There’s a poem by Leonard Cohen which starts: ‘You who pour mercy into hell’…! It is from this perspective I start my reflection on three Bible readings which bring together Peter’s instructions to the early Christians to be obedient to the authorities (1 Peter 2:11-25); Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:55-60); and Jesus’ final teachings to his disciples as he prepares to step into the hell of betrayal, denial, torture and state sanctioned death (John 14:1-14).
During May, Queensland focuses on the prevention of domestic and family violence, so its confronting to find ourselves listening to stories of both violence and love. Peter was writing to a community he was trying to keep safe. In the chaotic and violent times of the Roman Emperor Nero, Peter was urging fellow disciples in the early Christian community to do what was asked by the authorities and avoid unnecessary confrontation by any disobedience and questioning of the civil authorities. It’s a text which has been used in the past to support slave ownership. It has been used to confirm the divine right of kings to rule with unquestioned authority, and spreads the belief of the righteousness of suffering passively in silence which instead enables patriarchy, authoritarianism and abuse to flourish, as our rewards will be in heaven. It’s a hard text to read with our culture today. I question many of the interpretations of this text in many commentaries: texts which write about submission and obedience extrapolated from the original intention and context to facilitate similar beliefs to be promulgated today.
With grief, it feels like God’s love is being abused: ‘You who pour mercy into hell…’
Our theological, pastoral and loving advice, time and again is never to submit to, or put up with, authoritarian, dogmatic, bullying, coercive, manipulative arguments or behaviour which leave a vulnerable person open to danger, abuse and violence. Violence of any sort is unacceptable. An alternative approach for the Peter text is to focus on how we are invited to live for righteousness, how Jesus trusted himself to God and God’s justice and how God lovingly heals us. Jesus never threatened, abused, or coerced. He did not punish or withdraw God’s love. Jesus made a deliberate, thoughtful choice about how he lived and how he would die, as God’s Son, accepting this world would torture and kill him because he shared a gospel of love. While he was considered a dead failure according to the world’s standards, for us, he is the risen Lord; our God who never turned away from the terror of violence and death to save himself. Jesus wrapped all the horror, fear and brokenness in God’s arms and still tenderly loves the world.
With gratitude I hear, ‘You who pour mercy into hell…’
The story of Stephen’s death takes us to a different place. I weep when I read it. Stephen too, made a deliberate choice to show God’s love for God’s people right to the end. Like Jesus, Stephen chose to do the same. Martyrdom in such a context was the inevitable next step for someone who refusing to deny Jesus. Stephen cried out: ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’, (Acts 7: 60) as his people stoned him to death. The killing was watched over approvingly by the authorities, including Saul who later encountered God personally, a man who violently ravaged the early Christian church in Jerusalem; he approved the killing of Stephen (Acts 8:1).
‘You who pour mercy into hell….’
Then finally we meet Jesus, telling his disciples, including Philip and us: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)
Philip captures my imagination in this discussion, his lack of understanding and practical question echoes our questions to Jesus as we want to hear something we can hang onto: ‘Show us the Father and we will be satisfied’, he says. Jesus’ frustration shows through: ‘Have I been with you all this time Philip, and you still do not know me?’ (John 14:9).’
I am frequently like Philip, as a human being, as a Christian and priest. I am not satisfied with Jesus’ words at times when I want to know where God is and what God is like, what God is doing, when I am frightened, saddened, despairing, when death and evil rage unexpectedly and uncontrollably in the world. But Jesus reminds us, when the words aren’t sufficient, we can look to Jesus’ works and life; in every aspect of his being we can see God. Jesus’ life brings God closer to me.
Like Philip, we are tempted to think and act out of scarcity, fear and blindness. When we look at Jesus, filled with abundant love, instead our cup overflows. Together, you and I, we are as one heart and one body, being gifted God’s love in Jesus. We can see God in the way Jesus is with us and with God, and how we are with one another and with God.
This is not a story of exclusiveness or division. This text cannot be used to justify leaving out those who haven’t seen God in the same way we have, to exclude, judge or punish. Jesus’ life, glorification, death, resurrection and return to the Father are to benefit the whole world by bringing us abundant life. This is why Stephen died and this is why we too fall into God’s love.
Wherever joy and abundance replace embarrassment and scarcity, healing occurs unexpectedly, paralysis gives way to movement, hungry people are fed and filled, calm overcomes a storm, someone receives new vision, peace overtakes violence, life triumphs over death and Jesus is still working with us, and among us. Leonard Cohen’s reflection continues:
You who pour mercy into hell …let us bring to you the sorrows of our freedom. Blessed are you, who opens a gate in every moment, to enter in truth or tarry in hell. Let me be with you again, let me put this away, you who wait beside me, who have broken down your world to gather hearts. Blessed is your name, blessed is the confession of your name. Kindle the darkness of my calling, let me cry to the one who judges the heart in justice and mercy. Arouse my heart again with the limitless breath you breathe into me…(Cohen 2019:43-44)
Jesus said: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’ (John 14:6-7).
The Lord be with you
Cohen, L. 2019. Book of Mercy. Canongate Books Ltd., GB
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels John, Vol. 2 Chapters 10-21. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.