I guess most of us throughout life have heard people tell stories that we thought were a bit exaggerated, and the story teller ended with a statement such as, “It’s the gospel truth!” It’s like, you can’t argue with this. This appeal to belief comes out of a long traditional Christian understanding that anything recorded in the gospel is factual – no argument; this is God’s word.
One of the phenomena of my life as a Christian is to discover that scripture scholars are saying to us, “Well… maybe it’s not as simple as that. Maybe what we thought was “gospel truth” is not tied to actual events. Maybe some of the things that are recorded in the gospel really didn’t happen, but are there to lead us to a truth that is beyond the story. Maybe Jesus didn’t say everything that the gospel records him as saying.” And of course many Christians are greatly disturbed by this and ask, “Well, what can be believed then?”
I think this phenomenon is becoming one of the biggest dividing lines among Christians today.
My experience of growing up Roman Catholic was that the big dividing line among Christians was between Protestants and Catholics. We threw rocks at each other from opposite sides of the line, metaphorically of course, but we really threw some good rocks at each other. I presume the Methodists and Presbyterians had their disputes and arguments but at least they stood on the same side of the major dividing line. It seems to me that today there is something significantly new going on in Christianity and the dividing line that is being drawn. On one side you have Roman Catholics, Uniting Church, Anglicans, Church of Christ and so on. And on the other side you have, Roman Catholics, Uniting Church, Anglicans, Church of Christ and so on. Christians are being divided in a new, significant way – and I think Holy Week brings this into sharp focus. What are we about in Holy Week?
Before I talk about Holy Week, I want to touch on one of the major characteristics of this dividing line that is present among us Christians today. Labels can be deceptive, we know… “liberal”, “conservative”, “progressive”, ”traditional”. But it seems to me that the clear differences dividing us are captured by a group on the one hand who consider themselves to be “progressive” in their thinking as against people on the more conservative side. What has become clearer for me in my ministry, over the years in adult faith ministry with Christians, not just in the Roman Catholic community but in ecumenical circles also as a clear line of demarcation is the notion of God.
The first thing I ever learnt about God as a little boy was that God is everywhere and I believe that. But then I was nurtured into a story of a “fall” and I learnt more about a God who lives somewhere else – a God in heaven, a God who was male. And it seems to me that on the traditional side of Christian thinking, on the conservative side if you like, people focus on what I call the “elsewhere” God, the God who lives in “heaven”.
On the progressive side, there are people, and I put myself here, who want more and more to walk in that basic Christian understanding that God is not a human construct, a human projection of a “person”, a deity in the sky, but rather a universal presence in the expansiveness of our universe and beyond.
God is not a localized being somewhere. God is that reality that I learnt about as a young Christian: a universal reality that holds everything in existence, a reality that sustains, energizes and gives life. Nothing can exist outside of God, and as someone on the progressive side of Christianity I want to take this seriously because it seems to me this is the best way I can talk to people about God in the world view of today, as we learn more and more about the universe in which we live.
Revelation, for Christians on the more conservative side, for people who focus on the elsewhere God, is the continuation of a story that most of us have been nurtured into: a male God in heaven who looked down, an overseer who chose one group and not other groups. This group is privileged because they (we) are God’s people and Scripture is understood as God somehow directly speaking to this group – and not to the rest of humanity. This religious viewpoint is fine for the members of the chosen group because it gives them (us) special status and identity. We are God’s people and our scriptures are inspired. We have certainty on our side. But the stories of the Australian aboriginal people are not inspired, nor are the traditional religious stories of the Buddhists or the Hindu’s or the native American people.
As someone on the progressive side I want to take seriously that God is a universal presence, never absent, at work at all times, in all places, in all peoples, all through human history and all through this universe and that Revelation is not something handed down from the clouds to a select group of people, Revelation is the spirit of God working in all peoples of all times, in their world view, in their thought patterns and in particular personalities. How can it be any different? So, yes, we stand privileged to walk as the presence of God surfaces in the religious traditions in which we stand, the Hebrew, the Christian traditions, but its time for us Christians to be more serious about respecting this same presence at work in other traditions, in other people, within cultural and historical limitations, just as that presence has worked within our traditions with their particular limitations.
