Friday, March 25, 2016

Why we are like God and why God is like us

Isaiah 53.3 - 12
John 18.28 - John 19.42
In a great many ways we resemble other living things. As we've seen before, we've got an awful lot in common with a banana plant, and that's because all living things on earth are descended from the same single celled organisms that first emerged from primordial chaos billions of years ago.  Like other animals, we also feel hunger, thirst, pain and satisfaction, we wake and sleep, we reproduce, we have to breathe to live, and eventually we die.
But we're also unique, at least among life on earth. Unlike most animals, we’re capable of thinking not just about the past and the present but also about the future, and imagining what that might be.
Some animals can do the same thing up to a point. They can think about what might happen next if they do something, or something were to happen, today or tomorrow. But human beings can imagine a whole different way of living in the future. A chimpanzee can only ever imagine living in the jungle, but we can imagine what it might be like to colonise the Moon, or Mars, or get married to Mr or Miss Right. In other words, we have the power to think creatively in a way which sets us apart from all other living things and makes us more like God.
Yet amazing though that is, for believers it’s not the only thing which sets us apart from other apes and intelligent animals, because there are at least four other ingredients to being human which make us not just different from other animals but also like God!
First, believers have said that our mastery of tools and technology makes us like God. Crows and chimpanzees can make simple tools but only we can build an aeroplane. Our creativity - both practically with our hands and, as we've seen, imaginatively with our minds - makes us capable of sharing with God in the work of shaping a better future rather than simply waiting for it to evolve in whatever way Nature dictates.
For believers this is just a logical development of the idea I've already mentioned, that the power and range of our imaginations sets us apart from other animals. But in this case we’re saying that our technical prowess sets us apart by making us co-creators with God. In other words, we become responsible for what the world is like. A chimpanzee can never be responsible for the way things are, but we can and that sets us apart and makes us more like God.
Second, we also share with God the ability to use language. Other animals, such as whales and meerkats, can communicate with one another in quite sophisticated ways. They share feelings of alarm or sadness when danger threatens or a little one dies. But only human beings can articulate their fear, or joy or grief and start to explain what it's like to be afraid or sad. Language enables us to share complex feelings and ideas, and it’s no accident that one of the things which connects us most intimately with God is that he comes to us as The Word. In Jesus he speaks directly to us, and we can speak to him.
The third thing which sets us apart from other animals is the depth of our love. Many animals appear to love their offspring, and some appear to love their mate. Female spiders may sometimes eat their partner, but penguins and swans can pair for life. But what sets us apart from the animals and makes us like God is our capacity to love those we don’t even know, complete strangers who come from different backgrounds and cultures, who speak different languages and have completely different ideas from us. This is the sort of love which God reveals on the Cross. Only, on the Cross Jesus takes this capacity to love to its ultimate expression, by declaring his love for his enemies and those who hate him. We won't catch animals doing this!
The last ingredient which sets us apart from other animals and life forms isn't something which makes us like God; instead it’s something which makes God like us - and that's our capacity for redemptive suffering.  Animals suffer, of course, and mother animals often suffer redemptively for their offspring - going to extraordinary lengths to improve their children's life chances. As we’ve said on previous occasions, a pack or family of animals will sometimes go without food themselves or make extra efforts in order to look after a wounded member of their group, and human beings too will suffer redemptively for other members of their clan, or regiment or group of sworn comrades. But Jesus - by loving his enemies and those who hate him - carries redemptive suffering to a new level. If he weren't God, then he would simply be demonstrating how far human beings are capable of going in sharing their love and reaching out to others,because there is nowhere else for love to reach beyond total self-sacrifice.
Of course, we can make other people share with us in our self-sacrifice, as people sometimes do when they involve their friends and family in their suffering and downfall. So occasionally we read about people who - when things are at a low ebb - kill their entire family before committing suicide, or at least bring shame and ruin down on them through their own mistakes or misdeeds. Adolf Hitler took this approach to extremes when he decided to involve the whole German nation in his own fall from power. But these are not examples of redemptive suffering.
