Posted by: owizblog | April 3, 2016

The Ultimate Jesus: Sermon, UCB, 3 April 2016 (Easter 1)

Acts 5:27-32

Revelation 1:4-8

Here are a few images, to start us thinking this morning; and each one will probably start some, at least, of us, salivating (especially the first one!)

The Ultimate Burger

There you go – the ultimate burger! It looks lovely, though it would have to be pretty good to beat the excellent burger I had in the Kingarth Hotel last week (and other island outlets are available). In fact, so good was the Kingarth burger I had, that it would challenge the claim of this to be “the ultimate burger”…

The Ultimate Car

 

It’s a strange word, this “ultimate”, isn’t it? You might think this the “ultimate” car. I don’t think I could get into it. So your idea of “ultimate” might differ from mine! But how can that be? If the word “ultimate” means “that which can’t be exceeded, bettered, improved on, imagined to have something greater than…” then how could your ultimate car be different to mine?

 

The Ultimate Handbag

Here, on the other hand, is the “ultimate handbag.” With niloticus crocodile skin and diamonds, you might think it has a strong claim to the title – but Carolyn bought me a man-bag last week, to take everything that’s usually stuffed into my pockets, or carefully arranged on the passenger seat and floor of the car. It’s made of faux crocodile – no crocodiles were harmed in the making of it – and I think it’s much better than that one.

 

Even so, I am impressed with this toolkit.

The Ultimate Toolkit

You’ll sometimes see me staring wistfully into the window of Bute Tools, looking at this sort of thing. The danger, of course, is that I might actually start to believe that if I had one of these, I would suddenly, magically, be able to do DIY and repairs all over the Manse, and I can only imagine what effect that thought would have on the congregation’s poor Master of Works.

It really would have to be an ultimate toolkit, to make me remotely competent in practical things.

This word – “ultimate.” We use it so loosely. But it’s the key to understanding our faith.

2

A handful of people who can’t shut up about something – and someone. They can’t help themselves, and they can’t be bullied into silence, because however cowed and afraid they might have been by the people – and the considerations – that tell them that the sensible thing to do is to zip it, this is bigger than that. That’s what our reading from the Book of Acts depicts.

And the reading from the Book of Revelation is a glorious evocation of divine power and authority, in which is set perhaps the greatest of New Testament invocations of the utter finality of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’” But at the end of the book, it’s Jesus Christ who says “I am the Alpha and the Omega…”

And this comes from a tiny, embattled community of people in a corner of what we’d nowadays call Turkey, persecuted by and at odds with the whole of the society around them, to which their claims, and their language, must have seemed preposterous – and profoundly irritating, hence the persecution.

Yet these folk can’t – and won’t – shut up.

A common thread. People for whom one idea, one figure, has become it. Ultimate, final, what draws everything together, what gives meaning – or the promise of meaning – to everything else. And for these people, that idea, that figure is Jesus.

And yet, they view him differently, understand him differently; all of them do. That statement might surprise you. Don’t all Christians – and these are the earliest Christians we’re talking about here – don’t all Christians see Jesus the same way?

And here’s the thing; the New Testament itself is a compendium of different perspectives on Jesus of Nazareth.

Four Versions

We’re actually used to that, if you think about it, and it shouldn’t be frightening. We’re used to the idea that there are four Gospels, not one, that they differ amongst themselves in the way they present Jesus, that they all represent the perspectives of the different churches in which they were written, and the way those churches had developed the different oral traditions, the stories passed on about Jesus through two or three – or maybe even four – generations since Jesus’ ministry, and the first Easter. Then, there’s Paul. And Revelation. And the other letters…

All of them view one phenomenon – and “phenomenon” is a good word for it, because the literal, Greek meaning of “phenomenon” is “something put on display.” And they view this phenomenon from a multiplicity of different directions, so that they are looking in different directions, at different angles – because their gaze converges on this one point. And they speak of what they can see from where they are.

And the phenomenon – the “something put on display” – that they are all talking about, from their different perspectives – is Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth.
Faces of Jesus
And to this impressive collection of different portrayals of Jesus in the New Testament, two thousand years of Christian tradition has added countless others. It’s like a huge gallery of imaginative portrayals, all taken from different experiences of faith, different experiences of lived Christian faith in culture and history, all of them utterly unique – even though there are resemblances among all of them, common emphases – after all, each of these depictions takes its rise in what we all know of this one life.

