Thursday 17 May 2018

Water and Blood

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
13 May 2018, 11.00am

1 John 5:6-13  
John 5.31-40   
John 19:30-35  
At a recent pro-gun rally,
            the American President Donald Trump
            made a striking reference to the issue of knife crime here in London,
                        did you hear this?
He was addressing the National Rifle Association,
            which lobbies strongly against gun controls in the US,
and said that an unnamed London hospital
            was “like a war zone for horrible stabbing wounds”
            with “blood all over the floors”.[1]

And whilst it is likely that he was merely half-remembering
            and then spinning a sensationalist story from the Daily Mail,
it is also true that violent crime, including knife crime,
            has been steadily increasing across the capital in recent years.

The causes of the current spike in violence are complex,
            and there certainly isn’t an easy solution to it.
But that doesn’t stop people wanting to find a one,
            and of course we’d all like it to be
            as fast and straightforward to implement as possible.

So, is the President correct?
            Is the reason we have knife crime
                        because we decline to arm the civilian population with guns?
            I’m not sure there’s a great appetite for doing this,
                        so maybe we need to look elsewhere…

Maybe we need more police on the streets,
            with more powers to stop and search?
And maybe we just agree to live with the erosion of liberty
            and the systemic racial profiling that such an approach inevitably brings?

Or maybe we should just keep locking people up,
            to adapt another slogan from Donald Trump.
If we keep removing people from society by sending them to prison,
            maybe that’ll sort the problem?

This week I attended the launch of the Koestler Trust
            Prisoner Artwork exhibition at St Martin in the Fields.
I do hope that you all took the opportunity to look at these works of art
            while they were on display here at Bloomsbury a couple of weeks ago,
            but if you didn’t you can see them in the Crypt Gallery at St Martin’s.

For the launch event on Tuesday night,
            the panel included two former Chief Inspectors of Prisons,[2]
both of whom spoke with passion about the fact
            that our prisons are simply not solving the problems
            we’re asking them to address.

We have the highest rate of prisoner per population in Europe,
            with 148 prisoners per 100,000 people,
                        which compares with 94 in Germany and 84 in France,
            and there are more prisoners in England and Wales
                        than in any other country in Europe;
            more than the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, Austria, Scotland, Sweden,
                        Switzerland, Finland, Norway and Northern Ireland combined.[3]

Overcrowding, unsanitary and dehumanising conditions,
            and lack of access to mental health care services,
mean that those who do spend time in prison
            emerge largely ill equipped to take up a meaningful place in society,
            and all too soon they are back in prison or living on the streets.

The question was raised, and raised powerfully,
            about whether this is the kind of society we want to live in,
and there was a good deal of discussion
            about what we might do about it.

And I’d just like to say that if you’re stirred by this issue,
            you might want to have a conversation with me
                        about whether you’d like to become involved
                        in the Churches Together in Westminster prison visiting ministry.
I think this is an issue that affects us all,
            but it occurs behind locked doors and high walls,
                        and it is very easy to ignore.
I’m going to go on a prison visit at some point, to see how the other half live,
            and I’ll let you know how I get on.

But as I’ve been reflecting on this during the week,
            the question that has stayed with me
is the question of why it is that we, as a society,
            have got to a place where we are content to simply lock people away,
                        to put them out of society,
            as the best solution we have to the problem of their behaviour.

Sure, some people who have deep and violent mental health problems
            may well need to be locked away for their own and everyone else’s protection.
But most of the people in prison are not in that category when they go in,
            even if they are closer to it when they come out.

Many studies have shown that prison is highly ineffective
            as either punishment or deterrent,
and yet we still turn to locking people up
            not as our place of last resort, but our solution of first resort.[4]

And all this got me thinking
            about the Old Testament story of the scapegoat (Lev. 16.10),
which will in due course take us into our readings
            from the New Testament for this morning.

The French philosopher René Girard describes this ancient practice.
            He says, ‘The ritual consisted of driving into the wilderness a goat
                        on which all the sins of Israel had been laid.
            The high priest placed his hands on the head of the goat,
                        and this act was supposed to transfer onto the animal
                        everything likely to poison relations between members of the community.
            The effectiveness of the ritual
                        was the idea that the sins were expelled with the goat
                        and then the community was rid of them.’[5]

This Jewish practice of scapegoating emerged in a culture
            where there were already many different rituals of expulsion,
                        as people were declared unclean, or unworthy, or unpalatable,
                        for a whole host of reasons.

And the idea of the scapegoat was that it took the place
            of those whose sin or circumstance
            might otherwise render them unacceptable to society.

One of René Girard’s insights is that all societies,
            whether ancient or contemporary,
            are prone to scapegoating.

There is something deeply human
            about wanting to rid ourselves of the thing
            that has come to represent our deepest problems in society.

We can see it most clearly with the benefit of hindsight,
            as we identify places where other societies and cultures
                        have engaged in scapegoating,
            but it’s much harder to identify from within when we do it.

