Saturday, 19 April 2014

A Good Friday faith

Good Friday sermon by Kim Fabricius

The crucified Christ puts a question to his church – and the question is this: Is it possible to have a disinterested faith, a faith without strings, a faith held not because it’s to your advantage, because you get something out of it, or because it’s deeply satisfying – indeed, it may be to your disadvantage, a burden, even an affliction – but you hold it because it holds you, grips you, the hand of God around your throat. Can we have such a faith?

Never has the question been more urgent than it is today, when the appeal of the evangelism that is making all the running is precisely that faith is a good personal investment. From the vulgar health-and-wealth gospel in the States to the slick Harrod’s gospel of the Alpha Course, from the personal growth gospel of the late M. Scott Peck to the gospel of self-knowledge of Myers Briggs, from the signs-and-wonders gospel of God TV (“Bam!”) to the gospel of churches with the Colgate Smile and the smell of Ivory Soap, where no one has cancer or depression, a mess of a marriage or a kid on crack – openly or subtly the appeal is that here is an offer too good to refuse, here is a faith that pays, if not in pounds and pence, then in happiness, wholeness, enlightenment, experience, consolation, or whatever it is you happen to be searching for. It’s a commodity gospel for a consumerist culture.

Meanwhile a grim grin spreads across the faces of the masters of suspicion, those sophisticated atheists who charge Christians with sloppy and indulgent thinking, with creating a god in their own image, a fantasy deity who meets my needs and fulfils my wishes. Not the New Atheists, of course – they’re the fleas on the lions of the classical atheists like Hume, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. And don’t they have a point, indeed a prophetic point?

What kind of faith, then, am I commending? An old story the rabbis tell should do the trick. The story of a Jew who escapes the Spanish Inquisition and makes his way, with his wife and child, in a small boat across a stormy sea to a rocky island. A bolt of lightning flashes and kills his wife. A whirlwind strikes and hurls his child into the sea. Naked, terrified, wretched, lashed by the tempest, the Jew makes his way onto a barren island. And then, raising his hands, he speaks to God.

“God of Israel, … I have fled to this place so that I may serve You in peace, to follow Your commandments and glorify Your name. You, however, are doing everything to make me cease believing in You. But if You think that You will succeed with these trials in deflecting me from the true path, then I cry to You, my God and the God of my parents, that none of it will help You. You may insult me, You may chastise me, You may take from me the dearest and the best that I have in the world, You may torture me to death – and I will always believe in You, I will love You always and forever – even despite You.”

That, I would suggest, is a Good Friday faith. A God-for-nothing faith in a good-for-nothing God. A God who does not promise me success or reward, a faith that does not underwrite my own religious agenda. In the crucified Jesus we see, as Rowan Williams puts it, that “God becomes recognised as God only at the place of extremity, where no answers seem to be given and God cannot be seen as the God we expect or understand.” In the crucified Jesus we see that faith is a balm only as it is a wound, a blessing only as it is a curse – we learn the lesson of Job, the lesson of Jeremiah, the lesson of the Psalms of lament, the lesson of Israel, the Suffering Servant. Such that all authentic evangelism should include an honest dose of dis-evangelism, and carry a health warning with its welcome.

Yet how is the cross conventionally understood? As a place of heroics, where Jesus goes to the gibbet like Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine. Or as a tragic if necessary but temporary intrusion on the way to the happy ending of Easter, as if it were a gym: “no pain, no gain”. Or as a “power encounter” in which God overcomes evil by superior force, now an energy source into which Christians can tap. Or as an episode in which Christ is humiliated, but don’t worry, he’ll be back – and this time it’s personal. And then there are the various models of the atonement which demonstrate, in neat and tidy categories, why the cross was necessary, QED, the worst exhibiting what James Alison calls “an Aztec imagination”, and even the best what he terms “physics envy”, what with their compulsive need for theory. “Oh, so that’s it, now I get it, now I understand.” The thing is, if you do, you don’t.

I have my own theory as to why these conventional readings of the cross are so widespread, apart, that is, from our endemic vanity and our capitalist cultural captivity: it’s because post WWII Christianity has never come to terms with the Shoah, the Holocaust, that most God-forsaken of historical moments. Which would explain why it is no coincidence that the most penetrating and profound theologies of the cross – though they themselves would, quite rightly, dispute, even resent my tribute – they are the Survivors, and the relatives of Survivors. Indeed my source for that rabbinic tale comes from the most extraordinary, incandescent disruption of a text I’ve read since Elie Wiesel’s Night, 23 pages of spiritual semtex entitled Yosl Rakover Talks to God, set in the Warsaw Ghetto as the Nazi tanks close in for the final kill. One of the last remaining resistance fighters cries out to God just as did the forsaken boat-wrecked Jew in the story: “None of this will avail You! … I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You… ‘Sh’ma Yisroel! Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’” Yosl’s last words. And, of course, the last words of another, more famous Jew, in the face of his own dereliction and death…

So let the Good Friday lesson for us Gentiles, grafted by grace into the vine of Israel, be this: to see the light we must see it at night, experience the darkness of God that covers the land as Christ cries out in the agony of torture and abandonment. We must let go – we must be stripped – of all the personal securities, the traditional pieties, the cherished practices, all the usual landmarks by which we find our way around the religious landscape. We must be dispossessed. We must wait. We must yearn. We must hope. We must trust – trust (inverting Bonhoeffer) that the God who forsakes us is the God who is with us. Here is a faith with nothing in it for me – but Him. Him. Only Him. Truly Him. Always Him.

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