An unexpected title?
I wonder how you to reacted when you saw this title?
For at least two reasons the idea might come as a surprise.
Firstly, this is the Christian season of Lent – a season that reminds us of the deep seriousness of Christian faith and commitment.
This way of life requires searching self examination, discipline, penitence.
We are to lament our wrong doing and strengthening our defences against wrong – not enjoy it.
Secondly there is very little in our culture that can understand this.
No one says sorry. Don’t ever get caught making a mistake. Don’t admit any liability. This is a culture of blame. Joy (and relief) is finding someone else is wrong.
Joy – the surprise and scandal of the gospel
Since the word ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news’ and this story is about the love, forgiveness, healing and homecoming we should not be surprised to find joy in those stories.
When Jesus speaks of the life of the kingdom he invariably talked about parties. Many of the stories he told were about rulers who throw banquets.
The surprise is where this joy appears – who gets it and who doesn’t. The scandal is the way all this love, joy and forgiveness keeps breaking out in the wrong places and falling to the wrong hands. It is all way outside any normal measure of virtue or deserving or morality.
Jesus once said to the good and the godly – look ‘sinners and tax collectors are going into the kingdom ahead of you.’ (Matthew 21.31)
In the gospel the sinner takes all.
In fact only sinners understand the gospel. Because only sinners know their need of it. Of all the names for Jesus, ‘friend of sinners’ is surely the most unexpected and wonderfully welcome.
This place of our deepest human disorder and helplessness is where divine love is most fully revealed. Human waywardness
Thought: What to make of this utterly inexplicable, underserved, unpredicted and unquenchable love for sinners that God has – for that part of his creation that lives apart from him and even refuses him.
If this gospel doesn’t offend us at some level we have probably not yet understood it.
Joy – the disproportion and extravagance
One of the ways the point is made is in the teachings of Jesus is the use of extreme opposites. It is favourite device of his.
In fact Middle Eastern humour even today is based on extreme opposites.
Almost slapstick or cartoon.
One example is Jesus’s saying – ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven’.
Now I have heard very serious sermons explaining how the eye of a needle was the name for a very tight passage between two rocks on one of the roads to Jerusalem. Camels need unloading and then re-loading.
All of which contradicts the saying entirely.
The saying means just what it says. This is impossible!
A radical and shocking warning is being given. Don’t explain it away – the eye of a needle is not the theological equivalent of a tax loop hole. (Though someone did once suggest using a blender).
Another example is Jesus teaching against hypocrisy.
He pictures as person who presumes to point out the very very minor blemish in their neighbour’s eye and cannot see the huge plank sticking out of their own.
Was there someone living in a suburbs of Jerusalem walking round with a plank like that? – perhaps the owner of the overloaded camel stuck between some rocks just outside the city?
You get it with the joy of God repeatedly …..
A good example is found in Luke chapter 15 – three stories of things being lost and the joy of them being found.
Notice the audience listening to Jesus.
The ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are there.
Tax collectors and sinners on one side and Pharisees and scribes (who are already complaining that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them – ah those parties again)
We might call this ‘The joy of being lost’. Being ‘lost’ here is linked to sin – and the fullest sense of what sin means in the bible is not so much an issue of wrong actions or thoughts – but life proceeding out of completely false sense of identity. What we do or think flows from who we think we are.
And what if we don’t know who we really are – we have lost it?
Now self examination of thoughts and actions is important. We need an utterly realistic and honest discernment of ourselves and our true need and dilemmas
We can never underestimate the depths from which we need redeeming.
But if we reduce sin to a list of actions or attitudes we are trivialising the problem.
Story 1: The lost sheep
A sheep goes missing. It has wandered away and got lost.
(In the Bible sheep are used as metaphors for humanity and particularly the people of God. The shepherd is a favourite image of Jesus for himself).
The shepherd realises one is missing and leaves the entire rest of the flock on the hill side and goes looking.
