Sunday, 29 July 2018

The Vulnerable Jesus

Hebrews Series 7 – The Vulnerable Jesus
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 29 July 2018

Hebrews 6.4-6; 13.11-14
Leviticus 16.3, 5-10; 26-28 

Listen to this sermon here:

If you were here last week,
                you will have heard Luke telling us
                about the personality typing system known as the Enneagram.

Luke reflected on how his particular personality
                as an Enneagram Type 1, or a Perfectionist as they’re sometimes known,
                means that he struggles to take proper rest
                                - because the knowledge that nothing is ever quite good enough
                                drives him to always want to do that little bit more,
                                to make things that little bit better.
                And so he challenged himself, and all of us,
                                to try to make time for periods of rest in our lives,
                                as we seek to live faithfully before God.

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the Enneagram before
                - my guess is that some will know it, and some won’t.
It’s sort-of similar to the Myers Briggs personality type indicator,
                but also a bit different.
Whereas Myers Briggs draws on Jungian theory
                and presents itself as a psychological tool,
the Enneagram is a bit more mystical
                and a bit less scientific in its method.

There are all sorts of theories
                about how its idea of nine core personality types originated,
with everyone from the Desert Fathers to Sufi Islam
                getting a credit along the way.

But the interesting thing for me, with both Myers Briggs and the Enneagram,
                is not whether their scientific methods or origin stories stand up to scrutiny,
but whether they help us tell a helpful story about ourselves
                that aids our self-understanding,
                and makes our relationships with others better.
After all, a lot of the stories in the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament,
                don’t stand up to either scientific or historical scrutiny,
but that that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them
                or draw helpful lessons from them.

So, in Enneagram terms, if Luke is a Type 1 Perfectionist,
                I am a Type 3 Performer.

I initially took a little online questionnaire
                which helped me to get an insight into what Enneagram Type I reported as,
but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating,
                 and the best advice is not to just rely on answering some questions,
                but rather to read the more detailed description and see if it fits.

And what I have discovered is that the point where you really know your type
                is when you read about the negative side of your personality
                and it feels as if someone is staring deep into your soul,
                                exposing all your hidden vulnerabilities
                                which you thought were entirely hidden.

Or, to put it another way,
                in terms that begin to take us
                into our sermon theme today of The Vulnerable Jesus,
it is when we are most vulnerable that we are most fully known.

The nice stuff in the Enneagram description of the Type 3 is lovely to hear,
                as it is with all of the different types.

Apparently, I’m ‘success-orient[at]ed, image-conscious, and wired for productivity’,
                and I’m ‘motivated by a need to be (or appear to be) successful, and to avoid failure.’

Well that’s OK, I think.

So here’s what they say in a bit more detail
                about people like me who report as Type 3 performers:

Healthy Threes have transcended the goal of merely trying to look good, and are moving toward being known and loved for who they are, not for what they accomplish. They love to set goals, rise to challenges and solve problems, but their self-worth is not tied to these things.

Yep. I can own that.
                That’s very much how I’d like you all to see me, please.
But what happens if we take the positivity down a notch?

Average Threes push achieving to overachieving, spending too much time at work or the gym. … They see love as something to be earned... They are confident in their abilities but also … constantly worrying that a poor performance will cause them to lose standing in other people’s eyes.

Ouch. But also, to an extent, yes.
Let’s take it down another notch:

Unhealthy Threes find failure unacceptable, which renders them unable to admit mistakes and causes them to behave as though they are superior to others. [They] may [tell] others fabricated stories about themselves and their accomplishments in order to maintain their image. At their worst, unhealthy Threes can be petty, mean and vengeful.

And now I feel vulnerable. Exposed.
                Which is not what a Three Performer wants to feel at all, trust me.
This all seemed like a good idea in my study when I was planning it,
                particularly given that some of the feedback we’ve had about Sunday mornings
                has indicated that it is helpful when the preacher shows their vulnerable side.
But honestly, I’m having my doubts right now;
                and yet… it is when we are most vulnerable that we are most fully known.

