The Gospel in Sound bites?
‘Sir we wish to see Jesus’
The image of Stephen Hawking in his wheel chair and the sound of his robotic voice was in many ways iconic. He reached a level of social consciousness that very few people have ever reached. He was a symbol of the potential for intellect and technology to overcome physical limitations, and symbol of science’s potential to be popularised, catching the public’s imagination. He wasn’t supposed to reach the age of 30, but lived as if nobody mentioned it to him. In a world which seems to be ever more complex for our understanding – Hawking attempted to help people to better understand what scientists were discovering using examples which were relevant – In 2015, when asked what he thought about the cosmological effect of a member of the pop-group One Direction having left, Hawking gave hope to all their fans by suggesting that one day there may be proof of multiple parallel universes, and one of those universes One Direction might still be together.
In a world so dependent on sound bites and slogans, Hawking was able to traverse both the heights of academic mathematics and cosmology and of popular science. The reality is that the kind of expertise that is required to become a serious scientist, or politician, or linguist, or philosopher, or florist, or teacher, or medic, or nurse takes more in-depth understanding of the subject than a simple sound bite or a metaphor can achieve. And yet it is only by finding ways of simplifying and communicating through sound bites, slogans, metaphors and symbols that we are able to share expert understandings with people from other areas of expertise. This is why Jesus often speaks about sheep and farming, he is talking to farmers and shepherds about things outside of their personal experience. Of course this practice of communicating to the masses by sound bite inevitably leads to over simplifications. International relations can be simplified down to unhelpful comments made by government secretaries about certain countries just needing to ‘going away.’ In Domestic politics complex issues can be simplified to grandiose claims attempting to win an election or referendum. Commons debates turn into catch phrase factories rather than a source of honest debate on the content of a bill.
Our Christian faith is best understood through both personal experience of our relationship with God and by stepping back and considering what the meaning of what we’ve experienced. Of course our experience feeds our understanding, but when we are dealing with complex issues of faith, even mysterious understandings which go beyond words, symbols, metaphors, and so on become essential for us to even start to understand what our relationship with Christ shows us. Sometimes I think we over simplify the Christian faith down to soundbites and accept them without making any attempt to understand what they mean. One such soundbite, taken from the bible: ‘Jesus Christ died for our sins.’ And while this is obvious not incorrect – it can I think be misleading if not considered with many other understandings of what happens on the cross. Today’s readings give a broad range of images, and understandings of what happens on the cross. Reading scripture it is clear no one explanation, no one symbol is sufficient to explain what the meaning, purpose or impact of Jesus’ death is.
What is clear is that the crucifixion is decisive. In today’s Gospel Gentiles come looking to see Jesus. Jesus’ response is, on first reading, bizarre. He doesn’t say ‘send them to me’ or ‘bring them here’ or ‘tell me where they are and I’ll go visit them.’ Instead he starts talking about the crucifixion. This is because the crucifixion is the moment when they will truly ‘see’ Jesus and through Jesus the Father who is glorified in this act of sacrifice and obedience. This is the moment when violence and evil are defeated, because they have no power over Christ. This sign of humility and destruction – the cross itself – becomes a symbol of God’s triumph and glory. Because the cross is not the end. Jesus’ death on the cross makes the resurrection possible and Jesus’ death, which is inevitable from the moment of his birth, opens up the gates of heaven, restoring the relationship we have with God. So that when Jesus is resurrected from the dead, he can draw all of creation to himself, into a direct and reconciled relationship with the Father.
Now over the next two weeks we will have the opportunity to experience the final days of Jesus life and his resurrection in real-time. In the earliest days of the church they would have re-walked the final days of Jesus life regularly, from the palm procession next Sunday, to sharing the last supper on Maundy Thursday and visiting the garden of Gethsemane. They would visit calvary on Good Friday and they would sit in a room keeping vigil through the night, waiting for Jesus’ resurrection with the dawn of Easter Sunday. We do so with knowledge of how the story ends. Or at least how it continues. We know that the cross is not the end, that death is not the victor.
That God is truly glorified in this act of defiance against the so called rules of the world – that death is final. As we approach these final days before Easter, let us engage anew with what these events mean for us. How they shape our faith and help us to be transformed,
ever closer to the image of God. And as we hear of the temple curtain being torn apart and how the eternal obedience of the Son to the Father leads to the cross. Let us be drawn up with Christ, into an ever closer relationship with the one who sent him.So that, in the midst of the Father’s Glory, we may truly see Jesus in our lives.
The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams