The thematic readings for this Sunday are all fragmentary, especially the Gospel, which is not a single extract but two short extracts stuck together. This makes them quite hard to understand, and harder still to connect. How are we to interpret the image of children playing in the market place, and the analogy of the yoke that was used to harness oxen? Are these images related in some way, and if so, what is the link between these Gospel verses, the Old Testament prophesy from Zechariah, and Paul’s reflections on sin and the will in the Epistle?
Scholars have long debated about the passages from Matthew. It seems reasonably clear that the ‘children’ in the market place are to be identified with the audience described as ‘this generation’. They thus represent the Jews of Jesus’ day. But are they calling to each other, or does the passage imagine a dialogue between ‘this generation’ on the one hand, and John and Jesus on the other? There is no straightforward answer. Possibly that does not matter very much. Either way, the essential element turns on the sharp contrast between Jesus’ proclamation of ‘Good News’ and John the Baptist’s call to repentance. The ‘children’ reject Jesus’ ‘dance music’ because it is not austere enough. Yet previously they rejected John’s invitation to ‘wail’ because they did not want to be mournful. John’s ascetic way of life – 'neither eating nor drinking' -- did not please them, but then when Jesus comes ‘eating and drinking’, they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' In short, whatever the message, ‘this generation’ has found a way to respond negatively.
Their negative attitude, however, is not just bloody mindedness. Neither John nor Jesus doubted the religious seriousness of the highly educated Pharisees they encountered. The problem was that far from being liberated by their faith, these devout people were encumbered by the vast and complex system that comprised the Judaic law. Their deep engagement with this system prevented them from seeing what a child could see – that the Messiahship of Jesus was offering them a different way to salvation, one that their heartfelt desire to serve God ought to have inclined them to welcome.
This is where the image of the yoke comes into play. The expression ‘the Yoke’ was often used to refer to the Jewish law. All its detailed rules for the conduct of life had been developed as a means of ensuring that people could lead useful lives while living in harmony with each other. This is what makes the analogy of the yoke relevant. Yoked together, the strength of the harnessed oxen can serve a greater purpose than any single ox could serve alone. Yet, as pictures of yoked oxen often reveal, this device is immensely heavy and highly restricting. So when Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy’, by implication he is making a twofold claim. First, he is claiming continuity with Moses and the Mosaic law, a continuity that the brief lesson from Zechariah – which Matthew quotes elsewhere – serves to underline. Second, he is offering a way to salvation that by comparison with the Law, is ‘easy and light’. This, one would think, ought to be good news to any one wearied by a constant effort to keep all the rules. Yet ‘the children’ who do not want to ‘wail’, are not willing to ‘dance’ either.
Paul was a Pharisee of his generation par excellence. His famous encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, brought about a dramatic change of heart and mind. The short passage from Romans that is this week’s Epistle is a reflection of that change. Looking back Paul could see that even as a Pharisee of the strictest kind, his most ardent determination to keep the law failed. ‘I agree that the law is good’, he says, and ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ Sheer will power, it seems, will not effect a rescue, and the constant effort to observe ‘the law’ simply burdens him more and more. It is only when he abandons this effort, and accepts the fact that Christ has redeemed him, that his burden is lightened.
But what is the meaning and message of all this for us? We are neither steeped in, nor tempted to lead our lives by the detailed requirements of the Mosaic law. Yet, curiously, we are tempted by something similar. The rules and regulations of modern life – in health, safety, security, protection, finance, and education, for example – are even more extensive than the Mosaic laws and no less burdensome. While their introduction and application is always intended to do help us lead good lives and live successfully in community, just like the Mosaic law, they easily become a ‘yoke’ that first captures and then kills the spirit. The truth is that letting go of rules, trusting in the providential love of God, and living by faith, is as much a challenge for us as it was for those complaining children in the market place.
