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!

 

 

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Enfolded in God

Frances writes on the Readings for the Feast of the Assumption:- In one way we expect the Feast of the Assumption to be all about Mary, as we celebrate the significance of her unique contribution to the salvation of the world in the incarnation. It is therefore about her triumph. In another, it reflects on her humility, as one insignificant peasant woman responds to her God. Yet in another sense, the Assumption is not really about Mary at all, but rather about God and his action in her and through her. It is precisely in and through Mary that our whole understanding of God shifts from traditional expectations of any gods or God, and in our case takes our faith origins in Judaism way beyond the understanding of so many of its people. Yet ,as we shall see, this understanding that we inherit, of God revealed in Jesus the Son of Mary, was there all the way through Jewish history, just waiting to be unveiled. The Assumption is also primarily about the Church, the culmination of Mary’s gift to the world of Christ. Mary’s story and ours as Christians are irrevocably entwined, and each of us is enfolded in God.

 

It will be easiest to begin with the Gospel. (Luke 1:39-56) Immediately after the visit of the angel, Mary goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth to rejoice at the pregnancy of this formerly barren woman. In a passage heavily plagiarised from Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, we find Mary voicing her joy at the divine action in the vision of a deity whose power and majesty will be demonstrated, not amongst the great, the rich or powerful, but rather in the humble, the hungry and the downtrodden. In short, God manifests himself both to Hannah and centuries later to Mary in ways which overthrow normal understandings of the divine. That this great manifestation should be rooted in that most significant thing for any nation’s thriving – the birth of children – and also to those believed barren and therefore despised, since they were unable to fulfil their most fundamental role in society, is significant. God has touched and made fecund the core of his creation. It will be the story of Israel’s, and our, continual refashioning. It is about the victory of God.

 

This too is what is celebrated in our Reading from 1 Corinthians (15:20-27). For those without belief in Christ, either in the ancient world or even today, physical death represents a stunning and bleak end, the wiping out of a human existence. Ancient paganism had no sense of what we call ‘eternal life’. The very best one could hope for was for some shadowy existence in Hades, some lingering sense of the person, but no more. Even in first century Judaism, ‘resurrection’ would all have been tied up with the eagerly awaited eschaton, the full reign of God on earth, when Israel gained supremacy over all the nations and ruled the roost. The Christian claim that through the bodily resurrection of Jesus after his death, we all have life with and in God himself, living as divine creatures, was and is something quite other. It means that the dark oblivion which threatens every creature is swept away and that believers are party to the life and eternally creative energy which is the being and nature of God himself. For the citizens of Corinth, living in a vibrant lively city with two ports and a myriad of peoples and ideas, few things would have been more stark and sobering than to walk outside the city walls to its roadside cemeteries. For hundreds of them, death was an ever present threat, annihilation literally at a bend in the road. Paul’s magnificent promise that Christ had overcome death itself, and that he is more powerful than any earthly king, and that he can with utter certainty subdue all that gets in the way of our ultimate union with the Father, would have had immense appeal for the Christian community, and been a powerful propaganda tool. They too, like Mary Christ’s mother, have the promise of life in God.

 

Our Reading from The Apocalypse (11:19; 12:1-6.10) needs to be understood in its context. John, its writer, wrote to Christian communities in south-western Turkey to reinvigorate their faith at a period when they might have been flagging under persecution, or even becoming complacent. ‘The woman’ he speaks of here is the Church, in a sense the offspring of Mary. It is a Church under threat of annihilation from the Roman authorities with their many gods – the ‘huge red dragon which had seven heads and ten horns’ – a representation of the city and its empire stretched out to control the Mediterranean. John has taken well known stories or myths of battles between true princes and usurpers and used them in his own ‘myth’ making of the battle between good (Christianity) and evil (Rome). He wants his readers to understand that our God will triumph in the end. His message for the beleaguered churches lies in the dramatic story of God’s rescue of the male child and his mother. They may appear very small and vulnerable, as indeed they are; but Israel’s story, from which Christianity emerged, is that it is precisely the humble, lowly and insignificant who God chooses to work through, and in whom he will triumph.  It has always been the Christian story, and in our day when we feel threatened by acts of terrorism or other forms of oppression and hatred, it is good to remember that this great feast celebrates precisely these moments, and our origins in Mary Mother of the Church. “There is no need to be afraid; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Not God’s puppets but players in the game!

