It’s Easter 2010, and we at Holy Trinity have just finished our 24-hour Easter prayer vigil. One of the unexpected things that came out of that time where we kept the church open for prayer for a 24-hour period was that we actually had more Muslim people come into the church here to pray over that time than we had Christians! I don’t know whether that startles you or not? It certainly surprised me, and I wasn’t sure at first what to do with that!
One thing I’ve been asked a lot lately, even by reporters from secular newspapers and radio stations (such as the BBC yesterday) is whether I’ve accepted that my friend the Sheikh and I are praying to the same God. I always respond by saying that Sheikh and I believe many very different things about God but that we find we can discuss our differences as friends. Mind you, I appreciate that this is, in part, a way of avoiding the question, but I don’t actually like the way in which the question is framed
To ask whether we believe we’re praying to the same god suggests to me that there are a number of gods up there, sitting side-by-side like some line-up of religious super-friends: Jesus, perhaps with Mohammed alongside Him, and alongside them is Moses, Buddha, Krishna and quite possibly a few others, And the question is whether I’ve now realised the prayers Sheikh and I are sending up are actually now being answered by the same guy?
I’m not comfortable with that whole framework, I’m afraid, because I believe there to be just the one God and because I’ve never accepted that a person’s chances of getting prayers heard are necessarily going to be in direct proportion to how well they understand God. I have never been convinced that poor theology somehow automatically invalidates a person’s prayers. At the same time though I do think that what you believe about God is important – is very important – for what we believe about God determines who we are and what sort of life we live and what sort of legacy we leave. And that is what Easter is about in many ways. It’s about what God is like.
Now that might not be immediately obvious, for obviously Easter is about the miracle of the resurrection, first and foremost, and yet that is where Christian faith begins and that is where people really began to think about God in the light of the life and death and teachings of Jesus – at the resurrection.
If there had been no resurrection, nobody would have looked much further into the life and teachings of Jesus. If there had been no resurrection, whatever Jesus might have accomplished at some cosmic level through the cross for the forgiveness of the sins of the world would have gone unnoticed! If there had been no resurrection, we would have grieved Jesus’ death, remembered Him as a martyr and moved on.
But because of the resurrection we look back over the life and teachings of Jesus and see how His words and actions weave in to the prophecies of old. Because of the resurrection we look again at His death and what that meant. In the light of the resurrection it suddenly becomes obvious that Jesus speaks for God, and that He is the one who can show us what God is like.
The life of Jesus was a life of conflict – we know that – but we can characterise that conflict in a number of different ways.
In some ways it was a political conflict – a confrontation between Jesus and the major power-players of first century Palestine. It was a battle to control the minds and hearts of the people, and those who wanted to hang on to power feared Jesus and had to destroy Him.
In some ways it was a political conflict. In a deeper way it was a spiritual conflict between the mysterious powers of evil allied with the power of human sin, conflicting with the unconditional love of Jesus, shown in His absolute willingness to forgive – a conflict that bizarrely resolves itself in the suffering and death of Jesus, whose blood mysteriously cleanses us of our guilt.
Certainly the life of Jesus was a spiritual conflict as it was a political conflict, and yet in another way the life of Jesus was also a religious conflict, might we say even a theological conflict over the issue of what God is like.
Now I appreciate that this might appear to be a relatively trivial dimension to Jesus’ conflict when compared with the political and spiritual dimensions, but it is also the only ongoing issue! The political issues Jesus faced, while they were similar to those people who speak the truth face today were dealt with in the first century. The spiritual realities have likewise been dealt with – sin has been forgiven, humanity has been reconciled to God. It is finished.
It is the theological dimension that we continue to struggle with. We continue to argue over what God is like, and indeed I fear it is our failure at that level – at the level of our understanding of what God is like – that continues to make religion so often a force a division, discrimination and death in our world!
Jesus had a very specific understanding of what God is like and it conflicted quite radically with the understanding of God that was held to by the religious leaders of His day – even the leaders from within His own faith tradition. If I might put it very simply, the leading religious spokespersons of Jesus’ day believed that God was the God of good people, whereas Jesus believed that God was the God of everybody.
We see this conflicting understanding of God play itself out throughout the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus ripped into His clerical peers for the way in which they looked down on others while hypocritically failing to live up the standards they set for themselves. Conversely the clergy slammed Jesus for his profligate lifestyle, referring to Him as a “glutton and a drunkard” and most especially for the company he kept, labelling Him a “friend of tax-collectors and sinners“!
The clergy of Jesus’ day had a very clear understanding of the sort of person that God loved, and that person was Jewish, male and lived by the commandments! He didn’t lie, steal or fornicate. He didn’t smoke, drink or chew or goes with girls who do! He was good, clean, white and respectable. Jesus, on the other hand, believed that the Kingdom of God was open to everybody – to Jews and Greeks and Samaritans, to men and women, to the good, the bad and the ugly.
In some ways the theological conflict between Jesus and the religious experts of His day was spelled out most clearly in that story Jesus told about the Pharisee and a tax-collector who turned up at the temple at the same time to pray (Luke 18). The Pharisee prayed “I thank Thee God that I am not like other men” and went on to spell out his good works and his piety and all the things that made him superior to his peers, and especially superior to the degenerate tax-collector he noticed grovelling in the rear pew of the temple.
That same tax-collector prayed only, “God have mercy on me, a sinner”. It was the tax-collector who had his prayers heard that day, Jesus said, whereas the judgemental religious guy just wasn’t able to connect!
Religion in Jesus’ day, it seemed, functioned primarily to divide people – separating the righteous minority from the unrighteous majority. Religion today, sadly, so often functions in exactly the same way – dividing people into insiders and outsiders, the faithful and the unfaithful, the true believers and the great unwashed!
And yet in Jesus’ understanding God desires to include everybody in His family – people of all nations, male and female alike, rich and poor, the educated and the less educated, the sick as well as the well, gays as well as straights, the unrighteous along with the righteous. Jesus believed in inclusion because Jesus’ God was the God of the little guy, the God of the weak, the friend of the sinner, the Heavenly Parent of us all!
And we can look at the confrontations between Jesus and his clerical peers as being almost like a battle between two gods, or at least between two opposing conceptions of God – the God of the righteous coming out of one corner, taking on the God of Jesus – the God of the little guy – in the other.
And we cheer as we watch Jesus win some of those early rounds, using His sharp mind as well as His miraculous healing power to uplift the lowly – healing the sick, engaging with women, touching those who had leprosy, eating and drinking with people that conventional society despised, freeing the woman who was about to be stoned for her adultery, and all the time telling stories about lost sheep and beloved prodigal sons.
Yet as the rounds continue the god of the righteous starts to fight dirty, and so we watch as the stoush comes to a bloody conclusion on Good Friday with Jesus well and truly on the canvas!
In in the cross of Jesus it seems that all hope is gone. It appears that the God of the upright and the well-to-do has been victorious over the God of Jesus. And so we see the Pharisees gloating over the prostrate body of Jesus, claiming that their God is the real God, that the God who despises the weak is the real God, that the God who separates Himself from the great unwashed and who, by virtue of his holiness, refuses to associate himself with the lowly, is the real God. And then … the resurrection!
The resurrection of Jesus is God’s stamp of approval on the life and ministry and teaching of Jesus. In the resurrection of Jesus we realise that Jesus had been right about God all along! God raised Jesus from the dead, and so caused a sudden and dramatic reversal of the final decision of the great stoush between the God of the upright and the God of the weak.
Because of the resurrection we know that God is far bigger than a lot of us had imagined! Because of the resurrection we know that God’s love extends beyond the halls of the righteous, beyond the confines of our church full of good and respectable people, that indeed there are no limits to how far the love of God can extend in our world.
Because of the resurrection we know that it’s ok to be weak, that it’s ok to be human, to have failed, to struggle, to be not what we wish we were, because we know that God loves us anyway, because that is what God is like, because the real God is the God who loves us all, regardless of what we look like or where we’ve come from or what we’ve done, and we know that because the resurrection has proven it beyond any doubt!
Friends, I generally like to pride myself on being clever with my sermons. I like to keep people guessing, add some twists, be a bit subtle, etc. But today is Easter Day, and today I want to say something really simple because it is really important:
Christ is risen, therefore you are loved.
Christ is risen, therefore we are all loved.
Christ is risen, therefore the more people we have sharing with us and joining us for prayer – be they black or white or rich or poor or straight or gay or of our religious heritage or another – the better.
For Christ is risen and we are loved, and we are one, because Christ is risen. Alleluia!
First preached by Rev. David B. Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, April 2010.