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Twenty-First Sunday of the Year

From East and West

One of the features of God’s creation is the great variety there is the world. Not only a variety of terrains, plants and animals, but also of human cultures. Despite the basic humanity shared by all people, there are great differences in social structure, dress, customs and food. This all helps to make the world an endlessly fascinating place.

However, there can be a downside to this diversity. People can be afraid of difference, and this can lead to ethnic and national conflicts, as the whole history of the world attests.

Other solutions have been tried, and these attempts have tried to make everyone conform to one particular way of being. The totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Communist China tried this solution with disastrous consequences. Others can try and overcome such differences by dreaming of utopian one-world governments, where all differences will be eradicated. The historian Michael Burleigh, in his book Earthly Powers describes one such utopian dreamer from the 16th/17th century, the Dominican friar Tommasso Campanella. Campanella wrote of the “City of the Sun”. This fantasy world would consist of a communist style regime ruled by the ‘Metaphysician’; people’s diet would be regulated as would their sex lives, according to ‘complex astrological calculations and the rules of stock-breeding.’ (p.21). Pictures of Moses, Alexander, Christ, Caesar and Mohamed would encourage people to live moral lives. Religion would be a mixture of paganism, astrology and Christianity. While many of these ideas may seem laughable and bizarre, many were taken seriously at the time, and have influenced political thought since Campanella’s time. Even today, there are theories, both approving and disapproving, of a ‘new world order.’

The picture presented to us in the scripture readings for today creates quite a different scenario. One of the great themes of the Old Testament is that although the People of Israel are the chosen people, they have this role on trust. They are to act as a beacon to the rest of the nations, to bear witness to the creating love of the one God, and to act as prophets for the day when all people will be united by God himself.

Two things are crucially different from the more secular views of human unity however.

Firstly, and most importantly, only God can achieve this. As the passage from Isaiah makes clear: ‘The Lord says this: I am coming to gather the nations of every language.’ It is not any political messiah who can achieve the reuniting of the human race, but only God, and this comes about in the event of the Incarnation.

Secondly, being gathered together by God by accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ does not do away with anything that makes us who we are, with all the wonderful variety of human life and culture. Rather, God’s grace redeems and raises up all this diversity. We become, both on an individual and communal level, more like that which God has planned us to be, to become more fulfilled. God’s grace takes nothing away from us, but heals and adds to what is already good. Again as Isaiah says: ‘As an offering to the Lord they will bring all your brothers, in horses, in chariots, in litters, on mules, on dromedaries, from all the nations to my holy mountain in Jerusalem, says the Lord...’ This inventory of animals is not merely for the interest of naturalists or transport nerds, but an illustration of the wonderful diversity of God’s creation.

Jesus takes up this theme in the Gospel reading. From those who treated God’s favour as a personal possession, God’s favour will be taken away. The universal or ‘catholic’ nature of the Gospel will become apparent to all, ‘And men from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.’ This was always the message of the prophets, Jesus tells us, and his life, death and resurrection are bringing this unification of the human race about. It is a unification, however, that graces difference, rather than destroying it.

Responding to Christ’s call, and going to his ‘holy mountain’ can be a painful experience for us. As fallen creatures, we often wish to cling to those things which keep us apart from God and from each other. The Letter to the Hebrews encourages us not to give up, even when we feel we are being corrected by the Lord. Suffering is part of our training. ‘So hold up your limp arms and steady your trembling knees and smooth out the path you tread...’ We are en route, not to Campanella’s fanciful ‘City of the Sun’, but to the eternal city of God and the eternal fellowship of the saints and angels.

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