The Divine/Human Economy

Sunday 20th May 2012
Year B, The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after Ascension Day)
St John The Baptist, Clayton
John 17:6-19

Sometimes we just want to throw up our hands and have done with the whole lot; sometimes we just want to throw our hand in and call it a day; or throw in the towel. Sometimes it's just too much to bear and we want to have nothing to do with it.

But it isn't that easy. Now you won't be at all surprised to  know that I enjoy lively political discussion and I believe that two of my arguments about solidarity are real winners: the first is that it's invidious to try to divide tax payers from non-tax payers - when what you really mean is income tax payers - because all of us, even beggars, pay value added tax; but the second argument is much more important and it is that unless you live as a hermit and survive on wild animals and plants and drink from a stream or spring that is unaffected by agricultural or industrial production, then you can't be truly isolated from the rest of society; there's no getting away from it unless you drink cold spring water and eat berries and wild animals and, frankly, I've never heard of such a person; even Elijah, living out in the wild, was ably assisted by an angel! That is why arguments about radically lower taxes are simply the repetition of abstract theories; we currently hear many arguments in favour of lowering taxes on businesses but somebody has to pay for the roads on which their raw materials reach factories and on which their finished goods are sent to market. We all depend on each other in a web of mutual dependence that is so tight that it cannot be escaped, not that we would really want to. There are moments when we just want to forget about society and live in our own little world but we know that the bigger world is the place of family and friendship, of good cheer and satisfaction as well as being a world of pain and trial, of desperation and defeat. Of course we sometimes fall into the very easy trap of wanting something for nothing, of wanting society to give us more than we are prepared to pay; but mostly we are level headed, taking the rough with the smooth, sometimes getting more than we give, at other times giving more than we get.

We usually think of this sort of arrangement as an economy and our Gospel reading today from John Chapter 17 deals with the economy which spans the divine and the human. This passage is, in my view, the most under-rated chapter in the New Testament which is puzzling because it is not particularly complex although it is difficult to grasp on first reading. Throughout the discourse which runs from the beginning of Chapter 13 up to the end of Chapter 17 Jesus has been dwelling on a series of arguments which are variants on his other lengthy discourses, notably in Chapters 6-8. Jesus says that he comes from the Father and that he is passing on his teaching to us so that we are in the Father and so that he can be realised in us. This is the economy of the human and the divine which provides us with a narrative of the Incarnation and also winds us into the narrative of the continuation of Christ's mission through us. Now that Jesus has returned to the Father, celebrated in the Feast of the Ascension, we are left to carry on.

I fear that we do not take this responsibility altogether seriously because we don't recognise our place in the divine/human economy. I suspect that we have a pretty good intellectual understanding of what I mean but that we are distanced from it in two distinct but complementary ways: first, we carry a narrative of a kind of false modesty or introverted humility in which we tell ourselves that we are so distant from God, so unworthy, that the idea of the economy of the divine and human isn't to be taken seriously but is some sort of fanciful idea that might be all right for a few holy people; and, secondly, we then leave those supposedly holy people to get on with Christ's mission while we get on with our own quiet, more or less decent, lives.

But in this we make two respective errors: the first is to think that because we are imperfect we are automatically cut off from the divine when it is the divine Creator who made us imperfect; and the second is to separate ourselves from what we identify as 'holy' people whether we are thinking of professional missionaries or the kind of through-and-through good people who put us to shame. The mission of spreading the good news of Jesus on the earth His Father made falls to imperfect people who were given the free will to choose to love him and make his love known; and those who bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus are in no position to know where they rank in the holiness stakes.

In truth, what I characterised earlier as a narrative of false humility is a way of excusing us from the rigours of being part of the mission to spread the Gospel. It is very handy indeed if we can think both that we are not good enough and that other people will be much better.

But just as it is impossible to live as a hermit on wild animals and berries, so it is impossible to pretend that we can be spiritual hermits, living a self-contained life, cut off from the rest of the world which is so badly in need of the Gospel. To be a Christian is to live in solidarity with all the world; and in doing our best we should recognise that we are the worst judges of our efforts. If we spent less time worrying about how good we are and more time just getting on with it, the world would be a better place and we would be better people.

When Jesus was making his final prayer uniting us to God through his Incarnational mission he wasn't addressing a Council of Bishops or a Synod; he was addressing his motley collection of friends, mostly from humble walks of life, committing his great mission to them; committing his great mission to us.