The Scars of God (John 20:24-29; Revelation 5:6)

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Sometimes we miss the scandal of Christianity.

It’s shocking enough to say that God became human, that the creator and sustainer of the universe contracted and limited and incarnated himself, not as a warrior-king but as a baby. The Almighty had to learn how to walk and talk, had to learn to read stories in which he was intimately involved, had to be dressed and fed and washed.

The Son of God had to be potty trained. How shocking is that?

That was his childhood of course, and childish things would be put aside to follow a path that lead to the cross. We know this story, know that it ends with resurrection, Jesus returning in a body that seems both spirit and flesh and blood. It’s this resurrection that demonstrates triumph over death.

And yet look at Jesus’s encounter with a doubting Thomas; while Jesus is back from the dead, he still carries scars. They could have been healed, but they remain.

This isn’t just an interesting fact about what happens when someone comes back from the dead. This becomes a fundamental part of Jesus’s identity. When John’s having his apocalyptic vision in Revelation 5, a great and mighty figure is introduced, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David. We’re lead to expect some powerful warrior sitting on the throne; instead we get a slaughtered lamb, but a slaughtered lamb with power over all creation.

This is intrinsic to the gospel story, and points to the scars of suffering and sacrifice as being fundamental to Christ’s identity; Revelation, all about Jesus as king, portrays him as slaughtered rather than slaughterer. In John ‘s gospel, those scars are sufficient to prove that he is who he says he is. These aren’t battle scars either, at least not how we might understand that; sure, Jesus won the battle over death, but that was through his sacrifice, not war, through changing the game rather than playing by its rules. A God with scars turns the world upside down.

No, wait: a God with scars turns the world right-side up.

Jesus stands in solidarity with those who suffer, with those who have been hurt and abused, with those pushed to the sidelines, with those beaten and battered and bruised. And, because these scars are self-sacrificial, they also speak of love and compassion.

The scars of God aren’t a blasphemous anomaly, they’re a part of who he is. And that’s shocking but also hopeful: God is with us. Even when the knives are out, even when the war is raging, we’ll know the King through the scars on his hands.

Weeping in the Silence: Depression and the Church

So. The news about Robin Williams.

How to respond to this? Williams was, by any measure, hugely successful. From the outside, his suicide is incomprehensible, and that’s when the comments start: he was selfish. He was stupid. Depressed? He should have cheered up (after all, he had lots of money and a shelf full of Oscars). And, for some reason, we think everyone needs to hear this opinion in blogs, on social media, in conversation.

Is this really the best response?

Job, in the midst of his suffering, met with three friends, and while their sermons and philosophies are ultimately empty, the greatest thing they do is sit with him, to be present even in silence. They show up and shut up and that’s the wisest thing they do in the whole book.

And then Jesus, arriving at the tomb of his friend, just bursts into tears. And yes, we know he raises Lazarus from the dead, but let’s pause here for a while, in this moment of empathy and grief, because incarnation is at it’s most powerful in times of vulnerability and pain.

That’s why, sometimes, the most pastoral thing you can do is shut up; shut up and listen and not try to give answers or explanations or facile attempts at a quick fix. And then you can weep, weep because the person in front of you is struggling under a crushing weight, struggling to fight through the fog, struggling to imagine a future. Now is not the time for a sermon on joy, now is not the time to talk about counting blessings or healing through faith. Now is the time to sit quietly amid the ashes; now is the time to weep with those who weep.

Mental health is surrounded by stigma, and if that’s something that compounded by our churches then our spaces need to become safer. We need to signpost to effective support, sure, but we also need to end a culture of silent condemnation that leaves those suffering from mental illness isolated and with nowhere to turn.

Too often Christian culture is focused on being right, or on being visibly successful, and when these things become paramount, we lose our distinctiveness and our ability to truly help those who sit next to us in our congregations. Amid the sermons and the rockin’ worship needs to be a place where people can be honest and vulnerable, a place where walls can be broken down. The older I get, the more I become convinced that this is the truest expression of church, a place where healing can begin with honesty and where the love of Christ is more concrete than abstract. A place that works with the Holy Spirit rather than getting in His way.

What happened to Robin Williams is a heartbreaking tragedy that’s given an opportunity to confront how we treat those with mental illness and how we either create or contribute an atmosphere that further isolates those living with depression. It’s a moment to be seized for the sake of our brothers and sisters: we can’t afford to let it pass by.

Killer Opening Lines (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1)

q7244486This post was inspired by a flurry of tweets using the #medialit14 hashtag.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

Really it’s just a sci-fi way of saying “once upon a time”, and that works; after all, Star Wars is basically a fairytale in space, a folktale with robots. Forget the rest of the scrolling preamble, that one line let’s you know what you’re in for.

And then a stonking great spaceship flies across the screen and shakes you out of your seat. Awesome.

Everyone who’s browsed a library or studied literature or tried their hand at writing knows the power of the opening line. Never mind judging a book by its cover, those first few words are what really counts. Take 1984 as an example: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Fourteen words in and you know you’re somewhere else, somewhere wrong. And yet it’s still April, there’s still a spring chill in the air… Maybe this world isn’t as distant as you’d like.

It’s also a line that’s almost made for Twitter. There have been a flurry of tweets from CODEC‘s MediaLit training course (hashtag #medialit14) around the use of social media in communicating religious concepts – basically, can you nail the essentials of the Christian faith in 140 characters? Or can you use the vernacular to explain something like atonement theory?

But that raises the question of whether we’re using the right tools for the job. Twitter, for instance is all about instant impact – it’s fast-moving and transient, and that’s great but it’s probably not the best place to explain the Trinity in all its complexity. Maybe Twitter’s not a tool to explain the mysteries of the universe, but a way of drawing people into story that they can then begin to explore for themselves. The equivalent not of a theology textbook but that killer opening line that gets into your head and lives with you until you see the story resolve itself.

I don’t know if that’s how the writers of the Bible saw the world, but you’ve got to admit, they hit on some great openers, even if by mistake. “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people”; no-one ever preaches on Lamentations, but that’s a great opening. And I so wish “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the Temple” opened Isaiah 1 and not Isaiah 6.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Wait, which God? How did he create everything? You mean he stands outside of the created order? That tribe next door says there are hundreds of gods and they made the world from the entrails of a sea monster, you mean they got it wrong? Dr. Sheldon Cooper keeps talking about the Big Bang, where does that leave God, huh?

You’ll never resolve all those questions in 140 characters. You can invite people into the questions though, and you can practice your humility and your listening skills, because you won’t know all the answers, but if you practice love and respect, that won’t matter. The conversation is what counts.

But that’s all a bit technical. Look at the Message’s paraphrase of John 1:1 – “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.”

Now, I’ll admit I’m not always the greatest fan of the Message, but I love this line. It’s like Bruce Springsteen has discovered theology. “The Word became flesh and blood” is all a bit cosmic, “moved into the neighbourhood” is contemporary and everyday. Bring the two together and you get something mysterious and poetic walking the streets around us, a glimpse of the Incarnation in the space of a tweet. Does it matter that it uses the vernacular? Does it matter that we lose some of the links to the Old Testament stories of God? Well, maybe, if we ignore them completely, but this is just the first line of the story, the opening of the conversation. There’s time for the rest later, but at the very least we’re left with a couple of questions:

Who exactly became flesh and blood?

What happened when they moved into the neighbourhood?

Of course, Christians get obsessed with answers more so than questions. We sometimes worry that the whole Kingdom of God will come crashing down if we can’t answer every theological question and mystery in words of one syllable. And sure, there’s a place for apologetics, but there’s also a place for testimony, for inviting people into a story. My timeline has lots of people tweeting random Bible verses, but when a pastor from Australia tweets that he and a bunch of his colleagues have been arrested for protesting the treatment of asylum seekers, well, that makes me sit up and take notice. Jesus is somehow present in those tweets in a real and compelling way; they explain a theology of incarnational mission in a way that mere concepts can’t.

So maybe communicating through social media isn’t so much about being a digital theologian but a digital storyteller. Again, it’s a different set of tools, and maybe we shouldn’t see Twitter or Facebook as a simple method of communication but as the campfire around which we can gather and start telling our stories. And those stories will evolve into relationships as a natural consequence of us talking to each other.

So budge up and give God a seat at that campfire.

Thunder in the Desert (John 1:19-28)

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(This post draws upon Keith Dudley’s recent sermon at Renovatus Church – you can check it out here.)

So John the Baptist has arrived on the scene and he’s making something of a name for himself. Only no-one knows who he is; some think he might be the Messiah, others suspect he’s Elijah come back from heaven. John waves away each of these suggestions, but the people want a straight answer: “Who are you?!”

And he answers, not entirely helpfully, “I’m the voice of one calling in the wilderness.”

Now, it’s all a bit abstract but his answer does make sense – after all, we know John as the first evangelist, a preacher and a prophet calling people to repent before Jesus arrives. And he lived in the desert, baptizing people in the Jordan river. So far, so literal.

