Posted by: owizblog | February 22, 2013

Hello Magazine and Apollinarianism Sermon 30 April 2006

Easter 3; 30 April 2006 Acts 3:12-19 1 John 3:1-7 Luke 24:36b-48

I

I was thinking deep thoughts in the doctors’ surgery in Houston the other day. Thoughts about the meaning we human beings attach to life, the goals and purposes we live by and towards, the insight – or lack of insight – we have into the lives of others. These are great, weighty thoughts, and I was glad, given where I was, to be guided through my reflections by a weighty publication that more Ministers should read. Hello magazine.

And I found myself thinking. Celebrity is power. And celebrity is power, because celebrity is money, and celebrity is money, because celebrity is power. It used to be that power was a thing in itself. Power, money and celebrity were things that overlapped, but didn’t just collapse into each other. It’s hard to imagine Neville Chamberlain in Hello magazine, though it has to be said that David Lloyd George did a fair bit by way of pulling all three together.

None of what I say in this whole area this morning has anything to do with party politics. But it has everything to do with the world in which we are trying to be Christians. As a good little Minister, who’s a Commissioner to the General Assembly this year, I was reading through some Study Notes for another Assembly, the General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and came across this:

Karl Barth famously urged us to travel through life with the Bible in one hand and our newspaper in the other, but in today’s world the tension between the reality captured by the media and the promise conveyed by scripture becomes acute.

That’s quite right. And we need that tension. We need to measure our faith against the real world, or we aren’t a faithful Church. I wonder what Karl Barth would have said about Hello magazine? I think he might have agreed with me. Because truth to tell, maybe we need some awareness of publication like Hello, to understand the papers we read.

II

It’s been a bad week for the Government. Wednesday in particular. “Black Wednesday” they’re calling it, or “Triple Whammy Wednesday”. Two cabinet ministers deeply embarrassed by problems with their Departments, and a third having to admit to having had an affair with his secretary. The papers have been merciless. But you’d expect that. That’s what the papers do.

But the papers only do it, because they know that’s what the public wants. That’s how the public thinks. We want our politicians to be on pedestals. It used to be because of the power, but now it’s more perhaps because of the celebrity. And we want them to be on pedestals, because that way, they fall further when they topple.

All of this is saying something about us.

And at this point, and entirely justifiably, you say “Hang on a second, Minister. Who’s this “us”? I don’t want to hear the details of public figures’ lives. I don’t want to glory in the fall of some celebrity – even a celebrity politician – into disgrace. If there is such a thing as disgrace any more…” And, you might add, “I’m not the one who was reading Hello magazine in the surgery in Houston the other day!”

And I’ll grant you all of that. Though I have to say that the Hello mix, of starry-eyed adulation (presumably for the stars who did deals with them for features) and the catty adolescent carping, presumably about those stars who are in the bad books, made something of a change from the bitter and vicious reporting of politics that you get in the papers, and barely sanitized on the TV news.

We get the politicians we deserve, we say. Actually, lots of us feel we don’t. Lots of us actually know thoroughly decent politicians, fine, good people with deeply held convictions, who are nothing like the political culture I’m describing. The truth is that the political culture we have proceeds from the society we have, and that’s a lot to do with the people we – not me or you as individuals, but all of us in our millions – have become, and the society we have created, all of us together, in our millions. And maybe, truth to tell, tiny fragments of this lodge in the hearts of each one of us. Human nature. Fallen human nature…

III

Touching politicians, or celebrities, the truth is this:

We want them to be different to us, but we need them to be like us.

We want them to have the glitzy, glamorous “X-factor”, that unnameable thing that sets them apart.

Have you ever wondered why so few young boys want to play football for their teams and for their country nowadays? Or why so few little girls want to sing and make music? It’s because they all want to be footballers and they all want to be pop stars. And that, frighteningly, is how they put it. That’s how serious this cult of celebrity is. It warps our children’s perceptions of who they are, and who they must be to be valuable people. It warps their ideas of self-respect and their notions of goals in life. It makes them sad. Now, life sometimes makes us sad, and worse. Reality will do that. But the children of our society are in danger of being made sad, not by their reality, but by their dreams. Dreams they can never attain. And more tragically, dreams they don’t have to attain.

But this is the contradiction in our society. We want our celebs to have the X factor. We want them to be special, different, settable on pedestals. Because deep down we want to be them. And that’s why, also, we long to pull them down. Because when they tumble, they reassure us that we’re no worse than them, at least as good as them. That their X-factor doesn’t cancel out our X-factor.

Celebrities are special people. Special people have the X factor. But we’re all special. We all have an X-factor. So when we see people achieve stardom on television, beating off thousands of competitors, that’s us! We’re never the no-hopers we laugh at, along with the judges, are we? In fact, we’re the public, so we can overturn the judges’ verdicts, and we can make stars of anyone we want. People just like us!

