Saturday, April 30, 2011

Easter 2

At the very end of World War 2 when the German Nazi State had surrendered and Allied forces were fanning out across the countryside, checking every farmhouse for snipers, an American platoon came across a cellar just outside Cologne where apparently Jewish men, women and children had been in hiding.  The hiding place was broken and empty, so they could only guess what had happened or how long its occupants had managed to remain hidden.  But on a wall of the cellar the soldiers found a message in pencil, a message of hope from someone running out of hope:

          I believe the sun is shining, even though I can’t see it.

          I believe in love, even though I can’t feel it.

          I believe in God, even though he is absent.

Like the occupants of that cellar - like survivors of authoritarian crackdowns before them and ever since - the disciples are huddled in fear on the evening of that first Easter Day, staring at the door - waiting for it be flung open – straining their ears for the inevitable sound of discovery - at the same time, I imagine, struggling to reconcile the past week’s trauma and despair with the wild, unreasonable hope that had been growing in them all day.  Jesus’ closest friends grappled with their own sense of guilt as, no doubt, they played the tapes of their own failure during those final hours over and over in their minds – easier, in some ways, to live with the leaden finality of Jesus’ death than the teasing impossibility that he might indeed have risen.  When it finally happens it’s almost an anticlimax – John just tells us that Jesus comes and stands among them and says, ‘shalom’ – peace.  A one-word statement of reassurance and forgiveness - in the middle of your fear and your bewilderment and self-recrimination – peace.

And then he shows them his wounds.  That’s the first amazing thing.  Maybe that’s part of the gospel writer’s agenda to demonstrate that Jesus’ resurrection body was solid and physical  - but more than that - it tells us that the Risen One still bears the wounds of the cross. It tells us that not only did Jesus bear the full extent of human pain and suffering in his earthly life, but he still does as the risen and exalted Christ of faith. As long as there is human suffering, Christ suffers - and if Christ suffers, so does God.

Not too long ago that would have been thought of as a heresy – the idea that God suffers, that God is moved by human suffering.  It was thought that the timeless, changeless God should be immovable as a rock.  But theologians have at last got around to recognising what St Paul is on about when he says, "…all creation groans in travail," because God’s creation is in pain.  Creation is in pain when children die of preventable diseases, when men and women die in suicide bombings and senseless wars, when a few people in wealthy countries have more than enough while the majority of the world’s population don’t have sufficient for their needs.  God’s not impervious to that.  The Christ of faith is not up there, I think, sitting at the right hand of God waiting to pass judgement, but right in the middle of the worst that human beings do to one another, suffering with us and for us.

That’s the first thing – and here’s the second.

Jesus says to his frightened, bewildered disciples, ‘peace’.  That restores them, just like when we say to one another in the liturgy, ‘peace be with you’ – it’s a moment of recognition, and of reconciliation.  And then he gives them a job to do, he tells them – ‘as my Father sent me, so I send you’.  It’s a Dr Who moment, we’ve come shooting back in the Tardis to the very moment of creation.  Jesus breathes on his disciples exactly as God breathes life into the first human beings in the Book of Genesis, the kick-starting of creation where God’s Holy Spirit brings dull, inanimate matter to life.  And from this resurrection moment there’s going to be a new mode of living, a new creation, a new spark of imagination and creativity that changes what it means to be human, what it means to live with compassion and integrity.  Something new is happening and because of that there has to be a new way of living in this world. A way of living in this world that starts to become clear in Jesus’ very next words, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Is that a scary burden, or what?  Do you ever read those words of Jesus and think it’s a bit over the top?  On the one hand Christians sometimes hear it as a special power of passing judgement – depending on your persuasion maybe a power given just to priests to absolve sins, or else a power that all Christians have, the power to forgive sins and the power to make them stick.  It’s a wonder we can get our heads through the door.  But, what if we hear these words of Jesus as a challenge?

What if we’re meant to hear Jesus telling us that the whole point of being disciples, the whole point of receiving God’s forgiveness is so we can practice forgiveness in our own lives, that if we’re not prepared to forgive those around us, then, in a sense, we have to bear the burden of unforgiveness. 

So, not the authority to withhold forgiveness but the urgent imperative to practice the way of forgiveness.  We need reminding of this, over and over.

So, ten newly commissioned apostles.  Except, Thomas isn’t here.  Maybe Thomas has been hiding somewhere else.  Or else Thomas couldn’t stand being in the same room as the other ten scaredy-cat disciples.  He seems to have been made of less impressionable stuff.  But when the others catch up with him, and they get their first chance to tell someone the good news – to do what effectively has become their new job – their very first customer isn’t having a bar of it.

Thomas says, "I won't believe until I can see it with my own eyes."

Thomas is like all of us. We weren't there. It’s too late for us. There are no
more resurrection appearances.  If we come to faith at all, it won’t be because we’ve seen Jesus with our eyes.  We’re more like the blind men that keep popping up in the gospels, the ones who come to faith not because they see but because as they feel their way about in the fuzziness and uncertainty of their lives, they hear the words of forgiveness and they feel the touch of compassion.

Thomas, I think, is like us in another way.  He often gets a hard time as the disciple who refused to believe, the disciple who demanded proof.  But let’s not call him Doubting Thomas, let’s recognise his experience as something like our own and call him Courageous Thomas.  Because doubt isn’t a sign of a lack of faith.  Just the opposite, in fact – doubt is evidence of how seriously you take your faith – doubt is the willingness to struggle with the gospel and with the evidence of your own experience, the willingness to engage with faith intelligently and realistically, to ask questions even if they make you uncomfortable or there aren’t any answers.  Doubt-filled faith takes God seriously, it takes the ambiguity of God seriously and it takes your own circumstances, and your own intelligence and integrity seriously.

Thomas gets a chance to satisfy his honest doubts – to see Jesus with his eyes - which for this first generation of apostles is the path to faith.  And I think the message in this for us is that God takes us as seriously as we take God – as seriously as you struggle to reconcile faith with your own lived experience you can rely on the encounter with the Risen One.  Jesus gives us the clue here – ‘blessed’, he tells us, ‘are the ones who come to believe even though they don’t see’.

