Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lent 2C

I remember as a child going with Mum and Dad to see a circus.  Back then, of course, the entertainment options were a bit more limited - when the circus came to town, that was a big deal.   Everything about the circus was larger than life, fascinating and scary and exciting all at the same time.  I was spellbound by the clowns, amazed by their disruptiveness - the clowns respected nothing and nobody, creating mischief and wreaking petty vengeance on one another.  The lion tamer was impossibly brave, even putting his head right inside one of the lions mouths.  But for sheer terror, for raw, sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat fear, nothing beat the tight-rope and the flying trapeze.  Way up in the air, stretched between the great poles that supported the big top, the tight-rope and the swings, the little platforms where the acrobats waited to catch each others hands and swing out over the sickening nothingness below them.  Of course the clowns had no fear, climbing up with their ridiculous little mono-cycles and actually riding along the tightrope, even going backwards, piggy-back, standing on each other’s shoulders.  While the proper trapeze artists actually flung themselves into space, calculating precisely that their partner would be at the right point of the long swing to catch them.  Right down below, it seemed hundreds of feet below, was of course the safety net.  I’ll never forget seeing one of the clowns fall, landing on his back in the net, being flung up into space again, making a big deal of it. 

It was many years later, as an adult I think, that I first saw acrobats performing all this horrifying stuff without a safety net.  And two questions occurred to me - one - why would anybody in their right mind do this for a living? - and two - how much courage would it take to do it for the first time, say, when you’re an apprentice trapeze artist, and the Great Waldo saunters past and says “hey you kid! - grab hold of that swing and just fling yourself out there and let go and stretch out your hands.  Just trust me - I’ll be there to catch you”. 

And it strikes me that sometimes we need that sort of courage just in our everyday lives.  That every now and then we find ourselves having to launch out into space, to strike out in a totally new direction, take on new responsibilities, to trust in the goodwill and competence of others, or else to be the one who calms the anxieties of others so they can take that first big step into the unknown.  The essence, it seems to me, of being a good trapeze artist is to be able to predict the future, to be able to see the trajectory before you commit yourself to it and to be able to predict where you’re going to end up.  And to be able to lean into the future, to trust it enough to be able to let go of the safety platform.

Yes, I’m talking about Sarah and Abraham, but I’m also talking about times of decision and times of utter dependence that every one of us faces from time to time.  Abraham and Sarah are already up there on the flying trapeze, they’ve already flung themselves off the platform and there’s no safety net, no Plan B.  Abraham had a nice little life happening back there in Ur of the Chaldeans, somewhere in Mesopotamia, he is married to Sarah, or Sarai, who apparently is also his half-sister, and everything is going along just fine until Abraham’s brother Haran dies and his father Terah apparently goes a bit potty with grief and decides to take the whole family to Canaan.  They only get a little way down the road, however, to a place coincidentally enough also called Haran - I’m not making this up, the whole family ends up in a town that has the same name as the deceased, where old Terah calls it a day and dies. [1]  Maybe the point is that it’s confused little family stories like this one that can also be a part of God’s creative purposes.

And then God speaks to Abraham - or as he is then called - Abram - for the first time.  Sarah, we’ve already been told, is unable to have children.  This is a poignant, human tragedy, the writer of Genesis doesn’t spell it out because in ancient society it’s all too obvious.  Not having children means having no future, not experiencing God’s blessing.  This is way before the people of Israel started believing in an afterlife, also way before age pensions and Medicare.  If you got old without children, your life was precarious; if you died without children, you were forgotten as though you had never existed.  Having children meant your family would continue, your name would be remembered and you would die surrounded by God’s blessings.  When we hear that Sarah and Abraham can’t have children we need to imagine not just disappointment but real anxiety and fear - this couple stand to disappear without a trace.  And God says - this is the beginning of chapter 12 – just trust me.  Go to Canaan, an unthinkably remote place, more or less the Wild West of the ancient world - don’t go back, go forward, keep going the way mad old Terah started out on.  Trust me, I will bless you, and through you the peoples of the whole world are also going to blessed.  In other words, close your eyes, let go of the flying trapeze and jump – and I, the Great Waldo, will catch you. 

Incidentally, Abraham and Sarah put paid to the idea that God never expects anything new from old people.  Abraham is seventy five when he starts his great journey.  Maybe Sarah’s about sixty.  This couple should be the patron saints of grey nomads everywhere.  You can do it.

And in the text we read this morning, God speaks to Abraham and Sarah again, saying to them, ‘don’t be afraid’.  By my count this is now the fourth time God has repeated his promise of blessing – Abraham has grown in power and prestige, down in Egypt in chapter 12 he comes off looking shifty and dishonest, trying to pass Sarai off as just his sister backfires when Pharaoh takes a bit of a shine to her himself, then in chapters 13 and 14, after separating from his nephew Lot, Abram shows that he has learned a few ethical lessons, allying himself with the local Canaanite kings to defeat a common enemy.  And now God speaks to Abraham again, repeating the promise of blessing and making it more specific – descendents more numerous than the stars, and the land in which you now live as a resident alien will be your own possession.  And when Abraham points out the improbable-ness of all this, God raises the stakes – binding the pledge in a covenant ritual of a sort that would have been common enough between ancient warlords.  The animals are cut in two and at twilight, in the form of smoke and fire, God passes between the remains.  It’s an extreme form of oath that, when it sealed a promise between two rival warlords means, “if I don’t do what I promise, may I be cut in two like these animals”.  A lot now rides on this promise – for God, for Abraham, and for all Abraham and Sarah’s descendents, including us. 

How much power, I wonder, does this story that comes to us from an ancient nomadic people still have to help us understand what God’s promises mean to us today?  The promise to Abraham will become a central fixed point in the self-understanding of Israel, central also to the Christian understanding of what it means to live in Christ.  All through the history of God’s people we hear the same words, “do not be afraid” – and the reason why – because God is in charge, God has promised to be with us, and God is at work underneath everything. So no matter what things may look like, we can be assured that whatever happens, God is good and God is to be trusted.

It might be easy to dismiss this as “feel-good” theology, too bright and optimistic to be of any use in a world where millions are displaced by war or famine, where millions die every year from preventable childhood diseases or HIV/AIDS, where hundreds of thousands die in a single earthquake, where every one of us lives with limitation and failure and regret, not to mention the certainty of our own mortality.  But as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman points out, God’s promise is not just an assurance to a childless old couple but a fundamental definition of the relationship between God and God’s people, a defining hope in a world of danger and uncertainty.  In the verses today’s lectionary reading inexplicably left out, God mentions to Abraham that 400 years of exile and slavery would pass before his descendents would even see the land of God’s promise.  And yet – it’s an invitation to the future – an invitation to lean forward into the future that God imagines for us, even when the horizon of God’s promise is far more distant than the horizon of our own lives.  An invitation, in other words, to see the world as God sees it, to trust God’s promises with our lives, even when we are unable to see the outcome of those promises.  The promise to Abraham establishes that God, first and foremost, is oriented toward the future, that the intention of God is for Abraham and Sarah, and all their descendents including we ourselves – to be a blessing to the world around us.  God’s fundamental promise to Abraham establishes us as a people oriented toward the future, and toward others.

The world we live in is fearful.  The geography and climate of our planet are unstable, and threaten our confidence in the future.  Global power relationships are unstable and violent, and we respond by investing billions of dollars in military equipment, placing the lives of young people on the line but failing to make ourselves feel secure.  Fragile water and energy resources and global financial instability shake our complacency.  And we are overwhelmed by the fragility and impermanence of our own lives, the weakness and the mortality of our own bodies.  In an age of individualism, an age where anxiety reigns supreme as never before, how do we trust?

Theologian Timothy Shapiro calls us to reflect on the power of covenant to draw us in to awareness of God’s presence and God’s purpose in our lives, a covenant that both signifies God’s promise and calls for our response - like any potentially life-changing relationship, he says, it only works if you work at it.  The power of covenant is that it transforms us from being passive recipients to being participants or partners in God's creative promise.  Ultimately, when the Great Waldo beckons us from the flying trapeze from the other end of the big top, we are being challenged to redraw the horizons of our own expectations.

Trust me.  Trust that the future is defined, not by chaos or chance but by the word of God.  Trust that in you, and in the children of the covenant, the people of the world will be blessed.

 



[1] Gen 11.28-32; 20.12

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lent 1

Alison and I have very different thoughts on camping holidays.  I rather like the idea of getting out into the bush, doing without the mod cons for a few days, sitting around a camp fire at night and tuning into the sounds and rhythms of the bush.  Alison’s preferred mode of camping is a cute little B&B with a walking trail and a nearby cafe that serves all-day breakfasts.  We generally settle for something in between – but it strikes me that like many urbanised city-dwelling Aussies I have a somewhat romanticised notion of the bush - I like the idea of wilderness but would probably find the reality of spending any real time in the outback difficult and confronting.

