Saturday 15 March 2008

Palm Sunday sermon: lose your faith!

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

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.


bls said...

Thanks for this. I've seen that painting before (can't think where), but it's right to look at it again today - and shiver.

Anonymous said...

Well done, sir, well done.

Anonymous said...

Wow that took my breath away, thank you.

The Hitchcocks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kim! Best Holy Week sermon I ever heard.

Rachel said...

Great sermon, Kim! Way to bust out a hearty theologica crucis. :) Jurgen Moltmann also hit on the "Christian atheism" theme in Crucified God. He talks about how classical theism is often nothing other than scientific or philosophical idols (ie, the "unmoved mover") and not our crucified Lord. Thanks for saying this again so forcefully and skillfully.

Quixie said...

This was very good.

The only thing I might add is that if the week is "holy" it is not because the earth is approximately in the same place in in its orbit relative to the sun that it was on the week that Jesus was executed.

But the human need for ritual being what it is . . . .

Thanks from a heathen who loves parables and metaphor.



Anonymous said...

I always knew good sermons could be preached on Habakkuk 3:16-19, although I was a little surprised at the absence of the text from this particular sermon. However, I do think it would help to tackle the question of how one is to go on to the new faith which may emerge from the breakage of the old one. What is it that sets Habakkuk apart from those who look around at the absence of God from the visible universe and deduce his real absence? Yes, I realize that, liturgically speaking, we aren't supposed to do Easter on Palm Sunday. Yet we are an Easter people, and "Alleuia" is our song. Palm Sunday, although it's Palm, is still Sunday - this is the day that he rose again!

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

David W. Congdon said...

Kim, you never cease to amaze. I expect a book of sermons to come out alongside your book of hymns.

This is a profound word, and I am grateful for it. Thanks for distilling such rich theology into such a powerful and simple address.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Kim. Somebody above mentioned Moltmann, and although one could refer to him (or von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale), I think more of Camus when reading this.

Camu knew what it was to lose faith, genuinely and truly lose faith, and I think this sermon is Tarrou's response to Father Paneloux (cf. La Peste). It was precisely Camus's loss of faith the led him to writing these words in Les Justes: "C'est cela l'amour -- tout donner, tout sacrificier, sans espoir de retour" -- and I think these words responate well with what you have said here.

So, let us press onwards into the places of godforsakenness, for it is precisely our own godforsakenness that reveals our identity as God's beloved children!

Anonymous said...

Lovely sermon vicar. Pity about the hymn choice. I prefer ones we all know;-)

Weekend Fisher said...


Anonymous said...

I don't quite get what you mean (I'm not a Christian) but it felt helpful anyway. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant and original and paingul.

Anonymous said...

er painful

Anonymous said...

This took my breath away! I can only imagine how impactful it would be on a congregation, sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to hear Kim's insight.


Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your kind comments, but (pace esemare) maybe it reads better than it preaches. My wife was in the congregation. Lunch afterwards was worse than Mansfield College's sermon classes. She said I'm slipping. Says all you guys at F&T must be a bunch of jerks. Especially she didn't like the rhetorical move of repeating "Lose your faith!" I suggested that if she were Coretta King, she would have said, "Martin, if you'd said "I have a dream" one more time ..." Bad move: she's still laughing at the comparison.

There are two morals: (1) The correct answer is always, "Yes, honey." (2) Thank God for jerks.

PS: There is no need now for a flood of comments agreeing with my wife!

Anonymous said...

Very profound indeed! I appreciate how you weaved Hans Holbein’s painting into the sermon.

Anonymous said...

Come on Kim - surely you're aware by now that you won't find out what they really think from what they say over lunch afterwards - you've got to listen to what they say at the church door.

Er... I think that's right, isn't it...? ;-)

(Oh and FWIW, if that's slipping then pass me the grease please).

Patrick McManus said...


you must, must, must put together a book of sermons...from one jerk who was really blown away by this.

I've been taking my congregation through the book of Job for Lent (in Bible study which attracts only about 25 people a week) and we've been talking about losing our faith in the god of Job's friends (aka the deus ex machina) and encountering the God of the cross (the God who erupts from the whirlwind, who happens from the empty tomb) using Marc Chagall's Joban paintings as a visual catalyst in that direction.

I really appreciated the nod to Alan Lewis. That book stays with me like Barth... Holbein's painting does the same. Thanks again.


Anonymous said...

Weil's notion of attention and how that connects us to the event of the cross IS the message of Easter. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

This was a blessing, and very timely for me. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

blah blah blah friend, the mob rules the government and is responsible, the people may perish where there's no vision but its still the people that make their own gods kings whatever. Are you a young Englishman? Did we not demand a Thatcher as antidote to the poisonous cost of a febrile socialism, did we not insist upon the blood-letting she brought? Yes the mass are precisely that a dark brooding desire for evil, surely 'they have not rejected you but they have rejected me, saith the Lord now away with your trite theology and onwards with the truth, Nietzsche was more honest than any member of the defunct Academy will ever be.

Valorosa said...

Seems to be a move of the Spirit to call people to stop playing around and be real about God.

btw if that is supposed to be Christ up above he is way too skinny .. Christ also was well fed apart from the fasting and praying He did.

That looks more like a holocaust or cancer victim.
But ...
I guess we can let Him be Christ because our guide book tells us that as much as we have done to the least of these we have done to Christ himself.

Anonymous said...

I am in awe. Thank you.

Unknown said...

This sermon has hit me hard. The concept of losing your faith, but regaining it is something i've been pondering for years. Thanks for putting a nice spin on jesus's death.

Anonymous said...

You made several points about how our redemption is not accomplished by Jesus by way of some particular aspect of His crucifixion.

Perhaps I missed it, but could you articulate what it is that you believe does accomplish our redemption by Jesus. And perhaps go a bit further and explain from what we are redeemed?

I have my own understanding of the Crucifixion, but I'd like to know if our understandings are in the same vein.

Anonymous said...

Hi Billcarlisle,

No, you didn't miss anything. This was one sermon for one Good Friday which attempted to deconstruct a certain kind of bad faith - full stop - not to construct a doctrine of the atonement, which is what it seems you are looking for. You must forgive me if I cannot give you one on a postcard. I hope it will suffice to say that I find rich pickings in just about all the major models of the atonement, from the Fathers through Anselm to Barth, and I find Girard's more recent proposals on violence and the scapegoat mechanism to be quite suggestive. So while, on the one hand, I find an Abelardian approach quite insufficient, that I have fatal problems with penal substitution you can gather, in detail, from my "Ten Propositions" on the subject (check out the sidebar). Unlike some takes on the cross, I would also want to see it integrally connected with the life and resurrection of Jesus, as well as with the reconciliation of all things, and fully integrated within a robustly trinitarian faith. On the whole I would regard myself as quite boringly orthodox really. Any good?

am said...

As I have been thinking along these lines and wondering if I am alone in my perceptions this week, I'm grateful for your sermon. Although I'm not aware of having seen Hans Holbein's painting before, it is close to the image I have had of Jesus in the tomb and on which I have meditated on again and again.

Anonymous said...

Not exactly unambiguous, but sufficient for the continuation of conversation. :)

What are your particular issues with penal substitutionary atonement? As I understand it, I find, as you do, that it's not the type of death involved (though it is cruel); neither is it the injustice done to him by the Jews and Romans (though there certainly was); but in my understanding Christ bore the wrath of God for sin on the Cross, not merely the wrath of men. My understanding is that Christ is sacrifice for sin first and foremost in order that he may also be our reconciler and victor over the grave and our lives.

Though I may have not articulated it well in the past through my personal writings or conversation, my understanding leads me to believe that divorcing these two things is to understand rightly neither substitutionary atonement nor Christus Victor. Is this your understanding as well? If not, why?

luv002 said...

"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"

Maybe I just don't understand.... but I have a problem with this!

Sheila said...

I needed to read this today, have never seen this blog before that I recall, but am so glad I found it tonight. Thank you.

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