Posted by: owizblog | February 2, 2013

Washing Up, Chernobyl and the AtonementSermon (Kilbarchan East)

Philippians 2

We aren’t a family who fights over who’s to do the washing up. We have a dishwasher. This means, of course, that we fight over who is to empty the dishwasher. It’s the job nobody wants to do. It’s a chore. And because it’s a chore, it’s something that we all think of as, at some level, demeaning.

I think that’s connected with an observation that I’ve heard many women making, that in one way it’s great to have one of the men of the house cook a meal for you, until you go through to the kitchen afterwards. Many men nowadays cook pretty well, and whether we do or don’t we cook with great flamboyance and élan. But the details of clearing up as we go do tend to escape us. It’s hard to avoid the truth of the charge that somehow we find these things demeaning.

Of course in the days before dishwashers, and in all those virtuous, Spartan houses in which such sybaritic, character-softening devices are not to be found, people still need to discuss who’s to do the washing up. I remember reading a reminiscence of his childhood written by an American Minister, [Robert Fulghum] of the fights and arguments he’d have with his siblings when they were growing up, over who was to do the washing up and when. But he also made this observation. There was one thing that none of them could bring themselves to do. One thing that was simply too demeaning, too disgusting. And that was removing all the agglomerated bits of food from the plughole. He said that for him, the awfulness of that gooey, sticky mixture was always summed up by the French word ordure, which basically means a horrible, disgusting, unspeakably revolting mess.

And he remembered how even the older children would draw back from this, or if they absolutely had to, would do it with a sense of horror and repulsion. And more than that, he remembered how his mother, watching this, would often just brush them brusquely to one side, and plunge her hand into the ordure, and scoop it away without a thought.

And far from demeaning her in their eyes, their mother’s ability to do this, without a thought, elevated her to heroic stature. She could deal with the things they found repulsive and disgusting.

I remember an instance from my teen age, when several of us were briefly in charge of some small children, who’d just had a party. One little boy in particular was a very peculiar colour, from a huge excess of jelly, sausages on sticks, egg sandwiches and fizzy pop. I’ll spare you the details, beyond at last paying public tribute to the girl among us who, when the rest of us were staring horrified and repulsed at the disaster which had just unfolded, basically answered our prayers and dealt with it. She too became a heroine; I can remember the boys, particularly, discussing it in hushed tones. And I also remember that we did actually realize, that day, that we had come across a paradox. None of us could deal with it. The thought would have been too demeaning. We would have lowered ourselves in each other’s eyes as we made some sort of pathetic attempt. And, God forgive us, if one of us had stepped forward and tried, half-heartedly and incompetently, to clean up the mess, I suspect that we would have found it a bit funny. D’you know, I still feel a bit guilty talking about it. But nowhere near as guilty – or as admiration-filled – as we did when the heroine of the story pushed us all aside (very much with the air of “Let me through, I’m a doctor…”) and simply dealt with it.

I think what happened was this. There was something deeply humiliating to be done. It had to be done. None of us could do it. So she took charge, and took the humiliation on herself. And not a soul laughed. And she retained her status as something of a heroine for the next year-and a-half, until our class left school and split up.

I’d like to step up the level of our thinking a bit, while keeping the dynamic of our thought. One of the mot astonishing, and heartbreakingly beautiful things to come out of the story of Chernobyl is the way in which the emergency teams in the minutes and hours and days after the explosion that blew the lid off Reactor No. 4 in April 1986 threw themselves into work that they knew was pretty much certainly killing them. They can have had no motive other than that this was a uniquely horrible job that needed to be done, a grotesque and unimaginably awful catastrophe that had to be contained in some way – a mess that someone had to deal with. I think about this every time I see a recounting on television of the story, or read about it. What astonishes me about what these brave people did is that for them, dealing with the situation was – well, my choice of words will perhaps surprise you for a moment, but it was the ultimate in “humiliating”.

Now at first glance, that is an odd choice of word. Humiliating. But the firefighters and helicopter pilots of Chernobyl are heroes. And yet, in the instant they were called upon to face what had just happened that day, they were called on to understand themselves as disposable.

Can we understand that?

To the extent that they understood what they were doing – and clearly they did – they had also to understand that in order to do the job that had fallen to them, they had to understand that dealing with this was all that their lives were now about. They weren’t in any way “better than this”. There was no importance that attached to their lives that meant they were going to be exempt this filthy job, that they knew was going to kill them.

And they did it anyway.

Love is, in the end, doing what the situation demands. Love is dealing with the mess, dealing with the fallout, metaphorical as well as literal. Love is embracing the situation, even when you fear – or know – that it will crush and kill you. And doing it for the sake of the others. Love means giving up your privileged position, your position of safety, and taking risks, sometimes life-threatening risks.

