To inherit eternity

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- These Readings give us ever deeper insights into the growth and development of the Church in the 1st century CE, both in its actual functioning and in it’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus. Such processes can frequently be rocky affairs, as we are about to discover, for we should never assume that the work of the Holy Spirit is accomplished in some dream world, secluded from reality. Indeed, such is the gift and grace of God that it works precisely in the nitty-gritty of the human condition, involving us fully. One of the Psalms speaks of creation as God’s play-thing ‘The ships are moving there and the monsters you gave to play with’, indicative of the freedom God gives to creation, and not the least to humanity to respond to his love and grace.

In Acts (6:1-7) we meet a situation in which Luke speaks of the rapid expansion of the Church in Jerusalem; yet with this development, which was by no means universal, or lasting, we immediately find dissension. The situation portrayed is early, for the ‘Christians’ are still very much part of Judaism and the division is between those attracted to the Christian parties in Judaism in Jerusalem, who spoke Hebrew/Aramaic, and those from the diaspora (cities of the Mediterranean and beyond) who only knew Greek. One can very easily understand how such disagreements arose, as language problems made understanding more difficult. Admittedly Palestinians would have spoken rough Greek, but it was probably mostly used for trade, taxation and dealing with the Romans, it probably didn’t rise to the niceties of social concern, and the intricacies of who came first in a highly stratified Greco-Roman world. The situation revolved around the concern of the community for widows, orphans and the sick; and significantly we notice how the 12 separated their work for the Gospel from that of more mundane social welfare. They selected seven men – all of Greek name and language – to sort out the issue. These were not as the modern Church claims the first ‘deacons’; as, despite Luke’s remarks that they were to serve ‘tables’, we know that both Philip and Stephen in the same Acts became spokesmen for the faith: Stephen its first martyr, and Philip active in converting Samaria. As the different Gospels lists of the original 12 can vary too, rather like the names of the women at the tomb, perhaps we should not get too fussed about things; but it is clear that these seven did more than dole out food and payments. What we have then is a picture of a rapidly evolving, dynamic movement, initially within Judaism which was itself very much in flux at the time.

By the time of the writing of John’s Gospel (Jn 14:1-12) c 80-90CE, we find things have hardened up considerably. The Jesus of John is given to lengthy teaching, and the division between Judaism and Christianity is clear and lasting, reflecting the post Revolt (post 70) situation. John wrote from Asia Minor, most likely from Ephesus, that bastion of paganism, where the necessity for clear and decisive distinctions of belief and behaviour were required, and in a situation in which the teachings of the Lord, no doubt given before but not stressed so much in the synoptics, were needed. What comes over in our passage loud and clear is the conviction that only, and I stress only, through Jesus can anyone find eternal life. Jesus is, as we find in Paul’s much earlier Letters, the only way to the Father. Perhaps this is precisely because both of them were taking the faith out to pagans that they stressed these distinctions so fervently. The dialogue between Jesus and Philip, who is apparently as we see in Acts, one of the slightly lesser mortals, impresses upon us all the absolute nature of the relationship between Father and Son. For converts from paganism, who knew a lot about the myths of the gods and their whimsical behaviour, the necessity to expound the nature of the Incarnation clearly would have been essential. Jesus, born a mortal, actually was God, and he alone unites us to God. Within this understanding of the Father-Son identical nature lies also that of our ultimate destiny too ‘Philip, to have seen me is to have seen the Father,….. whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself.’

When we come to the Letters of Peter, (1 Pet 2:4-9) written for what is now Northern Turkey at the turn of the first century, we also find a more ‘developed’ understanding of the effects of the passion/resurrection of Christ. Last week’s passage, which follows this and was all about suffering in the model of Christ, must also be the setting for our Reading, as we recognise the period of persecution under Trajan that the Christians were enduring. Yet our passage gives everything a theological coherence and an exalted notion of the value the sufferers were expected to place on their lives and their struggles for the Church. If the Lord is described as ‘The living stone’, the faithful are seen as ‘The holy priesthood that offers the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God…. Living stones making a spiritual house’. There is certainly a unity, an extremely close association here. between Christ and the faithful since Our Lord is described as ‘The living stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him’.  If he is so elevated, then surely the believer, one of the ‘stones’ is similarly very special in the sight of God. We then have the description of Christ as the keystone, the only leader, founder, author of redemption which holds the entire construction, the Church or rather the Christian community, together; and this helps to make clear the intimate and intricate relationship between the believer and Christ, for indeed, shortly later we are described as the new ‘Chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who has called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’. Readings like these have the habit of tripping off the tongue, beautiful prose, but not much thought is given to their meaning, or to the significance they would have had for the small and threatened Christians of Turkey, for whom they were written in the firm belief that they would inherit eternity with Christ, sharers in his divinity.