Hymn writers often, because of the need to be poetic, do not always convey their intended meaning.
For instance, Mrs. Alexander’s description of the Crucifixion has many merits.
But she wrote: “He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in”, and long into my ‘teen-age years I had a vision of Jesus, God’s Son, standing helplessly outside Heaven’s gate unable to do more than unlock the gate. Presumably, the faithful had to find their own way towards the Divine throne?
Poor demoted Jesus?
Well, no, for if Mrs. A had thought, she would have put a comma after “only” that would have made the meaning clearer.
Better still, if she had written “alone” rather than “only”, we would have had, “He alone could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in” that would have saved me pondering over it for so long.
The whole folly of the sacrificial system in Judaism, was that when people offered sacrifices of various kinds to remove their guilt and put them right with the Father, they were only giving God what was already His.
Isaiah and the prophets all pointed this out proclaiming God’s requirement, was not the sacrifice of bulls, lambs and goats, but the sacrifice of the penitent’s life, by their carrying out works of mercy to the poor, the aged, the diseased and crippled, and not least welcoming “strangers” (i.e. Immigrants).
So, through Isaiah, God tells penitents that He doesn’t require ceremonial sacrifices, but practical social action as they were to “Love their neighbour as themselves”.
Puzzlingly, reading the early Biblical chapters, you get an impression that there are two Gods; one who loves nothing better than a good massacre of Israel’s enemies, rich and poor, young and old, animal or bird.
Alternatively, you find a God who persuaded by Abraham refuses to eliminate Sodom and Gemorra, giving them time to repent and mend their ways and in Genesis is seen as “caring” by clothing the rebellious couple rather than by their fig leaves!.
Much of this problem lies in the fact that there is a collection of ancient primitive stories woven into the text by subsequent editors.
If you can tease them out, then we find the God of the New Testament Gospels, personified in Jesus the Son, shows us a caring, loving Being, who wants to be friends with His Creation and offers us “unconditional” love.
As I “jotted” earlier in the year, there is no form of sacrifice that is acceptable to God than the one that involves sacrifice in the service of our “neighbours”.
Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth is raised to Divinity, by the action of the Father “who although He be both God and man; yet He is not two, but one Christ . . . by taking of the manhood into God”.
We become confused because we have mental pictures of three participants in the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit forgetting that we are dealing with a Divine mystery, that whatever mental images we have of God, none can be seen as correct. “Your God is too small” wrote J. B. Phillips in his book of that title and we need to recognise that.
Our Gospel, “Good News”, is because there was “None other good enough to take away our sin” and that is the sin of ALL the created world, including ourselves; so then God Himself stepped in and guilt (which affects all mankind in many ways) is done away, with no action on our part.
No sacrifices, no religious practises are needed, we can only point to Him in faith and confess our failings, knowing that the price has been paid, “Once, only once, and once for all His precious life He gave”. For us, whatever we have done.
“Jesus is boring” said a ‘teen-ager to me, for which I took him to task. Nothing is further from the truth, that is, if you read the Gospels, approaching them as if you had never met them before. So many of us (including me) were brought up in Sunday School with pictures by artists, such as Elsie Anna Wood.
One stands out in my mind, of Jesus (nice, clean, white man surrounded by scrub-cleaned children and by birds flying around His head and cuddly animals at His feet); idyllic and comforting.
But, Jesus was not exactly the epitome of comfort for many He encountered.
This was a Mediterranean-skinned Jew, and while, “Yes, He valued and treated children lovingly”, His opponents, wanted nothing less than His death. Revolutionaries are not always welcome among the world’s vested interests.
Boring? Read the Gospels and the last description you would apply to Jesus is “boring”.
He was an out and out revolutionary from the beginning of His public Ministry.
Within the first three chapters of Mark, we find Him already in conflict with the authorities, so having healed a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3, vv1-6), they are convinced that this was a troublemaker needing to be eliminated.
He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest enquirers, humble before heaven, but He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them “hypocrites” (play actors).
He assaulted indignant tradesmen in the Temple, and threw them and their belongings our of the Temple.
He referred to King Herod as “That fox”. From the beginning, He sought the company of the outcasts of Society, by (Oh, horror!), feasting with them so that He was accused of being a ’gluttonous man and a winebibber’
He obviously enjoyed the company of the ordinary folk, so that the Gospel says “They heard Him gladly”, as He proclaimed the Good News and teaching them by telling them stories.
He drove a coach-and-horses through ancient religious rules to the fury of the clergy.
He showed no proper deference to wealth and social position and when confronted by clergy, upset them in return by asking disagreeable questions they were unable to answer.
He was a humorist, for underneath some of His teaching by stories were images that must have drawn a laugh from His hearers. If Jesus is “The human face of God” then He is far removed from many of our mental images.
