Saturday, June 28, 2008

Feast of Sts Peter and Paul

If at around five o’clock in the afternoon any day during the last three weeks you had been out walking somewhere between here and Bentley Hospital, you might have seen a very strange sight – your parish priest being pulled in two directions at once by two good-natured but very determined and very large dogs.  One of these dogs, of course, is Mary, whom some of you have met – Mary, who lives with Alison and me, is a delightful animal who has inherited some of the highly-strung temperament as well as the ball of muscle get-up-and-go of the greyhound side of her family (as well as a big dose of Labrador loveableness).  Mary just loves to run, and when she is on a lead, she loves to run with me keeping up as well as I can.  A walk with Mary is 45 minutes of heart-pounding, calorie-burning, power-walking fun.

But over the last three weeks, we have also been dog-sitting Mary’s cousin, a totally unflappable, determinedly friendly, placid, enormous lump of a Rottweiler puppy named Maddy.  Alison and I promptly renamed this dog Maddington Bear, because as she waddles along in no particular hurry to get anywhere, that’s exactly what she looks like.  You can probably imagine what walk-time has been like?  Mary powering on out ahead and Maddy dawdling along behind, doing me an enormous favour by bothering to come along at all.  The irresistible force and the immoveable object.  I worked out eventually that if I joined their two leads together they’d pull against each other instead of pulling me in two, and by Friday night – the last night of Maddy’s holiday with us, we even worked out on a compromise pace that got us all home more or less at the same time.

This image of two large animals pulling in opposite directions, doing their own thing but – whether they like it or not – having to cooperate because they’re on the same lead – sums up pretty well the dilemma for the Church’s top two apostles.  Being dead, of course, they can’t complain, but there’s a certain irony about them having to share a feast day when, for one thing, all the other saints and martyrs seem to get one to themselves, even the obscure ones like St Etheldreda on the 23rd of June or St Thomas on the 3rd of July whose main claim to fame was that he wasn’t so sure about all this resurrection stuff.  Sts Peter and Paul have to share today, and the only other time of the year when we think about them separately, the Confession of Peter on 18 January and the Conversion of Paul on January 25, they also get roped together as the start and finish of the Week of Christian Unity.  Which is especially ironic since Peter and Paul – well, let’s just say they didn’t quite get along.

Competition and personal agendas and personality conflicts between people on the same team are a fact of life – in politics, at work, even in the Church – maybe that should be, especially in the Church.  Human nature being what it is, we sometimes find it difficult to get along even when we are all trying to follow Jesus’ way of reconciliation.  What I’d like to suggest, though, is that in the story of Sts Peter and Paul, in the way the New Testament both reveals and reconciles the tension between them, there is a ....

