A journey into the heart of God

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.

 

 

 

 

Thrilled to see grace at work

Frances writes on the readings for the Baptism of the Lord :- These readings are all designed to focus upon the reality of the human life of Jesus among us. God with humanity; humanity transformed in his image. This task is partly achieved by way of comparison with the world into which he was born, and into which he would bring his saving grace and so change forever the world in which we live.

Second Isaiah, (Isa 40:1-5.9-11) the prophet of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC, deliberately wrote a message of hope and transformation to his exiled people at one of the darkest moments in their national life. His country, Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians of the Fertile Crescent along with hundreds of other tribes and nations. Their temple in Jerusalem, by then the centre and focus of their worship of the One true God, had been plundered of all its wealth and beauty and left a heap of smouldering ruins ; and the entire elite, from king and royal family, courtiers and intelligentsia and skilled workers, had been dragged off to labour in Babylonia. It looked at if the entire ‘God of Israel’ project was finished. But this was precisely the moment for optimism on the part of Isaiah, who recognised that a renewed and revitalised Judaism would ultimately rise from the ashes – the work which would produce this great renaissance indeed began and flourished in Babylon. Not for him was the nation to go under to a pantheon of pagan gods, but rather this fertile environment would nurture a reformed Judaism, one orientated to the truth and full of hope in its ancient promises.

When Titus became the first bishop, or leader of the Christians, on the island of Crete, he too had a similar revisionist agenda. (Titus 2:11-14. 3:4-7) Now it would be very easy to read ‘Titus’ as a heavily moralising tract, and certainly our Jerusalem Bible translation seems to have done precisely that with its invocation to ‘give up everything that does not lead to God’. This could very easily be seen as a call to reject the world and sit and wait for the great in-bursting of God, a moment of Rapture, an attitude Paul vigorously rejects in Thessalonians. But the Greek suggests something quite different. The Greek calls us to ‘renounce impiety and worldly passions’, which is not the same thing at all, and much more specific. So why does Titus focus on these two areas of the lives of the Cretans? Not only was Crete now part of the Roman Empire, with its plethora of gods which were clearly opposed to Christianity, we have to remember that statues of the gods pervaded every aspect of public life. Religion was never a private thing as it has become for us. Such ‘idols’ were at street corners; at the law courts where oaths to them were taken in legal matters; they were resplendent at the amphitheatres and in all the games laid on for public entertainment; at the baths and in paintings and decorations at peoples homes. Military life too was suffused with reference to the gods. There were ‘worldly passions aplenty too, with the games, brothels and the abuse of the person by slavery, for Crete had its big slave markets. But there was something about life on Crete which was altogether older and more deeply engrained than Roman ways. Way, way back, in the Bronze Age Crete worshipped the Goddess Dea, and by the 9th century BC Crete was one of the great centres of the myth of Cronos-Zeus. There is an ancient cave on Mt Ida where the child Zeus was said to have been nurtured, hidden from his devouring father, Cronos. These ‘creation’ myths exercised a powerful hold on the population, and we can imagine that Christianity really had to work to capture the imaginations of the people to the truth of the incarnation and our human destiny in God. Indeed, Titus speaks of the teaching or rather training, pedagogy,  necessary in the faith, and whilst we might be inclined to gloss over this phrase, for the original hearers it would have had far more the sense of the exhausting physical preparation for the Olympic Games or the very careful schooling of the mind in Philosophy. Just as with Isaiah, whose work flooded his people with hope of salvation from captivity, so on Crete too, the newly arrived Christian message was never some dour call to smarten up their act, but rather training in becoming a new creation, one fit for the company of God himself. It was full of excitement and joy.

