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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

I’m sure that we can all think of someone we have known in our lives who has been a very faithful Christian, but whose behaviour hasn’t always been consistent with what we would expect from someone who call themselves a Christian. 

And we can probably also think of someone who is not a Christian, and who perhaps follows no religion at all, but who displays those values and behaviours that are consistent with the teaching of both the Bible and of Jesus. We would describe these two different types of people, and their own particular situations, as a paradox.

The situation described in our reading from the Book of Proverbs could also be described as a paradox. In the reading, Wisdom is described as a person; a person who questions the people of Israel about why they haven’t heeded her call. To the Ancient Israelites, wisdom didn’t just mean complying with wise instructions, but it also required trust in, reverence for, and submission to God, who created everything and governs both the world of nature and human history. So by not heeding Wisdom’s call, the people of Israel were not heeding God’s call. 

Wisdom tells the people that those who listen to her and follow her counsel “will live at ease, without dread of disaster”. But those who refuse to listen will be destroyed through their own actions. Therein lies the paradox. The people of Israel know, from the history of their ancestors, the good things that come to them from following God and heeding God’s call, and they also know, again from the experience of their ancestors, the bad things that can happen when they turn away from God. But some will obviously still choose not to follow God. This passage from Proverbs seeks to change their mind.

We also see another paradox in the reading from the Letter of James. This passage is all about the issue of ‘faith without works’. The Apostle Paul had famously expressed, in both the Letter to the Galatians and the Letter to the Romans, his doctrine of ‘justification by faith’. Essentially, Paul believed that we are reconciled to God by the grace of God alone, not by anything we do, as long as we have faith that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.

Now as you can imagine, some people saw this as an opportunity to be exploited, and they interpreted it to mean that having faith that Jesus was the Messiah, was more important than what you did, or how you behaved. They thought that it didn’t really matter if they were kind, generous, welcoming or compassionate; as long as they believed that Jesus was the Messiah. 

Naturally this was not what Paul meant when he talked about ‘justification by faith’. Because immediately after he mentions it in the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law”. (Rom. 3:31)

Nevertheless, there were obviously people who were thinking they could behave anyway they liked, even if that behaviour wasn’t consistent with the teachings of Jesus and/or the apostles, and it didn’t matter as long as they believed that Jesus was the Messiah. That is the paradox. These people professed to be followers of Jesus, but weren’t behaving in a way that reflected his values. 

This upset James, the brother of Jesus, no end. James was the head of the church in Jerusalem, and so he makes it clear that the “works” of people, that is their actions and behaviours, are critically important to one’s belief. He writes, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead”. (James 2:26) 

He uses the example of the Great Patriarch (Abraham himself) as proof of the importance of works to one’s faith when he states, ‘Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God’. (Jam. 2:21–23)

The crucifixion and death of Jesus is also a paradox. In the minds of the Jewish people, the Messiah would be a military warrior who would crush the opponents of Israel and free them from oppression under a foreign power. This was especially true of the people of Jesus’s day, as they laboured under the oppression of the Roman Empire. 

To their way of thinking, the Messiah would not be a pacifist who encouraged people to “turn the other cheek”, and he would definitely not be someone who would be arrested, tried and tortured before being crucified, which was the most horrific and shameful form of death at the time. But obviously that’s what happened.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. The disciples answer that some people think he is the reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah, while others believe he is one of the prophets, which might be a reference to Isaiah or Jeremiah. But when Jesus asks them who THEY think he is, Peter answers, “You are the Messiah”. 

Jesus then begins to tell them about what must happen to him–that is his death and resurrection–and of course Peter has a fit! Jesus shouldn’t be talking like that. After all, he is the Messiah. Even though Peter has no doubt that Jesus is the Messiah, he can’t believe that any of those things that Jesus has described about his own death and resurrection could be true. There again is the paradox.

And we are faced with a further paradox in the reading from Mark’s Gospel when Jesus says to the crowd and his disciples, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”. (Mk. 8:35) 

You can imagine people thinking to themselves, hang on a minute, that doesn’t make any sense. How am I going to lose my life by wanting to save it, and how am I going to save my life by losing it on account of Jesus and the gospel? 

But I guess that’s what we are called to do as followers of Christ. In a sense we lose our life in this world by turning our primary focus to God and away from the material desires and pleasures of the world. That’s not to say that we can’t enjoy material pleasures, it just means that we shouldn’t make satisfying our material desires and pleasures the core reason of our being. 

Instead we should make the Great and First Commandment our number one priority: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. And we should “love our neighbour as ourselves”.

That is essentially what Jesus was saying when he told the crowd and his disciples that, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. To truly live as a follower of Christ, may mean that at times we have to forego some of our desires for the pleasures of this world. But don’t you think its worth it? If it means that we get to live this life, knowing that we are reconciled to God both now, and in the life to come?

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