SERMON PREACHED AT
CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD,
FRED’S PASS (NT)
SUNDAY, MARCH 18th 2012
(FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT)
Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22
If I were working for Saatchi and Saatchi, or one of the world’s great advertising agencies (and Saatchi and Saatchi have been engaged with I think dubious credibility but undoubted tongue-wagging success to advertise the gospel for one infamous New Zealand church) then the famous words of John 3.16 would create something of a stumbling block to my message. We blithely read them out or hand them around on supposedly evangelistic tracts and cards, yet I am left to wonder if in out contemporary society they do not produce a highly adverse effect, what in broadcasting terms we used to call a ‘switch-off factor’. For, excuse me, but if I may place God in a dock, then infanticide or at least the surrender of a child to be executed is not on the whole considered to be the ideal model of perfect parenting.
Some of our friends will tells us that we are not to judge God by human standards, but excuse me? If God is to convey the depth and breadth of divine redemptive love to human beings then that communication has to resonate with the limitations of human experience. God could of course have sent a green hairy Martian or a three-legged plutonian monotreme to redeem us, but that, by and large, would not resonate with my experience of the universe or, I suspect, yours. And while Jesus of Nazareth has and does to a large extent resonate with human experience, a loving father sending his son to be executed simply doesn’t.
Unfortunately, as heirs of the Reformation, of Calvin, and even of the great St Anselm, we tend to read or hear such texts as John 3.16 through the filters of centuries’ accumulated language of blood sacrifice. You will have heard Anne already reminding us that so-called penal substitutionary atonement is but one of many metaphors used by New Testament writers to described the mechanisms of salvation wrought in the Christ-event. ‘Penal substitutionary atonement’ is that very pervasive view that Jesus died to pay – either to God or to the devil – a ransom for human sin. PSA, as it is often called for shorthand convenience, is more or less the belief that God killed or allowed Jesus to be killed as an act of retribution for the sins of the world in defence of divine holiness.
It is indeed a metaphor that appears throughout the New Testament, as the writers strived to find vehicles by which to convey the miracles of incarnation and salvation. It is one of many metaphors, and is not to be jettisoned – I for one will sing with gusto those moving words of Fanny Crosby, “Who yielded His life an atonement for sin, And opened the life gate that all may go in”, but I do so not because they are a profound summation of the gospel, but because they feel good, set to an evocative tune, and are a reasonable-if-flawed rendition of one aspect of the Good News we share.
But these images convey one aspect only. The language of God’s surrender of his Son to sacrifice is pregnant with the story of Isaac, in all its chilling psychological implications. It is a useful metaphor, though it was probably a more useful metaphor in the bloody world of first century justice, when life was cheap and infant mortality, if not infanticide, was rife. The pain of a parent for a lost child is immeasurable, as some of you will know: the metaphor serves simply tp suggest ‘even to that extent does God open divine being to pain and suffering in the work of achieving our redemption’. God is not a child abuser, and the image is severely flawed if misinterpreted, misapplied.
It has been pointed out to me by a friend that a more helpful way to understand the metaphor is to imagine the sorrow of a father watching his only son embarking on a journet to war - in Afghanistan, for example. This is helpful and certainly reaches back into the sorrow-saturated feeling of a narrative of giving an only son. But it is not altogether the way we have heard it through the centuries of filters, through the interpretive filter of Abraham and Isaac proiding us with a narrative of substitutionary slaughter on Golgotha.
This became the foremost image of God’s redemptive work in bloodied times. The opponents of God – catholics to protestants and protestants to catholics, and anabaptist extremists to both – were tortured or executed with abandon as Christian zealots found permission to abuse and execute in theirmisreadings of scripture. Literature of the time makes it clear that retribution was the order of the day – and such a pattern carried on down to the days of the flogging parson of Sydney and beyond. But we are, now we are no longer in bed with the state, beginning at last to read our scriptures with Spirit-filled eyes, and to hear once more the authentic voices of the earliest witnesses of Jesus.
Time and again, for example, John places emphasis not on the punitive death of Jesus but on his being ‘lifted up’ – like Moses’ rod in the wilderness (which is why of course we link these readings in liturgy) as an example of a life lived in totality to God’s standards of righteousness and justice (righteousness and justice are shades of the same primary colour in the Greek and Hebrew texts, though translators have often made jaundiced slections in providing English words). But they are not all Jesus exemplifies: he exemplifies love, hope-bringing compassion, inclusion and embrace. Proclaimers of righteousness, justice, love compassion, holiness, inclusion, embrace: these figures in history will always open themselves up to the risk of execution, for society on the whole prefers its conscience to be left un-pricked. So in that way at the very least God ‘gives up his only son’ – whatever the word 'son' means in the context of Godness – to engender hope, belief and redemption. But all our words here are metaphor: Jesus is not a son like Abraham’s Isaac or your sons or my sons (except insofar as he was a son to Mary). God gave up – but we can never really understand what God gave up, how God gave up, what that surrendering entailed deep in the heart of the community of the triune God.
Jesus was exposed by his own life choices to be the example par excellence of all it means to be fully human, fully just, fully righteous, fully compassionate, fully holy, fully compassionate. This, as I have said, did not mean Jesus was mere example, for there are many examples. Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of all that humanity is called to be (and cannot be, without his infiltrationn of human lives). For all our faults, Jesus invites us to be captured and transformed in his embodiment of love, hope, compassion, justice – and something we call eternal life. Jesus invites us to be transformed and to be agents of transformation of those around us. I borrow from former bishop of Bathurst Bruce Wilson the phrase ‘rumour resurrection’. Jesus can, if we allow him to invade our lives, empower us (beyond our normal means) to rumour resurrection, to rumour all that Jesus stands for.
The social transformation as well as the personal transformation aspects of the life of Jesus can be embedded in our being – if we let them. It is to that that we are called: Jesus the example in whom by the power of the Spirit we are invited over and again to participate. Jesus the embodiment of all that is godly, prepared to share that embodiment with us. In him we are invited not to condemn, but to attract: in him we are invited to invite others into resurrection hope in all its present and future dimensions. In him we are invited to be participants in the light that cannot be quenched by all the darkness we see each time we turn on our news media, or each time we engage too deeply in the labyrinthine dimensions of our own fallibility.
John is implying that in Christ we can at last add our amen to the psalmist’s words ‘in our darkness there is no darkness to you oh Lord, the deepest dark is as bright as the day’.