Sunday, 3 April 2011

A Prague Goose and the Freedom of God

I've just spent a weekend doing some teaching to a group of very focussed and impressive church leaders in Prague. The Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in the world today. At the same time, the wonderful Tomas Dittrich who showed me around and the others I met had a deep sense of the Christian history of the country and its role in forming European Christianity. I loved a visit to the Bethlehem Chapel, the place that holds the pulpit where Jan Hus preached in the early C15th. For those who don't know, Hus was a radical preacher who mounted a rigorous critique of the church of his day, demanded reform and ended up getting burnt for his pains at the Council of Constance in 1415, despite having been guaranteed safe conduct to the Council. Hus in Czech means 'goose', and during his trial, he had reportedly said “Today you are burning a goose, but out of my ashes will be born a swan whom you will not burn". As you might imagine, Luther quite liked that line. I have often mentioned Hus while lecturing on Luther - it was when Luther realized in 1519 that Hus the heretic had been burnt for preaching views similar to the ones he was himself develop, that Luther began to realize he was on a different track to the papal church that was trying to bring him to book. Nearly six centuries later in 1999, Pope John Paul II expressed "deep regret for the cruel death inflicted" on Hus.

Hus identified six problems with the church of his day. They were these:

Priests who boasted of making the body of Jesus Christ in the mass, and of being the creator of their Creator.

The confession exacted of the members of the Church — 'I believe in the pope and the saints' — in opposition to which, Huss taught that men are to believe in God only.

The priestly claim to remit the guilt and punishment of sin. Only God does that.

The implicit obedience exacted by ecclesiastical superiors to all their commands.

Making no distinction between a valid excommunication and one that was not so.

Simony - the idea that positions in the church can be bought and sold for cash.

In essence all of them are a re-assertion of the radical freedom of God. the church does not possess or control God, much less dispense him to others. God is our creator, we are not his. And yet God gives himself to us in Christ. Holding that tension saves us from many theological and spiritual mistakes. It saves us from domesticating God, making him familiar and safe. At the same time it keeps us from making him so distant and mysterious that we can say nothing about him, or rendering him cool and unconcerned with our struggles and pains. Hus's blow struck for the freedom of God at the price of his own life is something for which we have to thank the Czech nation and it's fine spiritual heritage.

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