But here’s the thing – apparently the Greek word used for “voice” can also refer to “thunder”, which gives us a different image to play with. Because the voice of God himself is often referred to as being like thunder – this isn’t John speaking in his own strength, he’s entering into a prophetic tradition and proclaiming God’s perspective on the situation. John’s directly quoting Isaiah 40 here, and I guess I’ve always seen this as a very lonely image – someone crying out in the desert, echoing off the rocks and the silence, an approaching voice with few to hear him.

But it’s a more regal image than that. John’s an outrunner for a royal procession – clear the way, build a road because the king is on his way. He’s not a lone voice at all, he’s just running further ahead, building roads and tunnels and bridges of repentance, taming the wilderness before the arrival of the king.

But the double meaning of voice/thunder provides us with another metaphor – thunder in the desert is a promise, a rumble of anticipation that should make desert dwellers stop and look into the sky – hear the thunder, here comes the rain. And on a very basic, physical level, rain can be salvation – water to drink, fuel for the harvest: the promise of new life?

But wait, this isn’t a drizzle, a quick shower. No, there’s a storm coming. When God arrives in town it’s disruptive – you can’t go on as you were, things get shaken up; you might welcome the rain but you want to run for shelter nonetheless. People don’t always like storms – in this case, a herald gets beheaded and the king ends up on a cross.

And yet the rain still comes; water seeps into parched ground and the barren soil gives up a harvest.

Maybe we’ve lost something of that anticipation, that excitement – I know I have, many times. Life carries on as normal and we get too used to the silence of the wilderness.

And yet John is a reminder – there’s a rumble of thunder on the horizon, a voice crying out in the desert. The King is on his way; the rain falls in his wake and the desert bursts into life.

The Woman at the Well: Innocent as Charged? (John 4:1-30)

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Sometimes you’ve got to challenge your preconceptions.

Take the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus goes to Samaria and asks a woman to draw him some water from the local well. It’s noon and it’s hot and no-one in their right mind wants to be carrying heavy jars full of water at that time of day. The inference is that the woman is there, alone, for a reason; that’s backed up later in the conversation when Jesus reveals that she’s had five husbands and she’s not married to the guy she’s currently with.

So, test your preconceptions: why had she had five husbands?

The traditional explanation I grew up with is that she was immoral. Put bluntly, she’d been sleeping around town, and she went to the well alone because she was an outcast. The man she’s currently with? Just her latest conquest.

Okay, so where exactly does John say that? There’s an argument to say it’s inferred, but adultery wasn’t the only ground for divorce at the time. It’s possible she was just too outspoken. It’s possible, if statistically unlikely, that she’d been widowed five times. It’s possible that she couldn’t have children. Why do we assume immorality?

Sure, living with someone who wasn’t her husband could imply a problematic relationship in that culture. But maybe that’s less about remorseless promiscuity and more about finding comfort where it can be found. After all, losing five husbands and a community is going to leave scars, regardless of who’s responsible. Maybe it’s a case of outcasts banding together.

Of course, it’s possible that she was guilty as charged, but look at how the story plays out – she becomes, effectively, an evangelist bringing the townsfolk to Jesus. We don’t hear “Go and sin no more” and the encounter it’s most reminiscent of to me is Jesus’s first meeting with Nathaniel. There Jesus displays supernatural knowledge of a situation and ends with the calling of a disciple. Nathaniel’s sarcasm, the woman’s marital status… Where these people started is less important than where they end up.

(There may also be something a little subversive about how the outcast woman ends up discussing theology and evangelising, while the male disciples are off sorting out food for everyone.)

Whatever her circumstances, this anonymous woman ends the encounter as both a recipient and an agent of grace. Maybe we need to recognise the ambiguity of the meeting, to use it to place ourselves within the story. No matter how sordid or oppressed or abusive our past, healing and forgiveness and grace are freely available. And if that’s not true for society’s outcasts then it’s a cheap parody of ‘grace’ that’s really just legalism disguising itself with nice hymns.

This ambiguity should also force us to ask questions, to see these people individuals. It’s easy to stereotype people, or turn them into icons that obscure their humanity (look at how Mary of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene have come to represent the dichotomy between virginity and promiscuity when the reality is far more complicated and human). Jesus treated the woman at the well as a individual; the church should do no less when meeting with outcasts, when thinking about making proclamations.

“Be kinder than is necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” The woman at the well was in that situation, so are the people we meet, so are we. Our preconceptions and prejudices hinder rather than help; following Christ should challenge our assumptions and lead us into a bigger, richer, wilder and more complicated world than we ever imagined.