself”
This is why prayer is part of salvation. Prayer is not asking God for things, although we can do that too. Prayer is letting God help us think things through. It is allowing his love to penetrate into our everyday activity. It is sharing everything with him – good and bad – in thanksgiving or sorrow. Because without him we are nothing, but with him we are everything, and our life is always full of potential and promise.
I went to a person who was dying recently and after I had anointed her and given her Communion, she sat there for a long time in silence with her eyes closed, and I didn’t disturb her because she was clearly allowing herself to sense that God was with her and would be with her on her final journey. Death makes a mockery of the foolish idea we humans have that we are in control of things. When we are dying there is no longer anything we can do, except to put ourselves into the hands of our loving God. It is not impossible for people to do that at the last moment, but it is certainly easier for someone who has practised the presence of God throughout their life, as this lady had done.
Without God we are drowning. With God we are saved, and death is not the end, but a new beginning.