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Friday, 16 March 2012

Biffing inkpots at the devil


Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22.24-32
Romans 4.13-25
Mark 8.31-38

When I first went off to theological college in Melbourne I was soon made aware that in the history of biblical theology the letter of St Paul to the Romans was the engine room. Truth to be told, coming from a sort of low church charismatic background I wasn’t particularly aware of theological engine rooms – my tradition preferred collections of texts far removed from their biblical, let alone their historical context, bandied about either in wars of condemnation of those outside the community of faith, or in mutual admiration exchanges within the community of faith. I doubt it had ever occurred to me that biblical texts had a historical context, and, while I had from time to time engaged in ‘studies’ of a biblical book even that was only in order to improve our arsenals of love or hate.

To be fair I’m being unfair, but only by exaggeration, not utter misrepresentation. But as I set about my first year of theological studies – one of the most bewildering years of my life – I was quickly given the impression in all three disciplines (actually I couldn’t tell the difference between them at that stage, not being the sharpest sandwich in the chandelier) of church history, systematic theology and biblical studies – that the letter to the Romans was the engine room of faith.

And to be honest I’ve never got it. I love Paul, and have spent not only many doctoral years but many more preaching years wrestling with his texts. I have found plenty to admire in his calm and dispassionate Letter to Head Office, as I have sometimes come to think of it, but on the whole have found myself far more inspired by his racy, livid, passionate or loving letters to the churches that he founded, especially the letters to Corinth. So when I find a passage like that read to us a few minutes ago I think ‘yup, that’s nice, fairly clear, let’s move on’. Abraham believed against all odds, Abraham had faith, so should we, let’s move on. For Augustine, for Luther, for Karl Barth the emphasis on faith alone was a staggering revelation: we cannot earn our way to God.

Augustine, Luther and Barth were all reacting against religious cultures which in various ways had begun to teach other than the obvious. Luther had observed a misguided but monopolous (another invented word) Roman Catholic Church selling indulgences to enhance salvation. While some Pentecostal preachers have locked themselves in expensive prayer towers demanding money (a prayer tower now, ironically, sold to Roman Catholics) very few people these days are trying to grease the palm of God or God’s Church in order ‘to get to heaven before they close the door’ (as Dylan put it). And yes, when Barth was a young man the national churches of Germany, England and elsewhere were giving the impression that God was a national god, and that salvation was all about being respectively English enough or German enough or Russian enough to earn God’s favour. But on the whole, outside some complex aberrations again usually in fundamentalist churches, I know of few sermons extolling that kind of nationalistic theology. No: the Corinthian correspondence and its emphasis on the exclusive claims of the cross of Jesus Christ: that has always been – at least since my first year in theological college – the heart of my missiological war chest.

Christ, and him crucified, as Paul puts it. All other sermonising, and indeed all other justice-proclaiming, love-rumouring action in God’s world, is icing on the soteriological (salvational) cake. Christ, and him crucified, is the basis of faith. I have long joined those who argue that we are, as it were, ‘saved’, ‘redeemed’ not primarily by our faith in Christ but by the prior faith and faithfulness of Christ as he made his way to Good Friday and to Easter. ('But that's just stupid', asseverated one of my Moore College trained colleagues, demonstrating that stable's readiness to engage with rational thought and edifying conversation). The construction in Greek is the same: 'faith in', 'faith of'. I see our faith as a response to his faith, our love as response to his love, our hope as response to his hope, and all these as a response to the prior grace that is made known to us in Jesus the Christ. Christ, and him crucified: this is the basis of faith, of works, of all of life on the Way of the Cross to which he calls us.

In Jesus the Christ and in no other. This is not in a one sense an exclusive claim that says God cannot be at work in the lives of adherents of other faiths or none – that by and large is none of my business. It is to say that for us who have been touched by Jesus, touched in scripture, touched in sacrament, touched in fellowship, touched in prayer and worship, there is no other way. Jesus makes exclusive claims on your life and on mine: I came preaching Christ and him crucified. This is why Mark – who was probably influenced by Paul, reminds us of Jesus’ stern rebuke to Peter. Get behind me Satan: get behind me anyone, anything who would try to distract me from the walk to Jerusalem and the shocking events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Jerusalem and the equally shocking but hope-bringing, darkness conquering event of Easter Day.

For us as Christ-bearers there is a challenge not to relativize Jesus away until he becomes no more than a useful avatar of niceness. Strangely that was what Karl Barth above all saw, but Luther and Augustine, in more complex ways too. There are many useful avatars of niceness: yours will differ to mine, but mine include John Donne, William Wordsworth, Mohammed, Gautama Buddha, Kevin Rudd, Jose Ramos-Horta and Moses – to name just random some. None of these is the eternal, exclusive, death-transcending Incarnation of God’s redeeming love. That is Jesus the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of the Cross and Empty Tomb. To him and his exclusive demands we are called again this and each day of our living journey. Anything else, anyone else making prior claim on our lives is a Satan to whom (unless we are Martin Luther, who preferred to throw inkpots) we demand ‘get behind me’, get away, get lost.

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