And in our universe, constituted as it is, love is only possible on those terms. Even for God.

And that’s why, in a universe like this, we can’t speak about the love of God, can’t speak about God-is-love, without speaking also of risk and hurt and pain, and the willingness to deal with things-as-they-are. If the theology of God as love in Himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is to become the story of God’s love for us, the Good Spiel, the Gospel, it has to become the story of God taking risks, and taking flesh. It has to be the story of a love which doesn’t shirk the demeaning and the humiliating in any form, and does what needs to be done.

And what needs to be done, is the Cross.

Now, one of the problems most people have with this is that the Cross is so often presented as God’s own solution to God’s problem. People have sinned, and God is affronted and hurt and angered, and because he is God, he can’t just leave things like that. Sin has to be punished, and punishment is due to be exacted from sinners. So fortunately someone comes forward to offer himself to bear the punishment on our behalf, and since that person is also God, his bearing our punishment has an infinite value to save. So crucifying Jesus is sufficient to let all of us go unpunished, as long as we believe that this is how things are, and accept this arrangement. Which is what faith is.

A lot of people believe that that’s what the Bible says. And are astonished when told that it isn’t. Most of it goes back no further than the twelfth century, and the great figure of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Bits of it are no older than the sixteenth century, some of it not older than the eighteenth. And yes there are bits of the Bible in there, which makes it all plausible. But really the kindest thing you can say about it is that it’s a colossal distortion.

The truth is that the Bible has a vast number of ways of trying to explain what it is that God does in Jesus Christ to set us free and bring us into a right relationship with him. Jesus Christ is a sacrifice – the sacrifice – which purifies us from sin. Jesus Christ is also our Passover lamb, a quite different sort of “sacrifice”. Jesus Christ is the great High Priest who fulfils the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and brings it to an end. Jesus Christ is the one whom death couldn’t hold, who was too powerful, and broke free and destroyed death. Jesus Christ is the victorious conqueror of all the powers that hold us captive. Jesus Christ is God’s love reaching out into the world in salvation. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus Christ is the judgment, simply because he is the light comibng into the world, and some people prefer the darkness. Jesus Christ is the bread of life, the water of life.

And there is much, much more.

The truth is that there never has been one correct Christian way of speaking of what Jesus Christ does for us. There never has been one Doctrine of the Atonement. Even if you sort them out into broad categories, you can’t reduce the number of totally mainstream Christian doctrines below three.

But maybe there is a bottom line. And maybe we’ve seen it already. Jesus Christ is God getting involved, not just in the world, but in the deep, deep mess that the world is in. Sin isn’t people not believing the right stuff. Sin isn’t people flirting with Feng Shui and reading the Astrology columns. Sin is children dying of starvation in a world of plenty. Sin is a culture that robs children of their childhood and exploits them the same way it exploits adults. And by the way, sin is also that same exploitation of adults. Sin is a society of vast wealth and power, not caring to help those who have no way of fleeing before a great storm because they are too poor and/or their skin is the wrong colour. Sin is the rapacious exploitation of our world by processes which feed our own mad consumption. Sin is what’s wrong with the real world. It’s not the neurotic ravings of a grumpy, bearded old man in the sky who is angry with us for affronting him.

And do you know how we know this? Do you know how we know that that grumpy, bearded old man in the sky is not the living God but a figment of our fearful imaginations?

Because when God is revealed totally, completely and without reserve, it is in a human life lived totally in engagement with the world the way it is. The world the mess it is. Not an old man angry in the sky. But a young man dying on a cross. Not because of theoretical sin, to placate a God from our nightmares, but because of real, actual, world-poisoning human sinfulness, to overcome it in love. This is God. This is what the cross means.

Herbert McCabe, the Dominican theologian, once said something like this: This is a crucifying world, and if you love enough in it, you’ll get hurt. If you love enough, they’ll crucify you. And when God, the Son of God, comes into our world, open and loving, they crucify him too. In that sense, the crucifixion is absolutely inevitable. It’s what happens when the love of God intersects with a world – a real world – like this. But it’s also the point at which God’s love overcomes and vanquishes the lovelessness and hate of the world.

Of all the rich profusion of ways in which the Bible speaks of Jesus Christ as God’s involvement in the world, this is the bottom line. Paul gives it to us in a hymn he didn’t write, but pinched from the hymnbook of the Early Church – CH minus 15. We know that, because of the metre. And he adds only one phrase to it, and we know that because it spoils the metre. “Even death on a cross.”

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ 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.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Notice the double movement: he condescends to take our human flesh and nature, and then he accepts the humiliation of doing what has to be done. Of dealing with the mess we’ve made.

These are things that can only be understood in human terms. But this is the story of God.

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