“Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?” Peter, in the book of Acts 3:12
Whenever someone else expresses their love of something for which I have a particular passion, like hand-drawn lettering, or a particular colour combination, I get this childish incredulity that someone else experiences the world in the same way I do. (This often happens when I’m reading Jane Brocket’s yarnstorm blog). I love making connections and discovering that someone else shares this bit of cultural DNA. I discovered that making connections is an actual strength when my workplace used the awesome Strengthsfinder profiling tool a few years ago. It explains why I’m an inveterate recommender. Hyperlinks are how my brain works. This gets in the way when someone wants a logical answer but is great for creative leaps.
Another advantage is that it gives me a buzz when I find people in the Bible being recognisably like humans I know, in all our strengths and weaknesses. The one I find most normal is Peter (the disciple) who blurts out all sort of rubbish in moments of stress, and is also the one to throw himself wholeheartedly into things (following Jesus; stepping up to address a crowd; walking on water).
I didn’t appreciate the disciples’ normality when I was younger. I read the Bible through a false sense of superiority, forgetting that they were seeing these events for the first time, and I was seeing them through an established perspective. These disciples seemed frequently to misunderstand Jesus completely. How could they miss the point after three years with their rabbi?
But the passing years have taught me a little humility, and as I look back I see that, considering how long I’ve been a Christian, there are some beginner classes I still haven’t finished. Perhaps that’s normal too.
For example, last week I felt challenged about how little I was committed to being forgiving, which is right there in the centre of the Lord’s Prayer: we ask our heavenly father to ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. How easily I allow this central discipline to slip down my priority list. Mostly because it’s hard. So I want to do better at not letting the debts build up.
Why do we imagine it was somehow easier for the saints of history to be holy, as if they were not real? I think we forget that God promised to live in us as believers, and that we would only be super fruitful if we remained in him. In other words, it’s all about him, not us.
Jane Brocket’s blogpost on real women in stained glass got me thinking: ‘I’m still looking,’ she wrote, ‘for women in windows who aren’t saints, sinners, queens, angels or straight out of the Bible. Real women (like these) whose lives deserve to be memorialised in colourful stained and painted glass.’ I know what she means on one level, of course: it’s wonderful to see the recognisably familiar depicted in church art. Seeing little human details in the stained glass is fun and provoking. It got me thinking that the Bible’s saints, so often the subject of church windows, were in fact very real, flawed people, who are nonetheless remembered for their strengths, not their failings.
The artists of the renaissance knew this; they depicted Biblical people in modern dress because they wanted us to remember that the men and women in the Bible were mortal beings as well, with all the same choices to allow life or death, good or evil to direct their hearts. Stanley Spencer, a British artist working between the wars, did the same.
We’ve all seen the colourful Victorian portrayals in glass windows of one of the virtues, pictured as a serene woman in archaic dress who is apparently not living in the cut and thrust of real life. One is tempted to think such qualities are only possible for those people of the past, whom we imagine lived in a more serene time.
But actually the Bible – and stained glass windows – have plenty of real people doing real things and living full of the power and holiness of God, in the real world. We have a tendency to see a person achieving great things for God and to think there’s something special about them. We see the results, not the cause. That’s the whole point of Jesus living on earth as a human, to be a man full of God, to teach us how man could be holy, and when our eyes are on the God who is the creative force behind these lives, then we have everything in the right place.
“Be holy, even as I am holy“, ‘I’ being God: Peter the disciple (again) quotes this scripture in one of his letters, recorded in the Bible at 1 Peter 1:13-16. We do not become holy by striving towards extraordinary exploits for their own sake; we do it counter-intuitively, by knowing how small we are compared to God, and inviting him to live in us and empower us, and letting him take the driving seat. It is a much safer and more thrilling adventure than letting another human take over. It takes humility, cooperation and the ability to give God the glory. That’s what we see happening in the Bible. And that’s the most awesome connection ever.