And anyway, I don’t believe I’m the only person to have a fear of failure.
                Just as we all needed last week to hear Luke’s challenge to take some rest,
                                I wonder if this week we can all hear a challenge
                                to reflect on our shared fear of failure, and how it makes us react.

So, I wonder, what failure are you afraid of?
                A failed marriage? Failing as a parent?
                                Failing to be a good friend?
                Failing to do all the things you’ve said you’ll do?
                                Failing your exams? Failing to achieve your goals?
                Failing to hold down a job? Failing to be liked?
                                Failing to avoid sin? Failing to stand up for what you believe in?
I could go on and on…

And what about us as a church, as a community who gather in this place?
                What failures are we afraid of?
Do we look around us at our large building,
                with an empty gallery and whole pews with no-one sat in them,
                and feel that we are failing?
Do we fear failing to be able to afford to care for our beautiful building?
                Do we fear failing to care for one another?
Do we fear failing to be the people, the community, that we think we should be?
                Do we fear letting Jesus down?

Finding our points of fear of failure can feel very vulnerable,
                particularly for those of us whose personalities
                                are focussed more around success and achievement.
But it is when we are most vulnerable that we are most fully known.

And so we come to The Vulnerable Jesus,
                in our series on how the book of Hebrews can offer us
                a range of different ways of encountering Jesus.

This week, we are invited to encounter Jesus in vulnerability.

Our readings from Hebrews today take us to the place of crucifixion,
                to the place of abandonment, to the place of Jesus’ greatest weakness;
and they invite us to identify with Jesus in his moment of vulnerability,
                knowing that he identifies with us in our own weakness.

And I could just stop the sermon there, I suppose.

We’ve reflected on our own fears and vulnerabilities,
                and we’ve heard from scripture
                                that our weaknesses are met in the weakness of the cross,
                as Jesus draws near to us in our failure and sin
                                to forgive us and restore us, allowing us to draw near to him.

We could just go on from here to pray for ourselves and for others,
                and particularly for those who find themselves to be weak and vulnerable.
And that would be an OK thing to do.

But if we did stop now,
                we would only be understanding part
                of what Hebrews is wanting us to hear about the vulnerable Jesus.
Because you see, there is another side, a very dark side,
                to the human experience of failure, and weakness, and vulnerability.

It was there in the final sentence
                of the description of an unhealthy Enneagram Type Three that I read earlier.
Did you notice it?
                I said, ‘At their worst, unhealthy Threes can be petty, mean and vengeful.’
Or, to put it another way,
                we love to find someone to blame for our failure.

If we are afraid of failing, then when we do fail, as we all do,
                we can be be highly motivated to shift the responsibility for that failure
                                onto someone else.
We will look for someone to blame.
                And the person who is most likely to get the blame for our failure
                is someone who is even more vulnerable than we are.

I’m talking here, of course, about the universal desire to scapegoat others.
                To take our sins, our failures, our lack of success,
                                and to put the guilt for that onto another,
                so that they can be driven away from us into the wilderness,
                                taking with them the culpability that should rightly still lie with us.

Our passages from this morning about the vulnerable Jesus
                being crucified outside the city walls
are a clear reference to the reading we had from the book of Leviticus
                where the question of how to address the problem of sin is discussed.

In the Levitical law code, there is provision
                for communal and individual guilt to be dealt with in two ways,
                                both involving animals.

Firstly, for individual sin, you might sacrifice an animal such as a bull,
                pouring its blood onto the altar before God,
                and then burning its body outside the city wall.
This destruction of something precious and living
                symbolised the seriousness of the consequences of sin,
                and the costly commitment of the person seeking forgiveness.

The second way of dealing with guilt that Leviticus offered
                was to do with communal guilt,
and it involved a ritual of putting the sin of the community onto a goat,
                and then driving that animal out of the camp into the wilderness.
It’s what we call the Scapegoat.

