One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my walk of faith was at the ragged edges of my life. Most of the things I held dear had deserted me: the only nugget of truth left for me to cling to was the absolute assurance that I was loved by God the Father.
Years later, I tripped over a little verse of Scripture in the very short letter written by Jude, thought by some to be a sibling of Jesus, that summed up my feelings at that time. In his opening remarks, he describes God’s people as those ‘...who are loved by God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ’ – that sort of security is in short supply these days.
The lesson I learned – and maybe I’ve lost it a little in the two happier decades that have followed those dark days – was the need to read the Bible like it was tomorrow morning’s newspaper. But for religious people, it should carry a health warning, for it has the capacity to shake paradigms to their foundation.
Think, for example, of the so-called thief on the cross. Not only did Jesus fly in the face of Judaism in his day by daring to say, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’, but few Christians that I have ever met can handle it either. Why? Well, listen to any well constructed gospel sermon and you will find it is full of conditions and caveats; you must repent, you must say the sinners’ prayer, keep a short account with God by confessing your sins regularly, you can only be forgiven to the same measure as you have been forgiven; the list is as long as your arm – ‘And rightly so!’ howl the fundamentalists, but wasn’t the man on the middle cross the one who was about to die, descend into hell, defeat the powers of darkness and rise triumphant over death? Yes he was, and you will search in vain in the record of what the newly converted criminal said for anything other than, ‘Remember me...’
The point I might be labouring to make is if that we read those scriptures through our religious lenses we miss their radical edge. I think it might have been only the third or fourth newspaper column I ever wrote that brought the wrath of a certain church in Bangor down on my head. In those heady days, I was seeing things in the Bible I had never seen before and it was bubbling out all over the place. For example, Paul and Silas were in prison, there was an earthquake, the prisoners could have escaped because the flimsy building all but fell apart and the Governor was about to fall on his sword – literally. Paul shouted, ‘Don’t harm yourself!’ and the man who had doubtless been watching the odd couple as they sang and prayed through the night finally cracked.
‘What must I do to be saved? – tell me how I can have the joy and inner security that you two remarkable men have’, and Paul began to read out a list; you have to do this, and stop doing that, and you have to join our wee group, and tithe, and... Well, didn’t he? No he didn’t, he summed up all God’s requirements in a single word; “Believe!”
Why do we complicate it? According to ‘Global Christianity – A report on the size and distribution of the world’s Christian population’ there could be as many as 41,000 distinct Christian denominations in our world at the last count, each just different enough from the others to keep them apart. But when Paul said; “Believe!” he meant, entrust your spiritual welfare to Christ, and the odd thing is that the implication in the story of the thief on the cross is that he did exactly that – as the TV ad says, ‘Simples!’ – but we have found 41,000 different ways to complicate and confuse.
The challenge for and me is to read the next few words as if they were in tomorrow’s newspaper: ‘He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins.’ Job done, as the man said, ‘It is finished!’