No airs, no graces: at one with people

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

I heard someone the other day describing Dame Judi Dench as ‘down to earth’. Stardom hasn’t changed her it seems: she treats people with kindness, she’s approachable, no airs or graces, they say.

And you and I might add, and so it should be. I’m also told that the actor Tim Robbins, who starred in the film Shawshank Redemption, is much the same. He was featuring in a movie set in Belfast three or four years ago and was staying in the Europa Hotel. He would frequently be found across the road in the Crown Bar, with his guitar, just enjoying the company of ordinary Belfast folk. Again, no airs or graces.

And then you see the church leaders of our day, particularly at this time of year, dressed in their golden gowns, pointed hats and gem-encrusted staffs doing their religious bit and wondering why the man or woman in the street are estranged from them.

I once heard Rowan Williams complain that the public see him as an oddity. Funny thing was that he was dressed like Coco the clown as he made his profound utterance.

I think that’s what attracted the masses to Jesus. He understood them, he spoke their language, he was not known for his political correctness, he said it as it was. Any doubt that he had a healthy disregard for the religious establishment is banished by even a cursory glance at one of my favourite chapters of the entire Bible: Matthew 23. Boy did he rip into them: ‘Everything they do is for show! You cross land and sea to make one convert and then you make him twice the son of hell as you yourselves are.’

There’s a line in a Christmas carol we sing: ‘He came down to earth from heaven’, and that about sums him up: down to earth,.

How I would love to have met him and seen him in action. A man so comfortable in his own skin that multitudes walked miles to be near him. I don’t know about you, but with all due regard to Justin Welby or Pope Francis, I don’t think I’d walk to the end of the street to see them.

But Jesus? Different story. Amid all the hustle and bustle of the throngs, he takes time to set a child on his knee and he said: ‘You need to be like this little man.’

Of all the accounts of his travels and interactions, the most telling must be of his last hour or so. Body wracked with pain, deserted by those whom he loved, even his father had abandoned him, and yet he could cry out about his abusers, ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’ Even more remarkable by the fact that none of them was exhibiting a trace of remorse.

You will, I hope, forgive me for referring again to the convicted criminal on the cross beside him who did not say the sinner’s prayer, nor was there an opportunity for restitution. He wasn’t baptised, he didn’t confess: none of the ‘prerequisites’ for salvation promoted by most of Christendom, and yet Jesus could say, ‘Today you will be with me.’ And I guess if we believe the Bible, we can assume he’s still there, at his Master’s side.

But then, isn’t that why they had him crucified, for he broke all their rules, all of them?