Luke, writing ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ a generation or so later, seems deliberately to have chosen to steer the middle ground, carefully balancing the importance of Peter and Paul’s missionary careers.  First we get a summary of Peter’s early preaching and the growth of the early Church, then the conversion and missionary travels of Paul.  Nobody who reads the Acts of the Apostles can fail to notice how Paul’s story gets cut off in mid-career – the ultimate cliff-hanger with Paul, at the end of the story, arriving in Rome to go on trial for his life.  Less obvious is that Luke also cuts Peter’s story short, because we never hear what happens to him after the two apostles meet at the explosive Council of Jerusalem.  It seems as though Luke is suggesting that the lives and careers of even these heroes of the faith are important only in the way they reveal God’s Holy Spirit at work.  The martyrdom of Peter and Paul, Luke seems to be suggesting, is not the main point.  The main point is how their lives point to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Right in the middle of the Acts of the Apostles is the powder-keg.  Peter and Paul meet at the Council of Jerusalem, that hugely significant meeting that determined nothing less than whether the Way of Jesus was going to remain just an in-house Jewish sect, or get transplanted into foreign soil, be exposed to the smorgasbord of cultures and languages and philosophies that made up the Empire.  For those of you who have ever been at Synod, think the biggest, most divisive factional debate you ever heard, then multiply by about a hundred.  Interestingly, Luke reports the outcome in terms that make it sound almost peaceful.  The Acts of the Apostles doesn’t even report what Paul said, but has Peter make a speech that sounds more like what Paul would have said – in effect supporting Paul on the issue of whether non-Jews can follow the Way of Jesus without first having to adopt all the religious rules and customs of Judaism.  This was a hot topic, and Peter’s struggle to accept an inclusive version of Christianity is described in the Acts of the Apostles in the famous story of Peter’s dream about the clean and unclean animals all being lowered together in a sheet.  Eventually, the way Luke tells it, there is a compromise found with a kind of separate development for Jewish and Gentile churches – each group is given some breathing space to grow in the way it needs to grow under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s own account of the meeting, in the letter to the Galatian church, reveals a bit more about the acrimony and the competitiveness between the two men, telling us how even after the compromise agreement Peter still couldn’t accept the Gentile churches and refused to share table fellowship with non-Jews.  ‘I opposed him to his face’, Paul writes in the familiar language of self-justification (Gal 2.11).  We know St Paul had a pretty impressive temper – immediately after Luke’s account of the Council of Jerusalem he goes on to tell us about Paul’s bust-up with his closest friend, Barnabas.  Probably the argument between Paul and Peter was never fully resolved in their lifetime – for the rest of his career Paul fights a running battle with the Jewish faction and his second trip to Jerusalem ends in disaster and betrayal.  In the second Letter of Peter – probably written towards the end of the first century not by Peter himself but by a disciple–the argument is still simmering with the back-handed compliment to Paul’s wisdom and writings that are ‘hard to understand and easily misinterpreted’ (2 Pet 3.16).

Whatever the tensions between Peter and Paul, the early Church as a whole found a way to accommodate the creativity and the God-inspiration of them both.  Peter continues, as Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, as the ‘apostle to the circumcised’ while Paul continues his mission to the non-Jewish world.  The two men seem to have recognised the danger of allowing their rivalry to gain a life of its own, with Paul telling off the church at Corinth: ‘don’t use slogans or join factions, saying things like, “I am for Paul”, or “I am for Cephas”’ (the Hebrew form of Peter).  ‘Has Christ been divided?’ he asks rhetorically.  ‘Or was Paul crucified for you?’  (1 Cor 1.12-13).  Sometimes conflict is unavoidable – but here, Paul gives us a good model for how to recognise and renounce the temptation to fan the flames of factionalism for the sake of personal reputation.

Actually, this is not just an interesting excursion into Church history, and the fact that we are celebrating the feast of the Church’s original odd couple today is a real God-coincidence.  Because right now the factions of our own Church are at it hammer and tongs and more or less for the same reasons – can the Church accommodate differences between the cultural values and practices of different groups, or does the Bible have to be read in a way that is hard-edged, that excludes people whose sexuality is different or that finds no ground for dialogue with other faiths? – and right now, in fact, right this week, some Australian priests and bishops are taking part in the so-called Global Anglican Futures Conference in Jerusalem, deliberately and provocatively timed to conflict with the Lambeth Conference that historically has been one of the instruments of unity in the Anglican Church.  Instead of resolving conflict and creatively uniting the gifts of opposing viewpoints, as we see at the Council of Jerusalem, what we are seeing today is the strategy of sharpening and hardening conflict and factional positions.  The odd couple of conservative evangelical and progressive orthodox Anglicanism don’t seem to have noticed that they are on the same leash, pulling against each other in a way that is futile and destructive – and they don’t seem to have noticed that they need each other, that to be truly the Way of Jesus the Church needs to creatively accommodate the different charisms, the gifts and insights of both ends of the spectrum.

It’s up to St Ireneaus, the Church Father of the second century whose name means something like, ‘peace-maker’, to get the last word on Peter and Paul.  Diplomatically, Ireneaus credits both of them with founding the Church in Rome, and is probably also the one responsible for starting the tradition that they died on the same day, executed in Rome by the Emperor Nero – a bronze medallion dating from the second century shows the heads of Peter and Paul on the same side, joined together for all time. 


