9 July 2006
Ezekiel 2:1-5 – Mark 6:1-6 – II Corinthians 12:2-10
One eternal truth which is common to our lessons today is that divine revelation is not likely to find a ready ear in the congregation – whether its messenger is a visionary prophet, an apostle witnessing to the Risen Saviour, or the Incarnate Word Himself. Often, this is not for a lack of initial enthusiasm. People clamour for the exotic quality of the ‘mystical’ or miraculous, and indeed may be self-congratulatory (only in the interests of sharing the good news, of course) for having an association with those who manifest such gifts.
Mark, not being one for angels or Magi, makes clear at the outset that Jesus’ own earthly vocation was to proclaim the kingdom by preaching repentance. (In earlier chapters, we see Jesus exercise authority over various human ills, demons, and even death – but we shall see in chapter 7 that the apostles he commissioned, despite their glorying in the delegated authority, did not grasp his message much better than the hometown boys whispering about the carpenter’s kid.) Ezekiel was God’s voice to those, caught in the power and tumult of the Babylonian empire, who had descended into pagan ways, and needed to be turned back to trust in God and to worship. Paul, whose own demonstrations of charisma were assuredly beyond the amateur class, was addressing ardent Christians who were a pastoral nightmare. The word of the prophet is always a summons to repentance – that is, to constant transformation. Indeed weakness is the strength, for it is only in being stripped of self-deception and recognising the limitations of one’s own vision that one may respond to grace.
The Corinthians provide pastors of any era with a capsule course in idolatry, gnosticism, false mysticism, iniquity, and internal discord. They were an impossible lot – and, judging from Clement of Rome’s epistle a generation later, so they would remain. In his delightfully insightful Paul: A Critical Life, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor notes that “Virtually every statement (Paul) made took root in their minds in a slightly distorted form, and from this defective seed flowered bizarre approaches to … the Christian life.”
II Corinthians is a combination of two epistles. The total number of Paul’s letters to Corinth, allowing for those to which he refers for which we do not have extant texts, was five. The bane of Paul’s existence were the ‘spirit people,’ a group whose members believed that their superior wisdom made them perfect. The preoccupation with wisdom had led them to theism, and Paul needed to remind them of the importance of Christ. Their belief in the irrelevance of the physical (hardly a viewpoint in accord with the Incarnation), led them to shrug off such small matters as incest or eating meat which was sacrificed to idols. The wealthy clique were feasting, leaving only the bread and wine for those less fortunate. It appears that they saw growth in the spiritual life as a matter of achievement and power rather than metanoia. The Corinthians had seen ample manifestations of healing, prophecy and the like in Paul’s own ministry – indeed, one has the sense in this chapter that he is being rather ironic about those who stole his thunder – yet these had become distractions for them rather than leading them to worship of the Author of the gifts.
Idols come in many forms – and one may not worship at the altar of the true God if one is offering homage to one’s false self. It is unlikely that many of us are building temples to Ba’al, but our own idols are the more dangerous, perhaps, in being less easily recognised. One affliction of the devout is that we can come to see our weaknesses or sins as virtues, our distractions as evidence of unusual commitment.
“If we are eager to be raised to that heavenly height, to which we can climb only through humility during our present life, then let us make for ourselves a ladder like the one Jacob saw in his dream. On that ladder angels of God were shown to him going up and down in a constant exchange between heaven and earth. (There is) this difference for us: our proud attempts at upward climbing will really bring us down, whereas to step downwards in humility is the way to lift our spirit up towards God. Paradoxically, to climb upwards will take us down to earth, but stepping down will lift us towards heaven. The steps themselves, then, mark the decisions we are called to make in the exercise of humility and self-discipline.”
In II Corinthians 6:16, Paul had written, “Can there be a compact between the temple of God and idols? And the temple of the living God is what we are.” Grace is a share in the divine life itself. We, the Church, are the temple – before the transcendent God emphasised in Ezekiel and the Incarnate Saviour who assumed and deified our humanity. Our offering is repentance – the disposition to hearing the truth which smashes the idols we create and leads us to the loving response which is transformation. Our sacrifice is to make our lives a Eucharist – a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
Paul, who had been privileged with contemplation, had a glimpse of the divine, transcendent glory, to which the natural accompaniment is an awareness of the limitations of one’s vision. Always a devout Jew, a Pharisee who saw Israel (and, later, the new Israel where all nations worshipped the true God) as a priestly people, he knew as well that even what is good in itself (such as the Law, or the charismatic gifts of the spirit) could become an idol.
His ‘thorn’ well may have been knowing, as pastor, that he was powerless to stop the factions in his community – or perhaps, as one whose zeal could exceed his prudence, that he had contributed. Paul knew that mystic consolations can become a distraction – and, since perhaps no other local church had seen more manifestations of charismatic gifts, the Corinthians were proof enough that these are no guarantee of virtue. He would not found his apostolic mission on calls to ‘the third heaven,’ but only on witness to the resurrection.
The temptation shall ever endure to build ‘altars’ to our own honour and glory, in memory of God. The idol can be, as at Corinth, a sense of superiority which excludes love, an attraction for the magical rather than the ‘banal’ actions of gratitude and worship, or a false idea of the life in Christ as ‘achievement.’ It is only in repentance, thanksgiving, and praise that we can assume our vocation as a priestly people – our calling to be the Temple. Humility, that is, truth, unvarnished by the distractions of the false self, must dispose us to see our ‘weakness’ and embrace the divine life of which we are offered a share.
Karl Rahner – “Current Problems in Christology,” 1954, Theological Investigations
"Ultimately, an individual human recognition of truth only makes sense as a beginning, a promise, of the recognition of God – and this latter, whether in the beatific vision or elsewhere, can only be genuine and a source of blessing when it is recognised at the point where the act of apprehension and the act of limitation specifying the thing known surpass themselves and move into what cannot be grasped and is unlimited. All the more does any truth about the self-revealing God open us up into what cannot be beheld: it is the beginning of what is limitless. The clearest and most lucid formulation, the holiest formula, the classical concentration of the Church’s centuries of work in prayer, thought, and struggle about the mysteries of God – these draw life, then, from the fact that they are beginning and not end, means and not goal, one truth that makes freedom for the – ever greater – Truth."