Sunday, 8 April 2018

Living Life in the Light of the Resurrection.

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
8 April 2018

1 John 1.1 – 2.2  
Genesis 22.1-13   
Today is that day in the Christian calendar sometimes referred to as ‘Low Sunday’,
            although no-one is quite sure why.

Possibly, it’s because with Easter Sunday being one of the High Feast days,
            the Sunday following it feels, by contrast, something of a ‘low’.
Or possibly, it comes from the Latin laudēs, meaning ‘let us praise’,
            which was the opening word of a medieval sung prayer calling people to worship.
Or possibly it’s a reference to the fact
            that the numbers of bums on seats is traditionally lower in the week following Easter,
            as congregation sizes return to normal levels
            after higher attendance at the great festival.

However, I think I prefer a different name for today,
            which is also, rather wonderfully, known as ‘Quasimodo Sunday’.
But before Philip gets carried away
            and starts blowing the cobwebs out of the Bloomsbury Beast
            in tribute to the great organ of Notre Dame,
the reason Quasimodo has that name in Victor Hugo’s novel
            is because he is abandoned as a baby on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral
            on the Sunday after Easter.

The term actually comes from the opening words
            of the traditional Latin introit for this day, Quasi modo genitī infantēs ...,
            which translates into English as, ‘Like newborn infants, we come to God’.

And those of you who have been paying attention
            may have noticed that this quote from 2 Peter was, quite deliberately,
                        our call to worship for this morning.
‘Like newborn infants, we come to God…’.

I like this very much.
            Here we are a week after Easter,
            during which season we have enacted the great truths of the Christian faith;
                        and yet we come to today, just seven days later,
                        as newborn infants, starting all over again.

Still fresh in our memories
            we can recall the long fast of Lent,
                        reminding us of our excesses and calling us to simplicity,
            we can still hear joy of Palm Sunday ringing in our ears,
                        the fellowship of Mandy Thursday still calling us to thanksgiving,
                        the horror of Good Friday still haunting our souls,
                        the waiting of Holy Saturday still gnawing at our hearts,
                        and the exultation of Easter Day still lifting us up to new life.

But after all this, we come to today as newborn infants,
            longing for pure, spiritual milk.
There’s a circularity to the Christian year here,
            as the resurrection calls us to start all over again,
            and ask what it is that we are going to build our life on.

What spiritual nourishment are we going to take deep within us, and allow to shape us?
            Are we just going to go back to how things were
                        before Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday
                        called us to the Lenten and Easter journey,
            or has something changed for us over the last two months?

What kind of Christian are we going to be, going forwards from today?
            What God will we believe in?
            What will we build our life on?
Today is a day for big decisions, because we come to today as newborn children.
            However old we may be in terms of years, we are, today, all infants before God.

And it is in this context that I want us to hear our reading this morning
            from the first letter of John, which begins at the beginning.
And that, as the King advised the White Rabbit in Wonderland,
            is always a good place to begin.

‘We declare to you what was from the beginning’, begins the letter,
            ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes,
            what we have looked at and touched with our hands,
                        concerning the word of life.
            This life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it,
                        and declare to you the eternal life
                        that was with the father and was revealed to us.’

The letter starts, significantly, with the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.

In true Johannine style, a sort of code-word is used for Jesus,
            and in language reminiscent of the prologue to John’s gospel,
            Jesus is referred to as ‘the word’.

In this case, it’s not the pre-existent word of creation that it is in the gospel,
            but rather Jesus is presented in the first letter of John as the ‘word of life’.
Jesus is the revelation of ‘life’,
            and this ‘life’ has an eternal quality to it,
            originating with the father, and revealed to humans in the life of Jesus.

Or, to put it another way,
            life in all its fullness can be found and experienced
            through an encounter with the life of Jesus.

So, for those of us gathering as spiritually new-born infants on Quasimodo Sunday,
            this new life that has come us,
                        and which has caused us to be ‘born again’,
                        (to use another of the Gospel’s phrases),
            has been made known to us through our encounter
                        with the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
            whose life speaks words of life to us.

This is the gospel that is ours to share:
            the good news that God has been made known in the life of Jesus.

And here we come back to the key question,
            that today’s invitation to start our lives afresh with Christ raises for us.

The question is this:
            ‘What God will we believe in’?

