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Sunday, 8 January 2012

Nice God, Wrong Place


Readings:  Genesis 1.1-5
                   Psalm 29
                   Acts 19.1-7
                   Mark 1.4-11

If you were to journey within your Tardis to the time when the first witnesses to the resurrection began to tell their evangel you would discover very quickly the truth of Paul’s ringing dis-endorsement. With deep feeling he describes the gospel as a ‘stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor. 1:23). Despite our western obsession with comfort, security, church growth and that demon ‘relevance’ – which I flagged on Christmas Day as an obscene distraction from the gospel main-game – there is no such self-absorption in the first century. The early Christians had experienced, first hand or in the words and worship of their faith-neighbours, a life changing experience: the resurrection of the one they came to call the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. At the heart of the message that had changed and was changing their life was the incomprehensible news that a crucified criminal was God, and that in his unexpected victory over death hope for all humanity was born.

If Paul described this as ‘stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ it was because it was. No Jewish person was readily going to accept the idea of a crucified Messiah. Paul’s Deuteronomy-based midrash in Galatians on cross-as-tree, on which, if a person were hanged, they would be cursed (Gal 3.13) were at one level a little tenuous. probably a shorthand version of a sermon he had preached (perhaps more than once!) during his Galatian sojourn. But there is no doubt that the naked shame and bodily impurity of a crucified criminal was not the place a Jewish person would hang out looking for a Messiah. To a Greek – that is to say any Roman Empire non-Jew – the problem was similar: gods might conceivably hang out in human form but were not subject to laws of suffering and death. 'What’s a nice God like yours doing hanging out on a cross' was a likely Jewish or Gentile response to the unattractive gospel of Jesus Christ.

The complexities of the humanity and divinity of Jesus the Christ were worked out in the era after our scriptures were collected and sealed as canon, though it is clear enough that the earliest Christians were scratching around to find words and images that conveyed their experience that this was the case: the crucified human criminal was divine. As they gathered in worship they knew that the one who the disciples had known personally was powerfully with them – released in space and even through time by the events we know as resurrection and ascension. They knew, too, that the whole of his life had meaning – including some of the events that puzzled them. There may be some of those we don’t know about – his life of love, his favourite foods, his skills or otherwise at carpentry. There are other awkward events that they do reflect on: what was a nice God doing receiving a rite of ‘baptism for the forgiveness of sins’?

Generally we refer to the sinless nature of Christ – a reference driven as much by theology as by biography. Jesus in life and death was soon identified in various senses as a sacrificial lamb, and the influential sacrificial practices of the Hebrew people demanded the purity – effectively sinlessness – of the victim. Whether Jesus did naughty things or not (and we might wonder at his lurking around in the temple for an extra day!), his transformation of human sin is such that he came to be described as sinless. Whether he did naughty things or not, whether he thought naughty thoughts or not, Christians soon saw Jesus as the means by which God entered into and redeemed sinful human nature.

The events of Jesus' self-exposure to human sin and suffering were not inconsistent with what we might dare to call the ‘history of God’. God – (if we accept that God exists, and since we’re in church here I assume most of us do) – is the God of surprises. The very act of creation, in its immeasurable timelessness, is an unnecessary and wanton act of love. God, in what we might call triune community, triune perfection, has no need to share time, space and eternity with any other being. There is a Greek word dei, which, though no doubt present in every language, is neat and tidy in Greek. We translate it with constructions like the clause ‘it was necessary that’. But nothing is necessary, nothing is binding upon God. It is not necessary for God to create an other with whom to share divininty, divine joy, divine eternity. Yet God is love, and love chooses to share.

Love makes us vulnerable. Simon and Garfunkel reminded of that in the '60s: 'if I'd never loved I never would have cried'. If we love we are likely to weep. If we love we are likely to feel moments of intense pain as well as unquantifiable joy. God does not need to weep, yet in opening the heart of God’s existence up to an other, in flinging creation across nothingness, in peopling at least one planet with fallible humans made in the divine image, God is opening the heart of God to suffering and pain. God does not need pain, but it is the risk of love to choose pain, to chhose to touch and transform the lives of others.

God does not need to suffer. Yet the God who flings stars across the empty vault of heaven will and has chosen and will always choose to suffer in order to redeem. The baptism of Christ prefigures, foreshadows the later entrance of God-in-Christ into the very deepest depths of human degradation. This is not a ‘had to’ but a ‘will always’: the love of God will search (and I would add eternally search) for the lost sheep and enter into suffering to bring that sheep home. It is that which Jesus enacts as he enters into the waters of human sin: it is that which he will later complete when he enters into and transforms the murk of human death. This does not protect us from suffering, from sin, from death, but transforms our darkest moments into the light of resurrection and eternity.

The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan is the prefigurement of all that he will go on to achieve and make available eternally to us. The baptism of Christ in the Jordan, where in orthodox art he is often depicted as leaving behind the grot of human existence, is the prefigurement of death, descent, and resurrection.

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