Thursday, 2 February 2017

On life, death, and dying

A talk by Simon Woodman, given at the debate 'Assisted Dying and Living: A Better Conversation'
By Ekklesia and Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
2 February 2017

Listen to the audio of the debate here

It may seem obvious to say it, but living is the natural precursor to dying. This biological machine which I call ‘me’ is winding slowly down, and will, one day, stop. I hope that day is far off, and that the days between now and then will be healthy and happy. But, as a minister of a church, I am all too aware that for many of us, life ends too soon, and in ways that we would not choose.

This was brought home to me at a funeral I took in my late twenties, when I stood at the front looking at the girlfriend and young children of the deceased man, who was the same age as me, and heard the daughter ask her mother, ‘Is that Daddy in there?’ How I got through my lines I will never know.

Through my thirties I saw over many years my wife’s mother deteriorate with early onset Alzheimer’s, to the point where the person we had known and loved was replaced by a body that was deeply distressed and yet inarticulate and inactive. And I saw the medical industry keeping her alive long after her life had ended.

Just two examples from my own story, and I am well aware of the danger of extrapolating policy from personal experience. But I’m not here to argue policy, I’m here to talk theology; and it seems to me that if our theology doesn’t resonate meaningfully with our experience, then its not really doing its job.

So what, I wonder, might a Christian perspective on end-of-life choice look like? There is clearly no one ‘right’ answer to this, and I will let others argue their positions differently to me. But it seems to me that, sometimes, death might not be the worst thing that can happen to a person. Actually, I’ll put it a bit more positively than that: Sometimes, death is the best thing that can happen to a person. And I say this born out of a deep theological conviction that, from the perspective of eternity, death is not the enemy, because ultimately, I do not believe that death gets the final word on life.

I think that the author of the book of Revelation grasped something of this when he offered his readers a vision of the death of death. He said, ‘Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and … then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. … Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ (Rev. 20.13,14; 21.4). The author of Revelation knew all about suffering and torture and pain and death, but he didn’t accept that death gets the last word on life. If he is right this means, practically speaking, that life can be lived free from the dominating and debilitating fear of death.

This, I think, is a profoundly Christian perspective, challenging the ideology of ‘life at all costs’ that determines so much of our medicalized approach to death and dying. If death is not the ultimate enemy, then death can be embraced as a good part of life, to be welcomed rather than resisted when its time has come near.

Staying with the Bible for a minute, but moving swiftly from the end to the beginning, the opening vision of a garden offers a picture not of a world without death, but of a world where death is a friend, and not an enemy. The vision of Eden in the book of Genesis is not of a world rapidly facing over-population and resource-scarcity due to the immortality of the animals and humans that life there. Rather, it is a vision of a world where death is so much a part of life that it is as much a friend to those who live there as the rising of the sun on another day.

The Bible thus both begins and ends with a vision of life where death is transformed, and humans are released from its tyranny. Even St Paul, in his letter to the Philippains, maintains a remarkably ambiguous perspective on life and death, commenting that:, ‘For me, living is Christ and dying is gain.’ (1.21) And this biblical-theological perspective, I believe, is profoundly relevant to the pastoral realities that we encounter in our own lives and in the lives of those we love.

If death does not get the final word on life, then our lives are so much more than the moment of our passing. I firmly believe that every good moment of life is held safe by God and passes into his eternal embrace; and that nothing true, honorable, or just, pure, pleasing, or commendable, is ever lost to the love of God. So at the moment of our death we are neither constrained nor judged in the manner of our passing. We are rather freed to embrace death, knowing that in death we are held eternally in God’s love.

And so, to assisted dying. It does not seem to me unthinkable that modern medicine here has a great gift to offer those who are nearing the end of their life. It could even be a gift from God to be received with the same gratitude that we receive the other medical miracles that make our lives so much more bearable than those of any generation of humanity before us.

I hear and echo all the arguments around safeguards and ethical constraints, but these should no more prevent us using assisted dying appropriately than the safeguards and constraints that govern surgical or pharmaceutical medicine prevent us using those services.

