The puzzle is intensified by the further fact that Paul's letters tell us almost nothing about the life and ministry of Jesus. Their whole focus is not on information, but interpretation. On this score, despite their humble origins, Paul’s letters have a depth of theological understanding and spiritual insight that no other Christian writings have ever matched. It was Paul, rather than Peter, John and the other disciples, who grasped the true significance of the Jesus he had never encountered in the flesh. Paul was first to understand the full import of believing that Jesus was the Christ promised by the God of Israel. Time and again he sets out the fundamental doctrines that such an understanding implies, even though he he does not use the names by which these doctrines have subsequently become known.
This week’s extract from his letter to Colossians is a case in point. There is only a trace of the once vibrant Greek city of Colossae in what is now Turkey. Paul writes to correct some false understandings of Jesus that have arisen there. In so doing he articulates a key element in the Christian faith – the Doctrine of the Incarnation. “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God”. This is Christ’s divinity, and the means by which human beings can come to understand a transcendent God. At the same time, Christ’s humanity –“his fleshly body through death” enables him “to present” human beings as “holy and blameless and irreproachable before God”. It is in Christ’s uniquely two sided nature that our salvation lies.
Set alongside Paul’s profound reflections, however, this week’s short Gospel about the all too human rivalry between Martha and Mary serves as an important reminder. The ultimate meaning of the Incarnation does not lie in theological doctrines, but in ordinary life and how belief in Jesus is best manifested there.
The Gospel for this week is one of Jesus' most famous, and familiar, parables -- the story of the Good Samaritan. Its sheer familiarity means that some of its implications are easily overlooked. This parable is not simply a morally improving lesson about how much better kindness and generosity are compared to selfish hardheartedness. For the devout Jews to whom Jesus told the story, ‘the priest’ and ‘the Levite’ were exemplars of orthodox religious practice. Their passing by on the other side was not simple hard heartedness, but reflected a desire to avoid the religious pollution that would result from contact with a (possibly) dead body. This desire would have been widely shared. Conversely, the Samaritans were not despised as an ethnic minority, but held to be second class Jews because they subscribed to a debased form of Judaism. These facts intensify the meaning of the story. They make its subject matter more than moral rectitude, and pose a question about the nature of true religion.
Equally important is the fact that ‘the Good Samaritan’ is not a free standing story with a 'lesson', like one of Aesop's fables. It is Jesus’ answer to a question. A lawyer raises a characteristically legal question. He does not dispute the ancient moral law of the Jews – ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – but asks for a definition of terms – Who is my neighbour? This is not mere quibbling. The definition of terms is crucial to any system of law and its application. What the story shows, however, is that while legalism has its place, it can become a barrier to the life of the Spirit within us.
So the story takes us to the heart of the Gospel. These sincere and faithful Jews want to place the law of God as inscribed in Leviticus at the center of their lives and obey God in all things. That is one, admirable, conception of ‘the Kingdom of God on earth’. But Jesus offers a radical alternative – a willingness to go beyond rules, to the point where our human concern with religious integrity is itself overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit acting within us. In short, we are called to participate in Divine life, and as the reading from Deuteronomy affirms, ultimately, this is a matter of looking deep within our own souls. 'Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.'
The Gospel for this week is one of those passages that modern readers find hard to relate to. Taken as a whole, even without the yet more difficult verses that the Lectionary omits, it seems to portray Jesus as encouraging a kind of fanaticism in the simple people he recruits to his cause. Relying on their primitive beliefs about demons and Satan, he promises them paradise in exchange for complete devotion. Isn’t this what happens today, when religious extremists recruit credulous suicide bombers?
If we believe in the Incarnation, we have to accept that the eternal God chose to be born into a world radically different from the modern post-Enlightenment societies with which we are familiar. To discern God’s enduring purpose for us, consequently, we must try to understand the reality of that kind of world.
