FRED’S PASS (NORTHERN TERRITORY)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 23
(8th SEPTEMBER) 2013
Readings: Jeremiah 18.1-11Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18
Perhaps the greatest theologian of the last century was Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth, whose Commentary on Romans, effectively re-written and republished in the aftermath of World War One, in 1922, changed the face of European theology and the witness of the church, it seemed irreversibly. In the years leading up to the Kaiser’s expansionist megalomania Christianity had been largely reduced to a tribal or technically nationalistic religion, a convivial agreement on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood – sisters were largely irrelevant – of man. God was a tribal God, to be rolled out in times of national pride. God was a totem. With God on our side, as Bob Dylan acerbically noted half a century later (and half a century ago) we will “win the next war.”
After four years of brutal, bloody stalemate and unprecedented and universal loss of life, Barth saw clearly that there was no room for a tame and tribal or nationalistic God. As he turned his attention with renewed energy to the biblical text Barth saw again and again that God is the God who will be neither tamed nor questioned. Barth saw too that God is not a God to whom we can rationalise a way, but is the God who reveals divine selfhood uniquely and solely and even illogically in the scriptures of the Jews and the Christians.
I place my cards on the table: I believe Karl Barth to be the theologian par excellence for our time too. However unpopular it might be, I think it is very dangerous when we begin to recreate God in our own image. Of course we need to assess whether we are not doing that in subtle and evil ways: have we made God into a European, a male, have we made God racist or sexist or homophobic? Where there are texts that appear to justify these assumptions we need to test them, and we will make mistakes – the Spirit of God is greater than our mistakes! I believe sometimes we need to dig beneath the surface level of the texts, the prohibitions and the black and the white, and wrestle in amongst the reasons and the circumstances really to break open God’s commands. (I should add, for those in the know, that I wrote this before I knew that the Anglican Diocese of Auckland, my previous Diocese, had voted no to same sex marriage: just as I accept the outcome of a national election, so I accept the democratic processes of that diocese!).
What Barth saw clearly, primarily from his reading of Romans, but of course also from Paul’s reading of Jeremiah, is that the pot is not in a position to manipulate the potter. This has huge implications for all of us – and particularly for those of us who dwell in the liberal end of theology (always acknowledging that I speak of me, not necessarily you!). It is a particularly dangerous text for those of us who take the risk of preaching, for it means – unless I happen to be Abraham or Jesus – I have little basis for arguing or bargaining with God. I must accept – though I am human and I will struggle – but I must accept that God’s, not mine, is the divine perspective, and that even the vicissitudes of my own existence are ultimately God’s choice, not mine. It’s a tough call, and I know that this control freak, for one, is unlikely ever to get it right: “not my will, God, yours be done”, these are amongst the hardest words in the biblical text.
This means, too, that we cannot nor should we escape the penetrating stare of God. This of course is parodied in some circles: I doubt if God is particularly interested in our bodily functions – except when we use our drives and energies to prey on and oppress others. It is there that sexual and other predators in the church have sinned brutally – but that includes those who use the power structures of the church to, as Paul would put it, tear down and not build up, to destroy the human spirit, to turn seekers away from Jesus. Predators and other oppressors within the church must always know that this is the line of responsibility they have dared to cross – and all of us must know we are capable of crossing it, but for the grace of God. God is watching us – but not with the ogling stare of a voyeur, but the caring, compassionate stare of a lover.
Christianity and its God are somewhat on the nose in 21st century society. It was in fact also so at the time the First World War was building up to its demonic birth, but perhaps those parallels can be pushed too far. Our complex God is parodied as a fairy in the sky and an imaginary friend – though nothing is new under the sun and Christianity has been there before, and for many parts of its history. The parallels though should not be ignored: at the end of the nineteenth century Christians were creating God in their own image rather than in the image of the unpredictable Jesus. The images in which we recreate God in the 21st century are more to do with personal lifestyle or arguably genetic footprints than the tribal nationalistic preferences of a hundred years ago, but the lesson remains the same: God is not either a national toy or a piece of logical deduction made in the image of our own preferences. God is not gay, green, blue, left or right, but about justice and righteousness and holiness and a whole host of matters that are not necessarily politically chic or even logical – much less convenient.
As Christ-bearers, though, like the Christians of the early centuries, we have a responsibility: we are called to proclaim and to be conspicuous in our service of a God as revealed in the scriptures, a God who cares. God cares for the sparrow that falls. Our God is a God who is revealed in love and justice and righteousness and holiness, not dogma or personal preferences or skin colour or lifestyle (the predatory excepted, which is clearly demonic). We have to make sure that our lives are so opened and disciplined in the awareness and service of that God, in immersion in scripture and in fellowship and in worship and in compassionate works, that we are a part of those creative and justice-proclaiming movements of the Spirit. We need to ensure that by our disciplines of faith we are the Christ-bearers that we long – hopefully – to be. That is to be the house built on firm foundations. None of that inclusion in the purposes of God is a free ride, but application and hard labour.