Flesh and Blood

DNA tells us a lot. For example, I share 98% of my DNA with a chimpanzee and 50% with a banana, which explains my family. That said, the Bible says I am formed from dust, so maybe being related to a banana isn’t so bad. Either way, I am reminded of my common origins with the rest of the biological world. I am of the same stuff. I may be more than that, but I am certainly not less.

The Bible uses the word ‘flesh’ to describe our biological selves. Plato saw the flesh as inherently corrupt, but that does not seem to be the Biblical stance. After all, it is part of God’s good creation. However, while neutral in its judgement, it aware of its dangers. This can easily be seen if you consider letting a dog loose in a Butcher’s. You would expect mayhem, not because the dog is bad, but because of its nature. Our flesh may not be sinful, but it sure has a strong pull in that direction: greed, anger, envy, lust, all waiting to rear up and trip us up.

Today, the answer is often to offer counselling to help tame our inner demons, to heal our wounds and make us whole. No doubt it helps, but flesh we remain. I may learn to recognise and repent, but I remain weak. But then, if all we are just our DNA and social conditioning, what else is there?

But this is not all we are. The cross has drawn a line, a line between old and new. Things are not the same. My flesh falls on one side of the line and is, in fact, no longer mine. It was purchased with a high price and I need to stop trying to take it back, leaving it to its rightful owner on the cross. It isn’t mine to fix, I should have been reckoning it as dead. As with most things, there comes a point when they get beyond fixing and need throwing away and replacing. My flesh needs more than a makeover. I need to be more than someone learning to be nice. I have made an exchange: new life for old.

Perhaps I am slow, but I am only just beginning to grasp the meaning of some of this. My experience is still trying to catch up. It remains a mystery: Christ dying on the cross, taking my old life with him. The life I inherited from my DNA and my history, enslaved to sin and death, is my life no more. Yet its time has not fully come and so it lingers, ready to lead me down its slippery path – if I let it. It is no longer who I am and should be left for dead. I need to remember that I have been crucified with Christ, and yet I live. Of course, the fact that I live is another story.

The End of the Old

The cross stands as a beacon in the New Testament as an all-encompassing event, yet it is difficult to define. One of the earliest attempts was made by Irenaeus in the second century. He describes it as a ‘recapitulation’ of all things, echoing Paul’s earlier letter to the Ephesians. Jesus had gathered up everything into himself on the cross. It is not a tight definition as it allows room for interpretation and imagination, which is, perhaps, why I have grown to appreciate it, allowing room for modern perspectives to add their colour and shape.

First, a brief digression on science: Ever since Einstein, we have come to realise that space and time are not quite as they seem. Previous generations worked from an external framework of length, breadth and height, alongside the steady beat of a clock. This view of an absolute reference operating throughout the Universe has been found to be an illusion. Space and time, it would seem, are part of the same fabric that is itself relative and curved. There is much that can be said about this, but the important point is the interconnectedness of space and time: They are one fabric. The significance of which will shortly become apparent.

When God, in the form of Jesus, entered his creation, he did so, not as its ruler, but as part of it, fully identifying with it in the form of man, not just with one man in Galilee, not even with one nation in the Middle East, but with the very fabric of his space-time creation – including the part I inhabit, over 2000 miles away and over 2000 years later, which is just a much a part of the fabric of space and time. In doing so, he summed everything up in himself, as its representative, that it might die with him on that cross. Time and space collapsing around him and brought to an end, along with all that was not right in it, like sin and death.

Does this explain things? Hardly. At best it is a feint light onto one facet. All I know is that one day all of creation looked one way and a few days later, everything was different – even if that difference is not always obvious. It is inexplicable. It is even more puzzling that so many things seem to carry on as before. Yet, I know that it is true. Not because of what has been written in books, but because of what I have experienced. I, along with countless others, live in the old order, while belonging to the new: we are it’s ambassadors.

Behold the Man

‘Behold the man!’, was Pilate’s opening remark as he presented the sorry figure of Jesus whipped to within an inch of his life. It was good theology, even if Pilate did not appreciate it, but it caused many to struggle, trying to equate this image with God. Some even argued that was only an illusion. Jesus just appeared like a man. It was, of course, a heretical idea. Yet, I wonder how many of us still carry distant echoes of that view? Jesus was, after all, quite exceptional. He drew people towards him, healed the sick, raised the dead, calmed storms as well as many other things. In short, not much like me. If this isn’t evidence for him being God, then what is? Yet, the Bible seems to want to paint a different picture.

Philippians 2, often regarded as the centrepiece of Paul’s theology, does not say that God almost emptied himself, holding something back so that he could perform miracles. In fact, it says he became lower yet. Elsewhere, Isaiah 53 says, ‘he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.’ That does not seem to tie up with a highly charismatic miracle worker. He even came from Nazareth. (Think Slough: Can anything good come from Slough?) The Bible seems to be at pains to point out that God chose not only to become human, but a very unexceptional one at that. Just a manual worker born in a stable. We loose site of this at our peril, as I’ll explain later.