How on earth are we supposed to make sense of this?

Well, they all have this in common.

Every one of them depicts Jesus as, in some profound and fundamental sense, “ultimate.”

Every one of them takes Jesus as, if you like, “what it is, that everything else is measured against.”

There are other things, too: the self-giving; the radical, in-charge, nobody’s-making-me-do-this humility; the radical acceptance of others; the injunction not to judge; the deeply challenging emphasis on living the life of the Kingdom of God in the here and now – in the world the way it is. You couldn’t leave any of these things out of a depiction of Jesus of Nazareth, and still think you’d painted a decent likeness of him, even though Christians have always found ways of covering over his radical demands, and hiding from the implications of following the Jesus of the Gospels.

3

But behind, and under, all of these things, there is this one, deepest thing of all. That Jesus is, somehow, ultimate. That there is nothing higher, deeper, more decisive for me, than what I encounter in him.

The non-negotiable is a terribly dangerous thing. It can make people hard, and cruel. It has made Christians hard and cruel. But when it has, it’s always turned out that what has made them hard and cruel, what is ultimate for them, isn’t Jesus. It’s always doctrine, or authority, or Catholic orthodoxy, or the Westminster Confession. It isn’t Jesus. Because when Jesus is ultimate for people, the effects on them are quite different.

The earliest Christians encountered this ultimacy, and it caused them a huge problem, because, of course, every one of them was a devout Jew. And for a devout Jew, there is only one thing that is ultimate.

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

And you shall worship no other… And yet, this is the ultimacy that these devout Jews encountered in Jesus. And that’s what generates the whole of Christian thought and theology.

Now, that might sound incredibly heavy. So consider this. It’s also what has generated the whole of Christian living, and the whole way in which Christians have approached life and death.

IN 186 AD, a noble old man called Polycarp stood in the arena in Smyrna, and declined calls to recant his faith. He was the Bishop of the city, and the authorities had got themselves into a bind with him. They didn’t want to execute him, because it would look dreadfully bad, and only boost the Christian faith – but he was under sentence, and they wanted him to take this way out. If he didn’t… And he didn’t. He declaimed “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” And they lit the fires under him.

And Martin Luther, unable not to follow through on what he’d learned from the Letter to the Romans about the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, stood in front of the Holy Roman Emperor and the whole assembled Imperial Diet at Worms, and, knowing that it might well cost him his life, said “Here I stand. I can no other. God help me.” Because he, too, had encountered the ultimate, the non-negotiable.

And Albert Schweitzer, who had already established himself as a world-renowned organist and scholar of the music of Bach, and had written a book of New Testament scholarship that still shapes study today, and is required reading for divinity students, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, at the age of thirty, went back to study to become a doctor, and then left for Africa, to set up his leprosy hospital in Lambarene.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus is one of the most radical examinations of the portrait of Jesus ever written. In an utterly uncompromising way, it strips away all the sentiment, and the woolly-mindedness, and wishful thinking, of more than two hundred years of theological writing about Jesus, and reduces it all to one memorable image. It’s like peering down a well, and seeing a face from your own time reflected back up at you.

Schweitzer lays out all he feels confident saying about the historical Jesus. And it doesn’t seem a great deal at all. And yet, on the basis of his faith in this radical Jesus, he abandons everything he’d achieved, and goes off to Gabon, because this is Jesus’ radical demand on him, and that, and this Jesus, for him, is ultimate.

And there are hundreds more examples I could give you, of people who have approached this Jesus from different perspectives, and yet have all found in him what is, for them ultimate. Non-negotiable. And that’s the root of the Christian experience that, in some sense – but not a wooly “some sense”, but in the deepest, most unyielding sense of all, except that it’s so hard to express in words – what we encounter in Jesus of Nazareth, is God.

[Break: Hymn: How tedious and tasteless the hours (see below)]

[Gospel Reading: John 20:19-30]

4

Thomas. Doubting Thomas. He wasn’t there, that first Sunday. And in a very important sense, that’s the only difference between him and the other disciples. We’re so used to taking the story at face value – and so dangerously used to feeling we can’t ask questions about the way the Bible presents things to us – that we are in danger of missing an important point here.

Thomas wasn’t there. He didn’t have the experience the other disciples had. So what could be more natural than that he should say “Well, hang on a second! I can’t believe this just because you are telling me…” We are hard on doubting Thomas – but he wasn’t there, so he didn’t experience, didn’t see, didn’t… He wasn’t there.

