Saturday, April 25, 2009

Easter 3B

Many, many books have been written about the complex nature of the relationship between sons and fathers.  As a son – and a father – I can attest that my relationships with my dad, and my two sons, are at the same time a constant source of bemusement and at the heart of who I am myself.  Family legend has it that when I was delivered the doctor remarked that he didn’t often see or feel moved to comment on family resemblances, but ‘this one is ridiculously like his father’.  I think both dad and I have felt slightly miffed by that remark ever since.  I remember as a teenager reading and being slightly horrified by the claim that as sons, we all eventually turn into our fathers – a process that began inexorably in my late 30s when I was amazed to hear myself sounding and acting in ways that reminded me of my dad – even now, people who know dad well often fall about laughing when they first meet me.  I guess as a young man the idea that I would eventually turn into my father didn’t seem a very attractive prospect – I wanted to be utterly unique, of course – now that the metamorphosis clearly has gone beyond the point of no return, not only have I become resigned to the idea, but I’ve come to realise that if I was destined to turn into anybody, I could do a lot worse than my dad.

So in the passage we read this morning from the first letter of John, the writer is saying something very similar to that.  It’s more or less an argument from genetics, because the first thing to notice is that he doesn’t refer to his community – or to us – just as Christians, as people who have chosen for whatever reason to get on board with this religion and see how far it gets us – but as children of God.  Behind it is the idea that Jesus is God’s Son and so as people who are joined to Jesus’ resurrection life we too have become children of God.  Which means there’s a connection between who Jesus is and who we need to be.  And there’s a connection between what we hope for in faith and what our faith challenges us to be – if our hope is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ at the end of all things when we are gathered home to God, that we will see Jesus as Jesus is and be transformed into who God always intended us to be – then in the here and now the challenge for us is to live consistently, to grow into the likeness of Christ.  So our future hope of resurrection generates the need and the challenge for us to be holy in the here and now.

We should really have read a few verses further on – in verse 9 the writer goes even further in using a biological analogy beloved by ancient writers.  The idea was that the father’s genes – the father’s seed – lived on in the child and determined who the child would be.  Forget mum, of course, for ancient biologists mum was just the incubator, and forget your new-fangled notions of genetic variability.  The Elder says in verse 9 that if you’re really a child of God then you can’t sin, because God’s DNA is in you.  Yes, there is a bit of a contradiction here with last week’s more realistic observation that we’re kidding ourselves if we believe we don’t sin.  But the point he’s making here is about consistency between who we claim to be and how we live.  If we claim to belong to Christ then there needs to be some evidence to back that up.  Essentially it’s the same claim Jesus himself makes when he says, you know the tree by its fruit.

I guess there’s a passive interpretation of this, and there’s an active interpretation.  One of the problems with the ancient world’s way of looking at things is that individual men and women seem to helpless pawns caught in the middle of a power struggle being waged by God and the devil.  You’re either a child of God or you’re a child of the devil, and your own conduct shows which you are – when you sin that’s the devil asserting his parental rights over you.  It’s a black and white way of looking at things that overlooks our human responsibility for our own actions as well as our human capacity for being hopelessly, gloriously, inconsistent, for believing contradictory things at the same time, for acting in ways that are inconsistent with what we just said or did five minutes ago, but there’s still a valid point.  If we say we follow Jesus but act in ways that are judgemental or selfish or unloving, then we’re actually not following Jesus at all.  The more active interpretation of all this is that the author is challenging us to make the move from talking about our faith to living it.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis in World War 2, picks up this idea when he talks scathingly about Christians who settle for ‘cheap grace’ – the sort of grace that doesn’t cost us anything because it’s just a sort of private spirituality, or religious lip-service that doesn’t actually get translated into the taking of risks or the hard option of solidarity with the suffering of men and women in the world around us. 

