Trinity XIV Evensong


From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: an instruction sent by Abba Moses to Abba Poemen:
A brother asked the old man, ‘Here is a man who beats his servant because of the fault he has committed; what will the servant say?’ The old man said, ‘If the servant is good, he should say, “Forgive me, I have sinned.”’ The brother said to him, ‘Nothing else?’ The old man said, ‘No for the moment he takes upon himself the responsibility for the affair and says “I have sinned,” immediately the Lord will have mercy on him. The aim in all these things is not to judge one’s neighbour. For truly, when the hand of the Lord caused all the first-born of Egypt to die, no house was without its dead.’ The brother said, ‘What does this mean?’ The old man said, ‘If we are on the watch to see our own faults, we shall not see those of our neighbour. It is folly for a man who has a dead person in his house to leave him there and go to weep over his neighbour’s dead. To die to one’s neighbour is this: To bear your own faults and not pay attention to anyone else’s wondering whether they are good or bad. Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour. This is what dying to one’s neighbour means. Do not rail against anyone, but rather say, “God knows each one.” Do not agree with him who slanders, do not rejoice at his slander and do not hate him who slanders his neighbour. This is what it means not to judge. Do not have hostile feelings towards anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbour. This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought, “Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace is for ever, by the grace of God the Word. Amen.”’ [1]
There is something very human and recognisable about the prophet Jonah: God speaks to him, and tells him to go to Nineveh to proclaim the Word of the Lord, he tries to escape, and do what he wants to do, it all goes horribly wrong until Jonah prays to God and goes to Nineveh, and issues a call to repentance, which the people of Nineveh, from the king downwards take to heart, they fast and pray, and are spared. So far so good: all is well, or so we might think. This is not, however, the end of the matter: Jonah is angry that God has forgiven the people of Nineveh. This is quite understandable, as the people of Assyria, who live in Nineveh are enemies of Israel, these are people who will conquer Israel, and lead its people off into captivity and exile. Job’s dilemma is a simple one, how can the God of Israel be loving and forgiving towards the enemies of his people?
      Jonah’s fundamental problem is that his conception of God is far too small, too nationalistic, and he forgets that God, is first and foremost a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness. There is a tendency to argue that in the Old Testament God is a God of judgement, retribution, who rains down fire from heaven, whereas in the New Testament we see in Jesus Christ a God of Love.  This is a false dichotomy, a trap into which Christians have been falling, and continue to fall, from which they need help. From Marcion in the second century adto the liberal German protestantism of Adolf von Harnack and others, and the Jesus Seminar of late twentieth century America, we see people who, when faced with a difficult and complex picture of God, have preferred to make the complex simple, and to refashion the Divine into what they want it to be, rather than live with the fact that at one level God is ‘beyond our ken’ that the love and mercy of God are beyond our human comprehension.
      This is for a perfectly good reason, namely that intellectual comprehension is not the point, but rather the love, mercy and forgiveness of God is something which is to be experienced rather than understood. It is something demonstrated to the world when Our Lord Saviour, who took our flesh for our sake was scourged, and nailed to a Cross to die for us, to bear the burden of our sins, to pay the debt which we cannot, to heal us and restore us. The world did not understand this two thousand years ago, nor does it today. What looked like failure was in fact a great victory, the King of Heaven and Earth reigns nailed to the wood of a Cross. His flesh bears forever the mark of nails and spear as they are the wounds of love: God’s love of us, frail, sinful humanity, and through these wounds we are healed and restored, in them we find the inexhaustible store of God’s mercy poured out for and upon us.
      God does not need to do this, but as a God of love and mercy, who longs to heal and restore humanity made in His image what else can he do? As those healed and restored by him we are to live lives of radical love and forgiveness like those Christians in the Egyptian Desert who practised what they preached, and through their faith and humility inspired others to come to Christ and to follow Him, turning away from the ways of the world, and to Christ, who alone can heal and restore us, the God of love and mercy. Let us be healed and restored by him, and share that love and mercy with others so that they too may praise God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever.  


[1] Sr Benedicta Ward(tr.) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, London: A. R. Mowbray 1975: 120-121

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