Reading John 11:1-45
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
I doubt if I’m alone in at least sometimes wondering whether there’s something intrinsic to Islam that can lead its followers to commit acts of extreme violence in the name of God.
Consider this quotation from the Qur’an: ‘Prepare against them whatever arms and cavalry you can muster, that you may strike terror in (the hearts of) the enemies of God and your own’.
On the face of it those words could be construed as offering some scriptural justification for the likes of Khalil Masood, who perpetrated the Westminster outrage some 11 days ago.
But people in glass houses should be very wary of throwing too many stones. Terrible things have also been done in the name of Christianity. Not so much these days perhaps, but certainly over the centuries.
And take that saying of Jesus: ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’. Viewing those words in isolation, a callow and untutored mind might easily take them in a way that Jesus never intended.
There is no doubt that some terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity and of Islam. You could say that the cause is that some people have taken verses from the Qur’an or from the Bible completely out of context. And it’s true that any individual verse should always be viewed in the context of the whole.
Taking verses in isolation is certainly a problem but it seems to me there’s something deeper going on: a form of what you might call dualism, the setting up of one thing over and against another, and in which we get to thinking that we are right and they are wrong. Everything becomes about us and them. Human beings love dividing themselves from each other. We actually seem to relish disunion, and so we ignore our common humanity, we ignore the even deeper unity that underlies all reality,
‘Us and them’ thinking is probably something that all religions are prone to. People have clannish tendencies.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that an organisation like ISIS, for example, shouldn’t be resisted. There has to be a place for a kind of provisional dualism that says to such people ‘on this one we are right and you are wrong’.
Now, let me take you back in history to the 13th century, to what became known as the Albigensian Crusade.
This was a campaign against a group of Christian heretics, for want of a better word, who are usually called Cathars. This was an official crusade launched by the Pope – not all crusades were against Muslims. The campaign was pursued, at least at times, with particular ferocity – to such an extent that it has been called ‘one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history’.
Now it has to be said that the Cathars were a pretty strange bunch. They held, for instance, that the material world is utterly evil and that only the realm of the spirit is good. So they too believed in a form of dualism. That word again. The aim of religion, for them, was the liberation of the soul from the flesh.
In a sense, that medieval Pope who launched the Albigensian Crusade was right. The Cathars were not an expression of genuine Christianity, which has always held that the material creation is fundamentally good, as the first chapter of the book of Genesis tells us again and again. The Christian view is that matter is to be transfigured and transformed, not discarded.
That doesn’t mean to say that some Christians haven’t come close to believing that matter is worthless. It may even be that St Paul is partly to blame.
In our reading earlier from the letter to the Romans he talks of the flesh as though it were some kind of disease. ‘To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace’.
You can see how someone – again, taking that passage in isolation – might be led to think that flesh is bad and is in conflict with spirit.
The problem is that Paul in his letters uses the word ‘flesh’ in two senses. Sometimes it merely means our physical body and nothing else – so with no negative connotation. Sometimes it means the human person in opposition to God – flesh gone wrong or, as I would prefer to say, flesh that hasn’t yet reached its full potential for love.
The created order is good because it is the arena in which love can come into being and grow and flourish – or not, for creation is also the arena of choice and free will. Only in a created order such as our own would the Cross, for instance, be even possible. We live in a profoundly moral universe.
It’s not that matter and spirit are the same thing but they are part of a greater whole. They are not fundamentally in opposition to each other. There is no ultimate dualism other than that of our own imagining.
In our first reading the valley of dry bones is a prophecy about God’s ability to redeem and restore his people. Although the passage isn’t meant to be taken literally, it’s a very material redemption and restoration that is envisaged. Those dry bones acquire new, living flesh.
And in our gospel Lazarus receives a very material resurrection. Life in the body is a good and desirable thing. Why else would Jesus bring Lazarus back to life? Both are very materialistic stories and both point forward in their own way to the resurrection of Jesus.
I know it’s not Easter yet but I feel I need to say a few words about the resurrection. Now, I don’t wish to dictate how you should view the resurrection – whether as a purely spiritual event or as an actual material raising of the body of Jesus. But it does seem to me that the more satisfactory explanation is that it was a material, bodily event, i.e. that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.
And that for two reasons: firstly, it accords with the accounts we have in the gospels – the empty tomb, Jesus being touched, Jesus cooking and eating fish and so on all indicate a bodily event.
And secondly, and more importantly, it accords with the high value – the highest possible value – that God places on his creation, on matter, on our flesh. The resurrection as it were endorses the material world. There is no ultimate dualism, no split between matter and spirit. God’s purpose is the redemption of all creation – matter and spirit together.