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Friday, 12 April 2013

a (big) bunch of Easter thoughts


Readings:       Acts 5.27-32
                       Psalm 118.14-29
                       Revelation 1.4-8
                       John 20.19-31

If there were a method guaranteed to send me into paroxysms of depression as I was preparing, on a Sunday morning to make my way to church, it would be to ensure that I heard a popular Christian theologian and scholar discussing the contrast between “common Christianity” and its perspectives and his presumably more rarefied and intellectually satisfying deeper insight. Such was my encounter on the internet with, predictably, Marcus Borg this morning. Borg, a sort of populariser of academic discourse, and a highly effective communicator of his views, would be horrified to think that he was introducing a new Gnosticism to the world, but paradoxically that is what he and others like him manage to achieve. Embarrassed by the central truth claims of simple or common Christians they provide, by dint of their scholarship, a more real and honest knowledge of, for example, the true meaning of Easter and its stories of the resurrection of Jesus.

For some these scholars open a door to belief. I have several friends who tell me that writers and speakers such as Borg and Spong have helped them to believe. To be honest I am left uncertain what the belief is that Borg and Spong and others leave us with. That there was a man called Jesus, who had a band of followers. That he pricked the conscience of a totalitarian nation, and was executed for his troubles. That his band of followers thought that was sad and decided to keep his movement going. And that, thanks to a religious vacuum in the crumbling totalitarian state, their embellished stories about their leader became a, and later the new religion of the Empire and its successors. For a millennium or two.

The notion of resurrection was as strange, startling, mysterious and silly to the first and second century thinkers as it was and is to our own century’s thinkers. The suggestion that, frankly, people were a bit simple in those days and we are so much smarter is brutally paternalistic, patronising, and wrong. It is also deeply insulting to the martyrs and strugglers who maintained their faith under enormous duress, even sacrificing their lives for its integrity. When Paul wrote to the Philippians as they experienced times of persecution they were not sitting in a classroom experiencing a little bit of intellectual angst for their beliefs: they were risking and losing their lives. They were struggling to endure in faith, struggling to persevere, against all odds. For most of us, at the moment, the struggle to endure is little more than the tussle to get up on a Sunday morning, the tussle to believe a few things that seem a little intellectually “other”, different to the beliefs of most of our friends, and the for us largely mild struggle “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Which brings me to the Reformation, where, were it not for Marcus Borg, I planned to begin. Sorry about that!

Two of the great doctrines fought over by theologians, particularly since the Reformation, are related doctrines know by various names, but perhaps best known as “assurance of salvation” and as “Perseverance”. Basically the arguments revolve around whether a believer can in some way know that they are “saved”, not a word I like particularly, or whether they have to journey through life with a cloud of uncertainty about their “soteriological fate,” their “eternal destiny,” and so on. In fact they are arguments I care little for, for a plethora of reasons, and strike me as belonging in the same basket as the infamous and by and large misrepresented argument about the numbers of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Personally I suspect God has more important matters to sort out. Syria comes to mind. And West Papua.

However, since I’ve mentioned them, the points of disagreement are roughly this: some argue that one can’t true know oneself to be, as it were, “saved” this side of the grave, and must continue to exercise a lifetime of meritorious works to ensure the ledger stays appropriately balanced. Opponents of this largely Roman Catholic view have argued that it turns “salvation” into something that we have to earn on our own merit. While they have a point, the opponents, largely Protestant, have often demonstrated such an utter disregard for issues of justice and compassion that there might, if the Jesus saying “by their works will you know them”, have to be some extra special pleading on their behalf if they are to receive the benefits of the salvation in which they stand so confidently.

The more nuanced argument tends to be one within the Protestant traditions: if a person professes Christ at some point in their life but subsequently lapses from faith, are they saved or damned? Do only those who persevere with a conspicuous, obvious faith to the moment of their encounter with God in death gain the laurel wreath of salvation that Paul writes about? If a person confesses faith but subsequently lapses was their faith ever genuine in the first place? It is once more an angels on a pinhead debate: Personally I don’t believe “salvation” is wrought by some individual confessional formula, but by Christ, and how he outworks the salvation of the world that he has achieved in the events of Good Friday and Easter are far more up to him than me or you or others who may engage in what are ultimately fatuous arguments.

These arguments and others like them have however done immeasurable damage to the credibility of the gospel we proclaim. Our churches are empty in part because our God is a rather demanding God and the effort to follow in the way of Christ is not altogether sexy in our post-modern era, if ever it was. But our churches are empty also because we spend an awful lot of time arguing over abstractions, and extracting one another’s literal or metaphorical toenails, over matters that really are utterly tangential to the core business of Gospel. I hesitate to add, in the light of my opening digression, that I so not see Resurrection as tangential to our faith. In any case I tend to take a Pauline approach: The person who can, by the Spirit of God, affirm that Jesus is Lord (I would suggest sometime between now and the impossible “end of eternity” will do) is pretty much passported through to the heart of God.

In the meantime our faith is undergoing creative crisis. In fact the Royal Commission of which I write elsewhere may be leading us into a deeper and yet more creative crisis. We need to be taken into a place of honesty, a place where we must confess our wrong-doings: for wrong-doings there have been. Confession is the place of new beginnings: where we have done wrong we must and God wiling will confess, and even make amends as best we can. But the Gamaliel principle remains: if ours is a movement breathed into being by God then we will be here tomorrow, rising from the ashes of our past mistakes and pray God never perpetrating abuse and destruction again.

Out of the ashes of our mistake God will call into being a new Church. Jesus summons Mary by name and that, in the rawness of her sorrow, is when she encounters him – going on to be the primary witness of the resurrection. Like all the disciples we as an institution and perhaps as individuals have made, or may have made, terrible mistakes. But where we can confess to our faults and pray the grace of God we can start again, regardless of the fatuous arguments in which we have for too long indulged. May God rise with us as he in Christ rose for us: and he did. Christ is risen: he is risen indeed.
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