Changing tack for a moment. The four minute mile was for a long time thought to be unachievable, yet in 1954 Roger Banister removed that barrier and changed the way people imagined what was possible. Today the record stands at three minutes forty-three seconds.

So, here is my point. Jesus does not present us an unattainable standard, but, like Roger Bannister, he enables us to imagine a new reality. He has broken a barrier as to what we can imagine as possible. Once we grasp the fact that Jesus came as an ordinary man, we realise that we can, not only do what Jesus did, but do even greater things, just as runners have done with the four minute mile. For sure, Jesus had the Holy Spirit to help him, but then, isn’t that the same Spirit that the New Testament promises us? The more we imagine Jesus as extraordinary, the more it lets us off the hook. If the miracles demonstrate that Jesus was God, then what hope is there for me?.But, if Jesus were very ordinary, then I no longer have any excuses, for I am ordinary too.

The more I imagine Jesus as ordinary, the more it is causing a shift in my thinking. What once seemed only remotely possible, now seems imaginable. There is no constraint on me that Jesus did not also impose on himself. Jesus is no longer just someone to aspire towards, but shows me – and all of us – what can be achieved, even surpassed. After all, Jesus never moved a mountain. Perhaps that is one he has left for us.

Image credit:  www.freeimages.co.uk

The Reality we Imagine

Martin Luther King imagined a reality that he never lived to see. It was an impossible dream – more than a little dangerous. Some thought it the delusions of a mad man. Yet he could imagine its reality and he clung to it. He died before other could see it, but it is no longer a dream.

Our imagination is powerful. Many leading sociologists use our ‘social imaginary’ to describe us, rather than our ‘worldview’. I am no sociologist, but I am increasingly convinced by the importance of what we can imagine. Our imagination defines not just who we are, but who we become: an important difference.

Of course, if you begin to imagine impossible things then some might begin to consider you mad. That happened to Jesus, even by his own family, so we’d be in good company. He was imagining a heaven on earth, while the best anyone else could imagine was getting rid of the Roman occupation. No wonder people questioned his sanity. Perhaps I should be worrying more about why I am not accused of being insane. In fact, I am too sane by far, which is the trouble with many of us. We are all too sane. Too rational to imagine more than we can see.

I have been reminded about the importance of this recently through looking into the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. I had hoped to be stirred by it. Instead, I found it more than a little depressing. It is all true, but it also seems so small and inadequate once placed in its neat little theological boxes. The only description that I have grown to appreciate most wasn’t from any theological work, but, of all things, from a children’s story book. In C.S. Lewis’ “The lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” he describes the sacrifice at the stone table as a ‘deep magic that goes back before the dawn of time’. I have come to like this, not because of what it says (which is very little), but for what it leaves unsaid. It opens up the mystery to the imagination, and perhaps it is only in my imagination that I can begin to grasp the smallest fragment of the breadth, depth and height, that is the cross.

Now, I am not arguing that we park our minds at the door of the church, there are, regrettably, too many who have already done that – rarely with positive results. However, I do believe that we have allowed ourselves to become too closely entwined with the Enlightenment and its ideals. We have over-thought the gospel and under-imagined it’s power – myself included, if not especially. If we are to begin to impact this world, then perhaps we may need to engage our imaginations and dream big dreams.

My God!

You would think that Jesus his final words to count, which makes his exclamation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” something of a puzzle. It is, of course, a reference to Psalm 22.

I have to confess to being moved by this psalm. I felt the despair of abandonment. God is not doubted, but he is strangely silent. We have all been there where our prayers seem to bounce back, as though God has gone on holiday and not left a forwarding address or note to say when he intends to return. Perhaps it is this identification that makes it so moving for me. Yet, is this really what Jesus wanted his last words to convey? Or is there something else going on? The more I look the more I wonder. If despair and desolation are the theme, then what causes the switch to praise at the end? Unless, of course, it has been praise all along.

Bad things are happening and God does not appear to be doing anything about it, yet there is no complaint, only a question. Those around him watch his suffering and assume that it is a sign of God rejecting him. After all, who is he, if not a worm? He might praise God. He might put his trust in God, but to all appearances, God has abandoned him. Which is maybe why this is the psalm Jesus alludes to while hanging on the cross. The appearance is of one abandoned with dogs howling at his feet. Yet God remains. With brutal honesty, amidst the pain and suffering, this is a psalm of praise. Not pretending that all is ok, when they are not. Not pretending to understand all that is going on, but declaring its trust anyway. Which is perhaps why the psalm ends on such a high. By this point his accusers have been left behind and his praise flows freely. A praise that will flow out to generations not yet born. Including, I realise, me.

Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
will worship him;
all who are descending to the dust
will kneel before him;
my being also lives for him.
Future descendants will serve him;
generations to come will be told about my Lord.
They will proclaim God’s righteousness
to those not yet born,
telling them what God has done. (Ps 22:29-31, CEB)