Forgiveness: Who’s Forgiving Whom?
Reading for this address: Colossians 2. 13-15.
Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel War and Peace introduces us to Pierre, the socially awkward, perhaps autistic character at the heart of the novel. He’s somewhat innocent, but wastes a lot of his youth in drinking bouts, led on by his pleasure-seeking soldier friend, Ivan. Pierre is one of his father’s countless illegitimate sons, but in 1805 inherits the whole of his father’s fortune, and becomes a highly eligible bachelor. The first to capitalise is Hélène, a renowned beauty, who contrives to marry him for his money. Finding Hélène loveless, and marriage lonely, Pierre suggests his old friend Ivan move in with them. Before long it’s clear the unscrupulous Ivan and the lascivious Hélène are having an affair. Pierre challenges Ivan to a duel, and to his surprise, wounds Ivan badly. In time Ivan returns to his soldiering ways. But Pierre’s marriage is damaged beyond repair.
Seven years later, in 1812, Pierre is in Moscow when Napoleon invades the city. Pierre stands up for an Armenian family being abused by soldiers and is thrown in prison, narrowly escaping execution. When Napoleon retreats from Moscow, Pierre is among the prisoners taken on the long death-march back to Europe. After several months of hardship and fierce cold, the bedraggled company of soldiers and prisoners is ambushed by a Russian raiding party. At the moment he’s freed, Pierre sees the face of the ambush leader. It’s his old adversary, Ivan. They shake hands, and the ironies, hurts, regrets and betrayals of the past dissolve in the snow. The friend Pierre had shot for stealing his wife had now reappeared to save his life. There’s no alternative to forgiveness. Ivan lives to fight, drink, and sleep around. It’s as pointless to condemn him for one as to commend him for another. Pierre’s naïve, clumsy and easily manipulated. It’s as useless to pity him when he’s humiliated as it is to idealise him when he gets lucky. Forgiveness is not so much a grand gesture of reconciliation as a recognition of the interdependence of all our lives, the flaws in all our characters, the complexity of all our motives and the surprises that luck, chance and accident can bring.
The story of Pierre and Ivan vividly demonstrates how deeply betrayal, hurt and estrangement wound our existence, and how easily they lead to violence, death and disaster. But as we examine the work of Christ on the cross today, I want to look beyond generalities to identify precisely what’s happening in the crucifixion, why it can seem so distant and abstract, and why it turns out to be truer and more significant than ever.
Look with me again at the story of Pierre and Ivan. You can read it as the story of humanity and God. God has given us a magnificent playground to enjoy. Like Ivan we’re called to be trusted and faithful friends, and like Hélène, we’re called to be people who make a beautiful society with God. But Ivan and Hélène portray how we manipulate, exploit and disregard God. We ruin our relationship through greed and self-absorption. Pierre is a Christ figure who innocently wanders through Russia seeking the good, albeit in a slightly clumsy way. Pierre’s forgiveness of Ivan comes after he has taken on the sins of Russia, on a long march like a via dolorosa from Jerusalem to Golgotha.
But here’s what’s so different today. I think it’s changed even in the last 20 years. It’s changed because of four things: the arguments of the New Atheists, the horrors of clergy abuse of children, the church’s slowness to reflect society’s rapid change in attitudes around sexuality, and the degree to which religion has been identified with global violence and terror. There’s been a revolution. Now humanity thinks of itself as Pierre, well-intentioned if a little ham-fisted. But it’s started to think of God, or at least the workings of organised religion, as like Hélène and Ivan, distorted, exploitative, malicious, perverse, dangerous, immoral and best avoided – though still capable of offering miraculous rescue in real emergency. Whereas 20 years ago a set of Good Friday addresses would have been about the wonder of how God, like Pierre, astonishingly forgives us, today it feels like the real question is whether we can forgive God. And the coronavirus has only made the issues sharper and more painful.
Seeking to answer this question takes us closer to the heart of the cross than we generally tend to go, even on Good Friday. Why? Because even though we say we regard Jesus as fully human and fully divine, our imaginations on Good Friday are captivated by the notion of sacrifice. We talk of Jesus’ agonising death in the most vivid terms possible, because we assume God is angry with us, and that anger can only be appeased by a sacrificial lamb. Jesus becomes that lamb and his innocence is imputed to us, so henceforth when God looks on us God sees not our sins but Christ’s goodness. Jesus is like the shepherd boy David who comes out of the ranks of Israel and is the one chosen to face the worst nightmare, Goliath, and somehow overcomes that nightmare and brings us freedom, light and peace. Goliath might equate to death. The trouble is, Goliath in the contemporary imagination bears a rather too close resemblance to God. Instead of being our salvation, in the last 20 years God has come to seem more like Goliath – our blundering, heartless, overbearing enemy.
