The Revolution within the Revelation
Thinking back about my time at LCD, I sometimes remark that we learned to disbelieve everything but the existence of God, and then to start rebuilding a faith framework. Well, my rebuilding time has come very late. But I start with God, and then wonder what to write next. For certain, God is not an entity, something with shape and size and location. But I have no vocabulary to put into words what I think I mean by God. I remember a saying of the late Bishop David Jenkins: "God is: God is as he is in Jesus: therefore we have hope." And if I want to understand God, however presumptuous that may sound, then Jesus is perhaps the best place to start. Someone else, I forget who, wrote (something like...) "It's not that Jesus was like God; it's more like, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus." Or, as Ben Whitney puts it, those early followers of Jesus saw "God-ness" in him.
The longer I think about this, the more difficult it is to believe in a personal divinity, or a single entity that created all there is. Lying on my back on the sands of Lake Huron, on a balmy evening, I saw such a display of stars that I'd never seen here in the UK. I learn of the expanding universe, of our amazing ability to "see" stars that are distant from us in miles the number of which would fill a sheet with zeros. Where does this connect with a God who spoke with Moses on a mountain? I'm convinced that God is a human construct, born in ancient civilisations that were struggling to understand the world they lived in - who or what was it that controlled wind and rain, brought good harvests and bad, allowed pain and death, etc etc? Primitive answers would surely end with the huge question mark - matters beyond their knowledge or imagination, and responsibility for life and death laid at the feet of this great Unknown. Adequate answers in those far-off times, but unsatisfactory in our modern science-based understanding of the world and cosmos. What construct we find for God now is an enthralling question, but there certainly is a human need to recognise the Other, the Beyond, the Ultimate, by whatever name. But it's difficult to worship an abstract concept! Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, wrote of God as "present everywhere in everything", not a being but rather "being itself." (See my blog - blog God-problem.html
Several more unorganised thoughts come to mind. But I need to make one important point to begin: at the risk of alienating or at least offending anyone who might have read this far, I have for decades found it impossible to believe that Jesus could have been both human and divine. So much of my reading in recent years has been about how we read the Bible, and specifically how the gospels were intended to be read. Certainly they have to be read against the history of those times, and in terms of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE are crucial to understanding them. But in addition, the stories about Jesus were told and shared long before they were ever written down, and it was not the aim of the authors to create an accurate and historical record of what Jesus ever did or said. Their purpose was to present Jesus as Messiah. They were writing Christology, not history. The search for meaning and significance was all-important.
It is easy to read the gospels as if someone had been taking notes to be transcribed later, as if these events and teaching sessions happened as they were described. But until the middle ages and the beginnings of the scientific revolution, no-one would have thought about taking the stories literally - indeed, it would not have occurred to them to do so. Of course, it is all too easy at this point to argue away the mysterious and to search for "scientific" explanations of so-called miracles in order to provide a plausible Jesus-story that does not require belief in the impossible. Those who disagree with this approach will accuse me and others of "watering down the gospel", of making the Christian message more attractive by removing the need to believe the unbelievable, as if the Christian message were made more genuine by its incredible claims and those who believe them more virtuous in so doing. But modern scholarship is now challenging the traditional views, and many scholars view the biblical record more as metaphorical than as factual, as symbolic rather than historical. John Dominic Crossan puts it this way: "My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they are told symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally" (from A Long Way from Tipperary). It is pertinent to note that the "historical" books of the Old Testament, those that read as if they are historical - Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings - form part of the Prophetic writings. They are not themselves history, but rather prophetic commentary on the history of their times.
Much of what I have been reading in recent years has been turned into study courses of several sessions, which I have offered to churches in our South Kent Methodist Circuit. So under the overall title of Faith Unwrapped, we've looked at "How we got the New Testament", "How we got the Church", and (perhaps the most interesting) "Reading the Bible Forwards" which has as its subtitle "Who was Jesus when he was twenty?" (I'll mention this one again later.) This one looked at the stories of the Jewish people that Jesus would have learned as a child and adolescent, and which would have inspired and stimulated him in ways that seemingly only appeared (because we have no other information) in his thirties. But in our post-Enlightenment and scientific age, even the word "truth" has to be defined before it can be attributed to something being described; is something "true" in that it happened, or is it "true" because it enshrines something of profound meaning and significance? How then do we read those stories, in our language, in our culture and in our time? Did Moses divide the waters of the Sea of Reeds? (OK, it was God not Moses, but you know what I mean! Anyway, Elijah did a similar thing!) Was Elijah actually taken into heaven in a whirlwind with a chariot and horses? Did Jonah really survive three days in a fish's stomach? In that clash between the prophet Elijah and King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, did Elijah really summon fire from heaven to burn up the soaking wet altar? Did Jesus really walk on water? (As to that last question, consider that the seas were considered to be the realm of chaos, feared by all mariners. Jesus overcame those powers - literally trampled them underfoot. What an image!)
