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.

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- For the ancient writers, there was in reality no difference between the Wisdom of God and what would later become thought of as the word of God, in St John’s terminology given a capital Word, by which he identified Jesus Christ, God’s speech made visible. By the 3rd century BC the Wisdom writer (Wis 7:7-11) could write that the pursuit of wisdom was the most precious thing possible for a human being to seek. By the pursuit of wisdom, a man could gain everything, for she, note the feminine, was to be rated above precious jewels and equivalent to whole hoards of wealth. Why precisely was there this concentration on wisdom, and tracts written on how to gain it? Certainly by the time of its writing Israel was a conquered nation, under the rule of Egypt, and paying them heavy taxes and tribute, which must have given the people a sense that material riches were not the boon they may have been in earlier periods. Perhaps more importantly however was the development in Jewish thought, and their understanding of man’s relationship to God. In its earliest literature there was a view of God, along with that of its pagan neighbours, which saw God as remote and all powerful, both generous and punishing, and its early laws reflect this understanding: be obedient and all will go well, turn aside from this path and you will be punished. In the works of the prophets, we can see a transition from this simplistic approach as Isaiah considers the love God has for Israel, and also the suffering of the righteous servant Israel for the nation. By the time of the wisdom writers these views were coloured by the hope of resurrection, of eternal life with God and from this there developed a greater sense of the potential for closeness existing between God and man, and of the search to bring this relationship into an ever closer bond.

 

It is something that the writer of Hebrews (4:12-13) develops within his strong Eucharistic teaching, here referring to wisdom as the ‘word’ of God. Look at his language, at how he understands the word as he employs vivid and dynamic imagery, suggestive of the finesse of the surgeon’s scalpel cutting into human tissue to expose and reveal, to heal and make clean again, to aid understanding and bring to light what is hidden. This, he claims is the power of the word of God, and it is this that we search for as we try to find God, as we search for unity, perfection with the divine. Whilst this task is obviously difficult, it is at the same time a pleasure and a necessity, even an obsession, it is what drives us ever deeper into the search for God for we all experience this dissatisfaction with the way things are.

 

Why is this the case? There is something always incomplete about us, isn’t there; something yet to come. We probably experience this, as did someone like Ignatius Loyala, as a certain sadness, a restlessness and yearning for something more, in our case something which material possessions fail to satisfy. In many of us too, as Gregory of Nyssa c 380 realised, it is the sin of this world which continually lays us open to temptations of one kind or another and which are so hard to resist. They just keep getting in the way and creep up on us whilst we barely realise it. In our gospel, (Mark 10:17-30) Jesus explores these temptations, these challenges or distractions to our focus on God in the case of the rich young man, and in regards to the renunciation of family connections and possessions in the case of his disciples. It is not that these things are wrong in themselves, so much as that they get in the way of our vision of God and take up so much of our time and attention, distracting our focus and continually dragging us away from the real treasures we are made for, and which God longs for us to pursue. In the end we have to find ways to cope with the demands of these earthly, material things without becoming possessed by them, and there will be periods when this is extremely difficult, as when caring for a new born child, or wrestling with the awakening of a great love, or even dealing with the demands of a job or a hobby of surpassing attraction. Gregory liked to think of us as God’s slaves, an uncomfortable metaphor for today, but one which does still denote the extent of our dependency and ties to God, and therefore worth thinking about in the crowded agendas of our lives. The Fathers recommended prayer, and the frequent resort to the Eucharist, as the antidote to the demands of the world, and that’s something we all can do.

