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.

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Practical ways to speak of the Gospel

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- The great danger, either with referenda or ancient foreign policies, is or was that they induce people to think in terms of phantasy worlds – everything will be all right now! This of course is absolute rubbish. When 3rd Isaiah (66:10-14) wrote his ecstatic song of the joys of returning to Jerusalem of those whose ancestors had been exiled by the Babylonians, he paints a wonderful but totally unrealistic picture -“That you may be suckled, filled with her consoling breast, that you may savour with delight her glorious breasts.” – and peace will be like a stream in spate -Jerusalem would be the glory of the nations. What a load of old cobblers! In fact, Jerusalem was a shabby ruin and its temple smashed to bits and of course, the country was filled with the foreigners put there by the Babylonians. You might say that those who opted to stay back in Babylon were the real ones to savour prosperity, education and the delights of civilisation.

 

When Luke was writing his Gospel (Luke 10:1-12.17-20) Jesus sends his disciples out as missionaries with a much more realistic and pragmatic sense of the world in which they are to preach the Good News of the kingdom; and he is altogether more aware of the way they need to present themselves to their listening public.  Far from coming as powerful, wealthy and reforming visitors from distant parts, with a message to impose on others less fortunate, they are sent out like Lambs among wolves”. They are to be utterly vulnerable. Indeed, as they are told to carry no purses, no haversacks or sandals, they appear to be sent out as beggars, dependent on the generosity of the natives, rather than as having some superior knowledge or power to impart. Contrary to Isaiah’s spurious vision of wealth, power and riches (all that metaphor of breasts), it is by their very vulnerability, their own need, that the disciples will attract others to the Gospel.

 

Now it is true that Jesus attracted followers to his teaching by way of healing and miracles of feeding; but the setting surely of such events is almost always communal, situations where he meets people and responds to their needs: communities of mourners; families with sick members. Even when people are solitary, as in the case of Zacchaeus the tax man, or John’s Samaritan woman at the well, it is precisely their need for community which is actually addressed. The Kingdom is a place of sharing and giving, and Jesus, we note, wheedles himself into their homes and communities precisely by making apparent his own needs, a bed for the night or food and drink to sustain himself and his lagging followers. This is to be the pattern of future ministry too, as we see Jesus instruct his disciples to eat what they are given and, perceptively, ‘Do not move from house to house’. In other words, do not reject the simple and humble first offers when something better comes along later, remember the society in which you are staying and do not think to embarrass the poor, or be preferential to the better off.

 

What stands out is the urgency for the coming of the Kingdom of God displayed in this short Gospel passage. Twice we are told “The Kingdom of God is near.” Generations of people have chewed over what Jesus meant by this statement, along with his remark “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven”, and consider that it is all about an imminent eschaton and the end of the world, or some such phenomena. But if we stop to consider the context of all this, and where we are in Luke’s account of Jesus’ story, surely all becomes rather clearer. We have already witnessed the Transfiguration. (Lk 9:28-36) We have already had Jesus’ great predictions of his passion and the feeding of the 5000, so redolent as it is of the Eucharist with its three great consecration verbs, took, blessed and broke. We have already been told (9:53) that Jesus was resolutely heading for Jerusalem and his passion. If what we have come to believe about him subsequently – that he has redeemed us from sin and restored us to a proper relationship with the Father –  is true, then there can be no doubt that the Kingdom of God has come in his person and his sacrificial life. The sadness for Jesus lay in the fact that so many Jews, his own people, would not follow him, as seen in his crotchety rebuke of the towns of Israel and omitted from our Gospel passage today.

 

It was into this mission to the Gentiles, (Galatians 6:14-18) pagan converts to the faith, that St Paul flung himself with such magnificent and wild abandon, travelling in all some 10,000 miles, often on foot. It was to be a slow and arduous mission, as archaeologists of South/Central Turkey point out to this day, and Paul, like his Lord, suffered willingly for the gospel many beatings and other problems, including defamation of his character. There is no doubt that on rare occasions he met with wealth and real financial support on his travels, but by and large, it was his willingness to live alongside those he wished to convert to the gospel that won through in the end. Clearly those of us who refuse to identify with those we would convince will in the end be doomed to failure.

