Saturday, April 29, 2006

You are what you eat

I guess we’ve all heard the expression, ’you are what you eat’.  Recently, I decided I need to lose 5kg, and I thought the best way of doing that would be just to cut out the sweets, and a bit of the bread, and fish and chips – and it worked, actually there’s 5kg less of me, though maybe another couple of kilos off wouldn’t hurt either … but it’s true, isn’t it? – eating is a really big part of who we 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: for example tacos, lasagna, hamburgers, sushi.  Food and drink are a huge part of the important holidays and celebrations of our lives: think about 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 can’t love your neighbour if your own fundamental needs aren’t being met.  Your fundamental need for food, and your fundamental need to share yourself with other people are somehow connected.

There’s a wonderful movie, called Babette’s Feast, and it’s 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 quietly keeps house for the family of the Reformed pastor in this plain and simple fishing village.  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 generousity 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 food and water 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 where 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, 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, but it isn’t the only point.  It says something quite important about resurrection – 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 – 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 had 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.  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.  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 chaos of a Jumble Sale that’s sanctified because we offer it to God as a sacrament.  The eucharist of service to one another, and to the community we live in.  Ordinary things that, when we offer them to God, become holy, and transform us into God’s holy people.


Saturday, April 15, 2006

He is risen!

I don’t think I’ve got a very good comprehension level when it comes to movies, especially the sort where as a viewer you’re left to fill in all the gaps for yourself.  I guess when I find time to flop down in front of the TV I just want to be told a story, not find myself struggling to keep up with where it’s going and what it all means.  Worst of all, from my point of view, is when the movie just stops, and you’re left hanging – well, did she actually kill him or did he just fake his death and leave the country?? What happened about …?  What if …?  I don’t want to have to make up alternative endings for myself.  I just want a believable ending so I can switch off the TV and go to bed.

St Mark is particularly guilty of this.  And it isn’t just me that thinks so.  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 end with this, “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Can you imagine?  These women knew what had happened to Jesus, according to Mark, these same three women were looking on – 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 others, 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 just can’t quite get a coherent picture. 

Mark’s ending is so ambiguous and so downright unsatisfying, that 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 do with St Mark what I’d like to do to some of these deeply unsatisfying movies I watch – they change 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 the power that 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.

But there is one central 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.  Jesus, who was as dead as you get, 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 meaning of human life is self-giving love – demonstrates for us 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 evidence for it is in what happens next, in what Salome and the Marys do next, what the shocked and defeated disciples do next, and also in what you and I do next.  The final proof of the resurrection life of Jesus Christ, the true resurrection body of Christ, is 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, like Gaza or Guantanamo Bay.

But, just as we started to get into it, the movie is over.  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 they find the courage to tell the good news.  The real question Mark’s posing is for us: what will we do?


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Good Friday: The seven last words

One of the points of detail that sets St John’s gospel apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke, is the question of the timing of Jesus’ death.  The other gospels record Jesus as dying on the Day of the Passover, the day that Jews remember how God miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt.  In St John’s gospel the timing is a bit different, Jesus is crucified the day before, still on Friday but it’s the Day of Preparation – at about the same time as the priests in the temple would have been slaughtering the lambs in preparation for the Passover meal, and the Passover itself would have begun at the time when Jesus’ body is laid in the garden tomb.  That most pregnant pause of all, as Jesus’ lifeless body lies in the tomb, his shocked disciples in hiding, appalled at the enormity of their own betrayal – the night they thought they’d never see, then the longest day, and another night, turning over in their minds the hard questions – what did it all mean?

Good Friday is a day for reflection, the day in the Christian calendar when, more than any other day, we find ourselves speechless, sitting in front of the cross.  What does it mean for us, what does it have to do with how we have lived our lives, how does it challenge us?  In a short while, we are going to spend a few minutes just in silent reflection, and many of you might want to come up to the front of the church and touch or just kneel in front of the cross. 

 One of the most hideous methods of execution ever invented, crucifixion was designed to prolong its victim’s death while inflicting the greatest possible amount of pain.  The Roman philosopher, Seneca, wrote that without exception, criminals being nailed to the cross would writhe in agony and curse the day they were born. And yet, St Luke records Jesus praying even as his executioners nail his hands and feet to the cross.  The first word that Jesus speaks on the cross is a prayer, an echo of the prayer he taught his disciples to pray – that most intimate word – Father.  Forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.  In the whole of the Bible, I don’t think there is another example of such forgiving love.  I wonder who Jesus is including in his prayer?  Those crucifying him, those whose humanity was so degraded and diminished by their brutalising acts, certainly.  And his disciples who fled in terror, who would right now be levelling at themselves such loathing and self-recrimination?  Perhaps them, too.  And those standing at the foot of the cross, those numb with helpless grief?  Maybe them, as well.  What ancient memory of turning aside from human suffering or need do you find in yourself, what submerged shame within you echoes at these words of Jesus: Forgive them Father, they don’t know what they are doing?

Jesus is crucified between two brigands, the Greek word suggests they might be resistance fighters or terrorists, men who have lived violently and who expected to die violently.  Like gang members everywhere they are ambivalent in the face of Jesus’ totally impractical refusal to hate.  Today, you will be with me in paradise.  You, with all your burden of compromise, the ideals sold out, the hard realities you have lived and the questionable acts you have committed, the self-serving deals you have made, your hard-bitten refusal to believe in fairytale promises of God’s kingdom.  You will be with me in paradise, today.

Jesus dies as he has lived, in context, in a tangle of relationships like ours, the ones that define us as sons and daughters, friends, neighbours, competitors, customers, employees, employers.  Theologians call it the scandal of particularity, the obstinate fact of Jesus’ physical existence at a particular time and a particular place, maybe with red hair and cracked heels, maybe loving Mary Magdalene, maybe with an infectious laugh and just a bit too fond of red wine.  Or, maybe not.  But, certainly, with a mother, with brothers, with friends.  Mother, look – your son.  Look, man – your mother.  Jesus comes to us in the context of who we are, right in the heart of our own community, and gives us the gift of one another.  Who is it for you?  Who is it that you will look at today, and see Jesus?

From the first, Jesus has understood that who he is, comes out of his relationship with the one he calls his Father.  From the very first, Jesus has known his Father’s love as a constant fact of life, surrounding him like the air that he breathes.  He has lived his whole life in obedience to the call of this love, and it has led him from the obscurity of a Galilean village through times of popularity, excitement and the unreal expectations of others, into the dangerous waters of intrigue, the political and religious factionalism of Jerusalem, to midnight arrest and torture and agonising death.  How do you keep trusting God when everything that was fresh and green and full of life turns into dust?  When the promises evaporate and God himself is absent?  Jesus cries out to the God who isn’t there, the God who has always been faithful not only in his own life but in the history of God’s people, in the words of the psalm, My God – why have you abandoned me?  A cry of dereliction to the God in whom Jesus still trusts, still hopes.  When has your need for God been so extreme that you can only rage at the God who isn’t there?  And how has God answered you?

Jesus is human.  We forget that, sometimes, when we emphasise so much Jesus’ oneness with God.  What you go through, Jesus also goes through.  The suffering of men and women and children in the AIDS holocaust of Africa, the fearful shelling of Gaza, the shock of car bomb victims in Baghdad, this suffering is God’s suffering.  I thirst.  Human beings who lose a lot of blood can go mad with thirst.  What human suffering do you hold up to God today, what human suffering do you name today as the suffering of our Lord?

The Passover victim has been sacrificed, the impossible conjunction of love and suffering, of divine goodness and human darkness has been accomplished.  It is finished.  We presume too much if we attempt an explanation of how Jesus’ death reconciles us to one another and to God.  Today is not a good day for explanations, today is a day for hearing the echoes of this last word of Jesus in our own lives.  The Day of Preparation has been completed and the Passover of our Lord has begun.  What has been accomplished in you?


Saturday, April 08, 2006

Journeying with Jesus

Today, the Sunday that begins Holy Week, is a day with two names. 

When I was growing up, it used to be called just Palm Sunday, with a focus on processions and palms - a Sunday for celebration and cheering – the one occasion in Jesus’ ministry when the crowds seemed to get it right, and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was like a foretaste of the glory that is fully revealed after Jesus’ death and resurrection a week later.  Palm Sunday back then was the day for Christians who loved sunshine and tickertape, and all the light-headed excitement of a parade.  It was even possible to stay in the mood all week, to skip lightly between Palm Sunday and Easter Day a week later, from cheering Jesus as Messiah to standing in hushed awe in front of an empty tomb on Easter morning.  The solemn moment of Good Friday, lying in between the celebrations like a religious version of Anzac Day, was for hurrying over.

Palm Sunday was a day for Christians on the move, a good day for getting out of our churches and being seen.  And then, along the way, something wonderful happened.  Palm Sunday became a day of symbolism even for people who weren’t Christians, but who joined with Christians in events like the annual Palm Sunday Rally and March for Peace.  This day, on which as Christians we celebrate the one who follows the costly way of love all the way to Jerusalem, to the centre of our religious and political power – this day has become a day for Christians and non-Christians alike to reflect on how we see mirrored in the ancient story of Jesus’ passion and death, something of our own story and the story of the world we live in. 

Then, even more recently, Palm Sunday acquired this double-barrelled name, both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday – starting off with the goose bumps and the slightly embarrassing fun of doing churchy stuff out in public - the dramatic celebration of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus’ five minutes of fame – and then all at once the sunshine gets switched off and the cheering fans go home – the mood turns dark, the crowd gets ugly and Jesus is arrested and beaten, forced to endure the humiliation of a show trial and tortured to death on a Roman cross.  Cynics might suggest the Church needed to piggy-back the Passion readings onto the end of the Palm Sunday fun because not enough Christians were prepared to follow the journey all the way through the dark days and nights of Holy Week.  Not enough Christians understood that the only way to experience the power of the resurrection is to identify both emotionally and physically with the agony of Gethsemene and the torture of the cross.

Historically, Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution would have happened quickly, almost as quickly as our lightening Passion Sunday rehearsal of it.  The main preoccupation of the city was preparation for the Passover celebration, the excitement of a religious observance that was also a national festival and an excuse for a rip-roaring good time.  The city was getting on with the real business of fleecing the tens of thousands of country bumpkins in town for the show – think of the Claremont Showgrounds at Royal Show time and you get the picture.  The hurried arrest and execution of a minor Galilean troublemaker was hardly a blip on the radar.

Yet for the followers of Jesus, for the peasant women and men whose lives had been redefined by following this strange charismatic preacher, who had begun to see themselves as a new sort of community based on the rule of love – the shock of a world interrupted must have been paralysing.  Straight after the tender yet disturbing intimacy of the Passover meal, the panic and fear of sudden arrest as armed soldiers scattered the disciples - who simply ran in fear.  Peter denies even knowing Jesus, right as in the back of his mind he recalls his hot-headed promises of allegiance.  Fear and anxiety would have spread outwards like ripples in a pond.  It’s the same sort of reaction for people today whose lives have been ripped apart by terrorism, or for whole populations living in the shadow of military occupation.  In our world just as much as the world of Jesus’ day, people with great power know that the way to control a chaotic situation is to act quickly, to provoke shock, to destabilise and intimidate anyone who might dare to ask questions.  That’s how it is for the demoralised disciples.

And it’s also the power of the story of Jesus’ midnight interrogation that echoes down through the centuries – the power that reminds us – maybe against our will – of other midnight interrogations, arrests and beatings and disappearances that define our own political and moral world.  We think of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid leaders of South Africa, the stories of torture conducted by our enemies - and even more appallingly by those who act in our own name - in places like Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq.  We can even read in our daily newspapers scholarly articles that purport to find a moral justification for the torture of terror suspects - a moral imperative for using a tool of interrogation that presumes the suspect is guilty and just wants to know: who else is with you?  How organised are you?  How much of a threat?  A weapon that diminishes the humanity of those who wield it, just as surely as it degrades and humiliates those on the receiving end. 

The story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion is the ground zero of our Christian faith, the shocking reality of humiliation and destruction from which as Christians we dare not shrink away, we dare not avoid, because it is in watching with Jesus through the days and nights ahead of us that we also experience the reality of God with us in the heart of our own worst experiences.  It is in the story of Jesus’ suffering and humiliation that we are confronted with our own humanity, our own suffering as well as our failure to respond with courage and mercy to the suffering of others.  Because it’s not just Jesus’ suffering that gives this two thousand year old story the power to move and confront us, but the stunning and inexplicable act of love that we recognise at its centre – a love that not only makes the suffering possible but that has the power to reach into its very heart and transform it.

From the earliest centuries, Christians have recognised the need to relive the last journey of Christ, to look into the mirror of Jesus’ suffering and death and to see reflected there the stories of their own communities.  On Good Friday, in the evening, we’re going to join millions of Christians throughout the world in the centuries-old Franciscan practice of reflecting on the Stations of the Cross - identifying ourselves in the drama as onlookers or participants, as those too preoccupied or too indifferent, too busy to care or simply unaware of what Jesus is doing that has any relevance to us.  Maybe we’ll see the innocent suffering of Jesus reflected in the innocent suffering of victims of sexual abuse in our own wealthy country, children suffering in war-torn countries, the innocent victims of the AIDS holocaust in Africa.  Maybe we’ll recognise Christ’s suffering in the pain of indigenous Australians who have seen their land, their culture and their families torn away from them and who continue to live out the terrible legacy of invasion.

The road to Golgotha that we are going to travel this week is littered with the torn bodies of human suffering, and our liturgy today and the liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are designed as ways for us to open ourselves to the reality of this story in our own lives, ways to get us asking ourselves some hard and yet life-giving questions -

What happens to us when we visualise all human suffering as the suffering of Christ?  What difference might it make to Christians living in Sudan, in Palestine or Iraq, or in the countless other places in our world in which ordinary people’s lives are filled with suffering, as this week they gather to hear this story?  What might it mean – what difference might it make to us or to them – if this week we reflect on their suffering as the suffering of Christ?

Where in this story do you hear an echo of your own life?  Where do you hear the echoes of betrayal, or fear and confusion and loss, that trigger that deeply-etched memory of your own world turned upside down, the grief that can’t be overcome or the guilt that can’t be avoided?  How might the story of Jesus’ passion and death help you to think and pray about the inescapable realities of your own life?

As the palm fronds get swept up today, we enter the strangeness and the silence of Holy Week, the story of God’s extravagant love for every human being.  Today, we set foot together the road to Golgotha.  As we listen together, remember together, as we make together the journey that’s both collective and deeply personal, let’s be tender and careful companions to one another.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

A grain of wheat

Note: In writing this sermon, I used as a starting point a sermon by Bruce Prewer entitled ‘One Buried Grain’, which is published on his web-site at  Some of the words, and many of the ideas, from Bruce’s sermon, have found their way into mine!

Rev’d Evan


This has got to be the smallest parable of the lot – so obvious, it hardly needs any explanation.  Grains of wheat are ploughed into the ground, you plant beans or peas in your vege garden. They are buried, and covered over.  They look like they’re dead and buried.  I remember as a child planting some wheat out in the backyard.  It took an act of faith, and it seemed like a miracle when, weeks later, little green shoots appeared, and I remember the excitement as the plants grew up and matured.  For a little boy, this was an amazing discovery.  From a few seeds I had a whole patch of wheat growing, and new seed heads forming.  You just put a few seeds in the ground and you get a whole pile of wheat!  Why doesn’t everyone do that?

So the weeks of Lent are coming to an end, today is the last of the Sundays in Lent, and next Sunday is Passion Sunday.  By now the disciplines of Lent are kicking in, if you decided to give something up, or if you took on an extra spiritual discipline, you begin to realise that we’re getting towards the serious end.  We find ourselves reading in church the passages that show us Jesus reflecting on the meaning of his own death, Jesus’ obscure invitation for us to follow in his footsteps, to die with him in order that we might live with him.

I sometimes reflect that we’re in the right place, in the Southern Hemisphere, for the moral seriousness of Holy Week.  In the Northern Hemisphere, of course, the light is growing, in fact the word ‘Lent’ itself comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word for spring – the lengthening days – here in Australia the last days of Lent coincide with the first chill of autumn and the realisation that the days are getting shorter.

Autumn is the season for planting wheat.  You plough and plant and then the seed lies quietly while the winter rains nourish the soil, and you wait for spring.  We understand this of course as Jesus referring to the meaning of his own death, to his resurrection from the dead in which as believers we see God’s promise of our own eternal life.  And in these final weeks of Lent, as the weather cools down and the sky turns grey, we find ourselves wondering what it all means.  This death, that Jesus must have realised was only the logical outcome for a prophet who takes the foolhardy leap from small-town popularity and success in Galilee into the dangerous undercurrents of political power in Jerusalem – what does it mean and what does it really accomplish?  What’s the bumper crop that this obscure grain of wheat is going to yield?  Is the significance of Jesus’ death simply that three days later he is going to be seen alive again?  Giving birth to a religion that promises eternal life to us as well, if we believe?  Is the meaning of all of this confined to a two thousand year-old story that we can either believe or disbelieve?

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Loss is gain. Death becomes life.  It is a paradoxical truth which for Jesus, as he works out the meaning of his own life, and chooses to live in obedience to the will of the one he calls his Father, is carrying him forward to the ultimate paradox of disgrace and humiliating death that contains the seeds of new life.  It’s also, I believe, a truth about us, an unalterable fact of human life.

This is what Jesus tells us: protect your life and it will shrink.  Give it up and it will expand.  It’s the truth that we celebrate, in the Eucharist, every single week, and it’s the central truth about our own personal lives as well.

It’s not an easy message to hear.  Jesus has got other messages that are a lot more pleasant.  The bit about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, the message that God counts every single hair of our heads, that’s a lot more reassuring.  We don’t like this talk about having to shrink, to contract, to give stuff up, we don’t like the sort of talk about having to be buried in the earth before we can start to really live.  We find it easier to interpret that sort of talk as a metaphor about what happens after our own physical deaths, about the promise of the next life in God’s heavenly kingdom.  But Jesus never confines his talk about God’s kingdom to the next world, the transformation he promises and the demands he makes always begin in the here and now. 

It’s not surprising that we don’t like this talk of dying and being buried. The world we live in gives us a different message, one that’s 100% opposite: ‘Save your life, protect yourself, pamper yourself.  Spoil yourself with all your energy and all your resources.  Don’t make yourself vulnerable.  Look after your own interests.’  That’s the gospel according to New Idea, the message of TV advertising.  ‘Spoil yourself.  Accumulate all the comforts and pleasures you can afford.  Because you’re worth it.’

There’s an image of Jesus that I think does a lot of damage, and I call it the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ image.  This image of Jesus makes him look so other-worldly, so goody-goody and ethereal, that he’s not much use to real men and women living in the real world.  Fortunately, that’s not the image of Jesus we get if we read the gospels – there we see a Jesus who loves to eat and drink with his friends, who needs human company, who has a sense of humour – a real flesh and blood Jesus who loves life and lives it to the full.  That’s why we need to sit up and take notice when he starts talking about the need for us to die in order that we can start to live.  Because this Jesus is a realist, and what this Jesus wants is for us to start living realistically, for us to reject the false gospel that our world holds out to us and discover a truth that is harder, deeper, and more enduring.

This is the way to live, Jesus assures us – leave the immature and egotistical stuff behind, stop holding on so tightly to your precious grain of wheat, take the risk of letting go of everything that seems so precious, and discover an abundant quality of life that’s more all the ‘me-first’ promises of this world lumped together.

Share your life, give of yourself, don’t keep anything in reserve.  And the life you get back in return, the life you find yourself sharing and giving, will blow your old life out of the water.  The deaths that Jesus asks us to die are the countless little deaths of learning to live selflessly in our relationships with the people we love, in our relationships with the people we find difficulty in loving.  According to Jesus, the meaning of your life and mine is the cross, and it’s a meaning that gets revealed in us not just after we die but in how we live, not for ourselves, but for others.

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s easy.  Long before he gets to Jerusalem, Jesus learns that being vulnerable and living for others is anything but a soft option.  Welcomed in some towns, hounded out of others, misunderstood, surrounded by people who saw in him a way to achieve their own ambitions, pursued by others who saw him as a threat.

And the closer he gets to Jerusalem, the harder it gets.  The story we read this morning maybe reveals some of the emotional turmoil for Jesus in those final days – some foreigners in Jerusalem for the festival have heard about Jesus and they want to meet with him.  Is this a temptation for Jesus to turn aside from his hard destiny.  What do they want?  What have they got to offer?  Be sensible!  Why lose your life in hard-hearted Jerusalem, when you’ve got an international reputation, when others want to hear your good news? 

Jesus isn’t one for taking the soft options though, and we know what happens next.  And it’s when we listen carefully to what Jesus himself says about his own destiny, that we begin to understand what his death might mean for us.  In John’s gospel we don’t hear anything about Jesus dying for our sins, but we do hear a lot about relationship – the life-giving relationship God has with us, and the life-giving relationships we have with one another.  Jesus’ death is both necessary and life-giving because out of it a new community is going to be formed – a community of people who understand the meaning of their own lives – and the meaning of their relationships with one another – not in terms of competition and self-fulfilment, but in terms of Jesus self-sacrificing love.

And that community is us.  That’s the Church, the true resurrection body of Christ.  The meaning of the cross is worked out in my life and in yours, the unlikely fruit that has sprung up from the single grain that Jesus lets fall into the earth is us.