by Chris Eyre
The text of a sermon presented at the Bowers Allerton Mission Hall
Sitting in front of the television a couple of nights ago, the news came on. There was a report of another suicide bombing in Palestine – and I thought “I don’t want to hear any more about this” and turned over to watch something which didn’t make me think, which didn’t challenge me, which didn’t make me want to do something about this terrible situation. I’ve done the same with many news reports – perhaps we all have.
I don’t know if any of you have yet seen “The Passion of the Christ” (the new film by Mel Gibson) – I haven’t myself, though I’ve heard a lot of reports of it. I understand, though, that it focuses very much on the sheer barbarity of the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and I think as we move towards Easter, when we will be remembering that particularly, this is something on which we would do well to reflect.
Crucifixion was perhaps one of the most barbaric punishments ever invented. It tortured as it killed, and usually it killed fairly slowly – there are reports of people living two or three days nailed to a cross, or a tree. Generally, it was apparently eventually suffocation which actually killed, as the position put increasing pressure on the lungs. The Romans were skilled at this, though, and provided ropes to bind the arms in order to prevent the body from falling as a result of the nails tearing through the flesh, and often also put a kind of peg in so their victim would be able to hold himself up longer – and suffer longer.
Over the next few weeks, we may see and hear the nails being knocked in, we may hear the cries of anguish, we may see a man reduced to the ultimate agony – and we may do this whether or not we see the film. It is the most harrowing moment of all of the gospels, the day when Christ said “it is finished”. It is the start point of Easter, our remembrance of that death and the glorious resurrection which followed.
I did recently attend a performance of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” at the Theatre Royal at York. Again, I don’t know whether any of you have seen a production, but this I can definitely recommend.
The words “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re who they say you are” echo in my mind. What do we say Christ is?
I’ve talked to you on my last visit about the Creation and Adam, and, in a way, what I’m going to say follows on from that – you can regard this as “Part II” if you like. Actually, I’m going to link in to quite a lot of what I’ve said previously, so forgive me if there’s some repetition. [Ed. We may publish that prior sermon at a later date, but we believe this will stand on its own for now.]
The reading was the beginning of John’s gospel. Now, I think it’s clear that in this passage “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men”. … and “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” we have the pinnacle of the understanding of Jesus.
In Acts 2:22-24 Luke tells us that Peter said “Men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” Snipping everything between that and Acts 2:33, Peter continues:- “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear”
We have, in the preamble to John’s gospel, a very different picture. The Word made flesh……. having been in the beginning with God, and being God. Can this be the “man attested to you by God”? Are we talking about two entirely different concepts?
Which brings me back to “Jesus Christ, Superstar”. Who was Jesus? What was Jesus?
We ascribe a large number of roles to him. He was, obviously, a man. He was a healer (among the other mighty works and wonders and signs which Peter talked of). He was a teacher, a preacher, a leader.
He is also (to some at least of his followers and to us, but, sadly, not to much of Judaism) the messiah, the prophesied deliverer of the nation of Israel.
“Superstar” deals, in part, with some of the expectations of his followers at the time, and I think many of these were based on messianic prophecy. Some expected a military leader (two of the disciples were associated with the “Zealots” – and one was called “Zealot” in the bible – and the Zealots were a group of what we would now call “freedom fighters”, though the Romans would probably have called them “terrorists”) – someone who would liberate the nation of Israel from the oppressive rule of Rome. Some expected the apocalypse and the intervention of God on earth in person, with Jesus playing a central role. Most, I suspect, expected that he could wave a magic wand and produce what they thought he was aiming at.
But what I think he was aiming at was bringing others to his conception of God. I hark back to the Sermon on the Mount, and his impassioned statements about the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God). In a world where (in modern terms) most people had a faulty dial-up connection to God, Jesus had broadband. He knew that it was possible to have communion with God on a daily, an hourly, a minute-by minute basis – and I believe that is what he meant by the Kingdom of Heaven.
I also think that this is what is really meant by “Son of God”, which is the next category in which we place him. This is not exclusive – in Deuteronomy 14:1, we see “You are the sons of the Lord your God”, applied to the whole nation of Israel. We are all sons and daughters of God.
And yet, we face the scripture “only begotten son of God” in John. It cannot, in the face of other scripture, mean “only son of God”; the clue has to be in the word “begotten”. I’ll pass over issues such as the virgin birth here, and suggest that the word would be better thought of as “intended”.
We also have the concept of Jesus as mediator (one of the possible meanings contained in John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth and the life; no-one shall come to the father save by me”. In Hebrews 5:5, he is described as a high priest.
So, we have man, healer, teacher, preacher, wonder worker, messiah, mediator, high priest, Son of God. . . .
And we add redemptive sacrifice. “Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world”. Saviour, redeemer.
But John actually goes further than this. He links Jesus with the Word of God, and with God himself. “In the Beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God”, and “And the Word became flesh and dwelt with us”. Jesus is God. We hold to a trinitarian doctrine, that there is one God in three persons, father, son and Holy Ghost.
Son of God and God, then.
And one thing more – he is also described as the “new Adam”. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:45 says “Thus it is written ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit”.
This takes us back to where we were the last time I spoke to you. Then, I talked of the story of Creation being the story of God creating the universe out of his own substance; all of material reality being of the “stuff of God”. This is very much the image given by some of the great Christian mystics – Meister Eckhart, for instance, said “Thou shalt know him without image, without semblance and without means, – ‘But for me to know God thus, with nothing between, I must be all but he, he all but me’ I say, God must be very I, I very God, so consummately one that this he and this I are one is…..”.
If you want a more prosaic version – Eckhart is definitely carried away there by the power of his personal experience of God, and his language is not easy – consider for a moment Matthew 25:34-40: “Then the King will say to those at his right hand ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’. Then the righteous will answer him ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me'”.
Think of this – that this is more literal than it might appear, that what you do to another you are doing to Jesus: God in immanence, in his creation is the whole of creation (and, of course, more besides). Creation out of the “stuff” of God renders all things God – and of this Jesus is the pattern. I see things very much as the mystics do; when I read the commandment not to kill, I read it as not to kill because what is killed is a part of the living God, and extend it to every living thing. When I read the Great Commandments – briefly, to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself, I see these as two formulations of the same thing. With the passage from Matthew, what I do to my fellow man I do to God – but when I squash a fly, I am doing it to God as well.
And then think further. I spoke of the nails being driven into the hands and feet at the beginning of this: in every negative action we do towards another, we are driving in another nail. Christ lives in humanity, and humanity in general, not just in Christians, and is crucified every day, every hour, every minute somewhere in the world. He is starved, beaten, shot, mutilated, abused, imprisoned in actions we take against others all the time.
God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son – yes, but more than that, God poured himself into his creation at the beginning. The Word was made flesh from the beginning, and that flesh is the whole of creation.
And in my thinking, together with many of the mystics, Christ; God; the new Adam also lives in every part of the remainder of creation, and what we do to that beggars description. When an animal is vivisected, when we pollute the earth on which we live – these things too we do to God, we do to Christ.
I preach Christ crucified: I preach God crucified on the cross of the universe – crucified from the beginning, and crucified still. In all our actions in the world, we may be knocking in another nail – and we probably are knocking in another nail. And yet, God gave himself that this should be possible.
God so loved the world.