At some time in each of our lives we do find ourselves sitting in a cellar.  A place where nothing seems certain any more.  Afraid of what’s out there –afraid of what’s inside ourselves.  A place where platitudes don’t work.  Our faith at times like that needs to be honest, acknowledging our own inadequacy, our feelings of guilt.  In times like that faith needs to live with ambiguity.  Things don’t seem clear.  If you’re in a place like that, if you can remember being in a place like that, you know what I mean.  The good news is that God takes seriously our need to encounter the Risen One of faith in a way that confronts our fears and our honest doubts.  Listen carefully, and you will hear the word that makes all the difference.

Shalom.  Peace.



Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Day

I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of being so shocked or distressed by the illness or misfortune of a friend that you didn’t know what to do or how to express your sympathy?  If so, of course, you are hardly alone.  Time and time again I have had people say to me, ‘as soon as I got sick, my friends all vanished .... when my wife was dying, people stayed away because they didn’t know what to say to us.  I wish they had realised we just wanted them to tell us they cared – even if they didn’t have the right words.’  Our culture doesn’t prepare us very well for life’s difficult passages, and we find other people’s suffering confronting or even fearful.  In our Western society we’re better at being upbeat, we admire youth and competence and success, and we are not very comfortable being reminded of our own mortality.

Of course, Holy Week rubs our noses in it.  Jesus, surrounded by angels and animals and kings at his birth, miraculously curing the sick and bedazzling us with his stories of God’s upside-down reign where even outsiders get the best seats and the well-to-do get their come-uppance – Jesus is supposed to be our safety net, our guarantee that we are right with God and that everything will work our alright in the end, that we are not limited by our failures or our lovelessness, and that in God’s scheme of things we are created for eternal life.  Jesus is supposed to be the ultimate can-do kinda guy, and when he is arrested and tortured and crucified as a public spectacle by the brutal Roman governor, it’s not just the worlds of his closest disciples that come crashing down – for many Christians even today Holy Week is confronting, we find it difficult to keep watch with Jesus in Gethsemene on Holy Thursday, impossible to stand at the foot of the cross on Good Friday.  It disturbs us.  Wake us up on Easter morning when the bunny rolls away the stone.

This morning we find ourselves with the women – the ones who don’t even make the official lists of disciples, but who do follow Jesus through the fearful and confronting events of his final days, who follow him as he carries his cross and who wait with him as he dies.  The male disciples have all fled, denied knowing him, hidden themselves behind locked doors.  Even today, as the wild rumours that Jesus has been seen alive begin to swirl, Peter, who has promised undying loyalty, will announce to his brothers that he is giving up, going home, going fishing.  Back to Galilee, back to the life he left to follow Jesus.  It’s left to the women, the ones whose love for Jesus seems to have been more intimate, less competitive, to do the final things that women have always done for those they love – to lay out the body, to wash it and dress it decently – the things they have been prevented from doing over the Sabbath.  And so they come to the tomb in the first light of dawn.

It is no accident, then, that the women who waited with the dying Jesus become the first to see him risen, the first apostles of the Christian Gospel.  The Greek word, apostolos, which means ‘one who is sent’, comes from the first words Jesus speaks to them when they encounter him in the gloom of the garden before sunrise.  After telling Mary of Magdala and the other Mary, perhaps Mary the mother of James or Mary the wife of Clopas not to be afraid, Jesus sends them to proclaim the good news that he is alive.  In the technical language that soon began to develop, an apostle was one who didn’t have to rely on the testimony of anybody else because they had been with Jesus in his earthly ministry, and they had witnessed the risen Jesus for themselves.  The Marys, then, are the apostles to the apostles, the witnesses not only of Jesus’ ministry but of his suffering and death, and the first witnesses of the resurrection.

There seems to be something here about God’s sense of humour, as well as God’s sense of justice which is usually pretty opposite to human ideas of these things – because in the ancient world the testimony of women was held as virtually worthless.  The Marys, in fact, represent that thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures like gold: God's trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, who become the witnesses of God’s creative love.

But here’s the thing – according to the alternative reading for today, John’s version of the encounter in the garden, when Mary first sees Jesus she doesn’t recognise him.  When he tells the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the shore of Lake Galilee John again notes that they didn’t recognise him at first.  Luke makes the same point when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  There’s something different about the risen Jesus.  He does some things he didn't do before, like appear in locked rooms.  This is the same Jesus; the gospels make that very clear.  But something has changed, something that's hard to pinpoint, but that's so profound that at times even Jesus' friends don't recognise him.

New life, resurrection life, is like that.  Things change – and for us too, the mark of whether we have received the gift of resurrection life, whether or not we have begun to participate in the resurrection life of Jesus, is that things start to change.

First, our understanding of power changes. The risen Jesus hasn't become the fearful angel of vengeance that some of his followers wanted him to be before his death, and some still want him to be now. The one who came among them as a servant still works among them by serving: the risen Lord cooks breakfast for his friends.  In fact, the post-resurrection stories show us consistently that the way his friends finally come to recognise him because the risen Jesus does the same things he has always done, calling them by name, breaking bread, breathing peace.  When we recognise Christ's new life, we also start to notice how new life is happening to us, as well.  We finally understand that Jesus' habit of hobnobbing with sinners and ne’er-do-wells, and his habit of eating with all and sundry wasn't just false humility or a way of annoying the heck out of the Pharisees: it was the way God's power is always revealed and the world's redemption always takes place.

Our vision changes. When we realise that the risen Christ is actually offering a new sort of life to us as well, we start to see Christ's presence everywhere -- in Creation and the creativity that is God's gift, in the eyes of children and old people, in the heart of an enemy. In injustices and wounds, we see opportunities to participate in the risen Christ's healing and redemption of the world.

And our heart changes. The more we take in Christ's new life, the more we experience the compassion of God. We learn to see others as people God loves and has given gifts we need to be the Body of Christ in the world. And as we learn to love those whom we saw as unlovable, we begin to realise what it has cost God to love us.

The women, I think, get this straight away.  The men, who during the past week have been unable to endure the weakness and vulnerability of God, are going to take a little longer.  Easter requires us to rethink our stereotypes, to get used to thinking in smaller, more humble and persistent terms, and reminds us that God characteristically works through what the world dismisses as being of no account.  Easter reminds us of the need for solidarity with those who suffer in our own community, and in our world, and reminds us that God’s humility is stronger than human injustice and oppression.

