21st July 2019 - Trinity 5
Genesis 18: 1-10a
The Lord appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks[b] of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ 10 Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’
Colossians 1: 15-28
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in[h] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[i] him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled[j] in his fleshly body[k] through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— 23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 25 I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
Luke 10 :38-end
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41 But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.[l] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
What are we to make of this short episode, where Jesus stays with Martha and Mary?
It has a freshness about it. As with last week’s gospel, we see Luke’s skill as a storyteller. We can imagine Martha hurrying around, trying to catch Mary’s eye, perhaps glaring at her, before her frustration boils over. Her outburst is resentful, even rude. There is a certain familiarity here, which fits with the suggestion elsewhere, that Mary and Martha, as the sisters of Lazarus, his friend, were well known to Jesus. The story bridges a 2,000 year gap – it could have happened yesterday.
But this is a Bible story. So how might we reflect on it, to aid our devotion? Some have written about the “better part”, or “one thing” which Mary chooses – let us also choose sitting at the feet of Jesus, they say, above all other, more practical distractions. But I find this unhelpful: God is in the practical stuff as well, we should not belittle it.
Trying to draw a deep, spiritual meaning from this story feels misconstrued to me, like putting a postcard in a heavy gilt frame. Forgive me if this shows my lack of imagination.
But I see a wider point here, which is about the nature of New Testament scripture. Perhaps because I have been reading about this recently, in John Barton’s excellent new book, A History of the Bible. In it he explains that the New Testament developed very differently from the Hebrew Scriptures and was seen differently by 1stand 2ndCentury Christians. When they talked about Scripture, they meant the Hebrew Scriptures, not the gospels or epistles.
For the gospels started out as oral collections of sayings and stories from the life of Jesus, including pre-eminently his crucifixion and rising to new life. There were many versions, and this pluralism did not it seemed give rise on the whole to tensions or disputes. When they came to be arranged and written down, the format which was used was the codex, a new invention, a bit like our current paperbacks, more convenient and informal than the heavy Jewish scrolls.
It is remarkable, when you step back and reflect, that these first Christians gave us four different official collections or accounts and that they contradict each other on many occasions. As Barton explains, there was little argument as to whether all four should be recognised in the canon and this was in no way seen as a problem by the early Church.
And here we see an important difference between Judaism and Islam on the one hand, where the precise words of Scripture have a place of central importance in the faith, and New Testament Christianity, where it is the person of Jesus, his life, teaching, death and resurrection, who is the focus – who takes the place occupied in other faiths by the sacred text.
I am reminded of an image from a hymn, by George Herbert:
“A man that looks on glass, on it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass and then the heaven espy.”
The early church saw the gospel accounts, in a way, as the glass through which we perceive the person of Christ. The glass is flawed, in places bubbled, distorted, coloured. But this is less important, because through it the image behind can be clearly made out, as a consistent whole.
There is a generosity of spirit here, a confidence, in including such a varied and contradictory mix of recollections in the gospels.
And so to Martha and Mary – one such recollection, within that larger picture. Perhaps of no great significance on its own – in some ways like a postcard amongst a collection of letters in your attic. And yet true, an authentic glimpse of Jesus in relationship, on a typical day, in the home of his friends.
Our reading from Colossians is very different – an example, I suggest, of looking not just through the glass to see the image beyond, but then more deeply, to see the wider cosmic significance, the implications, the resonances, of what we discern there.
The first part of the reading we heard – Colossians 1, verses 15-20, is widely understood to be a pre-existing hymn, included by the writer of Colossians, perhaps because it introduced the themes he wanted to address.
In this hymn, Jesus is understood in his full significance as the incarnate Christ, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn” – in the sense of being the most important – “of all creation.” “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
This is poetry, a glimpse of that which is beyond words, perceived not just with the thinking mind but with the imagination, the soul and expressed in song and in acted liturgy.
And so today’s readings offer us insights of different kinds, from a small, particular detail, to the underlying narrative of Jesus’ life, to the cosmic Christ, through whom and in whom God reconciles all of creation to himself.
I pray that through all these insights, we might glimpse the eternal God, self-giving creator of all things, who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believed in him might have eternal life.