July 21 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42*
*[This Sunday is designated National Bible Sunday. In my view any set of readings from Scripture fits this celebration. However, The Lectionary suggests Isaiah 45:22-25; Romans 15:1-6; and Luke 4:16-24 might be substituted for those set for this Sunday.]
Theme: We're spoilt for choice today, depending on which of the three readings most takes our fancy. The link between the first lesson and the gospel passage would suggest something to do with hospitality. The first lesson in itself might spawn a whole brood of themes, including (with thanks to Fr Gerard Hughes) "The God of Surprises"; or "The Promise of New Life"; or "Seeing and Believing". The second lesson might tempt us to explore a rather modern concept, "The Cosmic Christ"; and the gospel passage could suggest the somewhat enigmatic expression, "The Better Part". I am struck by the relationship between all three readings, and so my theme today is "Three Visions of the Divine".
Introduction. If we were to select the Bible's "Greatest Hits" (and probably somebody already has) I would want all three of today's passages included in it, if only for the ability of each of them to tingle even the most tingle-immune spine with excitement. First we have one of Abraham's most graphic mystical experiences, as "The Lord" appears to him in tri-personal form, so brilliantly encapsulated in Andrei Rublev's most famous icon. Then we have St Paul at his most mystical best with his extraordinary description of Christ as the embodiment of the fullness of God AND the fullness of creation. And we finish with this deceptively simple domestic story from a little house in Bethany, which, in Luke's hands, has almost the flavour of a soap opera. [Cue the long cold look Martha gives Mary from the doorway.]
Background. In deference to National Bible Sunday, perhaps I should start with a general observation about what I think the Bible is and, equally importantly, what it is not. What it is NOT is a manual, called by some of the parishioners in the first parish in which I served "The Maker's Handbook". (Now I come to think of it, what they probably meant was "the owner's or user's handbook" – why would the Maker of All Things need a handbook?) To me, the Bible is like a spiritual journal – or a compendium of lots of spiritual journals – in which over hundreds of years many people have attempted to record individual and collective encounters with the Divine. Some have taken a somewhat intellectual approach to that task, some have resorted to poetry, and many have used story-telling: all have struggled with the fundamental problem that our languages (all human languages) have evolved and developed in the everyday world of the five senses to facilitate straightforward communication about largely practical concerns.
Which means that it is not well equipped to describe human encounters with the divine in ways that make sense to those who have never had (or, at least, have never been willing to admit to themselves that they have had) similar experiences. Sadly, throughout our faith history mystics have needed a particularly thick skin.
And yet the Bible has countless examples of mystical experiences that make no sense at all in the "real world". Take our first lesson as a good example. In fact, it's not just a good example – it is a wonderful example, because it captures the whole essence of a mystical experience in which the mystic finds himself or herself living and operating in two realms/realities simultaneously, without usually realising it until after it is over. Put yourself in this scene with Abraham, look with his eyes and listen with his ears. "The Lord" appeared to Abraham: let's be clear, what we are being told here; in this context "the Lord" means "God" – not the Spirit of God or the Angel of God, but God – the one and only God. God "appeared" to Abraham. Now we know what that means, don't we? Abraham saw God. Wow! Curiosity reaching boiling point, we want to know from Abraham what God looked like. We don't have to wait long: "he looked up and saw three men standing there". God looked like three men? Then Abraham addressed them "My Lord". Do the numbers for yourself, as we used to say, and the result in the practical everyday world can only be confusion. Verses 9 and 10 don't help: "they" ask a question, and then "one" makes a personal promise ("I will surely return to you").
Neither the rules of grammar nor the principles of logic make sense in mystical experiences, any more than they do in dreams. But here we have one image of God – God embodied in three persons. That sounds familiar somehow.
A very different, but perhaps even more astonishing image of the Divine is given to us in our epistle reading today. Scholars seem to be playing the same sort of game with this epistle as they have for much longer with the Letter to the Ephesians. Was it really written by St Paul or by someone who was very close to him and steeped in his theology? As if that matters one hoot! The point is that within a very few decades after the resurrection someone has been inspired by the Spirit to receive this profound understanding of the cosmic significance of Christ. This man from Nazareth, this Teacher, this man sitting on the sofa in a little cottage in Bethany, is now understood to embody within himself the fullness of God, and to be the medium through which the whole universe has come (and is still coming) into existence and by whom it is being held together moment by moment! That's in essence what verses 15-21 are saying, isn't it?
Think about that. You may even need to stop and have a strong drink at this point. (Well, I meant a two-bag peppermint tea, but please yourself.) Christ, we are told in verse 15, is the image of the invisible God": "image" in Greek is "eikon" from which we get our word "icon" in its original religious sense. And what an image it is as we watch the scope widen from verse to verse! "Christ in all and all in Christ" is not a slogan for your next bumper sticker: it is a simple statement of an extraordinary fact.