And yet he comes back the next week. He comes back to where he should have been, but wasn’t, and we don’t know what kept him away, don’t know what came up that he missed being with the other disciples the previous week – but he assumes that he should have been with them apart from that, and that he should, equally, be with them this week, because he is still a disciple. Still one of Jesus’ folk. Still counted in, still – let’s be clear about it – running the same risks that come with being associated with the executed man who was his master, who defined the whole of his life, who was, for him, ultimate… Even though he can’t accept what the other disciples tell him, that Christ is risen, that they were in his presence, that everything, since last Sunday, is different…

Thomas has his doubts. But here he is, back again, because even though he is crucified and dead, Jesus of Nazareth is still, for him, ultimate. Non-negotiable. The meaning of everything he is, even if that costs him, Thomas, his life. And this even though Thomas has no way of making sense of all this talk of resurrection.

Everything we know about Thomas (except that he was a twin) is known to us through John’s Gospel. And the one other place before this where Thomas is centre stage in John’s Gospel is at the point where Jesus receives the news that Lazarus has died, and prepares to go down south, to the family. The disciples, we may infer, are horrified. He’s just narrowly avoided being killed down there – and he’s proposing to go down there again.

And Thomas says: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

In other words, we might unpack – “This will probably cost us all our lives. But that’s what our living is about, now. We’re his people. He, for us, is ultimate. Let’s accept that, and go with him…”

And that’s what faith is. It isn’t having all the answers. It isn’t accepting all the answers that others offer. Faith is sometimes about having none of the answers – but of knowing where our trust reposes. Of knowing what, for us, is ultimate, and going where that leads us, even if we can’t see that it will lead us anywhere that we can see.

Read that passage too literally, and Thomas can remind us of someone rather too strongly!
Private Fraser

That’s not who Thomas is. Thomas is the man who has his doubts, and faces them. He’s the man who, perhaps, doesn’t know what he believes, or what he can believe – but knows what, from where he is now, he can’t believe. But he does believe in this Jesus, in the ultimacy he has found in him, in whatever he knows of God, that for him centres on Jesus of Nazareth even after he saw him dead on the cross – and that hasn’t gone away. Jesus, for Thomas, still is ultimate, even though he doesn’t know, and can’t work out, what that means.

There is, by definition, only one ultimate. Having met the ultimate in Jesus, where else is Thomas going to go to look for it now?

Incredulity of St Thomas Caravaggio

And that’s what brings him back, the first Sunday after Easter.

And that’s where we are today. Last Sunday, the great proclamation rang out here, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” And maybe you were here, or maybe you weren’t. But it’s the ultimacy of Christ that has you back here again this week. And sometimes, when we come back, we’re Thomas. We wonder about so many things, we doubt so many more. We wonder if we have faith. And yet here we are. Because however we understand it, for us, too, Jesus Christ is ultimate, in him we encounter, inescapably, the meaning of our being. And so, in him, however we understand it (and who could possibly say that they understand it?) we encounter the mystery of God.

Look at Caravaggio’s great masterpiece again: The Incredulity of St Thomas. See the man who doubted, but didn’t give up on his doubt, the man who came back because – well, where else was he going to encounter ultimacy? See him encounter Christ, and know that he believes, even though he can hardly believe it.

Hymn: “How tedious and tasteless the hours”

How tedious and tasteless the hours

When Jesus I no longer see;

Sweet prospects, sweet birds and sweet flowers,

Have all lost their sweetness to me;

The midsummer sun shines but dim,

The fields strive in vain to look gay.

But when I am happy in Him,

December’s as pleasant as May.

 

His Name yields the richest perfume,

And sweeter than music His voice;

His presence disperses my gloom,

And makes all within me rejoice.

I should, were He always thus nigh,

Have nothing to wish or to fear;

No mortal as happy as I,

My summer would last all the year.

 

Content with beholding His face,

My all to His pleasure resigned,

No changes of season or place

Would make any change in my mind:

While blessed with a sense of His love,

A palace a toy would appear;

All prisons would palaces prove,

If Jesus would dwell with me there.

 

Dear Lord, if indeed I am Thine,

If Thou art my sun and my song,

Say, why do I languish and pine?

And why are my winters so long?

O drive these dark clouds from the sky,

Thy soul-cheering presence restore;

Or take me to Thee up on high,

Where winter and clouds are no more.

 

 

 


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