Saturday, May 21, 2011

Easter 5A

Back in 1961 the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human to orbit the earth – his trailblazing flight that brought in a whole new era of space exploration lasted an hour and 48 minutes and he went right round the earth once.  And apparently when he came back down one of the first remarks Gagarin made was, "Guess what: I didn't see heaven out there!"

Well, I was too young to make much out of that.  But I don’t think anybody would have been too greatly disturbed by the news.  Just about everybody else on the planet probably thought, "Well, of course not, Gagarin, we never thought you would see heaven out there."  We’re too sophisticated.  Living in a scientific age, even the majority of us who aren’t scientists have got this three-dimensional map of the physical universe in our heads, a sort of spherical map, and we know that heaven isn’t on it.  Even though our faith tells us there is a heaven, we know it's not a physical place, we know it’s not up there or out there.

But maybe there's a difference between knowing something with your head and feeling it in the pit of your stomach.  You see, it wasn’t too many hundreds of years ago that people had a very different kind of map of the universe in their heads, one that looked like a sort of three layered sandwich with hell on the bottom, and heaven up the top and the earth kind of squashed in between.  Which meant that heaven really was ‘up there’.  And maybe, deep down, most of us still feel the universe should look like that.  Back in 1961, everybody knew Gagarin wasn’t going to see heaven up there but it would have been reassuring, just the same.  We’d know which way was up.

One of the most asked-for readings at funerals is the reading we just heard from John’s gospel, chapter 14.  And it’s not hard to understand why.  This reading seems to be telling us which way is up.  It seems to be telling us where heaven is, and that heaven is our home – that heaven is where we are meant to live and that there is a place made ready there for us.  I find it reassuring because it says that God’s love is personal, that – even though the details of what happens on the other side of death are a mystery – that I belong and I am expected in heaven.

We’re right to be reassured by this passage, and we’re right to find in this a message that God’s love for us is personal.  But I think that if we only read this passage as talking about heaven, or as only talking about what happens to us after we die, then we might miss the most important point.  Because, in fact, Jesus isn’t actually talking about heaven, and he certainly isn’t talking about something that happens ‘up there’ or ‘out there’.  Even though Jesus is using ‘place’–type words, he is not talking about a place – and even though Jesus is using ‘now’ and ‘later’ type words, he is not just talking about what happens after this present life.  And I think the key to how can understand this passage is to listen to how Thomas gets it all wrong.

Each of the Gospel writers has got a distinctive way of unpacking for us what Jesus is talking about.  One of the ways of doing that is to have a character who keeps missing the point in obvious ways – in the other three Gospels it's usually Peter who blurts out something embarrassing, but in St John’s Gospel it's Thomas.  And here Thomas does it again: "Well if we don't know where you're going, how can we know what road to go on?"  Thomas thinks Jesus is talking about a place.  But even if the other disciples are one step ahead of Thomas – what they think is that Jesus is talking about heaven, and they know it’s not anywhere around here – in fact, they’re pretty sure it’s ‘up there’ – and so when Jesus says “you already know the way”, they’re probably thinking “no we don’t” – so it’s maybe a relief when Thomas asks his stupid question, "How can we know the way?"

But Jesus’ answer makes it clear that he isn’t talking about a place at all, because he says, “I am the way”.  And all of a sudden it’s pretty clear he’s not talking about a road you can walk on.  He’s been talking about houses, and dwelling places, and roads from here to there, but all of a sudden it’s quite clear that all this is a metaphor – it’s not about geography and he isn’t talking about a place we have to get to – Jesus has been using common and ordinary “where and when” language to talk about something that’s a bit more slippery, not quite so easily grasped – so if the “house” that he’s talking about isn’t a real house, if the dwelling places aren’t actual rooms and if the road to get there isn’t an actual road, then what does the metaphor mean?

It’s actually not that difficult, in fact, I think the way Jesus is using language is not all that different from the way we use language in our own culture.  We talk like this quite often, for example when we say things like, “where are you coming from with that?”, or, “she’s had a pretty tough journey”.  In English we use language about place all the time to talk about our subjective experience of life because it suggests a process – that things change over time – and it also suggests a sort of relativity or individual perspective.  When we use the language of place as a metaphor for our life experience, it’s generally a way of expressing who we are within our relationships with family, friends or community.

