Friday, March 29, 2013

Easter Day

So the women came running in with a story that Jesus was risen.

Admittedly, the story must have been a bit garbled.  It's not that they've seen him, they've seen, more to the point, where he isn't.  The stone rolled away – more, I imagine, to allow the women to see the evidence of where Jesus wasn't, than as a means of exit for the Risen One himself who, as the following days will reveal, has become remarkably good at sudden entrances and exits.  They've seen where Jesus isn't – the empty tomb which all four gospels emphasise as the ground zero of resurrection faith.  Something has happened here.

They've seen where Jesus isn't, and they've heard some startling news.  Two messengers in white, Luke wants us to notice, probably because in the law of the land at the time, two witnesses make a case.   

But the apostles, the ones on whom it all depends now, the founding fathers of our faith, won't have a bar of it.  Hysterical nonsense, wishful thinking.

There's a tension, isn't there, between hope and realism?  No doubt, here, the disciples are being realistic.  They've seen the evidence, though like many modern Christians they slept through the agony in the garden and made themselves scarce during the agony on the cross, they know Jesus is as dead as a door-nail.  No point holding onto a dream once it's been punctured.  It was good while it lasted, the heady days of walking and dreaming in Galilee, the mind-twisting tales of widows and shepherds and landowners, the idealistic stories about God's kingdom in which beggars are lifted up and rich folk turned away, the meals with simple folk, the arguments with cunning priests and lawyers, the luminous moments of healing and forgiveness.  But when a dream's gone, you still need to get up the next day and earn a living.  Realists take the world as it is and try to work out how to manage it.

Hope begs to differ.  Hope puts the dream first, and wonders how reality can be changed to make it happen.  Hope leaps at possibilities and puts two and two together to make five.  What if it just could be true?  Hope hangs around even during the shattering hours of Thursday and Friday, and wonders at the ability of divine love to absorb human suffering and cynicism and failure – and to transform it into forgiveness and future possibility.  You needed to have been there.

Realism interrupts again to suggest it might just be a metaphor, a holy paradigm for imagining the possibility of success after failure, for imagining restoration after disgrace – and it's true.  The resurrection of Jesus is a mighty metaphor – but it needs to be a whole lot more than that if it's to have any traction.  Because it's a metaphor etched in the flesh and blood of Jesus' vulnerable humanity, and ours.  As St Paul puts it, if our hope in the resurrection of Christ is just a fancy myth, then we of all people are the most deluded and the most to be pitied. [1] On this point we can agree with Richard Dawkins.

So, why Jesus, in the first place?  Why this human figure, in this time and place, this particular young man who loved to eat and drink, who loved telling stories, who was moved by human suffering and tenderness?  Why didn't God just inspire a few more prophets write a few more books of the Old Testament to tell what God was like, to tell about God's outrageously indiscriminate forgiveness and love?  It's because we are human, because the only real way we have of learning about the really important stuff like compassion and tenderness is by experiencing it in our bodies, in the physicality of the lives we share with one another.  The Hebrew Bible knows this very well, in Hebrew there's no way of separating emotion or spirituality from embodied experience.  We can only really learn what God is like by encountering the one who shows us God's nature in human flesh and blood.

And that's why, if you want to grasp the wild straw of hope that the empty tomb and the two scary men dressed in dazzling white send rushing through you – hope isn't hope if it's just a metaphor.  Too much of who we are is experienced at the level of our bodies, too much of what is really important in our relationships with one another is earthy and physical.  Hope this visceral and this wild needs to be grounded in the physical, in the realm of lived experience.  Or it isn't hope at all.

What's really happening, here?  For a start, this is utterly consistent with the extravagant and slightly ridiculous God of the parables and deeds of Jesus. Again and again we are confronted with a generous, 'over-the-top' God.  A God who doesn't know when to stop, when enough is enough, when things are beyond hope.  A God who hasn't read our textbooks on psychology or medicine or even physics, and insists on breaking the rules.

If the Gospel story has been telling us anything, it's this: Get ready for a God who does the unexpected and the ultra-extravagant thing. Don't try to confine God to our little human notions of what seems like common sense; break out from what seems reasonable. God is unreasonably extravagant, gloriously unpredictable. The holy, saving nonsense of God is mightily at work at Easter!  The more we are prepared to follow Jesus down to the wire in the heartbreak of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the more we get this.

This is the heart of the Easter message. Unpredictable and prodigious and over the top.  Gloriously impossible, and so what?  Now is Christ raised from death, the first fruits of the harvest of the dead.

It's OK not to be too sure about how all this works.  It's OK to notice, in fact, vital to notice, as St Paul does, that the resurrection body must be wildly different from the sort of bodies we have here and now, that resurrection isn't just the resuscitation of Jesus' wounded and broken body but transformation into an entirely new kind of life – in fact the evidence for resurrection is not really the empty tomb or even the shadowy and not-very realistic gospel accounts of the post-Easter appearances – the real evidence for the resurrection is the transfiguration of Jesus' stunned and traumatised followers, the visceral experience of transformation by those who even today dare to report that they have encountered the risen Christ.

So, what does it mean?  It's the triumph of hope over realism.  The assertion that right here and now, God's logic and God's way of doing things has broken into human history.  The logic of hope that says God intends God's creation not for death, but for life.  The already but still-waiting-for-it triumph of self-giving love over despair, the issuing of a blank cheque that just needs us to countersign it, to cash it in and bring it into the here and now.  See what I'm saying?  Resurrection is the announcement that love and life and hope are more powerful than selfishness and death and cynicism – on the basis that you and I live it into concrete reality.

So, what does it really mean?  You hardly need me to tell you, you can look around and see for yourself the bad news of realism in the world we live in.  Does it actually look to you as though death and despair are on the way out?  The dreary bad news we've got so used to living with that we almost accept it – global conflict spurred by religious fundamentalism and competition for resources – the misery of a global refugee population measured in the tens of millions - the AIDS pandemic that threatens the future of an entire continent – global warming, loss of arable lands and shrinking water resources that threaten the poorest of the world's poor – loss of biodiversity and mass extinctions – where's the good news?   

The good news is that we're resurrection people.  The good news is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ teaches us to face the future with hope, that God can and does reach into the deepest well of despair to draw out of it new life, new directions, new and transformed ways of living.  That doesn't absolve us from responsibility or from the practice of forgiveness and peace in our own lives.  It doesn't make it easy.  But it does mean that we can place the future in God's hands, that we can live in the expectation of being surprised, it means that we can and we must take our part in healing and caring for our community and our environment – as God's people we need to take seriously our responsibility for caring for God's creation.  Imagine a future in which God's creation knows the shalom imagined by the prophet Isaiah! [2]  As resurrection people we need to take seriously the failures of the Church in addressing evils such as child sexual abuse, and creatively work towards a future in which our life together will nurture and protect the most vulnerable.  As resurrection people we can acknowledge and grieve the brokenness and limitations of our own relationships – acknowledge the destructive patterns of hurt and blame that we sometimes feel powerless to break out of – and commit ourselves to taking seriously the power of forgiveness and compassion and love to really work a difference in our lives.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is stunning.  It changes everything.  I don't know why we don't talk about it all the time – in fact, let's!  Because it's a down payment – God is saying to each one of us – this is how much I love you – this is what I intend for you.  God doesn't do resurrection as a party trick – it's not rabbit-out-of-the-hat stuff just to impress us or just to prove that Jesus really was who he said he was – it's a down payment – it's the first instalment of what God intends for every one of us.

Let's live as though we believe it.

[1] 1 Cor 15.13

[2] Isa 11.6ff