Easter also re-orients us toward the future.  To be Christian is to be a person who trusts in the future promises of God, trusts that the One who transforms hopelessness and death into life and hope is also able to bring new life from the tragedies and contradictions that overwhelm us – that flood and earthquake and tsunami don’t get the last word, that war and oppression do not ultimately have the power to determine the course of human history, and that human over-consumption and heedless exploitation of the earth’s resources matter less in the end than the intention of the One who created all things in love that all creation will be brought to a joyful fulfilment.  Easter makes us, as Christians, prisoners of hope.

Most of all, however, Easter brings us face to face with the forgiveness that is the hallmark of resurrection life.  Forgiveness as the first priority of the risen Christ, whose knowledge of our inconsistency and our self-centredness does not condemn us but creates a new future where we couldn’t see one.  ‘Go’, he says to the women.  ‘Find them wherever they are hiding, and tell them that when they come back to themselves – when they’ve run all the way back to Galilee, to the beginning, I’ll be there ahead of them. 

And then we can begin.’


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Good Friday

Today, of course, is Earth Day. I know this, because the American calendar in our kitchen at home tells me so.  This is the first time, actually, since its inception in 1970, and the last time for about another fifty years, that Earth Day and Good Friday coincide.  Earth Day began forty one years ago with some high hopes – it was the year after human beings had first landed on the moon, a year after that most famous image of our blue planet hanging like a fragile jewel in the vast emptiness of space had been beamed back to us from moon orbit.  Its founders expressed the hope that Earth Day would help us to fall in love with our beautiful planet, to feel its vulnerability and to resolve together to take steps to reduce the environmental impact of our consumer lifestyles.  Unfortunately, Earth Day has never really gained much momentum outside the United States, and recently its critics have started to call for its abolition on the grounds that it has utterly failed.  Our blue planet is in a way worse state than when it started: on every indicator, our skyrocketing over-use of the Earth’s resources has become unsustainable, as a result of human over-population the extinction of plant and animal species has accelerated to an alarming degree, and human beings continue to argue and put our heads firmly in the ever growing desert sands about whether the latest manifestation of the environmental crisis, global warming, even exists – so far are we from any sort of consensus about taking the costly action necessary to preserve the biological stability of our one and only home.

Somewhere along the way, Earth Day became for many a symbol of failure, a day of regret for what might have been, a day not of hope, but of hopelessness.  What does it mean for our reflection this morning, that this day of ambiguity and regret coincides with the devastation of divine love that is Good Friday?  Because, of course, Good Friday is at the centre of our Christian message of hope – as Archbishop Rowan Williams expresses it, whether we like it or not, because of Good Friday, as Christians we are prisoners of hope.

Medieval theologians like St Bonaventure, who developed elaborate metaphysical systems to describe the whole of created reality as existentially grounded in Christ, struggled to comprehend the crucifixion and death of the One in whom all reality finds its being.  Surely, they argued, creation ceased for three days?  Without the divine Word, present with God from before the dawn of time and without whom – as the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us – not one thing could be created – surely, they argued, creation itself is thrown into reverse by the destruction of the ground of all created reality?  And so they developed elaborate theologies of the sleep of Christ in the tomb on Holy Saturday, a sort of Sabbath rest for all creation.  And all of that is interesting, but beyond the power of created beings like us to really fathom – a bit like trying to imagine who you would be if your father had never met your mother – but the important thing is this: that at Easter what is destroyed is death itself, which in swallowing the Incarnate Word of God, bites off more than it can chew.  Far from creation being driven into reverse, what is destroyed in the death of Jesus of Nazareth - is Death.  As Bishop Tom Wilmot expressed it in a card I received from him yesterday – “the death of Death at Easter signals the new rhythm of life for all creation – the fundamental code of life itself has been re-written as Life, Death and New Life in Christ.”

It is no coincidence, I think, that the events that we commemorate in our observance of the Triduum, or the Great Three Days of our faith – the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day – begin and end in a garden.  As St Paul expresses it, Christ becomes the new Adam, the new starting point not just of human life but of creation itself within which human beings find their true identity in relationship with all living things.  And so it is in the Garden – in Gethsemene – that Christ as the new Adam begins to retrace the original story of creation.  And it is also in this garden that we begin to relearn who we truly are, and what our true relationship is with the world in which we live.  As the new Adam, Jesus is uprooted from the garden by the powers that be, the “kingdom of this world” whose hallmarks are violence, humiliation, and death.  This is the domain of top-down power – economic and industrial power just as much as military power - power that refuses to participate in life-giving and life-sustaining relationship and that sees human beings and all earth’s living things and natural systems as opportunities for exploitation and self-gratification.  It is the domain of the denial of God and the denial of our true humanity that reverberates through all of human history.  And just as Jesus has affirmed throughout John’s Gospel his life-giving connection with God in the simple words: “I am” - we hear the contradiction three times on Peter’s lips: “I am not.”

But where this story turns out differently than the original Genesis version is that the new Adam – Jesus – is not banished for ever from the garden of creation.  This time, Adam returns to the garden, transformed and transforming, to complete and recreate it as God intended.

You see, if the medieval theologians are kind of right in recognising Holy Saturday as the Great Sabbath, as the day of rest on which all creation sleeps in solidarity with the sleep of the One who is the ground of all life – then the day after that – the first day of the week is the first day of a new creation, a creation made whole and complete and restored to its true purpose in the resurrected life of Christ.  And this day also begins in a garden, in the new Eden where the risen Jesus will be mistaken for a gardener, the one whose role it is to tend and nurture the cacophony of living things.  The events of Good Friday and Holy Saturday that come to a riotous conclusion with the dawn of Easter morning are not the defeat of God, nor the end of God’s involvement with creation, but the signal for creation’s fulfilment, as well as the fulfilment of human life understood to be about life-giving and life-sustaining relationship with the One who gave us life, with one another and with all living things.  It is a vision, of course, of the original Eden as it should have been.  And to re-paraphrase Archbishop Williams again – as Christians we don’t have any choice about this because we are captives of hope.