Frances writes :- In this weeks readings our relationship with God is presented in something akin to a contractual sense, one in which we gain somehow or other by the amount we ourselves contribute or ‘put-in’ to the relationship. It might almost serve as a metaphor for our understanding of the Mass in which armchair observers; couch-potatoes ‘don’t get much out of it.’

This is beautifully illustrated in our gospel (Luke 12:32-48). We are speaking here of the slave to master relationship, so not one ever of equality; and it is fundamental to the understanding of the story and the point I am making that we appreciate this. Most Roman citizens owned slaves, indeed as did many throughout the Greco-Roman Empire. Owners of slaves frequently lived in apprehension of their slaves, especially since the huge slave revolt in the first century BC under Spartacus. Owners had learned to control and get the co-operation of slaves, especially those in urban and domestic situations, by the promise of giving them their freedom. Trusted household slaves, noted for their fidelity to their owners and the family; their careful management of their resources; or as tutors; financial managers; or even managers of their estates (stewards as in our story) could ultimately gain their freedom, and were frequently set up in business by their former owners, now patrons, of whom they now became clients. Ex slaves without a patron were likely to have a very hard life. The threat of being sold and having your family split up was the safety device by which owners often secured the loyalty of their slaves.

The good slaves therefore in our Gospel are those who remain on the alert, waiting for the master’s return in the small hours; or those who guard his property against burglars and those with oversight of estates who manage them diligently and well. Conversely, those who abuse the system can expect harsh punishment, and all would have been well aware of the score. The benefits of obedience and loyalty were well known and could pay dividends, and so Jesus uses this pattern of living as a very pertinent illustration of the relationship between the believer and God. The trustee would be ensured of enormous rewards and the idle slacker or dishonest severely punished. In short, the Christian only reaps what he/she sows.

The picture in the Letter to the Hebrews (111-2.8-19) is not dissimilar. It almost speaks of faith as an investment in the future, one in which the investor makes a calculated commitment to an as yet uncertain future, but in the conviction that he/she is doing the right thing. The writer of Hebrews, clearly addressing converts from Judaism to Christianity, is at pains to stress the continuity of the faith in the God Abraham, the Father of the Jewish faith, discovered and worked at so long ago. He is convinced that Jesus is the final and culminating manifestation of the God of the Hebrews, indeed God with us in the person of Jesus. The writer therefore appeals to these new converts to follow Abraham in a similar and powerful act of faith, and cites other heroes of the past as back-up. For Jews, turning their backs on the long traditions of their fathers and the laws, circumcision and sacrifices which Christianity rejected, this re-interpretation of their founding fathers and their faith could only have served as an encouragement in what were uncomfortable and difficult times. Placing your faith, and therefore your religious actions, in something, rather someone, uncertain, and leaving behind what was so sure rooted, took nerve and real conviction. The writer of Hebrews really made this well known material work for the Christian cause, and indicated that, like the founders of Judaism, it required a lot of hard work.

The Book of Wisdom (18:6-9) is the work of a writer of the first century BC at a time when Palestine was under Egyptian occupation. Although ascribed to Solomon, it is of course almost a thousand years from that ‘wise’ king, and is rather a piece of propaganda designed to boost the morale of the people under Egyptian rule and harshly exploited. Our passage in particular reminds the people of the Lord God’s defeat of the Egyptians, and the great Exodus event which brought the Jewish nation into being. It speaks of a divine pact, almost a treaty, between God and his people under which they would be rescued in return for their loyalty to the God of Judaism. It is a great praise-song to God in which the downtrodden place all their faith and hope in God, and trust not in their own power or force of arms, but in the saving grace of the Most High.

