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10th Sunday after Trinity

29 July 2021

Proper 14: 1 Kings 19.4-8; Psalm 34.1-8; Ephesians 4.25-5.2; John 6.35,41-51

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I RECENTLY mentioned “guts” as the place where we, and God, feel compassion (Faith, 16 July). Being “well-gutted”, as Ephesians puts it (4.32, my translation), is not Essex-speak for disappointment, but scripture-speak for “tender-heartedness” — a quality that Paul encourages, urging the Christians in Ephesus to be kind to one another. That kindness becomes something richer when we understand that the Greek word also implies being “useful”. Christianity is love expressed in action.

When Paul urges the Ephesians to be “imitators of God”, he is commending something not found elsewhere in the Bible. Scholars point to Old Testament passages about “following” God, but that is hardly the same as modelling oneself on God, attempting to emulate his characteristics.

We come closer through the New Testament command to imitate Christ, which appears in two other letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians 1.6; 1 Corinthians 11.1). This is not a dominant strand in Paul’s thinking, but it is part of the proper understanding of the Christian life.

“Imitating” God does not only mean “following” him. Paul is a Hebrew in race and thought, but he is also a skilled speaker of Greek, writing in Greek, to Greek Christians. For Greeks, the term “imitation” more often meant that derivative process that we call “copying”. Read 5.1-2 as a unit, and we see the imitation of God by Christians as dependent on the mediating person of Christ. But Paul’s blunt command should not be minimised: like 2 Peter 1.4, it is a precious reminder of our high calling.

The simplest message of the readings, taken together, and following on from last week, is that food is a gift from God, and (if we needed reminding) a necessity of human existence. One of the most surprising things that Jesus does after his resurrection is to eat and drink, thus revealing his ongoing humanity. God, we know, does not eat the sacrifices burned for him (Psalm 50.12-14), although he enjoys the smell of them (Ephesians 5.2). He has no need of food, unlike the gods of ancient Greece who — according to the poet Homer (roughly contemporary with Isaiah of Jerusalem) — ate “ambrosia” and drank “nectar”.

The fact that we have reached a situation in which part of humankind is starving for the lack of food while another part is getting more and more sick from a surfeit of it only shows how far we, the human race, are from any kind of success in imitating God. When Elijah makes ready to die under the broom tree, an angel appears, offering food (a cake) and water. This is miraculous. It is also strategic; for the angel first encourages him to eat, and only when the angel speaks for the second time does he couple encouragement with a quid pro quo. Elijah’s rescue is for a purpose. He has more to do: a journey to make, a calling still to fulfil.

I remember a childhood story about a king who announced a competition: all the best chefs in his kingdom were to make their (as we would now say) signature dish for him. Elaborate and fussy confections appeared, until the king was sick of all the rich food that he tasted. Last, he came to a child, who had baked a loaf of bread for the king. The king enjoyed that bread so much that he declared the child the winner. This fairy tale sits comfortably beside today’s readings, which commend what is wholesome and straightforward rather than complex and mystifying.

In fairy tales, it is fine for one person to win, while others lose. Like psalms, they are often told from the point of view of a single individual who faces enemies beyond their apparent strength. Either by noble effort or by supernatural intervention, the individual hero wins through. Usually.

The story of Christianity is very much not a fairy story — not even one of the morally improving kind. Tucked away in this Gospel are two clear pointers to the universal nature of God’s love for all that he has made: in verse 43, the Father is the enabler who draws people towards Christ; and, in verse 45, every person who is so moved by God will come to him. This teaching absolves us of any guilt at our failures to inspire and convert others, and their “failures” to repent for themselves. The first task of every Christian is to follow Christ.

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25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

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