This is one of those Sundays when the so-called ‘thematic’ readings leave us wondering about what the underlying theme could be. To begin with, the Old Testament and Gospel readings are very short, just a few verses extracted from the broader context that gives them meaning. Looked at closely however, there is indeed a connection. The first two readings concern situations of conflicted choice, and the Gospel offers a measure of resolution for these.
The passage from Jeremiah occurs within a chapter that tells of a conflict between Jeremiah and a rival prophet, Hananiah. The land of Judah had been invaded by the Babylonians, whose military victory Jeremiah had correctly predicted. But he also predicted that Babylonian control would last three generations. Consequently, the people of Judah would have to learn how to be faithful to God throughout that time. Hananiah, on the other hand, had predicted the overthrow of Babylon within two years, when the Temple and its sacred vessels would restored to full use. For Jeremiah this was not simply false hope; it was a failure to understand that the Babylonian victory only occurred with God’s consent. It must therefore be seen as a time of testing. The people of Judah were being challenged. Could they be faithful to God under the yoke of Babylonian occupation? Hananiah’s ‘quick fix’ solution was tempting, but shallow, and as time would tell, it would fail. The prophets, then, were in conflict, and the people had a choice. Were they to commit to Jeremiah’s hard way or to Hananiah’s much easier one?
in the Epistle Paul also addresses a conflicted choice. His audience are new converts to Christianity. They have responded to the good news that Christ has saved them from the consequences of the sensual indulgence characteristic of their pagan ways. But those pagan ways retained some of their attraction. If they now had the assurance of salvation, couldn’t they just continue with some of the things they liked? Paul aims to disabuse them of this thought. The choice is not, as they might think, between bodily slavery and spiritual freedom. Rather, it is one between two competing forms of slavery. ‘Having once been slaves of sin, and thus set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness’. ‘I am speaking in human terms’ he tells them ‘because of your natural limitations’. Human beings are simply unable to serve two masters. It is not possible to indulge the desires that paganism celebrated but only a little bit. Given human weakness, they will take over. The only solution is an absolute obedience to the service of God in Christ.
Nowadays, we are – perhaps – less likely to be slaves to sensuous desires. But we can be slaves to other things that dominate our lives to our spiritual detriment. Conventional behaviour, popular opinion, bureaucratic procedures, social conformity all exercise remarkable influence. Paul’s message is the same. Your choice is to be enslaved to these, or to be enslaved to the righteousness of God revealed in Christ. Which is it to be? Whose side are you on?
It takes great strength of mind and character to be a Jeremiah or a Paul – steadfastly holding to God in the face of pressures to conform with attitudes and behaviour that the world approves and rewards. Could many of us hope to do that? If the answer is No, then the Gospel has some comfort for us. Here again context matters. Jesus has sent the disciples out as missionaries in a culturally hostile world. But he offers them this comfort “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”. This is good news for those Christians who do not have the resilience to stand out from the crowd, to resist ‘correct’ opinions, and take a stand. This is how Christian witness should be. Yet, if we can stand apart from their ridicule and condemnation, whether in political statements or on social media and welcome those who have the strength to bear witness in an indifferent or even hostile world, then we are assured by this week’s Gospel, we will have welcomed the one who sent them. Though we are often too weak to commit wholeheartedly to God, God perpetually embraces us -- only, that is , if in whatever poor a way, we can acknowledge and support those ‘saints’ who more adequately honour him.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and one's foes will be members of one's own household.”
These words from this Sunday’s Gospel stand in very sharp contrast with the Jesus Christians usually talk about -- the inspirational figure of love whose forgiving embrace can unite everyone in the sort of peace and harmony that marks the Kingdom of Heaven. Can it really be true, as Jesus seems to say here, that he has come not to bring harmony but division, and even to bring it right into the heart of the family?
