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Damascus road

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Betjeman’s poem. Christmas captures the importance of that ‘single truth’. Yet when He came to those He sought to save, He was nailed to the Cross, and His followers were persecuted. If we foreshorten perspective, we can leap the years to when the breach between Christians and Judaism became a gulf, but the temptation, which we see in Marcion, to cut the cord, was not yielded to; the God of the Christians could neither be identical with that expected by Judaism, nor yet entirely different.

What we see with Saul/Paul is this painful paradox at work. He tells the Romans that Jesus is ‘declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead’. The believer lives in Jesus, who has been vindicated by the Father, who is, indeed, His decisive manifestation: the ‘Word made flesh’ as St John tells us. Paul leaves us in little doubt, either. God, he tells the Philippians, has ‘highly exalted him’ and ‘bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.’ Although men had known Him in the flesh, and although He never ceased to be the Word Incarnate, He is no longer limited by the time and place of the Incarnation. All things are to be interpreted through Him – including the history of the Jews; whatever can be said of God now has to be interpreted through Calvary and the empty tomb.

This brought, as Paul’s own flesh bore witness to, crisis and divisions. Jesus had warned it must be so, and in Romans a the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul faces up to this and the pain it causes him and other Jews. Romans 9-11 offer a prolonged meditation on this. Has God’s fidelity faltered? Has he rejected His people? Psalm 89 with its terrible message of the God who elects and loves, who rejects and destroys, comes to mind as one reads Paul’s anguished wrestling with the meaning of the Gospel for Israel. In rejecting Jesus, His chosen people have rejected God, and in persecuting Paul and the other Christians, a breach is being created which causes Paul huge pain. Through that rejection, salvation would come to the Gentiles, but he hoped that his own people would also receive it.

God had provoked in Paul a crisis which had destroyed his self-reliance on ‘the Law’: ‘For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.’ And yet: ‘the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.’ This is painful, but as Paul tells us: ‘we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.’ Our ‘old man’ was crucified in Him. For Paul, only through the ‘loss of all things’ could he be conformed to Christ. The new life in Him is not an end, it is a beginning, and it guarantees neither ease nor comfort; but it is the path to God.

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