Saturday, April 28, 2012

Easter 4B

Driving down Leach Highway, some months ago, I found myself stuck in traffic behind a truck ferrying live sheep down to the Fremantle wharves.  The trailer had four or five decks, each crammed with sheep who hardly had room to move, let alone lie down, and I noticed one poor animal with its leg uncomfortably caught in the steel barrier and sticking out the side of the vehicle.  It was a hot day, and a distressing sight, and I couldn't help but think of the nightmare voyage that lie ahead for these animals who it seems are considered nothing more than commodities in our economic system.

Jesus' description of himself, then, for all that centuries of Christian art have invested it with a kind of romantic sentimentalism, should be as jolting and unfamiliar to us as it would have been in the original context.  Aussie sheep aren't fluffy and plump and white, they don't get called by name and they are herded and slaughtered with regard to nothing much more than their monetary value.  It would have been a jolting image for Jesus contemporary hearers for a different reason – yes, ancient shepherds did love and care for their sheep individually – not only did the lives of shepherds and their families depend on the safety of the herd but the economic relationship between them was more personal and holistic, sheep provided milk and wool and dung for fires and gardens and eventually, but not primarily, meat.  Families lived with their animals in a fairly intimate proximity, and cared for them as part of their domestic chores.  The metaphor of the relationship between the sheep and their shepherd was appropriate – shepherds travelled long distances with their sheep and protected them and brought them safely home – but the image was nonetheless confronting because shepherds themselves were regarded as dirty and smelly and uncouth.  Peasants.  Not nice.  The image is of a guide who shares the risks faced daily by the animals, a companion who lives rough and gets her hands dirty, who rescues the lost by being prepared to go out into the bush and find them.

The image of the Good Shepherd is one of the most comforting and enduring metaphors that Christianity has to offer, it connects at a gut level with our desire to be known and cared for, and offers us an image of a God who shares the wanderings and travails of our lives, whose knowledge of our ways never condemns but consistently cares for and guides us.  It's a true image, an image that we instinctively recognise and can relate to because it resonates both with our best impulses of care for others and our deepest unspoken needs to be held and known and loved.

I'd like to suggest however that it is also a challenging image, and a good image to guide our life as a congregation.

For a start, Jesus doesn't invent the metaphor of the shepherd, and the model for his use of this image is not necessarily the 23rd Psalm.  In the prophetic writings the metaphor is used in reference to the leaders of Israel, for example in Ezekiel chapter 34, the shepherds of Israel are accused of having neglected the sheep.  God accuses the rulers of the people, and complains that they have not searched for their sheep or protected them or cared for them, but have only looked out for their own interests.  And God says, I'm going to put a stop to that and I will search for the sheep and bring them back and care for them myself.  And Jesus in the passage we read this morning makes a similar claim, talking about the hired hand who doesn't own the sheep or care for them.  The ones who were supposed to be caring for God's people have neglected them.  And so the metaphor causes us to reflect on who the shepherds are in our own situation, who are the ones that today are supposed to be caring for God's people and leading and feeding and protecting them?  Which makes Jesus Good Shepherd image an uncomfortable reflection first and foremost for church leaders and clergy, who have to ask themselves, 'how far am I prepared to go to find the lost and marginalised and bring them back into the community of care?  What risks am I prepared to take, whose burdens am I prepared to share? Am I a hired hand or do I love those entrusted to my care?' And it is a reflection that inevitably leads to some self-indictment.  It's a standard of care that we fail at.

Of course, priests and church leaders aren't – or shouldn't be – the only shepherds.  If the task of discipleship is to take Jesus as the model for our own lives, to live in imitation of Christ – then we should all find ourselves reflecting on the relationships we have in which we ourselves are supposed to be the shepherds.  The relationships in which it is us who have the responsibility to care for the vulnerable, the hungry or the lost.  Whatever our particular roles or responsibilities, as a parent or an employee or a friend, as Christians we are called to this standard of care – a friend remarked the other day that the image of the Good Shepherd reminded her of a washing machine.  Clothes don't get washed properly unless they are agitated – the ones on the outside need to be brought into the centre and the ones in the privileged position in the centre need to be pushed to the outside.  The shepherd's task is to notice the needs of those on the outside – to be prepared to move out of their own comfort zone to befriend and include – to be prepared to challenge and support those who are comfortably living in the privileged centre to take a risk, to explore and to help others.  Shepherds need sharp eyes, soft hearts and strong shoulders.  Shepherds are attuned to the needs of others, less concerned with their own needs because they know they also can trust the one who cares for them.  We all get the opportunity to be shepherds in many contexts – how well are we doing? Do we need to pray for the grace to be a bit more shepherd-y?

We are also – all sheep.  It's easy when we read this sort of metaphor to forget that the sheep are not passive, and not stupid.  Yes, sheep get a bad press, a lot of the time.  They get used as a metaphor for dull conformism.  We probably don't much care the notion that we are all sheep.  But the sheep in this situation bear some responsibility – it is their task to recognise the one who is calling them, to correctly discern whose voice they are hearing.  Not always easy.  We hear many, many competing voices in our lives, voices that clamour for our attention, and we generate a few internal voices of our own as well.  St Ignatius of Loyola coined the phrase, the discernment of spirits, meaning the task of working out whether or not it is really God telling me to go there or do that or spend my time and energy on the other – is that God's voice?  Or is it the voice of self-interest, or repressed desire, or vanity?  Is it the voice of long-forgotten guilt, is it the pressure of social obligation? Or is it God?  And there are ways to listen, ways to learn to recognise the authentic sound of God's voice in our lives so that we can decide which of the competing voices we should attend to.  This is the task of Christian spirituality, which is also the task of acknowledging the truth about ourselves, recognising and taking responsibility for the difference between our desires and our needs.  The task of the sheep is to know the centre, to recognise and stay in connection with the shepherd, and to learn to trust. 

