Tag Archives: question

9 May: The Jesus Problem, Part II

Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey continues her reflections on God, money, politics and good faith.

The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (Matthew 22:15-16).

Today we’ll continue our lectio reflection on Matthew 22:15-22. If you weren’t here yesterday, I recommend that you scroll back and see what we were thinking about. Today, I’d like us to use our imagination, and try to picture the group Jesus is talking to. These disciples of the Pharisees: what are they like? We need first to acknowledge that they are not the finished product, they are still in training, still students of the Pharisees; they will probably be young men, therefore. This suggests that some of them will still be impressionable, idealistic, and sincerely seeking the truth. As is the case in any group of people, they will not all be made of the same stuff and won’t all have identical mind-sets. Many – even most – will have been completely prejudiced against Jesus by the Pharisees. But some, surely, would be young men with more independence of mind and character. Despite the Pharisees’ attempts to brain-wash them, the young men of this stamp will have retained some willingness to listen to Jesus, and to test not Jesus so much as the Pharisees’ idea of Jesus. They will want to find out for themselves if Jesus really is the strange villain he has been made out to be. You might say that this sub-group within the larger group is ‘on the fence.’

Now, imagine yourself a member of this sub-group. You do not know Jesus first-hand. You don’t quite know what you think of him yet. This is the first time you have even seen Jesus and dealt with him, but you are a little ashamed of the way some of your peers are behaving toward Jesus.

So you try to study Jesus, physically, to see what story his body may tell. Jesus is broad-shouldered and lean. You know he had been a carpenter before. His muscular body shows that he’s no stranger to hard physical labour. Jesus’ face is arresting in the energy it seems to radiate. His colour is high, but his deep-set dark eyes look tired – although they are clear, and they seem to take everything in. He scans the little group of young men now. Is there even one pair of eyes willing to make sympathetic eye-contact with Jesus, you wonder? The Herodians are a lost cause: not one of them will meet Jesus’ gaze. Some of your peers meet his eye with a hard, belligerent stare, particularly the speaker. You’ve seen that look on the face of your fifteen year old cousin when his father tells him something he doesn’t want to hear. Others fold their arms over their chest and, after a brief glance at Jesus, pretend that there is something interesting on the ground to look at.

What do you do? You are struck by Jesus’ posture. It is open. It is vulnerable, yet strong. There is no evasiveness in him – nor any aggression. He is fully present. You can’t help it: you are impressed by Jesus. You sense his goodness, intelligence and integrity. This is no charlatan. But there is something in him you can’t quite understand. A sort of longing. And an indescribable sadness. You meet his gaze. You want to know what he will do next and you find that you are on his side.

Jesus seems to understand you – or you deeply hope he does. You feel a connection with him. He has been silent for several long moments. He is not rushing this. And, surprisingly, no one interrupts this silence. This is unusual; the cut and thrust of debate is what this little group of men loves. Usually, silence in their opponent is interpreted as a win for their side. But no one regards this silence as a win. This Jesus has an uncanny ability to hold a group’s attention. At last he says something odd to the speaker: ‘Show me the money you pay the tax with.’ Now it’s the speaker’s turn to try to hold the crowd’s attention. He decides he’ll take his time, too. He doesn’t react at first. Then he wags his head slightly in mockery, narrows his eyes, smirks, glances to the side, but otherwise doesn’t move. The crowd, though, isn’t with him, and he suddenly realises this. Someone makes an impatient noise from the back, and pushes forward to show Jesus a denarius. That someone is you.

You hold out the coin in your open palm. You feel strangely emotional. Jesus is looking around at all of them again, but he is soon looking straight at you, and says: ‘Whose portrait is this? Whose title?’ Of course, it is Caesar’s. You don’t answer aloud but you continue to look at Jesus, who is now looking at the crowd again. Someone shouts out the obvious answer. Jesus slowly shrugs a bit and says in an off-hand way, ‘Then give to Caesar what belongs to him.’ And here he pauses and looks you fully in the face once more. Your eyes are streaming now. You feel as though he knows you, your past, your present, your hurt, your deep desire for meaning and love. The group is completely silent behind you. No one even moves. Jesus speaks quietly: ‘…and give God what belongs to God.’ He takes your hand that is still stretched out with the coin in it, gently rolls the fingers around the coin, and gives it a firm clasp with both his hands. Then he disengages.

