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Saturday, 24 March 2012

Plus ça change



Jeremiah 31.31-34
Psalm 119.9-16
Hebrews 5.5-14
John 12.20-33

I confess to fighting degrees of depression – albeit not often approaching any clinical form of the disease – from time to time as I engage in conversation with colleagues and others engaged in theological discourse. It seems to me that, over the last decade or two, a reformation every bit as significant as that of the fifteenth century, if thank God considerably less dramatic and bloody, is ransacking the Christian community.

There is a sense in which there has never been a time at which Christianity has not faced cataclysmic crossroads, choosing its path between various manifestations of Scylla and Charybdis, the mythological rock and a hard place. The great upheavals that I mentioned in passing a week or two back, spearheaded by figures like Paul, Augustine, Luther and Barth, have been moments in which the Church – guided I would suggest by God’s Spirit – has been dragged back onto the straight and narrow after dalliances with various forms of corruption. Augustine, for all his myriad faults, saw the place of God’s gracious forgiveness at the heart of the gospel, and knew that the community of Christ had therefore to be the place for the sinful to turn and find again – centuries later we might modify his thought and say again and again – to find the welcoming, restoring arms of Christ. Luther saw the centrality of the Cross – as Paul had before him – and recognized that there can be no way to manipulate the heart of God. Barth – who seems to me to be as relevant today as he was 80 years ago – saw that a God that is slowly remoulded to fit a national identity, a tribal god, is simply unable to speak to the deepest malaises of human sinfulness and social decrepitude.

Today the church seems to be torn between two temptations. On the one hand I find a kind of rigorist exclusivism, constantly proclaiming a message that there is no place for you in the body of Christ if you are too gay, or too illiterate, or, paradoxically too literate, or too uncertain or too left or too right. I find churches that reduce faith to a kind of feel-good ecstasy, laughing and prancing and waving and falling over in carefully induced and stage managed frenzies, often with very little intelligent reference to scripture or tradition. I find churches, not least in the Anglican Communion, in which ‘right belief’, a cerebrally correct interpretation of the scriptures, is a prerequisite to full acceptance and participation, and which try to manipulate the wider communion to be recreated in their own image.

In a wild swing of the pendulum I also see churches – as I have hinted in recent weeks – that relativize the scandalous Jesus away to nothingness. It is as though, in reaction to the exclusivist claims of the other extreme, these churches and their teachers have felt that the way to connect, to be relevant to the needs of contemporary society, is to do away with the awkward demands Jesus makes of us, demands ‘to fall into the earth and die’ or to ‘hate their life in this world’ or to ‘take up their cross and follow me’, and to turn him into the ultimate guru of niceness – however we define that. Karl Barth saw the dangers of that, for if we recreate Jesus in the image of our own ideas (and we will all occasionally lapse into that trap) then we are left not with the God of the Cross but an infantile longing, the extension of our own individual, collective or even national psyche. Such a God will not critique us any more than the Jesus of the falling Phenomenon: one Jesus will appeal to the social right, nurturing a highly individualistic feel-good escapism, the other Jesus will appeal to the social left, ignoring demands to strive for personal transformation-by-faith.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” But we must look for him not in the comfortable places that suit us, but in the unexpected and unsettling places. Paul saw it in Corinth: ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’. The Jews (at least as Paul portrays them) has generated prerequisites to the encounter with God – the ‘am I not pretty enough’ syndrome. The Greeks had generated a nice, intellectually rewarding but personally unchallenging God, but not one who would interfere with and challenge human lives. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French say: the more things change the more they stay the same.

So where do I stand? Of course we all like to believe stand in the right place, and I can only plead that there is an awful lot of history on the side of a form of faith that steers its way between temptations either to make God inaccessible – the God of the good enough, smart enough, doctrinally sound enough – or so broad as to be indistinguishable from any other passing deity or fad.

For it seems to me that when we cry out those words “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” then we have to expect to see Jesus. We encounter not a political leader reshaped in the image of our favourite issues but the provocative Christ whose revealing of the heart of God will always end up on the Cross of Golgotha. We do not find a Jesus of the Country Liberal Party or a Jesus of the Labor Party, or a Jesus of the Greens Party. We find a Jesus who may well be as concerned about the eradication – he might call it death – of 75 unborn children a week in Darwin Hospital as he is about the rising sea levels that threaten to obliterate low-lying Pacific nations, or about the international collusion that ensures that no nation speaks out about the slow, silent genocide that is going on just north of us in West Papua. We find a Jesus who worries only about our personal sexual moral integrity neither more nor less than he worries about our financial integrity. We find a Jesus who is a product of an invaded and colonised tribe in the Middle East, but we find at the same time a Jesus who is author of the universe, who flings the starts across the heavens in and through and beyond time.

This same Jesus challenges us to proclaim, in all our life, the values of the Reign of God that he himself exemplified in his remarkable and short life as a mendicant teacher, challenging the might of the corrupt Roman Empire and the corruption of his own Jewish religion. We are challenged, however much a cliché it might be, to exercise the ‘what would Jesus do’ lifestyle that he calls us to. Sometimes it isn’t easy, and sometimes we will get it wrong … but it is to that challenge that he is calling us, it is to witness to that challenge that he is, as John puts it, lifted up for all to see, and it is to proclaim that challenge that we too are called – called and empowered by the Spirit of God.

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