As Advent approaches, the Lectionary readings take on a more apocalyptic tone, with warnings about turbulent times ahead, religious persecution, and finally, the end of history -- all in preparation for the transformation of the world. Since the Gospel passage was written after the destruction of the temple, it benefitted with hindsight. Luke knew that the warning was for real. Like the other evangelists, however, he places these warnings just before the passion narrative begins. This means that the story of persecution and suffering starts with Jesus himself. His 'followers' are just that -- people who follow in his footsteps.
Two monumental wars and many other conflicts gave the 20th century an unenviable record for violence. Yet the relative ‘peace’ of 21st century has not been any less turbulent than the days of the Roman Empire. There are plenty of 'wars and insurrections', 'nation still rises against nation', every year there are 'great earthquakes, and 'in various places famines and plagues'. Even stable and prosperous societies like Britain and the USA can become deeply divided. In Europe followers of Christ are more likely to be held in contempt than persecuted. In many parts of the world, however, Christians are victims of violence and persecution more often than the adherents of other religions. This makes the events predicted in the Gospel easy to believe.
But what of the spectacular end to which all these trials were supposed to be a prelude? Don't we know now that these things are neither 'dreadful portents' nor 'great signs', but simply recurrent, disturbing and lamentable features of life on earth?
In this same passage Jesus says, 'Beware that you are not led astray' by people who say 'The time is near!'. 'Do not go after them', he tells us, because 'the end will not follow immediately.' 'I am about to create new heavens and a new earth', God declares through the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson. We need to view this promise through the perspective of eternity. While our interest in the future does not stretch much beyond a couple of generations, God's time is not our time. 'In your sight a thousand years are as the passing of one day', Psalm 90 reminds us. The task of true disciples is not to second guess God, but in the face of everything, to say what Isaiah says: 'Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation'. In this spirit, the challenge is to fix our gaze firmly on the Christ of the Cross who has gone there before us.
Job 19: 21-27
1 Cor 15: 51-57
John 6: 37-40
The readings appointed for Remembrance Sunday are all about death and resurrection. This dominant element of solemnity in the face of war, marks a dramatic change from times past. For most of human history, remembering great battles was more likely to prompt triumphalism than lament, with the glory of victory the principal object of celebratory poems, paintings and pieces of music. It is in this triumphant spirit that the first Book of Samuel records:
And the women sang to one another as they made merry, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”
The unimaginable number of deaths caused by mechanized weaponry in the First World War, from which Remembrance Day sprang, changed all that. It has become unthinkable that we should “make merry” about the slaughter of ‘ten thousands’, especially since the major bombardments characteristic of modern war invariably lead to the death of civilians. Photography then, and since, has enabled everyone to see with their own eyes the horror of war, and undermined all talk of ‘glorious battle’.
This explains the choice of readings, but only in part. Death comes to us all, and the Christian hope of resurrection is relevant regardless of how we die, whether in battle on in bed. So do these readings have anything special to tell us at Remembrance-tide? Two sentences from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians stand out: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”. In the practice of war, even in a just cause, we have a compelling example of how ‘the law’ empowers sin. Prosecuting war in accordance with our very best human efforts and ingenuity – which itself is rare – at most gives only a fleeting form of victory. The supreme victory is when, in Isaiah’s phrase, ‘peace flows like a river’ and wars are no more. But this is a victory that no war between nations or peoples could ever give us. It is available only, and mysteriously, through the victory of Christ on the Cross.
All Saints Day (November 1st) is one of the seven principal festivals of the Christian year. Nowadays it is common practice for the main celebration to take place on the Sunday following, and this generally means that the lessons for this Sunday are replaced with those for All Saints’ Day, which also follow a three year cycle.
The lessons for Year C (which is this year) are a little different from Years A and B. They do not include the passage from Revelation traditionally associated with All Saints. Instead, we have an extract from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. In it he refers several times to ‘the saints’, but we should be careful not to read modern connotations back into his letter. Paul doesn’t have especially good or holy people in mind. He is simply referring to all those who, by acknowledging the call of God in Christ Jesus, have set themselves apart from the world of the Roman Empire, in one way or another.
