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.
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Christ Church Morningisde
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