God’s radical plan for us

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Few of us really give much consideration to the enormity of the gift of God to us in Christ, or precisely what that means, and just how life changing that truly is. Our Readings this week focus precisely on this seismic shift in reality, as Jesus and Paul grapple with this issue and seek to bring home to their followers what it means. For us, one of the traps we easily fall into with our Gospel, (Luke 14:25-33) with all its hard talk of abandoning family and possessions, is that we read it literally especially as we only read bits of the text. In so doing we easily miss the point and end up bewailing our inability to do precisely that, rather than look at the larger picture. It is to this larger picture that we must turn our attention.

Our Reading from Wisdom (9:13-18) speaks of the inadequacies of the human being in relation to God and of the impossibility of our ever knowing ‘the intentions’ or mind of God. Coming from a philosophically dualist valuation of the human being, it separates the human mind from the body and sees the latter as of little value. “For a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind.” For such men, schooled in a Platonist tradition, the best that could be hoped for was to shed the confines of the earthly body and hope for a linking of the immortal soul with the source of creation.

But this is not the Christian view. The whole point of the Incarnation, of God becoming human and redeeming us in and through his fleshly body, lies precisely in his hallowing, making holy, the very materiality of our earthly existence. In vivid contrast to Wisdom’s claim that God’s mind (intention) is unknowable; the Christian claim is precisely the opposite. God the Son, who ‘threw away’ divinity for us, has shown us precisely what God’s plan for us is. Ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven by the bodily death and resurrection of God the Son, we are now fit for heaven, sharers in the divine nature in the wording of the Petrine Letters, destined as St John has it in Jesus’ great prayer, to be One as Jesus and the Father are One. In Jesus therefore the mind of God is not hidden but opened wide for you and for me.

In our Gospel Jesus is shown working desperately to get both his followers, and all those in Israel, to appreciate the enormity of the change which has come upon them. God’s revelation of himself, and therefore of his plans for us in and through Jesus, imply a radical transformation of society, both that of his time and ours. You will remember that last week’s Gospel was about the tragic-comic grab for the best seats at a banquet following Jesus’ healing of a man with dropsy. We are flies on the wall at this most challenging and awkward moment when Jesus pulls the plug on the carefully crafted system of rules governing the way society ticked, and showed it up for what it was. The story then continues with the great banquet in which the giver represents God the Father and the invited all cry off with fatuous excuses. It is a scene painfully vivid with rejection of God’s great offer of himself. Our Gospel is its sequel, and as I previously remarked, we can miss the point if we just get hung up on the ‘rejection of family’ stuff.  The whole context points us in a much more significant direction, and we need to keep this uppermost in our minds. Renunciation is there but its entire purpose is quite different.

This is beautifully, even hilariously illustrated by Paul’s Letter to Philemon (9-10.12-17). The situation is as follows. Paul has pinched the services of a trusted slave of the wealthy businessman Philemon from Colossae. Paul was in prison in Ephesus and needed someone to continue his missionary work and help him out. Stealing someone’s slave was a very serious thing and potentially could have made matters far worse for Paul. His solution was to exploit the existing patronage system to get both himself and the hapless Onesimus off the hook, and boy, does he play the system to perfection.

Paul plays both on the system of slavery and that of patronage. Onesimus may be a slave of Philemon’s, but Paul is Christ’s slave – now giving slavery a power and glamour it never had in the real world. Christ himself is describes as becoming as a slave in Philippians. Philemon was a Christian, so he would not want to fall out with Paul, one of the predominant preachers and missionaries of the time. Paul claims that in Christ he ‘begat’ the slave, making him as it were of his own flesh. When therefore Onesimus returns, he bears as it were, the imprint/identity of Paul himself. By implication, he could not be given his deserved punishment – flogging or death. Paul plays on the fact that whilst he is Christ’s slave, he is also his agent or ambassador, acting in the person of Christ himself and therefore of enormous clout, a far superior patron to Philemon. Paul insists that through Onesimus he sees Philemon himself acting as his co-agent for the Gospel. Here then, in this dramatic overturning of traditional society and its mores, we see Paul both play the system – if Philemon accepts he will have Christ for his patron like Paul – and both will have the most superior patron imaginable; and of course, Paul gets himself off the hook for Philemon could not possibly charge Paul with theft, or beat Onesimus! What a tour de force