If we read the Bible as we might read a modern text-book, or a modern history book, it seems that we are required to accept as a fact things which we cannot explain, and that can be troubling for people brought up in the scientific age, where everything has to be examined in order to find meaning and purpose. But once we grasp the notion that the Bible, a library of books composed over hundreds of years, written in a non-scientific age and with no scientific vocabulary, but written using myth and metaphor, we are released from our slavery to proving the Bible "true". Of course those early writers were interested in their history, but not as "who did what and when" but as meaning and significance. So the Bible then becomes a story, the story of a wandering people searching for meaning and truth, settling in a land they thought of as a gift of their god, and gradually discovering sufficient meaning and truth to enable them to become, in their best moments, guardians of a faith which they could share with their neighbouring nations, and one which would foster harmony and peace for all. And around the time of the catastrophe of conquests and Exile in the mid-700s and mid-500s BCE, they began to create a written record of who they were and why, using the language of poetry and metaphor - the only language they had. Their story was well-known before those times, but now a more instructive and profound record of who they were was needed. So once we accept, for example, that the attempts to discover Noah's Ark are a complete waste of time because the story is a myth that enshrines some deeply important truths, we are freed to discover those hidden truths - the truths behind the stories - that can only ever be described in myth and metaphor.
To believe that Jesus was the Son of God removes him from our human realities and over-spiritualizes the transformative power of his life and message. That sounds amazingly presumptuous, but I think this view follows from the idea of separating the two words Jesus and Christ, and in my mind is reinforced by considering that there are three (at least!) ways of looking at Jesus (bearing in mind that the early Church Fathers spent the next several hundred years trying to answer the same question "Who and what was Jesus?" and books are still being written!). But I am very conscious that this viewpoint smacks of amazing arrogance - who am I to dare dispute the teaching of Mother Church over the last seventeen hundred years or more? And yet - and yet, if I have to hang on to a precarious set of beliefs by my fingertips, how strong is that faith? (Faith, here, means trust - how much can I rely on and trust those beliefs and allow them to inspire my living?) There is something immensely important here about integrity, about being able to give an answer to the question "what do I believe?" without having to cross my fingers behind my back. So far as I am able, this understanding that I am claiming here is sufficient for me, answers my questions (and begs a good few more!) and satisfies my nagging doubts until I find some other and better way of explaining the inexplicable. And to be told, as we often are, that some things will never be understood this side of heaven is no reason for not trying to get as far as we can.
So my question is this: who invented Christianity? I can put it this way: Jesus started a movement, Paul turned it into a church, and Emperor Constantine made it (regrettably!) into an institution. Our only primary source of information about Jesus comes from written records. Within the New Testament the letters of Paul (at least those regarded as genuinely Pauline by scholars) are the earliest known documents, followed later by the the rest. Mark's Gospel was written (probably) just after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, followed by Matthew (80s), John (90s) and Luke-Acts (100s). The last book to be included, 2 Peter, might have been written as late as 120 CE. However, there are many other writings that did not make it into the New Testament - gospels attributed to Thomas, Peter and Mary, the Shepherd of Hermas and very many others. And the authorship of one that did make into the New Testament, the so-called Letter to the Hebrews, is quite unknown. Of the New Testament books, we only have manuscripts from the early second century, and of the thousands of fragments that make up this collection, there are countless discrepancies between them - textual variations of any particular passage - and frequently it is possible to see how scribes, many of whom in early days were untrained and even illiterate, deliberately altered texts, often in order to pursue an alternative theological understanding, or else simply made mistakes through carelessness. In the end, however, we can only trust that the version we are reading in English is as close to an unknown original as is possible.