And so we come to the third image of the divine we have today – outwardly a man sitting on a sofa in a private residence somewhere in Galilee – an image with which most of us are probably more familiar and therefore more comfortable. But is it any less astonishing than the other two – than three visitors near the oaks of Mamre or the cosmic Christ in whom the fullness of God and the whole of creation is embodied? That's who Martha and Mary are hosting in this little cameo from St Luke today.
Genesis. By way of background it may be worth refreshing your memory of a previous mystical experience (or succession of experiences) Abraham had, as recorded in Genesis 15. There the voice of the Lord appeared to Abraham in a vision; and the extraordinary "covenantal experience" occurred after Abraham had fallen into a deep sleep and "a deep and terrifying darkness". Here the setting seems to be quite ordinary: Abraham is sitting in his tent sheltering from the heat of the day. And the whole experience has a different feel to it – it is much more interactive. In chapter 15 Abraham is allowed to express his doubts and frustrations about his lack of an heir, but after that he becomes the passive recipient of the divine activity. In today's passage Abraham seems to be dealing with the Lord face to face, almost (dare I say it) as equals. God meets him, we should note, in Abraham's cultural practices: hospitality to the travelling stranger is of vital importance in the desert lands. But there is one great idea in common between these two passages. God is the God of Promise, and therefore the God of the future, even though we can only encounter God in the present. Teilhard de Chardin calls God the "One Ahead" rather than the "One Above". Faith is, in some ways, the willingness to take God's promises as trustworthy and act accordingly: the somewhat tedious chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews makes this case at length.
Taking It Personally.
· Spend some time reflecting on the three very different images of God we have in these three readings today. Which do you find the most astonishing?
· How do you react to the word "mystic"? Is it a positive or a negative word as far as you are concerned? Is the only good mystic one who is long dead (St Teresa of Avila or St John of the Cross)?
· Have you ever had a mystical experience yourself? Have you ever told anyone about it? If not, why not? Do you know of anyone who claims to have had a mystical experience? What do you feel about that?
· Have you had a dream in which God "spoke" to you?
· Are you feeling uncomfortable about these questions? Why?
Colossians. The great English writer on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, classified this letter (together with Ephesians and Philippians) as St Paul's most mystical letters. And yet, like all his letters, they also deal with practical matters. The lesson seems to be that the truly Christian life starts with experiencing the reality of the divine, and then leading our ordinary lives from that central core. Another way to put it is to look in awe at the big picture while living our lives in a miniature. Experience tells us that we tend to swing from one pole to the other: we see the religious part of our life as separate from the practical side of things. Some believe that only when we are praying, worshipping or attending vestry meetings are we doing God's work; the rest of the time we are minding our own business. Paul wants us to heal that division. The Christian life is a life of wholeness, not of discrete departments.
Taking It Personally.
· An ideal passage for slow, repetitive, prayerful reading, phrase by phrase (the practice of lectio divina, in classical terms). Focus especially on verses 15-20, or if that is too much, just verses 15-17. Use these verses as a template for a prayer of adoration.
· Notice the idea of movement and growth throughout this passage: Christ did not come (single event) into a static world. The whole (the Body of Christ) is growing towards maturity through time. Reflect on that idea for a while.
· How might this passage change your image and understanding of Christ/God? Is your Christ "too small", or does this passage risk robbing Christ of his humanity?
Luke. Part of the appeal of this story seems to be the scope it leaves for putting our own take on things. What was Jesus talking to Mary about? We are not told, but we assume it was something very important, very profound, and very spiritual, don't we? But is that very likely? Why do we assume that Jesus was never "off duty" – never just "hanging out"? He's on his way to Jerusalem – is it not likely that he paused here for rest and refreshment? Could he not have been "off-loading" to Mary – sharing his fears and doubts? And then there is the constant complaint from the Martha's Supporters Club that her very practical ministry is in some way devalued by Jesus' comment; but is that necessarily so? It is often said that this story somehow contrasts the contemplative Mary with the practical Martha; but is that so? Notice that Jesus does not summon Martha from the kitchen, or demand her attention. He addresses her only when it becomes clear that Martha is in a big sulk – that her ministry to Jesus via the kitchen is not an offering of love but a grudging offering based on duty, convention, cultural requirements, or whatever. In which case the "better part" is not a comment about the nature of ministry but the one thing only of which there is need – love for the other, however that may work out in practice.
Taking It Personally.
· An ideal passage for the prayer of imagination. Place yourself in the story and observe your feelings as the narrative develops. Whose interests are being served here? Who is setting the agenda? Perhaps Jesus has a greater need to talk than to eat? Is Mary being more perceptive, then, the better hostess, or is she shirking her share of the work, as Martha alleges? [No personal projection allowed!]