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Easter 2, Yr C, St Mark's, 18.4.04
Acts 5.27-32: We must obey God
Ps 118..14-29, or Ps 150
Rev 1.4-8: Binitarian salutation; made us kingdom, priests; he is coming (continuous coming)
John 20.19-31: Fear + Thomas
Collect: preach against 'merits'!
Post Com: delivered us from death of sin, raised us to new life in your love. (1697-56=1641)
Summary: A cultural shift 'necessitated' the shift from the Binitarian NT to our Trinitarian understanding; Jesus has no 'merit'; thus be careful in what terms we share the gospel.
Down through the centuries, as Christians have grappled with their faith,
they have either consciously or unconsciously adapted their understanding of it
to their own cultural setting and needs, sometimes for the better and sometimes
for the worse.
Some changes have been quite deliberate, changes made to make the gospel more understandable to the people they were trying to reach or even understandable to themselves. Other changes came about because the cultural setting in which they found themselves quite naturally led them to think the way they did.
A very simple non-theological example of a seemingly natural change can be found in Luke's re-telling of the story in Mark of the paralytic who was brought to Jesus on a stretcher borne by four men who removed the roof and dug through it. Luke, however, specifies that the men took the tiles off the roof of the house in order to let the man down before Jesus. Luke, looking out the window possibly at Alexandra but certainly out in the wider Roman world, would automatically think in terms of a tiled roof. But they did not have tiled roofs in Palestine in Jesus' day.
With this idea of changes in mind, let us look at four points. The first one starts from our reading from Revelation, the second and third ones are drawn from our Gospel, and the fourth one is raised by today's collect.
The Revelation of St John the Divine starts out as a letter addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor which are facing persecution, quite possibly around AD 96 when the Emperor Domitian appears to have intended to persecute the Christians. Like most other letters in the New Testament, it starts out with a salutation which includes these words: 'Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth' (1.4-5). Notice that we have God and Jesus Christ - but no Holy Spirit as such, even though 'seven spirits that are before the throne' are mentioned.
In every letter in the New Testament that has a salutation we find the same thing: God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, but never the Holy Spirit. Put quite bluntly, the New Testament is basically Binitarian, not Trinitarian.
But we are Trinitarians, so how did we get here? Quite simply for the writers of the New Testament, God the Father is a person, and the Lord Jesus Christ is a person, but the Spirit simply means God's present power or his powerful, working presence. It is akin to saying, as in the Old Testament, 'with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm he brought us out of the land of Egypt'.
'Mighty hand' and 'outstretched arm' are metaphors for God's powerful action, and the Spirit of God is a third one, but it includes more, for it stands for more than just power. It stands also for the very will of God and the righteous content of his will. So when the influence of Greek thought became dominant, it was necessary to say more about the Holy Spirit, especially in a culture that thought in such terms as, 'Until I know what something IS, I do not know what it is good FOR'. With this attitude, it was necessary for Christians to insist that the Holy Spirit was nothing less than God and his very will in action. This was coming to the fore, probably as early as the end of the first century A.D., as seen in the interpolation into the last chapter of Matthew's gospel of the command to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is also added in at the end of what we call 2 Corinthians, for when segments of Paul's letters were put together to form this composite epistle some bits were added, including the closing verse. This final verse is well known to us all, namely: 'The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.'
Now this beginning of a movement toward an avowedly Trinitarian position was felt to be a necessary shift in order to meet the needs of a changing situation. It was a response to the need to make the gospel heard and relevant in a new situation.
When we turn to our gospel reading from the 20th chapter of St
John, we have two stories, the first told as being on Easter Day and the second
one week later, such as today. If the beginning of John chapter 20 strongly
echoes Genesis 1 with its speaking of 'Very early in the morning, on the first
day of the week', then in our opening story this morning, we are picking up a
motif of Genesis 3, with the mention of 'fear'. In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve start
hiding from each other by clothing their nakedness and then they hide from God
when they hear him walking in the garden. When God asks Adam, why did you hide?
He is given the very profound answer, 'Because I was afraid'. Since it is
perfect love that casts out fear, and Jesus has loved his disciples completely,
perfectly, it is as perfect love that he comes to them when they are hiding for
fear of the Jews. He casts out their fear, empowers them with Holy Spirit, and
sends them forth with the ministry of reconciliation. That, in a nutshell, is
the heart of the gospel that we celebrate this Eastertide. He who is love
incarnate casts out their fear and our fear, and through him we are empowered
And the one who casts out their fear shows them his hands and his side, the abiding marks of the passion. This emphasizes that the passion was not a passing phase now over, but rather it is an abiding event with continuing consequences. The one whom the Father has raised is the abidingly crucified one.
Tacked on, so to speak, is the story of Thomas with his doubts. This emphatically hammers home the physicality of the cross against those who would deny or simply pass over that Jesus was truly crucified in the flesh. But when Thomas is offered the chance to thrust his hand into the wounds, he instead simply confesses, 'My Lord and my God'. As Raymond Brown says in his magisterial commentary, if Thomas had thrust in his hand, he would have been an unbeliever. This story is helping to safeguard the central biblical conviction that this is God's good creation. Physical matter matters, and history matters; our lives matter and we are headed toward a goal, not simply chasing our tails in the Greek or Hindu view that we are caught in an endless cycle of aeons.
This sense of the overwhelming love of God made known in and through Jesus of
Nazareth is at the very heart of the witness of the New Testament. As those of
you who were in our Lenten Bible Study will know, Mark, Paul, and the other
evangelists all emphasize Jesus' total dependence upon the Father. And when he
is addressed as 'Good teacher', Jesus rejects the word 'good' as being
appropriate only when applied to God. Therefore, unless we wish to call Jesus a
liar, we ought to object to today's collect taken over from the Book of Common
Prayer. The Collect, like a number of others, ascribes 'merit' to Jesus, and
Jesus has no merit. He, rather, is the sinless one precisely because he lived in
total dependence upon the Father.
So how did we get to the point of ascribing merit to Jesus? Quite simply, I believe it is because we are the heirs of the Roman Empire, with its civil law. Roman civil law was very concerned with right and wrong, with credits and debits. A wrong had to be paid for. This is the outlook that led to the gross distortion of the gospel that talked in terms of penal substitution: Somebody had to be punished for our sins, so God punished Jesus in our stead. If we find it easy to reject this misunderstanding, then we can understand how Saint Anselm, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, rejected it, too, but instead, still thinking within the same box, so to speak, he developed his 'satisfaction' theory. God's honour had to be satisfied. We owe him everything, but we have not invariably given him everything, so a debt remains that we can never make up. Jesus, as the truly meritorious one has given his all, which is more than enough to make up for our debt. But this is still thinking in terms of ledger-book morality, which was central to the medieval outlook of the liege lord and his vassals. It is out of this outlook that prayers like today's collect have come. It is echoed in Mrs Alexander's hymn, 'there was none other good enough to pay the price of sin'. But this, quite frankly, is not the way of love attested to in Jesus, and it is high time that we moved beyond it, not only in our thinking but in our public prayers. We may have a renewed liturgy in Common Worship and the Revised Common Lectionary, but, in my judgement, we are still carrying some excess baggage that is distorting the gospel that is at the heart of the New Testament proclamation.
So let us think carefully about how we understand and share with others the wonderful good news of our life in Christ that we celebrate this Eastertide and every day of our lives.