Friday, April 23, 2010

Easter 4C - Anzac Day

Right now, in the Church calendar, we are in the season of Easter.  That can be hard for people who don’t regularly go to church to get their head around - surely we did Easter three weeks ago, how behind are you?  Yet in the Church, Easter morning itself is just the beginning, the memory of that initial shock of realisation that God’s love is irrepressible and unstoppable, that shame and failure and even death don’t have the final word in God’s scheme of things.  Easter morning is the ground zero, the starting point of a new way of looking at reality which is the perspective of resurrection - the perspective that orients us not to the pain of the past but the possibilities of a future in which everything that limits and prevents human flourishing - shame and guilt, betrayal and loss and disability, competitiveness and deceit and poverty and age and even death itself no longer gets the last word.  And through the weeks that follow as we celebrate the season of Easter we reflect both on how the reality of resurrection life spread like a virus in the early Church, and on how the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ transforms and reshapes our own lives in the present to the extent that we dare to claim its power.

But what, you might wonder, has that to do with Anzac Day, a day of sombre reflection on the tragedy and heartache of war, the loss of loved ones and the honouring of wounds that are silently carried by so many in our own community, our own families?  What has the sacrifice of Jesus, his two-thousand year-old death on a Roman cross and the ambiguous rumour of his rising again got to do with the nearer and ongoing sacrifice of tens of thousands of young Australian soldiers who went off to a war they barely understood in a naive spirit of adventure, and who returned, if they returned at all, with a burden of physical suffering and the unendurable knowledge of wholesale slaughter, of death rendered casually, impersonally, at a distance, at close quarters, mechanically and ingloriously?  What has Easter got to do with Australian service personnel like my own son, Ben, pausing this morning for a dawn Anzac service in Afghanistan?   How does Easter help the countless Australian families who remember loved ones lost in the various conflicts of the most appallingly violent century on record, the wars that seemed just and necessary, the wars that seemed pointless and unjust, the battles won or lost?  How does Easter help us reflect on the death and destruction we have visited on others, the sacrifice of enemy soldiers caught up, like our own service men and women, in conflicts not of their own making and beyond their comprehension, the suffering of civilians that military reports euphemistically dismiss as collateral damage?  How does Easter help challenge the more troubling aspects of the Anzac observance, the self-congratulatory tendency, as a particularly eloquent journalist expressed it yesterday, when ‘memory morphs into mythology, (for) patriotism (to) become a proxy for chauvinism’?

I think Easter makes all the difference.

At the very end of World War 2 when the German Nazi State had surrendered and Allied forces were fanning out across the countryside, checking every farmhouse for snipers, an American platoon came across a cellar just outside Cologne where apparently Jewish men, women and children had been in hiding.  The hiding place was broken and empty, so they could only guess what had happened or how long its occupants had managed to remain hidden.  But on a wall of the cellar the soldiers found a message in pencil, a message of hope from someone running out of hope:

          I believe the sun is shining, even though I can’t see it.

          I believe in love, even though I can’t feel it.

          I believe in God, even though he is absent.

Resurrection teaches us to hope and to believe in the future even when it is contradicted by the events or the conditions of the world around us.  This is the first thing.  It’s a lesson we hear in our first reading from the Bible this morning, from the prophet Micah who incidentally is writing during a time of war, seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus.  Assyria had become a mighty nation in part of what is now Iraq, breaking out across the ancient world and sweeping everything away before them, destroying without mercy and enslaving entire populations.  The northern kingdom had already fallen, and Micah records the invasion of Judah and the capture of 46 of its fortified towns.  King Hezekiah of Judah at first manages to buy off the invaders but later, inexplicably, reneges on the deal.  Jerusalem, under siege, looks certain to fall.

 Sieges in the ancient world were actually no different to sieges in modern warfare.  Think Leningrad, under siege by the German Army during World War II for over 600 days – starvation, disease and despair used as instruments of foreign policy. Realistically, Micah believes the city will fall – and yet he quotes to us a poem of universal peace – refusing to invest in the false hope of military victory Micah instead dares to hope that things will not always be like this.  There will come a time, he insists, when God will create from this wasteland a new world, a world in which the nations would recycle the dreadful technology of war into implements of peace, a world in which human beings would invest their energy in the humble ambition of living unmolested on their own land and eating the food they have grown themselves.

So far it’s been a long wait.  The world we live in is no less grim than the world that Micah knew.  But here’s the thing – the very act of hoping in the promises of God, the courage it takes to live as though God’s promises are already true, is what transforms the world we live in, because it’s the act of hoping in the promises of God that transforms us.

