Monday, 15 April 2013

Easter 3: Seeing with new eyes

I deal with many funerals in the course of my work. Each one is different, with its own challenges. Often they involve a certain amount of behind-the-scenes diplomacy; I’ve hardly ever come across a family where there weren’t some tensions between family members or differences of opinion over how best to organise things. But I am heartily glad not to have had to deal with the particular challenges of the funeral we have all been aware of this week, that of Margaret Thatcher. As well as the inevitable complications of such a large scale public event, it also seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest of disagreement. Perhaps that ought not to come as a surprise; opinions were always so divided about her. But it’s clear that even 20 years after she left office people still feel just as strongly, for or against. If I were foolish enough to take a straw poll here today, I am sure that would be as true here as anywhere else.  And I am equally sure that whatever our opinions were, on this as on any other divisive subject, we would all like to think that our view was simply the logical, rational view, the view supported by the evidence, the view which anyone in their right minds would come to if they only saw the issue as clearly as us…!

The reality is, though, that people rarely make decisions as rationally as they like to think. All sorts of factors influence us that have nothing at all to do with the facts. We see things from our own perspective, and find it hard to accept that what is good for us might be bad for others. We are often swayed more than we’d like to admit by family and friends, preferring to go along with them to keep the peace – or perhaps sometimes to rebel against them for the sake of it. There is almost always far more going on beneath the surface than we’d like to admit when we take up a position on something contentious.  But having formed our opinions we tend to stick to them, even if the evidence mounts up against them, even if we know deep down that they don’t quite hold water any more.

I recall a conversation with a man in a church where I once worked. I’d been there several years, but this man had never came up to receive communion. I hadn’t taken much notice of this, though, because there are many reasons why people don’t take communion in church.  But  one day, there he was at the altar rail, and after the service he decided to explain what had happened. It turned out that before my arrival he’d been an outspoken opponent of the ordination of women. “I realised that I was wrong ages ago,” he said “not long after you’d arrived here, in fact. I just hadn’t been able to imagine a woman priest, so I thought I was against it. But the problem was that I’d been so vocal about it that everyone knew what I thought, so I felt I’d look foolish if I took the bread and wine from you. I’m sorry it’s taken so long, but I’d painted myself into a corner, and I had to wait for the paint to dry…”

There can be all sorts of reasons why we find it hard to change our position. Sometimes it is just inertia or even just laziness; it’s hard work thinking things through again, so we don’t bother unless we really have to. Sometimes we think, like the man in my church, that changing our minds will be seen as a sign of weakness. But often too we are simply blind to the way in which our opinions have actually been shaped not by logic and reason but by old wounds that need healing, old grudges and hurts, old insecurities we tried to cover up by sounding sure of ourselves.

That was the case for three of the people in our readings today. The first and most obvious was Saul who becomes Saint Paul, one of the most influential founders of the Church. At the start of the story, though, he’s dead set against it and utterly convinced that this is the only reasonable way to be. He’d grown up believing that it was the duty of every good Jewish man to uphold the traditions and laws of his people just as they had been handed down to him. He was sincere, well-meaning, sure that this was the only way to safe-guard the future of Israel and obey the will of God. We first meet him at the stoning of St Stephen. He is holding people’s cloaks so that they can take better aim at this follower of Jesus. He’s not wicked. He’s not a sadist. He’s just desperate to put a stop to what he sees as heresy, and he thinks that the end justifies the means. In our first reading today he’s on his way to Damascus. He has heard there are followers of Jesus there and he wants to stamp out this movement wherever he finds it. As far as he is concerned Jesus can’t be the Messiah. If he was, God wouldn’t have let him be crucified.