Did you know that the word ‘scapegoat’ was invented by William Tyndale
                as he translated the Bible into English in the 1520s.
Tyndale was struggling with one of the verses we had from our reading this morning,
                specifically Leviticus 16.8-10

Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. 9 Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

Tyndale was confused by the Hebrew ‘for Azazel’,
                and wasn’t certain if the term referred
                                to the wilderness where the goat was sent,
                or to a supernatural power that resided in the wilderness,
                                such as a desert-demon or the Devil.

In the end, Tyndale decided to interpret Azazel
                as a corruption of the Hebrew ez ozel,
                which means ‘the goat that departs’ or the ‘goat that escapes’. 

This ‘escape goat’ became the vehicle by which the sins of the Israelites
                were sent out of the camp.

Here’s how Tyndale translated this passage:
And Aaron cast lots over the two goats: one lot for the LORD, and another for a scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to scape, he shall set alive before the LORD to reconcile with and to let him go free into the wilderness.

These days, of course, scapegoating has developed a meaning
                well beyond a fifteenth century translation of the book of Leviticus,
and has come to mean the act of holding a person, or a group of people,
                responsible for specific problems in the community at large.

So, for example, the Nazis scapegoated the Jews
                for the economic situation faced by the German nation
                in the aftermath of the first world war.

Or to bring it up to date, in our modern world
                there is a strong tendency to blame migrants for rising crime rates,
                a lack of jobs, and pressure on the welfare state.

Controlling immigration was the number one popular factor in the Brexit vote,
                and Trump’s long-promised wall with Mexico
                was a key part of his election campaign.

We scapegoat the other for problems that we all share
                - and we seek to put them out of the camp, beyond the wall, or outside the city,
to rid ourselves of our guilt
                at our own failure to be the people or nation that we wanted to be.
If we can blame the other,
                we can absolve ourselves, at least for now.

So who do we blame for our failures?
                Who do we use to offload ourselves of our responsibilities?

When you look at the empty pews, who do you hold accountable?

And here I’m going to use a word
                which I’d promised myself I’d never use from the pulpit,
                but which I think the passages for this morning demand.

That word is ‘backslider’.

When I was growing up,
                anyone who used to come to church, but had stopped,
                was referred to as a ‘backslider’.

They had, I was told, ‘fallen away’ from the faith.
                They had let the side down, they had let Jesus down,
                and worst of all they had let down those of us who still attended.

It was kind of the worst thing you could do.
                Other sins could be confessed and forgiven,
                but backsliding was the unforgiveable sin.

And our passage from Hebrews 6 was used to justify this.
                After all, it says that:

it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away.

But then Hebrews goes even further.
                These Backslider are, apparently,
                                on their own ‘crucifying again the Son of God
                                and … holding him up to contempt’.


It sounds like the preacher to the Hebrews was pretty upset
                that some of his congregation had walked out on him,
and it also sounds like he knew exactly where to lay the blame for their absence.
                Blame those who have gone,
                                blame those who are not there.
                Scapegoat them, so you don’t feel guilty about those who have backslidden.
                                Make it their fault.

Or at least, that’s how I was always taught to read this passage.
                But what if there is another way of coming at this?

You see, we talk a lot about the importance of church as a ‘safe space’.

It’s important to a church like Bloomsbury,
                which values its commitment to the marginalised and the excluded,
that we embody a safe place for people to belong,
                particularly those who have been made unwelcome elsewhere.

Whether we talking ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, or social status,
                one of our core values as a church
                                is that we want to be a safe and welcoming place
                                for those deemed unwelcome elsewhere.
                We are a place where the vulnerable can find a home.

There are people here today who have left other communities of faith
                because they were unable to belong there.
And I don’t think the blame
                for an inability to belong in one particular faith community
                lies entirely with the individual who leaves;
I think it lies with the community as a whole.

Blaming the person who has left,
                labelling them a backslider,
                taking their personal failings and magnifying them
                                to the point where they absorb the failings of everyone,
                is just scapegoating.

