In times such as this when serious questions are asked about power and religion and their relationship one to another, this Good Friday seems to me an appropriate time to ask what such questions mean to the church not just here in this place but worldwide. From its earliest days, the church has often sold itself into a relationship with power that denied the gospel of the suffering, servant Jesus. At no time in those early centuries was this more obvious than with the Roman Emperor Constantine who credited the Christian God with his victory over his enemies at the Milvian Bridge in 312.
The next year, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan recognizing Christianity as an acceptable religion, restoring previously confiscated church property and protecting Christians from persecution. Constantine used the church as a means of uniting his empire and the church, seduced by the power that status gave it, began to lose sight of the Jesus in whose way it had been born. The religion of martyrs became the religion of generals and emperors, and a fringe faith became the state religion with all of the status and signs of power that go with such alliances. From the point of view of the previously persecuted, I guess that was a good thing – better to sit at a high table than be fed to the lions – but when religion sits too close to power it risks corruption, and it was a corruption from which the institutional church has never recovered.
Not only did Constantine incorporate Christianity into his Empire he domesticated it, neutered it. Yes, it spread under the Emperor’s patronage but the end result was church leaders who lived in palaces and sat on thrones and whose exercise of power often differed little from those who exercised power in secular institutions. I suspect that Pope Francis, who lived in a flat and travelled by public transport when a Cardinal in Argentina, recognises this. Pope Francis reported that in conclave, when the votes were being counted and things seemed to be becoming – in his own words – “a bit dangerous” the cardinal sitting next to him, an old friend from Brazil, embraced him and said: “Don’t forget the poor.” Francis echoing the views of the one from whom he took his name, the saint of Assisi, has said, “Ah, how I would like a church that is poor and is for the poor.” The great institution that is the Vatican with all its power will take some reforming, but every church can learn from this vision.
Prior to Constantine, Christianity had been a gentle, underground, non-patriarchal movement that was quietly working its way through the empire “like leaven in the imperial loaf” (Robin Meyers), and now became an institution with a hierarchy that echoed the secular hierarchies around it. The support of the state was matched with money that the bishops began to fight over, as they did over matters of theology. While Christianity was a fringe religion, it mattered less what its followers believed. But if it was to be a state religion, Constantine needed them all singing off the same hymn sheet. So, probably not understanding the theological arguments, but as a good political leader knowing he couldn’t have a divided church, the Emperor brought the bishops together at his lakeside retreat in Nicaea. He wined and dined them lavishly after having paid for their travel and lodging, along with two priests and three deacons each, from everywhere in the Empire except Britain.
He made it pretty clear that they had to come to an agreement over one or two minor matters and the nature of Jesus – what they agreed doesn’t appear to have mattered to him as long as they agreed. Weeks of debate eventually led to general agreement that was codified in what we know now as the Nicene Creed. Interesting isn’t it, that if the debate had gone another way, orthodox belief today might have been something else entirely. Arius, who lost the argument, was exiled, his works to be burned and anyone possessing them to be executed – good Christian stuff, eh? Indeed it is possible that a couple of the dissenting bishops, Theonas and Secundus, were executed. Hundreds upon hundreds were executed as heretics in the following centuries. How had we come to this? Christians who were once executed for refusing to bow down to the Emperor could now be executed for not believing what the Emperor in the name of Christianity told them to believe. Or what the emperor ordered for the moment anyway, as a few years further on Constantine seemed to favour the views of Arius again. Did the council settle things? No. Arianism continued to have influence; more battles physical and theological ensued, monks and priests attacked each other and in Robin Meyers’ words: Jesus faded to black. Councils like Nicaea made being Christian more a matter of what one believes than what one does, and in so doing buried Jesus again. As I have said before, and will surely say again, Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” and the church has said, “Come, believe this.” Jesus said, “Come, do this and live!” The church has said, “Come, believe this, or die!”
Now what has this to do with Good Friday? Everything, I think. Across the 2000 years from Jesus’ birth, the 1700 years from Nicaea, the voice of Jesus the humble carpenter rabbi of Galilee has been silenced, distorted, denied when the church has sought power instead of the way of humble service.
Across those years, the voice of the compassionate carpenter rabbi has been denied and distorted especially when humanity’s murderous violence towards each other happened in the name of religion. The 17th century 30 years’ war was fought largely between Catholics and Protestants and, while not entirely religious in cause, accounted for the deaths of up to 11.5 million people. The 16th century French Wars of religion saw up to 3 million die, while a similar number died in the Crusades which at least had the excuse of being between two different religions not merely two denominations. Through history we have again and again made graves of violence for the compassionate Jesus and his message. In Cornwall the Prayer Book Rebellion led to the slaughter of thousands of Catholic rebels, described by the former Bishop of Truro, Bill Ind, as an “enormous mistake” of which “the Church of England should be ashamed.” Neither is this something confined to the past. Asa we know, in various parts of these islands old enmities between Catholic and Protestant refuse stubbornly to die, and sometimes erupt into inter-denominational violence despite the command of Jesus to love one another even, and perhaps in particular, our enemies.
The voice of Jesus has been silenced when the church seeks to protect itself from the consequences of its failings, when, for example, the deeds of abusive clergy are covered up. The voice of Jesus is silenced, and this is perhaps closer to home, when churches splinter over the coffee rota, where they divide over theology rather than unite around compassion, where one denomination suggests it has all the answers, where the different are not welcomed, where people are unloved and rejected because they are not “as we are”, where the church fails to speak for justice and worse, where it colludes with injustice even by its silence.
Where we are not what we preach, where we do not live that radical message of love, grace and inclusive compassion that Jesus both preached and, more importantly, lived – there the voice of Jesus is silenced. Where, corporately, we do not have faith that love does conquer all things and that perfect love drives out fear – there the voice of Jesus is silenced just as readily as if he were crucified and laid in a cold cave. The task of the church, of those who would call ourselves followers of the Way of Jesus, ever and always, but perhaps now more than at any time in our history is to listen again and with all attention to that voice of Jesus, to revisit, with a view to learning all we can from it, his life of compassion. The task of the church is to listen and learn from Jesus and to live what we learn as a spoken sermon, as a parable in action, as a means of grace, as a channel for divine blessing in and for and with the communities in which we find ourselves.
Those are hard words, I have shared; I felt them hard myself, because they do not come from a place of perfection. They challenge me and I share that challenge with you that we may learn and grow together. And although they are hard words, and although I see the church in desperate need of that divine Spirit seen so clearly in Jesus, I do not despair of the gospel of love. We meet today on Friday, but Sunday is coming.
The church in our worst moments may have conspired to silence the voice of Jesus through the years, to bind him in self-serving institutions, to cloak him in dead doctrines, to confuse his image with dense theology, to separate him in stained glass from the blood, sweat and tears, the laugher and joy of our day to day lives but our efforts are no more able to hold him than the grave, and his voice is heard still. The voice of Jesus the humble carpenter rabbi of Galilee speaks still of God to those who have ears. Let us listen, learn and live.