This is where it changes everything that we see Jesus not just as fully us, but also as fully God. Jesus is not just God forgiving us. Jesus is us forgiving God. If you’re going to respond, ‘Surely God has given us life, love, laughter, how can we possibly speak of our needing to forgive God?’ I’d say, technically you’re right, but have you been paying attention these last 20 years? The world is furious with God. It doesn’t want to know that God forgives, because it pins on God all the wrongs of life: the horror of abuse, the depredation of the planet, the violence of ideology, the heartlessness of bigotry, the manipulation of the innocent. That’s what ‘God’ has come to mean. It’s useless and untimely to protest that the sins of the world toward God amount to so much more than that. No one’s listening.
So today we turn the cross round, so it faces in the opposite direction. It’s not our word to God, the word of a holy man to say, ‘We’ve ruined the garden and stolen the fruit, we’re sorry, can you forgive us, will this sacrifice of the best-ever man be enough?’ Today the cross faces the other way, as God’s word to us, and says, ‘Will you believe this is my face? I’m not the ghastly Goliath, the belligerent bully, the suffocating, micro-parenting passive-aggressive judge. I’m the one who comes across the acres of eternity, who trudges the tundra of terror, who withstands the distortions of motive and misconstruals of purpose, and holds out in two hands a precious piece of paper, that says, “You were made for me, to be with me, to flourish and frolic and desire and dance. That’s what all this was about. If I or my representatives ever suggested anything else, I’m here to say sorry.”’
Our question for today is, will we forgive God? Will we take that piece of paper and hold it to our hearts and embrace the one who bears it? Or will we snatch it from his hands in fury and nail those hands to a cross and punish him for punishing us? Our forebears had that challenge years ago. We have that same challenge today. Can we forgive God, for all the ways our lives are distorted, for all the times religion has gone wrong, for all our own shortcomings and deceptions? Will we receive that paper, that message, that relationship? ‘All it was ever about?’ Will we see that, through all the confusion of centuries, through all the deceptions and doubts, and look at those pierced hands and realise the message they convey? Here is God, naked, bent, bruised, broken: because that’s what it takes to say, ‘Will you forgive me?’
Obedience: The Nakedness of God
Reading for this address: Philippians 2. 5-11.
Imagine being a member of a Roman household in the first century AD. There was only one person who mattered: the head of that household. Everyone else, women, girls, boys and slaves, were subject to his demands and desires. Life for many was a perpetual tightrope of danger, distress and degradation. Imagine then that you heard the message of Jesus, in the mouth of an apostle like Paul. ‘Your bodies are members of Christ,’ he said. ‘They are a temple of the Holy Spirit,’ he said. For a prostitute, a prisoner of war, or a slave, this was revolutionary news. Churches were astonishing communities in which race, gender and class were transcended, and power relations transformed. Paul hesitated to dismantle hierarchies altogether. ‘God shows no partiality,’ he asserted. But he proclaimed a law of love rather than the end of slavery. He wasn’t going to let the chaos of a class revolution get in the way of sharing the gospel.
But ever since, the question of what Christianity really means for economic relations has remained an open one. In the early decades, the church cowered under the shadow of persecution. When Nero was looking for a scapegoat after a destructive conflagration in Rome, he took vengeance on the Christians. It was only after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century that the upper classes started to embrace the church in earnest. But this created a paradox. Before Constantine, the Christians were the ones who, in spite of hardship and persecution, proclaimed equality and hope. After Constantine, Christians started to proclaim the support of the emperor as witness to the truth of their faith, and the radical edge of their message began to blur.
In these circumstances there began to be a new kind of Christianity. Influential individuals, raised in wealth and comfort, started to renounce the benefits of their inheritance and adopt the life of the poor – not from disaster and despair, but from choice and calling. One man stopped being a Roman soldier and adopted the life of a monk. Despite being as unkempt as a peasant, his charisma drew a host of wealthy people to leave their old life and take up shacks or dwell in caves above the River Loire. He turned the world upside down. He was the most talked-about man in France, or Gaul as it was known. What was fundamentally changing was that no longer did being a Christian mean displaying God’s blessings by enjoying wealth and splendour. That was not now the face of God for us to worship. Instead, imitating the Christ that went to the cross, the life of the disciple was to be one of chastity and self-denial. In 371 the people of the nearby city came to fetch him to be their bishop. They didn’t want a bishop who imitated the Roman governors of the day, with palaces and grandeur. They wanted a bishop who showed them the Christ who went to the cross. He hid in a barn to avoid being taken from his monastic life. But he was betrayed by the honking of a gaggle of geese. From then on he was known by the name by which we know him today: Martin of Tours.
People told many stories about St Martin, but one above all: that when he’d been a soldier he’d encountered a shivering beggar at the gate of Amiens; and to clothe the man he had sliced his military cloak in two, keeping half for himself; that night he saw in a dream that the beggar was Christ. Roman convention expected benefactors to support the unfortunate of their own city. But Martin was from Hungary, not from Amiens: he was changing the rules, right there and then. Christians were to have no constraints on their range of obligation, nor any limit on the extent of their mercy. They were to love as broadly as God loves us in Christ.
It was a moral revolution for the church; a revolution Christians still struggle to comprehend and inhabit to this day. But on Good Friday, we’re not so interested in the moral revolution as the theological one. And that theological question is highlighted by the hymn of Philippians 2. Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, that every tongue should confess that he is Lord. Here’s the question. Is Jesus really naked, bruised, broken, and humble? Is God truly a beaten, battered, shattered slave? Or is this just something Jesus went through in order to encounter the worst of the human condition, and thus take every one of us up into God’s divinity?
You can see the problems with both approaches. If we say Jesus becoming poor was just a device, it seems like it wasn’t true to the heart of God, and that some kind of technique was used to satisfy God and prove God’s commitment to us. Yet if we say Christ is truly a slave, that seems to valorise oppression and portray eternal life as anything but free and fruitful.
I want to go back to the point I made a few minutes ago. We need to let go of the idea that God is simply good and we are simply bad and Good Friday is about an almighty gesture from one man that takes the obstacle away so God can finally forgive us. Instead what we’re seeing today is that God’s love towards us, God’s desire for us, God’s longing to be with us, make God naked, render God practically enslaved, reveal God’s humility, simplicity and vulnerability.
If we assume God is activating some mechanism by which Jesus’ death sets us all free, then God is our benefactor, not fundamentally changed by the process but releasing us from sin and death as a surgeon extracts a tumour from a body. But the cross shows us more than that. God isn’t a busy deity, taking a break from constructing Milky Ways and filling black holes in order to set us free for everlasting life. God is utterly consumed by the longing to be with us and dwell eternally with us in Christ. God has no other plans. We are God’s desire. Jesus is God’s heart walking around in front of us. Jesus isn’t an ambassador from head office. He’s God in flesh and blood. Salvation isn’t a patronising benefit God bestows on the worthy. It’s the bet on which God’s whole life is staked. God in Christ is a slave because God is wholly owned by one desire above all else: to be our companion. The cross shows us that this desire costs God everything. God isn’t weak and vulnerable in the sense that divinity was never up to that much anyway; God is weak and vulnerable because in Jesus we’ve seen what it is that means everything to God. We know God’s secret. That makes God naked before us.
If Martin had remained powerful and influential, he’d have been imitating a God who’s our benefactor, taking the trouble to give us salvation the way a wealthy Roman citizen would build a circus to entertain the popular classes. Only by divesting himself of comfort and privilege could Martin show that he loved God just as God loved him – nakedly, vulnerably, wholly, totally, truly. Christianity is indeed an ethic, by which the lucky share their goods with the unfortunate, class barriers are dismantled, and all find freedom in Christ’s service. But more importantly it’s a theology that’s revealed on Good Friday: God is not distant, benevolent, but unruffled; God is utterly devoted to being with us, so much so that in Christ God becomes naked, vulnerable and transparent to the point of agonising suffering.
One has to wonder whether all the elaborate atonement theories are a complicated way of avoiding the simple truth: that God is naked before us, longing for us to be truly loving, tender and uninhibited in return. That was all it was ever about.
Example: Displaying God’s Purpose
Reading for this address: 1 Peter 2. 21-24.
In the great debates about the cross the battle lines are usually drawn between those who believe something really changes between God and us through Jesus’ death, often known as an objective atonement, and those who believe what really changes is the human heart, which is moved by Christ’s example – often known as subjective atonement. The first group are usually so furious that the second group are settling for second best that it can come as a surprise to find, here in First Peter, a clear endorsement of the second view, referring to Christ as an example for us to follow.
What really does change as a result of the cross? Can we sift through the centuries of reflection and theorising and find an answer? We have to start by acknowledging problems with the conventional view. The conventional view says that there was a Fall, and in response, in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, whose death brought salvation. That salvation, though unlimited in extent, being forever, was limited in scope, in that it achieved heavenly bliss but left earthly existence unchanged. There’s two major problems with this view. The first is that only some seem to be saved – which surely can’t have been God’s purpose. The second is that it encourages a profound complacency. Where does that put the Holocaust, the Asian Tsunami, and a host of human and natural disasters and catastrophes? Surely if Jesus changes everything we’d see that change here and now?
