Lindsay Urwin OGS. Bishop of Horsham, Church of England


Föredrag hållet vid aKF:s kyrkodagar i Uppsala 2000

My brothers and sisters, it is good to be here! First of all let me thank you for this second invitation to participate in your Church days. I bring greetings from the Church of England, and in particular from those members of the Church who with you, have a concern for orthodox believing and teaching, who feel it important to remind the Church of the call to be to be faithful to the apostolic tradition.

Of course it is not enough to simply remind people with words. Much better that we so live the Life, or so let the Life live in us, that we demonstrate its truth and its power!

I am also grateful to be asked to speak about Jesus. This calls me back to my vocation as a bishop, for there is nothing more central to the "job description" of a bishop than to talk about Jesus Christ. For what was at the heart of the life of the first apostles? What was their mission? What was their vocation? What was their passion? To proclaim the Word, "which was made flesh". We know that the deepest realities cannot be properly put into words. Words are not enough, and this is perhaps why the Word became flesh, because words were not enough. Yet we must speak. If we do not, the Scripture says that rocks and stones will themselves start to sing!

Back in England, in my study I have a portrait hanging above the fireplace. I hasten to say that it is not a portrait of myself! It is of a great hero of mine. His name was Father Stanton and he lived at the time of the great catholic revival in the Church of England started by Newman and Pusey and others, which in its second generation moved out from its beginnings in Oxford to the poor parishes of the inner cities. Father Stanton was a curate in London, an assistant priest for over 50 years. He was never as far as we know, invited to be in charge of a parish. But he was a brilliant preacher, a thorn in the flesh of the establishment, a lover of souls, and an evangelist. He was an ardent Anglo-Catholic and a great ritualist.

Once he was asked to reflect about what he hoped might be carved on to his tomb stone. I suppose he was really being asked about how he would like to be remembered. His answer was simple yet profound:

"He preached Jesus and only Jesus."

Of course the dynamic to speak about Jesus is the vocation of every baptised believer, not simply the clergy or the bishops. In fact can I say to the laity here, do not simply rely on the clergy, still less the bishops to speak about Jesus! Now the impetus to speak about the Lord does not primarily come from an "ought". Perhaps it does not even come in response to the command from Jesus to go "baptise all nations and teach them".

The most effective and authentic dynamic for speaking about Jesus, the best motive which brings forth courage and perseverance, is an inner conviction about his identity, and of his love for you. A fundamental belief, born out by your own personal relationship with him, that Jesus is indeed "the Truth". And this is a conviction held in spite of the relativisation of truth which is such a feature our western culture typified for example, by the title of a CD produced by the Manic Street Preachers, “This is my truth; tell me yours”. And this is a conviction held in spite of the ambiguous evidence for a loving and concerned God in our broken and divided world, where sometimes it does seem the devil has all the best tunes. And it is an inner conviction held in the midst of all the other attractions in this media driven and image conscious age, which call us into relationships and to embrace values at odds with those of Jesus.

The title given to me for this talk is "Jesus – the truth". It is important to be very clear where the title comes from, aside of course from the organising committee of these days. It comes from the Scriptures, and it is a claim presented to us in the gospels as coming from the mouth of Jesus himself. Sometimes, people question whether such passages in the gospels – especially John's gospel which is more reflective and theologically developed than the three synoptic gospels – can be relied upon as coming from Jesus. Are they not really just made up by the authors to get across what they want us to believe?

Well let us first say that of course they want us to believe in Jesus! They are not simply seeking to describe Jesus, put him under a microscope like some specimen. They present him as one to be believed in. The Gospels are not dispassionate. They are the testimony of those who had been with Jesus. Written from the other side of Easter Day they believed their encounter with Jesus was of momentous, world changing significance, and they wrote hoping to engender faith in others, but they sought to present genuine and faithful account of what happened. This affirmation, this admission of their faith perspective need not of necessity invalidate the gospels as presenting a faithful record of event. It does not negate their fundamental reliability.

The New Testament scholar N.T.Wright has this to say:

"The gospels (we are told) are faith documents: therefore they are not about history. The gospels are a product of long theological reflection: therefore they are not biographies. The first thing to be said is that these are false alternatives…the theological reflection which they offer is emphatically Jewish. Like Jesus himself, they wear their Jewish ancestry on page after page. And the great thing about first century Judaism…was its concentration on history." (Who was Jesus? SPCK)

We must further dismiss by the way, the crude notion, one of the unfortunate features of the Enlightenment or its aftermath which holds on tenaciously in the popular mind to the unreal distinction between that which is scientific and can be known and trusted as ‘facts’ and that which is relegated to the inferior and unreliable world of opinions, religious belief being in this latter category. Modern philosophers like Michael Palanyi have smashed the idea that knowledge and the way things are can be catagorised in this way. But that issue is a lecture in its own right!

The Christian starting point for exploring and understanding who Jesus is must be the New Testament.

And the most natural place for me to begin a reflection about the identity of Jesus and what he means for the world, is with a particular self-description recorded for us in John’s gospel, chapter 10. I feel at home with this image of Jesus because I am a member of a religious order in the Church of England whose members live under its patronage. Our aim is to adore and model our lives according to the pattern of the ‘Good Shepherd’

The chapter begins with our Lord saying, “In truth, in very truth I tell you”. It is as if Jesus is saying – “Listen! This is the truest thing you will hear, as absolutely true as anything can be”.

The text is instructive for before Jesus introduces himself as the Good Shepherd he says “In truth, in very truth I tell you, I am the door of the sheepfold” and “anyone who comes into the fold through me shall be safe”. You see brothers and sisters that Jesus is claiming not only to show the way, but to be the way in. We must understand that in popular theology of the time, eternal life is depicted as safe grazing, as a sheepfold. Jesus is claiming to be the door to the ultimate prize, to eternal life.

He then presents himself as good shepherd. Again Jesus is using imagery drawn from the popular religion of his day. His use of the shepherd is of course also found in a parable from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus responds to the grumbling of the Pharisees about the company he is keeping: “If one has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does he not leave the ninety nine in the open pasture and go after the missing one until he ahs found it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing, and goes home and calls his friends together and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep, which was lost”. Jesus intends his hearers to recognise him as that shepherd. Elsewhere he connects his task as Son of Man to this role as shepherd, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost”.

I think you will know well the prologue to John’s gospel when the evangelist captures in a phrase all the depth of the mystery of the doctrine we call the Incarnation. He writes, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, we have beheld his glory as of the only Son of the Father.’ (1:14)

For the popular theology of the first century the divine logos, the Word, or wisdom of God was the shepherd of the universe, guiding the stars in their course. That Word might be embodied in the stoic wise man or the Hellenistic king or the Roman emperor, and so raise him to a state in which he was of a higher order than his subjects. Just as a shepherd is of a higher order of being than his sheep, so the divine ruler is of a higher order that his subjects and may rightly claim their worship. So it was that the Emperor Caligula justified the demand for the worship of his subjects, even to the point of setting up an image of himself in the temple at Jerusalem.

Again, in popular theology it was the divine Word or wisdom present in the soul of a man that was his guide and his shepherd in his own search for wisdom and as he sought to live a life of virtue in accordance with the dictats of that divine reason which holds all creation in its order. The right to be a ruler or shepherd of mankind depended on a mans possession of a pre-eminent share in that divine wisdom or Word which is the shepherd of the Cosmos.

So can you see the connection between Jesus as ‘Word made Flesh’ and my beloved ‘I am the Good Shepherd’?

When the Saviour calls himself good shepherd, it is more than a touching pastoral scene, an image of care and love, though it is these things. More importantly, Jesus intends to brush away, to sweep away a host of false claimants to the title. “All that came before me are thieves and robbers”. Our Lord’s own homeland had had its fair share of false Christs, as indeed the world at large was well used to men claiming to be the shepherd of mankind. Is it not also true that in our own day there are plenty of ‘shepherds’, most of them secular, and anything but good, who claim our attention, call us, seek to lead us, but they are hirelings, which Gregory the Great in his ‘pastoral rule’ when commenting on this passage in John calls ‘mercenaries’.

St John wants us to see that there is indeed one divine Word, or Wisdom, or Reason who was from the beginning, without whom nothing was made that was made; and that yes, indeed, there is one Word manifested as the true king and ruler of all, and one Word speaking into the hearts of men and women and guiding them through the changes and chances of this fleeting world.

But John tells us that one divine Word is not seen in a multitude of deities or in men like Caligula or Nero claiming to be shepherds of their empire. The Word is not to be found as a divine wisdom present in the great philosophers of the world, guiding them into the truth. They may indeed have been guided by that divine reason which is the shepherd of the universe, but they are not themselves the Good Shepherd.

The true shepherd of the world is that divine logos which is love; and that divine Word has been made flesh once and to all eternity in Jesus the Good Shepherd. This is the heart of the Gospel. This is the revealed mystery, beautifully captured in a wonderful hymn, which will not rhyme in Swedish but it is still profound!

