First off – this is not a new retelling of the gospel story, far from it. This is a comedy set in 1950s Hollywood in which movie star Baird Whitlock gets kidnapped by communist screenwriters who want to derail the system and get back some of the money they feel the studio owes them. Whitlock is supposed to be starring in Hail Caesar! at the time, a tale about a Roman centurion, which bears a certain resemblance to Ben Hur. Here he is in one of the scenes, standing beside the crosses on Golgotha…
As Baird says, ‘A truth we could see if we had but…’
What’s that little word?
That little missing word?
Money, power, glamour, celebrity, fame, looks, connections, networking?
Nope. What was it again?
Oh yes, faith.
Faith. That lens through which we view the other side of this world. That other kingdom. God’s ways, God’s dimension. Most often, but not always, invisible to the naked eye. The place that Jesus melted into after his time on earth was done.
Faith. The reason Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the church door 500 years ago. The very thing he laid his life on the line for against a system which had become corrupted by power and greed.
‘What is faith?’ asked the writer of the letter to a bunch of Hebrews. ‘It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see. God gave his approval to people in days of old because of their faith. By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.’ (Chapter 11)
If you’re like me your faith may well be rather on the small side at times, but Jesus encouraged us that even a tiny seed of faith is precious and powerful. (Luke 17 v 6)
I think we all have and frequently use faith. We turn on the tap believing that water will come out, we move in with partners and spouses believing that our lives will be better, we change our ways of living believing that improvements will come as a result. We all have faith in lots of things. Faith is not really a religious commodity, it’s part of being human.
I believe I’m right in saying that the early Christians didn’t boast big about the crucifixion of Jesus, why would they? Revolutionaries and wannabe Messiahs had risen up and been crucified before. It was the Roman way. Make an exhibit, an embarrassing and brutal example, of anyone who dared to stand up to the glory and might of Rome and its Emperors. So what was impressive then about Jesus of Nazareth getting nailed up? Well, the fact that he didn’t stay nailed up, buried and dead. The resurrection. The tomb cracked open, the fresh Messianic footprints in that burial garden. The man who couldn’t resist surprising those women who had come to embalm him. And through that window, that extraordinary faith-filled lens, they and we look back to the cross and realise it was not just any old day, any old death, any old execution. Somehow, in the divine mysterious plan of God, this began the new age. The age of redemption for the universe.
This changed everything. And what St Paul and Martin Luther highlighted was that this was a free gift. Not for sale on eBay, not downloadable for a Pay-Pal price, not up for a swap or the highest bid. It was God’s doing, God who paid for the event, and God could set the rules. No good coming with our excuses or our payments or our achievements. Though we all have times of trying to win God over to our side. I do anyway. Best perhaps just to bring a hungry heart, open hands and a whispered prayer for help and hope. ‘We believe in you, but our faith is small, please help us with our doubts,’ as one man said when he came to Jesus one day. To finish here’s a little reading about the strange mixture we humans are…
It seems to me to be both
Extraordinary and confounding
Amazing and fearful
That we human beings
Can succeed and fail
Love and loathe
Be filled with trust
And racked with doubt
And all this while in the same skin.
That it’s within our repertoire
To be dedicated and unfaithful
Loyal and lost
Wholehearted and cold-hearted
Fabulous and futile
Focused and frivolous
Praying reckless prayers
And knowing them answered
Praying earnest prayers
And wondering what became of them.
That we may be all these things
And less or more or both or neither
Singing songs of hope and hypocrisy
Caution and compassion
As we live our lives of contradiction.