Friday 22 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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! I've decided you're right. I'm going to become an anti-theist right now!

Rod Lampard said...

The sermon cuts through the caricature and jolts us out of our consumerist driven complacent thinking. But I have mixed feelings about the content of this perspective regarding God's redemptive act.

Anonymous said...

Who did that first painting?

Paul D. said...

Bonhoeffer really kept it real.

kenny chmiel said...

Love your blog, I look at it everyday, But you should have some info on the art you use in your blog.

kim fabricius said...

Both pictures are clips from Holbein's "Body of the Dead Chirst in the Tomb", mentioned in the sermon, for which Ben has provided a link.

The Charismanglican said...

You just ruined the taste of my Cadbury Creme Egg.

John Hartley said...

Dear Kim,

I find your sermons very helpful in the provocative way they force me to think, so thank you for that. In this one I appreciate your three points: that our salvation was not achieved by Jesus suffering more horribly, nor facing death more courageously, nor being killed more wickedly than anyone else. And yet, don't we still believe that it is by the death of Jesus that we are saved?

So I look for the adverb in the sentence "We are saved by Jesus' death rather than by anyone else's, because Jesus died more than anyone else". Are you saying that there is no adverb to go in this sentence, or just that I need to give up many wrong adverbs?

Would you be content with "unjustly"? In that the wages of sin is death, so everyone else deserves death for everyone else is a sinner - even though the manner of a specific human death is unrelated to the idiosyncratic way in which that individual human is a sinner. Only Jesus was sinless, so only his death was truly unjust.

Or are you really trying to say, as you leave us hanging at the end, that our salvation is only achieved by Jesus' death and resurrection and not by his death alone? Perhaps in echo of Romans 4:25, 5:10, 5:17 and so on?

Personally I subscribe to the former view rather than the latter. But maybe you can persuade me ... which is why I ask in humility.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY

Michael Teston said...

Jesus' death exposes in living color sins brutality and the cover up of it, how far the sinner will go in attempts to cover up the brutality of sin. Sin is not just a theological concept tucked away in some theological tower. it's on display everyday. The cross displays the real consequences of our actions. We are only saved by the cross when we own our responsibility for such a beating. That's not a theological concept it's reality and it's ugly. The one's who most tout the cross are the one's who turn it into some giddy event. It indeed isn't good until Sunday when it might be possible to be transformed from such monstrous behavior. Thanks Kim

Paul Tyson said...

Love your work Kim. Even so, with this post I am a bit ambivalent. I lost faith in most of these common articles of dogmatic sentiment many years ago, but clearly the ministry of de-faithing may risk pulling up the wheat with the tares. When I prayed to God asking Him to heal two of my children who died from a terrible genetic illness, and He did not heal them, to this day, I still cannot think of that as the absence of God. To the contrary, the presence of the God who suffers is most palpably known to us in our own suffering – but the suffering itself remains a mystery and a wound, and the absence of healing an inexplicably dark realm of sorrow. But belief in the presence of God I cannot live without – though I may experience it not at all – and the desperate hope for miraculous intervention is one I understand very intimately, and I would never seek to dissuade those who prayer for help under the formulation that God is absent in the world and will not help. What are your thoughts here Kim? I hope I have not done an injustice to your always very deep and perceptive thoughts.

kim fabricius said...

Paul, your thoughts are my thoughts. And more importantly, your prayers are my prayers. The Absent One is more present to us than we are to ourselves - whatever our experience. The Answering One always responds to our prayers - whatever the incognito. The Powerful One is most explosive - on the cross. God is not reducible either to what is knowable, prayable, or doable. And that God is good is an analytical, not empirical statement, or else our faith will finally be a shipwreck. I think we are singing from the same hymn sheet - and the hymn is "When I survey".

And, yes, John - no deliverance without the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul Tyson said...

Yes Kim, we do sing the same hymn. And possibly even in the same key and with the same sort of husky attempt at melody... I'm just rambling here Kim, but could it be that we have both discovered the loss of reductive and ridiculous cataphatic 'faith' as a kind of apophatic liberation, yet the very absence of positive and experienced content in faith (we know damn well what we don't know, don't experience and don't believe) has its own difficulties? I sing of ‘love so amazing, so divine’ as comes from a vision of the wondrous cross, but this is a ‘vision’ I do not actually see, rather I believe without seeing. And I believe most blindly when I suffer, and yet the blind belief there is found, without any explanation or any feeling, to be the only rock on which I can stand in an otherwise vortex of confusion, meaninglessness and pointless agony. But is the ability to hold on in the dark – though a grace I in no way despise – enough? Ah… I wish I had just a smidge more cataphatic encounter with the Living God! Is there something wrong with me, Kim? It would be fatuous to compare myself with the prophets who cry ‘how long….?’ or with Job who ask God something a bit like ‘I wish I had just a smidge more cataphatic encounter with You’ – but negative faith is hardly life giving to others, hardly renewing, outpouring and enlivening. Negative faith – though surely blessed in contrast to Thomas’ empiricism – just doesn’t seem to be much of a vehicle for that amazing New Testament phenomena, the manifestation, the doxa, the inbreaking appearing of not only the Way of Christ in the believers, but also the world changing power of the Holy Spirit. Are we poor witnesses to the resurrection because we have not seen the manifest God alive and active in our midst?

kim fabricius said...

Ben Quash did an outstanding piece in this week's Church Times on three works of art on the resurrection. One, which I had never seen before, was mind-blowingly odd: Vittore Carpaccio's The Dead Christ. It looks like a grim depiction of the corpse of Jesus on a slab in a graveyard, replete with bones and skulls, as his tomb is being prepared for burial. But near the centre of the canvas is an old man with a beard sitting against a tree, "calmly, contemplatively, perhaps a little melancholically, ... and he gazes perhaps at and perhaps past the dead body laid out in front of him." Who he is has been an iconographic mystery until quite recently. But it turns out he is Job, the archetypal sufferer turned prophetic witness to the resurrection (Job 19:25) - which, however, is not yet. Quash observes: "his presence changes everything. The landscape is no longer a landscape of death: it is readable as pregnant with the resurrection: a threshold of life, the moment before the dawn."

"Readable", "pregnant", "before" - pehaps thus it is given to us to testify to the Crucified between-the-times, as watchers for and pointers to the coming Sonrise.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim,

I usually really like what you say here at F&T, but you lost me here. And you lost me in your posture before I ever even got to the content.

I'm afraid I find this more pretentious than provocative. To me it reeks of cleverness in the guise of proclamation. Any preacher who feels the need to articulate the righteous displeasure he anticipates creating in his congregation perhaps should take pause; that it is bathed in such gleeful, consciously tongue-in-cheek humour, (if you walk out on me I shall consider it the highest compliment) only makes it more cringeworthy. Speaking of yourself in the third person adds the final insult to injury.

You are a wonderful thinker and preacher, no garnish necessary.

Mike E

Anonymous said...

I am surprised to hear that Bonhoeffer said we should live as though God were not there. In any event, that would be a rough way to go, and I don't think it is correct. "I will never leave you nor forsake you." Jesus pointed out that God was so "concerned" with events as to say that even the hairs of our head are numbered, and not a sparrow flits to the ground without the Father being aware of it.

I do agree that sometimes we don't "feel" as if God were there--otherwise, "faith would be no more faith." But that is exactly what faith affirms--that God is there, and is caring.

Tom Harkins 04/27/2011

Pamela said...

post-industrial by Norm Neill

never mind

fundity or wit
reflect in

on theo

ries on the

ture of the bro

ken word

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