( A reflection offered at Hobart North Uniting Church. 2nd Feb 2014)
And maybe a strange title too!
As I’ve grown older I’ve had to deal with the fact that something which makes quite a lot of sense to me, makes very little sense to a whole lot of the people around me!
The Christian faith that I hold dear, and which helps me to make sense if the world, is described by many people in our world today using words such as: immature, hogwash, insecure, superstition, evil and just plain wrong!
And when those words are used to describe something that I hold dear, I find that tough to hear or read.
That’s a tension that I suspect many of us feel on a fairly regular basis.
I’m used to the old chestnut about how church people are all churchy and hypocritical and “holier than thou”.
Putting aside the fact that I don’t know ANY Christians who still regularly use the word “thou”, this is kind of water off a duck’s back. I know it’s not true so it doesn’t worry me.
But I find it hard when other people assume that because I’m a Christian, and perhaps especially because I’m a Christian minister, that I believe a whole heap of things that sensible people (like them) know are rubbish.
I find it hard because:
a) I DON’T always believe what they think Christians believe, often based on a long ago experience of Sunday School, or on public media statements by prominent Christians, and
b) I have come to a conviction that the way of Jesus was less about doctrinal arguments and ‘right’ belief, than it was about sacred imagination and right response to that.
Now, I’m not saying there that I’m against theological reflection and an informed, rational faith-quite the opposite, actually.
And that’s part of the challenge because, to return to my opening comment, something which makes quite a lot of sense to me, makes very little sense to a whole lot of the people around me.
Maybe it’s because the way of Jesus has become a bit lost in the way of the church over the centuries… or maybe it’s because, according to the conventional wisdom of the world, the way of Jesus in itself makes no sense!
I offer a couple of thoughts on this today, in the hope that they’re helpful to our reflection and response to the scriptures to which we’re attending: Paul’s talk about preaching “Christ crucified”, and Jesus’ words in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ about those who are blessed by GOD.
Firstly, our dilemma (or my dilemma, if it’s just me!) is not new. Paul’s words to the Corinthians make it clear that he understood the challenge of the gospel of Jesus: that it went against the way people measured success and failure. And not only that, it went against the way that people understood their relationships to god or gods (remembering that he related to both Jews and Gentiles).
People understood a good and comfortable life as a blessing from your particular deity or deities, and misfortune (including ill health) as curse. They understood power and domination as divinely inspired and approved.
So to preach “Christ crucified” was a big call, indeed to preach “Christ anything” to people who had no idea what a Christ was or why you needed one, was a big call.
Paul knew it. And when we remember that “Christ crucified” is a kind of shorthand for “the one who was killed by the Romans with a method reserved for people who defied the authority of the empire”, we gain a sense of the foolishness Paul talks about.
For many who heard and read his words, this “gospel of Christ Jesus” was sheer nonsense!
But it wasn’t only the method of Jesus’ death, and the meaning people began to put on his life, that was a stumbling block.
It was the kinds of things that Jesus himself said and did, and the people with whom he hung around.
I imagine that we all love the Beatitudes: the statements of blessing that we read today from his “Sermon on the Mount”.
But imagine you were there, listening to the things he was saying. (And for all you Life of Brian devotees, try NOT to think of “Blessed are the cheesemakers”!)
The people to whom Jesus offered GOD’S blessings were, once again, the people who were generally considered cursed by GOD!
Jesus had a habit of saying and doing things that seemed ridiculous to those around him. And when they asked him to explain, he told them stories! Foolishness indeed!
So what are we to make of our task and calling as church: to tell and to live out the way of Jesus in ways that make sense to our day?: our day which has scientific and other difficulties with the message, quite apart from the way that it challenges our systems?
How are we to relate, when the faith we hold dear is pretty much marginalised in our society?
Well, I can’t answer for you, I can only encourage you to think seriously about this. That’s the task of all of theologians, by which I include all of us.
But three thoughts may be helpful.
I don’t believe we’re called to ‘argue other people into the kingdom’. The notion that, if we put up an airtight case for faith, others will see the self-evident truth of our argument and come into an experience of conversion, is unhelpful in my humble opinion.
Very little annoys me more than people suggesting to me, that if I understood what they were saying, I’d know they were right, and that if I disagree with them, it’s just because I’m lacking the ability to see how right they are. “No, it’s because I do understand that I think you’re wrong!” is what I often stifle the urge to say.
I’m sure we’ve all had those sorts of conversation! And I’ve come to the conclusion that they are not always a helpful presentation of the gospel of Jesus.
And the second thought is about what I believe the gospel of Jesus is.
I spoke earlier of my conviction that the way of Jesus was less about doctrinal arguments and ‘right’ belief, and more about sacred imagination and right action.
What this means for me, in practical terms, is that I believe people are more likely to encounter the ‘sense’ of Jesus’ way if they see it in action as well as in hearing it in word: if they see a life transformed by grace, rather than simply hearing about it.
Our words are important without a doubt, and they need to need to make sense.
But I suspect that the way our words make most sense, given all that I’ve said thus far about the ‘foolishness’ of the gospel, is when they match what people see in us.
The final thought is one of language. And it’s important just in case any you are feeling a little disheartened by the task before us, or thinking that I am. I’m not! I’m excited.
I believe that we as Christians are in a really good place in society right now.
Actually, we’re pretty much where we were in the beginning: on the edge of things, having to claim a space within public life, discussion and practice. And I think it’s good for us!
It means we need to reflect and enact the gospel of Jesus from a situation closer to the one Jesus occupied in his day, rather than being one of the institutions of power and setting the rules for others. And I’m encouraged by that, as well as challenged.
But what of language? Well, gradually the ‘foolishness’ of Jesus began to be seen by many as ‘alternative wisdom’, at least in part due to a sense that ‘conventional wisdom’ wasn’t working. Sound familiar?
Michael Frost, in his great book “Jesus the Fool”, talks about Jesus and the art of ‘reframing’. He discusses how Jesus reframes our relationship with GOD, with other people, with creation, and with ourselves. This is alternative wisdom, suggests Frost, and this is what Jesus did best and most.
This rings all kinds of bells for me, particularly as Jesus’ alternative wisdom is fundamentally an invitation to imagine a new reality, a new relationship, a new world!
And you all know how much I bang on about imagination!
Does any of this change the fact with which I began? The fact that the faith and way that I hold dear-the way of Jesus, as best as I can understand and live it- makes very little sense to people around me? Probably not.
But it can change me… change us.
And I’m ok with that.
Because I suspect that’s what both Jesus and Paul had in mind!