The stunned crowd quietly leaves Jesus. You stay behind. What has just happened to you?

SJC

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18 February: Reduced to Silence

A Lampedusa cross should reduce us to silence. This is in the British Museum, it was made from wrecked migrants’ boats.

They did not dare to ask Jesus any more questions (Luke 20:40). This sentence from the Gospel of St. Luke comes at the end of a passage that tells of an exchange between Jesus and some Sadducees. As usual, the Sadducees have an agenda. They were not keen on this upstart travelling rabbi, Jesus, and were looking for ways to up-end him. They decide that a theological debate might be a good way to do it. Therefore, they think up a rather implausible tale of a woman who outlives not only her first husband but her seven subsequent husbands (all brothers of her first husband, obliged under the Law to marry the widow and ‘raise up children for the brother’ if the previous union had been childless). Finally the widow dies. And the Saducees’s question for Jesus is: ‘At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’

The Sadducees did not accept the notion of the resurrection from the dead. The hypothetical scenario they invented is meant to illustrate how ridiculous resurrection from the dead is. They seem pretty sure of themselves here, convinced that they have articulated an unsolvable problem. They expected to stump Jesus and to make him withdraw from the conversation, a disgraced loser.

As I reread and ponder this passage of Luke’s gospel, I can see the Sadducees gathered around, the speaker feigning seriousness, while secretly flicking supercilious glances at the others. They are subtly mocking Jesus. In typical adolescent fashion, they completely overestimate their own abilities and underestimate Jesus’; they are unprepared for his skill in theological debate, unprepared for a mind and personality like his.

I would love to have been there. St Luke shows that Jesus, with consummate courtesy and intelligence, not only pays the Sadducees the compliment of taking their question seriously, but answers it on such a deep level as to leave them amazed (Luke 20:34-38). When Jesus crafts his answer, his listeners were given the privilege of observing the workings of a truly beautiful mind. Anyone who has ever been in the class of a teacher who is a brilliant and deep thinker knows how exciting it can be to witness that teacher’s handling of difficult and subtle questions – off the cuff. There is always a moment after the question is posed when everyone wonders how the teacher will deal with the problem. Then, all the students share in the moments of unexpected enlightenment that break through as the teacher unravels easily and eloquently what, to everyone else, was a very tangled knot. It is an impressive event. Even those who are prejudiced against the teacher cannot avoid, if they are honest with themselves, being impressed . They may defend against it, as did the Sadducees here, but for the moment, even they must be quietly gob-smacked.

If you want to study Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, I refer you to the text of Luke 20: 27-40. But the word-for-word answer is not actually what I want to linger over right now. What is amazing to me is that when Jesus finishes his answer to the Sadducees’s question, the whole pack of them ‘do not dare’ to ask him any other questions. This is a major achievement on Jesus’ part. The verbal cut and thrust of debate was what the professional religious thrived on, and practised daily. They were good at it and knew it. But Jesus was better. He could not be wrong-footed by them. They are, unusually, reduced to silence.

Most encounters that Jesus has in the gospels can tell us something about prayer. Can this one? At first this seems unlikely, but further reflection has made me change my mind.

There are some questions I think I need to answer honestly first. One, I wonder how prepared I am to experience a mind like Jesus’? Do I expect to be surprised by the depth of his penetration into my difficulties? Or do I want to reduce his mind to a smaller size – do I want, with at least a little part of myself, to outwit him? Two, do I realise that I am not always mature? Jesus will expose my immaturity – am I willing to accept what he may show me in that area? Three, on the other hand, I may be sincerely stumped, sincerely at the end of my endurance because of what life has thrown at me. I may ask for enlightenment, and Jesus may seem silent. In the event recounted by Luke, the Sadducees receive their answer immediately. I am, seemingly, not always so fortunate. But, what this story teaches me is that Jesus’ answer is probably going deeper than I expected. I may be right out of my depth, and that is why it seems that he has not answered. In reality, the answer is there, but I need to become deeper myself, to ‘grow into’ Jesus’ answer.