I believe the problem lies in the whole idea that Jesus came to fix the results of the Fall. Instead I believe Christ’s incarnation was at the heart of God’s purposes in creation – indeed it was the reason for creation – and is far from a secondary action of God in response to the setback of sin and death. The incarnation wasn’t an afterthought. It was always in the DNA of creation. God’s life was, from the outset, ordered to be in relationship with us. The gospel is not that God responded to our sin by diverting from other duties to fit in a sacrificial intervention on earth to justify and sanctify us; the gospel is that being with us is written into the nature of God, and Christ’s coming fully embodied what was always God’s purpose.
So what do we do with the fact that evil is still very much around, as much as ever? We can perceive a negative and a positive answer. The negative aspect is hard to say but important to recognise. Jesus’ work on the cross did not destroy death, did not dismantle sin, did not dispel evil. It sounds heretical to say it; but the evidence is incontrovertible: people still die, people continue in sin, evil persists. Jesus certainly confirms that sin, death and the evil do not have the last word. But they still seem pretty loquacious right now. All of which is no more than to say, in more precise theological terms, Jesus’ first coming has the same character but different outcomes to his second coming. His second coming does bring death, sin and evil to an end. When we lament and rail at God, it’s generally because we want Christ’s first coming to be more like his second coming. But that’s a desire to bring history to an end – its good features as well as its bad ones. One day that’ll happen, but there’ll be losses as well as gains, and we have to assume that from God’s point of view right now those losses outweigh the gains.
So what was Jesus’ achievement on the cross, if it didn’t as yet destroy death, dismantle sin, or dispel evil? I suggest two things.
The first is that it disclosed the virulence yet ultimate failure of evil. It displayed God’s faithfulness, the offer of forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God, the overcoming of death and the gift of eternal life. The cross does not eradicate evil and sin, but it demonstrates their damage, breaks their hold on humankind, and anticipates their final and conclusive demise.
The second thing I suggest constitutes Christ’s work on earth is to demonstrate in utter, unmistakeable and sacrificial terms that nothing can separate us from the love of God. In Romans 8 Paul lists 17 things that he is convinced cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, and anything else in all creation. This list broadly describes Christ’s experience in going to the cross. In the cry of dereliction we see Christ’s utter commitment to be with us, even if it jeopardises his relationship with the Father; and at the same time we see the Father’s utter commitment to let Jesus be with us, even if it jeopardises the inner-trinitarian Father-Son relationship. On those two commitments rest our salvation. Evil is that which threatens to separate us from the love of God; sin is action that ignores, forgets, misrepresents or repudiates the love of God. Christ’s work demonstrates that this separation is never total and will not be final. We were created to be with ourselves, one another, the creation and God forever; and God’s will to make it so eternally shall not be thwarted.
My contention is that our understanding of the cross, like most of our theology, has become captivated by the notion of for, to the detriment of the truer reality of with. By this I mean that we invariably perceive Christ as working for us – fixing our infirmities, dying for us, rising for us – rather than focusing on the more lasting gift of his working with or ultimately being with us. On the last day as Revelation 21 tells us God will be with us. In the coming of the kingdom, once the tears have been wiped away, there will be nothing left for God to do for us. We shall fully be God’s companions. The relationship will be the utter embodiment of with. What I’m suggesting is that with is not only the goal of salvation; it’s also the method of salvation. God is with us through the very worst of life and in the very separation of death – in, through, and beyond. Jesus isn’t spared the cross. Jesus isn’t rescued from the cross. Jesus is with God on the cross. The bonds of the Trinity are stretched to the limit; but not broken. When we see the cross we see that God is with us, however, whatever, wherever… forever. This is our faith.
You may know Elie Wiesel’s much-quoted account in his book Night of the hanging of two men and a child in Auschwitz. These are Wiesel’s powerful words.
The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…’
The paradox of this story is that it narrates Wiesel’s own loss of faith in what I call the ‘God of for’ – while at the same time poignantly affirming both the identity and method of what I call the ‘God of with.’ For a theology of ‘for,’ this is the death of a powerless God who’s incapable of sustaining sovereign authority in the face of overwhelming evil. For a theology of ‘with,’ this is a Christlike moment of utter solidarity with the oppressed of the earth – a moment when humanity shares in the humanity of God. It’s an iconic instant that demonstrates how evil hurts God at least as much as it damages victims or disgraces humankind.
Which is why we need to rehabilitate the idea of Jesus’ cross as an example. It’s not a soft atonement, unable to do the objective work of defeating death. Jesus’ work on earth was not straightaway to destroy death, dismantle sin, or dispel evil; neither was it to rescue souls for heavenly bliss that they might temporally escape bleak earth and eternally evade excruciating hell. It was to display the purpose of God ultimately to bring a kingdom beyond death, sin and evil, and to demonstrate conclusively the original design of God to be with us always, most especially in our moments of distress and isolation. Jesus ascended into heaven when in his resurrection he had demonstrated the promise of the kingdom, and in his crucifixion he had shown the will never to be separated from us.