The Gospel that accompanies this lesson is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. It differs noticeably from Matthew’s more familiar version. Luke has Jesus address his hearers directly – “Blessed are you” – and he follows his account of Christian blessings, with a list of ‘Woes’ or warnings about the fate that might befall us. In this way Luke makes the contrast between ‘the poor’ who will be blessed, and ‘the rich’ who have great sorrow in store, much starker than Matthew.
To hear the call of Christ, and thus become one of the ‘saints’ who are set apart, we have to take this two-sided message seriously. The wealth most people in the developed world enjoy is spiritually dangerous. It brings with it the risk of ceasing to count our blessings, and coming to regard them as just reward for talent and hard work. Conversely, though the poor of this world are often regarded as people to be pitied, their poverty can put them at a spiritual advantage. Poverty is no guarantee of holiness, certainly, yet the precariousness of life that poor people experience may leave them much less likely to take the gifts of God for granted.
“All things come of You, and of Your own do we give unto You”. These words from the Book of Chronicles are commonly used as an offertory prayer. It is far easier to say them, however, than to take them to heart.
The portion of Psalm 119 set for this Sunday contains a half verse that could come from the mouth of Zacchaeus, the central character in the Gospel passage -- "I am small and despised". On the surface, this seems to be the only connection between the readings. Yet a little more reflection reveals a much deeper one.
Zacchaeus is a tax gatherer. Tax gatherers were Jews who collaborated with the occupying Roman imperial forces in order to enrich themselves. They were widely regarded as having betrayed their own people, and thoroughly hated for this reason. So it is easy to understand why Jesus would be criticized for going to the house of Zaccheus. This was no ordinary 'sinner'. Jesus rarely explains himself to his critics, but on this occasion he does offer a partial explanation. "Salvation has come to this house” he says, “because he too is a son of Abraham”.
By referring to Zacchaeus in this way, Jesus draws his audience far back into the originating history of Israel. The time of Abraham predates the long process by which the detailed prescriptions of 'The Law' (to which the Pharisees faithfully subscribed) had come to dominate Jewish religious observance. Intense respect for the Law is not to be despised, and on several occasions Jesus insists that he has not come to destroy either the Law of the Prophets. Jewish legalism, however, had lost the visionary zeal of the Prophets that gave the Law its life. Religious observance, the prophet Isaiah warns, can be worthless if it lacks what 'the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw'. "Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay".
In these powerful sentences we hear the first sounds of the Advent season, when it will be opportune for Christians to remind themselves that, however old and tired their faith might seem in a post-Christian culture, 'there is still a vision that speaks of the end and does not lie'.
What lies at the root of all religion, it has long been held, is not so much a belief about a supernatural world, as an awareness of the character of this one. Nothing about the world in which we find ourselves is guaranteed. When it comes to all the things that matter most to human beings -- success and failure, prosperity and deprivation, health and illness, joy and sorrow -- we are completely at the mercy of time and circumstance. Our best laid plans, our most successful political systems and our most ingenious technologies, can secure great benefits, but they never give us absolute control -- of life or of death.
True religion starts in awe, a profound awareness of the world as far exceeding our understanding and management. Yet, at the same time this sense of humanity's awesome vulnerability generates a practical dilemma. How are we to make ourselves at home in such a world? The role of the great religions, in different ways, has been to offer answers to this question.
The Judeo-Christian answer runs through all of this week's readings. In even the most radical contingencies of life, the human heart can find security and a resting place in the eternal God who is both ever present and accessible. Thus the prophet Joel declares: "You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel. . . your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions."., and the Psalmists write "My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God". "Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts". In just the same vein Paul writes to Timothy. "The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so . . . I was rescued from the lion's mouth". Having "fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith", Paul looks forward to a "crown of righteousness".
Against this background we can find an important word of warning in the brief parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel. The greatest spiritual danger human beings face is displacing true righteousness with self-righteousness. The Pharisee’s self-righteousness complacently supposes that some mix of material success and good works makes him secure. But that is precisely to lose the insight in which religion begins. The tax collector, for all his faults, has the humility to understand that human beings cannot be the means of their own salvation.