There's another task for sheep also, which is the task of living with the other sheep.  This job is perhaps even harder, especially in our hyper-individualistic society!  The task of making room, of trusting that the authentic life of a sheep can best be lived not by going off alone but by remaining in community.  By being part of a flock, which means that the needs of the whole community become your needs, and the needs of the most vulnerable members of the flock are given extra attention.  The whole flock suffers when any are neglected.  It is not just top-down care that characterises the symbiosis between shepherd and sheep.  The sheep care for one another in the security of the flock and that, of course, should be the primary characteristic of our lives as Christians and as a church.

The shepherd, however, also has other sheep.  The size of the flock, its membership, are not fixed.  It can never be a cosy little community, a flock that defines its own identity by keeping others out, because the whole characteristic of this flock – as defined by the Shepherd whose task specifically is to travel far and wide to collect stragglers and bring them back into the centre – this flock has got fuzzy boundaries and permeable edges.  We can never find a comfortable self-definition by prescribing who is in and who is out – because the shepherd keeps bringing home more strays and plonking them down in the middle of us.  Expecting us to move over and make a nice warm space for them.  The shepherd's standard of care and inclusiveness defines how we as sheep must behave as well.  Again the washing machine image.  The ones that most need to be brought in are the ones who are left out.  And so we are forced to examine the ways we ourselves marginalise and exclude others – on the grounds of ethnicity, or religion, on the grounds of disability, on the grounds of social status.  Are there some people who, when they come here, feel less than welcome?  Why?  What responsibility do we have for that?

And, finally, the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  It is a reference, of course, to the crucifixion, the death that brings life and the disintegration that brings unity.  The shepherd metaphor is spot-on, as the shepherd in ancient life bears the risks of predators and the depredations of human competitors and bandits.  There is the risk of violence and evil, even within the sheepfold of God's people.  But Jesus reveals here the secret; this death is neither a scapegoating nor a victory of evil over good, because he lays his life down by choice, choosing the way of forgiveness over retribution.  This is the ultimate learning, both for sheep and for shepherds – breaking the cycle of violence by refusing to play its dreary game of tit for tat, instead transforming human selfishness and violence into the energy and power of forgiveness and making possible a future where before there was only a dead-end.

So how are we doing?  If the image of the Good Shepherd is not just a cosy comforter but a mission statement and a challenge for people who solemnly assure one another that we are the body of Christ – are we living like this? That's the question.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

3rd Sunday of Easter

It's usually around this time of the year – not during Lent but after Easter – after the last of the hot cross buns and Easter eggs have disappeared from the house – that I notice that the three or four months since Christmas have left an impression on my waistline, and decide I'd better do something about it.  Like they say, you are what you eat …

What you eat actually says a lot about you, doesn't it?  Your diet reveals something about your self-image and your attitude to life.  It also says something about how old you are - what people eat today is different to what people used to eat when I was growing up, also people from different cultures eat totally different foods - a particular food and drink can tell you a huge amount about somebody's nationality, or age: think, for example tacos, lasagna, hamburgers, sushi.  Food and drink are a huge part of the important holidays and celebrations of our lives: for example Christmas cake, birthday cakes, champagne for celebrations and chocolate for – well, you don't need an excuse for chocolate, really.

It also seems to me that one of the things we human beings really need to do, is to eat together.  Eating isn't just about keeping our bodies going – eating together is also what keeps our relationships going, and it's part of what makes us human.  It even seems that we need to eat together if we want to know God.  Have you ever noticed that in the Lord's Prayer, the very first thing we ask God for is daily bread.  You can't worship God without it, you can't be the person God intended you to be if your stomach is empty, and you're not really loving your neighbour if their tummy is still empty either.  Sharing food is about caring for the basic needs of others, and about allowing them also to care for you, which means your need for food, and your need to share yourself with other people are somehow connected.

There's a wonderful movie, called Babette's Feast, set in 19th century Denmark, where a small village offers hospitality to a woman who is a refugee from revolutionary France.  Babette, it turns out, was a celebrated chef in Paris, and yet for 19 years she has been quietly keeping house for the family of the Reformed pastor in this plain and simple fishing village, sharing their unexciting diet of bread and stew.  After many years, Babette receives an inheritance, and to show her gratitude to her adopted community she spends the entire sum on a sumptuous feast.  Neighbours who haven't talked to one another for years are invited, and over the unfamiliar tastes and textures of Babette's marvelous meal they rediscover their need for one another.  Long suppressed dreams resurface as Babette serves course after sumptuous course.  Babette's over-the-top generosity and her quiet attentiveness gently transform those who are privileged to eat at her table.

When you think about it, food plays quite a big part in the story of God's people told in the Scriptures.  In Genesis, eating what they weren't supposed to eat leads human beings into the first experience of sin – disagreement about the best sort of food to offer to God leads to the first murder, a brother is tricked out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil soup.  The Hebrews rebel against God in the wilderness because they're not sure whether God is able to feed them.  Jesus' first temptation in the desert is to turn stones into bread.  Some of the darkest moments in the salvation-history of God's people, are about food.

On the other hand, some of the most wonderful moments are also about food.  Like God's miraculous gift of manna in the desert, like Jesus' miraculous demonstration of God's abundant provision, when he makes a little boy's lunch stretch out to feed 5,000 people.  I think it's something a bit more than just a metaphor, when Jesus describes the whole point of creation as a great feast which is going to last forever and to which the whole of humanity is invited.

