The opening verses of Isaiah chapter 56 are like recent events in reverse. Some young people around the country took advantage of a spot of lawlessness to do what was wrong and to seek their own personal gain. When they set out they certainly did not consider their law-abiding and God-fearing ancestors. Instead they headed down to the local electrical store or off-licence, determined to help themselves.
Isaiah speaks of ruins being turned back into an Eden, a place of plenty and ease, gladness and joy, whereas on our television screens the streets in some parts of London, Manchester and Birmingham were turned from prosperous shopping centres into arid and empty ruins where ordinary passers-by felt suddenly vulnerable and afraid. Isaiah talks of melody breaking out. Our experience has been of sudden discord.
At the end of this morning’s Old Testament lesson God addresses the people directly through the Prophet, and urges them to listen to his message of good news and deliverance. He talks about light breaking through, about imminent victory, about the everlasting protection offered by his strong arm.
In striking contrast, at the end of the recent episode of social unrest, we have been offered a host of commentaries and theories to explain what has gone wrong, ranging from the growing divide between rich and poor in our acquisitive society, to criticism of the Police for, on the one hand, losing the trust of local people but, on the other hand, being too soft on the rioters. There have also been complaints that we don’t teach enough ethics and morality in our schools. The message has been about darkness, about failure, and about the need for the strong arm of the law to crack down on the offenders and give them harsh sentences to deter others from trying the same thing.
Actually, a very similar thing happened in the aftermath of the Bradford riots, when first time offenders also got very long sentences, sometimes for doing no more than throwing a stone towards the police lines even when it fell far short of the target. But David Boyle from the New Economics Foundation said of last week’s riots, ‘These were not riots of rage’ like the rioting in Bradford and other northern towns, ‘they were riots of greed.’ On our TV screens, he said, we witnessed ‘a valueless materialism that allowed hundreds of young people to go on violent and thieving rampages’.
David Cameron and Tony Blair have had contrasting things to say about the riots. Tony Blair warned against elevating our response to the riots ‘into a highfalutin wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally.’ If we did this, he said, we would ‘depress ourselves unnecessarily, trash our own reputation abroad, and worst of all, miss the chance to deal with the problem in the only way that will work. Britain as a whole is not in the grip of some general “moral decline”, he insisted. ‘The truth is that many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, either middle class or poor.’ In contrast, David Cameron thinks ‘There are deep problems in our society that have been growing for a long time: a decline in responsibility, a rise in selfishness, a growing sense that individual rights come before anything else.’ For once, I’m inclined to agree with Mr Cameron.
But is this outburst of selfishness and greed entirely surprising, when the same level of naked greed is often equally evident in older people, too? In their own lawless and destructive way the young rioters were simply copying some of their elders. As Professor Colin Talbot from Manchester University said, we can see excessive greed at work among a good number of the people who lead our society too: ‘financiers, directors, derivatives traders, newspaper moguls and others who have decided that the “normal rules” do not apply to them.’
How can we get back from this abysmal picture to the sort of future promised by Isaiah? Well, last week I was sent a hymn about the riots. Surely that must be a first! Actually, I think it’s more like a poem than a hymn. The writer, Gary Hopkins, says:
I dream this world will wake up and see the grief and pain –
lives broken by division, the barriers that remain –
to see that all our hatred brings misery and tears
and conflict with each other which only stokes our fears.
Yet there must be another way to be the human race;
together we can find it and build a better place;
A place where lives are cherished and no one has it rough,
where no one is neglected and each one has enough.
This dream will be accomplished in give and not in take,
through sharing with each other not being ‘on the make’;
A world of peace and justice, with love for everyone,
where hand in hand, united, we all shall live as one.
After watching shops and homes going up in flames, pedestrians being robbed and even a motor cyclist being dragged from his bike so that it can be ridden away by another member of the gang, we might find Isaiah’s vision, and the words of the poet, too optimistic and other-worldly to entirely reassure us. But Isaiah seems to have foreseen this response, for at the end of the passage he tells us that when peace dissolves and certainties are shaken, or even if the earth were to be destroyed and its inhabitants were to die like flies, God’s saving power is still going to be there to catch us as we fall.
Today’s Gospel passage actually makes us actors in the drama. Not only will God save his people, but we - the members of his Church - will have an active part to play, for Peter makes the astounding claim that the good news of God’s deliverance, which Isaiah had announced, is not just a pious hope, a dream or a vision, it is a concrete reality which has come true in Jesus.
If Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed, that means he is God’s saving power, God’s arm, in action in human history. When Peter makes this profession of faith Jesus then responds with an even more amazing claim. He says that Peter is the rock on which he will build his community, and even the powers of death will never be able to conquer it.
There are two ways of understanding this. First, there’s the Roman Catholic interpretation, that Jesus is talking specifically about Peter and his successors. They are to be the leaders and shepherds of the Christian community, the rock which will help to secure its faithfulness down the ages. But alternatively, Peter can be understood as a representative of all believers. When we come to trust that Jesus is the realisation of God’s promises then we too become part of the rock on which Jesus is able to build his community on earth.
The task of the community of believers is to hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Traditionally, that was interpreted by many Christians as giving them the authority to decide who was in favour with God and who was out of favour, who was a true believer and who was a heretic or outside the true Church. It’s a bit like imaging the Church as a vast international court-room with the power to hand out exemplary sentences to alleged wrongdoers.
‘You stole a bottle of water? One month in gaol!’ ‘You planned a riot in Nantwich, did you? Well, we’ll lock you in a cell and throw away the key!’
Roman Catholics have gone even further, and seen these verses as entrusting the Holy Father with the power to rule infallibly on issues of faith and morals. But the verses could be understood in another way.
For the last five years I have had a large bulky chain fastened to the crossbar of my bike by an equally chunky padlock. I kept meaning to borrow some bolt cutters to take the chain off, because it was quite a nuisance. But then, while doing some spring cleaning in the garage, I found the missing key to the padlock! What a difference it makes to be able to remove the chain. Surely the mission of the Church is not to lock people up or tie them down. It’s to set them free to be their true selves as part of the community of e and trust in Jesus.
Historically, of course, one of the roles undertaken by the Church was to set parameters for people’s lives, to give them the moral and ethical guidelines which commentators now feel are so sadly lacking. Perhaps our ancestors in the faith undertook this task too enthusiastically at times, so that Christians became more closely identified with forbidding things than with allowing people to be what they are truly meant to be. However, the modern permissive society has gone to the other extreme. Leaving people to feel that they are free to do whatever they can get away with, even running riot, or that the “normal rules” do not apply to them, is actually not empowering or liberating. It leads ultimately to a state of lawlessness and free-for-all which is arguably just as bad, if not worse, than Christianity at its most repressive and puritanical.
But, of course, we should not be appealing to the lost values of Victorian England to justify believing in Jesus and his Church. Instead, we should be invoking the vision of Isaiah. If we believe in Jesus and become an active part of the believing community of his friends and followers, the rock which he established, we can help to usher in God’s deliverance, his gentle rule, his everlasting protection, his saving power.