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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

Pentecost : a violent wind

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings: The description in Acts (2:1-11) of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is, I think, always something vaguely wafty and esoteric for us today. Yet the Greek, rather than speaking of a ‘powerful wind’, speaks of a violent wind, something like a tornado filling the house as it came upon the disciples. We in the west, for whom so much of our faith has become ‘spiritualised and sanitised’, need to try and recapture something of the life changing event, even the savageness, this bestowal brought.

 

I think we can attempt to do this by looking at Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom 8:8-17). St Paul frequently uses the image of slavery, that most despised group in the ancient world to convey our relationship to God, often to allude to the utter difference between us and God (we are God’s slaves). But here, he speaks of our transformation from slaves to sons and heirs of God. Anyone hearing or reading these words originally would have understood perfectly the enormity of what he was talking about. By the gift of Christ, in the Holy Spirit, we are transformed from a slave to a son.

 

In Greco-Roman society the slave was socially dead, a non person. Because of this they could be bought or sold, worked till they dropped, sexually exploited, and frequently saw their children either sold off or under threat of sale. They could not marry or join in society. Just imagine therefore what being freed implied; suddenly, at the say of one’s master, one became a human being. Masters freeing slaves were said to create them, give them life. Now they were citizens of the empire, albeit frequently still tied to their former master, now patron by business ties. Any children they had who were born in freedom could stand for public office and enter the coveted Roman political system, and aim to improve their status and class. It even affected where you could sit in the amphitheatre and at the races. They could make wills, marry, and some might even be adopted by former masters who were childless, and would thus carry on his family name so that it did no die out. The numbers of Julii all over the empire was enormous, recording ties to the house of Caesar.

 

As if this were not enough of a mind altering and radical shift in actual public prospects, Paul also likeness the coming of the Spirit to adoption. We are now God’s heirs along with Christ. Adoption was quite a common thing in ancient society, and again full of vitality and significance. In elite senatorial or equestrian circles, having an heir was essential, not simply to prevent the death of an all important and powerful and honoured name, but also to protect ones assets. But early death rates, appallingly high in the ancient world, meant that thousands of children did not live to adulthood. Adoption from one elite family with a lucky surplus of sons into one lacking an heir could be the only way to safeguard an important heritage. Julius Caesar adopted Octavian, his nephew as his heir; earlier, the powerful Scipionii gave a son to the Amelii-Paulii and we find this transaction recorded in his name. All classes participated in this system. It was not just about cash, it was about preventing the death of a name and all it implied. Being made a son by adoption had real and tangible effects on all concerned; it was a life changing moment for all of them. St Paul quite deliberately took these images from daily life to illustrate the significance of the Spirit in the lives of recipients. It was real, bodily and tangible; one’s life was never the same again.

 

When therefore, in translation, we read these rather limp passages like the one in our gospel (John 14:15-16.23-26) we need to do so with these powerful images in mind. It was what irretrievably altered lives. The promise by Christ of the Advocate, the Paraclete, of his stand-in, his abiding presence for ever in the world, meant that hereafter the believer is at one with the divine, here expressed most comfortingly by that phrase ‘at home’. It means that the follower of Christ is party to God’s ideas and ways of being, his intimate, his friend and a sharer of his inmost thoughts and dealings, hence, “He will teach you everything.” This is an enormous honour and a great responsibility, and just as freedom or adoption brought a person into a new and demanding status to others and the world about him, so the same is implied here. We are new-made, God-made and the environment we inhabit is forever a changed reality. The advent of the Holy Spirit then is not about being surrounded by some cotton wool comfort blanket, but about our empowerment by God himself and just as these experiences radically altered the disciples, sending them off on missions to convert the world, so too, his presence in our lives is meant to be dramatically transforming, equipping us to work in unison with the creator-redeemer God.

God’s love overcomes our human weaknesses

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Tertullian opinioned that people could tell who the Christians were by the love they bore for one another. In an age such as ours which either eroticises or sentimentalises that over worked word ‘love’, in Greek, ‘agape’, it is worth our while to explore what it meant to early Christians and indeed, why in our Gospel (John 12:31-35) Jesus should issue his disciples a command to love.

