Saturday, March 29, 2008

Easter 2

A literary genre that became fashionable when I was growing up was the substitution of a hero for an anti-hero.  Of course an anti-hero is not just the opposite of a hero – an anti-hero is not just a villain – the anti-hero is the flawed human being who acts out of mixed motives – somebody who maybe starts out acting on the level of pure self-interest but along the way finds their humanity challenged by a moral dilemma – maybe somebody who ends up doing something good for the wrong reason, or who makes a moral trade-off to achieve something good by acting in a questionable way.  Anti-heroes are dubious people – and it is that which makes them of enduring interest to readers who have a sneaking suspicion that their own motivations might also be somewhat mixed.

Thomas – the one we've always referred to as the Doubter – is also dubious in just this way.  Thomas is a classic anti-hero – like so many other characters in John's gospel.  I'm in two minds about Thomas.  On the one hand, I think he gets a raw deal in Church tradition.  On the other hand, I think maybe he gets away too easily.

Now for us, a whole week has gone past since Easter Day – a really good thing for me, I've had a chance to catch up on some sleep and have a bit of a think about where we're up to.  But for the men and women that first Easter, the ones who'd loved Jesus and who saw him die, the ones who have just been startled awake and scared out of their wits all over again by the ambiguous news that the tomb is empty and that Peter and some of the women claim they have seen Jesus alive and well – we're still in the evening of that very first day.

John tells us the disciples are in a locked room, gathered together secretly 'for fear of the Jews'.  We need to be careful here, on two counts – firstly to understand this term, 'the Jews' as meaning, the Jewish authorities who in collusion with the Roman occupation government have conspired to get rid of a minor troublemaker.  We can also read into this some nervousness on the part of country folk from Galilee, up north past Samaria – people who have followed Jesus down to Jerusalem just this once only to see everything fall apart, Jesus taken and executed for political reasons that probably they barely understand – Galilean men and women who maybe feel afraid of everything Judean – but 2000 years later, we who have had too much experience of anti-Semitism need to be very careful how we understand John's easy shorthand expression – 'the Jews'.

The second thing we need to unpack a bit carefully is this – John isn't just talking here about the 11 disciples who become the earliest apostles of the church – instead I think we need to have a mental picture of the whole community that has formed around Jesus – a community that has gradually grown as he has travelled through the villages of Galilee and then made his way down to Jerusalem and this fatal encounter.  The reason it's important is because it's not just the apostles but the whole community that is about to be charged with a new purpose – the whole community that's about to be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit which empowers them as Jesus has been empowered – but right now they are in hiding, sitting behind locked doors probably waiting to hear the sound of soldiers outside.

This passage in chapter 20 of John's gospel is sometimes called the Johannine Pentecost, because where in Luke's more picturesque account it takes a full 40 days after the ascension for the Holy Spirit to come down on the apostles in tongues of fire, in John's gospel the gift of the Spirit comes immediately when Jesus has been glorified – for John there is no time lag between Jesus' suffering and his glorification and so it is right on that first day that Jesus empowers the community of faith and sends them, just as he has been sent.  The way John writes it directs our minds better, I think, to what it means to be a disciple – the agenda for discipleship is set by Jesus' own relationship with the Father, which has been opened up to include those who believe in him – Jesus' offer of life to those who believe in him becomes the template for the Christian community which is also about living out of a new sort of relationship with God.  The Spirit that empowers Jesus to offer the sort of relationship that gives life is transferred to the community of faith when Jesus breathes on them – this is a play on words in Greek that always reminds me of learning to give CPR, mouth to mouth resuscitation – because this breath is literally as well as symbolically Jesus' life that is passed on to reanimate those who love him.  This scene gives us the hint that what is happening in resurrection is that it is we who are being brought to life, and the resurrection life of Jesus is inseparable from what the Church does in continuing to proclaim and demonstrate what that new life is about.

But Thomas is not with them when all this happens.  Neither, as it happens, are we.  Neither are any of the Christian community that John is writing his gospel for.  Thomas in a sense stands as a kind of link between the first generation of disciples who believe because they see, and later disciples who can only come to faith because they believe what they hear.  The reason I think Thomas gets a raw deal is that he isn't the only one who has refused to believe the good news that has been told to him.  In fact nobody in the gospel account believes until Jesus appears to them personally, not the women, not Peter or the other male disciples, not Thomas.  And the whole point is that Jesus does appear to them, Jesus gives them what they need to come to faith. 

But where Thomas is different is that he was not there that first Sunday evening.  There's not much point speculating where he was – the point is that those hiding in the room had, in seeing Jesus there, experienced Jesus' presence in a way that Thomas had missed out on. When Thomas hears the story from the others he maybe thinks that, if he really wanted to touch Jesus, he'd been in the wrong place.  This is Thomas's biggest mistake - thinking that the body he really needs to touch is the body that was nailed to the cross.  Yet when Jesus meets Thomas's conditions for belief, he comes out with the fullest confession of faith in the whole gospel – my Lord and my God! – and if tradition is right St Thomas ultimately travels a long way indeed, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ as far as India. 