My point here has been to establish the principle that there is a Christian perspective on assisted dying which sees it as a gift and not a curse, and which states very firmly that, in Christ, death need neither be feared nor fought, because death does not get the final word on life.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Beatitudes not Platitudes

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
29 January 2017, 11.00am

Micah 6.8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Matthew 5.1-12  
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessèd are those who refuse the lie that one life is worth more than any other,
for theirs is the future of humanity.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessèd are those who have stared long into the abyss,
for theirs is honesty beyond grief.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessèd are those who resist retaliation,
for the earth will never be won by force.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessèd are those who would rather die for truth than live with compromise,
for the truth will outlive all lies.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
            Blessèd are those who forgive the unforgivable,
            for they have seen the darkness of their own souls.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
            Blessèd are those who know themselves truly,
            for they have seen themselves as God sees them.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
            Blessèd are those who are provocatively nonviolent,
            for they are following the path of the son of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
            Blessèd are those who choose to receive violence but not to give it,
            for the future is born out of such choices.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
            Blessèd are you when you stand up for truth
            and hell itself decides to try and destroy you.
            You're not the first and you won't be the last.

            I'm telling you now, nothing makes any sense unless you learn see it differently,
            and then choose to live that alternative into being.

In Monty Python's memorable take on the sermon on the mount,
            in the film 'The Life of Brian',
we get to see the response to Jesus' preaching
            by those stood at the back of the crowd,
                        barely able to hear the preacher on the hilltop in the distance,
                        and misunderstanding his words to great comic effect. 

If you haven't seen it for a while,
            your homework this week is to watch it with my blessing.

The exchange includes everything
            from blessings on cheesemakers rather than peacemakers,
            to a discovery that it's the meek and not the Greek who shall inherit the earth,
                        which, as Mrs BigNose points out, ‘is nice, isn't it,
                        because the meek have a hell of a time’.

After a brief fight, the characters agree to head off to catch a stoning,
            and as they leave one of the Jewish revolutionaries is heard to mutter,

'Well, blessed is just about everyone
            with a vested interest in the status quo, as far as I can tell.'

To which his friend replies,

'Yeah. Well, what Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate
            is that it's the meek who are the problem.'

And I suspect it was ever thus,
            that those at the back of the crowd are ideologically, as well as geographically,
            distant from the voices at the centre.

Of course, what the Python team have intuitively picked up on
            in their version of the sermon on the mount,
is something that we see throughout Matthew's gospel,
            which is that some people, just a few,
                        get the truth of the message that Jesus is proclaiming;
            whereas others, the majority, are distant from him
                        and react badly to what they think they have heard.

This is almost certainly a reflection
            of the situation facing the community that Matthew was writing for,
                        some fifty years after the time of Jesus,
            where those in the small struggling congregations of Jesus-followers
                        were finding that most of those with whom they were trying to share
                                    the good news of their faith were disinterested at best,
                        and more often than not actively hostile to the challenge
                                    that the message of Jesus brought to their world and worldview.

And so Matthew gives his readers the sermon on the mount,
            with its memorable opening lines known now as the beatitudes,
to succinctly capture the force and energy of the preacher on the hilltop,
            whose voice continued to echo down the decades to their own time,
                        offering comfort and challenge in equal measure
                        to any who would dare to take the time to listen.

And it has ever been thus.

Radical Jesus-following has always been a minority sport;
            and I would suggest that those times where Christianity
                        has done a deal with power to get its message heard more widely
            have always resulted in a dilution of the message
                        away from its radical core.

In any form of Christendom,
            the beatitudes become a blessing on just about anyone
                        with a vested interest in the status quo,
            and the heart of it all gets lost once again.

And the problem is as real for us today
            as it was for Matthew's community in the first century;
the beatitudes of Jesus are all too easily reduced to the platitudes of Jesus,
            as statements of revolutionary challenge
            become aphorisms of anodyne comfort.

Did anyone else notice the Bible reading at Donald Trump’s inauguration?
            Revd Samuel Rodriguez, an evangelical Latino
                        who has on occasions been critical of Donald Trump,
            came to the podium and simply read the Beatitudes
                        from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

It seems to me to be almost beyond irony
            that the inaugural speech of Jesus’ ministry
should be set in such stark contrast
            with the inaugural presidential speech that followed it,
and yet I suspect for many of those listening,
            for many of those who see in their new president
                        a voice for their pro-life, religiously conservative agendas,
            there was no irony at all.

The radical revolutionary message of Jesus
            is all too easily domesticated to powerful agendas,
and we need to take care to hear it afresh,
            lest we too miss the demands it makes on us and our own lives.