But the letter-writer we call the Elder doesn’t just leave this as a sort of spiritual paternity test, because he goes on to talk about how we grow into the likeness of the one we claim to follow.  This is more subtle, and it acknowledges what Paul is also getting at in his letter to the Ephesian church, that as Christians we start out as spiritual infants and have to grow to maturity in Christ.  It’s actually good if, as new and enthusiastic Christians, we look ridiculously like the one we call our Father.  But that is just the beginning, and the challenge in our spiritual life is to gradually be transformed into the likeness of Christ.  And the letter-writer says, using another one of the ancient world’s favourite arguments, that you turn into what you spend your time looking at.  That if you consciously have a focus in your life, an ideal image, then you gradually come to resemble what you are looking at.  It’s an argument that’s still got some currency today, it’s why for example we make such a fuss when footballers and pop stars behave badly, because they are a formative influence on the kids who look up to them.  It’s one of the reasons behind the enduring Anzac tradition, because we project onto the teenagers who fought at Gallipoli the qualities of self-sacrifice and loyalty that we ourselves want to be defined by.  The point is not just that we read the stories and marvel at the heroism, but that we see a personal connection between them and us, the DNA of Aussie mateship that’s built in to who we are and informs us of what we might become. 

And the letter-writer says, if we are really focused on the example of Jesus then we will not sin.  It’s an exaggeration, even in terms of his own argument, but the basic point is good.  The more we become conscious of and intentional about the focus of our own lives, the more obvious the contradictions become.  When we live in ways that contradict who we say we are, we become conscious of the fact that something has gone wrong.  When we find ourselves living competitively or self-protectively, when we find that our life as a community has become infected with gossip and backbiting then we need to recognise that there’s something in our basic spirituality that isn’t working.  And so we need to re-focus.

And the author is working up to his main conclusion, which is that it’s about relationship.  Christian spirituality is never about sitting on top of a mountain by yourself, it’s always about living in the real world of family and community.  You become Christ-like by growing in love for those around you.  And you learn to grow in love for those around you by becoming more like Christ.  If that sounds circular, don’t worry too much because, as every teenager has worried since the dawn of time, you do inevitably turn into your parents.  And that’s because faith is not just belief, not just a matter of turning up to church on Sundays.  It’s relational and it’s genetic.  Because God’s love, that we see manifest in Jesus, is part of the deep structure of what it means to be human.  You are created in God’s image, created to resonate with God’s love and to grow towards it like a flower turns toward the sun.  And because in the relationship you have with God, God takes the initiative.

In our Gospel reading the disciples, still in the evening of that first Easter Day, are gathered in bewilderment and understandable fear when the risen Jesus appears in their midst and says, ‘peace be with you’.  And he eats with them just as he always has.  The meaning is that, just as resurrection life is different from and deeper than what has gone before, so also is it continuous with the life of the community that Jesus has shared.  As the community of the risen Christ, we celebrate the reality that as we gather in his name we encounter the presence that gradually, over a lifetime, transforms us into his likeness.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Easter 2B

I remember as a young person at university going along to film evenings in one of the lecture theatres – one of those deeply tiered rooms where the lecturer occupied a little space right down at the bottom with a screen and white-board, and stairs coming down each side of the room from the doorways at the very top.  An excellent arrangement, as I remember, for launching anonymous paper planes and other highly academic practices.  Students being perennially poor, cheap movies were quite a drawcard, and the auditorium was always packed.  One evening, though, I remember the main entertainment was not actually the movie itself.  For whatever reason, the lights went down and the movie started early.  For the next ten minutes or so, we were treated to the antics of latecomers entering at the top of the stairs, finding themselves in what must have seemed like total darkness and trying to feel their way down to a seat.  Some of them even turned around and came down backwards.  Naturally, we who had got there early could see perfectly well, our eyes had adjusted to the darkness.  Probably most of the latecomers assumed the movie was a comedy, but it wasn’t.  We were just laughing at them.

Some animals, of course, have eyes that naturally function better in the darkness, and we call them nocturnal.  Human beings generally do better in the daylight, though our eyes manage to adjust if we just wait a minute or two before trying to walk down the steps in a darkened lecture theatre.

So, in his letter written around the end of the first or the beginning of the second century to a community of Christians who see themselves in the tradition of the fourth Gospel, the anonymous writer of the first letter of John – who we might call the Elder – doesn’t mince words.  You’re trying, he suggests, to live like nocturnal Christians.  You might even have got so used to living in the darkness that you don’t even realise how funny it looks.  ‘Jesus is light’, he tells them, ‘and you can’t call yourself a Christian if you’re living in the darkness’.  It’s a theme the Elder picks up from the opening lines of the fourth Gospel itself, the first few verses in which Jesus is introduced as the light that shines in the darkness, the light that no darkness can overcome.  It means there’s a clear choice, and a clear differentiation.  But where in John’s Gospel the theme of light and darkness has a setting that’s cosmic in scale, the Word of God lighting up creation itself, here the Elder applies it in a way that’s both more personal and less comfortable: to the Church, to men and women who claim to be followers of Christ.

