‘The hour of crisis’, is a phrase that can have several meanings. Perhaps uppermost in Paul’s mind was the idea that it can mean the end of human history and God’s final intervention to judge the world.
A slew of recent New Age books has been predicting exactly this, for December the 21st 2012. This is the date when a 5,000 year cycle will come to an end in the calendars of the ancient Mayan civilization of Central America. The Mayans probably saw this originally as a an opportunity to have a huge celebration before the calendar was reset to the Year Zero again, but pundits have variously predicted either a global catastrophe or - at the other end of the spectrum - a new equilibrium between the earth and its inhabitants, and perhaps even between the masculine and feminine impulses at work in our society.
St Paul didn’t know anything about the Mayans, but he had a similar mindset. He thought the end time for human beings was absolutely imminent. ‘The hour of crisis’ was upon the human race. In other words, the coming of Jesus had triggered a series of events which would culminate in the end of history and the moment of judgement.
And yet his words summon to mind a phrase often used by Jesus, at least in John’s account. ‘The time is coming, indeed it is already here...’ says Jesus in John Chapter 4, talking about the time to offer true worship to God instead of empty words and gestures.
Again - in Chapter 5 - Jesus says, ‘In very truth I tell you, the time is coming, indeed it is already here, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear shall come to life.’ Is he talking here about the end of history, when the dead shall be judged alongside the living, or is he talking about people who are spiritually dead and who are now being given a once in a lifetime opportunity to wake up from slumber?
In John Chapter 7 Jesus escapes arrest for his outrageous teaching because - the Gospel writer tells us - ‘his appointed hour had not yet come’. We’re getting more personal here, of course. John is not talking now about a general day of reckoning, or an opportunity for ordinary people to decide their fate, but about Jesus’ own personal destiny. But in John Chapter 12 Jesus goes on to make clear that his moment of destiny is certainly not a bad thing; it’s an unreservedly good thing. ‘The hour has come,’ he says, ‘for the Son of Man to be glorified.’
This is a different way of interpreting the moment of truth. It now becomes a tipping point in history, like light breaking into a dark room. For the first time it allows human beings to see what really counts. Is this also part of Paul’s thinking as he draws on this evocative phrase?
Of course, the same idea appears from time to time in the other Gospels too. Matthew enhances Mark’s account of the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane by adding the words, ‘The hour has come! The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners!’ This addition to the text emphasises that Jesus’ arrest is no mere accident of history, it is meant to be. It is part of the warp and weft of God’s plan of salvation.
But, like the cycles of history in the Mayan calendar, the ‘hour of crisis’ is something which recurs, isn’t it? And it comes at different times for different nations and different individuals.
1940 was one of Britain’s hours of crisis, when we stood alone in Europe against the victorious armies of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. If we journey back in time, the Spanish Armada was another. We could even go back as far as the Viking invasions of Britain if we wanted to, which was a very real ‘hour of crisis’ for Christians at the time.
But unless we’re historians, it’s probably more productive to focus on recurring personal moments of crisis - the times when each one of us is forced to consider what really matters to us and what we really believe. In the Gospels we see that meeting with Jesus provokes a moment of crisis in people’s lives. They have to decide how they’re going to respond to his challenge to their lives. And the cross is a moment of crisis or judgement for our whole value system. It turns upside down the normal values of our society and the normal measures of success and failure.
Paul sees all human experience as a struggle between the unspiritual side of human nature - our physical needs and appetites - and more other-worldly impulses and aspirations, our spiritual calling. In this he is only following the thinking of the majority of the thinkers and philosophers of his time. And perhaps not so much has changed. There is a widespread view today that human nature is governed by our selfish genes, the difference being that allowing our human nature to dictate our behaviour is no longer seen as necessarily a bad thing to do.
Paul feels that if we give in to our human desires the inevitable outcome will be drunkenness, sexual licence, quarreling and jealousy. But today people are more likely to feel that giving in to our desires, and doing what we really want to do, might make us happier and more contented, and therefore more at peace with our neighbours and our families, and more useful members of society.