And today we read another Gospel passage where food is really important – Jesus appears to his traumatised disciples and in response to their excitement and lack of understanding he says, 'it really is me – touch me and see' – and then he says, 'have you got something to eat?'.  And this is the obvious point, the first thing to notice because it means you're not seeing a ghost, this risen life of Jesus isn't just a figment of your imagination, because ghosts don't eat pieces of boiled fish.  For Luke, this is a really important point, he wants to emphasise the physical reality of Jesus' resurrected body - but it isn't the only point.  Because it also says something quite important about the nature of resurrection life – the resurrection life of Jesus, and our own resurrection life as well.

By this time, of course, Jesus has appeared to the women at the empty tomb, he has appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it seems he has also appeared to Simon Peter.  What is remarkable about each of these appearances of Jesus is how often his disciples fail to recognise him, how the risen Jesus has been transformed.  Theologians try to explain this – maybe not very successfully, because this is a mystery that's way too deep for us – by pointing out that resurrection isn't the same thing as resuscitation, just breathing new life into a dead body.  Instead, Jesus is raised into a new and transformed life that is different – deeper, more mysterious, closer to the divine world, timeless and unconstrained, less dependent on the circumstances and accidents of the external world than the pre-resurrection life – and yet, Luke insists – he still eats fish.

You might think after all he'd been through he'd have asked for something a bit less boring than boiled fish!  But that's maybe the point.  Whatever the mysteries of the resurrection life that we don't understand, there's one thing we do understand, because Jesus has just shown us – resurrection life isn't airy-fairy, it isn't disconnected from the life that Jesus has lived before as a real human being who gets hungry and eats fish.  A real human being who allows his disciples to attend to his basic human needs, and in so doing, to experience the transformation that they so desperately need themselves.  The resurrection life that we hope for, that we believe in and that we see the evidence for in Jesus, the resurrection life that we recognise as being both a quality of life we can have now, and a promise of eternal life to come, is God's own mystery – but it isn't airy-fairy and it isn't discontinuous from the life we're living right now.

The second point is this - eating with his disciples is what Jesus has done all along.  Have you ever noticed how many of Jesus' most important conversations were over dinner?  These are the conversations where people's lives get transformed, the conversations Jesus has with Zaccheus, with Simon the Pharisee, with Mary of Bethany, the last meal with his disciples, the meal at Emmaus.  The feeding of the five thousand.

Jesus' hospitality, like Babette's, transforms all those whose lives are touched by it.  The simple meal of boiled fish, coming after the bread Jesus breaks with the disciples at Emmaus, reminds us of the miraculous feeding of the multitude, and it reminds us of all the meals Jesus has shared with those he loves.  It's become absolutely central – both a symbol of the sort of radical hospitality that Jesus has been on about the whole time, and at the same time a practice that, if we faithfully follow it, gently transforms us into the people God intends us to be.  Bible scholars refer to it as Jesus' practice of table fellowship, and it's not long before the early church recognises that this is the most powerful way to experience, and to celebrate and proclaim Jesus living presence among them.  By sharing themselves with one another, and by caring for one another at the most basic human level.  That's why in the Acts of the Apostles we read of the disciples 'breaking bread' as a community of believers.  That's why we continue to share the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

We are what we eat – in fact, we are what we eat together.  Who we are as a community of God's people is formed out of what we share together.  Literally, our identity as a community of faith grows out of the many ways in which we share bread together, not just in the symbolic meal of the Eucharist but in the many eucharists we share as a community, the eucharist of coffee and biscuits after church, the eucharist of parish dinners, the eucharist of working together in the fun and chaos of a Quiz Night or an Op Shop that's sanctified because we offer it to God as a sacrament.  The eucharist of service to one another, and of recognising and attending to the basic human needs of those around us.  Ordinary things that, when we offer them to God, become holy, and transform us into God's holy people.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Second Sunday of Easter

I remember the first time in my life when it struck me that Christianity, after all, might be a good thing.  I had been brought up in the Church, but as a young adult went my own way.  Looking, perhaps for a spirituality that was fresher and more connected with the experience of my generation.  Critical, of what I saw with the clear-eyed myopia of youth as the hypocrisy of organised religion.  Needing to make a few compromises and mistakes of my own.

And so in my mid twenties I found myself living in Brisbane with my wife and our twin sons, having become a little less idealistic and a little more attuned to the realities of having to make a living and look after a young family.  Across the road from us was a big house occupied by a group of young and middle aged people, including one young woman who was profoundly disabled.  They called themselves Catholic Workers, and their house was called the House of Freedom.  As we got to know them we found out a bit more about their lifestyle.  These people did more than share a house, they shared everything.  None of them had any money of their own, but everything that anyone earned was shared to pay for the expenses of the house and to support the ministry they had in their church.  Everyone's needs were met out of the money that all of them earned.  I'd like to say they were saintly, or selfless, but actually they were deeply ordinary.  Except for this.  They took the Gospel seriously, and they followed Jesus as though it mattered. 

Somebody once commented in my presence – I forget who, and I'm pretty sure it was meant to be a criticism – that Christianity was an early experiment in Communism.  Which failed.  Along the same lines, I do remember it was Mahatma Ghandi who remarked that he thought Christianity was a good idea – but that unfortunately nobody had ever tried it yet.  You get, of course, that I'm working my way around to talking about the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles.

