God in Private and Public

1 Samuel 3.1–10; Revelation 1.5b–8; Luke 7.36–50
Sermon at the Maundy Thursday Sung Eucharist, 20 March 2008

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

You will have noticed that the question of God has been on the public agenda, for some months now, in a way that hasn’t been true before in my lifetime. When not only TimeMagazine and Newsweek, but also the Economist and even, remarkably, the New Statesman, run whole features on God, you have to agree that something strange is going on – even though, predictably enough, most of the people who write in such features show that though they know there’s an important question out there they don’t know what it is, let alone what the answer is.

And so the debate gets polarized, again and again, between those who insist that God belongs in the public square and those who want to ban the very mention of him and reduce religion to a matter for consenting adults in private. The shrill rhetoric of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are are merely the tip of the iceberg, underneath which is a hard-edged late secularism, horrified that religion has not disappeared altogether, as according to the modernist myth it should have done. The horror of September 11 2001 is not the cause of this secularist alarm, merely an excuse to trumpet the more loudly what a dangerous and wicked thing all religion is. And so we have seen an airline worker sacked for wearing a cross; we have seen the media fury when the Archbishop mentioned the Sh-word; we have seen debates about euthanasia, about adoption agencies, about coronations, about establishment itself – and most of them, most of the time, seem not only to be dialogues of the deaf but also to misunderstand the very nature of the subject-matter.

As you all know, this isn’t a matter of mere theoretical concern. It comes, day by day, right into the work to which we are called, and to which, today, we commit ourselves solemnly once more. The question of God in public comes up every time you work with local authorities to address problems in your community. It came up recently over the question of the Big Tent for the J John mission in Gateshead. It has been on the edge of every conversation we’ve had about establishing new Academies. It hovers over this place as the academic community here comes to terms with what it might mean to be a modern secular university with an older and solidly Christian foundation. It conditions the way we read the New Testament itself – what do we make of it when the risen Jesus declares that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and what might that look like if we took it seriously? And unless we are wrestling wisely and Christianly with these questions we will be failing our people and perhaps failing God himself.

Today’s readings on the one hand, and the framework of the next four days on the other, suggest a pathway towards understanding the complexities of the question of ‘God in Public’ which resists the normal collapse into the false either/or – the false dichotomy in which the Kingdom of God is thought of either in terms of escaping this world altogether into a private spirituality and a distant ‘heaven’ or in terms of establishing a theocratic tyranny in which all opposition is simply squashed flat. The choice of eitherspirituality or politics is a false one, and I suspect we all know that; but understanding why that is so, and indeed rooting the proper answer in these great four days at the centre of our life and worldview, presents a further challenge to which I now invite you.

We see this challenge close up in the call of Samuel. Like so many prophets, Samuel has an intensely personal and private call. He alone hears the repeated voice. He alone knows the awful message which the Sovereign Lord has committed to him. But the message – this is after all the whole point – is a dangerously public one. What Samuel heard in that still night in the house of God he had to speak to all Israel; and pretty soon all Israel knew about it. Like that remarkable later prophet Micaiah ben Imlah in 1 Kings 22, he first had to stand privately in the council of the Lord before standing publicly in the councils of the world.

That rhythm of private and public is what we find, sharply and starkly, in the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Today, Jesus takes the disciples into a private room, and the door is shut. Nobody else knows what’s going on. But the words he says there in private, and still more the small but earth-shattering actions he performs, will turn within twenty-four hours into the most ghastly and shocking display of God in public: God shamed and mocked, God beaten up and humiliated, God stripped naked and hung up to die. You can’t get more public than crucifixion by the main west road out of Jerusalem. And, as in fact you can observe throughout Jesus’ ministry, you need that rhythm of private and public at every stage. The private without the public becomes gnosticism, escapism, a safe and narcissistic spirituality. But the public without the private becomes political posturing, meaningless gestures, catching the eye without engaging the heart. We need both; and the events through which we live today enable us to inhabit both, and be strengthened thereby for the ministries both private and public to which we are called.

And the events of Good Friday tells us something we urgently need to know about doing God in public. If it is the true God we are talking about – the God we see and know in Jesus Christ and him crucified – then we should expect that following him, speaking for him, and living out the life of his spirit, will sometimes make the crowds shout ‘Hosanna!’ and sometimes make them shout ‘Crucify!’ We are not in this business to court either popularity or martyrdom. When they come, like Kipling’s triumph and disaster, we should treat them, imposters as they are, just the same. Speaking and living for God in the public world will sometimes dovetail exactly with what the world inarticulately knows it wants and needs; sometimes it will cut straight across what everyone else is saying. But those who have sat at table with their Lord, and have known him in the strange privacy of the breaking of the bread, will not waver the next day when they need to stand as a sign of contradiction in the market place, in the council chamber, or in the courtroom. This is a lesson, my friends, we are going to have to learn more and more in the days to come. Work hard, you who stand up to be counted as the Lord’s publicly recognised servants, work hard at the private disciplines, so that you will know where to stand and how to stand when everyone else thinks you’re blaspheming against the secular gods of the day.

