Good Friday: Israel Folau Has Got it Wrong

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Good Friday, 19 April 2019, Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, Year C—19 April 2019
The Reverend Canon Professor Scott Cowdell, Hon. Associate Priest

Isaiah 53: 13—53: 12; Hebrews 10: 16-25; John 18: 1—19: 42

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

What do you make of Israel Folau facing the sack over that intemperate social media posting? According to this star rugby player, liars, thieves, adulterers but particularly homosexual people are all going to Hell if they don’t repent! Clearly this bold declaration of fundamentalist Christian belief isn’t what the Australian public wants to hear, and the Rugby supremos have arced up because they don’t want to alienate the paying fans.

Most Australians these days reject the old god of social control, of good behaviour stiffly maintained, of works righteousness, the god who obsessively defends his prerogatives and who’s particularly protective of the patriarchal social order. And this god, who plainly represents a human construction, a conservative ideology of social control, has a real problem with human sexuality. Male power has to be guarded from any out-of-control female sexual desire, and certainly from same-sex desire which represents such an affront to patriarchal authority. If this is god, most Australians have given up on ‘him’ long ago. Which is OK, because God is nothing like this.

Israel Folau believes in this old god, though, with all the disapproval, all the violent payback, all the intrusive over-parenting, with fundamentalism like this helping to secure an in group of the righteous against an out group of the unrighteous. Israel Folau probably believes that God was responsible for this week’s tragic fire at Notre Dame, too, as payback to the Catholic Church, which he believes is full of pagan idolatry. The same sort of claims were made when York Minster caught fire just after David Jenkins, an edgy theology professor, was consecrated as Bishop of Durham back in Margaret Thatcher’s day.

And what about Good Friday? Well, in Israel Folau’s church today, you’d be told that this righteous and exacting and violent god is also a God of love, because he lets his Son pay the price for human sin—because someone has to be punished, so let it be Jesus. But of course unless you flee to Jesus’ protection and embrace the whole fundamentalist box and dice, you won’t be saved from Hell after all.

Friends, this is not what Christians typically believe, and it’s certainly not the most ancient Christian faith. It’s not even what the Bible is actually saying—there are hints of it, sure, but it’s not the main refrain. Something better and edgier and less implicated in human brutishness is drowning out this tired old message, thanks to the prophets of Israel, and especially thanks to the gospels and their narratives of Jesus’ passion and death. I’m going to talk to you about this today, because Australia needs to hear what right-minded Christians think God is really like: the Christlike God, in whom there is no un-Christlikeness at all, as Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey once so beautifully put it.

And, in fact, it’s because of Jesus and his impact that so much bad theology has been offloaded in modern times, with modern unbelief and secularity able to be understood at least in part as the fruit of sound religious judgement. But in this so-called post-secular era, when religious belief is making something of a return in the West, and when religious voices are again receiving a tolerant hearing in the public square, let’s make sure that the good news of Jesus Christ is attractively presented—as good news, not bad news.

As for Israel Folau’s god, that big projection of human disapproval, we’re also rightly suspicious about how serious the champions of this god actually are. Because in America, Evangelical fundamentalists like Israel Folau are happy to excuse the thieving, the lying and the adulteries of Donald Trump because they hate liberals and Democrats more than they hate sin, which to my mind lets the cat out of the bag. Friends, this isn’t God; this is the human projection that Feuerbach and Freud warned us about. Now, let’s meet the real God.

Isaiah in one of his so-called servant songs tells us in today’s reading about Israel as God’s suffering servant. We hear about his passive, vicarious suffering, and perhaps we baulk at this violent picture of God’s will, aiming to crush the servant despite the named injustice of it all. Feminist theologians rightly label this sort of thinking as divine child abuse. Yet I think we read this passage mistakenly, through the eyes of angry seventeenth century Protestant Calvinist or Catholic Jansenist theology, with its disapproving, punishing God. What if we read it differently, as God taking responsibility for re-educating and transforming a violent religious imagination? And what if the only way that can happen is by God undoing it from within, by stepping personally into the human religious mincer, like a spanner in the works?