So we have been talking about acts of trust (faith) and their acknowledgement in behaviour in all three readings. There are pacts made, but never between equals, rather between those of huge inequality. For us moderns today, all this talk of being like slaves, or the occupied and downtrodden, in relationship to God may well grate. What we have to remember is that however we choose to express our relationship with God, somehow or other we must attempt to capture the enormity of the difference between us and God, yet realise the offer of grace held out to each of us and the invitation given – that we can participate, that we are never simply the objects of divine benevolence but are responsive too. That is God’s invitation to us. We are not mere puppets on his string, but players in the game.

 

Passion and commitment required

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- In our readings, from the Book of the Kings (1Kings 19:16.19-21) and our Gospel (Luke 9:51-62) we are entering two very different worlds. The first, from Kings is about an ancient Iron Age society of kings and powerful prophets, of warfare and political coups. The second, our Gospel, is about Jesus’ outreach to people and the very different requirements and demands this makes upon us.

 

In Kings, we see Elijah the Prophet acting as kingmaker and deciding who is fit to rule and who not. Quite clearly he and his followers were pretty disillusioned with the House of Omri and Ahab its latest ruler in Samaria, the Kingdom of Israel, at a time when Judah and Israel were two separate states. Ahab had adopted Baalism, and many in Israel had turned away from worship of the God of Israel. Elijah and his supporters clearly sided with the Arameans/Syrians in a period of general upheaval in the Near East, and planned a coup to unseat these kings and replace them with others more to their taste. Our reading from 1 Kings omits the first part of the story where he anoints other kings to rule the Arameans and Israelites, and clearly had a hand in promoting the rise to the throne of Hazael who seized Syria by murdering its reigning king. The account of the selection of Elisha as his successor as prophet in Israel is part of this story. Clearly the young man came from a wealthy family, from the details of the twelve yoke of oxen. In an action reminiscent of the Ruth-Boaz story, we find that Elijah claims the young Elisha as his by throwing his cloak over him, and he apparently cannot refuse this summons. Appropriately respectful, he organises a feast, cooking two of the oxen, and then formally bids farewell to his parents. Now he belongs to Elijah. I am sure our translation, “For have I done anything to you.” is totally misleading – he has in fact done a great deal, taking this man from his family to be in effect his son, and heir to the prophetic tradition.  We are in a world of very carefully placed gestures, laws and ways of behaving, attitudes which were fixed and could not be broken.

 

In our Gospel however, we enter a much more fluid and chancy situation, and one in which Jesus deliberately refrains from forcing anyone’s hand in the risky matter of faith in him and the exploration of its meaning. Hence, he is quite content to accept the rejection of an entire Samaritan village and simply moves on. His disciples would have preferred to zap the lot, in a typical Old Testament act of vengeance or honour killing for such a slight. This Jesus firmly rejects. He also rejects the wavering and uncertain follower who is clearly attracted from the wrong motives, presumably because he expected the disciples to be housed and fed along the way, and would soon give up when things got tough. Similarly with the person wanting to follow later “Once I’ve attended to my familial responsibilities.” Here we see someone careful and calculating, possibly without passion for the Gospel, and almost certainly unwilling to follow the radical way of Jesus, and the same appears true of the final vignette with the man who is rejected for saying he wants to say good-bye to his family. It is clearly not that Jesus had a down on friends and families, or on human needs and our obligations to others, far from it, as the Gospel accounts of his interventions continually demonstrate. What does seem to be the case is his requirement that a passion and a commitment for the Good News of the Kingdom of God fire their bellies. True, Jesus knows that they may all do a runner at the crucifixion, but he had a sense that they had enough understanding ultimately to put aside their day jobs, and devote themselves unrestrainedly to the gospel, to his way and that is what he wanted.

 

This is about being able to think for one’s self, to set aside the beliefs one has grown up with, and the social norms of the day. That was and is what mission is about. It was what St Paul was about too, and why, in writing to the Galatians (Gal 5:1.13-18) against those who would persuade the Christians to adopt Judaism and all its rules, he was so insistent on a law-free way of faith. Put quite simply, their one rule was the law of love, of putting others before self and one’s own needs and values, what he here calls self-indulgence. In Greek they are sarx, attitudes of the flesh, by way of contrast Jesus, through Paul, urges each and every Christian to think carefully and critically about his/her actions in the light of the life of Jesus, and to act accordingly.

