The Readings for the 33rd Sunday, Tempus per Annum (c1)
Et morte afficient ex vobis : et capillus de capite vestro non peribit.
They will put some of you to death…but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.
Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.
Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)
Our readings today are from very apocalyptic texts. They struggle to share with us a vision of the future, and yet they also strive to remind us it is the present that we must always be concerned with.
Let’s start with the epistle to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul with his “If you don’t work you don’t eat.” This can be played politically if you like: poor people can’t eat because they can’t work. That would be contrary to literally everything else in the Bible – and would be projecting onto ancient cultures our capitalist values of exchanging work for money and money for necessities. Paul wasn’t talking about politics or economics. Rather Paul was talking about disorder in the Church community. People thought the world was about to end so they were giving up on their daily responsibilities. Paul was saying, “If you think the world’s about to end then you don’t need to eat do you?” He was directing his people away from some abstract future back to today. We don’t know when the world will end. We are not saved at some mystical, future endpoint. Today is the day of salvation, stop all this prepping for doomsday.
The prophet Malachi shares with us a rather gruesome vision of the last day ending in fire. We are used to this, I think: hellfire is a very common trope stretching from jokes about the stereotypical Street Preacher to the Left Behind books and movies. Yet there is also hope in this passage: for notice that the Day of the Lord is coming like fire but that general fire of terror will, for the righteous, come into focus as the rising of the Sun of Justice. The fire is still real fire it’s just a different sort of fire for the people who are expecting it, indeed living for it. We know this from other places in the church’s teachings where some of the fathers say eternity in hell and eternity at God’s Throne are the same thing. Scriptures say our God is a “consuming fire”. The righteous, however, want to be consumed in that fire. It is the unrighteous who do not wish to be consumed and will be burned. But it is the same fire. We will all be eternally roasting in the warming fires of God’s love. But someone want to be there.
The Gospel ends with a glorious promise from Jesus. As he was facing his own death he prophesied the death of (some of) his followers. Yet, mindful of his own Resurrection he said no part of you will be destroyed. We die yet we live.
Jesus’ communication of the Last Day cannot be comforting to everyone. He does not address this as prophecy to the unconverted but rather to the Believers. He predicts all kinds of violence against the Believers. He predicts hatred and destruction for the Believers. Yet like Malachi, Jesus invites Believers to see this with hope. No matter what they do to you, no matter how hard they persecute you, no matter how painfully they deal with you, no part of you will be destroyed.
This puts the lie to those who imagined something of a Rapture before the end of the world (like the Left Behind books). Those who believe in the Rapture think God is supposed to take the church out of the world before all this trouble begins. But Jesus says the church is going to go through all this trouble and, in real ways, will be the target of all this violence. We will die but we will not be destroyed. I think the words Jesus said about the temple could be said about the church today. No stone will be left on top of another stone when the world is finally done with us. But the church will not be destroyed for the church is not a building it is the people and the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.
The righteous have nothing to fear. This is not doom and gloom for those people of faith who dance with Jesus: but only for those people who do not share the same hope.