Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I wonder how often or how much any of us really value or understand the implications of the moments of re-creation or new creation that we are continually granted by God’s grace? Quite often, I suspect, we just grab at them and allow them to pass us by, or rather, like the people of Israel, (Joshua 5:9-12) such moments of newness and creation all get swept up in the needs and frustrations of the moment, or the days and years that lie ahead. Our story from the book of Joshua speaks of the entry of the people into the Promised Land by way of Gilgal, just north of Jericho, north of the Dead Sea. It was achieved by war, deception, violent overthrow of the existing inhabitants, by massacring of the inhabitants of their cities. That was why Israel no longer needed food provided by God, and those of you who know the story of their subsequent life in Palestine will be aware that times were often very difficult. I suppose we all expect everything to continue in splendid joy and calm once we have been graced by God, and don’t think out the implications of such a gift. It certainly was not like this for Jesus, and indeed, as “Necessity is the mother of invention.” it appears that it is the challenge of problems that enables us to think through difficulties, and grow as graced human beings. Israel achieved its occupation of the Promised Land by a series of hostile acts and war crimes; and had to learn to discern God’s hand amidst these atrocities and their shame and disgrace.
I suggest it was much the same for St Paul, writing to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:17-21). Our stirring passage could easily be seen as a great piece of rhetoric with little reference to reality. The language is indeed powerful and grabs at the heart strings; but we must remember that in calling his converts to be “Ambassadors for Christ”, Paul was writing a series of very challenging letters to this most fragile and twitchy congregation. The letters are suffused with death and suffering; his own and theirs, quite apart from all their other anti Christian attitudes. Ambassadors, literally priests of their state, represented the nation at its very heart, and negotiated for it in peace and in war. Theirs was frequently an unenviable task, as indeed we see today, as our negotiators in Europe and the Near East don’t secure the deals we would like and we pillory them. The job of the ambassador is to dig on in there, not to let go, and to persevere through thick and thin. Paul was all too aware that the Christians of Corinth would meet setbacks; from within their own ranks; from within their task of converting others in a hostile Roman Empire; and that the price he was asking them to pay might well be that of their own lives. He knew that the prize, oneness with God, was there in the end, and was worth striving and dying for. Becoming new creatures in Christ meant embracing Christ’s death and resurrection, living now into eternal life. The fact that their road was likely to be a rocky one, with frequent failures and wrong turnings on their and his own part, was no deterrent to action. “God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding men’s faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.” Our job is to get involved and to discover our relationship with God in bad situations and good. The point is that God is always there for us and loves us, and that we are always unworthy of his grace. We cannot earn it by our efforts. It is simply his gift.
In Luke’s gospel (Luke 15:1-3.11-32) we find a parable illustrating this situation. It is the story of God’s action in Jesus, his action for his entire people, for those who will crucify him as an unbearable affront to his society. They are represented by the Prodigal Son, totally unworthy of forgiveness or acceptance. The difficulty the Jews had, as do we, is that of understanding the total otherness of God and of his outrageous closeness in Christ. God is not like a stern parent or even a good and loving one. The whole point of the parable is that this son pushes the father (God) beyond all reason and all forgiveness. First he wishes his father dead so that he can inherit before time, then he squanders this lavish inheritance in a life of debauchery. He ends up starving and in consequence works with a pagan farmer’s pigs – the absolute pits of degradation for a Jew; he is even reduced to eating pig food. He is quite beyond the pale, absolutely outcast from his nation, and then comes crawling back asking, quite rightly, for a place alongside the household slaves. Reason demands that the upright father deny him his request, lest he in turn be shamed again. But the father (God) does not just forgive and lay down new conditions for forgiveness and reintegration, rather from afar he spies the bedraggled son and runs to meet him and orders a huge party to celebrate his return, as if he were the hero of the hour! Indeed, he is! He is humanity reconciled to God, not by anything we do, but simply because God is who he is, the merciful, the loving, who continually makes a new creation of fallen humanity. And when we look at the mess we have made of our world, thank God that he does. The marvel is, as St Paul says, that God’s plan in the death and resurrection of Christ is that “In him we might become the goodness of God.” Or rather, as the Greek has it, that we might become the righteousness of God himself, and this righteousness, as we can now appreciate, has nothing whatever to do with human righteousness. It is a journey into the heart of God himself.