StJohn&StStephens-logo

The Shape of Everything

RC-shape of water

Acts 3:13-19, Luke 24:36-48

If you have seen the film, ‘The Shape of Water’, you may have wondered about the title. The movie takes its name from Plato’s idea that in its purest form, water takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the idea that beauty has many faces. It’s a lovely, unlikely film where Sally Hawkins falls in love with a humanoid sea-creature, ugly to our eyes but beautiful to hers. The shape of water.

Luke is the author of the gospel passage we read this morning, or, as I am coming to like to call it, the Jesus story. In those few verses, right at the end of his account, Luke gives us a summary: ‘the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’. These few words have a particular shape, containing as they do suffering and death – crucifixion – on the one hand and new life – resurrection – on the other. The cross-resurrection message, Luke goes on to tell us, is at the heart of the message of forgiveness for the world. I want to look at this in a particular way that I hope we will find enlarges our understanding and our faith, using the metaphor of shape.

Firstly, I want to say that this book, the Scriptures, has itself the shape of death and life, cross and resurrection. Jesus tells us that “’…everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.’” (Lk 24:44-46) What he is saying is that his death and resurrection were clearly foreshadowed in the Scriptures: that is, the OT. Let me illustrate briefly with three examples. If you’re not familiar with the stories, I will reference everything and you can look it up later. It’s important to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t come out of the blue: there was a shape to much of the OT – the shape of death to life. First, there is the grand movement of the Exodus: the captivity and slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt and their escape (Exodus 1-14) – from captivity to freedom, the shape of death to life. Then within that story is another story with the same shape, just so we don’t miss the point – the death of the Passover lamb and the horrible death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 12) which led to Pharaoh driving them out of his country. Again, death to life. Secondly, there are many individual figures in the OT with this shape. The clearest is Joseph, poor boastful Joseph, literally thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, then unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife, and thrown into prison. But God reveals dreams to him which he interprets to Pharaoh and he becomes ruler of Egypt. Slavery to redemption. Death to life, crucifixion to resurrection (Genesis 37-47). Finally there are the prophets. I will mention only one, the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, written around 700 years before Jesus’ birth, speaking of someone who is to come, a suffering servant: ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…yet he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light.’ (Isaiah 53:4,5,10,11). This remarkable chapter in Isaiah prefigures the coming of the Messiah, a servant who will mysteriously suffer in order to give us life, who will die, but will see new life. It traces the shape of the One who was to come, and in the person of Jesus the dots are joined together. Scripture is Jesus-shaped.

I’ve made a bit of a meal about the shape of scripture for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus does himself. No argument there! Secondly, because if we believe anything, if we say that we believe that Jesus, in his life and death and resurrection achieved our salvation, that is, our healing; and if we say that in Jesus, God himself was dwelling, and if we say, look, this didn’t happen out if the blue, it’s actually prefigured in the OT, then get this: not only is scripture Jesus-shaped, God is Jesus-shaped. I don’t know what picture of God you carry in your mind – an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud? A kindly uncle? A kindly aunt? Put those images away. God has the shape of Jesus. And as we reflect on his death and resurrection, it’s a blood-and-guts picture as well as one of new life, of victory – even if his hands and feet and side still carry the marks of the nails and the spear (John 20:27). Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15) – an image which includes all the suffering of the cross, death and resurrection. I am certain that when Ascension day comes, Vince will remind us that what the ascension tells us, is that all of this is taken up into the Godhead, into the Person of God himself.

This is treasure beyond price. But I want to widen the field still further. In speaking of Scripture having the shape of Jesus, the shape of cross and resurrection, and then of God Himself having that same shape, we are still being sort-of ‘churchy’. I came to faith some 40-odd years ago with the idea of ‘personal salvation’, that it was all about me somehow. And I had a message to tell people about admitting sin, coming to Christ, receiving his forgiveness through the cross and then the promise of eternal life through his resurrection. And all of that is true, and absolutely right for me and for many people at the time. The trouble is it was too small. It’s not only that Scripture is Jesus-shaped, or that God is Jesus-shaped – thinking particularly of cross and resurrection – it’s that everything is Jesus-shaped! We don’t have to look very hard to see the same shape spread across not only humanity, not only the world, but the whole universe. The animal and plant kingdoms have been following a cycle of death and new life for billions of years. Paul himself, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, in Greece, writes about the resurrection. He uses the illustration of a seed which first has to die – that is, to be put into the ground, before it comes to life again (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). The universe itself is full of stars dying and being born again. It’s like this: from the smallest microbe to the biggest galaxy, in the Scriptures, in our own lives there is the shape of death and life: the shape of Jesus, the shape of God himself, the shape of everything. Have we got it yet?