And the second thing is solidarity.  We hear this in the Anzac legend, and we recognise it as a story that informs us of our own best selves, ourselves as we should be, ourselves as we sometimes are and all too often fail to be.  The true mythology of Anzac Day speaks to us of compassion and solidarity under appalling conditions - if we scratch the surface we understand that behind the mythology the reality of war is also of cowardice and betrayal, but we understand the legend of Anzac Day to be about what we might be and what we sometimes have been.  It’s what we also hear in our reading this morning from St John’s Gospel, where Jesus is speaking to his disciples the night before his own death.  The unity you have, he tells them, comes out of the love that he has shown them.  It’s a model of life that is organic and inter-connected - the community of Jesus is not a collection of individuals but a single organism - just before today’s reading Jesus describes it as a grapevine where the source of life flows through the trunk that connects it to the life-giving soil, and every branch depends for its own life on staying connected.  It means that in this community the vision of the good life is one in which all depend on each other, and all see the source of their shared life as staying connected to God who is recognised as the source of love and compassion.  It’s a vision of life that challenges a lot of our Western assumptions about competitiveness and looking after number one, a vision of life that says the true test of a healthy community is how connected it is, how much its members see themselves as belonging together and whether or not individualism comes in second place to compassion.  The Anzac story and the Easter story join forces in critiquing the way we actually live, they reveal the credibility gap between who we are and who we should be, and the Easter story tells us what makes the transformation possible is the love of God that underlies creation itself and that is revealed to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The third thing that connects Anzac Day with the story of resurrection is the ambiguous, uneasy notion of sacrifice.  We do, I think, need to be careful in connecting the death of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice that reveals God’s love and re-connects human life with its true context and purpose, with the tragedy of lives lost in military conflicts that reveal nothing more clearly than the utter failure of modern nation-states to resolve conflicts and find ways of living together that respect political, ethnic and religious differences.  We know, too, that for those who went to war, the love of country competed with other, more mixed motives, like a desire for adventure, peer-pressure, or the fear of being seen as cowardly.  In the final analysis, as many have pointed out, soldiers in combat usually give their lives not for ideals like country or freedom, but for each other.  For all that, the Anzac story connects us with the reality and the challenge of finding the purpose of our own lives in something greater than our own self-interest.  Because they come from a place of remembered, and still present, pain, the sacrifices of war bear a surplus of creative energy that helps us understand the complexity and contradiction of who we are, and for this reason alone it is imperative that today we pause and reflect.  But we need the story of Easter to make sense of it, the story that helps us step over the threshold of spirituality and pain into the deeper experience of solidarity with all who suffer, of kinship and the recognition of shared humanity that leads to compassion, and to experience the reality that life is stronger than death, that redemption grows from the ashes of hatred and conflict, and the hope of resurrection life that finds its beginnings in the unlikely soil of death and defeat.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Easter 3C

Every so often you see somebody on TV struggling to say ‘sorry’.  It’s a word that’s surprisingly difficult to say in public when the desire for a bit of self-justification kicks in and you find yourself coming out with something convoluted and evasive like: ‘well we all recognise that the outcome wasn’t ideal but in my defence I’d just like to say ...’.  My favourite was from a footballer a while ago who apologised for some disgraceful episode or other by saying, ‘I made a mistake - I let myself down’.  We tend to get being sorry mixed up with being sorry for ourselves.  We want things to go back to being how they were before everyone was mad with us - but part of the difficulty is that our actions change reality.  Part of being sorry is the recognition - just a bit too late - that our relationships with one another are the basic fabric of our lives.  When we act as though we don’t recognise that we are connected to each other we are not just making a mistake, we are actually cutting off the possibility for goodness and growth in ourselves and others.  And then we realise - too late - that it’s easier to wound and damage our relationships than to heal them.  We get stuck, and we lock ourselves in to a limited and damaged version of what our lives might be.

There’s some woolly thinking in our society about right and wrong, about what is just a matter of personal choice and what choices need to be re-thought in the context of the responsibility we have to one another and ourselves.  If you haven’t already read it, I recommend you have a look at Rabbi Jonathon Sacks’s wonderful little article about ethics and morality which has been re-printed in this month’s Messenger.  Sacks says it isn’t true that a society without religion will become a society with a moral compass, but he says without the basic view of reality that religion provides then all we have to fall back on is the civil ethics of the Ancient Greeks that distinguishes between the public sphere - where standards apply and we all need to respect the rights of those around us - and the private sphere where we owe no duty to anybody else except ourselves.  Sacks points out true morality depends on the building of relationships, on how we nurture loyalty and love, and on how we see the building up of others as fundamental to who we are ourselves.

When we forget this we get stuck, and we spiral downwards into a limited version of who we ourselves are, and of who other people are.  We get stuck, because we recognise when its too late that there’s no going back to an idealised past, and we don’t know how to move forward because we don’t have a coherent vision of the future.

Our Gospel reading this morning shows Peter in the double-bind that we ourselves know all too well.  The problem for Peter is, of course, that he has reneged on everything that he himself insisted gave his life meaning.  In swearing blind that he doesn’t know Jesus he trades the temporary companionship of a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house for the true context of his own life.  It would have seemed as if he didn’t even have a choice at the time, the sort of instinctual reaction to save his own life that actually we can hardly blame him for.  We actually know what it’s like to fail to stand up for something or someone we love because we are suddenly afraid.  When it comes down to it, Peter is no better or worse than every one of us, when our actions betray our beliefs, when our self-interest betrays our loyalty and our fear gets the better of our love.

I wonder what the news of Jesus’ resurrection would have meant to Peter.  Was it entirely good news for Peter, that Jesus - who knew all along that Peter’s courage wasn’t as strong as his rhetoric - was risen and victorious?  Because Peter now found himself on the outside looking in, excluded from Jesus’ resurrection life by his own self-protective words, ‘I don’t know the man’.  And so he says, ‘I’m going fishing’.  And in John’s account at least six of the others say, ‘we’ll come too’.  It’s a way of saying, ‘well, that’s the end of that, then.  Back to where we all started.  None of that really happened.’  It’s another denial not only of who Jesus is, but also who Peter himself really is.  We do it ourselves, when we want to hold on to the comfortable and familiar, old patterns, because we are unable to believe in the resurrection promise of restored hope and new possibilities in a future we can’t control and don’t trust.  We do this in the Church when we refuse to move on from past patterns that no longer give life, when we can’t trust in the one who persistently points us in the direction of the future.

