Through the Bible in a Year – May 23rd

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Sa 15-16; Jas 2-3; Psalm 32

‘Do not look on his appearance . . . the LORD does not see as mortals see, the LORD looks on the heart’

Certainly here is one of the pivotal incidents in the Old Testament narrative, the anointing of David as King over Israel.

The story of David in many regards dwarfs the Old Testament and of course its ripples comfortably traverse the 400 year ‘silence’ of the inter testamental period. So that Jesus is proclaimed by some as ‘Son of David’. The hopes for the restoration of the Davidic line, the Messianic fervour runs all the way through to the Gospel announcements.

However it is full of what to our tidy minds are ambiguities and challenges to us.

First of course there is the story of David himself. We may well be left asking, if the LORD looks on the heart, does he not see David’s fall from grace? Of course this story is more than echoed in Jesus’ call of the disciples, especially Peter and Judas . . .

And then the stunning challenge to us, the the LORD does not see as we do. How often we look on the externals of a person, their education, their knowledge, their family life in order to judge who might well lead the flock of God. But can we really see into the heart? Of course we like to think that we can. We readily reduce people to what we think is their essence, for judging them is surely this. But can we see the heart?

I think not

This story should give us much pause. If the family of David cannot perceive his heart, how can such judgement be made? If the LORD sees the heart of David and yet still calls him to kingship, what does that say of such calling?

. . . your father is merciful

Just this week, this story from the UK caught my attention, if only for the stark quality of the reporting of the offences and the judgement. It’s worth reading if only to realise that we do not live in a world marked by the quality of mercy.

Chris Huhn and Vicky Price have done wrong, inarguably – ‘THEREFORE they must pay the price’.

It is the remorseless logic of this Sequitur that the Law demands. Judgement without mercy.

Recently I’ve taken much time to consider Peter. In some respects he is my patron Saint – with his at times almost comedic attempts to get it right and his lack of the classic virtues. Lent, when we look at the reality of our lives is a time I keep coming back to Peter.

Of course we all know of Peter’s gravest error, that he denies Jesus three times. The early church agonised for years over those who publicly disowned Jesus when faced with the possibility of death. Thus revealing that the denial is not to be dismissed as some adolescent overexuberance on the Chief Apostle’s part. Jesus’ restoration of Peter is no mere pat on the head, understanding ‘that we all make mistakes’. This is a Grave offence. Which reveals that Jesus’ actions towards Peter as in our terms frankly scandalous.

However much we try and psychologise the interchange between Jesus and Peter – ‘of course he had punished himself enough’- the fact is that there is NO punishment. Most interestingly Jesus does not even demote him. Jesus knows he cannot trust Peter, but then he knows what is in a man. He appointed him knowing he would fail him. And having asked ‘are you still on board? Are you still following?’ – reinstates him to his position of Chief Shepherd – he doesn’t even take away the privelege of martyrdom, which Peter has scorned.

What is clearly not central here are Peter’s quality as a leader, however much many ‘biblical sermon series on heroes of faith’ try and project our Ideals onto this and other frail humans. As has been remarked over and over again, by our criteria Jesus’ choice of those who will carry his mission into the world makes no sense at all.

WE would chose better, and having made such judgements, the price of failure, of not being what Our judgement had suggested those chosen actually were, would be demotion. What church leader, when fallen from Grace, is reinstated? The judgement of those who called him, or her, are shown to be faulty . . . the chosen one pays the price. Our failure of judgement is laid on the one we called.

No, what is central is not a quality in Peter. Jesus hasn’t seen something in Peter which we could see as well if only we tried hard enough. No. What is Central – indeed the only thing that matters is the call of Jesus. That is all. Peter IS unqualified – that is clear and only becomes more so. His only qualification that matters is the call of Jesus, and this endures after all the other ‘qualifications’ are shown to be straw.

In the case of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce, there is no reinstatement for ‘the guilty pair’ – no-one says to them ‘neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin’. All there is is the remorseless logic of the law, tempered by . . . nothing. They had high office, we expected better, they must pay the price . . . Of course as the elections in the Vatican remind us, Peter’s office was even higher

At the heart of the Christian faith is a dead Jew on a Roman Cross. In just a few days now we will stand before this cross. Perhaps for the first time today, one of the most significant messages that the Cross of Christ conveys to the World struck me. That is that Judgement itself is Judged and found utterly wanting. The death of the one who had no sin, for all its metaphysical overtones, in its starkness reveals that human judgement is itself only an instrument of death. That the only one who is not worthy of death is judged to be worthy of death by the world, says everything.

Of course, if Christians started to truly treat one another with the sort of mercy that Jesus showed Peter – reinstating fallen leaders, throwing parties for Prodigals, then of course we would in all likelihood lose much if not all of our credibility in the world.

But then when you think about it, the idea that the Creator of the Universe hangs on a Cross, to reveal his utter mercy. That on the third day he rose from the dead and began the work of reinstating and restoring all those who had so publicly humiliated him – is itself not credible. Perhaps that’s why we continue to judge and so be judged. We don’t really believe, that it’s true. ‘People Do need to be punished, they must pay the price’. We don’t believe the fundamental doctrine of our faith, the Jesus has paid the price.

If it really IS true however that the Chosen one pays the Price – then perhaps we might see the world differently. If the punishment Has really been laid on Him, then Jesus’ re-instatement of Peter is actually not the most incredible thing – rather the Divine Sequitur of mercy is the only possible response. It’s all that’s left. The price has been paid.