When we tell the story in this way we recognise it as a fable of our own return to a future in which human flourishing as seen in terms of relationship, a future in which we might learn to obey God’s original commandment to “serve and preserve” the earth that gives us life and from which we came. [1]  St Paul expresses beautifully the relationship between human salvation and the health of all creation, when he writes:

For creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God ...  the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit. (Romans 8:19-23).

St John’s Gospel says it even more simply: God so loved the world – that is, the entire cosmos, the earth and all its bounty, including God’s human creatures – that God gave his only son to restore us all to our true identity as “servers and preservers” of our home. As Christians, we are called to be agents of healing and hope – agents of the love that raises Jesus Christ to new life on Easter morning as a sign of God’s intention for all living things.

On Good Friday we see two kingdoms colliding, two visions of what human life is all about being brought into stark opposition.  On the one hand we see what we might call an ecological vision of human life – the understanding that we don’t live in isolation, for ourselves alone, but in context and in relationship.  That what it means to be human is to be interdependent and mutually accountable – that our responsibility for all creation weaves us into a network of relationships with other human beings, with the poor of this earth, as well as with all of Earth’s living creatures and its living systems of air and water and soil.  We are grounded in the garden of creation.  And on the other side we see a vision of human life as being about power to dominate, to accumulate and to focus on our own needs and desires.  To see living things, and land and water and minerals as assets to be traded or consumed.  And Good Friday challenges us to reflect which kingdom we belong to.

It matters where we stand now, because we know where the story ends up, in the garden of new creation on Easter morning.  Christian ecology sees a connection between how we tend our relationships with God and with each other, and how we tend our relationships with the living creatures and systems of our blue planet home.  The other difference between Christian ecology and the secular version is that Christian ecology is always about hope that God’s love is the basis for what is, and that the orientation towards life and hope that is modelled for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the template for all creation.

Happy Earth Day!


[1] Gen. 2:15

Maundy Thursday

There’s something about the number five that is especially suitable for lists.  Possibly that is because we have five fingers on one hand, so it’s easy to count them off.  Maybe it’s because any more than five is getting dangerously close to what scientists tell us is the limit of most people’s short-term memory.  Who knows.  But during the five weeks of Lent a small group from this parish have been studying a book that works its way through what the author argues are the five practises of fruitful Christian living.  There are also, I reflected, five practices listed in our very own parish mission statement.  And five marks of mission that the world-wide Anglican Communion and just about every Diocese in the world have accepted as broadly describing what being a Church is all about.  So I started to wonder whether they were all the same five, maybe just worded a bit differently, or whether the United Methodist author of our study book, and the worldwide Anglican Church and our own parish had managed to come up with wildly different ideas of what they each thought the business of being a disciple is all about.

And of course you just know, since I’m mentioning this, that these lists of five are all pretty much the same.  The first thing that struck me was that each of them divide the crucial practises of discipleship into two main sections – you might call them interior and exterior modes of discipleship – or you might think the division is between the ways we respond inwardly to God, and ways in which our response to God as disciples transforms how we live.  The United Methodist bishop was very strategic, it seemed to me, softening us up first with what seemed like the least demanding practises.  Firstly, he wrote, we need to pay attention to the extravagant hospitality of God who, in his Son, empties himself to take on our human form – and to learn to practise this hospitality in return, by making room for God in our lives.  Then, he said, our worship needs to be passionate and engaged.  Because as Christians we understand that worship is where we glimpse the central mystery of our lives, the mystery of what and who and why we are and how we are connected to God and to one another.  The passion and commitment we bring to worship reflects our understanding that all of life comes from God.  And we need to grow in faith – that’s number three.  Because being a Christian isn’t just about coming to church.  It’s about committing ourselves to a lifetime of growing in understanding and maturity and love.  It’s a work in progress that lasts the rest of our lives, and as our lives take us through new and surprising and sometimes difficult places so too our faith needs to grow and deepen to keep up.  You see, here, the bar is getting lifted a bit, the vocation of being a Christian is starting to look like we might have to work at it.  We might need to be deliberate and intentional.  And practices four and five confirm this – the practise of selfless service, of reaching out to others in need, of getting out of our own comfort zone for the sake of other people we maybe don’t even know.  And the practice of generous giving – giving our own resources including though I guess not limited to our money.  This of course, especially in our affluent Western society where money rules, seems to be the hardest of the lot.  But, the author of our study book claimed, if our experience of God’s blessings is limited to what we receive, and we’ve never learned the joy and discipline of giving, then we’ve only travelled half the journey of God’s extravagant generosity.

But Cannington Anglicans, I discovered, had already worked this mix out back in the eighties or nineties when the mission statement we print on the front of our pew sheet every week was written.  Bringing Christ to our community, surely, says something about the practice of hospitality – God’s hospitality, and the need for us to reflect that.  Worshipping God is number one on the list – presumably with energy and joy. Nurturing each other suggests an especial emphasis on the needs of children and young people and those who are young in faith to be helped to grow in understanding and Christian discipleship.  While ministering to those in need and supporting mission suggest that Cannington Anglicans value selfless service and contributing their resources, including their money, to the mission of the Church.  Even the worldwide Anglican Communion gets there in the end, through the commentary on the five marks of mission that explains that proclaiming the good news of God’s love is about carrying God’s love into the world and celebrating that love through worship and liturgy.

But of course in the end the real question is what Jesus demonstrates, what Jesus teaches us and models for us, about living in a way that is consistent with God’s kingdom.  And I think that our liturgy this evening reveals it in a nutshell, for the simple reason that – in modern workplace terminology – tonight is a handover session.  Tonight is Jesus’ last opportunity to sum up for the disciples what it has all been about, and how they can live together in community in such a way that his living presence will continue to be seen in them.  It’s his last chance to model for them what God’s kingdom is all about, and he knows it.

Of course, it happens around a meal.  Of course – because so much of Jesus’  teaching, and his practical demonstrations, as well as his stories about God’s kingdom, feature meals.  Big slap-up banquets, simple meals of bread and wine, the miracle of feeding thousands of people in the desert, meals at which the unwelcome are made welcome, meals that demonstrate in the simplest and most direct of terms what God’s love and hospitality are like, meals that would have reminded his followers over and over again of God’s miraculous provision for God’s people in the ancient stories from Exodus.  Jesus practises, on the last night of his life, the open hospitality that has always been the hallmark of his ministry, for the simple reason that it is also the hallmark of God’s love.  The simple generosity of a meal reminds us how we experience God’s hospitality, and reminds us how to begin practising that hospitality ourselves.

This meal becomes worship, the meal that joins us together and makes us the body of Christ.  It may have been a Passover meal, the meal at which Jews even today recall the miracle of the flight from Egypt and remind themselves that they are the inheritors of that freedom and the children of God’s promise.  Mark and Luke seem to think it was, while John’s Gospel suggests it was the night before the Passover, but in any case the context of the meal is a traveller’s blessing.  And the meal that Jesus shares with his friends on the night before he dies is the ground zero of our Eucharistic worship, the meal that digests and transforms us as it reconstitutes us as the body of Christ.

To the end, Jesus nurtures and teaches his disciples, reminding them how much they still have to learn – the one who so misunderstands that he will betray Jesus to the authorities, the one calls him ‘Rabbi’ but will soon be angrily denying even knowing Jesus, the circle of intimate friends who, within a few hours, will have abandoned him and fled.  And he says to Peter, when you have come back to yourself, strengthen and support your brothers and sisters.  The Gospels portray Jesus’ disciples as failures, as ordinary human men and women who stumble and fall back when the going gets tough, and who need to continue growing in understanding, in courage and in strength.  This is what Christian life is all about.  And so we need opportunities to feed our spirits, to strengthen and support and sometimes challenge on another, to study the scriptures and reflect on what Jesus is trying to show us.

And then Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.  He is, of course, still teaching them, giving them a powerful and loving lesson that – at the time – they find hard to bear.  Peter objects.  Christian men and women even today object to this practice that the Church liturgically re-enacts year by year.  Don’t wash my feet.  It’s embarrassing.  I have bunions, you shouldn’t have to, for heaven’s sake you are the teacher.  And Jesus says, to Peter and to us, unless I wash you, you have no part in me.  It’s an object lesson that tells us that humble service is the hallmark of discipleship – the fact that it is the disciples calloused and grubby feet that are washed is important because feet take us places – feet are what take us out of our homes and places of worship and into the world where we get to speak eloquently and wordlessly of God’s love in acts of loving service of our own.  And it’s an object lesson that says to us, this is what God characteristically does – God pours Godself out in love to the world – and invites us to participate in God’s love by living in the same way.  Our need to serve others flows seamlessly from the hospitality of God.  How we do it – depends on our gifts and our energies and our passion.  But serve we must, if we want to really join our lives to God’s.

And the final practice?  Already, as he sends Judas out into the night, Jesus is preparing to pour himself out in extravagant love, a gift valued somewhat higher than the trifling thirty pieces of silver Judas is paid.  It is a gift that is nothing less than everything he has and is, and that reflects the extravagant outpouring of God in creation.  All of the five practices, in fact, are grounded in the character of God and our experience of what God does in our world and in our lives.  And Jesus invites his disciples – us – to participate in the gift, asking us to stay awake and pray with him.  It’s difficult for us, our eyelids are weighed down with the burden of being us, the burden of busy lives and worldly concerns – but give we must, if we want to fully experience God’s extravagant generosity to us, and if we want to be set free to see reality from God’s world-changing perspective.

Radical hospitality, passionate, transforming worship, intentional growth in faith, risk-taking service and extravagant generosity are the life-giving practices that Jesus gifts to his disciples in tonight’s meal that we recognise as the formative moment of the Christian Church – but there is just one other point.  Jesus knows his disciples aren’t up to it – not the lot gathered around the table, one of whom has already disappeared, and not us.  We aren’t up to it.  Which is why Jesus promises we don’t have to do it alone.

Passion Sunday

I wonder if you have ever found yourself doing a survey or questionnaire where you were forced to choose between alternatives, where there was no comfortable ‘don’t know’ or ‘neither agree nor disagree’ alternative?  For example the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question – would you be prepared to pay more for electricity that comes from renewable sources?  Would you buy genetically modified food if it was cheaper?  Survey designers call this a ‘forced choice’ questionnaire design, and they know it makes us uncomfortable sometimes - if you are anything like me, you find yourself wanting to argue, to say, ‘yes, but ...’, to justify your answer or to point out that neither of the alternatives are particularly appealing.  We want an opt-out clause – but of course the designers of the questionnaire know very well what they are doing, they are interested in how we are going to behave when sitting on the fence isn’t an option.

Another thing that marketers and social researchers know about us, is that very often we are not rational – we make decisions about what we are going to buy or who we are going to vote for, a lot of the time, based not on what we rationally believe, but on how we feel.  And Jesus, it seems to me, knows this about us as well.

Today we begin Holy Week, and we begin in a festive atmosphere with some impromptu street theatre, we begin in a way that human beings have loved since time immemorial, with a procession.  In fact, the story of Jesus is framed with processions, at his birth we are entertained and possibly confronted by the procession of people and animals all heading to Bethlehem, shepherds and wise folk and donkeys and sheep and camels, and Herod’s men hot on their heels.  And we know that this week it will all end with another procession, with weeping women and soldiers and bedraggled prisoners dragging crosses through the streets of Jerusalem.  Processions invite us to follow, to see ourselves in the crowd, to imagine ourselves amongst the onlookers and to wonder what it is that draws us all to follow in fascination.  What it is that compels our attention.  But today’s procession is different, today’s procession draws us in with its circus atmosphere, its slightly strained mood of celebration not quite masking the serious business of being forced to make a life-changing choice by a comic-looking nobody on a donkey.

A book published a few years ago by Bible scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan followed the last week of Jesus’ life and asked the question: ‘what did he think he was doing?’  It’s a fair enough question.  When something in my life goes topsy turvy I generally get asked that by a friend or family member.  What were you thinking?  What did you actually think you were doing?  And Borg and Crossan point out that the Bible tells us quite a lot about the last week, but mostly about what happened, and sometimes we get the impression of a series of events that unfold with clockwork inevitability, of characters including Jesus who get drawn inexorably towards an end that they didn’t choose and can’t escape from – and Borg and Crossan argue that on the contrary, Jesus knows exactly what he is doing, he chooses his destiny and acts provocatively, rationally and with devastating effectiveness.

