Sunday, 10 December 2017

Comfort O Comfort My People

‘We and the evangelicals do believe in the same God, after all,’ I once feebly told my spiritual director. ‘But do we?’ he countered. ‘I’m not at all sure we do. When I hear some people on the extreme end of the evangelical wing of Christianity talking about it, the God they describe is really quite different from the one I imagine.’

You can ignore this for most of the time. But occasionally you encounter it stated in so brutal a manner that S.D.’s reasoning seems no more than the plain truth. Here is the core of the Christian message, according to a commentator on a blog post I read the other day.

… both essential elements of the Apostolic Gospel: the terrible truth and warning that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil; and the wonderful, sincere, genuine command, invitation, and exhortation to all of us to respond to the love, mercy and grace of God by repenting and submitting to Christ in his atoning propitiatory death and life giving resurrection, and thus to be delivered from that wrath and condemnation and to be ultimately conformed by the Holy Spirit to the image of God’s Son.

Put these strictures another way and I don’t dissent much from them. It is, indeed, a core element of the Christian faith’s account of human nature and the human situation that we are fallen, unable by our own efforts to be holy or to choose the good, to be anything more than moderately acceptable pagans; that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ repairs this damage, and that to be repaired we have to turn to him and allow him to do his work. It’s the same idea, re-expressed. But the phraseology and arrangement of this statement, this creed, is the whole point of it: to ‘put it another way’ would be to rob it of its power, for those for whom it resonates. Wrath and condemnation is its emotional crown, and satisfaction at it the lavish pleasure at its centre. It is, genuinely, a different imagining of God from mine, and I have no doubt from the great majority of all the Christians I know who I call, or might call themselves, evangelicals.

You could say much about this. The phraseology of divine wrath is there throughout the Scriptures; we can see the understanding of what it means widening from a belief in God’s jealous and personal hunger for the loyalty of the people of Israel through a sense that he will punish not just unfaithfulness and ritual transgression, but all injustice. Finally, in the writings of St Paul, it becomes a way of describing an existential state and an eschatological hope, the knowledge that you are radically estranged from God on the one hand, and the promise that evil will one day be destroyed and purged from creation on the other. Wrath refers to both these things. It is not, however, anywhere abstracted into a neat phrase that imputes to God the human emotion of rage; still less that he looks on humans with that kind of rage until they follow a certain specific set of actions. Evangelistically, you wouldn’t use this kind of language: most human beings, left to themselves, aspire to be nothing more than ‘moderately acceptable pagans’, and it is waking to the grand love of God which throws into relief our own unloveliness. Without that, we don’t see the Fall for what it is: and God’s wholesale ‘condemnation’ of humanity looks arbitrary, pathological, and unjust. It’s exactly this process that Paul grapples with in the convoluted, paradoxical 7th chapter of Romans: ‘Once I was alive apart from law; when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died’. It takes a revelation of holiness to show us what’s really going on, and God’s definition of holiness is Jesus. The Church’s proclamation of the Good News should start with him, not with us. The primary fact of the Christian revelation is God’s nature, not our need.

Hearing that ‘we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God’, many people will think first of children. Nobody should doubt, or could doubt if they spent long with them, that small children are as marked by the Fall as grown-ups are; if they are ‘innocent’ it’s because they’re inexperienced, as yet unschooled in the dangers and horrors of the world and how they might affect them, not in the sense that original sin, our common inherited tendency to go astray, doesn’t touch their acts. But virtually every human being will revolt against the idea that God looks at children, at their children in their arms, with rage and disgust. And that isn’t what we see him doing. God incarnate in Jesus Christ gathers children in his own arms, children as deeply wounded by the effects of original sin as any grown-up is, and blesses them.  He makes them the measure of the faith of adults, even though they haven’t made any conscious expression of belief in him (I can imagine extreme Protestants suggesting they might have done, but such would be a fond invention and an unwarrantable addition to the holy text). He does this in Mark 10, and a moment later in that account he can be found looking with love on someone else who hasn’t expressed any faith in him, either – except to come and ask him a question, a childlike act too.

The closest Scripture comes to that ‘evangelical’ creed is a passage in Ephesians 2. ‘Like the rest’, says Paul in that text, ‘we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.’ That phrase, ‘objects of wrath’ is there, surely, yet you see easily how mercy and wrath can, according to the holy Apostle, co-exist in the mind of God, even if not in ours. There is no clear, sequential process. To illustrate this with a picture – in fact, to supersede it by one – which shows God’s expression flicking from contorted frown to beneficent smile as we pray the Prayer of Faith is to traduce the Scriptures, and Him.

I would like to offer that the Gospel is more this: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us the truth about ourselves and the world; and the truth is, that the unconquerable love of God is the great fact of all creation, that the sign of love is the Cross, and that though our first ancestors fell away from that love, and we are permanently wounded by their fall, he has not abandoned us, but in Christ reaches to lift us out of death into his coming Kingdom. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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