Maybe the reason I end up in two minds about Thomas is that John, the writer of the gospel, is also in two minds about him.  At any rate, John tries to make the story demonstrate two very different points.  You see, part of what the gospel writer is emphasising with this story, is that the resurrection life of Christ is not something you need to be able to see or touch at all – that those who have come to faith a century – or twenty centuries – later have had just as real and just as life-changing an encounter with the resurrection life of Christ as the community of faith did that first Easter Day.  The resurrection life of Christ is what we see at work in the church, it's what takes tangible shape right here in our own community when we commit ourselves to loving one another and encouraging one another to grow in faith and love, and when we work together to invite others into the life-giving relationship that ultimately grows out of the relationship that Jesus has with his Father.  Thomas is a negative example of that. 

But the other part of what the gospel writer wants to emphasise at first glance seems almost the exact opposite – and that's the real, physical presence of the risen Christ that Thomas can touch – the same sort of thing that Luke emphasises when he talks about the risen Jesus eating a piece of fish – because at the end of the first century, when John is writing his gospel, he needs to argue that the risen Christ is really real - no ghost, not just a figment of the imagination or even a reality that's only spiritual and not physical.  That the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth is continuous with the risen Christ and the source of the resurrection life the Church proclaims after Easter.

Thomas ultimately gets it right, even if his motives are mixed – he gets it right for the wrong reasons but he ends up as evidence of the truth that what matters is not proof of the resurrection, but encounter with the risen Christ.  That makes him an anti-hero worth taking seriously – an anti-hero for dubious Christians.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Easter Day

He is risen!

[He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!]

Well, actually, I think it's a good news-bad news situation.  Bet you weren't expecting that.  Bet you thought today was just about good news – chocolate eggs and strawberries and champagne – anyway, that's what I've got planned for later, I don't know about the rest of you.  But I reckon it's bad news first, then it's good news.

The bad news?  Jesus Christ is risen!  And if you don't think that's bad news, that might be because you need reminding that the person we are claiming to be alive – the historical person called Jesus of Nazareth that we claim, in some sense or other, couldn't be contained by death and the grave, that it's this known troublemaker, this very challenging and inconvenient person who we claim to be still at large, still capable of stirring things up – and that, I suggest, might be very bad news for anyone like me who sometimes prefers not to hear some of the uncomfortable things this Jesus had to say.

It's certainly not that Jesus is the only guru, role model or even god on offer.  Just by opening the Weekend Australian yesterday I got more good advice than I knew what to do with from Ruth Ostrow, Phillip Adams and Susan Maushart – then there's daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey or Dr Phil – or if you want a real Messiah there's always Kevin Rudd, Tim Flannery or the Dalai Lama.  A lot of people even find Athena Starwoman more helpful than Jesus, who never seems to have anything at all to say about the chances of finding Mrs or Mr Right.

Of course there are other, what we might call, more traditional gods most of us would much rather know than Jesus – power, drugs, money, success.  I could make a pretty good case for coffee. 'Whatever your soul clings to and replies on, that is your god', is the way Martin Luther put it. How about education or health or family or even church? Most of us probably know a lot more about these gods – and give them a whole lot more of our time and effort - than Jesus.

So what's such particularly bad news about Jesus, by all accounts an extraverted kind of guy, loved to talk, loved to hang around with pretty much anybody really, the good, the bad and the dangerous - riff-raff, good time girls, respectable types and pompous gits - loved to eat and drink, had some whacky theories about the reign of God that he said was going to turn the status quo on its head – the poor would find themselves coming first for a change, rich folks would find all of a sudden they were poor in what really counted – in God's scheme of things, Jesus claimed, everybody who is now on the outer finds themselves welcomed and accepted, sins get forgiven willy nilly with no strings attached, women and men are healed of the secret afflictions, the shame and guilt that prevent them from living joyfully and with strength – all of this, of course, is what got up the collective noses of the powers that be so much that they had to put a stop to it – and if – as in fact today we do – we claim that nothing the merciless Roman occupation army could do, nothing the self-serving Jewish religious elites could do – not even nailing this obvious troublemaker to a cross – then nothing at all can stop this nonsense because Jesus refuses to stay dead.

Not only is it nonsense, obviously deluded and completely out of touch with the real world – but if you do want to claim this eccentric do-gooder as your cup of tea, your take on what's really going on, the prism through which you see reality, the way you judge what's right way up and what's not – in short, if you want to be a disciple of Jesus, if you, like me, want to claim this Jesus as revealing to you what God is like – and if you believe the resurrection of Jesus shows his agenda as ultimately realistic – then the really bad news is that – well, the challenge is to actually start living this way, isn't it? 

As people who understand themselves as forgiven and follow Jesus' foolish practice of indiscriminate forgiveness.  As people who take as the yardstick of their own lives Jesus' life of compassion and generosity in which we recognise something of the quality of God's life.

I'm sure you'll agree Athena Starwoman is an easier proposition, by far.

So you'd probably rather hear the good news?

Well, of course it's that Jesus Christ is risen!  [Alleluia!]

Easy enough to say, especially in all the hype and drama of Easter Day, but what do we actually mean by it?  Especially if, like me, you're too old to believe in the Easter Bunny?  What is resurrection actually about?

