Sunday 12th July 2015, Trinity 6, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
There’s a tiny phrase you find often in St Paul’s letters which most people pass by without noticing. It’s almost not big enough to call a phrase – just two words – and seems innocuous and insignificant. But really it contains the heart of Paul’s theology. A summary in just seven letters in Greek of everything that Paul is trying to say. It’s a phrase that is the basis for his understanding of salvation, of the church, and of his ethics. And what is this tiny phrase? In Greek it’s en Christo, and in English, in Christ.
And I draw attention to this, because it comes nine times in today’s first reading: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ… just as he chose us in Christ… In Christ we have redemption… the good pleasure of his will that he set forth in Christ… to gather up all things in Christ… In Christ we have obtained an inheritance… we who set our hope in Christ [our translation said ‘on Christ’, but in Greek it’s ‘in Christ’]… In Christ you also were marked… when you believed in Christ’
Now OK, some of those are ‘in whom’ in Greek and in English a few have been translated ‘in him’ and others ‘in Christ’. But the point is the same. We have a concentration of this tiny phrase, which we largely ignore. We think it’s just some kind of quick way of saying ‘through the action of the human being Jesus’ – which would be quite something in any case.
But I think it’s more than that. In fact lots of scholars think it’s more than that. So let’s dig down a bit. First, it’s always ‘in Christ’, rather than ‘in Jesus’. We tend to use ‘Christ’ and ‘Jesus’ as just names. But whilst ‘Jesus’ was Jesus’s name, ‘Christ’ is a title. It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Mashiach or Messiah, which means anointed one. It was the title for God’s promised new king, who would bring peace and liberty to the world. So Jesus Christ means Jesus the Messiah. And ‘in Christ’ means ‘in the Messiah’.
And what Paul does is broaden the word ‘Messiah’ so that the Messiah incorporates in himself all those who pledge allegiance to him. Now the most worked out example of this is the famous passage about ‘the body of Christ’. We’re all members of the body – in other words body parts – and together we make us the body of Christ. But it’s something like that idea that is encapsulated in a very abbreviated way every time Paul write ‘in Christ’. It is through being incorporated into the Messiah Jesus that you are blessed, chosen, redeemed, gathered, receive an inheritance, hope, are marked with the Spirit, believe.
It means that our allegiance to Jesus is not one of conditional or passing acquaintance; we are not lending our support to Jesus for the time being. We are connected to Jesus the Messiah as an arm is to the body; decide to detach yourself and you will die. And we are connected to one another and all other Christians also as parts of the body. Even though some other Christians are more than annoying – and we’re more than annoying too – we can no more live apart than can the hand live apart from the arm. We are blessed, chosen, and redeemed together, or not at all.
And our incorporation into Christ touches the way we pray too. Despite the rather trite children’s song, ‘Prayer is like a telephone’, prayer is not like a telephone, it’s not like making an occasional connection whilst between times the line is disconnected. Rather prayer is simply taking time to become conscious of our complete and permanent transplantation into Jesus’ own being. We are his body; his blood flows through us – it’s what we celebrate in bread and wine at the Eucharist. His spirit, his breath is our breath, his mind is our mind, his will is our will.
Of course there are other images in the bible that try to say the same thing in a different way. Most notably in St John’s Gospel when Jesus says, ‘I am the vine and you and the branches, whoever abides in me bears much fruit… apart from me you can do nothing.’
But whichever image you prefer, please don’t neglect the profound relationship which exists between you and Jesus and other Christians. A break up in this relationship is spiritual death. The good thing, though, is that our neglect or forgetfulness does not rob us of the life of Jesus – because he holds us in love and cherishes us even when we ignore him.
That’s the thing that comes through most completely in the reading. This isn’t so dependent on us, it is the work, the grace of God: ‘he has blessed us in Christ, he has chosen us in Christ, he redeemed us in Christ, he set forth his plan in Christ, he gathers up all things Christ, he has marked us in Christ with the promised Holy Spirit.’
But the conscious choice to relish and delight in this life ‘in Christ’ is what makes faith exciting and joyous. Over the last few weeks we’ve encouraged one another to do this by developing and living a Rule of Life, a chosen path by which we nurture our relationship with God and others. There are lots of details in the Reception area. And on three Sundays we’re hearing from members of our congregation about their own stories of following a Rule of Life – and today Margaret Coles is coming to speak about her experience of this.
For Margaret's talk, click here