Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I suppose most of us, when really pushed, think we want a God who is in control of things. Surely this is why so many say they ‘Don’t believe in God’, because he doesn’t control the evil in the world, doesn’t stop suffering. Ancient people too had a similar viewpoint, as we see in our Reading from 1 Kings (19:9.11-13). In a period when no one understood how tornados were caused or knew about seismic activity – something all too frequent if you lived on a major fault line like the Jordan rift – it was normal to understand these events as the display of divine power and even anger, and many peoples believed you could meet God up mountains; indeed this was not lost on Jesus as we see in the Transfiguration and the Sermon on the Mount. The dwellers in the Holy Land were a very mixed lot, and continued to be so, even way beyond the time of Christ. There were Canaanites with Baal and their sacred prostitution, Philistines on the coastal strip with their own gods, and all those inland, over the Jordan. Small wonder then that the Old Testament judged everything in terms of who your gods were, and decried the ways of others, albeit we know that even among ancient Jews there was much syncretism actively encouraged by the kings to get their states to gel properly. Our story of Elijah is the prophet’s attempt to get the people of Israel to think about God in a different way, and in doing so he rejects the loud and dramatic doings so commonly associated with other gods, in favour of the God of quiet, of the ‘gentle breeze’, in other translations the ‘still small voice’. Within this meeting surely there is a depth, and a suggestion that they/we meet God on different terms, not as the supreme fixer, but as someone / something quite different, and as one who offers us a more mature, and even challenging relationship, one Christians would eventually meet in God Incarnate.
Our Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) takes up a number of elements from ancient attitudes and understandings of God and the gods and turns them into a teaching exercise. We have the dismissal of disciples and the crowd immediately after the feeding of the 5,000, truly an impressive miracle and a great sign of Jesus’ divine power. Jesus leaves them to go alone into the hills, or rather in Greek, ‘Up the mountain’ to pray’, to commune with his Father, the source of his power and the one with whom we know he is always in touch, in communion. Then the disciples are found to be struggling in the boat, beset by contrary winds. Jesus walks out on the water to meet the disciples, who are terrified until reassured of Jesus’ identity. At this point, happily convinced of his master’s old style power, Peter seemingly wanting to bask in the glory of Jesus, nips overboard, ‘If he can do this then so can I!’ Naturally, he comes a cropper.
Jesus is saying that it is all about motive and understanding. He is as God capable of giving ample demonstration of his divinity and his power, but that is not the point. The real point lies in something much deeper, in a relationship of belief and trust in the divinity, which was not something required in those earlier understandings of the gods or of the One God. We have moved from a rather slot-machine approach, in Judaism one of rule obedience, to one in which there is a giving of self both on the part of God, in Jesus, and of the disciple – an exploration of what being divine entails; and in this case Peter comes to realise that his very life is held in Jesus’ hands, he is life giver and saviour, and Peter and we need to explore that and respond appropriately to it. But what we and the disciples have to come to terms with is the hostility of the leading Jews towards Jesus, and the continual friction his ministry has aroused; and Jesus’ three great predictions of his passion and death are just round the corner. The God-man who can perform such awe inspiring miracles is also the person who will die in utter weakness and rejection. God he may be, but ultimate fixer he is definitely not, for this God is offering us all a quite different kind of relationship.
We see something of this when we turn to Paul in Romans (9:1-5). Here we find a Paul who has recognised the utter inability of the Jewish law to put him into the right relationship with God, and in situations in which he accepts that no amount of intellectual understanding can alter his predisposition to sin and in which he is thrown entirely on God’s grace met in the humanity and weakness of Christ. But what Paul has learned is that, whilst he cannot save himself, he can emulate the loving generosity and self-giving of Christ. In our passage we find him in agonies over the failure of his Jewish compatriots to accept the saving life and mission of Jesus. In a quite remarkable piece of personal insight, Paul wishes that he could, Christ-like, throw away his life to save them. So dear is Israel to him, a Jew born and bred, so profoundly does he understand that knowledge of the revelation of Christ comes through Judaism, and that he is the culmination of all their long history of searching for God, that he can see that their accepting of Christ is of more importance than his own salvation. Surely here at last we meet that great kernel of the truth about our relationship with the God of Jesus Christ. Just as his relationship with the Father is about total gift, unconditionally of self, so Paul has understood this in his relations with both his converts, and his fellow countrymen who reject the Christian way. If putting aside one’s own salvation for others is the only way, then that is what must be done.
We have come a long way from Elijah and sacred mountains, and have indeed seen and respected their part in our great epic of redemption, but in the end, something of a quite different order is called for, something we meet in the self-oblation of Jesus on the cross, and which we see that Paul has understood. The mountains are not external hills to be climbed but heights to be scaled in the psyche of each one of us, a throwing off of self.