God save us from the God who intervenes

The Rev John Kennedy reflects today on the lessons that the death of Jesus holds for a church which, in Europe at least, appears to be shrinking as the millennium approaches.

On Good Friday it is important to ask how a declining church contemplates the death of Christ.

Grace Davie is one of the chroniclers of that decline. She illuminates our plight in a wry account of an interview which went like this:

"Do you believe in God?"

"Yes."

"Do you believe in a God who intervenes to change the course of events on earth?"

"No, just the ordinary one."

That hurts, if we let it. But a chastened church might find a renewal of faith in the ordinary God who is revealed in Christ's death.

Conventional belief bawls at God for recognition and for intervention. This is embarrassingly true of the teeming mass of Christian practice in history, from European painted plaster Baroque through American Honky- Tonk Gothic, to contemporary hi-tech hoopla. The noise! The people!

Our conflicting brands of fervour can be shaming. The embarrassment becomes the sharper when the show turns up in your own town. The minister of the Castlemilk estate in Glasgow was once describing how a cross had been rescued from the debris of a demolished Glasgow hospital. He brandished the great brass cross from the pulpit in impressive demonstration.

I asked him later - if the wreckage had revealed a crucifix, would he have waved that about in the kirk? Pass. If, as Hans Kung says, the death of Christ is the signature of Christianity, each church still seems to think that the others are peddling forgeries.

Our clamour for deliverance from the pains of fate and death has an unfortunate implication. What happens to those who do not clamour, or do it in the wrong tone? Do they deserve to suffer the ravages of fate and the torments of eternal death? For our excluding instincts infect even our most beloved texts. From outside, one favourite text actually implies that God so hated the world, that whoever does not believe in the prescribed way, should suffer that eternal doom. There's a thought to stop us in our tracks. But that is what the death of Christ is supposed to do - to make us repent, not just of our manifold wickedness but of our self-righteous complacency. God save us from the God who intervenes.

So the crisis of European Christendom might lead us to be bolder as we shape ourselves for the third millennium, not least in our understanding of the death of Christ. As our parish shrinks, perhaps we can risk being less parochial. After all, when we were a struggling, embattled, Levantine sect, God gave us astonishing qualities of spiritual imagination. Our forebears in Christ saw his death not just as for the faithful, but for all creation. It was they who imagined Christ as "crucified from before the foundation of the earth". They saw Christ not as Lord of the Church but of all things. For them, the meanings of the death of Christ were many; here is one. Jesus was not killed by God, or by the Jews. Jesus was killed by us, to show that we too must love one another or die. The Church, however, can turn such a universal truth into a piece of religious property.

European Christianity may indeed decline for a while into a phenomenon of mainly historical interest. But the modern world will be manageable only if it combines a passionate sense of our common humanity with a thoroughly unsentimental expectation of the human enterprise. That is a demanding discipline, which Christians have learned from the Christ who died at the hands of, and for the sake of, that humanity.

Meanwhile, we should use the time of our humiliation to explore God's commitment in Christ to all His people; perhaps sometimes in the next millennium we shall think it blasphemous to call for His intervention on the part our own religious faction. Then we shall have learnt to praise the ordinary God, whose real nature has always been most clearly shown in the death of Christ.

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