The week before Jesus’ death, Borg and Crossan point out, there was not one procession into Jerusalem, but two.  Jerusalem, on the eve of the Passover – not just a regular Passover but a great Passover, which is to say a Passover that falls on a Sabbath and so happens only about once every fifty years – Jerusalem was a powder keg with, it is estimated, a million to one and a half million people crammed together, Jews from all over the known world.  Jerusalem at Passover was a riot waiting to happen.  And so the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, rides in on his war-horse from the west, from the direction of his headquarters in Caesarea by the Sea, heading to his palace in Jerusalem with cavalry and troops to reinforce the local troops at the Antonia Fortress overlooking the Temple until the holy day was safely passed.  He carries the imperial standard with its eagle, reminding both visitors and locals that the Roman Emperor is the only real power in this world.

And at the same time, on the same day, Jesus enters Jerusalem from the east, from the direction of the rising sun, from Bethphage on the Mount of Olives.  He rides a donkey – a peaceful mode of transport that reminds people of the prophet Zechariah’s prediction of a donkey-riding messiah who will restore God’s people by destroying the weapons and vehicles of war. [1] The people throw their coats and jackets down on the road to make a carpet for him – an action that reminds people of Elisha and Jehu, the reformer king who brought peace to an earlier time. [2] According to Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, people waved leafy branches as Jesus rode past and threw them on the ground in front of him – probably olive branches which then as now were a symbol of peace.  Only John’s Gospel has palms, and palms were reserved for conquering kings, which suggests that while the crowds understand that this is a procession for a king, they don’t quite get what sort of king Jesus is. Ironically, the Church continues to choose palm branches instead of olive branches, we carry a reminder in our hands of all that we still have to learn.

And Borg and Crossan say that Jesus’ action is deliberate, a deliberate parody of the military procession entering the great city from the opposite direction at the same time, an insult to the imperial power of Rome.  This is dangerous street theatre, devastatingly effective non-violent political protest of the sort that we see used two thousand years later by Mahatma Ghandi in his struggle to drive the British imperial forces out of his own country.  Jesus is setting up a challenge, and an alternative: which procession are you going to join?  It’s a forced choice – there is no fence to sit on.  Does this make you uncomfortable?  It’s meant to.

The power of Rome is of course the power we see displayed on our television screens every single night.  It is the institutionalised power of modern nation states, the logic of pre-emptive strikes and regime change, of no-fly zones and extra-ordinary rendition, of armoured personnel carriers and riot shields and weeping women and bewildered children lying in hospital beds with amputated limbs.  It is the logic of material prosperity that relies on coercion and inequality, the logic of sweatshops and outworkers, of land rights extinguished by mining and big business, of lost and stolen generations, of glue sniffing and sex abuse and military intervention in remote communities.  And Pilate’s procession reminds us that this is the only real power in our world, that our lives are lived in its shadow and that all this power actually requires of us - is our compliance.  And our complicity.  Because we – in our wealthy country, at any rate – we are the beneficiaries of this sort of power.

And on the other side of town the dusty mad-eyed prophet from the back blocks of Galilee begs to differ.  You can join this procession, instead.  You can choose to believe in relational power, in the power of sacrificial love, the power of noticing and attending to the needs of the marginalised and overlooked, the power of a love that attends not to its own need for security and comfort but to the demands of justice and compassion.  You can believe in the relational power of forgiveness, the power that challenges the law of retaliation with the vision of a future no longer hostage to past failure and conflict.  You can choose to believe that the most important reality in your life is the God who creates you in love - and who invites you to base your own life in the same logic of self-emptying love.  You can choose to believe that the logic of love is stronger than the logic of fear and retribution.

But you can’t follow both processions.

It always amazes me to hear the critique that Christianity is a religion for the weak and fearful, that Christianity is some sort of crutch for those who are too timid to get a life.  The forced choice we confront on Palm Sunday is an invitation to live fearlessly, an invitation to move beyond all that has limited our lives up until now and to choose what sort of power we believe in.  To choose which truth we believe and which truth we intend to live by.

Every year, actually, there is a peace rally on Palm Sunday.  There’s one this year, organised by socialists in Sydney – hopefully we might see this on our TV screens tonight.  It amazes me, also, that this most powerful and provocative action of Jesus is most effectively taken up, largely though not entirely by people outside the Church.  By people who get it.  By people who get that the prophet who trots into Jerusalem on a donkey on a spring day around 33AD forces us to make a choice.

If you follow this procession, it’s going to take some surprising twists, this week.


[1] Zechariah 9:9-10

[2] 2 Kings 9:13

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Lent 5

A few years ago I found myself talking to a man in his early forties who had just come out of hospital.  That was the surprising thing – that he had come out of hospital – because after a massive heart attack and a four hour bypass operation he had well and truly beaten the odds.  And he said to me, ‘I ask myself, why me?  Not, why me to have had a heart attack at 43, I know the way I was living helped bring that on, 14 hour days and living on cigarettes and junk food.  But, why me to have been given a second chance?  Why me to be able to come home again and see my wife and my little girls and to realise how much joy and beauty there is in this world.  Being as close as this to death has made me want to start to live.  I tell you what, I’m not going to miss another minute of it’. 

There was a play a few years ago by Eugene O’Neill, called ‘Lazarus Laughed’.  And it fills in some of the gaps from today’s Gospel story, like what happens to Lazarus after Jesus calls him back from the dead.  In the play Lazarus comes out of his grave laughing...not a sarcastic laugh or a silly, hysterical laugh, but a soft, tender, all-embracing sort of laughter that seems to well up from a joy that is utterly bottomless. There is a radiance about him that makes him look younger than when he died. He has a peace and serenity that is absolutely tangible. As soon as Lazarus gets home and emotions have calmed down a bit, his sisters ask him the inevitable question: Well? What is it like ... you know? on the other side?   And Lazarus says, There is nothing but life. Nothing but laughter...the laughter of God soaring into the heights and the depths. 