O wonder of wonders which none can unfold:
The ancient of days is an hour or two old;
The maker of all things is made of the earth;
Man is worshipped by angels and God comes to birth.

Now when Jesus is described as ‘good’, John uses the same Greek word as that used to describe the wine in the story of the Wedding at Cana. The best wine, compared to which all other wines are as it were a preparation. And the source of the wine – though only the steward knew – was Jesus.

We find an echo of this in the letter to the Hebrew when Jesus is presented as the Father’s definitive word about himself, and about humanity, and about history:

"In many and in various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; now in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son’ (1:1,2)

St John is himself like a most thoughtful and profound steward of the divine Word made flesh. He who attended Jesus on the lake of Gennesareth, was with him to Calvary, rested on his breast at the Last Supper, stood with his mother in the shadow of his death, and cared for her and no doubt listened to her of what she alone could tell of this mystery who is Christ, and to whom she herself ministered.

So from his heart, John begins his first letter: “It was there from the beginning; we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we have looked upon it, and touched it with our hands; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the word of life. This life was made visible.”

In the midst of all the diversity of the New Testament there is a theme, which makes it a seamless robe, and it is this doctrine of the Incarnation. The infancy narratives, which we know so well, point us inevitably to the unique action of God which ‘overshadowed’ Mary.

In one of his Christmas Day sermons, the great John Henry Newman contrasts the clarity and what he calls the ‘reverent brevity’ of the New Testament announcement of the Incarnation with later times when he says, “the light of his advent faded, and love waxed cold, and there was an opening for objection and discussion, misconception had to be explained, doubts allayed, innovators silenced, Christians forced to speak lest heretics should speak instead of them”. So Newman gives his hearers an admirable list of New Testament affirmations: “The Word was made flesh”; “God was manifold in the flesh”; “God was in Christ”; “Unto us a child is born – the mighty God”; “Christ was over all, God blessed for ever”; “My Lord and my God”; “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending – the Almighty”; “The Son of God, the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person”.

So according to the earliest proclamation expressed decisively in the New Testament, because of Christ, religion is no longer as Paul says in his sermon in Acts 17, “ a blind search for God” but the response of faith to God who reveals himself in Jesus who is “the way, the truth and the life”. The claim here is not that Jesus points us in the right direction nor simply that he tells the truth, nor that he simply gives us a pattern of how to live. Rather, he embodies and is himself the way, the truth and the life. God has manifested himself; here we have "God in skin". Christians do not simply follow him, listen to him, copy his life though they do all these things, but are ‘in Christ’, mystically united to Him, share his divine Sonship, and are united to the Father through him.

You will know that there have been sincere attempts to denude the gospel of this embarrassing doctrine, in response to a scientific worldview, which cannot find it in its system to believe in a supernatural intervention by God, even if in its heart it may want to.

Certainly, the identity of Jesus has tantalised and tormented, confounded and haunted the world for two thousand years. He once asked, ”Who do you say that I am?” and the question still challenges people. It must be said that no other person has had so much influence as he, on individual lives and how they are lived, on culture and music, on simple communities in the third world to the great cities of Europe. Why, your own birthdate is fixed in relation to his birth date. Every letter you write, every bill you receive, every newspaper you read, however secular is dated with reference to him. No person can have engendered more loyalty even unto death, or more fury, a fury which began with Herod even before the Word was able to speak. Today, a million times will he be called upon in prayer and to bless, and perhaps as many times his name will be used to curse and to swear.

Among those who have pondered about him, there are those who see Jesus as a god filled man though whom God acted, exterting an influence which created a community which we call the Church. They deny the jumping of catagories from the eternal to the contingent required of those who accept that God was made man in Christ; they discard the Johannine claim to his pre existence and question his supernatural resurrection. For certain they reject the idea that he will "come to be our judge". Jesus is reduced to being the supreme example and pattern of human love for our imitation.

Before we look briefly at the disastrous consequences for Christianity of such reductionism, we must ask whether it is tenable to even think of Jesus as good and worth imitating if he is not divine. Our fundamental record of him is in the New Testament but it is worth remembering that Pliny the younger, Governor of Bithynia reported to the Emperor Trajan between the years 111 and 113 that a large number of people were accustomed to gather "on a designated day, before dawn, to sing in alternating choruses a hymn to Christ as to a God", and that Clement of Rome writes around the turn of the first century to his readers were to "think of Jesus Christ as you think of God". So it is clear that from the earliest days the hitherto fiercely monotheistic Jews worshipped Jesus and gave to him the honour due to God, and petitioned him as they did the Father.

