Do we welcome into the church, and into our lives, people who have a very different past from our own? In the appointed Gospel passage for this week Jesus says: “there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents more than over ninety-nine just people who have no need of repentance!” In order to fully understand the significance of these words and the context in which Jesus said them, we need to know the common sayings of strict Jews in Jesus’ time. One of the pharisaic sayings was: “there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God!” For Jesus it was not about destruction of the sinner but, rather, salvation of the sinner. Jesus backs this up with two very well-known stories. The first story is of a shepherd who risks his own safety to recover one lost sheep from the flock. The second story is of a woman who loses one of ten silver pieces and then hunts for it until she finds it and her set is once again complete. In both these cases there is exuberant joy. In the case of the sheep, these would often belong to a village. To lose one sheep was to reduce the assets and productive capacity of the village community. Frequently the villagers would wait with anticipation late into the night until the shepherd returned with the lost sheep carried on his shoulders. What infectious joy would then spread through the whole of the village. This, said Jesus, is what God is like. God is passionate about as many of us as possible coming back to Him if we ever stray away. These people, often with a different past from our own, need to be made fully welcome in the church and, indeed, we should rejoice enthusiastically over their return.
Why is humility important? The Gospel passage this week underlines the importance of humility in the Christian life. Jesus builds on Jewish thought, expressed for example in Proverbs, that an individual should start at a feast by sitting at the foot of the table. If you arrive at a feast and start by sitting at the head of the table, you risk being demoted when someone considered more eminent than you arrives later. Of course, the model for humility was Jesus Himself. Jesus, who was God, humbled Himself by becoming human and then humbled Himself further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross. This is matchless humility. What about us? We may think that we are knowledgeable when we are young but as we become older, we realise there is so much more that we don’t know. We may think that we have achieved a lot in our lives until we realise that there is so much to life that we have not achieved. This is fine. God loves us as we are, but the key is to remain humble. Once again by focusing on Jesus. If we view our lives in comparison with the radiance of his stainless purity, our pride will automatically die, and our self-satisfaction will be shrivelled up. Then we can start to live the Christian life of pure grace.
What is true hospitality? In the Middle East, good hospitality to guests is vitally important. The Bible passage this week outlines two types of hospitality at the home of Martha and Mary. Martha is busy rushing around, probably preparing a meal. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Martha gets angry with her sister for not helping and yet Jesus says that Mary is doing the right thing. Why? Surely the church needs people who are active. The problem with Martha was not that she was active but, rather, that she was distracted, overly worried and told off her sister in front of the guests. In contrast, the hospitality practised by Mary was to show how important the guests were by sitting at their feet and listening to them. In the final analysis the best type of hospitality makes the guests feel important and welcomed rather than stressed and worried. That is why Jesus commends Mary for having chosen the best type of hospitality. Grace is more about receiving from an abundant God than rushing around in our own strength trying to do things for him. Of course, we need active people in the church, but our activity should not degenerate into a frenzied ‘busyness’ without listening to God. Also, we must always remember that in Jesus, our guest is also our host.
The Gospel reading this week is the story of the healing of the demon-possessed man, Legion. Three things strike me about this story. Firstly, is the incredible bravery of Jesus. Here was a man that everyone else was afraid to approach. Even when shackled with chains he was able to break them and run wild. Yet Jesus doesn’t hesitate in going straight up to him and rebuking the demons in him. Secondly, the response to the healing was that the whole region was disrupted. The local pig farming community was distraught and begged Jesus to leave them all alone. Finally, there is Jesus’ command to the healed man to go back to his family and tell them, and everyone, what God had done for him. There was no call to be an itinerant evangelist or foreign missionary but simply a witness in his local community. For all these reasons this story is as much a model for evangelism as it is a healing miracle. As evangelists and witnesses for Christ we are called to be brave in confronting evil; we are called to acknowledge that there will be disruption with the truth of the Gospel and, finally, we are called to mainly witness, not on the other side of the planet, but rather right where we are.
This week starts with Trinity Sunday when the church reflects more explicitly on God as Father, Son and Spirit. One God in three persons. The Gospel passage is the account of Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit – the one person of the Trinity that the disciples would have most difficulty in understanding. Jesus identified the Spirit as the Spirit that brings truth and reveals God to people. This revelation of truth has three facets. Firstly, we can only understand God’s ways in bite-sized chunks. In mathematics, before we teach partial fractions we need to teach simple algebra. In the same way much of the teaching in the Old Testament is simple and crude because that is all the people could understand at the time. Jesus says, “I have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now!” Secondly, truth is from God and truth is of God. God is both the explainer of truth and the source of all truth. Finally, truth is to reveal the significance of Jesus’ words and actions to us. To plumb the inexhaustible depth of love and grace found in them. The revelation of truth comes not from any book or any object or any created artefact. The revelation of truth comes from the person of Jesus Christ. This is the ultimate truth that the Holy Spirit reveals to us.
In the Gospel reading this week, Jesus foretells the horrors that would befall Jerusalem in AD 70, about 40 years after his own death. The Roman Emperor Titus surrounded the city and starved its inhabitants into submission. The events within the city were unimaginably terrible. Although none of us, hopefully, will ever endure anything so horrible, Jesus goes onto say that his followers will also experience persecution. Moreover, this persecution may divide families. Today in parts of Asia and the Middle East, sons and daughters are disowned by their parents if they become Christians and leave the religion of the upbringing. On a smaller scale, we too may be mocked in our own workplaces and communities for being followers of Jesus Christ. This, said Jesus, is all to be expected. What is the answer? Jesus simply encourages us to endure to the end and then we will be saved. Life is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Jeffrey tells the story of a famous man who refused to have his biography written while he was still alive because he knew of many men who fell on the last lap of the race. It was John Bunyan who, in his dream, saw that from the very gates of heaven there was a way to hell. We are all called to endure to the very end and then, along with all who have suffered in Christ’s name, we WILL be saved, no matter how terrible our plight.