Sunday, March 21, 2010

Redecorating Jesus

Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8

Christian men have always been in search of more forceful, more rugged expressions of their faith than 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild'. 'Thank God for testosterone,' as one American worship leader put it. On the other side of the fence, however, stands the "chick lit" version of Jesus, who is touchy
feely and romanticised, the wounded healer, the person to whom we can cling for a deeper relationship and a true expression of what love really means. The danger of both extremes, of course, is that - as someone once said - 'they redecorate Jesus, in our own image'.

That's what Cynewulf's 'Dream of the Rood' does. Cynewulf was an Anglo-Saxon poet who wanted to glamourise the crucifixion for the warrior class who were in charge of ancient England at the time. This is how he describes Jesus being crucified. It's important to note that he is telling the story from the perspective of the tree from which the cross was made on which Jesus died. This holy tree, or Rood, speaks directly to us in the poem.
Then the young hero prepared himself,
that was Almighty God,
strong and firm of mood,
he mounted the lofty cross
courageously in the sight of many,
when he willed to redeem mankind.
I trembled when the hero embraced me,
yet dared I not bow down to earth,
fall to the bosom of the ground,
but I was compelled to stand fast,
a cross was I reared,
I raised the powerful King
the lord of the leavens...
Notice how Jesus is not portrayed as a victim being nailed to the cross by his oppressors, but as a hero - courageously climbing onto the cross of his own free will and embracing it as his manifest destiny. Even on the Cross he is the powerful king who is lord of the heavens.

Of course, there is much truth in this portrayal, and it especially reflects the way that John describes Jesus' death in his Gospel. This is the Jesus who calmly debates the nature of kingship with Governor Pilate, who tells his friends that the hour has come and now is when the Son of Man must be lifted up, who arranges for his mother to be looked after by the disciple whom he loved, and who cries out at the end of his life, 'It is accomplished!' But even in John's version of events, Jesus does not ascend the Cross himself.

The poem takes the depiction of Jesus' death one stage further towards heroic martyrdom than John had dared to go, whereas in the Gospel accounts - and particularly in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke - there is a certain ambivalence about the way Jesus dies. He is at once resigned to his fate and at the same time tormented by an agony of soul. The Jesus who cries, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' is very easy for us to identify with in our own suffering, but he doesn't seem as self-assured as the heroic Jesus of the poem.

Throughout history, this idea of representing Jesus as the ideal hero of whatever culture the writer or artist finds himself in has remained popular. So a bronze crucifix from Ireland, made during the period when Celtic Christianity was in the ascendant there, depicts the crucified Jesus not as a warrior hero but as a Celtic chief. He even hangs on the cross wearing his chieftain's robes and a breastplate decorated with Celtic symbols.

In the Nineteenth Century, Jesus was depicted as the first exponent of Victorian public school values. The famous writer Thomas Hughes in his book 'Tom Brown at Oxford', a sequel to 'Tom Brown's School Days', distinguished two types of men. On the one hand there were people like Flashman, the bully and bounder who is the anti-hero of "Tom Brown's School Days". People like Flashman are described by Hughes as 'muscle men', "who seem to have no belief whatever as to the purposes for which their bodies have been given them, except some hazy idea that it is to go up and down the world with them, belabouring men or captivating women for their benefit or pleasure." In contrast, he sees Tom Brown as a 'muscular Christian', someone who - in imitation of Jesus - "has hold of the ... belief, that a man's body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes, and the subduing of the earth which God has given to the children of men. He does not hold that mere strength or activity are in themselves worthy of any respect or worship, or that one man is a bit better than another because he can knock him down, or carry a bigger sack of potatoes than he. For mere power, whether of body or intellect, he has," Thomas Hughes hoped, "No reverence whatever."

The sort of rugged Christianity which Hughes is expounding here makes Jesus more akin to the
examplar of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If' than to a wounded healer. He's the sort of decent bloke who - in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was arrested - was able to keep his head while all around, his disciples, were panicking and losing theirs, and blaming him; who was able to trust himself when other people were mocking and deriding him; who was lied about, but didn't deal in lies; who was hated, but didn't give way to hating. He was good, but he told other men not to call him 'good teacher'. He thought of tempting things, but he didn't make those thoughts his aim. He met with triumph on Palm Sunday, and disaster on Good Friday, and treated those two impostors just the same. He held on when there was nothing in him except the will which said, 'Hold on!' He talked with crowds and kept his virtue, keeping the common touch and refusing to be crowned as king. He filled each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' distance run. And he was not just a man, my son, he was the Son of Man!

