Think of the Rainbow

Sunday 15th April 2018
The Forth Sunday of Easter
St Peter's, Woodmancote
BCP Matins
Genesis 7.1-5; 7.11-18; 8.6-18; 9.8-13
Acts 4.5-12

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The story of Noah and the flood is one of the longest - and surely one of the most arresting - stories in the Old Testament and yet it is unjustly overlooked, something with which we entertain children in Sunday School picture books and never think of again.

Perhaps this neglect is due to the story's peculiar construction. It is now widely accepted that the Book of Genesis is made up of four sources, generally referred to in shorthand as: J, the Jahwist, the author who referred to God as YHWH; E, the Elohist, who referred to God as Elohim; P, the Priestly source; and D, the Deuteronomist. J, a vigorous storylteller, was probably written first; E followed mostly with elaborations of J's stories; P then put in his observations; and, uch later, D interpolated the meaning of these stories in tersm of the Law; and, finally, probably during the exile of the People of Judah in Babylon in the 6th Century BC, the Redactor, or editor, pieced the whole thing together, adding bridging passages, into almost precisely what we have now.

But skilful though the Redactor was, the joins between J and P are very clear in the story of Noah and the Flood which gives rise to such glaring inconsistencies that scrutiny cannot be avoided. To give you two small but obvioous examples, in our Reading assembled largely from J, the animals are brought into the ark, not just like the popular song, two by two, but also seven by seven; and the raven finds the ground dry whereas the dove which follows finds it wet.

Our story begins before our Reading with God's anger at a sinful world, crowned by the arrogance of the building of the Tower of Babel. But even with a multitde of languages the earth's people continued their wickedness. Then, as we know, God promised a flood but preserved all the animals, and the human race through Noah and his family. But what is deeply significant about this God who is represented as behaving like a hguman being is that he veers sharply from impatience to patience, from anger to resignation, from destruction to promise.

The thing that everybody knows about this story is the use of the rainbow to represent the first Covenant that God makes, a rainbow because God makes this Covenant with Noah who stands not on behalf of the Chosen People - that only happens with Abraham - but on behalf of the whole human race; and even though there is a definite strand throughout the Old Testament which emphasises the particular nature and role of the Chosen People, we never lose sight of the ultimate purpose for which this people was chosen, which was to be, in the language of Simeon in Luke "to be a light to the Gentiles", to us.

Which leads nicely into our Reading from Acts because here we read about the pivotal change in the nature of Christianity from being a Jewish sect to being a revolutionary new religious force which proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah and, in Peter's words, is the sole source of salvation by virtue of his Resurrection; and it is that set of central beliefs which separates Christianity from its Judaic roots: for all their yearning for the Messiah the Jewish authorities had no process for discerning Messianic presence and, in any case, they were looking for the wrong thing; and they were unable to comprehend the ideaa of the Resurrection of Jesus.

What we can learn from both the Old and New Testaments is that it was always God's intention to proclaim his Good News to all the world: the rainbow under-wrote the original, universal, promise and the Resurrection confirmed it.

And yet, the history of Christianity, over time, has retreated from this openness into ever increasing restriction, making rules about who can come into Christ's church and who cannot, who can receive this or that Sacrament or blessing and who cannot and whose behaviour justifies admission and whose does not. Our reflex, in spite of what we say about the centrality of mission, is to exclude rather than to include. We might think of the rainbow as representing different races, but we might also think of it as representing different classes, gender identities, understanding of the Scriptures or ways of worshipping the Creator.

Understanding difference often occurrs through catastrophe: a rich person somehow falls into the gutter; a strict moralising person finds themselves compromised; a careful and sober person becomes an addict; but it should not take such extreme events for us to recognise difference. What we require is a prayerful exercise of the imagination, to imagine ourselves into the situation of other people rather than cruedly comparing them, usually unfavourably, with ourselves. Sadly, the journey from love to judgment is perilously short, and too many of us take it. We  are too apt, as the saying goes, to nail our colours, or usually our colour, to the mast, failing to empathise with difference: we see no virtue on the arguments of those who disagree with us on Brexit; the referee is always against us; there is only one way of folding a shirt, setting a table or landscaping a garden. And people who think or do otherwise are wrong.

So when we are tempted to be too definite about something, think about the pleasures we obtain through difference; and think of the rainbow.

Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!