Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Covenants and the reason why the death and resurrection of Christ make sense if he was both human and divine.

One of the conversations I often have is over whether Jesus was just a good man or whether there was something more about him.  Plenty of my friends hold to the view that Jesus was a human containing the incarnation of the Cosmic Christ.  Traditionally, however, Christianity has gone further than that, and has held that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, a difficult thing to get our heads around.  The question is, why has the church always been so insistent on this?  Well, having been a scientist for many years before becoming a priest, I've always appreciated answers that make a degree of logical sense.  Sometimes I find that theologians push that particular boat out too far, losing the air of mystery that must accompany divinity.  But sometimes it helps us understand why we believe something if it provides us with a reasoned explanation for a belief.  So that's what I've tried to address here, why I believe Jesus was divine and human.

Sorry there's two readings from the Bible, but I need to have something from the Old Testament in order to make sense of the New Testament.


Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,

Luke 13:31-end
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

Divine and Human?
Although we’re only into our second week in Lent I want to look forward to Easter, to help us understand more of what it is that defines Christianity, and why we say Jesus was divine as well as human. The Christian Bible is in two sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament, but they could equally be called the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. It’s almost as simple as the Old Promise and the New Promise, but the word Covenant is stronger than Promise.  A covenant is a binding and solemn agreement between two parties, an example of which is a marriage. This is a good time to remind ourselves of the Old Covenant that was broken by the Israelites and then the Jewish people, from whom God intended to engage with the rest of humanity, and why a New Covenant was required, and what was needed to make it unbreakable.

The reading from Genesis is a little obscure to most of us but describes a terrifying encounter that Abraham has with God, although this is before God changed his name, so at this point he’s just plain old Abram. Now just before the events of this story Abram has been in a battle to set his nephew Lot free, and Abram and those who fought with him have been victorious.  Following this victory Abram has a vision where he encounters God, and God tells him that he will always be Abram’s shield. Whilst this is a reassuring promise to hear, what’s most on Abram’s mind is that he’s still childless. He’s quite a wealthy man but has no one to pass his possessions on to. There is no one to look after him in his old age and there will be no one to bury him appropriately when the time comes.  He actually sounds a little petulant, especially as this story comes on the heels of such a great victory in battle, but this aspect of human nature, immediately complaining even when something good appears to have happened, usually reveals that there is a deep pain gnawing away at the soul. A positive outcome cannot lead to gratitude if another deeper pain hasn’t been resolved.  So Abram complains to God, ‘But you still haven’t given me any children.’ He is in such despair about this that he tells God that he’s resigned himself to adopting one of his slaves, Eliezer, so that he can become his heir.

God’s first response is one of assurance, telling Abram to try and count the stars and explaining that he will have that many descendants. And then we come to the covenant, an act that looks so bloodthirsty to us, but it’s worth understanding the imagery. God reminds Abram that he brought him all the way to this land and had promised the land to him and to his descendants.  Abram more or less responds that he wants God to be honour bound to his word when he says, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I am to possess it?’ This is the kind of language that a junior partner in a business agreement might use towards a senior partner. To us it seems rather absurd to ask God to do something that made him honour bound to keep his word, but this was the culture in which Abram lived and God rarely seems to have a difficulty in working with us within the bounds of our local culture (a point worth remembering and perhaps debating elsewhere).

In order to make a covenant in that era there was always something to do with some kind of sacrifice. Covenants required the shedding of blood, and so it was referred to as, ‘Cutting a covenant’. An animal would be slaughtered and the participants in the covenant would walk between the two halves.  It was then binding. In other words there is no way that God, though the superior partner, could have walked away from the covenant. And so Abram did as he was told with the animals. Then Abram falls asleep.

The next part is disturbing. The presence of the Lord comes before the dream vision, and Abram experiences God as a deep and terrifying darkness.  Please take note of that. In this modern age we are brought up with an expectation that whenever God appears it will be accompanied by a warm spread of love, with the accompanying belief that any negative experiences are of the devil. But that’s not always true. God is unfathomable, and however much he has revealed of himself, there are times and occasions when the presence of God will feel like a terrifying darkness. That’s just how it is.

And then God’s presence walks between the slaughtered animals, signified by the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch. Why those symbols? They have a prophetic significance because they remind us of the presence of God going ahead and behind of God’s people when they escape Egypt; but that’s long into the future. That hasn’t happened yet.

