How is it possible to read of the many marvellous deeds of Jesus as told in the Gospels and not be amazed? I found myself in that position as I read about Jesus raising to life the son of the widow of Nain. If I can get to this point, how do ‘professional’ Christians avoid it? As we were remembering Cyprian, bishop and martyr, I looked to his writing to help me.
The readings were Psalm 101, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Luke 7:11-17. The reflection given at the 2pm SLT service follows:
Those of you who know me may well be aware that I seldom watch television. Last night was an exception. I saw part of a programme about the Covent Garden area in London. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Greater London Council made plans to flatten most of the area as it was not designed to accommodate modern vehicles. Goods had previously been carried out of the Market by porters using trolleys but there was a move to begin to use container lorries, which the narrow streets were really not suitable for. The plans would do away with the old buildings including the Market building, and replace them with modern facilities like conference centres and so on, with wide roads between the buildings.
Perhaps the local people hadn’t really thought about the place where they worked and had their small shops and businesses. It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt and I imagine the people had just accepted it as a given in life. All that changed when they began to find property being purchased by the Council ready for demolition and when they realised what the new area would look like. The local people then began to fight back, helped by others who appreciated the unique architectural value of the area. Eventually the Secretary of State made 250 buildings into ‘listed buildings’ which made it very difficult to get permission to alter or remove them. The plans of the GLC had to be scrapped and new ones made which preserved the area. The Market moved to a new building but the old Market was turned into a wonderful shopping area, full of character, which bursts with life every day.
The story could have been so much different had the people not woken up to the danger which threatened their area and stopped taking it for granted. I was shocked to find that when I read today’s gospel I didn’t even react to the wonderful story that Luke tells us. It made me really think if familiarity with the Gospel is breeding contempt in me. Am I taking the Gospels for granted rather than realising just how unique and life enhancing they are?
The people who witnessed Jesus bringing the son of the widow of Nain back to life certainly didn’t take the event for granted. “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’” They were filled with a godly fear and recognised what a wonderful event they had witnessed. They praised God in wonder and amazement that a man who was dead had come back to life as a result of Jesus speaking a word. Where is my amazement when I see such a demonstration of love and power? Has it all just become a story to me? This concern has stayed with me all day and really made me think.
I then began to wonder how ‘professional’ Christians manage, the ordained who work as Christian deacons, priests and bishops; the lay people who are part of the Church Army and work as evangelists. How do these people avoid becoming too familiar with the story that the Bible tells us?
Today we remember Cyprian who had a meteoric rise to the position of bishop. He became a Christian in 246, a priest in 247 and a bishop in 248. So much for the advice in the passage from Timothy’s letter which states that bishops should not be new converts! Cyprian had very little time to be anything other than a ‘professional’ Christian. It seems that he didn’t forget the profound effect which becoming a Christian had on his life. This is what he wrote in a letter to Donatus:
When I was younger I lay in darkness and in the depths of night, tossed to and fro in the waves of this turbulent world, uncertain which path to take, ignorant of my true life and a stranger to the light of truth. At that time, and on account of the life I then led, it seemed difficult to believe what divine mercy promised for my salvation, namely, that it was possible for someone to be born again to a new life by being immersed in the healing waters of baptism. It was difficult to believe that a person though physically the same, could be changed in heart and mind.
How was it possible, I thought, that a change could be great enough to strip us in a single moment of the innate hardness of our nature? How could the bad habits acquired over the course of years disappear, since these are invariably deeply rooted within us? If someone is used to feasting and lavish entertainment, how can they learn the discipline of a simpler lifestyle? If someone is used to dressing ostentatiously in gold and purple, and been admired for their good taste, how can they cast them aside for ordinary clothes? Someone who loves the trappings of public office cannot easily retire into the anonymity of private life. Someone who is surrounded by great crowds of supporters and is honoured by an entourage of attendants will consider solitude a punishment. As long as we allow ourselves to be trapped by these outward allurements we will be the more easily seduced by wine, inflated with pride, inflamed by anger, be eaten up with greed, be excited by cruelty, be controlled by ambition, and a prey to our lusts.
These were my frequent thoughts. I was trapped by the past errors of my life from which it seemed impossible to escape. I gave in to my sins which clung fast to me. Since I despaired of improvement I took an indulgent view of my faults and regarded them as if they were permanent occupants in my house.
But after the life-giving water of baptism came to my rescue and washed away the stain of my former years, and the light which comes from above, serene and pure, was poured into my cleansed and reconciled heart, and after the Heavenly Spirit was breathed into me, and I was made a new man by a second birth, then amazingly what I had previously doubted became clear to me. What had been hidden was revealed. What had been in the dark became clear to me. What previously had seemed impossible now seemed possible. What was in me of the guilty flesh I now acknowledged to be earthly. What was made alive in me by God was now animated by the Spirit of holiness.
All our power is of God; I repeat, it is of God. From God we receive the gift of life and strength. By the power derived from God we are able, while still living in this world, to glimpse the things of eternity. But let fear be the guardian of our conscience, so that the Lord, who in his great mercy has infused our hearts abundantly with his grace, may always be honoured by the hospitality of a grateful mind, lest the assurance we have received lead us to become careless, and our old enemies creep up on us again.
Cyprian writes of fear and gratitude towards God as he remembers all that God has done in his life. The people who witnessed the miracle of the man raised from the dead experienced fear and expressed their praise and gratitude to God. It seems that to keep myself from taking the Gospel for granted, I need to have enough fear of God not to become over familiar and I need to praise and thank him for all that I have seen him do, in my life and in the lives of others.
I pray that God will allow us all to see the power and wonder of the Gospel afresh every day so that familiarity never breeds contempt in us when it comes to matters of faith.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor