by Neil Richardson.
We Christians in the western world relate our faith readily enough (more or less) to our personal lives and our churches. We find it harder to relate it to national and international affairs. Think of our divisions or our silences about the nuclear deterrent, Brexit, Britain’s housing crisis, and much, much more. Yet, in these dark times, King Zedekiah’s question to Jeremiah must be ours: ‘Is there a word from the Lord?’
In listening for such a word, we may have to wrestle with biblical and theological themes we usually shy away from. But the vocation of a prophetic Church is to preach the truth. We’re called, not to offer opinions, solutions or programmes for action, not even to preach Kingdom values – a slippery term! (1)- but the truth which sets us free, (John 8.32).
To talk of ‘the truth’ these days is unfashionable, and can be intolerant and dangerous. But this is our basic currency: the reality about ourselves, the Church, the world and God, the Ultimate Reality. And this, of course, includes the story of Jesus.
What are the themes we shy away from? I suggest four: judgement and wrath, sin and repentance. I’m not arguing that we use the words themselves; they are widely misunderstood, or not understood at all. They are certainly offputting, and we want naturally (but mistakenly?) to offer an attractive gospel.
We must face the realities to which the words point, because there is no full gospel without them. To begin here with judgement: we know Christians shouldn’t be judgemental, (Matthew 7.1), but what about God’s own judgement? When did we last preach or hear a sermon on divine judgement – final or otherwise?
A cautionary note is necessary. Most of us have inveighed against a materialistic world and all its works. But we often think of that ‘world’ thought as ‘out there’: a dark reality over against the Church. Thomas Merton, however, searchingly asks, ‘Where do I look for the world, if not inside myself?’ In any case, what charge should the Church make against ‘the world’?
John’s gospel points the way: ‘This is the judgement (Greek, krisis): the light has come into the world but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil’ (John 3.19).
Here is the primal sin: we humans choose darkness, illusions and idols, putting them before light, truth and the living God. And no-one, not least the Church, (compare prophets like Amos on Israel!) is exempt from this judgement.
Our currency is truth. And the reality about ourselves is what it has always been: ‘original’ sin, made though we are in the image of God. Sin, of course, is a word almost impossible for the Christian preacher to use unless he or she explains it. Many think it refers to moral failings, especially sexual ones; but they are the symptoms, not the root. Many reject the idea of sin altogether as an outdated, unduly negative estimate of human beings. But as a great Methodist historian once wrote: ‘faith in human nature…. Is a recent heresy and a very disastrous one’ (2).
Yet we can’t make ‘sin’ the centre of our preaching, even though the reality of it is all around us and within us, polluting almost everything. But we live in a culture which can’t or won’t face this reality. Maybe this is because we have become strangers to holiness and the holy.
In the Bible, people become aware of their sinfulness in the presence of the holy God. ‘Sin’ is, first and foremost, a religious and relational term; it is to ‘fall short’ of God’s glory, (Romans 3.21). Isaiah and Simon Peter recognized their own sinfulness in the presence of the Holy One, (Isaiah 6, Luke 5.11). With this we come to the theme of repentance.
The story of the prodigal son reminds us that ‘sin’ is a relational term, not a moral one. But when did the prodigal repent? Not, I suggest, in the far country. That was where he came to his senses, recognizing on which side his bread was buttered. The change of heart came later, as his father ran to embrace him, before the son had even begun his carefully prepared speech.
Samuel Coleridge, poet and theologian, wrote that Christianity is not so much the gift of forgiveness to those who repent, but the gift of repentance to those who sin. An overstatement? Possibly, but much nearer the truth than the widespread assumption that repentance is a condition of forgiveness.
The wrath of God is perhaps the most difficult of the four themes we tend to shy away from. As I pointed out in my blog of 2018, it’s best understood as the opposite of God’s life-giving light: God ‘hiding his face’, (e.g. Isaiah 64.7, in contrast to ‘the light of his countenance’ in Numbers 6.25). In this darkness, spiritual, moral and social, our idolatry and illusions slowly but surely dehumanize us, degrade our behaviour and damage our communities, (Romans 1.18-32)(3).
This is difficult language. But these disasters which we bring upon ourselves underline the truth that this is God’s world, created, redeemed and permeated by his love. But if we go against the very grain of the universe and our own God-given natures, we run into, as it were, the adverse wind of his wrath – the sure sign, especially in our current crises, that this is not only God’s world, but that God cares passionately about it and for us.
Our currency is indeed truth. It is the truth as we believe we see it in Jesus, above all in Christ crucified and risen. In that gospel there is a deep joy and a hope which is unquenchable in all the darkness and pain. We can’t make ourselves praise God in the darkness, but the Spirit will help us so to do, even in such a time as this. In the words of a saintly, early apostle to India, Father Andrew, (H.E. Hardy (4)): ‘Man’s affliction is God’s opportunity’.
- See Eberhard Jungel on ‘value-free truth’ in his Theological Essays II , (T&T Clark 1995), pp.191-215.
- Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, (G. Bell 1949, Fontana 1957), p.66.
- The homosexual practices referred to in this passage are now widely recognized as the exploitative, often oppressive and promiscuous relationships prevalent in the Graeco-Roman world.
- Author of hymn no. 172 in Hymns and Psalms, ‘O Dearest Lord…’.