So, we can look at the Suffolk witch trials of the 1640s,
            and we can see how women who didn’t fit the expected model
                        of what a woman should be,
            were hunted, tried, and executed,
                        as society put on them all its fears about disaster and disease.

We can see it in the way people who were homosexual
            were treated by society through much of the twentieth century,
as they took the blame for everything
            from the breakdown of family life to the Aids epidemic.

We can see it in the way some sections of the Christian church
            still treat those whose theology or identity is at odds with the mainstream,
blaming these transgressors for bringing God’s wrath
            down upon the wider Christian community.

But can we see it in ourselves, and in our society?
            Who or what represents your deepest fear?
Who would you be gladly rid of
            from your life and your community?

Our society, I want to suggest, scapegoats offenders.
            But hear this very carefully:
            this is not to say that offenders are innocent.

Actually, in order for them to be effective scapegoats,
            they can’t be innocent.
A scapegoat has to be guilty of something for the process to work.
            As the first letter of John reminded us the other week,
            If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,
                        and the truth is not in us.’ (1 John 1:8).

Everyone’s guilty of something,
            that’s the beauty of the scapegoating system.

What happens, though, is that the guilt that is rightly theirs
            becomes magnified, to the point where it starts to take on the guilt
                        of everyone else in society,
            so that by putting the scapegoat out into the wilderness,
                        the rest of us can sleep easier for a few nights
                        until it’s time to do it again.

And as a society we are remarkably efficient at scapegoating.

We have a sophisticated and nuanced legal system
            which defines the fine line between transgression and innocence,
and we punish those who have transgressed,
            putting them behind walls and doors away from the rest of us,
                        in the shared conviction that by doing so
                        we will rid ourselves of what ails us.

Except, of course, it’s not working.

Violent crime continues to rise,
            because violence is not solved
            by ever increasing punishments for those who are violent.

It is solved by investing in mental health support,
            in family support, in better social care,
            in better education, in mentoring schemes,
                        in rehabilitation programmes,
                        in restorative justice initiatives.
And our lack of these things is a stain on our society
            for which we all share collective guilt;
            we, after all, are the shared architects of our society.

And so we collude to rid ourselves of our guilt
            by scapegoating the guilty,
requiring that they bear all our sins away to their prison cells,
            in the hope that we will never see them again.

Can you see the circularity of the system that we’re stuck in?

This is not a new phenomenon;
            as I’ve said, it’s as old as society.

The ancient Jewish practice of scapegoating an actual goat
            at least had the benefit of punishing an animal rather than a human.
Whereas we have a tendency to reduce humans to animals,
            as we lock them up in the crowded hutches we call our prisons.

But what is to be done?

Well, I think it all comes down to the question
            of what kind of life we want for ourselves.
What kind of life do we want for our families,
            for our friends, our neighbours?
Perhaps more challengingly,
            what kind of life do we want for our enemies,
                        for those who offend or upset us,
                        or do us wrong or harm?

To put it another way,
            what kind of society do we want to live in?

And this is where our passage from the first letter of John
            offers a valuable insight into our situation.

The challenge that it brings us is a stark choice:
            are we going to live in such a way
                        as to bring life into the world,
            or are we going to make choices
                        that perpetuate the stranglehold of death?

John offers his readers a tantalising vision
            of an alternative way of being human,
a new kind of life which is lived in the here-and-now,
            but which has an eternal quality to it.

Rather than prolonging those patterns of behaviour which lead to destruction,
            he invites us to catch a glimpse
                        of a different way of doing human relationships
            where the end result is not death,
                        but a quality of life that has eternal significance.

Putting it plainly, he says,
            ‘God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son’ (5:11).

There is something about Jesus which changes everything,
            there is something to be experienced in encountering Jesus
                        which opens new possibilities for living.

And this something is called,
            in language strongly reminiscent of John’s gospel, ‘eternal life’.

Now, I want to be clear that ‘eternal life’,
            in the way that it’s used in John’s gospel and the letters of John,
            is not a synonym for heaven where you go when you die.

And by the same token, not having ‘eternal life’
            is not a code for going to hell to be punished eternally.

Rather, when the Johannine writings talk about ‘eternal life’
            they are speaking about a quality of life
                        that we can access in the here-and-now,
            but which has an eternal value
                        that transcends our lived reality of right now.

And this ‘eternal life’ is not something that any of us can find for ourselves,
            rather it originates with the love of God,
                        is perfectly present in the person of his son Jesus,
            and is brought to us by the Spirit of Christ
                        who is at work in and through us,
                        drawing us closer to the example of Jesus Christ.

To be without this eternal life is to be spiritually dead,
            but to discover it is to discover a new way of living
                        that breaks through our spirals of unforgiveness and scapegoating,
            to draw us into ‘the highest kind of spiritual and moral life’[6]

If who we are eternally is the redemption of all that we are now,
            then there are certainly eternal consequences
                        to whether or not we live the eternal life of Christ into being in our midst.

