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Sunday, 4 July 2010

Allowing God

Jesus said to his disciples:
"A large crop is in the fields, but there are only a few workers.
Ask the Lord in charge of the harvest to send out workers to bring it in."

St Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia:
"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."

You can see the theme the lectionary compilers were thinking about –
harvests!
But there are other themes, too, that unite the two readings.

In many ways our two readings are completely different, of course.
Nobody seems to know who the 72 people that Jesus sent out were –
nor, actually, how many there were,
as some translations say seventy, others say seventy-two.
But who were they?
Where did they come from?
Why do we never hear of them before or since?
All very peculiar.

But Jesus sends them out, telling them they were not to take anything with them –
no luggage, not even hand baggage.
One paraphrase has it:
"comb and toothbrush only!"
but I'm not entirely sure they were meant to take even that much.
They were to be totally dependent on other people's generosity in order to live.
If one household wouldn't take them in, another probably would,
but you weren't to move from house to house to find who was the better cook.

Apparently the instruction not to stop and greet people en route was because doing the polite, in those days, could take a mighty long time,
it wasn't just a matter of saying "Hi!" and moving on, you had to stop and ask about all the family members right down to your sixth cousin twice removed, who was probably their uncle anyway.
So it all took time, so you hadn't to stop.

And when they come back –
we are not told how long they were on the road –
they were full of their experiences:
"Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!"

But Jesus said that was almost by the way.
It didn't matter.
What did matter was "that your names are written in heaven."

A modern paraphrase puts it this way:
"All the same, the great triumph is not in your authority over evil, but in God's authority over you and presence with you.
Not what you do for God but what God does for you –
that's the agenda for rejoicing."

---oo0oo---

Some years before this story was written down, but a few years later, chronologically, St Paul was coming to the end of his letter to the Christians in Galatia.
This is, you may or may not know, one of the earliest letters –
they think it might have been written as early as 54 AD, so within twenty-five years or so of the Crucifixion.
People who had actually heard Jesus speak would still be alive;
people who had seen the Crucifixion;
maybe even people who had seen the risen Jesus.

And St Paul was already travelling around and making converts.
And this is where the problem arose, because originally, people who were converted were Jewish, and tended to follow the Jewish law and so on.
At that, St Paul himself was.
But then you started getting this new lot of Christians,
who had never been Jewish
and didn't see that it was necessary to keep the Jewish law in order to be a Christian.
This, as we know, is also what St Paul thought,
but there were others who disagreed,
and said that if you were to be a proper Christian, you had to be circumcised
(if you were male –
they didn't practice female circumcision)
and keep the Jewish Law, with all the observances about what you did and didn't eat,
what did or did not make you unclean,
what you could and couldn't do on the Sabbath Day and so on.
For St Paul, this had all been rendered totally obsolete by the Cross of Christ –
you were saved by faith, not by keeping the Law.
And thus his letter to the good Christians of Galatia.

The end of the letter, he says, is written in his own handwriting –
some scholars think he had something the matter with his eyes, which is why he tended to use a scribe or secretary to write his letters for him.
And when he uses his own handwriting, it tends to be rather large and scrawly.
But it enables him to stress what he wants to leave them with which in our pew Bibles reads:

"Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything;
what counts is a new creation."

Another modern translation puts it:
"It doesn't matter if you are circumcised or not.
All that matters is that you are a new person."

And in a modern paraphrase, they put it like this:
"Can't you see the central issue in all this?
It is not what you and I do—
submit to circumcision, reject circumcision.
It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life!"

That is really the point:
a new creation.

St Paul is very big on that, it's one of the things he stresses.
This from his letter to the Corinthians:
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;
the old has gone, the new has come!
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them.
And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation."

---oo0oo---

Obviously, being "a new creation" is something God does.
It's not something we can do.
And having our names "written in heaven",
that's not something we can do, either.
It is something God does.

Now, over the centuries, some branches of Christianity have interpreted this to mean that you don't get a choice about it,
and that it's not until you get to heaven that you find out whether your name was or was not written down there.
They call it "Limited Atonement" –
as if!

But we Methodists don't believe that.
We believe that everybody needs to be saved –
to become a new creation, if you like –
and that everybody can be saved.
We also believe that we can know that we are saved, and that we can be "saved to the uttermost", as they say –
for Wesley, this meant that one could grow so close to Jesus that for all intents and purposes one would be practically perfect.
He didn't, you will note, claim to be like that himself,
although he did reckon he knew one or two folk who were.

We know all this, of course.
Most of us have been Christians for more years than we care to remember!
But it's always good to remind ourselves of the basics from time to time;
and the thing that really leapt off the screen for me from the various translations and paraphrases that I read
was that both having our names written in heaven and being a new creation is something that God does, not something we do.

"Not what you do for God but what God does for you –
that's the agenda for rejoicing," as the modern paraphrase put it.

And we who have been Christians for many decades sometimes forget that.
We get so involved in Church administration, or worse, in Church politics, that we forget what we're here for –
and the main thing we're here for is to allow God to do something for us!

So the question I want to leave with you today is:
When did you last allow God to do something for you?