And there is a word here, in John 14, that’s at the bottom of all this.  It’s the word that the old King James Version translated "mansions": "In my father's house there are many mansions."  Some of the modern versions use "rooms": "In my father's house are many rooms."  The Bible we are using translates it "dwelling places."  This word, monĂ©, only occurs twice in the whole New Testament - both times in John Chapter 14.  But there is a related word, meno, that occurs over and over, especially in this Gospel.  Sometimes we translate it "abide," sometimes "stay," sometimes "remain."  The word happens over and over, especially in St John’s Gospel – for example when Jesus says, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them."  Or when Jesus says: "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."

So especially for John the Evangelist, when he talks about abiding, dwelling, staying, and dwelling place, abiding place; these are code words.  Maybe the Greek language didn’t have a word that we use all the time, so maybe John needs to build up this elaborate metaphor.  But the English word that sums up all this is "relationship” – when Jesus talks about the branch abiding in the vine he is talking about the fundamental sort of relationship we have with what gives us life.  Like you and me in our everyday speech, when Jesus uses the language of place, he is really thinking on the level of relationship.  And Jesus’ language about dwelling places in chapter 14 is also about relationship – the relationship we have with God, and the relationship we have with one another, that is opened up for us by Jesus himself, because the relationship that Jesus has with his Father includes us too.

This is what Jesus is really saying to us:

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. All people are now going to have the opportunity for a one-on-one relationship with God.

If not, why would I tell you that my dying will open this relationship for you? And if my dying does make it possible for you to have this relationship with God, then you will also be a part of me, so we will be inseparable. And you already know how this relationship will be made possible – how you can have a relationship with God that is so close that not even death can break it – you have that relationship because I am one with the Father and I have shared myself with you.”

This is the dwelling place that Jesus promises us – the security of knowing that wherever we are, on this side or on the other side of death, we are beloved of God and one with God.  It’s not about getting from here to there at all – it’s about discovering that our final destination and our true home is just to be with God – which isn’t ‘up there’ or ‘out there’ but right here where we’ve been all the time.


Easter 4A

In the Lord of the Rings – not movieland’s showy and scary version but the quieter and more poetic book on which it was based – the real Lord of the Rings – the story opens in the village of Bag End, in the Shire, that little corner of the world inhabited by furry-toed creatures called hobbits.  The name itself – the Shire – sounds quaintly English, rural and parochial – perhaps Tolkien’s prejudices are showing here – but the Shire as we quickly discover is a haven of peace in a troubled and dangerous world.  Though it’s far from perfect, the Shire is a place where hobbits have enough but not too much – where the greatest pleasure is derived from sharing food and drink and giving gifts – a place where friendship and loyalty are commonplace, where nature is greener and flowers brighter than anywhere else, a place where people sing just for the heck of it.

But we know it can’t last.  We know that Middle Earth is in deep trouble, that ancient evil has been festering away and the simple folk of the Shire are living on borrowed time.  The Shire is an anachronism – either it’s time is past, or its time hasn’t come yet – but we recognise it as a vision of how things ought to be.

Then, at the very end of the epic – the ancient evil has been defeated and the Ring of Power unmade – at the very end we swing back to the Shire and we see that the great wars that have rocked the world have also had to be fought there – we see some of the damage that has been done to the lives of simple hobbits – and we see things being restored, gardens replanted better than ever with the help of elvish magic, homes rebuilt and babies born – the beer brewed that year turns out to be the best vintage ever, the butter is creamier, the children have rosier cheeks.  The Shire that has been fought for and re-built is the Shire that always should have been, the real Shire that the previous one was only a promise of.  The Shire that was really only possible because of the love and sacrifice of Frodo the hobbit.

I guess the utopian vision of the early church that we get in the Acts of the Apostles doesn’t look quite like the Shire - though as in any good vision of the way things ought to be, food figures fairly prominently.  It’s a vision of a community transformed by the Holy Spirit and the main characteristic is that everything is shared – not just people who come together because they happen to have the same beliefs and values but a community in which people see no difference at all between their own interests and those of their brothers and sisters – a community in which lives as well as things are literally shared.  The focus is on the resources the community has, not on the problems they may have had in finding the resources - presumably believers still had the need to work – but both the contributions of individual believers and the distribution of resources emphasise the point that the basic characteristic of life in the Holy Spirit is not individualism but unity.  It’s a vision of peace and gladness – the impression you get is of a peaceful daily rhythm of prayer and domestic life – nobody has died, nobody is sick or in trouble with creditors, nobody is arguing, the community is not being persecuted in any way – the first missionary enterprise of the church is successful and even idyllic.  Luke, of course, may be exaggerating things just a little, but we get the point.