In our human existence we experience death and new life – quite literally, but also within our own lives as we face pain and suffering and then sometimes, new life as well. I deliberately say ‘sometimes’. We will not always see the reality of resurrection, of new life and hope. We can reflect that in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, there really wasn’t much hope, maybe none at all. With one or two exceptions, the story of Jesus’ death reads like it’s the end. We tend to view the cross through the lens of the resurrection, but the reason the resurrection reads like a surprise is because it was a surprise! Who really knew that would happen? For the disciples and everyone around the cross, it looked exactly  like the end – it was a public execution. Did even Jesus know the resurrection was coming? He had some hope – ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, said to one of the two thieves crucified with him (Luke 23:43) but coming back and eating fish on a lakeside (John 21)? Maybe not! ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46) doesn’t sound full of hope, does it? ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30) sounds, well, like an ending.

I say that because sometimes it can feel like there is no hope at all. Yet the Jesus story contains even hopelessness (which, weirdly, can give us hope). We can draw a line between the bleakness and futility of the torture and death of an innocent man on a Roman cross and our own experiences of bleakness and futility. Many years ago I spent 6 weeks on a training course in India, became friends with a German doctor, Dirk, on the same course. We had a lot of fun together, and I stoically endured the merciless teasing about warm, flat British beer with gritted teeth and a plastic smile. We talked often about faith – he wasn’t a believer – and one time he asked me, what do you say about suffering? I began to talk about the cross, the suffering of Jesus. After a few minutes he said, ‘Stop! It’s enough for me to know that you have somewhere to go with it!’

Some of you know that Rosemary and I have recently got back from a visit to Myanmar where our son and daughter-in-law are working for a few months. While we were that side of the world, we took the opportunity to visit Cambodia with Jon and Alexia. On our last day we visited the Genocide museum and Killing fields in Phnom Penh, the capital. Some 2 million people – that’s a quarter of the country’s population – almost all completely innocent, were tortured and killed in around 200 centres around the country in the years 1974-1979 at the hands of the Khmer Rouge under their paranoid leader, Pol Pot. It is the most sobering and depressing place I have ever been to, yet it is part of our global history. Before we went Rosemary and I prayed together and read verses from Isaiah 53: ‘He was despised and rejected, a man of suffering and acquainted with grief’ (v.3). Those words are so poignant, connecting like an electric circuit with the horrors of what happened at Tuol Sleng prison and I wept. In her prayer, Rosemary thanked God for the resurrection of the country, much in evidence now. And there it is again. Crucifixion and resurrection. Look for that pattern, that shape. It is everywhere.

‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’ (Luke 24:47) comes near the end of our gospel reading. I have said before that I the word ‘repentance’ quite problematic. It seems to me, at least, to have too narrow a focus: ‘what have you been up to, then? – you had better repent of that!’ I much prefer to break the word down into two halves – ‘re’ meaning ‘again’ and ‘pent’ from the French penser, ‘to think’. Rethink your life! No so much what have you done wrong today (although there may be profit in that!) but what direction is my life taking? How does my life line up with the Jesus story? And rethink the cross and resurrection – not just isolated events in history, but fulfilling the shape of Scripture written hundreds of years in advance; somehow revealing not only the shape of God Himself but the shape of everything. And you are forgiven! Again, I find the word ‘forgiven’ a bit narrow although it’s true, but it’s not enough – not only forgiven, you are loved, accepted, welcomed. If Jesus could forgive the men who nailed him to the cross – and he did – he can surely accept you!

Richard Croft