The offer of life in the love of Jesus

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- For those of us unfamiliar with the writings of the prophet Zechariah (12:10-11; 13:1) this passage is almost incomprehensible. What is important is to realise is that much of the book is taken up with a series of visions that the prophet received from God. In them, God is complaining about the infidelities of his chosen people Israel. It is precisely these faults, and the desertion of Israel from true worship, that the prophet understands has been responsible for the Babylonian exile. It is all very straight forward: Israel has sinned against their God and has been punished. Now, under the enlightened Persians, the heirs of a chastened people are to be allowed to return to their native land.

 

It all becomes a lot clearer if for “The one whom they have pierced”, we read Yahweh, or the Lord God. Israel is meant to have learned its lesson and, most significantly, mourned over the loss of this relationship. The writer, knowing his people well, remarks that this mourning will be “Like the mourning of Hadad-Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo”. This was an area of great Baalism and clearly an important shrine for this storm and fertility god whose annual demise and rebirth was solemnly worshipped by his devotees; mourning the writer equates to the death of a first born son. On the success of these festivities hung, it was believed, the annual cycles of agricultural and all other fertility. They were critical to the lives of ancient peoples from the Neolithic Age to the late first century BC, and, of course one might also add, many of us who call ourselves Christians, seem to have adopted similar Old Testament views about our faith in Jesus. So my guess is that the compliers of our lectionary deliberately counter-posed the readings, to bring into focus the very different understanding of the gods on the one hand, and the God that Christianity espouses on the other.

 

This seems to be the point of our Gospel (Luke 9:18-24), where Jesus explores the nature of his identity with his chosen disciples. St Peter acclaims him ‘the Christ of God’, but it would appear that he had very mistaken ideas as to what this meant. Many Jews in the time of Jesus were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah (Christ). The majority hoped for a popular military leader who would lead his troops to destroy the occupying Roman forces and introduce a vast and powerful Israeli state; one never again subject to foreigners. Jesus however did not share these ideas, as we see, for he speaks of his rejection, suffering and death, precisely at the hands of the religious leaders of his day, and he calls on his followers to take up their crosses daily if they would follow him. In short, Jesus has explored and developed in a much more realistic way, Zechariah’s ‘pierced and mourned for’ deity. Whilst the original was damaged by the infidelities of his people, but could and did punish them for their unfaithfulness, Jesus will do the unthinkable, precisely the opposite. God the Son will actually die (neither symbolically or metaphorically) for his people. His death will not be something that punishes us or suffuses us with guilt, contrary to much bad theology. It will be a willing self-sacrifice on the part of God himself, made out of love, which will irrevocably restore humanity to its full and proper relationship with God.

 

Note, we are not speaking of being made better, but of a restored divinity returned to us believers, and lost in the crazy situation we call the sin of the world. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, our approach to God is now made whole again, in a move which significantly has little to do with our personal goodness or badness. It is the measure of divine grace and his will that we share his life eternally. Henceforward, inevitably, our lives are now shaped by his cross, for we are redeemed by his cross and live our lives under its influence. In Jesus therefore, we see a dramatic rejection of the Old Testament view that what matters is our moral rectitude, and that we can expect punishment if we don’t conform. God’s solution to our hopeless inability to be ‘good’ is Jesus. There is no other who can redeem us and make us fit for the Father’s company.

 

This, of course, is what Paul speaks of in Galatians (3:26-29). For St Paul nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than Christ and our baptism into his death, and the eternal life that promises. We must remember that this letter was written to a group of Christians who were being harassed by Jewish Christians who insisted that the only way to Christ was through their full adopting of the Jewish law. This Paul vehemently rejected, arguing that Christ was the fulfilment of all the law and utterly superseded it. Hence we find his insistence that all the great divisions separating Jews from non-Jews are obsolete. “There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. The stunning nature of this Christ-given cohesion is utterly lost on us today in the West, where we don’t make such distinctions (except perhaps those who are of a racist disposition and must find them very troubling). We don’t keep slaves, and female emancipation is taken for granted by the educated. Of course in other countries this Christian claim would be a shock even today. Paul understood Christ’s great gift of himself was for the entire humanity, and it was in the light of this shattering revelation that he himself was reformed and redeemed, and he understood everyone else was too. Those of us who want a judgemental God, a God who punishes sins (not ours of course) had better look elsewhere. We have been privileged to have been offered life in the overwhelming and even anarchic love of the God of Jesus Christ.