It's also worth remembering at this point that the books we call the New Testament are a collection put together over very many years. There were several different lists of the New Testament books in circulation - for example, Clement of Rome (95CE) recognised eight books, Ignatius (115) recognised seven, Polycarp (108) fifteen, Irenaeus (185) twenty-one, Hippolytus (c230) 22. The Council of Laodicea (363CE) agreed that twenty-six books were canonical (all except Revelation), and the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) confirmed this. It was a work in progress with much debate.
I've already referred to three ways of looking at Jesus. Paul's seven letters were written before any of the gospels and offer his interpretation of "the Jesus event"; the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) offer another portrait, and the gospel of John a third (and, as I've just mentioned, these are not the only contemporary writings we could consider). All three present Jesus in different ways, but by the time Mark's gospel was written, probably just after the catastrophic fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the small Christian communities had put together their own portraits of Jesus, and it is from these communities that the gospels emerge. In a sense they are naïve, simple and compelling, lacking the sophistication of Paul's theology or the transcendence of John's gospel. We see the man Jesus as a wandering prophet, called perhaps in his early thirties (at the moment of his baptism, perhaps?) to undertake what he saw as a crucial mission - to get the Jewish people to rediscover the transformative power of God in the affairs of daily living, not just in the rituals of Sabbath worship and in fussy obedience to the ancient Law. Jesus was indeed a revolutionary, denouncing the corrupt power of the Temple, the High Priest and the priesthood, who together controlled the people through the imposition of ritual power in complicity with the Roman governor. There was an urgency in Jesus' teaching to reform the ancient Jewish faith before the imminent end of the world when God's kingdom would at last be established. He was a religious revolutionary who saw the Kingdom of God as the complete and utter transformation of the current religious and political world order. There had been already far too many failed attempts at revolution against the might of the Roman Empire and its predecessors to start another. But the practical, earthy teaching of Jesus was enough to start a different sort of revolution, one which threatened the authority and power of the ruling Jewish leaders, offering a radically new understanding of their faith, and at the same time challenging the might of Rome. It was this determination of Jesus to confront the Jewish authorities, and the inevitable repercussions on the relationship between them and the Roman authorities, that eventually led to his final confrontation in Jerusalem and his execution.
The death of Jesus was inescapably a political matter. At the time, in Jerusalem during Passover week, the crowds were ecstatic about the appearance of Jesus as a charismatic preacher. With the expectation that he might just be the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for over several centuries went the hope that as Messiah he might be the one who would drive out the Romans once and for all. Jesus did not seem to be afraid of the Jewish hierarchy; indeed he welcomed confrontations and won the arguments time and time again. It was a political conspiracy on the part of those Jewish leaders that convinced the Romans that Jesus was a threat to public order, and he, like hundreds before him, was crucified. However strong was the expectation that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the crucifixion must surely have dashed any such hope. But it might also provide a clue about the emergence of resurrection stories.
That, for me, is sufficient explanation of the reason Jesus was executed. Long ago, in college days, I read a book long forgotten, which suggested that the message of Jesus was not unlike the message of the many prophets of Old Testament times. Indeed, there are many passages which call the people back to their belief in a God who delivered them from various forms of slavery time and time again, and urge them to keep faith with God. But the formalities of temple worship and the power of priests focused the attention of the people into what I've already called "fussy obedience to the ancient Law", to the point where religious observance became the supreme test of faithfulness. Jesus shattered this illusion and broke all the religious conventions: he touched the sick and even dead Lazarus, enjoyed the company of "sinners", went out of his way to include women, and engaged with the poor as if they were important! Revolution indeed!
That message, accompanied as it was by acts of healing and exorcism, and by an inclusive welcome to all around him, was enough to energise and empower his disciples (not just the twelve) who glimpsed in Jesus a completely new way of living and believing. That message could not die - it was, or could have been, the salvation of the Jewish people if they had actually responded. But the all-important tradition, safeguarded down the centuries, was strong and powerful, and only a relatively small group of disciples of Jesus began to live and worship in the new way.
Today we have a similar struggle, in that the mainstream churches also have a tradition guarded down the centuries, and the liturgies of these churches are in the main agreed on their interpretation of the Jesus story - Jesus as Saviour, Son of God, sacrificed to satisfy God's wrath, the One whose Body and Blood are shared at Holy Communion. That Jesus died for our sins is a strong if not essential component of many people's belief - witness the popular song "In Christ alone" by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend: "Till on that cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied / for every sin on Him was laid / here in the death of Christ I live."
