The Revd Brutus Green
“And after the fire [there was] a sound of sheer silence.”
A soldier asked Abba Mios, one of the Desert Fathers of very early Christianity, if God accepted repentance. The old man replied “Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?” The soldier replied, “No I mend it and wear it again.” Abba Mios said to him, “If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about his creature?”
Our two readings today reflect the anxiety, the insecurity of two of the most significant of biblical characters. They also demonstrate the surprising and calming presence of God; a God as careful about his creatures as our soldier is about his cloak.
The thing that immediately struck me though with that little story was that actually I would throw away the cloak. Or actually I’d probably put it in the far reaches of a dusty cupboard with thought that one day I’d repair it, shadowed by the guilty knowledge that I’d never get round to it. Either way the current zeitgeist demands that the broken are chucked - usually it costs more to repair something than to buy it new. In the last fortnight I’ve had a TV and a vacuum cleaner break and it didn’t even occur to me to get them mended. It remains to be seen whether Austerity Britain will go back to darning its socks and making do.
Where a culture of replaceability hits the proverbial fan though is when it comes to people. Now we could get into the turbulent waters of bio-ethics and difficult questions of foetuses, disability and abortion - or science that lets you choose your baby’s eye colour and gender, but I want to think about a more basic issue about the theological value of persons. Because I suspect that almost all people share the assumption that the normative human being is such that he, or perhaps she, is a fully mobile, intelligent person in full possession of their sensory, mental and physical capacities. Any deviation from this fullness is a handicap, a dis-ability that makes them less valuable, less fully human, as further from the ideal.
And if you are scandalized by this claim, or have any doubt, just consider for a moment whether you consider that in heaven such people would remain blind, mentally impaired, wheelchair bound or schizophrenic? Will these deficiencies not somehow be ironed out so they can enjoy the fullness of human life?
Our natural assumption is that our heavenly bodies will be size 8, IQ 200, 4 limb, 2 wing affairs; but what does that mean for someone whose identity and personality have been formed and depend on an entirely different sort of body?
This question was raised by one girl who asked her parents with incisive but uncomfortable perception, “If I’m not retarded in heaven, how will you recognise me?”
From a Christian perspective the difficult contradiction comes between the resurrected body of Christ on the one hand, that continues to bear his wounds, and the miracle stories in which the blind, the lame, the demon-possessed and haunted are cured. In ethical terms the contradiction falls between regarding someone with a disability as complete in themselves and using whatever means are at our disposal to improve how their bodies work.
The point, however, goes beyond those people who we tend to segregate as differently abled. None of us are getting any younger. I myself turned 26 for the seventh time this year, I don’t dare to ask how old Steve and Bryan turned at their birthdays last month, and I’ve heard that someone in our congregation has also reached a significant milestone. I’m sure you would like as your resurrected body, the frame you had when you were 18, but what about the tattoo you got at 21, the scars you got at 30, the cosmetic surgery you had at 40, the piercing at 50. It would be sad if in heaven no one could wear earrings... But more than this, our very lives are written on our bodies. And the instinctive reactions we form when we are older, the synaptic connections formed in our neurons which are the basis of our wisdom and personality are what makes a fifty year old body just as good as a twenty year old and a seventy year old body.
In our first reading we had Elijah exhausted after slaying all the prophets of Baal, and having travelled far into the wilderness, weak from eating nothing, harassed, isolated and fed up, he asks God to take away his life. He is the last of the faithful, persecuted by Ahab and Jezebel. This is where God meets him. And not in hurricanes, earthquakes or fires but in the ‘sound of sheer silence’. Silence which is ever-vulnerable to the slightest noise as human beings are to every sling and arrow that comes our way.
The Christian God is not one who confronts strength with strength - calling Abercrombie and Fitch models with a display of his awesomeness. But one who confronts weakness with weakness - by addressing a worn out old man with the sound of silence; by entering a difficult world as a newborn baby. And through this old man maintaining the fidelity and justice of a nation, and by that baby demonstrating the nature of perfect universal love.
Similarly for Peter we have a somewhat extraordinary story. If I was considering walking on water the moment of doubt would be the first step. I kind of figure that if you can make a couple of steps and stay dry it should be easy going. But oddly Peter is all too keen to make those first steps and only afterwards does he begin to wonder what on earth he’s doing as he begins to sink. He realises his own weakness in the face of the strong wind; and that is where Jesus meets him, taking him by the hand as one would a child.
Christianity is a religion based on the weakness of humanity. The disciples of the Gospels are all failures. We are made from dust and know that to dust we will return. The central image of the faith, however sanitized, is an instrument of torture and execution. What this should tell us, hopefully without sounding too much like Obe wan Kanobe, is that our weakness is where we are most divine. We are valuable not in spite of our weakness but because of it. Because it is when we know that we are weak that we most reach out to others - that we are most able to love and to be loved, to receive and to give.
It is probably not that worthwhile imagining what our resurrection body might look like. But we are presented with perfect bodies all the time, most of which are trying to sell us something and like Julia Roberts airbrushed out of reality and with somebody else's legs. It is both a theological and an ethical danger to think that these heavenly bodies are closer to God or of more value. We live and hope in the contradiction both that every body, firm and infirm, is of the utmost value and also that all of us, like the soldier’s cloak, are in need of repair.
That analogy was a response to the question - does God accept repentance? The real need for repentance, however, comes from our own temptations to make certain people invisible or count them as worthless - to suggest that this cloak, this person, should be thrown away or put to one side. As such every attempt to make our buildings, our work, our friendships more inclusive is an attempt to bring in the Kingdom of God. It might properly be said that building a ramp into a church is eschatological - a glimpse of heaven if you like.
It is the purpose of intercessory prayer to bring the tears in our cloaks before God. And to leave them for a moment in the sound of sheer silence. And we can do this in faith that no matter how the fabric fails, or how our feet sink, our hand is faithfully held by our Father in heaven. Amen.