It seems to me that you simply cannot separate or make sense of Jesus without accepting the claim presented to us in the earliest proclamation that he is God, though he did not cling to his equality with God. That phrase as you probably recognise comes from Philippians and is probably itself an excerpt from an early hymn. In Scripture, there is a startling humility, simplicity, a self-effacement about Jesus, and yet he makes explosive claims for himself. "Have I been with you all this time Philip, and still you do not know me? To have seen me is to have seen the Father." And "Today you will be with me in paradise." And "heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."

Michael Ramsey writes to the Christian enquirer:

"Perhaps you are trying the line that you welcome Christ’s moral teaching and admire it; but reject his own claims. It seems to me a most unconvincing line. The moral teaching and the claims are woven in one, for both concern the reign of God. I see no escape from the dilemma: either Jesus is fraudulent, or his claim is true: either we judge him for being terribly amiss, or we let him judge us. That was, in fact, the dilemma that cut through the consciences of his contemporaries." (Introducing the Christian Faith SCM)

All the main convictions of Christianity depend on the identity of Jesus as divine. It is the hub of the wheel, and without it the wheel collapses. The doctrine of God as Trinity; our doctrine of the Church as his Body; our doctrine of the sacraments and their power to feed and strengthen; our doctrine of Grace and salvation; our belief in our own resurrection, our belief in the ultimate triumph of divine justice, love and power; all of these and more depend, make sense built on the rock of the incarnation.

All this doctrine, and then there is the relentless claim of men and women who claim not simply to remember and revere him, but to to experience his nearness and love today.

If we believe, and I pray that you do, that God acted decisively in human history by taking upon himself our flesh, why was it so? Jesus tells Pilate that his purpose to bear witness to the truth. "What is truth?" responds Pilate and we shall never know whether it was out of cynicism or genuine wondering. What are the purposes of God?

The purpose of the Incarnation was to enable men and women to fulfil their destiny, to fulfil the end for which they were made – to worship God and enjoy him forever.

If all that can be said of Jesus is that he gives us the supreme example of a moral life and is the supreme example of goodness; if one were to say that God inspired him with his Spirit as say he does a saint, but in a more concentrated way, that would be a marvellous thing, but we would then surely have to conclude that our task was to imitate his life; that our ultimate aim and purpose was a virtuous, even godly life.

The difficulty of this is that given that the unique supremity of Jesus’ example is the thing that brings him to my attention, how could I hope to emulate him? I fail, and fail again. He presents me with a pattern of life I cannot perfect. That is depressingly unlike good news!

Virtue is good news, and when discovered is a beautiful thing, but it is not enough, and experience tells it is inconsistent in even the best of men and women.

Jesus articulates a much deeper longing and purpose for himself and for us in a prayer recorded by the beloved disciple:

"As thou Father art in me, and I in thee, so also may they be in us, that the world may believe that thou didst send me..that they may be one, as we are one; I in them and thou in me,may they be perfectly one. Then the world will learn that thou didst send me, that thou didst love them as thou didst me."

If this tells it the way it is, then we must surely conclude that we are created not simply to be good, and as like God as possible – the Platonic account of creation and purpose – but made to share in the whole fullness of God’s nature, to be a centre of that love which is essential to the nature of God who is three in one. So, if as John tells us, we are to be with Jesus in union with the Father, our purpose is to share in that adoring love which is the eternal activity in the heart and being of God, in that triangle of love and self giving between Father, Son and Spirit

Through our union with the Good Shepherd we are drawn in to the life of God. Paul says that love, that divine love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit he has given us.

So you and I, and millions like us are to be living embodiments of the eternal love of God, and our mission in life is to join in that loving purpose of God and bring it to being. That is to say, we are to be bearers of supernatural love. Our human hearts enlarged by the heart of God.

This is full of mystery, and as I speak it I must admit that I can hardly grasp this truth – goodness knows if it makes sense in the Swedish translation. If it does not, it will be no fault of the translator. I can hardly understand my own English! My eyes are too dim; my arms are too short, my mind too limited to grasp this revelation. Yet in the depths of my being I know my purpose is to love and the shape of that love I learn from that most pure and purpose filled life of Jesus, a life I have experienced as a contemporary reality, now, through his Holy Spirit.

We are called to be faithful to a mystery we do not understand. In this vocation, we can be encouraged by Mary, the blessed Virgin, who contained in her own womb this Word which flung stars into space. This woman who is the daughter of her Son did not fully understand, yet pondered in her heart and cried "How can this be?" And remained faithful.

It is a noble thing to aspire to a virtuous life. It is more wonderful to allow yourself to be drawn in to the life of God, to be placed on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd so that you life and his be one.

