s171e01 Somerton Park Epiphany 4 28/1/01
"God is patient ... God does not insist on his / her own way ... God believes in us ... then we will see face to face ..." 1 Cor 13.4,5,7,12
The thirteenth chapter of the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians is deservedly one of the best loved chapters in the Bible. It has been read at innumerable weddings down throughout the centuries, along with innumerable other types of occasions, and so, as the townsfolk of Jesus home town found, familiarity breads contempt - so we can easily gloss over some really quite remarkable statements that St Paul makes. I pick out these particular four.
The words are in praise of love, and therefore by definition, they are in praise of God. If we are bidden to love, we can only be bidden to imitate that which God already does perfectly.
Firstly: If love is patient, God is perfectly patient. We can but attempt to imitate the patience of God. None of us can be God however. Commending patience to another in the midst of the other's great tribulation is no balm whatsoever. God is patient with us, that is God's nature. God is not begrudgingly patient. The debtors plead with those to whom they owe money, to give them time and they would pay back the whole sum that they owe. God's patience is not patience waiting to be repaid. That sort of patience is little different from torture, and is often self inflicted. No. God's patience is to forgive the entire debt.
Secondly: Love does not insist on it's own way and therefore God does not insist on his / her own way. This is a truly remarkable statement, bordering on the heretical. At the very least this is a very useful corrective to the "narrow" interpretation of Jesus' words: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. (Mt 7:13) Whatever the narrow gate is, it can't be there to exclude as many people as possible - all those who travel through life on a path God insists we shouldn't take.
So, while it is obvious that God cannot give grace to help us rob a bank or otherwise defraud our neighbour, there are many ways into the kingdom. We have been given a real autonomy, to make of life as much or as little as we choose. We are not put into straight jackets: To one: You will be a priest. To another: You will be a missionary. To another: You will be a nurse. To another: You will be a labourer. To one: You will be married, to another: you will be single. Everyone can serve the Lord in what ever state of life they find themselves - for we serve the Lord by being open to the beauty in those around us.
As an aside, how often do we view the liturgy as something so sacred that it has to be done in a particular way? I have heard this implied so often, particularly in Anglican circles, it has almost become a matter of faith. And it is not just the high church - the low church have as much "non-ritual" as the high have ritual, and just as rigid. I have occasionally taken the opportunity to attend services in other denominations while I was on holidays. It was extremely interesting. In one, the order of the service went: children's talk, notices, offering, communion, & sermon. It was all there but in rather a different order to what we are used to. The hymns were of the chorus variety. The make up of the congregation was (in my estimation) precisely the same as ours - a preponderance of elderly, and a number of families with young children. This for me, puts to rest the myth that choruses attract the young people. Some people are attracted by choruses, others by traditional hymns. While we have a set form of service, following the book, that is no more sacred than any other form. It is just that we are comfortable with the liturgy done this way, and most often we do the important thing, our own praying, while the liturgy happens around us, and we are completely oblivious to it.
God does not insist on his / her own way. If perchance there was a proper way of doing the liturgy - God's way - then God would not insist on it anyway.
Thirdly: God believes in us. Isn't this a wonderful and empowering statement. Again the Church has tried to force people, cajole people, exhort people, convert people, threaten people - to believe in God. The good news is that God believes in us, as we are.
We all shy away from perfection. I have no personal interest whatsoever in becoming morally perfect. Catherine will testify that there is little likelihood of that anyway! Yet I will break all the rules in an effort to be a perfect father for my boys - to try to express my belief in them and to encourage them in their chosen fields of interest. I am not sure I achieve even this very satisfactorily.
This is the sort of belief that God has for us. None of us have or had parents that approached this ideal any better than others, so sometimes our picture of the parenthood of God is distorted by the picture we have of our own parents and their deficiencies.
Fourthly: then we shall see face to face. Somewhere, ages ago, I read a comment one theologian made of another theologian's attempt to reconstruct a true picture of the historical Jesus - I think it was a comment about liberal protestantism - but whatever it was really doesn't matter. (I would be very grateful to find the source of it - if anyone can enlighten me.) It went something like, in this theologian's estimation, the Jesus of liberal protestantism, was like looking down a deep well, and as they peered back down through the centuries to reclaim a true picture of the "real" Jesus, it was only to find their own distant reflection gazing back at them. The reality of life is that this is always true and for everyone. It is what St Paul tells us - now we see in a mirror dimly. These days we are blessed with very high precision flat mirrors which show undistorted images, but such was not the case in biblical times. What we see in a mirror is ourselves - God in us.
The famous monk H. A. Williams I think (- again I've lost the reference - and would be very grateful to find it) put it this way: We find God in ourselves or not at all. This is what is so tragic about a Church spending it's time telling people what they should or shouldn't do, what they should or shouldn't believe, instead of seeing the good in all and how they can contribute to society. In doing so the Church effectively hinders people seeing God in themselves.
For God's blessings are not just for us ...
It is a salutary lesson to read in the gospel story for today that the folk of Jesus' own home town of Nazareth tried to murder Jesus rather than hear the teaching that God's blessing extended to their neighbours, even Jesus' biblical justification for it! We are so used to the story of the cross and resurrection and the political machinations of the scribes, priests, Pharisees, Sadducees and the Herodians - the people we usually ascribe nefarious activities to - those in authority - the power brokers and high flyers in society. Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that he received a hostile reception at Nazareth - the ordinary people in a small synagogue in out of the way Nazareth. Thee were no priests there! However it is St Luke who tells us that a first attempt on Jesus' life was by the very people he grew up with - all the members of the synagogue where he had attended all his life! They could name his parents and his brothers and sisters! Ordinary religious people wanted to hurl him off the cliff, for saying that God cared for the surrounding nations enough to send the prophets to them.
They wanted Jesus for themselves, to bask in the reflected glory that one of their own made good. They had their own agenda for Jesus - and, surprise, surprise, it was a rather different agenda from his own. I wonder if the same reasoning is behind that rather odd dialogue Jesus had with his mother when she complained about the lack of wine to Jesus at the wedding in the gospel story of two weeks ago. (John 2:3-5) Did Mary want to show off her son to her friends and acquaintances? To bask in his reflected glory? There is nothing wrong with basking in reflected glory, except that the glory (and the forgiveness) is for all.
So the things I spoke about God are true for all other people: "God is patient with us and with all other people ... God does not insist on his / her own way for us and for others too ... God believes in us and others ... then we and they will see face to face ..."
We murder Jesus when we fail to see the good in others, whoever they are, whatever their faith or lack thereof, whatever they have done or not done in their lives, and whoever they have chosen to relate to in an intimate way.
For God has got time, for the world is in God's hands and the outcome is assured. My final message for today is something that reinforces all this. Sometimes I have got the impression that one way parts of the Church have used to cajole people into conforming has been the threat - God's about to wind it all up, if you don't now, it may be too late! As I read these words of St Paul, amidst all the changes and chances of a fleeting world, I have confidence that any such threats are completely inappropriate. As I am patient with others, as I do not insist on my own way, as I believe in others, I and they will come to that vision glorious, when I will see how God has used me as well as how God has used others. And that is really something to look forward to.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.