That’s why he’s so confused when he is felled by a bright light on the Damascus road. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” a voice asks him in the darkness he has been plunged into. “Who are you, Lord?” he asks. Somehow he knows that this voice is a voice from heaven, the voice of someone who has God’s blessing, his chosen one, his Messiah, but he’s stuck in his own circular logic. God’s Messiah can’t have been crucified, so whoever this is, it can’t be Jesus. But then the voice comes again, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…” The blindness that has fallen on Saul isn’t just about his physical ability to see, but his ability to make sense of the world at all. Suddenly it’s as if down is up, black is white, and nothing at all makes sense.   

Title: Conversion of St. Paul
[Click for larger image view]
West, Benjamin, 1738-1820. Conversion of St. Paul,
 from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library,
Nashville, TN.
But it’s not just Saul who has trouble seeing straight in this story. In Damascus there is a Christian called Ananias, who also hears a heavenly voice. He knows it is God, but he can’t quite believe what it is telling him to do.  Go and pray for a man of Tarsus named Saul? Ananias knows who this Saul is, and frankly he’s the last person in the world he wants to seek out. This is his most dangerous enemy – it must seem suicidal to Ananias to go and look for him deliberately. And even if that weren’t so, surely it’s a bit much for God to expect Ananias to want to help him. Why shouldn’t Saul suffer a bit, after all the harm he has done to others? But Ananias is one of the bravest and best men in the Bible, an overlooked saint, and he decides to do as he is asked. He gives up his desire for revenge and plays his part in letting God heal Saul. Just as Saul is healed of his blindness, so Ananias learns to see afresh too, and discovers that the man he thought was his worst enemy is actually his beloved brother in Christ.

Saul has to change his mind about who Jesus is. Ananias has to change his mind about who Saulis. But in the Gospel, Peter has to change his mind about who he, himself, is. He’s been on a roller coaster ride from hell. He’s watched the crowds acclaim Jesus as king, and then crucify him as an outcast heretic, all in the space of a week or so. Worse still, as all this has unfolded he’s come to realise that he isn’t the brave, loyal friend he thought he was. He has cowered in fear, denied even knowing Jesus when the chips were down. And just when it seemed it couldn’t get any worse, here is Jesus, back again, raised from death. That ought to have been a good thing… except that now Peter just doesn’t know where to put himself. How can he ever look Jesus in the eye again? Peter used to think he was Jesus’ right hand man. Jesus had called him Petros, the rock. But now he feels more like sand, useless, washed away by the storm of the crucifixion. Surely Jesus will never rely on him again. But Jesus thinks otherwise. “Do you love me, Peter?” “Yes, Lord – you know I do…” says Peter, perhaps more in hope than expectation that Jesus will believe him. “Then feed my sheep…” It’s not that Jesus is blind to Peter’s failings and weaknesses; he has always been aware of them. He’s always known Peter better than Peter has known himself. And he knows that what Peter really needs isn’t the superhuman perfection he’s been longing for, but the courage to honestly accept himself as he is. Jesus’ vote of confidence in him – “feed my sheep” – given in the full knowledge of Peter’s frailty and fallibility, enables Peter to find the forgiveness and healing he needs, and with it the courage to start afresh.

I began by talking about how hard we find it to change our positions, to accept that things aren’t always as straightforward as we assume, that we might be wrong, or need to reconsider what we think. Paul, Ananias and Peter all had to learn that the hard way. Their stories both challenge and reassure us. They challenge us to look again at God, at others, and at ourselves, to be open to new perspectives. That can be as hard for us as it was for them. But these stories also reassure us, because each of these men, in doing that, found life, love and joy which they would otherwise have missed. Whatever else the resurrection of Christ proclaims it most certainly reminds us that in him there is a new creation, a new way of seeing, in which old enmities are put aside and old barriers broken down, old sins forgiven and old hurts healed. It calls us to look at the world through the eyes of love; love for God, love for others and a proper love and respect for ourselves too. Wherever we stand on the contentious issues of the day – and we might look again and still come to the same conclusions -, if we can make it a habit to start by remembering that everyone is a child of God, beloved by him, then there is a fighting chance that God’s kingdom might be born in us even when we disagree.


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