John 14: 15-21
‘If you love me, you will keep[f] my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,[g] to be with you for ever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in[h] you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’
Our readings from Genesis and from John’s gospel span some of the earliest sources in the Hebrew Scripture to the most recent in the New Testament. But they deal with the same theme, the covenant relationship between God and his creation.
Both are rooted in stories which move from God’s hopes for humanity, to disappointment and violence, and then a new relationship.
The story of Noah is one of several flood stories arising across Mesopotamia, reaching back to the third millennium BC. There are many common features – angry gods, a boat, animals, birds sent out to detect land.
The compiler and writer of Genesis, likely a Jewish priest of the period after the return from Babylonian exile, does something new with the mythic story of the flood. In its ancient precursors, the hero survives due to cunning or luck, or a dissenting deity lending him a hand. Confronted by the failure of their project, for the most part the gods are angry but acquiesce to the survival of humankind.
What we see in the Genesis account is a very different imagining of the divine.
First there are the high hopes God has for his people and his relationship with them, told in the story of the Garden of Eden, and beautifully captured in the poetry of Jeremiah, who writes:
I thought, how I would set you among my children, and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of all the nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.”
However, the earth has become corrupt – more specifically as Genesis puts it, the earth is filled with violence.
The disappointment of God which follows is expressed in Genesis not as anger but as grief and pain – the Hebrew word is the same as the pains of labour handed down to Eve.
Then comes the violence of God in the great Flood. Noah and his family escape not through wit or any secret tip off, but through God’s express provision.
In the culmination and significance of the story, we have the new covenant, the new relationship, with God promising never again to curse the earth or bring down destruction upon it - with the hint perhaps that God too has changed and learned, that perhaps the relationship is deepened as the threat of retribution is withdrawn. So the rainbow becomes a symbol of a new discovery, the constancy of God’s love, which is God’s very nature.
In the Gospel, we can trace a similar journey, moving from the hope of Jesus’ ministry, the gathered crowds, the new kingdom, to heartbreak as he weeps over Jerusalem – a city and a people twisted out of shape from the potential once bestowed on them.
This time the violence is ours, is from the people, against their redeemer, driven by the powers of this world. God suffers.
But with the resurrection we have a new relationship. Jesus promises in our gospel reading that “because I live, you also will live.” The Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth, will be in you. “And those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Perhaps we can see a new iteration of this archetypal story, in our own time. The disfiguring of God’s creation by humankind, violence everywhere, tragedy and death.
But will there be a restored relationship? I for one see a renewed contest of ideas between the economy of violence, of perpetual war, and the economy of love.
The evidence of the first is in the headlines. The blaming, the fights over medical supplies, the tragic bickering and failure at the UN to agree a resolution for ceasefire. But also, more fundamentally the framing of this and every crisis as a war, repurposing old narratives. A new perpetual war to add to the War on Terror.
And yet there is also a new yearning, to build back better, in a more collaborative spirit, a new relationship, perhaps. Even for a moment our Prime Minister, who struck an unfamiliar note on his return from illness when he described the NHS as “powered by love.”
This economy of love and the economy of war are fundamentally different visions, of different origin, each capable of animating our culture. My hope is that love, connectedness, rises powerfully in the coming months, and that we in the church join its chorus.
As we do, my hope is also that we leave behind all talk of battles and wars. Even against the virus itself. I reflect on my own journey with cancer: I have never felt comfortable with talk of fighting the disease. For these are my cells, even if they are mutated, twisted from their true purpose. They are part of me, the me which is loved by God, in body and in spirit. Is this perhaps also true in some way of the virus, a part of God’s creation, even if somehow distorted, and so is also, included within the mystery of his love?
So I pray that all of creation and every human being may discover our unity in God, our connectedness with each other in his love, a new, restored covenant in which each and every living thing becomes fully itself, in harmony with all.