Upwind of the Spirit: a homily for Lent II


This week’s gospel[1] is not a tale of dispassionate theological discussion between rabbis.  It is, rather, part of the history of bloody dispute between different factions in the first-century synagogue (what we might as well call ‘the Jesus party’ and ‘the Moses party’), each with robust views concerning God’s dealings with humankind, and the relationship of earth and heaven. The disagreement thundered and rumbled for 60 or 70 years after the first Easter until Church and Synagogue finally and irrevocably split. The Fourth Gospel therefore is not so much a historical record of the days of Jesus walking and talking in Galilee and Jerusalem but is rather an account of the proclamation of his resurrection-victory, embraced by some, rejected by others. In this dialogue between ‘Nicodemus’ and ‘Jesus’ we hear exchanges between New Covenant and Old, those of ‘his own’ who received God’s Word and those who received him not (John 1.11f).


The claim in 3.13 that ‘No-one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ is a typical missile launched into the midst of this protracted divorce process, uttered in contradictory response to other such claims (concerning Moses or Elijah, Enoch or Melchizedek) and in turn eliciting further pantomime ripostes masquerading as sober theological reflection.


But who is the ‘Son of Man’, and why does he matter?


We tend to imagine[2] that the title ‘Son of God’ is decisive in saying who Jesus is and in expressing his unique relationship with the Father. In fact it is not so. ‘Son of God’ simply means a human being, like David, ‘a man after God’s own heart’, one of the earthly kings of Israel, or a person close to God and following the commandments. It implied none of the familial intimacy that characterises the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.


For this, counter-intuitively, you need ‘Son of Man’. This character is definitively presented to us in Daniel 7 where in the court of God (drawn as a sort of Albus Dumbledore with added asbestos), a judge sits over the rebellious beasts, one ‘Son of Man’ (not human), given by God dominion and glory and kingship, so that all peoples, nations and languages shall serve him for ever.


Both the synoptics and St John appropriate this title for Jesus, seeing him as the One who has come from heaven, carried out his divine mission and returned to heaven, taking with him all that he has achieved or, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, ‘taking the Manhood into God’.  He is thus the guarantor of our eternal life, the link and ladder between earth and heaven, a truly human being who is also the perfect icon of God.


What is more surprising and unsettling is to find that in all the gospels the glorious royal victor of Daniel 7 becomes the tortured and broken wreck of Calvary, and that John should see this latter state not just as a staging-post on the road to God’s victory, but itself the moment when all is ‘accomplished’ and the Lord of Life makes his triumphal entrance into heaven.


Our inability to comprehend this stems from the fact that we see only the earthly drama of Good Friday as it unfolds. We miss the heavenly dimension, in which God has planned from all eternity that the ‘Son of Man’ should be elevated as judge of all. The twist is that this elevation to pre-eminence is unforeseen and unintended by the rebellious children of Israel who raise Jesus high on the cross, ignorant that he whom they have judged and found guilty has thus become their own exalted judge on whom they will rely for mercy.


This, in any case, is the ‘deeper magic’ of the bible narrative. What might be going on mystically and metaphysically at the heart of reality is for philosophers to propose and artists to express. All we can say here and now has to do with our human ability and instinct to recognise ourselves in others, and to respond to their condition as our own.


We live in a time at which it is more important than ever to be able to recognise other human beings as fellow human beings, to see them not as a threat to our welfare but as potential allies in our common pursuits; not as a drain on our relative affluence, but as global companions from whom we withhold our bread not only at their physical cost, but at our moral and spiritual decimation. Whether faced with the insular ranting of distant leaders intent upon building walls — both physical and legislative — to keep out their neighbours; or learning to see our own neighbours no longer as partners but as strangers from whom we seek only the financial benefit of commercial relationship, we inhabit a world intent upon making us suspicious and afraid, training our instincts to see in others not those who are like us, but those who are significantly and threateningly different.


Things are no better in the Christian Church. We have seen in the Church of England in the past two weeks how years of dialogue, listening and prayer (not to mention episcopal authority) can quickly come to count for nothing. For all our talk of ‘mutual flourishing’, we retreat from this (sometimes quite brutally) as soon as our vaunted inclusivity starts to include those with whom we do not agree, whose vision of the world-wide Catholic Church and the implications of our belonging to it are inimical to those who hold a narrower view of a ‘National Church’ which has been steadily growing (all snazzy logos and slick press releases) like a sort of ecclesiastical UKIP.


Nicodemus also is a little inclined to this propensity for separation. Whereas he is impressed by Jesus, admiring his signs and wonders and seeing in him a source of light, he cannot yet jump headlong into Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom as one that admits not only priests but prostitutes, lunatics and lepers, robbers and Romans. Neither is he ready to make the fundamental new beginning of rebirth. For the moment, he is happy to talk a good Kingdom, keeping late hours with rabbis who, if only they can talk long enough, might never have to act.


We who claim to be followers of Jesus need to see and believe him absolutely for who he is and to be re-launched into his abundant life by birth in water and the Spirit. It is not enough to be born in water, sign of the natural world; even of the purification of John the Baptist. It is not enough to be baptised (as infants or adults) then to lapse into a kind of post-ritual stupor in which life becomes pretty much as it would have been anyway, decently uneventful, morally tepid, with a few quid reserved for Children in Need.


Our need is to see the Son of Man exalted in his agony as it appears in all times and places; to know that this is our agony also; and to respond with an open-handed generosity and open-hearted trust. This will require the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, herald and advance guard of the new age of the kingdom. This is the Spirit that breathes where it will, like the mysterious blowing of the wind. We do not see its source or know its destination but we see its power to change and are invited to put ourselves consciously and decisively into its flight path so that we might be reformed and renewed as witnesses to the Son of Man and servants of the kingdom he proclaims and embodies.


Let this continue to be our goal and intention during Lent, as through our fasting, prayer and acts of service our lives take on a new and joyful urgency, and we are made ever more receptive to God’s Holy and life-giving Spirit.

[1] John 3.1-17. I am especially grateful to the commentaries on these verses of CK Barrett and John Ashton.

[2] For a compelling discussion of ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’, see Daniel Boyarin: The Jewish Gospels, chapter 1.


In praise of neighbours

I blessed a house the other day. It was a wonderful occasion: friends and neighbours gathered as jovially as they could with religion looming; they followed me round the new home, squeezing into each of the rooms as I said prayers, wafting clouds of incense and splashing holy water with a vigour that can’t have been good for fine fabrics or anything electrical.


It turned out that quite a few of those present had witnessed house blessings before, though mainly as exorcisms, for the warding-off of what the Bible calls ‘evil spirits’. If things start to go bump in the night, or an inexplicable aroma of suet pudding lurks in the garage, then more people than you’d imagine send for the priest, hoping that prayer might prove effective where wishful thinking has failed.


In the Middle Ages, prayer was habitually used as protection: travellers might pay for masses to be said while journeying, just as we might take out holiday insurance. Lines from the psalms were repeated as a charm against the toothache, and holy water was in great demand as a substance to ward off wickedness and cure malady.


But in blessing a new home we weren’t shooing off any seventeenth-century chamber-maids or silencing a strange knocking in the back bedroom ― though plenty of people report that prayers confidently said do coincide with such outcomes.


We blessed the house to celebrate the fact that our world is made and sustained with God’s goodness at its centre. We can’t deny evil, sickness or mortality; but we can insist that the God shown us by Jesus is a God of blessing. God creates everything out of sheer abundant goodness, which we are called to imitate gratefully. When we ask God for blessings and thank God for them, it is not to insure against their loss. It’s simply because an attitude of gratitude is true to who we are, and helps us become who we will be. We enter and leave this world with nothing. Everything in between times is from God.


Of course we need protection, and the company of angels; which is why we need neighbours. Prayers won’t automatically save us from burglars or sickness or blocked drains. But good neighbours, imitating the neighbourly loving-kindness of God, are the best protection going, and a blessing beyond price.