I seek, through prayer, a real encounter with Jesus, Lord and God. Like the Sadducees, I too may reach points when I do not dare to ask Jesus any more questions because of the depth of Jesus’ response to me. The Sadducees went away, however, only to continue to plot and scheme against Jesus. What do I do after I finish my prayer?

SJC

Lent is a time of prayer, a real encounter with Jesus. I’ve been saving this post from Sister Johanna till the right moment, and the beginning of Lent is a time of silence, as Our Lord experienced in the desert. It’s been something of a desert time for us all of late; let us use Lent to learn the depths of our love for those we are missing.

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Going viral LVI: Jo’s Joy


Here is the latest bulletin from Rev Jo Richards of St Dunstan’s, Canterbury. Advent has been a bit different this year!

I must share with you the joy of yesterday – I was invited to take a Christingle service in a local primary school – last year they packed St Dunstan’s church, twice over, and for obvious reasons they couldn’t come to St Dunstan’s and I went to school. Two assemblies – one year R 4&5 year olds, and then year 3: 7 & 8 year olds. They are making Christingles, and I took my ‘giant Christingle’ and we talked through the symbolism of it all….despite all the covid disruption these children were a delight and so interested and engaging. Then we had Q&A session. The most profound questions that came from the Yr 3 children: If Jesus was such a good person, why was he killed, where is Jesus now? How did the Resurrection take place? And this went on for about 20 mins – just amazing, and all so thoughtful, and again the children all so incredibly well behaved. It was an absolute joy to share the morning with them.

You’ve probably noticed that the ‘Going Viral’ posts are well and truly out of sequence, and have doubtless concluded either that Will has lost it, or that some posts are scheduled a little in advance, while others are posted on or soon after we hear from someone with an interesting tale. Thank you, Jo. for today and other days!

Will

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7 December: One Good Deed, I.

Welcome back to Sister Johanna with a double posting that fits well with tomorrow’s feast of Mary Immaculate, as the second article makes plain. Great as she is, Mary is one of us; eternal life did not always come easily for her.

Master, what good deed must I do to possess eternal life?

Matthew 19:16–22

This is the question asked of Jesus by the one who is forever described but never named: the rich young man. I know this story well. I can’t begin it without a little sinking feeling in my soul because I know how it will end. I have come to call the person who asks this question ‘the poor rich young man,’ poor in the sense of deeply unfortunate. He walks away from Jesus. What could possibly be more tragic? But let’s not get ahead of the story. Lectio divina is a practice of reading bible passages slowly, even the ones I know well, in order to give the Holy Spirit time to lead me into a new understanding of God’s life in me.

So, what happened this time when I read? Well, in the very first line, I was taken aback by the fact that this young man asks Jesus about a ‘good deed’ – in the singular. I must have been in a feisty mood this morning, for I felt that had I been there with Jesus and that young man, I’d have been tempted to toss my head disdainfully and, hands on hips, invite this well-dressed specimen of human affluence to tell me why or how he could possibly imagine that only one good deed would suffice to attain heaven? But, had I done so, I would not have been a help to Jesus. His ways are not my ways.

And his way is almost always a puzzling one. Jesus says to him,

Why ask me what is good? There is one alone who is good. But if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’

This time, as I puzzled over Jesus’ words once again, I asked the Lord in prayer why he had said, ‘Why ask me what is good?’ It seemed so dismissive. And something immediately occurred to me: perhaps I was putting the accent on the wrong word and misunderstanding the question. The point Jesus is trying to make, maybe, is not ‘Why ask me what is good?’ but ‘Why ask me what is good.’ Jesus might be trying to remind the young man that the one who alone is good, the Father, has already made it perfectly clear what we need to do in order to attain eternal life. Keep the commandments. There is no mystery here, and no need to ask the question. The answer has been there since the beginning of the covenant. “Why ask at all?” Jesus seems to be saying to the young man.