And the thing is there are, as there always have been, plenty of options.

In the ancient world of the first century,
            the original context for the first letter of John,
the decision as to which God you would worship,
            was a very real choice.

Some of the early recipients of this letter would have been Jews,
            worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And in fact, the author of the letter, whoever he was,
            was himself a Jew, who had converted to worshipping Jesus as the messiah.

But some of the other early recipients of his letter
            would have been what became known as pagans,
those who had grown up worshipping the gods
            of the Greek and Roman pantheon,
            and possibly also worshipping the emperor himself.

There were numerous competing gods available for you to worship in the first century;
            and these different gods were encountered in a variety of different ways.

The God of the Jews was known through the stories of the Jewish faith,
            and through the worship practices of the synagogues
            and the Temple until its destruction in the year 70,
                        just a few years before this letter was written.

The gods of the Greeks and the Romans were known
            through their stories, idols, images, and temples,
            and the worship of them formed the backbone to the structure of society.
To decline to worship these gods was an act of rebellion, of civil disobedience.

The Jews had negotiated a kind of uneasy truce,
            by which they had some protection under the Roman law
                        to allow them to worship their God,
            but there were strict regulations
                        preventing them from seeking to convert others to their faith,
            and they were often an easy target for scapegoating within the ancient world.

The long and terrible history of European antisemitism
            has its origins in the way the Roman empire
            treated and mistreated its Jewish citizens.

And into all of this, early Christians like the author of our letter for this morning,
            were trying to say something new.

If you want to know God, they said,
            you don’t look primarily to the Jewish scriptures,
                        or to the worship practices of the synagogues;
            or to the idols, images, and stories of the pagan pantheon;
                        or even to the emperor in Rome himself.
Rather, you look to the life of Jesus.

And what you discover if you do this, says our letter, is a new vision of God,
            a new understanding of who God is and how God can be known.

Verse 5: ‘This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you,
            that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all’.

At this point in the letter, the word ‘life’ drops out of use for a bit,
            and is replaced with the word ‘light’, another typically Johannine concept.

The word that has been heard, seen, and encountered is the word of life,
            but what comes into the world through that word of life
                        is a vision of a God who is pure light.
            ‘God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all’.

This kind of understanding of God
            stood in stark contrast with the competing visions of the gods
            that would otherwise have been familiar to the early recipients of this letter.

They believed that some gods were angry, and some were capricious,
            some were gluttonous, and some were lustful,
            some were unfaithful, and some were violent.

To say that the gods had ‘no darkness’
            would have been as nonsensical to many of those receiving this letter,
            as would saying that humans had ‘no darkness’ in them.
And this is because the ancient gods had come into being to reflect human nature;
            they took all our glories and all of our failures,
                        all of our light and all of our darkness,
            and wrote them across the heavens.
The reason there were so many gods
            was because humans are so complicated.

The Jewish understanding of one God
            had emerged against a similar context of many gods;
not the Roman or Greek gods of the first century,
            but the multiple tribal gods of the Ancient Near East of a millennia or more before.

And the Jewish belief that God is one, rather than many,
            was a radical departure from the beliefs of the nations surrounding them.

One way of reading the Old Testament is to see it as a testimony
            to the Jewish attempt to understand their conviction that God is one.

The different stories of the Hebrew Scriptures
            are a series of thought experiments concerning the nature of God,
            as they explore different ways of articulating their unique perspective on faith.

Is the ‘one God’ of the Jews a consistent, faithful God, or is he capricious and needy?
            Is God a God of war, or of peace?
            Does God demand sacrifice or offer mercy?

The story from Genesis, of God testing Abraham
            by asking him to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice,
            is just such an example of the Jewish exploration into the nature of their God.

The question being asked here is whether God is the kind of God
            who demands a sacrifice from his most faithful follower?
At the beginning of the story, in an echo of the story of Job,
            God decides to test the faithfulness of Abraham
            by asking something of him that is surely too costly.
And so Abraham and Isaac set off up the hill,
            with Isaac carrying his cross, so to speak, on his shoulders.
It’s only at the last moment,
            once Abraham has proved himself willing to sacrifice his own dearly beloved son,
            that an angel directs him to an alternative sacrifice,
            and the ram caught in the thicket is offered in place of the boy.