Through the Bible in a Year – March 6

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 10-11; Romans 15-16; Psalm 81-2

Paul, physician of the soul that he is, goes on in Chapter 15 to expose the underlying desire that prompts members of the community of faith to judge one another. ‘To please themselves’ Rather than judging the neighbour, as the pharisee did the tax collector, and thus justify or please ourselves, our aim should be to please our neighbour – to build him or her up in faith.

The walk of faith is hard enough without our judging one another, and anyone who does not realise this has not yet perceived the truth of what it is to be a disciple of Christ. Hard and narrow is the way – as believers we should not have the energy spare to judge one another, and knowing our own weakness and difficulty in following in obedience, every encounter with a brother and sister should be similar to that of the Samaritan and the man who fell amongst thieves – that of pity and helping them.

The root of the difficulty of following Christ in obedience is in a sense exposed in the strange incidents involving Aaron’s sons. Nadab and Abihu ‘play with fire’ – whether in ignorance or not we are not told – and they are consumed by fire. Later Moses, clearly struggling to see how he can lead this people in the way of a God, whose holiness seems so utterly Other that it is impossible to respond to faithfully, berates Aaron for allowing his sons to burn an offering which they should have consumed. Aaron however points out that the ways of God are so strange to him, that he acted as it were out of weakness. The parallels with the situation in the church in Rome are I think striking here.

Moses is confronted with Aaron’s struggle to walk in faith, to get it right. ‘Given all that has befallen me today’ Aaron says, ‘If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been acceptable to the LORD?’ And when Moses heard that he agreed.

Aaron is struggling, it is very early days in the walk of Israel with the LORD.

Here we see the principle of not judging the weaker brethren in action. Moses realises that it is not his role as the leader of the community to make what already seems an incredibly difficult path, even more so – that he should not lay heavy burdens on his brother.

If it is so hard – as it was for the disciples (Peter and the rest leap to mind) in the immediate presence of God and his Holy presence – do we not realise how difficult our walk is? And thus learn to be merciful? TO imitate the one who does not put out a smouldering wick, or break a bruised reed.

In the End, it is perfection in Love that will drive out Fear.

The ‘Jesus prayer’ is always the most appropriate for us – ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner . . . ‘, and on all my brothers and sisters in faith’

‘but they are like the Angels . . .’

Angel, coming into Being . . . ‘Now and not yet’ . . .

In the encounter of Jesus with the Saducees, He is told a story about a woman who had seven husbands, and then is asked,’at the resurrection of the dead, whose wife will she be?’.

Jesus tells them that they have no idea of the significance of the resurrection, or indeed marriage . . . but another time

What must be understood, is that the Kingdom IS amongst us. In and through the risen Christ it already is and also shall be, and that here and there we see signs of ‘heaven’. Put another way, there are those who live amongst us as angels – sometimes. That is, we may not know such people amongst us, and/or they live thus only for brief moments – their lives giving us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

What triggered this post is a story I have spoken about told in the Orthodox tradition. In it, a woman is in Hell. The Angels, whose every desire is to pull her out of Hell search the record of her life for just One act of love. Finally, they discover that once a passing stranger called at her door, hungry and asking her for food. She, rather grumpily it must be said, went to her cupboard, found an old onion and threw it to him, telling him to be gone.

There in that, the smallest of acts, with only the faintest echo of grace, the angels found their chance. And so took the onion which had a long stalk, and lowered it down into Hell, so to rescue the woman and save her . . . Well the rest of the rather sorry story can be found here

But what has come home to me these past days, is how Unlike the angels we are as yet. THEY anxiously seek for ONE flicker of light and life, ONE sign of Grace, ONE echo of the life of God and latch onto it. ‘Yes!’ they say ‘There!!’ There is a sign that the Goodness of God is present in that person, and so gently and carefully summon it further into Life, as they so carefully sought to draw the woman out of Hell.

So often we are NOT at all like the angels. Our view is So distorted that all we can see is their faults – to the point where we, utterly perversely Deny any goodness, any attempt to live in the Light. We see the splinter in the eye – it becomes our entire focus. We are not desperate that they should be drawn out of Hell. We are not like them, we are not searching anxiously for ONE sign of grace, however weak, however is comes from the wrong place. How unlike children of God, who will go to any length to save us.

He waits, He Watches, and he Runs for the Prodigal who has blown it all – who in human terms has no way back and he knows it – who comes crawling back because he is hungry, who is even now trying to manipulate the Father, who knowing this full well, doesn’t merely accede to his request to be a hired hand, he throws a party for him. In this the feeblest of returns home, the Grace of the Father is Overwhelming

Jesus, continually heals our sight, would we allow it. He teaches us to see as He sees, as the angels see, as the Father sees – constantly on the look out for signs of Life – anxious and ready to Save at the smallest flicker. Let us pray for that same grace, that we might truly be children of our heavenly father, ‘who desirest not the death of a sinner’. Let us be on the look out Night And Day for signs of Grace. And let us eagerly greet and encourage them, even the smallest Hint of Life, even from the very Worst of motives, like those angels with the woman, Like the Father with the child.

And let us pray that the Lord, who will not put out a smouldering wick, will also grant those around US, Grace to see us likewise.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain Mercy’