The whole point of all this rambling set of stories is to emphasise just how God overturns the social order. None of us will ever be worthy of the Kingdom, but by His grace we will be gifted it. We have to begin by opening ourselves to the enormity of God’s love for us, and somehow or other emulate Jesus who ‘emptied himself’ for our salvation. That requires us radically to rethink entire areas of our own lives. If we can do so with the wiliness of a Paul, then even better.

Homily on being placed with the saints

We must never forget, that the heart of our faith as Christians is that we meet God in and through Jesus. As he said “To have seen me, is to have seen the Father”. (John 14:9) This means that we can feel God the Father’s love and compassion for us in a very real way, as we hear Jesus speaking words of comfort and wise advice, and as we see him dying for us on the cross. But our danger is that this gives us such comfort that we fail to see the challenge in much of what Jesus says; and we fail to realise that the God whom he teaches us to call “Father”, is also the God who is, as we heard in the reading from Hebrews (12:18-24) “Nothing known to the senses”  – an immense and powerful force way beyond our understanding.

We need to remember all this as we hear Jesus’ parable today. He appears to be simply giving wise advice on how to be polite and modest at dinner parties, but actually, like all of Jesus’ teaching, this is more about our relationship with God. Yes, there are places where Jesus teaches us that when we are with God, it is he who will sit us down and serve us; but in this teaching that is certainly not the case. Instead, he is warning us not to take God’s welcoming love for granted, as if we could walk into heaven and say “Hello God”, and walk right up and sit down beside him as if we were the most important person in the room. Now I’m sure that you can see how wrong that attitude to God  is, yet we do meet people who do take God for granted like that, don’t we? And perhaps we sometimes can be a bit like that too. It’s one thing to know that God loves us and always hears our prayers, and quite another to take that closeness for granted, and forget who we are talking to.

Two things follow from this. The first is that we must be careful when we pray, not to spend all our time speaking to God, and never giving God time to speak to us. Of course there are times when we’ll want to pour out our story to God, especially when something upsetting or distressing has happened to us, or when we’re in pain or great sadness. God will always listen. But we also need to develop what our 1st Reading calls “An attentive ear”… maybe we should call it “A listening ear” .

This must apply to the whole of our life and not just to our times of prayer. Sadly, when we get busy with our life, or our work, or our problems, it is easy to forget to be sensitive to what God may be saying to us in and through everything that we experience, not just so-called religious things.  The reason why we are encouraged to have “times” of prayer each day, as I mentioned last week, is to help us to make all of our life more responsive to God’s presence, rather than limiting God to only one area of our lives. If we think it’s all right to rattle off a few prayers, and then forget about God and his will for us the rest of the time, then we have missed the point, haven’t we?

This leads on to the second thing I want to say, and that is the importance of developing an attitude of humility in all that we do. Now true humility is not getting agonised about our sins or our failings, instead it’s much more about having a sense of humour about ourselves – not taking ourselves too seriously. I love the story of the new Head Teacher of a very posh school for clever girls, who introduced the radical idea, that these clever girls should be taught the value of failure. She pointed out that instead of agonising about failure and getting steamed up about trying to get perfect results, the best way forward in life is to see our failures not as things to beat ourselves up about, but as some of our best learning experiences. That, you see, is true humility.

The kingdom of God, that we pray for every day when we say the Our Father, is a place where everyone has an equal place and is equally valued. Life with God is not about scrabbling to reach the top of the tree, but about realising that everyone is equally precious to God even, and perhaps especially, if they think of themselves as a failure. That is what the reading from Hebrews says, doesn’t it? “What you have come to is… the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven…. You have come to God himself… and been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect.”