And a few weeks later, when they are stars, and we have seen them cross from being where we are to where we should be – well, they have become different to us. And it’s time to prove that they really are like us after all. So we turn to Hello magazine, and read about their relationship problems, or their cellulite. Or their home life, and their love of cooking, and their new relationship, and what they watch on tv.

IV

And that’s us half way through the sermon, and you are asking “What has all this to do with the story of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, appearing to the disciples, and eating a piece of fish?” Well, let me tell you.

It’s fairly obvious, isn’t it, what this story means.

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

This is no ghost. But that’s the least that the early church took from this passage. This was one of those texts on which the central understanding of our faith was built that Jesus Christ was, and is to all eternity, human; as fully as you and I are human.

For four and a half centuries, the Church struggled to keep this understanding, to develop it, and to work out what it means. Because our faith holds it in tension with another insight: that Jesus Christ is, always was, and always shall be, totally and fully God.

Over those four and a half centuries, the church saw off various alternatives. That Jesus was fully human, and that he had been adopted at his baptism when the Holy Spirit came down on him. That wouldn’t do. That Christ was entirely divine, and as God could know nothing of pain and suffering, he only pretended to suffer and die on the cross. Or that he had someone else, maybe Simon of Cyrene, die in his place. (Yes, some of the stuff from The Da Vinci Code is that old.) That Jesus Christ was indeed a god, but a sort of “created god”, a super-being made by the one God, and therefore his “son”. All of these the Church dismissed as alternatives to the difficult faith that we have, that Jesus Christ is totally and utterly God, and totally and utterly human.

One of the very last of these diversions – so close to the orthodox faith that it’s hard to tell them apart – was taught by a very learned man called Apollinaris. He taught that in Jesus Christ, God the Son had come down and taken the human flesh and nature of a real human man. And you say “Hang on! Isn’t that exactly what we believe?” And it sounds like it, doesn’t it?

And Apollinaris said that God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, came down and clothed himself in a totally human body, and moved that body as my soul, my mind, moves my body, or your soul, your mind, moves yours.

V

And now you say “Well, isn’t that exactly what we believe?” It sounds right, doesn’t it?

But what Apollinaris was actually saying was that there was in Jesus nothing corresponding to your human soul, or mine. What was there instead of that, was God. And in regard to not having a human mind, not having a human soul, Jesus, then, would not be like you or me. He would be different. He would be God, but not human. Not, in fact, a man.

And you say, “For pity’s sake! What difference does it make? This is all angels-dancing-on-pinheads stuff! What’s it got to do with real life?”

I was thinking of Apollinaris when I sat reading Hello magazine in the doctor’s surgery in Houston.

Because in the end, what Apollinaris offers us is God in a meat suit. Not one who in the last analysis stands with us, but somebody who stands over against us. Not somebody who knows our joys, and our pains and our fears the way we know them. Somebody who knows them the way God would know them, if he zipped himself into a meat suit, and came down among us. He would know these joys, and fears, and pains, as God, but not as we do.

VI

And that’s why the Church rejected the teaching of Apollinaris. That’s why the Church has always taught since, that Jesus of Nazareth had a human soul. That Jesus Christ, The Eternal Son, to be worshipped and adored one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God forever, has a human soul. Which means that when we worship, as we do now, we worship God with, in and through the human mind and soul of Jesus.

Along with being the full, totally committed presence of God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity in our human nature, Jesus Christ has what we have. A mind, a soul that can register fear, and joy, solidarity and isolation, the pain of limited knowledge and the pain of ignorance. That can register even the sense of separation from God. That explains how the Son of God can hang on the cross, and cry out “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” That explains that greatest of all paradoxes; as Karl Barth puts it “God-forsaken God”, “God at the furthest point of remove from God.”

We sometimes find ourselves there. We have a desperate need to know that God can be there too. It is only our faith in the complete humanity of Jesus of Nazareth that lets us believe that. Apollinaris can’t take us there. But when we do go there – when we do find ourselves in our own private hell, or in a shared, public hell – Jesus Christ is there with us, and for us.

We live in a society that has a desperate need for celebrity. And that means that we have a desperate need for special people who we can put on a special pedestal – to represent a specialness that we desperately hope we have. And we have an equally desperate need to knock them down, to destroy their specialness, because it threatens our own fragile, narcissistic sense of being people whose lives mean anything at all.

How we need to be loved and accepted as we are. And what the ancient faith of the Church proclaims is that we are so loved and accepted. In the full humanity of Jesus Christ.

And it is in and through this full humanity of Christ that we offer our worship to the Father. We come to worship this morning, not God in a meat suit, not a celebrity Christ on a pedestal in front of us. We come to worship in, with and through Christ, who shares completely our human mind. We come to worship in and through the mind of Christ, who is our mediator and our Great High Priest.

All this I was thinking in the surgery in Houston, as I read Hello magazine.

That plus the fact that J-Lo has learned to chill at the baseball, that black trousers are going to be big this autumn, and that my cellulite problems are nowhere near as bad as some people’s…

God in real life. God where we are…

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