The strange route to eternal life

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Very many people seem to think that the Christian faith is about a series of dogmas which once grasped will bring the believer to salvation. In consequence they turn to the scriptures seeing them as rigid blue-prints for achieving this task and, not surprisingly, find it very difficult. The Bible just isn’t that kind of book. Our Bible, Old and New Testaments, were written over many hundreds of years and originally for different purposes. Books of the Law and its practice like Leviticus are very different from works like the three volumes of Isaiah. The latter were written during times of social and political collapse and war, and are best seen as commentaries on that situation and reflections on the relationship between God and man which the writers believed brought the upheavals about. Hardly surprising then that their understandings of God differed widely. Books of the law adopt a simple ‘be obedient and all will go well’ approach; punishment is about infringement of the rules laid down by a despotic God. Prophetic books will explore the relationship of God and humanity and see the things which beset them in daily life as intimately related to their faithfulness, or lack of it, to the God who is their creator and sustainer, and who offers the faithful so much more. It is about an ever expanding relationship in which we are invited to respond.

The Book of Wisdom (Wis 2:12.17-20) is very late, dating from the late second century BC and written in Greek most likely in Alexandria, at a period of Egyptian domination of Palestine. It is not part of the Hebrew Bible but is included in ours. In our passage what becomes clear is that the writer is exploring the nature of good and evil and asks what the purpose of a good life, a virtuous life is.  Clearly he lived at a time when virtue was not often rewarded on this earth. The writer sets up the suggestion that if being good is doing what God wants then surely God must reward the virtuous in this life, in the here and now. Now, as he and we are all too aware, the virtuous do suffer and are subject to great injustice in this life, along with everyone else, and this raises the question of why be good at all. Does our behaviour have any effect on what will ultimately happen to us, does it have any point at all?

Clearly for the writer post mortem existence is a possibility since he speaks of those condemned to a shameful death being ‘looked after’ by God; but his real aim is to explore what God will do to protect his Son ‘the virtuous man’ here and now, and this remains an open question. Here the virtuous man is not reprieved at the last moment by rescuing cavalry, but dies in ignominy, even if, as the writer somewhat sarcastically points out, God will ultimately take care of his own. What then is the meaning of the good life in the here and now, especially when, as we see daily, good people suffer terribly and die unjust deaths? Is the writer of Wisdom simply exploring the purpose of virtue for its own sake, or does he somehow think that despite all its problems it reflects true divinity and is the path set for all of us to follow? Is eternity with God a suitable reward for being rubbished now?

This is certainly Mark’s answer in our Gospel (Mk 9:30-37). Our passage follows on from the revealed glory of the Transfiguration and presents us with Jesus’ second prediction of his Passion, death and Resurrection. Just as with the first prediction and Peter’s violent rejection of it, the second seems to have completely flummoxed the disciples, who it appears have been discussing who among them was the greatest. Clearly they are still stuck with a reward in this earthly life, and of God’s action to support his own in the here and now, in precisely the dilemma the Wisdom writer was exploring. Israel had by this time had a concept of eternal life with God for well over 200 years and by Jesus’ day most Jews believed in it, yet clearly it was a very problematic issue. What does it say about the value we place on this present life? What precise purpose does our behaviour have in relation to eternal life? In what way do we understand eternal life with God? Jesus seems to turn all our earthly understandings on their head by his actions: “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant (slave) of all. Anyone who welcomes one of these little ones in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Access to the Father, it appears, is rooted not in worldly power and ways of acting but precisely in their upheaval. We have come a very long way from a rule bound faith, or even from Wisdom’s plotters who propose to put God to the test. Believing, faith, it appears, can have a whole counter-cultural context and is guaranteed to upset just about everyone. It may appear as stark and uncompromising as the rule bound one, but it is not; for the believer is called upon to make deep and personal decisions in following out the implications of his faithfulness to Jesus in a territory in which the guidelines can be far from clear.

Yet James (3:16-4:3) does offer some practical advice, definitely excluding some attitudes, such as jealousy and ambition – by which I presume he means the pathway to personal success which will trample on anyone to get to the top, and includes those virtues he finds conducive to the growth of the community. These are things that make for peace, having compassion, and he goes on to illustrate precisely how both the bad and the good operate to the destruction or growth of the Christian fellowship. In the end then, the Christian answer to this long Biblical search for God lies, it appears, at hand in daily life,in lives lived valuing and respecting others; for in this we see a reflection of the relationship between Father and Son and their self-gift to the other and to their creation.

