Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 17th February 2013
17 February 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
In the three matins addresses I have this month I am looking at a best-selling book published fifty years ago next month, Honest to God, written by the then Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson. It caused something of a storm when it first appeared, and a fortnight ago in an address that is on the Abbey web-site I looked at some of the reasons for that in what the book said about God, and also why the book, and indeed later, Robinson himself, were important to me personally. Today I want to think about what he said in that book about belief in Jesus.
He thought a great deal of belief about Jesus in the then contemporary church overemphasised the divine nature to the detriment of the human nature, as though Jesus was not really a man but fundamentally God dressed up to look like a man. It was, thought Robinson, as though he came from outside and was not really one of us. Yet he pointed out that in fact the church officially has always asserted that whatever else Jesus might have been he was fully a man. That is wholly orthodox belief.
Robinson wanted to take that as his starting point in thinking about Jesus, and to do so in what he described as a non-supernaturalist way. He was sceptical not about the reality of God, but about a conception of God that saw him as some sort of supernatural being over and above the world. As far as Robinson was concerned, God was rather the Ground of our Being, that Ultimate Reality that underlies all that is. And he believed it was that rather than some supernatural being that Jesus revealed. Jesus, he held, was so transparent to that ultimate ground of his being that was God that he showed us what God was like.
Yet Robinson realised that there was one argument used widely in some sections of the church which made that problematical. It was when some asserted that Jesus claimed he was God, and if so he must have been either mad, or bad, or what he said he was. Yet Robinson, in common in must be said with many academic New Testament scholars at that time, questioned the premise that the human Jesus ever claimed to be God just like that. The early church sometimes almost seemed to say that, and later in the church, that claim was certainly made, but from the evidence of the gospels whether Jesus himself ever put it like that Robinson believed was far more doubtful.
But what he did believe was that the human Jesus displayed some qualities that certainly showed us what God was like. And most of all Robinson said, Jesus was the man for others. He was so aware of the love of God for his people that he allowed that love to be the motivating force in his treatment of others such that they felt in encountering his concern for them perhaps they had encountered God's love. He was in a phrase Robinson used in the title a later book about Jesus 'The Human Face of God'.
And he argued that was nowhere clearer than at Calvary. The man for others allowed himself to be so abused that he showed us the extent of God's love for his people by being willing to give up his life in such a terrible way and yet still showing love for others; for those who nailed him to the cross, 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do'; for his fellow victim on a cross 'Today you will be with me in paradise'; and for his mother and the beloved disciple, 'mother, behold your son, son behold your mother.'
Robinson believed that in that we can find a response to what he thought was the fundamental problem of human beings in his time, which he described as a sense of estrangement; but that requires a bit of explanation. He quoted the American theologian Paul Tillich describing estrangement, when Tillich spoke of walking 'through the dark valley of a meaningless life', or 'when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual', or when 'our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of composure have become intolerable to us', or when 'the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.'
But Tillich went on to say what could happen at such moments when 'a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: 'You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.’ And Tillich went on to describe how to respond. 'Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted! If that happens to us we experience grace.' Such grace, Tillich and Robinson believed, could be encountered through Jesus and especially in the Cross, for through that encounter with grace and forgiveness and acceptance as mediated by Jesus Christ we see what the love of God might be.
And that also related to what another author who Robinson quoted extensively said. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed on the orders of Hitler towards the very end of the Second World War, wrote at one point 'God allows himself to be edged out of the world, and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and for us. Matthew (8.17), in quoting Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’ makes it crystal clear that is not by Christ’s omnipotence that he helps us, but by his weakness and suffering...man's religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world, (but) the Bible directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help.'
Personally I am not sure that the chapter in Honest to God where Robinson expounded this is the clearest chapter in the book, there is something of a muddle in it, a view shared by some of the Bishop's critics. But contained within that muddle are some very thought-provoking comments, and not least in the last quotation from Bonhoeffer in the chapter, a quotation the more poignant when we reflect that is was written by him in a Nazi prison only shortly before he was executed.
He wrote: ‘Christians range themselves with God in his suffering: that is what distinguishes them from the heathen. As Jesus asked in Gethsemane, 'Could you not watch with me one hour?' That’, said Bonhoeffer, ‘is the exact opposite of what the religious man expects from God. Man is challenged to participate in the suffering of God at the hands of a godless world....To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism..., but to be a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.'
Bonhoeffer’s words there might challenge all of us in this Abbey this morning.