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Saturday 24 March 2012

The Dark Light of Crucifixion

John 12. 20-33

In 1819 John Keats, the English poet, sat transfixed before an ancient vase he happened upon in an Italian museum. It was an urn from ancient Athens, the principle city of Greece, and it featured the carved figures of women and men dancing to some kind of ritual in an idyllic forest glade. Something about these figurines captured the poet’s attention and, more than that, took him away into a rapt meditation upon the capacity of art to convey spiritual truths. What Keats found most moving was the way in which the artist had captured a moment of truth—the truth of a particular human joy and longing—in the stillness of such beautiful forms. He wondered at the way in which such truth could be frozen in stone, and therefore rendered communicable even to people who would view the urn thousands of years later. The poem he wrote to commemorate the occasion closes with the famous aphorism,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty.—That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
In saying this, Keats revealed his admiration for a particularly Greek way of seeing the world. The ancient Greeks believed that the truth about things was revealed to human beings through their eyes, particularly in beautiful and bright forms, and even more particularly in the beautiful and bright forms of the human body. I’m sure that many of you will have seen pictures of those strong and erect young men carved in white marble, often standing at the entrance of public buildings or temples, often naked, and often with some kind of weapon in their hands. Or of slender women draped in jewelled finery with garlands in their hair. Usually in a state of semi-undress. But such figures represented far more than an ideal for human beauty. They also represented the Greek understanding of God. For them, God was exactly like one of these statues: strong beyond all strength, glorious and bright with the brightness of the sun, beautiful such that mortals would desire to be joined with God, but also distant and impervious to any kind pain or suffering.

Now, in the passage we read from John’s Gospel tonight, who asks to see Jesus? Some Greeks. Some Greeks ask to see Jesus. And because they are Greeks, they are hoping to see a particular kind of Jesus, a Jesus who is like one of their Athenian statues of the human form divine: a strong and noble Jesus, a Jesus whose form is beautiful in that classical Greek sense, a Jesus who shines with divine light and ignites their desire for him, a Jesus who is clearly more than human, who somehow sails above the ordinariness of human pain and regret and grief in some kind of cool, divine inscrutability.

Now, in case you’re thinking that I might be imputing motives to these fellows which don’t exist, consider this. That John’s whole Gospel might be characterised as a sermon to the Greeks, and particularly to Greek-speaking intellectuals. Unlike the other gospels, John talks about Jesus in a language which Greek-speaking intellectuals could understand and appreciate. He nicks, for example, their idea of the logos—an idea or a form that exists in the mind of God before the universe began—to explain how Jesus could be considered divine. “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.” The Gospel also seems to address that peculiarly Greek obsession with light and seeing and form as the appropriate way to find out about divine things. Only in John’s gospel do you have Jesus proclaiming that he is the light of the world. Only in John’s gospel do you find passages where Jesus exhorts his listeners to become “children of the light,” children who gaze at the glorious brightness of God and are drawn to that light like moths to a flame. All of this is very, very Greek. Right down to the word which John uses for seeing in this passage. It is eidein, from which we get both “idea” and “idol”. The Greeks, in wanting to “see” Jesus, are looking for a form, an “idol,” if you like, in which their divine “idea” might be both seen and admired.

But wait. Doesn’t this imply that John is basically on board with all this Greek stuff, that he is something of a pagan philosopher, seeking to transform Jesus into some kind of semi-divine hero like Ulysses or Hercules, therefore priming his image for popular consumption in a world dominated by Greek thinking? Yes and No. Yes, he wanted to talk about Jesus in a way that people other than Jews would understand and appreciate. But no, he didn’t buy into the pagan version of God in the process. Indeed, the passage we are reading contains one of the most damning critiques of that God you will find in all of literature! Note, if you will, Jesus’ response to what the Greeks ask. I quote.
The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life . . . Now my soul is troubled, but what should I say? “Father save me from this hour?” No, it is for this hour that I have come. Father, glorify your name! . . . Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of the world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
What we find here is a specifically Christian warping or transfiguration of the Greek idea of divine beauty so admired by Keats. For John argues that the human form of God is not strong and beautiful, in that classical sense we described earlier. Nor is it impervious to the ravages of ordinary human life—the passing of time, the reality of evil, or of human suffering. On the contrary, according to John, the human form of God is the crucified Jesus. A suffering man, hanging from the most vile instrument of torture of the ancient world. A man vulnerable to being troubled in soul. A man vulnerable to death. In describing Jesus like this, John effects a transvaluation which would have been scandalous for the Greek thinkers of his time. Beauty, he declares, no longer has anything to do with the classical forms of the Olympic body or the Olympian gods, objects of religio-erotic desire that they were. The beauty of God, he declares, is revealed in its opposite, in that which strikes the ordinary gaze of the human eye as the least desirable of all. The weak ones, the ugly ones, the suffering ones. For it is these, to whom the world denies value, that God ascribes the most value. Unlike ourselves, God actually loves the unlovable, and desires the undesirable. Such love is able to raise a person from despair to hope, from darkness into light, from misery to blessedness. Such love is able to bring a sense of the beautiful even to those of us who, in the world’s eyes at least, live not-so-beautiful lives.

