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),