Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Jeffrey John: "He Bears Our Griefs and Shares Our Sorrows"

A transcript of Dean Jeffrey John's Lenten talk, referred to in the previous post, is now available. Here's the part that includes the Telegraph reporter's quote:

...But hang on - you may well say - what exactly does that mean - 'Jesus took our place' ? Does it mean, then, that we are back with a punishing God after all, and that the Cross is somehow to be understood as God's ultimate punishment for sin?

That's certainly what I was told in my Calvinistic childhood. The explanation I was given went something like this. God was very angry with us for our sins, and because he is a just God, our sin had to be punished. But instead of punishing us he sent his Son, Jesus, as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. The blood of Jesus paid the price of our sins, and because of him God stopped being angry with us. In other words, Jesus took the rap, and we got forgiven, provided we said we believed in him.

Well, I don't know about you, but even at the age of ten I thought this explanation was pretty repulsive as well as nonsensical. What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created, and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of his own Son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we'd say they were a monster.

Well, I haven't changed my mind since. That explanation of the cross just doesn't work, though sadly it's one that's still all too often preached. It just doesn't make sense to talk about a nice Jesus down here, placating the wrath of a nasty, angry Father God in heaven. Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate. As he said, 'Whoever sees me has seen the Father'. Jesus is what God is: he is the one who shows us God's nature. And the most basic truth about God's nature is that He is Love, not wrath and punishment.

Some Christians go through their lives without grasping this. I recently came across an interview given by an elderly priest who said it wasn't till he was nearly seventy that he was finally set free from his picture of an angry God.

Fr Robert Llewellyn was nearing retirement when he was appointed as custodian to the shrine of the 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich. Until then he'd regularly recited the confession in the prayer book which speaks of God's "wrath and indignation against us" without a second thought. But Julian's teachings changed his life, because through her he met a God who didn't need placating. Instead he says he became "drenched in the love of God". He realised, as Julian did, that the wrath of God is no more than a human projection, and that for God to be God, he can't be less merciful and loving than the best of human beings. As Julian wrote,

wrath and friendship are two contraries… For I saw that there is no manner of wrath in God, neither for short time nor for long;-for in sooth, if God be wroth for an instant, we should never have life nor place nor being.
The cross, then, is not about Jesus reconciling an angry God to us; it's almost the opposite. It's about a totally loving God, incarnate in Christ, reconciling us to him. On the cross Jesus dies for our sins; the price of our sin is paid; but it is not paid to God but by God. As St paul says, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Because he is Love, God does what Love does: He unites himself with the beloved. He enters his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death, so that he can bring us through death to life in him...
He concludes with this thought:

...On the cross God absorbs into himself our falleness and its consequences and offers us a new relationship. God shows he knows what it's like to be the loser; God hurts and weeps and bleeds and dies. It's a mystery we can hardly glimpse, let alone grasp; and if there is an answer to the problem of suffering, perhaps it's one for the heart, not the reason. Because the answer God's given is simply himself; to show that, so far from inflicting suffering as a punishment, he bears our griefs and shares our sorrow. From Good Friday on, God is no longer "God up there", inscrutably allotting rewards and retributions. On the Cross, even more than in the crib, he is Immanuel, God down here, God with us...
I find much in this of value, and little that might be called heretical. But, hey, what does this eccentric and sometimes heretical cleric know? Tell me what you thought of it.


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