Once Upon A Time

Daniel 6.6-23
Mark 15.46-47; 16.1-8

All over the world the phrase "Once upon a time" summons the attention of children to the realm of make-believe where the real-life sequence of event and consequence are deliciously suspended for the moment. Everything is possible: supermen and fairies perform magical feats; animals talk; the rules of nature are suspended; good triumphs over evil and everybody lives, in the corresponding closing phrase of the tale "happily ever after."

The nearest equivalents to such stories in the Bible are contained in the Book of Daniel, probably the last collection of stories to be written in the Old Testament: Shadrak, Mishak and Abednego survive the fiery furnace; Suzanna is vindicated; and in our reading today, Daniel survives a night sealed up in a cave with a pride of lions. But these are not fairy stories, they are the exuberant out-pouring of a new optimism, based on the writings of Deutero-Isaiah, which tell of the end of the old order and the beginning of the new: the end of a narrow Covenant between the Chosen People and their God which has resulted in the disaster of Exile where it has become clear that nothing they can do will undo what has gone wrong, replaced by the hope of a Messiah who will put everything right, not just for Jews but for all humanity. The old contract which had been abridged so often was now been abandoned and the Jews were in the sphere of unconditional dependence on their Salvation by their God where everything was not only possible but was expected to be actual.

The trouble is, when we come to our Second Reading, nobody expected this saviour to be subjected to the degradation of Crucifixion as the lowest of the low from which there was no chance of escape; and it is therefore not surprising that the Resurrection was, literally, incredible. Where the other Evangelists described the Resurrection in theological terms as predetermined, Mark, the good, old fashioned journalist, simply reports the reality of disbelief and the fear of unforeseen circumstances; any report of such an event actually happening would pile new trouble on the fresh trouble of the humiliation of Jesus and the peril into which his followers were thrown. But looking back now, through the prism of Acts, we can see that what was promised in Deutero-Isaiah and Daniel actually came to pass. Not "Once upon a time" but "Once for all time" God through His Son put right all that had gone wrong, changing the human-divine relationship from contract to unconditional everlasting life for all.

Our confusion over the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday arises to a great extent from problems of Biblical translation. All my adults life I have agonised over the concepts of "justification" and "righteousness", so prominent in Saint Paul but a better way of translating the Greek from which these concepts are derived is to think of the term "rectification"; in the Crucifixion and Resurrection Jesus puts right what has gone wrong.

But the unconditionality of our salvation is quite distinct from any idea of passivism; that we just need to live our lives as we like because it will all end "Happily ever after"; "Rectification" represents God's demand for justice in which we are not spectators but partners; we are to be instruments, no matter how imperfect we are and no matter how imperfect our well meant strategies may be, in achieving God's justice. As creatures we are required to worship but such worship without justice is hollow.

This is not to say that our salvation will depend upon the extent to which we try to achieve justice because God's mercy is part of God's justice; but it does mean that our obligation is extreme, much more so than our obligation to live good lives in our personal sphere.

Now this requirement to be co-workers in the realisation of God's justice is problematic not only because of the theological history of our understanding of the death and Resurrection of Jesus since the Reformation which has tended to focus on the impossible task of understanding the mechanics of these divinely ordained events but also because of our DNA which makes our createdness an obstacle to the divine, an imperfection which is a necessary precondition of exercising free will. We are quite deliberately set a lifelong test which is why justice and self interest are always in conflict and why Luther's' admittedly misunderstood, idea that we are saved by faith alone is a fatal over simplification.

The basis of Daniel's salvation from many threats, including the lions, is not just his faith in God but his courage in upholding justice in the tradition of Deutero-Isaiah, made whole in the life of Jesus whose basis for action was the Old Testament. The idea that Jews were obsessed with a rather dry, contractual, legalistic system from which Jesus liberated them with his law of love is, again, a terrible over-simplification. As I have said before, the statutes of the Book of Deuteronomy with respect to justice for the poor make any supposedly civilised country look primitive and niggardly. To be a Christian is not to be superior to others but to acquire a consequent responsibility to make things better for the poor.

Mark's frightened witnesses of the empty tomb would soon take courage from the Holy Spirit and launch a new movement to give hope to the poor and downtrodden; but as we have become more prosperous we have become proportionately less concerned with justice. It is one of the truisms of our knowledge of the world at large that those who give most are those who have least; and if the agony and triumph of Jesus do not grace us with a new resolve to do better; we are lost.