Love and Victimhood

Sunday 28th March 2004
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Lamentations 3:22-33
Psalm 25
Mark 15:1-37
1 Peter 2:21-25

The papers blazon an exclusive, as the Mundane Corporation is plunged into crisis, resulting from an unprecedented scandal which has left morale at rock bottom and the Prime Minister incandescent at the end of his worst week, facing calls for a public enquiry or his resignation.

Never mind that the exclusive is carried by four tabloid papers, that the crisis is actually a routine problem resolved weeks before the papers got hold of it, that the scandal was a minor infraction known before the Babylonians scrawled symbols on their first tablet, that morale is never anywhere else but rock bottom, that the Prime Minister does not even know what has happened, that every week since he came into office has been his worst, that there are calls for public enquiries and his resignation on a more or less daily basis and that there are similar exclusives on pages 2, 7, 13, 25 and 30.

We are so accustomed to this hyperbole hurled at us hourly, not just by tabloid newspapers but by the broadcasting media, work colleagues, acquaintances and even friends whose judgment we thought we could trust, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to spot when something really is going wrong. But the exclusive, shouted in all the taverns of Jerusalem might have been that the Temple establishment had been rocked by an unprecedented verbal and physical onslaught on its ancient and hallowed practices by a dangerously popular militant that had caused a major confrontation between the Jewish and Roman authorities at the end of the worst week of Pontius Pilate's Governorship. And so, although it may be worse now than it was then, hysteria and hyperbole are nothing new, or, to use the jargon word, unprecedented.

In one sense, then, the death of Jesus was not a remarkable event. Hundreds of people were crucified in Palestine every year; it was just that, in this case, there were some curious circumstances surrounding the death: the accused was a quiet man of a theological bent, it was difficult to pin a charge on him and there was something strange about the conceit of his Kingship set on a plaque above his head; it wasn't quite a joke. And then, really unusually, there were people who witnessed the events and thought it worth recording them, not just for oral transmission but in writing.

One of the first, almost certainly the first full account, was that in Mark which we have just heard. Mark is the quintessential Journo evangelist, not a wasted word anywhere, straight to the point. But, like all good stylists, he comes out of a tradition; and in the earlier readings we have heard of aspects of suffering and love related to Jesus. Verse 18 of Psalm 25 contains a curious mirror image of our suffering and Christ's suffering: "Consider my enemies, how many they are; they bear a tyrannous hate against me". Lamentations Chapter 3, Verse 33 says: "He gives his cheek to him that smites him". Then, in Mark himself there is the gruesome ritual of Chapter 15 Verses 16-20 where Jesus is clothed in purple, crowned with thorns and mocked. and in a retrospective passage in 1 Peter the lesson is drawn: "Because Christ suffered for us, setting an example, so we should follow in His steps." Between them, the four readings and the texts for our music provide rich and dense material about service and suffering and I hope you will take your service booklet home and re-read the passages, giving them the chance to sink in more deeply.

I want to reduce the content to two ideas which are universal but damaged currency in our society: victimhood and love.

My starting point is that we have unprecedented (this time meant literally) control over how and what we do. Even compared with our parents, we move house more often, change career more often, drive more miles, have wider choices of food, clothes, education, pastimes and comforts. If we wish to be of service to our neighbour we have more knowledge of our world and its wants, more help lines, more newsletters, more appeals and more good causes. Unlike the Jews who called upon the Lord during frequent and very real crises, we can survive a bad harvest; indeed we might only notice it in a slight rise in the price of potatoes. We are never far from clean water; we recover from illness; we live longer. And yet; and yet: "They" are making our lives impossible. At the very least we will drown out all good feeling with our grumbling, at worst we will sue "them". We might have had too much to drink when we tripped over a paving stone but the Council should never have let it get like that.

Now it so happens that I have lived in places where it was dangerous to criticise the political elite, where the knock on the door might come at three in the morning, where that political instability and paranoia was fuelled by widespread poverty and inequality; where there was no choice of clothes, of schools, of radio stations; where surviving  drought, poverty and oppression were the only activities that counted. And I have to say that where we are now, here, is nothing like that. In no sense that I can articulate are we victims.

What, then, of the other side of the coin? Let us look at love. Here again, we have created a problem for ourselves with the word. We "love", in some approximately ascending order, baggy trousers, heliotrope, chocolate, dogs, David Beckham, colleagues, friends, relations and, if we are persevering enough, partners. But of course we ought not to love chocolate in the way we love our partner but just the opposite. what we do with chocolate is acquire it and, in consuming it, we destroy it; when we are satisfied there is none left; or, worse, there is none left and we are not satisfied. Many of us, perhaps, are not very different with the people we claim to love. How often is our love based on our own need for gratification, based on what we want of another thing or person. We don't, after all, love dogs because they provide us with stimulating dialogue; we love them because they are obedient and undemanding. Indeed, in many relationships love, or whatever you call it, breaks down precisely because the loved one, so appealing and promising blissful gratification, turns out to be opinionated and a skilled negotiator. So what started out as exploitative becomes a contract which bears no relationship to the "Better or worse", "Richer or poorer", "Love and cherish" promises in the Marriage Service.

Let us now look at the ideas of victimhood and love in relation to Jesus as we enter the period of His Passiontide; let us give ourselves a few moments of reflection before the momentum of events speeds up like a car chase, so that by Good Friday the scene is too solemn and savage to allow of deep contemplation; and by the time we have got over the shock it is the Easter Vigil. So this is a good time to focus on Jesus of the Cross and what it means for us. I have promised to stick to the two ideas of victimhood and love and so I am not going to branch off into a discussion of the history of the interpretation of atonement which has caused so much dissent in the Christian church that it is not surprising that it is not an Article of the Creed; the Creed says that Jesus died for our sake but does not enter into the mechanics of atonement and salvation; so I will put that to one side with the note that no matter how we differ on the subject it is important that we arrive at some kind of view; for without it, the Crucifixion is a death and Resurrection formula lacking any real substance.

What can we say, then, about victimhood and love as attributes of the death of Jesus? What I want to say is simply this, based on some of the writing of Herbert McCabe. Jesus, incarnate of God, who emptied himself of his divinity, to live and suffer with us, had no choice. From the moment he was born he would inevitably die a cruel death simply because of what he was and what we are. He was as wise as any to the evils and dangers of his times but he refused to deviate from his mission and ministry of love. His love was so patently pure that it threatened almost everyone he met, and the more aggressive and power loving the people he met, the more frightened they were of His love. He was a victim of his own unstinting love; it could be no other way.

And, contrary to what many Christians believe and articulate to the discredit of our Saviour, Jesus loved through his determination to give people space, to let things be. He would not perform signs to prove his status, he would not defend himself verbally, he would not trim; and, above all else, He would not judge. He did not want to die; he was frightened; but an essential attribute of His love of His father was obedience; and, as the Father willed, so he acted.

Mel Gibson's film of the Passion of Christ which was released here two days ago has raised a couple of hot debating points: is there too much violence in the film; and is it anti Semitic? Well, as to the first, it is curious that we focus on how an image of the violence affects us rather than how the reality of the violence affected Jesus. As to the second point, we, as Christians, of all people, have cause to repent of anti Semitism. This is because Jesus as victim is our victim; what the authorities did to Jesus then we not only would do now, we are doing it now. This is why we have to be very careful with theories of atonement that look like spiritual accountancy, that see Jesus Crucified and Resurrected, at which point all sin has been written off; the full and final sacrifice has put us all in the clear.

So I say that in our own lives we are chopping down the tree and forging the nails; or, at the very least, and quite as bad, we are watching others as they chop and forge. We have more choice than any other race at any other period in history to be of service to our neighbours; we know how our being rich makes others poor; we know how our being prodigal wrecks the global ecology; we know where people are being tortured. At a more personal level, we know about our psyches and the dynamics of human relationships; we know about self esteem and self respect; we know about inclusive language. And yet; and yet, the world seems to be no happier a place than it ever was. Why?

Because we cannot take all this knowledge and compress it into the patient wisdom that is love; we cannot abandon the contract and simply give; and we cannot love just by letting people be what they are. We chop down the tree of Eden and forge the nails of Babel; We chop down the tree of refreshment and forge the nails of desire; we chop down the tree of innocence and we forge the nails of judgment. We, unlike those who saw Jesus die, have all our worldly knowledge and wisdom supplemented by the awesome mystery of the Resurrection and the unbounded fellowship of the Holy Spirit; and we are still chopping down the tree and forging the nails. May God have mercy upon us.