s033o99 Somerton Park 30/5/99 Trinity Sunday

"The LORD passed before (Moses), and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." Exodus 34:6-7.

God here does not complete the words of the commandment, originally given in Ex 20.5: "You shall not bow down to ... (idols); for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents ... WHO REJECT ME ..." (Exodus 20:5). I wouldn't worship a god who punished my children, my grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren, for some small transgression I made - I've already made enough of them. I think I would rather kill myself than live life under such a threat.

I know people who question and deny the existence of God, and yet try to live charitable lives. I can well understand those who experienced the holocaust or of being a PoW in World War 2, having a good deal of justification for not believing in God. When there is little or no evidence of humanity acting charitably toward one another - how can one postulate a loving God, except as a last resort - and who is therefore of little or no earthly use to anyone? If people find little or no evidence of a loving God - then surely they cannot be blamed for rejecting the "god" presented to them. If they only experience God as threatening, I wouldn't blame anyone one little bit.

Recently there has been an ARCIC agreement on the nature of authority between the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions. It is called: "The Gift of Authority" and it - I suppose most controversially - talks about the Pope in these terms:

* a universal primacy, exercised collegially in the context of synodality, as integral to episcope at the service of universal communion; such a primacy having always been associated with the Bishop and see of Rome;

* how the ministry of the Bishop of Rome assists the ministry of the whole episcopal body in the context of synodality, promoting the communion of the local churches in their life in Christ and the proclamation of the gospel; and how the Bishop of Rome offers a specific ministry concerning the discernment of truth.

(from the "Church Times" website)

I guess I look at any exercise of authority, be it by Pope, Archbishop, clergy from the pulpit, or influential lay people - with a good deal of suspicion. It is a universal human trait to want authority for ourselves, over others. Or else the opposite failing is to want simply to follow orders - it's easier than thinking for ourselves. So we can look for someone else to supply rules and regulations by which to live our lives.

It is a waste of energy to replace one authority with another - the world is full of people who want to exercise authority over others. Be it Pope, others backed up by Ordination, the Bible, their personal experience of Church, conversion, precedent, the "good old days" or the Holy Spirit. More often than not, in effect, authority serves to put (other) people down.

I think that it is important to see that "authority" often seems to run counter to "grace"; and that this polarity can be seen, even from the time of Moses.

In the first reading we hear of strict regulations about the sacredness even of the mountain of God; those who came up to look would perish (Ex 19.21). The whole lesson seems to be about God's rules, regulations and unapproachableness, which God lays upon the people of Israel, that even Moses is afraid. He "quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped." (Ex 34:8). Yet in the midst of all this awe inspiring demonstration of the power and authority of God, God proclaims: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin."

It is important to see that this polarity exists in sacred scripture, and therefore repeated recourse to the words of the Bible will not necessarily save us from conflicting pictures of God.

Yet I think that it is instructive to see that this awesome display of God's authority is put right next to that ultimate statement of grace: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin." God underlines in every way possible God's mercy and love and forgiveness. There can be no more important message.

And therefore the first and only message that we as the Church communicate, with all the authority we can muster, is similarly God's mercy and love and forgiveness.

And if we as the Church don't communicate, with all the authority we can muster, a God of mercy and love and forgiveness, then perhaps it is we who could be charged with having rejecting God as God really is? And if it is us who have rejected the mercy, love and forgiveness of God, knowing what we know - Jesus on the Cross - and therefore in the positions of power that we occupy - then perhaps that will indeed have it's implications for generations to come.

St Paul also uses all the authority at his command to press home the same point when he says: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined ... And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified." (Ro 8.29-30) It is not that individuals are foreknown, then predestined, later called, later still justified, and (perhaps) finally glorified. It is not a process of one after the other. One can't look at another person and say "they're foreknown and predestined, but they are yet to be called, justified and glorified". They're all one and the same thing. It's all about love, and putting it within the immediate context of his other words, we read St Paul saying: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God" (vs 28) and "He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all" (vs 32). God can and does do these things even for people we do not think of as disciples. For that is what a merciful, loving and forgiving God would do.

We might notice that the gospel reading tells us that the eleven disciples met Jesus at the mountain in Galilee, and that they are then sent to all the nations. As I was pondering on these words, I wondered how much this reflects a turning away from Jerusalem - a rejection of Jerusalem which had rejected him. And of course I do not mean here, a turning away from the ancient people of God - it as much applies to us - a rejection of each and every organised religion which fails to appreciate and communicate the loving kindness, forgiveness and love of God for all people.

Recently the readings for morning prayer have been taken from the book of the prophet Jonah, and it is easy to dismiss the message of the book as a quaint but improbable tale, primarily about the actions of a whale. The real message of the book is to put before us the lengths organised religion, personified in Jonah, will go to avoid communicating the message of the loving kindness, forgiveness and love of God for all people to others. Jonah 4.1, 2 tell us that the fact that God relented and did not bring upon the people of Nineveh the calamity he had planned "was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing."" Indeed repeatedly he asks God to die! (4.3,8,9).

It is important then that each and every source of authority in the Church - the authority of Christ and the "Amen" of believers, scripture, tradition, bishops, Synods, and Popes - all proclaim this one thing, "that the LORD ...(is) ... a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" - towards all people. Otherwise I fear, considerations of "indefectibility" of the Church, the "infallibly" of the Pope (or whether Jonah was indeed rescued by a real whale) are largely academic, and possibly a "fleeing to Tarshish" too.

The mountain of God, be it the real one that Moses was briefly allowed to ascend, or the metaphorical one that organised religion seems to offer people ropes to climb - is no place for any human. Our place is ever to be amongst people, sharing the loving kindness, forgiveness and love of God for all. Amen.

 

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