Three Hours Devotion - Holy Week Addresses 1975
Good Friday: No 3
Just before Jesus was arrested, the disciples deserted him. From that moment on he was on his own, bearing the sin of man, working the salvation of the world alone. The first two acts in the drama of that salvation were his encounter with the sin of a corrupt church and his encounter with the sin of a pagan State.
First, the church. He was taken before the Chief Priests and the governing body of the Jews. The Chief Priests were the chief representatives of God on earth; for that is what the word priest means. Together with the elders and scribes they were corporately the shepherds of Israel; those into whose hands God had entrusted his flock, his people, his word, and his revelation, and had now given his son. Of all people on earth, they should have known better than to do what they were about to do. But like the false shepherds of Jesus’ own parable who had no real concern for the sheep’s welfare, they were shown up for what they really were when confronted by Jesus who was the true shepherd. The gospel emphasizes that they were all there, and that they were seeking for evidence by which they would be able to condemn him. They had no real evidence, and it was envy which drove them to seek it, not a thirst for truth or justice. Mere absence of evidence was not going to deter them, however, and in the end - ironically - they condemned him to death for speaking the truth. Here was the sin against the Holy Ghost: to see God and to say, “It is the devil”. Judaism, or anyway its chief representatives, had fallen so deeply into sin - had become so blinded by it - that they couldn’t recognise the love and nature of God when they were confronted by it. The wages of sin is death, is an axiom of the Old Testament. By their own standards then, the Jewish priests and authorities deserved to die. But they didn’t die. It was Jesus who died. He bore their sin for them, and paid the price of it.
One of the most terrifying facts of the Passion is the way in which organised religion condemned itself. As promoters and supporters of organised religion we can never, it seems to me, let Good Friday go by without asking ourselves why it should have so happened, and whether we come under the same condemnation. We can’t possibly let Good Friday pass without asking those questions, and yet they are very dangerous questions; for the temptation to give superficial answers to them is great; indeed, such answers have been returned in the past, and are still being returned by many people today. they are perennially popular.
The first runs like this. Organised religion went wrong because it is in its nature to do so. It is unnecessary. Religion is a private matter between a man and his maker. I can pray as well on top of a hill as I can in Church: indeed better. Well, you can pray anywhere and everywhere. But you cannot be a Christian on your own, for you cannot love your neighbour on your own, and the man who says that he loves God whom he has not seen, when he does not love his neighbour, whom he has seen, is a liar. Where two or three hundred are gathered, in Christ’s name, there the church exists. At that level, it will need little organisation; though even then I suppose that someone will have to organise the next meeting. Where two or three hundred are gathered, it will need more organising. But there are very nearly a thousand million Christians in the world today, and to suggest that such a cloud of witnesses needs no organisation is absurd. There is nothing wrong with organisation, as long as it is organisation for the right ends: God’s end, not our ends.
In order of popularity, the next patent solution which is often advocated to the recurrent problem of the corruption of organised religion is much the same as the solution to the problem of the corruption of our political system, which frequently commends itself to those who see the inadequacy of the establishment. It is a solution which relies upon an ingenuous faith in what has been called the Phoenix myth. Pull down what exists, it runs. Destroy the present structures. Burn everything to the ground, and a glorious new creation will rise resplendent from the ashes like the Phoenix reborn. Ecclesiastically, this is even more specious than it is politically. for even a beginner in political history is liable to discover early on in his political education that violent revolutions are more often followed by reigns of terror than by the millennium. But because belief in the Phoenix myth can easily be confused with belief in God’s power to raise children of Abraham from the stones which pave the wilderness of our streets, we should beware of it. Of course God can raise the dead, and renew his church. But even the most liberal and revolutionary ecclesiastical reformer should know that he is not God, and must be careful not to assume that he is necessarily God’s chosen instrument to raise up a new Church either, having destroyed the old. Reformers of all ages have had perfect blueprints of reform up their sleeves, but history tends to show that only too often today’s reform is tomorrow’s abuse, and that the perfectibility of ecclesiastical man is no more possible than the perfectibility of secular man.
