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This week's readings: 3rd Sunday after Trinity (Proper 6)

02 November 2006


Genesis 18.1-15 [21.1-7] or
Exodus 19.2-8a
Romans 5.1-8;
Matthew 9.35-10.8 [9-23]

GOD RELAYED his promise, through Moses, to the Israelites: "If you keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples. You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19.5-6). Moses then ascended Mount Sinai and received the terms of the covenant: the Ten Commandments, further laws, and the promise of the Israelites' own land (Exodus 20-23).

The people promised obedience to the commandments, and Moses sealed the covenant in a sacrifice of oxen. He then took the oxen's blood, poured half of it against the altar, and threw half over the people. "Behold," he said, "the blood of the covenant [in Greek, diatheke] which the Lord has made with you" (Exodus 24.8).

The promise is taken up in the New Testament (in Greek, the new diatheke). "To him", writes John the Seer, "who has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father - to him be glory for ever and ever" (Revelation 1.6).

This time, the covenant has been sealed with the blood of Jesus. Jesus says at the Last Supper: "This is my blood of the covenant, poured out on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26.28).

Who are now offered a part in this covenant as members of God's people? The animals and elders round the throne in heaven sing a new song to the Lamb: "You have been sacrificed and in your blood have bought for God people from every nation and language and have made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will rule as kings over the earth" (from Revelation 5.9-10).

But what shall be the terms of membership of this new covenant? John the Seer is to warn the angel of the Asian churches against "the synagogue of Satan" , false prophets and false apostles. These false teachers encourage immorality and the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Whose teaching is under attack here? Almost certainly Paul's.

Paul insists that Gentiles are admitted to the new covenant, just as Abraham was admitted to the old: on the one condition of a trusting faithfulness to God. Jesus had lived and died in such faithfulness; and so now must his followers. At the start of Romans, Paul quoted Habakkuk: "The righteous through faith shall live" (Romans 1.17, Habakkuk 2.4). In Romans 1-4, he explored the link between faith and righteousness. Now, in Romans 5, he turns to the consequent life.

This life will not be lived easily. Here, in Romans 5, Paul speaks of tribulation, endurance, a tested character and hope (Romans 5.3-4). He will end this part of his argument with a famous  reprise: "Who will separate us from the love of God? Tribulation or distress or persecution? . . . I am sure that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (from Romans 8.35-39).

Where, for Paul, does this leave the Mosaic Law? Through one man, Adam, "sin entered the world; and through sin, death" (Romans 5.12). The Law (in ways we shall hear more about over the coming weeks) only exacerbated the problem. It is in Christ that the fault and its consequences are undone. "As one person's trespass led to condemnation for all people; so one person's act of righteousness leads, for all people, to a life declared righteous" (Romans 5.18).

Paul's mission stands in sharp contrast to the command Matthew's Jesus gave to his apostles: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10.5). But Matthew himself works, through the course of his Gospel, to cross the boundaries that Jesus's own teaching had raised. The first to acknowledge Jesus, at the Gospel's start, were the Gentile magi; the risen Lord himself, at its end, will command his disciples to preach to all nations (Matthew 28.20).

Gentile converts are now welcome. But must they, in Matthew's mind, obey the Mosaic Law? Probably. Matthew, however, never mentions circumcision itself; and, according to his Jesus, the Christians' righteousness must not copy, but "exceed", that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5.20). So it has been possible for the Church to celebrate both Matthew's gospel and Paul's. For the Law which informs our Christian lives is the renewed Law, issued once more from a mountain, by our own new Moses: "Blessed are the poor in spirit . . ." (Matthew 5-7).

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