For a start, I think it means something more than just resuscitation – something more than just re-animating a dead-as-a-doornail human body, something more for example than the now almost routine medical miracle that gives new hope and new life where life and hope have almost gone – resuscitation which by its very nature means just a continuation of life, more of the same, even if nothing is ever going to seem quite the same again – resurrection on the other hand has got to mean a quality of life that's completely different, a whole new way of being, and notice that as Christians we don't just claim this new sort of life for Jesus as a sort of 'one-off' proof that he really was who he said he was – we claim Jesus resurrection as evidence of what God intends for every single human being.  That the God who creates the world we live in – and us – intends us for life and not for death.  The body that's missing from the tomb – the absence at the heart of the shining presence that is resurrection belief – is intended I think not to close off the possibilities of how we might understand Jesus' resurrection – and our own – but to drop us the hint that what we are being invited into is a mystery.

So what does it mean to claim that Jesus is alive?  At the very least, I'd want to suggest, it means that he can still surprise us, that he can still challenge us, still come out with something new, a fresh perspective on our own reality.  In other words, to say that Jesus lives is to say something about the future. That Jesus is not just a figure of the past to be remembered but a surprise in the future to be expected.

Our Gospel reading this morning points us in that direction, I think.  'He is going ahead of you', is how the Angel puts it to the Marys at the empty tomb. And then Jesus confirms it, 'Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; that's where there they will see me.'  In other words, right in the middle of your everyday reality, in the middle of your working week – not as some historical curiosity but as a fact of lived experience. 

And the second thing it means, I think, for us to claim Jesus is alive, is that as Christians we are not just following a rule-book, or a guide-book.  We don't just read the stories of our faith to nod our heads approvingly and say, 'good point'.  'Ah, there's something there for all of us, really'.  We don't just read the Bible as history, or as mythology, as poetry, or even just as a rollicking good story, for all that it can be every one of those things, at times – if we are serious in asserting that this Jesus is alive then it means we are claiming we have a relationship with him.  That Jesus can surprise and delight and challenge and annoy me because – in some way that really you can't expect me to be too clear about because like every living, growing relationship, it just is – I have a living relationship with Jesus, the Christ of faith.

And the third thing – this, I promise you, is my very last thing – is that the one you meet in the middle of your everyday life – the one who reveals to you the infinite, inexpressible heart of God – the living Christ of faith – is also and always the broken one, the suffering, crucified one who knows what it is like to feel rejected and abandoned even by God – the one who promises not carparks or good health or lottery wins, or that you will never feel pain or loss in your life, but that he will be with you through thick and thin – the one who, because he is with you is able to reach into the depths of your own suffering and bring forth from it beauty and compassion and joy.

And that, I think, is good news.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Good Friday

The story of Juanita, “Jesus of the Andes” was  brought to my attention in a Good Friday reflection by the Reverend Dr Bill Loader, which can be accessed at  I have also made use of reflections from ‘Thank God it’s Friday: encountering the seven last words from the cross’, by William Willimon, (2008, Abingdon, Nashville).


I wonder if anybody here has heard of Juanita, the virgin of Mount Ampato in Peru?

We don’t actually know Juanita’s real name – she was christened Juanita by the archaeologists who discovered her frozen body, more than five centuries after she died.  There’s a certain poignancy, I think, in every archaeological dig, the sense of intrusion on the domestic lives of people long dead, of eavesdropping on the private details of lives lived long before men and women ever dreamed that such a thing was possible.  But this find, back in 1995, was especially heartbreaking, the perfectly preserved body of a 12 year old girl, the right side of her temple crushed by a single blow from a spiked club, her brain pressed to the left side of the skull.  There were no other indications of violence or mistreatment, the child was well-fed and it seemed she had trekked for a number of weeks and climbed over six thousand metres to reach the mountain top on which she met her end.  She had been buried according to the rituals of her people with dignity and honour.  This Inca girl was a five hundred year old human sacrifice who had been carefully prepared to die for her people, a willing victim to appease the angry god of the mountain volcano.

Does it make you angry to think of this?  Does it sadden you to think of a people who believed in such an angry god, a god who they believed periodically hurled lava and hot ash at them and who could only be satisfied by the provision of a scapegoat?  Or do you, perhaps, also believe in a god like this?  A cranky god who’s had enough of you, and me, and everybody like us who just doesn’t measure up.  A god who keeps a track of your sins – sins of omission and sins of commission, the ugliness of envy, the trickiness of deceit, all the times you were selfish, or lustful, the times you wished someone else harm, the times you used someone else as a means to an end, sins mortal, cardinal and deadly – a god who sees right through you and who is just in the middle of thinking up some particularly nasty eternal punishment for you – when Jesus offers to take the rap instead. 

Today, of all days in the Christian calendar, we need to reflect very carefully on just what sort of God we believe in.  Believe it or not, this nasty caricature of a god that I’ve just described is still officially on the books in many parts of the Christian Church, certainly something like this is still the subconscious image of God that many Christians carry around with them – a violent, rejecting image of God that makes God’s people, in turn, rejecting, guilt-ridden and unloving.  Someone has to pay the price of sin, in this scheme of things.  Just thank God it isn’t us.  Thank God it’s Friday!

Except, what if God isn’t like that?  What if God isn’t interested in squaring up the cosmic balance sheet?  What if God is more like the father in the story that Jesus told who comes running to meet the son who had ripped him off and abandoned him, who having sunk to rock-bottom decides to try wheedling his way back into his father’s good books?  Not because he’s sorry about how he treated his father, but because he’s sorry for himself.  What if God is more like that father who doesn’t even mention his son’s misdemeanours, who is just overjoyed to have his boy back and who dresses him up in the finest clothes and throws a party for him?  The foolish father who loves too much and allows himself to get hurt?  What if God is more like that?

Because two of the words Jesus speaks from the cross show us, I think, that sort of God.  According to the tradition, putting together all of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus speaks seven times after he’s nailed to the cross.  Preachers on Good Friday often focus on these seven sayings, the so-called seven last words – today I just want to talk about two of them.

And the first one is this.  As soon as the soldiers have crucified Jesus – an inevitable consequence, really, for a prophet who insists on talking about freedom and forgiveness in a world of political and religious oppression – as soon as Jesus is hoisted up there, according to Luke’s gospel, he prays to the one who, as he always has in his life, he addresses as ‘Father’.  ‘Father, forgive them’, he prays.  ‘They don’t know what they are doing.’

He isn’t talking to us, to his disciples, to the soldiers themselves, to any of the bystanders at the foot of the cross.  Instead, we are overhearing a private conversation, a conversation between the Son and the Father, deep within the heart of God.  And Jesus, rejected and pushed aside onto the cross, asks God to forgive those who have refused to listen and be changed by his gospel of forgiveness and love.

Actually, I wonder whether I really know what I’m doing most of the time.  It seems to me I’ve spent most of my life trying to work it out.  I think about stuff, and sometimes I pray about it, and then I act impulsively, hoping for the best, hoping somebody else knows what they are doing, following the rules because at least then if it all goes wrong I can’t get into any trouble.  Remember the temptation in the mythical account of the Garden of Eden – eat this and then you’ll know what’s going on – you’ll be able to tell good from evil – well, that’s what human beings have always wanted, to know what the heck’s going on, but the story tells us Adam and Eve ate from the tree and all they saw clearly was their own nakedness, their own vulnerability.  Deep down we still don’t know what we’re doing.

You think if you follow Jesus you’ll get a bit of moral certainty?  Except remember the pointed little story at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the one about the end of time and the judgement?  And the “good” ones, the sheep, are congratulated for getting it right – you visited me when I was in gaol, and you gave me water when I was thirsty, and they say, ‘what?’.  And the unlucky ones, the goats, are told off because ‘I was in gaol and you didn’t visit me – I was hungry and thirsty and you didn’t help me’, and they say, ‘what?’.  Jesus disciples follow him for years and they never work it out.  We don’t know what we’re doing, either.  We spend most of the time oblivious to the moral effects of the way we live.

Maybe you remember, in the aftermath of the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, people writing letters to the editor saying, ‘how could God?’ – or ‘where the heck was God?’  ‘God’s got some explaining to do if he wants us to believe in him from now on.’  Except from the perspective of history it’s not really tsunamis that are the problem, it’s human violence, human self-centred-ness, it’s our preoccupation with our own lifestyle at the expense of the two-thirds world who wonder how they can even earn a basic living, or at the expense of the wasting the resources or upsetting the balance of God’s creation.  How typical, how self-centred of us to think the issue is whether we should condescend to believe in God. 

And the first thing Jesus prays on the cross – this is the inner being of God on display here – Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them.  They haven’t got a clue’.

It’s a funny thing, forgiveness.  When I’m talking to people about it I usually tell them that understanding has to happen first.  That the one who has caused the hurt needs to acknowledge and understand what they have done, that there needs to be some attempt at putting right, then forgiveness can heal the relationship – but God, forever vulnerable and pushed aside by human priorities, ending up inevitably on the cross – God hasn’t read my fancy psychology textbooks – God forgives – too soon, unconditionally, pre-emptively and foolishly.  You know what, God?  We’ll only do it again.  We’ll only push you onto a cross again.  But God does what God always does – reaches out in love, regardless.

And the second word that tells us what God is like?  Again, it’s from Luke’s gospel and one of the two who are crucified with Jesus – Luke calls them thieves but in Matthew’s Gospel the Greek word is lestoi, which means brigands, freedom fighters or terrorists, depending whose side you’re on – one of these violent men who have lived by questionable means and for questionable ends – one of these says to Jesus, ‘remember me, when you come into your kingdom’.  The lestoi, you see, are like us – men and women of compromise, of divided loyalties and murky ethics.  We believed in something once, maybe back in the 70s, but we think we might have sold out.  We’re not quite sure what we’re living for, any more, and when we face eternity we’re not quite sure where we stand.  ‘Remember us’, we ask, and it means, literally, ‘re – member us – make us belong again, put us back together again’ – and Jesus says, ‘today’ – not tomorrow, not after we die, if you’re lucky – but, ‘today, you will be with me’ – ‘your life has meaning and power and beauty through me and in me – today, you will be in paradise with me’.