What ties Peter - and us - to the past is our need for forgiveness.  Peter, of course, has seen Jesus’ practice of forgiveness in action, he knows the power of forgiveness to make possible what is impossible, he just doesn’t believe in it for himself.  Forgiveness is easier to believe in theoretically than to put into practice in our own lives, in our own community.  But I don’t think we ever really understand what forgiveness is until we take the risk of actually practising it.  Until we take the risk of accepting the forgiveness of others, the chance of forgoing the luxury of our own hurt and extending forgiveness to others.  Jesus’ three-fold question to Peter is of course not by way of making him squirm - although it clearly does - not an accusation but an absolution, a way back into relationship and a way forward into the future.  Forgiveness creates a possible future, and it confers a new way of being, a new set of priorities, a new imperative for how you live your life.  Forgiveness is not a passive exercise - it implies purpose, and it implies mission.  Forgiveness is the everyday practice of resurrection - because forgiveness creates a future where there was none.

But it also seems to me that one of the keys to practising forgiveness in our own lives is to reflect on it in advance.  To - so to speak - live forward into the possibility of forgiveness even before there is anything to forgive, even after forgiveness has been extended and received.  It begins with how we look at ourselves, and how we look at each other.  If we look with a critical eye, focused on our own rights, our own status or our own choices, then we will measure the world around us by how it affects us.  We become judgmental, quick to lay blame, good at assigning fault, expert at spotting errors in others.  We create a moral universe in which we ourselves are at the centre, checking who or what offends us or doesn’t measure up to our standards.  And we overlook or excuse ourselves for the ways in which we hurt others.  Or else we turn the critical eye on ourselves - we learn the lesson that we ourselves are not good enough, that we are defined by our own failures, that nothing we do can be good enough, that nobody can enjoy or appreciate us for who we are, that we can only ever let other people down.  Both of these patterns are sinful, they arise from our own sin in putting ourselves at the centre of our own moral universe, and they arise from the sins that we inherit, the sinful structure of a society that has retreated into unhealthy individualism.

Peter’s greatest challenge is to forgive himself.  Psychologists tell us how crucial this is, how often what it is that we most criticise or condemn in others is a projection of what deep down we most hate about ourselves.  If we feel guilty, we try to make ourselves feel better by projecting it onto somebody else, blaming somebody else or making somebody else responsible for how we feel.  Blaming others is a common escape from having to look too closely at ourselves.  We all do this sometimes, it’s part of being human.  But the antidote is to practice resurrection, which means to take ourselves out of the centre of our own moral universe, to learn the way of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not the overlooking of sin, it is not the denial of justice and it is not about refusal to show compassion to the victims of injustice.  Forgiveness means the clear-sighted naming of what has damaged relationship - three times Peter says to the servants of the High Priest, ‘I don’t know him’, and three times Jesus says to Peter, ‘do you love me?’  Forgiveness is painful and it has consequences in honesty and restitution, but forgiveness creates a future that is free from the past.

One of the alternative readings that we didn’t hear during Lent was from John, chapter eight, when Jesus says to the accusers of the woman caught in adultery, ‘Well, OK then, but the one who has no sin should be the first to throw a stone’.  And a moment later, when no stones have been thrown and the accusers have all gone home, he says to the woman, ‘neither do I condemn you.  Go home, and don’t sin any more’.  The point is, Jesus is not in the condemning business, and neither should we be.  Condemnation focuses on the error of others, and compounds it with the sin of rejection and unforgiveness.  Condemnation is a denial of resurrection, it is a denial of the goodness of the future to which resurrection orients us, condemnation is a refusal to let go of the sins and limitations of the past, condemnation is practical commitment to the tomb that will never be empty, it limits us and it limits God’s creation.

Condemnation, bullying, back-biting, gossip - inappropriate self-blame and inappropriate blame of others - are all alive and healthy in the Church, and they happen right at the same time as we claim to be following Jesus.  This is the inglorious truth about who we are.  Peter is a klutz, he is faithless and fickle and his flaws are all too obvious, but thank God Peter is Peter, because in Peter we see ourselves.  Peter, the rock on which Jesus promises to build his Church, is us, Peter is the mirror in which we see ourselves clearly.  In Peter we see our unforgiveness and our self-centredness, and we also see the possibility of taking hold of resurrection.  We see ourselves as we are, we see ourselves as God sees us, and we see the grace of resurrection that brings the two versions of ourselves into focus.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Easter 2C

One of the delights of autumn, as the days get cooler and we get the first rains, is venturing outside to check on what, against all odds, has survived the summer.  At this time of year I find myself filled with new energy - ‘right’, I told myself the other day, ‘this year I’m going to rip out everything along the side fence and plant whatever it is that grows in the middle of the Simpson desert’.  I guess I like gardening, though for me it’s more about an occasional blitz - getting out there for an afternoon of pulling weeds and mowing and chopping stuff back and covering up the most unsightly bits with mulch - more about keeping some sort of semblance of order than about understanding the rhythm of the seasons and the vagaries of soil and water and the needs of growing things.  I have the greatest of respect for people who can tell you exactly what that plant is and what it needs to do well - a sort of sensitivity and empathy with living things that I can kind of recognise but don’t actually have myself.  The garden itself seems to represent a sort of meeting place between what is natural and what is human, a sort of symbiosis in which we are led to reflect on our own place in creation - as creatures who are also God’s co-creative partners.