And the point is this – that this vision of the Shire is an echo of the way Jesus announces his mission right at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.  Jesus uses a prophecy from Isaiah, and he says that his mission is good news for the poor, Jesus invokes the idea from Isaiah of the year of the Lord’s favour which reverses the fortunes of the lost and the least and the last.  Luke’s Jesus consistently preaches and demonstrates a model of God’s kingdom in which forgiveness and restoration for God’s people is equated with radical reversal of the status quo – the signs of the kingdom are accountability and solidarity.  But we have to wait until Luke’s sequel, in the Acts of the Apostles, to see it actually happening – because the utopian model of the kingdom that Luke’s Jesus promises is only possible on the other side of the empty tomb.  Like the Shire, the kingdom Jesus promises exists as a possibility and as a promise – it can only grow into reality when people nurture it and believe in it and make sacrifices for it.  If Luke’s version in today’s reading is a bit exaggerated, then it might be that we are still working on it.

Somebody suggested to me the other day that Luke’s description of the Christian community sounds more like what today we would call a sect, rather than a church.  Sociologist Richard Holloway says that by definition, a church is about plurality – about including differences, where a sect is more about singularity – excluding differences.  The perfect sect is a group in which everybody agrees – which might be a bit difficult to achieve with more than one member.  Another difference is that a sect defines itself by contrast to the surrounding culture – it stands out and refuses to get assimilated – where a church tends to fit in all too easily.  The danger for a sect is that things can get pretty weird – the danger for a church I think is not being weird enough.

So, what does Luke’s utopian vision mean for us?  If it doesn’t quite work as a blueprint for what the Church today should look like, is this vision of the Church as a community of friends still relevant for us in our hyper-individualistic culture?  Is sharing everything still possible for 21st century Australians who come together here on Sunday mornings from different backgrounds and different jobs?  Well, perhaps not.  I suspect it’s a work very much in progress.  But the way I have seen the men and women and young people of this parish working together and laughing together over the last few months in the Op Shop and the garden and down the soak wells ... the willingness of volunteers to give their time and talent in worship and administration and the mundane tasks of caring for our buildings ... the outpouring of love we have seen around the simple celebrations of marriages and baptisms and blessings... the generosity of this parish in response to natural disaster and the regular giving of parish funds to mission and welfare – all this encourages me to believe that we have a shared vision of what we are called to be.

You see, Luke’s vision gives us two very important hints, that are just as relevant for us today as they were back then.  The first is this – that it’s too hard to be a Christian by yourself.  When it comes down to it, the way of love which Jesus teaches us is the only way to be open to the spiritual realities of the world we live in – the way of love which requires us to learn about discipline and self-sacrifice, to become less and less neurotic, less and less self-centred, to become quiet enough to listen to the small movements of our own hearts and sensitive enough to notice the hurts and the hopes of others – in other words acquiring the habits of repentance and forgiveness – the way of love is a path we can only travel in company.  That is why the very first images of conversion in the New Testament are about community and radical sharing.

The second hint is this – that growth in this way of love is organic – contrary to images we might have of sudden ecstatic experiences and tongues of fire, the less flashy reality for those who wish to grow spiritually is that love needs to be nurtured, slowly, deliberately, and for a lifetime.  There is no fast lane, no hyperlink to click for life in the spirit, instead, it’s the path of steady and lasting fidelity.  The community we see in the book of Acts is one in which learning and teaching, praying together, discerning the common good, encouraging one another, sacrificing something for one another and sharing the intimate spaces of everyday life are recommended as the only sure-fire recipe for spiritual growth, the only sure-fire recipe for a Church that really wants to be a place where God’s kingdom can take root.

The vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus named at the beginning of his ministry, and that Luke describes as the ideal form of the Church probably isn’t a reality anywhere in the world.  But then Jesus has a habit of claiming things about God’s kingdom that just aren’t happening in the world around us, and then challenging us to believe that they are possible.  And it’s important for us to name the difference between the present reality of our life together, where we are as the Church and where we are called to be – because that gap is the space where transformation becomes possible if we dare to believe that Jesus is telling the truth – that gap is the creative space where – if we pay attention to one another and encourage one another and continue to build a vision together of what it means to be God’s people in this place – we will see for ourselves that God’s Holy Spirit is at work.


Saturday, May 07, 2011

Easter 3

What do you do when it all gets too much for you?  For some of us, it’s comfort-food ... I’m a bit too fond of pasta for my own good, and if you see me tucking into a super-size bowl of spaghetti marinara it’s a sure sign there’s something I’m not dealing with.  In the old black and white Hollywood tear-jerkers, if he did something wrong she’d be back home to mother.  Home can be a good place to go when you just need to be yourself.  In all my favourite UK soapies it’s the pub, the place to hide out and drown your sorrows, for a lot of Aussie males it’s the back shed but the point is we all have our own variation on the theme, our own way of retreating into ourselves when it all gets too hard, the place we go for reassurance or just avoidance, and for two of Jesus’ followers this morning, it’s Emmaus.

There’s an old saying that a journey implies hope – the act of going somewhere means you hope for something when you get there, but for Cleopas and his companion – maybe Mrs Cleopas since in the Gospels the ones without names are so often women – for these two the only real hope seems to be that of retreat, trying to put some distance between themselves and everything that had gone wrong, trying to forget the hopes and dreams of the last few years that had suddenly and unaccountably turned to ashes, putting some distance between themselves and the shame of their own failure in the horrifying last week of Jesus’ life.  We don’t really know where Emmaus is, archaeologists tell us there are three possible sites for the ancient village of Emmaus, within a day’s walk from Jerusalem – perhaps Emmaus was for these two the first stop on the long journey home to Galilee, the backwater region of fishing and subsistence farming they had left to follow Jesus.

Writer Frederick Buechner talks about the ways we try to find a place, an Emmaus, to run to when we have lost hope or don't know what else to do - a place of escape, of forgetting, of giving up, of deadening our senses and our minds and maybe our hearts, too. We go to Emmaus when we can’t endure the wild burden of hope any longer, and each of us, Buechner claims, has our own variation on where Emmaus is.  For some, Emmaus might even be in church – a place not of vitalisation and re-invigoration but of anaesthetisation.

Like all of the resurrection stories, today’s Gospel reading follows a powerful theme – the experience of a community, of believers, doubters, and strugglers gathering together and breaking apart, coming together again and telling the stories of their experiences, sharing their memories of Jesus – a powerful mix of self-pity and shame, nostalgia and fear and the glimmer of understanding that something new and unimaginable has happened to reshape and re-imagine who they are.  And the resurrection stories retrace the pattern we all have to follow as people of faith – people who when everything else has fallen apart have no choice but to shine the light of Scripture on the shattering experiences of our lives in order to seek understanding, people who have no choice but to come with our unique burdens of joy and heartache and hope and despair to sit together at the table and break bread, to open our hearts to one another and receive from one another an unexpected blessing.  The resurrection stories are of course the ground zero of our faith, and they tell us what our life as a Church is supposed to be.

Things have been moving too fast for Jesus’ friends.  If their world has been turned upside down by the call to follow, by the simple call to be a community of faith and forgiveness, by the life-changing acts of love and compassion that Jesus has modelled for them, then think how the bottom must have dropped out of their world with his death.  And they haven’t has time to absorb the shock, even as they retreat to find a place where they can think and grieve and feel again, they are interrupted by the wild and unreasonable stories of resurrection.  They have been denied time to process and integrate all that has happened into their lives, to find peace and balance and seek new understanding. 