And yet, of course, that picture of Jesus - while it contains more than a grain of truth - is a redecorated Jesus, a Jesus made in the image of Men's Sunday. In our reading from Philippians Paul says that he was a man's man, or at least a thoroughly Jewish man, a zealous persecutor of heretics and the kind of guy who carried the practice of righteousness to the point where it became a fault. 'But all such assets,' he says, 'I have written off because of Christ.' In fact, he counts everything - all his manly achievements - as 'sheer loss, so much rubbish' in comparison with the gain of knowing Jesus and being 'in union' with him.

Paul isn't someone who wants to celebrate his own power - not even the muscular Christian kind of power which consists in rigorously training your body and bringing all your desires into subjection so that you can help other people and serve the common good. That was the kind of power which Paul had sought when he was a pharisee, and which he had now renounced. Instead, the only power he is prepared to trust in now is the power of Jesus' resurrection.

And when he celebrates Christ crucified, as he does, it's not the glorious, majestic Christ hanging in royal majesty on the cross like a warrior hero whom he sees in his mind's eye, it is the suffering, vulnerable Christ. And Paul feels called to share those sufferings 'in hope of somehow attaining the resurrection from the dead.' 'I press on,' he says, 'Hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me. I do not claim to have hold of it yet. What I do say is this, "I press towards the finishing line, to win the heavenly prize."'

That final statement, 'I press towards the finishing line,' might sound a bit like the muscular Christianity celebrated on the playing fields of Eton where boys learned to 'play up, play up and play the game!' But Paul's finishing line is certainly not the sort of manly goal envisaged by Kipling, who urged his son to reach that state of mind where 'neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you' and where 'all men count with you, but none too much,' because Paul is striving to reach the goal through suffering, and by counting his friend Jesus as more important even than his own death. That's surely counting someone too much by Kipling's standards!

And so, finally, to our Gospel reading, where we find the same Jesus who, in John's account of Good Friday, is glorified on the cross, being prepared for death by his close friend Mary. In an appallingly intimate gesture she not only pours costly perfume over his feet but wipes them dry with her hair!

Judas Iscariot was certainly appalled. The treasurer of Jesus' little band of disciples, he observes that the perfume must have been worth about £18,000. No wonder that its fragrance filled the whole house. How many poor people could have been fed if the perfume had, instead, been sold to buy bread? John makes the unkind comment that Judas was not, in fact, concerned for the poor, but only wanted to get his own hands on the money. But Jesus will say only that the ointment is a fitting preparation for the day of his burial.

Here, then, he allows himself a bit of self-pity and regret, a bit of humanity, we might say, a bit of vulnerability and need for comfort in the face of his own death. Is this Jesus, even in John's Gospel, getting in touch with his feminine side and reminding us that real men don't need a stuff upper lip?

The real Jesus, then, is not just the passionate lover of our souls, but neither is he just the young hero going calmly and stoically to his death. He's a person who knows all the whirlwind of emotions which ordinary humans experience, a person who - like each of us - was a complicated mixture of male and female attributes, a person who is not constantly battling to suppress and control his feelings but who is so in touch with his inner self that he is comfortable with Mary's expression of what it means for her to be his friend.

Our only certain good and great purpose on earth

1 Corinthian 10.12-13, Luke 12.6-9

Lent - the forty days, not including Sundays - before Easter was a very special time in Sandal and Wakefield for many centuries before our time. People just ate vegetables, fruit and bread - though whether they only drank water I'm not so sure because water wasn't always safe to drink, and people knew that.

My daughter's on a mainly vegetable diet, at the moment. She can't eat bread, because she can't eat yeast, but she can eat potatoes and rice - which hadn't been introduced to Europe yet in the Middle Ages. But she says she's still very hungry - despite piling mounds of vegetables on her plate at every meal. My son-in-law has lost 4lb in six days. So I guess fasting during Lent may have been a bit of an endurance test.

I was talking to the Cubs the other day, and we reminded ourselves that Muslims still take fasting very seriously, although Christians are more likely just to give something one or two things up for Lent, not to fast properly any more. What is fasting all about? It's about reminding ourselves what really matters. We don't need all the rich food we normally eat, in fact it may not even be good for us. And we don't need all the other comforts and luxuries that we depend on. After all, we don't need very much at all.

Church leaders have called on people to give up their mobile phones, ipods and Blackberries for Lent as a very up-to-date way of reminding ourselves that we can do without a lot of the things we take for granted. After all, people in Africa have to manage with a great many less things than we have, and yet they still get by.

