The windows are the rear of the nave face the preacher each Sunday, and – in my imagination anyway – offer comment. I face the coffee club of Margaret, Ruth and Miriam [a formidable trinity]. At a former parish, the preacher faced Jesus and a bat (the winged type of bat).
‘Jesus and a bat’ is a replica of the Victorian Holman Hunt’s famous window, The Light of the World. It portrays the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in and dine.” The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside [Holman Hunt’s Jesus is a Victorian gentleman and doesn’t come in where he’s not invited]. The original is at Keble College, Oxford, and there is no bat to be seen.
What is seen is a bearded, nicely-robed European Jesus holding a lamp. The message is ‘open the door to your heart [or life, or church], and let Jesus in’. But what if the Jesus standing outside was not the kindly familiar gentleman of our enculturation? What if he was smelly and homeless? Or wore lipstick and a dress? Or was accompanied by unsavoury friends? Or what if she was in a niqab? Such a Jesus knocks at our door to disturb and unsettle us, and to ultimately broaden our minds, broaden our spiritual life, and in doing so soften our hearts to make them more accepting and generous.
In the well-known letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. there is an extract titled The Negro is your Brother. King was arrested on Good Friday for ‘parading’ [I do wonder if the Sunday School educated police realised the irony of this], and received in jail a public letter from eight white clergy titled “A Call for Unity”. In response King wrote his letter.
As an aside it is interesting that when a minister makes a public stand on an issue she or he is often accused of fomenting disunity. There is I believe an unwritten cultural script that says church leaders are to hold society together, as if unity is the ultimate value, and some of our colleagues even today uncritically parrot that script.
King, in his response, gave a justification of God’s values having primary importance and demanding our allegiance, more than the segregation laws. He of course believed that all people, regardless of race, were equally God’s children.
If there was a new Holman Hunt stained glass window to be erected in a white Birmingham church in those days, I suggest Jesus should have been – but probably wouldn’t have been – portrayed as a black American knocking at the door. And that would be the Gospel – the hard, uncomfortable gospel – for that time and place.
In Acts chapter 10 there is a story encapsulating a long struggle for the young Jesus Movement. There was a knock at the door - a hard, uncomfortable, gospel knock at the door.
It’s quite a long chapter and like all good short stories it has several scenes - a beginning, middle, and an end.
It begins with Cornelius, this Gentile, therefore unclean, therefore outside of the Jewish religious system, who has heard about the Jesus Movement and wants to get into it. So, he sends messengers to Simon Peter. Cornelius’s heard that he’s around, he’s visiting Joppa.
In the middle segment of the story, Peter is on the roof-top at Joppa praying and therefore falls asleep (which is what happens to some of us when praying) and in his sleep he has a dream. The deep unconscious background to Simon Peter’s dream is precisely the struggle that’s going on in the young Jesus Movement about whether to admit Gentiles.
The Jesus Movement was a sect within Judaism and there was a debate raging within it. It had its radical: Paul. It had its conservative: James of Jerusalem. And it had Peter stuck in the middle - like your average Presbyterian moderator - who didn’t know which way to go, so he went both ways at once. When he was with Paul he was a radical, when he was with James he was a conservative. “On-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand-itis”, you know that kind of psychological disease that can afflict us church leaders.
Peter then, as the story goes, has this dream. A great spinnaker is let down from heaven and on it there are all sorts of animals that are impure to a Jew, animals Peter may not eat, and he hears the voice, and it’s the voice of G/god. He hears the voice saying “Rise Peter, kill and eat”. Not a good verse for vegans.
And one of the most piquant elements in this story is that Peter quotes God back at God. He says “I’m sorry God you have already forbidden Jews to eat this stuff. I can read it to you in Leviticus: you’re supposed to have dictated Leviticus, and I can’t eat this stuff, it is forbidden, it’s unclean, it’s profane.” And, God, totally disregarding Leviticus and Peter’s argument, retorts: “Thou must not call profane what I have cleansed”.
The dream ends and, of course, if you’re a good Freudian you’ll understand what’s going on. Simon Peter is wrestling sincerely in his unconscious with this great issue that is to confront him. He wakes up. There’s a knock on the door and the servants from Cornelius are down at the gate asking to come in to the Christian community.
Do you see what’s happening here in this extended allegory? In the words of Richard Holloway, “God is coming to Peter, not from the past [Scripture and tradition], but from the future [the knock at the door].”[i] The Gentiles are knocking at the door, asking for entrance - and the traditions of the past, the old ways of ‘how we always do things,’ the old ways of ‘what we’ve always believed’ - don’t provide him with an answer to the new challenge that is a-coming.
And the history of religion, the history of the Christian religion, is precisely the history of a G/god who comes to us from the future. We are not capable of recognising this G/god because we are fixated on the God who has come to us in the past. We quote the God of the past at the G/god of the future.
The greatest Christian Hebrew Bible scholar alive today, Walter Brueggemann, says the Torah, the law, corrects the Torah, Scripture corrects Scripture. There are elements in Scripture that jettison other elements: This is one of them - “Call thou not unclean what I have cleansed”.
The history of change in Christianity is a history of groups knocking at the door, seeking entrance, and we quote at them the old scripture. Slaves knocked at the door for 1,800 years before we realised that the scriptures that appeared to justify slavery contradicted the scriptures that made love the primary element in Christian living. We finally heard that knocking at the door and we abolished slavery 1,800 years after Jesus came to tell us not to be imprisoned by ‘how we always do things’ and ‘what we’ve always believed’.
Then 150 years later there was another knock at the door. Those ex-slaves didn’t just want to be free, they wanted to be equal. They weren’t happy just going to church; they wanted to come to our church. They wanted to be in our restaurants, our toilets, and in our governance structure. So, Martin marched, and slowly our doors began to open.
Twenty years later there was another knock at the door - this time women. Scripture, God in the scripture, clearly tells us that women are subordinate to men. They are instruments of temptation, gateways to sin - all of those things because, of course, it was Woman that plucked the apple.
Men have been blaming women ever since. “The woman gave me and I did eat” - and so we kept them down. We allowed them in the sanctuary to do the flowers and to clean the floor but never behind the Communion Table, and never in the nice black gowns or white robes of the clergy. And we finally, in the lifetime of members of this congregation, opened the door to women.
What’s the next group that’s knocking at the door? Gays, lesbians, trans, queer. They’re knocking at the door. They’re downstairs while we are upstairs struggling with the issue. The General Assembly gathers up on the roof at Joppa - downstairs gays are knocking at the door - “Call thou not unclean what I have cleansed”. Actually, most aren’t knocking, they’ve given up on the Church and gone off to find hope elsewhere.
Time and again the Church just doesn’t get it. God comes from the future; and the challenge to us, the Jesus challenge to us, is to know when the old rules no longer apply, when ‘what we’ve always done’ and ‘what we’ve always believed’ no longer apply. Jesus – not the one we’ve always known but the one who is largely unknown - knocks at the door. He’s got his bat with him too, and that is a bit weird.
We have to risk opening the door a little. Then we have to have ‘the eyes to see’ that this guy with the bat is actually from God. It’s disturbing and unsettling. Then we have to open the door a little more and do the really brave thing and let him in, knowing that our church and our religion will never be quite the same again. That’s why I think the word ‘faith’ is better translated as ‘courage’.
And if you think the bat looks scary, imagine how you look to the bat.