Face to face with death – ours or another person’s – we also come face to face with the core of our Christian faith.  What actually is the good news that we experience through Jesus Christ, and how real is that in the face of death?  Is it just pie in the sky when you die, the sort of pious hope that some of us manage to convince ourselves with – and some of us don’t – or does it somehow connect us with the basic reality of our existence?  Is it just a way of reducing our own anxiety about our personal demise – or is it more fundamental than that?  Is it so fundamental, in fact, that we actually can’t claim the possibility of having a full and life-giving relationship with the God who created us, unless we also claim that the God who lives among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth has forever set aside the power of death to determine the course of human life?  When you really think about it, if human life really could be extinguished by death, then our relationship with the God who gave us life could never be complete.  It is a pity that, in the church, we tend to save our most powerful message for preaching at funerals and special services like Good Friday.  We need to hear it more often while we’re getting on with the business of living.

So, why do we read the story of the raising of Lazarus today, on the last Sunday before the Sunday of the Passion?  It’s because this story both looks forwards, to Jesus’ own death, from the perspective of the pre-Easter Jesus, which is also our own perspective – and promises that the human condition leads not to death as the ultimate destination, but to life – and it also looks backwards to Jesus own resurrection, from the perspective of the post-Easter church, which again is our own perspective, as well as the perspective of the community John is writing his gospel for.  Where for the other gospel writers the trigger for Jesus’ arrest and execution is Jesus’ attack on the traders and money-changers in the temple, in John’s gospel it is the raising of Lazarus.  The reasons Jesus gives for his delay, and the need to go to Bethany, near Jerusalem, at all, so much connect Lazarus’s death with his own that when Thomas says, ‘Then let’s all go, so we can die with him’, it’s not quite clear whether he’s talking about Jesus, or Lazarus.  Probably, John tells us this story here as a way of getting us to think ahead in the story, like that really bad habit I’ve got of sticking my finger into the book to mark where I’m up to, then looking ahead a few chapters.  How’s it going to end, and is it going to be worth the effort I’m putting in?

But I think there’s another, more fundamental, reason for putting this story here.  I wonder if you, like me, find this story of the raising of Lazarus holds a special fascination?  What would it be like to be Lazarus?  After being dead for four days, we’re told in fairly blunt terms that the body has started to decompose.  A bit late for a medical miracle.  I wonder if you, like me, find yourself especially interested in whether this miracle really happened, or does John just embellish an old story for its theological value?  Did it happen?  Could it even happen?  It matters because, like Lazarus, we’re going to die.  For other people, this story raises other questions – what good is it to tell this story when the miracle doesn’t get repeated?  When every other time nature takes its course?  When even Lazarus, brought back from the dead once, still has to face the certainty of his death a bit later on?

For an answer, we have to notice something about John the Evangelist’s style.  The way he writes.  John is never just interested in telling us about miracles for their own sake – instead Jesus’ miracles are always signs that point us somewhere, that point us in the direction of revelation, new insights, and belief.  And in this story, the sign of the raising of Lazarus is intended to point us back to the conversation that Jesus had with Martha, because it’s here that we see what this story is really all about. 

What does Martha say when she meets Jesus?  ‘If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died’.  It’s a complaint, isn’t it?  Martha is telling it like it is, true to the Jewish tradition where there aren’t any inhibitions about being angry with God.  But Martha’s complaint comes hand in hand with an expression of trust, because ‘even now’, she says, ‘God will give you anything you ask for’.  And here Martha shows that she knows her catechism – like the Pharisees, like most Jews at that time, she believes in the resurrection that for most Jews was the expected outcome on the last day – at the end or the conclusion of human history. 

But what Jesus tells her is something a bit more personal than that, a bit closer to home because Jesus says ‘I am the resurrection’.  The destination or conclusion of human history isn’t just a vague theological expectation, it is right here and now – the gift of eternal life is right here and now, and it is wrapped up in the flesh and blood person who is standing in front of you.  Believing who Jesus is in relation to God has got a major implication – ‘if you believe in me, then even though you die, you will live’.  This moment right here is the crux of the whole gospel, because it answers the ‘so what?’ question.  Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God?  So what?  So the relationship that Jesus has with God makes a difference to the lives of those who believe.  Faith in Jesus isn’t just about answering ‘yes’ to a series of questions about what we believe, the whole point of faith is that it leads us into a life-giving relationship with God.

So the more fundamental reason for telling the story of Lazarus here is that it answers the ‘so what’ question.  So you will have eternal life.  Not just a continuation of life for ever, though that too would have to be part of the deal for life at its most abundant.  But the ‘now-ness’ of Jesus’ claim to be the resurrection and the life means that it can’t be limited to some far-off heaven but that there’s a sort of life that can transform who we are right here and now.  And Jesus asks Martha, as he also asks us, ‘do you believe this?’

She does, or at least she says she does, but she isn’t really sure.  ‘Don’t go in there’, she tells him, ‘there’s a four-day stink of death’.  When it comes down to it, it’s not so easy to be really convinced about the ‘so what’ of faith.  We remain locked into our preconceptions and our categories about what’s possible for God and what isn’t.  We say we believe, but our behaviour tells another story.  We believe, Lord, but just don’t ask us to step outside the boundaries of what our lives would be like if we didn’t.  We as a church respond to Jesus’ invitation, and to his words of life, in ways that are often just as hesitant as Martha at the door of her brother’s tomb.

‘Even though you die, you will live’.  It’s not true, of course – at least not at the superficial level.  We will all die.  But death itself now belongs – as does the whole of our lives – to the ongoing life-giving power of God’s love made flesh for us in Jesus Christ.  That power is relational power, in other words, we experience the power of God’s love to redefine and transform us when our relationships with God and with one another are based on and come out of the relationship that Jesus has with God.  When we do that, Jesus tells us, we will start to really live.  Because we will know the reality that our life comes from God, from whom nothing in our human experience can ever separate us.  When we know this, then we will finally be free to start living, gladly, and with strength.