Friends, this is what we see in our Hebrews passage today. It talks of a new vision of the sacred beyond the old sacrificial violence. Hebrews presents the death of Jesus as a sacrifice freely entered into not to perpetuate sacrifice but to end it forever. This is the last victim of humanity’s religious charnel house who blows the whole joint up, at the unavoidable cost of his own life. This is the death cult choking on the victim that it can’t digest. And this is the baptismal life prefigured, the washing away of guilt and the violence it perpetuates so the world can start again—with a new sacred, a new sanctuary, a new holiness, a new priesthood. And all this we see in Jesus Christ, who took a bullet for us not to placate an angry God, but to expose and undo the power of a human projection that we thought was the real God, but who Good Friday reveals to be anything but.

So instead of humanity’s accustomed version of togetherness, bought at the price of despised outsiders and sealed as ever with innocent blood, we’re invited to a new togetherness in the life of Jesus’ Church, which is a human community called to do humanity differently, and which Hebrews today enjoins us not to give up on, because of course we can’t know the real God apart from joining the people who God calls together—a community called to serve as a countersign in the midst of humanity’s still-troubled history.

The point I’m making is especially plain in our reading of the passion today, as John’s Gospel imagines it. The scene begins with violence perpetuating violence, with business as usual, as Peter draws his sword and strikes back at the officials who come to arrest Jesus. Jesus firmly refuses this logic of tit for tat. God doesn’t play that game. Though God’s supposed representative, Caiaphas, does play that game—he’s the one who declared how fitting it is that one man die for the people. Friends, here’s the false sacred logic of scapegoating a victim, any victim, in order to discharge pent up violence and let peace reign once again—here it is, friends, named as clear as day.

Next the trials begin, with Jesus on trial but also Peter. We meet Peter in the court of the guard still playing by the old rules, fearfully defending himself with his ‘I am not’, while Jesus takes his stand before Pilate in the confidence of God’s new creation, with his ‘I am’, which puts everything Pilate stands for on notice.

Pilate isn’t a bad man, according to this narrative; he clearly wants to let Jesus go; he even thinks that giving Jesus a good beating might mollify the mob, and so save Jesus’ life. But ultimately Pilate stands for the Realpolitik of the old order, and like so many officials and managers then and now he knows where his bread’s buttered, so ultimately he goes along with the whole inexorable show. Pilate doesn’t know what truth is, as he admits, because it’s not his business. Fake news is good enough for him, and the religious authorities quickly provide it, claiming to honour Caesar just so they can ensure Jesus’ condemnation. Any fake truth will do once the mob has it’s blood up. And this is why they want Barabbas of course, the bandit. Better anyone than the one they hate most, the one who challenges the system, including terrorists like Barabbas who remain an indispensable part of the system. And in fact, isn’t that exactly what we’re hearing from those who say that the Greens represent a bigger threat to Australia than the terrorists? Because the terrorists are a known quantity, a useful part of our adversarial system, whereas what we really can’t accommodate is anyone who challenges that system by calling it into question at a fundamental level. They’re a bigger threat.

And here in John’s passion narrative Jesus is that bigger threat with his sovereign silence and his sovereign words in the face of Pilate, who represents that petty regional divinity Caesar. Jesus and his God deliver a different order of reality altogether, and as John’s Jesus goes to the cross, his sovereignty over the whole sordid, predictable, grubby little affair is made even more plain. While the soldiers are picking over his belongings, representing an economics of scarcity and rivalry, Jesus initiates a new economy based on the gift. He gives his mother to the Church and, likewise, he gives the Church to his mother, as he brings Mary and the beloved disciple together. And then in his dying he gives himself to us in the sacraments—in the blood of Eucharist and the water of baptism—both of which establish us in a whole new world beyond the old violent religious order. And as a final sign of this new beginning, we see Jesus laid to rest in a garden, waiting for Easter Day. Because of course it’s in a Garden that the whole human story began, didn’t it, according to Genesis?

And so we’re left waiting for Jesus outside the tomb, waiting for that new human story to begin. For now, you and I prepare to receive his body and blood from the reserved sacrament: another gift from God, and nothing that we Christians either make or control or need to justify. Indeed, the whole Christian life is a share in this Eucharistic giftedness. Not for us an attitude that’s suspicious, defensive, punishing and on the lookout for victims, like the mistaken god of Israel Folau—a god representing yet one more iteration of the pagan religious imagination. This old god dies on the cross, with Jesus bearing the terrible burden of that necessary cultural breakthrough. And as for us we wait—we wait for Easter Sunday, to see what the real God has in store for the crucified Jesus, and for us.

The Lord be with you …