God delighting in the creation

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings:- It appears that the compliers of our lectionary deliberately selected readings for Trinity Sunday which turn our thinking about God in a very Jewish direction. We can all too easily think of God in Trinity in three distinct ways, even, following the Greek sense, as three ‘persons’ in one unique being or essence. But the choice of our first reading from Proverbs (8:22-31) harks back to the personified wisdom of God powerful and active in creation. Wisdom is God’s companion and always party to God’s actions in creating the cosmos. Proverbs appears to have been compiled from very early material assembled together in the late 6th century to the 5th century BCE. As the historians among you will recognise, this places this important Jewish affirmation of the One true God around the time of the Babylonian captivity. As it shares ideas with Second Isaiah and Jeremiah, both prophets of the exile, we can assume it too used thinking gleaned from that experience and the people of the Fertile Crescent, or even demonstrates the insistence of the Jewish exiles in keeping God as One against the plethora of the gods they met there. Our passage from Proverbs aims to stress the solidarity, the unity of the divine purpose, and the solidarity of what might appear different elements in the divine. This is drawn out by the frequently repeated “When he (God) fixed the heavens; the surface of the deep; the springs; laid the foundations of the earth” and so on. Wisdom is, like the Christian understanding of God the Son, ‘from the beginning’ before any created thing, indicating that it is part of the divine himself, intimate and in perfect union with him. Indeed, so intimate is the relationship between God and Wisdom that in reality it appears almost impossible to separate them. Yet this is precisely what Proverbs seems to do, both by emphasising their unity and by indicating that Wisdom is in some way distinct.

 

This manner of speaking acts both to emphasise the unity of God and to allow for distinctive ways of thinking about God’s actions, the creation of things other than himself, and thereby keeping God aloof and separate from the creative action itself, yet its master and Lord. This can be a real help in thinking about the Christian Trinity which often seems so complicated and near impossible for many believers ever to grasp. If we think about the way in which St John for instance uses this concept, we can find both Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit reflected in the wisdom concept. John will speak of Jesus as the creator, saviour and redeemer and also, as we have in our Gospel (Jn 16:12-15) as the Holy Spirit, his spirit, present in the universe after his physical withdrawal to the Father. There, the distinctiveness of each of the persons of the Trinity is emphasised, while at the same time their perfect unity and solidarity is maintained. What we have is always the fullness of divinity, emphasised through different tasks, redemption on the cross by the Son, continual succour and support of the Church by the Spirit.

 

What is significant, I think, is the very antiquity of this way of speaking about God. Some distressingly difficult modern writers on the Trinity seem to give the impression that it was gleaned entirely from Greek philosophy. But if the appeal to Proverbs is right, it appears we are entering a territory altogether more ancient, going right back to the origins of Judaism, in which, far from witnessing a remote and detached deity, Wisdom gives us a picture of God delighting, involved in his creating of the universe, an experience so exhilarating that somehow it had to be shared.

 

Perhaps this is why we are also given the passage from Romans (5:1-5). This brief summary of the relationship between Father and Son, and of Our Lord’s continuing action in us which is the work of the Spirit, is a masterly summing up of the whole purpose of the Trinity. The Greek, rather than the Jerusalem Bible makes rather clearer the Trinitarian nature of this passage. Paul does not claim that we are ‘judged righteous’, suggestive of our behaviour, but instead, “Having been justified by the faith of Jesus Christ”, emphasising that this is not our work, but that of Jesus the Son. Because of his work, we are now able to enter into the glory of God the Father. The certainty of this new and heavenly inheritance is continually affirmed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. In this then, we meet not simply God in Trinity, God as he is, threefold, but also God in Trinity working continually for our salvation. This seems to be why St Paul pops the rather odd bit about our sufferings into the picture amidst all his talk of the divine glory. Perhaps he is emphasising our human solidarity, the solidarity of the redeemed by Christ who won this great glory by suffering himself. Through the work of the Spirit of Christ in us, our human sufferings take on a different hue. It is not that we in any way save ourselves, that is entirely the work of God; yet in solidarity with Christ, our sufferings take on a greater and perhaps eternal dimension, conforming us to the divine outlook and mindset. Indeed, in Colossians 1:24, Paul will even go so far as to claim that in his sufferings “I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” For sure, we are not sharers in the Trinity, but we are sharers in God’s glory.