 Notice that! Not, you have to make yourself perfect to be a saint; but you have been “placed” with the saints, and even they, the holiest of all people, have not made themselves perfect, but have been made perfect….. by God.  That is the kingdom we belong to, and it should affect every aspect of our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God’s kingdom is free of status or privilege

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- The ancient world was a society of ‘honour’ and ‘precedent’, one in which everyone knew their place in the pecking order, and woe betide the upstart who stepped out of line and pushed his way into prominence over and above his ‘betters’. Indeed so divided was society, that even seating in the amphitheatres, theatres, or at the Games, were carefully delineated. The seating for the elite in such venues would have been carefully marked off by decorative seat ends, and those sitting in the best seats would have had their slaves bring cushions and throws as well as food and drink. We know that this segregation extended to dinner engagements in the houses of the elite. Their real friends might well be entertained in small rooms and served much superior food and drink to those clients of varying degrees for whom such events could be an exercise in humiliation – as we see in the excoriating Satire V of Juvenal. Such events served many purposes, and one at least was precisely to emphasise the power of the rich and powerful over their dependents and others. Far from being simply events of communality, of coming together, all of these minglings of different classes also highlighted in excruciating clarity their differences, and maintained the status quo.

In Luke’s Gospel we meet Jesus at two dinners with wealthy Pharisees, ours today is the second (14:1.7-14). In both, Jesus quite deliberately takes the Pharisee to task. The earlier one (7:36) is where the woman anoints Jesus with costly ointment and her tears, in contrast to the host who deliberately snubs him. In today’s example, Jesus uses the issue of seating precedence as a parable of the kingdom. Our Reading has omitted the related healing of the man with dropsy in the house of the Pharisee and on the Sabbath. This juxtaposition brings a stark clarity to the situation. Jesus has just healed a man with a serious and debilitating disorder – a true sign of the Kingdom of God – and there people are jealously sizing up their personal clout in the dash for the most important seats for a meal, with someone who saw himself as highly influential in the local community of the Jewish devout. Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisee is truly ground breaking in its radical rejection of the social conventions encapsulated in power and place in society. True to his mission, he suggests that real greatness, even God-like generosity, would better be demonstrated by the negation of convention in favour of giving dinners which were offered to the socially outcast, the unclean crippled, lame and blind. In short, as Jesus remarks, it is precisely because these people can never compete on the social scale, or ever pass as real ‘friends’ that they are the very means by which a truly virtuous man can get into heaven. Giving to them would be truly altruistic.

Today we view such passages solely in terms of do-gooding, and fail to perceive their truly radical and ground breaking nature, and hence their power as Parables of the Kingdom in which we can see and measure our total dissimilarity from our Creator and Redeemer God, who has thrown away everything for love of us. Those of us familiar with the way in which the account progresses will be aware of just how precisely Jesus puts the boot-in, relentlessly refusing to let the matter drop, and shaking social convention to its very roots. We ought to be made acutely uncomfortable by this Gospel, for it is rare, I suspect, for most of us to open our homes to social outcasts.

The Letter to the Hebrews (12:18-19.22-24) continues this theme of radical difference, in this case that between the Jewish faith and that of those who were converting to Christianity from Judaism. It begins by taking the believers right back to their earliest origins in Judaism, to moments when Israel first encountered God. Some of those occasions would not have been very dissimilar from those of their pagan fellow countrymen, who met their gods in storm and earthquake, and worshipped them in the mountains of Syria and the Lebanon. We all recall the stories of similar encounters with God by people on the Exodus, or the great meeting of the prophet Elijah with God in 1 Kings. The writer of Hebrews is at pains to emphasise that faith in Christ guarantees something of an entirely different order, one in which everyone is now “A first-born son.. and a citizen of heaven.” This vision is light years away from the earlier understanding of God, met in fear, in a “Blazing fire, or a gloom turning to total darkness, or a storm.” Instead, the believers are invited to God’s great banquet, the place in which they truly belong, and are accorded full rights and an honoured place in society. At this great festival there will be no second or third class citizens, and no one can expect to be humiliated, or have to cow-tow to others of superior rank; for every one of us will be treated like a “First born son”, someone to be cherished, adored and gloried in by God himself.