When he finds it, we read, he goes into town with the sheep to celebrate– ‘rejoice with me’ … buys round of drinks in the inn.
Later that evening there, at some point one of the few people remaining sober says to him – so ‘where about the rest of the sheep then Ruben?’
‘Oh goodness – I forgot all about them!’
I once preached a sermon on this parable and stopped abruptly with that line. ‘Oh goodness – I forgot all about them!’
I had a queue of people after that service telling me how unfair it was. Some were quite angry.
Jesus then links the story to the bigger theme saying – ‘there is more joy in heaven over one sinner repenting than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance’.
Really? Is that reasonable? Is it fair? No punishment? What about the rest of us?
Story 2: The lost coin.
A woman in her home (probably a single room and windowless). The coin she has lost could have been part of her dowry – in that culture for core expression of worth and value.
She finds it after searching every corner of her house and goes to her neighbours – ‘rejoice – share my joy. I found what I lost’.
There’s the party again
Jesus again links it to the big theme – ‘I tell you – more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents’.
Story 3: The lost sons
Traditionally called ‘The prodigal son’. Syrange that. The story says there were two sons. Prodigal means wasteful, profligate. Both waste the father’s love. There is a prodigal Father too. This in the parable of the three prodigals
Remember there are two groups in the crowd
The younger son demands his inheritance early, insulting his father as he does so and runs off to a far country and loses it all. But then ‘he comes to himself’ the story says. He wakes up. Remember this idea of our sin being a lost ‘self’ – a lost identity? He turns back, penitent and humbled – content only to be a slave where before he was a son – if the Father will have him back.
But the Father has never stopped watching, waiting and hoping it seems. He has kept a prodigal vigil from his window. And one glimpse on the horizon is enough and he is running. to welcome him back.
(Kenneth Bailey – expert on interpreting parables in the light of Middle East culture – suggests that another reason the father comes running to his son appears on the horizon is to prevent the rest of the village getting there first and killing him.)
And yes there’s another party. Prodigal joy overflows.
Older son is also ‘outside’ the father’s house.
Father also comes out looking for him.
‘This son of yours’ – he spits out at his Father. ‘This brother of yours was lost and is found’, the Father says.
The older son complains that for all his faithfulness and hard work he has never had any joy. No parties. The father says – it was all yours – you never asked. All that unlived life! All that unlived goodness in the older brother that has now festered into sterile bitter resentment .
What was all that being good good for?
This is the bitterness of being right.
Only one of these sons makes the homecoming and enters the father’s joy.
And this through the unexpected joy of being wrong.
In the Ancient Easter liturgy – the story is traced of the long and terrible consequence of sin and a world lost to God. Then it begins to tell of the coming of Christ, of his love, his life and cross and gift of new life . And suddenly the cantor cries out ‘O happy fault that won for us so great a salvation!’
Thought: The problem of goodness in some ways a bigger problem than the problem of sin in the gospels. The cross, after all , was the work of the good and godly. Our goodness needs as much converting as our badness. Perhaps more so.
Have you noticed the ‘good’ in the gospels are never spoken of as joyful. It is all rather serious, worthy and self conscious. Their goodness is competitive – they measure their goodness against those who aren’t. ‘I thank you that I am not like others – and especially like that tax collector.’ prays the pharisee.
So they resent joy in others – especially Jesus.
There is a chronic inability to enter the joy of others at all.
But this is the hall mark of divine joy – its delight in the other.
Non possessive. Utterly self giving – self emptying the greek word is (kenosis).
The joy for God is in the giving away.
So perhaps Christian commitment is best thought of not so much self denial as self forgetting …. being caught up in something wonderfully other.
Joy fore-given and the irrelevance of ‘goodness’
To take this thought further …. God’s love for us is always fore-giving love.
Something fore-given is given in advance of anything we do or say. It is therefore not earned. It is love offered without guarantee that we will choose to accept or return it. Fore-giving love is pure gift.
God’s desire and intention and gift precedes any worthiness or repentance on our part.