But having said all that, it is of course far more dangerous to assume that we are in no danger of behaving as the masters of organised religion behaved in Jesus’s day. If we take the saying that, whatever we do to the least of Christ’s brethren we do to him, at all seriously, Christians have behaved at least as badly as the Jewish Chief Priests again and again down the ages: burning each other, winking at the slave trade, waging religious wars, organising pogroms, and generally being conformed to the worst of the ways of this world. What leads those who profess to be servants of God into such apostasy? What led his chief representatives in Jesus’s day into doing what they did?
Principally three things: exclusivism, legalism, and idealism. Judaism was a product of the captivity in Babylon. the Jews interpreted the exile there as a punishment by God for faithlessness. This is neither the time or the place to go into detail, but you will remember how men like Amos and Hosea and Jeremiah had denounced the nation for its sins and for its betrayal of God, and had promised them that the retribution of God was coming. When they returned from Babylon, they determined that never again would they incur a similar punishment. Absolute faithfulness to God and his law became the guiding principle of the nation. Strict rules of religious apartheid were enforced by those least attractive of biblical characters, Ezra and Nehemiah; non-Jewish wives were ruthlessly jettisoned; no Jew was allowed even to eat with a gentile for fear of contamination; and the walls of Jerusalem were built, both actually and metaphorically, high enough to defend the faith from either attack or corruption by the heathen in a mind of impregnable citadel.
It is easy with hindsight to condemn all this as Pharisaic bigotry, and so of course it became. But it is even easier to forget that it was all part of the highest possible religious idealism on the part of the post-exilic Jews: part of their passionate determination to defend God’s truth at whatever cost to themselves and to keep his law, however hard its demands might be, down to its last letter. Nothing could have been more admirable in intention. Nothing could have been more disastrous in upshot and effect. If you succeed in keeping all the rules - and they were legion - it led to an overwhelming pride. “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers”, said the Pharisee in the parable, you will remember.
If you failed to keep them, you were outcast. Thus the weighty matters of the law, justice, the unfortunate, handicapped, mercy to the sinners and failures, and faith in God instead of faith in yourself were forgotten or neglected, while everyone but Jews was despised and hated. Fortress Jerusalem, far from becoming the City of God, the home of faith, hope, and love, and an ensign to the nations, became a viciously self-satisfied tribalist ghetto. Jesus challenged it root and branch. So he was crucified.
Time would fail me to tell of the occasions since then when Christians have emulated the Jews, freezing the truth into a great system of ecclesiastical dogmatics, and afterwards worshipping the dogma instead of worshipping God; of burnings and witch-hunts and trials for heresy; of warring tribalist factions thinly disguised by denominationalist labels; of condemnation of the immoral and promises of hell for those who broke the rules; of imprisonment for strumpets, the work-house for the idle, and hanging for those who stole a pair of boot-laces; of the Protestant boy of sixteen in Northern Ireland recently who got two of his friends to hold a Catholic boy down while he cut off his nose with a razor blade; of pride and satisfaction in self, hatred of other Christians, and contempt for lesser breeds without the law. The list is potentially endless: endless and frightening, for like the Jews before them the Christians who committed these crimes were sure that they were doing the work of God for him, and had no idea how wrong they were: a fact which must surely force us to ask ourselves whether, all unknowing, we are in the same condemnation.
Are we? I don’t know. I hope not. But the more exclusivist we are; the more sure of our own doctrinal and moral rectitude we are, and the keener we are on enforcing and indeed re-inforcing moral rules, the more we should remind ourselves of what Paul said: namely that those who think that they stand are those who should be most careful not to fall. It would be a pity if, full of confidence in our reception by Christ whom we have served all our lives so well - so much better in fact than those evangelicals or Roman Catholics or Methodists or whatever we ourselves are not - let alone of course so much better than members of the permissive society - we should be received one day with the words, “Depart from me….” for I was a Roman Catholic and you cut me dead, a Methodist and you would not join me, divorced and you did not approve of me, bewildered about love and life, and you threw the book of rules at me…Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of these, you did it to me”.