The connection is easy to spot. But what lesson should we draw from it? Do we really have to pester God as the widow does, or wrest a blessing from God as Jacob does? Does God act justly and benevolently only if, and when, we demand that he does? This is what Jesus seems to say. Yet the suggestion sits very badly with the idea of God that most Christians have, and proclaim – a God whose love is ever present and enduring, and who always takes the initiative, reaching out even to those who are hostile or indifferent.
The same readings can point us in another direction, however. It is a fact that devout and serious people sometimes give up on God, and stop reciting prayers that they have said for years. Moreover, this happens not out of pique or petulance, but because it suddenly seems as though, despite their prayers, neither blessing nor justice is ever forthcoming. This is part of the reality of discipleship. Prayers are no recipe for success.
What is there for Christians to say in such circumstances, except this? We ought to persist in the ways of faith. Persistence, though, amounts to nothing better than beating one’s head against the wall, unless we can continue in the belief that God’s love and justice does not fail. In the face of silence, two things sustains that belief -- a sense that no other blessing will serve, and the example of Jesus. Christ’s persistence in the face of hatred and social conformity resulted in death on the Cross, but by that very fact showed his love of God to be unshakeable. His persistence was then vindicated by the Resurrection.
On first reading, the Gospel passage for this week seems to be a relatively simple healing story, with a moral about gratitude. Yet on closer reading the details are a little puzzling. Ten lepers appeal to Jesus. He instructs them to go and show themselves to the priest. They do as he says, and on the way there they find themselves cured. One leper – a Samaritan --returns to thank Jesus, who asks where the other nine are. He then tells the Samaritan that his faith has made him whole. But where did the other nine go wrong? They did just what Jesus told them to, and they too, the passage says, were made whole? So why was this one specially commended?
The answer is this. Despite being a Samaritan and therefore an 'outsider' to the faithful, only the man who turned back realized what the miracle revealed -- that the healer stood in a unique relationship to God. The wholeness that this perception brought him, was not merely freedom from leprosy -- which the others gained as well -- but a new, saving and transforming spiritual insight.
The same insight into who Jesus really was lies at the heart of Paul’s extraordinary mission to the Gentile world. The essence of his preaching, brilliantly summarized in this week's Epistle, springs from his conversion on the road to Damascus. Someone who thought Jesus to be the dead leader of a renegade Jewish sect, becomes someone who can see in him the long awaited Christ. "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David -- that is my gospel".“To obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory, the saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him”.
The Gospel episode plainly echoes the story told in this week's Old Testament lesson. Naaman, brilliantly successful Commander of the Aramaean armies, is haunted and hindered by leprosy. Thanks to Elisha, he obtains a cure from the God of the Israelites. Yet it is not health, but knowledge that is key to this story. When Naaman’s ‘flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy’, he, like the Samaritan, ‘returned to the man of God . . . and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
Jesus made no special demands of the leper who returned, and gave him no special benefits. What marked him out from the rest was his ability to recognize Jesus for who he was. It is a test that many Christians more focused on health benefits and material advantages have found it easy to fail.
There are many occasions on which the cultural gap between our world and the world of the Old and New Testaments makes it very difficult for us to understand the Scriptures. The village images of the shepherd, the fisherman, the vineyard, have no very obvious counterparts in a world of freeways, skyscrapers and the internet. That is why it often takes an effort to find a modern meaning in some of Jesus’ parables.
The gap is at its widest in this week’s Gospel, which relies on familiarity with a world in which slavery is taken for granted. Not only is this a different world to ours; it is one of which we fiercely disapprove. So what can we make of Jesus’ assumption that no one would think of allowing a slave to rest until all the master’s needs had been satisfied? Or the instruction to his disciples to think of themselves as slaves – ‘worthless slaves’, indeed? Haven’t we rightly abandoned a world in which people are treated like this, and learned not to think of anyone as a “worthless slave”, ourselves included? And besides, doesn’t this fly in the face of the Epistle in which Paul tells his fellow Christians that ‘God did not give us a spirit of cowardice’?
These are understandable reactions. Yet, there is nevertheless a way of re-stating the Gospel's central point that has modern resonance and relevance. Though our ideal is one in which every human being is a free individual, this does not make everything a matter of choice. There are some things we are simply 'commanded' to do and for which we deserve no thanks. No one, for example, would think of thanking us for not murdering, assaulting, cheating or stealing from other people. Refraining from actions like these is expected and required. So we are not owed any special moral credit from merely respecting the rights of others. It is only when we go beyond what is required of every decent human being that special praise and thanks are merited.