The Bible, of course, starts in a garden, in chapter two of Genesis, the second explanation of creation that begins not from a cosmic but from a human perspective.  And God places the first human creatures in a garden, a place of harmony and cooperation where they are given the work of tending and nurturing.  In spite of my own frantic efforts to control the chaos in the backyard of the rectory I recognise this as a gentle image, a daily labour that is renewing rather than exhausting.  The human creatures know their limitations, and the garden responds to their care.  In Eden there would be no drought, no destructive hail or flood.  The humans would not be forced off their land by jealous rivals, and neither do they drive away the animals that hunt for their own food on the land they share.  There is light and dark in this garden, but the light is given for work, the darkness for rest.  It’s an image of completion and wholeness, what Jesus calls ‘shalom’.

I’m not sure that we really know what goes wrong in the idyllic garden of our human developmental infancy.  Behind the allegorical story-line of Genesis there lies the suggestion of limitations that any parent could tell you were bound to be tested, prohibitions that were bound to excite curiosity.  It’s the story of the fall from obedience into wilfulness, the fall from simplicity into complexity, perhaps even the necessary developmental step from trusting responsiveness into imperfect but self-directed responsibility.  But be it as it may - and the mythic stories of Genesis are wonderfully amenable to being interpreted at many different levels - on eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil the first human beings find themselves expelled from the garden of their infancy, filled with the human burden of facts and uncertainty, mistrust and self-doubt - and the necessity of earning a living.

We recognise in the story something of the wonderfully ambivalent blessing of our human-ness.  Our human capacity for love and creativity and unbounded curiousity - the impulse that drives us to probe the secrets of the solar system or painstakingly map the structure of the human genome, as well as our capacity for destructiveness and despair, our fear of death and failure, our capacity for self-delusion and betrayal even of those whom we most love.  Made in the image of our creator, gifted with ingenuity, with the ability to reflect even on the mystery of our own existence, we baffle ourselves by our inability to live up to the promise of our divine origin.  The story of Adam and Eve is the story of our own lives.  The story is trying to tell us something about our own disordered world, and the muddled and contradictory state of our own hearts.  St Paul expresses it wonderfully, when he says: ‘I don’t understand my own actions - I do not what I want, but what I hate!  I don’t do the good that I want to do, but the evil I hate - in my inmost self I delight in the Law of God, but in my actions it is as though I am at war with myself’. [1] We all eat from the tree of knowledge that doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom - presuming to be like God, we attain only the knowledge that is capable of destroying us - we learn that there is such a thing as evil, but we struggle to choose the good.  And this is the garden that we now live in.

The man and woman hide.  They hear the sound of God strolling in the garden in the
cool of the evening, and they hide.  With the knowledge that defines us as human even as we struggle to assimilate it comes shame and guilt, and perhaps the beginnings of conscience.  But God calls out, ‘where are you?’.  Presumably God knows where they are, what they have done, but God asks them - even with the primal goodness of creation undone, with the undercurrents of the world’s first experience of shame, humiliation, corrosive self-knowledge and nakedness swirling in the air, even as human beings shrink away from its consequences God reaches out for relationship.  What have you done?  Who told you you were naked?

Ever since - so Scripture tells us and our own hearts confirm - ever since we have been trying to find a way back to the garden.  The whole sweep of Scripture - from Abraham and Sarah hearing God’s call to leave their home on a vague promise of descendants as numerous as the stars of the desert night, to the prophets insisting on justice as the ineradicable sign of God’s people, to the uncompromising call of John the Baptist to a people living under foreign occupation to repent and prepare for God’s new story - through all of this what we are actually hearing is the story of a people trying to find their way home.

And so it should be no surprise that the first light of resurrection takes us back to the very beginning, back to a man and a woman in a garden.  Mary, blinded by her tears, thinks Jesus is the gardener and so, in a sense, he always has been.  Because resurrection is Eden restored, the healing of humanity’s primal developmental wound and the dawning of a new creation.  John’s picture of the scene that first Easter morning is as simple and profound as that.  The angels this time not to guard and turn away but to welcome and to invite us in.  The rumour of the second secret tree in the garden of Eden turns out to have been true all along.  The tree of life, the cross, is a reality, the spinning of the earth is reversed, our alienation from God and from our own best selves is undone, resurrection is the restoration of shalom and the completion of creation.  That’s actually all packed in to John chapter 20, verses one to eight.  The gospel that begins with a sonorous recitation of the Word who is with God in the act of creation, a big-picture re-run of Genesis, chapter one, sketches out in its original final chapter a picture of Eden restored.

Except - we’re too fearful, too self-preoccupied and too ashamed to go in.  This is after the women have spread the word, ‘we have seen the Lord’.  This is after the heart-stopping ambiguous good news of resurrection.  And the men and women who loved Jesus are hiding, overwhelmed by the knowledge of their own failure, their own moral cowardice, fresh out of excuses or plans, naked again, just like in Eden.  And in the evening on that first day, just like in Eden, the one they are hiding from comes and stands in the middle of them.  Just like in Eden, the risen one reaches out for relationship with human beings in the middle of the brokenness and alienation that they haven’t yet realised has been defeated by resurrection.

Scholars call this the Gospel of John’s Pentecost story - Luke makes us wait 40 days for his flashy pyrotechnic version of the coming of the Holy Spirit, John envisages it as happening on that first day.  Jesus breathes on his friends, implanting in them the breath of the Holy Spirit, bringing them to new life exactly as the Creator breathes new life into the original creatures of earth.  And Jesus gives them a new story, a new identity, he sends them and us out with a purpose that defines us, and he gives us a sign by which we can be recognised and identified with him - not the sign of the wounded hands and feet but the sign of forgiveness.  It’s an ‘opt-in’ sign, a badge that we can wear if we want to be identified with the one who forgives his executioners as they are hammering spikes through his wrists and ankles.  If you forgive someone’s sins, they are gone for good.  If you don’t forgive them, what are you going to do with them?  How are you going to be most free?  Forgiveness is the tattoo that defines us as Jesus’  followers, forgiveness identifies us as people oriented not to the scars of the past but openness to restored relationship.

