Wednesday, June 29, 2016

PENTECOST VII Proper 9 2016

Saddle Horse in Palestine - Singer Sargent
The Gospel for this week is one of those passages that modern readers can find it hard to relate to, especially at the present time. That is because, taken as a whole, it seems to portray Jesus as encouraging a kind of fanaticism in the simple people he recruits to his cause, and playing to their primitive beliefs about demons, Satan and paradise. The Lectionary omits certain condemnatory verses, and these just make the passage even harder. Still, if we believe in the Incarnation, we have to accept that the eternal God chose to be born into a world radically different from modern post-Enlightenment societies, so that the reality of that kind of world is one we must try to understand.

Three features of this Gospel episode seem 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, but notably ordinary. These are ‘simple folk’, and in the verses that follow the lectionary extract, Jesus underlines that fact. Secondly, he gives them the power to do some very remarkable things. This is in sharp contrast to their normal powerlessness within the prevailing social and political structures. No wonder they return from their excursions ‘with joy’.

Sacred Flame - Kazuo Shiraga
Yet thirdly, at the very height of their delight, he tells them NOT to rejoice in their new found power. It is not these astonishing 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 a gift denied to far more sophisticated people. They have the ability to see what ‘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’. But this neither implies nor bestows a higher social status. They remain simply human.

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, but cannot disguise the great challenge that this presents to anyone who believes God speaks to them in a special way. The temptation is to use spiritual insight to limited human ends. Sometimes, as in the case of suicide bombers, this results in pursuing political goals with brutal disregard for others.

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