Three features of this Gospel episode are especially important. First, the people Jesus chose to spread the word of God’s kingdom on earth were not highly educated, politically powerful or socially prestigious. They were notably ordinary ‘simple folk’, and in the verses that follow the lectionary’s extract, Jesus underlines that fact. Secondly, he gives these simple people the power to do some very remarkable things. This is in sharp contrast to their normal powerlessness within the social and political structures that then prevailed. No wonder they return from their excursions ‘with joy’.
Yet, thirdly, at the very height of their delight, Jesus tells them NOT to rejoice in their new found power. It is not these astonishing new abilities that matter, but the fact that their names are ‘enrolled in heaven’. In other words, these ordinary people have been entrusted with a task, and given powers to accomplish it, both of which have been denied to far more sophisticated people. They have the ability to see ‘what many prophets and kings wished to see, yet never saw’ (v 24), and thus to tell others that ‘the Kingdom of God is near you’. This does not imply or bestow any special status, however. They are neither prophets nor angels, but remain simply human. Since they probably expected it to be otherwise, this is the hardest part of accepting the mission they been chosen to undertake.
In the accompanying Epistle, Paul identifies very precisely a special danger confronting those who find themselves possessed of unusual spiritual gifts. He warns the Galatians: ‘If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit’. The warning is apt. Yet there is no disguising the great challenge that confronts anyone who believes that God speaks to them in a special way. They will be strongly tempted to use their spiritual insight and charismatic power in the promotion of strictly human ends. Often, as in the case of suicide bombers, these are political goals, pursued with brutal disregard for others. The Gospel message is that this is not simply immoral; it is a spiritual failure.
There is an unmistakable connection between this week’s Old Testament lesson and the Gospel passage. Both are about call and discipleship. In the first, Elisha is called to follow Elijah and become his successor. In the second, an unnamed ‘someone’ professes a desire to follow Jesus. Between the two, however, there is this striking difference. Whereas Elijah is happy to let Elisha first bid farewell to his parents, Jesus seems to condemn the same desire in those who want to follow him, as something that renders them ‘unfit’.
This passage in Luke (and a similar one in Matthew) is easily taken to mean that serious Christian discipleship requires us to abandon family and ordinary life. This is how those drawn to monastic life have often interpreted it. Yet if this is right, the cost of discipleship is far too high for most people. Certainly, the vast majority of those who have called themselves Christians have not made this sacrifice. Are they self-deceived?
As we think about this issue, It is helpful to recall last’s week’s Gospel. There Jesus expressly tells the demoniac who has been cured, and who wants to follow him, to return to his family. It is enough that he should give thanks for what God has done for him. Acknowledging the redemptive power of Jesus, this episode clearly implies, is wholly compatible with fulfilling the demands of domestic life.
So how do we resolve the tension between the instruction to leave family behind and the instruction to return to them? The unnamed people in today’s Gospel profess their desire to follow Jesus ‘out of the blue’ so to speak. Do they truly know what they are professing? The instruction to ‘leave the dead to bury the dead’ puts their profession to the test. What lies at the heart of this test?
The passage from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, also concerned with ‘call’ gives us a clue. “You were called to freedom”, he tells them, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence”. We easily suppose, especially at moments of high emotional or religious intensity, that what we like doing is the role we should have in God’s plan for salvation through Christ. This is self-indulgence. Accepting the discipline of the (often rather more modest) place we have actually been assigned is much harder. But that is what true discipleship means.
A great shift in theological thinking is to be observed between the Old and the New Testaments. For much of the Old Testament, God is conceived in ethnic or tribal terms; God is our God, meaning, the God with whom Abraham and his descendants have entered into an agreement. God agrees to show the Israelites special favour and protection, and in return, Israelites promise to worship God in the right way. When they don’t, retribution is certain to ensue. That is almost always what calls forth prophetic warnings.
Here and there in the book of the prophet Isaiah (three different prophets, probably) we catch glimpses of a less ethnic conception of God, but in this week’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah clearly re-affirms the old restrictions, and condemns “a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good. . . sacrificing in gardens, offering incense on bricks . . . eating swine's flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels”. “I will repay their iniquities and their ancestors' iniquities”, Isaiah hears God say. Punishment always falls short of outright destruction, however, because just as wine can be made from a small cluster of grapes, so God can “bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains”.
