I want to talk to you about two people I used to know. One was named “Jack “. The other was called “Emma ”
Jack was a clever man. As a youngster he studied science at Cambridge, and then became interested in philosophy. He soon became attracted by the logical beauty of Christianity and converted to the Faith.
Jack’s approach to miracles was always to look for a reasonable explanation. Healing miracles presented him with no problem because he was well aware of the relationship between mind and body. Nature miracles were a bit more difficult, but Jack soon discovered some liberal theologians who, for example, suggested that the true miracle of the feeding of the 5000 was the influence of Jesus which caused those listening to him to share their food. He felt that any other explanation would place Jesus on the level of a magician, and this was, he said, offensive.
Jack believed, quite rightly, that Jesus was completely human, and he saw very clearly that unless Jesus was fully identified with human beings he would be unable to represent or help them. However, Jack was in deep trouble. In his efforts to explain Jesus, he’d allowed himself to be pushed to an extreme position. A position which tried to explain the presence of God in Christ by avoiding the claims to being divine.
Jack’s position became more and more difficult, and he finally lost his faith.
Emma was full of life. She was a lovely person, friendly and outgoing and liked by everyone who met her. She was the kind of girl whose head was ruled by her heart and she depended on her instincts to lead her. She had never been really interested in academic learning and found most of that stuff pretty boring.
When she met some charismatic Christians she was immediately attracted by their warm sincerity. She found that as she joined them in worship she experienced a depth of emotion which was truly satisfying. She slipped easily into phrases like “being born again” or “knowing Jesus”. Unlike Jack, she had absolutely no problems with anything that she read in Scripture. She didn’t need to ask herself what “being born again” meant, or how “knowing Jesus” made sense. For her, it was obvious that God could perform miracles and that Jesus was God. Although she wouldn’t publicly admit to it, she began to think of Jesus as though he just seemed to be a man. Because after all, men don’t perform miracles do they?
Things were just fine for a year or two, but then the going got tough, and she desperately needed to know that God really knew what it was like to suffer. She needed to be able to take what little she had to the Lord in order that he might bless it, multiply it and return it to her.
But because she took a totally literal approach to Scripture she read the story of the feeding of 5000 simply at the level of Jesus magically multiplying loaves and fishes; as proof that he was God. She was unable to see deeper into the story and because of this, the healing power of God’s word was not available to her.
Emma had never struggled with her Faith; she had never really doubted anything, and as a result, her roots weren’t very deep. Shortly afterwards she dropped her church contacts and lost her Faith.
Do you know Jack? Do you know Emma? I do, because the extreme positions which they both represent, pull within me and create a tension which is sometimes quite difficult to live with. Jack’s mistake was to concentrate on the humanity of Jesus at the expense of his divinity. Emma’s mistake was to concentrate on the divinity of Jesus at the expense of his humanity.
But our faith is that Jesus was God and man. Our claim is that Jesus came from a woman’s womb, grew from a baby, got hungry and tired and angry, suffered and died. And yet was divine. All of this is shocking and amazing. Humans are finite, fallible and mortal; God is infinite, infallible and immortal. How can one person be both at the same time? Well, it took the early Church about 400 years to produce a statement on this.
Perhaps then, we’re in good company when we too find it almost impossible to grasp.
But a part of being a Christian is to live with this tension. And it will pull us sometimes one-way, and sometimes the other, and that’s why we need to be aware of the dangers of either extreme position. Indeed, it seems to me that living with all kinds of tensions is part of being a Christian.
We have to live with the tension of being members of the Kingdom of Heaven, and yet also belonging to an earthly kingdom, and this pulls us about.
We have to live with the tension of being “in Christ” and yet also acknowledging that quite frequently we deny him . And this tension can sometimes be almost unbearable.
We have to live with the tension of trusting Christ and yet frequently being too afraid to do this, and this tension can often make us deeply ashamed.
And yes, we have to live with the tension of our 21st century minds reading a first century story. A tension which will sometimes pull us towards one understanding, and sometimes towards a different one.
But perhaps most importantly, a tension which will allow God’s word to work deeply within us . A tension which allows us movement as the Holy Spirit helps us to reflect until the text speaks to us personally. And this reflection will lead us to different positions which are appropriate to where we are on our Christian journey .
I know I shall never be like Emma, and I know that a part of my Christian life is to struggle with scripture. I’m not a literalist, but I now understand the Anglican theologian Tom Wright who teaches that the multiplication of fish and bread is literally just what you might expect when God’s compassion and power flow in an unrestricted way through a human being who was totally obedient to his heavenly Father.
But we must never worry because we can’t accept or understand something which we read in scripture, or something which the church teaches. Christianity doesn’t work by forcing yourself into trying to believe 15 impossible things before breakfast.
It works by offering your doubts, your anxieties your confusions and your deepest wishes to God, for his use. And it doesn’t matter how meagre your offerings are, as long as you bring them with your whole heart. He will accept them, purify them, multiply them and give them back to you so that you might give them away in his service .
Thank God for Christian tension.