I want to close with a word about what all of this might mean for our Lenten journey. The thinking of the ancient Greeks has not gone away. It is everywhere present, even today in Australia. It visits us in every commercial which represents happiness and the good life in terms of the beautiful forms of sculptured bodies, impervious to age or to the suffering of the poor and broken-hearted. It visits us in New Age notions of God as some kind of universal being which is everywhere present, especially in nature, and yet (like nature) is blind and deaf and dumb to our specifically human anxieties. Finally, it visits us in our cultural obsession with seeing as the preeminent way of knowing what is true. If we see it, even if “it” is only on the TV, we believe it. If we don’t see it, then we don’t believe it. These are the realities we live with everyday, and they are not so very different from the realities of John’s “Greeks”. The colonial powers might have changed. But their message has not!

During Lent, God invites us to be immersed in another possible reality, another way of seeing the truth of things. Instead of looking at the world through the light of our televisions, God invites us to look at the world with the dark and contrary light that comes from the cross of Jesus. For John says that the cross is the visible form of the divine glory, and therefore a unique and powerful critique of all that our world would consider beautiful. Under the paradoxical power of this dark kind of light, a power which Shelley called “negative capability,” even scenes of torture become signs of resurrection. Sinners become capable of sainthood, misery becomes capable of joy, and ugliness becomes capable of beauty. All because God’s love empowers us to let go of the way we see things with our eyes, in favour of a seeing by faith in which the beauteous promise of things comes into focus.

Something of what I have been saying this morning is powerfully conveyed in the words of Leonard Cohen, a poet, this time, who understands that sense of joy and liberation one can experience in being loved by a God who is not ashamed to share our imperfections:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Power and Wisdom Contradicted

1 Corinthians 1.18-25

When Paul writes his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes to a church that has begun to abandon the Christian way of life introduced by Paul and slide back into the pre-Christian paganism from which it came.  That paganism was all-pervasive in Corinth.  Of all the Hellenistic cities of the first century, Corinth was the most cosmopolitan.  It’s citizens and traders came from every part of the ancient world, and so did its religion.  The city possessed temples and sacred shrines by the bucket-load, most of them devoted to the so-called ‘mystery’ religions of the ancient world, which taught that one could (and should) escape the limitations of this earthly life through the accumulation of a secret ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’.  The mystery cults took a very dim view of ordinary life, the life associated with the body, daily toil and ethical responsibility towards other people.  All these things were regarded as a prison in which the human spirit had somehow become trapped.  Our destiny, the mysteries taught, is otherwise.  Each of us possesses, deep inside us, a spark of light from the divine being who created the universe.  Through the accumulation of secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek), one could aspire to escape that prison and ascend to the world of pure spirit, where the shackles of flesh and toil and care for one’s neighbour would no longer be of any consequence.  In that world of pure spirit, the initiated could expect to be re-united with the divinity from which they had become separated by their ‘fall’ into material existence. 

Most of the Corinthian Christians had been converted in precisely this religious environment.  They took to the new faith with great enthusiasm.  But after Paul left them to continue his missionary journey through Asia Minor, many of the converts began to exhibit signs that their conversion had only been skin-deep.  Instead of reinterpreting the meaning of their world and lives through the story of Christ, and especially of his crucifixion and resurrection, the Corinthians started to do the opposite: to reinterpret the new religious experience of Christianity according to the gnostic imagination they had grown up with as pagans.  As this gnostification  process continued apace, the Corinthians came to some very alien conclusions about Christ and his ways.  Christ, they said, had not become a human being and had not died on a cross.  Christ had only appeared to die, for he was really a demiurge, a lesser deity who had come from the world of spirit to impart a secret knowledge about how to escape the burdens of suffering and death.  As a being of pure spirit, he could not have taken on real human flesh, and therefore he could not have really suffered or died.  To think otherwise, they said, was nothing but foolish superstition. 