Homily on Godly Wisdom and Knowledge

Life for us humans is more than just living isn’t it? It is thinking &planning & imagining. It is measuring & calculating how our world works as in maths & science. It is communicating with each other & understanding each other, using speech and words, & it’s expressing ourselves in music & dance & art. All this and more makes us human, and all of this happens because God the Holy Spirit, the Life giver, is within us whether we accept his presence or not.

 

But when we Christians talk about the Holy Spirit giving us knowledge and wisdom, which is what I am going to talk about today, we mean much more than knowledge and wisdom as the world describes it, however special to us that may be. We see this in our 2nd Reading today (1 John 2:1-5) where St John makes very clear that “knowing” God is more than just knowing about God. There are, after all, many people who say they know about God, or know about the Church or the Bible. Yes, they may know lots of facts, they may even appear on the TV telling us what they know, but actually although they may know about God, they may not really know God at all. Getting to know someone is a long process isn’t it? We may start with some facts about them; but knowing another human being, and even more knowing God, is a much deeper process than that.

 

It’s also a fact that much of our communication, our transmission of knowledge, is non-verbal. Look up non-verbal communication and you will see a whole list of ways in which we do it. True knowledge therefore means a sensitivity to others that comes from caring about them at a deep level – what we Christians would call “keeping God’s commandments”.  Jesus illustrates this kind of knowledge all the time. He sees into people’s hearts and knows what they are like inside, (See John 6:64. 8:19 & 16:19) and we too are called to be like that. It is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to us. The disciples meet the risen Lord on the beach, and “None of (them) dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. “ (John 21:12)

 

The world sometimes calls this ability “being psychic”. Some of you may recall moments in your life when you have sensed what is going to happen, or what you should do; sensed, maybe without realising it consciously, that God was talking to you in this way.  I’m a great believer in acting on what the world calls “our instincts”. So if I sense that I should do or say something, I will do it, and quite often (though not always!) my instinct can be right. This, we must remember, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it enhances our natural abilities, and we should ask God to help us to be more like that, and thus possess true knowledge.

 

Equally “wisdom” for the Christian does not mean worldly wisdom. The disciples knew their Bible; not as well as Jesus, of course, but they were devout Jews, and they knew their ancient stories – about God, and the great prophecies from God given through their ancestors like Jeremiah and Isaiah. Yet, like many Jews of their day, they failed to understand at a deeper level what the Bible was pointing to. Their wisdom was superficial. They failed to understand that God’s Messiah, God’s Christ, would be someone who was prepared to suffer and die, and only then to show his glory. Thus we hear in our Gospel, the risen Jesus “opening their minds to understand the scriptures.” (Luke 26:45) And later they are given the power by the Holy Spirit not just to understand them in this new way, but to explain this to other people.

 

But the gift of wisdom doesn’t just mean being able to understand how God speaks through the Bible. St Paul makes clear how easily we can revert to thinking about our knowledge and wisdom in a worldly way. He makes this very clear when he writes to the Christians in Corinth who think themselves very wise. He points out that true Christian wisdom may appear as foolishness to the world. In a long passage at the beginning of his 1st Letter to them, (1 Cor 1:18-31) he goes on about this at some length. Let me give you just a bit of what he says to remind you For .. the cross is folly to those who are perishing (He means those who think only in worldly ways) but…. it is written,       “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.”

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. …………For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

This should remind all of us that sometimes it is the simplest thing about our faith, shared with someone else,  that can help them more than any number of clever words. Those of you who do not think of yourselves as very clever, can sometimes be more effective in communicating the Gospel than those of us who are academic. The Holy Spirit can give this true wisdom often more effectively to those who “know” less in worldly terms. So never underestimate what God can do in you. Say what you feel, and your words can sometimes convey the wisdom of God in ways that might astonish you.

St Paul puts it like this:- “Consider your call….. not many of you were wise according to worldly standards …….. but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” 

So yes the Holy Spirit can give a true and deeper wisdom and knowledge to every Christian, not just the so-called clever……… provided we allow God to work in us in this way!