It was the week of the referendum. The lectionary was Galatians 5.1, 13-25 and Luke 9.51-62. What was one to make of all that for the following Sunday?
Reflection on the Lukan passage turned up two key phrases: ‘big picture’ and ‘turning-point’.
Usually the Bible is read in snippets – in public worship lectionary snippets or peach passages chosen by the preacher; in private short passages in quiet time. This snippet from the Gospel, however, invited us to think about the ‘big picture’: Luke 9.51 speaks of the time nearing when Jesus was to be ‘taken up’: GNB adds ‘to heaven’, but this is borrowed by the translators from 24.51, the Gospel account of the ascension. Their instinct was no doubt right, though there is another lifting up in 23.32 – two criminals were ‘lifted up’ with him (translations tend to specify ‘crucified’). These little details carry big implications: 9.51 is the beginning of the journey not just to Jerusalem, to which he set his face, but through rejection, death, resurrection and ascension to heaven.
So the meaning of the journey becomes clear through the ‘big picture’. Just before this we read of the Transfiguration, where in Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah of the ‘exodus’ he is to make. In Luke’s Gospel this exodus journey is the largest part of the whole story, and on the way to the Promised Land (heaven), Jesus gives the bulk of his teaching, as the people received the Law during the exodus from Egypt, and faces rejection and testing – a pioneer through the wilderness, tempted and tried in all points as we are (to borrow from Hebrews, which also draws on the wilderness wanderings to understand what Christ was all about). The pattern of God’s engagement with God’s people in scripture is re-played in the story of Jesus, who invites us to respond, to follow, to take the same journey, rather than reject or turn back.
Just before the Transfiguration came Peter’s Confession, the prediction of the passion, and the challenge to take up the cross and follow – signs and pointers to read the ‘big picture’. Now the rejection begins as Jesus takes the direct route through Samaria, and would-be disciples find the demands too challenging (the snippets found in the rest of the Gospel lection). Indeed, the ‘big picture’ is made up of little snippets – the particular words, stories, details which carry big implications. So Luke 9.51, the end of the Galilaean ministry and the setting out to Jerusalem, is discerned as the major ‘turning-point’.
So back to the referendum. There has been much talk of ‘turning-point’. But the future is uncertain. How can we tell the outcome? Is Brexit a risk or an opportunity? I fear the campaign on both sides did little to address the ‘big picture’. But whatever side one was on, the consequences of it all, if ‘turning-point’ it be, will only become clear in the future – by hindsight. The disciples couldn’t see what was going on, but by hindsight Luke could compile all his little snippets to bring out the significance of it all. The message of the Bible, surely, is that God is at work, despite appearances, in the long, long run bringing good out of the mess we make of things. This was Oestreicher’s big argument for pacifism: in the long, long run evil regimes implode, while violence only breeds more violence.
It is in the little lives, lived in trust and according to the message of the lectionary Epistle set alongside this Lucan passage, that the hidden work of God may be glimpsed: to live in freedom doesn’t mean being free to live a life of self-interest – sex, pleasure, envy, strife, factionalism, etc.; for the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Luke’s Gospel not only suggests a new Exodus but a new Genesis: the Holy Spirit ‘overshadows’ Mary, just as the Spirit hovered over the chaos-waters – new creation in Christ. That is the ‘biggest picture of all’.
History is a long chain of ups and downs, and ins and outs, marked by the self-interest not just of individuals but of the groups with which they identify. Transformation in Christ points to a different way, barely realised in those of us committed to this vision, let alone evident in history’s ‘turning-points’. Yet the form of the Gospels suggests that it is in the little snippets of lives lived in the light of Christ that the ‘big picture’ is incarnated.