Forgiveness and commitment to relationship are the prerequisites for us to re-enter the garden of creation, that place of shalom in which human flourishing is dependent not on competition but on the ethics of mutual care, and in which we define ourselves not by the divisions between us but by the relationships that connect us.  I don’t think it’s the same garden we started out in, we can never go back to the garden of our infancy but it’s the garden of resurrection, the garden in which all that looked like it had died last summer has put out new shoots.


[1]Rom 7.15-24

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Easter Day

There is an Franciscan blessing that I particularly love.  It comes in four parts - later I might tell you the first three parts but the final part of the blessing goes like this:

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

It’s a blessing that works on a paradox, a logical self-contradiction that unravels itself and becomes true as soon as you believe in it - or to put it into more Biblical language, the paradox of Jesus who, as the Wisdom of God appears to the world as foolishness but to those who believe is revealed as the power of God.

This is not just a tongue-twister, it is the plain truth not only about the paradox of Jesus death and resurrection but about the paradoxical truth of Jesus’ actions and teachings.  Frankly, the things he says and does are nonsensical - the claims he makes are so obviously contradicted by the world we live in that we are left to wonder what he is on about.  For example, Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel, in the so-called Sermon on the Plain, ‘blessed are you who are poor, for you will inherit God’s kingdom.  Blessed are you who are hungry for you will be satisfied; blessed are you who are who weeping now, because you will laugh’.  I’ve heard it said by cynics that Christianity is about believing six impossible things before breakfast, and I’m inclined to think they are right. But Jesus is not satisfied with that, he also wants us to do six impossible things.  ‘Love one another, do good to those who hate you, if you want to first of all then put yourself last’.  Seriously.  Jesus has a view of the world that is contradicted by reality, an agenda that our hard-headed world rejects.  God’s wisdom is foolishness by the standards of my morning newspaper, by the standards of my financial adviser, by any of the standards of our modern me-first culture, what Jesus says just doesn’t make sense.  But you’re here today, and I’m here, because deep down we know what Jesus is really telling us.  That the Kingdom of God is the world as God imagines it, not the world as it has ever been imagined by men and women of power.  That the Kingdom of God is both already here and paradoxically not yet - and becomes true to the extent that you allow yourself to be transformed by it, the extent to which you live as though the reality that Jesus proclaims is already here and now.

In a similar vein, theologian Nora Gallagher writes that maybe we in the church spend too much time trying to respond to the ultimately futile question: did the resurrection of Jesus really happen?  Was it ‘just’ a spiritual or psychological experience? (as if that would somehow be less ‘real’!)  And Gallagher says the real challenge of resurrection is not to argue ourselves into believing it with our heads but to practise it until we get the point at the level of lived experience.  She reminds us that resurrection wasn’t just something that happened to Jesus, it was something fundamental and life-changing that happened to the women and men who followed him.  Something powerful and transformative that spread like wildfire throughout the whole of the Greek-speaking world within a few short years.  She asks: what if resurrection isn’t just about Jesus appearing three days after he was buried, something you can either believe in or not believe in, not just about the fact but about what happens when we live by it?  And so, Gallagher says, we can either turn the resurrection of Jesus into a superstition, or we can recognise it as the only practical way to discover who we really are, what is really true and substantial about the world we live in.  Like everything else, she suggests, maybe the truth of the resurrection depends on how we practise it. [1]

The women who arrived at the tomb that first Easter morning were broken and defeated.  In the way that is perhaps all too familiar to us in our own lives - the depth of their hopelessness as they came to anoint Jesus’ body reflects the wildness of the hope that he had embodied for them.  The greater the extravagance of love, the higher the hopes you have invested in something or someone, the more shattered you are by its loss.  Their hearts are heavy, and maybe mixed in with their grief is also fear.  Fear that all their own dreams and hopes now lay dead and buried with Jesus.  Everything that was precious and bright had been crushed, and they are left as lifeless as the grave to which they are headed.  That feeling is not foreign to us.

But when they got there, early in the morning, something happened that shook them to the core.  They went into the tomb, into the place of their darkest nightmare and found - nothing.

The women needed to be reminded of what they already knew, of the resurrection that Jesus had lived and practised and taught about but that up until now they hadn’t experienced for themselves.  And so the angel has to remind them that the story of love doesn’t have an ending.  And the angel says to them, ‘remember how he told you’.  The first part of practising resurrection is to remember the promise of life itself.  First they needed to remember.  Then they needed to put resurrection into practice.  They needed to go and tell what they had discovered, to share the news that paradoxically is the life it tells about.  They needed to change from people who were frightened and defensive and withdrawn into people who knew for sure that God’s life is stronger than death, that God’s love trumps human hatred and God’s peace is more powerful than human violence.  And that the truth of all this is discovered by acting on it.

And so gradually, as the news spread and the wild, impossible paradox of resurrection meets first with disbelief, then with belief as more of Jesus’ friends remember his words and actions and experience the truth of resurrection as they act on it.  Until the world itself is changed - this is nothing more than the dry fact of history, easily verifiable, that the news the women brought that morning electrified and changed the world, forever.  Resurrection faith, and resurrection actions, contain more power than anything else the world has ever seen.