The young man seems to understand Jesus, and to Jesus’ remark, ‘Keep the commandments,’ replies, perhaps with some defensiveness, ‘Which ones?’ And immediately, I’m on my high horse again. I am tempted to toss my head and snort, “Oh, come on! Don’t be such a goon. All of them! There are only ten, after all! Or maybe you’re hoping that Jesus will give you a bargain, reduce the price, give you heaven for, maybe, five of the commandments rather than all ten. Your preoccupation with expense is exposed here. For you, this is all about reducing the cost, isn’t it? If you can buy heaven for less than ten commandments, you’ll consider it.” And it could be that these uncharitable thoughts of mine have some truth in them. But, again, Jesus does not handle the matter my way at all.

I would like to pause here for today and climb down off my high horse. Tomorrow, perhaps in a kinder mood, I’ll resume my reflection.

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Leaves

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is birchlime.png

The leaves are almost all down around here. The Victorian poet Alice Meynell also took note of them, investing them with human emotions, asking eternal questions.

“O leaves, so quietly ending now,
   You have heard cuckoos sing.
And I will grow upon my bough
   If only for a Spring,
And fall when the rain is on my brow.

O tell me, tell me ere you die,
   Is it worth the pain?
You bloomed so fair, you waved so high;
   Now that the sad days wane,
Are you repenting where you lie?”

From “Poems” by Alice Meynell

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22 August: Gilbert White IX, summer birds.

blackcap by Ron Knight

As to the short-winged, soft-billed birds, which come trooping in such numbers in the spring, I am at a loss even what to suspect about them.  I watched them narrowly this year, and saw them abound till about Michaelmas, when they appeared no longer.  Subsist they cannot openly among us, and yet elude the eyes of the inquisitive; and, as to their hiding, no man pretends to have found any of them in a torpid state in the winter.  But with regard to their migration, what difficulties attend that supposition! that such feeble bad fliers (who the summer long never flit but from hedge to hedge) should be able to traverse vast seas and continents in order to enjoy milder seasons amidst the regions of Africa!

LETTER XXIX.

Selborne, May 12th, 1770.

Dear Sir,—Last month we had such a series of cold, turbulent weather, such a constant succession of frost, and snow, and hail, and tempest, that the regular or appearance of the summer birds was much interrupted.  Some did not show themselves (at least were not heard) till weeks after their usual time, as the blackcap and whitethroat; and some have not been heard yet, as the grasshopper-lark and largest willow-wren.  As to the fly-catcher, I have not seen it; it is indeed one of the latest, but should appear about this time: and yet, amidst all this meteorous strife and war of the elements, two swallows discovered themselves, as long ago as April 11th, in frost and snow; but they withdrew quickly, and were not visible again for many days.  House-martins, which are always more backward than swallows, were not observed till May came in.

I repeat that we are reproducing White’s letters because it is the tercentenary of this rural parson’s birth, nd because he is a well-known exemplar of the man of faith and of science combined.

What a lovely turn of phrase, ‘meteorous strife and war of the elements’! Up in Selborne, Gilbert White did not have chance to observe the (to us) nearby beaches of Hampshire and Sussex, or the ground below lighthouses where birds, confused and dazzled by the life-saving lantern, were cast down after striking the glass. He would have gathered all the evidence he needed for migration, down by the sea.

Some Blackcaps winter with us these days.

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4 April, Desert XXXVI: Perseverance and Beauty.

A thought from the French singer-songwriter Laurent Voulzy, who put off writing a song to Jesus for 10 years. You can hear him sing it at the link below.

Right now, I am searching, I pray every day, I go into churches and I look at the diversity of faces … and I see wickedness in some of them …

The idea of faith as perseverance, full of humour and beautiful light, is a part of my prayer. It gives me a reason to believe, to feel joy every day, even if our times do not evoke it. My faith consists of questions. God is in all the faces I see, in all the questions that I put to myself. And in my search for answers…

Laurent Voulzy

Door of Mercy, Holy Family Basilica, Zakopane, Poland.