It is then, all the more interesting that Ben Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (3:17-18.20.28-29) whose words of wisdom were published by his grandson in the 2nd century BC should write as he does. The work come from a period of his residence in Egypt, significantly also a place of great social discrimination between the classes, by then ruled by the Ptolemy’s – heirs of Alexander the Great. Egypt was deemed to be a place of great culture and learning, with famous libraries in Alexandria, yet Ben Sirach advises that the path to true wisdom and greatness lies in humility, gentleness and the willingness to learn from others, rather than overbearing attitudes or the pursuit of power. Significantly this book was not included in the Jewish Canon, though it has found its way into the Christian one which insistently teaches and worships one who ‘emptied himself’ of his divinity to become like a slave and suffer and die for our salvation. This surely means that the God of ultimate power, who shares his own nature with us, has no other desire than that we too take on his form, that of the total self-gift to others of all that he is.

A challenge to the smug

Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s readings :- These Readings are a reminder to those of us who are devout, and think that we have got our relationship with God all sorted, to think again. It can be so easy for those of us who are regular Mass attendees and who try to live carefully within the bounds of our faith to be critical of others, even to consider them to be quite beyond the pale. It is quite clear that both Third Isaiah and Jesus had a serious problem with such ‘devout’ men and women, and wanted them to think again, to consider very seriously where they were and what they really believed they were up to. An attitude which understood the precariousness of life, and the extreme fragility of the relationship between God and humanity, was what was and is called for ; and seems to have been much more what these people held as correct, rather than any smug security. Believers  must always live life on the edge.

Indeed, it is startling that Third Isaiah, (66:18-21) the prophet of the return from exile in Babylon, should end this great work on a note of such castigation on those in control of religious thought and practice in Jerusalem. The narrow complacency of the elite is threatened by the glorious promise of the story of the Jewish faith being taken out to the Diaspora, indeed, to dark foreign parts where it would be practised by those who had been dispersed and their descendants, even (horror of horrors!) where they had married among foreigners and where their practice of the faith almost certainly did not match up to the demands of those in Jerusalem. We are talking here of a widely diffused collection of Jewish believers, some from parts of Africa with dark skins (Put and Lud); some from the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean from Spain(Tarsish); others from up on the Black Sea and even possibly as far as the reaches of Mongolia. The prophet sees them all coming to worship in Jerusalem and even being made priests in the new temple which is under construction in Jerusalem – truly the cages of the establishment are to be rattled. Whilst the Books of Isaiah end on a note of triumph, it is redolent with the winds of change and even threat. Things will not and never will just settle down to ‘business as usual’.

By the time of Jesus, things seem to have gone from bad to worse, the aggro has just ratcheted up and up. In Luke’s Gospel (13:22-30) we continually meet Jesus at loggerheads with the religious authorities in the holy city. Since Chapter 9 verse 53, we have been following Jesus en route for Jerusalem and his Passion, and at every turn we find him in bitter, even savage conflict with the religious purists, whether from the temple or from among the Pharisees and lawyers. Jesus’ mission was to the sick and the outcast, either because of their defiling jobs or their illnesses and he also commended the despised and hated foreigners like the Good Samaritan, or travel out of Israel over the Jordan to heal a demon-possessed man, almost certainly a foreigner. Jesus castigated the cities of Judaism and its upright members, insisting that when God’s kingdom finally came to its fruition on earth, the purists would find themselves out in the cold. Indeed, according to Jesus’ understanding of events and expectation of God, at the end those who had believed themselves true to the faith of Abraham and the prophets, would find themselves excluded, whilst those from all the quarters of the globe, and those representing the unacceptable and iffy, would find inclusion in the glories of the Kingdom.

Perhaps the nub lies with the Letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7. 11-13) and all its uncomfortable talk of the need for the believer to be continually ‘reprimanded’, ‘punished’ and ‘trained’, and the writer’s understanding that this includes suffering. All this is very difficult language for us modern people, but for the ancient world, even the Christian world, children were harshly dealt with and corporal punishment was common. The attitude of fathers to sons was far from sloppy, and their training more often might have resembled physical training for the Games. Schooling was hard and harsh. It was even more so for Christians living in a hostile environment, even expecting public antipathy and possible persecution. One needed to be tough, and fitted for the trials which the faith might bring upon one. Such an outlook clearly required constant alertness, revision of one’s values, and a real commitment to the faith, rather than of casual Church attendance on Sundays if one feels like it. All this poses serious questions for us today, and it is right that we should be asking these difficult and disturbing questions of ourselves. Where do we stand on this spectrum of belief? With the cosy and the smug, those who think they have got it made? Where do we make room for the fragile, the unclean, those whose arrival on our shores might mess up all our cosy notions of belief in Jesus? After all, the original was, I suspect rather a curious shade of off-white!