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Pentecost 6A: Mtt 10.16-33

I often find myself wondering at terms of abuse – not that they get hurled at me very often, I have to admit – that more or less take something positive that a person is doing and use it as a taunt.  This seems to be the stock in trade of letter-writers to my favourite rag, The Australian.  For example, calling someone a ‘do-gooder’.  I mean, what’s the alternative?  Would it really be preferable in anybody’s book to be a ‘do-badder’, to get around carrying out random acts of spite?  Then there’s ‘bleeding heart’ as a way of describing someone who feels more compassion than the letter-writer thinks is strictly warranted; or ‘politically correct’ to describe somebody who insists on treating women, or ethnic minorities, or people whose religion is different to one’s own, with respect.  ‘Politically correct’, in fact, has become such a terminal put-down that it almost seems the only way to be correct any more is to be politically incorrect, which is kind of circular, isn’t it?  Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that even though nobody these days is likely to call you a spawn of Beelzebub just for following Jesus, there is still a price tag for disciples who try to live in a way that brings the kingdom of God into the reality of the world we live in.  Labels have power as a way of neutralising those inconvenient truths we don’t want to face up to and that we know, deep down, we don’t have an argument against.  So we put a lid on it, instead.  Write it off as a product of the loony left.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is part of a longer passage that is more or less a handbook for missionaries.  Even though it takes the form of a long speech by Jesus just before he sends the twelve disciples off on their very first solo run, the context fits better with Christian missionaries in Matthew’s own community, around the end of the first century.  Missionary-disciples who have been running into opposition, maybe starting to feel a bit bruised and battered, afraid to talk about this kingdom of God stuff in case they get called slave-lovers or something even worse.

I heard someone at a pastoral ministry workshop a while ago talk about what she called ‘practical skills for reconcilers’.  It sounded like she was going to hand out some pearls of wisdom about how to get people who were at loggerheads to calm down long enough to listen to one another, so I pricked up my ears and got out a notebook and pen.  But when she got started, all she said, more or less was, ‘it doesn’t matter so much what you say or do, there are two skills you have to have before you can even get to any of that.  And the first one is this: just be there.  Be fully present.  Be in the moment.’

Be there.  Don’t be just half-there.  Don’t keep an eye on your watch, or your diary, don’t focus on your own embarrassment, or your boredom, or even your knowledge of your own inadequacy.  Forget the agenda, just be attentive, fully present to the other person.  Where you are is where you’re meant to be.

And the second skill?  Just remember that God loves you.  Simple as that.  God loves me.  Wastefully, extravagantly, over-the-top, way more than seems reasonable or even possible.  Just remember, she told us, that you are the beloved daughter, the beloved son of God.  Centre yourself on the love that is at the heart of who you are.

Pay attention.  Rest in the knowledge of God’s love.  I put my notebook away.

So the community of Christians that Matthew is writing for, in the last decade of the first century, are having a hard time.  It’s going to be a while yet before they start getting thrown to the lions or anything exciting, but they’re getting into trouble already for the same reasons Jesus and Paul got themselves into trouble.  They’re getting into trouble because they insist on living as though it’s not the Emperor who’s in charge, not the Roman governor or even the religious authorities, as though slave-owners don’t really own the slaves they purchase, as though men don’t really own their womenfolk, in short, they insist on living as though God is in charge, not the people who look like they’re running the show.  They’re taking Jesus at his word that God sees no difference between male and female, slave and free, Jew and non-Jew, and like other Christian communities they’re trying to live in a way that puts that teaching into practice.  In short, they’re doing their level best to live in a way that sets free people who had never before experienced freedom, they’re trying the novel experiment of living lives of reconciling love.

Of course, it’s asking for trouble.  I imagine it must have looked like chaos to anyone on the outside looking in.  At the very least it must have seemed, to the authorities, as though this sect was doing its level best to undermine the network of obligation and indebtedness and hierarchy that held the ancient world together.  The Way of Jesus, whenever it’s seriously practiced, comes into immediate conflict with the status quo whenever that’s based on competition, social inequality or the arbitrary exercise of power.  Even in our own century.

And so, Matthew is describing a situation where members of the Christian community find themselves denounced by friends and neighbours and even family, hauled before the authorities for a spot of deprogramming or therapeutic flogging.  And in this situation, the writer of the gospel is imagining what sort of advice Jesus himself would give.  Which is what?  A compelling argument, the phone number of a top lawyer?