The point of giving up these things is to stop ourselves from being distracted, or tempted as St Paul put it, by things that don't really matter so that we can free ourselves to ask the really important question, which is, 'What use is my life? What difference do I make?' That was the question which the landowner asked about the fig tree. He wanted to dig it up because it wasn't any use, whereas the gardener wanted to give it one last chance.

Someone once said, "I read in the Bible that Jesus went about doing good. And I ask myself, 'How come I only manage to go about?'" And Martin Luther King, the civil rights campaigner, said, 'The biggest problem in the world is not the wicked people, it's all the good people who keep silent.'

And Michael Foot, who died this week, said once, '
We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions...or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth.' And that, I think, is what Lent is supposed to remind us.

Gerry Adams, Sir Nicholas Winterton and God's Compassion

Psalm 119, Jonah 3.1-10, Luke 18.9-14

The Psalmist recognises that we are made in the image of God and prays also, therefore, for a mind modelled on God's way of thinking and being. That's a huge request, bigger and more profound perhaps than the Psalmist realises. But more of that later.

The fact is, however, that living in the image of God is the only sure way that other people will be able to recognise that we are also made in God's image. When they see him in us they will be able to rejoice at the hope we have put in God's wisdom or creative word.

Like the Psalmist, we can rely on God's righteousness and faithfulness, be comforted by God's unfailing love and promises, and delight in his compassion and his instructions. And yet the Psalmist recognises that the way of the believer is not without affliction.

The Revised English Bible talks about being chastened by God, like a parent teaching children the right way to behave by being firm with them and thereby keeping faith with them much better than the parent who takes the easy way out and always gives in to the child's latest whim. The principle which the translators seem to have in mind is, 'Spare the rod and spoil the child.' However, I am not sure that the Psalmist's meaning is quite as obvious as that. I think he may simply be saying that because good is God to us does not mean we shall be saved from affliction. Jesus reminded the Devil of this when he was tempted in the Wilderness.

Jesus almost fainted with hunger when he went without food in the desert for forty days. The Psalmist faints with longing of a different kind, for salvation. But as the Psalm continues a note of doubt creeps into his song. Words like arrogance, fear, persecution and shame start to crop up.

The Psalmist feels like a wineskin in the smoke. Now whatever does that mean? One commentator says that, when you hang a wineskin up indoors, as I am sure you do all the time, it is soon blackened and shrivelled by the smoke from the fire. But who would do such a thing to a perfectly good wineskin? Wouldn't you keep it somewhere cool, especially if it was full of wine? Perhaps it's a reference, therefore, to what happens to an old wineskin when it is thrown onto the fire. Does it perhaps take a long time to burn, just as the Psalmist refuses to give up God's way despite the pitfalls and unjustified persecution that he suffers. His persecutors have almost managed to wipe
him from the earth, but still the Psalmist looks to God for preservation.

In tonight's passage from Jonah we see a prophet who, like the Psalmist, trusts in God's commands and puts his hope in God's Word. That is an abrupt turnabout, because previously Jonah had shown a complete absence of trust and delight in God's way. He had tried to escape God's insistent call, only surrendering when a huge storm threatened to sink the ship he was sailing on. But, because God is faithful even in affliction, Jonah eventually found himself where he was meant to be - on his way to the great city of Nineveh, the capital of the evil empire of Assyria.

It was the Assyrians who finally snuffed out the Northern Kingdom of Israel based upon the City of Samaria. They then attacked the Judean city of Lacish. The Bible mentions this but glosses over what happened there. We know, however, that the Assyrian commanders laid siege to the City, broke down its wall with battering rams, deported all its inhabitants and tortured its leaders to death. They were a ruthless and terrifying bunch, and they would have gone on to capture Jerusalem as well if a sudden outbreak of plague, or cholera, or typhoid, or dysentery hadn't caused them to abandon the siege.

If there was one place which the people of Israel, North and South, had good cause to hate it was the City of Nineveh. Hence Jonah's reluctance to go there. But when he finally did arrive he got the satisfaction of proclaiming that the City was doomed. Once the people of Nineveh had terrorised the cities of Samaria, Lacish and Jerusalem. Now it would be their turn. After dominating the Middle East for a little over one hundred years the Assyrians would soon be overthrown by their cousins, the Babylonians, and Jonah predicted that the end was very nigh indeed, just forty days away.

