Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Raw question: "What's in it for us?"

Readings: Matthew 19:27-30

Last Sunday, within the Epiphany cycle, the gospel focused on the calling of the disciples, particularly the account in Matthew of Jesus calling Simon Peter and Andrew.  I ventured to suggest 2 or even 3 theological conclusions that we should note: 1. that the initiative for the call comes from God; 2. that the call comes in the midst of our living and our work not in our leisure or when we think we are ready; and 3. that the call is compelling.

Many chapters later we encounter Peter again in a very different situation.  He, representing all who have followed the call, and have heard of the uncertainties, sacrifices and difficulties it entails, asks Jesus “What’s in it for us?”  Well, in words to that effect:   ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’  That is a pretty raw question and for anyone who follows the call there may be moments when that question comes to mind.  What sort of answer do we expect?  

The problem is any answer framed in material terms of power or wealth, or the world as we know it, sounds crude and, regardless of that, fails to address the nature of the call – which is never about such things.  So, here is the dilemma: one follows the call of God, follows Jesus, but at the end of all things or the renewal of all things – what is there? Our raw humanity presses for an answer.  We would like reassurance that it is all about something; for something.  

Jesus gives no clear answer.  His answer reaches beyond the end of time, and baldly, simply, reassures and reaffirms that all will be well – verbally gesturing with images of thrones and promises of a hundredfold and eternal life.   It all seems rather vague and not very satisfying.  Peter’s question still hangs in the air:   ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’  I am not sure it can be answered at this point: could any answer satisfy us?  The cross still lies ahead; the story has critical turns still to take.

And today, against this gospel, we remember Paul, and the certainty of the call that turned his life upside down.  We cannot imagine New Testament Christianity without Paul and his letters to the churches in the Gentile world.  Writing to the Galatians he does not mess about or try and explain but he begins with the certainty that the reality that grips his life ‘is not of human origin’ and that he has direct personal experience of a revelation of Jesus Christ.  He has the experience of a new life in Christ and he knows that the initiative of his call was directly from God.  In that respect, his call was like that of Peter – the initiative was from God.

However the difference was that God had been active in Paul’s life from the beginning.  The zealousness of the Jewish faith that had distinguished Paul had led him to oppose the Christians. Before Paul the Christians had been little more than a Jewish sect, still worshipping in the temple and following Jewish customs, but after Paul the Christians became much more clearly defined and Paul took the story of Jesus far beyond the Jewish world.

The great irony in Paul’s call is that while the call was revealed in the midst of Paul’s busy life (as it had been with Peter and Andrew, and not in a moment of leisure or after due preparation) Paul’s activity was to do with persecuting the Christians; harrying them; and rounding them up for punishment.  Yet it is in the midst of this that the call comes and it comes in terms that are clearly overwhelming, and not to be denied.

The drama of Paul’s experience, the sheer power that gripped and changed him, was a memory that never left him.  Nowhere in Paul’s writings do we find the kind of question that Peter asked, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’  Paul’s experiences are all post-resurrection, his experiences are of overwhelming grace and, as he puts it, a perception of the world as changed, as if it were a new creation.  Paul answers all Peter’s unease with an overpowering sense of joy and freedom – he sings of a world in which we all belong.

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

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