And what does this blessèd word ‘blessèd’ mean anyway?

I mean, it's all very well asserting that the meek and the mourning are blessed,
            but one has to wonder what earthly use is that to the person crippled by grief,
                        or too timid to speak up or out?

It's tempting here to parody the words of Prime Minister May,
            and assert that Blessèd means Blessèd, and that's the end of it;
but that doesn't strike me as a satisfactory response to any question.

So in an attempt to get to the heart of the beatitudes,
            I thought I'd have a go at re-rendering them.

I want to make it clear that I'm not, here,
            seeking to re-write the words of scripture;
rather I'm offering a reflection on the words of Jesus that Matthew gives us,
            to help us engage with them in fresh ways.

Blessèd are those who refuse the lie that one life is worth more than any other,
for theirs is the future of humanity.

Blessèd are those who have stared long into the abyss,
for theirs is honesty beyond grief.

Blessèd are those who resist retaliation,
for the earth will never be won by force.

Blessèd are those who would rather die for truth than live with compromise,
for the truth will outlive all lies.

Blessèd are those who forgive the unforgivable,
for they have seen the darkness of their own souls.

Blessèd are those who know themselves truly,
for they have seen themselves as God sees them.

Blessèd are those who are provocatively nonviolent,
for they are following the path of the son of God.

Blessèd are those who choose to receive violence but not to give it,
for the future is born out of such choices.

Blessèd are you when you stand up for truth
and hell itself decides to try and destroy you.
You're not the first and you won't be the last.

I'm telling you now, nothing makes any sense unless you learn see it differently,
and then choose to live that alternative into being.

So firstly, I wonder, what does it mean to be blessed?
            It’s not a word we use a lot, really, is it; at least not in its archaic form
                        of two syllables with an accent over the second ‘e’ – bless-èd
It has resonances of Shakespeare and the King James Bible;
            and it’s modern pronunciation of ‘blest’
            has lost much of its depth of meaning in contemporary usage,
                        often reduced to a vague assertion of feeling fortunate.
            As in, ‘I’m blest to have you has a friend’.

It’s further popular rendering as just ‘bless’ has robbed it of almost all meaning,
            becoming little more than a patronising response to someone who has tried,
                        but failed, to achieve anything worthwhile.
            As in, ‘Look at that drawing she’s done, Bless!’


Anyway, I wonder if we can find a way to bring it back to relevance,
            to rediscover the force of what Jesus was doing by proclaiming a blessing
            on the meek, the mournful, and the merciful.

In the Jewish religious context of the first century,
            one of the great theological debates
            was that of who was worthy to receive the blessing of God?

The Jews held that they were God’s chosen people,
            called from among the nations,
            and blessed by God with the gift of a ‘special relationship’ with him.

But within this general calling and blessing, there was a further level of disparity
            between those who were regarded as blessed, and those who were not;
            and there was much discussion as to what God’s blessing looked like.

If you think that the prosperity gospel of health and wealth is a new phenomenon,
                        and unique to Christianity,
            then think again, because the ancient Jews got there first.

There was a school of thought that held that if you were obedient to the covenant,
            you would experience the blessings of God as a reward for your faithfulness.
These blessings might be financial,
            or related to health, or to family life, such as having lots of children.

It’s not quite, ‘touch the screen, and you’re gonna be healed’,
            but it comes from a similar place,
            in terms of seeing God’s blessings as linked to human obedience and sacrifice.

Jesus wasn’t the first to challenge this idea,
            and, for example, the book of Job is an extended piece of theological reflection
                        on why bad things happen to good people,
            questioning where God is in the face of human suffering.

Again, these are not new questions…

The prophet Micah, who we heard from in our first reading this morning,
            also questioned the nature of the sacrifice that God might require,
            in order for his blessings to be dispensed. He asked,

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings? 
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
            with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
            the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"

And the answer that he hears to this question is radical:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
            but to do justice,
            and to love kindness,
            and to walk humbly with your God?

It is in this tradition of Micah and Job,
            that Jesus started proclaiming blessings
            on those whom others would despise.
Many voices told people that their vulnerability was a curse;
            Jesus, however, says it is a blessing.

And so…

Blessed are those who refuse the lie that one life is worth more than any other,
            for theirs is the future of humanity.

This really is the great lie,
            it is the great deceit of Satan.
Because the moment any one of us starts to believe
            that one life is more precious to God than any other,
then the door is opened for all manner of evil to take root and flourish.

