s193g01 Sunday 26

"Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so". Luke 16:26

I would point out that - contrary to the usual human view of the difference between heaven and hell - the parable tells us the primary reason for the chasm between these various places is NOT to keep people getting out of hell and escaping to heaven. We naturally think people would want to escape the torments of hell and desire the pleasures of eternal bliss, and that the chasm is there to prevent them doing so.

It perhaps may come as a rude shock to find that the primary reason for the chasm between heaven and hell is to stop people in heaven from going and giving some comfort to those in hell - for that is what those in heaven would do for all eternity. But at some stage, the parable tells us, God says: "It is enough!"

It seems likely that those who remain in hell, still fear heaven more than the torments of hell.

I well remember a senior priest preaching on these words at the Cathedral. He gave a lovely picture of people coming off the train in the morning and riding the escalators up to the ground level and so on to their various places of employment. Like lemmings (except they were going up instead of down) people had their eyes fixed ahead, steeling themselves grimly for whatever they feared they might face that day, and oblivious to everyone around them. The priest's message was to notice those around them.

He made the quite valid point that the rich man had probably never noticed Lazarus at his gate. His crime was not that he kicked the vagrant every time he went in or out, but that he was completely oblivious to his presence. The possibility that the man's five brothers would recognise Lazarus if he was to return from the dead was minuscule indeed.

So their sin was not that they were vicious or uncharitable but that they were blind to the person and blind to the need. Again how infrequently Jesus talks about sins, but how frequently he talks about blindness. Again we are presented with the possibility of salvation lying not with our acceptance of Jesus, but that salvation lies all around us with the multitude of people whom God has put about us - and in our ability to see and respond appropriately to all with whom we come in contact.

The pictures we regularly see on the television news of starved and diseased orphans in drought stricken and war torn countries, simultaneously put before us so distressingly and graphically humanity's inhumanity to others yet also the endless possibility of eternal salvation to all sorts of people - to any and to all who would notice and respond appropriately.

This is precisely what Jesus did, he went around noticing people, all people. He had a passion for doing this above everything else, even when it took him into the homes of those who despised him and those who wanted to abuse and kill him. Jesus went into homes and accepted what they offered to him.

And the situation is no different nowadays. People want - not information on how to live their lives - but acceptance for whom they are. So often the church has offered programs for people to attend, and wondered why people have to be cajoled along.

Some years ago I was pondering on the number of diocesan agencies which existed either partially or entirely for the purpose of education for clergy and lay people for ministry. Each and every one of these has a role to play, and my words are not intended to be a criticism of any of them. Indeed I am grateful for my association with those with which I have come in contact, and indeed are proud of the ecumenical dimensions to many of them, beyond perhaps what is found elsewhere. But I could actually count 15 Diocesan Agencies / regular forums whose primary or partial aim is the continuing education of clergy and lay leaders. All of these do good work, but I suddenly realised how much emphasis we place on education and begin to wonder why we have so many different agencies and their associated infrastructure with all that this costs. Are they not able to work together more? And how many young and active lay people are out here - looking for more information about Christian life and ministry in addition to what is brought to them on Sundays.

I have no doubt what-so-ever that all of the people engaged in these education for lay and ordained ministry programs do notice the poor person at their gates and respond appropriately, just as you and I try to do.

However I worry at the emphasis on imparting information, as if that was more important than responding appropriately to the people around us. So often at the end of these programs, people walk away, feeling as if they haven't been noticed, their gifts haven't been recognised, let alone encouraged to be utilised. If that is the case they may, but more likely may not, be interested in attending a similar thing again. There is nothing wrong with imparting information, useful though that information might be. But it is not the primary purpose of the gospel.

And the difficulty is often with some of the big issues in life, the question of the inclusiveness of the gospel is simply not addressed. I vividly recall attending a Bible Study some years ago in another parish and the participants were asked to read Psalm 145 and say what God spoke to them through the words. As I looked at the psalm the word "all" sprung out at me time and again. Twice each in verse 9, 10, 14,18, and once each in verse 12, 15, 16, 19, 20 and 21. Just one example, verse 14: "The LORD upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down." In total 14 times God is pictured as being gracious to all people, regardless of who they are. When I mentioned this to the leader, I was immediately reminded of John 14.6: "No one comes to the Father but by me"!

And the person who needs our care lies at our very gate. The gay community, those suffering from AIDS ...

Who hasn't been reminded by a member of the older generation - saying that one really only has to keep the 10 commandments - that that was really the most important thing. In one sense I heartily agree - even though I have problems with 90% of them. The sentiment is that God is about the big things of life. Most people do manage to live lives without raping and pillaging the countryside. Of course we all frequently fall short in the complexities of our relationships to adequately notice others and listen to them. Of course God would have us do better in the last aspect, but there are enough around for whom raping and pillaging is a way of life. We do God a disservice, belittling God, if we think that God concerns him or herself with the minutiae of our daily lives - important though these things are to us. Every opportunity for eternal salvation is around us, in the people at our gates - not in our understanding of the intricacies of our faith.

Returning to the gospel reading. One thing that strikes me is how Jewish this parable is. I do not mean this in a derogatory sense, quite the opposite. The rich man prays that there might be a resurrection so that his brothers might be saved, but no resurrection is forthcoming. It is exceedingly curious to me that this parable should be spoken, let alone recorded for all eternity, in a religion which is based on the resurrection of a human being. It also puts a large question mark against trying to convince others to believe on the basis of an experience that they themselves have not witnessed. The parable tells us that people will not believe even if someone should rise from the dead - even if that were the primary aim. In fact, of course, the primary aim is not to get people to believe, but to get people to notice the beggar at their door and respond appropriately, and one can do that whether one believes Jesus was raised from the dead or not.

We need to hear the words "It is enough". God's grace is enough. There is beauty aplenty in all around I see to glimpse something of the graciousness of God. There are endless opportunities for salvation as we see in others people who deserve respect. I was surprised to read in my Dictionary of Quotations and Proverbs that it was John Bradford the English Protestant martyr (1510-1555) who said on seeing some criminals taken to execution: "But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford" (p32#8 DC Browning The Everyman Edition)

If Christians can't see in the Cross and resurrection of Jesus - God's love for one and for all - without getting others to jump over our hurdles, we are indeed blind. God has done enough. On earth the highway has been made smooth, there is no chasm to cross, except those of our own making.

 

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