|12:00pm||Doors open for sightseeing|
|4:00pm||Last entry for sightseeing|
Sermon preached at Mattins on the Seventh Sunday of Easter (13 June 2018) by Revd Helen O’Sullivan, Chaplain
The Chaplain reflects on understanding God's judgement through 'the lens of divine love and grace'.
I have always been one to argue robustly in favour of the discipline of sticking religiously (if you will) to the lectionary provisions day by day
and Sunday by Sunday. The lectionary is the table which details the portion of scripture allotted to be read at any given service. But since
arriving at St Paul’s, two years or so ago now, I more often than ever find myself squirming at our readings. And I think that’s because here, more
so than anywhere I have served before, I am aware that, whilst many worshipping with the Cathedral community today will come from churches around
the world, some (and that’s a considerable number) will not, and will come wanting to get a feel for what ‘this’ is all about, and I wonder what
impression we give.
The readings today (including our psalmody) on a surface level at least seem harmless enough and, given that we are in Ascension-tide which celebrates Christ’s entering into Heaven, they understandably have a current of victory running through them.
Psalm 76 reminds us of God’s power and authority and suggests that God is rightly feared. And it speaks of anger and judgement and so I wonder what image of God that leaves us with?
Our first reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 14:3-15) looks to a future when those who are now downtrodden will be able to pour scorn on their oppressors. There are some lovely bits in it, ‘the whole earth is at rest and quiet’ - what a wonder that will be! But then it goes on to taunt the wicked rulers, you too have become as weak as we are! …maggots are the bed beneath you, and worms are your covering. And finally gloats at the fall of those who felt themselves to be chosen and blessed. What example does that set.
And what of our second reading from Revelation (14:1-13)? I have studied Revelation at some length and it’s a rich source of inspiration and encouragement to me but it is very easily misunderstood, and is it any wonder, when we read about the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and the holy angels watching in the presence of the Lamb whilst those who have worshipped the beast and his image are tormented with fire and sulphur, and the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever. What kind of God do we worship you may ask, as the image that is all too easily conjured up is sadistic.
I’m not usually too interested in the context within which particular scripture has its origin, I’m much more interested in considering what it is saying to me now, but without appreciating something of the context from which these scriptures come we can too easily propagate a vision of God and a theology which I find truly appalling.
Where is the call to forgiveness and reconciliation, where is the unconditional love and liberation which are, I believe, to be God’s will for us and God’s gift to us?
So what is it that we might understand of the context within which these scriptures were crafted that will help us to move beyond what otherwise become obstacles to belief in a loving God who does not count our human frailty against us as the writers of these scriptures suggest God might?
Working backwards, the frightening visions of John’s Revelation are meant to be disturbing and disorientating. The purpose of an apocalypse is to challenge the perspectives of those who have become complacent… and so complicit to corrupt structures in society. As Babylon is devoured by the beast on which she rides, greed and pride and selfishness, if unchecked, will devour us. But those who are persecuted, disadvantaged and dispossessed are assured that their suffering does not go unnoticed and that it will come to an end.
The God of the ancient people that we collectively call Israel took many generations to become what we would recognise now as the one and only God. This passage from Isaiah draws on Babylonian, Assyrian and Canaanite mythology in which the heavens were full of competing deities. The God of Israel was the most high God, before God finally became one. This whole under current of ‘our God is bigger than your God’ is one we need to recognise and see beyond and be careful not to adopt in our own attitude towards others who are no less God’s children than ourselves.
The scriptures often tell us far more about human nature than they do the Divine. And that I think is no more true than when the scriptures speak of judgement.
The language of judgement overt in the psalm and implicit in the first reading can so easily lead us up a blind allie.
Judgement in human terms is something to be feared (what will others think about us, am I good enough) but divine judgement is something else entirely, and listen up because it’s not often you will find me on the side of the reformers, but Luther nailed it when he describes how Salvation is God’s judgement. Salvation is God’s judgement. There is nothing else that can be done to overcome sin except this gift of grace that is God’s free gift to all. But we can’t but help to think of judgement in human terms rather than through the lens of divine love and grace. The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth developed Luther’s thought by stating that we have received our sentence in Christ.
This is the essential message for me in our readings today, that despite the appalling mess we continue to make of things in everyday thoughtlessness or deliberate carelessness, the judgement has been given, and our sentence has been passed and served. And the humility that revelation calls us to, enables us to receive and to share the gift of the Spirit. And so we continue to pray in these days before Pentecost that liberated from the fear of judgement we may open our hearts to be renewed in God’s love.