I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. Much harm was done at various times in history when Christians took the advice of St Paul too much to heart and veered towards a harsh and unbending sort of puritanism. On the other hand, no society can function well if the majority of people think only about their own pleasure and don’t care about anyone else.
Fortunately, Paul offers us an excellent and enduring yardstick for assessing whether our behaviour is spiritual or not, whether it is the right response to the time of crisis or falls short and finds us wanting. And that yardstick is love.
Paul is the kind of person who would subscribe to Shakespeare's advice, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loseth both itself and friend.’
Like Shakespeare, he certainly wouldn’t have subscribed to the consumer society. But in one respect only he believes in open-handed generosity, and that is when it comes to love.
I think the Revised English Bible over-translates St Paul’s terse observation - trying to make rather more of it than is really there. St Paul actually says something like, ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another.’ But that doesn’t quite make sense, does it? It could seem to imply that it’s all right for Christians to receive love from others without actually giving it in return. That’s clearly not right, so the Revised English Bible supplies a more acceptable meaning: ‘Remember the debt of love you owe one another.’
However, as one New Testament professor has put it, St Paul’s real meaning is probably that there’s no balance sheet when it comes to love. We are just supposed to keep on giving, without taking into account how much we have received. And, in any case, loving other people means accepting them and opening ourselves up them to such an extent that we are ready both to give and to receive at the same time, instead of being stand-offish, or reserved, or self-contained. Love is about sharing.
Long after the time of Paul, St Augustine tried to sum up what Paul means here in the memorable phrase, ‘If you love, you can do as you like.’ Paul himself seems to be quoting the teaching of Jesus, that all the commandments can be summed up in just two, to love God and our neighbour as much as we love ourselves. Except that, interestingly, Paul overlooks the bit about loving God.
Paul is saying that - properly understood - there isn’t any conflict between self-fulfilment and Christianity. We can and should pursue our own well-being. We can and should try to make the most of life. We can and should love and care about ourselves. But this will teeter over into self-indulgence and become negative and unsatisfying if we forget that we must also love other people as much as we love ourselves.
The challenge which meeting Jesus throws down, in Paul’s view, is the challenge to consider what sort of celebration should mark the moment of truth, or the hour of crisis in our lives. Is it the opportunity for a desperate and dissolute round of party-going or should it be the signal for an out-pouring of genuine generosity, of loving and sharing with our neighbours?
Matthew’s Gospel tries, to explain, here in today’s passage, how we should deal with circumstances where loving our neighbours doesn’t seem to do quite enough to put things right between us. Suppose we feel that they have gone too far, and done something of which we really must entirely disapprove? Suppose the relationship between us has completely broken down? Loving the other person in some vagues, wishy-washy way isn’t going to put things right between us, is it, even if we feel that we want to put things right.
The passage that goes before this advice is the story of the lost sheep. Is Matthew commenting here on what the parable means for our day-to-day practice? Or is Jesus still speaking directly to us?
Either way, the advice we’re given is to try to repair the damage when relationships get broken down. Brothers and sisters inevitably do fall out with one another, but that breakdown need not be irretrievable.
ACAS, the government’s Advisory, Conciliaton and Arbitration Service for employers and employees, has a set of guidelines which have borrowed Matthew’s solution almost word for word. We are to start by trying to sort things out informally. Most problems can be resolved that way, says ACAS. Failing that we have to hold a formal meeting, where evidence is kept and witness statements come into play, or where perhaps we get someone in to arbitrate or conciliate between us, to see if we can agree a way forward. And only failing that do we need to take our disputes to a tribunal and sort them out the hard way.
That’s pretty much Matthew’s advice about how to deal with disputes within the church family, except that he adds a vital extra ingredient. Jesus will be there with us, helping us to decide things fairly and reasonably, and with love. And if we open ourselves to the real presence of Jesus, even in our disputes, then what we decide will be endorsed in the court of heaven.
Can a moment of crisis in our relationships be turned, then, into an opportunity for personal growth and discovery? Can self-giving love conquer all? Can the quarrels and petty jealousies of life in community be smoothed over? Can we find personal fulfilment in giving as well as in receiving, in opening ourselves up to other people as well as in voyages of personal discovery? When Jesus is in the midst of us, we can.