As Australians, the outback is a part – even if only subliminally – of who we are, or at least who we think we are.  Images of the outback are woven through the stories of early settlers and explorers, the iconic image of the drover and the dreaming of indigenous Australians – tales of hardship and dispossession, mateship, self-sacrifice and genocide – resonating as well as discordant strands of mythology and history that kind of percolate away inside us to produce a narrative that tells us what it means to be Australian.  We understand the bush – even if we never go there – as a place of silence, of testing, of hardship and beauty – a place at the heart of who we are that critiques and strengthens our national identity.  It was also like that for ancient Israel, in fact for Jewish men and women even today, who understand the wilderness as a place of exodus, of freedom from slavery in Egypt, a place of spiritual testing, of being lost and found, of being confronted by the demons of fear and selfishness and mistrust, of learning to trust in the reliability and the goodness of God’s promises.

And so we begin our Lenten journey with the story of Jesus returning to the wilderness in which the national as well as the spiritual identity of his people had been shaped.  The number 40 is the storyteller’s hint that Jesus’ journey out into the desert has got some connection with Israel’s lost years in the same wilderness.  Only Luke and Matthew give any details about this experience – in Mark we get all of two verses that just tell us, in bare bones, that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, he was there forty days, Satan tempted him, wild beasts kept him company, and angels waited on him.  Maybe that’s all Mark thinks we need to know.  Both Luke and Matthew give us dialogue, a blow by blow account of the debate between Jesus and the devil, the ‘Tempter’ who argues persuasively that Jesus should care for his bodily needs and take the power that belongs to him by right.  The devil’s offer of bread reminds us of the miraculous gift of manna in the desert; the offer of power reminds us of Moses’ brief glimpse of the holy land he was not permitted to enter; the offer of divine protection reminds us of the wilderness protections of fire and cloud.  But where in the original Exodus story Israel grumbled, rebelled and went its own way, Jesus remains faithful.  His responses to the devil are drawn directly from Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy – the devil quotes Scripture to tell Jesus what he could do, but Jesus understands Scripture as a model for how he should be.

It seems to me that we need to take notice of this story because this is exactly what happens – what has happened or what will happen – to every one of us.  Jesus is tested exactly as God’s people are always tested, and Jesus gives us the model for how we should behave when we are.  Forget for a moment the offer of divine food – the chance to never again have to go to the supermarket, just go out the back and pick up a few rocks for dinner – you’re not very likely to face that particular offer.  Forget the offer of unimaginable power or the temptation to believe that you can fly.  The testing that each of us has to face is not the Son of God test but the Evan test, or the Hilda or the Harry test, which is to say, variations on the regular Adam and Eve test.  How well do we understand who we are and what the true context and the source of our lives is?  Also wildernesses come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, for example a hospital waiting room makes a very good wilderness sometimes.  Sometimes an open-plan office space makes a very good wilderness, when all of a sudden there’s a choice between corruption and integrity, between looking the other way or making yourself unpopular.  Schoolyards are famous for turning into wilderness spaces at the drop of a hat, as the age old dramas of bullying and favouritism and bribery are played out – sooner or later your child gets to make a choice whose side they are going to be on.  You get the point?  Wilderness happens in the middle of our everyday lives when we least expect it.  Quick.  Think fast.  How much courage do you have?  What do you stand for?  Who do you actually think you are?

You might think this is bad news, but actually not.  You don’t choose your wilderness experiences, and when you find yourself in the middle of one you want to get out again quick smart – but whichever 21st century model of wilderness you encounter, it is the best reality-check, the most spirit-filled and life-changing place you can possibly find yourself.  Take Jesus, for example – how did he get out there in the wilderness?  The Spirit led him – in Mark’s gospel it says, the Spirit drove him.  What was he full of?  The Holy Spirit.  What did he live on?  Nothing, just the Holy Spirit.  How long did it last?  Weeks and weeks.  How did he feel at the end? Famished.  Well, famished – and filled with power and purpose and compassion.  Famished – and free from hungry cravings for things that couldn’t give him life.  Famished – and filled with clarity that the Spirit who had driven him in there would also lead him wherever else he needed to go.