And for many years this was precisely my own belief. This was the Evangelical message preached in my home church in Edgware, the message to which I responded in the experience called conversion at the very tender age of 15 on October 3rd 1957 at the Westminster Central Hall, in a room at the top of the grand staircase (I remember it well!), the message that underwrote all my studies at the London College of Divinity, and the message which I failed to question for many long years.
And if that belief, and all that follows from it, is the most important message you could possibly hear, then the mission of the Church is clearly to spread that message as widely as possible - "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:18). This, I believe, is the crux of the tension between the two tectonic plates of the Church: is the world doomed without the saving knowledge of Jesus, or is there another way of understanding God's purposes? Crudely put, it is a tension between Evangelicals, who see their mission as "telling the Jesus story" so that as many as possible may be saved for eternity, and Liberals (and now Progressives?), who have a different and broader vision of the Church's engagement with the world - "thy will be done on earth...".
So I struggled with the divinity of Jesus and I struggled with Easter. And in the end, I stopped struggling and began to look at things differently. Retirement gave me time. I began to read books around the subject of Jesus, something I had scarcely done since leaving college, and found Christian Beginnings by Geza Vermes, a scholarly investigation into the early church and the gradual development of its beliefs. I came across books by Marcus Borg, by John Dominic Crossan, by Jack Spong, by Robin Meyers and others. I joined Progressive Christian Network (here), a network of people who think in similar ways, all of whom, I think, would be generous towards those of (dare I say) conventional or conservative theology but who are excited and empowered by thinking afresh about what Christians believe. After all, we are on a journey into faith, not simply defenders of the faith of our fathers. [I've listed at the end some books I've found illuminating.]
But, to be fair to Paul, there is much being written about the relationship between, if I can put it this way, the gospel according to Jesus and the gospel according to Paul. In an inadequate nutshell, Jesus's message was about God's kingdom and Paul's was about justification by faith. It is not too tortuous to find common ground between these two different approaches to God's plan and purpose. However, and for me it's a big however, the liturgies of the church seem to say little about Kingdom and lots (too much?) about sin, forgiveness and justification by faith.
Paul wrote his letters long before any gospel was written. Paul (known as Saul at the time) was present at the stoning of Stephen, which might have been about 33 CE, and Paul was executed in 65 CE. Between those years Paul wrote the seven letters that are accepted as his, and within that collection lies a comprehensive theological treatise about the person of Jesus. The first gospel, Mark, was written after Paul's death. The gospels are the collected memories and understandings of those early Christian communities. So the question to be asked is about the influence that Paul's theology might have had on emerging Christian communities. Do we find a different Jesus in Paul's writings when compared with the Jesus described in the gospels? Well, actually, yes! Paul shows very little interest in Jesus the man, and straightway elevates him to Jesus the Christ. This is precisely where our traditional and contemporary Christian theology has its roots - in Paul's comprehensive teaching about Jesus the Christ. Paul refashions the Jewish revolutionary message into a personal spiritual journey of faith, one which was palatable to the Greek-speaking Gentile world in which he moved. Within a few decades of the death of Jesus, his message had lost its Jewish roots. I found it a fascinating journey, delving into how this had come about. As the provocative title of one of Robin Meyer's books puts it, it is now about "Saving Jesus from the Church: how to stop worshipping Christ and start following Jesus."
Yet another thought breaks in here, and concerns the devastating effect of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Ever since the conquest first of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and then of the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians in 586 BCE followed by the short but catastrophic Exile, the Jewish nation and homeland had been under foreign domination, arguably until 1948 CE! Much of the Old Testament Law and Prophets were written in those mid-millennial times of exile, and the early books of the Old Testament should be read as if the reader is a 6th century Jewish exile in Babylon, trying to make sense of recent history and rediscover a Jewish identity. In 336 BCE Alexander the Great's military prowess established the Macedonian Empire, and the Jewish nation continued to suffer foreign rule. The crunch came with the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes, who in 168 BCE established pagan worship in the Jerusalem Temple and abolished the Jewish cult. This provoked an uprising led by Mattathias, a priest from Modiin, whose son Judas Maccabee emerged as leader of the Maccabean Revolt. Guerrilla warfare over several years succeeded in forcing Antiochus to repeal his draconian laws and allow the temple to be re-dedicated and returned to Jewish worship. But still the Jewish people were under foreign domination.
