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Readings: 4th Sunday of Easter

02 May 2014

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[Genesis 7;] Acts 2.42-end; 1 Peter 2.19-end; John 10.1-10 

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

OVER the next three weeks, we hear the fabulous flood story, which is resonant with baptismal imagery that is so appropriate in the Easter season, when, in the early centuries, the newly baptised were instructed in the faith that they had embraced through baptism. Can we be instructed, too?

The earth, which God had created very good (Genesis 1.31), had become corrupt and filled with violence, going its own self-destructive way. The flood is described as an act, not of God's anger, but of his sorrow at a spoiled creation.

So God offered a new beginning, and promised a covenant with Noah, who would be saved if he expressed his obedience by building an ark. The exotic exaggeration of Noah's age expresses his righteousness: he had outlived the normal 120-year life-span that God had decreed (Genesis 6.3).

Archaeological records tell of extensive floods that may lie behind the various flood stories of mythology. The editor of Genesis blended two versions of the story, and we need not worry about the discrepancy in animal numbers.

What is significant is the way in which the Bible's flood story differed from those told in other ancient cultures, where floods are capricious or malicious acts by the gods. Here, the flood is God's judgement on human sin, with a view to a new beginning.

In this distinctive theology, in the biblical version of flood story, God remains in control, but allows creation to express its natural power. The swirling waters coming from below and the deluge from above threaten a return to the chaos before God brings order to creation in Genesis 1. God acts to deliver people through the flood, and (reading ahead to the next two weeks' portion of the story), once it is over, God encourages Noah and his family to make a new and fruitful beginning, almost repeating the instructions given to Adam. The slate was (literally) wiped clean.

This version of a flood story does not allow us to see natural disasters as an angry deity's capricious acts, but as a consequence of the way the earth is made, and the way we live on it. Nevertheless, the vivid descriptions of the force and extent of the flood and its devastating effect remind the people of God's power, a theme expressed vividly in Psalm 29. The other side of this coin, however, is that God uses that power to deliver people.

This theme of deliverance through waters occurs again in the exodus, as we heard two weeks ago, and in Isaiah's prophetic promise: "Fear not, I have redeemed you. When you pass through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you" (Isaiah 43.1-2). God's underlying care in seeking the deliverance of his people also shines through in Jesus's words: "I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture."

As Christians, we also see this symbolism in baptism, and the Church began to baptise from day one. What did people do after they were baptised? They devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.

They also ensured that no one was in need: God's generous deliverance of them issued in their generous care of people in need. The phrase "glad and generous hearts" is wonderfully evocative of the atmosphere in the new Church: no wonder they had the good will of other people, and that many were saved and added to their number. This was indeed a new beginning.

Noticing how God personally shut Noah and his coterie in the ark (a vivid image of God's slamming the door shut), and recalling that Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold, thus facing danger to protect those inside, can help us to make a response to floods and other tragedies which is more reflective of God's care and protection. We experienced last winter's flooding in Britain as a disaster, and it brought things close to home; but will we remember the impact when the next disaster strikes somewhere far away?

Perhaps our Easter thankfulness to God for raising us to the life of righteousness can be expressed through glad and generous caring for people who suffer from the turbulence of our world.

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