A Sermon from Sherborne
Two types of courage
A sermon for Evensong, preached at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday July 23rd 2017 by The Reverend Richard Wyld, Assistant Curate
The encounter between Nathan and David described in our first reading (2 Samuel 12.1-23), is perhaps one of the most dramatic confrontations in the Old Testament, and it shows us two very different but very significant forms of courage in action. For Nathan, it is the courage to speak truth to power. To put this dialogue in context, David the King has one evening caught sight of Bathsheba and taken something of a shine to her. She is married to Uriah the Hittite, but in his absence David invites her over and they enjoy a convivial evening watching Strictly Come Dancing and so on. David decides that he likes Bathsheba, and so being King he sends Uriah off to fight at the front line of battle, knowing that he will almost certainly be killed but not at David’s hand, at least not directly. So Uriah goes off to fight, is indeed killed, and Bathsheba moves in with David. And at first it looks like David has got away with it, but then comes Nathan to prophet. Nathan is able to see what has happened, and begins by telling the King a short story, analogous to what David has done, that arouses David’s normally reasonable sense of justice, making him angry with the evildoer of the story. But it is then that Nathan says of this evildoer ‘thou art the man’. What a moment; it’s easy to imagine OT prophets as bold figures pronouncing judgement on anyone and everyone, but I can’t help but imagine that Nathan’s heart was in his mouth at this point. He has led the king into a logical trap of sorts in order to expose David’s wrongdoing to himself, and that takes some serious guts. David does not have to respond well to this, indeed he can do to Nathan what he has already done to Uriah. Nathan’s courage in speaking the truth to the one in power over him is serious courage indeed, and it remains an important sort of courage if justice and mercy are to be sought in public life today.
But in fact David does respond to Nathan’s words and takes them to hear, leading him to state that he has sinned against the Lord. Such a statement requires a different kind of courage. David could deny his wrongdoing, or he could denounce Nathan, but instead he openly confesses his fault and his shame. To acknowledge his fault and flawed humanity, and to acknowledge it before another, takes huge courage, and particularly for one with so much to lose in terms of status and public esteem.
In one sense, both forms of courage are present in the second lesson (), though the latter is perhaps less obvious at first. Here, Peter and John have been arrested for gathering a crowd to hear to gospel, after they have healed a man in Jerusalem. Upon being questioned, Peter speaks with boldness, showing again the kind of courage to speak truth to power that was expressed by Nathan. Indeed, Peter’s words are equally dangerous, challenging the authorities and making it clear that it was they who crucified Jesus. I can imagine John getting rather twitchy at this point, wondering if Peter is rather over-egging the pudding. But I also find that Peter’s words jar a little, because it seems to put all the blame on those in authority. It is true that Peter did not call for Jesus’s crucifixion, but it wasn’t like he was actually there, or stuck around to support his friend. It is of course a matter of some record that he denied knowing Jesus. So is it not rather hypocritical to be quite so accusatory towards his questioners? Perhaps. But Luke has by no means tried to hide Peter’s failings in the gospel, so he expects them to be in memory in Acts. And that means that courageous Peter in Acts (4.1-22) is the same person as fearful Peter in Luke. What makes the difference? Nothing other than the resurrection of Jesus and the following gift of the Holy Spirit. A bit of Peter dies with Jesus on the cross, because at that point there was no understanding among the disciples that Jesus would be raised. As Jesus dies, Peter’s hopes of forgiveness, of doing better next time, die too. Peter’s time with Jesus has seemingly ended in failure. And it is only because of the resurrection that the verdict of failure is overturned, and Peter is giving a fresh start and a new hope. That part of him that died is given back anew, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, he continues as a follower of Jesus. His courage derives from the gift of salvation, and from the knowledge that in Jesus there is hope that is not defeated even by death.
It is only in the recognition of that gift of forgiveness that Peter is able to speak the way he does, and it means that his apparent accusation is not quite what it seems. Peter doesn’t brush over the failings of those in front of him. But nor would he simply leave them condemned. He knows that there is a third way, that in acknowledging their failure, like David, there remains the open door of forgiveness that Peter himself has known. In the same way, when we pronounce our prayers of penitence, with all the talk of miserable sin, we are not leaving ourselves accused, but instead proclaiming that even when all our failures are heaped up in front of us, Jesus’s cross and resurrection open the door of new life to us. When we take courage in coming to God in humility, we too hear Nathan’s words of assurance: ‘The Lord also hath put away thy sin’.