Variations on a theme

A Reflection on Psalm 15 by Canon Rob, 17th July, the 5th Sunday after Trinity

You will probably know that there are several translations of the Bible, from the Kings James version with its very beautiful but old English to the New Revised Standard Version published, I think, in 1989 and the one we use mostly in our Services at St Dunstan’s and St Peter’s. There are many versions in between and more recently! The psalms as we have inherited them are in our Old Testament and therefore there are many translations of these: some easier to understand than others. If you have more than one copy of the Bible at home, it is worth spending a little time comparing the translations and the psalm set for today is as good a place as any to start.

According to one of my Bible commentaries, Psalm 15 is considered to be second only in popularity to psalm 23. Whether or not that is true, there is no doubt that for the Jewish community it was – and maybe still is – the psalm which sums up how to live a life devoted to God. The late Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, George Appleton, wrote a book called “Understanding the Psalms” in which he said, “The Talmud, the authoritative  collection of Jewish law, thought and tradition says that all the 613 commandments of the Pentateuch [the first five books in the Bible] are summed up in this psalm.” Psalm 15 is a list of moral values, values which God requires of us if we are, as verse 1 says, “to dwell in [his] tabernacle” and “rest upon [his] holy hill.Or, Perhaps more helpfully, is the translation used in the picture here, “Who may worship in your sanctuary Lord; who may enter your presence?” The answer is given in verse 2: “Whoever leads an uncorrupt life and does the thing that is right.” Or, as the Good News Bible puts it, “A person who obeys God in every-thing and always does what is right.” The remaining verses, except for the last, list what this means: summed up, mostly, in having right and good relationships, speaking the truth, not being deceitful, caring for a friend and being kind to neighbours, not mixing with a ‘bad crowd,’ keeping promises, and not being greedy or misusing money. As we reflect upon these, it is helpful to remember Jesus’ summary of the Law, “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself,” noting that, for those of faith at least, the latter is a result, or perhaps better, a consequence of the former.

Throughout the Old Testament there is a huge emphasis on the need to obey God. According to the “Good News Bible Concordance,” there are approximately four hundred references, the first being in Genesis 17.1 when the Lord appeared to Abram, soon to be called Abraham, and said, “I am the Almighty God. Obey me and always do what is right.” (Note the similarity between this and the second part of verse 2 in our psalm for today.) The call for obedience doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you read the whole of Genesis 17, you will see that obedience is linked with the covenant, or promise, which God makes with Abraham and his descendants. From then on, the Lord will be their God and they will be his people. From then on they will be God’s chosen people. Such an enormous privilege, but what an enormous responsibility!

It is that privilege and responsibility which we share today, through the new covenant which Jesus established.(At this point you may want to read Chapter 15 of St John’s Gospel and reflect upon the beautiful words which Jesus shared with his disciples during the evening before he was arrested.) We, and our Christian sisters and brothers down the years, owe much to the Jewish community. The whole Bible is the story of God’s relationship with humanity and all creation and the Old Testament, including the psalms, helps inform who we are and where we have come from. It is a vital part of our story and without it we would be lost. The covenant between God and Abraham is just as real for us and, as verse 8 of Psalm 15 puts it, if we obey God we “shall never fall.”

“Lord, lead us to our heavenly home by single steps of self restraint and deeds of righteousness.”
[prayer at end of psalm 15 in Common Worship]

The Feast of St Thomas

A Reflection on Psalm 31.1-6 by Canon Rob, 3rd July

Today’s Gospel reading tells of the incident, a week after Jesus’ resurrection, when Thomas-who had previously doubted that his Master was alive again-had his faith restored. In this picture, by Caravaggio, we see the moment when Jesus invites Thomas to reach out and touch the wound in Jesus’ side. I have always been grateful to St Thomas because his experience allows me to know that it is all right to have doubts and there have been many to wrestle with over the years.

It is fitting then to have part of Psalm 31 to reflect upon today, with its opening words, “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge.” For it is a prayer of one who has struggled, indeed suffered, in the past and remembering that God has helped him before, he calls for his help again. The authors of the psalms believed that much of their suffering was brought upon themselves because they had sinned: something you will find echoes of if you read verse 9 (beyond the verses set for today.) So these opening verses are a prayer for deliverance. Verse 2 shows how anxious the author is. “Incline your ear to me; make haste to deliver me.” We have no idea what is causing the writer to be so distressed, but clearly he is anxious at the time of writing. Verse 11 gives us a clue as to what he is going through: it seems he has faced a great deal of criticism, even cruelty, for his faith in God. So he turns to the one who he knows has always been there for him, the God (see verse 3) who is his “rock” and “stronghold.” There is a renewed confidence in these words just as Thomas, on seeing (and touching) the risen Jesus, says, “My Lord and my God!” Doubt is overcome. Faith is restored. Trust is expressed in verse 5: words which Jesus said just before he died on the cross. “Into your hands I commend my spirit;” words which will be familiar to those who take part in the late evening Service called Compline.

In the Old Testament the word “rock” is a symbol of stability and determination. It is always there and when applied to God it suggests complete reliability. So, in her prayer (See 1 Samuel 2.1-10) Hannah says of the Lord in verse 2, “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” [NRSV translation] God has not, does not, and never will let his people down. He is always ‘there,’ just as the sun is even when it is hidden by clouds.

But sometimes it doesn’t feel like that. We continue to see images from Ukraine and I cannot even begin to understand what the people are going through: whether those who remain in their country, or the millions who have fled their homes to seek refuge and safety elsewhere. Their courage remains, a courage founded on their trust in God. Yet…… yet there are surely times of doubt. Where is “the rock” for those who are desperate and have lost everything? The answer is that he is with us as he promised he would be. “ assured I am with you always, to the end of time.” So said Jesus to his disciples just before he ascended into heaven. (See Matthew 28.20) Yet the author of the psalm lived before Jesus was born and would not have the reassurance which the disciples were given. However, he will have been able to look back at his history and seen there many occasions when God had rescued his people. He is probably referring to his own experience of being rescued before in verses 21 and 22 when he is looking back and finds strength in doing so.

We don’t always get everything right when it comes to faith in God. Thomas didn’t. But that’s O.K! God is very patient. He understands us and loves us more than we can imagine, even if and when we have times of doubt and questioning. Indeed it is often through those doubts and those questions that our faith is deepened and, with the writer of the psalm and Jesus himself, we can proclaim, “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.”

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