What is truly original in this world is not sin – but divine goodness.
In the gospels the people who received this love most freely and joyfully were those on the outside any religious and social acceptance. By any human expectation these were people who had nothing to offer, or bargain or impress Jesus with at all. The godly, religiously devout found this kind of love offensive. It made all their attempts at holiness and devotion apparently irrelevant. What is often missed in the gospel stories is how our ‘goodness’ may be a greater problem than our sin. It was godly and devout people who arranged the death of Christ.
If God’s love is fore-given then our first task is not to come to terms with our sinfulness.
It will be to accept the joyful and costly love with which God seeks us.
‘When we receive the forgiveness of another the depths of our personalities are disturbed – for it means the worst in us has been accepted and that means a kind of death’, wrote Jim Cotter ….
Accepting the love with which God chooses to love us – beyond condition, undeserved.
Ah what prepares us for this. Who can endure it?
At a conference of counsellors and spiritual directors the speaker asked them all if there was one core thing that people struggled with more than anything.
They all said – with accepting that they were loved.
Not surprisingly, those who found themselves outcasts from society for whatever reason, welcomed Jesus with tears and joy. Women and men without the means to compete and establish themselves suddenly received all they longed for – quite undeserved.
‘Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be’. as thev old hymn goes.
They are invited to the party …. welcomed home
The stories are intensely moving – but they caused social and theological chaos because Jesus ignored all the accepted boundaries of morality, holiness, goodness and badness.
If love is unconditional then all our goodness is actually irrelevant.
I mean a ‘goodness’ that is founded on our anxious efforts to be desirable and secure, to the exclusion of others. Our goodness is no more a condition of being loved than our badness. Nor has love the slightest interest in any of the elaborate mechanisms we devise to win its attention. ‘Being good’ is simply not the basis on which God chooses to know and love us.
For those who had succeeded in competing and establishing their good reputation that set them apart from other people, this revelation of divine love shook their very foundations. Jesus was quickly identified as a threat. Very soon they were plotting to destroy him. (Mark 3.6).
Note that it was the good, devout, sincere people who crucified Jesus. We miss the point entirely if we think that the cross is a consequence of our badness. The cross starkly reveals our problem with goodness. For Jesus, ‘good’ and ‘goodness’ were words whose meaning had become so polluted as to be unusable. When someone greeted him as ‘Good Teacher’, Jesus refused the word even for himself, insisting it could be applied to God alone. (Mk 10.17)
So here we have it. In our flesh is revealed a way of loving and desiring that exposes a whole way of life for the manipulative rivalry that it really is. This love is so ‘other’ that it renders all our familiar techniques for finding and knowing love completely useless.
Undermines all our attempts to stay in some kind of control.
So the ‘Pursuit of happiness’ is a dangerous goal.
Happiness and joy are not for pursuing, possessing or catching. They are by products, spin offs, side effects of something much more profound.
When we seek them as some sort of right or self justification we will be far from God who is their true source.
What is offered is a totally new way of valuing ourselves. It is actually the love from which we came into being. And this is our dilemma: we can choose, in that love, to enter the turmoil of a radical conversion of life and faith, or we can choose to destroy it.
Joy – and the fifth ace of God
Anne Sexton was an poet whose personal life was shaped around a great unresolved pain. She wrote a poem called – ‘The aweful rowing towards God’
It begins ….
‘I am rowing my row boat towards an island called God
[she arrives and docks and God meets her there – the poem continues ….]
On with it!’ he says and thus
We squat on the rocks by the sea
and play – can it be true –
a game of poker.
He calls me.
I win because I hold a royal straight flush.
He wins because He holds five aces.
A wild card had been announced
but I had not heard it
being in such a state of awe
when he took out the cards and dealt.
As He plunks down his five aces
and I sit grinning at the royal flush,
he starts to laugh,
the laughter rolling like a hoop out of his mouth
and into mine,
and such laughter that he doubles right over me
laughing a Rejoice-Chorus at our two triumphs,
then I laugh, the fishy dock laughs,
the sea laughs. The island laughs,
the absurd laughs.