He feeds a multitude on two separate occasions and in order to save a family from social embarrassment turns 120 gallons of well water into eminently drinkable wine (John 2, vv1-11).
Boring? Nothing further from the truth.
For probably, only 2 or at the most 3 years, He roamed through the Holy Land with a band of homeless disciples (travellers?) and not a clergyman among them!
He feared no one and proclaimed a message of “Good News” that “God is love”, which among the violence of much of the Old Testament, shines through in the later revisions of “The Law” in Deuteronomy, where God shows that He is concerned for everyone, including the poor and undesirable. Provision is always to be made for the poor, including the “strangers”, which is a term describing “immigrants”.
In human flesh, the Divine shows His true character and by His self-commitment, including His ultimate rejection leading to the horror and shame of the Cross and His apparent abandonment by the Father; the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” is an encouragement for those who feel this in their own lives.
The Father answers Jesus’ cry and confirms His claims with the glory of the Resurrection.
From an immense and incomprehensible Being, we seem to move now to another level, for we suddenly find ourselves faced with a conundrum, namely, “Who or what is Jesus of Nazareth”?
“He shall be called, the Son of God” the angel tells Mary at the Annunciation, but what does that mean?
Is Jesus an inferior being, subject to the Father’s rule, or what does He claim to be?
He claims to be the Image of His Father, so that when Philip asks Him, “Show us the Father and we shall be satisfied”, he gets the uncompromising reply, “Have you been so long with me Philip? He that has seen me has seen the Father”, and later on, Jesus says “I and the Father are the same”.
So, there you have it.
The Athanasian Creed, seeking to define the Holy Trinity says that Jesus is perfectly, God and man; not a man pretending to be God, nor God pretending to be a man, The Divine and the Human are indivisible.
One wonders if the realisation of who He was came slowly to Jesus as He grew; one cannot imagine a 5 yr. old playing with His friends conscious that He was completely superior to them.
Equally, studying the Gospels, it is clear that as He grew older, He was led to a greater vision of His Mission.
At the beginning of His Ministry, Jesus tells His disciples on their missionary travels, to “Go only to the Jews, not the Gentiles” and yet later, He proceeds to move among the Gentiles obviously including them in “The Kingdom”. Contrary to Jewish Law, He speaks to a Gentile woman that He meets at a well, receives a drink from her and heals a Gentile Roman Centurion’s servant. He feasts with Gentiles and Society’s “outcasts” to the disgust of the righteous.
The Church’s teaching is categorical and uncompromising, and it is this: “That Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the word, the “God by whom all things were made”.
His body and brain were those of a common man; His personality was the personality of God, so far as that personality could be expressed in human terms.
He was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God” – He was (and is) God.**
As a result He has gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life, a manual worker, penniless, to the worst horrors of rejection, pain, humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.
He was born in poverty, died in disgrace, and He thought it was all worth while for His Creation’s sake, that is, you and me.
He is (as the Athanasian Creed defines) “Perfect God and perfect man; yet “He is not two, but one Christ”, by “taking the manhood into God”.
So He really suffered and died, for the truth is that when they hung Jesus on the Cross, they crucified God.
That the disciples came to recognise who He was is clear when we read the Gospels. Mark (the earliest Evangelist) begins His account “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. No “ifs” or “buts” or even a “maybe” and all that follows in that Gospel assumes that we are dealing with someone who shares the “Otherness” of the Father with His Divine powers.
In our matter-of-fact thinking we assume that this cannot be, for it is “out of this world” for indeed, it is, and with our tiny minds, however clever we may be, in modern jargon we say, “We cannot get our heads around it”.
We need to abandon some of the simplistic ideas about Jesus and His role that has bedevilled true understanding, and embrace the incredible drama that is the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, of which we will think next week.
In a survey of people in the street in the 1940s, when asked what they thought The Church taught about God the Father it could be summarised like this:
“He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment; He is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgements and miracles distributed with a good deal of favouritism. He likes to be acknowledged and is always ready to pounce on anyone who trips up or is having a bit of fun, He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary”.
Altogether, not someone to be “loved” or “loving”. Reading some of the Old Testament, particularly the early history of the Jews where God is responsible for ordering the massacre of thousands of innocent people, adults, children, animals, etc. you ask where is this “Loving Father” of whom Jesus speaks?
In fact I sometimes wonder why we read some of the Old Testament publicly at all, particularly without explanation, for it gives rise to a misunderstanding of the Father.
For the majority of folk, whether religious or not, God is a father-like figure who is swift to punish people who fall out of line, and as one doubting ‘teen-ager told me, he thought God was “a misery” and some extreme Evangelicals tend to enforce that view by their constant emphasis on "Sin" and not "Joy".
Watching Dr. Brian Cox’s series on the Universe with its intricacies and breath-taking beauty we realise how vast and beyond comprehension the mind behind Creation is.
