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.

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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.

Daily Bread

Life is full of distractions and I’ve had more than my fair share recently, what with Christmas and various projects. To be honest, most of the time I enjoy the distractions, although, on this occasion, I’ve layered one distraction on another, leaving an over-active mind that has begun to interfere with my sleep. Not good. In the midst of all this noise it is all too easy to loose sight of what is important.

The psalmist, in psalm 16, finds his refuge in God, his only source of good. He rejects that path of others who appear holy and doing well for themselves, but who find their good outside of God. All the psalmist can do is hope that they learn their mistake – even if it is by the hard way of sorrow.

It reminded me of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: give us this day our daily bread. I have said these words many times, but never really taken them in. After all, if I need bread, I go to the Supermarket. While I have a job, I easily have the money for bread. Even if I lost my job, the State promises to step in – at least to a point. Granted, some fall between the cracks, but that is someone else’s experience, not mine. I find I have no need to ask for bread. Which is precisely the problem.

My refuge, my source of good, seems to be out of alignment. I look to the Supermarket. I look to my bank balance. I look to the State and the economic system of the world. Which is all a bit foolish really, given the not-so-long-ago financial crisis. It is in my very comfort and security that I have made a mis-step. My refuge needs to be in God – even for my bread. Even though I know, as the apostle Paul testifies, this may mean that at times I need to do without. Yet, in spite of this, we know that God has our best interests at heart, which is more than can be said for the supermarket or my bank.

Not all distractions are bad. Some are expressions of who God made me to be, yet they are still distractions. Sometimes, it is helpful to be reminded of where our refuge should be and to, perhaps for the first time, pray: give us this day our bread.



Two Ways

I have realised that if I am to reshape my imagination around the Kingdom, then I must change the story in which I am embedded. Unfortunately, this has proved less simple than it sounds. My last attempt proved a step too far and I am going to need to take much smaller steps. Fortunately, such a path has been trodden before and has often been recommended in the church – which is to meditate on the psalms. With such an obvious path forward, it is amazing that it has taken me so long to find it. Perhaps the less said about that the better. So, to begin with psalm 1.

For such a small psalm, there is a lot packed in it. It lays out the path of the two ways. The way of those who do right and othose who do wrong. It has proved a remarkably apt place to start, with that wonderful line “In Yahweh’s teaching he ruminates day and night”. I like the idea of ruminating. Chewing over, digesting and then chewing over again. It is not the usual way to translate hagah, but it caries that sense, so I am sticking with it. This, after all, is what I am doing – ruminating on Yahweh’s teaching.

I have found the psalm challenge me too. When describing the righteous man it says all that he does prospers. What would Jesus have made of that when he hung on the cross? Actually, though I initially wondered at the psalm’s naivety, I ended up respecting its truth. It does not say that the righteous won’t go through times of trouble or suffering, just that they will prosper in them. Jesus certainly suffered and it was certainly an odd looking success, but it was the reason he came and he in it he did prosper. It was then that I was able to look back at my past and I could concur. In all that I have done I have prospered. For sure, there have been times when it did not feel like it. There have been times when I have felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails. But looking back, those have been significant points in my life. I have, in spite of all, prospered. Like a tree transplanted from the desert to be by channels of water, my leaves have not withered. I am secure and know that fruit will come in its season. The wrongdoer, by contrast, is like chaff blown away by the wind – to perish.

Psalm 1

Happy is the man who
does not walk in the council of wrongdoers,
Nor in the way of sinners does he stand,
Nor in the seat of scoffers does he sit,
But, in the instruction of Yahweh, his delight.
In its teaching he ruminates day and night,
Like a tree transplanted upon channels of water,
That yields fruit in its season
and leaves that do not wither.
All that he does prospers.

Not so the wrongdoers.
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wrongdoers will not stand at the judgement,
Nor sinners at the assembly of those who do right.
For Yahweh knows the way of those who do right,
But the wrongdoer will perish.

God With Us

Faith arises from what we find imaginable. What sociologist call our social imaginary. If I am to ground myself in the Kingdom of God, then I need to ground myself in the imaginary of the first Christians. Something that is proving harder than I expected.

As a Christian, my central story is that of the Gospels, as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Yet, this story is itself grounded in another, that of the Jews: The story of Exodus and redemption from slavery. It was a story of hope. What God had done before, their prophets had declared, he would do again. A great and terrible day was coming when God would dwell amongst his people, setting all things right. That day was to be soon. It is from within this that the Gospel’s story is heard: God had come, but it was not quite as they thought it would be.

Now, it had always struck me as odd that the Virgin Birth, such a small part of the New Testament, became such an integral part of the early Church. As I pondered this, I realised its importance lay in what it had become shorthand for. God was not only dwelling amongst us, but had become one of us. The Apostles Paul and John do not mention the Virgin Birth, but they make much the same point. Paul expresses it powerfully when he says that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The Gospels not only tell of how God dwelt amongst us in the flesh, but how the Spirit would follow. Unfortunately, at this point my deliberations became unstuck. The problem that confronted me was that the disciples were already healing before the Spirit was given, so, why am I doing so little, now that the Spirit has come? Attempting to imagine myself into the first world setting exposed a gap with my world that was so vast that it caused a disconnect that I found quite depressing.

This exercise was supposed to draw me into the imaginary of the Kingdom, if anything, it has done the opposite. I cannot help but compare my life with what it should be and I found almost no common point. I am living in a very different imaginable world. I need a better approach. I took what I thought was the quickest route, but the ascent has proved too steep. I need to find a gentler slope, one more suited to beginners.