After the Seleucids came the Romans, who also provoked conflict with the Jews by desecrating the Holy of Holies, apparently out of curiosity to see what it contained. Superficially, relations between Jews and Romans remained relatively peaceful, largely because the Romans were content to allow control to be administered by Jewish rulers. But over the years there were revolts and conflicts, until the Roman garrison was briefly expelled from Jerusalem by the Jews in 65 CE. The Roman response was swift and brutal; they re-took the city five years later with huge bloodshed and destruction. The Temple was razed to the ground, perhaps simply to search for hidden fighters, and the city's surviving inhabitants dispersed. For the Jewish people, this was the greatest disaster possible. No Temple, no priesthood, no sacrifices, and their Holy City destroyed, and indeed for the second time. So it was, with all this history and against the background of continual resistance to foreign domination, that the gospels were written, starting with Mark.
All this makes the search for the significance of Jesus more interesting and urgent. It takes me away from the traditional understanding, in which Jesus as the divine Son of God bore my sins in his body on the cross and now reigns in heaven, waiting for the moment when, in God's good time, he will return to usher in God's Kingdom once and for all. Rather, I am taken to first-century Palestine, where the people were held under Roman rule, and Jesus came proclaiming that God's Kingdom was not something to be fought for or even waited for - it was here already and could have proved the salvation of the Jewish people in ways they had never thought of. Was the message of Jesus completely new? Or was he in direct descent, as it were, from the great prophets of the Old Testament era?
I'm repeating myself here (inevitably, if I keep adding bits!), but I suppose the Big Question is about the divinity of Jesus, which is where the question is asked about the words "Jesus Christ". To separate them reveals a new world of understanding, in which Jesus was a prophet, a charismatic preacher, with a message that challenged the leaders of Judaism at that time. In later times he came to be regarded as the "Christos", the anointed one, the one who saw clearly both where contemporary Judaism was failing and also how contemporary Judaism could recapture its spirit. For me, this is the essential Jesus - no talk of divinity, of a physical resurrection or a physical ascension - all that came later. Rather he was a man of supreme wisdom, fearlessness and above all passion for the God who makes all things new. And God's Kingdom might be better expressed as God's reign, a way of being which reflects the values that Jesus espoused, the priorities for living that put others before self, that govern the ways in which "we live, move and have our being", and the ways we see God's purposes not in terms of everlasting life in some future existence for believers but rather in working out the demands of unconditional and compassionate love in this life. Incidentally, there are good grounds for thinking that the word eternal does not mean endless but rather timeless; eternal life not as a continuation of consciousness in some form following death, but rather a radical realignment of life in the here and now. The message of Jesus was not about securing my endlessly continuing existence beyond death, but rather refocusing my existence to engage with the reign of God in this real, messy here-and-now world.
All of which still leaves me with the question of God. Every culture the world has ever known has developed a notion of a source of energy, enlightenment, inspiration and reward, that is beyond human power to define, that inhabits a realm of reality that we cannot fathom or experience ourselves, an unknown and unknowable Power which requires of us humans a response - either of fear of this Power, which requires appeasement and obedience, or of submission to this Power, which requires adoration and goodness. Along with this goes a range of hopes and expectations about life after death, about paradise, heaven and eternal reward - or, of course, the opposite fear of hell and eternal punishment. Do we, can we, still believe in a God who is "above the bright blue sky", somehow sustaining life and to whom we attribute "all glory, laud and honour"? Do we have to believe in a supernatural, intervening God? In truth, it is much easier, but somehow less satisfying, to define the things that God is not. Where is God in war, in pandemics, in places that flood and in places of perpetual drought? If God is almighty, why do disasters happen? Can God truly be a God of love when there is so much hatred and suspicion? Or can I think of God as my highest aspiration, my noblest ambition, indeed as my conscience when I set myself to actually listen to it? Is God the sum of all that is good and respectful of life, that I can incorporate into the way I live in the world? Is everything that we understand God to be the ultimate goal of my temporary existence on this planet? Can I even find the words to express what I think I mean?