But what is it about Jesus that gives us this new quality of life?
            What is it about the story and example of Christ
            that brings this gift of eternal life to those who encounter him?

To answer this, we need to go back
            towards the beginning of our passage for this morning,
to the strange phrase, repeated in verses 6 and 8,
            that Jesus comes by the water and the blood.

Scholars have spilled much ink over this slightly strange phrase,
            and in true John-style it probably carries a range of meanings.

Some see an echo here of the baptism and death of Jesus,
            as he was baptised in the waters of the river Jordan,
            and as his blood was shed on the cross.

This would mean that those of us who encounter him in a life-giving way
            do so by meeting him in the waters of baptism,
            and again and again in the poured out wine of the communion meal.

The Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism is with us,
            bringing us to the new life of forgiveness for our sins
as we too are washed clean of our guilt,
            and raised from death to new life with Christ.

I think there’s something in this,
            and I’ll take the opportunity to repeat the offer I’ve made for the last few weeks
that we’re planning a baptismal service for early June
            and if you’ve not been baptised but would like to be,
            please speak with me.

But the image of water and blood
            goes to other levels of meaning beyond baptism and communion.

There may well be an echo here of the process of human birth,
            where babies are born into the mixture of blood
                        and the waters of the amniotic fluid.

At this level of meaning,
            the assertion that Jesus comes into the world
                        through the water and the blood
            is a statement of his total humanity, as well as his total divinity.

Writing against those who were arguing
            that Jesus was adopted by God at his baptism,
John is using this image to show that he believes
            that Jesus was God’s son from his birth.

The implication for those who follow Jesus
            is found in another echo of John’s gospel,
                        this time the story of Nicodemus,
            who argued back when Jesus said that people needed to be born again
                        in order to enter the new life of the kingdom of God.

Jesus replied to Nicodemus,
            Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God
                        without being born of water and Spirit. 
                What is born of the flesh is flesh,
                        and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ (John 3:5-6).

Those who want to live the eternal life that Jesus brings
            can do so as the Spirit brings them to new life.

But we’re not done with this image yet.
            It speaks to us of encountering Jesus in Baptism and Communion,
                        and of being born anew into the kingdom of God,
            but it also takes us straight to the moment of crucifixion.

We had this in our reading earlier from John’s gospel:
            the centurion takes a spear and pushes it into Jesus side,
                        and blood and water flow out.

By this image, the way we enter into eternal life
            is through the cross of Christ.

And this takes us back to scapegoating,
            back to violence, and back to spilled blood.

The practice of taking our collective guilt,
            putting it onto an identified other,
                        and then putting them out of society,
            is both ubiquitous and ineffective.

It doesn’t solve the problem it sets out to solve,
            and it just creates more problems in the long run.

But within Christian thought,
            the sacrifice of Jesus is something different.

The significance of Jesus being truly innocent
            is that when the collective guilt of society is placed on him,
                        and when he is crucified for the sins of the world,
            it is a once-for-all sacrifice which is effective eternally,
                        in all times and in all places.

The insight here is that people can only be freed
            from their compulsion to scapegoat others
when something decisively breaks that cycle,
            and that something, within the Christian tradition, is the cross of Jesus.

The spiral of death is disrupted by the sacrificial death of Jesus,
            and those who encounter that disruption
are given the capacity to enter into a new way of living
            where life, and not death, is dominant.

Those who know that their sins have been forgiven by Jesus’ death,
            can discover that they no longer need to offload their guilt onto scapegoats,
and so they can start to see new ways of dealing with human sin
            that take us in the direction of eternal life, rather than death.

So the person who has embraced eternal life in Christ Jesus
            will see pathways to restoration and rehabilitation in others,
            where many will see just evil and danger.

The person who has been born again from above,
            will see possibilities of forgiveness and new life
            where others see just punishment and death.

The person who has been baptised into Christ’s body,
            and who shares in the spilled blood of the cross at communion,
will know that they are a sinner saved by grace,
            and that they should not judge others,
            lest they too be judged.

The person who believes that in Jesus, God became flesh, and died and was raised,
            will know that the potential for new life
                        can emerge from even the darkest of lives,
and so they will resist any attempt to write off anyone as beyond redemption.

In short, it is through our encounter with Christ,
            that we can stop scapegoating others.
And if we can do that,
            we can start to live in ways that bring life and not death.
And if we can do that, we can offer good news
            to those who are still trapped in spirals of death,
that there is hope and forgiveness
            and restoration and redemption,
            and resurrection to new life.

So when we come to playing our part in society,
            in our voting, and our actions, and our speaking,
we are called to be the voice of the alternative way,
            we are called to resist the insidious narratives of scapegoating,
            we are called to see the divine spark in the darkest heart,
            we are called to visit those who are in prison,
            and to bring liberty to those captivated by evil.


[2] Dame Ann Owers and Nick Hardwick.
[6] Stephen Smalley, 1,2,3 John, Word Commentary, 2007 p.274

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