This is one of those Gospel passages that it is tempting to avoid. Yet here it is in our lectionary, and it has to be addressed. As we begin to do so, the first thing is to notice that Matthew could only write this passage with the benefit of hindsight. A few verses on, he invokes the image of ‘taking up one’s cross’. Obviously, this familiar metaphor gets its meaning from the Crucifixion. Yet it will be another sixteen chapters before Matthew’s readers are told about the trial and death of Jesus. So Matthew’s main purpose, it seems, cannot be that of recording accurately the words that Jesus actually spoke. Who, after all, would have been there at the time, ready with a notebook? Rather, his aim, like all the evangelists and especially John, is to give faithful expression to the mind of Christ. And the most compelling way of doing this, is to put words into his mouth.
Those who knew Jesus were best placed to do this. But even they could only do it with hindsight. They gradually came to a much better understanding of who Jesus really was in the light of their own experience. And that experience, quite soon, confronted them with this daunting fact. Some people, strangely, hate and fear a Gospel of love.
Who wants to be set against father and mother? No one, and there is no evidence that the early Christians in any way relished the pain and strife that resulted from their faith in Jesus. Yet, neither could they abandon or deny that faith. Just like Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, they were caught in a painful dilemma.
Such dilemmas are at the heart of religious faith. In the Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah gives powerful expression to the same experience. “The word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Fortunately, we modern Christians are rarely confronted with the kind of choice that Matthew and Jeremiah describe. At the same time, it is easy to overlook or otherwise avoid the more modest contexts in which we are invited to ‘take up our cross’. The image of a cross we have to bear is easily misunderstood. It is not simply a burden that dogs us in our daily life, which is how the expression is often used. Rather, it is like Christ’s own Cross – something we would wish to be spared, but since we cannot, we must grasp it as a unique opportunity to show forth the reality of God in our lives.
In the Epistle, Paul asks the new Christians at Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Our old self”, he tells them, “was crucified with him, so that we might be freed from sin”. Whenever, and in whatever way, the call comes for us to ‘take up our cross’, that is a special opportunity to “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”. But we can always choose not to.
The thematic readings for this Sunday are linked by something paradoxical, a call that is to both obedience and to leadership. In the passage from Exodus, God puts into the mouth of Moses this message for the Israelites. ‘If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ It is a message repeated again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures. ‘Deep darkness covers the land’, Isaiah tells his people, ‘but over you the Lord will rise, and nations will steam to your light’. This supreme distinction -- serving the whole earth as a holy nation -- is a matter of great pride. Yet at the same time it springs from humility, the willingness to show complete subservience to God.
With the coming of Jesus, the message remains the same at heart, but also undergoes a radical change. ‘When Jesus saw the crowds’, this week’s Gospel says, ‘he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. So he summoned his twelve disciples and sent them ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. In the end, though, the lost house of Israel rejected him, and his disciples, handing him over to the Romans for execution. As a consequence, God’s call to obedience and leadership ceases to addressed to a single ethnic group. Instead, ‘the holy nation’ becomes a universal church, drawn from all peoples and all nations, yet retaining the same role -- to be a light in places of ‘deep darkness’ wherever human beings find themselves ‘harassed and helpless’.
Alongside this call, though, is a warning. Discipleship comes at a cost. ‘You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me and you will be hated because of my name’. As the reading from Paul’s Epistle confirms, this warning applied not only to the twelve disciples, but also to those who responded to the Gospel through Paul’s preaching. For Paul, the suffering that may result from Christian conversion also brings consolation. ‘Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope’. In other words, the very difficulty of being a Christian can itself be the means by which we come to experience afresh God's love being poured into our hearts.
Few Christians in the West today are likely to undergo the persecution and suffering these readings anticipate. Instead, Christianity’s modern enemies are indifference or contempt, and the name of Jesus is most often used as a dismissive swear word. This leads to a different, but no less serious issue. It would not be any exaggeration to say that our current, covid-19 dominated world, is one in which large numbers of people are ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. Scientists and politicians have stepped into, and been accepted in, the role of ‘shepherd’, while religions (and not just Christianity) have been completely side-lined. This generates a great problem. How is the Church to be a light in this new form of darkness?
When Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them out like sheep into the midst of wolves, he gives them strange advice. ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. According to normal ways of thinking, cunning is the opposite of innocence, and while the reward for cunning, it is widely supposed, may be success, the price of innocence is just as often failure.
If we believe in a God-given, providential order beyond anything that science and politics can offer us, in which love, not medicine or technology, ultimately governs all things, we need to find a practical way of working with a world that denies this, while at the same time holding on to Christian truth or integrity. It goes without saying that this is very hard to do. It is much easier to keep our heads down and follow the rules prescribed by scientists and politicians. Moreover, when Christians do act in the name of their faith, these readings tell us, they are by no means assured of an easy ride. That is not the way God works. At the same time, they have this profound assurance – ‘it is not you who speaks, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you’. Our human weakness and vulnerability will not go away. But by the grace of God they can be transformed.
Compared to other ‘high days’, a feast day dedicated to the Holy Trinity came relatively late in the Church’s history and was not made official until 1334. The intention was to conclude the liturgical commemorations of the life of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit with a commemoration focusing on the whole nature of God. Trinity was taken up with particular enthusiasm by the church in England, and came to be specially identified with the Anglican Church that resulted from Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 16th century.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity -- that there are Three Persons in One God -- is central to orthodox Christianity. It figures in the Creeds and in confessions of faith that Christians are required to affirm at baptism and confirmation. Yet, though we are asked to affirm it again and again, it is an immensely difficult doctrine to understand, and perhaps can never be understood completely. So how did Christians end up in the position of being required to believe a doctrine they struggle to understand?
The answer is: they found they had no choice. All the early Christians were Jews, deeply committed to monotheism, the belief that God is One, Creator of all that is made – the implication of the creation story that provides the first lesson this Sunday. At the same time, the Gospel they preached was about Jesus’ unique relationship to God, and how the Resurrection set him apart from even the greatest Jewish prophets. Then they had to do justice to their experience at Pentecost when, even with Jesus no longer present among them, his spirit empowered them to set aside their fears and anxieties and confront persecution in the name of the Cross. If all these elements are essential to the Gospel the Apostles felt compelled to preach, something like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is inescapable. That was why Christians had to find a theological formula that would allow them to acknowledge God in the Father who created them, the Son who redeemed them, and the Spirit who sanctified them. Father, Son and Holy Spirit were not three gods, but three different 'Persons' in one God. This assertion may be mystifying, but it proved inescapable.
We owe the doctrine's most familiar version – in the form of a blessing – to St Paul, who ends the brief Epistle for this Sunday with these words --“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all”. But Paul’s blessing is not his own invention. It simply echoes the “great commission” that Jesus gives his disciples in the Gospel – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Each year, Trinity Sunday comes as reminder of this continuing commission.
The Gospel for this Sunday is unusually brief, because for once our attention must be elsewhere, firmly focussed on the reading from Acts. This recounts the powerful experience Christ’s disciples underwent on Shavuot, a Jewish festival that occurs in late spring and commemorates God’s gift of the Ten Commandments.
The Christian festival which arose from that remarkable first-century Shavout is celebrated fifty days after Easter, hence the name ‘Pentecost’. Nowadays it is widely referred to as ‘the Birthday of the Church’. This is not quite right, however. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus founds the Church when he gives Simon the new name of ‘Peter’. Peter, he declares, is ‘the rock on which I will build my Church’. To understand the Day of Pentecost properly, therefore, we have to see it, not as the beginning, but as the development of the Church that Christ had founded in the course of his ministry. Pentecost is a point of transformation. A faithful group of believers was so powerfully inspired by the Holy Spirit, that they became something ‘mystical’, the Body of Christ on earth.
Unhappily, this has often been the reality. Christians have been so divided, so at odds with each other, that the Body of Christ seems fractured with dispute, recrimination, persecution and even slaughter. At many points, both past and present, the glorious commission given to the Apostles has been hidden behind a screen of intolerance, bigotry and narrow mindedness. And yet, the great mystery is, it is to this often fractured Church that God continues to entrust the Gospel. Pentecost, accordingly, should be embraced as an annual opportunity for real spiritual renewal. The image of wind invites us to spread our sails to a Holy Spirit that will blow us out of our spiritual doldrums, and the Pentecostal fire is an invitation to burn away the idols of our past.
The familiarity of this expression can hinder us in appreciating what an extraordinary status this bestows on the Church. It makes it sacred, and thus an institution like no other. When baptized Christians celebrate Pentecost they are claiming an astonishing privilege – to continue God’s incarnation in the world, and be the embodiment and enduring presence of Christ for human kind. By the same token, of course, this sacred status brings an awesome responsibility. When Christians exercise their privilege well, they can indeed be Christ in the world as a focus of hope and veneration. When they exercise it badly, then Jesus Christ becomes an object of the world’s contempt, or loathing or indifference.
How is this renewal to be accomplished? There is guidance in the reading from Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians. It begins by telling us, ‘No one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit’. What this means is that, however much we may disagree with other Christians, their sincerity and faithfulness to the Lordship of Christ is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit within them. Certainly, there are important differences, but then, Paul says, that is what we should expect. He writes: ‘There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.’ The lesson he is driving home is not to seek uniformity in belief, or practice or opinion, but to search for and acknowledge the spiritual unity that underlies these differences. Just as a sports team or an orchestra must prize a variety of gifts while being bound by a single underlying spirit, so the Church at Pentecost must rejoice in the single Spirit manifested in all its astonishing variety.
In the very brief Gospel from John, Jesus quotes the prophet Ezekiel ‘Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water’. The celebration of Pentecost is threefold. First it means recognizing that all those who are able to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ are led to do so by the Holy Spirit. Second, it means having a mind sufficiently open to see the living water that has flowed from their lives. Third, it means praying sincerely that such water will continue to flow. When churches are allowed to resume their proper work and worship, this Pentecostal prayer will matter even more.
Modern liturgical practice considers the Sunday following Ascension Day as the last Sunday in the Season of Easter. Accordingly, the Lectionary chooses Bible readings that link the beginning of the season with its close. So the first reading repeats the passage from the opening chapter of Acts that recounts Jesus’ final Resurrection appearance to his disciples before his Ascension.
The Gospel -- from John – takes us back to Holy Week, however. It occurs just after the long ‘Farewell Discourses’ that Jesus addresses to the eleven left in the upper room once Judas Iscariot has fled their celebration of the Passover. He turns his thoughts to God and says, “I am coming to you, Holy Father”, a prayer appropriate to ascension, but uttered when he has the long and arduous path of trial, condemnation and death still to tread. It is striking, though, that it is at this moment, and not the moment of ascension recorded by Luke, that Jesus declares “Now I am no longer in the world”. What can he mean? Even when he has risen from the dead, he appears in Galilee. Doesn’t his departure from ‘the world’ have to wait for Ascension?
At one level it does. The eternal unity of Father and Son is renewed with the Ascension when Jesus visibly ascends from earth to heaven. At another level, however, the mystery that underlies this unity relies upon a proper understanding of the relation between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’. It is a fact of human experience that ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’, the earthly and the heavenly, are often at war within us. Contrary to what people commonly suppose, this does not mean that the spiritual or heavenly realm is radically divorced from the material or earthly one. Rather, as this week’s Gospel makes it plain, we are not to think of heaven as another world purged of all its imperfections of this one, a place we travel to when we die. On the contrary, as this week’s lesson tells us, Jesus did not come to promise bliss in the future, but “to give eternal life” now. Importantly, the Gospel then adds: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” In other words, eternal life begins not at death, but when we first truly know God in Christ. At that point, the human spirit is offered a new way of living an earthly life that transcends mortality, regardless of when that may come.
We are free, of course, to turn down the offer, and continue in our ordinary ways. What difference does accepting it make?? Part of the answer lies in our own conduct. This week’s Epistle from the First Letter of Peter says “Discipline yourselves, keep alert”. Such advice, however, can only be part of the answer. A lot of the time, as we know very well, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, so that self-centred anxieties continue to dog us. It is precisely at these moments, however, that Peter’s words speak most powerfully to us: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you”.
The real Good News is that ultimately we are not at the mercy of our own efforts which are often misguided and feeble. Jesus is properly called Saviour because, even when we beset by fear, weakness, and ignorance, he loves us in just the way that God loves us. Given the anxieties about public health that currently dominate our lives, this is welcome news. Faith is a two-way relationship. We hold out our hands, but it is God who reaches down to us. We open our hearts, but it is Christ’s saving spirit that enters them. We lose the ability to pray, but the Spirit prays for us, in ‘sighs too deep for words’. And this reassurance, fittingly is the promise of Pentecost, the liturgical season that is just about to come.
Ascension Day is one of the seven principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means it is to be ranked on a par with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Yet, while this is the ‘official’ position, Ascension has rarely been accorded the same sort of prominence as the other major feasts, either in the life of the Church or in the practice of individual Christians.
Why has there been this benign neglect? Perhaps it is in part because the event Ascension commemorates -- the heavenly departure of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke, though he does tell the story twice, first in his Gospel and then in Acts. Perhaps it is because over the centuries, unlike Christmas and Easter, Ascension’s precise location in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But mainly, I think, it is because the theological significance of the event it celebrates is very hard to separate from the Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
This is reflected in our modern calendar. Previously, Ascension had a season all to itself – the ten days of Ascensiontide with special ceremonies by which it was marked. Now Ascension Day has been swept into the Easter season. Is this a gain, or a loss?
It is a loss if it leads us to miss the theological significance of the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. These few days are important because they unite us in a rather special way with the first disciples. Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. For three years, they were able to walk and talk with him. They watched and listened as he taught and healed and prophesied and challenged his listeners in the course of his ministry. Then, just as his mission was attracting more and more interest, it ground to a halt in apparent failure. The teacher and preacher to whom they had given their lives, was arrested, condemned and executed. To their astonishment, however, they were granted a second opportunity, to be physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, and so to enter again the privileged company of one they now knew to be the Son of God.
No Christians ever since have had the experience that blessed the lives of the Apostles. While they drew on their own experience, we have to rely on their testimony. In the pursuit of our discipleship we must live by faith in a way that those few Galileans did not have to do. They were there, they saw, they heard.
Ascension marks the point at which Jesus finally left them. Having led them out of Jerusalem as far as Bethany, in the very act of blessing them, Luke tells us, he withdrew and was taken ‘out of their sight’. This must have been a critical moment. His departure "from their sight" meant that for the first time, they had to stand firm in their discipleship, without his unique presence to sustain them. It was his Ascension, not his Resurrection, that asked something new of them. Now for the first time they stood on level ground with the rest of us, and were required to prepare themselves for what all Christians must rely upon – the advent of a Holy Spirit at Pentecost, that ‘third person’ of the Trinity who leads us into the eternal life of the Father, whom we do not see, and of the Son, whom we never met.
In the passage from Acts for the sixth Sunday in Easter Paul preaches in front of the Areopagus, a rocky platform beside the Acropolis in Athens. This is a key moment in the history of Christianity, and of the world. Here, two great cultures meet for the first time -- the religion of the Jews and the philosophy of the Greeks.
Athens and Jerusalem are the streams of thought and culture from which all the most important aspects of our civilization take their origin. Both Jew and Greek were passionately concerned to understand how the lives of human beings could be rooted in reality, how they could avoid falling for individual fads and passing fashions, and how best they might be lived in harmony with the whole creation.
When Tertullian, one of the Early Church Fathers, posed his famous question "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" he was giving voice to a doubt about how easily these two ways of thinking could be combined. For the Greeks, the pursuit of wisdom meant gaining knowledge of the way the cosmos was structured and functioned. Their hope, and their faith, was pinned on what we would today call science. For the Jews, by contrast, reality was ultimately personal, a reflection of the will of its divine creator and ruler, and their faith consequently, lay in knowing and following God’s purpose.
The Epistle for this Sunday reveals something about this difference. Peter says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” But the kind of reason he is referring to is not founded in evidence or experiment. Rather, it springs from something more basic, that ‘in your hearts you sanctify Christ as Lord’.
In his speech to the Greeks, Paul is clear about this vital shift of perspective. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth . . . will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead”. The implication of this is that humanity needs more than scientific knowledge, valuable though this is. At bottom, the ‘Spirit of truth’ to which Jesus refers in the Gospel, is not something impersonal – scientific knowledge -- but something personal -- love for God through Christ. It is only when we grasp this profound insight that our experience of human nature (who we are) and of the human condition (the world in which we have to live) can be fully reconciled.
The world that God has made for us may be studied as a physical and biological system. There is undoubtedly a lot to be learned from studying it that way. But the Christian religion holds that inquiries of this kind cannot sound reality's depths or tell us how best to live. Rather, the world is a cosmic expression of divine love, animated by that love, and inviting a personal response from us.
In the current crisis, our lives have been drastically altered in the name of ‘following the science’. The Church has gone along with that, and laid its public worship aside. But now we are confronted by this question: the impersonal science we are following gives us predictions and death counts. But does it give us reason for the hope that we have? Actually, does it give us hope at all? Might it be that Jesus is calling us to proclaim afresh “the Spirit of truth, whom the world (especially in its current state of anxiety) cannot receive”?
In this week’s Gospel, the disciple Thomas says to Jesus, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" The reply he receives is famous: "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life”. The other readings show how, thanks to the Apostles’ preaching, this message could also speak powerfully to people who had not themselves followed Jesus of Nazareth, or witnessed his mysterious post-Resurrection appearances.
The passage from Acts is especially compelling in this respect. It is a very truncated version of the story of Stephen, a man held in such high regard by the early Christians that he was elected to the new office of deacon, a person entrusted with special responsibilities for the welfare of the fledgling Church. One day, as the price of this trust, Stephen faced a much greater, and far more difficult call – to be the first in a long line of Christian martyrs.
‘Martyr’ does not mean ‘victim’, as it is often taken to mean in modern English. It means ‘witness’. Stephen had found his salvation in Christ. Jesus was for him THE way, THE truth and THE life. Accordingly, his pre-eminent task was to witness to this fact, to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”, as the Epistle for this week puts it. Christian witness of this kind was not merely a duty, but a sacred privilege that could transcend even martyrdom. In death, Stephen remained what through Christ’s Cross he had become in life, one of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people”.
Nowadays, we find it increasingly difficult to differentiate between martyrs and fanatics, and the ideology of multiculturalism pressures us to say that Jesus is just one way, not the way. This is certainly a more comfortable message for contemporary Christians to affirm, but it is not what these Bible readings actually say. The Gospel asks the disciples this question, and asks it of us also: "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" Living in the world that we live in, how are we to respond ?
We know what membership of the Church meant to Stephen. What does it mean to us? Is it a matter of belonging to a welcoming group whose social life we enjoy, and whose 'good causes' we endorse? In that case, we will commit a few Sundays a month to it, and join in its community activities at other times as well. Or is it something much deeper than this – the privilege of belonging to a ‘royal priesthood’ called 'out of darkness into light' by the saving work of God in Christ? If it is the second, this will be shown in our willingness to sacrifice a very great deal for it -- time and money, certainly, but also popularity, social approval and conventional wisdom, if that's what witnessing requires,. This falls far short of what was required of Stephen, and yet, surrounded as we are by a secular society, sacrifices like these often prove too difficult, a test, in fact, that we are quite likely to fail.
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