Actually, nothing like that.  Just remember, he says in the words of Jesus, that God cares even about the fate of a worthless sparrow.  And you’re worth much, much more to God than a sparrow.  God loves you.  That’s the very most important thing you need to know when you’re surrounded by defensive, angry people.

Since I went to that workshop I’ve discovered for myself the truth of what the presenter was trying to tell us.  This, I think, is part of the cost of discipleship.  The more you try to live Jesus’ way of reconciliation and love, the more often you find yourself coming into contact with the deep hurt of other people.  Wounded people, like other wounded creatures, don’t react just to the circumstances they find themselves in, but out of the experience of remembered pain.  That, in turn, sometimes pushes our own buttons and reminds us of our own past hurts and vulnerability.  So there’s the temptation to react yourself in a way that’s defensive, which just ensures the vicious spiral of suppressed hurt is going to keep turning.

If you want to be a reconciler, stay grounded in the experience of God’s love.  Remember the power of God's love to heal, and you won't have to run away from things that remind you of your own vulnerabilities and wounds.  Remember what God's love looks like in the way Jesus lived, and you'll be able to respond with authenticity and with love in whatever situation you find yourself.

Don't worry about what to say or what to do when the time comes.  There's a reason that Martin Luther King called the practice of nonviolent resistance "beloved community."  Because it’s the community of people who practice the good news that love is the fundamental, irresistible Word through which the universe was created, and towards which it is growing.  As Christians, we believe that Word is expressed most completely in Jesus, and that if we dare to live by it, we see it embodied among us. 

Like Matthew’s community, we are maybe a community of missionaries who’ve lost our nerve.  Certainly, like Matthew’s community, the Church today finds itself surrounded by a strident secular culture that threatens to drown out the good news of the gospel, trying to live counter-culturally in an Empire of competitiveness and consumerism.  We seem to have lost confidence in our ability to articulate the gospel, perhaps we don’t know how to reply to criticisms like the one I read in the Letters to the Editor a little while ago, that Christians are like children believing in a big Invisible Friend in the sky.  Perhaps as Christians living in two cultures at once we have forgotten how to live as a community of reconciliation and freedom. 

We need Matthew’s handbook for missionaries more than ever.  Never forget the two basic instructions: Be fully present to one another.  Rest secure in the knowledge of God’s love. 

So now you can put your notebooks away.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Pentecost 4A

I’ve been fascinated over the last couple of years to follow the ebb and flow of the debate about climate change.  Whether in fact the world’s climate is changing – and if so, is it a consequence of human activity or just a natural phenomenon?  And either way, how much does it matter?  What are the effects going to be on the way we live, and the way our children, and our children’s children, live?  And if so, what should we do about it?  Do we take radical action now, do we accept the tradeoff of paying more to reduce our carbon footprint now, and invest in developing renewable energy sources now to avoid more pain later?  I guess what fascinates me is that after years of arguing about all this there’s still more heat than light – it seems one minute we’re being told that all reputable scientists are pretty much in agreement about global warming and what we should be doing about it, the next minute it’s all too expensive and in any case, there are other reputable scientists who think the planet’s not getting hotter, it’s cooling down.

Now I guess I’m on the side of the global warming mob, though like most of us I have to admit the science is way over my head.  I suppose I just find the argument for taking global warming seriously more convincing, and I’m a bit suspicious that the do-nothing argument amounts to protecting the status quo of big business.  But if the argument for taking climate change seriously is right – and our government is betting big bikkies that it is – then we – that is, the whole developed world – are being asked to take a very counter-intuitive step – we’re being asked to give up a whole lot of stuff we take for granted right now, to downsize, to embark on a long-term commitment when we don’t really know where it’s going to take us or how we’re going to get there. 

What makes the global warming conundrum different from most of the other issues we face in our community is that it basically challenges to weigh up our present against the world’s future, what gives us comfort and security now against what’s going to give life in the future.  And I think part of what makes it such a massive challenge is that shows us the basic dilemma of human moral development – our human tendency to resist what gives us life because we’re afraid of the first step.