When disaster strikes, does this supernatural, external God intervene? I have long had a problem with prayer. If my naïve understanding of God at least rules out the possibility of my exerting any influence over God, of somehow changing God's mind about something, why do I pray? And to whom or what do I pray? On occasions I have asked people about the mental image that comes into their mind when they pray, and their answers seem to show that most people have no coherent mental image at all. It's not far from thinking that one prays into a void, a nothingness, a silence - and that has led me over many years to think that prayer is something we do for ourselves. By praying, we align our thoughts with those of God, or rather, with the thoughts that we assume God would have. Praying is actually about me, rather than about God. Praying is my way of looking outside myself, beyond the topic of the prayer, trying to see a bigger context, a bigger picture. Prayer is also, and importantly, voicing my fears, worries, hopes, expectations and so on, in the hope that I may at least see things more clearly. Prayer changes me! Kristiane, my Canadian friend, speaks of "putting it out to the universe", and I connect strongly with that wonderfully vague and mysterious phrase. Prayer reminds me that I am a puny speck in the vastness of creation, and that whatever purpose lies behind creation is so infinitely greater than anything I could dream up in a lifetime - but nevertheless I am a cherished human being in the mind that thought me into being.
So why do I go on preaching and leading worship when I have so many unanswered questions, of which some are about the very fundamentals of life? Why do I spend so much time preparing services for people, a large proportion of whom would probably be satisfied with some comfortable words and a rosy glow?
It's because I am excited about my personal journey of discovery, a journey that brings the familiar into a much clearer light. I am in the process of finding a basis for my faith in God that does away with the need to believe the incredible because believing in the incredible makes the whole faith incredible, unbelievable, so other-worldly that it no longer resonates with our reality - or, in those well-known words, "so heavenly-minded that it's no earthly use".
If my faith does not make sense of the world as I experience it, it is useless to me. If my faith requires me to believe, for example, that Jesus was both human and divine, or that he was born of a virgin mother (who, by the way, went on to have several more children!) then I have to ditch all my common sense and such common knowledge as I have, in order to believe the incredible. It is a very long time since I have willingly recited the Nicene Creed, because I simply cannot assent to many of the statements contained in it. Creeds have become doctrinal statements that elicit, by their very nature, assent or dissent. They are black and white; faith has to have shades of colour, because faith is a journey and not a prescription.
However, that is to misunderstand what creeds are. Their origin is liturgical, coming from the questions put to candidates for baptism as they prepared to be plunged - "drowned" - under water to signify and symbolise a new birth. They were asked to affirm their faith in God - God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer (my words for longer questions). From this three-fold format came the creeds as we know them, basic statements of belief that over the early centuries were tweaked many times to reinforce so-called orthodox faith in the face of so-called heresies. [If you think the Nicene Creed is rather complicated, try reading the Athanasian Creed (actually, neither by Athanasius nor a creed). It begins with an "anathema", a statement to the effect that this is the orthodox faith and you risk eternal damnation if you do not believe it!] So the creeds began as simple affirmations of God's drama, played out in Creation, Salvation and Judgment.
Belief and faith. A world of difference lies between these two. The word 'believe' means assenting to a statement, agreeing with a doctrine. But the meaning of 'faith', and what the author of John's gospel meant by 'believe', is commitment to a person, putting one's trust in a person - or, as Marcus Borg put it, "beloving" someone. So the great dawning realisation that I have found is that I want to follow the Way of Jesus without being encumbered with a list of doctrines about him, some the product of Paul's Jewish mind in trying to understand how Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic expectations, and others later developed in answer to and repudiation of so-called heresies in the early centuries of Christianity, when early Christians were genuinely struggling to understand the nature of who Jesus really was.
Therefore, what I have become convinced of is that Jesus was a human being, albeit a most remarkable human being, who in his own culture and time preached a message that got under the skin of the Jewish people and offered a wholly new perspective on their history, their inherited faith and their future under God's reign. His confrontations with the religious powers of his day made him a public enemy, and because of the supposedly dangerous excitement of the common people in response to his message, Jesus was publicly humiliated and executed. But the message did not - could not - end there, and those who followed Jesus became a new movement, the Jesus Movement, followers of The Way.
