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, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Creator God, you made us all in your image: may we discern you in all that we see, and serve you in all that we do; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Great is the Lord and highly to be praised, •
in the city of our God.
2 His holy mountain is fair and lifted high, •
the joy of all the earth.
3 On Mount Zion, the divine dwelling place, •
stands the city of the great king.
4 In her palaces God has shown himself •
to be a sure refuge.
5 For behold, the kings of the earth assembled •
and swept forward together.
6 They saw, and were dumbfounded; •
dismayed, they fled in terror.
7 Trembling seized them there;
they writhed like a woman in labour, •
as when the east wind shatters the ships of Tarshish.
8 As we had heard, so have we seen
in the city of the Lord of hosts, the city of our God: •
God has established her for ever.
9 We have waited on your loving-kindness, O God, •
in the midst of your temple.
10 As with your name, O God,
so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth; •
your right hand is full of justice.
11 Let Mount Zion rejoice and the daughters of Judah be glad, •
because of your judgements, O Lord.
12 Walk about Zion and go round about her;
count all her towers; •
consider well her bulwarks; pass through her citadels,
13 That you may tell those who come after
that such is our God for ever and ever. •
It is he that shall be our guide for evermore.
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:2–10
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Sermon on Sunday Trinity 6
They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.
Haven’t we all been in this position? We have done some great things in our lives, haven’t we? But also haven’t we been judged by the crowd because they can define us by our past – they know whose son or daughter we are, that they know our siblings as well. Because they know our origin, don’t they have disdain when they consider us? It happens to everyone.
There was a film The American President in which a widower US President was taking his romantic interest around the White House and came to the “dish room” where beautiful porcelain given to the President and his First Lady is on display. He explained that all the other married presidents were not held in awe by their wives because they were not with “The President”. These wives each knew their husband, who just happened to hold that high office of state, as the man they were growing old with, not the leader of the western world. They were like those people who knew who Jesus was, that fellow whose father was a carpenter, whose sisters still lived among them.
Here I am – hoping that I am doing good and being the new man here and now, but then a loud voice calls out from down the end of the corridor. I hear that nickname I had as a child, that name I hated, and consequently I am constrained into a self that I thought I had outgrown. No longer do I have the autonomy of being an adult with my own name, but I am stuck with that juvenile nickname and all that I associate with it.
This is the problem when they “take offence” at what Jesus showed through his sharing of his wisdom and mighty acts of power. They know who Jesus was, don’t they? They know where he belonged. – And this happens to every one of us. We are defined only by our past, not by what we wish to do in the future. We are most often defined by others around us – and sometimes we even do this to ourselves: the past constrains us into particular roles, whether it is the crowd around us or we retreat into that shell under our own steam.
But this is not the christian way, is it? We true believers don’t cow-tow to the crowd pressing round about us – we don’t sink to the lowest common denominator of human behaviour. Rather we aspire to something finer, as the alternative collect puts it, “you made us all in your image: may we discern you in all that we see.”
What is this image of God we aspire to? This has been the subject of great theological debate, in the great Councils of the Church, in the cloisters of the monasteries, in the lecture rooms of seminaries, even in the corridors of the university. Everyone is interested in what the human being is – fundamentally. Theologians, philosophers, sociologists, pyschologists, scientists of all sorts, they all delve into the nature of human being to see just what it is that spurs humanity on – hopes and fears, determinist vectors, biological necessities, all these things are being studied for the sake of humanity.
So, am I defined by my past? Or, even more debilitatingly, am I defined by my inheritance from generations past? This is the nurture and nature debate all over again, but with a twist – the religious person allows a moment of the divine in life.
For us, that moment can be defined variously – when the Spirit strikes, when God came down at Christmass, when Jesus offered himself up on the cross for humanity’s redemption, to name but a few symbols. Each of these events are defined outside of time and space. They are “glimpses of eternity” as I have heard them called. Time and space have nothing to do with these moments of clarity and vision, when grace enters into one’s life.
Isn’t this what Paul is writing about to the Corinthians? Paul could tell of a man who “was caught up to the third heaven”, who “was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” – he could speak of that man, but declines – “I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me.” Paul wants to be judged by what he shows to the world, not by anything else – “even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.”
Would we be so strong as to hide our knowledge of Paradise to those round about us? Wouldn’t we boast of the wonders we beheld in the third heaven? But we are unlike Paul, we are unlike Jesus, we are flawed, aren’t we, for we would like to be just like that crowd jostling around Jesus who defined him by his past. They would flaunt their knowledge over those whom they consider benighted. Paul takes a completely different stance towards his knowledge. “if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth.” The truth stands for itself. Paul need be not so foolish to think he has to boast of it.
Jesus, as the true image of God, emptied himself of all divinity in order to be fully human – as Paul tells us and we confess in our creedal formulae. This is what Paul is doing as well – he could boast, but he would rather just be himself, secure in the knowledge of that Paradise he experienced, that third heaven in which he could dwell, if he wanted to. But Paul does not want to be isolated from everything, caught up in that exaltation. No, Paul wants to be fully human, what any one of us wants really. This is the hardest thing of all, to be just who we are.
Even Adam did not accept who he was, did he? Didn’t he aspire to be a god, to partake of that tree of knowledge, when he should have been happy to be himself? That is the point of the Genesis story, that is what Paul is telling us as he writes his letter. And I think this is why we are told this story about the people from Jesus’ past lording their knowledge over him so that he did not perform any miracles nor acts of power, nor did he teach, while he was in his home town.
This happens to us when we hear that childhood nickname being bellowed out after us when we are starting anew. We need to rise above the past – but, more importantly, we need never to use the past as a constraint over any other person. Rather we should understand the past in order to free the other so they might walk into Paradise and be themselves – just like us, just as the epistle and gospel teach us today.