Friday, February 12, 2010

The Steadfast Love of God

Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5.1-11

Psalm 138 belongs to a time when the people of Israel still saw their God as simply the best and greatest of a whole pantheon of competing gods. Israel's God stands out from the crowd because of his steadfast love and faithfulness. In the mythology of other gods, they tend to have very human faults and failings, but although human beings are made in the image of Israel's God, he is exalted far above all human frailty. He is characterised by the very best things which human beings aspire to - steadfastness, love and faithfulness. But the flip side of human nature is entirely absent from his being.

Israel's God is quick to answer when we call upon him. He strengthens us with his gifts of grace and power. Unlike all the other gods, who were effectively just the patron saints of a particular nation, Israel's God has a universal appeal and lays claim to the allegiance of every nation. But, although the glory of Israel's God far outshines all other gods, there is a special place in his affections for the lowly, he is a God with a bias to the poor. So, although kings praise him, he keeps the haughty and proud at arm's length.

Finally, this is a God who is concerned not about his own status, and the amount of praise and glory that he can garner to himself, but about the well-being of his worshippers. He has a loving purpose for his followers. They matter to him, and he's a real help to them in times of trouble. When they need rescue, he reaches out his hand to deliver them.

This, then, is a God with a political agenda - a God who wants the powerful to honour him not just with empty words and rituals, but by giving practical support to those in need. And, taken literally, this is a God who intervenes to help earthquake victims. He doesn't just direct the rescuers searching through the rubble of the tourist hotels and the United Nations' headquarters or the President's palace. He cares intimately for every last victim trapped under the rubble of the collapsed shanty towns or left hungry and destitute. He does not give up because of the immensity of the task, or permit his followers to do so. He expects us to identify with him by sharing in the work of preserving and delivering his people from trouble, and his powerful right hand strengthens us for the task.

Paul takes this good news to a new level. The God he talks about is not just the greatest god in the pantheon, but the only God and, more over, he is a God who identifies even more closely with humankind than the Psalmist had dared to suppose. So closely is Jesus united to God's will and purpose, that we can truly say God has been through the sort of experience which the earthquake victims endured. In Jesus he dies and is buried with us. He too has been broken and crushed. He too has endured spiritual and psychological torment as well as physical pain. This is a God who certainly regards the lowly and walks in the midst of trouble, but in what sense does he stretch out his right hand to save us? In what sense can he be said to bring us salvation?

For Paul, the crux of the matter is his conviction that Jesus has been raised from death and has appeared to his followers, not just during the first Easter time but also long afterwards, although Paul tries to pull down a final curtain on those resurrection appearances by claiming that his vision of the risen Jesus was the last one of all. It's interesting that in this, the very first written account of the Easter story, Paul makes no mention of the empty tomb. He dwells rather on the spiritual experience of being commissioned by Jesus, or made an apostle or messenger of the good news. And, although the Revised English Bible is wrong in suggesting that Jesus appeared only to men after his resurrection, Paul doesn't single out for special mention any of the women who saw the risen Jesus. Only men appear in his list of celebrity apostles, Peter or Cephas, James the brother of Jesus and - rather egotistically perhaps - Paul himself.

In contrast, the earliest Gospel account of the resurrection, Mark's version, focuses on the empty tomb and leaves doubt hanging over the idea that Jesus really is alive or that his followers can meet him. He puts some of the female disciples centre stage, but they are trembling and afraid. It is the concrete fact of the empty tomb, then, which dominates Mark's narrative, while the spiritual aspect of the resurrection is reduced to a sense of amazement and bewilderment.

Where does this leave us as we contemplate the tragic events in Haiti? It reminds us, perhaps, of two classic Christian responses to suffering and to God's promise not only to endure it with us but to bring us safe through it. One classic response is to be filled with the certainty that Jesus has surmounted everything that life can throw at us, and that he stretches out his strong right hand to save us from beyond the grave. The other classic response is to strike the same note as Mark's Gospel, or the last verse of the Psalm, and to want to believe that God is still able to fulfil his purpose, and that his steadfast love endures in spite of suffering, while being bewildered - as Jesus was on the Cross - by the actual experience of suffering and distress. The Psalmist wants to believe that there is life beyond death, but he can only say, 'Do not forsake the work of your hands.' Both he and Mark cannot end on the same note of assurance that Paul finds in this passage.

The Gospel belongs to a collection of stories told by Luke which have no specific time attached to them. Now I know that Luke doesn't give us any actual dates for most of his narrative. He tells us about some key people who were on the stage of history when Jesus was doing his thing, King Herod, the Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, The Emperor Tiberius, Governor Pilate, King Herod Antipas and John the Baptist, but nothing more precise. Nonetheless, for some parts of his story he does give the impression that one episode follows another, even when the other Gospel writers disagree. But not here. This is one of the stories which seems to have been free floating in the tradition which he inherited. It happened one day.

It's a typical story in that it unfolds by the shores of Lake Galilee, here called Gennesaret. There are fishing boats and fishermen washing their nets. A crowd of people has gathered to listen to his teaching but - unusually - Jesus decides to teach them from inside one of the boats. So far, that's the only thing out of the ordinary. But then the pace and character of the story suddenly changes. Is this, in fact, two stories about Jesus and Simon which have been woven together, perhaps before Luke heard it for himself or possible at his own instigation? Indeed, is Jesus still in the boat at this point, or has he got out and instructed Simon to put back out into deep water without him?

That phrase, 'put out into deep water', is wonderfully evocative. Do we need to be in deep water before wonderful things can begin to take place? Jesus urges Simon to let down his nets, and Simon resists because he and his crew have already been fishing all night long. They have caught nothing and they are tired. They're in the mood to give up. But Jesus isn't the kind of person whom you disobey so, against their better judgement, they let down the nets. Again, do wonderful things begin to happen only when we go against our common sense, or disregard the wisdom we have inherited or normally live by? Do we have to break the mould, or innovate or take a risk in order to make a big catch? So it seems, for in no time the nets are so full that they begin to split and another boat has to come to Simon's assistance.

The story ends on the same note of fear and astonishment that Mark strikes at the end of his Gospel, and that Isaiah finds in the story we read this morning about his vision in the Temple, when his own sense of unworthiness and inadequacy threatened to overwhelm him. 'Go, Lord, leave me!' says Peter, 'Sinner that I am!' But Jesus reassures Peter, just as Isaiah was reassured in his vision. Peter is not unworthy. He has shown faith, and now he is commissioned to be an apostle, and not just him but James and John also. From now on they will be fishing for people.

That commission from Jesus reminds us of the call of the first disciples in Mark But, in other respects, this episode is more reminiscent of the story at the end of John's Gospel where - after the same miraculous catch of fish - the risen Jesus commissions Peter to feed his sheep. Is this, also then, a story about the risen Jesus appearing to his friends at the lakeside and telling them to leave their fishing business, to which they had returned after his death, and to stand firmly behind the good news which has the power to save? The good news that, in Jesus, God really does demonstrate his power to preserve us against the wrath of our enemies. The good news that he is able to stretch out his hand to deliver us from trouble, and to walk alongside us and fulfil his purpose for us. The good news that his steadfast love endures forever and he will never forsake us.

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