God is a fool? Libellous! Some would call it blasphemy. If the Trinity is a ship of fools, what kind of crazy vessel is the church? But this is the inescapable conclusion of Paul (the apostle). God had behaved foolishly in Christ, he tells his first-century letter readers in Corinth.
Ergo, preaching is foolish, preachers are fools and the people of God are to rejoice in their folly. Not a theoretical kind of folly. Not a transubstantiated kind of folly, where the suited bore looks like a suited bore but spiritually is a clown. No. A fool.
I am acquainted with folly. I have no problem in accepting my status as fool, idiot, failure. But I miss the point. God has not declared me a fool on the basis of my stupidity. I could probably accept this, indeed agree with this verdict. Much of what I have been seems like a badly timed joke, and much of what I do doesn't offer the flattery of status. The untamed lion of failure is familiar to me in my mental cage. I frequently fend him off with rickety old chairs and the occasional whip of victory.
No. This name proceeds from his lips as a compliment, not a slur. This is a new kind of folly. You get it by agreeing with God. Co-operation with the Holy Spirit brings me into the gravity-defying, red-nosed arena of the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, being a fool isn't a by-product of LMF (low moral fibre), but is the very thing itself. Godliness = foolishness.
This is something to aspire to. You live up to this one, not look down on it. Even that is imprecise. You enter in. You become a Christian and you are given a new set of clothes: vulgar, gaudy, fit only for the circus, party or waxworks. You get to meet a whole lot of other fools.
The fool is awkward, out of place. Place him in a sitcom and he weeps. Find him in a cemetery and he guffaws. This is difficult for the church. We have pursued sanity and have become sanitized. This playful mistral blowing over the world has all the marks of the foolish God. Idiots are receiving joyous news in Argentina and half-wits are running into the arms of Jesus in Pensacola.
Laughter came to Britain in 1994. It caught us out. Laughing, nay roaring, chuckling, braying, barking, partying in the house of God seemed strange indeed. Some of us had a ball. The younger son gorged himself on this new food, while the older brother did what he does best. He fumbled for his tie, went for a long walk and when the main course was finished, complained that he hadn't been invited.
Laughter. Church. They don't seem to fit. Not unlike foolishness and God. Someone once said to me that context is everything. I nodded knowingly, not knowing what on earth he was talking about. But that's what's happened in 1994. The context was dreary, grey, oppressively solemn. Isaiah in grey flannel. What, oh what, do we do with Ezekiel the shameless streaker? Jesus in a second-hand three-piece? John the beloved disciple in an Alan Partridge sports casual?
Reality is raw and dangerous. Like sex. Like forgiveness. Like laughter. We can't handle being fools. Theology in the end is logical, understandable. We are rationalists. The plan of redemption has become an A to Z of the Bible. Ask me a question and I'll give you an answer. Tell you what, give me a meccano set and I'll construct it for you while you wait.
BODY OF GRAFFITI
Umberto Eco set his 'Name of the Rose' in a mediaeval monastery, but he might as well have chosen any brand of Western church. There are as many bell towers in the new churches as there are suckling madonnas in all the others.
Ecco's Agatha Christie meets Thomas Aquinas is all about comedy. Here we meet people dying for a good laugh. A book of jokes, rather more humorous than Bob Monkhouse's, kept in a hideous gothic labyrinth and guarded by several blind eunuchs. I can't prove it, but somewhere in every systematic theology ever penned there's a rib-tickling chortle. And if there isn't, there ought to be. Laughter brings us to our senses and reassures us that we are only children of clay.
When I was finally overcome by the gut laughter of 1994, I realized for the first time ever that I got the joke. I heard the punch line and it creased me up. Funnier than any Steve Martin gag and more alternative than Jo Brand. Grace, boom-boom. The economy of God soaring into inflation. Madness in the court of heaven.
Faced with human tragedy and cosmic rebellion, God's instinct is desperate love. He punishes himself, is mutilated by the mutineers. There was once an Englishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman and they scrawled graffiti all over the body of Christ. The naked God. Mannacled and ridiculed. Total exposure. A full-frontal too awful for any tabloid. Or too funny.
Now here's the joke. God had a private conversation with himself heated, angry, despairing. He decided he could take no more. Enough is enough. Only one thing to do. Forgive the whole lot of them.
And all the time God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The crimson blood of God flowed. And God died. God came alive. The Trinity got wounded. The first man has gone back into God. God has got scars. The lives of the millions who are being touched by his kindness today are caressed by the ripped open Sovereign.
It turns out he always was God. Thieves condemn him, prostitutes love him and a two-souled Pharisee tenderly carries the corpse to the grave of another. I'm glad to be a fool.
I am in receipt of the greatest tenderness ever given and I don't understand it at all. Ten minutes of my own children's rebellion and I'm angry. Twenty minutes and I lose my patience and blow my Christian virtue. Jesus has had 2,000 years of cruel whipping and he hasn't blown it once. He loves sinners. Why? Please don't give me your answer. We could weep a little, or then again we could laugh a lot.
Some day soon I'm going to meet the fool on the hill. I've heard it said that he's not alone. Many other crazed ones will be present too. He made fools before the foundation of the world. The experts say that 'ekklesia' could mean 'circus'. Protestant theology has always lacked good jokes. Why are the best jokers always Jewish? The Holy Roller, it transpires, is alive and creating. Laughter is one of the divine attributes. Communicable even.
The fool on the hill is making fools of us all.
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