Whether we focus on an “everywhere” Presence or an “elsewhere” God will radically affect our concept of “salvation” – and this is particularly relevant for Holy Week, especially when we consider Good Friday. What is the story of salvation that we want to tell in today’s world? The traditional Christian story, the conservative Christian story, will be a story that is tied to a literal understanding of scripture, a “fall” and an elsewhere God who, because of this “fall” refuses to allow presence to his dwelling place in another place somewhere, where this elsewhere God resides. Jesus is interpreted, then, as the incarnation of someone who comes from that elsewhere place – and all our traditional language is about coming down, living on earth, and then going back up. John’s gospel is full of this imagery. So Jesus “saves” us because he gets us into heaven, that place of residence of the elsewhere God, and Good Friday has come to ritualize the story of a God who won’t let us into heaven until and unless Jesus suffers and dies.
Those of us on the progressive side are asking what sort of God this is. Will we continue to tell the story of Jesus and the story of salvation as someone who gets us into heaven or will we tell the story of Jesus according to what got Jesus out of bed every morning and motivated him to speak to the “crowd”, the battlers, the down and outs and anyone ready to listen? When preaching about the reign, the kingdom, the presence of God, to these people, Jesus did not tell the story of a God distant from them, a God who locked them out. Quite the contrary. He urged his listeners to reflect on their everyday experience of life: You are neighbour, aren’t you? You care, you clothe, you feed, you visit. You do this, don’t you? Grudgingly, perhaps, they said, “Yes”, and Jesus exhorted them to name what was going on in their own lives: Here is the presence of God in your lives. Name it – when you are neighbour, when you do the good and decent human reality. When you live in love, you live in God, God lives in you.
Salvation, as I see it, is about Jesus opening eyes and minds to the reality of the God in whom we live and move and have our being. That is salvation. Salvation is about Jesus freeing us from images and thought patterns that lock us in to notions that God is elsewhere or that God is a deity to be feared, a deity who keeps notes, a deity who will punish. Jesus says in effect, “That is not my understanding of God. That is not my God.” Have we been set free?
Does Jesus come from God? Of course Jesus comes from God, but where is God and what is the Christian religion about? Is it about continuing to play an elitist role in the world, that we have salvation and only through us will people have access to God? Will Christianity continue to do that? Or will Christianity start to do what Jesus did and go to people and proclaim the good news to all people that the presence of God is in their everyday living. When anyone lives in love, they live in God and God lives in them. Why does the Christian religion persistently and stubbornly refuse to preach this basic, foundational, inclusive insight that so clearly motivated Jesus’ own preaching?
We have heard the words about living in love and living in God all our lives and yet so often it’s like water off a duck’s back. This insight has nothing to do with belonging to a particular religion. This is about humanity; this is about humanity doing what humanity ought to do, to be neighbour, to care, to allow the spirit of God to be given expression in our lives. This is the message of salvation the world needs to hear today. Only a religious institution self-centered, focused on its own elitist, exclusive claims of access to God and fixated on its claims to interpret the mind and the thinking of an elsewhere God, could continue to ignore the core of Jesus’ religious insight and teaching.
So when we come to Holy Week the dividing line is clearly facing us.
What is Holy Thursday about? Will we be thrown by the fact that Scripture scholars will say to us that maybe there wasn’t a “last supper” – because that is what they are saying to us. Will we be thrown and disturbed by the fact that scripture scholars will say to us: “Jesus did not, the night before he died, sit somewhere and recite chapters 13, 14, 15,16 and 17 of John’s gospel. In fact, much of John’s Gospel is theology, shaped well after Jesus died.” Many Christian churches throughout the world next Thursday will celebrate the idea that Jesus instituted a priesthood. Jesus didn’t do anything like that. Jesus did not institute priesthood as Christianity knows it. Many Christian churches will celebrate the fact that Jesus instituted the Eucharist on the night before he died. No, he didn’t. Jesus was a Jew. Jesus of Nazareth never renounced his Jewish religion. Never. The first Christians were Jews. I’m not saying anything about priesthood and Eucharist. We need those roles, we need those rituals, but I am wanting to point out that we can play a game, and Christianity continues to play it, that is intellectually dishonest by going back to Holy Thursday and putting a theological understanding on it which has nothing to do with what Jesus, the Jew, did on the night before he died.
