Monday, August 29, 2016

PENTECOST XVI (Proper 18) 2016

 Jesus Carrying the Cross (1967) Salvador Dali
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” This line from the Gospel for the 16th Sunday in Pentecost has traditionally been included in the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus – sayings that, on the surface at any rate, seem impossibly hard to accept.  Who could require, still less commend, that we hate our parents?  To understand the message, though, we have to allow for a level of exaggeration characteristic of the time and place in which Jesus spoke. It is not the emotion of hatred that is being commended, but a willingness to give even the deepest attachments of family life second place to Christian discipleship.
For many people, however, this is still a step too far, and smacks uncomfortably of religious fanaticism. Indeed, if we take at face value, only the life of monk, nun or hermit could accord with this requirement.Christian faith and ordinary life, it appears, cannot be combined.
There is no getting round the fact that we confront a real choice here, and a difficult one. Yet as the lives of Christians across two millennia have shown, ordinary life can still be one of faithful discipleship. The crux lies in the way we order our priorities. Happily, most Christians are never confronted with a straightforward clash between the claims of Christ and those of family life. But at much more mundane levels -- the demands of career, business, sport, leisure  -- it is easy to put Christ in second place. The key thought is this: when we accept God on our terms rather than on His, we effectively relinquish our discipleship.
The Slave Market (1880) Gustave Boulanger
To be a Christian is to believe that God must come before everything else. This does not mean, however, that we have to abandon the people and things we love so much. Rather, accepting their radical imperfection is the first step in seeking their transformation within the divine life. This week’s Epistle illustrates the point. Paul’s touching letter to the owner of the runaway slave boy Onesimus expresses the faith that even such a problematic relationship as master and slave can be transformed – "Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while," Paul writes, "so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother --especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord."

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

PENTECOST XII Proper 14 2016

Vermeer - Allegory of the Faith
Nowadays, faith is commonly contrasted with knowledge, and construed as belief in propositions or theories that can't be 'proved'. Both religious people and their critics use the concept in this way -- the first to reject scientistic demands of proof, and the second to underscore what they see as the groundless irrationality of religion.

This concept of faith, though, however widespread, is not the biblical concept, as this week's readings make clear. In the episode from Genesis, and  reflection on it in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find an importantly different concept. The faith Abraham displayed was related to the future, which by the nature of the case, cannot be known, still less proved, since it hasn't happened yet! Yet, all of our lives must be built around this unknown future, not as abstract speculation on what might happen, but as the basis of our plans, careers, aspirations and adventures.

Faith properly so called, then, is in a different category to belief and knowledge. It is allied to hope and trust -- and its contrary is not knowledge but fear. Fearful mistrust would have prevented Abraham from setting out, and stopped him from hoping for descendants, despite his age and difficulties. It was faith in God, not theological knowledge or belief about God that guided and sustained him.

Abraham Journeying - Gustave Dore
The author of Hebrews uses this as a model for a new generation, to help them see that with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a truly faith filled orientation to the future is enlarged. We can now set our hopes on a promised land far richer than a stretch of territory, and on belonging to a 'family' far greater than innumerable tribal descendants. This echoes the words of Jesus in the Gospel passage from Luke - 'Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom'. Faith in this promise, though, implies a different attitude to the present -- one that focusses on the truly important (because 'Where your treasure is, there will you heart be also') and shows a constant readiness to respond to the call of Jesus (because 'Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes').