Poised on the precipice of grace

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings : By any account, these Readings all seem pretty grim, and for us wealthy and secure westerners it’s difficult to take them seriously. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that Aleppo, that tragic heap of ruins, was once a modern vibrant western city. What Mr Assad and the Russians are bombing to utter destruction, is a city which was among the oldest in the world, and thought to be secure and flourishing. It was the life blood of Syria, and functioned on the level of a London or Singapore. Its people were modern men and women, with jobs and interests and social lives, just like yours and mine. Perhaps our Readings for this Sunday come as a reminder that none of us are as safe and secure as we think we are. It is a call to get our priorities right.

When the Prophet Habakkuk (1:2-3; 2:2-4) wrote in the late 7th – early 6th century BC, in a period of Assyrian decline, he lamented and protested against the sad state of Temple worship and liturgy in Jerusalem. Clearly this period, in which Assyrian power was slipping away, had given the authorities in the City and Temple room to relax and allow many things to fall into decline. Certainly the reforms of the Deuteronomic writers of this period under Josiah also lamented these deficiencies, and sought to restore the proper worship of God in the city and country. This would have included a restoration of Passover and those things so essential to Jewish identity, and which would sustain the people only a few years later under Babylonian captivity and the destruction of their major cities. Habakkuk asked real questions about what is truly important in the times of terrible strife and destruction that he knew would fall upon the city and his nation.

But such catastrophes are not always of the invasion-slaughter-deportation kind; they can be crises of faith and belonging too. In writing to Timothy (2 Tim 1:6-8.13-14) Paul speaks of the difficulties he himself is enduring as he lies in prison and is unable to move around and encourage the young Christian communities he has founded. As the letter continues, but not in our text, we learn of divisions in the Churches of Asia, with groups severing their connections with the Pauline communities, and seemingly of hostility between the different groups of Christians. Paul was aware of how easily such divisions might wreck the entire new and very fragile Christian communities in the area; churches such as those the writer of Revelation will harangue about a decade later. “You have been trusted to look after something precious; guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” is Paul’s desperate pleading. His words still echo to our Christian communities today – or should do as we ask ourselves what we have done to care for the faith and pass it on to others. I am quite sure that the people of Aleppo never thought that their vibrant city would become the terrible place of death and destruction that it is today. It should stand as a warning to all of us.

In our Gospel (Luke 17:5-10) this is precisely Jesus’ own message to his followers. In Luke’s writing it comes just after Jesus’ series of crazy parables about humanity in relation to God: The Prodigal Son and the Loving Father; the Unjust Steward, and last week’s story of Lazarus and the rich man, who believed that even from Hades he could boss the management around. All three, if you remember, have been about the outrageous love and generosity of God in relation to the utter incapacity of humanity ever to truly appreciate it. We continue to think it’s all about morals – if we clean up our act we will be acceptable to God. Indeed, the notion of his rejection of so virtuous a set of people becomes unthinkable! Yet God defies all our understanding and this is why, in the end, Jesus was killed, and here just for a moment in our Gospel, Jesus reminds his followers of what they and we actually are in relation to the Father.

We are God’s slaves. It is an unpalatable notion today, especially when we refined western folk have, as we thought, done so much to rid the world, or at least our slice of it, of slavery. Yet Luke and his entire world lived with slavery. Most free people had at least one slave, and the rich, by the 4th century, had thousands. Christians too were slave owners, and the wealthier ones would have had many, even dozens, in their homes, as cooks, hairdressers, entertainers, scribes and cleaners. Their country estates would have been serviced by hundreds of slaves. No one was ever far from a slave. They might have been your wet nurse; your tutor as you grew up; and your servant; even your secretary in later life. It is even possible that Luke’s scribes were slaves. His picture of the master-slave relationship would have been very familiar to most of the recipients of his Gospel, and of course to those of Paul’s letters, and the message they carried was stark and unmistakably clear. Slaves were always underlings. They did not even possess rights and responsibilities over their own bodies, and Jesus makes crystal clear here the sharp division between God and humanity: we cannot buy or cajole our way into God’s kingdom, neither our moral probity nor our cash will help in the end. You and I, all of us, are poised on the great precipice of grace, on which we stand beleaguered, waiting for redemption and, like those poor people in Aleppo, we go to him empty and afraid.