|The Burning Mystery
by Richard Holloway. A sermon given
September 14, 1999 at the opening of
the Anglican Consultative Council
the midnight service on Christmas Eve a couple of years ago I began my
sermon in the cathedral in Edinburgh by pointing out that an ancient
manuscript had recently been discovered, dated by scholars about 70ad.
I explained that, while they disagreed
about its authenticity, all agreed that is was a remarkable and
interesting document. It appeared to be an autobiographical meditation,
written as an old man, by Jonathan the son of Simon, innkeeper at
Bethlehem at the beginning of the first-century. An American scholar,
Professor Capote, I went on, had made a translation of the document and,
instead of a sermon, I was planning to read his version of the document.
It started like this:
I, Jonathan son of Simon, of Bethlehem
in Judaea, wish to set down my memory of events that are now being
spoken of and written about, most recently in a strange text called
The Good News according to Luke, a physician, which has recently
come to my attention.
The sermon I preached that night was
published in a newspaper a few days later, and I was soon getting letters
from people asking how they could acquire copies of this ancient document.
There was, of course, no ancient document.
I was following an ancient tradition by
making up a story in order to put over a message. I had even planted a
clue in the text of my sermon about what I was doing. I gave the name
"Capote" to the scholar who had translated the document because Truman
Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany's, had pioneered modern
versions of this ancient technique in his book In Cold Blood, about
a multiple murder in a Kansan farmhouse.
That book was neither fiction nor pure
documentary, so the commentators dubbed it "faction". He used the form of
fictional narrative, including imaginative reconstructions of lengthy,
unrecorded conversations, to get inside the complexity of a hideous event.
In a modest way my Christmas sermon in 1993 was a similar exercise.
The Hebrew word for this technique is
midrash, from a verb meaning to search out, to seek, to enquire. All
religious traditions develop a literature of imaginative responses to
their sacred canon.
C S Lewis' Screwtape Letters is a
good example. This book, one of the most famous Lewis wrote, purports to
be letters from a junior demon to his supervisor, about his work of
tempting a hapless human. A person unaware of such literary conventions
might believe that the letters were authentic; and maybe C S Lewis got
letters from some of his readers asking for copies of the originals.
There is a lot of midrash, or
imaginative construction of this sort, in the New Testament. If we want to
understand the Bible properly we have to read it within its own literary
conventions. For example, most scholars believe today that the whole of
John's Gospel is midrash, an imaginative theological construction
that is the fruit of years of meditating on the meaning of Jesus.
One way of interpreting the story of the
birth of the Church in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles
is to see it as belonging to the same kind of literature. It is an
extended exercise in theological code, and you only get the message if you
know the background - just as my Christmas sermon made sense only to
people who already knew the Gospel of Luke.
One of the favourite midrash
techniques used by the New Testament writers is to take great events from
the Old Testament and repeat or echo them in a different context, in order
to show that Jesus had assumed the role that was previously filled by one
of the great heroes of the Hebrew scriptures, such as Moses.
The reading from the second chapter of
the Acts of the Apostles we have just heard echoes and
several themes from the Old Testament. The great foundational event in the
life of Israel was the exodus from bondage in Egypt. The early Christians
described the resurrection of Jesus as his exodus from the bondage of
death. Fifty days after the exodus from Egypt the children of Israel
arrived at Mount Sinai where, in the midst of thunder and lightening, God
made a contract with Israel, establishing them as his own people.
According to one Jewish writer, angels
took the news of the bargain struck between Moses and God on Mount Sinai
and carried it on tongues to the people of Israel camped out on the plain
below. So, fifty days after Easter
(our exodus), something like the same process is repeated at the feast of
Pentecost (our Mount Sinai), when the followers of Jesus are established
as the nucleus of a new people of God. They are commissioned to take the
good news of Jesus to the whole world.
So, the important thing to understand
about this complex story is that it is making a simple claim. Since that
first Pentecost it has been through the Church that the meaning and
message of Jesus has been shared with the world. Unfortunately, that claim
is easier said than demonstrated because there is something about Jesus
and organised institutions that do not marry well. Let me explain.
Whenever any new vision of idea is born
it requires a process to carry it through history. The process is invented
to mediate the vision, to carry it through time. The great sociologist,
Max Weber, called this process "the routinisation of charisma". The great,
gifted, given thing, the charism, has to be embodied in a routine, whether
it is a political party or a church.
Two related and unavoidable things
happen in this process.
By definition, charisms cannot be
perfectly routinised or institutionalised, so the very process which gives
them continuing life also begins to kill them.
That is bad enough. What amplifies this
process of corruption is that the people who are brought in to supervise
the routine are usually more interested in the process than in the purpose
or vision it is meant to serve. The process itself becomes fascinating,
takes over, and you get the Church for Church's sake. So the protection
and maintenance of the institution becomes the institution's primary
This happens to all institutions, but it
is deeper and more tragic in the case of the Church than of other
The Church has the impossible task of
being an organisation, with an unavoidable power structure that exists to
preserve the memory of one whose mission was to oppose the processes and
sacrifices of power - because they are almost always exercised at the cost
of the individual. It was individuals he was interested in, especially
those who had been beaten up by the world's power systems.
He expressed God's absolute love for
those outside the great institutional enclosures, with their ethic of
survival and power. It was the victims of institutional power he went
after. He lived among them and died as one of them because, as Caiaphas
pointed out with impeccable institutional logic, it was expedient that one
man die rather than that the whole people perish.
That is always the way systems work.
Jesus did the precise opposite. He always went after the lost, the ones
outside all the systems, the broken ones.
Yet - and this is one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful things
about him - he understood the corrupting compromises institutions
and their leaders have to make. He had compassion on their need to follow
the ethic of expediency and even forgave them the necessity of his own
crucifixion: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."
It is this uncompromising conditionality if Jesus that is so
breathtaking. The pain of being Church comes from recognising that we are
supposed to express that same unconditionality and acceptance of all -
while knowing that the system we have invented to do the job is not up to
it because it is run by us, not by Jesus. So, in trying to embody the
absoluteness of God's love, we cannot help but contradict it. No wonder
Paul said that the Church was an impostor through whom the truth was
But the really extraordinary thing about this institution we call
Church, whose ambiguous reality we express here today, is that without it
we would know nothing about the Jesus whose message it so consistently
compromises. I would not be beating my breast about the failings of the
Church today and my part in those failures if the Church had not
introduced me to that mysterious, unavoidable man from Nazareth.
So the truth of God's unconditional love does get through the Church in
spite of its compromising timidity. That is why, week after week in the
Church's liturgy, I am still able to stand and say, "I believe in one
holy, catholic and apostolic Church." In spite of all our compromises and
confusions, in spite of the uncertainty of our love and the way we
disfigure his image, the memory of the man from Nazareth is kept alive in
Mysteriously, but certainly, he will be encountered in our meetings as
we struggle to be faithful to the mind of Christ, knowing full-well that
we all encounter it in different ways.
He will be mysteriously present as we struggle in our weakness and
fallibility to respond to the challenge of his burning love. No one can
say why or how it happens - only that it does. He will meet us, as he met
those of old by the lakeside.
Nobody has expressed the mystery of this encounter better than Albert
Schweitzer in his classic study, the Quest of the Historical Jesus.
It ends with these mysterious but captivating words:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the
lake-side. He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the
same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks, which He has to
fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether
they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the
conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His
fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own
experience Who He Is.