The wonderful reading from Hebrews 12 today (second reading) may pass us by, because it presumes that we have a good understanding of the rest of the book, as well as Jewish history, geography, scripture and the Jerusalem temple. It probably doesn’t help that the name of the first mountain is not even given in the text, although the description makes it very clear what the author has in mind. The scene is from Exodus 19-20, when Moses leads the chosen people from the slavery of Egypt into this wilderness encounter with the Lord at Mount Sinai. Although it was a wonderful event, it is so dramatic and overwhelming, that most of the people would have been left as a trembling mess after this theophany. What the author wants us to know, is that as wonderful as Jewish history, centred on these key events of Exodus, wilderness wanderings, settling of the promised land, and the building of a people, then a nation, then a kingdom, which culminated in the establishment of the city of David on Mount Zion, where his son Solomon would build a temple and begin the traditions of temple offerings and sacrifices that shaped the identity of the Jewish people. When he turns in verses 22 to 24 to this contrast that is found on Mount Zion, it is not primarily to negate all that had gone before, but to speak of the ministry of Jesus as being the true and better way – completing and perfecting the limitations of the first and necessary system that was the Mosaic law. The way that he describes the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem is simply stunning. The even more stunning thing is that this access to God the supreme judge is made available through Jesus every time and in every moment that we gather to celebrate the Eucharist.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 7.30am (9 mins)
Sunday 22, Year C.
The Gospel today begins with our first reminder since the end of chapter nine, that Jesus is continuing to teach and minister along the road towards his suffering and death in the city of Jerusalem. Someone asks a question: Will there only be a few who are saved? Now that is a good question, if ever there is one! But as we perhaps have come to expect from Jesus – of the 183 questions that he is asked across the four Gospels, he only gives a direct and absolute answer three times. And this is not one of those occasions! Jesus does not seem very interested in statistics and numbers to satisfy mere human curiosity. In our Gospel from Luke, chapter 13, verses 22 to 30, he does answer indirectly, with this exhortation to enter by the narrow gate.
Jesus also tells us that God will shut out evil doers who it seems, are not known to God – leaving us with the potential criteria of doing good as the key to entry. Not that Jesus teaches any form of salvation by good works – the good works help to identify those people who are clearly striving to enter the kingdom. There is only one way into the kingdom, and Jesus is urging people to enter into the kingdom as he holds open the gate. The gateway is not very wide, so there is no question of people just happening to enter in by chance. No – it will take energy and commitment to enter the kingdom.
Israel is being given by the work and teaching of Jesus this final chance. But one day soon, the door will shut, and by then it will be too late. If the invitation of Jesus is refused there be no further opportunity.
Not that we should lift this passage out of context and develop a whole theology of salvation based only on it. The urgent warnings that Jesus offers to his contemporaries were very specific to the crisis that existed at that time. But we should also be cautious of assuming that the larger question of eternal salvation is not relevant to this text. For surely human life is so much more than just a game; surely we are not mistaken in the strong sense that all of our moral and spiritual choices really do matter; surely the rest of the New Testament has not misled us badly so that we do understand that the gate of the kingdom of God does remain open to us – but it is possible to stroll straight past this same gate. Hopefully we will hear these urgent warnings amidst the wonderful invitation that Jesus offers to us, to live a life of goodness, meaning and justice in the kingdom, rather than discovering too late the extent of our mistake.
Perhaps it is best to allow the sayings of Jesus to retain their mystery and ambiguity. Although at least these two points do remain clear: Jesus cautions his followers to strive to enter by the narrow door, and he warns them that in the end there will be many surprising reversals. Many who presume they will enter, in fact will not, and others who seem to be excluded from God’s friendship will take their place. Strive, therefore, as one who dares not presume on God’s grace. Strive as though admission to the kingdom depended entirely on your own doing, but know that ultimately it all depends on God’s grace.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 7.30am and 9.30am (13 mins)
Sunday 21, Year C.
If your image of Jesus is of Mr Nice Guy, always meek and mild, then the Gospel today will come as a massive shock. In the Gospel, from Luke chapter 12, verses 49-53, there doesn’t seem to be a hint of gentle Jesus, or even nice Jesus, but instead a wholesale picture of family feuding and fighting. Maybe we always imagine Jesus as the gentle prince of peace. But in this passage it seems Jesus is more the prince of division than prince of peace.
Maybe we are like the contemporaries of the prophet Micah, who reminds us in chapter 7 at the end of his book, that family dysfunction is a sure indication that everything is not the way that God originally intended. Micah laments about the many things that are going wrong in the world, and that there is only one way forward – which is to trust in the Lord and wait for the God of salvation.
Many years ago, I was in the habit of falling asleep while listening to music on my headphones, and mostly it was pretty quiet and gentle kind of music. One of my mates, knowing that this was my habit, decided it would be rather funny to add some extra music to the end of the tape. So just as the music was doing its trick, and I was calmly and gently falling asleep, it was all rudely interrupted by loud heavy metal music – which immediately jerked me wide awake.
Perhaps my friend’s trick was a bit cruel, but the shock of the crash of those notes interrupting the gentle melody is a great image of the warning that Jesus gives us in our Gospel today. Jesus sees a crisis coming. He says ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!
The crisis that is coming will centre on him – the baptism of his own suffering and death – and he can’t believe that the people around him can’t see the massive storm that is brewing. Perhaps we are being invited today to really wake up and take a long and hard look at all that surrounds us in the world. We have to read the signs of the times and act accordingly.
We pray in the Our Father for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it in heaven. Surely the church is called to ponder the events on earth and address them with the truth of heaven. Maybe we need to wake up with a crash so that we don’t remain asleep on the job.
Journey Radio Program recording
Sunday 20, Year C. Luke 12:49-53
We have a selection from the magnificent reflection on faith that is Hebrews chapter 11. Today we hear the stories of Abraham and Sarah, who trusted in a God who they barely knew to set out for a land that they did not know, among a people that they did not know, trusting somehow – despite all the human evidence to the contrary – that God would be faithful and provide them not just with a child, but with a nation of descendants. Such faith is not easy to have. Such faith challenges us to not remain in the mere curiosity of faith, but to be deeply committed to all that God has prepared for us.
The Gospel continues the encounter with the man who asked Jesus to intervene in a property dispute with his brother, which provoked the parable of the man who needed a larger barn. Today the Gospel calls us to trust and believe in the goodness and providence of God. Again – things that are not easy to do when our whole society is built on a foundation of anxiety.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm (6mins)
Sunday 19, Year C. Hebrews 11; Luke 12:32-40