Against this, the radical message that Jesus proclaimed
            was that the kingdom of heaven
            belongs to those with a poverty of spirit,
to those with an un-inflated view of their own self-importance,
            to those who know that any value they have in life comes from God,
            and not from any achievement or status they may hold.

But so many of the messages of our society fly in the face of true poverty of spirit.
            From the advertisers’ mantra that ‘you’re worth it’
                        to fevered assertions of America, or indeed any nation, First,
            and the nationalistic protectionism that comes
                        from a mindset of ‘my country right or wrong’.

Friends, we need to recover a Godly sense of our own value,
            and to discover in that, the value of those others
            whom we would otherwise so easily diminish.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who have stared long into the abyss,
            for theirs is honesty beyond grief.

Bereavement can sap all hope, but there is hope here
            that those who have learned to live with great loss
                        may discover through their grief the brutal honesty of human mortality,
            in ways that others will never grasp.

The comfort for those who mourn is not won easily, or quickly;
            and it comes through pain and tears.

But in a world which despises weakness,
            and which denies the transience of life,
the ability to out-stare death is a blessing known only to some;
            and yet is a great gift that they bring to humanity.

We each of us, in our own way, one day,
            will look death in the face,
and on that day we will need those who have seen that face before,
            and learned to live with its reality.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who resist retaliation,
            for the earth will never be won by force.

We can build walls and missiles to our heart’s content,
            securing our borders with Mutually Assured Destruction,
            and ever more stringent restrictions on movement.

We can make our pacts and alliances,
            and stand in solidarity with countries of like-mind.
We can love NATO or hate it.

But, says Jesus, the earth does not belong to those with guns, or missiles,
            it belongs to the meek;
it belongs to those who resist retaliation,
            to those who will commit themselves to alternatives to the spiralling violence
            that generates strike after counter-strike.

The future belongs to those who will build bridges and not walls,
            to those who turn swords into ploughshares
            and guns into statues.

We will need creativity and courage
            if we are to stand against the prevailing mind-set of retaliation.
But it is a fight that is worth the effort,
            because all other paths lead to death.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who would rather die for truth than live with compromise,
            for the truth will outlive all lies.

We live in a world of fake news,
            and alternative facts.
We live in a post-truth world,
            where the lie wins the argument if it’s said loud enough and often enough.

From ‘Crooked Hillary’ to £350 million a week on the NHS,
            we are constantly invited and cajoled to abandon truth,
            and follow the herd.

And yet where in this is righteousness, where in this is truth?

The answer, to quote the X files, is that the truth is out there,
            we just need to seek it out, and then speak it out.

And this is not easy – it is hard, thirsty work, seeking the springs of righteousness,
            but we must not abandon the quest,
            and we must resist compromise.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who forgive the unforgivable,
            for they have seen the darkness of their own souls.

I mourned the passing recently of Jill Saward,
            you may remember her, she was a victim of the Ealing vicarage rape attack.
I heard her speak once, at Greenbelt,
            and the courage with which she faced the crime that had been done to her,
            and her willingness to speak language of forgiveness as a path to wholeness,
had a profound effect on me.

And in my pastoral work I speak sometimes with those who have been greatly wronged,
            victims of abuse of all kinds,
and I have never found it appropriate to tell anyone
            that they must forgive their abuser.

But when someone comes to the conclusion
            that the path from victimhood lies through the dark valley of forgiveness,
and when they realise that despite the wrong done to them
            they share common humanity with those who do wrong to others,
Something profound shifts,
            and a moment of blessing can emerge.

But when we think of this on a global scale,
            when we bring to mind the terrorist atrocities of all the years,
            from Isis to the IRA and beyond,
and when we see the historical scars of un-forgiveness
            written across whole societies and nations,
we can begin to see why mercy is a blessing that cuts both ways.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who know themselves truly,
            for they have seen themselves as God sees them.

In my sermon a couple of weeks ago,
            I made reference to the quote from Socrates
            that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’.
And I find myself wondering more and more
            whether the journey of discipleship in Christ
            is primarily a journey into the love of God,
which takes shape in our lives
            as we learn to see ourselves not as we want to be seen,
                        and not as others see us,
            but as God sees us.

The challenge here, is that God sees us with the unflinching gaze of love,
            and we so resist the idea of being loved.

