A friend recently sent me a joke which consisted of a series of satirical proofs that Jesus was by turns Jewish, African, German, French, Irish, English, and so forth. It concluded with the following punch line:
But the most compelling evidence of all – 3 proofs that Jesus was a woman:
1. He fed a crowd at a Moments notice when there was virtually no food
2. Even when He was dead, He had to get up again because there was still work to do
3. He kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who just didn’t get it
Once I stopped laughing, I was struck by the fact that the punch line, even while it purported to prove that Jesus was a woman, nevertheless continued to use the masculine personal pronoun – Jesus was a woman because “he” had to do this and that. This immediately brought to mind that superb passage in Galatians in which Paul proclaims: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.
Of course, the irony of this joke is that, among other things, it is meant to be a caution against the use of exclusive language, especially when it comes to talking about the divine – and yet it engages in that very exclusivity even as it makes the point. That little conundrum leaves us with the problem of how do we talk about God, how do we, in Augustine’s phrase, express that which cannot be expressed. But Augustine also knew that humans were compelled to speak about God, to try and reach out beyond themselves to the divine. Humans, Augustine knew, have a great hunger: they hunger for God. As he himself wrote: You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their peace in you.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that the whole experience of trying to express the inexpressible was like trying to paint a picture of the Roman war god Mars wearing the armour that made him invisible. So we should not be surprised that the images we fall back on when we do talk about God are familiar, homely, and intensely human. And the authors of the Old Testament were no different from us in this respect. Belonging to a largely agricultural society, they drew on images of shepherd and sheep, of wine and vineyard, of field and fruit. They also drew on their intimacy with the natural environment: in the roll of thunder and the terror of earthquakes, they envisaged the wrath of God; and in the gentle fall of cooling rain, or the soft whisper of an evening breeze, they pictured God’s mercy.
But, for me, the most compelling images are those that invoke relationship, that speak of friendship and love and companionship. And of these, truly one of the most beautiful is today’s passage from Isaiah. This passage speaks of relationship as covenant. But we should not make the mistake of thinking of covenant as a kind of legal contract, a supply of benefits in return for services rendered. On the contrary, covenant was a truly personal and intensely intimate pledge; it was a commitment to a relationship, an assurance of fidelity. And more than that: it was a pledge of transformation, a pledge that the conditions which prevailed in the past will not endure into the future because of the covenant being entered into. For Israel, this transformation was expressed as freedom: under Moses, as liberation from Egypt; under the author who wrote this section of Isaiah, as return from exile in Babylon.
And so it is that this passage speaks of those who are imprisoned being set free, those in darkness being drawn into the light, those who travel along desolate highways being provided with food and shelter and guided to refreshing springs of clear water. The metaphor of liberation speaks of the freedom available through right relationship with God. Moreover, it speaks of God’s commitment to that relationship, and to the liberation of humanity; it is God’s faithfulness to that relationship that makes it effective, because it is by and through God that we are set free.
And God’s faithfulness, God’s commitment to us and our liberation, is beautifully summarised toward the end of this passage from Isaiah. Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? This powerful, evocative image is one that strikes us to the depths of our humanity – for what more intimate, sacrificial, and loving bond is there than that between mother and child? We all of us grew within and were nourished by the very substance of our mothers’ bodies; our mothers carried us within themselves and gave birth to us and continue to carry us even when we have become separate individuals. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus’ side is pierced as he hangs on the cross, blood and water pours forth. Among other things, blood and water are symbols of pregnancy and childbirth: they are intensely feminine and maternal images. And so it is that this passage from Isaiah draws on a similarly intense maternal image: the love between mother and child as an expression of God’s allegiance to humanity.
And yet – and yet even this image, for all its power, is inadequate. And the author of this passage from Isaiah is aware of its inadequacy, for having invoked the image, it is immediately qualified: Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palm of my hands. God’s allegiance to humanity cannot be reduced to human dimensions; it is, as Paul said, the love that passes all understanding. And this passage from Isaiah gives an indication of the pains which God is prepared to take for the sake of that love – for, when we hear of our names being inscribed in the palm of God’s hand, we immediately think of the nails that punctured Christ’s hands in the crucifixion. Now, we must be careful as Christians reading the ancient prophets of Israel; we must not give to them a meaning they did not then possess. But even the image of inscription onto the palms – suggesting as it does a knife cutting into flesh and tendon – gives us an indication of the extent of God’s love. It is a love that is prepared to enter into suffering and hardship for our sakes, so that our names are not lost. And that is precisely what happened with Christ; for in Christ, God entered into our suffering, God entered into the lostness of our humanity, and drew us into salvation – salvation won at terrible cost, such is the terrible beauty of God’s love for us.
But should we really be surprised by this love, even if it is beyond our comprehension? For in his ministry, Jesus reminded his followers repeatedly of the bounty that is God’s concern for humanity. But with this reminder comes a qualification and a warning: we must not think of God’s love in human terms, in terms that make sense to our humanity. God’s love for us, and the bounty it springs from, do not replicate themselves in ways we can easily recognise. For God has a wider agenda than anything we might recognise as merely our own happiness.
And we see this reflected in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. It begins with a stark warning: we cannot serve two masters; we must either serve God, or serve wealth. Now, this is not just an assertion of the spiritual over the material, it is not a call that says we should despise the world and become reclusive contemplatives, hiding away from the world. That would be a denial of life, and Jesus’ whole ministry was an invitation to life, and to the fullness of life. On, the contrary, this warning counsels us that the discipleship we should strive toward is that which serves God’s love for us, rather than that which serves our concern for ourselves. Not that we should be indifferent to ourselves, or reckless with our lives, or uncaring about the needs of our humanity; rather, that these things are insufficient, that in and of themselves, they are not enough. Humans hunger for God because we recognise that we need something more than what our humanity can provide us, we need something other than what we can give ourselves. And in that hunger lies the choice: do we serve the hunger itself, or do we serve what our hunger points toward?