 

 

Discovering the nature of God

Frances writes on Sunday’s readings :-  There is a wonderful journey of discovery of the nature of God laid out in our readings for this week. In them we move from an Old Testament view, and a very early one at that, in which the divinity can both create and destroy, and is willing to do so and, in the minds of his followers, on a colossal basis. In our Readings, we move forward to St Paul’s ecstatic and refined ideas about our relationship with God and his purpose for us.

I always love the Genesis (18:20-32) picture of the relationship between God and humanity set out for us in the discussion on the proposed destruction of the city of Sodom. In this picture we meet Abraham, the Father of the Jewish people, arguing for the preservation of the people and the city like a haggler in a souk, reducing the bill from 50 down to 10; and we see that eventually Abraham ‘saves’ the city from the supposed wrath and destructive power of God. Sadly it appears that most of us have not moved on in our understanding of God, for a surprisingly great number of us still seem to think that evil, death, destruction and grief come from God. This is a dualist view and is not in fact what Abraham actually learns about God at all. What he really discovers is that God is merciful, and merciful to just and unjust alike. The reputation of Sodom was apparently horrendous in antiquity, if we are to believe our Genesis stories about it, and yet we find that a God, who reveals himself as caring and merciful, refuses to destroy the city despite its bad behaviour. Perhaps therefore the story is an allegory for the entire Jewish people, who the patriarch realised had little to commend them from their personal behaviour, but were nevertheless beloved of God and therefore are preserved, despite their lousy morals and their continual flouting of God’s will.

In our Gospel (Luke 11:1-13) we have a tiny insight into where this teaching from Genesis led some people. We are still in a Middle Eastern, haggling society where bargaining usually pays dividends. In this parable Our Lord gives us this as a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, a form of address and interaction between people and God in which our closeness to him is stressed as God becomes not a remote and fearsome deity but an accessible and close ‘Father’, indicating precisely the nature of this relationship and the confidence within which we can approach the divine. In his brief and yet staggeringly revelatory career, Jesus quite literally blew apart Israel’s carefully guarded ideas about God, centred as they were on the keeping of hundreds of rules and temple sacrifice. Clearly it was his absolute conviction that God not only loves his creation, and humanity within it, but will bear with the faults in our perception of his way for us. His insistence is that God wants us to have a close relationship with the divine, one so close that the rules and the things humans bring in to bar us from communication and absolute openness to God will be thrown down. In pursuance of this goal Jesus gives in his commentary a radical and new and daring prayer to God.

Imagine he says, for a moment, if God were like your neighbour and friend, and in the middle of the night you need to go and scrounge some loaves off him to feed a late visitor. Probably your friend will be a bit put out, everyone is in bed and you have disturbed the household. Yet you refuse to be rejected and persist in your request for bread until finally he relents – more to shut you up and get some rest than out of any great care for you or your late visitors. This, in a nutshell, is our relationship with God .We can always ask him, and know that our repeated and often desperate prayers will be answered. Perhaps behind it all is something of the endless alertness of God and of his continual outreach and compassion to an unworthy humanity – but that is not what matters.

St Paul, writing to the Christians of Colossae in South West Turkey around 53 AD, gives us a real insight into the stunning effect of the life and death of Jesus, the Son of God, upon the beliefs and thinking of one special group of Christians, who at that early date still had very strong links with Judaism. Gone here are the great divisions separating God and humanity. For the Jesus event has quite simply brought God and human beings face to face, up close and personal, and things can never be the same again. Our Jerusalem Bible translation rather loses the finesse of the connection with its phrases “You have been buried with Christ….when you were raised…brought back to life”. All of these phrases suggest something done to us, something from which we stand apart. But what the Greek actually says is that we are “co-buried”, “co-raised” and “co-quickened” with Christ. In Him, through Him and by Him we are totally remade, reformed, refashioned into christs.