It is here we find the radical theological innovation of the New Testament. Paul, himself a Jew of the deepest dye, comes to see that the God we find in Christ Jesus transcends all ethnic and social divisions. “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now . . . we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God . . . there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring”.
This is the central topic of the first two readings, but it is not obvious how the Gospel is related to it. Yet the connections are there. “The country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee” takes Jesus into Gentile territory, and thus beyond the world of the Jews. This echoes Isaiah: “I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, "Here I am, here I am," to a nation that did not call on my name”. Symbolically, the demons from which Legion is freed take up residence in pigs, traditionally categorized by Judaism as ‘unclean’. Yet that location cannot save them. Their final destination has to be the abyss in which all evil is destroyed.
The message is clear: God transcends the tribe that first discerned his purposes. Salvation is open to all. Yet, in an intriguing twist, Luke tells us that the presence of Jesus proves too alarming for the local Gentiles, and they ask him to leave their neighborhood. It is not only the Israelites, plainly, who can turn a deaf ear to God saying "Here I am, here I am”.
The Sunday after Pentecost is unique in the Church’s year. Whereas every other holy day celebrates an event or a person, Trinity Sunday celebrates a theological doctrine – and what is more, a doctrine that is very perplexing. The God in whom Christians believe, it holds, is ‘Three in One’ and ‘One in Three’. This seems to defy even the most basic principles of arithmetic.
How can anything be both three things and only one thing? Yet that is what the doctrine obliges Christians to hold. Furthermore, this is not some optional extra that we may or may not choose to go along with. Since the fourth century, when the Creeds were finalized, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been central to all the major branches of the Christian Church – Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed. There are Unitarian churches who deny it, certainly, but these have always been in a small minority.
Why has Trinitarianism been thought so crucial? The answer is revealed in part by this week’s readings. The Epistle and the Gospel comprise two short and familiar passages. The first comes from Paul’s most important letter – his Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote this several centuries before theologians came up with carefully formulated doctrines, and over a thousand years before Trinity Sunday became a fixture in the Church's Calendar. So here, we must say, Paul is not advancing a complex theological proposition, but simply trying to capture, and convey, his own profound experience of what it means to be a Christian. Trinitarianism arises because in doing so, he simply cannot avoid talking about God, and about Jesus, and about the Holy Spirit, all in equal measure.
In this respect, however, the Epistle does no more than the Gospel passage itself. Like Paul, John wrote these words of Jesus a very long time before theologians set to work on them. Yet here too we find that if Jesus is to describe his mission properly, and convey his promise to those who believe in him, a threefold reference is inescapable -- the Father who sends, the Son who obeys, and the Spirit who remains. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is certainly perplexing, but this is because it reflects a great mystery to which we are necessarily compelled, whenever we try to affirm the truth about Jesus Christ.
The English word ‘enthusiasm’ does not, generally speaking, have religious overtones. It is most likely to be used in the context of sport or some personal interest. But in fact it comes from Greek words meaning "possessed by a god". The special kind of zeal or ardour that results from divine inspiration is exactly what the disciples display in this week’s passage from Acts. Possessed by the Spirit of God, they displayed such 'enthusiasm' that passers-by stopped to stare, and concluded that people acting in this way in a public place must be drunk.
The Feast of Pentecost is observed six weeks after Easter and commemorates this event. Though it no longer has anything like the same profile as Christmas and Easter, even among practicing Christians, it is in fact the third major festival of the Christian year, and no less important than the other two. Why is it so important?
The answer lies in today’s Gospel. The passage begins with a request – ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’. Everyone who has a feel for religion can hear the deep longing that Philip expresses. But Christ’s answer -- 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’ – contains a salutary reminder. We can fail to be satisfied with the truth.