Imagine, his dismay, therefore, when the Assyrians suddenly got old time religion and repented of all their sins. They began a strict fast and appealed to Israel's God for mercy. The Revised English Bible says that they abandoned their wicked ways and their injustice. The New Revised Standard Version says - more colourfully and perhaps more accurately - that they turned from their evil ways and violence. And, according to the story, God changed his mind and spared them for a little longer.

The Book of Jonah seems to have been written to encourage a more open attitude to other nations, and to help the people of Israel see that God's mind is bigger than our preconceptions might lead us to believe. He cares about other people - including our enemies - just as much as he cares for us, and he will even show compassion to the most wicked and violent oppressors of their fellow human. The Assyrians had once claimed to be mightier than Israel's God, but even they spared so long as they were prepared to show a change of heart. To model our minds on God's way of thinking and being is to take on board this same attitude of openness and mercy.

Jonah was left baffled by God's mercy and echoed the words of the Psalmist, '
How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors?' But the Assyrians had now put their hope in God's Word and Jonah should have rejoiced.

Like the story of Jonah, the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee is aimed at those who are sure of their own goodness and look down on everyone else.

The pharisee is, I suppose, a bit like Sir Nicholas Winterton, the outgoing MP for Macclesfield, who told Radio 5 Live that standard class rail passengers 'are a totally different type of people' from MPs. 'They have a different outlook on life,' he said. '[If I travelled in standard class' I would not [be able to] do work because people would be looking over [my] shoulder all of the time; there would be noise, there would be distraction.' Conceding that even standard class passengers may want to find less intrusive ways of passing their time on the journey, if they can find a seat, he went on to say, 'They may be reading a book, but I doubt whether they're undertaking serious work or study, reading or amending [the sort of] reports that MPs do when they travel.'

Sir Nicholas, who apparently has been a very good constituency MP, assiduously replying to letters and attending special events - including church services - in his constituency, didn't exactly covering himself in glory with these remarks. A Tory spokesman said, 'These comments are the out-of-touch views of a soon-to-retire backbench MP.' These are brave new times. In future MPs will only get a refund for standard class rail fares.

But Sir Nicholas does at least give us an insight into the thinking of the pharisee who went up to the Temple to pray. He too felt that he was not like other people, whom he characterised as greedy, dishonest and adulterous rather than noisy, distracting and nosey.

The pharisee could easily have been thinking of the tax collector, who would have bought the right to collect taxes in return for the chance to keep a proportion of all the money he scooped. This method of collecting taxes, which is called 'tax farming', was unpopular because it incentivised tax collectors to find extra taxes to collect, giving them a fiercesome reputation for poking and prying into other people's affairs.

'Well, how's that different from H M Revenue & Customs, or any other modern government department for that matter?' you might ask, and the answer, of course, is 'It's no different at all!' except that these were the days before big government, when people were not used to government interference of any kind. And, because tax collectors in ancient times were private sector contractors, not civil servants or bureaucrats, there was always a feeling that they must be trying to maximise profits without caring too much about the rights of the individual or the need to act responsibly.

Worse still, of course, the system was wide open to bribery and corruption. So long as the tax collector got more from the tax payer than he would otherwise have received anyway in commission, there was nothing to stop him writing in his records that a person had no more taxes to declare. So there was always a feeling that rich people could evade some of the taxes they ought to be paying, while the tax collector still got to line his pockets. Hence the pharisee's sneering prayer about greed and dishonesty. In his opinion, God should answer the prayers only of the righteous, not of the unrighteous.

But like Jonah, the pharisee was due for a shock. God welcomes all who repent and who are prepared to humble themselves, and is offended by those who take Sir Nicholas's attitude towards their neighbours, and treat them as a different kind of person. By implication, the Book of Jonah says that even murderers can find acceptance with God, as well as scoundrels and love cheats.

What then of the decision by Channel 4 to allow the ex-IRA leader Jerry Adams to narrate a programme about Jesus and pose on mainstream TV as a good Catholic? Is this something which would be acceptable to God, even if it's not acceptable to the Daily Mail? The answer, of course, depends entirely on his attitude. Is he, like the people of Nineveh, sorry for the suffering that he caused?

The Psalmist was right to highlight God's faithfulness, compassion, comfort and love. What he perhaps forgot was that these were available even to his persecutors and to the arrogant, yes even to the pharisees and retiring MPs of this world, so long as all of us - the cruel, the feckless, the selfish, the unkind and the uncaring - are prepared to turn to God and say humbly with the King of Assyria, 'I will abandon my wicked ways and the injustice I have practised. May it be that God will relent and turn from his fierce anger: and so I shall not perish.'