No Way Out

 
Date:
Sunday 17th September 2017
Place:
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service:
Parish Eucharist
Readings:
Philippians 2.5-11
John 1.1-18

If the oft cited Martian came down to the United Kingdom today, 'he' would think that the only really important concern of ours is the methodology for achieving Brexit: if we were tired of it by the time of the Referendum, we are surely even more tired of it now. And yet, as Simon Jenkins pointed out last week in The Guardian, we seem indifferent to the social and economic injustice which was one of the major causes of discontent which was an important factor in the Referendum outcome.

Let us hope that this almost exclusive controversy does not last as long as that concerning the question of the status of Jesus. Although it began much earlier, the discussion about whether Jesus was God, or man, or both, reached its peak in the early 4th Century and lasted for well over a hundred and thirty years. So if our Martian had descended on the Imperial capital of Byzantium at any time from, say, the First Council of Nicaea in 325 to the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the nature of Jesus would have been the major talking point in the streets and taverns and round dinner tables, and the matter was only settled, as far is it 'reasonably' could be, at the Second Council of Nicaea in 788.

But the reasons for putting these two controversies side by side is because while Christianity was so involved in doctrinal process, at exactly the same time it was becoming a Byzantine State Institution, losing its roots as an organisation largely of poor people for poor people. As late as the middle of the Third Century,  our own Saint Lawrence was one of the Seven Deacons in Rome and although the tradition of serving the poor survived in some major cities and in the emergent monasteries social concern as the central tenet of the Christian church declined so badly that its recent reappearance has been viewed as controversial, not to say dangerous, by Christian Church establishments: The Roman Catholic Church's initial instinct was to attack liberation theology; and although The Church of England produced Faith In the City (1985) that is more than 30 years ago.

Why does all this matter in the context of the Creed? First, although the process was never easy, the Christian Church, before its Great Schism in 1056 (which was, incidentally, at least nominally Trinitarian) came to an agreement about the nature of Jesus: that he was both God and man. Secondly, then, if we accept the first proposition, we have to say that when Jesus talks it is God talking. Thirdly, if when Jesus talks it is God talking, when Jesus calls time and again for social and economic justice, it is God calling for social and economic justice, even more directly than God called for these through his Prophets, recorded in the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament.

Now this may not sound like a doctrinal sermon at all but it is. To accept that Jesus is both God and man and then to dismiss most of what God says as inconvenient is as heretical as denying that Jesus is both God and man. The fact that the 4th Century Church was almost entirely concerned with Christological matters for its own reasons, the fact that the Creeds are largely a response to presenting issues at the time and the fact that they are not Confessions of Faith but incomplete, provisional, statements, does not free us from our obligation to read the Bible faithfully and draw our conclusions and I submit that if we read the Gospels faithfully there is no avoiding the conclusion that Jesus is a great deal more bothered about the poor and oppressed than he is about abstruse theological matters; and, therefore, so should we be.

It is pure doctrinal nonsense to say that we should keep religion separate from, or even outside, politics; Jesus is first, last and middle, politics. Why else would he have chosen to be born to humble folk in humble circumstances? Why would his family have been forced to become refugees in iconically significant Egypt? Why did he constantly identify with the poor and with sinners? Why did he die a political terrorists' death? And what do all these factors tell us about our obligations and about the mission of Christ on earth which we are here to promote? When we talk about God being "Two Natures in one person", i.e. Jesus is both God and man, and when we say that Jesus is a "person" of the Trinity, we are dealing in theological metaphors which allow us, approximately, to speak of God with each other and in prayer, and they allow us to aspire to handle the mystery of God in a way that creatures with brains would want to do, as God wants us to do or, otherwise, 'he' would not have given us brains; but Matthew's Sermon on the mount (5-7) and Luke's Sermon on the Plain (6.20-38) and many other statements by Jesus are not metaphors, they are hard-edged statements. To put this into perspective, my own work shows* that in the Gospels there are 232 references to wealth and power and, for example, 88 on sexual matters.

Finally, then, who is this God in Jesus who was born in humble circumstances, taught a Gospel of Good News for the poor, not at some notional time or after the last judgment but here and now, and died for all of us? Well, first, apart from being a theological conundrum, he was a human revolutionary, preaching a system of social organisation and solidarity far removed from shallow, pagan ethics; that is why Christianity had so much power when it emerged from its catacombs. Secondly, he embodied - literally embodied - a divine concern with all people, particularly the poor and oppressed, in stark contrast with the lewd and vulgar conduct of the Greek Gods on Mount Olympus, showing that God's primary concern was that all 'His' creatures were of equal value. Finally, he gave his followers, collectively in the Church, our church, a particular, emphatic and overwhelming responsibility to do as he said we should do.

If God is man in Jesus, as we believe He is, then our understanding of theology cannot be limited to the nature of God in a metaphysical sense.  To be Incarnational in our theology is to become involved in the untidiness, pain and sacrifice which Jesus, as God, demands of us. There is no way out.

* Carey, Kevin, The Judas Church: An Obsession with Sex (Sacristy Press, 2014).