Redemptive suffering means suffering yourself in order to make life better for others, and Jesus takes this kind of positive suffering to its ultimate expression by suffering for the sake of those who hate him and who have never known him, as well as for his friends.
Jesus shows us that what makes our capacity for redemptive suffering like God is that God chooses to suffer redemptively for us. Previously, people had taught that suffering is a part of the human condition but not part of what it means to be God. Instead, they believed that suffering was something which sets us apart from God, because God is unchanging and therefore could not be put to suffering.
The Cross challenges that idea by turning it on its heads. God is unchanging because it has always been in his nature to want to suffer for us, to suffer redemptively. By dying on the Cross, his chosen representative Jesus, who is one with him, lays bare this eternal truth. When we suffer we are not being abandoned by a God who has no connection with suffering, instead we are being embraced by a God whose nature it is to share our suffering and bring something positive out of it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Chaos Theory and the Story of Easter

John 12.1-8, 27-28
One of the things that scientists have discovered about our universe is that it isn't as predictable as it once seemed. There was a time when scientists believed it runs like clockwork, and at some levels it does. The planets orbit the sun like clockwork, our bodies work in fairly predictable ways and even the weather can be predicted a few days ahead with reasonable accuracy. But probe beneath the surface and the world starts to look disturbingly random.
Let’s think for a moment about my journey to work from Hemsworth to Sheffield. There are basically three ways I could go. Two of them are roughly the same length, the route which takes the backways around Rotherham and the route along the Dearne Valley Parkway and the M1 motorway. Both go to Meadowhall. The third way is longer and involves travelling along three different motorways and a dual carriageway, but it avoids Meadowhall.
I listen to the traffic bulletins on the radio, so each day I have to decide which way is going to be quicker. But other drivers are listening to the radio too. If we all hear that there’s been an accident on the motorway at Meadowhall we’ll probably choose one of the alternative routes, but if we all choose the same alternative it could actually take us much longer to get to work than if we had joined the back of the queue.
This means there’s a random quality to the way the traffic flows. Sometimes one route will be much quicker, sometimes another; and if there’s an accident at Meadowhall the effects on the traffic may be totally different on two separate occasions, depending on what each of the thousands of drivers decides to do.
It’s unpredictable, and yet it’s not totally unpredictable, because over the course of hundreds of accidents and traffic jams at Meadowhall a pattern does emerge. The likelihood of different outcomes can be predicted even when the actual outcome on any particular day cannot. And I guess that’s pretty much how weather forecasting works too.
The loose  term that’s popularly used to describe how we can forecast the way that traffic flows or the weather will unfold is Chaos Theory. I listened to a radio discussion about Chaos Theory recently and one of the contributors said that if a coin is tossed high enough into the air then even God will not be able to predict which way it will come down. That made me sit up and think!
He went on to explain that the unpredictability arises because everything depends on how the coin cuts the molecules in the air as it passes through them on the way down and that is an entirely random event. But on the other hand it's also a bit like looking at a picture made up of thousands dots. If you look at the picture close-up the pattern of the dots seems entirely random, but from a distance they resolve into a picture. When we look at the big picture, all the coin tosses that have ever happened throughout history, a pattern does begin to emerge. Half the time the coin will land on its head and half the time it will land on its tail.
So Chaos Theory suggests that, from God's perspective, there’s an apparent order to what’s happening in the world even when individual events look totally disordered or unpredictable. The individual components in the pattern will always have the freedom to fall where they will, they’re not preordained to fall into a particular place, but nonetheless over time a pattern of how individuals are likely to behave will definitely begin to emerge.
And this works for human thought processes as well as for coin tossing. The brain is enormously complex and it’s completely impossible to predict how anyone will respond to a given situation. We may choose to jump one way; we may choose to jump the other. Our impulse may lead us to do or say one thing or something completely different, depending on which side we got out of bed this morning. But over time a pattern will still emerge, and more than that, our circumstances will begin to shape the way our brain works and cause certain patterns of behaviour to predominate.