Scholars are pretty clear that the so-called letters of John are closely related to the fourth Gospel, and the writer clearly knows the Gospel intimately, but there’s no indication that they are written by the same person or under the same circumstances.  What we do know is that the epistles of John were written for a community that is in a state of flux, a community that has encountered some opposition, a community that has become inward-looking and seems to be in danger of losing its way.  The letter is written at a time when what we might think of as the basics of our faith are still up for grabs, still being argued about.  A time when what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity was still undreamed-of, the mystery of who Jesus was, and the question of how Christians should live, were still being argued about.

And in this community one of the strongest challenges came from a movement that we call Gnosticism.  Gnostic Christians had no trouble seeing Jesus as divine, they just couldn’t accept that he was really human.  They couldn’t see how Jesus, being fully God, could suffer and die, so they came up with various explanations.  One idea was that Jesus just appeared to be human, a sort of divine hologram – another explanation was that Jesus might originally have been human but that God’s Holy Spirit took over his body like something out of Dr Who when he was baptised, and then left him again just before he was strung up on the cross.  Which when you really think about it, doesn’t make the Holy Spirit look very ethical.

This, of course, was all part of the creative mix of ideas and theories by which the early Church had to evolve, and we really shouldn’t feel too superior when we look back at some of the whackier alternatives.  But where Gnosticism really became dangerous to the Christian community, was because it seemed to say that the material world and the spiritual world were totally separate.  That God just operated, so to speak, on the spiritual level, and the physical world didn’t really matter that much.  That was a recipe for disaster, firstly because it meant that Gnostic Christians could ignore the political and social realities of the world around them.  Anglicare wouldn’t have got much support from them, for example.  Gnostic Christians tended to fall into two camps – there were the otherworldly variety, the navel-gazing variety, and there were the variety who thought that if the spiritual world was all that really mattered then actually they could pretty much do whatever they wanted in the material world.  Life for this brand of Gnostic Christian was a party.  It’s hard to know which variety of Gnostic the letter-writer has most in mind when he talks about so-called Christians living in darkness, but it’s not hard to see that this little section about light and darkness has got a lot to say to us too, when he equates living in the light to truth, and living in the darkness to self-deception.

Have you ever noticed how the most fashionable cafes always have the lights down low?  Low-voltage down-lights, candles on every table – very romantic – though the cynic in me thinks that might just be because most of us look better by candlelight, because our wrinkles and imperfections aren’t quite so obvious.  One of the wonders of the rectory, incidentally, is that there’s this extra light switch in the ensuite bathroom.  Make the mistake of switching that one on and you see yourself for exactly what you are, 500 watts or so of absolute truth.  Needless to say I generally don’t go for that one.

The point is that we can delude ourselves into thinking we’re nearly perfect – so long as we stay in the dark long enough.  Like people raised in a culture where the accepted response to violence is to retaliate with more violence.  Or the idea that the tragedy of displaced people, of millions of men and women and children fleeing from conflict and violence in their own countries, that that problem doesn’t exist just so long as we have really really strong border protection policies and they don’t arrive on our doorstep.  When we live in the darkness we can become so convinced that we’re right that we can’t see any other possibilities.  We certainly can’t recognise the truth.  This can be true not just for individual men and women but for entire nations.

We all have our blind spots.  I like to think of myself as a compassionate person, yet I react unsympathetically to the person with a history of drug abuse whose behaviour is uncomfortably ‘in your face’.  I don’t think I’m racist, but I catch myself making assumptions about people on the basis of their ethnic origin.  I get angry about the environmental vandalism of big business, but don’t ask me to switch the air conditioner off in the height of summer.

This is the uncomfortable bit, because the Elder is not talking to Pharisees or people who have rejected Jesus, he is talking to us, to Christians who think they’ve got a few things worked out.  And he says, ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’.  This is a bit confronting.  I read the other day about a survey – carried out, of course, in America but it’s probably just as true here.  Fully 98% of Christians believed in what they called ‘personal sin’ but over a third said that they themselves – even though from time to time they made mistakes – were not sinful.  The anonymous letter-writer, the Elder, begs to differ.

Nineteenth-century theologian Soren Kirkegaard, identifies the root of humankind’s rejection of the gospel in our almost infinite capacity for kidding ourselves, our inability to accept that our own point of view is not absolute.  From the perspective of the Epistle of John, this is dangerous nonsense, in a universe that is not morally neutral, sin is real and it is toxic – and we desperately need to acknowledge our own share in it.

And yet this is not bad news – the Elder’s message on the contrary is entirely positive.  Because, he tells us, the initiative has already been taken by God, that Jesus’ sacrificial self-giving does for us what we can’t manage for ourselves, switches on the lights for us, allows us to see the truth of our own lives in relation to God and to the world around us, and resets our moral compass.  Jesus’ self-giving love sets the 500 watt standard, flicks the little-used switch for us, allows us to sees God as God is and we ourselves as we are.

Which, disorienting as it is when you don’t expect it, especially at 6am, is actually good news.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Day

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.  Even the ancient church found this so annoying that ancient editors tacked on no less than two alternative endings, but it’s still the least satisfying resurrection account of the lot, so even this year, in the Year of Mark, many churches opt out and go for the less ambiguous version in St John’s gospel.

But in this, the earliest Gospel account ever written, after the women come to the tomb and find it empty, and meet the annoying young man with his mysterious news, Mark simply writes, ‘so they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified, and they said nothing to anyone, because they were too scared’. The end!  Of the whole Gospel!

No wonder this one isn’t often read on Easter Day – isn’t today supposed to be about hurrays and hugs and cries of recognition? – and here Mark is giving us bewilderment and fear!  What is there to be afraid of on the day of resurrection?

Well, actually, a couple of things.  Because for a start if the young man’s surprising news is true, if Jesus really is risen, then the pattern of life and death that’s operated since the beginning of the world has just been casually blown away, permanently.  Not only has the template been broken, not only does the ending of our own lives have to be rewritten, but everything else is up for grabs as well.  If we actually believe that God has casually changed the rules of life and death then from now on death – anybody’s death – no matter how untimely or how tragic – even my death – isn’t the last word on what it means to be alive.  As St Paul puts it a bit more poetically, ‘death, where is your sting?  Grave, where is your victory?’  Which is good – isn’t it? – that Jesus’ resurrection proves the destination of your life and mine is no longer death – that’s the good news! – but the scary consequence is that it demands a whole new approach to how I actually live.  If my life now is connected with Jesus mysterious resurrection life – I need to reassess how I live it.

But maybe there’s another reason to be afraid at this mysterious absence that - according to the earliest ever written account – has Jesus’ disciples running scared in confusion.  And I think it’s really appropriate for us on Easter morning to pause and really look at what the inexplicably empty tomb implies.  And maybe you can sum up what St Mark is trying to say like this: ‘watch out!  God is on the loose!  God has escaped!  Be terrified!’

Because, when you actually think about it, we human beings have always tried to control God, to keep God in a box.  Right from the earliest stories of the nomadic tribes scratching out a living in the Sinai desert, packing up every morning and carrying with them the ark of the covenant, God’s caravan, the travelling box that worked both as a focus of the people’s worship and as an insurance that God would not get loose and wreak havoc in the camp.  We try to keep God in the box of religion, subject God to rules and regulations and religious practices, the right amount of incense and the proper prayers, properly polished brass and make sure the priest wears the right colour vestments.  Church councils, hierarchies, bishops of the correct gender.  Do this and God will be pleased with you, do that and God will be very very cranky.  And of course there’s the ten commandments, which in religious talk often come down to one overriding instruction, ‘thou shalt not have fun. Thou shalt be very serious and be very suspicious of anything enjoyable because it’s probably wrong’.

And the disturbing fact is that St Mark’s account of the resurrection – the earliest, freshest account of the resurrection – blows the whistle on all that.  Take a close look at the empty tomb, at the mysterious absence that is at the heart of God’s presence with us, and all of a sudden you get it that God is free – free from all the God-waffle, no longer confined to the sacred spaces of our religions, God doesn’t live any longer in the holiest of holies where the curtain, ripped from top to bottom, allows us all to peek inside and check for ourselves.  God is no longer Anglican, or even English!  God is free from religion, from what psalm 50 describes as the endless mechanical repetition of prayers and sacrifices that bores God to the highest heaven.  God is free from religion, and also free within religion to meet us – not on our own terms but on God’s terms.  As Jesus tells us, ‘the wind blows wherever it wishes’. 

So perhaps there is reason to be a little afraid as we look at the empty tomb – because there’s no telling what such a God might get up to next.  There’s no telling where such a God might pop up next in our world or in our own lives.  If our cherished religious traditions don’t actually get the last word on God, if God actually refuses to live up there under the altar, then the empty tomb tells us that God, not us, gets the last word – or maybe we should say the last laugh, because can’t you just imagine the huge, side-splitting and belly-wobbling laugh of God as God leapt free from that silly stone box on Easter morning.  Can’t you just imagine that cosmic yawp of ear-splitting laughter?  It means that God is on the loose and that nothing is impossible any longer in this dreary, violence-ridden and greed-driven world.  It means creation has just flicked from black and white to full colour, the God of creation has twiddled with the DNA of life itself. 

Control is out.  Transformation is the new black.  The God we just worked out we can’t control is out of the box, which means random acts of love have now got world-changing potential.  It means death-dealing systems, dictators and merchant bankers no longer get the last word because goodness has mutated and is spreading like a virus.  Not only can we no longer think that we’ve got God sussed – that God is just like us, or God prefers Christians to Muslims or vice versa, or that God is propping up our ideology or our ‘side’ – not only is God out of the box but God is infectious.  You might have a dose of God and not even know it yet.  With any luck.

And I suspect that for us to really welcome the resurrection – for us to actually deep down think the resurrection is good news, instead of just giving it lip service with our favourite hymns – for us to truly welcome the untidy and disturbing reality of God on the loose – we might need to loosen up a bit.  We need to give upon the illusion that we are in control, for a start.  We need to hand over control to God, to allow God to be just God – crucified, risen and at large.  We also need to practice our own belly-laugh, get used to the idea of a mutated and surprising God on the loose who likes nothing better than to surprise, to shake up and disorder our world’s rigid systems for keeping some people in and other people out.

So actually, I like Mark’s version of the story.  I like the way he doesn’t pretty it up, or analyse it, or make it fit any of our preconceptions.  I like the picture of those women and their fear.  And I like imagining the unimaginable – the God who made the sun, the moon and the stars bursting out not just from the tomb but from our preconceptions and prejudices, totally out of control and blowing free wherever it wills, mutating as it goes, challenging, disturbing and scaring us – and empowering us to be a people of transformation and of love. [1]



[1] This sermon adapted from John Harvey, ‘God is on the loose’, in Ruth Burgess and Chris Polhill (eds) Eggs and Ashes: practical and liturgical resources for Lent and Holy Week, Wild Goose, Glasgow, 2004.

Good Friday

If you were to ask just about anyone what is the central symbol of the Christian faith, the answer would inevitably be ‘the cross’.  Yet, as a symbol, the cross is also a bit evasive, capable of meaning different things to different people.  Worn as jewellery, the cross may be little more than a delicate, diamond encrusted and seriously expensive-looking way of drawing attention to a pretty d├ęcolletage.  As a secular symbol for mourning, the little white wooden crosses punctuating our highways, or the white cross on the green roadsign warning us that we are approaching a ‘black spot’, speak eloquently enough of grief but don’t convey much sense of hope.  On the TV news, rows of crosses sometimes inform us about numbers of military casualties.  Mixing their metaphors somewhat, military chaplains sometimes even use an image of an inverted sword as a cross. 

Within the church itself, the various styles of cross come down to three main types.  There’s what we call the Christus Rex, a triumphant and often crowned figure with arms spread out wide in the shape of a cross that proclaims victory, Christ’s triumph over suffering and death.  That’s a perspective of the cross from the triumphant side of Easter, a wonderful, joyous image of the risen and ascended Christ.  We have a splendid one of those in this church but today and in fact all through Lent it’s been covered up because we’re not there yet, we’re not ready yet for alleluias and chocolate eggs and champagne.  For many Christians the image of the cross that’s easiest to relate to is the empty cross, a bare cross with no human figure on it.  The empty cross shows us what Jesus’ suffering makes possible – a world in which human violence is shown to be impotent, a world in which the cross is unemployed, a relic.  The empty cross is an aspirational statement, it reminds us of what Jesus challenges us to be.  But Good Friday informs us that we’re not there yet, either.  Perhaps the Good Friday cross can only be the crucifix, the most confronting cross of all, an image of a crucified human figure that reminds us that human suffering has a face, and that love carries a real personal price tag.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggests, however, that not even the crucifix is an adequate image for us on Good Friday.  As an object of piety, the crucifix reminds us of what is already clear – that the inevitable outcome for a prophet who insists on being consistent – demonstrating in words and actions that God’s compassion and forgiveness doesn’t recognise human boundaries, challenging the religious gatekeepers and secular authorities with a vested interest in social inequality – that the way of compassion consistently followed leads to its opposite, a sticky end.  The crucifix reminds us that the way of love is inextricably connected with the way of suffering.  The way of forgiveness is inextricably connected with the way of violence and conflict.  And the crucifix reminds us of the paradox that lies at the heart not only of Jesus’ world but our own – that when the ugliness of human violence and competiveness, the compromised logic of human morality sold out to political advantage, meets with the utter powerlessness of one prepared to absorb human evil in love and without retaliation – that human violence is not only defeated but is offered the possibility of being transformed.  This is the way, for example, of one of the 20th century’s most Christlike figures, Mahatma Ghandi, who with his followers defeated the uncompromising political and military power of the British Empire through peaceful resistance and a commitment to remaining in dialogue.

The crucifix is then an icon that proclaims its own opposite.  And for this reason it directs our attention away from itself, away from pious reflection on the suffering of Jesus and towards solidarity with those who suffer in our own world.  The crucifix proclaims that the agony of a Zimbabwean mother watching her child die from cholera, or of a Palestinian father shielding his children with his own body from the fallout of white phosphorous artillery shells in Gaza – that this suffering is the suffering of Christ.  That the suffering of AIDS victims, of small children in remote Aboriginal communities carrying sexually transmitted diseases, of working men and women facing redundancy as a result of a global financial crisis they didn’t cause and don’t even understand – that this is the suffering of Christ.  And the crucifix forces us to recognise, to confront and even to acknowledge our own complicity in the suffering of our world.

But the crucifix also speaks to us tenderly.  Because the crucifix also shows us our own brokenness.  The crucifix reminds us of the wound in our own past that we can’t heal – the ancient failure or betrayal that we can neither acknowledge nor forget.  The family member that is lost to us, the diagnosis that is robbing us of freedom and joy.  Simply to be alive, and to give ourselves in love to those around us, is to make ourselves vulnerable to misunderstanding, rejection and loss.  The crucifix reminds us that the inevitable pain of our own lives, too, is held in the suffering of Christ.  And that pain doesn’t have the last word.

Yet there’s also a danger.  Our 21st century post-Freudian suspiciousness of everything that appals and fascinates us helps us identify the ambiguity of the crucifix.  We’ve come to understand the way in which the crucifix’s image of innocent suffering and endurance can magnify and play on our guilty feelings.  We’ve recognised how some ways of understanding Jesus’ suffering can become a tool for persuading powerless men and women to accept injustice or abuse without complaint.  And deep down we all recognise the ways in which we ourselves sometimes use the crucifix as means of self-justification or self-pity – imagining for example of all the ways in which life has passed me by, or all the ways in which I feel unfairly used, as the ‘cross I have to bear’.  Part of the reason the crucifix is such a powerful symbol, is because it is ambiguous!

And yet, Archbishop Williams suggests, it is also inadequate for this day, of all days in the Christian year, when actually we need to reflect not on the suffering of Christ, but on the final and irreversible fact of our Lord’s death.  Good Friday, he suggests, is not primarily about the suffering of Jesus, which may or may not have been a worse suffering than the suffering of the world’s repeated nightmares in our own time, but about the paradox of redemption and renewal that is accomplished by Jesus’ death. 

There is a big difference.  If suffering is about complaint, and about the dissonance between what is, and what should be, if suffering is about empathy claimed or refused, then death is about absence, about a world collapsed and about silence.  Our society denies the reality of death, we see very few images of death, and many, many people try desperately not to believe in it.

Good Friday, says Archbishop Williams, presents us with a contradiction that is absolute.  Jesus, the Wisdom and Word of God, the ground and divine promise of renewal for creation, is destroyed by human power that is hostile to divine meaning and hope.  God is exposed as vulnerable to human nightmares.  And in that moment, if we actually take seriously what we ourselves proclaim - that Jesus is God’s embodiment in human form – then creation as a coherent and unified possibility simply ceases to exist.  The ground of creation itself simply ceases to exist. 

In the sixteenth century, St John of the Cross wrote that, faced with this collision between divine vulnerability and human madness, all we can do is keep silent.  Yet the silence of Jesus, inert and dead on the cross, is fecund, pregnant with power.  Creation at that moment balances at the event horizon of a black hole in which negation and new possibility appear as two sides of the same reality, it is a moment in which the world stands still and God is just God.  This, perhaps, is what St Matthew is getting at when he writes that at the moment of Jesus’ death the veil that hides the holiest of holies in the Temple is torn from top to bottom.  A moment in which the world spirals backwards into its own chaos and returns to the very moment of creation, when God speaks the word that creates from nothing.  It is for this reason that Jesus dies at the same moment as the world passes into the darkness of the Sabbath, the darkness of God, the sixth day of creation on which God is silent.  According to St John of the Cross, our silence in the moment of uncreation that is the death of Jesus makes room for the word of God that recreates our broken world. 

What does it mean?  We know how this story ends.  Before us is the journey through darkness, from the ambiguity of the cross to the ambiguity of the empty tomb.  What is at stake for us?  What might this midnight crossing mean for you, this year?  What wild and improbable hope in your life demands nothing less than the single word that even now is welling up inside you and clamouring to get out?


But for now – silence.


Maundy Thursday

In Monty Python’s very funny and entirely theological movie, The Life of Brian, we get a very accurate image of at least some aspects of life in an ancient city.  In one memorable scene, young Brian Cohen (who despite his mum’s best efforts keeps getting mistaken for Jesus) is running helter skelter through the back lanes of Jerusalem dodging household garbage and buckets of everything that St Paul in his letter to the Philippian church less than delicately refers to as skubalon.  Suffice it to say, ancient housewives had to empty theirs out into the street every morning.  And so, if you were fortunate enough to get a dinner invitation you’d likely as not get to your host’s home generously anointed with skubalon.  So before you could join the other dinner guests reclining around the table you would be offered the services of the lowliest or the youngest person of the household to wash it all off.

So tonight we’ve come here to get in touch with our own skubalon, to see clearly some of what’s stuck to us and what we carry around with us.  And because we need someone to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves – to make us clean.

The Gospel traditions aren’t too clear on what night this actually is.  For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the meal that Jesus eats with his disciples tonight is definitely a Passover meal.  John, whose Gospel we read from tonight, assumes tonight’s meal is happening on the eve of the Passover, the night before the Passover lambs are killed to make ready for the meal in which Jewish folk remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  Our lectionary writers have a two-way bet, and so John’s description of Jesus’ final night with his disciples is paired with the solemn and even frightening passage from the Book of Exodus in which God gives travelling blessings and instructions for a quick getaway.  Either way the message is clear: tonight is a night of confusion and haste, a nightmare journey into uncertainty and violence undertaken on the vague promise of freedom and new beginnings.

The Passover is also our own tradition, as Christians, because the roots of our own faith are planted deep in the soil of Judaism.  So we begin the Great Three Days of the central story of our own faith by reciting the ancient institution of the Jewish Passover, knowing how far we have to travel before we can stand here again in the darkness on Sunday morning, recalling the promises of scripture as we wait for sunrise. 

But it’s a dreadful and powerful story.  The living waters of the Nile turn to blood.  Human beings and animals die in plagues and famine.  The unspeakable horror of the angel of death who travels throughout the land of Egypt in a single night, taking the firstborn son of every household.  And the strange inoculation that has to be performed by the head of every Jewish household, the smearing of the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of the home so that God’s angel would pass over their house in peace.

