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This Sunday's readings: 6th Sunday after Trinity

06 July 2012

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Proper 10: Amos 7.7-15; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

THE contrast between the epistle and the Gospel is stark and inescapable. The glorious and expansive vision of all the blessings described in Ephesians was not the experience of John, or indeed of Herod and his family, who were locked into a cycle of fear and revenge.

The juxtaposition of these readings gives us pause for thought. John's experience, as he lived for the praise of Christ's glory, despite his being imprisoned, prevents the epistle from becoming completely otherworldly. Equally, the epistle does not allow John's distressing experiences to be meaningless.

John's reward for his faithfulness as forerunner of the Messiah, and his proclamation of the message of repentance, was, seemingly, to be overlooked by God when he was in dire need. Jesus was healing the sick and releasing captives, but had not brought freedom to John. Luke records that John appeared to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, to which Jesus's response was to point to his works, and challenge John not to be offended that he remained in prison (Luke 7.18-23); in other words, not to lose his first love for God.

John's was a hard calling, and Herod's fickle curiosity, which allowed him to enjoy listening to John when he fancied intellectual titillation, but not to lift a finger to help him, must have grated.

Life in Herod's palace was deeply miserable. Herod, despite officially being the powerful one, was at the mercy of his wife's jealousy, and finally was trapped, probably when drunk and showing off in front of his guests, into an action that he hated. It was too late: he was cornered, and John was the victim. Herod was not physically imprisoned like John, but he was imprisoned in other ways, and, in that sense, John was the freer man, however uncomfortable his situation.

In contrast, there is the Ephesian church that was built up by Paul, after the work of others (Acts 19, 20.17-38). It was a cause of joy that the church was full of faith in the Lord and love for the saints. The writer poured out this breathless paean of praise to God, unable to contain his wonder at all that God had done and would do from the foundation of the world to the fullness of time.

We can imagine the excitement when the Christians gathered and heard this description of who they were in Christ read publicly for the first time. If they had been struggling with the difficulties of being Christians in a city dedicated to and dominated by the pagan goddess Diana, then this was encouragement and new vision indeed.

We read in Revelation (2.1-7) that, by the end of the first century, the Ephesian church, despite enduring faithfully and bearing up for the sake of the Lord's name in the face of false apostles, had lost its first love. Somehow, despite the theological insights in this epistle, which no doubt remained a treasured part of this church's memory, things had slipped.

The epistle goes on to spell out in practical detail how to live as the people of these amazing promises, and how to be strong in the Lord, wearing all the armour God provides, and praying at all times in the Spirit. The letter in Revelation assures them that they had done this, but sees beneath the surface that, in the process, they had lost their first love.

John, in prison, kept his first love, and was faithful to the end, despite his doubts and the harsh treatment meted out to him. The Ephesians, facing the difficult ups and downs of life as Christians in a pagan society, and strengthened by the encouragement of the epistle, had faltered. While remaining faithful, they were no longer in love with God as once they had been.

That danger is always before us; hence the wisdom of the petition in the collect that God will pour into our hearts such love towards him that we, loving God in all things and above all things, may obtain his promises, which exceed all that we can desire. Ephesians spells out some of those promises; the juxtaposition of that reading with John's story alerts us to the possibility of retaining our first love, however hard our situation.

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