Thursday, September 27, 2007

Life on Mars: 2. Crucified Under Pontius Pilate

Well, the installation went very well with a full Cathedral. The Cathedral in Hong Kong is not air-conditioned. Sitting, fully-robed in the Cathedral at midday is an interesting experience! I believe the Cathedral people are thinking about air-con - the sooner, the better!

Looking at my diary for the next couple of days, I see I have a School Council meeting tonight, three School assemblies tomorrow morning and then a PTA AGM followed by a PTA Annual dinner tomorrow evening. I think I had better get on with my sermon for Sunday this afternoon if only to remind myself that I am a Vicar!

Here is the next in my Life on Mars series!

Life on Mars: 2. Crucified Under Pontius Pilate

Last time, I wrote about Life on Mars, the BBC police drama series, in which a detective from the present wakes up in 1973 and what a shock life in 1973 is to him. Everything is very different to what he is used to. I know the feeling, I am just about to have a birthday and thinking back to 1973, when I was an older teenager, I am constantly amazed at just how much has changed. Obviously, technology has advanced – assuming you think kids being stuck on playstations for hours or chatting endlessly on Facebook is advancement. In addition to such changes, attitudes and outlooks have changed radically, too.

If this is true in my short lifetime, how much more true is it in the time since the events related in the Bible? How can what people wrote and wrote about 2,000 and more years ago have anything to say to us living in the 21st century. This really is an important issue and Christians are at fault for sometimes acting as if it isn’t. Let me put it another way:

Suppose we were to do a Life on Mars in reverse and transport a Christian leader from the New Testament era to the present and make him a leader of a Church now, how long would it be before he had a nervous breakdown? That’s assuming that the first passing motor car didn’t knock him down. A motor-car being something he would never have seen before and now may never see again! How we do Church, what we believe, how we live, how we relate, everything would be so very, very different. What this leader said to us in his preaching, assuming we gave him the ability to speak Chinese or English, would also sound very different to what we are used to. And this from someone who is a Christian like us. His world was different then, they were different then. If a Christian from the past would have trouble living with us now, why should what Christians wrote in the past be of any relevance to us now? They are not of our world and we are not of theirs.

As L. P. Hartley said: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ All this applies to any religion that looks to a founder who lived in the past. But it applies even more to Christianity. For central to Christianity is the belief that God himself in the person of Jesus entered our space-time existence at a specific point in our history. Every week in my Church, we recite the Nicene Creed in which we say of Jesus that ‘he was crucified under Pontius Pilate’.

I think we forget the significance of this. Pontius Pilate was a minor Roman official in a relatively minor part of the Empire, and yet he is remembered every week at the most holy service of the Church’s worship. This is because our faith is centred on something that happened at a particular moment in history. For many Christians, this is rather embarrassing and inconvenient. We want a God who speaks now, not a God who spoke then. History isn’t everyone’s favourite subject and to make history, that is, what happened, 2000 years ago, so central and important seems to create more problems than it solves.

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Christians emphasize the resurrection and why the Charismatic movement has been so popular. By emphasizing that Jesus is alive today, there is the possibility that we don’t have to worry quite so much about yesterday. For if he is alive today and can speak to us in the way that many Christians believe he can and does, then we don’t have to worry so much about understanding what went on all those years ago. Jesus can speak directly to us. We don’t need to go through Christians in the past with all their difference and strangeness.

Unfortunately, by claiming that the Jesus we worship today, who we believe speaks to us today, is the same as the man who was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’ – as we do – week by week, we are committing ourselves to the importance of history and what happened in the past. We can only know the Jesus who is alive today if we can discover something of the man Pilate crucified. We need to know what it was he said and did then, otherwise what we hear when he speaks to us now, may turn out to be no more than our imagination and wistful thinking.

Time travel may not be a possibility, but historical study, for the Christian at least, is a necessity.

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