Some people can surprise us
“Love without risk is an impossibility, like war without death.” It’s not often that I quote contemporary left-bank French philosophers, especially those who write what is to me impenetrable prose. However, I have just come across the work of Alain Badiou, apparently considered the most important living French philosopher. The big surprise is that even though Badiou is most clearly an atheist (no surprise there) his understanding of the apostle Paul is astonishingly helpful. Which just goes to show how God can use any of us to reveal his truth. I came across his book, “Saint Paul, the foundation of universalism’ through Durham theologian John Barclay. No doubt I will be writing about Barclay’s own book in some future blog once I have finally reached page 672. Paul is a pioneer, teaches Badiou, in “his notion of truth as a subjective process of faithfulness to the event.” (I’m not sure that I understand that either - but I can glimpse where Badiou is taking us). Essentially, for the apostle just one single event changes everything, totally and irreversibly. The flow of history has abruptly changed direction. Moreover, “this event cannot be either named or understood within the context in which it occurs: it cuts against the grain of the world, not simply as a new departure in the sequence of history, but as the creation of a new possibility, something previously thought impossible.” We are talking about the resurrection of Jesus. It is so easy to take the resurrection victory of Jesus for granted, for us just one event among many. For many just an excuse to eat lots of chocolate. And not that special. New-Age writer Deepak Chopra claims “Every spiritual tradition has this idea of death and resurrection. It's not unique to Christianity.” Not for Badiou, however. For the apostle Paul this resurrection of Jesus is “absolutely new, pure event, the opening of an epoch, the transformation of the relation between the possible and the impossible.” “It bores a hole through the fabric of established knowledges.” Of course, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the culmination of God’s plan to redeem creation, announced to Abraham centuries earlier. And as Jesus explained to his downcast disciples on the Emmaus road, "Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26) Here Jesus recasts the teaching of scripture as preparing the way for his victory. So Luke explains “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” However, it is fair to say that no one at the time expected the cross of Jesus to have such an effect, including (and especially) the disciples who had been clearly prepared in advance. So when it came his resurrection was a complete and utter surprise. And more, it changes everything. So to go back to Badiou, in Paul's communities there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave no free” not because these ethnic differences have been obliterated, but because, as Badiou puts it, the passage of the process of truth crosses these differences at a diagonal, neither affirming them nor denying them. Such huge cultural boundaries, so important to Paul’s world, are now simply irrelevant. This – even today – is mind-blowing. Again to quote our man, “the sudden emergence of the Christian subject is unconditioned.” The resurrection victory of Jesus is just there, staring us in the face, challenging us to change. As a result Paul’s message is for everyone without any social, ethnic, cultural or psychological condition. Again we take this revolutionary aspect of the Christian gospel for granted, we fail to see the epoch-changing dimension of grace, “an excess that breaks with the normal rules of thought and convention.” Superadundant grace, sheer gift. The very first outworking of Jesus’ resurrection we celebrate this coming Sunday, the gift of the Holy Spirit of God at Pentecost. And once again we can so easily fail to grasp this as a cosmic event, something so huge it took the church several decades to process. Prior to the resurrection of Jesus God gave his Holy Spirit to certain people at particular times for specific tasks. Like Bezalel the craftsman, for making the tabernacle a tent of beauty, worthy of God’s presence with the people of Israel in their wilderness wanderings (Exodus 31:2). Or Gideon the wimp transformed into a warrior (Judges 6:34). Not many, not often. But now with the shock of the resurrection of Jesus this Holy Spirit, who raised him from the dead, is now available to everyone, everywhere for ever. No one could have been more surprised as Peter, now reaffirmed in his calling: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39) This is amazing stuff and sometimes it takes an outsider, like Alain Badiou, to see what is right in front of our noses, that Jesus’ victory changes everything, totally and for ever. Here is God breaking into our world with a love that risks everything.