Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Over the last weeks and months we have been studying the life of Jesus through Luke’s eyes, and we have observed Jesus battling with the disbelief of his own people the Jews as seen largely through those influential in the state. These were the Temple authorities, mostly Sadducees; and also through the thinkers and moral leaders, the Pharisees. Our Gospel stories continually resound with stories of clashes between Jesus and such groups which ultimately ended in his death on the cross. Luke was writing his Gospel down around 80 BCE, and was speaking to a largely convert Christian people. He clearly wanted his congregations to have some understanding as to why the faith in Jesus, so rooted in Judaism, had gone out to the pagans; and of course he was writing outside Palestine, probably in Antioch, and after the terrible Jewish Revolt and the death and destruction that it brought about.
We finish our Christian year with the Feast of Christ the King, on a note of victory and celebration; but our readings are not quite what we might have expected, and it is only when we consider our past weeks processes of thinking that we understand why they are as they are. They are all the product of conflict and uncertainty; yet within all of them is the vision which the Christian in his/her life is working towards.
My guess is that Colossae, a woollen cloth producer, (Colossians 1:11-20) was a fairly small town, a tight knit sort of place, up in the fertile mountains, some hundred miles from Ephesus. Colossae has not been subject to archaeological exploration, unlike its larger neighbour Aphrodisias, so I suspect it was fairly small, about the size of Pompeii and that it had less clout than its neighbours. From what we do know of it from Paul’s striking and highly manipulative Letter to Philemon I get the impression that even the few converts to Christianity were and remained firmly entrenched in the values and mores of the tiny world they inhabited, and which aped the standards of Rome and its local neighbours.
Imagine therefore how that Christian community reacted to stress, to the intrusive and prying and potentially threatening enquiries of their fellow citizens. Just why weren’t they offering sacrifice to the gods? Why did they eschew the brothels? Why did they meet each week for prayer, and just what did they do at their special agape/eucharists? What is remarkable is the response this community had in terms of a ‘creed-like’ profession of faith, demonstrating their beliefs about Jesus as universal creator, supremely powerful, existing before any creation, and the one whose death ‘reconciled’ the entire created order to the one sole God. We have to remember that Paul was dead by 63 AD, and this letter dates from the period of his earlier imprisonment in the early 50’s. Within 20 years of the resurrection therefore this immensely powerful statement of Christian belief was known and circulating in Asia Minor. Was it a Christian battle cry? A statement of genuine belief meant to rouse and solidify fearful congregations? Was it Christian propaganda? Whatever it was, it has come down to us 2,000 years later, a remarkable statement; and immortalising Colossae as no other feat of gymnastics or art could.
In the same vein, we might ask why the Church should choose as its Gospel for this feast the account of the crucifixion in Luke (23:35-43). At first glance it is the story of a tragic and gruesome failure. We see Jesus, strung up like a piece of meat, slowly dying as his strength gave out and he could no longer breathe. We observe the taunts of the Jewish leaders and the mockery of the Roman soldiers, as he hung immobile under the detail of his death sentence This is the King of the Jews – a deliberate affront by the Romans to the conquered nation and Pilate’s petty revenge; and then finally, there was the response of one of the criminals crucified with Jesus. Luke’s genius lies in the brevity with which he paints this picture. And yet there is one tiny relieving moment – the interjection of the forlorn, dying and believing second criminal. We must suppose that at some stage he had seen Jesus and heard his message. Perhaps he witnessed one of his encounters with the Jewish elite from which he was so deeply estranged by his lifestyle. Certainly Jesus’ words and actions had ‘spoken’ to him, and in dying with nowhere to go, he flung all his hope on him. These two fellow-travellers in death had clarity, a sharpness of conviction we all yearn to have, and Jesus, who rose from the grave, could and most certainly did answer his request.
Firmness of vision, genuine hope, is vital and life-giving, as we see from our Reading of 2 Samuel (5:1-3). What we don’t quite see is that the Treaty of Hebron, by which Southern Judah and Northern Israel were united was a pact formed out of devastating war. These enemies were not ‘different’ or foreign peoples, but the tribes which had originally formed the exodus returnees to the Promised Land. War between them was therefore a disgrace, a breaking of a God-given bond, rather like the Syrian war at present in which Syrian fights Syrian (albeit with foreign help). It was an obscenity, a disgrace. When therefore the tribes were able to come together at Hebron and make peace, anointing David as king over both countries, it was seen as a God-given blessing, the fulfilment of what they were meant to be. Like them, Christians are those who live in hope. This hope is not some will-o-the wisp thing, but hope founded in Jesus, who rose from the dead to be all that he and we believe him to be. King of the Universe.