We get a good dose of the Acts of the Apostles every Easter, the six week season that begins with Easter Day, for a very good reason.  Not just because the Acts of the Apostles is what happens next, in the chronological sense – but because what happens next also flows out of the reality of the resurrection – empowered by the resurrection life of Jesus and also attesting simply and directly, to the reality of that life.  The first and obvious point is this – that the apostles are transformed men and women.  The bewildered and defeated disciples who deserted Jesus on the cross turn into the living proof of the resurrection as they begin to preach and perform miracles in the name of the risen Christ.  We see them setting about the fundamental task of discipleship, which is of course to imitate Jesus.  To live as Jesus lived, forgiving and experiencing forgiveness, loving wastefully, healing and restoring and tangibly changing the lives of others just as Jesus modelled. The proof of the resurrection is that the resurrection life of Jesus is visible in the transformed lives of those who claim to be his disciples.

In the chapter just before we came in on today's reading, the apostles have been arrested for preaching the resurrection of Jesus and healing in his name.  Incidentally, we often get hung up on the general miraculousness and implied supernaturalism of healing.  But it is precisely what, as Christians, we ourselves are called to do.  In Korean there is a word for the residue of brokenness or sadness, shame or alienation that all too often lingers after any major trauma or tragedy.  They call it han – bodies might be healed but spirits and minds lag behind, needing to be called back into health and community.  The work of healing, then, is not reserved either for medical professionals or for supernatural miracle workers, but is the work of ordinary men and women of sensitivity and compassion who heal broken spirits in precisely the same way as Jesus and the apostles did – by noticing those who are invisible, by touching, by including those who are excluded, and by being a tangible reminder of the forgiveness and love of God. 

Even though they have been thrown into jail the apostles keep healing and teaching, and the main point, perhaps, is this – that God's power and presence are best made known in both word and practice – both in what we say and in what we do, how we live.  Which means the work of proclaiming the Gospel is not a job reserved for professionals, either, but is the prerogative and purpose of every Christian.

And so where we come in today, Luke, who is generally recognised as the author of the Acts of the Apostles, provides a practical example of what resurrection living means in Christian community.  In fact he gives two examples, a positive example that we hear about in today's reading and a fairly grim negative example that the lectionary writers have decided not to scare us with.  The community is characterised by radical sharing, by a spirit of giving that means the needs of the most vulnerable members are met.  And the positive example of that is the two verses that tell how one man, Barnabas, sells his property and lays the proceeds at the feet of the apostles.  The negative example is the scary little story of Ananias and Sapphira who keep back what they own.  Maybe Luke's idea is to show that the ideal of radical sharing, even though it has become the hallmark of Christian community, is not yet fully put into practice. 

Metaphorically, perhaps, the story of Ananias and Sapphira could represent how a Christian community dies when its members, one by one or two by two, choose self over community rather than self in community.  The point, perhaps, is that the community of those who love and follow Christ only thrives when its members, individually and communally, choose to follow the way of love and self-sacrifice.  Otherwise it's just lip service.  If we live generously and boldly, the Gospel grows through us.  If we chose to live self-defensively, we collapse.

For those who haven't read, or don't remember the cheery little story of Ananias and Sapphira, when their selfishness is revealed they drop dead at the apostles' feet.  Certainly a bit extreme, and in the context of a sermon that, let's face it, is necessarily about stewardship, about how we behave with what we presume to call our own – is not quite the message any preacher would want to get across.  But we can take from it the point that in Christian community our lives are necessarily interconnected – we belong together, and if our life together is not marked by compassion and care then the community dies.

And the reason the example of radical sharing is chosen as an example of resurrection living?  Is because the resurrection is first foremost a relational or communal event.  Jesus does not resurrect himself for himself … God's work of re-creation is made visible in Jesus in order to empower Jesus' followers – us – to live in ways that transform death-dealing spiritual and material circumstances in the lives of the communities in which we live.  Resurrection, then, is a pebble thrown into a pond that gets its power and momentum from the fact that it travels in ever widening circles.  Not static, but viral, spreading throughout the ancient world with the speed and power of recognition – that this way of living is built into us, as men and women made in the image of a loving creator the way of radical self-giving is actually built into our DNA, we are made to live beyond ourselves and to share who we are with others.

Resurrection life means recognising that we are not, and cannot live, as isolated individuals answerable only to ourselves. It means recognising that the underlying template of human life connects us to one another and to all with whom we share our humanity.  And that rumours of resurrection – rumours of the abundance of life that is the essence of our humanity – aren't for hoarding or for storing but for sharing.

I don't believe for a moment that the ideal of Christian community that the Acts of the Apostles points to has ever been perfectly lived out – and clearly it was not perfectly lived out in the earliest Christian community.  I don't know how well it was lived out in the House of Freedom in the early 1980s, whether the lives of those who lived together in community were enriched or whether their ministry and service were particularly effective.  I don't have a recipe for how it should be lived out in the complex economy of the 21st century – but in a world where one third of the population has way more than they need while two thirds live lives marked by unmet need -  A world where over 20,000 children die every day from hunger and preventable illness – And a country and a local community in which children and adults are homeless every single night, in which too many children still go to school on an empty stomach – in such a world might there not still be a place for a resurrection community that sees self-giving as a fundamental and higher priority than self-preservation?

We live the resurrection when we choose to live in ways that bring life to others.  And the alternative to that, as a Christian community, is to die.   If we are not living expansively, oriented to the needs of others, then we are contracting and dying.  If as a parish we are not engaged with the needs of the community we live in, if as individual Christians we are not giving generously for the needs of others, then we begin to shrink into ourselves, which is the opposite of resurrection.

The stories from the Acts of the Apostles are not just of historical interest, they are designed to get us asking ourselves, how is the resurrection being proclaimed – through us? And through me?

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Easter Day

I've never been particularly patient with puzzles.  Even crossword puzzles – the easy ones I mean, let alone the cryptic ones – if it doesn't come out in 20 or 30 minutes I lose interest.  I remember once though, at the end of the school year, deciding with my sister to do one of these massive 1500 piece jigsaw puzzles, some nature scene or other where at least half the pieces were nothing but blue sky.  So we sorted out all the pieces according to whether they looked like trees or animals or sky and we found the corner pieces and set to work, with the cover of the box set up on the table as a guide.  I don't know how many days we were at it but finally we got to the end.  All the pieces laid out neatly.  And a great big hole in the middle of the picture where all the missing pieces should have been.

St Mark's Gospel does this, this morning.  We get to the end of the story and all of a sudden we realise.  There aren't enough pieces.  There are whopping big gaps in the story, and we can't make the pieces fit.  The biggest hole, maybe, is the empty tomb itself, the gap where the body of Jesus should have been that invites us – not into a certainty, in the modern sense, but into a mystery.  But the other hole, the blank space right at the end of the story – is – so what?  What happens next?

Bible scholars think that the original version of the gospel just comes to a sudden stop, right where we stopped reading today.  Tacked onto the much longer story of Jesus' trial and crucifixion, just eight verses that tell us about traumatised women going out early on the Sunday morning to anoint Jesus' body, finding the grave open and empty – an ambiguous description of a probably angelic messenger with an equally ambiguous message.   'Don't be alarmed – go and tell the disciples to go back to Galilee – back to where it all started – that's where they'll find him.  He is risen.'

Don't be alarmed??  How would you feel?  Probably at that point nothing actually sank in anyway.  The women ran away from the tomb terrified and amazed or trembling with amazement or frightened out of their wits, depending on what translation of the Bible you read.  And the very earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark simply end with this, "They said nothing to anyone, because they were terrified."

Can you imagine?  These women knew what had happened to Jesus, according to Mark, these same three women were looking on as Jesus died on the cross – maybe not, as St John tells it, at the foot of the cross, but at least from a safe distance after all the male disciples had fled in abject terror.  They knew that Jesus' body had been twisted beyond recognition, beyond the remotest possibility of ever again containing life; they had seen him breathe his last.  They, with the other disciples, had spent the weekend cowering in shock, leaving it to other, more socially respectable sympathisers to do what could be done to give Jesus a decent burial.  Finally these women, the only ones who didn't absolutely desert Jesus in life, work up the courage for one last act of love – anointing Jesus' body - only to be frightened out of their wits by a spooky young man with a cryptic and hardly reassuring message.

He is risen.  And no one knew it except three women who were too scared to tell anybody, and who – as women – wouldn't have been regarded as credible witnesses even if they had.  And that's it.  That's how St Mark's gospel ends.  Maybe Mark knew there were lots of other stories doing the rounds in the early Christian community about the resurrection, and what happened next, maybe he never set out to write everything that could be written.  But right where he gets to the point where the enigmatic messenger has announced Jesus' resurrection – Mark abruptly ends his story with a question mark, with the three women so paralysed with fear, they just run away and don't tell anybody.

What happens next?  Well, we can always read the other gospels to fill in the gaps, but it's like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and then realising that not all of the pieces come out of the same box.  You still can't quite get a coherent picture. 

Mark's ending is so ambiguous and so downright unsatisfying, that from a century or two later we find manuscripts of Mark showing up with alternative endings – in our Bibles today we still have two different alternative add-ons – and in both of them the women get over their fright and do exactly what the scary angel has just told them to do, they go and tell the others.  So the editors changed the ending – and I guess the reason they do that is because – well, if the women hadn't told anybody, how would we know about it?  We wouldn't be sitting here in church on a perfectly good Sunday, for a start!  The editors have realised one essential fact about the resurrection, which is that its power lies in the telling of it.

But I think there's a good reason for Mark to end his Gospel just as he does – with fear and confusion and with the women being too afraid to tell the good news of the resurrection.  Because, you see, Mark is writing for tentative disciples – for disciples who are a bit iffy about the whole thing.  For – if we're honest about it – disciples like us. 

And Mark puts us right at the moment of choice, standing with the women at the ambiguously empty tomb.

We've just been told about the resurrection – this startling claim that raises more questions than it answers, that causes just as much fear and confusion today as it ever did.  Arguments still rage between Christians about what the resurrection of Jesus Christ means, and about how it happened – if you were there, what would you have seen at that vital instant? 

The Bible isn't much help about the details.  St Paul, who wrote the earliest parts of the New Testament, argues that the resurrection body isn't like the physical body we now have – suggesting to some people that he is thinking of the resurrection as a spiritual, rather than a physical, phenomenon.  Writing a few decades later, Luke and John, on the other hand, so want to emphasise the resurrection of Jesus' physical body that they include stories of him eating fish and being physically touched by his disciples after he is raised from the dead.  Certainly, it's possible for thoughtful Christians to hold a range of opinions about the what and the how of the resurrection, and I think this sort of diversity of opinion in the Church is OK.  We don't actually need to have all the answers to be resurrection people.

But there is one inescapable claim that shakes the two Marys and Salome to their very core, and it should shake us to our core as well because there's no getting around it.  The whole of our faith revolves around this claim.  That Jesus, who was as dead as you get, as dead as a doornail - Jesus, who was at the receiving end of the worst that human malice and human darkness can dish up; Jesus, whose totally idealistic platform of forgiveness and love was never in a million years going to be a match for human trickiness and compromise and cunning – that Jesus lives.  That Jesus, who understands his own identity as coming out of the centre of his relationship with the one he calls Father, that Jesus, who understands that the true meaning of human life is self-giving love – demonstrates for us finally the truth of what he's been talking about all along, because in pouring himself out for others he is transformed into the unquenchable essence of life itself. 

And the of that isn't actually in the inexplicable absence where the body of Jesus should have been – the proof is in what happens next - in what Salome and the Marys do next, what the shocked and defeated disciples do next, and not least in what you and I do next.  The final proof of the resurrection life of Jesus Christ, the true resurrection body of Christ, is embodied in the community of those who dare to live in this untransformed world as though it were already God's kingdom. 

You see, what the resurrection means is that there is no human darkness that love is unable to penetrate.  What it means, for those of us who dare to believe it, is that the power of God - which is the power of self-giving love - is able to reach into our darkest and most alienating human experience and transform who we are.  The opposite of cynicism, resurrection belief is the assertion that human life has meaning and an ultimate destination, resurrection belief is the assertion that the value of human life is not relative.  Resurrection belief connects us at a fundamental level with one another, with those we love, with those who suffer in places like Sudan or Syria or Haiti.  Resurrection belief asserts what doesn't always seem obvious in our world – that cynicism and greed and competitiveness and profit don't have the last word.

But, just as we started to get into it, the pieces of the jigsaw all laid out – there's the gap.  What happens next?  Mark has put us, with the Marys and Salome, at the crossroads of the story.   It could go either way – but he knows that we know the women eventually find the courage to tell the good news.  Otherwise we – you and I – wouldn't be here.  And what that means is that the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle – are us.  Today, we have heard the rumour of resurrection – psst! Christ is alive – pass it on!  What are we going to do with that?  Because the power of the resurrection continues to make itself known in the telling.  Will we today simply go home and tell nobody – not sure that we heard right, not totally sure that it makes any difference in our lives or anybody else's, absolutely sure that we don't want to stick our necks out?

How do we learn to believe the angel's rumour of resurrection? How in our own lives do we learn to live it and proclaim it with passion, so that the resurrection story remains alive – through us?  There's the puzzle!

 

Good Friday

The reading set today from St John's Gospel is all too familiar to us.  Even as we hear the first verses, we already know how it is going to end, we know the steps in the sequence, and perhaps also you can't help but notice how heavily symbolised and formal John's version of the arrest and execution of Jesus sounds.  Everything in the sequence of events is made to serve the Gospel writer's main purpose – to show that this terrible event and this gruesome fate is foreknown by Jesus and is part of God's plan.  Everything moves towards that end with a sense of inevitability, even a sort of artificial theatricality as – for example – the one who betrays him fulfils his preordained role according to Jesus' advance knowledge, and even the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus fall down in awe before him.  The Roman governor, Pilate, who successfully ruled the most difficult province in the ancient Empire with an iron fist for 12 years is somewhat incredibly portrayed in St John's account as a weak and vacillating man.  The whole story shows a Jesus who – in contrast to Mark's grittier and more terrifying version - is serenely in control of everything that happens.

And we read it, as St John intends, also aware that the appalling events of this day lead, ultimately, to the vindication and power of Easter Day.

And yet – the death of Jesus, which stands like the eye of the storm at the centre of our faith, is a real death.  The suffering that leads up to it is as real and as agonising as any of the multiple forms of torture devised by human ingenuity before or since, every bit as agonising as stomach cancer or third degree burns, the stench of terror and the dull depression of grief that pervades this story is as real and as human as any of the experiences that we ourselves live through – and that is where its power lies.  This death sanctifies our own deaths, the deaths of those we love and the death that we all must one day endure.  This grief and this physical agony makes holy the agony and grief and guilt that interweaves our human experience and from which we try unsuccessfully to shield ourselves.  The vulnerability of Jesus' human flesh that we witness today being lacerated and broken reminds us uncomfortably of the frailty and the ultimate mortality of our own bodies – the silent distress of the mother of Jesus bears home to us the memory or the anticipation of bereavement.  We emerge from today's service, into the bright autumn sunshine, aware that the grief that has been touched is personal to us, aware that something in us has been made holy, sanctified if still unavoidable, the cost of created existence.

We Christians fall too easily into the temptation to slip past Good Friday, to prematurely proclaim the resurrection and close our eyes to block out the scene of suffering and death that reminds us all too uncomfortably of our own.  Yet if we do that, if we leave the place of human suffering and death in the too-hard basket, we fail to acknowledge or accept the grace of healing for our own long-avoided or fearfully anticipated losses.  So our burden today is to bracket out the resurrection and grieve with the women at the foot of the cross, to sit in that unimaginable and yet inevitable place we recognise with a jolt of fear – that place where the death is most intimate and personal – our own.

One of the most avoided messages of Good Friday, I think, is this.  That death is not the enemy, but the way of all life.  As evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould puts it, death is the engine of life.  Or as the Celtic saint and mystic Columba expresses it, death is the place of my resurrection.  It is the path given to, and freely embraced by Jesus and the path that we ourselves must follow with open eyes, if we are to truly live.

Some decades ago, researcher Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about what she described as the stages of death and dying – the path followed by terminal patients and those who love and care for them.  It was, I suppose, a modern, medicalised version of the Ars Moriendi – the medieval art of dying that flowered in the shadow of the Black Death and instructed those near death on how to pray and what to expect.  Kübler -Ross, like all stage theorists, has been heavily critiqued in the decades since her research.  We understand a bit better now, the fact that the 'stages' are flexible and blurry and even optional.  But it occurs to me, today, to seek an understanding of the story of the final hours of Jesus' life through the lens of the cycle of grief.

The first stage, Kübler -Ross informs us, is denial.  'This isn't happening.  Not to me'.  It's a temporary defence, at best, until the body instructs us otherwise.  Peter demonstrates it beautifully, the 'rock' of our faith that turns out to be a bit shaky.  'No. Don't know him. Jesus who?'  Of course this is a situation of chaos and danger, Peter fears he stands on the edge of exposure and possible arrest, but perhaps his behaviour is also rooted in a deeper denial as his innermost psyche descends into chaos.  We humans do this - when we are unable to comprehend or accept what is happening we become immobilised, we split off or disassociate from the reality of what is happening.  The structure of our reality has collapsed, and we need to wait for it to be reassembled, to make a new kind of sense.  The Gospel counsels the wisdom and the gentle discipline of time.

In the medieval Ars Moriendi, the first illustration shows what is called the Temptation - the dying one lies surrounded by fear-inspiring demons and powerful earthly temptations.  It is a good interpretation of the chaos and temptation to retreat into fantasy as the fearful experience overwhelms all we know and trust.  Perhaps we even get a glimpse of this in what is traditionally called Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross, the despairing: 'My God, why have you abandoned me?'  Surrounded by chaos and pain, filled with loneliness and fear, we find ourselves denying that God is present. 

The second stage, Kübler-Ross informs us, is fear.  'Why me?  It's not fair!'  'Father … take this cup away from me!'  Whose fault is it – having recognised that we can no longer deny the reality of what is happening, we look around for someone to blame, to lash out at, to be jealous of, even those who are surrounding us with loving care.  We see this best, perhaps, in Mark's Gospel which shows – not a Jesus who knows and serenely accepts everything that is to happen like some sort of divine robot – but a vulnerable young man, a young rabbi filled with dreams of the future, fearful and struggling in the face of looming horror.  Jesus struggles in the garden with his own emotions and the contradictions between his desires and hopes and the crushing reality that he knows is closing in on him.  'Surely there is another way?' 

The second woodcut in the Ars Moriendi shows the dying person receiving the consolation and encouragement of loving friends who do not conceal but help interpret the reality of suffering and death.  Jesus, in the garden, receives the consolation of prayer or as St Luke more poetically expresses it, is comforted by angels.  And we see here the shift from desolation to consolation, the shift from 'Not me! Take this away!', to 'Let your will be done in my life'.

The third stage is bargaining.  Judas, of course, represents our bargaining selves beautifully.  "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over?" In our own hard places, we instinctively bargain.  'I'll turn over a new leaf.  I'll come to church every week.' We negotiate for a delay or a postponement.  Judas makes a bargain, 30 silver coins, a month's wages for a human life.  In our modern society we are no strangers to this, this bargaining with the lives of others, it is after all the dismal logic that pervades our military and our politics and even the commercial decisions of big business.  Acceptable risk is always the risk that other people face, especially the poor and powerless – but of course it has real and suicidal consequences for ourselves as well.

In contrast, of course, Jesus doesn't bargain, not even for his own life.  This is the ultimate challenge for any of us who aspire to be his followers.  To be prepared to be people who pour out our own lives, instead of people who try to get somebody else to do it for us.  What would that sort of generosity mean, for us?

The fourth stage is depression.  The patient begins to understand the reality, the certainty of death, to retreat into silence or sleep, to spend time weeping, to disconnect from loved ones.  This is actually important work, and attempts to cheer up a patient going through this stage are futile and even counter-productive.  The disciples show us this reaction, in the garden.  'Couldn't you even stay awake and watch with me for an hour?'  How much easier it is to just switch off, to go to sleep, to make it go away for an hour.  Yet – even as perhaps we recognise this reaction in our own behaviour sometimes – we contrast this with the behaviour of Jesus who continues to struggle and to pray, and remains awake on our behalf.  Thank God for that!

Finally – acceptance.  Yet, as Kübler-Ross describes it, and as Jesus demonstrates it, this is not a passive resignation but an active laying down of all that we are into the hands of the one who made us in love.  We see it in the Garden, 'Not my will, but yours' – and on the cross – 'into your hands I lay my spirit'.  It is the moment of grace, the moment at which we can surrender ourselves to the ultimate reality which is God's loving care.  To rest in God and allow the Spirit to breathe in us, to just be, and to be at home.

To allow all that we are, our living and our dying, to be gathered into the loving remembrance of God.  And to trust.

Maundy Thursday

What would you do if you knew that tonight would be the last night of your life?  How would you spend those last precious hours?  For many of us, of course, the end of our earthly life will come in the normal course of events, creeping up on tiptoes at the end of a long life and maybe after an illness like a long-awaited and not unwelcome friend.  Our final hours might not be ours to dispose of, as we drift quietly into God's waiting arms.  But if you could decide what to do with that evening, how would you plan it?

Tonight we are invited to a dinner party.  Jesus knows that he is about to die – whether we accept St John's picture of Jesus as filled with prophetic insight and serenely foreknowing everything that is about to happen or St Mark's grittier version of Jesus filled with horror and praying that the events about to unfold might be averted – the likely consequences of Jesus' actions since arriving in Jerusalem the Sunday before wouldn't have been hard to work out.  Entering the city, he had taken part in a volatile and provocative bit of street theatre that mocked the triumphal procession of the Roman governor.  On the Monday, Jesus creates a public disturbance surrounded by crowds of pilgrims in the Temple, and in full view of the Roman troops stationed in the Antonia fortress overlooking the Temple courtyards.  On the Tuesday, he goes head to head challenging the authority of the chief priests who collaborated with the Roman forces, directing against them the pointed little parable of the wicked tenants.  Roman governors didn't tolerate that kind of rabble-rousing, and certainly not during the Passover, when an extra 100,000 or so pilgrims posed a worrying threat to public order. Do what Jesus did that week, and unless you've got a pretty good escape route, there's only one possible outcome.

Jesus spent the last week of his life deliberately challenging the power of the Roman occupation army and the Jewish authorities who used the Temple system to oppress and extort unfair taxes from the people.  He knew what was about to happen next, and yet, this evening which was really the last chance the authorities would have to arrest him before the preparations for the great Passover began, the last chance Jesus himself would have to get out of town while the going was good – the only place Jesus is going is to dinner with his friends.

Although we know what day of the week it is, this last night of Jesus' life, we don't know the day of the month.  We don't know whether it was 15 Nisan, the day of the feast of Unleavened Bread, as Mark, and following Mark, Luke and Matthew, assume it was – or 14 Nisan, the day before the Passover celebration, as John assumes in his gospel.  So we don't actually know whether this dinner party with his friends was a Passover meal.  Perhaps it was.  But if the timing in St John's gospel is correct then Jesus was executed at almost exactly the same time as the Jewish clergy were engaged in the bloody business of slaughtering the lambs for the Passover meal to be eaten on Friday evening – which clarifies for us that as Christians, we celebrate the Passover of liberation from death to life with the rising of the sun on Easter morning.  The ambiguity in the gospel accounts warns us – not yet.

But the story from the Old Testament for today directs our minds to the ancient Jewish memory of the Passover, which continues to echo for us within the meal of the Eucharist instituted on this last night of Jesus' life.  The Passover is a feast of storytelling and reminiscence, a telling and retelling for Jewish people of the generations and centuries of who they are as God's people – and yet the story at the heart of it is solemn and even frightening.  A story soaked in blood for a people who have had more than enough of it.  A river turned to blood.  Lives and livelihoods lost in plagues of flood and famine.  The death of every firstborn Egyptian son.  A household going to bed that night having smeared their doorposts with lamb's blood would do so with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what would befall others.

There is no explaining away the horror of this story, no moral arithmetic that makes the lives of Hebrew slaves worth more than Egyptian sons.  For Jewish people the celebration of Passover is not just the ancient memory of the liberation that is the ground zero of their own religious and ethnic identity but the moral imperative to call to mind the long forgotten victims of oppression in every time and place.  To remember not just the graciousness of God in delivering the Hebrews, in giving the Torah, in forming a people to be a light to all nations, but also the terrible losses, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed in the Sea of Reeds. Indeed, some ancient Passover haggadot present the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of oppressors and enemies.

So, whether or not it was this most solemn meal, tonight we are invited to dinner with Jesus' friends and followers, with the one who already is planning to hand him over to the temple police, with the disciple who refers to himself as the one whom Jesus loves, with Mary who the week before had anointed Jesus' feet with perfume and tears.  It is a dinner party which, as Luke's gospel suggests, Jesus himself has gone to great lengths to ensure is undisturbed – with elaborate precautions including a rendezvous with a stranger and an exchange of passwords leading to a room in a secret location.  What sort of dinner party is this?

It's hard not to wonder what goes through Jesus head on this last night.  The next day he would hang on a cross – the means of execution reserved for those who challenged the Roman occupation forces – and die a humiliating public death deserted by nearly all of those who called themselves his friends.  Tonight Jesus knows this, and he knows one of his followers is planning to hand him over as soon as he can make his excuses and leave.  He knows, if Mark's gospel has got it even half right, that the rest of them simply don't understand.  These must be just about the loneliest hours of Jesus life.  So, what does he do?

Well, he washes their feet.  He takes off his robe and wraps a towel around himself like a slave, and when they come in covered with the dirt and rubbish of the crowded alleyways of the city, he washes their feet.  There are a couple of things here that are really important to notice.  One, the obvious reversal of roles, the washing of feet which actually was a practical necessity in this city where, not to put too fine a point on it, every imaginable sort of garbage and waste was simply sloshed out the front door, would normally be done by the lowliest member of the household.  And the second is that it is their feet.

In this culture hands and feet stand for action, for your deeds, for everywhere you have been and everything you have done.  When Jesus washes his followers' feet – when he washes the feet of the one who will betray him - he is also making their actions clean in a hands-on demonstration of forgiveness.  He washes their feet and then he eats with them - this is Jesus' behaviour toward his betrayer, his clueless friends, and his stumbling followers on the last night before he died.

So this is what he commands us, and this is what – imperfectly – we do.  We gather in front of Jesus' table, and before we eat, we forgive and are forgiven and we allow him to wash off some of the rubbish – some of what St Paul indelicately calls, in Greek, skubalon – you probably don't need me to translate that for you?  Some of the skubalon we have smeared on ourselves.  And then we come, with clean feet and hands and hearts to break bread with him and one another.

If this was the last night of your life, what would you do? 

You'd probably think about who you really were, what your life has taught you is most important and what has given you the greatest joy.  I expect that was what Jesus was thinking about, too.  And so he did what he did, and actually it wasn't so different from what he had always done, forgiving and cleansing and feeding people.  Living out his full humanity in every moment in the awareness that his actions brought to flesh and blood the image of God.  It seems to me that to speak of the perfection of Jesus is nothing more than this – to recognise that he lived the fullness of his life in every moment and on every night including this loneliest night of all.  Do you imagine he was terrified?  Did he feel angry or lonely?  Who knows, but although he might well have felt all of these things what he actually did is to spend the night with his friends, including the friend who he knew had put friendship aside for money – and cleansed and cared and forgave and broke bread.

Do this, and remember.