All this, as we see from Isaiah and Titus, has very little to do with our achievement, but is a work of grace. What we have to do is be open to that experience, alert and expectant, welcoming. This surely is what our reading from Luke’s gospel is about. (LK 3:15-16.21-22). I think we see this encapsulated in John the Baptist’s description of himself: “I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals.” We do not live any longer in a culture of slaves and masters, of hierarchies and minions, but I can assure you, as one who was nurtured in such a world in Apartheid South Africa, that there are ways and means of expressing status and grinding down the weak and the lowly. John, who could have claimed the top role for himself, deliberately stepped aside from the temptation and assumed his rightful place, that of the lowest of the household slaves before his Lord, in a movement of complete self-effacement in response to grace in the person of Jesus; and the image we are given of this moment is not one of resentment or agony, but of joy and liberation. There simply was no moral agonising on his part, quite simply the knowledge of who he was and who Jesus was, and he was thrilled to stand aside. Let us watch for those moments of grace in the coming year.

Saved by grace

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- Our portion of Luke’s gospel, (16:1-13), seems to propose two quite contradictory messages. In the first part we are presented with a set of thoroughly reprehensible people whom the Lord commends for their astuteness,s and in the second we seem to have a small moral lecture on the value of honesty and its rewards. They don’t seem to be linked at all, or, are they?

Jesus would have been well aware of the thoroughgoing corruption which threaded its way throughout Roman society. It wasn’t, unlike our reading from Amos, (8:4-7) that there were good and bad, and, as Jews supposed, that the virtuous were destined for heaven; but rather that in one way or another all were hopelessly lost without the grace of God.

In Roman society many rich people gained their wealth at the cost of others, be it their slaves; whose loss of independence and free labour enabled them to exploit vast tracts of land; or, like the fabulously wealthy Crassus, who bought up land in Rome after fires and threw up cheap tenements and raked in the profits. No one thought badly of Crassus – he was Julius Caesar’s banker and was elected Consul and led Republican armies until killed by the Parthians in 53 BC. Indeed, the worthy Cicero who only fleeced his province of Cilicia to the tune of a couple of million of sesterces, was considered near imbecilic for his lack of zest in pursuing financial gain, whilst Brutus and Cassius, who bankrupted the province of Asia for their wars against the Republic were considered national heroes!

No, Jesus recognised that this was a world not of moral rectitude but an honour society and a patron-client world in which everyone, from super rich to smallest was entwined in a maze of obligations and responsibilities and that it was this, rather than moral behaviour which kept the show on the road. Almost certainly the rich man in our story was corrupt, and therefore when his scoundrel steward was brought to book for corruption and resorted to even further and indeed, outrageous fraud to feather his nest for the future; he could understand and even appreciate the joke in it all. Certainly Jesus’ audience would have been very familiar with such a situation and have been able to identify with it very easily. It is only a 21st century audience, like ours, that has trouble with it because it appears to be such an immoral tale.  For how else are we to understand the phrase: “The master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness?”

Perhaps too, there is an implied criticism of a rather uptight and puritanical Christian Church in: “The children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.” Was it perhaps that the early Christians, like their Jewish ancestors, represented here by the Prophet Amos, lacked the capacity to forgive its sinners and cast them out of the community?

No, if we are truthful, we have to recognise that in one way or another we are all quite undeserving of any place in the Kingdom of God. This is only achieved for each of us by the death of Christ on the cross. Our moral actions, such as they are, are only ever a fitting tribute to the one who gave his all for us, they can never earn our place in heaven. Our problem is, like many a Jew in Jesus’ day, that they and we think that our good actions are redemptive in their own right. Jesus insists that they are not.

Perhaps this is the reason why our readings includes a passage from 1 Timothy, (2:1-8), at this point. Many in his day, as now, rightly hold very jaundiced views of kings and those in authority and understand that they are often corrupt, or at very least sway with the shifting political winds and are very rarely as honourable as we think they should be. They do need our prayers. After all, it was a combination of corrupt Jewish authorities and Romans who put Jesus to death. The point however is, as Timothy makes clear, that God wants all people to be saved and in this hopelessly confused situation, “There is only one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus, who sacrificed himself as a ransom for them all.”

This reading of our Gospel does have the merit of fitting in with the context of this whole section of Luke’s gospel which is a series of stories in which Jesus meets and confronts different people on the way to Jerusalem and his passion. His message is clear. We are saved by his grace and not by our efforts.