Sunday, February 04, 2007

Epiphany 5 - The Credibility Gap




A few days ago I was lucky enough to be in a small group of priests taking part in a workshop on spiritual direction – I suppose that’s an odd-sounding title for one of the most special and privileged of all the priestly tasks, which is to sit with another person and listen with them for the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  One of the main ways we do that is to learn to sit still ourselves, to learn to give attention at a deep level to the other person, and to God.  Brian, who was leading the workshop, has been doing this for many years so he has learned the value of showing what he means, as opposed to saying what he thinks – but he did say one thing that struck me as very important, maybe because I was already starting to turn over in my mind what I would say about our readings this morning, and it was this – our main task as human beings, and the whole movement of our lives, is about learning the difference between our false self and our true self – the person we think we are, or the person we pretend we are, the image of ourselves that gets superimposed on us by other people, or by our circumstances, or by the history of our failures or successes – all that stuff that gets built up like layers of varnish – learning the difference between all that and our true self, who we really are, the person that God sees when God looks at us.  And then Brian said, sorting out the difference between our false selves and our true selves goes hand in hand with sorting out the difference between our filing cabinet full of false and misleading images of God, and who God really is. 

One of my friends once said to me – I think this must have been during our training, when we had lots of theories about these sorts of things, that when she sat down to prepare a sermon she would first read all the lections for the day and then sort of let them have a conversation with each other until the common thread appeared.  I thought to myself at the time, ‘yeah, right’, because to me most of the time the Sunday readings seem to about completely different things - but today is different, isn’t it, because by the time we’d read through to the Gospel it was almost as if the theme was being shouted at us, and it’s this - when you bump into God, you find yourself confronted by the credibility gap between the self you know yourself as and the self that God knows.  The old-fashioned name for that credibility gap of course is sin, a word that includes both guilt for things that we know we have done and shame for what we believe ourselves to be.  Sin is where we continue to live with the credibility gap between our false self and our true self, because we don’t know how to get them into alignment, and of course it is the chronic state of every human being.

For Isaiah, the vision of God that so terrifies him happens in the temple, presumably he isn’t alone there, and the priests are going about their business but all of a sudden reality kind of slips for Isaiah, the roof of the Temple fades out of sight and the trails of incense from the offering on the altar morph into the folds of the very bottom hem of the cloak of God.  So Isaiah has got this sense of just being on the edge of the throne-room of God who is so terrifying that, so it was thought, only Moses could look at and still live.  And Isaiah assumes he’s cactus, we don’t actually know that Isaiah was either especially holy or in any way a major sinner but he does understand that the credibility gap of his humanness has been exposed, the divided self that just can’t survive being bumped up against the terrifying holiness of God.  And of course in the encounter something of Isaiah is burned up - the image of a hot coal being pressed against his lips is not exactly cosy - but we get the point which is that God is not safe, but in some sense if we dare to stick around, our moral ambiguity is going to get cauterised, God’s holiness transforms us even as it wounds us. 

For the apostle Paul, the sense of regret and the painful memory of having been the one who had hounded and persecuted God’s church seems to have stuck with him throughout his career.  In his case, we do know something of the self-recrimination that lies behind his shocking self-description as the least of the apostles, comparing his own status as an apostle to the tenuous existence of an aborted foetus.  Maybe this nagging sense of regret is even behind what St Paul describes as the thorn in his flesh, the awareness of his own brokenness that never seems to have left him.  Why would God call somebody like that to be an apostle?  Certainly that was the question that apparently some of Paul’s rivals seem to have been asking, and when Paul writes in his letters, for example in Galatians, about his own claims to be considered an apostle, you get the feeling that his tone is more than a bit defensive.  And yet, I have the idea that when we are called by God – as indeed every one of us is – it is not only in spite of, but even at times because of, our flaws and our shortcomings. 

What St Paul writes echoes for me most particularly, because at the time when I first seriously began to hear what I knew as God laying some sort of claim on my life, I suppose about 15 years ago, I was in the middle of serving a long prison sentence.  I don’t know if any of you have ever been to those evangelistic revival meetings where somebody gets up and gives their testimony, and it’s always a Cross and the Switchblade sort of thing where the speaker’s life has been turned around from being a major drug dealer to working with troubled youth.  I suppose, like that, the story of how I found myself called to the priestly ministry is a stark example of God’s lopsided logic, the way God uses what is most painful and most broken in our lives not only to heal us, but to be a source of healing to others.  I guess, along the way, you’re going to hear more about my journey because, in a sense, the only way we have to talk about the grace of God is to talk about how we have experienced it ourselves.  For now I just want to stay with what St Paul says, ‘by God’s grace I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been wasted’.  We are redeemed, not because of our own holiness, but because of God’s holiness, and just as well, too.

And so we come to the Gospel, where Jesus calls Peter, James and John as his first disciples.  We can actually be pretty sure about the tradition that says Peter is the first and has priority among the disciples, because all the Gospels and St Paul as well agree on Peter’s prominence, but what stands out just as clearly is that Peter stuffs up time and time again.  When he stands up in the boat, aghast at the divine propensity for overdoing it, the generosity and over-the-top abundance of God that Jesus demonstrates through the miracle of torn fishing nets, when Peter stands up and says ‘get away from me, Lord, because I’m just an ordinary, sinful bloke’, he’s not overstating the case.  This is the disciple who Mark shows us as inept and constantly missing the point, the one Paul dismisses as shallow and unconvincing, the one the gospel writers all agree is going to deny Jesus and run away at the end.  Why does God want him?  Repentance, healing and the forgiveness of sins fair enough, but why would God want someone on the team who’s simply never going to get the point, never going to quite measure up, always going to be a boofhead?  And make him the team captain!

Well, let’s be honest, that’s actually where things start looking up for the rest of us, isn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but for myself, I can’t actually point to a time where I stopped stuffing up.  A point in my life where I turned into a proper Christian.  I’m reminded of a story I heard about a Benedictine monk when somebody asked him what monks do all day.  ‘Well’, he said, ‘we fall down, and then we stand up.  Then we fall down again.’  Of all the apostles, St Peter is the one who gives me personally the most hope that God can really be bothered with us.

So it’s about sin, today.  It’s about recognising, about taking ownership of the credibility gap that, when you hold it up to the holiness of God, you really can’t help but notice.  It’s about recognising it and giving thanks for it, because that’s the scruff of the neck God grabs you by, what you are most ashamed of in your life is the very place where, if you take a really good look, God’s grace is shining through you.