If real-estate, according to the experts, is about location, location and location – then the Bible is about hospitality, hospitality, and hospitality.  Time and time again ordinary men and women are transformed, see themselves and one another in a new light, encounter the God of creation through the blessing of strangers.  Too often, we prefer to see hospitality as a dutiful sharing of leftovers, of whatever we can do without – the hospitality of the Bible is a fundamental openness to sharing the substance of who we are, the practice of openness to others that implies an orientation towards the future, a willingness to learn and to be changed, however painful or uncomfortable that might be.  Hospitality is incompatible with complacency or self-obsession.  Hospitality and openness make it possible for men and women to recognise and to share the blessings of God, to recognise on another as the bearers of God’s blessings, and to accept the vocation of being catalysts, agents of transformation.  The practise of hospitality also reminds us that we belong together, increases our commitment to one another, and builds us as the body of Christ.

Some pointers towards our own practise of hospitality arise from the journey to Emmaus.  We are all of course on a journey, whether we know it or not.  Sometimes in our comfortable lifestyles it doesn’t much feel like we are on a journey, with its discomforts and sacrifices, but our lives are taking us in one direction or another, towards self-preoccupation or towards self-giving; towards destructive habits and debilitating anxiety or towards freedom and peace.  And the Gospel tells us Jesus falls into step with the two, lost as they are in their own worry and regret.  This is the first fundamental practice of hospitality – to share the journey of another, to fall into step with them and share their experience, to see the world through their eyes.  As a Church, we are called to be a community of fellow travellers, people whose paths not only intersect, but who commit to travelling together.  It’s a big ask, especially for a back-seat driver like me.  It means listening to one another, allowing someone else to set the agenda and plan the route, to trust that in the journey together we will both get where we are going.

Jesus listens; he asks them why they are downcast, and he listens. In the Book of Job, the friends of Job are revealed as fair-weather friends, friends who aren’t prepared to go the distance, who don’t really listen to Job’s complaints and basically tell him to snap out of it, he shouldn’t be feeling this way.  But of course before they even open their mouths, Job’s friends have sat with him on the ash-heap, in silence, for seven days, listening to his mute distress.  If these are fair-weather friends, I wonder what that says about our modern willingness to listen to one another?  Jesus listens; he hears what’s really going on for them, the anguish that comes not just from dashed hopes and disappointed expectations but from deep self-recrimination and shame.  And he listens without judgement or condemnation.  This is a fundamental practise of hospitality.

And then he teaches his friends.  He helps them do the job of the community of faith, to open and to shine the light of the scriptures and to seek together an understanding of where God is in the experiences of our everyday lives.  To deepen our faith by struggling together toward an understanding of the Word of God in scripture, and the Word of God in our own life.  And this too is a mark of Christian hospitality, to open ourselves to one another in studying and being formed by the Word of God as a community.

When they reach Emmaus, the travellers need to rest, to seek refreshment, but Jesus, it seems, had set his sights on a more distant goal.  Is this just politeness, to pretend you’re going further while waiting for the invitation to stay?  Perhaps, but when the travellers ask him, Jesus agrees to remain with them in Emmaus for the night.  Our journeys need to be interruptible.  Our plans and agendas need to be interruptible so we can respond to the needs of others, and indeed, so we can be receptive to the blessings of the shared moment.  This also is a mark of Christian community, a community of people who balance their individual goals and needs with the need to stay and refresh each other, to be open and receptive to one another.

And, finally, Jesus breaks bread with his fellow travellers.  This, of course, is intended to remind us of the Eucharist, of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on the night before he died, and of his practice of eating and sharing the hospitality of the table that has been the consistent pattern of his ministry.  The meal gives us the pattern of sharing at a deep-down organic level, the stuff of our organic, physical lives – the food that we work to put on our tables and that, for first century peasants was especially hard-won.  Hospitality means the sharing of our physical resources, giving deeply of ourselves in order that others might have enough. And being formed by what we share, becoming, in a fundamental sense, what we eat together.

Jesus friends recognise him, when it comes down to it, not by what he looks like, but by what he does, by his actions that are consistent with everything that he has taught and modelled for them.  That’s how it usually is, when we remember somebody we have loved, what comes to mind is not so much what they said but what they did, the actions that remind us who they were and how they expressed their love for us.  It’s also how people will recognise the risen Christ in us – not because we proclaim it in words but because we proclaim it in how we live, in the practical and everyday acts of hospitality and love that identify who we really are.

And the final thing is this: when Jesus’ friends recognise him, when they recognise his risen presence with them and come to realise who they themselves are – they run.  Resurrection life, when we recognise it, sends us scurrying – away from Emmaus.