Today I would like to focus on the experience of the crowd in our gospel, and I would like to link it to the incredible passage we heard in our second reading. I think this section of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the most profound in all his letters. We get a real window into his soul, into how he understands his relationship with God. But first our gospel.
When we hear our gospel, we are presented with a scene that recurs throughout the scriptures. It is one that we have looked at previously. It is the separation of us and them. It is the attempt to point the finger at others, without realising that we are pointing at ourselves. We see the crowd using the woman to try to trick Jesus. Not only are they acting illegally because they have not read the law closely enough, they are also not even thinking about the woman. They are using her. She is just a means to their ends. She is not one of them, and so they cannot see themselves in her predicament. There is no sense of identification; and therefore the possibility of a just judgment, let alone the possibility of mercy, has already been ruled out.
As Jesus does in the parable of the Good Samaritan, as Jesus does when he asks the disciples who people say is, as Jesus does in front of Pilate and the Sanhedrin, Jesus reverses the perspective. The crowd now finds itself caught by the spotlight that they were trying to shine on the woman. And as we all hear, the spotlight is too much. They all begin to exit.
But: there must be more to this story? What happens next? When the crowd turns into a bunch of individuals, what is going through their heads?
We assume that each of the people in the crowd begin to remember their own failings. Each of them begins to identify with the woman. But what does this identification mean? Do they now see themselves in the circle of shame? Do they now see that there but for the grace of God go I? Do they simply go home, hoping no-one knows what they have done? Or is there more to it than that?
This is where our second reading really fleshes out the picture. If we think about it, the gospel describes a scene that St Paul knows all too well. We have a person accused of a capital offence and a crowd demanding blood. This is exactly what happens to St Stephen. Even though we know St Stephen is innocent when we proclaims Jesus as the Christ standing at the right hand of the Father, the crowd accuses him of blasphemy and they kill him for it. And St Paul is there among the crowd and he approves of it. St Paul then finds himself in the situation not only of the crowd in our gospel, but actually in a worse situation. Whereas the woman might be guilty, St Stephen is innocent. Whereas in the gospel the crowd walks away, St Stephen actually gets stoned.
And, as we know, instead of Jesus saying to the crowd, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Jesus says to St Paul, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? God accuses St Paul of persecution. How do you come back from that? Do you slink away? Do you hope no-one finds out? Do you give up on life knowing the evil that you have committed or cooperated in? Seriously, how do you come back from that?
That is what is so utterly remarkable about our second reading. Not only is St Paul not slinking away hoping no-one finds out, he is in fact way ahead of the crowd. Not only does he now realise the extent of his sins, not only does he now recognise St Stephen as a brother, he has gone so far beyond this to understand that the only real truth is how God sees him. And God sees him as worth dying for. Notwithstanding that he has actively tried to persecute God and his church, God has singled him out for an immense mission. God has entrusted the message of God’s love for all humanity to St Paul. As St Paul says elsewhere, God chose me to show that no-one should give up. If I can come back from this, then everyone can come back through the power of God’s love.
This is what we need to realise ourselves. This is where each one of us needs to get to in Holy Week, because this is the ultimate truth of our lives. Each one of us needs to be able to make this second reading our own. These are the words of someone who has come to know the one who loves him, and loves him beyond all telling. This is a love that knows all our weakness, our sins and our fears, and comes to be with us anyway. St Paul has caught a glimpse of who he is to Christ and there is no better vision. He wants to be as Jesus loves him.
This then is the new thing we hear about in our first reading. When we know this love in our own lives, we become witnesses to this pattern. We can talk about the Exodus from death to life because we know it. We can talk about the return home from exile because we know it. We can talk about the joy of being forgiven, of being reconciled to God, of being called to share in God’s banquet of love, because we know it. God is doing this new thing with each one of us, because that is who God is. God with us, the hope of glory.
Let’s pray then this Lent that we may come to Easter with the joy of minds made pure. So pure that we reflect God’s love like St Paul. That we may know that love so deeply like St Paul that it begins to shine out of us and onto the world. May we too count everything else as so much rubbish if we can but know Christ and the power of his resurrection and share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death.