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Saturday, 17 September 2011

Inconvenient Grace


Readings: Exodus 16.2-15
Ps 105.1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1.21-30
Matthew 20.1-16

It often amuses me that we listen to a parable, a powerfully vivid word picture of the itinerant poet-preacher Jesus (who is of course so much more, but of that another time), agree that it is one of those Jesus-passages that are timeless and need little or no explanation to translate it into our own culture, and then spend some twenty minutes enlarging upon it, explicating it and perhaps even tragically diluting it for our own time and culture. There are of course one or two of the words pictures painted by Jesus that can benefit from a little bit of explanation to give them applicable meaning in our very different culture, but on the whole they are few and far between. Forget trades-union, but simply know that we are hearing a story about the right of God to do whatever God chooses, and that we are simply not in the driver’s seat of cosmic or salvation history. I suggest that, despite the track record of history, which has spent enormous amounts of ink and hot air telling God who should be a participant in the New Heavens and Earth of apocalyptic longing, the choice is probably God’s, and we – even the most proscriptive of us, may be in for a few surprises as we wake up in the celestial dormitory.

In fact I suspect we should spend a lot less time than Christians traditionally have in the border maintenance of deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. I have my own beliefs that there probably isn’t an in or an out, but I shall leave that particular heresy for another time and another place. We might however just note in passing that a parable about the kingdom of God that is all about the inclusion of newcomers and outsiders may have something very serious to say about how we as a Christ-community should responds to the plight of those feeing international atrocities and landing on our shores. Not, I might add, questions about ‘the national interest’ or even about ‘due process’, but about the values of a compassionate and welcoming Christ who touches and transforms the lives of those most on – or beyond – the margins of society. But the parables of Jesus are oten about grace and compassion, after all!

The great and passionate ambassador of Christ, Paul of Tarsus, is an entirely different kettle of something fishy. Too often we read the incomprehensible letters of Paul – and have done for two thousand years – improbably divorced from their context, intoning solemnly in some way or other that they are ‘the word of the Lord’, nod knowingly, perhaps extrapolating one or two displaced truths, and move on. In doing so we lose the topicality of Paul, and ironically in doing that we often lose all hope of applying to our own world the Spirit wisdom that informed him. Even so simple a phrase as ‘To me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ can be rattled off glibly, and we can nod sagely, but what was Paul on about?

In a sense the answer is simple. To one who absolutely believes, as he writes elsewhere, that it is no longer Paul who lives, who matters, but Christ who lives within him, it is simple: Christ, like a benevolent but nevertheless predatory wasp devours his caterpillar of a life, to become his everything. Paul’s practice of the presence of God-in-Christ is – he prays (I suspect) – so complete that death and life alike are inseparably caught up in Easter hope. In fact, as these are amongst the last words that Paul wrote, written at a time when it must have been growing increasingly apparent to him that his life was on tenterhooks and likely to turn to custard (if I may mix my metaphors!), these were brave words. To live or to die, either way, my life is so immersed in the Easter event that Christ’s resurrection DNA is already pulsing unstoppably in my veins. It is a hope that we can only pray that we can grow into – and often the answer to that prayer comes only, as it did for Paul, by considerably suffering and considerable discipline, self-discipline and what we might call divine disciplining, the vicissitudes of a God-given life.

I for one do not have a shadow form of Paul’s faith. Ask Anne and those closest to me – I whinge at the hint of social or physical or mental discomfort. But the life of Christ-immersion is not about arrival, paradoxically, but about being on the journey. The late-comers to the vineyard were considerably less practiced in the art of withstanding trials and tribulations than the morning-starters. Grace is a funny thing like that: we may grumble that some Jonny-come-lately is dwelling in the next bed in the celestial dormitory, someone we think is too gay or too Pentecostal or too Buddhist or too atheistic to be in our selection of ‘the saved’ but it simply isn’t up to us. What is up to us – and no one said it was easy, and I for one will fail minute by minute – is to see Christ and the wholeness of God’s love growing in the flesh and blood and life story of each person who I meet: that way we can by the grace of God become a people of grace.

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