 

In our Gospel (John 16:12-15) taken from the great teaching passages of Jesus in Jerusalem prior to his saving passion, we see him instructing the disciples about the fullness of understanding to be given us through the work of the Spirit after the death and resurrection of Jesus to the Father. At that time, their knowledge, or perhaps understanding, of what Jesus would achieve for them was limited. Later, he says, they will know, and this knowledge and joy will be the work of the Holy Spirit assuring us of the unbreakable union of Father and Son, a gift given to every Christian, to you and to me, through the continual presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Glory in the darkest moments of life

The Easter Vigil

Being a softie I only select three Old Testament readings at the Easter Vigil whereas some priests would impose on you the full rigour of seven! Even so, I know that many people find these readings difficult to fit into the Easter celebration, for they are words and stories from a quite different world view. This time, I chose the ancient story of the Creation, then the escape from the Egyptians by crossing the Sea, and finally one from Isaiah. All with words and phrases that most people find strange and puzzling.

The first thing to remember about these readings, and the psalms that go with them, is that they are not meant to be understood easily. They are an essential part of this strange beginning to these Easter Vigil ceremonies, where we are encouraged to walk into a dark building where we cannot see very well, even when the candles are lit. All of this is a reminder of our endless human struggle to understand what life and death is all about, and how God fits into it. For the way through death to eternal life is not an easy process.

Remember too that the disciples, although they knew these readings a lot better than we do, also did not properly understand them. That’s why two of them on the road to Emmaus had to meet the risen Jesus who then explains how all these readings actually point to him – to the amazing truth that his death is not the end but points onwards to Resurrection.

We have to remember that the whole of the Old Testament is a journey of discovery. It might even be described as a pilgrimage. The writings were not written all in one go, but are the product of hundreds of years of thought and prayer. They are about the slow and difficult way in which the Israelite people came to believe in one invisible God, quite different from the mix of gods other peoples believed in. On this journey, recorded in these writings, they said and did some things that they later learned were at best a misunderstanding of what God wants, or at worse things were simply wrong. But in the midst of all these struggles gradually, very gradually, like the dawn slowly lightening the morning sky, deep truths about God would be revealed. It was these that Jesus fulfilled in his life, in his death and finally in his Resurrection, and which he then had to explain to his puzzled disciples.

The first reading we had tonight was one of the stories of the Creation of the world. (Genesis 1) Here we have our first hint at the Resurrection. Before the Universe existed we are told there was nothing, and that nothing is described asa formless void, there was darkness over the deep” Out of total darkness, nothingness, God creates light, and from this comes all life including us humans. Only God then can defeat the darkness, and bring life from what is dead. “God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth ….  And so it was. God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good.” That is why we sometimes describe the Resurrection as “the new creation”.

The second reading (Exodus 14:14-15:1) was the story of the escape from the Egyptians. Again it appeared as if all was lost, that death at the hand of the Egyptians was all they could expect. Even as they cross where the sea has gone back, the Egyptians follow them. They reach the other bank and look back … to see the Egyptians struggling. The sea sweeps in, just as it does in Morecambe Bay in England, and those who would bring death are destroyed. And so they sang as we did, and almost certainly as Jesus and his disciples did in the Upper Room, although they sang in Hebrew : “I will sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph… The Lord is my strength, my song, my salvation. This is my God and I extol him, my father’s God, and I give him praise”                                                       

