Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Question of the Balls: When Culinary and Theological Problems Converge

I wanted to make a Simnel Cake. I'm one of those people for whom all major, and most minor festivals of family or church call for cake, so the thought of going through a Mothering Sunday to Easter period without a Simnel cake was slightly unsettling.  For one reason and another, the Simnel cake didn't actually happen until early in the morning of Easter Monday, by which time  I'd read, in between church celebrations and family celebrations on Easter Sunday, St John Chryostom's Easter Sermon in which the generous-spirited, red-hot zealot avenging-angel fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople throws open the doors to God's party as widely as possible. 'Come, you who have kept the fast, and those who have not' he calls down the ages to us; come, regardless of whether you have abstained your way through Lent and been at every Bible study your church has laid on, and come, those of you wandering emptily around on a Sunday morning, wondering what all that noise is in there. All are welcomed, all are loved. There is a place for you here.

It was in the spirit of this largess of grace on Easter Monday that I finally got around to making my Simnel cake. I make one every year, and every year ponder that culinary-theological problem: how many balls? Some years I've had eleven, some twelve. I might have had thirteen once. This year, though, as the Easter message of God's unconditional welcome of all people to his heavenly party stirred in me (and it was quite early in the morning), I deliberately decided not to count the balls at all this year, but rather to cover the cake with as many marzipan balls as I could cram onto it. 'Come, those of you who deserve to be part of this, who laid the table and put the chairs out and know what a precious party you are at,' I thought as I stuck the little balls on, 'and come, those of you who know you don't, who have no idea what's going on but are drawn in anyway. Come, those of you who've been part of this forever, and come, those of you who will come at some point, when you're ready, who know somewhere deep in your damaged souls that love is real.'

The cake was delicious. But my theologically optimistic take on the balls problem neatly solved the underlying question: what do we do with Judas? Is he persona non grata at this party table, or is he allowed back somehow, and if so, how does that work, since the Bible doesn't give us a great deal of hope for Judas's personal restitution in the same way that it does for Peter?After all, whether he commits suicide (as in Matthew's Gospel) or dies in a horrific freak accident lade with poetic justice (as in Acts), he ends up dead.  

This leads me to today, the feast of St Matthias, for which I haven't made a cake. Matthias was chosen, as Acts 1:12-26 narrates, to  'take the place', or, as some manuscripts have it, the 'share' of Judas's ministry as an apostle (Acts 1:25). Both variations suggest that Matthias takes Judas' place at the table; he sits where Judas would have sat, were it not for his fatal flaw that drove him on him to betray Jesus. After that, in the busily populated dramatis personae of Acts, Matthias is heard of no more. What happened to him? What did he do? Why does he fade into obscurity so instantly after his installation as one of the twelve?

Luke doesn't say, so we don't know. Maybe, say some readers of Acts, it is somehow imperative for the twelve to become the twelve again, so that Matthias' presence is more symbolic than effectual in any way. Maybe he's a false start, the hastily ushered-on stand-in until the real twelfth apostle, Paul, bursts on to the scene. I don't think that's true for one moment. Luke is much too crafted, much too sophisticated a novelist to blunder about with extraneous characters. Moreover, Luke's sense of the importance of the order of his story, is paramount (Lk 1:3). As he begins Part Two of his bestseller, details unfold just in beautiful plotline.

This isn't, of course, just any bestseller; this is the story of the life of Jesus himself, the God-man in whose body heaven and earth fused together. And Part One of Luke's story, his Gospel, leads us with Jesus to Jerusalem and the dramatic climax of this tale of all tales; the agony and betrayal of the cross and the glorious liberation of the rising again of Jesus from  death. Part Two (Acts) picks up more or less where Part On left off, but rather than simply going on to tell the next parts of the story, something very profound happens; the order of events starts to reverse. From the upper room in Jerusalem, the people of Jesus are compelled out in every direction, with Paul eventually heading for Rome and, by implication, his own death at the end of Acts.  (This is a highly influential, and excellent, study of how Luke-Acts hangs together as a two-part literary work). Just hear the dramatic irony in the words of the mob who are out to lynch Paul and Silas in Thessalonica; 'these people...turning the world upside down' (Acts 17:6). This isn't literary flourish; this is theological reality. Because what God has done for the world in Jesus is a complete game-changer for the world, things are turned upside down. Or maybe back-to-front. Or maybe inside-out. What was heading in one direction turns on its heels, like Paul on the road to Damascus, and starts travelling back the opposite way.

Early Christians were so keenly aware of this 'upside-downness' of the world that they coined a term for it: recapitulation. What was lost, was now found. What was dead, is now alive. This stretched back all the way through human history, engulfing and transforming the whole of everything so that Irenaeus, a bishop in the second century, talked about the obedient virgin Mary 'recapitulating' the sins of the disobedient virgin Eve (here). This isn't to say that Mary saves Eve in the same way that Jesus saves people; it's to say that because the death of Jesus the focal point of all time so that a new history is created, in which time becomes symmetrically displayed either side of the cross like a child's splodgily painted symmetrical butterfly, and what was lost on one side of the symmetrical pattern is found on the other; what was dead on one side is alive on the other.

So, Matthias says yes to Jesus, and in the carefully constructed narrative of Luke-Acts, perfectly mirrors Judas's  'no' to him. If that weren't already discernible within this world turned upside down,  Luke tells us everything we need to know about Matthias in Acts 1:25; he takes the place of Judas. His obedience recapitulates Juads' disobedience. Restitution is made real within the community of faith, admittedly not within Juads' lifetime; but then, Luke's vision of this putting right of all things spans generations and embraces all anyway, so maybe that matters not quite as much as w might think it should.

And what of us, in our lives and across our generations? If this story is true, if it is being lived out by the same community of faith today, then maybe the message of hope on St Matthias' day is that restitution, recapitulation, the putting right of wrongs,  is part of the pattern of this upside-down world of faith. It may or may not occur within the lives of those immediately affected, but from heaven's perspective, maybe that doesn't matter quite as much as we think it should, much though God cares for the weak and the vulnerable, as Luke tells us often. What really matters is that his restitution happens within the community of God's people, who themselves go on into a future in which finally, God 'will have the world judged in righteousness' (Act 17:31). many balls should I have put on, I wonder?

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