There’s a wisdom about the value and the beauty of wilderness that unfortunately is fading fast in our contemporary culture and even, sadly, in the Church.  There’s a wisdom about intentionally and deliberately choosing to enter the wilderness that the Church calls Lent, and it’s a wisdom based on the reality that if we actually do want to follow Jesus all the way to the cross we’re going to need all the clarity and all the freedom that we can only find in the wilderness.  The word, ‘Lent’, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for spring, the lengthening of days with its associations of new life, green shoots pushing their determined way up out of the desert of snow.  In our Aussie context we might think of Lent as the time of lengthening shadows, the month during which the hard light of summer softens and fades imperceptibly, the temperatures drop and the land waits for the refreshment of autumn rains.  The point is, the reflective season of Lent takes place as the natural world around us changes and we see evidence of new life and regrowth.

From Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, Christians are invited to make a fast, to pare down their lives, to choose to live with less - in order to have the much, much more of being filled with the clarity of the Holy Spirit.  We can trivialise this as making Lent just the time to give up chocolate or wine or dessert.  Or we can avoid its impact by making Lent the time to take something up – like forcing yourself to attend a boring Lenten study, or actually read the Bible.  But whatever external shape your self-imposed wilderness takes, whatever discipline of subtraction or addition you practice, perhaps the point is that we have the opportunity to unclutter.

Years ago there was a TV programme about this.  A reality show called, ‘Unclutter Your Life’.  Every week the chirpy team of twenty-somethings would descend on some hapless soul and get them to watch on while they literally removed everything from their badly cluttered-up apartment.  All the while keeping up a merciless commentary: ‘What on earth’s this?  Whatever possessed you to think you wanted one of these?  Have you ever even used it ...?’ And finally, when the victim’s entire domestic life had been critiqued and moved out on to the footpath to be stared at by amused passers-by, they were allowed to bring back in anything they could make a case for actually needing – usually about half of what they started with.  Of course as a TV show it depended on the voyeurism of the rest of us, but you get my point.

Our lives are full of stuff.  With less stuff we have more room for the Holy Spirit.  Our lives are full of props and distractions and painkillers – not just wine and chocolate, think TV, computers, mobile phones – only you know what it is in your life that you reach for as an alternative to noticing the emptiness where the Holy Spirit should be.

Unclutter your life this Lent.  Kick away the props to discover what it is in your life you really depend on.  Do without some unnecessary stuff in order to make more room for what really is necessary.  Turn off some of the noise of our 24/7 talk-back society so you can hear yourself think.  Spend less time with whatever distracts you, more time with God, more time with people you love or even with people you haven’t got round to loving so far.

It’s not too late to begin.  Find the wilderness that works for you.  Do Lent.

 

Friday, February 12, 2010

Transfiguration

Today is one of the most popular and universally celebrated festivals of the ancient Church.  I’m speaking of course, not of the Feast of the Transfiguration but the feast of St Valentine, one of two possible third century martyrs with no obvious connection to flowers and chocolates, whose festival has set the pulses of young women and men racing ever since.  Possibly the original St Valentine simply had the misfortune to meet his end on a day whose aphrodisiac qualities had already been celebrated since pagan times, but in any case, today we celebrate the heady and wonderful experience of falling in love.

We live in a supposedly rational and scientific age in which, it seems to me, we often make the mistake of believing that knowing a lot of facts about something is the same thing as knowing what it means.  Back, for example, in 1969, when the Apollo 11 lunar landing module touched down and human beings ventured out to take their first tentative steps on the moon a radio broadcaster in New York paused in the general excitement to wonder whether the moon would still have enough magic left for lovers to kiss beneath it.  Luckily it hasn’t come to that, but I take his point.  We know more and more facts about more and more stuff, and we’ve become very good at debunking, explaining and demystifying the world around us.  To call something a myth has come mean the same thing as dismissing it as superstitious nonsense, as a muddleheaded story that science has or soon will explain to everybody’s satisfaction.  And so unfortunately the world is made to seem flat and functional and uninteresting.  We need mystery, because we are a mystery to ourselves; we need mythology because deep down we know that truth is not one-dimensional, and we need stories that resonate with our own deep intuition that things are like that, that reality is open-ended, wonderful, tragic and surprising.