This fundamental distortion of Paul’s teaching also had its ethical consequences in the Corinthian community.  The body no longer mattered, and neither did the bodies of other people.  All that mattered was the accumulation of secret knowledge (gnosis again) of spiritual things.  Thus, in the end, one could do anything one wanted to with one’s own body of those of others: you could unite your body to a prostitute or sleep with your own mother; you could eat and drink as much as you liked, even if others went hungry; you could ignore the needs of the weak and vulnerable.  Since it was only the spirit that mattered, you could do anything you like.  The ethical inheritance of Judaism and the ‘ten commandments’, those norms that governed what one could legitimately do, or not do, in one’s bodily life, were to be regarded as part of the problem, part of the prison which kept us from being reabsorbed into the divine life.

Perhaps that little bit of social and religious background will help you see why Paul writes as he does.  The wisdom of the cross of Jesus, he says, is nothing like this secret ‘wisdom’ being taught by the gnostic sects.  It is not a wisdom that separates the body and the spirit, seeing the former as false and the latter as true.  Neither is the wisdom of the cross a wisdom that exults elite societies and specialist knowledge at the expense of the real, fleshly, needs of the weak and vulnerable.  On the contrary, the revolutionary message of the cross is one that seeks to transform and convert all that Greek religion and philosophy would see as wise, and all that Jewish religion would see as powerful and worthy of praise. 

To that form of Greek religion that denigrates the body and exults the mind or spirit God has spoken an embodied word:  the Son of God becomes a human being, and suffers, and dies, in order to show how much God loves the weak and the most vulnerable, in order to save all who the world counts as nothing.  To that form of Jewish religion that looks for signs of naked power, for a messianism that would establish the rule of God through the smashing of God’s enemies, God has spoken a word of covenantal submission:  the power of God achieves its purposes through the humility and condescension of vulnerability and weakness.  The ignominy of God on a cross is, paradoxically, the mode by which the ‘nothings’ of the world find themselves risen with Christ in glory.  Thus, as Paul would have it, the wisdom of God is not the same as Greek wisdom, and the power of God is not the same as the most dominant Jewish notions of power.  In the word of the cross a new kind of wisdom and power is revealed, a wisdom that counts love as more important the knowledge, and a power that counts patient compassion as more important than getting one’s own way.

Of course, the ‘secret knowledge’ approach of the gnostics is not dead in the world.  The advent of Christianity did not destroy it.  The Corinthian controversy continued well into the fifth century of the Christian era.  Most of the early creeds, and the New Testament canon itself, were formulated in order to protect and distinguish the Christian confession of faith in the crucified God over against the gospel of pure spirit and mind preached by the gnostic sects.  And it didn’t end there.  The gnostic instinct is as alive today, in our own time, as it ever was.  It is with us in that theology that seeks, continually, to absorb the singularity of the Christian faith into a form that is commensurate with the philosophy or science of late modernity.  It is with us in that Christianity which exalts the idea that we can have a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus that bypasses the teaching and tradition of the church or a scholarly appreciation of Scripture.  It is with us in the syncretism of new age religion or secret brotherhoods, which seek to absorb the uniqueness of Christian language and history into a vague pot pouri of universal ‘faith’ or ‘spirituality’.  It is with us in the longing for a return to the time when the church could exercise its power through the instruments of state, for that time when ideology became more important than basic care and compassion for other human beings.

Whatever our gnostic tendencies, and we all have them, we cannot claim to be genuine followers of Christ unless we are willing to accept that the power and wisdom of God are revealed in the literally pathetic figure of Christ crucified.  Unless we are willing to redefine our notions of both power and wisdom according to that history and parable, then I worry for our future, whether ‘political’ or ‘spiritual’.  For the power of God to save and liberate has nothing to do with hunting down terrorists and beating up our enemies; and the wisdom of God has nothing to do with the accumulation of esoteric theories or personal religious experiences.  Power and wisdom are defined, for Christians, by the strange and paradoxical figure of a Jewish man nailed to a Roman torture stake, truly a stumbling block for the ‘powerful’ and foolishness to all who consider themselves ‘wise’. 

In this Lenten season, I would therefore encourage us all to throw caution to the wind and become the kind of ‘fools’ who can change the world as Christ did, not by power or wisdom (as they are conventionally understood), but by patience, kindness, condescension and humble service; and by the fearless proclamation of the kingdom where fools can become saints and nothings the very children of God.