It’s the avoidance of communal responsibility.

And we must be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap here at Bloomsbury
                that we can more easily identify elsewhere.
There are those who have left Bloomsbury,
                and there will be those who leave in the future,
and some of them will go well, and some will go badly,
                but we mustn’t fall into the trap of making ourselves feel better
                                by offloading our own responsibility,
                                our own failure as a community, onto them.

The thing is, I do feel guilty when my beloved church
                is not the kind of church that someone else feels they can belong to.
I hate being told that we’re not inclusive enough,
                not welcoming enough, not accessible enough,
                despite all our best efforts.

And the temptation to get cross,
                and to offload our anger and guilt onto the other who has left,
                is always before us.

But, and here’s the crucial thing that we all need to hear.
                We are not called to stay within our safe spaces.
We are not called to make our community a safe place
                with high walls that keep out the scary people who are not like us,
                whoever we may be.

Rather, we need to realise that Jesus is not here with us,
                inside our camp.
He is outside the wall, beyond the border,
                being crucified again and again and again,
                for those who have not yet found a home with him.

As Hebrews says,

Jesus … suffered outside the city gate
in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.

Whatever boundary we erect around ourselves to keep ourselves safe,
                Jesus is beyond it.
And we are called to go there too.
                Hebrews continues:

Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

The irony of the scapegoat,
                the one who is made to carry the sins of the many,
is that when they get into the wilderness,
                they meet there the one who became the ultimate scapegoat for all people.
Jesus is not in the camp, he is not in the city,
                he is not in the Christian community of safety.
He is in the wilderness, as vulnerable as he can be,
                arms wide on the cross,
                welcoming those who have been sent there
                                in all their weakness and failure and vulnerability.

So if, as a church, we want to meet the vulnerable Jesus,
                and if as individuals we want to encounter him in our vulnerability,
then we are called to be those who go to him
                beyond our established places of safety.

We are called to let go of our established norms,
                our dearly held beliefs, and our sacred practices.
We are called to set aside our safety, to risk our reputations,
                to question our presuppositions.

If we genuinely desire to be a Christ-focussed community,
                then our focus has to shift, because Christ is not in our midst.
Rather, he is beyond whatever boundary of faith or praxis or belonging
                that we have erected around ourselves for our safety,
and he is in the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability and weakness.

So, and I appreciate that this may be a controversial statement
                to utter at a church like Bloomsbury,
but maybe it isn’t our job as Christians
                to create a safe and welcoming community,
to which the gratefully vulnerable scapegoats from other communities
                can come to find refuge.

Because by that model of church,
                the power will always remain with those of us
                who have the privilege of being the gatekeepers.

What if, instead, we are called to look for Jesus beyond ourselves,
                beyond our boundaries,
to see who he is drawing to himself out there in the wilderness.

And what if the solution to the empty pews, and to our sense of failure,
                is not to blame those who have left;
but rather is to learn to see Jesus out there,
                beyond the glass wall that divides us from them,
                drawing the world to himself in love;
and what if the call us for us to make the journey
                from our own place of communal safety
                into the wilderness of vulnerability,
as we learn to love those for whom Christ is crucified again, and again, and again.

And hear this:
                It is when we are most vulnerable, that we will be most fully known.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

The Accessible Jesus

A sermon given at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
8 July 2018
Exodus 3.1-14  
Hebrews 4.16; 7.19, 25; 6.19-20; 10.19-22

Listen to this sermon here:

As a starting point for my sermon this morning,
            I’d like to offer for our consideration
            a basic premise about the nature of God.

I’m aware that in doing so I am, to coin a phrase,
            merely a midget standing on the shoulders of a giant
                        – the giant in this case being the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition of theology.

I’ve often described the Bible, both Old and New Testaments,
            as being a series of thought experiments concerning the nature of God,
with succeeding generations of the people of God
            trying different perspectives on the divine on for size, so to speak.