Finally we had a great passage from Isaiah (55:1-11) This was written during another time of great trouble more than 500 years later. The Jews had been sent into exile, and feared that they would not just lose their land, but their God too. They could see around them, people worshipping the Babylonian gods whose power seemed to have built an empire of power and wealth, whilst they struggled in poverty. But amazingly, Isaiah tells them “I (that is God) have made of you a witness to the peoples, a leader and master of nations.” You can imagine their scorn when he first told them that!  And so he goes on to remind them that God is not like them, not like the peoples around them. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways”. And then, just in case they have missed the point “It is the Lord who speaks” 

Most Jews, when they got back eventually to their own land interpreted this promise wrongly, either as an eventual military victory over all their enemies, or as a promise that one day God would act in a magic way to give them the glory they so desired. That’s why he crowds shouted Hosanna as Jesus entered Jerusalem, and then Crucify him when they didn’t get the glory they wanted. But the new life that Jesus offered was, and is, quite different for God is not like us. There are no magic solutions. There is only a God who even in the darkest moments walks with us and alongside us, leading us by a path of love and service and sacrifice to eternal life beyond the grave.  It is this God that we choose to follow on this Holy Night.       

 Easter Morning

How easily we silly humans seek the kind of glory that is only on the surface. Yes, we all like to escape from the real world with all its pain and suffering, and there is no harm in that, provided we realise that it is escapism, and that we must still return to the real world, and not just run away from it. We use all sorts of different ways of escape don’t we, ways to make us feel a bit happier? I swim and garden, and look at trees and birds, and I love a good film or book, with a happy ending of course. Some of you use football or another sport, either to do or to watch, or both, where you can lose yourself in the thrill of the moment. Some of you immerse yourself in computer games, or in shopping either online or on the High Street, and many of you, especially at Easter will also enjoy your chocolate!

 

Yes, all these things can give us moments of bliss, pure glory, when the harder things of life can be forgotten, at least for a little while.  Some people even use religion like this, who want it to be Easter and Christmas all year, and prefer to avoid the more difficult challenges that Jesus expects of those who really want to follow him.

 

Deep down, most of us realise the difference between surface glory, the kind I have just been talking about, and true glory, the glory that is the glory of God, the glory that comes from the much harder things of life – from loving someone when things get difficult, from caring for someone in sickness or pain or grief – you all know what I mean. Last night we heard words from the prophet Isaiah (55:1-11) that are so important here,“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways”. And then, just in case we have missed the point “It is the Lord who speaks”

 

In our 2nd Reading today (Col 3:1-4) St Paul tells us where to find this kind of glory, in a phrase that we can easily miss. He says “When Christ is revealed, you too will be revealed in all your glory with him.” This is a strange saying, for we tend to look for glory, even true glory, outside ourselves, as something that comes from God to us. So for example, people come to Mass expecting to receive something, to get a bit of glory, a nice religious feeling ; and if they don’t get what they want, they actually then say “I didn’t anything out of it!” But Paul says that true glory is within us, even if we cannot see it at the moment. It is a way of thinking that sees glory growing in us in the tougher things of life, even in the duller and much more boring things of life, where we least expect to find anything glorious. Most of all, he says that we will find that this glory that is in us will only be fully revealed beyond death.

 

The friends, the disciples, of Jesus had pinned their hopes on being given glory in some way from God if they followed him. Instead, all they seem to have been given is his terrible death on the cross. Most of them have run away in fear, and watch on at a distance whilst all their hopes are shattered. Early on the Sunday morning, they are just sad and bewildered. Only gradually do they realise that God is at work, but in a different way from the one they imagined. Finally at Pentecost some weeks away from now, they discover that it is only as they offer themselves to God that true glory will be found ; and for many of them that will eventually mean being killed for following Jesus

 

The glory that Jesus offers us was, and is, quite different from surface glory. For God is not like us. There are no magic solutions. There is only a God who even in the darkest moments walks with us and alongside us, leading us by a path of love and service and sacrifice to eternal life beyond the grave.  It is this God that we come here at Easter to follow. and we then go back to our very ordinary lives and get on with it, for that is where true glory will be found.