The cross doesn’t make everything perfect straightaway. But we put it in our churches and on our walls and around our necks to say, ‘The God who will go to that length to be with us, will, I believe, be with us always.’
Foolishness: The Proof of Love
Reading for this address: 1 Corinthians 1. 18-25.
As a pastor I’m always alert to euphemisms, because when a person uses a euphemism it’s an indication they’re somehow out of their depth. They’re in territory their hearts feel unready and their souls feel uncomfortable to explore. Listen to these expressions. ‘Couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.’ ‘Doesn’t have both oars in the water.’ ‘Elevator’s stuck between the floors.’ ‘Lights are on but nobody’s home.’ ‘Not dealing from a full deck.’ ‘Wheels’re spinning, but the hamster’s long gone.’ ‘As the Australians say, “Couple of kangaroos short of a full paddock.”’
All these expressions tread a line between saying someone’s stupid, and saying they’re mad. We talk a lot about celebrating diversity, and that means a deeper understanding of mental illness and a deeper respect for those of low IQ. But these expressions and a thousand like them aren’t about misunderstanding mental illness or demeaning someone with low IQ. They hint at something beyond medical and psychological diagnosis. They’re about someone we think is crazy, mad, so eccentric that we reach for a new metaphor. Someone who’s done what no one in their right mind would ever do. Something that unsettles us deeply. Something that beggars belief.
Such a thing was the claim by the early Christians that they worshiped the crucified one. The Roman Empire was built on slavery. Slavery was a system of institutionalised terror. Those who made trouble were nailed naked to wooden crosses, to die a slow death, unable to prevent the ravenous birds pecking at their still-breathing midriff. They were a public example, sometimes lining the roads like a boulevard en route to the city that had dared to rebel. It was such an ignominious end that few ancient authors lowered themselves to write about it.
To understand the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion it’s important to realise that what seems extraordinary to us isn’t the same as what seemed noteworthy to people in the first century. Romans weren’t scared off by the language of divinity. The son of God was a common title for the Emperor, and stories of people becoming gods were part of folklore. What the Romans simply couldn’t comprehend was the veneration of a crucified man. Heroes crucified others: they weren’t tortured and humiliated themselves. The Jews found it even harder. For them, there was only one God, who was Lord over all other powers in the heavens. That God held heaven and earth in glorious array. The idea that such a God could have an earthly son, and that that son could have been executed like a quarrelsome slave, was horrifying and absurd. Anyone who suggested such a thing must be out of their mind.
It’s often said that portrayals of the cross in visual and artistic form don’t appear until about 400 years after Jesus’ death. That’s because it was simply such an indescribable event, such a profound paradox, that the high and mighty one should die in such agonised ignominy. It’s only after this period, after a time when the actual use of crucifixion as a form of torture, punishment, intimidation and social control had long passed, that theologians started to elaborate understandings of the cross that made it part of some forensic, mathematical or precise divine plan. The earliest atonement theories focused on the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection – the only way they could talk about the cross was to see it as some kind of tactical defeat that preceded God’s inevitable victory. But in the Middle Ages theories appeared that began to speak of the cross as some kind of adequate atonement for human sin, or some kind of due paid to a God who had to respect an honour code.
In one of the earliest Christian documents Paul seems to problematise any such tidy account of the cross. Jesus’ crucifixion is utter foolishness in the culture of his time. To suggest any meaning or design could be found in it was nonsensical. Which is why it’s so important today to recognise not just the indescribable pain of crucifixion, but the utter social disgrace and unutterable shame incurred. This cannot be part of some organised plan. It can only be an utter catastrophe.
The desire to make the cross part of some foreordained plan is an entirely understandable reaction in the face of horror and chaos. Life is full of fragility and danger. Suffering and pain are never far away. To see Christ as entering into that realm of terror, jumping into the raging torrent with no ability to reach the bank, is like realising the universe is spiralling out of control and no one’s in charge. It’s absurd to deny that this is a terrifying prospect. But unless we name this horror, and feel the shiver of God being out of control, we’re not truly entering the depth of what the cross demands of us. How can we shrug our shoulders and come to terms with the cross, feel secure in knowing it was all preordained, resolve to keep calm and carry on? God names all our hope that there is truth, beauty and goodness at the epicentre of all things, and the cross names our panic that this truth, beauty and goodness has lost control of events.
How can this be? What is the one force that has the capacity to reduce the most dominant character to powerlessness and the most terrifying power to trembling vulnerability? Love. There’s only one reason why Jesus goes to the cross. It’s not a grotesquely blundering coup d’état, or a naïve and hapless revolution. It’s an empty-handed journey across the mystery of time to win our hearts to the cause of love. It’s a completely crazy thing to do.
1700 years ago in the Egyptian desert there lived St Antony. He was the first Christian monk. This is how he described his life. ‘A time is coming,’ he said, ‘when everyone will go mad. And when they meet someone who’s not mad, they’ll say, “You are mad: you are not like us.”’ That time had already come. Everyone went mad, and they met the one person who was not mad, and they said, ‘You are mad: you are not like us.’ The one they met was Jesus. ‘Wheels’re spinning, but the hamster’s long gone,’ they said. And we’ve said the same thing, but in a different way. They couldn’t work out how God could be emptied of all but love. We can’t conceive of how God could love so much as to risk Christ’s cross. But who’s crazy? And who’s wise?
Rohinton Mistry’s 1995 novel A Fine Balance is an account of life in India under the 1975 Emergency. The novel describes the fine balance between hope and despair, between the paradox of poverty and the initiative of survival, between the colour of life and the drabness of suffering. In the midst of the novel surfaces a unique character. Shankar is a man without legs or fingers, and is hence known by many as Worm. He shuffles and manoeuvres about on what he calls a gaadi, but we might imagine as some kind of skateboard. Shankar has a remarkable lack of self-pity and a generally sunny disposition. He lives under the sway of his pimp, whom he knows as Beggarmaster. Surprisingly Shankar sees Beggarmaster not as a figure of manipulation and oppression, but as a man of virtue to which he professes unending gratitude. In a typical scene, Shankar matter-of-factly explains his uncomplicated and uncomplaining view of the universe. He and others are discussing why they’ve been rounded up and taken to a site of slave labour.
‘That’s what I cannot understand,’ says Shankar. ‘Why did police take me? Beggarmaster pays them every week – all his beggars are allowed to work without harassment.’ The neighbours speculate that maybe these police don’t know Beggarmaster. Shankar shakes his head at the absurdity of the suggestion. ‘Everybody knows Beggarmaster,’ he says, conclusively. When the tailors enquire what happened to his legs and hands, Shankar is philosophical. ‘Don’t know, exactly. Always been like this. But I’m not complaining. I get enough to eat, plus a reserved place on the pavement. Beggarmaster looks after everything.’ He becomes nostalgic, remembering the time before he had his gaadi, when he used to be carried around. ‘Beggarmaster used to rent me out each day,’ he recalls. ‘He would say I earned him the highest profits.’
Shankar seems like a fool. He looks like he’s being duped by his pimp, exploited by those around him and despised by the harsh world. But though he experiences multiple hardships, he turns them not into bitterness or resentment but into compassion, kindness and playfulness. Rohinton Mistry trains the reader’s moral compass by showing the texture and complexity of the human heart and conscience. Shankar comes to resemble India itself – beleaguered by suffering and tragedy, yet consistently resilient and resourceful in ways that transcend sympathy. Mistry trains us through the figure of the legless, fingerless Shankar, to appreciate the foolishness of God. The cross is not part of a tidy plan. It’s the foolishness of the dignity of love.
Reconciliation: The Breaking Point
Reading for this address: Ephesians 2. 14-20.
Not long ago I learned about what it’s like to be a newly qualified nurse on many NHS wards. I heard about a woman whose children were at an age when many parents feel torn between the responsibilities of work and the duties of home. Nonetheless she embarked on training to be a nurse. She struggled to face the challenge of understaffing while herself experiencing new emotional thresholds like seeing a dead body for the first time. She frequently found herself distributing medications at a time of day when there weren’t sufficient colleagues on the ward, and knew she had made mistakes. She was on a ward where profoundly mentally ill patients, some of whom could be violent, were being cared for alongside terminally ill patients receiving palliative care. Physical danger from the one was daily balanced against heartbreak from the other. Nurses were permitted to work 37 regular hours a week and up to 40 bank hours. She felt guilty if she didn’t do a lot of bank hours but she was physically and mentally exhausted. It wasn’t enough simply to train more staff because each ward needed a balance of skilled and trainee nurses. She felt like the strains on the NHS were coruscating through her own body. She was passionate about her work, but she got to the stage where she was near collapse and the effects were being felt within her family. She’d reached breaking point.
Breaking point. It’s the moment where conflicting demands pull you in different directions and you can no longer keep all your commitments. In medieval France, a hideous form of death by torture was devised known as quartering. A rope was attached to each of the victim’s four limbs. These ropes were each fastened to four bars. Then a horse was harnessed to each bar, before the four horses, suitably whipped, careered off in different directions, straining each of the victim’s limbs to breaking point at the same time.