In our reading from the Old Testament this morning we heard the beginning of the story of Abram – we begin, in fact, when Abram is already old and presumably settling down for a comfortable retirement in Haran, and the story tells us that God calls Abram – how, we don’t know, but if you think about how you become aware in your life that God is calling you to something - well maybe for Abram it was a dream, as the poem on the front of our pew sheet suggests, or else it was a series of coincidences, or conversations with trusted friends, or just an annoying intuition that wouldn’t go away – but somehow Abram comes to understand that the journey of his life is taking him away from everything that is familiar, and that his future - which in the ancient world could really only be conceived of in terms of land and descendents - was bound up in a place he had never heard of, among people that were strangers.  The first thing, I think, is to understand that the call of Abram, and his decision to follow the prompting of the inner voice that he knows as God, is a metaphor.  In other words, it’s not just a story about moving house, it’s a story about finding who we really are, a story about journeying within ourselves and about trusting God enough to let go of the false security that so often gets in the way of being the people God made us to be – a story about learning to trust in the future rather than holding on to the past.

And the second thing is that when we get a call like this – a call that challenges our ability to trust our own perceptions, that causes us to weigh up who we thought we were against who God thinks we are – we are always confronted with three very powerful and deep-seated human fears – the fear of stepping out into the emptiness of the unknown, the fear of other people who look and act and think differently from us, and the fear of our own limitations.

So God tells Abram to leave his home, his family and everything that was familiar – maybe to us, in our hugely mobile world of airplanes and electronic communication this might not seem such a huge deal, but to ancient peoples an uprooting like this would be like a social death, breaking all the bonds of obligation and kinship that kept communities functional and safe.  Abram is basically stepping out into the emptiness of what might as well have been outer space, a journey from security and familiarity into genuine and profound ignorance, from what he had to what he didn’t have, from the known to the unknown, subverting all his world’s expectations of community and family responsibility in exchange for an uncertain mortgage on the future.

Here’s the thing about stepping out into the unknown in obedience to the voice of the spirit.  You find all of a sudden that the mindset that worked alright back home is too narrow for the big wide world, you discover in yourself all sorts of self-serving habits of mind, the tendency to exclude strangers and avoid change, and after the first rush of fear you start to dream impossibly and wonderfully that all of creation is your home, that in fact the offspring of your own mind have been out there all along, waiting for you to discover them.

But notice that the way God works in this story – and, I bet, in your own story too – is by a simultaneous narrowing and widening of Abram’s options and horizons.  It’s the same paradox, the same logic of incarnation that we see in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it’s the way you can be sure God is ahead of you, leading you forward into the future and creating you minute by minute along the way.

When Abram leaves home, filled no doubt with a healthy dose of apprehension about the sort of people he would meet along the way, God weaves powerful protections around him.  ‘I will bless those who bless you, curse those who curse you – and in you, all the nations of the world will bless themselves’.  The Hebrew word here is one of those reflexive ‘do-it-to-yourself’ verbs, as though Abram was going to be a mirror in which others would see an image of themselves - the means in other words by which everyone who meets him will discover the quality of their own humanity.  Stepping out into the world of men and women who are fearfully and inexplicably strangers – and therefore strange – Abram as the story develops over the next few chapters is going to find that the fulfilment of God’s promises to him involve not the defeat or colonisation, but the honouring of and the coming to maturity through the wisdom and integrity of peoples and realities that had previously been objects of fear.  Abram, when he finally does enter the land of Canaan that has been promised as an ancestral home to his descendents, comes not as an invader but as an immigrant, not as a missionary but in recognition that the God who had called him into this land was already known to the men and women he found there.  No wonder Aboriginal Christians find in the story of Abram, rather than the later stories of conquest in the Book of Joshua, a model for reconciliation and the vision of a just future.

