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Saturday, 13 September 2014

An Embarrassing Love

"No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:13-17)
We like a rational faith, we do. A sensible, well-balanced, unembarrassing faith.

Not too much getting carried away. I remember seeing mourners at a funeral - somewhere in the Middle East - when I was just a child. And they were practically raving with grief - the approved way of mourning in that country, I daresay. And I was aghast. Did these people have no discipline? Years later, I heard Victoria Wood's words on the matter.
"If a man dies in India, the woman flings herself on the funeral pyre. If a man dies in England, the woman goes into the kitchen and says: '72 baps, Connie. You slice, I'll spread."
That's how we like our faith. Calm, considered, safe, well behaved. There's a stained glass that has always stayed with me. It's in Church Brampton, on the Spencer estate, near Northampton.  Apologies for the poor quality photo. You know what it's like, photographing stained glass.




It's not the Mother of God or St John who take my eye in this little scene. They're both a bit kind of passive - English. Jesus himself is quite out of it - serenely looking up at the heavenly bliss that is to come. But it's Mary Magdalene. Slumped at the foot of the cross, holding onto it - distraught. I think the artist has taken the opportunity given by Mary Mag - according to the story (but not the Bible) the good-time girl - the woman with a past - the woman who, in her society - in the society in which the artist lived - wasn't quite respectable  - to give reign to the emotions that are actually there.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." 

I think the love God is showing here is not the well-balanced, considered love that would be displayed by a well-behaved English person. It's not the serenity of an otherworldly Jesus, the dispassionate view of a churchgoer who wants their quiet hour with God before returning to the real, ordered, well-behaved world. The love God shows here is more like the love of Mary Mag in the window. A desperate love. A love that doesn't keep a stiff upper lip. A love that doesn't bargain. A love that flings itself at a cross - because in a way we can't understand, God's love is expressed there.

"that everyone who believes in him...." 

There's no distinction. Rich, poor, slave, free, black white - if you believe in him, you may have eternal life. That includes you. If you think your life is such that no respectable God would have you - there's good news. This isn't a respectable God. This is a God who loves the world so much that he sends his own son. There's no respectable distinction between the world that God loved so much, and God himself. In fact, he destroys the distinction. He comes steaming into the world, breathing and sweating and - ultimately - bleeding, and he breaks down the barrier between Creator and Created. So who are we to put up our own barriers - between God and ourselves, or between God and anybody else?


" God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world..." 

Which we all might want him to do sometimes. I can think of a few hundred parts of the world I'd quite like God to condemn. Even if his Son didn't condemn it last time, perhaps he can this. There's the new series of Dr Who, for starters. And all sorts of people. And all sorts of things. What's God like, not condemning? Yet that's God's nature. I'm no universalist. I believe quite firmly that it's possible for people to go to Hell - but I do believe that God would go to the ends of the earth to stop that happening. In fact, I believe that God quite literally went to the end of the earth to call back anyone he could. Those events on the afternoon of Good Friday - the stones cracking, the dead coming back to life, the temple veil ripped in two - when St Matthew described Good Friday like that, he's telling us that the Crucifixion is the start of the end of the world. This is what happens, when the world ends. And in the middle of that - starting it, with us to the end of it - there is God, on a cross, pouring out his love, like his blood, in a very embarrassing, demeaning, humiliating way.

What's God doing there? It's not where God is supposed to be. But if God dies as a criminal on a cross - who's he going to condemn?

"but in order that the world might be saved through him." 

The world might be saved. Not you, or me. Or not just you or me. But the world. This world in which we live. The grubby place where we scrabble for life. The heavens declare the glory of the Lord, the psalms tell us. Yet the place where the world was saved was not some place of light and wonder, the majesty of a king in his glory decreeing the way things should be.

No, the place where the world was saved was a place of darkness, pain and death. It was a lonely cross where the King of our world was raised up to the darkening sky. Where, thirsty, scared and alone, the One who breathed the world into being was forced from it.

And as the King breathed out his spirit, the world mourned - the sky went dark and the stones shook. And shortly afterwards the demons howled, as they knew that though their victory was quick, their defeat would last forever.

I don't know much about God's love, really. It's vast and beyond me. But I know it's huge, I know it's free, I know it's unlimited, and I know it's embarrassing. It starts with the love of a holy God, and ends with the son of a conquered race dying a slave's death. But if God will go there, God will go anywhere - anywhere for me, anywhere for you, anywhere for the world that God created.

God so loved the world.... that he would do anything for it. Anything at all. Let's not judge it for him.

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