Imagination and Faith
Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
20 January 2008, 10:30 (Epiphany 2)
Isaiah 49.1-7; John 1.29- 42
The picture of the beached Boeing aircraft at Heathrow at the end of last week was one which told an incredible story of human coolness under extraordinary pressure, sheer bravery and not least an amazing escape. The fact that the plane itself didn’t break up and enabled the people onboard to get out relatively unharmed was a testament to those who designed the aircraft as well as to those who flew it. Of course we all realise it could have been so much different. But this is a story with many other stories within it and has etched itself into my imagination as one I can make connections with images within my faith.
First there’s the story of escape, and in this case escape from the very jaws of death. Second there’s the cool handling and leadership of the crew and in particular one man, the so-pilot who steered the plane during those perilous few minutes. Third there’s the image of the plane in cruciform shape that has enabled people to be saved.
I’ve deliberately described the event in such a way that maybe you too can hear the religious overtones that chime with the Jewish-Christian story. It may sound child-like to have done this but there are times when certain stories echo those in the bible and we should not expect it otherwise as our is a faith that is about God entering history and being concerned about the lives of people whether these are big life and death moments or a simple meal. How we interpret the events in our own personal lives will depend on how we exercise our faith in our relationship to God, how we seek to use our imagination in a prayerful, thoughtful way to allow God to speak to us and become part of us. This too will depend on how we allow absorb the major, epic events and stories from the bible to colour that understanding and develop and grow our faith.
For instance, John’s Gospel this morning takes two images from the Old Testament and makes connections with the person of Jesus Christ: the dove and the lamb. These were common enough creatures, but for John and for those for whom he was writing they had much more meaning because of the stories from the Old Testament. The dove was a symbol of the Holy Spirit and goes back particularly to the story of Noah. The dove is the bearer of good news – that the earth is recovering and the ark can find dry land. So when John the Baptist says he saw the Spirit like a dove hovering over Jesus John’s gospel is immediately bringing the memory of that story into play. Jesus is to bring recovery to those who feel stranded and cast adrift, and that he has God’s spirit with him. Jesus is, like the dove, God’s message of new life, rescue, salvation...........
The second image is that of the Lamb. Again, this image is laden with the Old Testament story of rescue and freedom, but this time from another age. This is the story of the exodus, and the more particularly the Jewish festival of Passover when the people celebrated their escape from slavery in Egypt and the beginnings of the wanderings to find the promised land. The Passover lambs were slaughtered, and the blood daubed on the houses so that the angel of death would Passover the households and not affect them. In just one simple image John’s gospel has made the link for those who know the story to Jesus. And indeed later in the gospel John has a different time-scale to the other gospel-writers as he has Jesus crucified at the time when the passover lambs were being slaughtered for the Passover festival. He subtly prepares the reader for this statement early in his gospel that Jesus is indeed the one who gave up his life for the freedom of all people from the effects of sin and alienation from God and each other, which is another way of describing death.
However, John’s gospel also brings in another animal but this time not mentioned. The one who carried the sins of the nation in the Old Testament story was not the lamb but rather the scape-goat which on the day of atonement was cast out into the wilderness. By referring to the Lamb ‘who takes away the sin of the world’ the gospeller brings together these twin aspects of salvation which previously had been imaged in two different animals. Now there is a sense of the whole ‘mechansim’, if I might use that word, of the understanding of the Godly acts of Salvation in the old testament, brought together crisply and precisely in this most economical picture-phrase of the ‘Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.’ Jesus is total salvation. Jesus is total freedom. But of course Jesus can only be that and do that if he is also the complete revelation of God.
In the passage I’ve just looked at we have seen the gospel writer taking images from every day life in his time and, in a sense playing, with them to make connections for his readers and those to whom he was witnessing. He could of course have written in it in another way and described Jesus in different terms, like for instance these words from an early Christian writer Ignatius of Antioch:
Very flesh, yet spirit too;
Uncreated, and yet born;
God-and-Man in One agreed, Very-Life-in-Death indeed,
Fruit of God and Mary’s seed;
At once impassible and torn
By pain and suffering here below:
Jesus Christ, whom as our Lord we know.1
Here the writer captures the imagination through the rhythm of poetry more than direct image. But the message is the same. That in Jesus we have the image of God, the revealer of his love and purposes and the way he wants us to be.
How we communicate with passion what we believe and see in Jesus Christ is one of the pressing questions which faces our church today. For John could use those ‘religious’ pictures and develop them, as many of the people at his time would have cottoned on, for they would have known the stories of the past as their heritage. Today, in our more secular world and particularly where little is known of the bible and its message, there is even more need to engage with people’s imaginations and make the linkages so that they can hear and see that the biblical stories of the past do indeed chime with the human stories of the present. For, whilst God has acted decisively in the past so he too continues to act in the lives of people today. The story of salvation and healing is his eternal gift to his world.