The good news of Easter is that Jesus Christ, who was crucified, has been raised from the dead. This knowledge, this truth, this resurrection, changes everything. Cruelty is not the last word. Sin and evil are not the ultimate powers of the universe. Death does not get the final laugh. Forgiveness and love and life are the final realities of the world. The power of God is stronger than any tomb.  Because Christ is risen.

But the good news of Easter is not just that Jesus Christ is risen.  The good news of resurrection is that it comes true in the telling, it transforms our own lives to the extent to which we practise it.  True resurrection faith doesn’t wait for the life after this one - doesn’t look for the living among the dead but transforms the here and now to the extent that men and women of faith act with courage and conviction.

This true example comes from South Africa when the system of apartheid was still unchallengable, enforced by the terror-tactics of the Security Police.  The American Christian activist Jim Wallis tells the story in his book, ‘God’s Politics’ of being at an ecumenical service presided at by the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Just days before, Tutu and others had already been arrested and held in jail for several days, and warned against working for change.  As soon as Archbishop Tutu began to preach, armed Security Police started filing into the cathedral with tape recorders and notebooks.  Tutu stopped preaching and acknowledged their presence, acknowledged the power they represented and then said, with one of his famous smiles, ‘but I’m sorry, but you have already lost!  You might as well join us on the winning side!’.  Of course it could have been useless bravado.  He might have spent that night in the cells again.  Except that the congregation heard what he was saying and were electrified by it, and that gave Tutu’s words life and power. The whole congregation leapt to their feet and started dancing and singing, all the way out of the cathedral, out into the street where the waiting police had no alternative but to back up, and that night they danced the first dance of freedom in the streets of South Africa. 

You may, of course, be thinking that resurrection faith, the way I’ve described it, sounds like a risky business, that the practice of resurrection might cost more than simply believing in it.  You may be imagining situations in your own life, in your own work, where the practice of resurrection might mean standing up for something unpopular.  And of course you are right to be alarmed.  Practising resurrection attracts opposition, and it takes courage.  Practising resurrection risks rejection, makes you vulnerable to the painful experiences of others.  And so, the first three parts of the four-part Franciscan blessing I started with go like this:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

Just that, if you do choose to practise resurrection, you’ll change the world.


[1]Nora Gallagher, Practicing Resurrection; A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace (New York: Vintage, 2003),


Thursday, April 01, 2010

Good Friday

A rule of thumb that some Bible scholars use when they go through the gospels and try to decide which sayings of Jesus or stories about Jesus are authentic and which ones might have been put in by later editors - is that the more shocking it is, the more embarrassing it is for Church theologians who have to try to explain it, the more likely it is that Jesus actually said it.  Their logic is simple.  Ancient editors are more interested in adding extra comments that they think explain or make something fit more easily, not in putting words in Jesus’ mouth that are going to create problems.  And so it is that we can be absolutely sure that Jesus died on the cross, a form of execution not only hideously cruel but shameful, reserved by the Romans for slaves and the very worst of criminals.  God’s Son wasn’t supposed to die at all, much less to die in such a shameful way that would suggest he wasn’t disgraced just in the eyes of the Roman Empire but also in God’s eyes.  If it didn’t happen, none of the writers of the Gospels or later editors would have dreamed of saying it did.  Something else we can be absolutely sure of, on this logic, is that the dying Jesus really did cry out from the depth of his humiliation and agony to the one he called Father: ‘My God, why have you abandoned me?’  It’s a question that receives no answer, a question that fascinates and disturbs us even when we try to get around its raw horror by pointing out, for example, that the words are taken from Psalm 22, a psalm that plumbs the depths of despair before eventually coming to rest in a statement of trust.

As modern men and women, having emerged from the shadow of the most appallingly violent century on record, poised as we are still at the threshold of a century that seems set to challenge as never before our sense of security and call into question our basic assumptions about the ways we live - we are both drawn to and repelled by the figure of the crucified Jesus.  Good Friday is not the most popular day for occasional Christians to come to church.  Many Christian Churches dispense with Good Friday altogether, many long-terms Christians avoid it.  It’s disturbing, and it’s embarrassing.  In an age when violence has become a popular fetish, when we are served up a constant stream of almost pornographic violence on TV programs and in the popular press, the crucifixion of Jesus disturbs us because it mirrors our most fundamental anxiety, it challenges our culture’s uneasy denial of death and suffering.

As I talk to people about God, and about the mysteries and heartache of life, however, I find that in some of life’s bewildering and difficult circumstances, only the crucifixion of Jesus makes sense.  In some circumstances, it is only the crucified and dying Jesus who can adequately convey the reality of God’s care - and, I believe, today of all days we need to stay with the unanswered questions, the loneliness and despair and shock of Jesus’ agonising death.  We do know that the ambiguity and the unanswered questions of Good Friday receive an answer in the resurrection, that today’s grief is transformed into Sunday’s rejoicing, but we do ourselves and others a disservice if we hurry past.

Why?  Because Good Friday is the day when all who suffer, all who are degraded or excluded or forgotten, all who are humiliated or taunted, all who suffer physical or mental anguish, can enter into the mystery of God’s love. 

A while ago I heard on the radio a psychologist talking about his favourite music, and he pointed out the paradox that people who are depressed or lonely or facing an uncertain future aren’t helped by switching on some bright, happy jingle.  If anything, the brighter the music the more isolated and wretched you feel.  Instead, he claimed, the only music that can really sustain you in the dark passages of life is the music that conveys an understanding of your suffering.  At such times only the most profoundly sad and beautiful musical passages are adequate.

And so it is, for example, that Christians who are suffering turn to the laments of the psalms or the sad and beautiful passages of Lamentations or the mysterious ‘suffering servant’  passages of Isaiah.  Passages that tell us God knows what it is like to be poor, to be a refugee, to live under military occupation, to be terminally ill.  God knows the suffering of the hungry and the outcast, of those taken advantage of because the world sees them as meek. God knows the grief of the grieving, the pain of betrayal. God knows the anguish that just might be the hardest of all to bear -- the terrible loneliness of one who is suffering all of these things, and who feels separate from or abandoned by everyone who might provide consolation -- separated even from God.

The crucifixion is real, not just God putting on a show, play-acting at being naked, vulnerable and twisted by violence.  The abandonment and humiliation of Jesus on the cross is real and shocking, not just a brief unfortunate phase that had to be endured on the way to the resurrection - but a revelation, I suspect, of who God is in God’s essential nature.  A glimpse into the heart of God, and an icon to the poor, the abandoned and the dying that says, ‘you are not alone.  I am here with you.’  The pain of loss, the failure that is the flip-side of every success, the brokenness and suffering that is the downside of evolution itself is at the core of who God is, how we can best understand the heart of God.  Danish theologian Neils Gregerson calls this the idea of deep incarnation.  He says that in Christ, God has entered into not only our human existence but the biological life of the planet in a new way.  The cross of Jesus, in this way of thinking, is an act of divine solidarity with a physical creation in which competition, predation, disease and death are the necessary processes of evolution and growth.[1]The crucified God reveals a God who, as St Paul says, groans in the very structure of creation as it struggles towards completion. [2]  The crucifixion of Jesus, I believe, reveals God’s priority for the suffering of all creation.

In Elie Wiesel’s profound and painful memoir of the concentration camps of World War II, the depths of despair and human depravity seem to have been reached at the point where the Nazi guards hang a nine year old boy.  Because he is so thin from months of deprivation, the child is not heavy enough to die quickly, and so the camp inmates are forced to watch his slow suffering.  ‘Where is God now?’, one of the prisoners demands.  ‘If God exists, where is he now?’  And the rabbi answers him, pointing: ‘There he is.  At the end of that rope.’

If that’s true, if that’s where God always is, in the most agonised and lonely moments of those abandoned and tortured by the empires of this world, then what it means is that in the suffering of the poor, we see the very face of God. It means that we are able to respond with compassion, with integrity and authenticity because in human suffering we are in touch with the source of our very being, our human lives become luminous with the presence of the one whose word of love creates and sustains the whole universe.   It means that in our own suffering, in the loneliness and pain that we all inevitably face, we are not alone because it is there that we encounter God.  Through human suffering - our own and that of others - we are invited into the mystery of our own reality, and it is in the costly encounter with that reality that our wounds are anointed by love and for love.

In our culture it is difficult to live out Jesus’ way of compassion and forgiveness.  Our culture tells us to fear our own weakness, to deny our own vulnerability - to illness, to age or misfortune, to loneliness or death.  We surround ourselves with images of wholeness and youth and beauty, and we turn away from the indignity and the urgency of others’ suffering.  Maybe we write a cheque.  But we turn away.

But God gives us Good Friday, the opportunity to face the reality of our own existence - the opportunity to look deeply into the suffering of the world - the suffering of Haiti, of Sri Lanka or Afghanistan or Sudan or Zimbabwe of Nigeria - the opportunity to look deeply into the suffering of the world and see God’s face.  The opportunity to see that our own wounds are made holy by the one who continues to suffer with us.  Good Friday critiques our shallow religion.  Good Friday critiques our anaesthetised lifestyles, our flickering depthless TV-centred view of reality, our addiction to consumer goods and the distractions of sport and glossy magazines.  Good Friday critiques our desire to turn away from injustice and oppression and challenges us to believe in resurrection, not just as pie in the sky when you die, not just as an antidote to the apparent failure of the crucifixion, but as the fundamental structure of creation, the fundamental promise of a God chooses to make his home among us, who promises us in the book of Revelation that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more because ‘see, I am making all things new’. [3]

Thank God it’s Friday.


[1]Denis Edwards, Ecology at the Heart of Faith: The Change of Heart That Leads to a New Way of Living on Earth (Mayknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006), 59.

[2]Rom 8.22-23.

[3]Rev 21.4-5

Maundy Thursday

I guess we’ve all heard the expression, ‘the condemned man ate a hearty meal’.  My feeling is that it’s very rarely true - although apparently the great 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, did.  Surviving records of his trial and incarceration show that several shillings were paid for a fine Thames River trout, which he ate with gusto the night before he was burned at the stake.  Tonight’s readings  centre on two meals - both I suspect more hurried than hearty, both eaten in the shadow of great and bloody events, both destined to be eaten and re-eaten, chewed over for millenia but never to be finally digested.

The first, of course, is the travelling meal of the people of Israel, eaten shod and standing, straight from the open fire on which it was roasted whole and unskinned, head, hooves and inner organs, a perfect one-year old lamb - a wasteful extravagance at any other time.  This meal is a last chance to fill your belly before striking out into the desert with the might of Egypt bearing down on you, a meal prepared in a hurry and eaten in a hurry - unleavened bread is bread you haven’t got time to wait around watching while it rises, bitter herbs the last handfuls of roughly pulled rocket gone to seed, the blood smeared on the doorpost a crude graffiti that tells God’s scary angel to pass us by - that informs tomorrow morning’s pursuers that we were slaves in your rotten, plague-stricken land but now we’re free. 

