Monday, March 5, 2018

Genesis 43:5 -- The Gospel in Miniature

"Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you."

As we read the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis this Lent, I am reminded of a lecture given by then-Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. The lecture's topic was the Holy Spirit, and in illustrating a point he made a comment--almost an aside--which has stayed with me over the years. 

He spoke about the centrality of care for the Other in the Christian faith, summing it up in those words from the King James version of the Forty-Third Chapter of Genesis: "Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you." Ramsey said this was, in a sense, the Gospel in miniature. 

There is another saying (I forget the source) along much the same lines: "If you seek salvation, look to your brother." 

In our day, we would perhaps modify these to "sister and brother," but the meaning remains the same: our salvation is connected to our love and care for the others in our life. There is no such thing as a completely individual Christianity; indeed, an individualistic faith is blasphemous and the religion of demons. The Gospel of  Jesus Christ makes this completely clear: to love God means loving the neighbor in real, tangible ways.

This is particularly important to keep in mind during Lent. Two of the great disciplines of this season--fasting and prayer--must not overshadow the third: Mercy. They are completely interconnected and mutually-reinforcing. It is mercy which seems particularly in short supply right now.

We hear much about justice today, and justice is indeed essential both for our faith and our society. However, mercy marks the Christian life most profoundly, for mercy is what God has shown us rather than justice. As a matter of justice, what humans have done and continue to do to each other, to the environment, and in response to God's love would merit our extinction, not our vindication in a court of law.

But this is not what the Gospel proposes. Rather, it is by the conscious reception of God's mercy in Christ to us that we may become merciful to others--recognizing their just claims and seeing our absolute dependence on their fair treatment as the criterion of our own salvation, much as we say "forgive us our sins as we forgive others" in the Lord's Prayer. This is the message of the Christ's cross, not of Justice's balance.

We seem uncomfortable with mercy today, preferring the sharper language of judgment, blame, shame, and condemnation. This is a sad replay of earlier patterns in our society, which seems always drawn to harshness rather than compassion. We often act as if we believe that eventually, force will make us love each other.

Compelling people to love the Other never works. It is only by a recognition of our own completion in our brother or sister that we can truly understand the meaning implicit it "Love your neighbor as your self" or the hidden meaning of the words of Joseph's command. Understanding and accepting God's mercy for us unlocks this recognition. 

When God came into our world to share our life--sharing it to the very end--the best excuse we could have for walling ourselves off from each other was removed. If God could do this, so may we. By becoming part of Christ's living Body, we are now able to let him work through us to overcome barriers in love and mercy. We do not have to do this on our own. We do not have to wait for the other person to blink or capitulate or even change. We are free to love now because we ourselves may know we are beloved of God--warts and all, even in our present condition.

This is a new language for humanity. It is not "natural" for us in our present broken condition. To learn this language means a dedication and persistence available only through communion with our Triune God. There can be no "instant justice" in human affairs nor can mercy flow unceasingly from human hearts without deep humility arising from regular repentance. All the essentials of the Gospel are woven in a seamless garment, like Christ's robe. Teaching and practicing these essentials is the ongoing work of the Church's inner inner life nourishing its mission to the whole Cosmos.

With so many today receiving so little justice or mercy, a true Lenten fast will lead not to impotent anger or self-righteous blame, but to a greater thirst for the good of the Other, and to each of us discerning how we might bring our brothers and sisters along with us to the Kingdom through repentance, humility, service, and compassion. Like Joseph, we will seize the opportunities God gives us to save and serve those in need.

For truly, without them, we shall never see God's face.

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