We live with such suppressed guilt, such internalised self-hatred,
            that the idea of being loved, of being truly forgiven and accepted,
            is as alien to us as our long lost childhoods.

And yet, and yet God loves us,
            and forgives us,
                        and when we learn to see ourselves as God sees us,
                        we discover purity in place of pain,
                        and find the face of God in the midst of our complex existence.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who are provocatively nonviolent,
            for they are following the path of the son of God.

The path of peacemaking is not supposed to be straightforward.
            It’s never just a passive pacifism that lies down and dies
                        when confronted with violent opposition.

Christ-like nonviolence is something far more creative,
            something far more subversive.

Jim Gordon, former principal of the Scottish Baptist College,
            wrote this week that the

Followers of the crucified Lord have a long tradition of resistance
            through revolutionary love, bridge-building hope,
            perseverance in peace, and joy in trumping injustice.[1]

And those of us who are watching with concern
            as sabre rattling escalates on the international stage,
will need to be provocatively nonviolent
            if we are to speak out a different, more Christ-like narrative,
            for people to learn to live by.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are those who choose to receive violence but not to give it,
            for the future is born out of such choices.

And some will face persecution
            because they will not compromise on what they know to be right.

Just before Christmas we had an event here at Bloomsbury
            with Moazzam Begg speaking about his time as a detainee in Guantanamo bay,
            eventually released without charge.

The temptation to turn an experience of persecution into a quest for vengeance
            is ever before those who have been wronged,
and those who make the choice to receive but not to give out,
            find themselves walking the path of the cross,
            and setting a new direction for those who follow.

And so the challenge continues:

Blessed are you when you stand up for truth
            and hell itself decides to try and destroy you.
You're not the first and you won't be the last.

I think that too often Christians have their Earth-Heaven trajectory
            the wrong way around.

The dawning of the kingdom of heaven
            is not about us going to heaven,
            it’s about heaven coming to us.

As Jesus taught his disciples to pray,
            ‘your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.’

Do you get it?
            Can you see it?

Most can’t, and won’t,
            and that’s the truth of it.

But those of us who can,
            those of us who are close enough to the one at the centre
            to hear his voice and heed his words;
we get it, we get the kingdom,
            and we must then live that kingdom into being.
We must live as if it were true,
            until it is true.

I'm telling you now, nothing makes any sense unless you learn see it differently,
            and then choose to live that alternative into being.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Facing the Monsters

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
15 January 2017 11.00am

John 1.29-42  
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 

Exodus 12.1-14 

I wonder, when you were very young, were are you afraid of monsters?

It seems to be a fairly universal experience of childhood that we fear the unknown,
and fill it with monsters of our own imaginings.

From the void under the bed to the dark of the wardrobe,
            the lurking spiders of the dark have the capacity
            to assume monstrous and threatening proportions in our minds,
as we place onto them our worst fears and darkest dreams.

And let us not kid ourselves for even a moment
            that the inner world of a child is all innocence and light.

I can remember, even at a very young age,
            finding within myself the capacity to explore very dark thoughts and emotions,
            and I assume I'm not alone in this.

What is significant, of course, is how a child learns to process and cope with
            their developing sense of themselves.

What we do with our inner monsters
            is a key question of the process of reaching maturity.

And one of the things we do
            is to take those inner demons and externalise them,
                        we get them out of ourselves,
            and then we try to find ways to appease their gnawing appetites.

And so I remember that when I was very young,
            I had a teddy bear that I loved very much,
and I would dangle him over the edge of my bed
            so that he could see into the fearsome and unplumbed depths beneath me,
            and face the creatures that lived there on my behalf.

I used to promise him that I'd never let him go,
            that he was safe as long as I held his hand;
but I also took comfort in knowing that if anything happened to him,
            if the fear got too much for me and my grip faltered,
I could quickly withdraw my hand back to safety,
            leaving him as a sacrifice to the dark,
            to be collected in the morning if he survived the night down there alone.

The question I have, re-visiting these memories from my childhood,
            is who, or what is the real monster here?
And who, or what, is the sacrifice that is being offered?

And so to John's Gospel, to our lectionary reading for this morning.

"The next day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared,
            'Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.'" (1.29)

And I find myself wondering what we mean
            when we speak of Jesus as the 'Lamb of God"? 

