This blog begins the week with a reflection on the Episcopal daily readings, along with a headline from world news
Kichwa Indians of Ecuador defend land against petrochemical giants
THE LETTER OF PAUL TO THE
1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful* in Christ Jesus:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Spiritual Blessings in Christ
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,4just as he chose us in Christ* before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,* having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will,12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;14this* is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
This writer is not St. Paul but a disciple writing in his name and spirit, a strategy which was perfectly acceptable in the ancient world. Unfortunately he doesn’t write nearly as well as Paul, who certainly is not the most elegant of writers but nevertheless can use common Greek vividly and rise to great heights of eloquence. This writer is more pedestrian and has the bad habit of using dead phrases like “according to the good pleasure of his will” (which just means, “as he planned”) and “to the praise of his glory” (which doesn’t mean anything, really). This bad habit clogs up his argument at times, which is a pity because it is daring and full of insight.
The basis of his thinking is his experience of the multi-ethnic, multi-national community of the church. In religious terms, this has broken down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles; and in political terms it quietly challenges the ruling powers of the era, even the empire in which it lives.
The writer does not see this as God’s plan B for his creation. No, he says, this new community is the very purpose of creation, that all people and all things should be gathered into God’s family in Jesus Christ his Son. Adopted through Jesus the beloved child of God, believers are bought back from the Evil One by Christ’s blood, they receive the forgiveness of their sins and share the inheritance (an Old Testament idea) of God’s people in Christ. The Ephesians who have placed their faith in Christ were confirmed as members of this unique community through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Certainly this vision goes beyond the immediate life of any Christian community but it is no mere ideal: it is what the writer sees happening on the ground, as individual people experience the same liberation from evil and set aside race, nation and culture to form a single family. The writer is genuinely excited by evidence of the eternal purpose of God for humanity being fulfilled in these communities.
It’s unlikely that many people, looking at today’s churches respond with such a vision. Of course church communities have many ordinary faults now, as then; but their most disabling sin today is their divisiveness. They have allowed themselves, indeed in some instances encouraged themselves to divide according to nation, or race, or denomination or theology, so that they look more like a mirror image of the divided peoples of the world than their salvation. Often this divisiveness is fostered by leaders who use it to gain or prop up their own power.
I have been utterly opposed all my life as a member of the reformed church, to so-called protestant bigotry in Scotland, and I continue to be so. But recently te Roman Catholic hierarchy here has been claiming that “militant secularists” (they mean people who favour the availability of abortion and same-sex marriage) have embarked on a persecution of the catholic church which is as severe as apartheid was in South Africa. This is utter nonsense and is only put forward as a means of shoring up the authority of Catholic clergy in the wake of the scandal of child abuse by priests.
I believe the church should be “catholic” that is, universal in the sense of the book of Ephesians, and that we must hold to a practical on-the-ground unity with our fellow Christians and an openness to other cultures (even those we call secular) in the name of the God wants to gather all his children into one family of justice and peace. If churches cannot do this, what hope is there for the world? The letter to the Ephesians challenges the church to stop imitating the secular powers it so often condemns and recover its true purpose as the prototype of peaceful community in the world.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,*
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,* who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared* in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.8I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’<!– 9 –>
The Baptism of Jesus
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’<!– 12 –>
The Temptation of Jesus
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Mark also has a distinctive style, which lacks all elegance, but is somehow the langauge of elemental reality. It is stripped of all inessentials yet each little unit of storytelling is packed with meaning.
The BEGINNING (think of Genesis) of the good news (think of the messenger arriving with the news that the battle has been won) of Jesus MESSIAH (think of Jewish prophecies of the anointed one), the SON OF GOD (think mainly of Israel as God’s dear child).
The VOICE OF ONE CRYING (think of Isaiah ch 40 and the return of God’s people from exile) PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD (think of God himself making this journey).
The sesne of urgency is continued in the brief portrait of the Baptist whose title for the ONE WHO IS COMING is THE MIGHTIER ONE.
After all these fanfares Jesus arrives, is baptised and he alone sees THE HEAVENS TORN OPEN (think that people believed heaven had shut up shop because there were no prophets speaking) and hears God declare him his DEAR SON which is balanced at the end of the gospel by the VEIL OF THE TEMPLE (think of it hiding God) being TORN APART and a centurion declaring that Jesus was GOD’S SON.
Then rather than doing something miraculous Jesus is DRIVEN BY THE SPIRIT (think of blown by a storm) into the DESERT (think of Israel’s 40 years wandering before entering the promised land) where he is TESTED (think of put through the mill).
Of course Mark is depicting the story of Jesus but he is also depicting the fiery crucible in which believers are placed so that their lives can be re-created by God: we too are to be summoned to the beginning to share in God’s victory; we too are to be ready for the victory march of God across the desert of the world; we too are summoned roughly to repentance; we too are to be baptised, letting the old life float away; we too are to be terrified by the openness of heaven and we too are to hear God’s voice declare that we are his children; we too are to be pushed out into the desert which will continue to be there behind every other landscape in our lives, along with its resident power, the Evil One, who will continue to test us.
The story of Jesus can be our story.