Challenging the pushy individual

Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s Readings :-  We unfortunate people, who are heirs of both the Protestant Reformation and the European Enlightenment, come to our faith with very individualistic understandings of its meaning. Sadly lost to most of us is the sense that we are community first and last and that our beliefs and practices are fundamentally shared experiences. We ‘believe’ in Jesus because of the faith of the Church over centuries, and our salvation comes from within the Church and not due to our ‘personal’ belief. Ian Mckellen’s wonderful comment recently on discovering that he had been baptised in infancy was to remark, ‘So I shall go to heaven?’ To which the Christian with him responded firmly ‘Yes’. We have to remember that when either Jesus or Paul writes ‘you’ it is almost always in the plural, a statement of belonging and solidarity.

So it was that the compilers of Third Isaiah (58:7-10), writers for those returning to Israel from foreign exile by the policy of the Persians around 520 BCE, wrote a stern message to their hearers. They reminded them that the exile of their ancestors was due to their idolatry, their abandonment of the God of Israel and that only by following his laws and ways could they hope to prosper. In our part of this ‘welcome home’ passage we read that the prophets require right behaviour from the returnees. Some would have done quite well in exile, for many were skilled men and women of the elite, whilst others would have had much more basic jobs, building for the Babylonians, farming and mining. What our writers stress is their communal responsibility one for another. With such behaviour they will be light, shining like the dawn, so vital in a period without electricity. They will be heard by their God when they cry for aid and illuminate the world.

Jesus clearly recalled Old Testament passages such as this when he was expounding the nature of the society moulded in his image, in the image of the Beatitudes. Our Gospel (Matthew 5:13-16) continues immediately from the Beatitudes, as Jesus unfolds what they are about; and every You is in the plural. This is the behaviour which makes a community. Jesus talks then about the ways in which the community keeps the faith alive, by the mutual support of each other. He is no more muttering on about salt here than in his vineyard parables is he speaking of wine making. Salt here is clearly a metaphor for that zest and activity which fosters the growth of the community and how one keeps it alive, and it is the same with his example of lamps and where we put them. Lamps shine out and light up dark places, places ready for the redemption which only his Good News can bring; and the lamp bearers, the Christian community, are those who seize every opportunity to carry the faith about Jesus to the world. Quite clearly any literal interpretation would become ridiculous. Jesus was not an advocate of better lighting for Galileans and no one hearing him at the time would ever have considered that he was.

This is of course why St Paul so agonised over the Christians of Corinth. Clearly in those early days when they were first converted, around a decade after the resurrection, the understanding of the faith was fairly fluid, and as is very clear, in Corinth many different Christians put their own gloss on what it meant and how it affected their behaviour. It is clear from Paul’s response that the city abounded with orators and philosophers at a time when Athens had become something of a backwater, and Corinth was the place where it all happened. Some of the converts from paganism thought they were among the intellectuals, those in the ‘know’ about Jesus, whom they saw as a philosopher. Some believed him to have been  a totally other-worldly divine figure, and these ‘spiritual’ Christians divorced their beliefs in Jesus from their daily living, as the letters make so abundantly clear, as they supported a brother having sex with his stepmother, went to pagan courts, and treated the poorer brethren with contempt at the agape-Eucharist. Their sense of belonging to a community, built and moulded on the pattern of Jesus who was crucified, was just non-existent.

This is why Paul insisted that in spreading the Gospel among them his whole focus was on the crucified Christ. We unenlightened literalists can become bogged down at this point. What we have to remember was just what a terrible and utterly degrading death crucifixion was. Indeed, with the exception of the Gospels, few writers even mention it let alone describe it. It would not be until the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century that images and interest in the cross became widespread, after Helena his mother found bits of the original. Paul of course was not saying that all he knew of Jesus was his crucifixion. Quite the contrary, the crucifixion was the supreme metaphor for the being, life and death and mission of Jesus; and Paul himself would have learned much from the Christians with whom he stayed early after his conversion in Damascus and elsewhere. When Paul speaks of the Eucharist, it is precisely in terms of what he received from the communities and faithfully passed on to others that is so vital, and shows the strength of their solidarity. No, Paul was at pains to stress the whole life of Jesus as a saving act of total submission in and for others, for the community. Certainly, Jesus dies alone and brings redemption to the whole world, but his example, in his entire life and on the cross, are about the gift of himself for others and his call to us to follow in his steps. For the Corinthian elitist Christians, and those who thought in terms of a spiritual philosophy, the whole idea of a crucified Jesus would have been the ultimate difficulty. These were status conscious men and women who were desperately making their way up the social echelons. They would have been buying slaves and even crucifying the odd recalcitrant. The Gospel message of the cross would have been the hardest thing most of them were ever to truly espouse, and clearly there were those who totally lost the plot. For them there were other foreign cults of far more promise and exoticism, and we can only imagine the haemorrhaging of the community that may well have then occurred in this powerful and grasping city.

Like them, we too need to take to heart the message of the cross. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrated on 28th of January expounds the message of the cross in his Conferences as firstly the remedy for the sins of the world which Christ alone could make, but secondly as a model for us all: in despising the world, as illuminating every virtue, in charity; in patience; in suffering humbly without blaming others; and as an example of perfect obedience to the Father. He was naked on the cross, derided and spat upon, struck and crowned with thorns, and finally given vinegar to drink. Do not then be attracted to fine clothes and riches, for “they divided my garments among them” Do not seek for honours, for he knew mockery and beating. Do not seek honourable rank because they plaited a crown of thorns and placed it on my head….