The idea of a care and compassion, a love for one’s fellow men and women, was not universal in the ancient world. These were societies built on slavery, on the ownership of hundreds of thousands of individuals who were socially dead; they had no rights, and could be bought or sold and used and abused with impunity. When they were freed at the behest of a master they become citizens of the Roman Empire, yet they remained clients, with restrictions and obligations to their former masters. Masters, indeed, could inherit a substantial part of their estates on the death of freedmen. There was no state support for the poor and needy, even when they were free born. The wealthy might decide to give gifts to the populace of their cities, (euergetism); and these were often lavish gifts, which could include the construction of public amenities like baths. When it came to cash handouts, typically the richer and less needy were given more than the poor and needy. Gifts such as these were frequently given to secure votes at elections in which powerful men competed for jobs as magistrates – and the opportunities that gave to accrue more wealth. True, people might give a few coins of low denomination to beggars, but many lived in dire poverty, with all the problems that implied for poor diet, disease and an early death. The idea of any equality of help across the social spectrum in any community was very unusual. This was what Christianity called for.

We witness this throughout Paul’s letters, with the collections in Greece, in the Letters to the Corinthians,  for famine racked Judaea; with the letter of recommendation in Romans for Phoebe from Cenchreae; not to mention his harangues over the sharing of the Eucharistic agape meal in First Corinthians. Loving one another as Christ had loved them did not come naturally to the disciples; it was a radical call and a difficult concept in the heavily stratified societies in which they lived. Jesus too told stories illustrating the need for such demanding and different action, with parables like the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel. The real sign of how radical and different this commandment was is to be seen above all in its context in John’s gospel, since it follows immediately on the exit of Judas ‘in the dark’, with his intention of betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities which instigated the entire passion story of Jesus’ great saving gift of himself for a fallen world. Jesus did not discriminate between the good and the bad, for his followers deserted him to a man, His resurrection message was precisely that God’s love transcends our behaviour and our human weaknesses. It demonstrates that much of the Christian message of love and care will be born out of struggle and suffering.

This is precisely the picture we see in our reading from Acts (Acts 14:21-27). Missing from our brief bit is the account of how Paul was nearly murdered at Lystra, and the opposition from Jews as the faith in Jesus spread throughout the pagan world. Our story focuses on the establishment of structures –ministries – to enable the communities to develop and carry on with the Christian mission once Paul and Barnabas has left to return to Palestine. Quite clearly difficulties and persecution were foreseen by Paul and Barnabas, for as they said, “We all have to experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God.” Learning to love, as Christ commanded, is a radical option, and something that does not and did not just come naturally. The notion of a universal brotherhood and sisterhood, stretching across the boundaries of race, class and status was as difficult for them as for us, and no less relevant today when we are debating issues of our European identity and that of the plight of millions of refugees.

In our reading from the Apocalypse, (21:1-5) we see this story taken to its ultimate conclusion as John the Divine writes of the new heaven and the new earth, of the new Jerusalem in which God is finally at home with his creation, his people. It comes from the penultimate chapter (for modern readers) of this astonishing work, so riddled with appalling violence and destruction, when God’s will is finally achieved and his creation is as it was made to be. It is the story of a humanity fit to live with and be with God, a creation which is truly God-like in its love. Those of us familiar with the story will know that among its most terrifying and impressive features is the description of the destruction (Apoc 18) of Babylon, a euphemism for evil, and clearly modelled on the destruction by volcanic eruption of Pompeii and the other cities in the Bay of Naples in 79.AD. John writes of the dramatic and radical transformation of the world as a metaphor for the journey each and every one of us must make as we take on Jesus’ commandment to love as he has loved us, his recipe for making us his new creation.

 

God’s gift of eternal life now

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :-  It is very difficult to understand how the Christian message gradually took off and became such a dominant feature in the Greco-Roman world. The fact that under Constantine the Great it would become the official religion of the state is near incredible, given its almost insignificant beginnings. What was it that proved so attractive and so compelling that it eventually surpassed the powers of the ancient Roman gods and became in its turn so powerful?

