5.18.2014 Preaching Text: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:2)
I recently read an article in a theological magazine about Bob Dylan, the 60’s pop icon. The gist of it was that though Dylan had always insisted in interviews that he didn’t fit into the spirit of those tumultuous times the press (and everyone else) refused to believe him. Rather than take him at his word, critics would describe him as mysterious or cryptic.
In an interview from, I believe, 2012, a British interviewer engaged him with the same assumption. He specifically cited his 1966 hit song, Rainy Day Woman, as evidence of Dylan’s rascally approach to the 60’s. The lyrics appear to speak for themselves:
Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good
They’ll stone you just like they said they would
They’ll stone you when you’re tryin’ to go home
Then they’ll stone you when you’re there all alone
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned
I remember this song from those days and it certainly did seem like a celebration of the growing drug culture. But in the 2012 interview, Dylan stunned the journalist, after considerable prodding and after going back and forth for a bit, by admitting that the song was actually about the stoning of Stephen from the Book of Acts!
“Everybody must get stoned” simply meant persecution. Everybody at some point will be persecuted!
Of course the stoning of Stephen is of a different order altogether. It was not just any kind of persecution, but a violent and vicious form of murder.
Given how brutal and barbaric is this death scene, Stephen’s words cut to the bone. After asking Jesus to receive his spirit, he says this: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
This request is perhaps especially poignant given that the one directing the mob to finish Stephen off is none other than Saul, later to be renamed Paul, the apostle of Christ, who himself was to be martyred in Rome some years later. Stephen, it turns out, is but the first of many Christian martyrs to come.
Time and again we’re reminded of this cruel fact. In today’s gospel reading, for instance, we hear part of what has been referred to as Jesus’ last will and testament the day before he is nailed to a cross, perhaps the worst form of capital punishment ever.
In all cases, the response of the “victims” is remarkable. They do not react the way we might expect. There is no anger, no call for vengeance, no attempt to escape. Instead there is humility, calm, reverence, and, most remarkable of all, mercy. But why?
A clue, or so it seems, may be found in these words from 1 Peter. “Like newborn infants,” the author writes, “long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
If…you have tasted that the Lord is good. Tasted the supernatural, the mysterious, the irrational, the wondrousness of the God. And only in this does one find one’s true humanity.
A few weeks ago I mentioned a BCC show that airs on Rhode Island PBS Saturday evenings at 6:00. It’s called Father Brown. I falsely stated that it’s based on the writings of C.S. Lewis, the great British author and Christian apologist. After checking on this, I discovered that this series of murder mystery novels is the creation of G.K. Chesterton, whom Lewis credits with turning him from an atheist into a believer.
Chesterton was a remarkable man, an absolute genius who considered himself mostly a journalist but who wrote astutely about all manner of things: theology, philosophy, literature, art, culture, etc.
In Father Brown, his character is a Catholic priest serving in England after the Second World War. As one who famously and publicly debated some of the most famous writers and thinkers of his day, Chesterton’s character, Father Brown, was intended to serve as the precise opposite of that other most famous of murder mystery novelists of the day, Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the wildly influential Sherlock Holmes novels.
Today, in fact, there is an updated version of the Sherlock Holmes series, also from the BBC. And if you watch the two programs side-by-side, the difference between the two characters is as obvious as it was, for Chesterton, intentional.
While Sherlock Holmes is the master of deductive logic or reason, Father Brown rejects this approach out of hand. In fact, Inspector Valentine, the constant thorn in Father Brown’s flesh, is symbolic of a Sherlock Holmes-type character, logical, reasoning, and always misled by “the facts.”
The key to Father Brown’s remarkable success, in stark contrast, is his use of intuition, the personal, the human, the spiritual. While both Valentine and Holmes employ cold, impersonal scientific logic, Father Brown studies the mysteries and revelations of God as well as, perhaps especially, those found in the human heart.
This, as I say, was not coincidental. Chesterton famously rejected the impersonal scientism of late 19th and early 20th century modernism. For him, the great mistake of his day was the loss of mystery and wonder, and, as such, of humanity. His criticism was leveled against what he saw as the flatness and poverty of modern existence. With godly transcendence all but removed from everyday life, the truest power of life had been foolishly if not violently squeezed out of it.
In today’s reading from 1 Peter, and as attested to in the actions of the earliest martyrs, we see the extraordinary mystical power of God at work. For those who have “tasted” the remarkable beauty of God’s humanity, no sacrifice is too great.
In the world Chesterton brashly and brilliantly combated, we see not the glorious taste of God’s goodness, but the diminution of that same God’s power, beauty, creativity, gentility, and strength. Within the relentlessly myopic confines of an unnecessarily joyless and emotionlessly rationalistic world stand these martyrs, these giants of humanity, of strength, of unbounded joy, willing to sacrifice everything for the sheer glory of being fully alive, spiritual beings.
“Mysticism,” Chesterton wrote in his classic book, Orthodoxy, “keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus, he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus, he believes that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.” Amen.