Friday, April 19, 2013

Easter 4

It was probably the biggest party Australia has ever seen – hopefully the biggest party we ever will see – and a party that for most of us, even those of us born a decade or more after the event, is summed up in a single image, a single iconic piece of grainy black and white footage – the Dancing Man on the streets of Sydney on the 15th of August, 1945, the day the war in the Pacific ended.  In the background – as the dancing man twirls and lifts his hat and beams – we see piles of tickertape and rubbish and happy people laughing and hugging and kissing each other.  The world had come through six years of horror and had been changed forever – the price paid by innocent men and women and children on all sides of the conflict has been unspeakable.  But on this spring afternoon in Sydney all that matters is to be alive, to be able to believe again that there is a future, to dance and to laugh.
The Book of Revelation gives us all this and more, on a cosmic scale.  This is time out of time, beyond history or perhaps, all times rolled into one and all of history gathered together.  John of Patmos's vision or dream of the conclusion of all things, written for Christian communities in Asia Minor suffering persecution around the end of the first century, assures them that salvation belongs not to the Roman Empire or to any earthly power but to God. It is the party to end all parties, because this uncountable multitude from all conceivable races and cultures – and from our own 21st century perspective we might also add – from all social classes, all genders and sexual orientations, all religions and political persuasions – have come through the great suffering and now celebrate the final victory of the risen Christ.
The background of the Book of Revelation is this – that John in political exile on Patmos imagines a world in which the realities of persecution and suffering and fear are no more – a world in which the blank cheque signed by the death and resurrection of Jesus is finally cashed, a world in which the promise of tears turned to laughter is finally made good – and his vision intersperses scenes of victory and celebration for God's people with darker images of the consequences for those who have opposed the Gospel and persecuted God's people.  It is a style of writing called apocalyptic, coded, underground writing for a resistance Church – and in the Biblical literature, in the Old Testament we see the same style of writing in Daniel and parts of Ezekiel.  It is a promise and a word of hope for a Church in the thick of it that doesn't know the way forward, it invites us to look beyond our own fearful conditions and circumstances to contemplate the inevitable completion of God's promises.  And it tells us some truths about ourselves.
For a start, this party is a multitude.  It is not just the usual suspects – in fact, if we start reading a bit further back, we find that this is an expanding crowd.  At the beginning of chapter seven we read that it is a big crowd – 144,000 representing 12,000 each of all the tribes of Israel.  Maybe the author has in mind the actual Jewish people, maybe the tribes of Israel are a reference to the Christian churches, but it is still a limited selection.  A lot of people, but still carefully organized.  All insiders.  But then, right where we come in at verse 9, the vision is abruptly extended – now it is 'a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues'!  
I remember a derogatory description of the Church of England that used to do the rounds a generation or more ago – the Tory Party at prayer.  It was an insult that contained some truth – this was a Church that saw itself as white, middle class and privileged.  It was an insult also, fortunately, that long since ceased to have a grain of truth about it – in fact, the Church of God has always been gloriously multicultural – an unexpected blessing of the big movements of people in the second half of the 20th century is that we see the true diversity of the Church right here in Cannington.  Perhaps the image conjured up by John of Patmos encourages us to lift our heads above the local horizon and see the Church as it really is – not tentative and introspective, or struggling and dwindling, as it sometimes appears in our well-to-do and self-assertively secular country but unstoppable, ethnically and linguistically diverse, global and uncountably numerous.  Did you know there are more Christians today then ever before? About 1.2 billion of us, over one sixth of the world's population.  This is a message we Aussies need to hear, next time we find ourselves a bit shy of owning up to the fact that we go to church, that we are followers of Jesus Christ. John of Patmos actually gives us a totally accurate picture of the Church in our own time, and God is not finished yet.  A friend told me the other day of buying a coffee from a street vendor in Subiaco.  'Thank you', the young woman told her over coffee and a friendly chat.  'You are a blessing'. 'Oh', my friend said to her – 'what a lovely thing to say!' 'I am a Christian', the young woman told her.  'In my country we say that'.  Lift your head above the local – see the global perspective of lives transformed, of communities filled with the breath of God's Holy Spirit.  Live the gospel with confidence and don't be afraid to tell others about it.
Of course, the diversity of God's people is not only empowering and inspiring, it is also sometimes difficult and confronting.  We don't agree.  We argue, and sometimes we misunderstand one another.  We have different cultural prejudices, sometimes we mistake what our culture is conditioning us to believe or do, with what the Gospel teaches us.  Arguments in our Church about human sexuality often have that sort of misunderstanding as their basis, for example.  Incidentally, the same friend yesterday told me she was surprised at how much time we spent in the Church talking about sex.  I told her I was surprised we don't talk about it more – our intimate sexual relationships are at the heart of what it means to be human, and we need to talk more, not less, about what gives our relationships dignity and integrity, because it is our human relationships that form us in the image of God.
But I digress. We do arguments very well in the Church, and especially in the Anglican Church, which historically is founded on the fault-lines of a very bitter argument indeed. I don't think that is a bad thing – I think the structural tension in Anglicanism is a strength.  We value and we encourage diversity, and we allow men and women to have their own opinions.  We don't all have to be the same, and we don't have to think the same, in order to be brothers and sisters united in and by the love of God in Jesus Christ.  So we have arguments, and we grow through them if we argue with love and respect – and this of course is just as true at the local, parish church level.  God's people – our brothers and sisters in the pews – annoy the heck out of us sometimes.  The practice of forgiveness is not just a theoretical possibility, but an everyday necessity in Church life as in family life.  That, and a sense of humour.  Speaking the truth in love is not a formula for being judgemental and critical, but for being honestly and gently assertive.  
But, just one other thing about this crowd that John of Patmos sees in his dream.  This crowd that we recognize as us – united in diversity, recognizing Christ in one another in just about the same proportion that we find it challenging to live with one another.  This is the multitude who have come through the great tribulation. Sometimes we tend to gloss over that bit.  
John is writing to a church in tough times, and notice he doesn't say, 'it's alright.  Once you are a Christian everything will fall into place.  God's going to look after you.  You'll never lose your job or your marriage.  You won't find yourself in hard places, facing tough moral choices or domestic violence or the heartache of losing a loved one'.  So many modern Christians seem to think that faith is – or that it should be – an insurance policy against misfortune.  But of course the regular life experiences keep happening – life for God's people is just life, with its heady and bewildering mix of joy and loss – and that is because we are a part of God's creation, where the cycle of life means that things form and fall apart, death and decay make way for new life and change.  We live in this world, but Jesus life and death and resurrection assure us that the reality we see is not all there is.  That from suffering comes hope, from death comes new life, and that the God who creates all things in love, gathers all things – including we ourselves – in joy.  
This is the great tribulation of life, which we as Christians share with all God's people, but there is also the great tribulation of the Church.  To be followers of Jesus Christ carries a cost, to call ourselves the Church carries a cost and a responsibility, it is not just a community that confers a warm inner glow of belonging, but the body of Christ that is tasked with living the Gospel.  We claim after all in our baptism not just that we are raised with Christ in his resurrection, but that we are submerged with him in his death.  There is a cost.
Some of that cost is quite simply that the Church attracts persecution.  Just for being the Church.  Just for proclaiming resurrection and the perspective of eternity, because that calls into question the perspective of consumerism and self.  But there is also the cost of dying to self, which is to say, of living in a way which is self-giving.  Looking beyond our own interests and concerns to notice the needs of others, giving of ourselves financially, contributing our time and effort and abilities not just in our life of worship but in service.  The life of a parish should provide opportunities for reaching out to others in service.  That's the cost, and perhaps it is a cost that few of us wish to pay.  Particularly, it is necessary to say, here in the lucky country.  
The vision of John of Patmos – I would say it is a vision, not of heaven but of the Church of God on earth – is realistic.  It is a true vision, but it is not yet reality.  To be honest, we are not yet that Church.  But it is also a promise, that all things will be transformed, including us.  To which, perhaps, we can only say: 'Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus'.

Reverend Evan Pederick
Rector, Anglican Parish of Canning
mob 0433 174 112

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Easter 3

Many many years ago I read a book about the advertising industry, called 'Techniques of Persuasion'.  It was quite a disturbing read, given the authors' premise that any of us can be convinced of just about anything.  It seems the persuaders aren't even put off by the fact that we might originally hold a point of view exactly opposite to the one they want to convince us of – in the book a Soviet KGB officer was quoted as saying the easiest person to convert to Communism was somebody who was fanatically committed to some other 'ism'.  Apparently techniques of persuasion aren't so much rational, as emotional.  We are not convinced by a clever argument, we are sold a new version of ourselves.

This morning's reading from the Acts of the Apostles depicts the best-known ever example of sudden conversion – St Paul's experience on the road to Damascus.  It's a story that even finds its way into our common speech – 'what?', we ask each other, 'did you see the light?'

It's a story that starts – not in the first dramatic weeks after the resurrection but perhaps as early as two or three years later.  Christian Jews haven't yet decisively separated from mainstream Judaism – in fact that wouldn't happen for decades yet - but amongst the immigrant communities, the Greek-speaking, foreign-born Jews in and around Jerusalem - problems were on the way.  The synagogues had always welcomed a few non-Jewish guests, Gentile 'God fearers' as they were called – and it was this lot, when they started to hear and respond to the Christian message, that started all the problems.  If Gentiles wanted to be Christian, did they have to become Jewish first?  Did they have to be circumcised, did they have to follow the Torah and obey the food laws?  Arguments like these seemed to be behind the events that led up to the stoning of Stephen and the immigrant communities' rapid exit from Jerusalem that we read about in Acts, chapter 8.  It's an argument that Paul finds himself right in the middle of - an argument that basically comes down to the age-old problem of faith communities everywhere during times of rapid change – how do we protect ourselves against the loss of our distinctive culture?  And Paul, and others like him, conservative Jews, would have felt they were fighting to preserve what it meant to be Jewish – the right attitude towards scripture, the right observance of Torah. 

What happens to Paul on the road to Damascus is not only one of the most dramatic turnarounds in history, it's also one of the best documented events in the Bible.  Not only does Luke – writing I guess a generation or so after Paul's death – tell the story no less than three times - here in chapter 9, then twice again in chapters 22 and 26 – but Paul himself, in his own letters to the churches in Corinth and Galatia, agrees in all the essential details.  Paul, the highly educated Pharisee, driven, passionate and single-minded in his determination to wipe out the sect of Jesus Christ, becomes Paul the highly educated Pharisee, driven, passionate and single-minded in his determination to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.  Interestingly, his personality doesn't change after his Damascus-road experience – he is and will always remain an over-educated over-achiever. 

But it is the backflip to end all backflips, it's a complete U-turn in Paul's life, and it is accompanied by some sort of physical crisis, some sort of breakdown in his physical and mental state to accompany the break between old priorities and purposes, and new ones.  Paul's life has just got turned inside out, but not – and I think this is significant – because he is persuaded by the arguments or succumbs to some evangelist's emotional appeal. It seems Paul already knows a fair bit about Jesus and the sect of the Christians, he knows about it and opposes it – what's made the difference, according to Luke's version and according Paul's own account as well, is that he's bumped into the actual Jesus as a very much alive reality.  Luke does make it sound like a sort of ethereal heavenly vision, pretty impressive but not quite in the same league as the risen Jesus appearing to shocked disciples in the days and weeks following that first Easter Day.  Paul himself insists – in his letter to the Corinthian church – that this is not just a vision, not just a flash of insight or a fancy mental breakdown – encounter, not persuasion, not hallucination, is what it takes to turn the direction of Paul's life around 180 degrees.

So what's the point?  We know, of course, that this brilliant, argumentative, conflicted man goes on to be the most effective missionary ever of the Christian church.  In fact, without Paul, it's hard to say whether there would even be a Christian church today.  Without Paul's brilliant ability to adapt the gospel of Jesus to the pagan cultures he encountered, it's hard to say how Christian understanding of Jesus might have developed.

But, what's important for us right now about how St Paul comes to have faith in the resurrected Christ of faith? 

Two things, I think.  Firstly, that it's about more than just conversion.  Certainly it starts with the psychological experience of finding a whole new meaning to your life, but it goes further than that.  Because what we see in Paul's experience – as in the experience of Peter in our gospel reading today – is that the transformation that comes from bumping into the risen one has got some strings attached.  Not just the warm inner glow of having a personal Saviour but the urgency of realising you've got something important to do with your life.  Running into the risen one is less about affirmation than about call.  Peter and Paul both demonstrate the reality that Christianity is not just a feel-good consumer option – not just a belief system but an encounter that's got some implications for how you live.  What brings us to faith is not persuasion but relationship – for us, 2,000 years later, the encounter with the risen Christ takes place within the context of the faith community – we see the risen Christ in and through one another – and how we live out our faith brings us into new forms of relationship with others.  For Paul, of course, it meant recognising that what had seemed so important – the institutions of temple and Torah that defined the difference between Jews and pagans – were of no importance at all compared to the new community of Jews and Gentiles living together as people connected with one another because of the new life experienced in Christ.

Which brings us to the second point, which is that Paul's new self-understanding based on encountering the risen Jesus – in a sense he sees his own life as being submerged in the death of Christ and re-awakening to a whole new way of being in the resurrection – changes his orientation from the past to the future, from being defensive and inward-looking to adventurous and outward-looking.  It becomes less important for him to protect the boundaries of tradition, more important to recognise the newness of what God is doing, the welcome of God that is now extended to Gentiles as well as Jews, and to let go of anything that might stand in the way of that.   

The resurrection changes everything – if we take it seriously we become people who are prepared to cross boundaries, people oriented towards the future, not the past – oriented towards new relationships and new possibilities, no longer anxious about protecting our traditions or preserving our sense of identity.  It's especially important, I think, because in a sense the church finds itself today in a similar sort of bind to the Jewish communities of Paul's own time – living in a cultural environment that's leaving us behind, changing so fast that we can't build bridges any longer between our own traditions and the community around us.  There's a temptation to withdraw into defensive isolation – to feel threatened and to blame the secular world for not coming to church in droves like they used to – but I don't think that's the resurrection option.

The resurrection option that St Paul shows us is to recognise that relationship comes first – our encounter with the Christ of faith makes possible new and life-giving relationships with one another and encourages us to trust that God is also showing us new possibilities in the world outside the four walls of our own tradition.  Like St Paul – who remains for the rest of his life a Torah-observant Jew - we can learn new ways of proclaiming the gospel without losing touch with the life-giving source of our own faith and spirituality. 

But what has this got to do with you and me, unless we are called to be apostles?  Quite a bit, I think.  Paul is an unlikely super-hero, at best.  Bookish, not bad on paper but less than impressive in person, as the stroppy Corinthian church were quick to point out to him, a bit of a disappointment to them, it seems.  We are not all called to be preachers, or evangelists, or even theologians (thank goodness!) – but like Paul we are all called to be Christians living in interesting times, times of transition and change – called to trust, not in the stability of a church or a tradition, but in the living person of Jesus and the here-and-now presence of God's Holy Spirit who is leading us into the future.

Just as Paul gets that it is about encounter with Jesus, he also gets that it is about how we live as Christians.  He gets that it is about relationship, about our encountering the risen one and being formed into God's people in the everyday, sometimes inspiring, sometimes conflicted real relationships of the Church.  His writings – real letters to real Christians – demonstrate that over and over, and show that for Paul, God could be trusted to complete in us the work that he has started.  The secret, in fact, for Christians who doubt their own ability to be passionate or articulate advocates for their faith, is that persuasion and having the right words are not the key.  Relationship and trust are the keys, willingness to be open to the future and humility to discern God's leading in our lives – these are the keys to faith that St Paul teaches us.  Willingness to allow our lives to be turned upside down by God's surprising and insistent call – that's the key!

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Sunday after Easter

Do you know anybody who is shut in?  Probably very many of us do, elderly relatives or neighbours, and sometimes even not-so-elderly people who are confined by illness – somebody estimated the other day that in as many as one in six Aussie households you might find somebody who is a victim of domestic abuse or bullying, locked in through fear.  We also get locked in – less literally – by our own inability to break out of habits or circumstances that limit us and deny dignity, or our inability to believe sufficiently in ourselves, or trust in others. 

The disciples, where we come in to our Gospel reading today on the evening of that first Easter Day, are locked in by fear, immobilized and in withdrawal mode.  Remember they have already heard the good news of the resurrection – firstly from Mary, who they didn't believe, then from Peter and the beloved disciple, who saw the empty tomb for themselves, and believed, and presumably ran back to confirm the women's story.  So why are they still in hiding?  Maybe because this is just too much to take in, even though it has been confirmed by several witnesses now – but maybe also because they have an awful feeling it just might be true.  Right now, Jesus is the very last person they want to see, wracked as they are by the recollection of their own moral cowardice and their own inability to keep watch and wait with Jesus through the long torment of Gethsemene and the trial and crucifixion.  Maybe they are afraid because they do believe, maybe they are immobilized for shame – we don't quite know.

Actually to get the full impact of this we need to go back to the morning of that first day, when Mary has her surprising conversation with the one she believes is the gardener.  Because there is significance in this setting – creation, as we read in the Book of Genesis, begins with a man and a woman in a garden at the dawn of the world; here, in this meeting of a man and a woman in another garden, creation is restored.  The Gospel writer is laying out for us what the resurrection of Jesus means - what has been accomplished in the resurrection is that the brokenness not only of individual men and women but of history and creation itself has been reversed.  Remember the story of Noah? In which God decides to throw the levers of creation in reverse, to wipe the slate clean and start again because everything had gone wrong and humanity just wasn't worth the effort? And at the and of it God, it seems, is appalled by God's own actions and promises never to do such a thing again – not because of the essential goodness of humanity – indeed at the end of that story God laments and acknowledges our irremediable violent streak – but because of God's own holiness.  And the resurrection accomplishes what the Flood could not – because in trying to swallow the holiness of God, death bites off more than it can chew.  The scene in the garden is nothing less than what Eden should have been like, and it is a template for a world modeled on the Edenic vision of Isaiah, with humanity and the natural creation living in harmony and shalom. 

This next act informs us how we get from here to there – in other words, how the shalom of creation restored is made possible through the resurrection.  Love, that in fact always has been stronger than cynicism or self-doubt, bursts through the doors of fear and shame.  Different as the resurrection body of Jesus undoubtedly is, what restores the shattered disciples is Jesus' humanity – his first word to them, 'shalom' – 'peace be with you' – is a word of forgiveness and restoration.  This is a word of reconciliation offered to men and women who can't look their risen Lord in the face – it makes a future possible where a moment ago none appeared to be.  It seems to me, for that very reason, that forgiveness is the human practice of the divine reality of resurrection.  There are going to need to be many more words spoken – there always are, when reconciliation is taken seriously, but in this scene it is Jesus' followers who we see being restored to life.

But – Thomas isn't with them.

Thomas gets a bad rap, in Christian folklore – Doubting Thomas, the hard-headed one who demands proof.  I don't think he deserves it, and I want to make two points.  Firstly, that Thomas models the openness and resilience of honest questioning and holy doubt.  Secondly, that he is what we need most – a model for men and women who, if they are going to come to faith at all, need to find the evidence of God's forgiveness and love in the world around us.

But for a start, Thomas isn't locked in the room with the rest of the disciples that first, unsettled and emotionally exhausting evening.  That tells us something.  He could have been anywhere or doing anything, of course, but of all the disciples Thomas is the most self-contained and the least damaged - and he is the only one who isn't shut in.

Easter, you see, isn't just one emotion and one experience – not just the joy and triumph because it also holds our fear and disbelief.  Not just the rejoicing of a community but the alienation of those whose private suffering can't be shared or explained away.  This is why Good Friday isn't absorbed and negated by Easter Day, or to put it another way, why the risen Christ is still broken, still bears the wounds of crucifixion.  Easter holds the irreconcilable extremes of human experience.

Unless we experience the risen Christ for ourselves and in a way that makes a difference in our lives – unless we are able, in some way, to touch the brokenness of the one who died and rose to new and transformed life – unless the story can break through the 2000 year old container of stained glass and incense and mythology, and lodge in the flesh and blood of our lived experience – then it remains just a story.  Unless the wild claim of resurrection can sink in deep enough so that we hear it at the level of our own contradictions and failures and broken dreams, and we get that it is actually personal – then so what?  Thomas is modeling for us the only way that resurrection faith can make a difference.

We do know some things about Thomas.  Earlier in John's gospel, Thomas is the only disciple with the courage to follow Jesus, no matter the cost.  Not Peter the Rock.  Not the Beloved disciple.  Not the Sons of Thunder.  Not Simon the Zealot.

When Jesus hears that his dear friend Lazarus has died, the other disciples try to talk him out of returning to Bethany to mourn. The last time they were there it was touch and go.  The opposition to Jesus' ministry is heating up, the reactions to his wholesale pronouncement of God's forgiveness and his indiscriminate healing and his willingness to hobnob with sinners are getting personal.  The disciples are afraid that returning to Bethany, even to mourn the dead, is asking for trouble.  But while the other disciples fuss and carry on about not going, Thomas alone stands in solidarity with Jesus.  'Let us go with him,' Thomas says, 'so that we may die with him.'  In all of the Gospels this, in fact, is the only moment when any of Jesus' disciples understand that he is going to his death.  By contrast, Peter, when Jesus talks of his impending death, rebukes him for being gloomy and negative.

What if Thomas's refusal to take the other disciples' word for the reality of the resurrection isn't the reaction of a skeptic or an unbeliever?  What if it is the reaction of one who understood the reality of Jesus' crucifixion and who believed Jesus when he said he would rise again – a lover who was prepared to die with his Lord and who understood that resurrection, above all, is personal and changes everything?  What if Thomas, of all of them, understands that resurrection requires us to wait, until the risen one appears to us personally?

But, what do you do when everyone around you claims to have witnessed it? When you find yourself alone with a head full of doubts and buzzing with questions in the middle of a roomful of uncritical believers?  It is a very modern dilemma.  When you want to belong, and you want to believe but you need more?  It's a question of integrity, but it's more than that.  For Thomas it is a question of relationship.  This is his Jesus they are talking about.  He needs Jesus to stand in front of him, to touch him and to speak to him, if he is to come to faith – and so, in our own way, do we.

It's not an easy position to be in.  In fact, it is downright uncomfortable, but Thomas shows us how.  The first thing is to be prepared to wait, not to be overwhelmed by uncertainty or swayed by the majority, but to wait until resurrection becomes real and personal.  This is the difference between resurrection faith and mass hysteria, after all.  Resurrection is real.  The Church is a community of faith, but it is also a community of men and women who each have unique histories and individual needs.  A Church that respects diversity and allows for honest differences of opinion and different stages of faith is a Church that is modeled on the way of St Thomas.

But the second thing Thomas models is this – that he doesn't wait alone.  The following week Thomas is still with his brothers and sisters.  The key to the faith of the Church, it seems to me, is relationship.  Ours is not just a diversity but a communion – as there is no such thing as a private Christianity, so there is no such thing as a Church where relationship does not transcend and hold together our individuality and differences.

A community of unlocked doors.