Was there, is there, something supremely attractive  about the Easter story of the resurrection of Jesus to eternal life and thereby of his gift of this to all of his followers which turned so many ancient men and women in the direction of Christianity, even making martyrs, witnesses to the faith, of some of them? If we think of present day life as insecure and uncertain, and indeed it is – despite all the benefits of improved health care, insurances against theft, house fires and other disasters – then life for the citizens of the ancient world was much more precarious.

Greco-Romans lived with appallingly high mortality rates and about two thirds of the children would not live to see their fifth birthdays. Most adults died by about 45. Ancient cities were perilous places, with frequent fires and building collapse which killed the occupants. Famine and food riots would have been common and the threat of wars and invasions were fairly frequent if you lived in what we call Eastern Turkey. Illness and disease was rife, as there was no knowledge of cleanliness in the fight against infections and of course no antibiotics. Taxes were ruthlessly extracted from the poorest by armed taxmen and hundreds could be sold into slavery, often by their families, to pay their dues. If this mortal life was very tough, death for pagans meant obliteration. Jews believed in eternal life, but only as a continuation of this life with the military triumph of the Messiah and good times for Israel. The Christian message was different, it taught that even now we live eternally in the presence of God, of Jesus the Son, who died and rose so that we all might live eternally with God. Death for the Christian is never the end, merely the beginning of a transformed and glorified existence with God.

This of course is the vision of the writer of the Apocalypse (7:9:14-17). John wrote this glorious picture of the millions of the redeemed praising God and significantly mentions their rescue from hunger and the heat of the sun which so relentlessly dried everything up, their crops included. He spoke of the sacrificed Lamb who would lead them to streams of living water, no small gift in lands perpetually short of water and used to surviving on brackish and polluted supplies, and of the end to tears of mourning and the constant loss, and the funerals which blighted their lives.

Indeed, when we hear from Acts (Acts 13:14.43-52) of part of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey to the southern and central parts of Turkey, we find a remarkably similar picture. They had come from Cyprus under the instruction of the Proconsul Serguis Paulus who had given them a sympathetic hearing and who owned estates and had influence in the area. Our account includes the details of conflict between Paul’s Christian mission and that of the Jews who seemed to have been able to attract converts from paganism to their beliefs. Archaeology has shown us the extent of Roman infiltration into this area in the many Greek inscriptions which have been discovered both on public buildings and tombstones, and we know that pagans were increasingly looking for something more than the impersonal relationship accorded them by the Roman gods. Many had become adherents of Isis or Mithras, both eastern gods with a moral imperative attached to their worship and in competition with Christianity. Pagans of status attracted to Judaism could not convert to that faith because of its ritual requirements and separatism, so we can see the attractiveness of the Christian call. Luke makes very clear that it was the promise of eternal life in Christ which was very attractive to the new believers who, the Greek tells us “Rejoiced and glorified the Lord” (rather than the Jerusalem Bible ‘Were happy and thanked the Lord’) a phrase so in tune with the Apocalypse’s sense of eternal life embracing this mortal life and the next.

In our Gospel, (John 10:27-30) we find Jesus in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple. This is part of John’s very lengthy portrayal of the many disputes Jesus has with those in authority in Judaism, most especially surrounding the claims he made to having a special relationship with God, the one he called his Father and to whom he claimed complete unity and identity. Significantly Jesus promises his followers ‘eternal life’. Now this is not for some future date when they will have proved their worth, he deliberately uses the present tense. “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice, I know them and they follow me, I give them eternal life and they will never be lost.” Followers of the Lord are already living here and now the life of heaven by God’s gift. They will live it eternally with God post mortem, but even now this is something the believer is already initiated into. We live in a changed reality. Jesus goes on to make clear that this gift of eternal life, so different from that of the Jewish promise, is not simply his gift alone, but that of the Father; “The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone, and no one can steal from the Father.” For Jews and their sympathisers such a claim would have completely upset and altered hundreds of years of teaching and belief and Jesus goes on to press home precisely the nature of the seismic shift in his understanding of the God-Man relationship, with his ultimate claim “The Father and I are one.” This means that all of us, and all of his original hearers, so used to a colossal void between God and humanity, are brought close in Jesus, and all those terrors to which we are all constantly a prey are defeated.