Saturday, April 02, 2011

Mothering Sunday

A little while ago I read an interesting article that was entitled something like “The Fight to be Male”.  At first when I picked it up I thought it might be something about the difficulties we men have in expressing ourselves, or in learning how to be good husbands and providers or something but no ... the author was literally talking about how hard it is to be born male.  It seems that every human and mammalian embryo is naturally female, and that as the fertilised egg starts dividing and growing all the female parts begin to develop, the beginnings of female ovaries begin to form and the one thing that can change the developmental path is the presence of something that human biologists haven’t even identified yet – testosterone is one important factor but the other is something that scientists nickname TDF or ‘testis determining factor’.  If some of this hormone that hasn’t even been properly isolated yet is present then the embryo begins to change, and the female sex organs that have already developed begin to undergo a whole new process of differentiation and gradually are transformed into the male organs.  Apparently it’s a process that is fraught with lots of dangers, all sorts of things can go wrong and that’s one of the reasons why, at every stage of our lives, we men are more susceptible to dropping off the perch than women ... And the writer of the paper made a startling observation: developmentally, he says, “we’re all female first – in other words Adam develops from Eve, not Eve from Adam.”

It was an observation that started me thinking, because in the ancient world that gave rise to foundational myths like the account of God’s creation of the first humans in Genesis, chapter two – for the ancient world maleness was normative – to be male was to be a proper human being and to be female was to be subordinate.  To be female was perhaps to be valued as a wife or a mother, as a guarantor of the continuity of the family line through sons and grandsons, but often to be invisible as a thinking, feeling and purposeful human being in her own right.  And stories such as the Genesis account seem – at least at first glance - to underscore this.

Many of the stories of the Bible apparently reinforce a view of women as subordinate, and to suggest that the main female virtue is that of obedience and passivity – for example the Genesis story of rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, which is told mainly as an example of outraged male honour – or in the Book of Judges the story of the sacrificial murder of the unnamed daughter of Jephthah, the foolish father who unwisely promises God he will sacrifice the first living creature he sees on returning home from a great victory, which is mainly told as a warning to be careful what you promise.  Even St Luke’s story of Mary of Nazareth suggests an ideal of obedience and self-sacrifice – modern feminist Biblical scholars over the last few decades have done good work both in identifying in the Bible the ways in which the predominantly male-focused narrative has been used to perpetuate female disadvantage and subordination throughout the two thousand years of the Christian Church – and in teaching us how to read Bible stories in ways that bring out empowering and positive examples of women’s faithfulness – pointing to women such as Hannah, who makes her own promises to God, or Ruth and Naomi, whose model of radical faithfulness cuts across ethnic and religious boundaries. 

Quoting Bible scholar Joan Chichester, Archbishop Herft notes in a short article on the Diocesan web-site that the Church, still “imprisoned in an understanding of the primal prototype of woman (through the story of) Eve” is in need of repentance.  According to the magisterial voices of the Church’s greatest theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas, women – physically smaller than men, “milder temperamentally, nurturers emotionally, and child-bearers biologically” are clearly intended by God to remain in the domestic sphere.  Even in our own century, fundamentalist Churches continue to rely on Biblical narratives such as the Adam and Eve story to argue for male superiority and to suppress women’s voices in worship and ordained ministry – and yet, according to Chichester – the story of the creation of Eve doesn’t really support that kind of limited thinking.  Adam, on seeing his partner for the first time spontaneously calls her “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” – made out of the same substance as he is, identical and equal in composition, a creature whose very being is equal to Adam’s own.  Eve in this story, Chichester remarks, is the confirmation not of the subordination of women but of their equality.  And of course the findings of modern biology seem to suggest that Adam himself doesn’t become fully differentiated as a male until he is completed and complemented by the creation of Eve.

In the same article, Archbishop Herft comments on the centenary of International Women’s Day, last month, which happened this year to fall the day after the feast of Sts Perpetua and Felicity, martyred in 203AD.  Both women had recently given birth and as Archbishop Herft comments, in the contemporary account written up mainly in the women’s own words, the life-giving blood of childbirth is contrasted with the brutality of execution.  Perpetua and Felicity suffered not as passive victims, but with defiant resistance, for example in refusing to wear the clothing of the goddess Ceres and singing hymns of praise on their way to the arena.  There they gave active assistance to their male companions and at the end exchanged a final kiss of peace.  The story is of course idealised and possibly even romanticised, but entirely appropriate to the purpose of International Women’s Day, which is to draw attention to violence against women and the reduced opportunities for girls particularly in developing countries.

Perhaps the most powerful affirmation of the personhood of women that the Church can articulate in the modern world is to echo the insight of medieval mystics like St Anslem of Canterbury, who meditated on the image of God as a mother.  St Anslem, whose prayer we adapted as our Collect for today, identifies Biblical themes that portray God as the one who nurtures and sustains us, whose love for us is protective and self-sacrificing, and he suggests that it is in the experience of human motherhood that we learn something vital about God and about ourselves.  Even though, in the male-oriented world of the Bible, this is not a dominant theme, descriptions of God that use feminine imagery are consistently woven through the prophets, for example in Isaiah, chapter 49, where the prophet compares God’s compassion for the people with the protective love of a nursing mother.  And Jesus, in the verse that opened our worship this morning, also evokes an image of a mother’s love in his concern for the people who he longs to gather and protect as a hen gathers her chicks.

It is not, I think, correct to say that the battles of feminism have been won and that women and girls in our enlightened society now enjoy full equality.  Certainly women’s voices are no longer suppressed in the way they were in earlier generations, and girls growing up today can expect to choose a career without the expectation that their gender disqualifies them from anything – but there are still subtle ways in which women’s experience is interpreted as being secondary and limited by negative and abusive stereotypes – and there is still a distressing amount of violence and sexual abuse of women and girls in our community.  As Christians, the way we tell the stories of our faith matters, especially when we find ourselves talking to people who have grown up with the message that their experience matters less because of their gender, or their race or class.  We need to be able to tell the stories of our faith in a way that gives dignity and a God-given identity to all people, and so especially today celebrate and give thanks for the persistent and courageous witness of women in the history of our faith – a tradition that says to girls and women, ‘this is who you are, a child of God, one formed in the image of God our mother.  As a daughter of Sarah, of Rebecca, of Leah and Rachael and Hannah and Ruth and Mary of Nazareth.  You hold up half the sky.’