What did John the Baptist mean
            when he greeted Jesus in this way,
and what did John the author of the fourth gospel mean
            by repeating it here at the start of Jesus’ public ministry?

The background to the phrase "Lamb of God" is well known,
            finding its origin in the two old Testament passages
            we had read for us earlier in the service.

The first of these is the story of the institution of the Passover,
            set in the time of Israelite slavery in Egypt.

Moses had been unsuccessful
            in persuading the pharaoh to release his people.
Despite the devastation of the nine plagues that had already happened,
            Pharaoh's heart remained hard, and set on slavery.

The final plague to visit to the Egyptians was that of the death of the first born,
            with the citizens of ancient Egypt bearing the horrific cost
            of their leader's dedication to domination.

But the Israelites were spared the angel of death,
            because they obeyed the instruction to kill a lamb without blemish
                        and to mark their doorposts with its blood,
            so that the curse of death would know to pass over their houses.

It is clear that the author of John's Gospel
            has the festival of the Passover very much in mind
                        as he tells the story of Jesus,
as, unlike the other gospels, we find that John’s Gospel
            gives us three specific mentions of the Passover (2.13; 6.4; 13.1),
with the events of the crucifixion taking place at the third of these,
            and the Passover being celebrated on the day following the death of Jesus.

The gospel writer clearly wants his readers to understand
            that Jesus is the Passover lamb,
with his death functioning to bring release from the empire of domination
            that, like the Egyptian pharaoh of old,
            still holds people in perpetual captivity.

But still, what kind of a lamb is this?
            What kind of a sacrifice is being offered here?[1]

And so we must turn our attention to the second scripture passage
            that lies behind the acclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God;
            the suffering servant passage from Isaiah.

This is a text which, like the Passover story,
            also finds its origin in a time of imperial oppression.

These words from Isaiah were offered originally to the Jews in exile in Babylon,
            and they gave the people of God a way of understanding
                        their present sufferings in exile
            in the context of God's activity for the release
                        of all who live in slavery and oppression.

As the sins of the pharaoh caused the suffering of many,
            so the sins of the many cause the suffering of the one,
who goes to his death like a lamb that is led to the slaughter (Isa 53.7).

However Isaiah's words were understood
            by those who first heard them,
John's Gospel is quite clear that Jesus is to be understood
            as the Lamb of God who goes to his death
                        because of the sins of the many,
            to secure the release of the many
                        from the dominating powers of sin and death.

"Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." (1.29) 

But even if we are clear that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb,
            we still haven't resolved our question
                        of why this sacrifice is being demanded, by whom, and on what basis.

And here, I'd like to return to my childhood for a moment again,
            and think about the human experience
            of how we deal with our own monstrous desires.

There is a way of understanding the death of Jesus
            where God is like the small child, perched up on high,
                        safe from the monsters that live below,
            dangling his dearly beloved son over the precipice
                        and then letting go, as an offering to assuage the appetites
                        of the monsters that would otherwise devour the cosmos
                                    and all who live there.

Or, to put this perspective another way:
            God is in his heaven,
                        but the wages of sin demand a sacrifice unto death.
            Someone has to pay that bill,
                        so Jesus pays it, and the rest of us get off scot-free.

Many of us will have heard this, or something very similar to it, before.
            It is, in essence, the standard evangelical understanding
                        of the death of Jesus as the one who pays the price for our sins,
                        so we don't have to.

Sometimes, it even comes with diagrams,
            so that it can be more easily explained to those
                        whose sins have not yet been washed away by the blood of the lamb,
            which apparently (according to one way of reading the book of Revelation)
                        washes whiter than white (Revelation 7.14). 

However, I have something of a problem with this way of seeing things,
            because the more I think about it,
            the more it seems to me that in this scenario
                        the monsters are not dwelling on the earth,
                        or even under the bed.

The monster here is God.
            This is a monstrous view of God,
            who tosses his son to feed the encircling wolves of sin and death.

Just as the monsters under my bed as a child existed, in reality, only inside my head;
            so it is with God if we fashion him as the divine child on high,
                        projecting his own needs and insecurities onto his creation
                        before destroying his own beloved son
                                    to appease these demons of his own creating.

No, in the final analysis, I reject this understanding of the death of Jesus
            as an immature projection by humans,
in which we create God in our own image
            and then endow him with our own sinful characteristics.