The ambiguity and violence of this story makes it impossible to celebrate God’s saving power in liberating the people of Israel from slavery, forming them through long years in the desert as the people of the Torah commissioned to be a light to all the nations – without also remembering the cost of liberation, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed up in the Sea of Reeds. Some Passover haggadot even interpret the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of the Egyptians lost, a call to pray for oppressors and enemies.

A story in The Australian newspaper this week tells how a group of young Palestinian musicians living in the Jenin refugee camp read recently about the catastrophe of the Holocaust and decided to play for survivors in a Jewish nursing home.  After they sang prayers in Arabic and the elderly Jewish residents sang back to them in Hebrew, one of the Palestinian teenagers recited a prayer for peace and one of the old Jewish women said, ‘Inshallah’, the Arabic word that means, ‘if Allah wills it’.

And so Passover becomes a key for us to understand, not just the sort of meal Jesus and his friends may have eaten together the night before he died, but the meaning and the cost of the act of divine love that is unfolding in front of us.  Jesus, according to John’s timing of events, is nailed to the cross at the exact same time the priests begin slaughtering the Passover lambs in the Temple, inoculating us against our own violence by accepting it with words of forgiveness for his torturers.

Jesus really wouldn’t have needed any miraculous powers to know that his life was about to come to an end.  He had just entered Jerusalem in the most provocative way possible, thumbing his nose at the authorities through the street theatre of riding into the city on a donkey from one direction proclaiming peace at the very same time as, according to Bible scholars like Dominic Crossan, the Roman governor Pilate entered the city with a cohort of mounted cavalry from the opposite direction to intimidate the population and impose order over the Passover weekend.  He had caused a public disturbance in the Temple in the middle of massive crowds of pilgrims and in full view of the Roman troops stationed at the Antonia fortress which had been deliberately built so it could overlook the Temple.  Roman governors didn’t stand for that sort of nonsense at the best of times, and especially not this weekend, when the city was jam-packed with pilgrims for the once every ten years or so event of the Great Passover, those rare occasions when the annual Passover celebration coincided with the Sabbath.  Jesus at this point had two options – get out of town or face the consequences.

We know, because the Gospels tell us, that Jesus had access to an underground network of sympathisers who were capable of spiriting him away.  But he does no such thing, instead sending his disciples to a rendezvous complete with coded signals and passwords in order to arrange nothing more elaborate than dinner with his friends.  He has made his choice, and he knows what lies ahead.  And what he does then is remarkable, perhaps even shocking, to those who gathered to eat this meal that may or may not have been Passover.  Because as they come into the borrowed room, with the dust and skubalon of the streets on their feet, the one who kneels at the feet and washes them clean for dinner is not a child or a servant, but their teacher. 

In the culture of the ancient world, where every part of your body had a meaning, your hands and your feet represented your actions, where you went and what you did.  When Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus feet with perfume, she is making holy everywhere he has been and all that he has done  When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he is not just showing them that they should serve one another.  He is cleansing and making holy what they have done.  It is a tactile, unforgettable action of forgiveness that he performs even for the one who he knows has determined to betray him.  He washes their feet, and then in the bit that our lectionary reading tonight misses out, he breaks bread with them, even, perhaps especially, with the one whose heart has turned away from him.  In other words, he sanctifies them, he makes holy who they are and he gives them the means to accept and forgive one another.

Of course it’s good, honest, all-too-human Peter who objects on behalf of all of us – ‘Not on your nellie, mate.  I’ll keep my skubalon to myself, thanks all the same’.  Peter’s reasons are different from ours, of course.  In the ancient world where personal services were more easily accepted, were people, instead of machines, performed the menial and embarrassing tasks of everyday life, Peter wouldn’t have objected to an anonymous serving girl cleaning his feet – just not his teacher.  For us, in our more finicky age, we’d rather keep the skubalon of our ingrown toenails and our bunions and plantar warts hidden from sight altogether.  But essentially it’s the same thing.  To reveal our imperfections is shaming.  To reveal our venality, our moral compromises and our divided hearts to one another and to God is shaming, but it is a shame that heals.  And so Jesus says to Peter, and to all of us, ‘it’s this blessing that makes you belong to me, and me to you’.  And so he offers us the intimacy of his touch that makes us, together, into his body, to the extent that we are prepared to do for one another what he has done for us.