For instance, London taxi drivers have to learn a lot of knowledge about the streets of London and this has been shown to make their memories much better than other people's. And a cautious person like Judas Iscariot becomes more likely to save his own skin by planning ahead and looking for a way that will get him out of trouble, whereas an impulsive person like Peter becomes ever more likely to do or say something in the heat of the moment; to say the wrong thing, perhaps, and regret it later.
And that raises the thorny question, how far were the players in the Easter Story in control of their own actions? Pontius Pilate agonised about whether to find Jesus guilty. What if he’d decided to acquit Jesus and throw the chief priests out, even if it caused a riot? Later, after Jesus’ death, Pilate did cause a riot about something else.
And what if the chief priests had decided that Jesus probably wasn't that much of a threat and had let him go home to Galilee after the Passover instead of arresting him? Or what if King Herod had intervened and offered Jesus his protection. That’s what happened when one of his relatives listened to the preaching of St Paul. He and the governor both agreed that Christianity wasn't doing any harm. If Paul hadn't already appealed to the Emperor they would have released him.
When Jesus warned his disciples that he was going to be handed over to the authorities and put to death, how did he know that this would actually happen? I think there are two possible answers. One is that Jesus was a shrewd judge of character. He made a pretty good guess as to how things would turn out and events tragically proved him right. The other possible explanation is that God revealed to him what the future held.
You see, for God there is always an additional factor. God may not be entirely in control of events, but he is above and beyond time, so he can see from his special vantage point how things will work out in the end without necessarily having preordained or predicted them from the beginning.
It’s a bit like the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War. Down in the valley the soldiers were told to charge some guns, but they couldn’t see the guns in question. They assumed they were being ordered to charge straight down the valley on a suicidal course where they would be shot at constantly from three sides. But from the vantage point of the generals up on the hill above they were charging in completely the wrong direction. God sees how things are going to turn out even when, down in the thick of the action, we are still free to choose which way to go.
Except that neither explanation lets God entirely off the hook. What prompted Judas to betray Jesus? We shall never know, but we can’t rule out the possibility that one factor was Jesus’ own apparent fatalism about what was going to happen.
If Jesus had promised his followers that he was going to emerge unscathed from his journey to Jerusalem would Judas have dared to turn traitor? Was Judas wondering which way to turn? And did Jesus’ despairing prophecies alter the neural pathways in his brain and finally persuade him to go over to the other side? In other words, did Jesus consciously influence his own fate? And if that’s the case, how far are people like Judas and Peter responsible for their own actions?
But this isn’t just an historical question, is it? Because each of us has our own decisions to make every day. What will we do or say in the next moment? How will we respond to good times and bad? What effect will we have on other people? Is the way our lives are turning out entirely random, disordered and unpredictable, or are we shaping our own destiny to some extent?
At any particular moment what we do or say may be dictated by random things that are happening at a microscopic level in our brain, but what is the bigger pattern that is taking shape? Are we - by consistently making similar choices - laying down a way of behaving that will be reinforced by constant repetition over time? In other words, are we becoming more kind, more gentle, more caring, more thoughtful, or are we becoming more embittered, disgruntled, disappointed, fearful and self-centered? We’ve all seen people who lives went in one of those  directions.
And by turning to God, as Jesus did can we ask God’s grace to intervene and subtly reinforce the good pathways and patterns of behaviour, so that we set off on a trajectory towards holy living? Martin Luther said, ‘No.’ He believed the pattern for our living is already fixed and we won’t be able to change it however hard we try. All we can do, like Peter, is to ask God to forgive us for the wrong turns we may take.
But John Wesley said, ‘Yes.’ We can consciously choose to ask God to reshape the direction we take so that the pattern does start to be an improving one. He never claimed that this had actually happened in his own life, but he always believed that it was possible.