And the great theological traditions of the church
            have continued that process down the millennia,
as people have sought to take the insights of the Bible
            and apply them to their own contexts
            in ways that make God accessible in fresh ways for fresh times.

Even the term ‘theology’, if you unpick its ancient Greek origin,
            simply means ‘words about God’.

Which brings me to this morning, as together in our small way,
            we attempt to climb the latest pinnacle of the great mountain of theology,

So what words about God can we share today
            that will make God accessible to us, in our time and place?

Well, the premise about the nature of God
            that I’d like us to consider is very simple, and it is this:
            ‘God is not me’.
                        God is not you. God is not us.
Or, to put it another way,
            the corollary of the negative statement that ‘God is not me’,
            is the positive assertion that ‘God is other’.

And this is a very bold thing to say about God,
            because it flies in the face of so much
            that people might want to assert about God.

Many people these days,
            even many people within the communities of faith that call themselves churches,
            are not really convinced that God is ‘other’.

From the post-enlightenment liberal rationalist,
            who asserts that all our language of God is metaphorical,
to the fundamentalist
            who asserts that God’s word as revealed in scripture is literal;
there is common ground here that God is, in some way,
            contained within human language.

Whether the words we use to speak of God are metaphorical or literal,
            whether our theology is liberal or conservative,
the functional operating premise of Western Christianity
            has been that God is to be found
            in the words we use to speak of God.

And this can have some disastrous consequences,
            because it means that whoever controls the words, controls God.

The words I and my tribe (I mean, church) use to speak about God,
            will not be the same as the words
            used by the different tribe (I mean, church) down the road.

And if we have located God’s essence and presence within our words,
            then when we disagree about our theology,
            we are actually disagreeing not just about words about God,
            but about the very nature and being of God as revealed to humans.

People have fought wars over less,
            and certainly churches and denominations
            have fractured and split over exactly this issue.

So to assert that ‘God is not me’,
            to affirm that ‘God is other’,
is to admit that all our thoughts about God,
            all our ideas and words about God,
all our beliefs and theologies about God,
            no matter how deeply held and carefully conceived,
all of these… are not God.

Because God is not me.
            God is other.

And there is part of me that finds this immensely comforting,
            as well as deeply challenging.

The thing is, each of us has a tendency to place ourselves
            at the centre of our own world.

We can’t help it – it’s probably a function of the fact
            that the only eyes I have
                        through which to view the world are my eyes,
            and the only ears
                        through which I can hear the words of others are my ears,
            and the only brain
                        with which I can process the information from my senses is my brain.

Of course I’m the centre of my own world,
            just as of course you are the centre of yours.

Philosophically speaking,
            there is a genuine question to be asked here
                        about whether there is anything at all
                        beyond the personal, subjective perception of reality.

This is what is known as ontology,
            the question of whether only that which can be perceived exists.

The only evidence I have
            of a world beyond my own thoughts and imaginings
            is the evidence of my own senses,
                        which are both subjective and flawed.

There is a chance that you are merely a figment of my imagination,
            or possibly that I am merely a figment of yours.

Or maybe we are all living inside a computer simulation?
            If that sounds far-fetched, think again.
There is a strong case for arguing that the technology to do this
            is now so close that it makes it almost inevitable,
and if it is inevitable who is to say that it hasn’t already happened
            and we’re it?

And if nothing exists beyond my own perception of reality,
            whether that be biologically or virtually perceived,
then God, once again, becomes nothing more
            than an extension of my own psyche.

And so, once again, I want to say very clearly,
            that ‘God is not me’. God is other.

This is not a new insight, of course,
            because as the teacher of Ecclesiastes famously said,
            ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

The insight that God is other to us
            is there within the theological tradition;
and the story of Moses and the burning bush
            is the classic, perhaps the definitive, example of this.

When Moses hears and sees God,
            the voice is not heard in his own head,
            this is no still small voice, or gentle whisper barely heard.
Rather, the voice of God is personified as an angel,
            speaking from a bush that burns but does not burn away.