It’s an unspeakable physical torture. But it’s comparable to the kind of struggle children go through when they find their two parents are so intent on fighting each other, everything else becomes a weapon or collateral damage. I once knew a child who talked me through her family tree. ‘I’ve got my mum and my stepdad, my dad and my stepmum, my granny who’s my mum’s mum and my stepgrandad, my grandad who’s my mum’s dad and my step-granny, my gran who’s my dad’s mum and my step-grandad, my grandad who’s my dad’s dad and my step-gran. But my brother’s actually my half-brother and he’s got all the same as me, but half of his aren’t the same as half of mine.’ She was about twelve years old. I had no idea what more complications lay ahead of her. She hadn’t even started on her uncles and aunts. But she hadn’t finished. ‘It’s really horrible when I’m in the house and my mum and my step-dad are fighting, and he’s saying she always puts me first, and she’s saying “Are you asking me to choose between you and the children – because I’ll always choose the children”; and then they both look at me and I feel my stepdad’s envious of me because of what my mum’s just said, and my mum’s using me as a way to get what she wants when really she’s just being mean to my stepdad. Sometimes I just go to my bedroom and cry because I think if I wasn’t here it would be easier for everyone. But then I realise if I wasn’t here they’d just find something else to hit each other with – and that makes me feel worse because I feel like I’m just a weapon and good for nothing else.’ How many children today could tell a story just like that?
Consider these mysterious words from Ephesians. ‘In his flesh he has made both groups into one … that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.’ I want to reflect on these three powerful images I’ve been sharing. In the first, a nurse reaches breaking point, feeling in her own body the conflicting demands of professional duty, personal vocation, and family responsibility amid a backdrop of understaffing and closed psychiatric wards. In the second, a medieval torture victim literally feels his body reaching breaking point, quartered by being pulled like a barge in four directions. In the third, a child becomes the battleground for a host of broken family relationships.
What these three images and the words from Ephesians add up to is this. Jesus on the cross is stretched to breaking point. He’s fully human, and fully divine. He’s at the point in history when those two identities are almost entirely incompatible, because in refusing to listen to him, humanity has rejected its calling to be the image of God in the world. The four horsemen of the apocalypse – pestilence, war, famine and death – those things that create such suffering in the world and question God’s sovereignty; like an elaborate medieval torture, these four forces rack Christ’s body in agony. As well as being the embodiment of the tension between humanity and God, and between suffering and providence, Christ crucified is, as Ephesians is most eager to point out, the place where the division between Jew and Gentile is played out. This is the moment, according to Ephesians, when Christ is the representative both of humanity and of Israel – the new Adam and the new Abraham.
We often concentrate on the physical anguish of the cross, but perhaps the heart of the cross is this sense of a breaking point between equal loyalties. The heart of our faith is that, when Christ was breaking apart in agony, he never let go of us. Which tells us that, in the heat of our agony, God will never let go of us. Even if it makes God the victim of a medieval torture of being pulled in every direction.
In 1998 a Frenchwoman called Denise Némirovsky deciphered a notebook in which, in microscopic handwriting, her mother Irène had written an account of life in rural France in the weeks following the fall of Paris in 1940. The book, and now film, known as Suite Française, tells the story of Lucile, whose unfaithful husband is a prisoner of war, and who lives with her mother-in-law in uncomfortable silences. When the Germans arrive, their commander, Bruno, is billeted with them in their house. Bruno turns out to be a talented pianist, and repeatedly plays the same composition, apparently his own, entitled ‘Suite Française.’ Lucile and Bruno fall in love. Bruno is privately unconvinced of the worthiness of the Nazi cause, and Lucile easily persuades him to do favours that, without his knowledge, enable her to shield a resistance fighter. Eventually Lucile extracts a pass to enable her to drive the resistance fighter to Paris. Bruno appears at just the moment the resistance fighter has killed two German guards. In this extraordinary scene, the three main characters face each other, all three both guilty and innocent. Lucile is torn between her love for Bruno and her loyalty to France and the resistance, Bruno is torn between his duty as a soldier and his love for Lucile, and the resistance fighter is torn between his commitment to armed struggle and his gratitude to Lucile. It’s a breaking point for all three characters. The story’s saying, this is life – if you love, if you try to keep commitments, if you seek to be a person of honour, if you stand for truth, life will bring you moments that are breaking points – moments when your body is a battleground for competing loyalties and conflicting duties.
It turns out reconciliation isn’t a fantasy of beautiful relationships enjoyed on a cloud of harp music and tearful reunions. Reconciliation is right here: holding together profound but incompatible loyalties, straddling deep but rival relationships, being the battleground for terrible and uncontrollable enmities. We experience it on a human scale. Christ on the cross experiences it on a cosmic scale. It’s the breaking point. It’s the agony and glory of our salvation.