This is one way to think of Christian discipleship -- as being under a command. Viewed in this light, we don’t earn any special merit for giving God the time we should. It is something we ought to be doing simply as a matter of course. Moreover, picking up on a theme of the Epistle, we can (and should) say more than this. The service of God is ‘a holy calling’, a special gift which Christians are privileged to exercise, and there is no 'beyond the call of duty'. We cannot give God more than God can reasonably expect.
Yet the fact is that church people regularly, and easily, fall short in this regard. They expect from each other, and they give to each other, fulsome thanks and praise for their work as Christians, and even for making the effort to come to worship! That is to say, they thank each other for not neglecting God. This is precisely the attitude that Jesus is rebuking in his disciples.
Genesis 28:10-17 Psalm 103 Revelation 12:7-12 John 1:47-51
Michaelmas is the traditional name for the feast of St Michael and All Angels which occurs on September 29th. Though the nature and existence of angels is a topic that barely features in contemporary theology, and figures even less in contemporary professions of belief, the world of angels is long established in the Christian religion, and has an enduring place within it. It is not just that Michaelmas has survived in modern calendars, or the fact that a surprisingly large number of churches have Michael and All Angels as their dedication. In almost every modern version of the Eucharistic liturgy the ancient profession is repeated. "Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with the whole company of heaven who forever sing this hymn -- Holy! Holy! Holy!"
But what ought we to think about angels and archangels? The advances of modern science have taught us just how little we know about the created cosmos. Human beings are one of the wonders of this creation – evolved animals with a spiritual, emotional, artistic and intellectual life that far surpasses any other animal. Yet, it would be the height of presumption to suppose that this puts us at the top of all created beings. God is a spirit. Why should there not be spiritual beings who are not animals?
Psalm 103, set for this festival, describes angels as "mighty ones" who minister to God and do His will. Even so, the Psalmist does not hesitate to instruct them -- "Bless the Lord" and he tells them to combine their praises with those of "all His works in all places of His dominion". This vision of a vast array of beings -- stretching from the simplest insects to celestial beings far surpassing us -- provides a context for human worship that is both humbling and inspiring. It is captured magnificently in verses written by the 17th century Anglican priest and poet, John Mason.
How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?
Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I Thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluias be.
Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.
This week’s Gospel parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Unjust Steward, is unique to Luke and one of the most puzzling passages in the New Testament. There is no consensus among Biblical scholars as to just how it should be interpreted.
To save his own skin, a manager under suspicion fraudulently changes the amounts owed to his master in the hope that he can call in a few favours after he is fired. The problem of interpretation arises from the fact that Jesus appears to commend, even to praise, the manager’s dishonesty – “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”. This sits especially ill with the second Old Testament lesson for this week in which the prophet Amos denounces the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth.
The story in itself is troublesome, but the difficulty of understanding what Jesus means by telling it is increased in what follows. How does the broader lesson– “You cannot serve God and wealth” (or in traditional language, God and Mammon) -- flow from the parable that precedes it?
Here is one way of looking at this difficult passage. People often think that they can be worldly wise while remaining true to a noble purpose. They suppose that, with enough determination, they can successfully use material means to spiritual ends. Jesus warns us against this easy assumption. Worldly wisdom has a dynamic of its own, one requiring us to follow a path that, sometimes without our noticing, quickly becomes a downward spiral. The dishonest steward's actions are dictated by precisely the same desire for material advantage that motivates his master, a fact that the master himself is forced to acknowledge. So pursuing material benefits energetically and effectively in order, say, to feed the hungry, will in likelihood lead us to embrace purposes and values deeply at odds with spiritual well-being. Business methods and Christian discipleship usually give competing directions about how best to act and live.
This difficult truth does not necessarily carry the implication that only self-imposed poverty is spiritually safe. As St Paul says elsewhere, it is not money, but the love of money, that is the root of evil, and the poor no less than the rich can love money. What it does imply, though, is that a time may come when we face a choice between love of God and love of Mammon -- only to find that, unwittingly, the decision between them is one we have already made.
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