It’s the defining narrative of the Jewish people, the Passover meal that evokes for Jewish men and women even today the remembrance and the promise of liberation, the Passover from slavery to freedom.  It’s a solemn, frightening story, and you can’t help noticing that the freedom it tells of comes at a horrifying price.  Waters turned to blood. Families inundated in plagues of flood and famine.  Every firstborn son of Egypt stricken.  You’d smear lamb’s blood on your doorposts that night with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what was about to happen to your enemies.  Celebration of Passover calls Jewish people to remember not just a historical freedom but the horrors of slavery itself, the temptations to visit slavery on others - and to remember not just God’s miraculous protection of their mothers and fathers in faith - a saving act that would form the people of the Torah, a people destined to be a light to all the nations - not just God’s saving actions but their dreadful shadow, the grief of Egyptian mothers weeping for a son touched by the angel of death or swallowed in the mud of the Red Sea.

For a number of years, back in the 80s, there was a fashion in Christian circles to celebrate a Seder, a Passover meal, on the night of Maundy Thursday.  It was even felt to be inclusive, a way of acknowledging the Jewish roots of our tradition.  But it was done without understanding the moral seriousness of the tradition we were appropriating, without understanding the affront we were causing to our Jewish brothers and sisters.  A colleague reports having a conversation at the time with a Jewish acquaintance who remarked with a shrug, ‘well why not?  You Christians have taken everything else’.  And it was also done without understanding our own, Christian, tradition.

The gospels don’t agree on what the solemn, improvised meal actually is, that Jesus eats with his disciples tonight.  The three narrative gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, all have the date of tonight’s meal as Nisan 14, the evening on which the Passover meal should be eaten.  John’s gospel, that we read from tonight, tells us that at the time of Jesus’ trial the Jewish leaders had not yet eaten the Passover meal, and that just before his sentencing, ‘It was the day of Preparation of the Passover, about the sixth hour’.  So on John’s timetabling, the last meal with his disciples isn’t a Passover meal, but instead Jesus is crucified on Nisan 14 and dies at exactly the same time in the afternoon as the priests begin slaughtering the Passover lambs in the Temple precincts.  We can’t smooth this over or reconcile the timing, but John’s version makes clear that the Christian Passover isn’t tonight.  The Christian Passover is Pascha, the original word for Easter, the word from which we get Paschal, the passover of the lamb of God from death to life - and for that we have to wait until the dreary hour before dawn on Sunday morning.

Although it probably wasn’t a Passover meal, the meal that Jesus eats with his disciples - a meal laden with expectations and undercurrents - does mirror the Exodus meal in another important way.  It’s a traveller’s meal, a meal eaten on the threshold of flight and danger, and a meal with high stakes.  But the participants in the Exodus meal, the gnawers of half-raw lamb and doughy unrisen bread, are preparing for the impossible dream of freedom.  With his disciples in the dingy borrowed room in Jerusalem, aware that outside the combined forces of the religious authorities and the Roman governor are hunting him, Jesus is preparing to lay his freedom down.

There are, I think, so many possible meanings and nuances of Jesus’ actions on this evening that we stand in danger of missing the obvious one.  Thirty years or more ago, living in Brisbane and travelling every morning on the train into the centre of the city, I would be greeted when I got off at Central Station by a shoe shine kiosk.  I don’t think you’d see one anywhere today, but back then there was one in Brisbane, a man who would shine your shoes for a couple of dollars, sitting on a little stool at your feet and scuff-scuffing at your shoes with black or brown Nugget and shining them up with a rag.  Sometimes you’d try to have a conversation with him, maybe an awkward remark about the weather.  But his face was looking down, at your feet, a humble act of service, no matter that he asked a couple of dollars and you often gave him a couple more.  An action that acknowledged he had very little, but that he could make you look good.  I’m not sure it ever made me feel very good.

The point of tonight’s reading is Jesus’ act of self-humbling, his washing of the disciples’ feet.  It’s just the beginning, of course, he already knows that tomorrow he will be bent over further with the weight of the cross.  Yes, it’s an object lesson, Jesus in teaching mode, Jesus setting us an example and telling us so explicitly: ‘as I have washed your feet, so you also ought to wash one another’s feet’.  It’s where we get the name of tonight’s service from: Maundy Thursday, the Latin word ‘mandatum’ which means to be mandated or mandatory.  More than that, though, it is what St Paul calls ‘kenosis’, the emptying or cancelling oneself out, of the one who ‘though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ... and being found in human form he humbled himself’.

Funnily enough, this is not a very popular notion with God’s people.  After 2,000 years, we still don’t get this one, and maybe my experience with the shoe-shine man tells you why.  Not so much, I think, because we don’t like the idea of being served, of having somebody around to do the menial stuff.  Secretly, most of us probably rather like that idea.  But because we observe correctly how personal it is, how inappropriate it feels, having somebody’s face inches away from your ingrown toenails or your cracked heels, having somebody touching you in a way that suggests your flawed and unlovely humanity is just exactly what they love about you.  It indicts and challenges our lovelessness, it exposes not our feet but the withered and self-preoccupied state of our souls.  It informs us - not just that we should be serving one another or better yet, living with compassion towards those in desperate need of it - because actually we already know this - it informs us that the unholy mixture of pride and self-loathing that makes the experience of having our feet handled and washed by Jesus so confronting is exactly what he is asking us to empty ourselves of.

Jesus’ act of kenotic or self-cancelling love is the vital move in the opposite direction from all that we thought we knew, the opposite of the Exodus flight to freedom.  Not the Passover but an invitation to the humility and self-knowledge of servitude, an invitation to die with him in order that we might live with him, a baptism of the least attractive end of us, a watery anointing of the feet that, God willing, will take us as far as we need to go to lose ourselves.