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30 March: What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

cross.cave1

Here is Sister Johanna once more, Welcome! We are following Jesus as he gets nearer to the Cross – the next chapter of Luke tells of Palm Sunday, but today he meets a blind beggar. In Sister’s reflection there is a question not unlike Woodbine Willy’s ‘Well?’ the other day: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

There was a blind man sitting at the side of the road begging…. He called out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.’… Jesus stopped and ordered them to bring the man to him, and when he came up, he said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ ‘Sir,’ the blind man said, ‘Let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight. Your faith has saved you.’ 

Luke 18: 35-43.

This passage from the Gospel of Luke tells me a lot about what it means truly to encounter Jesus in prayer. I’ve read this story many times, but this time when I read it, I was at first a bit taken aback by the apparently daft question Jesus asks the blind man: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Well, I thought, he obviously wants to be healed of his blindness. But then I realised that the blind man could have had other issues; his blindness might not have been the priority for him. Perhaps he had a son on the verge of death, or perhaps he had other illnesses that were not evident. It could have been anything. The question is a highly important one. Jesus wanted the blind man to state his wishes so that he, the blind man, would be fully aware of what he was asking and could take full responsibility for the encounter and for what might happen next.

Sir, let me see again,’ the blind man says. This in itself is impressive – and Jesus doesn’t miss the fact that the blind man expresses no doubts about Jesus’ ability to heal him. His faith rings out with clarity. Moreover, the blind man knows what he wants. He does not hesitate or appear to weigh alternatives before speaking. He wants to see again, and he knows that Jesus is able to bring this cure about. And Jesus’ answer? Direct, simple, almost off-hand. A modern-day Jesus might have said simply, ‘Sure! See! You are already half-way there because of your faith.’

So what does this tell me about asking Jesus for something? About prayer?

  1. The text says, ‘Jesus ordered them to bring the man to him.’ It is important, therefore, to go right up to Jesus, and have a real encounter with him, to be aware of him and to address my prayer to him. I should not just be talking to myself or dreaming. I must, in my mind and heart, stand before Jesus, and be in his presence, when I pray.

  2. It is important to be clear, to tell Jesus what I want and not, out of some misguided idea of abandonment to the divine will, go all vague. Moreover, I must take responsibility for my request. There may be times, perhaps many times, when we do not receive the specific grace we have asked for – but we can be sure that we always receive something, and usually it is a grace that goes much deeper than the one we requested. Eventually we will be able to identify that deeper grace as the real answer to our prayer. But unless we make that original request specific, and own it, this deeper grace would probably have gone unrecognized – and perhaps would not even have been bestowed.

  3. Jesus easily cures the blind man, without a laying on of hands or any other physical process. He merely utters the healing words. He is able to do this because the blind man trusts him completely – his faith saves him, as Jesus declares afterward. The blind man, presumably, had never met Jesus before; he knew him only from hearsay (rather like us). And that was enough for the blind man. Is it enough for me?

  4. Jesus’ question, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ tells me a great deal about Jesus’ eternal ‘attitude’ toward us whenever we go right up to him, in faith, and ask him something. He is already there, saying, ‘Johanna, or Tom, or Annette, what do you want me to do for you?’ He places himself completely at my disposal.

  5. And what is my answer?

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18 November: The King II, Pilate and Jesus Meet.

cobblestones

We are preparing to look at the relationship between Jesus and Pontius Pilate with a view to exploring the theme of power as it emerges in the relevant texts of the Gospel of John (18:1 – 19:22). I would like first to summarise the passage immediately preceding the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. In John 18: 1-11we are told that Jesus had been arrested in the evening by a cohort from the Roman garrison, and a group of guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees, all with weapons and torches – essentially, a lynch-mob. Jesus handles the mob with courtesy, cooperation and courage. Nonetheless, they bind him and, no doubt, shove and frog-march him to the palace of Annas, the high priest. Annas, probably realising after a short exchange with Jesus that he was out of his depth and could not possibly win in a dialogue with him, sends Jesus on to the next questioner. This will be Pontius Pilate and Jesus is sent to the Praetorium – his palace.