Shadows and subversion — a word on temptation

Homily for the first Sunday in Lent (Year A)


You can only be tempted by what you really like —or at least by a version of it.


It makes sense for Satan to tempt Jesus into trying to turn stones into bread, to assume the powers of a magician and overthrow the natural order of things. Jesus, the Living Bread, longs to feed his people, to make the earth fruitful, to make what is dry and stony fit for humankind. He might quite conceivably like the change from carpenter to magician. But whereas Adam accepts the invitation to deny God’s place at the centre as Creator, Jesus does not. He insists that God is not to be made secondary even to an activity as laudable as feeding the hungry. He directs our attention rather to every word that comes from the mouth of God. We see his humble patience repaid in the feeding of the multitudes, when he turns to the Father with the poor offering before him, inviting the power of God to secure the sustenance of thousands.


The temptation to throw himself off a high building so that the angels might catch him is also a coherent offer. Jesus as proclaimer and architect of the Kingdom of God needs forces of the Crown to carry out his work. He might easily imagine for himself a superhero status or (with the affirmation heard at his baptism still ringing in his ears) consider forcing the issue of his place in God’s scheme by inviting this impressive treatment. And of course there would be few things to drum up interest and inspire conversion to his way quite like the sight of an angelic rescue of a man falling through the air. But Jesus knows that unforced trust in God is the prerequisite of all endeavour, and his stupid fallible apostles must be the all-too-human troops with whom he will carry out his mission. To vindicate his faithfulness, angels do indeed come to Jesus after his temptations, and minister to him at the end of his ordeal.


In coming to establish the Kingdom of the Father, Jesus needs to influence those around him as they live their lives. Possessing an abundance of earthly wealth and power would surely assist in this. But not at the price of swearing fealty and pledging loyalty to Satan. Rather like those people who dream of winning the lottery and make themselves feel less base by listing all the charitable things they would do with the money, Jesus is tempted away from the heart of his mission, which is to find riches in poverty and his power and glory in the Cross.


Not too surprisingly, Jesus defeats Satan by the grace of the Father, and the fruit of this success results in the ministry that follows. In keeping God at the centre, Jesus heals, feeds and restores the needy; in empowering the Church with the gift of the Spirit, he does far more than provide a merely angelic insurance scheme; and in refusing to worship Satan, who himself is the prosecuting shadow-side of the defending and merciful Christ, he prepares himself for the struggle of Gethsemane and forearms himself against the malign power of Pilate and the high priests.


For us also the avoidance of sin is made easier when we recognise that our temptations are a distortion of good and holy desires, a flipping of the coin so that we see not the Sovereign but the shadow-side of reality. Our greed is a distortion of quite proper enjoyment of the good things God gives us. Sexual voracity is a subversion of the gift of friendship and closeness between human beings. Our prudence can be distorted into avarice, and an attractive generosity and disregard for money can lead to a recklessness that leaves families in want. And when we gossip (O Christians), this too is a betrayal of that good inclination to be involved and concerned in the lives of those around us, and to build up a network of relationships which will be supportive of all.


At the heart of all these distortions is arrogance, a taking of what is not ours, a deciding that we will be the arbiters of what is right and wrong. Or, in the words of the book of Genesis, it is to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The consequence of this, we see, is to recognise that we are naked, and to sew together clothes made from fig leaves. To see our nakedness is in part to lose the childish innocence of the thoughtlessly obedient. It is also to know ourselves to be God’s creatures, unadorned and dependent. In clothing ourselves we seek to disguise this dependence, to insist on our own creativity, to fashion for ourselves the marks of a culture which can at best recognise that we are God’s, but which too often rebels against this reality by applying a veneer of human achievement. It is in the stripping of Christ on the cross that we see the antidote to this false clothing, and the source of the life that is seen in Christ but rejected and denied by Adam.


We therefore continue to pray for the grace to know ourselves to be God’s children, to know our place in the cosmos, and to grow ever more Christ-like in the light of these lengthening, lentening days.