Saturday, February 06, 2010

Epiphany +5C

In the time-honoured party game, Chinese whispers, somebody tells a story.  The first person tells their story by whispering it in the ear of the person next to them, who whispers it to the person next to them, and so all the way around the room when the last person to hear it has to repeat it out loud.  And everyone in the room is amazed because the story the last person tells invariably bears no resemblance to the version we first heard – let alone the version that was told by the original storyteller.  The point is that each of us distorts it because we have imperfect memories, we fill in the blanks of our memories with whatever seems to make sense to us, and perhaps most importantly of all, because we've got no external reference points that help us verify whether the story we think we heard is what was originally intended.  So along the way the original story gets warped out of recognition as each hearer loses some of the original sense and adds something unique to them, some foible of their own imagination.  And it reminds us of the many ways our communication with one another can go awry.

Story-telling is such a basic skill that we all do it all of the time without even noticing.  We want to know how come, where from, and why.  When we meet somebody we ask some basic questions to get them talking about themselves: 'Where do you come from?  What do you do for a living?  Psychologists tell us that at a deep level human beings need structure and meaning, a sense that things happen for a reason and that it's all headed somewhere – in short, we have a powerful need to understand our own life as a story.  And because we also have a powerful need for integration, for knowing that there's a bigger picture that we're a part of, one of the most basic ways in which we come to understand who we are is to tell and re-tell our own story, to listen to the stories of other people and to weave them into a bigger story which is the story of all of us, a national story, the story of God's people or the story of creation itself.

So we need stories, and we tell them all the time, even those of us who protest that we're useless at telling stories.  Last year, you might remember, we had a couple of storytelling workshops here at St Michaels.  Reverend Elizabeth Smith took us through a storytelling workshop that focused on telling our story as God's people, on giving an account of why we come here, how we experience God working in our lives and why we think it matters.  It was storytelling for evangelists.  And Andrew Wright led us in another storytelling workshop, one that helped us notice the ways in which we tell the story of ourselves and help other people to tell the story of themselves – little narratives that reveal and share something about ourselves like: 'When I was about six I decided to collect bees.  I was fascinated by the way they dived in and out of flowers, collecting pollen in the little pouches on their legs.  I used to wait until a bee landed on a flower then I'd close my hand over the flower and pick it, bee and all.  I got stung a lot.'  - and Andrew made a fascinating claim.  He said, 'when you really listen to people's stories, you see where God has been in their lives'.  I think that's profoundly true.  If you want to be an evangelist you don't have to be a Bible-basher, you just need to learn how to listen.  Listen to your own story, learn how to tell your own story and how to encourage other people to tell the story of their life.  You'll find yourself listening in on holy moments.

St Paul knows this.  Our Christian faith is full of stories about what it means to be human, what it means to struggle to live with integrity, to learn about forgiveness and love, what it means to live through failure and loss – and above all the story of Jesus Christ that tells us God loves us even when we behave in ways that are unlovely.  And St Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians of the story that's at the very centre of our faith, the story that each one of us, like a vital link in a chain, receives from the generation of Christians before us, the story that both depends on us to uphold and proclaim it, and at the same time has the power to transform and recreate us, the kerygma or kernel of our faith which is that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day and that the risen Christ appeared to an ever-increasing circle of people, including Paul himself; and that ultimately through the witness of these apostles both the Christians in Corinth and we ourselves have come to believe.

Somebody said to me the other day, in relation to this passage, this succinct, almost telegraphic summary of the Christian faith, that we Christians too often fall into the trap of thinking we only need to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day.  The rest of the time we content ourselves with talking about the miracles of Jesus, or unpacking his stories and his teachings about the kingdom of heaven.  None of it, my friend said, makes sense without the resurrection and we need to remind ourselves, every time we meet, that we're first and foremost resurrection people.  We're people who proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what we proclaim about it is that through the resurrection of Jesus we know the reality of God's promises for a new creation.  St Paul is reminding the Corinthian Christians of the central story of their faith, a story they had already received and already believed.  The Corinthian Christians weren't denying the resurrection of Jesus but it seems they were drifting into a sort of spiritual individualism, or a private piety in which progress was measured not in the expansion of love, but in the exhilaration of religious experience and in the possession of special wisdom and knowledge.  Paul's gospel of resurrection was a vision of a transformed creation and a new community – but the Corinthian Christians preferred to believe in their own future immortality as a sort of infinite continuation of the relationship they already enjoyed with God in the here and now.

So Paul reminds them that the resurrection of Jesus grounds Christian faith in the community of embodied believers.  That the resurrection body of Christ – different from a regular physical body, as he argues later in the chapter, but real, substantial, not a disembodied soul – proves that the focus of God's creative action and God's redemptive love is on this creation, on real human lives lived in community in which our physical bodies are part of the essence of who we are and how we experience our lives. St Paul's resurrection spirituality is earthy, grounded both in the here and now of the lives of believers, as well as the hope of future transformation.  In case you think this is a subtle first century disagreement that hasn't got much to do with how 21st century Christians live their lives, we need to notice that the Corinthian style of Christianity is alive and well in our own time.  When the primary focus of our faith becomes a preoccupation with ourselves and our personal hereafter, then we end up being less interested in the world around us.  Compassion and justice and the state of the environment become optional extras, not, as St Paul's gospel would have it, God's number one priority and the central arena of God's saving action.

So St Paul tells them the story of their faith, the story of how the resurrected Christ is experienced and made known within a community of ordinary, fallible men and women who tell and retell it until the story inhabits them, until it reshapes their experience and recreates them as a community that because it knows itself as loved and forgiven is prepared to take the risk of loving and forgiving.  The resurrection story is the centre of our faith, and the key to experiencing its truth is in the telling of the story, inhabiting it and being inhabited by it until our own story becomes a part of it.  This is, of course, the opposite of Chinese whispers, the story that we hear and tell, and hear and tell through a hundred generations, the story whose truth is revealed ever more sharply as it gets woven together with the stories of those who have received it and passed it on.

'Listen', St Paul says to his self-centred congregation at Corinth.  'Listen and I will tell you your own story.  First he appeared to Cephas (the Aramaic word that means rock, in other words Peter, the foundation stone).  Then to five hundred, then to James and all the apostles'.  Oddly, Paul doesn't mention the tradition of the gospels that the very first witnesses to the resurrection were the women, maybe he doesn't know this tradition or perhaps already in the early church the voices and experiences of women were starting to be screened out.  'And then he appeared to me, Paul' – and here he puts himself down in a violently ugly expression, referring to himself as an abortion, in Greek the word ektroma, which our Bible delicately translates as 'one untimely born'.  Paul's still carrying a load of guilt from his past as a persecutor of the Church, or perhaps he's deliberately repeating a put-down that his critics have levelled against him, but the point is that he laces his own story into the kerygma, into the central story of the faith in a way that underscores its truth.  And this is the point.

Life's like that.  We have no special claim on God's grace.  Like Paul, we may be defensively overcompensating for some unresolved inadequacy or guilt.  We don’t think we’re good enough, or clever enough.  But it's actually our own humanness and our own shortcomings that qualify us to see how the story of our own life is woven into the creed – how who we are is made clear in the light of the story of our faith, and how the story depends on us to be told and retold to a new generation of believers.  Like Paul, we have no choice.

If you’ve received it, pass it on.  He appeared to Paul, the persecutor, on the road to Damascus, and Paul spread the word through the churches of Asia Minor.  And last of all, the risen Christ appeared to me.  He changed my life, and that’s why I’m telling you.