Easter 03

26 April 2009 18:00 Evensong

It's probably something to do with me watching a programme last night entitled 'the all time 100 best TV adverts' (my excuse is I was washing up) which led me to reflect on our human delight in list-making. The ten best/ worst - whatever. And it led me to the idle speculation of who would appear on the list of the ten best and ten worst Archbishops of Canterbury. 'Best' would - for me - include Dunstan, Laud, Aelfric, Ramsey and Temple. 'Worst' - well, let's be Christian and not speculate too much, except to hint that I have a low opinion of a retired occupant of Augustine of Canterbury's throne.
But there's one unfortunate who probably is worth a mention in both. He was a distinguished man of prayer, and a theologian who did much to show that belief in God was not ridiculous, that it had an inner consistency, that it could all hold together. But he was also single-handedly responsible for coming up with an idea of how salvation worked which left the way open for the cruel God of Calvinism and to this day shocks members of the eastern Churches. We celebrated the nine hundredth anniversary of his death last Tuesday and his name is St. Anselm.
I'm indebted to the priest and writer Giles Fraser for his observation in the Church Times on Friday that, when Anselm talks about how Christ wins salvation for humanity, he never mentions the Resurrection once. Every aspect of Anselm's thinking is focused on the events of Good Friday, as if the Easter story is just a handy appendix. And so something has to happen on the Cross to put humanity right with God - you can see how his reasoning goes. And from there, particularly given Anselm's backdrop of a country where the draconian rule of the usurping William the Illegitimate meant that the King could do whatever he liked, it is a short step to positing a God who is so outraged by human naughtiness that he simply has to punish, and, rather like the schoolmaster of old who would simply clatter the first boy in the classroom within reach without enquiring too much about their guilt or innocence, chooses to punish the innocent Jesus of Nazareth rather than the rest of us.
And all this comes about because he sees salvation in the Crucifixion rather than in the Resurrection.
As we work through Eastertide, by week three we are perhaps getting a little weary of wall-to-wall 'Alleluia's, even after the fast of Lent, and we may start to wonder whether the jack-in-a-box ending of the Gospels is a little tedious, all these stories about meetings and eatings and greetings. It has often been said that it's much easier to preach a Good Friday sermon, full of pain and darkness and misery, than it is to preach a Resurrection sermon - perhaps because the clergy are all miserable beggars who are more used to gloom than to joy. And we are used to the hardness of the human condition, and the thousand petty cruelties and nastinesses which surround the world. The crucifixion story is one we can understand, and small wonder that Anselm does what we do, and gets stuck on it.
But what if the story of salvation is not to be found in the callous God who sacrifices the innocent to save the guilty (and how could that work anyway) but in a God who, in the face of the worst that humanity can do chooses not to retaliate but to undo? And then Easter becomes a series of stories about people who realise - at the lakeside, in the upper room, on the dusty road out of Jerusalem - that everything that the world could do, all the corruption, veniality and cruelty that a twisted humanity can dream up, is incapable of destroying this Jesus of Nazareth, who comes to people in unexpected ways and in unexpected places - and sometimes, often, the people to whom he comes are not the sort of folk we would expect either - and changes lives.
Anselm shouldn't be treated too harshly. It was for later generations to complete the distortion of the God who gives himself that the world may live into the cruel and unjust tyrant of some of the more extreme Reformation writers. But we pay the price of Anselm's unwise step into the world of absolute monarch, as the God whom people so often reject is the cruel mediaeval tyrant, the very God in whom we don't believe either - and yet in whom we seem by them to be expected to believe. Read Richard Dawkins to see what I mean. But if we are to take the Resurrection seriously, as the place where the attempt by unlife to destroy life is finally brought low, then we will preach and live a different God - one who brings light out of darkness and hope out of despair. And who, meeting people in us, in unlikely times and places, will continue that work of overthrowing all that evil can do. We don't know how this works, and every time we try and come up with a system we risk doing an Anselm, and digging ourselves into a deeper hole. Perhaps the thing to do is to follow the wisdom of another Christian tradition rooted in the Gospels themselves - to tell stories of meetings with the risen Christ, of lives changed - and to let God do the rest. For letting God do what for us is undoable is surely the essence of salvation.

Rev. David Rowett (web page by Adrian Worsfold)