The Rainbow

Sunday 18th February 2018
Year B, The First Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Genesis 9.8-17
Mark 1.9-15

One of the most striking moments in our recent family history occurred on the day of my grand-daughter's wedding. It was one of those ever more frequent volatile Autumn days generated by climate change, such that the bride arrived at church in the first minute of sunshine after a morning of downpour. All went well until we were sipping our champagne prior to dinner when there was another downpour which drove us all into the catering tepees. When the rain stopped, there was a magnificent rainbow and the special moment came when photographers, professional and amateur, framed the newlyweds precisely in the centre of the rainbow. A picture that will be transmitted down the generations.

For its sheer beauty and surprise, there is little to surpass the rainbow which is why we love it so much but in recent years it has taken on a much greater cultural significance, being used as the symbol for the preservation of our identity within the protection of diversity. Rainbow coalitions of all kinds have been proclaimed to the horror of those who think that the only colour is white, or that the only form of God-given sexuality is traditional; or that male dominance is natural; or that political correctness is a conspiracy against white males; or that women who complain against Harvey Weinstein and his sort are 'liberal' snow-flakes; or that difference of any kind is an assault on some notional idea of Britishness.

Last week there were two news stories that struck me particularly hard: the first was that among religious groups Anglicans are the most likely to be against immigration; and that Cheddar man had almost black skin to accompany his pale blue eyes; it ought to make us think.

The rainbow in our Reading from genesis signifies, not a Covenant with the Jewish people but with the whole, almost wiped out, human race. Noah stands before the Lord on behalf of eight human beings which are to be the ancestors of all tribes and peoples. The rainbow in the sky, therefore, represents God's covenant with his rainbow peoples here below; it is God's celebration of the richness and diversity of 'his' creation.

Our Gospel Reading is seven breathless verses from the First Chapter of Mark which encompasses the Baptism of Jesus and the first formulation of the Trinity, Jesus' sojourn in the desert of fasting and praying, the ministering angels, the arrest of John Baptist and the commencement of Jesus' mission as his cousin's successor in the key words: "The time is fulfilled; and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news."

You might have expected me to preach on the prayer and fasting and the repentance but you will get plenty of that - too much for my taste - but what I think we all lack is a better sense of the Good News, a better understanding of why the fasting and praying is necessary rather than seeing it as some self-chastising ritual in its own right. We fast and pray to make us more fit to proclaim the Good News with energy and conviction but the point at issue is not our personal virtue or piety, the point is the News; and that news is, as we shall learn again as we journey to Jerusalem to witness the final days of Jesus, that our certain hope lies in the Resurrection, shining like a rising sun behind the blackened wood of the cross. The image of gold and black is striking but this should not mislead us into believing that this certain hope is our personal property. Just as the Covenant with Noah was a rainbow, so the death and Resurrection of Jesus as the culmination of salvation history is equally inclusive.

What disturbs me about the history of Christianity, at least since it was adopted by The Emperor Constantine as Byzantium's official religion, is our tendency to exclude rather than include, to make this Good News terribly difficult, to set conditions for entry and to set our own standards of behaviour as those to be followed by everybody else.

Now whether we are advertising good news or soap powder, the notion that the seller is always right and the customer is always wrong makes for a very hard sell indeed; but apart from being tactically futile this is conceptually hollow. What God offered to Noah and what Jesus offers to everyone is a covenant where we are the physical bodies sent to proclaim the mission of Jesus; we are not here to hand out punitive contracts with a mass of small print, we are here, in a completely open handed, inclusive way, to proclaim the news of salvation to all whom we meet: we should think of this mission to spread the Good News of Jesus in the same way that well-wishers shower newlyweds with confetti; we should smile as we bless all whom we meet.

Remember that Jesus said that when we fast and pray we should emerge from our private place with a smile on our face. It seems somewhat anti-intuitive to our tradition to smile in Lent but as this is a special time for strengthening us to renew our spreading of the Good News with greater vigour, that is something to smile about.

Our world does not need telling that it is imperfect, that there are many terrible events of which we are ever more aware because of 24/7 news; it is not our job to lecture but to give hope; not just to give everybody the benefit of the doubt but to welcome everybody as made in the image of God. I know nobody who has never had anything to repent of but, having repented, there is hunger for the good news and if we are not effectively spreading it, the fault lies with us and not with those who find it hard to connect with what we are saying. A rainbow world needs a rainbow church.