The Spirit that took possession of the disciples, John tells us, was expressly sent by Jesus – ‘The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. It is in Truth, Peace and Love that this Holy Spirit is to be found. While it is to be understood as a gift, it is not given ‘as the world gives’. The spirit of truth, love and peace raises human beings to their finest level, but it does not lay any store by accomplishment, popular endorsement, or vindication in the eyes of the world. All these are things to which both societies and individuals lend great importance. That is why we are so prone to reject the gift of Holy Spirit, and keep on looking elsewhere and for something else.
The lesson to be drawn is this. While we should work at being successful wherever God has placed us, if this truly Holy Spirit is to ‘abide in us’, we must not let our hearts 'be troubled' by worldly aspirations, or 'be afraid' of worldly failure. Peter's new found mission, of course, is a shining example of just what this means.
Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter and and Pentecost. Yet it has rarely been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church, or in the practice of individual Christians. Perhaps this is in part because the event it commemorates -- the ascension of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke (though that is also true of the Epiphany which is found only in Matthew). Perhaps it is because over the centuries, its precise location in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But mainly it is because the theological significance of the event it celebrates -- Ascension -- is very hard to separate from the two events by which it is surrounded -- Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
One way of identifying the unique significance of Ascension, however, is to note the special way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. The Apostles Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched, listened to him and ate with him over the three years of his ministry. That ministry ended in apparent failure, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, the Apostles were granted a second opportunity to be in the company of the Son of God.
In the pursuit of our discipleship, we do not have these advantages. We must live in faith in a way that those few Galileans did not have to do. The Ascension is special because it marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, importantly by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight" meant that for a short time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, but without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his Ascension required them to relinquish their privileged position and prepare themselves for what the rest of us rely on -- a Holy Spirit that draws us into the eternal life of the Father whom we do not see and the Son whom we never met.
It is this same Spirit that prompts, and enables, Paul’s response to the dream recounted in the Epistle. An unknown person in far off Macedonia calls on him to share the Gospel, thereby indicating that its power and relevance must break all geographical and ethnic boundaries. In short, the Gospel Paul preaches speaks to the human soul that lies within everyone.
Between the Gospel promise and the missionary Acts of Paul the Apostle, lies Revelation’s compellingly beautiful statement of the ultimate goal in which the work of the Spirit will culminate. What is striking is just how God centred it is. The picture of the ‘heavenly’ Jerusalem that it paints, is not a paradise in which all our desires and needs are met, but one in which they are transformed and transcended within the Person of God. In the world to which we have been raised, we no longer need sunlight, or clean water, or political security, or even places of worship. God’s presence will be so immediate that everyone ‘will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads’. This vision is no promise, of course, for those whose hearts are set on wealth and power as the world understands these. But to those who long for a full realization of the spiritual nature that God has planted in us, no more wonderful prospect could be imagined.
In these passages, Jewish scribes asked Jesus to identify the most central of the several hundred commandments -- including the dietary restrictions the reading from Acts refers to -- that were to be found in their scriptures. He picks just two – one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus – and declares that everything else in the Jewish law and prophets hangs on these two commandments. He also declares that he has not come to abolish the law. However, he does not expressly say that these two commandments summarize his own faith.
In contrast to the other three Gospels, the Fourth Gospel does not record this episode. Rather, in the brief Gospel for this Sunday, John tells us that Jesus offered his own disciples a third, new, and ‘great’ commandment – ‘that you love one another’. As faithful Jews, the disciples commitment to love of God and neighbour could be taken for granted. To mark them out as followers of Christ, they were called to obey a third commandment -- special love for each other.
Given the divisions, persecutions and mutual contempt that have so often marred the history of the Church – and still do – this third, distinctively Christian commandment has proved very much harder to live by than the other two, so hard as to be virtually impossible in fact. The judgment of history, then, seems to make the Christian faith a hopeless undertaking. Still, this Sunday’s reading from Revelation reminds us that ultimately we must place our hopes in a world that God has promised, not in a world that human beings, however well intentioned, will make. It is God, not us, who makes all things new, and God does so in ways that human beings may well find hard to discern. The implication is that we must wait patiently until ‘the home of God is among mortals’. Only then can we expect ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.
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