Faith in Dark Places Lent Course copy

JESUS WERE A NORTHERNER

People from Yorkshire have a reputation for being direct, honest, straight-talking, and strong minded. They don’t scare easily.

Yorkshire folk, and many others who have chosen to live here, tend to call a spade a spade. Maybe that’s why not many of us go to church: there’s not enough grit.

 

Church is too soft. Reassuring. Comfortable. As if it was invented by Southerners.

The funny thing is that Jesus was a Northerner like many of us. Bethlehem is down south near Jerusalem, but Nazareth’s up north where life was rough and folk had a reputation for plain talking – and bad language.

There’s plenty of grit in the Gospel, yet we hardly notice it. Over the centuries it’s been smoothed over. Fine buildings and beautiful music, created to God’s glory, have covered the rough edges until the straight-talking, strong minded Jesus has all but disappeared.  Buried, you might say, under a rich layer of religion.

This Lent we’re going to have a go at discovering the buried Northerner of our faith. If you like detective stories, you’ll appreciate the Lent course we’ve got planned.

We’ll discover that the Lord’s Prayer is really alarming when you think about what it means. We’ll discover that familiar words and phrases like ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’ caused fury among a lot of very powerful people.

We’ll investigate how women have been air-brushed out of the Gospel story by a male-dominated Church. How the parable of the prodigal son may give us a completely new image of God. And how Jesus had a wicked sense of humour.

Then there’s the reason Jesus was crucified – which was, of course, that he hated paint.

HOW IT CAME ABOUT:

The Lent course is based on a book called Faith in Dark Places. The book was written partly as a tribute to the people of Leeds. Many of those people were homeless: folk whose lives are unstable and fragmented. People regarded as worthless and unimportant. People living in poverty, but who offer us an amazing richness of faith and understanding once we get to know them.

So is that it? Is this just another Lent course? Maybe with a bit of Galilean grit added?

Perhaps that’s all it is. Or is something else happening? Happening in the world. Look at it this way:

Government policies have resulted in widespread poverty and high unemployment. The work that is available is often poorly paid, part-time and on zero hours contracts. Life expectancy among the poor is low. Many die young – in their thirties and forties. Large numbers of people are homeless; mental health is a massive problem.

At the same time the gap between rich and poor is vast, with the wealthiest enjoying unimaginable luxury. The poor are demonised as being idle and those who beg are branded as scroungers and parasites.

You think we are talking about 21st century Britain? In fact this is a description of first century Palestine: the world in which Jesus lived. A world of brutal military occupation and exploitation. A world dominated by a tiny ruling elite with the huge mass of people living in grinding poverty and destitution.

It was a world where order was maintained for the benefit of the rich by ruthless terror and cruelty. Slavery was endemic. Any attempt at political protest was met with the harshest punishment – death by crucifixion.

The liturgy of the Church suggests that Jesus simply ‘went about among us’ but the reality was very different. He lived as a poor peasant among an oppressed people. His response to that oppression and poverty is the real gospel story.

This economic and political context changes the significance of much that Jesus said and did. A significance that is essential to our understanding of our faith. And our calling by God.

WHAT’S OUR MOTIVE?

In a few months there will be a General Election. The outcome is likely to be crucial to the lives of many if not most of the people in Britain. Just as society is becoming more fragmented, so the political system is also changing. We may end up with a series of coalition governments influenced by small political groupings.

Recent research by the University of Lancaster indicates that half the churchgoers in Britain believe that benefit cuts and financial austerity are not only appropriate but should go deeper. But on what basis are those views being formed? On the basis of the Gospel, on what they read in the papers – or is it self interest?

And, if it is on the basis of the Gospel, which gospel is that? One that is presented to us as a comforting narrative of Jesus ‘going about among us’ showing kindness and healing the sick, or of Jesus engaged in a radically different project?

One of the issues we’ll explore this Lent is the fact that crucifixion was a Roman form of execution reserved for political crimes against the state. But, if Jesus went about simply showing kindness and healing people, how on earth did he merit execution by the all-powerful Roman Empire? The traditional answer has been that the wicked Jews put the Romans up to it. Our detective work may bring us to a very different conclusion.

(Faith in Dark Places by David Rhodes is available at £9.99 via any good book shop or from SPCK Publishing. You can buy it on-line at http://tinyurl.com/k2fw87g David blogs at www.turbulentbooks.co.uk http://tinyurl.com/nz9xdxl)