It is when we realise precisely to whom this letter was in part at least addressed, that its amazing and powerful significance emerges. In 213 BC one of the heirs of Alexander the Great resettled Jews from Babylon in the then Province of Lydia, which included the cities of the Lycus/Meander Valley, including Colossae. Subsequently we know that there were significant numbers of Jews in this Diaspora, and Paul and his missionary colleagues were at great pains to bring home to such people precisely the enormity of the shift in relationship Jesus brought between God and humanity. Now no longer is any division to be found between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and therefore with privileged in access to God and the uncircumcised. Christ, God in human form, has smashed such notions apart and, one with us, one of us, Jesus has by his death on the cross made absolutely certain that all of us, all alike, are made to be one with God. Nothing now stands in our way or, putting it in very Roman terms, the records of our debts (sins) are nailed to Christ’s cross. His death is the answer to all that stands in the way of our relationship with the Father, and he himself has paid all our debts. Truly we are free! His so human and so mangled body, a picture of you and me in the snare of our sins, is lifted and quite simply done away with. You and I now meet God face to face.  We have come a very long way from Abraham and haggling. Something of which we need continually to be aware.

 

 

What does thy kingdom come mean?

Have you ever wondered what we mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come”?  In the Gospel today we heard Jesus tell his disciples to proclaim “The kingdom of God is very near”, and it makes us ask the same question – we talk about the kingdom but what does it actually all mean?

 

Let’s remind ourselves first what we mean by God. God is the invisible power that is present everywhere, from deep within the earth itself right out to the furthest reaches of the universe. So God is the power of life in each one of us. Breathe in and out and wonder at the life within you! Nothing would exist and nothing would be alive if God were not in some way within it.

 

This is surely what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom of God is very near. Too many people think of God as a faraway force – an immense power yes – but very distant from us. Jesus wants us to realise that although God IS a very powerful distant force, quite impossible for us to understand, quite impossible for us to see, yet God is also very very close to us, and through him, through Jesus, we can understand what God is like and how much he loves us. “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son… has made him known. (John 1:18)

 

But if the kingdom of God just means the presence of God, and that presence is very near, why do we need to pray “Thy kingdom come”? I think the answer is that God does not force his presence on us, instead God has given us a part to play in making his presence known. We do that in a number of ways taught us by Jesus. First of all, we make his presence known every time we show love and kindness to other people. The Bible tells us that “God is love and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them” (John 4:16)

 

But secondly Jesus has given us a very special way of bringing God even closer to us than we could ever imagine. He took some bread and wine and said “This is my Body. This is my Blood” and in another place he says “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”  (John 6:54) This is why the Mass is so wonderful, for not only are we taught within Mass about how important it is to show God’s presence to others by acts of love and kindness, but we are also given his focussed presence through Holy Communion to help and support us in doing the good things he wants us to do.

 

Can I explain that word “focussed” by telling you about a rather naughty thing I used to do when I was a child?  On a nice sunny day, I would get a magnifying glass, and a bit of newspaper, and I would hold the glass above the paper so that the sunlight was pinpointed on it. Then, quite quickly, the paper would catch light and I would have a tiny fire.  That is what focussed means. I focussed the sunlight on the paper and it made it so hot it set it on fire.  Light, sunlight, is like God. Indeed we are told “God is light”. (1 John 1:5) Sunlight is everywhere even when it is cloudy, as it often seems to be in England, but sunlight, like the presence of God can be focussed. When we focus God’s presence in this way, then God’s power can be shown.

 

This is what happens when the priest, on our behalf, does what Jesus told us to do, and focusses God’s presence for us in and through the bread and wine. But then it is up to us to use that focussed presence to bring his presence into the world by acts of love and kindness. His presence in and through Holy Communion is not a magic spell to put everything right for us ; but it a power that we can use, if we want to.

