The Pearl of Africa

Frank’s visit to Uganda this weekend takes me back to 1969, when his predecessor Paul visited Kampala, and this eight year old famously pushed forward from the crowd to shake his hand, and then not wash that hand for three days thereafter. Dad took some Super8 footage of the visit…

The Pope carries on the tradition of Peter heading up the Church, after Jesus asked him if he would mind doing so, just before his departure. A lot of people would say that Jesus is still here ‘in their hearts’, but that is open to interpretation — “The Holy Spirit told me this, that, and the other”, they all say under the guise of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. In the Pope we at least have a single source of ‘truth’, irrespective of how infallible or otherwise we might consider him to be (no women heading up the Church just yet!).

Most of the world’s major religions started out in life with just one bloke (or occasionally a sheila) having an encounter with the divine and managing to convince those around them of the veracity of their message from God. None of the three initiators of the Abrahamic traditions wrote their own material — Moses told us the story of Abraham, various writers told us the story of Jesus, and Muhammad’s companions posthumously recorded what they remembered of his revelations.

After these prophets died, their proclamations were inevitably developed by others. Paul for example tells us (through Luke) how he sat down for a chat with (presumably) the ghost of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and went on to establish what we now widely recognize as Christianity. If you have always been completely normal, and never gone even just a little bit funny in the head, it is tempting to imagine that these people (including those from the Eastern traditions) have simply made all these stories up to seek notoriety, a very post-modern conceit. Indeed L. Ron Hubbard famously analysed all the elements needed to create a synthetic religion, and the result was the very lucrative phenomenon of Scientology.

The reality for authentic prophets is anguish, reticence, and reluctance. Jesus headed off for forty days of solitude in the wilderness because he understood his ultimate fate, prophesized by Isaiah eight centuries earlier, and what God expected of him. No one warms to the idea of being the fall guy, and in his desert encounters with God, he threatened suicide (to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple), to show he could thwart God’s designs on his life through the force of his will. He also imagined becoming another Solomon (the Messiah the Jews were all expecting), grand pooh-bah of the entire world, but realized that was not the plan for him either. We are not sure what turning stones into bread was all about, but after forty days he was clearly becoming a very hungry caterpillar. What we do know is that he rather bravely resigned himself to his fate, a ‘submission to God’ that was later taken up by the prophet Muhammed.

Muhammed’s complaint, some six centuries later, was that Paul had elevated Jesus to the divine, promulgating the Trinitarian heresy which suggested that Jesus and God (and the Holy Spirit) were one and the same person. Careful reading of the Gospels, especially Mark’s account, will reveal that Jesus had no such opinion of himself, indeed that he was existentially human. Were Jesus and Muhammed to meet up with each other today, they would concur that God alone has the infinitude.

John, in his Gospel, presents us with the image of Jesus as the ‘living’ Word of God. What is important here is not that the ‘words’ of the Word are ‘alive’ as they ‘come out of the pages’, but rather that the person speaking the Word is alive. What we would give to have Abraham, Jesus and Muhammed, as the ‘living Word’, together on the panel of Q&A (along with some translators), so we could all ask them to clarify exactly what they were thinking at the time each of them got going with their careers. The exciting thing about the Resurrection, which I have already touched on, is that this is precisely the treat we are in for, as they will necessarily have to tell the truth, or else answer to the Holy Spirit, who does not take lightly to people telling fibs.

Identifying them will be an interesting exercise in itself (“I’m Brian, and so is my wife!”) but at the end of the day (we live happily ever after), it is by their words that we will know them.

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