It was the Roman Emperor Constantine who, after his vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, set in motion events which led to the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the final form of the Nicene Creed in 381, and became himself a patron of the Christian faith. His was the final nail in the coffin of the Jesus Movement. Through the Roman Emperor, that early Jesus Movement now became a Christian institution. Since that time, the Churches, in their concern to preserve the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed, have overlaid the simplicity of Jesus' message with an ecclesiology that very successfully hides the revolution within the revelation. Why is it that we still retain in public worship (I'm writing still as a somewhat nominal Anglican) a creed, seemingly a list of doctrinal statements, that originated in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea and were ratified in 381 in Constantinople? As I have frequently said (and once earned the wrath of two very orthodox Anglicans for so saying), if I were going to use a written statement to express my faith, I wouldn't choose one that is 1700 years old! And despite their liturgical origins, and despite their not being meant to be comprehensive, most people understand the creeds as defining their beliefs. Understandably, given its origin, there is nothing in the Nicene Creed between "was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man" and "for our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate". Where is all Jesus' teaching, preaching, healing and challenging? To put this rather crudely, the Nicene Creed has nothing to say about how to live and a great deal about what to believe; the Sermon on the Mount has nothing to say about what to believe but a great deal about how to live. And yet we allow our congregations, indeed, we expect them to recite (or at least assent to) this ancient formula which sounds like, and was designed to be, a statement of orthodox Christian belief. But the statement only covers those three "doctrines" of creation, salvation and judgment. It does not attempt to encourage or help believers to live out their faith, to be witnesses to God's transforming love. So here are some "statements of faith" that I have used on occasions when leading worship.
I have found myself recently asking the question, "Who was Jesus when he was twenty?" There was nothing written about him during his lifetime, and the letters of Paul were written before the first Gospel. So I began to look again (perhaps for the first time since college days!) at the books of the Old Testament, to try to get a feel for the stories that Jesus would have heard and been taught during his childhood and adolescence. I got excited by the study, so I've now designed a six-session course looking at some of the "highlights" - Creation, the Fall, Noah, Patriarchs, Covenant, the Exodus and settlement, the Judges, Kings and the Exile, foreign domination, the Messiah, and Jesus. And when I get to Jesus, I begin very tentatively to ask the age-old question "How did the man Jesus become the divine Son of God?" It's been a fascinating journey into how the Jews discovered their own identity, how they lost it at the Exile, and how they regained it and modified it in the centuries since. And it informs the way we understand the problems in the Middle East in our time. The Jewish homeland was promised to the People of Israel "for a perpetual holding" (Gen 17:8), but it is difficult in our modern day to see how this belief can be expressed. (Incidentally, I got so enthused by developing that study course that I've now got several more: How we got the Church; the Making of the New Testament; Who was Jesus when he was twenty?; Christmas Unwrapped; and Easter Unwrapped.)
As you may have guessed from what I've written so far, one particular theme that I have become aware of during my studies is the effect on the Jewish people of the Exile between 586 BCE and about 535 BCE - only about fifty years, but a calamitous and catastrophic event in their history. In brief, the once united kingdom of Israel under David became divided under his grandson Rehoboam into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. To repeat the story, in 722 BCE Israel (north) was conquered by the Assyrians, and in 586 BCE Judah (south) was conquered by the Babylonians. In both cases, a large proportion of the Jewish population was deported and taken into captivity. The homeland that had been promised and given to them by Yahweh was no longer theirs. You can get a feel for their anguish by reading Psalm 137. But in about 535 BCE, Cyrus King of Persia (once referred to by Isaiah as Yahweh's "servant", the same word-root as "Messiah", "anointed one") encouraged the exiled Jews to return to their homeland and to Jerusalem, to begin rebuilding their city and Temple, and indeed, rebuilding their nation. Ezra-Nehemiah tell the story of the rebuilding, and of the religious reappraisal that accompanied the restoration. But the important point here is that it was during and following the Exile that much of the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch, was written. The Jews had to rediscover who they were - they had lost everything to Assyria and Babylon, and now they had to restore the relationship between themselves and Yahweh. So when today we read the stories of Creation, Abraham, the Exodus and the other stories of those distant, legendary beginnings, we have to read them as if we are exiles in Babylon, looking to rediscover our foundations, who we are, where we are from, and where Yahweh is leading us. This insight has given me a much sharper understanding about the books of the Old Testament, and also about the faith journey that Jesus must have taken during his early years.
However, there is one important point that comes out of this. The faith that Jesus inherited was one that affected his whole way of living. It was fundamental to his Jewish life-style. His life was lived within the embrace of that faith. There was no differentiation between living and believing. And that is the same for Muslims too, and their insistence on saying their prayers at the set moments of every day cannot be unnoticed by the world at large. This is not exhibitionism - this is the total integration of faith and life, and when faith makes demands, life makes way.
So why does such devotion not make itself felt in our modern Christian living. Could it be because we have lost the dynamic of following the way of Jesus? Certainly the image of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" has been retired, but what has taken its place is still the Jesus of stained glass and heavenly music. So many modern Christian songs (rather than hymns) have very little theology beyond a sentimental and emotional expression of love towards Jesus - but this picture is light-years from the Jesus who got angry with legalistic Pharisees and who kicked over the tables in the Temple. It is that Jesus who excites me - the passionate reformer, the subversive preacher and outspoken critic who points out that things could be different, who challenges us to take our faith seriously and to change the things that need changing. This will not happen because people go to church on Sundays; but it may happen when people who go to church on Sundays get fired up with enthusiasm and energy to go and make their faith obvious by the way they respond to the needs of the world around them. It is how we live that matters.
The journey through faith is a journey without end. It is about questions rather than answers, searching rather than arriving, thinking rather than assuming. But actually, this is the journey of beliefs, not of faith. My beliefs have changed considerably over recent years, in response to new ideas and insights that have come my way. But do these changes themselves change my faith, because faith is about trust and commitment. And I think my sense of trust and commitment is the greater for having lived through changes in belief. My beliefs have become more grounded, more understandable, more comprehensive and comprehensible over the years (at least, to me!). It is a long time since I moved away from my earlier evangelical certainties, what I would now call beliefs of narrow focus, towards a bigger understanding (so far as I am capable) of the way in which I conceive what we call God. Especially, I'm beginning to have a larger understanding of the breadth of the biblical story, and the significance of the story of the Jewish people struggling to understand themselves in the light of a dawning sense both of the divine and also of their place in the grand scheme of things. "The purpose of God is to make us fit to be the children of God, and for us to make the world fit for the children of God to live in." I can't remember where that phrase comes from, but it's quite appropriate here.
I'm fiddling with this piece again at the time of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. As of June 2021, church buildings are opening for limited congregational worship, shops are open, but there is still a widespread hesitancy about getting things "back to normal", whatever "normal" was. And people are beginning to ask questions about the future - how do we reinstate the things that really matter and ditch the things that have run their course? Throughout this time I've been thinking of the Exile again, and wondering if it gives us a handle on our present situation. The Exile was truly a "kairos" moment, an opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for a future which may be quite different from the way things were. And this question is a concern for churches as well, especially the question "what are our buildings for?" For ancient church buildings, designed for people to sit in rows, face the front, listen and occasionally join in a hymn or a prayer, the possibilities are limited. Many of them are Grade 1 listed buildings, so adaptation is difficult. More modern buildings are more adaptable - but are we? Are we, the people of God, adaptable to new ways, new ideas, willing to change (such a difficult word!)? The Christian Church (and other faith movements as well) have long histories and well-established traditions. But unless traditions are living signs of faith, they may be no more than holy habit. And it takes courage to admit their hold on church life and worship. (Why, as I've already written, do we still recite the Nicene Creed? Because it's part of our 'tradition'.)
I see the Church in danger of becoming even more irrelevant to the great majority of people. Its buildings are often intimidating because people are unused to finding themselves in holy places, and its Sunday activities (services) are alien because people are unfamiliar with the language or the drama. To put it bluntly, the great majority of people in this country are not interested in the Church's message. And to be true, very little of the Church's message has been seen or heard from church leaders over recent months. And when they do emerge, it's often in church-speak, language referred to in the old Prayer Book as "not understanded of the people". However, people do respond when "the church" is seen to be active in times of crisis, for example in running food banks. No, it probably won't put more bums on pews - but that is not what Jesus was about!
This hymn by Fred Kaan puts all this much better than I ever could:
Very recently I came across this quotation, attributed to Mark Twain: "The most important two days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why." For me, the second day is still a work in progress!