Thank God it’s Friday.


Maundy Thursday

Twenty eight years ago this week (24 March), a single gunshot was fired inside the Cathedral of San Salvador, making Archbishop Oscar Romero the first priest since St Thomas a Beckett in the 12th century to be murdered while celebrating the Eucharist.  Romero had just delivered a sermon in which he reminded his congregation about the parable of the grain of wheat that – unless it dies – remains just a single grain.  Two weeks earlier, in an interview that appeared in a local newspaper, Archbishop Romero had predicted his own death in these words: ‘As a Christian I do not believe in death but in resurrection.  If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people’.

Romero was a most unlikely martyr.  He was elected as archbishop in 1977 precisely for the reason that he could be trusted not to rock the boat.  It seems Romero was a pious but unremarkable priest with conservative views on most things, and no particular interest in El Salvador’s political troubles.  So far as the church was concerned that made him the perfect candidate for archbishop – because for the church in El Salvador in the late 70s, staying in business, keeping the doors open despite the disappearances and the political assassinations seemed like the highest priority.  Nobody in the Church hierarchy wanted to make waves with the military junta.   Facing a rising tide of international condemnation, the government just as desperately needed a compliant Church.  Nobody thought for a moment that Romero was going to turn into El Salvador’s most uncompromising advocate for social justice, the most fearless critic of human rights violations.  Nobody thought for a moment that within three years this lacklustre priest was going to earn the hatred of El Salvador’s rich and powerful - and be disowned by most of his fellow bishops as a troublemaker.  Romero went along with the status quo for a while – like most of us do - and then something changed him.  He all of a sudden realised that – when the Church finds itself in a place of social injustice - standing in solidarity with the poor is not just one of the things the Church might do, but the only thing the Church can do.  Just weeks before his death, Romero claimed that ‘a church that does not unite itself to the poor and denounce from the place of the poor the injustices committed against them is not truly the church of Jesus Christ – we either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death – we either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death’.

You either serve life, or you serve death.  Today, in the church, we celebrate D day – D for decision.  Oscar Romero, like Jesus before him, realised the paradox that to choose life is to live in a way that denies the power of those who deal in death, even if the consequence of that choice is that, for a time, the power of death seems only to get stronger.  Oscar Romero, like Jesus, discovered the ultimately realistic power of hope, which is the decision and the commitment to persist in choosing life even when the forces of death seem to be overwhelming.  Hope is the power to act against the common sense that says there’s no point, cut your losses, be reasonable.  Hope implies an orientation toward the future that might be – the future Jesus is imagining when he describes for us what the reign of God looks like – and the refusal to accept that such a future is not possible.

I wonder how many of us watch the TV show, ‘The Simpsons’?  I find it quite unique for its apparent cynicism that actually entices the viewer into a real affirmation of what’s important in life – somehow or other it seems to hook into our own world-weariness and our familiarity with everything that’s shallow and self-serving in human nature – then almost without us noticing – leads us to the point where we recognise love and generosity and self-sacrifice as life-giving options.  I wonder if anyone saw the programme where Homer ate a blowfish?  Of course blowies are poisonous – in Japanese cuisine they’re carefully prepared to be safe to eat – but of course he gets a bad one.  The point of the story is that Homer is given 24 hours to live, so he starts thinking of all the things he was going to get around to doing one day – no time for the big-ticket items like climbing Mt Kilimanjaro or winning the lottery – so he decides to do some of the other important stuff – like teaching 10 year old Bart to shave – telling Marge that he loves her – listening to the whole Bible on CD – in the event he falls asleep in the middle of Genesis and wakes up quite put out that he’s done all this stuff and didn’t even die – but we get the point that in preparing for his imminent demise, thinking he is about to die, Homer has started to live.

Like Homer Simpson, today Jesus faces D day.  What do you live for on the last day of your life?  My guess is that Jesus knew pretty well where his ministry was going to end up.  The Bible tells us he knew and tried to prepare his disciples for his death, and he hardly needed any miraculous powers to predict what would happen if he turned up in Jerusalem in the middle of a religious festival – the Passover that celebrated Israel’s deliverance from unjust slavery in Egypt.  This festival – which brought together both the religious and the political dimensions of what it meant to be Jewish - was always a big headache for the Roman occupation army and for the Roman governor Pilate, who the historian Josephus tells us one year had the approach roads to Jerusalem lined with crucified resistance fighters as a warning to would-be messiahs and trouble-makers.  However successful his Galilean ministry had been, Jesus would have to know the consequences of turning up in Jerusalem in the middle of a Passover weekend and proclaiming the kingdom of God as an alternative both to the injustice of secular power and the corruption of religious elites.  Like Oscar Romero, Jesus knew the consequence of choosing life would be his own death.

So what does he do?  This night that he surely knows is his last on this earth, what does he do?  Jesus does what he has always done – he gathers friends and enemies, good people and bad people, and he breaks bread with them, pours out wine for them. He eats with them, as he has always done. This is when, like Homer Simpson, Jesus should be saying anything that still needs saying, doing whatever has been left undone.  But he uses the occasion to share a meal - because as much or more than in any of the miracles – it’s when Jesus breaks bread that we get the point of what he means by his talk of God’s kingdom.  But then tonight he says something new – something we’ve never heard him say before – but when he says it we realise that’s what he’s been telling us all along: ‘What I’m doing here, is I’m giving you myself.  That’s what I’ve always been up to.  This bread – it’s me – my life, my spirit, my future, all of me – that’s what I’m giving you’. 

And John’s Gospel tells us Jesus does something else that is new on this last night of his life, but as soon as he does it, we realise that it’s what he’s been showing us all along.  Jesus washes his disciples’ feet – the job of the lowliest servant – and we realise that Jesus’ whole life has been an act of divine humility and love.  ‘Love one another this much’, he tells us.  ‘Lead God’s people by serving them’.

And for the first time ever, we hear the implication that the company of those who eat this bread become Jesus body in the world.  The company of those who follow Jesus’ example of humble self-giving – the sort of humble love that leads inevitably to the cross – become an icon of divine humility, which is Christ.

Facing death, Jesus chooses life.  What do we choose?


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lent 5 9 March 2008

When I worked for a time as a chaplain at RPH, I quickly found out that a big part of my job was about death.  Of course most people who get admitted to hospital do survive the experience – the vast majority are in and out within about two days.  But for a significant number of patients the issue is literally about life and death, and for a lot of people also their admission to hospital is bringing up memories about the death of somebody they have loved.  So I found myself talking to people about death – I found myself bang smack in the middle of the biggest taboo subject in our Western culture – the taboo of admitting we know we’re going to die – I found myself dealing with medical staff who didn’t know how to tell a patient that they were dying, and with patients who didn’t know how to hear the fact that they were dying – I experienced the privilege of spending some time with a man for whom the news that he was about to die became the surprising catalyst that enabled him finally to start living – to renew his relationship with his wife and his faith in God – and I found myself starting to think in a new way about the fact that I too would one day die. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Palm/Passion Sunday 16 March 2008

A few years ago now, together with the rest of Australia, I watched in a sort of horrified fascination the rise and fall of Mark Latham.  Wasn’t that something?  This guy was certainly different – on the plus side you could say he had a real freshness and spontaneity – on the minus side he was unpredictable, a loose cannon – certainly Latham was a charismatic politician, and Labour’s election campaign was always going to depend on whether we saw him as a liability or an asset.  But what struck me at the time as most remarkable is that it was the media itself that first built up the idea of Latham as a breath of fresh air – then closer to the election it was the media that brought him down.  Could it be that – the closer he got to Canberra – the things we liked about him at first started to make us nervous.  Latham as unpredictable Opposition Leader was OK – Latham as potential PM made us collectively feel a bit nervous.

This is exactly what we get this morning, when we start at the end of the driveway waving palm branches around and the mood is buoyant – following this Jesus character we can do anything! – and we follow him into Jerusalem because that is where all Opposition Leaders head for – and we call him the Son of David which means we think he is the longed-for Messiah who’s going to kick out the Romans – but notice how when we get into Jerusalem the mood changes and now when someone asks ‘who’s that you’re all following’ we say ‘oh, just some prophet from Nazareth’.  Not so much of the ‘Son of David’ stuff now under the shadow of the Roman fortress.  The crowd picks Jesus up and sweeps him into Jerusalem because they see him as a political saviour – then they draw back nervously because more likely he’s going to turn out to be a political liability.  A week later the crowd are going to be howling for his death – maybe even the same crowd, certainly another crowd just like it.

Of course, my analogy has got its limits.  A major difference between Jesus and Biff Latham is that – for all that we see a crowd who change their minds about Jesus overnight - the gospels don’t for a moment show us a Jesus coming unstuck because of a propaganda campaign gone wrong – instead we see a Jesus who from the start of his ministry until the end is in control of his destiny.  So why the change in mood?  Why today’s ugly scene?  Why does Jesus crash and burn?

We can’t pretend we don’t know how this story ends of course – in the resurrection – we can’t take the agonising journey from here to the cross without knowing what lies on the other side.  But we’re not there yet.  If as Christians we want to experience the exuberance of Easter morning – if we want to light the new fire next Sunday as the sun comes up and know that this is our Lord who once and for all has defeated death, then we need to watch with Jesus in Gethsemane and share at full strength the horror of the ordeal that’s ahead; and we need to stand at the foot of the cross with his mother on Good Friday.  Only the Jesus who suffers as human beings suffer can teach us what it means to be human.  That’s why the celebration of Easter doesn’t just take place on Easter Day – that’s why Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day are together called the Triduum, or the Great Three Days of our faith.  Only if we watch faithfully with Jesus this week can we rise with him next Sunday.  But we’re not there yet.

Back in the 12th century St Anselm came up with a plausible explanation not only for why Jesus had to die, but for why Jesus’ death puts us right with God.  St Anselm’s typically medieval idea was that human sinfulness so affronted God’s honour that somebody would have to pay the price – but at the same time there was a dilemma because God’s mercy also requires forgiveness – and the only way out for God is to provide the victim himself – St Anselm’s idea of Jesus paying the price for God’s forgiveness of our sins became so popular that for many Christians it’s become – well, gospel.  Unfortunately, St Anslem’s theory makes Jesus life almost irrelevant – because in this view of things it’s his death that makes us acceptable to God.  The other problem is, that believing in a God who dishes up this sort of punishment leads to a hierarchical and authoritarian view of the world.  It doesn’t leave much room for grace.  And Jesus as the perfectly obedient son who becomes the divine victim becomes the unfortunate model for structures of abuse and neurotic guilt. 

However, back in the 12th century, there was also a rival explanation.  St Abelard at around the same time came up with the idea that God did not require Jesus death at all.  God intends his creation for life, not for death.  For St Abelard, it’s Jesus’ life that is important, because Jesus models for us how we can live out of awareness of our relationship with God, and St Abelard suggests that Jesus death is not the main point at all – Jesus death is simply the consequence of how he lived.  St Abelard of course is the darling of all who see a political dimension to Jesus’ ministry, because it’s easy to see the accumulating opposition to a Jesus who insists on turning the status quo upside down, preaching subversive ideas like ‘blessed are the poor’ – associating with Samaritans and prostitutes.  And it’s easy enough to see why - in the supercharged atmosphere of expectation that was 1st century Palestine under Roman occupation - this Galilean preacher would become the focus for everyone who’s looking for liberation and a better deal.

The problem with St Abelard’s idea is it’s too easy to slide from there into a view of Jesus as just another good man who risks his life for an ideal.  Ultimately, it waters down the central Christian message that not only does Jesus show us what God is like, but that in Jesus, heaven and earth have touched each other so that human beings now get to share in God’s own life. 

Neither obedient scapegoat nor activist, the life and death of Jesus have saving power because of who Jesus is - one with us in the circumstances of our lives and at the same time one with God.  It is a 13th century theologian, the Franciscan scholar St Bonaventure, who I think gets closest to the mark with his idea that the fundamental logic of creation is the joining of opposites – in the Word made flesh, Bonaventure tells us, as the noblest completion of creation the most extreme of opposites are joined together – the infinite with the finite, the Creator with the created, heaven and earth.  St Bonaventure goes on to suggest that the crucified Christ is the ultimate conjunction of opposites – the opposites of suffering and grace, hatred and love, death and new life.  Metaphorically, St Bonaventure says, evil overreaches itself in putting to death what can never be put to death – and because of this the crucified Christ becomes for us an icon of reconciliation – the means by which the irreconcilable opposites of our own nature can be made whole – our contradictory impulses of self-gratification and self-transcendence brought together. 

Passion Sunday is the day on which the contradictions expose themselves, the day on which the barometer plummets from the heady excitement of a carnival to the sinister recriminations of a show-trial.  Standing at the entrance of Holy Week, Passion Sunday invites us to reflect on our own divided nature – to identify ourselves in the crowd that dances with delight in a Jerusalem street – and also to find ourselves in the crowd that yells for blood in the courtyard of a military garrison.  As we follow Jesus on the short but agonising journey from Palm Sunday to Golgotha, we find that in the Crucified One we ourselves are made whole.  And so, I invite you to join with me this week in keeping the Great Three Days that are at the heart of our faith.


7 March 2008 World Day of Prayer

Isn’t it funny how a week after getting back from a holiday you feel as though you’ve never been away?  My wife and I got back just this week, or at least that’s what my diary tells me, from a holiday in New Zealand, where Alison grew up.  Now, I’ve never been to New Zealand before.  One of the things that really struck me over there was how our New Zealand relatives seemed to be suffering in the ghastly 26 degree summer heat.  Wherever we went it seemed we had to have a sort of competition to see who really suffered the most – ‘oh, but it’s a different sort of heat’, they’d tell us, and we had to agree that it certainly was.  Luckily we’d taken a few thick jumpers.

So to escape the furnace one afternoon – also because we were tourists – we visited Waitomo and went on a guided tour of the Glow-worm Cave.  We had our 15 year-old nephew with us, which meant we had a running commentary on everything, this was not, for example, a patch on Aussie caves – eventually we reached a place where the walls opened out to form a sort of limestone cathedral where during the summer months weddings and concerts are held – to escape the heat, I guess.  Then the guide started to tell us about the glow-worms – actually more a sort of maggot hanging upside down from the roof of the cave with a phosphorescent glow and the unpleasant personal habit of excreting a sticky thread from its backside to catch anything unlucky enough to fly too close.  Apparently they keep this up for several decades, then they metamorphose into moths and die  It all sounded fairly unimpressive actually, and I really couldn’t help thinking what a dull sort of life it must be.  My nephew made a smart comment.  The whole group, in fact, judging from the nervous giggles and chatter all around us, seemed fairly underwhelmed.  But then they put us into a boat and pushed out into the middle of the lake.  All the lights went out and when we looked up at the roof of the cave it was like looking up at the Milky Way, only closer.  For the rest of the tour we glided somehow through the cave in utter silence apart from gasps of wonder and surprise at every new constellation.  Not another word was spoken, and my nephew came out into the sunlight at the end with a thoughtful look on his face.

I wonder if that comes a bit close to what the writers of the Hebrew Bible’s Wisdom literature mean by this saying, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’?  There’s something, isn’t there, about our incessant need to feel in control, to reduce the universe to things we can explain.  Our need to cope with the anxiety we feel in the face of the mystery and the unexplored depths of our own experience.  We try to talk it down to size, to push a screen of nervous chatter in between ourselves and the unknown, not just the depth experiences of the created world around us but the depth experiences of our own lives and our relationships with one another as well.  And the Wisdom tradition more or less says to us, ‘just shut up, will you?  There’s something here that you’re actually not going to get unless you stop rabbitting on about it.’  So, this is something to do with our own spirituality, the paradox that it’s only when we put aside the notion that we’ve got it all worked out and under control, only when we get in touch with the innermost seed of wonder and incomprehension and vulnerability that we spend most of the time trying to cover over – only then do we start to get just a glimpse of the mystery and the miracle of creation and our own part in it.   I think that’s also the point Jesus is making for us in the story we read from Luke’s gospel – you know what?  I’ve never had anybody say to me ‘oh, I’m more like Mary’ – and I think the point is, we’ve all got a fair bit of Martha in us, we all have this built-in need to be doing practical stuff, and that’s a good thing, but Jesus is reminding us about the need for balance, the need to be still, to attend to the movement of the spirit within us, to our relationships with God and with one another, and to our place in God’s creation.  So Jesus is smack bang in the middle of the wisdom tradition, here.

But, what about fear? The Hebrew Bible has got a long tradition of men and women feeling utterly gobsmacked in the presence of God.  Abraham, for example, experiencing God’s presence in the strange covenant ritual out in the desert, is overcome with terror.  Jacob, on the run from his brother, when he sleeps with a stone for a pillow and dreams of angels running up and down a stairway to heaven, knows for sure that despite his own questionable ethics, God is with him, and he feels terrified.  The people of Israel, wandering in the desert after Moses has led them out of slavery in Egypt, grumbling and complaining, are dead scared when Moses comes down from the mountain with the gift of God’s law in his hands.  ‘Just read it to us from a safe distance’, they plead with him.  There’s some good old-fashioned terror associated with recognising our own unholiness in the presence of God.  And yet, the Bible consistently regards this knee-trembling sort of dread as a good thing – the God who brings us face to face with our own shortcomings turns out over and over again to be reliable and faithful, more interested in healing us and restoring us than in condemning us.  And so Job, arguing with God in the best Hebrew tradition of no-holds-barred emotional honesty, never gets a straight answer to his basic question – ‘why me?’ – what he gets instead is a new understanding of who he is and who God is – a new perspective on his relationship with God that frees him to live in an attitude of trust and reliance that his life has meaning because it comes from God.

So this sort of holy fear that the wisdom tradition recommends has the effect of de-centering us, knocking us out of the centre of our own moral universe and reminding us of our place in creation and the first-and-foremost centrality of our relationship with God.  Of course, there’s another sort of fear that’s the opposite of this, a life-denying sort of fear that robs men and women of dignity and moral agency, the sort of fear that closes options down rather than opening them up, and the women and men of Guyana, I think, who have created this wonderful liturgy we have shared tonight, understand all too well that the only way to transform a legacy of unholy terror is to practice the virtue of holy fear.

The fearful history of Guyana is itself, I believe, holy ground.  Guyana’s three hundred year colonial period is primarily a history of slavery, with first the Dutch, then the English importing men and women in chains from Africa to work the sugar plantations, then following the abolition of slavery in the early nineteenth century indentured labourers from East India to feed the European need for profits.  Following independence in 1966, Guyana followed the typical post-colonial path for countries left with dysfunctional structures of government, a dislocated population with a history of inequality and conflict, and crashing commodity prices.  Guyanese people today bear the burden of poverty second only to Haiti, in the Caribbean region, chronic shortages of skilled labour, a history of racial and ethnic conflict and a rate of HIV-AIDS infection that according to its Health Minister in 2004, threatens the very future of Guyana as a viable nation.

How might the virtue of holy fear be practised in Guyana?  How might we, tonight, join with our Guyanese sisters and brothers in practising holy fear?

The first point, I think, is that it’s not a cop-out, it’s not an excuse for failing to take real action.  The commitment above all to relationship, to telling and listening honestly to one another’s stories, naming past failures and injustices at the same time as recognising the truth of ourselves that is inseparable from our relationships to God and to one another – as Australians with a fearful history of our own we know something about the difficulty and frustration, but ultimately the life-giving necessity of such holy conversation.  So tonight, we’re called to the very practical response of praying with, and for, the people of Guyana.

The second point – and my final one, I promise – is that the exercise of holy fear is the practice of delight.  You get more than you bargain for when dare to be open and vulnerable.  It changes you in ways you can’t predict.  The Guyanese, whose Creole culture sort of throws together the languages and customs and religions of three continents, have a saying for visitors which, in a sense, we are tonight – ‘if you eat lammas and drink black water you’ll be back!’  Given that lammas is a kind of rat and black water from the forest is whatever gets strained through the humus, you have to wonder how many return visits they get.