It seems to me that to make sense of our human existence we need both light and shadow.  Science, for example, can tell us easily enough why it is that the future of our species depends on young men and women falling in love – part of the myth about Cupid tells of how after accidentally scratching himself with one of his own arrows the god fell in love with a mortal girl.  Forbidden by his mother to have anything to do with the young lady – now there’s another story! – Cupid goes on strike and refuses to shoot anybody any more.  For months and months neither humans nor animals feel romantic, and the Earth begins to die, until Cupid’s mum relents.  It’s mythology, not science, that tells us more about why love is necessary to human existence, why love invites us in to the mystery of ourselves and one another, and ultimately into the mystery of who we are in relation to God.  And so it is, for example, in our Gospel story this morning, that the brief revelation of the glory of God that the disciples see shining through the figure of Jesus is immediately followed by a cloud of unknowing.  We experience our relationship to the divine within and around us as necessary and live-giving, but unfathomable, and that, I suspect, is as it needs to be.

When Cupid finally gets his mum’s permission he courts his human girlfriend, Psyche, with all the unfair advantages of his divine status, placing her in an enchanted garden surrounded by invisible attendants and coming to her only under the darkness of night.  ‘You can’t look at my face in the light of day’, he tells her.  ‘It would overwhelm you’.  All goes well until Psyche’s three sisters, staying over for a few days, whisper to her that Cupid may well be spectacularly ugly.  She obviously needs to find out - so that night she smuggles a candle into the bedroom and lights it once the god has fallen asleep.  In fact it’s the opposite of what her sisters had suggested, Cupid is so overwhelmingly beautiful with his snowy white wings and golden curls that Psyche gaps in surprise, spilling a few drops of candlewax on him and waking him up.  Cupid flies out the window, the castle and the garden disappear and Psyche is overcome with grief.

For St Paul, reflecting on the story of Moses coming down the mountain with his face shining from the nearness of God, the point is that the glory of God is reflected, never seen directly.  He seems to have in mind that the shine fades slowly, like a dose of sunburn, but that Moses needs to be veiled while it fades so the people can’t see its ending – actually it’s not the vanishing that they need to be protected from but its true end, in Greek, its telos, that to which the reflected glory of God draws us.  The ancient world of Greek philosophy held that to gaze on something is to absorb something of its essence.  To gaze on the face of God is to be changed or conformed into the image of God, and that, of course, is tough for mere mortals.  So Paul reflects that under the old covenant we needed veils – veils of misunderstanding, veils of necessary limitation, the veils of creeds that fence in our understanding, the veils of mystery and mercy without which human experience is overwhelmed by the limitlessness of God.

And yet, says Paul, in the new covenant of Jesus the veils are removed.  Not even Moses could look at God directly up on the mountain, in Exodus we read that God hides Moses in a hole in the ground and covers him over as he passes, allowing Moses just to catch a glimpse of his passing.  With Jesus, Paul tells us, we are able to look at the mirror of God’s glory, the true reflection, and we are able to gaze with unveiled faces and be transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Here, I wonder if Paul and Luke are quite in agreement with one another.  The cloud of unknowing that Luke describes is closer to our experience.  Blinded by the light Peter proposes to build a mountain-top monastery – following the impulse of church-builders everywhere to set up permanent structures around the uncontrollable moments of God’s blessing.  It can’t be done, because lightening flashes of revelation are by nature unexpected and surprising.  We can’t manufacture epiphanies of light, we can only practice in the dark for when they happen, so that we can increase our own chances of being present, of recognising them when they do.  Part of the task of worship is to practice seeing the reflections of God’s glory that happen around us every day.  As St Paul correctly notes, our experiences of God’s light are indirect, reflected in the faces of those who love us or who challenge us to be reflections of God’s mercy and goodness ourselves.  But the flashes of brilliance are also surrounded by the compassionate darkness of God that blankets us in a fog of glorious unknowing in which all our structures and all our theories are put on hold.

Psyche, on coming to herself without her divine lover, is bereft.  Cupid also, in the empyrean realm, is beside himself with grief.  Mortals can’t live in the full glare of the divine.  Juno, Cupid’s mum, is typically less than helpful.  Psyche never was good enough for her boy, she reckons, even if by human standards Psyche was a bit of a stunner herself.  And so Juno sets the love-sick Psyche a list of impossible demands which both get her out of the way and very nearly destroy her.  Meanwhile Cupid searches the earth until he tracks down his bride and protects her from his mum’s dangerous tasks by enlisting the aid of an army of ants while he goes to plead her case before the great sky-god, Jupiter.  Getting the boss’s approval, Cupid whisks Psyche up into the heavenly realm and transforms her into a goddess.  They live happily ever after, and in due course Psyche gives birth to a daughter named, appropriately enough, Pleasure.