Let’s look at our own situation – and you’ll pardon me if, in my examination, I don’t pull any punches, if I leave the pretty philosophical language behind and speak plainly. The church – and by this, I mean the universal Christian church – the church is dying. As an old schoolmaster of mine used to say: there’s no two ways about it. The church is dying. Our congregations are getting older and smaller. As a proportion of the overall population, we are becoming fewer and fewer. And we can talk all we like, until we’re blue in the face, about the underlying Christian ethos of Western society; the truth is, most people aren’t aware of that ethos, and most care even less. Our young people have a great yearning for God, but the church is often the last place they look for it; instead, they seek God in any number of places, sacred and profane. And we can implement all the growth strategies and mission initiatives we like, and despite the fact that some congregations are growing, and some congregations draw a cast of thousands each week, the trend is inescapable. The church is dying, and to be a Christian today is, for the first time in over 1500 years, to be a member of the minority.
So what then? If the truth is as stark and as harsh as that, why don’t we just give up? Why don’t we just resign ourselves to the inevitable and turn out the lights and go home? We don’t we just nurse our faith as private citizens behind locked doors, while outside the darkness creeps ever closer? Why don’t we lose hope altogether?
It seems to me that part of the reason lies in recognising that it is in fact more accurate to say that it is this form of church that is dying. The institutional church, of buildings and congregations and hierarchies, may be on the way out: but that does not mean that Christianity is dying, it does not mean our faith is in vain. It may just mean that we are in a process of change, of transition from one thing to something else. Which is not to say that transition is not painful, does not involve hurt or loss or regret for that which can be no more. The church is a human institution, and the humanity of which it is comprised necessarily suffers as a consequence of the kind of wholesale change the evolution from one thing to another involves. But it also means that there is a continuation, that the transition we are currently undergoing – and all the hardship that accompanies it – will become part of the inherited tradition of future generations. Whatever Christianity becomes, whatever it evolves into, it does not do so in isolation from what it once was. We, as we are now, will be carried into the future, even if it is by virtue of the fact that we as we are now will not exist in that future. We will become part of the memory of the church, part of the deep and rich humus from which the future church grows. And it was always ever thus – the church as it is now is not the church of 500 or a thousand years ago. Why should we expect the future to be any different?
But it seems to me that the greater reason why we should not lose hope is articulated in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. We are confronted with a choice: do we serve our anxiety about the church’s future, do we wring our hands and try and think of strategies to preserve the status quo – or do we serve the larger purpose which the process of transformation points to? Which master do we serve: our wealth, the church as we presently recognise it; or God, the church into which future calls us?
And that is why Jesus told the disciples not to worry. Change was all about them, in the processes of nature, in the raiment of birds and flowers, and the lives of human beings. Jesus asks of his disciples: Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And we need to ask ourselves: will our anguish add a single hour to the life of the church as we know it today? Or will that worrying only delay that which we are called to be in the future? For just as Jesus asked his disciples which was more precious to God – the birds of the fields or they themselves – so we are asked to consider: what do we imagine to be more precious to God: the church as it is today, or the community of faith by which it is comprised?
The church is like the blades of grass mentioned by Jesus: ripe and green today, and thrown on the fire tomorrow. What endures is not the structure or form, but the substance: faith, the covenant, the trust in God’s faithfulness to all humanity. But that trust, that hope, that faith, comes with a price, comes with a burden: and it is the price of faith, the price of hope, the necessity to let go of treasured anxieties and leave ourselves vulnerable and open to change and transformation. It is the preparedness to suffer for the sake of trust, for the purpose of surrendering ourselves to the possibility of hope.
Not that we should do so blindly or naively or apathetically. We are called into relation with God precisely because God wants us to be an active partner in that relationship, to respond to the invitation to the fullness of life which Christ taught and which the Holy Spirit brings. But we must also trust that our heavenly Father knows that we need all the things our humanity requires, and that this creation in which we exist will supply those things to us. And what we must also do is not become stuck within this creation, stuck within the limitations of this existence; we must ever seek the loving, maternal faithfulness of God, the loving paternal abundance of God. And I think C S Lewis said it best when he wrote:
You see, I don’t think God wants us to be happy. I don’t think God wants us to be unhappy, either; it’s just that our happiness has nothing to do with it. What I think God wants is that we should grow up, that we should leave the nursery, and love and be loved. And in order to do that, we must suffer, for we are like blocks of stone, and the blows from the sculptor’s chisel that strike us so hard that we can scarcely bear the pain, are nonetheless what make us perfect.
What Lewis recognised is that the suffering of change is part of the fullness of being, of becoming something other than what we are. But just as we are limited in what we can say and know about God by the confines of our humanity, so we are nonetheless called by those limitations to hope and trust, to recognise the loving, sacrificial fidelity of God. We are called to recognise that relationship with God – covenant – involves change, requires transformation. Cardinal Newman said: To live is to change; to be perfect is to have changed often. If the church is to be a living entity, if it is to live in fullness of relationship with God, then it must also suffer the hardship of change, the chisel blows of transformation. For beyond the pain, and beyond human hope, is the faithfulness of God. And it is that faithfulness we must serve, because it is by that faithfulness we are both served and saved.