If we think of today’s three readings as pictures to be hung on a wall, we might put the second, from St Paul, in the centre a little higher than the others, then put the reading from the prophet Amos on the left a little lower and the Gospel on the right also a little lower. This isn’t to put St Paul above Jesus. It’s just a way of visualising the message these three readings deliver. The extract from Ephesians can go at the central high point because it presents God’s purpose for us. It shows us the goal, the end, the divine horizon of our life. And the other two either side pointing up, because they show us how God leads us to the goal. St Paul gives us the end, the book of Amos and the Gospel of Mark the means to the end.
‘Before the world was made, says St Paul, God the Father chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence.’ Here is the purpose of God, this goal of our life. It is in God from eternity, before the universe came into being, before humanity came into being. The purpose, the goal is that in Christ we be holy, completely filled with God’s goodness and truth and beauty, completely alive in his presence through the self-giving of love. The purpose is we be adopted sons and daughters, sons in the Son, Christ-like, Christi-form, to the praise of the glory of the Father’s grace. The Father, Paul says again, intends to bring everything together, everything in the heavens and everything on earth, under Christ as Head; the whole creation, in other words, in all its richness and complexity. So here is the purpose: it begins in eternity and ends in eternity. It embraces the whole of creation. It’s centred on Christ. It means the Christ-ification of everything, and of us. This is some vision. Even if now it remains under wraps, hidden, it underway. Elsewhere in the Bible it’s called the Kingdom of God, the life of the world to come, the vision of God, the new heaven and earth, the heavenly Jerusalem. It’s redemption, salvation, the forgiveness of sin. It’s freedom and joy and fellowship and glory. It’s everything come together and come right. It’s humanity come back to God and with the rest of the cosmos in tow. It’s heaven. Big stuff! And this is the horizon Easter, Christ’s Resurrection, has opened up for us. We can choose our own way, certainly, we are free to accept or reject, but the eternal purpose is eternally there.
Such is the end, as St Paul presents it. But what are the means? Such is the goal, but what’s the way? This is where the other two readings come in. In the first the prophet Amos describes his mission, his calling to prophesy: ‘It was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel”’. This was 800 years before Christ. And in the Gospel, Jesus summons the Twelve and sends them out in pairs to preach, exorcise and heal. So the Lord sends prophets and apostles into the world. Their task is to keep alive the vision of the goal, the divine horizon, and to point the way. To reach the goal of God we need the light of God. Prophets and apostles are bearers of that light. They speak to us every Sunday. The Old Testament is the inspired written record of the oral preaching of the prophets, from Moses onwards. The New Testament is the inspired written record of the preaching of the Apostles. So prophets and apostles remain among us through Scripture. Their word is alive and active, a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. And if we listen to it, some of the mist in our minds dissolves, we glimpse the turrets and towers of the heavenly city, and resume our journey. And prophets and apostles are present in other ways too. The Lord is always raising up prophetic figures in the Church, bearers of the word of God, teachers, saints, spiritual guides and writers. And there are the unworthy successors of the apostles, the bishops, assisted in the ministry of preaching by priests and deacons. They too have the task of keeping the vison alive in our hearts, and saying, ‘go this way, not that.’ We walk by the light of Scripture and Tradition till we see the Lord face to face.
One such prophet was the 14th c English mystic Julian of Norwich. I’d just like to say what I’ve just said in another way taken from her. I hope it will be helpful. We’re able to find our way Godward, she said, thanks to three things. All of them come from God. Three lights, let’s say: three torches for the dark.
The first is our reason. It’s our naturally capacity to see what’s true and judge what’s right to do. Reason tells us to care for ourselves, for example. It says, I may love asparagus or chocolate, but I must have a balanced diet too. Reason tells us to respect others, for example: to treat others as we would like them to treat us. Reason helps us realise what’s fair and just for others. Reason helps us see what’s best for our children. Reason is our common ground with others; we can discuss the sensible thing to do in a situation. We can give and take in argument, admit we’re wrong. It means we can see how to resolve a conflict or find a good way out of difficult circumstances. Reason is God’s ambassador in us. It’s to be cherished.
The second thing, she says, is ‘the everyday teaching of the Church.’ She’d include Scripture within that (it’s the Church that gives us Scripture). The teaching of the Church shows us how to follow Christ, how to be a disciple, how to live in Christ, with Christ, as Christ. The teaching of the Church includes the commandments and beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer and the works of mercy. It includes the sacraments and how we are to approach them. It gives guidance for personal life and our married and family life and our professional and political life. It is a great light from above. It is the presence of the apostles’ teaching among us. It is Christ teaching now and with authority through his Church.
Third, she says, ‘is the inner working of grace through the Holy Spirit.’ We need this too. This is the light that shows us our own particular path. It inspires our life-choices: whether to marry or not, who to marry, whether to choose religious life or not, what work to do. It guides our prayer life. It can light up a word in Scripture as meant for me. It may move me to particular acts of service or generosity. It can inspire new directions, new initiatives.
Reason, the teaching of holy Church, the inner working of grace. By these three, she says, ‘we are helped, kept and saved’.
‘All three come from the one God.
‘God is the source of our natural reason; God is the basis of the teaching of Holy Church; and God is the Holy Spirit.
‘Each is a distinct gift which we are meant to treasure and to heed. All of them are continually at work in us leading us Godwards.
‘These are great things, and …will help us on our way’ (Revelations of Divine Love, LT, ch. 80) – our way to that divine end which has no end: ‘to live through love in his presence.’