The point is, once we get an eyeful of the radiance of God, we are hooked.  It’s the light that blinds and overwhelms us but that also transforms us.  We can’t see the face of God and just stay where we are but, like Psyche, ultimately must be transformed into the likeness of the one we fall in love with.  Paul is really big on this.  To be Christian is not just to see the light, not just a change of status from ‘lost’ to ‘saved’, but to be a work in progress.  To be Christian, for Paul, is to be on the move, in terms of his double metaphor, both to be changed into the likeness of Christ and to be translated from one degree of glory into another.  Notice the passive voice here.  In St Paul’s logic we have the choice which way to look – into the face of Jesus Christ which mirrors the glory of God, or at some lesser good.  But we will be transformed into what we look at and what we fall in love with.

 

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Epiphany +5C

In the time-honoured party game, Chinese whispers, somebody tells a story.  The first person tells their story by whispering it in the ear of the person next to them, who whispers it to the person next to them, and so all the way around the room when the last person to hear it has to repeat it out loud.  And everyone in the room is amazed because the story the last person tells invariably bears no resemblance to the version we first heard – let alone the version that was told by the original storyteller.  The point is that each of us distorts it because we have imperfect memories, we fill in the blanks of our memories with whatever seems to make sense to us, and perhaps most importantly of all, because we've got no external reference points that help us verify whether the story we think we heard is what was originally intended.  So along the way the original story gets warped out of recognition as each hearer loses some of the original sense and adds something unique to them, some foible of their own imagination.  And it reminds us of the many ways our communication with one another can go awry.

Story-telling is such a basic skill that we all do it all of the time without even noticing.  We want to know how come, where from, and why.  When we meet somebody we ask some basic questions to get them talking about themselves: 'Where do you come from?  What do you do for a living?  Psychologists tell us that at a deep level human beings need structure and meaning, a sense that things happen for a reason and that it's all headed somewhere – in short, we have a powerful need to understand our own life as a story.  And because we also have a powerful need for integration, for knowing that there's a bigger picture that we're a part of, one of the most basic ways in which we come to understand who we are is to tell and re-tell our own story, to listen to the stories of other people and to weave them into a bigger story which is the story of all of us, a national story, the story of God's people or the story of creation itself.

So we need stories, and we tell them all the time, even those of us who protest that we're useless at telling stories.  Last year, you might remember, we had a couple of storytelling workshops here at St Michaels.  Reverend Elizabeth Smith took us through a storytelling workshop that focused on telling our story as God's people, on giving an account of why we come here, how we experience God working in our lives and why we think it matters.  It was storytelling for evangelists.  And Andrew Wright led us in another storytelling workshop, one that helped us notice the ways in which we tell the story of ourselves and help other people to tell the story of themselves – little narratives that reveal and share something about ourselves like: 'When I was about six I decided to collect bees.  I was fascinated by the way they dived in and out of flowers, collecting pollen in the little pouches on their legs.  I used to wait until a bee landed on a flower then I'd close my hand over the flower and pick it, bee and all.  I got stung a lot.'  - and Andrew made a fascinating claim.  He said, 'when you really listen to people's stories, you see where God has been in their lives'.  I think that's profoundly true.  If you want to be an evangelist you don't have to be a Bible-basher, you just need to learn how to listen.  Listen to your own story, learn how to tell your own story and how to encourage other people to tell the story of their life.  You'll find yourself listening in on holy moments.

St Paul knows this.  Our Christian faith is full of stories about what it means to be human, what it means to struggle to live with integrity, to learn about forgiveness and love, what it means to live through failure and loss – and above all the story of Jesus Christ that tells us God loves us even when we behave in ways that are unlovely.  And St Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians of the story that's at the very centre of our faith, the story that each one of us, like a vital link in a chain, receives from the generation of Christians before us, the story that both depends on us to uphold and proclaim it, and at the same time has the power to transform and recreate us, the kerygma or kernel of our faith which is that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day and that the risen Christ appeared to an ever-increasing circle of people, including Paul himself; and that ultimately through the witness of these apostles both the Christians in Corinth and we ourselves have come to believe.