“Your God is too small” wrote J. B. Philips in the book of that title, and frankly, our presentation of His majesty, wonder and power is often childish as we try and project human ideas and values upon Him.
If by our worship we could create this sense of wonder and empowerment that runs through some sections of the Old Testament (particularly the prophets, like Isaiah) our faith would come alive, but we rarely do so and as a result it can be somewhat pedestrian and ineffective.
Even whilst wandering in the wilderness for all those 40 years, we get the sense that through colour, song and ceremony the Jews recognised the immensity of the Divine Majesty.
Professor Otto, in his important book “The idea of the Holy” helps to move us away from our inadequate vision of the Divine, trying always to put ourselves in a position where we can accept this mystery and immensity of the Godhead.
In our desire to make Christian worship more appealing to the unbeliever we have tended to devalue the Divine currency.
We approach and engage in our worship almost casually.
We tend to make our worship shrines into little more than village halls. We have lost that sense of “remembrancing” that prevailed when I was young, so that we should be as reverent coming into our churches for our worship as we might be when entering the Queen’s palace. Without that spirit our worship will never will come alive.
Other religions are more disciplined in this than we Anglicans, taking off their shoes and prostrating themselves in prayer whereas we are bidden to “sit”, even hen confessing our failures.
Likewise it was (and still is) a basic Church rule, that we should bow our heads “at the Name of Jesus”. The peers on entering the House of Lords bow to the throne there, while usually it is empty, it is a mark of the power of our earthly ruler. Likewise it is customary to bow to reverence the altar when entering and leaving, for it is God’s throne and He is One who is greater than anything or anyone we can begin to imagine.
We need to reassess our attitude towards our worship and our relationship with God the Father and restore that sense of the Presence and particularly when we worship.
We say “The Lord is here; His spirit is with us” and at the Eucharist, He truly is, but unseen, except with the eye of Faith. “O come, let us worship and bow down” (Psalm 95)
In the desire to make everything corporate, we now begin the Creed (which is a statement of our beliefs), no longer with “I”, but “we”.
Now, I wonder if everyone who recites the Nicene Creed (the one used at the Eucharist) can join in that honestly or perhaps without thought? Do YOU understand and believe what our Creed says, or do you feel that you cannot honestly join in a statement that doesn’t chime in with your understanding?
There is little doubt that the bulk of Christians do not completely understand the tremendous truths to which they proclaim their belief in “We”.
The Creed should be a personal statement of what the believer understands, can take “on board” and implement in their day-to-day living, but how often do we hear an explanation of the Creeds in church, to which we confidently proclaim “WE believe”?
“It doesn’t matter what we believe”, some might say, but an examination of how we rely on “beliefs” in vital decisions, will soon show us that so many things, even such as casting our vote, or marrying a partner, because we believe that our vote will be important or, that we will live happily ever after, may prove to be mistaken beliefs. You can only truly test “beliefs” by acting upon them.
Similarly, when it comes to the Confession, it becomes yet another “WE”; would it not make a greater impact on our thoughts and words if they were professed as “I confess”, which forces us to examine our daily lives
The confession in Church has less (or any) force if we have not prepared in our hearts and prayer to be “Honest to God”?
Do we spend time on a Saturday prior to receiving Communion the next day, recalling that particular moment last week that we did not live up to Christ’s standards?
When I do, I am embarrassed that I am confessing the same traits in my character as I did the previous Saturday, so you feel that God must despair at how little progress I have made spiritually. Nor can we gloss over what we have thought, said or done the past week by perhaps saying “Sorry God, it’s the same as last week!”
We need to remember that in the Early Church the believers stood up before the gathering recounting how they had sinned, asking their fellow Christians (and of course, God) to forgive them. St. James in his epistle (4. v16) orders his readers to “confess your sins one to another” that they may be forgiven.
Understandably, this proved a veritable ground for scandal so that eventually it became a silent confession and the forgiveness conveyed via the priest (as we do today). Far less embarrassing!
In the next few “Jottings” I want to consider with you what YOU believe and what through the Creeds YOU are saying.
In all this you need to remember that the original Creed was little more than “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour”.
As heretical ideas were abounding, so clauses had to be added to ensure that what was spoken was a reflection of the truths about Christ and our redemption that were supported by the Scriptures.
There are 3 Creeds, the “Nicene” (that we use at the Eucharist), the “Apostles”, the original simpler Baptismal Creed used nowadays at Morning and Evening Prayer and the much longer and complex “Athanasian Creed” or “Quicunque vult” that is an attempt to clarify the nature of the Holy Trinity.
None of them are immediately self-explanatory and so if we are going to stand up and recite any of these 3 Creeds, being the basis of our Faith, then understanding them (as best we may) is vital.