Boast: The Dirty Work
Reading for this address: Galatians 6. 14-16.
In the crucified Jesus, we hear God saying, ‘I wear my heart on my sleeve.’ Jesus’ cross isn’t that complicated: it’s God saying, ‘This is how much I love you.’ It’s a judgement on every other inadequate gesture of love.
We all make judgements, even if we pretend we don’t. A few months ago, one person made a very severe judgement on me. I received a letter from a woman I haven’t met, but who is nonetheless convinced of all my faults – and more. She believed everything she read in the newspaper about the death of a young homeless man on the streets of London, and wrote to tell me how outraged she was.
My chief sin, it turns out, is not to be one particular predecessor. ‘It could not have happened in his time,’ the letter asserted. ‘You have turned that lovely, caring community run by lovely gentle gentlemen in my time, into a modern-day business, bent on efficiency.’ It seems the glorious amateurs have been replaced by hard-nosed professionals – myself chief among them. ‘When I think of the saints who worked there, I could weep.’ The rhetorical dial went up a couple of notches. But she hadn’t finished. ‘Shame on you.’ And then the peroration: ‘Don’t sleep easy in your bed tonight. And tomorrow roll up your sleeves and do some of the dirty work.’
She didn’t explain precisely what the dirty work was. It took me back to a rather conflictual relationship many years ago, when my parishioner detonated a nuclear judgement: ‘You have failed this community as a priest.’ No answer to that. The scar abides.
I got an insight into the dirty work later the same day. I put the letter to one side, on hand to burst the balloon should my ego ever inflate to dangerous levels. But then I got a message from a person whom a few years ago I got to know very well, in a way only a pastor really can. He was experiencing about the worst thing a person can ever go through. His child, young and full of life, had injected a recreational drug that turned out to have been contaminated. She went into a coma, and never emerged; she died a month later. He’d asked me to take her funeral. It was one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever had.
What do you say in the face of such indescribable tragedy? A lively young person dying an absurd and pointless death, shrouded in grief, horror, and shame. It seemed her father had felt I’d got something right, because, the same evening I’d got the poison-ink letter, I was on the phone to him, and he was asking me to take his brother’s funeral. I live my life by appointments and schedules, so fitting in a funeral was no simple matter: but sometimes you simply eradicate ‘No’ from your vocabulary.
This gentle man, for whom losing a brother compounded the loss of his vivacious daughter, then sent me one of the most extraordinary messages I’ve ever received. He reminded me that at his daughter’s service I’d preached from the Song of Songs. I’d read the words, ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death.’ This is what I’d said. ‘The whole Bible is in this sentence; the Christian faith rests on the belief that love is stronger than death: and Christian hope is simply this – that we are a seal upon God’s heart.’
It was starting to come back to me now. But his gentle message went on, ‘At her funeral, my son was so upset that I wondered whether he’d taken much of it in. For the rest of that summer he withdrew from us and from most people. Some weeks later he acquired, on the inside of his right forearm, an indecipherable tattoo. It turned out that he’d asked my wife, in her beautiful handwriting, to write eight short words, which he’d then had permanently tattooed in mirror image. He decided on mirror image, he said, “because I don’t want people knowing my business.” The eight words were, “Set me as a seal upon your heart.” The tattoo looks like a blur in ordinary sight. The words emerge for my son when he holds his arm up before a mirror. (And of course the verse continues: … “as a seal upon your arm”).’
I didn’t know what to say; how to reply. How can we ever know what people are really thinking after so tragically losing a loved one, since we so seldom ask them to roll up their sleeves and provide the evidence? But what I do know is this. Christ rolls up his sleeves in ministry around Galilee. In Jerusalem he rolls up his sleeves and bares his arm and shows us that love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave; and tattooed on his arm is our name – my name, Sam, and your name, too: but the names look like a blur and are indecipherable, probably because he didn’t want people knowing his business. And on the cross Christ sets us as a seal upon his heart, and we’re sealed on that arm forever – you, me, that father, his two children, his wife, and his brother.
And the woman who wrote me the poisoned letter. Her name is written in the indecipherable tattoo on Christ’s arm too. She wanted me to roll up my sleeves and do some of the dirty work. What the bereaved father’s extraordinary message told me is that Christ has already rolled up his sleeves and done the dirty work. Any work I might do, clean or dirty, is simply a celebration of that.
Christ rolled up his sleeves, and did the dirty work. That’s Good Friday. The dirty work was to seal us on his arm, and in God’s heart, forever. Today we realise there’s nowhere else we’d rather be. That’s why we call this most awful of days, good.