So where does that leave us on Holy Thursday and Good Friday? Where it leaves me is that I want to enter into the human experience. I want to respond to the invitation that Jesus offers me in Matthews Gospel: Come and learn of my heart. I want to be with a man who had a dream, a dream of how this world could change, a dream of people who would connect their everyday human experience with the presence of God in their lives, a dream of people who would connect with all people through this insight, a dream of people freed from religious dependence, a dream of people being able to say, “Yes I may have my problems, I may have my failures, I may have my struggle but one thing I am utterly certain about is that God is here with me in the mess, and in the struggle and in the ups and downs. No one can take that from me.” The tragedy is that this dream is so different from Christian preaching proclaiming that God is elsewhere and you need middle management to get access to God. On Holy Thursday and Good Friday I want to be with a man who had his dreams. I can and will enter into the story of a last supper. I can enter into the story of a man who sat with his friends the night before he died, the story of this Jewish man breaking bread with them and telling the story of God in their lives and in their history and this man taking bread and saying, in effect, “Next time you gather and you tell this story of God with you, put me in the story and in the breaking of the bread for this is what it is like to be me , blessed, broken and given. I give everything I am for what I believe. When I’ve gone, will you continue, will you keep my dream alive?”
What a monumental failure of Christianity if the Christian religion does not keep the dream of Jesus alive but instead keeps alive a theology that makes it elite. Jesus did not get out of bed for that theology, Jesus got out of bed everyday to help convince people, whoever they were, of God’s presence with them. Good Friday has nothing, nothing to do with an elsewhere God, locking us out and determining, according to traditional Christian theology, “I will not let you in until Jesus dies.” That is a tribal, outdated, outmoded, notion of a deity, that has no place in the 21st Century. If we replace that notion of God, and I think it is becoming increasingly clearer that we ought to, we can replace it with a basic, thoroughgoing, Christian understanding of God – that mysterious presence everywhere holding everything in existence, a God beyond our images and beyond our words, a reality that the stories we tell can only point to, never describe.
Good Friday for me is the story of a man who had a dream and his dream was dashed. It is the story of human cruelty. It is a story of human failure. It is the story of a man in loneliness, in darkness, in doubt, in terrible pain. It is the human story, raising basic and searching questions about God. What do you believe about God when life pulls you apart? Is God a manipulator of the human condition? Good Friday ought not be a story about God testing someone, God asking something. What an image of God! Good Friday holds up to us the human condition, the story of Jesus, the story of our own human experience. Pain, failure, rejection, the seeming absence of God, darkness, struggle. This is what life does to us at times. What do we really believe or hold on to, when life does this to us? And one thing that I have learnt about life and I’m sure its common to all of us when we have watched people suffer, when we have watched loved ones die, we come face to face with the incredible depth of the human spirit and that’s what I see in Jesus of Nazareth and the question for me to contemplate on Good Friday is: Why, Jesus, do you believe? How can you believe in a good and loving God when life does this to you? And I need to contemplate this Jesus because this Jesus invites me to walk in his faith. That’s what I want to celebrate and what I want to ritualize on Good Friday whether I embrace the cross, or through some other ritual or eating the bread or whatever it may be in our various denominations. I want to stand up and ritualize: Yes, Jesus, in the mess of life I will hang on to the faith that you held on to and from which nothing could shake you.
Easter is not about a journey somewhere to another God. Easter is about a transformation within the universal presence of God. People ask me, “What happens when we die?” And I say I do not know, but I know I believe that I live in God, that I will die in God and that death will not start a journey to somewhere else where God “lives”. In death I will be transformed into a way of living on in God for which I have no images and no adequate language. I’ll celebrate that at Easter and I can read the Christian stories, I can read stories about an ascension of a body into heaven but I don’t want to literalise it. If I literalise the story then I destroy the mystery, to which the story points. I mean, who can believe a physical body goes up through the galaxy somewhere? But I can and should appreciate that the story of “ascension” was the method the first Christians in their world view used to present their understanding that death was not the end of Jesus. Death was not the end and love does conquer.
I mentioned earlier, a dividing line and rocks being thrown across the line. They were tough times. Sadly, the phenomenon is still with us; only the dividing line is different. Those of us on what you might call the progressive side of Christian thinking have to dodge some fair size rocks these days. There is a price to be paid for stepping out of or over the line. And I think it is important for those of us who choose to be on the progressive side of the line to be able to articulate clearly for ourselves on what ground we stand. Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter bring two aspects of that ground into sharp focus for me.
One: this week I will contemplate the human reality of Jesus of Nazareth, because that mirrors my experience and it mirrors the experience of a suffering world.
Two: I will walk, pray and reflect in the ground not of an “elsewhere” God but in the believe that God is here amongst us and that Jesus died yearning for us to know this and to know all of us in our own ways are striving to give expression to the mysterious, awesome, reality we call “God”.