The readings are from the Catholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headlines are chosen to keep my thinking real:
CHRISTIAN BELIEVERS PERSECIUTED IN PAKISTAN
It is in the Messiah that we Jews were claimed as God’s own,
chosen from the beginning,
under the predetermined plan of the one who guides all things
as he decides by his own will;
chosen to be,
for his greater glory,
the people who would put their hopes in the Mesiah before he came.
Now you too, in him,
have heard the message of the truth and the good news of your salvation,
and have believed it;
and you too have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit of the Promise,
the mark of God’s ownership
on those whose freedom he will purchase, to make his glory praised.
I’ve messed about with this translation, trying to get its primary meaning into focus. The keys to a correct translation are words derived from the Greek “kleroo” which have the sense of “inheritance”. The inheritance can either be thought of as possessed by God’s people (like the promised land in the Bible) or as possessed by God (as Israel is said in the BIble to be “God’s inheritance”). Either meaning is possible, but it seems to me that the use of the Greek word “arrabon” (down-payment or mark of ownership) to describe the gift of the Spirit, is decisive. God has put his mark of possession on his new chosen people, who have therefore become his “inheritance”. The whole passage can be interpreted as assuring Gentile converts in Ephesus that they are just as much chosen by God as the chosen people Israel. Both Jews and Gentiles Paul says are chosen “in Messiah Jesus.” This is a radical statement by Paul. His own people, he says, were not chosen in Abraham or Moses but in the Messiah. The faith of Israel was projected ahead of itself towards the coming of Messiah. Jewish people therefore belong to God through the One whom most of them rejected; while Gentiles belong to God through the same Messiah in whose name the gospel is preached and through whom they receive the gift of God’s spirit as the mark of divine ownership.
To be completely in God’s possession is to be redeemed as a slave is redeemed, that is, bought from his present owner. God through Messiah Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, says Paul, has made a downpayment on his people and secured ownership, but will one day complete the transaction, at which time, as Paul says in Romans 8, their “whole bodies will be free.”
From whom are we bought back? George McLeod the founder of the Iona Community has a great phrase, “bought back from the pawnshop of death.” Paul saw human beings as menaced by spiritual powers of darkness. In our own time we are just beginning to understand the coercive power of transpersonal forces in society, such as for example, economic forces and mass media. We are at the mercy of powers of persuasion and information that begin to determine how we act. Paul thought these powers were allied to the power of death, in opposition to the flourishing life desired by the creator God.
God “buys us back” according to Paul, by giving himself in his son Jesus Messiah into the grasp of these powers and into the power of death itself, to show that his love cannot be destroyed; and by giving himself in his Spirit to link all believers to Messiah Jesus, as God’s children.
In Paul’s day, people could be sold into slavery through being unable to pay their debts, but could be redeemed or bought back into freedom by their families or by a benefactor. Paul encourages all believers to think of themselves as those who have been redeemed from slavery by God so that they can become part of his family. The metaphors of Paul’s thinking are drawn from social conditions which are foreign to most people (though not all!) today, but they remain fruitful for exploring the meaning of Christian faith in all times.
The people had gathered in their thousands so that they were treading on one another. And Jesus began to speak, first of all to his disciples. ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees – that is, their hypocrisy. Everything that is now covered will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear. For this reason, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in hidden places will be proclaimed on the housetops.
‘To you my friends I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. I will tell you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has the power to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Can you not buy five sparrows for two pennies? And yet not one is forgotten in God’s sight. Why, every hair on your head has been counted. There is no need to be afraid: you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.’
Jesus warns that hypocrisy like that of the pharisees,which relies on secrecy, will one day be shown up in the clear light of God’s truth. God’s CCTV will reveal what has been concealed from public view. But the power of the religious establishment was an issue for Jesus and his disciples and may have been still an issue for Luke’s Christian community in CE 85. Jesus’ words urge disciples not be afraid of their power to kill, but rather of the “one who after he has killed has the power to cast into hell.” Who is this? Some say it is God, but given that the next sentence tells diisciples not to be afraid of God, that seems mistaken. I think Luke is referring obliquely to Satan, God’s enemy, who is permitted by God to have temporary power. Satan will throw you into hell, Jesus says, but God counts the hairs on your head and cares for you even in death.
I got an email the other day from the British Pakistani Christain Association, detailing the continuing persecution of Christian people in Pakistan and their courageous response. I wondered how many of my congregation would be in church if they knew that attendance might lead to discrimination or death. Then I wondered if I would be there as minister. Historically of course, and still in some places today, Christians have persecuted other religious groups just as viciously. Jesus counsel, not to be afraid of those who kill the body, is only acceptable from him, who was not afraid of his killers, but trusted in the God who counts every hair..