16th Sunday 2019
Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42
Have you ever been to one of those gatherings where they ask you to quote the piece of scripture which speaks to you particularly powerfully? I knew of one priest who would invariably reply “A vain hope for safety is the horse”: if I had ever had the misfortune to be made a bishop, I would have taken as my motto “He stinketh, for he is four days buried”.
Taking the question seriously, though, I would opt for the opening sentence of today’s Second Reading: “I rejoice to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ, for the sake of His body, the Church.”
Is that because I welcome suffering? Is it heck as like! I loathe and fear suffering as much as the next person, but I also know that suffering comes: there is no avoiding it. Consequently, I find it consoling to know that it is serving some purpose by being taken up into the redemptive sufferings of Christ, and therefore helping to redeem the world.
As a child, I was taught, if something was painful, to “offer it up”. For a time, that sort of spirituality went out of fashion; I suspect because it was thought to glorify suffering. That I am sure is a misinterpretation: the phrase “offer it up”, with which I grew up, was expressing in a simple way the response which Paul described more eloquently and more accurately as helping to complete the redemptive suffering of the Christ.
We are able to do this because, as Paul states a little further on, Christ is en humin, which is here translated as “among you”. Inevitably, I am reminded here of the late Bishop Brewer, Fiery Jack, who was not redhaired for nothing. His finger would stab the page and he would declare loudly “Christus IN vobis—Christ IN you”.
Bishop Brewer had a point, though he wasn’t 100% correct in objecting to this translation. The Greek en, like the Latin in can be translated “among” as well as “in”, and maybe a degree of ambiguity is fruitful here: Christ is among us, in the gathering of His people, and He is also in us, dwelling within us with His Father and with the Holy Spirit. Either way, or indeed in both ways, Christ is present, deeply and abidingly, giving us life, and giving value to our suffering.
Mention of the indwelling Trinity provides a link to the First Reading. There is a famous icon which depicts the three men who visited Abraham, and which sees them as, in some way, representing the Trinity. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages the early Christians to practise hospitality because, he says, “by doing this, some people have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). He probably had Abraham’s visitors in mind, and it is worth remembering that, in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) there is often no clear distinction between the “angel of the Lord” and God Himself.
Abraham’s hospitality is linked to the hospitality shown to Jesus by the two sisters. Abraham may have entertained God: Martha and Mary certainly did. Why then does Mary receive a gentle reprimand?
Her problem is that, whilst she is keen to welcome the Lord, she fails to consider how He wishes to be welcomed. His desire at present is more for her company and her attention than for her meat and potato pie. I can’t help thinking of gentlemen of the road and others who have called in the past at my presbytery door. They too are Christ, yet I tend to see them as a nuisance. Rarely have I given such people time and attention, rather than a quickly assembled food parcel, or even a couple of pounds, which I have heard described as “bugger off money”.
Yet it is not only such callers who come to us as Christ. How much attention do we give to anybody, and are we sometimes too eager to leap in with our solutions to what we see as their problems? May the Christ who is within us (and among us) teach us to respond to the Christ who comes to us seeking.......what? We will have to listen to find out.