But the story doesn’t stop there. After Good Friday comes Holy Saturday, the day of waiting, waiting without hope, without knowing what will come next. Go down deep into Holy Saturday, because once again you are called away from the public arena – extroverts in particular find this hard – and into the stillness where you don’t understand, you don’t have an agenda to work on, you don’t know what it is you want or expect God to do. Without the still, dark privacy of Holy Saturday, the new kind of public message which is the resurrection of Jesus could turn simply into a shallow or angry response to the taunts and violence of Good Friday, answering the world in its own terms. The church is sometimes tempted to do that, to huff and puff and charge off to ‘defend’ God and the gospel. Holy Saturday commands us to lay down our swords and wait: wait without thought, says Eliot, for you are not yet ready for thought.

Because the newly public message which is the good news of Easter is at one and the same time so obvious – the message of new creation, which answers the deepest longings of the whole cosmos – and so utterly unexpected that if we are to announce God in public in these terms, as Paul did so spectacularly at Athens, we need the preceding private stillness to rinse our minds out of preconceived notions and make ready for God’s startling new world. Note, by the way, that it is the public truth of Easter – the dangerous, strikingly political truth that the living God is remaking the world and claiming full sovereignty over it – that has been for two hundred years the real objection, in western thinking, to the notion that Jesus rose bodily from the tomb. Western thought has wanted to keep Christianity as private truth only, to turn the Lion of Judah into a tame pussy-cat, an elegant and inoffensive, if occasionally mysterious, addition to the family circle.

And part of the point of where we are today, culturally, socially, politically and religiously, is that we don’t have that option any more. We face a dangerous and deeply challenging future in the next few years, as the demons we’ve unleashed in the Middle East are not going to go back into their bag, as the ecological nightmares we’ve created take their toll, as the people who make money by looking after our money have now lost their own money and perhaps ours as well, as our cultural and artistic worlds flail around trying to catch the beauty and sorrow of the world and often turning them into ugliness and trivia. And we whose lives and thinking and praying and preaching are rooted in and shaped by these great four days – we who stand up dangerously before God and one another and say we are ready to hear and obey his call once more – we have to learn what it means to announce the public truth of Easter, consequent upon the public truth of Good Friday and itself shaped by it (as the mark of the nails bear witness), as the good news of God for all the world, not just for those who meet behind locked doors. Every eye shall see him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn as they realise the public truth of his Easter victory. But we can only learn that in the quiet privacy around the Lord’s Table, and the humble stillness where we lay aside our own agendas, our own temperamental preferences, in the darkness of Holy Saturday. When we say Yes to the questions we shall be asked in a few minutes’ time, we are saying Yes to this rhythm, this shaping, of our private devotion to our Lord, our private waiting on him in the silence, in order to say Yes as well to this rhythm, this shaping, of our public ministry, our living out of the gospel before the principalities and powers, our working with the grain of the world where we can and against the grain of the world where we must.

And, as we learn this lesson, we come back again and again to the kind of scene we find in today’s gospel. Watch how the rhythm we’ve been following springs up in the story. The unnamed but sin-laden woman comes for her moment of private devotion, expressing her gratitude to the Lord who had assured her of forgiveness. She comes to the table where he sits; it is a Maundy Thursday moment. But straightaway we are pitched forwards into Good Friday, as the Pharisee declares both that she is a sinner and that Jesus should have known about her. It looks as though he is to be publicly shamed. But then we enter a puzzling moment, a parabolic moment, when all worldviews go into a kind of Holy Saturday suspense and we listen to the story Jesus tells. And then, with the denouement, we move at once to Easter Day: here, in a new burst of public truth, sin has been forgiven, love has overcome shame, and suddenly the question of who Jesus really is has been posed in a new way.

My friends, as we meet together on this day of solemn joy, let us commit ourselves, whatever we face in our parishes and the wider world this weekend, this year and in the days to come, to live with that strange but world-changing rhythm of the table and the cross, the stillness and the new world, to learn how to be with our Lord in private so that we may speak of his love and power in public; how to know the truth of his forgiving grace in our own hearts and lives that we may be able to tell it and live it on the street, in the council chamber, in the whole world that he loves and calls his own.