Somebody said to me the other day, in relation to this passage, this succinct, almost telegraphic summary of the Christian faith, that we Christians too often fall into the trap of thinking we only need to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day.  The rest of the time we content ourselves with talking about the miracles of Jesus, or unpacking his stories and his teachings about the kingdom of heaven.  None of it, my friend said, makes sense without the resurrection and we need to remind ourselves, every time we meet, that we're first and foremost resurrection people.  We're people who proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what we proclaim about it is that through the resurrection of Jesus we know the reality of God's promises for a new creation.  St Paul is reminding the Corinthian Christians of the central story of their faith, a story they had already received and already believed.  The Corinthian Christians weren't denying the resurrection of Jesus but it seems they were drifting into a sort of spiritual individualism, or a private piety in which progress was measured not in the expansion of love, but in the exhilaration of religious experience and in the possession of special wisdom and knowledge.  Paul's gospel of resurrection was a vision of a transformed creation and a new community – but the Corinthian Christians preferred to believe in their own future immortality as a sort of infinite continuation of the relationship they already enjoyed with God in the here and now.

So Paul reminds them that the resurrection of Jesus grounds Christian faith in the community of embodied believers.  That the resurrection body of Christ – different from a regular physical body, as he argues later in the chapter, but real, substantial, not a disembodied soul – proves that the focus of God's creative action and God's redemptive love is on this creation, on real human lives lived in community in which our physical bodies are part of the essence of who we are and how we experience our lives. St Paul's resurrection spirituality is earthy, grounded both in the here and now of the lives of believers, as well as the hope of future transformation.  In case you think this is a subtle first century disagreement that hasn't got much to do with how 21st century Christians live their lives, we need to notice that the Corinthian style of Christianity is alive and well in our own time.  When the primary focus of our faith becomes a preoccupation with ourselves and our personal hereafter, then we end up being less interested in the world around us.  Compassion and justice and the state of the environment become optional extras, not, as St Paul's gospel would have it, God's number one priority and the central arena of God's saving action.

So St Paul tells them the story of their faith, the story of how the resurrected Christ is experienced and made known within a community of ordinary, fallible men and women who tell and retell it until the story inhabits them, until it reshapes their experience and recreates them as a community that because it knows itself as loved and forgiven is prepared to take the risk of loving and forgiving.  The resurrection story is the centre of our faith, and the key to experiencing its truth is in the telling of the story, inhabiting it and being inhabited by it until our own story becomes a part of it.  This is, of course, the opposite of Chinese whispers, the story that we hear and tell, and hear and tell through a hundred generations, the story whose truth is revealed ever more sharply as it gets woven together with the stories of those who have received it and passed it on.

'Listen', St Paul says to his self-centred congregation at Corinth.  'Listen and I will tell you your own story.  First he appeared to Cephas (the Aramaic word that means rock, in other words Peter, the foundation stone).  Then to five hundred, then to James and all the apostles'.  Oddly, Paul doesn't mention the tradition of the gospels that the very first witnesses to the resurrection were the women, maybe he doesn't know this tradition or perhaps already in the early church the voices and experiences of women were starting to be screened out.  'And then he appeared to me, Paul' – and here he puts himself down in a violently ugly expression, referring to himself as an abortion, in Greek the word ektroma, which our Bible delicately translates as 'one untimely born'.  Paul's still carrying a load of guilt from his past as a persecutor of the Church, or perhaps he's deliberately repeating a put-down that his critics have levelled against him, but the point is that he laces his own story into the kerygma, into the central story of the faith in a way that underscores its truth.  And this is the point.

Life's like that.  We have no special claim on God's grace.  Like Paul, we may be defensively overcompensating for some unresolved inadequacy or guilt.  We don’t think we’re good enough, or clever enough.  But it's actually our own humanness and our own shortcomings that qualify us to see how the story of our own life is woven into the creed – how who we are is made clear in the light of the story of our faith, and how the story depends on us to be told and retold to a new generation of believers.  Like Paul, we have no choice.

If you’ve received it, pass it on.  He appeared to Paul, the persecutor, on the road to Damascus, and Paul spread the word through the churches of Asia Minor.  And last of all, the risen Christ appeared to me.  He changed my life, and that’s why I’m telling you.