The Revd Brutus Green
In 1989 Depeche Mode released a song which made it into the top thirty in the UK and US, two months and two weeks before the Berlin Wall politically ceased to exist. The record was the best selling twelve inch single in Warner Bros. history, and each format, seven and twelve inch vinyl, tape, and later CD featured a naked woman with a different band member. The song was called “Personal Jesus”. Its inspiration was Priscilla Presley’s book Elvis and Me, about how another person can become like a god to you, and how you can be a Jesus to someone, someone who’s there; someone to care.
Johnny Cash, on one of his later Rick Rubin albums, with the help of guitarists from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Tom Petty’s Hearbreakers re-recorded it. Cash, who in his last few months took communion with Rubin every day, sometimes on the telephone, related somewhat differently to the song. When you hear Cash’s old country voice you know he is re-filling the hollow irony of electronica with some southern soul. The original is usually in top 100 song lists, but Cash, who knew both his dependency on others and on God, twisted it back to being both a love song and a song of faith.
The same song can convey quite different impressions. The year after Johnny Cash died Marilyn Mansun took the song back to naked girls and superficial catholic imagery. Easy come, easy go.
There’s something quite theological about this. We all have our own personal Jesus. For many Christians a sense of personal relationship with Jesus is at the heart of their faith, as a friend alongside them. At a more biblical level part of the charm of the New Testament is that we have four different accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus, written through two generations after his death as the final people who had encountered him were dying. One is more Jewish, one noticed more his teaching about the poor, one is more concerned with giving an intellectual account of what he was about. And these records which we call gospels are based partly on other sources about which we can only conjecture. Just as we mean different things to different people, so Jesus appeared somewhat differently to his contemporaries, and is in each of our minds shaded in different colours.
Today we are considering Jesus’ central teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount. And it poses a question. Is Jesus in your mind a hard line religious extremist, implacable in commandments which far exceed the Jewish rules of his day - or is he the fuzzy live-and-let-live consumate liberal? Is he a Che Guevara revolutionary or a flakey hipster? Usually we think of Jesus as the easy-going reformer, the cuddly take-it-easy-on-yourself guy. The law is there to help you not to condemn you, don’t worry about the Sabbath, what matters is where your heart is; as our parable last week let on, God doesn’t want hardline fasting, strict and careful lawyer-pharisees, he wants tax-collecting sinners who say sorry; who know they’re not perfect. In today’s language, he wants the reformed banker not the pious protester.
And yes. This is all in the gospels.
But then there’s the other Jesus. The Jesus who says - be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect; who in today’s Gospel places the most stringent demands on us. We might with a pinch of sanctimoniousness be able to love our enemies, but would we actually offer the other cheek to the one who slapped us? Would we give our shirt to someone who stole our coat? Is it even moral to give to everyone who begs? Wouldn’t society collapse if we didn’t ask for money lent to come back?
I’m reminded of Obi Wan Kanobe in Star Wars. After all Ewan McGregor’s leaping about around volcanoes to defeat the future Darth Vadar, Alec Guiness after a cursory slightly inept bit of fencing declares the immortal lines: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” But does he? After this point he doesn’t really seem to do very much. There’s the occasional ghostly voice and whenever there’s a party he appears alongside a shimmering Yoda or whoever to enjoy the merriment, but there’s no obvious display of great power. When Jesus says to turn the other cheek is he engaging in defeatism? Is he ignoring the demands of justice?
This Jesus seems too hard-line, impractical, too demanding. We prefer to gloss over him - pass on its rigour to the professional religious the monks or nuns; to the non-Anglican clergy. Or perhaps you spiritualize it, which is to say you ignore it in a particularly “deep” way, or claim it was a metaphor and he was really talking about the person in your house who doesn’t do the washing up or uses the floor as a shelf.
The Jesus of the Gospels presents us with both the liberal Jesus and the hard-line Jesus and if we’re honest with ourselves we tend to select the bits of him that are easiest to live with, like a teenage boy flicking through a Jilly Cooper novel.
Theologians are certainly not immune to this. In Latin America in the 70s there emerged a generation of priests and theologians who read in Luke’s “Blessed are the poor”, “Blessed are the hungry”, “woe to you that are rich, that are full”, a command to spread Marxism across the continent. The same sense of God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ also led some of these priests to a more liberal reading of ‘turning the other cheek’ - when they took up machine guns to bring about revolution.
On the other hand, God’s blessing on the poor has been used by some for precisely the reverse ends. After all, if the poor are blessed are we not undermining them by improving their situation? Keep the poor poor and you keep them godly. I’m sure all of us here frequently rail against the curse of our capitalist prosperity, wealth and independence. If only I were poorer, I hear you cry, I would know God’s blessing more.
Just as our interpretation gives us different Jesi so does it move us towards different interpretations of society. Do we leave the poor in their blessed state? Do we sell all our possessions and give them to the poor? Do we leave it to the individual to make their way in the world or demand the total global redistribution of wealth? Politics usually prefers total subscription to an interpretation. Either the jobless are all scroungers, cheats and layabouts and we’ve developed an underclass that must be purged by austerity; or they’ve all been let down by society and must be supported at whatever cost and protected from the right-wing slash and burn of the welfare state. The first rule of politics: generalize!
We should first of all remember though that Jesus is not doing social analysis here but teaching. To the rich he makes clear that the wealth of this world is a castle built on sand and can be taken from us, just as the constraints of our frail mortal bodies will always impinge on our happiness no matter who our health care is with. To the poor though, there is the encouragement but also the incentive - you are blessed. You are equally created and loved by God. And for all that you may feel you have little and are powerless, you have a gift from God and the kingdom of heaven, which is learned and displayed in solidarity, generosity, kindness and love is equally close to you. Indeed, it may be closer.
And in this the hallmark of Jesus’ teaching is its personal quality. The woman caught in adultery is treated gently; the rich young man is asked to give up his possessions. The tax-collector is forgiven, the pharisee stands accused. In this sense Jesus is personal. Through him God meets us where we are. Not with a broad-brush political agenda, but a nudge or a push, if we let him, to consider what more we can do and what more we can be. If politics says generalize, Jesus says “personalize!”
Now we may be called by Depeche Mode to be Jesus to a friend, there, caring, perhaps unconsciously sharing the love of God with someone by just being nice to them. We may like Johnny Cash have ploughed through a torrent of sex, drugs and illness to find in our weak frames a dependence upon God, or the inspiration to live better. We may be being called to give something up, take something on, to ourselves bless the poor, or find in our own poverty the spark of blessing that returns us to vigour and joy. All of these are valid interpretations of the Gospel which has many things to say to us, whether we can or cannot yet bear it. If we take the time to let it speak. And since we are celebrating the festival of All Saints today we can reflect that God calls people of every persuasion and that in the lives of millions of ordinary men and women like you and I God is at work. And in this -if we listen carefully - we can hear a polyphony of covers of a personal Jesus coming to life. Reach out and touch faith. Amen.