God, in this story, is not Moses. God is other.

And this poses something of a problem for Moses,
            as it does for all of us who have sought
            to encounter God as other to ourselves.

How on earth does one draw near to a God
            whose being is so utterly alien and other
                        to our own experience and perception of reality
            that our words and thoughts cannot contain it?

When Moses realises that he has strayed into the territory of the divine other,
            that he is standing, so to speak, on holy ground,
            he hides his face because he is afraid to look at God.

And I think I’m with Moses here.
            It is a fearful thing to admit to our minds the idea of God as other.
We have no idea how to conceive of a God
            who does not, at some level, look or behave like us.

The language of the burning bush is intentionally othering
            – it is a thing most wonderful, almost to wonderful to be –
and it leaves us, with Moses, confused and afraid.

How can Moses, how can we, draw near
            to a God who is so utterly other to us?

But the God of the burning bush won’t leave Moses alone;
            he speaks to Moses of the suffering of his people,
            of freedom and an end to oppression.

God draws decisively near to Moses,
            even as Moses does not know how to draw near to God.

And again, this is a profound insight.

So much of what passes for Christian spirituality
            is about us finding ways of drawing near to God;
            through prayer, meditation, and the disciplines of spiritual observance.

Now please don’t hear me wrong here, by the way.
            I’m not opposed to the practice of prayer, or meditation,
                        or any of the other spiritual disciplines.
            But we do need to be clear that any encounter we may have
                        with the God who is not us,
                        will never originate from within us.
            To think that by our efforts, however well intentioned,
                        we can access the presence of God,
                        is to create God within our own frame of reference.

And as I’ve been trying to say very clearly,
            any God that we create through our own words and efforts
            is not, actually, God.

The insight of Moses encountering the burning bush
            is that God draws near to us,
                        that God speaks to us from beyond,
            and that God enters into our world of suffering, oppression, and violence
                        to bring freedom, and healing, and peace.

These are not blessings that we can summon up ourselves,
            they always come to us from beyond our own frame of reference.

In fact, it is the very nature of God as other to us
            that is the crucial factor here.

All inter-human attempts at bringing into being a new world
            are doomed to failure,
because for all our ingenuity and brilliance
            there is one thing we cannot change.

We cannot change ourselves.
            We cannot save ourselves from our human nature.
Selfishness will always out,
            because we are fundamentally selfish beings.

It is only a God who speaks to us from beyond ourselves,
            calling us to enter holy ground that is not of our construction,
                        who can save us from ourselves,
                        and from our repeating cycles of selfish ambition.

So who is this God who is other?

That is Moses’ next question;
            as if the activity of God in calling him to a new place of holiness
            had not already revealed enough
                        about the nature of the one who is beyond our imagining.

Moses wants a name.
            He wants syllables to speak and words to utter.
He wants to turn divine encounter into theology.

And so God gives him a name: ‘I AM WHO I AM’.
            God is. God is not Moses.
                        God is not an idol. God is not a man, or a woman.
            God is not an idea or a concept or an ideology.
                        God is not me. And God is not you.
            God just is.
                        God is who God is, as God says to Moses.

It is, I think, the most profound statement of theology in human history,
            that the only words that can adequately capture
                        the essence of the mystery of the divine
            are themselves words of mystery.

Because God, you see, does not exist in words of human construction.
            Rather God is encountered in relationship,
                        in the call that each of us receives
            that takes us beyond ourselves
                        and our finite subjective frame of reference
            and onto the holy ground of the presence of the other,
                        who speaks into the human heart
                        words and ideas of justice, love, peace, and freedom,
            that can never arise purely from within us
                        but must always come to us from beyond.

And this is how God is encountered,
            not through our efforts,
                        but by grace and invitation,
            and by the one who is other
                        making their presence and nature known to us.

Which brings me, at last, to the sermon to the Hebrews,
            and our title for today: ‘The Accessible Jesus’.

