O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in you, mercifully accept our prayers and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace, that in the keeping of your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“SALVATION” lies at the heart of the Christian faith, and has generated scholarly writing and discussion in proportion to this central significance. At a popular level, where the issue is sharpened by practical urgency (”What does this mean for me?”), it is possible to trace a route from absolute certainty about who will be saved to the reticence that refuses to pronounce on the eternal destiny of other people.
Today’s readings do not answer the question, if that means providing definitive criteria for including or excluding candidates. Instead, they offer a picture of an unfolding relationship. It begins as God makes a covenant with Israel, and continues, in the ministry of Jesus, towards a new covenant, offered first to his own people, and then to all who seize the opportunity to be reconciled to God in the astonishing realisation that Christ died “while [they] were yet sinners” (Romans 5.8).
“Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” This is how God frames the promise sent to the Israelites through Moses as he leaves the mountain (Exodus 19.5). The conditions are clear, and the scene is set for terrible reversions and disappointments: God instructs Moses how to order the lives of this chosen, priestly nation, only to find them turning to idolatry because they have impatiently given up on Moses as a leader (Exodus 32). It takes a renewed covenant, and a renewed commitment on God’s part to travelling with them to their own country, for the relationship to be restored.
Jesus speaks to another crisis of leadership as he instructs the Twelve to take the good news to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”, who are badly served by their own political and religious rulers. The messengers are not to be diverted into Gentile or Samaritan territory (Matthew 10.5-6), and the message is for only one constituency, even
if the recipients are unwilling to hear it. Nor will there be any special rewards for the bearers: they received it without payment; they must give it without payment (Matthew 10.8).
Somehow, Jesus’s distress over the people who seemed like “sheep without a shepherd” (9.36), and his commission to the disciples to find the lost among them (Matthew 10.6) must be squared with the deliberate recklessness of sending his followers out “like sheep into the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10.16).
The two things are not really contradictions in the light of the urgency of the task, which must be accomplished “before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10.23). This gives us a glimpse of what the Gospel-writer was already seeing as he named the Twelve (Matthew 10.2-4).
Dale Allison contrasts this list with a genealogy, where “the names outline a pre-history (cf. Matthew 1.2-17)”. This catalogue “indicates a post-history — here the church under Peter’s head. Peter is ‘first’, by which is meant not just first on the list but of privileged status. Judas, the most dishonoured, is last” (”Matthew” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, OUP, 2001). The narrative records Jesus’s ministry for a community awaiting his return in glory and, in the mean time, sharing his suffering (Matthew 10.16-23).
Paul, laying the groundwork for all future teaching on justification by faith, insists that Christ died not just for those who adhere to the Law, but for all who share the faith of Abraham. He has already considered God’s promise that Abraham would become the father of many nations, and shown that it includes not just the nation of Israel, but all who are spiritual descendants through their faith (Romans 4.10-18, 5.1, 6-8).
Now, he looks at the tougher substance of that promise, and makes an astonishing claim: “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5.2). Suspicions of triumphalism are overturned as he goes on to show that sharing Christ’s glory means sharing Christ’s suffering.
Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, suffering gains purpose as a shaper of Christian hope (Romans 5.3-5). There is, in the end, only one reason for Christians to boast, and it makes no sense to human eyes (1 Corinthians 1.17-19): that Christ died for “the ungodly” — a category that transcends nation or ancestry (Romans 4.5, 5.6).
On Saturday next week (24 June), the Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, and honours him as the herald of salvation. Matthew and Luke, in their accounts, also rule out pure lineal descent from Abraham as a qualification for entry into the Kingdom of heaven as it approaches. What will count are lives that have been turned around in response to the promises of God (Matthew 3.1-10, Luke 3.1-9).