And Abram, the story tells us, was old.  That makes this an impossible story, doesn’t it?  Old people don’t run away from home, at least, not if they’ve still got all their marbles.  And yet, Abram and Sarai trust in the reliability of God’s promises, in other words, they trust that the voice of the spirit which, no doubt, they had long been familiar with and in the habit of paying attention to, they trust that this inner voice is true, they know the reality of God in their lives and they are prepared to follow where God leads them.  The oldness of Abram and Sarai, the trust they have sometimes that God can bless them and work as a blessing through them in spite of their own limitations – and sometimes, the difficulty they have in trusting – is going to be a major theme in this story.  Along the way, God will give them each a new name – Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and we understand by this that the journey all along has been a journey of becoming, a journey in which both they and the people they encounter are transformed.  And eventually they move beyond their fear of powerlessness, they cease to be defined by their own limitations and instead learn to define themselves by the faith that God can, quite literally, make something out of nothing.

It’s another parable, isn’t it?  When you think about it, in the story of Abram and Sarai’s big move, we are being told the story of our own lives, as individuals and as a community.  Do we hold fast to what’s always worked in the past, do we cling to the security we think we’ve got, or do we agree to go where God is calling us?  We do, each of us, experience God’s call in our lives to move out of our established comfort-zones, to do more or to be more than we ever anticipated.  Today, Kallan and Hayleys mum and dad are going to present them for baptism because they know that in some way their kids are also called, and because they want their kids to learn how to listen and respond to the voice of the spirit in their own lives.  As we pray with them, and for them, let’s also pray for ourselves, that we can learn to trust in the journey and believe in the future that God has for us.


Pentecost 3

I remember reading about the situation of a middle-aged couple who were witnessing the slow self-destruction of their grown-up daughter.  It was a painful story, one that challenged me to think about the difference between what I might think is the right thing to do, and what people are capable of in real life.   This couple were confronting the hard choice between wanting to protect their daughter who had for some years been into the drug scene, and whose life was a constant cycle of broken relationships, losing jobs and getting kicked out of rental accommodation, brushes with the law and desperate attempts at rehab – the hard choice between sheltering and protecting the daughter they loved, and realising the limits of what they could do, that there were limits to how much they could give of themselves before the cost became too great, that there were limits to how much of their daughter’s pain they could endure, even limits to how much they could care.  Eventually they had to make the hard decision to tell their daughter she couldn’t come home again, that she couldn’t count on them to always pick up the pieces. 

Somebody pointed out to me the other day the irony that the story of Noah’s ark is always such a favourite with people who write children’s Bibles, that it’s a constant theme for babies’ nurseries and even the designs on kiddies pyjamas.  Of course it’s a really cute picture – the animals all go into the ark by families, two by two – a picture of domestic contentment where everybody gets along together, even the lions and the zebras.  Nobody ever gets eaten.  Except, of course, when you really think about it, it’s not such a fluffy and cuddly story at all, not really a story you’d want to be telling your toddlers - when you think that what it’s about is God deciding to start creation from scratch, sending a worldwide flood to wipe the slate clean, by drowning every living creature in the whole world except the happy families in the ark.

As a story it raises a few practical problems – like the old perennial about how Noah managed to get to Australia and back to collect the echidnas and platypuses in under seven days (and in the process tell the difference between the males and the females) – or how Noah managed to build this gigantic wooden barge all by himself – as long and as wide as a football field and as high as a five-storey building.

So despite the excitable claims we hear every know and then that somebody or other has found a piece of fossilised wood in Turkey that might be the remains of the ark, there are some problems in taking this one literally.  Maybe it’s based on the distant memory of flooding on the Tigris-Euphrates delta – and the similarities between the story of Noah’s ark and the ancient stories of the civilisations of Sumeria and Babylon suggest they’re based on a common tradition – but basically I think we need to read it as a parable.  Like the parables that Jesus told to illustrate the truth about human beings, and the truth about God.  Jesus’ parables were mostly fairly realistic stories, like a man who plants a vineyard, or a woman who loses a coin.  They might have actually happened, or they might be just stories.  But the importance of Jesus’ parables isn’t whether or not they really happened, but what they tell us about where God is in our lives, and what it means to love other people as much as we love ourselves.  So we might put aside some of the practical problems in the story of Noah’s ark and ask ourselves: what does it mean?  What does this story tell us about what God is like, and how God relates to the world that God made?