You will remember from the sermons we’ve already had
            in our series on Hebrews
that the people in the congregation it was written for had a problem,
            which was that they were struggling to relate to God.
The teachings and actions of Jesus, which had brought God close,
            were rapidly receding into the past,
and the God they worshipped in the name of Jesus
            was now high up in heaven,
            distant and aloof from the triumphs and tribulations,
                        the joys and the sorrows, of their day to day lives.

And so the preacher of Hebrews is offering them a variety of ways
            in which they can experience the presence of Jesus
            with them day by day.

And in this collection of verses we have before us today,
            we see a picture of Jesus as the one who bridges the gap
                        between God and humans.

Whilst none of us can, by our own efforts, enter the presence of God,
            it is the action of God in sending Jesus
            that once-and-for-all opens the doorway between earth and heaven.

The invitation to step onto holy ground,
            offered to Moses by the voice from the burning bush,
is offered to all people by the person of Jesus, God-made-flesh.

The God who is not me, and is not you,
            is made known in Jesus.
The God who is other, draws near to us in Jesus
            and invites us to draw near to him.

The revelation that begins with Moses on a mountain in Sinai
            finds its fulfilment in a stable in Bethlehem,
                        and on a cross outside Jerusalem,
                                    and in an empty tomb in a garden.

But, lest we fall back into the error
            of creating God in our own image,
it is not the stories of Jesus which save us,
            neither is it the words of the gospels
            which are good news for all people.

Jesus cannot be contained in letters and books.
            Jesus is not found in human words, however inspired.
Rather Jesus is God’s word,
            spoken to humanity so definitively
that the new world of love, justice, peace and freedom that he proclaims
            echoes throughout all of human history
            as a clarion call from beyond ourselves
                        to recognise that we are not all that there is to this universe,
            and that there is one who is beyond us
                        who calls us in love to take the step of faith
                        onto the holy ground of love.

All that is required of us are humble hearts,
            open to receive the gift of Christ
                        that saves us from ourselves
            by breaking into our subjective, insular, selfish souls
                        with an invitation to a new way of being human
            where, astonishingly and miraculously,
                        we are no longer at the centre of our own existence.

It is an invitation to a life where we love our neighbour
            as much as we love ourselves,
and where we love God who is not us,
            with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength.

The accessible Jesus is the one who opens the pathway
            between us and the God who is not us,
who invites us into the presence of the divine other
            through no effort on our part.

In Jesus, God reaches out in love to save us from ourselves
            in ways that we can never manage by our own efforts.

And this is not an exclusive gift,
            offered only to the chosen few who in some way deserve it,
            or have earned it through holy living or careful study.

The love of God made manifest in Jesus
            is a universal love that is extended to all people, in all places, in all times.

The word ‘universalism’ gets a bad press amongst Christians,
            as if it were a marker of heresy.
But I’d like to reclaim it,
            and invite you to rejoice with me that God’s love is universal,
            and that Christ died for all, and was raised for all,
                        so that each and every person, and indeed the whole of creation itself,
            can find its true nature and purpose
                        within the love of the God who is beyond us.

And as a thought to close,
            I find myself wondering why Christians spend so much time
                        trying to define God in human words,
            arguing over who’s right and who’s wrong,
                        over issues of orthodoxy or heresy,
            over who’s in and who’s out,
                        over whether there are some people who God loves,
                        and some whom he judges.

It seems pretty clear to me that through Jesus,
            all people are brought within the love of God.

Good news for one must be good news for all,
            or it is not good news.

And if we seek to keep the good news of the love of God from some,
            we in turn withhold it from ourselves.
That is the judgment of God.

But this new kingdom of God is a kingdom with no barriers,
            it is a city with no walls, a nation with no borders.

So each of us are invited onto the holy ground before the burning bush,
            to discover that God who is not us
                        speaks words to us of love, acceptance,
                        forgiveness, freedom, and justice.

And each of us are then invited, with Moses,
            to take the next step of faith,
and start living the kingdom of God into being in our world,
            living as if it were true,
            until it is true.