The meaning of real divinity

Frances writes on next weekend’s readings :-  Some twenty years before St Luke wrote his Gospel, St Paul wrote down this great praise hymn known to some of the earliest Christians in Greece and Turkey, and sent it to those of the fellowship in Philippi. (Phil 2:6-11) Now Philippi was one of the great imperial cities of the east, centre of Roman government and power and thoroughly Romanised for over a hundred years. It had witnessed great battles as Roman dynasts slugged it out in their bids for power as the republic faded into empire. It would have had all the accoutrements of a Roman imperial capital; forum, amphitheatre, theatres, stadium, baths and all adorned with statues and other emblems of Roman power. The whole area would have had an immense garrison and catered for the needs of its soldiers in war and in recreation.

Paul would have known precisely the nature of the challenge his praise song about Jesus would occasion, proclaiming as it did, not that Jesus became divine at death, as was the claim of Roman emperors, but, as the Greek makes explicit, “He existed in the form of God” that is, his being quite simply always was divine. Our hymn then proceeds to explore the meaning of real divinity, and this in a city where emperors would cling on to their power and status, awarding themselves titles such as Lord and Saviour, as we know from their coin and inscriptions. In vivid contrast, our hymn speaks of Jesus as one who very precisely did not “cling” onto his power as did emperors. Here we find a very rare Greek word harpagmon, normally used for robbers or rather muggers, those who snatch at what they prize and will kill to keep it. Jesus, or rather God in Jesus, in direct rejection of such human norms becomes as a slave, the lowliest form of humanity, without status, simply numbered among the property of his master and as easily disposed of, and as the Greek, not the Jerusalem Bible translation, shows was not simply “humbler yet”, but rather “he humbled himself”, and accepted the most despised of all deaths. What a comment on the lordlings of Philippi and the rulers of the Roman Empire! Here we have a lesson on the nature of true divinity and on the lengths God will go to to save his creation. Anyone singing this hymn in Philippi must have been aware of its radical and deeply subversive meaning. Our hymn claims that it is precisely by such self sacrifice and such an appalling death that this defiled wretch would be exulted by God and receive universal honour and worship. Any Roman emperor would in reality be all too aware that his ‘star’ quality was very much limited to Roman territory, and was something which could vanish all too quickly by an assassin’s knife as others were honoured in their place. Statues even came provided with detachable heads for recycling!

Hebrew writers such as Isaiah (Isa 50:4-7) had explored such understandings of saviour figures like Jesus, who personified the relationship between God and Israel for hundreds of years, as we see in this part of one of the great Servant Songs of Isaiah of the Babylonian Exile. Highly significantly, these songs of divine redemption are always fixed in the humility and even degradation of the Servant/nation, whose success and enduring magnetism lay precisely in the weakness and not the power of the servant who is always shown as one who submits to the divine command and is thereby rewarded. I suspect that the great Philippians hymn came from a Jewish-Christian source, familiar with this relationship between God and his creation, and had found it profoundly instructive.

Finally let us look at the Gospel for the Palm Procession (Luke 19:28-40) No doubt Jesus also found all those images fundamental and dominant as he prepared to enter Jerusalem for his Passion. In consequence, he chose to come into the city not on a war horse – as many were hoping – but on a young, fresh colt. He was acclaimed with the words of the great Hallel psalms which were used throughout Passover week, significantly being called ‘king’, but as we see, it is not an earthly king who is acclaimed here, as so many were expecting, but God’s king; and one significantly who brought peace, not on earth, but in heaven. It appears that what we are witnessing here is not any threat to the Roman Empire, or any other worldly rule, but rather the reign of God on earth, the Eschaton, when God’s power will come to fruition and rule the cosmos. Small wonder then, that Jesus reproves the Pharisees in the way he does.

Luke, writing largely for a Christian community of converts from paganism has, it appears, a far greater agenda than the redemption of Palestine and its lasting power, and has taken on board the meaning of Jesus and the salvation of the entire creation which he promises. Matthew and Mark’s account of this entry into Jerusalem are far more specific in relating expectation to a new Davidic renaissance. Luke, by contrast has seen out beyond this, indeed far beyond the hopes of any earthly nation. Here, as at the birth of the Messiah, we see the glory of heaven about to be revealed.

