Thought for the Week 21st March 2021

Red And Yellow And Pink And Green

(by Rev Paul Graham)

Read Genesis 9:8-17

They say that many hands make light work; however, they also say that too many cooks spoil the broth. This week’s “Thought” will prove one way or the other, as it was inspired by the Prayer Meeting on Tuesday evening. To save their blushes, I won’t list the names of those present in case they feel that I don’t do them justice in the following.

We are at the end of our time with Noah, his family and their assorted menagerie of boat-dwelling beasts. We’ve spent the last few weeks reflecting on how this story that has been passed down through countless generations of Sunday School children still resonates so clearly today. And this week’s reading is no different.

The song “I can sing a rainbow” still has its place in many hearts and minds, whether it is as a memory from childhood or sung to our children. The list of seven colours as we warble away come readily to mind, or we use the historically questionable acronym Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain to remember the sequence, if there isn’t a rainbow on hand to prompt us.

Rainbows are synonymous with hope; this year they have gained significance through the pandemic as a sign of support and solidarity for our beleaguered National Health Service from those of us who have been shut away for months, insulated as the majority of us have been from the pressure of the frontline[1]. The bright colours filled the darkness of the pandemic with a spark of joy and broke up the monotony of yet another day in lockdown. For many, it was a reminder of the presence of God with us as we navigated this particular storm, hoping that one day we would find the dry land of a restriction free life again – we’re still holding onto that hope.

We find the rainbow in other places and contexts; since the late 1970s it has become a visible symbol of Pride marches and LGBTQ+ identity, causing much controversy and consternation among sections of the church. However, as the flag has evolved over the years, going from its original 8 stripes to 6 and then back up to 8 (each colour representing a different meaning or group), it can be seen as distinct from the symbol of the covenant in Genesis; certainly, its creator wasn’t thinking of biblical imagery when he came up with the idea.[2] And there are the different Greenpeace ships that have gone under the name Rainbow Warrior since 1978, the first of which was infamously sunk by members of the French Intelligence Services in 1985. As a symbol of “breaking boundaries and fearless campaigning”[3], these ships, like the other members of the Greenpeace fleet, are decorated with both the rainbow and the dove carrying an olive branch, another potent symbol of peace and hope from earlier in the story.

So, rainbows can have different meanings depending on our contexts, the times that we are living in, and the causes that we choose to follow. In our reading today, the rainbow has a single meaning: as a way of remembering the covenant made between God and creation, given to Noah and his family. However, there are a number of things to note about what is going on here, which we will cover in turn.

Firstly, this is not a transactional covenant; there is no requirement on Noah (or his descendants) to do anything. The promise is one-way only; the burden of responsibility is on God’s shoulders and on his alone. Leaping ahead to the New Testament, it is noticeable that Jesus’ teaching is predicated on the same terms in his offer of forgiveness. Whether it is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) or when Jesus is teaching on forgiveness that was to be offered up to “seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:22 – seventy-seven times is an alternative, still generous quantity), all of these are gifts of grace offered without expectation of reply or repentance. On the cross, Jesus begged of his Father, “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34); God’s covenant promise to Noah echoes at Golgotha with the same generous, unconditional grace and love.

Secondly, the covenant is universal; there is no distinction between people and animals, let alone between nations and nationalities. God’s promise is for all living creatures without exception, even the wasps[4]. It’s a shame that throughout history we haven’t kept the same level of promise to species such as the dodo and the great auk, let alone our fellow human beings.

Thirdly, the rainbow is a sign of remembrance for God as well as for humanity. Not only will Noah’s descendants spot a rainbow and know that there won’t be an apocalyptic end to the storm, but so too will it be a reminder to God. Of course, it’s not the same as our remembering something that we’ve forgotten; for God remembering the flood is the same as when he remembered the ark’s inhabitants as they floated on those same floodwaters (Genesis 8:1).

It’s the same type of remembering that Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper whenever they eat and drink (Luke 22:19) and that Paul has in mind when he writes to the church in Corinth about their commemorations of that same event (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Remembering in this context is to bring to the forefront of our minds something that is always present but holds special significance at that time. A holy moment, if you want to see it as such; for those who hold to a sacramental view of communion as a way of physically demonstrating the spiritual “eating and drinking” of God’s grace, the sign of the rainbow would be interpreted as a physical expression of the spiritual bond of love between God and every living creature.

What does this mean to us in our 2021 world where for so much of society promises are fleeting, and when the going gets too tough, or we get a better offer, can be broken as quickly and as easily as the biscuit that you might be eating while you’re reading this? What price covenant in our convenient world?

Well, the answer lies, as Sunday School classes will also have taught us, in Jesus. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus showed us that the covenant that had been made all those centuries ago was as relevant as it ever had been. And so it should be today. Whether it is in the words of comfort to the thief hanging on the neighbouring cross (Luke 23:42-43) or of enforced invitation to a party at Zacchaeus’s house (Luke 19:5), time and again Jesus gave grace without waiting for repentance or apology (the thief on the cross just wanted to be remembered). If some form of repentance or apology followed afterwards (as with Zacchaeus making reparation to those he had fleeced) then all well and good, but that wasn’t Jesus’ priority then and it isn’t now. If you’re unconvinced, just look at the number of occasions that Jesus forgives someone’s sin without them asking.

Our Prayer Meeting on Tuesday (I bet you wondered when I’d get round to that) was the latest in our continuing exploration of 2 Chronicles 4:13 (“If my people…”), our focus this session on God’s promise to “forgive their sin”. Contrary to all that has been written so far, the instructions here are entirely transactional, following a pattern of cause and effect that we might be more comfortable with: God allows bad things to happen, people change their attitudes for the better, God makes things right again (this is just a summary – if you haven’t joined us for these prayer meetings yet, you have one more chance in April). Concentrating on God’s promise to respond by forgiving sins, those of us at the prayer meeting were struck by the gratitude that we felt we didn’t always express at this remarkable gift. There followed a time of giving thanks to God for the gift of forgiveness and grace, something that many of us find difficult to receive especially mindful of the cost that Jesus paid at the cross in our place.

But the cross is so much more than an exchange of grace for sin for a select few; it was Jesus’ greatest sacrifice and most of the world still don’t realise that it’s as applicable to them as God’s promise to Noah was for the whole of creation. And that is what we should be thankful for – just as the rainbow is a reminder of God’s universal promise to care about all life, so too is the cross a reminder of God’s universal gift of grace for all humanity. And there must be some way that we can share that with others – and a good way to start is by being more forgiving of others just as Jesus told Peter. The biggest test is whether we can do it without being asked…

Amen.


[1] The photo at the top of this article is of knitted rainbow bunting that was strung across the front of the church notice board during the first lockdown.

[2] Gilbert Baker, widely credited with introducing the first Pride flag in 1978, has claimed he was inspired by the eclectic colours seen among revellers at a party, rather than anything spiritual or theological.

[3] Quote from https://www.greenpeace.org/international/explore/ships/rainbow-warrior/

[4] I really don’t like wasps. Their existence is one of the questions that I’ve got saved up for heaven.


(Photo by the author )