Pilate does not meet with Jesus until he meets Jesus’ captors – a rather unsatisfying encounter, I suspect, as far as Pilate is concerned. Jews were not allowed to go into the inner court of the Praetorium on pain of incurring ritual impurity, so Pilate must meet Jesus’ captors outside – a concession which must have rankled. But he complies, and questions them about the reasons for Jesus’ arrest. According to the text, they claim at this point simply that Jesus is a criminal and deserves death, and that they are not allowed by their religion to pass the death sentence. They do not specify what Jesus has done to deserve it (see Jn. 18:28-32). Pilate, none the wiser for this exchange, must now question Jesus about the reasons for his arrest.

Pilate leaves them, returns to the inner court of the Praetorium, summons Jesus and begins a highly revealing exchange with him. We see here two men who could not possibly have been more different. Pilate, with an abruptness suggesting that he is an important, busy man, asks Jesus the only question that could have any real interest to him, or any bearing on his judgement of Jesus: ‘Are you the king of the Jews?

Immediately, we see that the issue for Pilate is power, but he must hope that Jesus’ power is a trumped up affair, threatening to no one. He had probably encountered mad prophets before – they were not unusual in the Judea of Pilate’s day. So, Pilate’s question would, Pilate hopes, set such a prophet up to expose himself as a rant-and-rave religious fanatic. A wild-eyed diatribe on Jesus’ part would be most useful to Pilate and enable him quickly to dismiss Jesus as long-winded but essentially harmless; then Pilate would be free to move on to the more important business of the day. It is easy to imagine the slightly mocking tone of voice in which Pilate asked his question, much as one might use to a rather ill-behaved child, perhaps, or to someone whom one has already mentally pigeon-holed as not worth taking seriously. Pilate feels secure, powerful at this stage. Accordingly, his treatment of Jesus belittles him. We will examine Jesus’ response to this tomorrow.

Pilate went out to the street to meet the Jewish leaders.

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May 16. What is Theology Saying? LIII: Salvation outside the Church II.

 

archway.amsterdam. (2)

austinWhen the first Christians claimed a new covenant, they were aware of how the word new had been interpreted in the prophetic writings. Later generations spoke of old and new covenants – with the presumption the old was past its sell-by date. This is mistaken, the facts of history contradict it. The Jews have been faithful to Covenant in large numbers, even to the point of martyrdom; and Scripture tells us that God does not desert those who are faithful.

Some believe the issue is simple. If the Jews had really been faithful they would have recognised Jesus as Messiah, and have been part of the new covenant. But since they do not recognise Jesus as Messiah, we can assume they are unfaithful to the covenant. For this reason history left them behind as forever lost.

Such a view leaves all kinds of questions unaddressed. Even if it was perfectly clear that Jesus is the Messiah, we must remember that the Jews of the dispersion had never had the gospel preached to them. For example, exactly when did the covenant go out of date? Was it at Pentecost or at the death of the last Apostle? Also, does the Jewish participation in the covenant not remain in date until the end of time?

The only contact many Jews through the centuries had with Christians and the Gospel was that of persecution and victimisation in various forms of anti-Semitism. And many were told to renounce Judaism in favour of Christianity – if you are persecuted on account of your Christian faith and told to recant, would you see this as an act of God? We must accept the possibility that Jews cannot accept Jesus as the expected Messiah because he is not yet Messiah. We who are the presence of Jesus have not yet produced the promised signs of the Messianic presence. We know what these signs are – the Prophets are full of them, and the Gospels have Jesus quoting them.

The signs of Messianic times are: peace among nations and all people; perfect fraternity; justice for the poor and the powerless; no more violence and enmity; and all coming together to praise the one God in their own ways in peace, without hindrance. When Paul writes of these signs he says there is no discrimination in Christ between Jew and Gentile, between cultured Greeks and primitive Barbarians, between men who had all kinds of rights and women who had none. Today we might add: no discrimination between white or black, gay or straight, rich nations and poor – no annexation of the poor by the powerful.

AMcC

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