Saturday, 23 April 2011

Good Friday sermon: lose your faith

A sermon by Kim Fabricius (reposted from Holy Week 2008)

There is a lot of twaddle and guff talked during Holy Week. A few years ago I heard a Good Friday sermon – some of you heard it too – in which it was suggested that Jesus, being a carpenter, in order to distract his attention and ease his pain on the cross, may well have admired the quality of its wood. As if our Lord was thinking, “Nice bit of teak this. It’d make a great desk for the study.” It was positively Pythonesque.

No guff and twaddle today. Today I’m going to try to speak shocking, scandalous, scalding truth, say outrageous, even sacrilegious things. You will probably be too polite to heckle or jeer me, but if you walk out on me I shall consider it the highest compliment. I thought of having the elders hand out eggs for to you to throw at me, but pitied the poor cleaners. But eggs are nothing compared to the darts I’m going to fire at you. It’s time to attack your faith, wound it, leave it bleeding, dying, dead – just like the guy on the cross.

Let’s start with some cherished beliefs. For example: that our redemption was achieved by Jesus suffering more horribly than anyone else. But how could we possibly know that? Crucifixion? Yes, a terrible, terrible form of torture and execution. But Jesus’ was only one among thousands and thousands of crucifixions carried out under the so-called Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – when gibbets would stretch for miles down the Apian Way. And the death of Jesus – mercifully swift it was, he expired by mid-afternoon, most usually languished for days. Besides, after the Inquisition, after Auschwitz and the Gulags, after the killing fields in southeast Asia, the tribal slaughter in Rwanda, the mass graves in the Balkans, how can anyone possibly presume to compare national atrocities and personal tragedies, let alone grade them according to some calculus of pain?

For example: that our redemption was achieved by Jesus facing his death more courageously than anyone else. But clearly this is special pleading. And didn’t the first Christians know it – which is why they were hesitant about sensationalising the death of Jesus in terms of martyrdom. As pagans were quick to point out, rather smugly, Jesus sweating blood in Gethsemane, and crying out in agony on Calvary, compares rather unfavourably with the great philosopher Socrates on death row, calmly drinking the hemlock as he reminds a friend – his last words – to remember to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, the god of heath. For Socrates death was the moment of release, for Jesus a time of despair.

And for example: that our redemption was achieved by Jesus dying at the hands of evil men, particularly “the Jews”. What self-serving propaganda! And what a perverse fillip to the church’s long and shameful history of anti-semitism. No, it was not the bestial but the best that killed Jesus. The state in all its glory and religion at its most awesome killed Jesus: not the mob but the upholders of public order, not the wicked but the standard-bearers of morality. Yes, the trial was conducted with unseemly haste and the evidence was selectively marshalled, but the defendant incriminated himself, confessed even, so (if you like) there were no grounds for appeal. For Jesus did undermine a religious system based on law and cult, and Jesus did threaten a political regime based on violence and retribution. Jesus acted with freedom and broke the rules, embracing the dirty, the deviant, and the dangerous. And Jesus prophetically unmasked the mighty pretensions of the local procurator and publicly subverted Caesar’s claim to lordship. Jesus really did force the hands of Caiaphas and Pilate and leave them no choice but to get rid of him. Better that one man die than that the entire social order be at risk – the tried and trusted scapegoat principle. No doubt about it, this peasant troublemaker from up north profoundly threatened the status quo. He had to go.

So: for one Holy Week forget about the suffering of Jesus, the courage of Jesus, the wickedness of it all. Forget even about the dying of Jesus: it is not to the crucifix, or even to the deposition, that I would direct you – no! Rather look at the man – dead – gaze upon the corpse of Christ, fix your eyes on his cold and rigid body, laid out on a slab, already showing signs of decomposition. I am thinking of Hans Holbein’s painting “Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”. The Russian author Dostoevsky saw the painting, in a museum in Basel, stopping on his way to Geneva, and forever after it haunted him like a nightmare. He describes it in his great novel The Idiot. The character Prince Myshkin says: “Why some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture!”

This sermon doesn’t have three points, it’s got three words: Lose your faith! (I warned you I would be sacrilegious.) Yes, lose your faith. Lose your faith in God. For as the French mystic Simone Weil insisted, there is a kind of atheism that is purifying, cleansing us of idols. Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell – with his Son.

No one puts it more starkly – or more honestly and truthfully – than Bonhoeffer. We must recognize, he wrote from prison, “that we have to learn to live in the world ‘as if God were not here’. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… God would have us know that we must live as men and women who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us… Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross” – and then down from the cross and into the grave. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” God a Super-Power? That god is a demon, the Devil. If that god is your Lord, this week is a call for “regime change” (Walter Brueggemann).

So, yes, lose your faith! For as with life, so with faith: only those who lose it will find it. Or rather may find it. Faith is a risk, and discipleship demands that we learn to live with insecurity and uncertainty, setting out on a journey without a map, with companions who are as lost as we are, following a leader who is always way ahead of us, beckoning mysteriously, “Follow me!”, and then vanishing just as we arrive. God is mystery, ineffable mystery, naming a reality that we know, but the more we know, the more we are forced to un-know and rethink everything we thought we knew.

But hang on, Kim, frankly you’ve lost us. We don’t know what you’re talking about, but whatever it is, it sounds crazy, foolish. You’ve accomplished the remarkable achievement of making someone like Rowan Williams sound lucid, simple, straightforward. And you’re supposed to be a preacher, and isn’t the whole point of the sermon to make it easier to understand God, to increase our faith, so that we can go back to the world feeling edified, uplifted, and ready to share the Good News? Not today it’s not. Today I can’t help you. This week no one can help you. Come Friday, not even God – especially not God – can help you. And come Saturday, God himself is lying in a tomb. Emptiness. Zero. Nothing. But might it be a pregnant emptiness, a significant zero, a silent nothing that yet says everything? (after Alan E. Lewis). We shall have to wait till Easter. Only then shall we learn that this Week is Holy, and its Friday Good. Only then may we just find a new faith rising from the old faith that I pray you will lose today.

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