Arguments for Easter: The Sons of Thunder come home to Westminster

God has humbled His son but not His Church, it can sometimes seem. But the politics of this secular age may yet do that, argues the Rev John Kennedy.
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The Independent Online
Is the death of Christ the property only of Christians? Today, in the Wednesday of Holy Week, the faithful are called to worship with these words from the Epistle to the Philippians: "Christ Jesus, being found in human form, humbled himself: and became obedient even unto death, death on a cross." The great church buildings and grand political designs of Westminster, where I work, seem far from the humiliated Christ. God has humbled his son, but not the Church, it can seem.

There are some interesting counter-points about humility and power in the Gospels. In Luke's, Jesus is going up to Jerusalem. He and his disciples pass through a Samaritan village, but the people reject them because of the traditional enmity between Jews and Samaritans. James and John, the "Sons of Thunder", are enraged: "Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven to destroy them?" At this point Jesus merely rebukes them. But then they meet another man, eager to be a disciple. To him Jesus replies: "Foxes have holes, and the birds their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

These episodes are deeply poignant when taken together, as Luke intended (only our soundbite treatment of scripture separates them). For this Jesus is not a divine victim, caught in the church and state politicking of Caiaphas and Pilate. Nor is he simply to be betrayed by his followers' cowardice and stupidity. Rather he is a man who chooses his own destiny.

Traditionally it has been common to regard Jesus's disciples as revealing themselves in this episode as engaging, craven buffoons. But there is something much more troubling in his followers' self-righteousness and their desire to possess him. Their arrogance contrasts sharply with Christ's obedience to the will of his Father. It is an arrogance which is all too common among many modern Christians. The early writers of the Church, like Luke and Paul, insisted that Christ was not an exclusive property. He died for us, in our flawed humanity, and our belonging to him reflects no merit in us. So the followers of Christ are not to lord it over the rest of frail humanity. In practice, of course, Christians often give in to the temptation - even Paul himself had, on occasions, a touch of the aggressively self-justifying Son of Thunder about him. Yet Paul's most daring insight is that Christ died to destroy the barrier between a chosen people and the rest of humankind.

The great buildings of Westminster provoke reflection on this theme . I walk down the beautiful curved staircase of Methodist Central Hall, and through its great window see the gleaming white Abbey ahead; round the corner is the exotic Byzantine splendour of the Catholic Cathedral. These buildings form a wonderful trio - much more fun than if they had been planned by some ecumenical committee - but they do not obviously proclaim our humanity made one in the body of Christ. It is an age of growing secularism which has humbled us, rather than obedience, as with Christ.

Behind the churches looms the Palace of Westminster, overshadowing us all. It has a power over the detail of our lives of which churches only ever dreamed. True, it also suffers the traditional Christian vices of vanity, ambition, fanatical partisanship and self-righteousness - no shortage of Sons of Thunder there. There too, as in the Church, treasure is carried in earthen vessels - God can work though its disobedience, and that of fallen humankind in so many other circumstances, to create a healing of humanity.

The message of Christ's Passion this week is that the purposes of God are never simply achieved among his worshippers. Despite the arrogant illusion of the Churches, they have never been the sole proprietors of the divine purpose - a fact they are belatedly acknowledging by their recent increased enthusiasm to take part in the political process. Christ's death was never the exclusive property of Christians. It is God's gift to the whole world. We share a common humanity - never more so than when we are broken or desolate and have most real need of each other. That may be a Christian conviction, but it is one which God has made into a healing truth of universal power.