Parish Eucharist 3rd September 2017
Jeremiah, Paul and Matthew
There is something of a moral chasm between the worlds of our first reading this morning, from Jeremiah, and the second from Paul’s letter to the Romans. We didn’t sing the Psalm which might have bridged the gap but I can tell you it would not have done. It, and this passage from Jeremiah exemplify the same strand of Old Testament thought which characterises salvation as safety and insularity, besieged and defined by the danger and hostility outside; the Promised Land is a precarious place, which must be fought for.
This is not of course the only story running through the Old Testament- there is also the peaceful co-existence with the stranger, and respect for the oppressed and for the natural environment. But we don’t see much of that in Jeremiah’s wall of bronze.
Paul seems to be light years away with his exhortation to give hospitality to strangers; to bless one’s persecutors and to associate with the lowly. This no doubt reflects the proselytising and welcoming nature of Judaism in the 1st century diaspora, where Paul was mostly working. The synagogues throughout the Mediterranean related to their neighbours and made converts to a sophisticated and mature religion, and not just because the alternatives on offer were, mostly, so bloody and primitive.
Can our Gospel bridge this gap? On first reading it’s not obvious that it helps much. It follows immediately on Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi which we heard last week. That was about who Jesus was thought to be; this week we are asked when and where Jesus and his message lie. Are we concerned with now, and the physical world? Or it other worldly and eternal values that really matter?
This isn’t an obvious explanation of the difference between Jeremiah and Paul, but looking a bit harder at the Romans passage I think we begin to see a certain ambiguity as to time and place in Paul; his preaching is somehow a bit provisional, or at least. Expectant, very conscious of the second coming. Jeremiah, on the other hand, is most concerned with his and is people’s present predicament.
Paul was convinced that the second coming was imminent; it’s a conviction which, on the one hand, as they say concentrates the mind, but which on the other liberates it. There is an urgency to gather in the harvest of conversions before the storm; on the other hand it makes personal morality and social ethics somehow temporary. Hear Paul saying “if it is possible” and “so far as it depends on you” The advice to heap coals on your enemies is not likely to be the long term solution to catastrophic international relations. “”Vengeance is mine; I will repay”, says the Lord” is perhaps only a provisional philosophy; it’s an accommodation until a permanently peaceful answer can be found, although it does assume such an answer will be found.
There is the same provisional, even temporary feel about what Jesus say at Caesarea Philippi. It is plainly recorded by Matthew in a time of persecution when losing one’s life for one’s faith was a real threat. This divide between “divine things” and the very human circumstances is typical of a frightened yet expectant community.
A minor but telling detail exemplifies this ambivalence, or just uncertainty, between spiritual aspiration (and alarm) in the imminent coming, and the brutal present. Jesus talks of his future suffering and death at the hands of the religious authorities, but he then exhorts his followers to take up their cross and follow him. The capital penalty for religious crime was stoning (as suffered by Stephen the first martyr); crucifixion was the Roman penalty for civil insurrection or perceived rebellion against the establishment. It remains a puzzle why it was in fact applied for the Jesus whom we know from the Gospels.
This uncertainty between secular and spiritual mission and just where and when we are on the divine/human spectrum and timescale is perhaps meant to show us that there is no real distinction between our spiritual life and our mundane existence. The deliberately ambiguous repetition of life in “those who would save their life will lose it; those who lose their life for my sake will find it” should tell us, I suggest, that we can’t distinguish our different existences; we are both divine creatures made in the image of God and yet created out of clay; what we may think is purely mundane and physical is all the same done under the eye of God, and in furtherance, or not, of His will.
In 1st century Palestine that meant thinking of a cataclysmic second coming as assumed by Paul and Matthew’s Jesus, and described in horrific and glorious technicolour in the books of Daniel and Revelation. We have to reinterpret that threat. My way of doing so is to see the second coming, and the judgement that it implies, not as imminent, but actually present. So I see sin reaping its own reward, personally, communally and internationally, all around us.
And even Paul although ostensibly convinced of an imminent end to time, yet proposes a morality that is lasting. For although it has a provisional feel to it, perhaps because it is so very challenging, loving one’s enemies is certainly closer to a permanent peace than building walls of bronze (or concrete slabs). Paul and Matthew teach us something that goes beyond even the overbearing threat of the Apocalypse. The implications of self-sacrifice and recognition of divine values in everyday life can still speak to us. They tell us that unless we can pursue something beyond utilitarian self-interest even our mundane existence will be pointless and sour. Unless we can see salvation as something beyond insular and exclusive safety it will be no salvation at all. And that I think, I hope, does take us from Jeremiah to St Paul.
That was not I am afraid much of a sermon for a Baptism; happily I don’t have to worry too much that Archer may not have understood my long words or followed my oblique line of thought. Wisely, I think he’s taken a nap. In future years, however, I hope he may learn from words and example that true salvation happens when we recognise the equal value of both our divine nature and our obligations to this world, natural and human around about us. If he can do that, then, with God’s grace, of which he is about to receive a dollop shortly, he stands a chance of leading the happy life we are all intended to lead and leaving this world a better place than he find it now. Amen