The glory of God is man fully alive

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- We are frequently told that ‘we are what we eat’ and, as far as this goes, this can be very good advice, too much sugar, booze or fats are clearly detrimental to our health, but there is surely more to life than food, and this seems  to have been the issue Jesus was tackling (John 6:24-35) in our gospel.

Clearly the problem was that after his great feeding ‘sign’ where 5,000 were catered for those who followed him had grossly mistaken both the nature of the sign and its implications for his identity. They thought all their earthly problems were over, no more hunger – just follow this chap and you will no longer need to labour for food, it will all be given you on a plate. They were after a care-free existence and, if they interpreted it at all, as we saw last week, believed Jesus would be a Davidic messiah, lording it over other earthly oppressors. In a similar way they had mistaken the original sign of feeding in the wilderness, (Exodus 16:2-4.12-15). In this text we are shown that it is God who provided the quail and manna in the wilderness, but not as a reward or to promote the power of his prophet Moses. Rather he did it because the people were so unreasonable and ruinous to God’s own plans for Israel and he wanted them to survive and grow in understanding. This feeding was part of God’s education and care of his chosen as he took them to the Promised Land, and all the time, through all their disasters he was helping them to know the One, true God. Israel’s story sadly seems to have been one long tale of the failure of his chosen to get the point, as they messed up time and time again.  Sadly, for Jesus, there does not seem to have been any eureka moment for those following him, either in interpretation of the miracle or of perception about the giver of the sign and its origins.

In this passage therefore Jesus continually sets himself to explain the nature of the feeding of the 5,000. Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life. But the people simply refer back to the Exodus miracle and want more of the same. Jesus responds by pointing out that the gift came not from man – Moses, but from God himself. God, he says, is the giver of something, someone far greater than abundance of food, the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And just a little later, I am (using the divine name), the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst. Those of us alert to John’s Prologue will recollect his saying that ‘in the Word was life and the life was the light of men’, so that we recognise that all these different terms, bread, light, life, etc are simply ways of speaking about Jesus, about the Son, one with God from the beginning. Clearly it was their vision of things which was too small, as is the case with us too.

What God is offering us in and through Jesus was never abundance of material goods or power or anything material at all, but a fully developed relationship with himself – the relationship shared between Father and Son. Precisely when we do live as they live in relation to each other we can imagine a situation in which there will be true abundance, represented by messianic banquets and massive feedings, since there will not be have’s and not-have’s but rather perfection of union and an openness to the other which is the life of the Trinity and that surely will be the ‘life’ of which Jesus speaks.

This is not and never was a call to give everything up and starve in a garret or to adopt some crazy hippy existence, for, as the Letter to the Ephesians (4:17.20-24) suggests, real and positive change is and was required among believers in their day to day existence, something Pope Francis speaks about in his encyclical about our approach to our planet. There had to be an active turning away from their former pagan lives, with its ready access to pagan gods and the many excesses that were a common part of that life which would have included easy access to brothels and blood sports including the slaughter of fellow human beings for entertainment; abuse of slaves and the contempt or rather indifference for the human person which was so taken for granted. This surely is a situation mirrored by our present day attitudes to one another as we reject the idea of welcoming refugees into our land.

Our Jerusalem Bible translation speaks of the need for a ‘spiritual revolution’, in Greek ‘the making of a new man/nature created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’. In following the Greek perhaps we are enabled to get closer to the real implications of our putting on Christ and will be in a better position to contemplate our gospel passage about the ‘true bread, come down from heaven to give life to the world.’  Jesus speaks of himself as bread, that commodity most fundamental to survival in the ancient world and he wants people to realise how absolutely essential it is for any human being to be able to reach out beyond their basic needs for subsistence in order for their lives to have meaning and purpose. It is this which we call the search for God, this that the saints long for “our hearts are restless till they rest in you”, as Augustine wrote. Without this longing for something, or someone, a being in whose magnetism we can grow and be stretched we will all lapse into a narrow consumerism, be it that of the endless accumulation of the rich or the scratching survival of the poor. We may lose ourselves in hedonism or waste our lives in heedless violence of one form or another, but as Jesus knew, we are all searching for fulfilment and meaning in our lives, that which anchors us and will endure forever – the bread of eternal life and until we find it or are at least pointing in the right direction there will be dead areas, sadness and emptiness at the heart of our being.

As Irenaeus once wrote; ‘The glory of God is man, fully alive.’