The temptations to allegorise this story onto the crucifixion of Jesus are strong,
            particularly as the stories of Jesus carrying his own cross to Golgotha,
                        and dying as a substitute for sinful humans,
            are still ringing in our ears from last weekend.

But whilst this story was clearly in the minds of the gospel writers
            as they reflected on the nature of the Easter story,
there is no straightforward allegory to be found here.

Because at the heart of the Abraham and Isaac story
            is still a God who demands a sacrifice.
It might not be Isaac, but the ram still has to die in his place
            in order that he might live.

And if we simply substitute Jesus for the ram caught in the thicket,
            and take this as our understanding of what happens on the cross,
            we still end up with a God who demands a sacrifice unto death.

And a God who demands death to satisfy his wrath at human sin
            doesn’t sound much like a God who is light,
            and in whom there is no darkness at all.

This would be a God of anger, vengeance, and violence,
            not a God of life, love, and reconciliation.

The conviction that God is life and light,
            challenges us to reconsider our theology of the cross.

If our view of the cross is dominated by death and darkness,
            something profound has gone astray.

If the cross is about God demanding a blood sacrifice
            and then getting what he demands,
we have a view of God which is predicated on death and darkness.

Saying that God substitutes Jesus for us,
            in the same way that Abraham substituted the ram for Isaac,
does not solve this problem.

What we need is another way of seeing the cross,
            and the story of Jesus gives us exactly this.

If the story ended at the cross,
            we would be left with a violent God, killing his innocent son,
            to satisfy some universal law that sin must be paid for by death.

But the resurrection gives the lie to this theology.
            The empty tomb challenges all understandings of God
            which are predicated on darkness and violence.

The events of Easter Sunday tell us that God is about life, not death.
            Death is a human thing, not a divine thing.

As frail mortal beings, we live our lives in the shadow of death.
            We can postpone it, we can fear it, we can deny it, but we cannot avoid it.

But God is not about death, he is about life.
            And this means that God is not about violence.

When we find ourselves worshipping a God of violence,
            I would suggest that we have invented God, once again, in our own image.

If we believe that God demands a sacrifice,
            and then offers his son to be that sacrifice,
we are making our thing to be God’s thing,
            and that is surely a grave error.

You see, the truth is that violence, suffering, and death
            are our experience, not God’s.
Murder is a human action, not a divine one.
            Jealously, envy, wrath and rage are human, not godly, emotions.

And the message of the cross is not that God has become like us,
            demanding of us a blood sacrifice to atone for our sins.
But rather, the message of the cross is that God has become one of us,
            entering into our darkness of suffering and death
            to bring light and life, forgiveness and reconciliation.

The cross is God’s sacrifice offered to us,
            not the other way around.

The death of Jesus at the hands of sinners
            unmasks the depths of human depravity;
it shines the fierce light of God
            into the darkest corner of the human psyche;
it reveals the murderous intent that lies deep in each human soul,
            and meets that desire for death with an overwhelming gift of life.

The worst one human can do to another
            is taken by Jesus into his own body on the cross,
and still it is not enough to extinguish the life that breaks through the darkness of death,
            to leave the tomb empty and the darkness defeated.

And so we are called to reassess our view of God,
            to learn to lay aside our God as angry, violent, and vengeful.
We need to learn the difficult lesson that darkness lies not within the heart of God,
            but within our own hearts.

‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,
            and the truth is not in us.’ (v.8)


‘If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins
            and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (v.9)

This is the good news of the Easter story,
            it is a story of life and light,
                        of forgiveness and reconciliation,
                        of peace and overwhelming love.

The cross is the ultimate demonstration of God’s commitment to life;
            to my life, to your life, to our life together.

The challenge for us, as we gather in the presence of God,
            as new born infants seeking spiritual milk,
is to learn what it is to be born again into the love of God,
            to set aside our addictions to violence,
            our compulsions to revenge,
            and our captivity to malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and slander. (1 Pet. 2.1)

And let us not deceive ourselves that these are not part of us,
            because darkness lies in all our hearts.
And let us not deceive ourselves that these are part of God’s nature,
            because God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

Rather, let us find in the story of Christ,
            a new way of seeing God, who comes to us bringing light and life,
            and a new way of seeing ourselves,
                      where we see ourselves as God sees us.

No comments: