Stop and Think

Sunday 22nd March 2015
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Jeremiah 31:31-34

I love that monumental Genesis scholar, Gerhard von Raad's definition of a covenant, initially applied to God's covenant with Noah; A covenant, von Raad says, is: "... supposed to put an opaque or intricate set of arrangements into a new, simple form"; but, like a great deal of beautifully defined terminology, it fails to live down to the messiness of human existence. Because some of the pieces of the Book of Jeremiah are in the wrong place it is not clear precisely when Jeremiah gave voice to God's latest Covenant, whether it was before the destruction of Judea and the exile of the Jews or afterwards, but it was certainly proclaimed in turbulent times from which Jeremiah looked back across a whole wrecker's yard of covenants which perhaps explains why this latest covenant is so definite when it says: "... I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more."

Now to me, this doesn't look like a covenant at all; there is no conditionality. It looks as if, after perhaps two thousand years of God's Covenant-making and his Chosen People's covenant breaking, that God has simply thrown in the towel which, when we think about it for a moment, makes perfect sense. The Old Testament is an immensely complex, tortuous account of a relationship which always fails to deliver, not just because of what the Chosen People did or failed to do but also because of the mind-set of the great Redactors who assembled most of the text of the Bible up the to the major prophets during the Judean Exile in the Sixth Century BC who attributed their misfortunes to their unfaithfulness. They could never escape from the fundamental imperfection of humanity in the face of God's perfection; they even trumped up a totally false charge against Moses to keep him out of the Promised Land (Numbers 20.12-13). And so, after the Exile which I mentioned a moment ago, the idea that a Messiah would come and put everything right grew in popularity although the Jews were never very clear about what this Priest/King would do and, as we know from the story of Jesus, they did not have any kind of process for deciding whether claims to be the Messiah were true or false.

Some 400 years after the death of Jesus Christianity, under the guidance of Saint Augustine of Hippo, embedded human imperfection in the concept of "Original Sin"; because Adam and Eve "fell" we are all fallen and our only salvation is through Jesus.

But before I take that topic further, I want us to stop for a moment to consider the fundamental conundrum of human existence which positions us between God's good and what, for shorthand, we will call evil.

Let me set out simply the classical theological proposition: man was created in a quasi angelic form in the Garden of Eden where he did not know the difference between good and evil and therefore could not choose one over the other; but man's pride meant that he was not satisfied with this simplistic state of being and was persuaded by the serpent, or persuaded himself, or whatever, that he wanted to know the difference between good and evil; and, once  he knew that difference he, inevitably, did not always choose good but often chose evil. To put matters right, God sent his Son to crystallise Jeremiah's Covenant so that no matter how often we choose evil we will be "saved" as long as we have faith in Jesus. Some Christians take this idea further by saying that Jesus' terrible suffering and judicial murder somehow atoned for humanity's wrong and in some way appeased God's wrath. I haven't time to go into that now except to say that if we believe that God is love, this takes a lot of swallowing.

But now, let us return to the conundrum of good, evil and humanity. At the beginning of the Book of Job, God seems quite comfortable with Satan walking up and down the earth making a nuisance of himself and even suggests that if it gets a bit boring, Satan might try to subvert that very holy man, Job. And I think this is the clue to the conundrum: if we had remained in our state of ignorance of the difference between good and evil we could never do good; we could never love. Love offered under duress or from a state of emotional illiteracy isn't love at all. If God is love and if we were created freely to love God, then imperfection and struggle are part of our creatureliness.

Which leaves the massive question of the necessity for the salvation of Jesus. Well, I think part of our problem is that we mix up God's timelessness and our sense of time: we have always been imperfect and we have always been saved but Jesus came in concrete form, in our historic time, to tell us, from God, that the perfect creator God was in complete solidarity with his imperfect creatures, that our guilt lies not in being 'fallen' but simply in our capacity to make wrong choices; in other words, we are not fallen but simply conform with the conditions of creatureliness which were set down for us, a perception which has best been articulated by Julian of Norwich who thought that making wrong choices was a necessary part of the human learning process by which we freely come closer to God.

And so, here we have a loving God who wants us to choose to love; and we have our story in the Bible which shows how necessarily imperfect we are and that any Covenant really has to be a give-away; and then we have Jesus making the promise and dying to show that there is nothing we can do, including killing God, that will impair God's love; and, finally, as if that were not enough, we have God with us not only in the Word from which we learn but also in the Sacrament by which we are nourished. To me at least, that looks like a framework.

But, ultimately, what I think or believe is of no consequence. What matters, as we think of the Covenant in Jeremiah and the final Covenant at Calvary, is that we stop for a minute when we are tempted to slide over all the familiar phrases about Jesus dying for us, and saving us, and consider what they really mean for us. In my experience, the hymns are the worst, setting out monumental theological claims in a couple of lines.

But, whatever else we do in the next two weeks, between now and Easter, let us stop and think.