 

So when we pray “Thy kingdom come”, we are asking God to help us to make his presence real in our lives and in those around us. It is a bit like electricity present in our house. It is no good to us unless we plug in and switch on. We plug in to the power and presence of God every time we come to Mass and receive Communion. We switch on every time we use that power and presence that we have been given to help others in some way, and when we do that we are doing our bit to bring the Kingdom of God nearer. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, every day, in us, Lord God.

 

 

 

 

Homily on loving God

St Paul makes a dramatic statement in is Letter to the Galatians that he is “dead to the law” and that he has been “crucified with Christ”! But what on earth does he mean by these two startling declarations? (Gal 2:16-21) I think we should start by working out what he means by “the law”. The law for us is the law of the land wherever we happen to live, but clearly St Paul does not mean that he is dead to that kind of law. Indeed he says elsewhere that Christians must respect those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-3). No, as many of you probably know, the Law, when spoken of in the Bible means the Law of God – the things that God expects of those who are truly good human beings. Well we know what that means from the passage where Jesus sums up the law as two things – to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and to love our neighbour as our self. (Matt 22:36-39)

 

Now this is certainly hard stuff isn’t it? We may well try to love God, but to love God completely, as Jesus suggests, is much more difficult for we have so many other competing interests! I may love God when I say my prayers, or am desperate for help, or very thankful when something good has happened, but a lot of the time my love for God has to compete with lots of other things happening in my life. The idea of loving God completely is  therefore something I aim for, not something I actually achieve.

 

This is even more the case with loving our neighbour, especially when Jesus adds elsewhere that this includes loving our enemies. What would you feel like if someone in your family was killed, maybe by some careless driver in a road accident? I even get angry with people who damage trees, so what I would feel for a fool driver I cannot imagine! I am always impressed by the quiet dignity of someone who says that they will forgive the person who has killed their loved one. But I am not sure whether I would be that good, even though I must admit to being disgusted with people who still rage with hate in such circumstances.

 

So there it is. The Law of God is a wonderful thing to aim for, but it is actually impossible to follow completely, and it is because of this that St Paul says that he is “dead to the law”.  He had thought, along with many other people both in his time and today, that getting to heaven, being accepted by God, was achieved by keeping the law. Taught by Jesus, he had now to die to this old way of thinking – so that is what he means by being dead to the law and crucified with Christ – and, as he says “to live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.”

 

We see now why our other two readings are all about the way God forgives us. (2 Sam 12:7-10.13 and Luke 7:36- 8:3) We have to rely on that forgiveness of God, given us through Jesus, because we cannot, however hard we try, keep God’s law completely. Now some of you may well have heard me go on about this before, and the reason is simple. However many times we hear this message, most of us easily revert to the old way of thinking. When I was a University Chaplain I met many students who came from good Catholic families and really thought of themselves as good people. They had never committed any really big sin, and so deep down they did not think of themselves as sinners.  Then suddenly they faced at University new and far bigger temptations, and they found themselves doing things that they knew, according to what they have been taught, are really big sins. Faced with this, some just gave up on the Church, and some even gave up on God, because they thought that such sin cuts them off from the Church. Somehow they have missed out on the heart of the message of Jesus.

 

Look at it in practice in the Gospel. This woman with a bad name comes into the house and begins to weep and to kiss the feet of Jesus. The Pharisee who is the host is horrified that Jesus is allowing this. How can such a person be accepted by Jesus? But it is the Pharisee that is wrong. He thinks being close to God is all about being a good person, but Jesus turns the whole thing upside down. He says that the more we realise how much God forgives us, the closer we are to God’s love. He says cuttingly to the Pharisee, and to us, “It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love.”  Ouch!  That’s really hard! 

 

I wonder too if this is also a man/woman thing? I hate to stereotype, but perhaps we men tend to like things to be absolute. We like solutions. Either this person is bad and need punishing or he is good. Women, maybe, are more like God. They prefer to talk things through, to accept that things are less than perfect and get on with life. It was the male apostles who failed Jesus, and needed to learn to be forgiven. The women got the new message and lived it much more easily, and maybe it is still the same today