It seems to me that, for any understanding of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb
            to be genuinely transformative of our human experience,
it must begin with an understanding of God as love.

If God is not love, and love unrestricted and freely given,
            then I would suggest that God is not God.

If God is violent, vengeful, cowardly, remote, or judgemental,
            then God is nothing more than a projection
            of our own psychological traumas.

For God to be God, God must be love,
            and therefore God's saving action in Christ
            must be an act of love, and not violence.

So here's a thought:
            what if it is not God who demands the sacrifice?

What if the sacrifice is not required by some immutable laws
            which God grandly wrote into the universe,
            but which now not even he has the power to overrule?

What if the monsters baying for blood
            are not projections of the tortured mind of God?

What if the monsters are really me, and you?

What if the sacrificial monster,
            demanding a sacrifice to expunge its guilt, is humanity itself?

This, I would suggest, changes everything.

By this understanding, the death of Jesus
            is not about paying some cosmic debt,
but rather is about exposing the sacrificial predilections
            that lie deep within each of us,
as we cast about for someone to rid us of the guilt
            of our own darkest fears and desires.

By this reading, Jesus is the one who bears our infirmities,
            and carries our desires;
he is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,
            and by his bruises we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray;
            and the Lamb of God comes from the father and returns to the father
            that we may be freed from the burden of our fallen humanity.

This is not God casting our sins on Jesus
            as an act of divine violence against an innocent victim.

Rather, this is God entering into the depths of human depravity,
            to expose to the light of his truth
                        our capacity to inflict violence on one another,
            in our quest for personal or communal justification.

This is the act of a God of love, who so deeply loves humanity
            that he is willing to take into himself the worst we can do to another,
                        in order that our desires for a violent solution to our plight
                        may be deconstructed.

Jesus the sacrificial lamb is not some spotless Lamb of perfected humanity,
            given to appease a vengeful God;
but the Lamb of God, given to bring release to human communities
            locked into cycles of scapegoating.

And, I would add, the world has never needed the Lamb of God
            more than it does at the moment.

We are locked into global cycles of violent scapegoating,
            where the "other" is continually and creatively held accountable
                        for the sins of the many,
            in order that the many might feel some brief glimmer of justification.

The sins of the world are many and grievous,
            as we victimise the powerless,
            and systemically extinguish empathy for the other.

It happens on all sides, and there is no way out
            without an intervention to unmask the darkness that lies within each of us.

The world needs those who will join with John the Baptist
            in the heralding another way.

It needs those who will cry to a world of sin:
            "Look, here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

The world needs to hear the story, and see the brutal reality,
            of the Lamb of God sent to his death by human hands;
because without this unmasking of our sins,
            we continue to misrepresent the victim as the enemy,
            and the spirals of sin and death continue unabated.

And this task of proclaiming of the Lamb of God to the world
            begins with and within each of us.

If it is not true for me, or for you, then we have nothing to say to others,
            because we ourselves are still trapped by our own monsters,
unable to step down from the safety of our beds,
            forever retreating into our own comfort zones,
and all the while scapegoating those who we deem expendable,
            requiring others to pay the price for our own sins.

We have to grow up, and to grow into Christ.

We have to learn to see Christ in the other,
            and to recognise the monsters in ourselves;
rather than seeing Christ in ourselves
            and monsters in others.

We need the Lamb of God to take away our sins.

And so we need the spirit of Christ to remain within us,
            that we may remain within God.

And, I wonder, what might this mean in practice?
            What does it mean for us to recognise in ourselves
                        our capacity to deny our own inner darkness
                        by demonising others?

I think it starts with self knowledge,
            with us learning to have the courage to stare into the darkness within,
            and to recognise our fallen state for what it is.

For me, this meant a year of psychotherapy,
            as I exorcised certain ghosts that had been haunting me
            for most of my adult life.

It was Socrates who famously declared
            that the unexamined life was not worth living.

But of course, merely learning to face the darkness
            is only the first step of the process.

Because to truly abide in Christ, the Lamb of God,
            is a process of surrendering to love,
            and of letting go of our driving sense of self.

It is allowing him to take from us the hatred, bitterness, pain, and guilt,
            that define our lives and our relationships.

It is becoming vulnerable to the ultimate other
            who comes to us in love
            and offers us release and forgiveness.

And this means becoming vulnerable to one another,
            as we surrender ourselves to the body of Christ,
the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.