I with my royal straight flush,
love you so for your wild card,
that untameable, eternal gut-driven ha-ha
and lucky love.
Western theologies of the cross and atonement have been very focussed on legal metaphors, law courts, judging sin etc.
And of course that has its place.
But all that legal, linear logic tends to miss the offence of God’s love.
This love does not appear to judge or respond sensibly, reasonably or proportionately – even morally.
Rather this is the unreasonableness of God’s love – of which joy is a symptom.
It breaks the rules
This is the mischief of divine love
What is God doing with fifth ace up a sleeve
He breaks the rules.
A God who cheats – and we need a God like that.
I once took a quiet day for some clergy from the East End of London. Some were working in very tough places. One come up to me afterwards.‘You are right that God cheats’, he said … ‘but he doesn’t cheat fairly’!
Joy and sin
One wise pastor ministering in an era of church history noted for its extreme practices of self denial and harsh disciplines wrote this to someone whose conscience continued to trouble them. ‘You should rejoice every time you find an imperfection’. (Jean Pierre de Caussade)
Why? Because sin is not really that serious after all? Not at all.
But it is not our discipline or capacity to feel guilt that saves us.
Our every failure, confessed to Christ, is an opportunity to be renewed again in the gift of his grace and mercy. And where else do we seek to be?
This is the happy fault!
Martin Luther once famously told his followers ‘Be a sinner and sin boldly’ ….
His followers ever since have been trying to explain what he meant – and what he didn’t mean!
He meant I think, our human condition continues to be fallen. We will make mistakes. We will get it wrong. There is no way we can control this. The only answer is to live fully and boldly and faithfully. There is no safe living on offer.
But he goes on to add – ‘be a sinner and son boldly – but trust in Christ even bolder’. He means that if we make goodness our task and ours to achieves we are not living by grace. We are sinners and we will still be sinners … the work of goodness in us is the gift of Christ. So trust him and get on with living in the gift.
And in the midst of it all – again and again – it will be grace and joy that meets us.
Joy – ashes and kites
At the beginning of Lent, Christians traditionally receive the sign of ash on their foreheads with the sober words, ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; repent d believe the gospel’. Ashing is a universal symbol of human mortality, of grief and mourning for sin, and of penitence. This is a season for serious reflection and for practising the disciplines that strengthen the fight against everything that denies Christ. Christian living is to be marked by watchfulness, careful self-examination. There are tears to be shed. There is no cheap grace. It is the way of the cross.
I find the Ash Wednesday drama very moving. Having be marked by our dustiness, our mortality and finitude we will later open our hands and receive bread with the words ‘the body of Christ keep you in eternal life’.
But there is another symbol for this season – a complementary one. Some Eastern Orthodox communities mark the start of Lent in a quite different way. They don’t have Ash Wednesday they have clean Monday. For them the first day of Lent is treated as the first outdoor day of the new year. Lent is the beginning of Spring (‘Lent’ in fact in an old English word meaning ‘Spring’). After the long death of winter, here is the first sign that new life is coming. Open the windows, spring clean. We they also go out to greet it. The community celebrates this day by climbing the nearest hill and flying kites on the fresh spring wind!
Always more important than what we turn from is what we turn to. Here we meet the Spirit enticing, provoking, driving, inspiring us in the struggle to turn from sin and be caught up into the adventure of divine love.
So by this happy fault we find ourselves caught up in this mad, prodigal gift of divine love and the joy of being wrong …..
James Allison The joy of being wrong – original sin through Easter eyes. Crossroads/Herder
Luther quote see ‘Martin Luther’s ‘sin boldly’ revisited: a fresh look at a controversial concept in the light of modern pastoral psychology in Contact Journal: No 137, 2002. p2.
For a more general discussion around these theme see my own Spirituality Workbook (SPCK) chapter 15 and Choice, desire and the will of God (SPCK).