This description of life as journeying toward the centre of God helps reveal to us something of the Christian understanding or insight into personality, and it is an insight far away from the contemporary world!

If we define ourselves in terms of our differences from others, in contradistinction to others; in terms of our diversity alone – I have more or less that you; am taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, richer, poorer, more handsome, less handsome etc. If I see and measure my success in terms of your failure, if I have a promiscuous attitude towards my use of others or of the material world, I have turned my back on the gospel. If I try to get through life keeping myself to myself, living and let live, following my truth as you follow yours, I am not living as God intends. For my reference point, my standard is the loving life of the Trinity. This is where I look to discover what true love and life is.

In God we see personality manifested not as exclusive but as inclusive. The love of the three in one, is such that it becomes equally true to speak of them as three or to speak of them as one; for the Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father, and the Spirit bears witness not to himself but to the other. They remain distinct yet so united by a bond of adoring love which makes the distinction of the persons of secondary importance as compared with their absolute unity. This is a mystery but it is not unintelligible. Indeed we can find echoes of it in the life of redeemed humanity. For as Christians we surely regard the ideal person as one who can by love and sympathy enter most fully into the minds and thought and heart of another; who has a longing for mutual understanding and unity. Perhaps when we experience even a glimpse of such friendship, we may get a glimpse, a rumour of that which is the being of God. Individuality is transcended in unity, and the individual becomes most completely him or herself.

But how can eternal union with God possible? I can hardly bear to live with myself and those of my brethren who have spent any time with me will gladly share with you my faults and unfriendliness. I am surely with Isaiah as a man of unclean lips who falls flat on his face who knows that that which is less than godly cannot share the same space as the godly. In other words I am unworthy to live with God and share in the worship of heaven.

But the gospel tells me about the shape of the goodness of God, who so longs for me to fulfil the purpose for which I am made that he deals with that scourge we call sin, which would otherwise make my future life in eternal love impossible. The last word about humanity is and will be uttered by the Word who was made flesh.

Do you remember why the shepherd is good? The same reason that one Friday in human history was called good for all its pain, terror and alienation:

"The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep"

Do you see? Incarnation and Atonement. The purpose of the incarnation was not simply to put flesh and blood onto the rumour of God; not simply that God reveals himself in a way possible for we humans can understand; not simply to speak the Father’s eternal words of love in a moment of history and to touch us; but to do that which is necessary to make us worthy of our vocation to worship and enjoy him forever.

And that means the eradication of sin, the taking away of the sins of the world by the Lamb of God who is Jesus. The holiness of God cannot tolerate the unholy. The love of God cannot tolerate the unlovely. The righteousness of God demands the justice, and the love of God provides from his own heart the necessary sacrifice. "God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but the world through him might be saved."

Saved for what? Healed for what purpose? To make us worthy of life with him forever. To make us holy. To make us lovely. As a hymn for Good Friday puts it:

"There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.
He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in."

Friends there is no time for me to muse and reflect fully about the doctrine of the Atonement! Trust in it! I bid you remember that the wood of the crib is the wood of the cross. Incarnation and Atonement are together. When I was a young priest I worked with a rather theatrical parish priest. At midnight mass each year, just before midnight, when the church was list only by candlelight and all was still, he would walk from the sacristy down through the nave of the church to the beautiful crib scene. Then he would stand on a chair and hammer into the roof of the stable a large crucifix and cry out, "Now understand why he was born!"

Let me end with a challenge to you. If you believe that Jesus is the good shepherd, please do not stand by and watch others follow the shepherds who constantly call out to them to follow. If you truly believe how could you? If you know Jesus to be the living Word, don't stand by and let others be tossed about by the false promises and idle chatter of this fleeting world. And if you believe that he is the living water and the new wine I know you will not stand idly by watching them thirsty as they drink that which can never quench their thirst. If you believe in the Cross, pick up your own and follow.

Renew your commitment to live the life of faith! There is a religious crisis at the beginning of this new century. It is an illusion to blame moral relativism or the religious indifference of our day, or secularisation. We must look into our own hearts and consciences to see how we have contributed to the religious crisis by not having shown the face of God.

In the incarnation the great human search for God was satisfied – and by God himself.

God is in search of humanity, and shows us the path we must tread which is the way of the Cross with Jesus. The incarnation speaks to the human yearning for a destiny that transcends the limitations of time, space and death. We are invited to abide with God; an abiding without end made possible by the self-emptying of the word of God in his Incarnation, birth, life, and sacrificial death. This is Jesus. This is the truth.

2011-02-25 11:02