The deep significance of all this though is that it is only God who walks between the animals. Abram doesn’t. This is a one-sided Covenant. God will give the land to Abraham’s descendants, and so he did. Now this is a vast swathe of land, and it is not all part of Israel, but don’t forget that the Arabs also trace their lineage back to Abraham.

Now I have explained all of this to help us understand the nature of Covenant, and the covenant we’ve looked at here was an unconditional promise to Abraham, that in the future, come what may, he would have descendants and they would inhabit the land. But God went on to make another covenant, a more important one, and this one required both parties to sign up.  In this covenant, outlined beginning in Exodus 20, God is the superior party and he outlines the ten commandments and a number of other ways of living that the Israelites must obey. That is their side of the Covenant. In return, God will be their God and will protect them and go before them, ensuring their success in the land.  More or less the rest of the Old Testament revolves around the people of Israel, and then later on just the tribe of Judah, and their abject failure to keep this covenant. The result was that God eventually took the Promised Land away from them for a time as they were taken into exile.

The uncomfortable truth we have to face is simply this; that whatever two-sided covenant God made with his people, they were never able to keep their side of it. They were unable to live the way God had told them to live and kept turning away to follow other gods. Clearly whatever God’s plans were for a nation that would follow him, they had to involve a critical new element.

And that brings us to the Gospel reading where Jesus is warned that Herod is going to try and kill him, and Jesus makes it apparent that he knows he must go up to Jerusalem to die.  Why? Well to help us in our Lenten preparation for Easter we need to remember that when he is giving the disciples the Eucharist, Jesus refers to the cup of wine as marking the New Covenant in his blood. In other words Jesus knew that he would establish a new agreement between God and humanity by his death.  The issue with the New Covenant is that it is again an agreement between two parties, one of them God and one of them human, but this time with a difference to ensure it would be kept even though humans are no good at keeping covenants with God. God would have known that if he’d forged a new covenant with us, we’d just have broken it, same as we broke the others. We’re no good at keeping our side of the bargain.

So what if he found a way around our inability to keep our side of the agreement?

That, you see, is the whole point of the idea of Jesus coming to us. In the Christian creeds we celebrate the experience that the early church had which was that Jesus, though human, was also divine. Once we understand that we can see how the new covenant works.

Jesus comes from God, being God, and sets in place a New Covenant. The human terms, the rules by which we live, haven’t changed from the Old Covenant. The divine terms, however, have.  God is now offering an intimate familial relationship, not one of a superior king to a vassal king. This is no longer one who is content to be 'Father-Sky', distant, aloof and frightening.  So God is giving more of Godself whilst requiring only that we keep the terms of the Old Covenant.

Just in case you’ve forgotten half of Exodus, and pretty much all of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Jesus summed it all up that our side of the New Covenant is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. It’s easily stated but difficult to live by. This is still not a covenant we can keep.  Jesus, however, being both divine and human, can keep the covenant even when we can’t, and indeed that’s what we believe he did, living a life that was blameless.  Those who are baptised as Christians are referred to as being ‘in Christ’, so what that means is that even when we break our side of the agreement, because he is our human representative who keeps the covenant with God, the covenant remains intact.  This is why it’s called the grace of God, because God has found a work-around, a way in which a new covenant can be kept because he keeps both sides, his side and ours. It almost looks like cheating, but that’s the whole point of grace. It’s still a two-sided covenant, but God keeps both sides because Christ was divine and human.

An interesting question might be how would we wish to respond to that? Does it mean we don’t even have to bother trying because it’s all ok in Christ? No, I don’t think that’s the point; that would be simply taking for granted the depths God plumbed in 'cutting' the new covenant. But I do think that the events surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection are there to keep us within the new covenant when we get it wrong, when we make mistakes, when we’re not true to the callings we each have, when we fall short of who we were went to be.  (As an aside - despite the church's track record of trying to make people feel weighed down with guilt and shame because of their 'sin', the definition of sin is simply one of missing the target, like an archer whose arrow falls short.)

My response, therefore, is one of gratitude, that Christ knew what it would require of him to forge a New Covenant, and yet he still went through with it.

I’m not saying, by any stretch, that this is a complete understanding of the new covenant, but it does at least help us to understand a logical reason behind why Christians insist Christ was divine and human. If he had been merely human, could he have kept the covenant? .No one else has managed it. But as a divine human he was able to keep it on our behalf, and so no longer does God appear as a distant king or 'Father-Sky'; now he comes near as a parent, and it should not escape our attention that the description Jesus gives of his longing to offer protection like a hen covering her brood is a distinctly mothering image. And that is the intimacy afforded by the New Covenant.

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