I suspect we’ve all been in meetings before where we feel completely out of our depth. Imposter syndrome takes over as we think others are only a few minutes away from finding we’re not up to it. It’s the recurring dream so many have: of taking an exam but not having prepared for it; or acting in a play where you don’t know your lines.
These kinds of meetings are painful, but we can take heart from one thing: absolutely no-one has been as out of depth in a meeting as the prophet Isaiah when he had that vision of heaven in the sixth chapter of his book. We like props for support: papers, laptop, phone, pens to twiddle in our hands. Isaiah was a human being alone in the court of God in heaven. Exposed, inadequate, horribly self-aware. And knowing as a devout Jew that no-one can look on God and live.
His exclamation: woe is me, is the cry of someone sunk without trace. His mood is unlikely to have improved by having hot coal pressed to his lips, one of the most sensitive parts of the body. But something life-altering happened.
If anxiety about being shown up at a meeting is a recurring fear, there’s usually another worry: what do you do when they are looking for volunteers? Most of us have practised the art of suddenly looking incredibly interested in the papers in front of us; of avoiding eye contact with the chair; of holding out even as our body temperature rises. In Isaiah’s vision, God asks who will speak for him and quick as a flash, the man who moments earlier said he was finished, offers his services. Scripture is full of people who were very reluctant to do what God asked them; Isaiah is way out in front as the quickest volunteer off the blocks.
But he is run a close second by the apostle Peter. Impetuous and mercurial, Peter was always the first to declare his undying love for Jesus, but the background to the post-resurrection breakfast at Galilee in John chapter 21 is darker. And to get a feel for it, we need some imagination. We can be too binary at Easter. On Good Friday we mourn for the sins that put Jesus to death. On Easter Sunday, we rejoice that his new life means a new creation is coming. Yet for those who lived those long days in Jerusalem, there was something in between.
There may have been a growing, if provisional sense of joy that Jesus was alive again. But the awkwardness between the disciples and Jesus in that upper room on that first Sunday was as loud as a blue light siren. Having deserted Jesus in his last hours, the best hope his friends had was to re-write history so it would look a little more kindly on them. The re-appearance of Jesus put paid to that one and compelled them to face up to their own failings. Could we have looked him in the eye after running away from his arrest scene three days earlier? There was joy that day, but also something hanging heavily in the air between them, and especially between Peter and Jesus after his horrendous threefold denial of even knowing Jesus when Jesus needed him most.
Cultures change, and ours is so very different to first century Palestine’s new Church. If Peter had messed up this way in today’s world, it’s likely he wouldn’t have got a second chance. The reminders of his denial would likely not relent; people would gossip about him and look for further proof of his inadequacy. It’s something to do with our impaired view of forgiveness in society. We don’t really believe in it, and would rather mistakes hung over people like a yellow card in football, awaiting another foul that brings it into play.
Forgiveness is, of course, based on repentance, which in our personal pride is another ethic we struggle with. But when forgiveness is not properly extended to those who confess, people have to live with the shame of what they have done. Constant shame is a debilitating thing. The inability to live with it can lead to some deciding that having no shame at all in their conduct is the only way. But that in itself only poisons our common life.
I believe we should expect high standards of all those who follow Christ. But this should be married to honest, realistic conversations about our failings. In the ordinary course of things, relationships can be restored. But it is hard to forgive someone when they do not admit they have done wrong and it is hard to admit you have done something wrong when you know you won’t be forgiven.
There is not much forgiveness for people today. It means that many people carry in their hearts a weight of guilt that is hard to bear. These things are not much spoken of in a culture which makes a virtue of people expressing themselves without counting the cost of that for others. But this guilt is there, and there is no real absolution in a world that is losing its belief in God, and especially a God of grace.
We should believe this Gospel, preach it and most especially, live it. Like Isiaah, there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, but there is a God in heaven who can.
It is interesting that Isaiah’s first thought - when he realises he is in the very presence of God in heaven - was for his speech: I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. Words have extraordinary power to release people and to condemn them. In that moment, Isaiah knew his life had been full of the latter. But he went on to deliver some of the most glorious, hopeful, life-affirming prophecies in history. In God, there is always forgiveness and a future, as Peter found.
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