Which opens up the really hard questions.  Because what a lot of people have got from this story is that God is so angry that he sends a flood to wipe everybody out as a punishment for the evil they keep doing.  We don’t know the details, but God complains that the earth is filled with violence.  And so God decides to do away with the lot of them.  It’s a problematic story.  I can’t help thinking of the claim made by some Christians after the Boxing Day tsunami that God had sent this disaster as a punishment [Sharon Stone said the China earthquake was bad karma for China’s treatment of Tibet] – that the hundreds of thousands who died had somehow deserved their fate – it’s an offensive suggestion, isn’t it?  And what sort of God behaves like that?  Well, the story of Noah’s ark comes out of a very different worldview and a very different culture to our own, but there are a couple of things we should maybe notice.  Firstly, that in the story God isn’t angry at all.  In fact we get a very different picture, of a God who is in turmoil.  In verse 6, which we didn’t read, the Hebrew says that God’s heart is filled with pain, that God’s heart is broken because of the deep, ingrained evil that seems to be woven into human nature and corrupts the whole world.  God’s judgement, thoroughgoing and extreme as it is, is not described as a punishment but as a way of renewing creation through this one man who lives in right relationship with God.  That God chooses a flood to accomplish this suggests something about cleansing or purging, but more importantly it relates to the story of creation itself – in Genesis chapter one God creates the world out of an initial watery chaos, and in the Great Flood God seems to be throwing the whole thing back into reverse, back to watery chaos and then starting again.  The flood itself might be seen, not as a punishment but as the logical outcome for a humanity that couldn’t learn to live in relationship with God or in harmony with the natural order.  Certainly, the story suggests something about the relationship between human responsibility and the wellbeing of the natural creation, and I don’t think it’s any accident that humanity and the non-human creation all end up – so to speak – in the same boat. 

Yet by the end of the story we can see that the new creation is not a complete fresh start at all - because it is based on the remnants of the original one.  Not only that, but human sinfulness has not been eradicated and at the end of the story God acknowledges that humans are what humans are.  The truly startling thing about this story, is that what changes, is God.  What changes, is God’s relationship to the world God has made.  In fact the very reason that God gives for the flood in the first place – that human beings are irredeemably evil – is the exact same reason God gives for promising at the end of the story, never to flood the earth again, in chapter 8, verse 21: ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, because the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth’.  That’s why the story of the Great Flood can never be used as an example of God’s judgement, precisely because it is the flood that sets the ground for God’s promise to humankind, and that sets out the terms of God’s relationship with what God has made.

You see, this parable comes out of a great insight into what it means to be human – and what it means to be God.  People don’t change.  The relationship between God and humanity is lopsided from the very start, but God decides to stay with creation as it is.  God is committed to us, but there’s a cost.  Walter Brueggeman, an Old Testament scholar, puts it this way: ‘The flood has effected an irreversible change in God. It is clear now that such a commitment to the creation on God's part is costly. The God-world relation is not simply that of strong God and needy world. Now it is a tortured relation between a grieved God and a resistant world.’

What this means is that God chooses to suffer, as the cost of being in relationship with us.  God chooses to be in covenant with us, despite knowing that we live our lives in a vicious cycle of weak good intentions, selfishness and failure.  God chooses to accept the cost of loving us, and we see the cost of that love, the ultimate expression of the lopsided covenant between God and human beings, on the cross.  And this is what St Paul recognises; that our hope lies not in our own faith or our own rightness, but in the rightness of God which is revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.    The vicious cycle has been replaced by a circle of wellbeing, a circle that flows from the goodness and the faithfulness of God and ends up bearing the fruit of goodness in each of us as we are restored into good relation with God.

Here’s another parable: When Noah and the whole family climbed down from the ark, and the stretch their legs a bit, God says to them: ‘I’m making a new covenant with you, and I’m giving you a sign that this world has been created in peace and for peace.  But it’s a special sign, because you can only see it when you look at it through the waters of a flood or through eyes filled with tears’.  And there appears in the sky the first ever rainbow, a great arc from horizon to horizon.  And Noah and his family look at the rainbow in wonder, but then the youngest, Japheth, asks his dad: ‘We’ve come full circle in our journey on the ark – from dry land to water and back to dry land again.  How come the rainbow is only half a circle?’

And God says: ‘I’ve made a start.  Let’s see how you go finishing it.’